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See the huge rocket set to launch Elon Musk's Tesla to Mars

The next big thing from Musk's commercial rocket company SpaceX has been unveiled at Cape Canaveral ahead of its planned inaugural launch in January.

heavy

This is the bottom of the Falcon Heavy rocket and its 27 Merlin engines in a hangar at SpaceX's Cape Canaveral site.

SpaceX

Elon Musk has offered a first glimpse at the rocket that will launch SpaceX into the heavyweight class of spaceflight in 2018. 

The CEO of the commercial rocket company and founder of electric car maker Tesla tweeted photos on Wednesday of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket in a hangar in Florida where it's being prepped for its maiden launch in January.

"Falcon Heavy launching from same @NASA pad as the Saturn V Apollo 11 moon rocket," Musk wrote

After years of delays, the powerful new rocket -- which is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together with a second stage added to the top of the center rocket -- is ready for primetime. It will carry a rather unusual payload for its demonstration launch. 

"Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing 'Space Oddity,'" read another recent Musk tweet.

The upcoming launch is the latest step in Musk's grand vision of using a commercial venture to colonize the solar system, starting with the moon and Mars

SpaceX certainly isn't alone in its interests beyond Earth. Space exploration was once considered the realm of governments alone, but a handful of private companies have stepped up to the launch pad since the start of the millennium. Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has also launched rockets. And Virgin Galactic, started by Virgin Group co-founder Richard Branson, seeks to become the "world's first commercial spaceline" for private passengers. 

As for January's launch, the Falcon Heavy is built to lift much more than just one Tesla out of the grasp of Earth's gravity: Its 27 Merlin engines can generate over 5 million pounds of thrust capable of sending a fully loaded 737 jetliner into orbit, according to the company. That much power easily makes it the most powerful rocket in operation today, rivaling the capabilities of the huge Saturn V rocket that sent astronauts to the moon and would later inspire a young Elon Musk.

"(Saturn V) was 50% higher thrust (than Falcon Heavy) with five F-1 engines at 7.5M lb-F," Musk wrote. "I love that rocket so much." 

Musk said the first Falcon Heavy mission, which apparently is actually designed to project his Tesla toward Mars, will see the rocket running at about 92 percent of its full capability. If all goes well, it will be followed by the spectacle of attempting to land all three Falcon rocket cores in the same way the company has recovering its Falcon 9 first stages. 

No specific date in January has been set for the first launch, but SpaceX is already planning to launch three commercial satellites and one US Air Force payload using Falcon Heavy, according to its launch manifest.

That's unless the first launch and his Tesla Roadster "blow up on ascent," as Musk himself puts it, likely leading to more delays.

But if Falcon Heavy gets off the ground, it's an important step toward greater SpaceX ambitions. The successor rocket to Heavy will be the so-called "B.F.R." that Musk hopes will send humans to Mars in coming decades.

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