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SpaceX to fire most powerful rocket’s engines

The long-awaited test fire of what may be the world’s most powerful rocket –
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy – will take place on Tuesday.

Elon Musk, the billionaire behind the private aerospace company, said he wants the rocket to take his own midnight cherry Tesla Roadster into orbit around Mars while playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

Just like SpaceX’s regular Falcon 9 launch vehicles, the Falcon Heavy is reusable and intended to return to Earth to land after launching.

Mr Musk has warned that the testing of the Falcon Heavy is likely to feature errors, and the static engine firing at Cape Canaveral in Florida at 9pm UK time will be the first opportunity for SpaceX to detect any kinks.

Falcon Heavy is made up of three cores, or boosters, which have a total of 27 Merlin rocket engines and can generate 22,819 kilonewtons (5.13 million pounds) of thrust at lift-off.

Both of the side cores are equivalent to the main booster of a Falcon 9 rocket and, shortly after lift-off, the centre core is throttled down for the side cores to do most of the work.

Once the side cores separate, the centre core engines throttle back up – carrying different payloads to different orbits:

:: 63,800kg (140,660 lb) to Low Earth Orbit
:: 26,700kg (58,860 lb) to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit
:: 16,800kg (37,040 lb) to Mars
:: 3,500kg (7,720 lb) to Pluto

The Falcon Heavy upright in Florida. Pic: Elon Musk
Image:
The Falcon Heavy upright in Florida. Pic: Elon Musk

All of the Merlin rocket engines are going to be fired for roughly 12 seconds on Tuesday as SpaceX prepares the Falcon Heavy for its first ever real launch.

Aside from Mr Musk’s quip about sending a car into orbit around Mars, SpaceX has signed two contracts for satellite launches using the powerful rocket.

The Falcon Heavy has been designed to carry crew and supplies to deep space destinations such as the moon and Mars.

These missions are not expected any time soon, however.

“Just bear in mind that there is a good chance this monster rocket blows up, so I wouldn’t put anything of irreplaceable sentimental value on it,” Mr Musk was quoted as saying.

The test firing of the Falcon Heavy will provide some much-needed positive publicity for SpaceX, after a secret military satellite it launched seemed to have failed to decouple from the rocket and been destroyed earlier this year.

The classified “Zuma” satellite, which is so secret the public could not even know which branch of the US administration commissioned it, was launched on 7 January.

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