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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said he'll consider it a win if his enormous new Falcon Heavy rocket even escapes the launch pad. Today, the rocket fired its engines in a test at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, clearing the way for an inaugural launch in the coming weeks. Space scientists will be rooting for it, too. With its heavy-lift capability, the rocket can fling larger probes to distant planets more quickly—and, perhaps, more cheaply—than previous rockets.

 

"We can think about follow-up missions across the outer solar system, Mars sample return, even missions to Venus or Mercury," says planetary scientist Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who was also an independent consultant for SpaceX between 2010 and 2012.

Created by strapping together three of the company's Falcon 9 rockets, the Falcon Heavy is 70 meters tall, the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V that took humans to the moon. It is expected to carry up to 64,000 kilograms to low-Earth orbit, more than twice the payload of the biggest currently available vehicle, United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Delta IV Heavy. Moreover, the new rocket's booster stages can be reused, which SpaceX claims will save money. It says a Falcon Heavy launch will start at a mere $90 million—less than 20% of the Delta IV Heavy's cost.

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Category: Science