Beginner's guide to Falcon Heavy launch

Wow your friends with knowledge of SpaceX's powerful rocket

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on February 6, 2018 in Cape Canaveral.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - If you haven’t heard, SpaceX plans to launch its Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful rocket on the market, as soon as Wednesday.

Just in case you’ve been in the dark, let’s get you up to speed before the liftoff. We don’t want to make a rookie mistake when talking about how cool the launch was to our friends or co-workers, right?

What’s the big deal?
Florida sees dozens of launches a year from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. What makes the Falcon Heavy launch a feast for the eyes and ears is its power at liftoff and the encore triple-booster landing after launch.

Falcon Heavy has a total of 27 Merlin engines in the first stage of the rocket. There are nine engines each in the first-stage center core and two Falcon 9 boosters strapped to its side. Combined, the engines are capable of producing more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. That is a lot of power.

For comparison, SpaceX's smaller rocket, the Falcon 9, has one booster, nine Merlin engines and can generate more than 1.8 million pounds of thrust.

The first launch did not fully test Falcon Heavy's full power at liftoff.

This second launch is expected to be even more powerful, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

"Max thrust of 2,550 tons will be almost 10% higher than Falcon Heavy demo mission last year," he said in a tweet Friday.

Additionally, this is the first paying mission for SpaceX's new rocket. The launch last year was a test flight, during which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sent up his cherry red Tesla Roadster and a mannequin named Starman as the test payload. The electric car is still on a wide orbit of Mars.

[The video above shows Starman and Tesla floating in space.]

Finally, because SpaceX lands its rocket boosters to re-fly again, saving millions of dollars per flight in doing so, there will be a triple landing after Falcon Heavy launches compared to the single booster landings after a Falcon 9 launch.

When is the launch? The launch window opens at 8 p.m. and runs to 8:32 p.m. Wednesday, April 10.

What's Falcon Heavy launching? A heavy communication satellite called Arabsat 6A is encapsulated in Falcon Heavy’s nose cone. Lockheed Martin built the 13,000-pound satellite for Saudi Arabia’s ArabSat. The satellite will provide telephone, internet and cable to parts of the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Will the launch scrub or delay? The launch was originally scheduled for Tuesday evening, but Air Force Weather officials were only predicting a 30 percent chance of good launch conditions. That's not great, but rockets have launched in worse conditions.

On Monday, the launch was moved to Wednesday, when evening conditions look much better for liftoff. The Air Force's 45th Weather Squadron is expecting 80 percent "go" conditions during the Wednesday window.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has also said the company is taking extra precautions with this launch because the Falcon Heavy is flying on new Block 5 boosters.

"This is first launch of Falcon Heavy Block 5, so we’re being extra cautious. Launch date might move," Musk said in a tweet.

As always, delays are par for the course with spaceflight. Be prepared to hold as mission control works through any issues during the countdown and for a 24-hour scrub.

What should I expect to experience?
On the Space Coast, the rumble this rocket produces is unlike any other, not to mention the sonic booms to follow with the triple booster landing. Click here to re-watch the Falcon Heavy test flight to get a good idea, but trust, me it's better in person.

When News 6 was at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39A press site the rocket liftoff caused car alarms to go off and we felt the rumble under our feet for minutes after.

There were also multiple sonic booms as Falcon Heavy's boosters broke the sound barrier during landing. This video of the Falcon Heavy Demo-1 booster landing is a good indication of the thunderous sound you could experience.

News 6 meteorologist Candace Campos wrote this great explanation about how weather conditions can affect how intense and how far the rumble of a sonic boom can travel.

[Watch launch footage from Falcon Heavy's Demo-1 flight below.]

Where do I look for the launch and landing?
It’s happened to everyone during their first launch. The countdown is running down to the seconds and you are saying, “Where should I be looking to see this thing?”

Be aware some roads and popular viewing areas may be closed. Click here to see a full list of road closures.

This depends on where you plan to watch the launch. First things first, know that the launch is happening from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. If you can see the Vehicle Assembly Building—it’s the massive building with an American flag on the side -- the pad is just beyond the VAB to the northeast.

Below is a map of popular viewing locations, the launch pads and SpaceX Landing Zone 1. 

Let’s discuss how to view the launch first; we’ll get to the landing in a minute.

If you are viewing the launch along the Indian River in Titusville from Space View Park or Parrish Park, you’ll be looking east directly across the river.

If you are further south along the Indian River, you’ll be looking northeast.

Now, if you were a well-prepared rocket chaser, you got there early and nabbed a spot at Playalinda Beach or the Canaveral National Seashore. This is the closest spot to view liftoff because it is almost parallel to 39A. On the beach, look south along the coastline, you can even see the pad from some spots.

Just north in Volusia County, the best views are along the beach, where you will also look due south to see Falcon Heavy liftoff.

Pro-tip: If you are still lost at this point and not sure where to look follow everyone’s pointing fingers or cameras. Really. I promise you can’t miss it.

The landing: A few minutes after Falcon Heavy has blasted off, it’s time to find those boosters, which are currently separating from the rocket and making their way back to Earth.

The landing happens at SpaceX Landing Zone 1, which is southwest of where Falcon Heavy launches. If you continue to track the launch, you should see the boosters separate and complete a re-entry burn. It looks like an aerial rocket ballet. This happens about six minutes after launch. The two side boosters will land at Landing Zone 1 about eight minutes after launch and the core booster will land on the drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, called Of Course I Still Love You. 

The best viewing locations to see the landing are from Port Canaveral and on the beach.

[Re-watch the Falcon Heavy Demo-1 booster landing below.]

Can't make it in person? Don't worry, SpaceX will stream the Falcon Heavy launch with live commentary at SpaceX.com, and News 6 also has you covered. Watch the launch live at ClickOrlando.com/space.

Did you enjoy the launch? Pics or it didn't happen. Tweet me @emspeck.

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