Cape Canaveral - The world's most powerful rocket, SpaceX's Falcon heavy, roared into space yesterday with unusual cargo onboard: a Tesla Roadster.
Both SpaceX and Tesla belong to billionaire South African-born entrepreneur Elon Musk, and the much publicised launch was an important milestone for SpaceX which is vying for lucrative contracts with Nasa, satellite companies and the US military. The succesful launch takes Musk one step forward to realizing his dream of sending humans to Mars on larger rockets.
In front of around 2000 spectators, the 23-storey-tall rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida at 3.45pm on Tuesday. The playful cross-promotional space theatre with two of Musk's products saw the electric-powered Tesla Roadster sent into solar orbit on a path taking it deep into our solar system. Adding to the whimsy, the car was playing David Bowie's "Space Oddity" while a space-suited mannequin sat in the driver's seat of the car - Musk mused that "it may be discovered by some future alien race."
The words "Don't panic" also appear on the car's infotainment screen, a famous quote from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book.
"Falcon Heavy sends a car to Mars," Musk said on Monday on Twitter, but the Tesla Roadster seems to be going farther out into the Solar System than originally planned. The car was supposed to be put on a path around the Sun that would take the vehicle out to the distance of Mars’ orbit. But the rocket carrying the car seems to have overshot that trajectory and has put the Tesla in an orbit that extends out into the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where it could float in space for billions of years.
Falcon Heavy is designed to place up to 64 tons (a weight greater than a fully-loaded Boeing 737 jet) into low-Earth orbit at a cost of $90-million per launch - that's twice the lift capacity of the biggest existing rocket in America's space fleet. It's also about a quarter of the cost thanks to reusable rocket boosters that make space flight cheaper and facilitate a path to Mars.
The Heavy packs about three times the punch of the Falcon 9 booster rocket that has been used in the SpaceX fleet until now on resupply missions to the International Space Station.
The 70m tall Falcon Heavy is the biggest and most powerful rocket launched into space since a Saturn V belonging to US space agency NASA blasted off in 1973. It also marked the first three-way landing back on Earth of reusable booster rockets.
The two boosters flew themselves back to Earth for safe simultaneous touchdowns on twin landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, about eight minutes after launch.The centre booster rocket, which SpaceX had predicted was less likely to be salvaged, slammed into the Atlantic at about 483km/h, showering the deck of the nearby drone landing vessel and destroying two of the ship's thrusters, Musk told a post-launch news conference.
Musk said he hoped Tuesday's achievement would encourage a new space race by private ventures and other countries, an allusion to the 1960s Cold War contest between the United States and the Soviet Union.
"Space races are exciting," he said.
SpaceX had previously announced plans to eventually use Falcon Heavy to launch two paying space tourists on a trip around the moon. Musk said on Monday he was now inclined to reserve that mission for an even more powerful SpaceX launch system, the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, whose development he said was proceeding more swiftly than expected.