February 6, 2018 marked the day Stephen Colbert renounced his title as “King Nerd”. What sparked this egregious announcement, you might ask? Just the world’s most powerful rocket launching a cherry-red Tesla Roadster into space. Welcome to the future, everybody.
It all began with Elon Musk, the guy behind several familiar innovations including paypal and Tesla Motors. On that Tuesday, Musk’s company SpaceX launched the most powerful rocket in operation: the Falcon Heavy.
To put this in perspective, the Falcon Heavy produced about 5 million pounds of thrust, making it the most powerful rocket in the world since the Saturn V, the rocket that sent US astronauts to the moon.
Committed to his dream of human presence on Mars, Musk founded SpaceX and began work on building rockets at competitive prices, raising public interest and spurring on a kind of modern space race. The company’s latest project is the Falcon Heavy whose design is a huge step forward to interplanetary travel. However, a test launch is always necessary to assess the rocket’s functions. This test launch is what caused the commotion on February 6th.
Photo credit: John Kraus
One of the goals of this mission was to safely land two detachable boosters (that propel the spaceship upwards) such that they can be reused. This major development provides hope for the reusability and cost-efficiency of rocketship production. By far the most spectacular facet of the Falcon Heavy is its potential to catapult humanity into what some are terming the “era of post-scarcity heavy lift launch” (caseyexaustralia). In short, this means we are one huge step closer to creating vehicles that are cost-efficient and fuel-efficient enough to get humans to Mars.
The other goal was to launch a payload into a calculated orbit. In order to test the Falcon’s capabilities, a test launch was required. However, in order to test this second goal, the project required a dummy payload; that is, an object used to determine whether the rocket can successfully launch something into outer space. In this case, Musk chose one of his own cherry-red Tesla Roadsters. The savvy car came fully equipped with a dummy astronaut driver (nicknamed Starman, after David Bowie’s famous song) and a message on the dashboard reading “Don’t Panic,” a reference to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
But wait, there’s more. It turns out Musk’s flamboyant payload was not nearly as pointlessly vain as we’d previously thought. While the car itself will possibly disintegrate within a year due to massive solar radiation, the capsule actually contains a small, 3.75-inch disk called the Arch (pronounced “arc”). This “data crystal” has a maximum storage capacity of 360 terabytes of data and is rumoured to contain simply a massive accumulation of human knowledge.
As of February 11th, Starman seemed to be heading toward Mars. The disk’s life capacity is in the range of several billion years due to some aspect of its complicated internal structure. Who knows who will pick it up next.
The new designs have passed their tests and will undoubtedly revolutionize space travel and many other fields. The frequency and affordability of launching satellites could pave the way for expanding the boundaries of ocean exploration, implementing global high-speed internet, and perhaps even touching down on Mars.