SpaceX Falcon Heavy delay, plans to colonize Mars.
A lot has changed since SpaceX first unveiled its huge Falcon Heavy rocket in 2011.
The company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, has laid out his plans to colonize Mars. Work has progressed on Starship, an even bigger, next-generation spaceship and rocket booster system. And satellite operators are shifting from massive, commercial satellites bound for a high, geostationary orbit to smaller, more capable devices that require less of a boost into space.
Does that mean the Falcon Heavy — which made its debut last year, launching Musk’s red Tesla Roadster toward Mars and landing its two side boosters simultaneously back on Earth — is out of a job?
While Starship will eventually take over SpaceX’s launch business, the company is preparing to launch a commercial satellite using the Falcon Heavy for the first time Thursday. The rocket is needed to fly national security missions for the U.S. government, a vital revenue stream for SpaceX. And analysts say it could even see a boost in demand from the Trump administration’s call to return to the moon by 2024.
“Starship is in the pipeline, but the pipeline could be pretty long,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s space policy institute.
The Starship prototype has so far completed only two test hops in which the spaceship was tethered to the ground. “You’re not going to build an accelerated lunar architecture around that,” Logsdon said.
Falcon Heavy was designed to carry extremely heavy satellites and other large payloads into orbit. Compared with SpaceX’s single-stick Falcon 9 rocket, which can carry up to 50,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, the triple-booster Falcon Heavy can hoist a little less than 141,000 pounds, according to the company’s website.
But there’s a question about how much power satellite customers need. Many operators are waiting to see whether so-called constellations of smaller and cheaper satellites will soon supplant the large ones.
“The commercial (satellite) market is relatively flat,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at market research firm Teal Group. “I don’t think you’re going to see any dramatic increase any time soon.”
The Starship spaceship and Super Heavy launch system eventually replaced Falcon Heavy as the vehicle of choice for a private SpaceX passenger mission around the moon that was originally announced in 2017. That mission, which will carry Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, is scheduled for 2023.
Musk told reporters last year that the company decided to “focus our future developments” on the Mars rocket and spaceship, which is intended to be fully reusable, and that it did not seem necessary to qualify Falcon Heavy for human spaceflight.
“If that ends up taking longer than expected, then we’ll return to the idea of sending a Crew Dragon (capsule) around the moon and potentially doing other things with crew on Falcon Heavy,” Musk said at the time, though he added that progress on Starship and Super Heavy seemed to be moving quickly enough.