Today’s momentous Falcon Heavy launch is history in the making, and could finally mark the beginning of sending human crews not just back to the moon, but all the way to Mars. Today’s launch, if all goes well, will send a Tesla Roadster into orbit near Mars. As SpaceX explained: “Falcon Heavy was designed from the outset to carry humans into space and restores the possibility of flying missions with crew to the Moon or Mars.” Below you’ll see photos from SpaceX that illustrate each stage of the launch, as they appear in SpaceX’s animation video above. This will help you understand what’s happening during today’s launch, so you can follow along fully informed. First, you’ll see the mission timeline, and the next section will show each stage of the launch illustrated by photos.
UPDATE: The third burn was successful, it exceeded Mars orbit and kept going to the asteroid belt. Read on to see the original story.
The Falcon Heavy Mission Timeline
Here is the schedule of what is supposed to happen today after the launch, according to SpaceX. All times are approximate and mark minutes before the launch and then minutes after the launch. The launch was scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. Eastern, but was delayed to 3:45 p.m. Eastern due to wind shear.
COUNTDOWN in Hour/Min/Sec Events before launch
- 01:28:00 SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for propellant load
- 01:25:00 RP-1 (rocket grade kerosene) loading underway
- 00:45:00 LOX (liquid oxygen) loading underway
- 00:07:00 Falcon Heavy begins engine chill prior to launch
- 00:01:00 Flight computer commanded to begin final prelaunch checks
- 00:01:00 Propellant tank pressurization to flight pressure begins
- 00:00:45 SpaceX Launch Director verifies go for launch
- 00:00:05 Engine controller commands side booster engine ignition sequence to start
- 00:00:03 Engine controller commands center core engine ignition sequence to start
- 00:00:00 Falcon Heavy liftoff
LAUNCH, LANDINGS AND ORBITAL INSERTION Hour/Min/Sec Events after launch
- 00:01:06 Max Q (moment of peak mechanical stress on the rocket)
- 00:02:29 Booster engine cutoff (BECO)
- 00:02:33 Side cores separate from center core
- 00:02:50 Side cores begin boostback burn
- 00:03:04Center core engine shutdown/main engine cutoff (MECO)
- 00:03:07 Center core and 2nd stage separate
- 00:03:15 2nd stage engine starts
- 00:03:24 Center core begins boostback burn
- 00:03:49 Fairing deployment
- 00:06:41 Side cores begin entry burn
- 00:06:47 Center core begins entry burn
- 00:07:58 Side core landings
- 00:08:19 Center core landing
- 00:08:31 2nd stage engine cutoff (SECO-1)
- 00:28:22 2nd stage engine restarts
- 00:28:52 2nd stage engine cutoff (SECO-2)
- Mission continues on an experimental long coast and third stage two burn to target a precessing Earth-Mars elliptical orbit around the sun.
The Falcon Heavy Launch Stages in Pictures
First, the Falcon Heavy will take off from the Kennedy Space Center. This was scheduled to occur at 1:30 p.m. Eastern today, but the launch was delayed until 3:45 p.m. Eastern.
This animation below shows the Falcon Heavy launching from the Kennedy Space Center.
You’ll see it take off, going far, far away.
First, the two side boosters will separate from the center core. When they separate, they’ll flip and initiate a boostback burn to return to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
These side boosters will return to their landing sites for future reuse.
Here they are, returning to Earth.
These two will land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Next, the third booster, the center core, will separate.
The center core will return for reuse, landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. It will also perform a boostback, but it won’t have enough fuel to return to land. That’s why it’s landing on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), nicknamed Of Course I Still Love You.
Yes, you read that correctly. This one will land on an autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) in the Atlantic Ocean. This ship is called “Of Course I Still Love You.”
After the three booster stages touch back on Earth, we will move on to the next stage. The mission will continue on an experimental long coast and third stage two burn. The long coast could last six hours through the Van Allen radiation belts. This leaves more things to chance, such as the fuel possibly freezing, oxygen vaporizing, and other issues that could hurt the rocket’s ability to reach trans-Mars injection. Problems at that stage might mean that the Roadster doesn’t escape Earth’s orbit but burns up in the atmosphere instead. Or it might just end up orbiting Earth for a while.
If the coast stage is successful, the Roadster will then separate from the upper stage, targeting a heliocentric orbit. In other words, it will orbit the sun and be in close proximity to Mars during certain points of its orbit. The rocket’s payload stage will pop off the fairing’s two halves, exposing the Tesla Roadster. Yes, a bright red Tesla is indeed being sent off into space.
This Tesla is fitted where the payload, such as customer satellites, would normally go.
According to SpaceX’s animation, the Tesla Roadster will then coast in hyperbolic orbit to Mars at about seven miles per second. The Tesla won’t actually get as close to Mars as this animation shows. And it will be carry
“It will be in an elliptical orbit with one part of the ellipse being at Earth orbit and one part being at Mars orbit, so it will essentially be an Earth–Mars cycler,” Musk said to Florida Today. “We estimate it’ll be in that orbit for several hundred million years, maybe even in excess of a billion years.”
The car will eventually travel even beyond Mars. And it’s carrying three cameras, so we might see some pretty amazing photos.