SpaceX carried out its first commercial launch on Thursday with its Falcon Heavy rocket easing a Saudi telecoms satellite into orbit. The bright white rocket rose with a roar and spewed thick gray smoke on the ground as it made its way up into clear blue skies over Cape Canaveral, Florida, trailing a long plume of orange fire.
About 34 minutes after liftoff, the shiny silver satellite was successfully deployed. Staff in the control room cheered and clapped. Earlier, boisterous spectators chanted along with the launch announcer who counted down the final 10 seconds before liftoff. The Falcon Heavy rocket exerts 5.1 million pounds of thrust — that of more than a dozen jetliners, SpaceX said. The rocket carried a Saudi Arabian satellite operated by Arabsat, a year after sending SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s slick red Tesla roadster into orbit as a test.
The Falcon Heavy had been scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday but that was delayed because of strong winds in the upper atmosphere. The job was to place the six-ton Arabsat-6A satellite into geostationary orbit about 22,500 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the Earth. It went off without a hitch. The satellite is designed to provide television, internet, telephone, and secure communications to customers in the Middle East.
Less than 10 minutes into the flight, the rocket’s three boosters detached from the Falcon Heavy on schedule. Two of them, as planned, landed safely back on pads at Cape Canaveral, to a roar of approval from the crowd. It was quite a spectacle, with the boosters coming down gently, and vertically, fiery end first. A third landed, also as planned, on a barge out in the Atlantic. “Three for three boosters today,” a SpaceX webcast commentator said. SpaceX has two operational rockets: the Falcon 9, which with 21 launches in 2018 dominates the US market, and the Falcon Heavy, which as its name suggests is designed to lift much heavier payloads into more distant orbits.
It consists of the equivalent of three Falcon 9 rockets combined, tripling its thrust. In Falcon Heavy’s first launch, in February 2018, a dummy dubbed Starman was placed behind the wheel of Musk’s roadster, which is currently orbiting the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. Since then, the US military and private clients have signed contracts for Falcon Heavy launches, and NASA has raised the possibility it may use the rocket for its planned missions to the Moon.