SpaceX Falcon Heavy's pulls off most difficult launch ever but loses core booster
The center core couldn't stick the landing but it was a thrilling nighttime launch for the world's most powerful rocket.
Jackson RyanFormer Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
After a picture-perfect nighttime launch went off without a hitch, the Falcon Heavy was on its way. However, the center core booster, which was poised to return to land on a drone ship in the Atlantic, missed its mark and crashed into the ocean early in the mission. It wasn't all bad news: SpaceX demonstrated the first reuse and landing of the Heavy's two side rocket boosters.
The world's most powerful rocket launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral in the dead of night, lifting off at 2:30 a.m. ET Tuesday in a dazzling flurry of flame, cutting a trail through the dark. The rideshare mission, known as STP-2, carried 24 satellites into orbit for a handful of different contractors, including the Department of Defense, in addition to NASA, universities and the Planetary Society.
Prior to launch, Musk was calling this one of the most difficult missions SpaceX has ever performed. A number of complex maneuvers were scheduled to take place, including four separate upper-stage engine burns, three separate deployment orbits and a total mission duration of over six hours.
One of the major triumphs was the reuse and landing of the the two side boosters flown on a previous Falcon Heavy mission. The charred metal tubes certainly showed signs of their off-world experience hours before launch, but when they ignited it was business as usual for the Heavy. The boosters landed safely back at the Cape Canaveral Landing Zone at 2:38 a.m ET, a burst of flame lighting up the night in SpaceX's infrared cameras.
But the dual side booster landing was just an appetizer. The main dish would be the center core booster landing on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. During Falcon Heavy's second flight, SpaceX pulled off its first center core landing -- but the booster eventually toppled into the sea because the droneship lacked adequate clamps for the Heavy core.
This time around the center core booster didn't make it onto the droneship. SpaceX cameras captured it descending aberrantly and then crashing into the ocean about 12 minutes after launch. The SpaceX HQ erupted with shock, before breaking into applause.
"Center core RUD. It was a long shot," Musk later tweeted. "RUD" is a rocket science term for "rapid unscheduled disassembly".
SpaceX's disappointment was short-lived, as it hit another milestone approximately an hour later when it captured one half of the payload fairing -- the nose cone that protects the payload bay during launch -- with the Ms. Tree drone ship. That ship, equipped with a giant net, caught the fairing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
A total of 24 different payloads were deployed during the STP-2 mission including the crowdfunded Lightsail 2, a solar-sail test mission promoted by science star Bill Nye and the Planetary Society, NASA's Deep Space Atomic Clock, which could be used to help spacecraft navigate the cosmos, and a handful of cremated remains, including those of Apollo 11 support astronaut Bill Pogue.
Of particular note were payloads for the Department of Defense, which is currently looking to contract two spaceflight providers for launches over the next four years. Provided the data from this launch gives SpaceX the all-clear, Elon Musk's rocket company may be locked in to win one of those contracts.
It was a particularly long mission, with the Falcon Heavy's second stage having to complete four separate burns to deliver its payload to three distinct orbits over the course of three and half hours. Center core booster explosion aside, the third flight of the Falcon Heavy was another historic moment in SpaceX history.
Watch this: SpaceX completes its first commercial mission to space