Meet the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the world's most powerful rocket

The mammoth launch vehicle has 27 engines and can generate over 5 million pounds of thrust.

Jackson Ryan
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The Falcon Heavy blasts off

On Feb. 6, 2018, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy lifted off for the first time. It was a monumental moment for Elon Musk's private spaceflight company, after initially revealing the concept in 2011 and aiming for a 2013 launch.

The historic feat heralded a new dawn for commercial spaceflight, with SpaceX showing it can put big payloads into orbit at a fraction of the price of other heavy lift vehicles and retrieve the rocket boosters!

Here are some dazzling examples of just what the SpaceX Falcon Heavy can do -- and what it might do in the future.

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Waiting, waiting, waiting

Falcon Heavy's first launch was a long time coming. Originally, SpaceX planned to launch the vehicle from the west coast of the United States. After multiple delays pushed the flight back five years, it would eventually come to wait at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

In a meeting six months before the first flight, Musk had declared "there's a real good chance the vehicle won't make it to orbit." Spoiler alert: It did.

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Space roadster ready to go

The maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy had very special cargo: Elon Musk's midnight cherry red Tesla Roadster. The roadster's purpose was two-fold -- really, it would provide an opportunity for great publicity (the car has three cameras onboard for them Instagram-worthy snaps), but it also demonstrated the ability to drop a payload in space. 

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9 times 3 = 5 million

Falcon Heavy is, in essence, three SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. In total, the Heavy has 27 Merlin engines, nine from each booster, which can generate over 5 million pounds of thrust -- the same thrust as 18 Boeing 747 aircraft.

This image was nabbed during Falcon Heavy's second launch, showing all engines firing as the vehicle lifted off.

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Maiden flight of the Falcon

This long exposure image captures the light that trailed the rocket from its 27 Merlin engines as it ascended to orbit on Feb. 6, 2018.

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Starman, waiting in the sky

Falcon Heavy's first cargo and first dummy pilot was stationed in Musk's Tesla and dubbed "Starman" after the classic Bowie song. The Roadster and its driver were dropped into a heliocentric orbit that will take them out past Mars.

This was the last time we saw Starman before it rushed off into the great darkness of space. We're unlikely to see the Tesla return to Earth any time soon, with one study suggesting it will return in 2091.

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Dual landing

Perhaps the most important achievement for the Falcon Heavy's test launch was landing the two side boosters that powered its ascent to orbit. SpaceX successfully had the boosters touch down in Landing Zones 1 and 2 not even 10 minutes after liftoff.

However, the central rocket booster wasn't quite so fortunate and ended up taking a bath in the Atlantic.

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Into the drink

The center core booster rocket descended from orbit, attempting to land on a tiny drone ship calmly floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

All seemed to be going well, but the rocket missed its landing by a few meters, slipping into the water, as shown in this footage from the drone ship. The booster was destroyed.

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The Falcon flies again

Eighteen months after its maiden voyage, the Falcon Heavy flew for a second time -- and this time it carried a slightly more important cargo. 

The Arabsat-6A mission was the Heavy's first commercial launch and deposited a Saudi Arabian telecommunications satellite into orbit on April 11, 2019.

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Happy trails

A long exposure image of the Falcon Heavy's boosters leaving a sci-fi triple beam of light as it departs on April 11, 2019.

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Dual landing (again)

A picture-perfect dual landing for the Heavy's side boosters are launch number 2. Compare this with the first launch and it looks almost identical, as if SpaceX has it down to a fine art.

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Center core nails the landing!

After the Arabsat-6A launch, all eyes were on the center core. Would it be able to stick the landing the second time around?

The answer was an unequivocal yes, with the booster touching down on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean 10 minutes after launch.

Unfortunately, high ocean swells meant the SpaceX team could not secure the booster as they navigated back to shore -- and the rocket was lost, again, to the Atlantic Ocean.

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A challenger approaches!

Though the Falcon Heavy is currently the world's most powerful rocket, NASA is currently developing a launch vehicle they've dubbed the Space Launch System. 

Although the system has suffered numerous delays, if it is to get off the ground, it will take the title for the world's most powerful rocket back from SpaceX, generating over 8 million pounds of thrust.

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