As part of efforts to lead the frontiers in the space race, Falcon Heavy will be launching the Arabsat-6A, a Lockheed-built communications satellite, into geosynchronous orbit on Sunday.
Following its inaugural test last February, delivering the now-infamous Tesla Roadster and “Starman” into a trajectory that has taken them past Mars, SpaceX has gotten its first customer for the system. It is the first of a new generation of launch vehicles that can take huge payloads to space in an inexpensive and cheap way, opening up a new frontier in the industry.
According to SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk explained that the Block 5 Falcon Heavy (production revision from the test version) has 10% more thrust capacity than before, which also translates to a better safety margin if using less than its maximum.
However, launch vehicles capable of putting a hundred tons of material into or beyond orbit have existed since Apollo, so why is the Falcon Heavy important? Price.
From the equations we have always known governing how much lift is needed to get a certain amount of mass into orbit and how much fuel is needed in turn to generate that lift, heavier payloads are exponentially difficult to lift. Although advances in materials and rocket engines have progressed, it has been more beneficial to small and medium launch vehicles.
However, heavy and super-heavy launch vehicles have remained phenomenally expensive due to the fundamentally difficult nature of building the machines. So while putting 10 tons in orbit has gotten cheap enough that startups can do it, putting 100 tons up there remains the province of global superpowers.
Hence, Falcon Heavy is really the first to start a similar price shift for this category to cut the cost of putting large payloads up by a huge amount. Although the estimated price tag of around 100 million dollars per launch, it is a whole lot less than the 350-500 million dollars that a Delta IV might cost. This level of savings can transform the entire space program and could even mean adding an entire planetary exploration mission to its budget for the price of one launch alone—although the maths may not always add up as the Delta IV´s excellent launch record commands a premium.
As Governments and major corporations are lined up for years to put major items into or beyond orbit, SpaceX will be looking to sell the room on Falcon Heavy systems as fast as it can make them with the reusable side stages as an edge.
It is an exciting prospect to see how much lowering the cost and complexity of more distant and ambitious space projects will be and Sunday’s launch will be keenly observed by a lot of industry players.