Elon Musk's SpaceX is set to launch its Falcon Heavy rocket towards Mars today — with a Tesla roadster on board as a David Bowie song plays in the background. The Falcon Heavy is the biggest new rocket since the Apolla era, and today's lift-off is being billed as the most significant moment in spaceflight since the first NASA Space Shuttle took off in 1981.
What's going to happen and when?
At around 19:30 (CET) the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket is due to launch for the first time from the historic Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Expect spectacular views of this massive rocket lifting off and a huge cheer if all goes to plan.
Why is this rocket important?
The Falcon Heavy, if successful, would become the world's biggest operational rocket, capable of carrying 26.7 metric tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit, and about 13 metric tonnes to Mars.
The amount of mass matters. This rocket is a step towards the goal of sending humans and the support systems they need on missions to the moon and Mars. It isn't the biggest launcher ever — that crown remains with the Atlas V rocket of the Apollo era.
What's the buzz about Bowie and the Tesla?
The Falcon Heavy will be carrying a cherry red Tesla roadster as its payload in the nose cone, and inside will be a dummy wearing a SpaceX designed spacesuit, while David Bowie's 'Life on Mars?' plays on the stereo. If all goes well then the Tesla will go into an elliptical deep space orbit that should take it around Mars. Critics have said this amounts to littering space with a billionaire's space debris, and it certainly raises questions about planetary protection protocols. However many adore the concept, and Musk has said he loves the idea of an alien civilisation one day finding his car in orbit and trying to figure out how and why it got there. The risk associated with this launch means SpaceX doesn't want to send a valuable research satellite on board in case it's lost.
What could go wrong?
Lots. The Falcon Heavy is basically three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, and launch relies on the 27 Merlin engines all firing together in harmony. Musk has played down expectations, joking that he'll be pleased if it just blows up clear of the launch pad. Reliability is the most important factor in spaceflight, and even with thousands of hours of testing and simulations, the only way to know if its really works is to try to launch.
What's the biggest highlight of today's launch?
Watching any rocket taking off is spectacular, and the fire, steam and smoke of the Falcon Heavy will be filmed and replayed from every angle. However, it's likely the triple landing of the three Falcon 9 first-stage rockets that make up this beast that is going to offer the most extraordinary show. SpaceX has already wowed many crowds by performing the seemingly impossible trick of landing a huge cylindrical rocket back on the launch pad from space, and this time the visuals should be even better. Two of the first stages will land together almost side by side at Cape Canaveral, while the third will land on a sea barge called 'Of Course I Still Love You'. Yes, it's really called that; sci-fi fans rejoice.
Does the Falcon Heavy have any competitors?
Yes, from both the public and private sector. Rocketry is an intensely competitive business, and SpaceX is not alone in developing a big launcher. American space entrepreneur Jeff Bezos is building a large rocket called New Glenn with a 13-tonne to geostationary transfer orbit payload capacity that should start flying in the 2020s. NASA is developing the Space Launch Systems (SLS) rocket that should have far larger capacity and is designed to take the Orion capsule on long-term manned spaceflights to explore our solar system. In contrast, the European Ariane 5 rocket can carry 11 metric tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit.