Woohoo! We are going to Mars y’all!

Well, things just got real. Jump and throw your fist up, ‘coz Falcon Heavy is now officially the most powerful rocket in operation!!!

I woke up at 6 am to a warm morning (yes, Auburn weather in weird) on Feb 6, 2018 and the first thing that struck me was, thank God I am lucky and happy to be alive on this amazing day!

A few of my extra lucky friends got to watch the launch (and boosters landing) in person from Cape Canaveral, FL, I got settled in my laboratory with a tab pinned to my browser that read “SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch-Live Webcast” and some more space nerds I know (and cherish!) were watching it from their office or wide awake at wee hours of the night in India.

Rockets are structures designed to withstand predicted maximum structural loads namely the Aerodynamic load (think dynamic pressure ρV2/2), gravitational load due to the g-force (acting axially on the rocket), loads due to environmental changes, staging shock – we use multiple stage rockets (Falcon Heavy has 2 stages) which on separation might cause some dynamic disturbances, acoustics and vibration loads (most deadly because of being random). So if any of the factors are above the design level, launch would be cancelled for then.

Falcon Heavy structure is made of aluminium-lithium alloy (lithium added to give more strength) with a structural safety margin of about 40%. But dang the weather, shear winds in the upper atmosphere picked up speed on Tuesday and the load was 20% above the maximum allowable load (Source: Elon Musk) which made the SpaceX engineers reschedule the launch, twice! From 1:30 PM EST to 2:20 PM EST and to 3:45 PM EST (with the launch window closing at 4 PM EST). It sure had everyone on the edge of the seats and biting their nails. And at 3:45 PM EST, all factors to support the launch converged, the countdown uninterrupted, LOX and RP-1 were filled and we had a very successful liftoff !!!

Falcon Heavy test flight Lift-off (Source:SpaceX)
The Gorgeous Exhaust Flame during liftoff (Source: ScienceTripper)

Yay! And in 2 min 33 sec, Falcon Heavy escaped Earth’s atmosphere (How? Read here!), the two side boosters shutdown and separated from the main core and the second stage. The separated side boosters were now in space which is friction-less. So, to come back to earth and land on landing pads or on the SpaceX’s drone ship (“Of course I Still Love You”) they have to do a flip maneuver for retrograde, enter the atmosphere and get aerodynamically guided by SpaceX engineers.

Side boosters – separation and landing (Source: SpaceX)

To do all this, they also need a something extra. In the friction-less space, nitrogen thrusters (just pressurized cold gas which imparts momentum) which are circled in red in the figure below, assist for “flip” and the grid fins which are circled in blue support the aerodynamic guidance (Newton’s 3rd law, push air, get moved by the reaction force), engines are reignited and fired a few times (for a soft landing) delivering our beautiful side boosters to the ground standing upright on their carbon-fiber landing legs.

Falcon 9 (Source: SpaceX)

And they arrived almost in sync with each other with three amazing sonic booms  (each!) following their landing as “Boo-ba-Boom” (I am pretty sure a few SpaceX engineers teared up during this moment!) and the incredible physics (involving shock waves) behind it is left for another blog post by RocketPanda. (Wanna hear them? click here.Thanks to the friend who sent me this amazing video!)

Side boosters approaching landing pads. (Source: SpaceX)

But the excitement was cut short because we heard this during the live stream —

“We’ve lost the center core.”

The center core flipped perfectly, was on the right course to the drone ship but alas, because of the landing engines failing to ignite, missed the drone ship by close to 300 ft (think the length of a football field) and hit the water at almost 300 mph (as reported by the Verge). Elon Musk mentioned in the post-launch meeting that the the amount of pyrophoric igniter left wasn’t enough. And yes, there began the fun – “What happened to the center core?” with a lot of memes thanks to the internet community, LOL. But it has been proven that it can be done. SpaceX engineers will get it done next time. ‘nuff said.

It just doesn’t stop there ‘coz in the meantime, Starman, the dummy that Musk put on his Tesla Roadster made it into orbit, with all the cameras too. So we all got to see what a dream drive would look like. Starman went around the earth in orbit listening to David Bowie’s Space Oddity. (The DON’T PANIC sign is a tribute to Elon’s favorite book ‘A Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy and I would have picked SHINee’s ‘neomu areumdaun-daun-daun-daun View’ coz the view is just too beautiful #shawolforever) Earth is soooo… beautiful that we all gotta get to space and view it with our own eyes!

Starman in Earth orbit (Source: SpaceX)

This coasting around the earth for 6-hours through the Van Allen radiation belt, a zone which Earth’s own magnetic field holds around our lovely planet by capturing the energetic charged particles (alpha particles, positrons, electrons, neutrinos to name a few, from the solar winds – Read more here) was a demonstration to the U.S. Air Force for the next payload (Source: The Verge). The astronomy community and Musk were skeptical about the car, not being designed to withstand the radiation would make it out, but it DID! And that would make some cool advertisement content for Tesla. After this, there was the third and final burn of the Merlin 1D Vacuum which provided an amazing sky display over Southern California, which pushed the Tesla Roadster well past the Mars orbit, but not enough to make it to the Asteroid belt as some astronomers have asserted (in contradiction to Musk’s tweet).

Merlin 1D Vacuum burn as seen from Anza Borrego Desert (Source: Jack Fusco Photography)

And according to Musk’s interview, Starman and Roadster are just going to keep orbiting around the Sun for a billion years to come. Starman just lonely in Space, a very long-long-time. There are a few fun little things added to spice it up if our Alien friends stumble across it, like there is a miniature Hot Wheels car with a miniature Starman (?!) on the dashboard and the car’s printed circuit board reads “Made in Earth by humans.”

WhatsApp Image 2018-02-08 at 1.30.19 PM
Starman saying Goodbye and the PCB. (Source: Musk’s twitter)

On Feb 6, 2018 the Falcon Heavy brought thousands of SpaceX fans and space enthusiasts to the coast to witness the historic moment. In one of my friends’ (who is also an International student pursuing grad studies here) own words,

“People are so awesome here! You should see how everyone around here was praying and cheering for SpaceX.”

The community spirit in here is truly inspiring!

So what’s next? In Musk’s words, its the “Big F****** Rocket” with 31 Raptor Engines.

To the Moon, the Mars and Beyond. Cheers!


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