SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched its inaugural mission for a paying customer on April 11.
Furthermore, the historic endeavor paves the way for NASA to send some impending technologies into orbit on the Falcon Heavy’s next flight.
“We are pleased with the success of yesterday’s Falcon Heavy launch and first-stage landings,” said Acting Associate Administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate Jim Reuter in a statement. “We have important technologies that are ready to fly, and this success helps put us on that path.”
Falcon Heavy’s First Operational Flight
Falcon Heavy’s recent launch marked the second time the mega-rocket has flown into space.
The privately-developed spacecraft’s maiden voyage took place on February 6, 2018. In this mission, the vehicle carried SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster and a “Starman” mannequin to space.
Post launch, Falcon Heavy’s two boosters landed on their Cape Canaveral Air Force Station landing targets. However, the core missed its mark and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
The milestone event also marked the first successful landing of Falcon Heavy’s three rockets.
According to CNN, the two side-boosters landed on ground pads in Florida. The center core followed, landing on a remote-controlled platform in the ocean. Overall, the mission was a resounding success.
Blazing a Trail for New Space Technologies
Drawing encouragement from Falcon Heavy’s groundbreaking flight, NASA aims to send several experiments into space at once. While each of them are different, all the projects share a mutual goal to improve future spacecraft performance and design.
First, one experiment involves sending the first-ever ion clock into space. Dubbed the Deep Space Atomic Clock, the device is designed to potentially be “the most stable space clock.” Plus, the cutting-edge technology could revolutionize the way spacecrafts navigate and explore deep space.
The next endeavor involves sending a pair of small satellites, called CubeSats, to measure how large bubbles in the Earth’s upper atmosphere disrupt radio signal communications and GPS. The experiment is called the Enhanced Tandem Beacon Experiment (E-TBEx).
In this effort, NASA hopes to learn more about what causes these “bubbles,” to better predict the disturbances and mitigate any fallout.
Green Propellant and Satellite Hardware Testing
Next, the space agency seeks to develop a “green” alternative to conventional chemical propulsion systems via the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM). One goal is that a new green propellant will spur enabling technology for commercial spaceports across America.
Ideally, launch vehicle and spacecraft fuel loading will be “safer, faster, and much less costly” with this propellant. Currently, popular rocket fuel, hydrazine, is highly toxic. Therefore, the experiment will test an alternative fuel/oxidizer blend which is safer to handle and better for the environment.
Finally, the Space Environment Testbeds Mission will study how the space environment near Earth affects satellite hardware performance. Data from these observations will help improve spacecraft design, engineering, and operations, to protect them from harmful solar radiation.
Future Launch Plans
Overall, Falcon Heavy’s recent success brings NASA closer to launching these experiments. These technologies fall under the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission. Over the next few months, the USAF and SpaceX will prep for launching the mission from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The Falcon Heavy success also follows SpaceX’s successful launch of the Crew Dragon and International Space Station (ISS) docking early last month. If all goes as planned, Crew Dragon’s first manned flight will take place sometime in 2019.