SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful vehicle flying today, just passed a key milestone by launching its first-ever mission for a paying customer.
The rocket took off Thursday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida just after 6 pm ET. It delivered a pricey communications satellite into orbit for Saudi Arabia-based firm Arabsat.
For the first time ever, all three Falcon Heavy rocket boosters returned to Earth after launch: The two side boosters landed simultaneously on ground pads in Florida, while the center core landed on a remote-controlled platform in the ocean a short time later.
Reusable hardware is part of Falcon Heavy's appeal. The boosters are guided back to Earth so they can be refurbished and used again, which SpaceX says drastically reduces the cost of spaceflight.
During Falcon Heavy's widely watched debut flight in February 2018, only the two side boosters were recovered.
Why Falcon Heavy matters
This rocket is by far the most powerful operational launch vehicle in the world. And with a sticker price of $90 million, it is also about a third of the price of its closest competitor, United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy .
Introducing a new ultra-powerful rocket has allowed SpaceX to compete directly with arch rival United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for lucrative government contracts that require heavy-lift launch vehicles. The California-based company was founded by Elon Musk in 2002.
Falcon Heavy has already been chosen for a few contracts, including a $130 million contract to launch a US Air Force satellite, which was awarded just four months after its inaugural flight in February 2018.
The rocket is expected to be used primarily for US military missions, and to launch spy satellites and hefty commercial telecom satellites .
The version of the Falcon Heavy that SpaceX flew this week was not the same as what the company used on previous mission: Its rocket cores were more powerful, making use of upgrades to SpaceX's smaller workhorse rocket, the Falcon 9.
Falcon Heavy is not expected to fly nearly as often as its smaller counterpart, which has completed more than 20 missions since last February. Falcon Heavy only has five missions on its manifest so far.
Falcon Heavy's first customer
The satellite SpaceX launched on Wednesday will update satellite coverage for Arabsat, which is based in Riyadh and delivers hundreds of television channels and radio stations to homes across the Middle East, Europe and North Africa.
Lockheed Martin built the satellite, along with a second one, for Arabsat as part of a batch of contracts worth $650 million. When Arabsat announced the contracts in 2015, it said at the time that it planned to launch the Arabsat 6A satellite aboard Falcon Heavy.