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SpaceX's next mission: to land three rockets at once

Elon Musk's private space company seeks to fly the Falcon 9 Heavy, made of three individual rockets strapped together, later this year.

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    When Falcon Heavy lifts off it will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. Thrust at liftoff is equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft operating simultaneously.
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After the successful launch and landing of its Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral on Monday, SpaceX has a new goal: to land three rockets at once.

The proposed triple landing is part of the Falcon Heavy project, a large rocket made from three rockets strapped together, allowing it to fly farther and faster than its lighter counterpart. This announcement comes following the successful landing of five Falcon 9 rockets since December, two on land and three on barges at sea.

“SpaceX expects to fly Falcon Heavy for the first time later this year,” the company said in a statement to the Orlando Sentinel. “We are also seeking regulatory approval to build two additional landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. We hope to recover all three Falcon Heavy rockets, though initially we may attempt drone ship landings.”

SpaceX founder Elon Musk of Tesla Motors added on Twitter that two of the rockets would land simultaneously, while the third would arrive shortly after.

SpaceX is a private space company whose goal is to develop reusable space transportation to reduce costs and, ultimately, enable the colonization of Mars. The company has designed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 vehicles, both of which are reusable, and the Dragon spacecraft, which it uses to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.

A large, powerful rocket is not a novel idea – Boeing's Delta IV Heavy operates in the same way.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says that while the larger rocket is the obvious next step for SpaceX and that the most impressive aspect of this experiment is the recovery and, more importantly, reuse of the rockets.

“Getting to the point where they are not only recovering them intact, but reusing them and, here is the key point, reusing them on launches where there is a customer paying for that launch, that is the hard part,” said Dr. McDowell, who since 1989 has published the twice-monthly Jonathan's Space Report, which tracks space launches.

Without the customer paying for the launch on a used rocket, there isn’t really any economic incentive to build reusable rockets, and McDowell says that other rocket companies he has talked to are skeptical. He gave the hypothetical example of Direct TV agreeing to pay to launch a $100 million satellite into orbit. SpaceX will have to build a great deal of trust with not only the space community but any potential customer.

But if they can get past the economics of it all, what SpaceX is proposing is fundamentally doable and there a lot can be done with the technology. It has the potential to make space travel more widespread and affordable, leading to more satellites in orbit, easier cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, and more space exploration for vehicles both with and without crews.

The main goal for SpaceX is an expedition to Mars, which Musk has planned for 2018.

In addition to the launch of the Falcon 9 Heavy later this year, SpaceX is also preparing for the launch of the first rocket that will return to space after having been successfully recovered, which is slated for this fall, the Orlando Sentinel reports. 

“It is the reuse that still remains to be proven. The landing of the stages they seem to have got down now, not 100 percent but they have basically got that sorted. So doing that for three stages at once is an operational challenge, but it is not a fundamental challenge,” said McDowell. “I see no reason why they can’t do this, and it is going to be spectacular.”

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