World’s biggest rocket soars toward Mars after perfect launch

The world’s most powerful rocket, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, blasted off on Tuesday on its highly anticipated maiden test flight, carrying CEO Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster toward an orbit near Mars.

Screams and cheers erupted at mission control in Cape Canaveral, Florida as the massive rocket fired its 27 engines and rumbled into the blue sky over the same NASA launchpad that served as a base for the US missions to the Moon four decades ago.

“The mission went as well as one could have hoped”, an ecstatic Musk told reporters after the launch, calling it “probably the most exciting thing I have seen literally ever. I had this image of a giant explosion on the pad with a wheel bouncing down the road with the Tesla logo landing somewhere,” he said. “Fortunately that is not what happened.”

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Loaded with Musk’s red Tesla and a mannequin in a spacesuit, the monster rocket’s historic test voyage captured the world’s imagination. SpaceX’s webcast showed the Tesla Roadster soaring into space, as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” played in the background – with the words “DON’T PANIC” visible on the dashboard, in an apparent nod to the sci-fi series the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.

Musk posted a live video showing the “Starman” mannequin appearing to cruise, its gloved hand on the wheel, through the darkness of space, with the Earth’s image reflected on the car’s glossy red surface.

If the Roadster survives its five-hour journey through the Van Allen Belt – a region of high radiation where it will be pelted with charged particles – it will attempt a final burn toward Mars, Musk said.

Then, the car would enter an orbit around the Sun that brings it close to Mars, on a journey that could last a billion years and take it as far as 400 million km from Earth, the same as a trip around the equator 10 000 times.

“Maybe it will be discovered by some future alien race,” Musk told reporters. “What were these guys doing? Did they worship this car?” he mused. The Roadster was also outfitted with a data storage unit containing Isaac Asimov’s science fiction book series, the Foundation Trilogy, and a plaque bearing the names of 6 000 SpaceX employees.

About two minutes into the flight, the two side boosters peeled away from the centre core and made their way back toward Earth for an upright landing. Both rockets landed side by side in unison on launchpads, live video images showed.

“New Olympic sport – Synchronised Landings!” wrote NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik on Twitter.

The third, centre booster failed to land on an ocean platform – known as a droneship – as planned.

“It didn’t have enough propellant,” Musk said, adding that it plunged into the ocean about 100m away from its landing point.

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