This is an odd story, not so much for the story itself (which has its own oddities), as for who's reporting it and how it's being reported. Mr. G. shared this article, and as I said, it's unusual for who's reporting it:
Now, obviously, this launch was also reported in the western media, so it's not surprising that the Chinese news agency would do so. And the reporting, as a reading of the article evidences, is straightforward and perhaps even rather bland. Nothing to see here. Move along.
As one might imagine, when state-sponsored Communist news agencies like Xinhua blandly report on private corporate space launches of Mars probes by Elon Musk, I sit up and take notice. After all, they sat up and took notice and took the time to report on it. (Did I mention that they did so blandly?)
Before we resort to some of that breathtaking blandness, there's a context to be considered. Mr. Musk himself, of course, is hardly a stupid man and certainly not a wilting flower. It takes chutzpah to launch a private space company based on the concept of reusable boosters. The more immediate context of this launch is that it follows the allegedly failed recent launch of the Zuma satellite, purportedly a spy satellite which failed to achieve orbit.
Or so we're told. But recent years have seen a strange succession of probes and satellites that were presumed lost that - lo and behold! - suddenly turn up again. In the case of the Zuma satellite, it hardly needs to be said that Mr. Musk is in business to have all his contracted launches fail. Apparently, however, Mr. Musk was worried that his latest launch, ostensibly of one of his Tesla cars, for the purposes of putting it in permanent Mars orbit, might fail, as the Xinhua article points out:
The tech billionaire has repeatedly played down expectations for the launch, saying that the mission might end in explosion.
"This is a test mission as I said there's so much that can go wrong, so we don't want to set expectations of perfection," he said.
"I would consider it a win if it just clears the pad and doesn't blow the pad to smithereens."
Musk admitted that there's a chance that the rocket's second stage might not make it out of low-Earth orbit.
That's because it will "coast" for six hours through the Van Allen radiation belt, where it may "get whacked pretty hard," he said.
Then there's a bit of bland reporting about the basic nature of the Falcon boosters:
The Falcon Heavy is essentially three of the company's Falcon 9 rockets bolted together.
With a total of 27 Merlin engines, it's capable of generating "more than 5 million pounds (2.3 million kg) of thrust at liftoff, equal to about eighteen 747 aircraft," according to SpaceX.
Only the Saturn V moon rocket, last flown in 1973, delivered more payload to orbit.
The rocket will be able to lift 64 tons into orbit, doubling the lift capacity of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, at one-third the cost, the company said.
Jason Davis of the Planetary Society hailed the demo flight as "a huge deal, even for a spaceflight company that routinely accomplishes huge deals."
"An operational Falcon Heavy will make SpaceX the proud owner of the most powerful rocket system since the Saturn V, and opens up yet another corner of the launch industry to serious competition," he wrote in a blog article.
I thought, "OK, the idea of bundling a bunch of smaller rockets together to create one massive payload lifter isn't new." Sergei Korolev did it and to this day Russian rockets retain their distinctive "bundle rocket" appearance. The idea came, ultimately, from World War Two and German proposals to create precisely such a large booster by bundling V2s together. The idea was pursued in the 1980s by the private German company O.T.R.A.G. (Orbital Transport und Raketen Aktiensgesellschaft) at their private Area 51-like compound in the Congo. (For tidbit lovers, NASA Paperclip scientist Dr. Kurt Debus ended up after his retirement on the board of O.T.R.A.G.) The concept has an interesting history, but it's hardly newsworthy.
Possessing the first fully privately funded large rocket, the largest since the Saturn V, is newsworthy, but it raises as many questions as it answers; Musk is not stupid; he knows that the future of long term space exploration simply does not lie on the path of chemical rockets.
But then there's the question of the payload itself, and it's here that things enter "high octane speculation" territory, big time. On the second and third pages of the Xinhua article, there are nice photographs of the booster launching, with a caption that positively strikes me as being almost too-bland-for-words, a sort of "nod nod wink wink tongue-planted-firmly-in-the-cheek" statement:
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, the United States, Feb. 6, 2018. The Falcon Heavy blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center in the U.S. State of Florida at 3:45 p.m. EST (2145 GMT), carrying something just for fun: a red Tesla Roadster belonging to SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk. (Xinhua/NASA) (Emphasis added).
Yes, millions of dollars were spent on "something just for fun," and that something was a "proof of concept" flight to put a Tesla roadster in orbit around Mars:
Eventually, the rocket's second stage will try to place the Roadster, playing David Bowie's Space Oddity, into a Mars-adjacent orbit.
"We estimate it'll be in that orbit for several hundred million years, maybe even in excess of a billion years," Musk told reporters during a media call.
Gee, how fun. David Bowie playing on the roadster's sound system as it orbits Mars. See? We can place things like cars in orbit around Mars. Fun for all, come one come all, we're open for business. Want to place your favorite rock song in orbit around Mars? We can do it.
Color me skeptical here: if one is going to spend millions of dollars for a proof of concept flight, then why not pack that roadster full of "extras" that don't normally, and will never normally, appear on the options sticker at an automobile dealership, say things like, oh, maybe a little radar tomography equipment, some nifty high resolution cameras, and so on? In fact, we already know that some "non-standard" equipment has to be on that "roadster" if in fact Space X is ever to learn that its "roadster" has successfully been placed in Mars orbit. In short, Xinhua seems to be saying, in its bland tongue-in-cheek way, that "we're not buying the explanation for a moment, and will be watching closely." Frankly, if that is the case, then I agree with the Chinese:
I'm not buying the narrative for a moment.
Which brings us to the next point of consideration in our high octane speculation of the day. What, then, might be going on? As I've averred in previous articles on this website, if one wants to conduct secretive planetary explorations without public scrutiny, the easiest way to do so from a variety of standpoints including that of law, would be to do so via private corporations: anything discovered can then become proprietary. And if one is an intelligent individual, as Mr. Musk most certainly is, Mars would be the place to go. Why? Consider all the accumulated years' and even decades' evidence that Mars might be full of artificial structures, and even a considerable body of evidence that its surface is littered with debris that suggests artificial and intelligent origins, "rocks" that look uncomfortably like parts of machines with rectilinear features that natural geophysical processes are difficult to explain, and even in a few instances, things that look uncomfortably like fossils. This whole line of inquiry has, as most readers of this site are aware, spawned a long debate and allegations of coverups and suppression of data by NASA, ever since the Viking probe snapped its now famous two pictures of the "Face on Mars" at Cydonia. It stretches the imagination too far to assume Mr. Musk is unaware of these debates.
So I strongly suspect that this mission is not "just for fun," but rather a case of "let's see for ourselves," and that that "roadster" is packed as full as it can be with the equipment able to make a first pass prima facie assessment. And I've no doubt that there's probably a much more sophisticated Mars satellite, and probably a lander or two, waiting in the wings for "follow up studies."
See you on the flip side...