New SpaceX jumbo rocket set for debut test launch in company milestone

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - A new SpaceX jumbo rocket in line to become the world's most powerful launch vehicle in operation was set for its highly anticipated debut test flight on Tuesday from Florida, carrying a Tesla Roadster as a mock payload.

Liftoff of the 23-story-tall Falcon Heavy was slated for as early as 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT) at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral in what would be a key turning point for Silicon Valley billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's privately owned Space Exploration Technologies.

Getting the rocket off the ground would likely give California-based SpaceX a new edge on the handful of commercial rocket companies vying for lucrative contracts with NASA, satellite companies and the U.S. military.

Propelled by 27 rocket engines, the Falcon Heavy packs more than 5 million pounds of thrust at launch, roughly three times the force of the Falcon 9 booster that until now has been the workhorse of the SpaceX fleet.

The new heavy-lift rocket is essentially constructed from three Falcon 9s harnessed together side-by-side, and Musk has said that one of the most critical points of the flight will come as the two side boosters separate from the central rocket in the first few minutes after blastoff.

"It's going to be an exciting success or an exciting failure," Musk said on a conference call on Monday.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 19, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Brown
SOLVANG, CA - DECEMBER 22: The contrail from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched at Vandenberg Air Force Base lights up the early evening sky on December 22, 2017, as viewed from Solvang, California. The spectacular event, seen by millions of people throughout parts of Arizona and Central and Southern California, was the result of setting sun light hitting the contrail left behind as ten communication satellites were placed into orbit by the private space company. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
SOLVANG, CA - DECEMBER 22: The contrail from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched at Vandenberg Air Force Base lights up the early evening sky on December 22, 2017, as viewed from Solvang, California. The spectacular event, seen by millions of people throughout parts of Arizona and Central and Southern California, was the result of setting sun light hitting the contrail left behind as ten communication satellites were placed into orbit by the private space company. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
SOLVANG, CA - DECEMBER 22: The contrail from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched at Vandenberg Air Force Base lights up the early evening sky on December 22, 2017, as viewed from Solvang, California. The spectacular event, seen by millions of people throughout parts of Arizona and Central and Southern California, was the result of setting sun light hitting the contrail left behind as ten communication satellites were placed into orbit by the private space company. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Billionaire entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX Elon Musk speaks in below a computer generated illustration of his new rocket at the 68th International Astronautical Congress 2017 in Adelaide on September 29, 2017. Musk said his company SpaceX has begun serious work on the BFR Rocket as he plans an Interplanetary Transport System. / AFP PHOTO / PETER PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket prepares to launch from the Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California on December 22, 2017. SpaceX blasted off a re-used Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 satellites into orbit, its fourth launch toward a $3 billion upgrade to Virginia-based Iridium's mobile, voice and data network. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket (in lower center, in a horizontal position), is readied for launch on a supply mission to the International Space Station on historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 17, 2017. Launch is scheduled for February 18. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, in a horizontal position, is readied for launch on a supply mission to the International Space Station on historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 17, 2017. The launch is scheduled for February 18. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Ellon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX sits in a pod displayed in a booth during the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Monica Almeida
Team members from WARR Hyderloop, Technical University of Munich place their pod on the track during the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Monica Almeida
The recovered first stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is transported to the SpaceX hangar at launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida May 14, 2016. The vehicle was launched on May 6 and returned to land a short time later aboard a barge in the Atlantic Ocean. REUTERS/Joe Skipper TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Recovered first stages of three SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket are shown during a photo opportunity in the SpaceX hangar at launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida May 14, 2016. The stages are in the process of refurbishing for launching again. REUTERS/Joe Skipper TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule approaches the International Space Station prior to installation in this NASA picture taken April 10, 2016. REUTERS/NASA via social media/Handout via Reuters THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks after unveiling the Dragon V2 spacecraft in Hawthorne, California May 29, 2014. Space Exploration Technologies announced April 27, 2016, it will send uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018, a first step in company founder Elon Musk's goal to fly people to another planet. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo
The first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket returns to land in a time exposure at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, on the launcher's first mission since a June failure, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, December 21, 2015. The rocket carried a payload of eleven satellites owned by Orbcomm, a New Jersey-based communications company. REUTERS/Joe Skipper TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The unmanned SpaceX Crew Dragon lands after lifting off from launch pad 40 during a Pad Abort Test at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida May 6, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Audette
The unmanned SpaceX Crew Dragon lifts off from launch pad 40 during a Pad Abort Test at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida May 6, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Audette
The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket, launched by SpaceX and carrying NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory Satellite, lifts off from launch pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida February 11, 2015. The rocket blasted off on Wednesday to put the U.S. satellite into deep space, where it will keep tabs on solar storms and image Earth from nearly 1 million miles (1.6 million km) away. REUTERS/Scott Audette (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT ENVIRONMENT)
The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX on a cargo resupply service mission to the International Space Station lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, January 10, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Audette (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT)
SpaceX workers examine the unmanned Falcon 9 rocket carrying NOAA's (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Deep Space Climate Observatory Satellite as it lays horizontally on launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida February 9, 2015. Launch of the SpaceX rocket with a U.S. weather satellite bound for deep space was called off minutes before liftoff on Sunday due to a technical problem, officials said. Launch had been targeted for 6:10 p.m. EST (2310 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But about 2.5 minutes before liftoff, a problem cropped up with an Air Force radar system needed to track the rocket in flight. REUTERS/Scott Audette (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT)
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk poses by the Dragon V2 spacecraft after it was unveiled in Hawthorne, California May 29, 2014. Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, on Thursday unveiled an upgraded passenger version of the Dragon cargo ship NASA buys for resupply runs to the International Space Station. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS TRANSPORT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY SOCIETY)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen at the launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in this NASA handout picture released January 9, 2015. SpaceX plans to launch the rocket on Saturday, then attempt to land the discarded booster on a platform in the ocean, according to officials. REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES)
A SpaceX upgraded Falcon 9 rocket undergoes launch preparations at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California September 27, 2013. Privately owned Space Exploration Technologies plans to test an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday from a site in California as part of its push into the satellite launch market. Perched on top of the 22-story, beefed-up Falcon 9 will be Canada?s Cassiope science satellite. Liftoff is targeted for 9 a.m. PDT (1600 GMT). ?This is essentially a development flight for the rocket,? company founder and chief executive Elon Musk told Reuters. REUTERS/Gene Blevins (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS)
The SpaceX Dragon capsule is captured by the crew of the International Space Station using its robotic arm in this screen capture from NASA handout video released March 3, 2013. The ISS successfully captured the capsule at 0531 EST approximately 253 statute miles over the northern Ukraine. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (OUTER SPACE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT) THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (L), and SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk view the historic Dragon capsule that returned to Earth on May 31 following the first successful mission by a private company to carry supplies to the International Space Station at the SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas, June 13, 2012. Bolden and Musk also thanked the more than 150 SpaceX employees working at the McGregor facility for their role in the historic mission. REUTERS/Bill Ingalls/NASA (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
This photo provided by NASA shows a "fisheye" view of the inside of the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft and was photographed by an Expedition 31 crew member aboard the International Space Station on May 26, 2012. Dragon became the first commercially developed space vehicle to be launched to the station to join Russian, European and Japanese resupply craft that service the complex while restoring a U.S. capability to deliver cargo to the orbital laboratory. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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Going along for the ride in a bit of playful cross-promotional space theater will be a cherry red, electric-powered sports car from the assembly line of Musk's other transportation enterprise, Tesla Inc <TSLA.O>.

The sleek Tesla Roadster is supposed to be sent into a virtually indefinite solar orbit, on a path taking it as far from Earth as Mars. Adding to the whimsy, SpaceX has planted a space-suited mannequin in the driver's seat of the convertible.

If the demonstration flight succeeds, Falcon Heavy will rank as the world's most powerful existing rocket, with more lift capacity than any U.S. space vehicle since the era of NASA's Saturn 5 rockets that took astronauts to the moon some 45 years ago.

Fittingly perhaps, the SpaceX rocket will depart from the same launch pad used for the Saturn 5 until its final mission in 1973.

Falcon Heavy is designed to place up to 70 tons into standard low-Earth orbit at a cost of $90 million per launch. That is twice the lift capacity of the biggest existing rocket in America's space fleet - the Delta 4 Heavy of rival United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership of Lockheed Martin Corp <LMT.N> and Boeing Co <BA.N> - for about a fourth the cost.

Like the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy is built to capitalize on cost-cutting reusable rocket technology, with each of the three main-stage boosters designed to fly back to Earth after launch.

The two side-boosters are supposed to touch down on landing pads at Cape Canaveral, while the central booster should land on a drone ship at sea.

(Additional reporting by Irene Klotz at Cape Canaveral, Florida; writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, editing by G Crosse)

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