SpaceX has received permission from the US government to launch Elon Musk’s car toward Mars

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SpaceX Falcon Heavy Tesla roadster Elon Musk
SpaceX/Flickr

  • SpaceX plans to launch
    its Falcon Heavy rocket
    — the biggest in the company’s
    history — for the first time on Tuesday.
  • The company’s founder, Elon Musk, is putting his Tesla
    Roadster on top as a test payload.
  • All rocket payloads need a permit from the Federal
    Aviation Administration, which granted SpaceX that permission
    on Friday.
  • The Falcon Heavy launch aims to send the car on a path
    to an elliptical Mars orbit.


CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — SpaceX this week is preparing to launch

Falcon Heavy
, the biggest rocket in the company’s history,
for the first time.

The 230-foot-tall three-booster launcher is scheduled to blast
off Tuesday between 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. ET. SpaceX says Falcon
Heavy is the most powerful rocket in the world.

SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, wanted this test launch to happen as
early as 2013, though he recently said it
could end in an explosion
.

Instead of putting a standard “mass simulator” or dummy payload
atop Falcon Heavy, Musk — who once
launched a wheel of cheese
into orbit — will put his personal
2008 midnight-cherry-red Tesla Roadster
on top of the monster rocket
.

In an
Instagram post
over the weekend, Musk also revealed that the
car would carry a dummy driver, which Musk is calling “Starman,”
wearing a SpaceX space suit.

“Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in
the form of concrete or steel blocks. That seemed extremely
boring,” Musk said in an Instagram post in December, adding that the
company “decided to send something unusual, something that made
us feel.”

However, all rocket payloads need a permit from the Federal
Aviation Administration to launch, and Musk’s sleek electric car
is no exception. The FAA granted SpaceX that permission on Friday
in a staunchly formal notice, which Keith Cowing posted on NASA
Watch
.

“Space Exploration Technologies is authorized to conduct … a
flight of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle from Launch Complex 39A
at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) transporting the modified Tesla
Roadster (mass simulator) to a hyperbolic orbit,” the FAA permit said.

What it means to blast an electric car into deep space


falcon heavy rocket nasa ksc launchpad 39a spacex flickr
SpaceX’s
first Falcon Heavy rocket at launchpad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy
Space Center on December 28.


SpaceX/Flickr
(public domain)



Launch Complex 39A is the same launchpad onto which NASA wheeled

Saturn V rockets
— used to
fly Apollo astronauts to the moon
— in the 1960s and 1970s.
Musk hopes to continue that tradition of space exploration with
future Falcon Heavy launches, including a
private lunar voyage
for two as-yet-unnamed citizens.

The FAA permit mentions a “hyperbolic orbit,” the eccentric path
Musk hopes his car takes through space. Also known as a Hohmann
transfer orbit, it would send the car
out to Mars orbit
and back toward the sun on a nearly
infinite loop.

“The payload will be … playing Space Oddity, on a billion year
elliptic Mars orbit,” Musk said in December.

While Musk has said the car is “one of the silliest things” he
ever imagined launching, its 2-ton mass and ambitious orbit is no
joke, as Eric Berger points out in
a recent story for Ars Technica
.

“No company has ever launched a private payload beyond
geostationary orbit before,” Berger said, referring to an orbit
roughly 22,500 miles above Earth.

The Hohmann transfer orbit “is critical to understanding how Musk
plans to sell the rocket and what its flight, after all these
years of waiting, means for the aerospace industry,” Berger
wrote.

If Falcon Heavy doesn’t blow up, immortalizing Musk’s on- and
off-Earth legacies, SpaceX will move forward with launches for
paying customers, including the US military, perhaps later this
year, the company says.

More people would be likely to line up to place payloads atop a
Falcon Heavy rocket. While it costs about $90 million per launch,
that’s roughly a third of the cost of any similarly powerful
rocket built by SpaceX’s competitors. Part of what makes that
price possible is that the booster cores — each of which each has
nine Merlin engines and stands about 134 feet tall — are fully
reusable.

With enough fuel and the right trajectory, Falcon Heavy has
enough thrust to launch a payload heavier than a car to Pluto,
let alone Mars. That would appeal to NASA, which is gearing up to
launch several planet- and moon-bound spacecraft in the coming
years. The space agency is also in an ever-present budget pinch —
and behind schedule in building its super-heavy-lift rocket,
called Space Launch System.

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