Elon Musk just blasted a new SpaceX jumbo rocket – built to be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle in operation – into space in its debut test launch.
This is a major milestone for the Silicon Valley billionaire, who revealed earlier today that he would send a cherry red Tesla Roadster up with the rocket, just for fun.
The 23-story tall Falcon Heavy roared off its launch pad at 8.45pm GMT at the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, after a delay of more than two hours.
It launched at the same site used by Nasa’s towering Saturn 5 rockets to carry Apollo missions to the moon more than 40 years ago.
The two side-boosters successfully separated from the centre main-stage rocket and flew back to Earth for safe simulations touchdowns on twin launch pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The centre booster was expected for a return landing on a drone ship floating at sea, but its fate was not immediately known.
The eventual successful launch marked a key turning point in Musk’s privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, which stands to gain a new edge over the handful of rivals vying for lucrative contracts with Nasa, satellite companies and the US military.
Going along for the ride was a cherry red Tesla Roadster – a creation from Musk’s other enterprise, Tesla Inc.
The Roadster is supposed to be sent into a virtually indefinite solar orbit, on a path taking it as far as Mars. Adding to the whimsy, SpaceX has planted a space-suited mannequin in the driver’s seat of the convertible.
However, it won’t be clear for several more hours whether or not the car has made it onto its planned trajectory.
Propelled by 27 rocket engines, the Falcon Heavy packs more than five million pounds of thrust at launch, roughly three times the force of the Falcon 9 booster that until now has been the workhorse of the SpaceX fleet.
The new heavy-lift rocket is essentially constructed from three Falcon 9s harnessed together side-by-side, and Musk has said that one of the most critical points of the flight would come as the two side boosters separate from the central rocket early in the flight. That occurred seemingly without a hitch.
If the demonstration flight succeeds, Falcon Heavy will rank as the world’s most powerful existing rocket, with more lift capacity than any U.S. space vehicle since the era of NASA’s Saturn 5 rockets that took astronauts to the moon some 45 years ago.