Firmly locked to its launch pad, a powerful SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, made up of three strapped-together Falcon 9 core stages and a single upper stage, fired its 27 core stage engines for more than 10 seconds Wednesday Jan. 24 in a critical test to pave the way for the new booster's maiden flight. As usual with preflight test-firings, SpaceX did not announce the test, but observers could clearly see vapors venting from the giant rocket during fueling.
Engine ignition was impossible to miss as a huge cloud of churning exhaust shot away from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 12:30 p.m. EST(GMT-5). The engines shut down as planned about 10 seconds, or slightly more, after ignition, and the towering exhaust cloud quickly dissipated in the afternoon breeze.
"Falcon Heavy hold-down firing this morning was good," SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a tweet. "Generated quite a thunderhead of steam. Launching in a week or so."
The payload for the Heavy's first flight: Musk's personal Tesla Roadster, a cherry red sports car that will be mounted in the rocket's nose cone. It was not known if the car was aboard the Heavy for the engine test-firing, but Musk says he plans to launch the roadster on a looping orbit beyond Mars with David Bowie's "Space Oddity" playing on the stereo.
"I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future," Musk tweeted late last year.
The dramatic, highly anticipated test-firing came almost a month after SpaceX first hauled the huge rocket to pad 39A for initial tests and several weeks after a static firing was first expected. SpaceX is the only major rocket company that test-fires main engines on the pad prior to launch as a confidence check to make sure the booster's systems are operating properly before committing a vehicle to flight. The static-fire, or hot-fire, test typically takes place a few days to a week before launch.
On Sept. 1, 2016, a Falcon 9 rocket on pad 40 at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station exploded in a spectacular fireball five minutes before a planned static firing, destroying a $200 million communications satellite and heavily damaging the pad. Since then, SpaceX has reeled off 19 successful flights -- and hot fires -- in a row, most recently launching a classified satellite known as Zuma.
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