ORLANDO, Fla. - Twenty-four satellites, including four NASA science missions, a tiny sail that may one day visit another solar system and the ashes of 152 dead loved ones - all contained in the bowels of the world's most powerful rocket - streaked to space early Tuesday morning.
The third successful launch of SpaceX's mighty Falcon Heavy, and its first at night, took off from Kennedy Space Center's launch complex 39A at 2:30 a.m., marking one of the most complex and technically challenging missions in the company's history. The mission was pushed back from an 11:30 p.m. takeoff time Monday while the teams worked to complete additional ground system checkouts.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted late Monday night as he waited for liftoff that "waiting for Falcon Heavy to launch means high cortisol levels," adding that the mission was SpaceX's "toughest rocket launch ever."
For one, there were the logistics: The three-booster Falcon Heavy had to perform four upper-stage engine burns to get the diverse payload into three separate orbits, depending on the requirements of each satellite.
Then it had to land its two side boosters at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Landing Zones 1 and 2, which it did successfully about eight minutes after launch. The boosters were reused from a previous mission in April, making it the first time that a Falcon Heavy had flown with refurbished parts.
The center core booster zipped back down to Earth 11 minutes after takeoff at a speed four "times faster than a rifle bullet," Musk tweeted. Prior to the launch, he put the odds of the core landing at about 50% because of the speed at which it was coming in.
Musk's warnings turned out to be right: The core missed its mark, landing in the Atlantic Ocean just off SpaceX's drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, which was stationed more than 700 miles off the coast of Florida, about twice the typical distance.
On the payload side, SpaceX was delivering to space a diverse set of spacecraft, from Department of Defense military satellites to crafts containing some of the ashes of deceased family members.
The ride-sharing mission, put together by the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, included advanced research and development satellites from multiple DoD research labs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and several universities.
Among the most notable missions for NASA included a Deep Space Atomic Clock, a first-of-its kind device that could help spacecraft travelling in deep space perform their own navigation without the lag time of waiting for instructions from Earth, and a new green propellant that would be less toxic, easier to handle and more efficient than the current hydrazine propellant used on rockets.
Also hitching a ride was the Planetary Society's crowdfunded LightSail 2, a small spacecraft powered by sunlight that may hold the key to missions to other solar systems. The Bill Nye-led Planetary Society will test out the sail in Earth orbit to prove whether it could be viably propelled by solar power, offering a solution to interstellar travel.
"If someone really decides it's worth doing and sends spacecraft to another star system, the solar sails are really the only way to go," Nye told Florida Today.
For the 152 people whose cremated remains flew aboard Falcon Heavy Tuesday morning, a cosmic send-off was the only way to go, too.
The remains flew to space through a service provided by private company Celestis, which offers the unique spaceflight-themed memorials. They run from $2,495 to $12,500 depending on the trajectory of the ashes, whether they return to Earth or go into Earth orbit, lunar orbit or deep space. The ashes are placed in coin-sized capsules and packed together inside the spacecraft.
Tuesday's mission was Celestis' 16th to space, known as the "Heritage Flight." It sent a number of space enthusiasts into the cosmos, some well-known in the space community ? including NASA astronaut William Pogue, "Star Trek" actor James Doohan, and planetary scientists Eugene Shoemaker and Eric De Jong ? as well as fans from other backgrounds, including sculptor and painter Luise Kaish, a key figure in the New York art scene of the late 20th century.
Like the others whose remains flew to space Tuesday, it was Kaish's "wish that her ashes travel into space," her obituary reads. "Not simply into orbit, or to the moon. But into deep space. The realm of infinity."
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