SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket launches first paid mission

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful vehicle flying today, just launched its first-ever mission for a paying customer. It was also the first time SpaceX managed to land all three rocket boosters after launch.

The rocket took off Thursday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida just after 6 pm ET. It delivered a pricey communications satellite into orbit for Saudi Arabia-based firm Arabsat.

For the first time ever, all three Falcon Heavy rocket boosters returned to Earth after launch: The two side-boosters landed simultaneously on ground pads in Florida, while the center core landed on a remote-controlled platform in the ocean a short time later.

Reusable hardware is part of Falcon Heavy’s appeal. The boosters are guided back to Earth so they can be refurbished and used again. SpaceX says it can drastically reduce the cost of spaceflight.

During Falcon Heavy’s widely watched debut flight in February 2018, in which it launched CEO Elon Musk’s own Tesla Roadster into orbit, only the two side boosters were recovered.

Why Falcon Heavy matters

This rocket is by far the most powerful operational launch vehicle in the world. And with a sticker price of $90 million, it is also about a third of the price of its closest competitor, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy.

Introducing a new ultra-powerful rocket has allowed SpaceX to compete directly with arch rival United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for lucrative government contracts that require heavy-lift launch vehicles. The California-based company was founded by Musk in 2002.

Falcon Heavy has already been chosen for a few contracts, including a $130 million contract to launch a US Air Force satellite, which was awarded just four months after its inaugural flight in February 2018.

The rocket is expected to be used primarily for US military missions, and to launch spy satellites and hefty commercial telecom satellites.

The version of the Falcon Heavy that SpaceX flew this week was not the same as what the company used on previous mission: Its rocket cores were more powerful, making use of upgrades to SpaceX’s smaller workhorse rocket, the Falcon 9.

Falcon Heavy is not expected to fly nearly as often as its smaller counterpart, which has completed more than 20 missions since last February. Falcon Heavy only has five missions on its manifest so far.

Falcon Heavy’s first customer

Many questioned whether Falcon Heavy was obsolete before it ever reached the launch pad. SpaceX is already building and testing an even larger spaceship and rocket system, called Starship and Super Heavy, that the company plans to use to send humans to Mars in ten years.

As satellite technology has evolved, the industry is building fewer large satellites destined for distant orbits.

Improvements that SpaceX has made to the Falcon 9 vehicle also mean the smaller launch vehicle can handle many of the satellites that would have required a Falcon Heavy.

The Arabsat mission is evidence that some satellite operators will opt for a larger rocket anyway: Arabsat 6A was small enough to fit onto a Falcon 9 rocket. But using the larger rocket allows the company to put the satellite deeper into space, which means the satellite won’t need to waste as much of its own precious fuel maneuvering to its intended position.

Arabsat 6A will update satellite coverage for Arabsat, which is based in Riyadh and delivers hundreds of television channels and radio stations to homes across the Middle East, Europe and North Africa.

Lockheed Martin built the satellite, along with a second one, for Arabsat as part of a batch of contracts worth $650 million. When Arabsat announced the contracts in 2015, it said at the time that it planned to launch the Arabsat 6A satellite aboard Falcon Heavy.

Falcon Heavy’s debut flight last year attracted massive attention, in part because Musk decided to launch his own luxury Tesla Roadster as the test payload. The car, which was carrying a space-suited mannequin nicknamed Starman, was vaulted into outer space and is expected to orbit the sun for the foreseeable future.