SpaceX has revealed pictures of a Tesla Roadster sports car mounted inside the nose cone that will launch atop the Falcon Heavy — the world’s new most powerful rocket — as soon as next month.
“Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks,” Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, said Friday on Instagram. “That seemed extremely boring. … We decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.”
Musk says the midnight cherry red Roadster (his own, according to previous posts) is bound for the Red Planet “on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit.”
Translation: The convertible will end up in an orbit around the sun that takes it “near Mars,” said Phil Plait, aka “The Bad Astronomer.”
“This is a low-energy orbit; that is, it takes the least amount of energy to put something in this orbit from Earth,” Plait wrote in SYFY Wire. “That makes sense for a first flight.”
The new pictures show the Roadster’s nose angled upward on its launch mount, as if it is launching off a ramp.
Musk has said there is plenty of risk involved in the Heavy’s demonstration flight from Kennedy Space Center’s historic pad 39A, site of NASA’s Apollo moon launches.
“Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent,” he said on Twitter. “Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another.”
The pictures further dispelled any notions Musk was kidding when on Dec. 1 he first announced plans to launch the car, whose radio will play David Bowie’s Space Oddity. SpaceX said shortly afterward that it was no joke.
The company said it is open to ideas from the public on additional payloads that could fly.
As anticipation about the test launch builds, SpaceX fans are eager to see a test-firing of the 27 Merlin engines powering the Heavy’s three side-by-side boosters, capable of producing up to 5.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.
That’s about twice as powerful as the next most powerful rocket available today, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy. NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, which is targeting a first launch by mid-2020, will generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust, the most ever.
The static fire test was possible before the end of the year, but SpaceX has not confirmed any plans.
Another dramatic aspect of the demonstration flight is the potential to see all three of the Heavy’s boosters land — the two side stages back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the middle one on a “drone ship” floating in the Atlantic Ocean.
The side boosters are what SpaceX calls “flight proven,” having previously launched missions as single-stick Falcon 9 rockets.
No date is set for the Falcon Heavy launch. SpaceX already has as many as three Falcon 9 launches scheduled in January — two from Cape Canaveral and one from California.
The first of those could launch a classified U.S. government satellite from the Cape as soon as Jan. 4. The others are targeted for late in the month.
SpaceX on Friday completed its best year yet with a sunset launch of Iridium satellites from California. The spectacular sight of the rocket’s plume glowing over Los Angeles sparked some speculation about UFOs.
SpaceX in 2017 launched 18 missions, including five on recycled Falcon boosters, and landed 14 first-stage boosters.
More launches may be on tap in 2018 now that the company has both its Florida pads online at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The latter reopened in mid-December after more than a year of repairs and upgrades after a September 2016 Falcon 9 explosion on the pad at Launch Complex 40.
SpaceX and Boeing both say the New Year could include the first launch of astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since NASA retired the space shuttle in 2011.
References: USA Today