Yesterday SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket after using it for a supply mission to the International Space Station. This was only the second time SpaceX has landed one of its rockets on solid ground (and the fifth post-launch recovery), but the company has already set its sights on the next challenge: landing three rockets at the same time.
SpaceX needs three landing sites: one for each rocket in the Falcon Heavy
As first reported by the Orlando Sentinel, SpaceX is seeking federal permission for two new landing sites in Florida, the location of its first landing complex. The extra landing sites will be needed for SpaceX to recover the rockets from its as-yet-unlaunched Falcon Heavy, a launch vehicle more powerful than the Falcon 9, built from three separate rockets (one primary and two side-boosters). If SpaceX sticks to its schedule and launches the Falcon Heavy later this year, it will need a landing site for each rocket. Elon Musk confirmed the applications on Twitter, noting that he "can't wait to see all three cores of Falcon Heavy come back for landings."
As Musk notes, the first two rockets of the Falcon Heavy would land at almost the same time — just "minutes apart," according to the Orlando Sentinel. SpaceX confirmed to the publication that it "expects to fly Falcon Heavy for the first time later this year," and is "seeking regulatory approval to build two additional landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station."
The company added that it may yet attempt drone ship landings, instead of ground landings, for the Falcon Heavy rockets. As we've noted before, SpaceX doesn't land rockets on robot barges simply because it looks cool — landings at sea also require a lot less fuel. (You can check out our explainer video for more detail on why.)
Whether the rockets land at sea or on land, though, the launch of the Falcon Heavy will be a major milestone for SpaceX. According to the company, the Heavy will have more than 5 million pounds of thrust (equivalent to 18 Boeing 747s), and will be capable of lifting a heavier payload than any other rocket in history apart from the decommissioned Saturn V from the Apollo program. The ultimate aim for the Heavy, says Musk, will be to fly crewed missions to Mars.
Really tempting to redesign upper stage for return too (Falcon Heavy has enough power), but prob best to stay focused on the Mars rocket— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 18, 2016