CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The world’s most powerful rocket blasted off Thursday evening for only its second flight ever. And while there was no ‘Starman’ or red roadster atop the Falcon Heavy this time, the communications satellite riding into space still represented an important payload for SpaceX.
The triple-core rocket was carrying the Saudi Arabian Arabsat-6A satellite toward a geostationary orbit 22,000 miles high – the heavy-lift rocket’s first operational mission.
Wednesday night’s attempt was postponed due to high upper-level winds, but conditions improved Thursday.
Thousands of spectators flocked to Florida’s Space Coast, filling popular viewing spots before the launch window opened, hoping for a repeat of last year’s dramatic debut. And that’s what they got.
Liftoff took place right on time, just after 6:30 p.m. The gleaming white rocket climbed into the evening sky, and with 27 engines firing, it could be seen and heard for miles. But that was only half of the show.
With cascading sonic booms announcing their return, the rocket’s two side boosters roared back to Cape Canaveral a few minutes later. Both landed simultaneously just down the coast from the launch site, Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.
Unlike the first mission, the center booster successfully landed on SpaceX’s automated droneship out in the Atlantic. That marks the first launch and recovery of all three boosters.
SpaceX’s goal is to reuse as many of their rockets as possible to drive down launch costs. Before this mission, 12 Falcon 9 boosters had returned to land safely, and 23 more touched down on droneships.
Assuming these boosters check out OK, they’ll be reused on the Falcon Heavy’s next planned launch, the STP-2 mission for the U.S. Air Force, tentatively scheduled for June.
A separate boat also recovered the two halves of the payload fairing, the nose cone that protects the satellite. Those will also be reused this year, founder Elon Musk tweeted.
Meanwhile, the company is hoping to follow its successful Dragon capsule test with a crewed flight to the space station later this year.