A Narrative of My Falcon Heavy Rocket Test Flight

Topics: SpaceSpacex

On February 6, 2018, I travelled to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to view the test flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. I watched the launch from Cherie Down Park in Cape Canaveral, about 14 miles from Launch Complex 39A and 6 miles from Landing Zone 1.

Instead of a satellite or capsule, Falcon Heavy would carry Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster and Starman, a mannequin dressed in one of SpaceX’s spacesuits, as a dummy payload. The launch was considered too risky to fly a commercial satellite, and the rocket needed a mass in the payload fairing to more accurately simulate a commercial launch.

The launch of Falcon Heavy was significant for the spaceflight industry for many reasons. Most notably, Falcon Heavy became the most powerful rocket in operation following the success of the test flight. The rocket can carry more payload mass to low Earth orbit than any other operating launch system, and is second in payload capacity to only the Saturn V. In addition, the test flight flew two previously flown Falcon 9 rockets, from the CRS-9 and Thaicom 8 launches, as side boosters.

The ability to recover and refly the side boosters and center core of Falcon Heavy allow SpaceX to provide heavy-lift launch services at a lower cost than previously possible with expendable rockets. This opens the door to further growth in the spaceflight industry.

After a successful launch and recovery of its side boosters, Falcon Heavy’s upper stage maneuvered through several different orbits. The stage began in a low, elliptical parking orbit, which was then raised by a second burn of the upper stage to place Starman in the Van Allen radiation belts surrounding Earth.

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The upper stage remained in an elliptical orbit here for six hours, testing the radiation hardening of the stage’s electronics and the systems that would keep the stages propellant from freezing or boiling off in space.

Following this test, the upper stage reignited again, propelling Starman into a hyperbolic trajectory away from Earth. This burn simulated a geostationary orbit insertion burn after a coast in geostationary transfer orbit, a requirement for the U.S. Air Force. Starman would later escape Earth and enter an elliptical, inclined orbit of the Sun, with a periapsis at the same radius as Earth’s orbit and an apoapsis between the orbits of Mars and the asteroid belt. This trajectory was chosen to demonstrate Falcon Heavy’s ability to place payloads on a transfer orbit to Mars.

In this course, we have modelled maneuvers similar to all of the burns conducted by Falcon Heavy’s upper stage after reaching orbit. We have calculated impulse maneuvers between two orbits of the same body, like the burn to reach the Van Allen belts, and Hohmann transfers between planets, like Starman’s simulated Mars transfer.

Elon Musk has stated that Starman’s orbit will be stable for millions of years. The upper stage attached to Starman and the Roadster was passivated following its final burn, so the vehicle has no way to modify its trajectory. However, both flybys of Earth and Mars and gravitational perturbations from other planets, especially Jupiter, can cause Starman’s orbit to change over time. Starman will make its first close approach to Earth in 2091, which can cause dramatic changes in its orbit. Simulations have shown that in the next three million years, Starman has about a 6% chance of colliding with Earth and a further 2.5% chance of striking Venus (flybys of Earth and Mars could cause Starman’s periapsis to lower to the point where a Venus encounter is possible).

In this course, we have looked into the effects of leading edge and trailing edge flybys on a spacecraft’s orbit. We have seen that close flybys can provide several km/s of “free” delta-V for a spacecraft in a solar orbit by using a planet’s gravity to change the direction of the spacecraft’s velocity vector. These encounters will cause the most dramatic changes in Starman’s orbit. Perturbations from other planets, like Jupiter, will have smaller effects. These perturbations are neglected in the Two Body Problem and were thus not discussed in detail in this course.

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A Narrative of My Falcon Heavy Rocket Test Flight. (2022, May 10). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/a-narrative-of-my-falcon-heavy-rocket-test-flight/

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