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What the SpaceX launch might mean for exploration

Falcon Heavy launch
Photo: SpaceX / Flickr

In the afterglow of SpaceX's successful Falcon Heavy launch on Tuesday, Elon Musk told reporters the reusable rocket could "launch things direct to Pluto and beyond; no stop needed. You don't even need a gravity assist."

Why that matters: Interplanetary spacecraft often rely on the gravitational forces of planets to reach their targets — because that method takes less fuel and a smaller rocket. Cassini was boosted to Saturn by Venus, Earth and Jupiter, for example. If the Falcon Heavy and any successors can provide a direct route to the outer solar system, it would save time (and money) and could therefore mean more missions.

Some potential targets: Right now, scientists have their sights on comets, the Saturn moons Titan and Enceladus, and Jupiter's Europa.

Yes, but: This launch was about demonstrating the rocket could carry a heavy payload (for example, a satellite for national security reconnaissance) to space, coast with it for hours and then restart its engine in order to place the cargo in its final orbit, Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics tells Axios. "That was the main point." A deep space mission, on the other hand, could require a different fuel type or optimizing other parameters.

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