The Falcon Heavy, three Falcon 9 cores bolted together to form a massive heavy-lift rocket, will not launch until at least January 2018, . Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and COO, told Aviation Week that a static fire test of the Falcon Heavy is scheduled to take place in December at launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the maiden launch will occur a few weeks after that.
SpaceX was hoping to launch the heavy-lift rocket before the year was out until recently. Originally announced in 2011 with a planned launch in 2013, the development of the Falcon Heavy proved to be much more difficult than SpaceX expected. Elon Musk, founder and CEO of the spaceflight company, has cited unique aerodynamics compared to the Falcon 9 and intense pressure loads from the two side boosters as challenges in developing the center core of the rocket.
The entire rocket will weigh in at more than 3.1 million pounds fully fueled and stand more than 229 feet tall. With more than 5.1 million pounds of thrust at sea level, the Falcon Heavy is slated to become the most powerful rocket currently in use.
The first stage of the rocket consists of three cores with 9 Merlin engines each, for a total of 27 rocket engines that must be ignited in near unison. The static fire test in December, which might be followed by another test, will be the first time SpaceX fires up all 27 engines of the Falcon Heavy at once. Each core has been individually tested at SpaceX facilities in McGregor, Texas.
After launch, the two side boosters, which are "flight proven" Falcon 9 first stages that have already flown missions, will jettison off the center core. Both side cores will then return for attempted vertical landings on landing pads at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where they would touch down almost simultaneously. The center core will continue to burn a bit longer, and after releasing the second stage, the main core will descend for a vertical landing attempt aboard SpaceX's autonomous drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The second stage will then finish the flight to orbit after firing its one Merlin engine. The orbital trajectory for the launch has not been announced, but the first Falcon Heavy will not carry a payload.
Launch pad 39A at KSC is undergoing modifications in preparation for Falcon Heavy. SpaceX plans to move its Falcon 9 launch operations to pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, starting with the CRS-13 resupply mission to the International Space Station scheduled for December 8.
SpaceX is attempting a new engineering marvel, launching a triple-core rocket with more thrust than anything currently flying, and then landing each one of those rocket cores to be refurbished and reused. Elon Musk has warned that a number of things could go wrong during the launch, and he hopes "it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it does not cause pad damage."
Once SpaceX completes integration of the three cores and the second stage in its hangar, it will roll the full rocket out to the pad for a static test fire, revealing the massive launch vehicle in its full glory for the first time. Then, hopefully sometime in early January, SpaceX is going to light that candle to see how she flies.