SpaceX announces world’s biggest rocket

SpaceX has announced what’s to be the world’s largest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, set to launch as soon as the end of next year.

With the ability to carry satellites or interplanetary spacecraft weighing over 53 metric tons to orbit, Falcon Heavy will have more than twice the performance of the Delta IV Heavy, which is operated by Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture United Launch Alliance. It’s designed to meet NASA human rating standards.

53 metric tons is more than the maximum take-off weight of a fully-loaded Boeing 737-200 with 136 passengers.

“Falcon Heavy will carry more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program,” says CEO and chief rocket designer Elon Musk.

“Falcon Heavy will arrive at our Vandenberg, California, launch complex by the end of next year, with liftoff to follow soon thereafter. First launch from our Cape Canaveral launch complex is planned for late 2013 or 2014.”

Falcon Heavy’s first stage will be made up of three nine-engine cores, which are used as the first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle. It will be powered by SpaceX’s upgraded Merlin engines, and will generate 3.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

It will be the first rocket in history to carry out propellant cross-feed from the side boosters to the center core, thus leaving the center core with most of its propellant after the side boosters separate.

The net effect, says SpaceX, is that it achieves performance comparable to a three stage rocket, even though only the upper stage is airlit, improving both payload performance and reliability.

At around $1,000 per pound to orbit, SpaceX says the rocket is the cheapest ever. The company’s ofering it for $80 to $125 million per launch, well within Air Force budgets.