Eric Berger - 12/28/2016, 9:05 PM
SpaceX has released the first image of its Falcon Heavy rocket.
On Wednesday afternoon SpaceX released the first photo of actual hardware for the Falcon Heavy rocket—the interstage, which connects the first and second stages of booster—and the photo included the massive launch vehicle's official logo. Published on Instagram, the photo included this caption: "Falcon Heavy interstage being prepped at the rocket factory. When FH flies next year, it will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two."
Ars understands that the new photo does not augur any kind of major announcement regarding a Falcon Heavy launch—at least not yet. A company official told Ars last week that SpaceX is now targeting "early-to-mid" 2017 for the launch of the massive rocket, which would indeed immediately become the most powerful operational booster on the planet, doubling the capacity of the Delta IV Heavy.
But could the long-delayed rocket actually be close to flying? A photo of real hardware offers a positive sign that the rocket may indeed be getting closer to the launch pad. And the fact that the Falcon Heavy's pad at Launch Complex 39A in Florida is now almost ready for use also lends credence to the fact that the long-promised booster may soon fly.
Technically, the rocket is complex. The Falcon Heavy has a first stage composed of three Falcon 9 cores, which have a combined 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff from 27 Merlin engines. Some critics of the rocket have said they do not expect it to ever fly because of this complexity, and have suggested that any booster relying on 27 engines to work in concert will be too unwieldy to rely upon for consistent launches. (These fears are likely fueled by memories of the unsuccessful Soviet N1 booster, which used 30 engines in its first stage and suffered failures on all four of its launches between 1969 and 1972.)
Nevertheless, if SpaceX succeeds with the Falcon Heavy it has the potential to disrupt the heavy lift launch market. A mid-2017 launch would bring the Falcon Heavy onto the scene before NASA can launch its own heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System, in late 2018. Although the SLS rocket has more lift capacity to low Earth orbit compared to the SpaceX vehicle, 70 metric tons to 54, it will also have launch costs about 10 times as high.
A launch in 2017 would also come as the Trump administration reviews NASA's existing exploration plans and, most likely, reconsiders the Moon as a destination for humans instead of Mars. It's worth noting that one of the NASA transition team members assigned by Trump, Charles Miller, has already led an extensive study of lunar exploration that relies heavily on the Falcon Heavy vehicle. In that report, Miller and his team found that the SpaceX rocket offered an "excellent economical approach" for inserting payloads into lunar orbit.
But first, the Falcon Heavy must fly. SpaceX has just teased the spaceflight community with the very real possibility that it might happen next year.