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SpaceX’s powerful Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched on its first commercial mission

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And the company stuck a triple landing

Update April 11th, 7:15PM ET: SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy successfully deployed Arabsat-6A into orbit, and all three of the rocket’s cores landed intact after takeoff. SpaceX says that the two outer cores that landed today will be reused for the next Falcon Heavy launch this summer.

Original story: This afternoon, SpaceX’s most powerful rocket — which is also the most powerful rocket in the world at the moment — will take its second flight to space from Florida more than a year after its famous debut mission. It will be the Falcon Heavy’s very first customer launch, sending a communications satellite for Saudi Arabia to a high orbit above Earth. All three cores of the rocket will attempt to land back on Earth after takeoff.

The mission will mark the beginning of commercial operations for the Falcon Heavy, the upgraded version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle consists of three Falcon 9 cores that are strapped together and are capable of providing more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. That allows the Falcon Heavy to put more than 140,000 pounds of cargo into low Earth orbit. The second most powerful rocket in the US — the Delta IV Heavy — can send more than 63,000 pounds to the same location.

While powerful, the Falcon Heavy hasn’t seen any action since its first dramatic launch on February 6th, 2018. For that flight, SpaceX launched CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space, putting the Roadster on a distant path around the Sun that crosses the orbit of Mars. After launch, SpaceX was able to land the Falcon Heavy’s two outer boosters nearly simultaneously on two of the company’s landing pads. The center core, however, failed to stick its landing on a drone ship at sea.

A Tesla Roadster, carrying a dummy astronaut, launched by last year’s Falcon Heavy.
Image: SpaceX

When the Falcon Heavy first launched, it had very few commercial customers. But since the inaugural flight, SpaceX has added a few more customers to the Falcon Heavy’s manifest, including telecommunications company Viasat, along with a few additional launches from the US Air Force. Another successful flight today could help attract more.

Though the Falcon Heavy hasn’t flown frequently, the fact that it has launched at all has caught the attention of lawmakers and officials at NASA who recently considered changes to the space agency’s long-term exploration plans. On March 13th, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told lawmakers at a Senate hearing that the agency was mulling over the idea of using a commercial rocket, potentially the Falcon Heavy, to launch an important test flight around the Moon. NASA is currently building its own rocket, the Space Launch System or SLS, to perform that lunar flight, but delays in the vehicle’s development prompted NASA officials to consider currently available rockets for the job. And the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful, operational option.

Ultimately, NASA decided that it would stick with the SLS to perform the mission, but Bridenstine noted that the Falcon Heavy could become a part of NASA’s long-term plans in the future. He even noted that the Falcon Heavy is capable of sending a heavy crew capsule that NASA is building, called Orion, around the Moon with a few big modifications. A lot of work would be needed, but it’s a possible option in the long term, according to Bridenstine. “It could be used in the future if we could get through all of that,” he said at a town hall on April 1st.

In the meantime, SpaceX has lined up a steady stream of launches with the rocket, with the next one scheduled for this summer. Up first is this afternoon’s launch of the Saudi Arabian satellite called Arabsat-6A, and it’s possible SpaceX could nail all three of its rocket landings this time around. A drone ship is already in position in the Atlantic in order to catch the center core of the rocket, while the two outer cores will aim to land on SpaceX’s concrete landing zones on the Florida coast.

Takeoff is scheduled for 6:35PM ET from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX has a nearly two-hour launch window, so the company can launch up until 8:31PM ET. Weather is looking good for a launch so far, with a 90 percent chance that conditions will be favorable, according to the 45th Space Wing. SpaceX’s coverage of the flight should begin around 20 minutes before liftoff. Check back then to see if SpaceX can pull off a triple landing this time.

Update April 10th, 7:30PM ET: SpaceX delayed the launch to Thursday, April 11th due to high winds.