[WATCH] Elon Musk successfully launches Falcon Heavy rocket

A spaceman sitting in a cherry-red Tesla listening to David Bowie has rocketed to Mars

Ground control to Major Tom - Elon Musk sends the most powerful rocket to space
Ground control to Major Tom - Elon Musk sends the most powerful rocket to space

US entrepreneur Elon Musk has launched his new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is more powerful than any rocket in use today, was successfully launched yesterday carrying a payload intended to fly near Mars one day.

Elon Musk is a South African-Canadian-American business magnate, investor, engineer, and inventor. He is the founder, CEO, and lead designer of SpaceX and co-founder, CEO and produce architect of Tesla inc.

It was billed as a risky test flight in advance of the lift-off.

The massive rocket sprinted off the historic Launchpad 39A about 3:45pm, with David Bowie’s music as a soundtrack.

The SpaceX CEO said the challenges of developing the new rocket meant the chances of a successful first outing might be only 50-50.

"I had this image of just a giant explosion on the pad, a wheel bouncing down the road. But fortunately that's not what happened," he told reporters after the event.

It is designed to deliver a maximum payload to low-Earth orbit of 64 tonnes - the equivalent of putting five London double-decker buses in space.

A graphic showing the path of the Falcon Heavy rocket
A graphic showing the path of the Falcon Heavy rocket

Such performance is slightly more than double that of the world's next most powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy - but at one third of the cost, says Musk.

Even Musk was surprised that his stunt worked, with his old cherry-red Tesla sports car floats in space with a mannequin in the driver’s seat and, Bowie’s soundtrack on and “Don’t Panic” written on the dashboard (a nod to ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’)

The engineer tweeted: “Apparently, there is a car in orbit around Earth,” His plan is for the $100,000 Tesla Roadster – with the message to cruise through high-energy radiation belts that circuit Earth towards deep space.

The Tesla and its passenger have been despatched into an elliptical orbit around the Sun that reaches out as far as the Planet Mars.

Musk wasn’t sure it would work, putting the chance of a fully successful launch at 50%. On launch day, the company delayed for over three hours, citing high winds.

Don't Panic!
Don't Panic!

Minutes before countdown, Jeff Lucas, a Nasa communications staffer and compere of the viewing party at the Saturn V Centre, was not confident. “If it goes, don’t clap,” he told the audience. “Don’t clap until you see those orange flames clearing the tower.”

It was successfully launched and moments later the side boosters separated, beginning their choreographed dance back down to Earth.

The third booster was due to settle on a drone ship stationed several hundred kilometres out at sea. Unfortunately, it had insufficient propellant left to slow the descent, missed the target vessel and was destroyed as it hit the water at some 500km/h.

By then, the upper-stage of the Falcon Heavy, with its Tesla cargo, was heading on a trajectory that would hopefully take it towards Mars' orbit.

The Falcon Heavy is essentially three of SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 vehicles strapped together. And, as is the usual practice for SpaceX, all three boost stages - the lower segments of the rocket - returned to Earth to attempt controlled landings.

"That was epic," said Musk. "That's probably the most exciting thing I've ever seen, literally."

The Roadster, still attached to the rocket’s upper stage, will spend hours zapped by radioactive rays in the Van Allen belts. After that, all being well, the upper stage boosters will fire one last time, pushing the Tesla out towards its elliptical orbit around Mars.

If things don’t go to plan, it could orbit Earth, potentially indefinitely.

“If we are successful, it’s game over for other operators of heavy-lift rockets,” Musk claimed before liftoff. “It’s like where one aircraft company has reusable aircraft and all the other aircraft companies had aircraft that were single-use, and you’d sort of parachute out at your destination and the plane would crash land somewhere. Crazy at it sounds, that’s how the rocket business works.”

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