Elon Musk is well known for being an incorrigible dreamer. First the entrepreneur dreamed up the idea of revolutionizing green automobiles and the way they are manufactured. That resulted in Tesla, which recently accepted an astonishing 400,000 pre-orders for its third (and most affordable) car. Next, Musk decided it was high time humans went further into space. The result was Space X, Musk’s rocket technology startup.
Now scientists have discovered that Space X’s two rockets, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy have turned out to be more powerful than engineers projected. The specs published on Space X’s website have been updated with some eye-popping numbers. The Falcon 9 rocket can carry up to 50,265 pounds into a low earth orbit. Originally the rocket was expected to have a max lift capacity of 29,000 pounds, so this represents a big increase in its transport capabilities.
The Falcon Heavy can haul up to 119, 930 pounds, leading Musk to describe it as a true “beast.” This is about 54 metric tons of hauling capacity, up from its previous record of 116,845 pounds. The reason for the increase was more specific and exacting testing of both spacecraft rather than any technical changes to its hardware.
Musk said more big plans are in the works for both rockets, including increasing the the rate liftoff thrust of both the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy. If this is successful, Falcon 9’s liftoff thrust will go up to 1.71 million pounds later this year, which is a boost from its current 1.3 million.
The Falcon Heavy has already measured a slightly improve thrust liftoff after the testing, going from 5.1 million pounds on liftoff from its first estimate of 4.5 million pounds. To visualize what these numbers mean, consider that the thrust of one Falcon Heavy is equivalent to the combined thrust of eighteen 747 airplanes operating at full thrust.
These developments are significant for the future of space travel. The liftoff thrust is now twice the thrust of any rocket used anywhere in the world. That means the Falcon Heavy is officially considered the world’s most powerful rocket. Only the Saturn V, the rocket used to take astronauts to the moon in the Apollo program, has ever been capable of delivering more payload.
Falcon Heavy is designed as a multistage rocket. This means it is made of separate rockets, known as stages, which are stacked on top of each other. The stages each have their own engines and propellants. When one stage runs out of propellant, it is ejected from the spacecraft. Musk confirmed that Space X will be trying to land three stages during its next launch.
Musk continues to dream big, with a deadline of 2018 for a trip to Mars. Although Space X initially wanted to see its Mars landing in 2022, Musk moved up the date because he is known to like a challenge. The initial Mars trip will involve landing an unmanned Dragon capsule, with future Red Dragon launches bringing people, instrumentation, and supplies to Mars.
Although the Dragon may get to Mars, the true challenge is sticking the landing. The atmosphere is about 1,000 times thinner than Earth’s, so it’s tough to slow a vehicle down enough to land safely. Space X looks like it may have solved the problem of heat, since Dragon’s heat shield can protect it against temperatures of over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Space X wants to find a way to use the Dragon’s thrusters to redirect its momentum from downward to sideways, reducing its speed enough to land. This is an innovative idea which has never been tried before. If successful, then Space X may pave the way for human exploration of Mars.
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