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SpaceX aced its long-awaited test (that’s more than a test) in flawless fashion Thursday evening, successfully executing a launch and three-stage rocket landing that sent a satellite into orbit and proved that the Falcon Heavy’s reusable engines can do more than fly.
The launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida marked the first functional use of the Falcon Heavy, which took the Saudi Arabsat-6A communications satellite into orbit a year after carrying one of Elon Musk's Tesla roadsters along for an attention-getting test launch. But the takeoff also demonstrated, for the first time, that all three of the craft’s reusable rockets could successfully pilot themselves back to Earth outside of a testing scenario.
Relive the entire experience in this hour-long clip of the launch, deployment, and landings in real time:
A 2018 test already had proven the side boosters could land themselves. But that same test also resulted in the core rocket falling into the Atlantic, giving SpaceX a two-of-three success rate that put additional pressure on Thursday’s launch to go smoothly.
And smooth it was: All three of the Falcon’s rockets guided themselves home once they’d served their purpose. As in a previous test performance, the twin side boosters eased themselves to touchdown at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station without incident, while, in a SpaceX first, the center core rocket also landed safely — by guiding itself to the deck of an offshore drone vessel in the Atlantic Ocean.
That last bit is especially historic: The Falcon Heavy’s central rocket is a massive beast with an absolutely enormous amount of power, eclipsing every main stage rocket that’s blasted into space since Saturn V. None of its superpowered predecessors has ever accomplished the feat of taking off and landing itself, and, in the process, bypassing much of the physical trauma that occurs after separation and makes redeployment such a resource-intensive challenge.
On Twitter, SpaceX called the entire mission — including the satellite deployment — a success within 35 short minutes of the Falcon Heavy’s first ignition. And with Thursday’s glitch-free launch, SpaceX can finally move ahead with plans to ramp up its commercial flight activity, as well as continue honing its long-range plans for manned missions to the Moon and Mars.