SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket launches its first commercial payload — then aces a triple landing

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A in Florida. (SpaceX via YouTube)

More than a year after SpaceX sent its Falcon Heavy rocket on a majestic test launch, the second Falcon Heavy put a satellite in orbit today for its first customer.

Then, for the first time, all three of the rocket’s reusable booster cores landed safely and successfully. SpaceX also recovered both halves of the rocket’s nose cone and intends to reuse those components as well.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk celebrated the day’s successes with a string of exuberant tweets, punctuated with hearts and rocket emojis.

“The Falcons have landed,” he wrote.

Back in February 2018, the test payload was SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster with a mannequin nicknamed Starman in the driver’s seat.

This time around, the payload was the 13,200-pound Arabsat-6A satellite, which is destined to go into geostationary orbit to provide telecommunications services to the Middle East, Africa and Europe through the Saudi-led Arabsat consortium.

This week’s launch was originally scheduled for Wednesday but had to be postponed 24 hours due to concerns about upper-level winds. In contrast, today’s countdown was as smooth as silk, with nary a concern about the weather.

Liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center created a spectacle, just as it did during the maiden launch. A huge cloud of exhaust went up from the three Falcon 9 rocket cores that were yoked together to provide as much as 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

Falcon Heavy’s side boosters land on Landing Zones 1 and 2

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 12, 2019

The Falcons have landed

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 11, 2019

Minutes after launch, the two side cores dropped away and descended to make separate touchdowns at two landing zones on the Florida coast, not far from the launch pad. Their return was heralded by a fusillade of sonic booms.

Meanwhile, the central core booster pushed onward. After stage separation, that booster landed successfully on a drone ship stationed hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.

Last year, the first Falcon Heavy’s central core missed its landing at the end of last year’s mission, due to the fact that it ran out of ignition fluid before the final engine burn. The SpaceX team made sure to add more fluid this time.

This time around, SpaceX was even able to pull both halves of the central core’s nose cone, or fairing, from the Atlantic waters undamaged. In a tweet, Musk said the fairing halves would be refurbished and used on a Falcon 9 rocket that’s due to send the company’s Starlink satellites into orbit next month.

When Musk first brought up the subject of recovering and reusing the fairing components in 2017, he said the strategy could save an additional $6 million per launch. That could represent significant savings for a Falcon 9 launch that carries a standard list price of $62 million, or for a $90 million Falcon Heavy launch.

Both fairing halves recovered. Will be flown on Starlink

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