SpaceX is moving closer to launching its biggest rocket ever.
Elon Musk's company has said throughout 2017 that this would be the year it launches the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket it's built to date. With only a month to go, the firm has conceded that won't happen, according to Aviation Week, which first reported the news.
SpaceX told Engadget that it's on track to launch the rocket within the first few weeks of 2018. And it plans to run a test of the rocket's 27 Merlin engines before the end of this year, firing them all simultaneously for the first time.
The 27 engines that power the Falcon Heavy represent a threefold increase over the Falcon 9, the rocket that SpaceX has been using for launches in recent years. As of now, the Falcon 9 is the most powerful rocket the company has launched.
When Musk first unveiled his plans for the Heavy in 2011, he projected the first test flight to take place in 2013. In typical Musk fashion, that deadline proved far too ambitious.
The Falcon Heavy will produce five million pounds of thrust at liftoff, or the equivalent of about 18 747s. It would be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V, used to send astronauts to the moon during the Apollo missions.
SpaceX says it will be capable of launching twice the payload of the second most capable rocket any company currently has in operation, the United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy (built through a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing). SpaceX says its rocket will also operate at one-third the cost of the Delta, thanks in large part to much of the technology being reusable. The company estimates the cost of a Heavy launch at $90 million.
Musk has said that the rocket will eventually be used to carry humans to the moon and Mars. SpaceX has yet to send any humans into space.
First, though, the Heavy will likely carry heavy satellites and unmanned spacecraft. The company currently has four launches of the Heavy on its manifest, including two launches in partnership with satellite companies and one with the U.S. Air Force.
Eventually, Musk says, he plans to build the BFR (short for "big f*cking rocket"), which would be capable of carrying around 100 passengers at a time for the purpose of building a permanent civilization on Mars. That rocket, as described by the entrepreneur, would be the most powerful ever built.
Musk has blamed the Falcon Heavy's delays on the development process being "way, way more difficult" than SpaceX expected. At the International Space Station R&D conference in July, he tempered expectations for the rocket's first launch. "There's a real good chance that it does not make it to orbit," he said. "I hope it gets far enough away from the launch pad that it does not cause pad damage--I would consider that a win."