After a three-year wait, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy can be launched again later this month

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy II rocket takes off from Platform 39A on April 11, 2019, aboard the Arabsat 6A communications satellite. Credit: Walter Scriptonas II / Space Flight Now

More than three years after a SpaceX rocket’s Falcon Heavy entered orbit, the 28-engine launcher is finally ready to be launched again as soon as October 28 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a long-awaited national security mission. for the United States. This was said by a military spokesman for the Space Force.

The mission of the Falcon Heavy rocket, codenamed USSF-44, is expected to be the next launch from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy following the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule carrying a crew of four to the International Space Station on Wednesday. SpaceX ground teams on platform 39A will install the Falcon Heavy board, which has a different configuration than the Falcon 9 with three Falcon thrusters linked together to double the overall thrust of the launcher.

The daytime launch is expected in the morning hours, but the Space Force has not officially released a launch schedule for the USSF-44 mission, the fourth flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, and the first since June 2019.

The long gap between Falcon Heavy launches was caused by payload delays. The launch of the USSF-44 mission was originally scheduled for late 2020, but nearly two years ago due to problems with the Space Force payload intended to fly on the rocket. A military spokesperson told Spaceflight Now that the USSF-44’s payload problems have now been resolved, without providing further details.

The Space Force has released little information on what the Falcon Heavy rocket will bring into orbit on the USSF-44 mission.

One of the payloads designated for launching the USSF-44 mission is a small satellite called TETRA 1. Built by Millennium Space Systems, a Boeing company based in El Segundo, California, the small spacecraft is designed to “prototype missions,” tactics and technologies. ” and procedures in and around geosynchronous orbit, “Space Force officials said.

Military officials have not released further details on the Tetra 1 mission.

The Pentagon’s original procurement statement to potential launch suppliers for the USSF-44 mission indicated that the mission would be launched with two spacecraft. But it happened four years ago, and Space Force hasn’t released any updates on the final number of satellites designated for flight.

In the RFP for the USSF-44 launch, the Air Force told potential launch suppliers to assume the combined mass of the two payloads was less than 8,200 pounds, or about 3.7 tons. TETRA 1 alone will make up a small part of that mass.

The Falcon Heavy is expected to move the satellites of the USSF-44 mission into high-altitude geosynchronous orbit. The rocket’s upper stage will be launched multiple times to place the satellites in positions more than 22,000 miles above the equator. The upper stage flight profile will include a coastline that will last more than five hours between burns, making the USSF-44 mission one of SpaceX’s most challenging launches to date.

On The last Falcon Heavy mission, The rocket’s upper stage completed four burns in a three-and-a-half hour course in an Air Force-sponsored demonstration flight.

Complex orbital maneuvers during the June 2019 mission of the military space test program were required to place 24 satellite payloads in three distinct orbits. They also exercised the capabilities of the Falcon Heavy and the Merlin upper-stage engine before the Army handed the launcher more significant and more expensive national security payloads on future flights.

SpaceX will use three newly produced boosters for the USSF-44 mission. All reinforcements for the USSF-44 mission were delivered to the Florida launch base last year.

According to the Space Force, the hard launch coil will leave no reason to retake the Falcon Heavy center. The main phase will be spent on the USSF-44, while the rocket’s two side boosters will return to near-simultaneous landings in the SpaceX recovery area at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, according to a Space Force Space Systems Command spokesperson.

This is a change from what the Space Force previously said. A military spokesperson said in 2021 that the USSF-44 mission’s Falcon Heavy side boosters will aim for landing on two SpaceX unmanned ships floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

Two reusable rocket boosters land at Cape Canaveral Air Force One following the successful launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on the Arabsat 6A satellite on April 11, 2019.

Tom Ochinero, SpaceX’s vice president of commercial sales, said last month that the company plans six Falcon Heavy missions over the next 12 months, amidst a busy schedule of Falcon 9 missions flying more than once a week on average.

USSF-44, the mission scheduled for launch later this month, is the next Falcon Heavy mission in SpaceX’s schedule. The next-generation broadband satellite or the Space Force USSF-67 mission will likely be the next Falcon Heavy launch after the USSF-44.

Viasat said last week that the first of three Viasat 3 series broadband internet satellites, which have been booked for launch on the Falcon Heavy into geosynchronous orbit, is expected to be launched later this year. But industry sources have said that the first launch of Viasat 3, which has already been delayed due to supply chain problems affecting satellite production and payload, could be delayed until early 2023.

The Space Force said its USSF-67 mission, which the military says it will launch into geosynchronous orbit like USSF-44, is currently scheduled for January. The military has not officially disclosed payloads for the USSF-67 mission, but the USSF-67 launch mission patches indicate that it will carry the second spacecraft of the SATCOM or CBAS program. The first CBAS satellite was launched in 2018, and officials said the satellite was designed to transmit communication signals between senior military commanders and combatant commanders.

Another Space Force satellite delivery mission aboard the Falcon Heavy, codenamed USSF-52, is now scheduled for the second quarter of 2023, between April 1 and June 30.

Other Falcon Heavy missions scheduled to launch in the next 12 months include EchoStar’s heavyweight commercial broadband satellite Jupiter 3 and Hughes Network Systems later in 2023.

NASA’s Psyche asteroid explorer, which was to be launched in August of this year aboard the Falcon Heavy, was blocked due to software testing issues. NASA is reviewing plans to fix software problems and the space agency will decide in the coming weeks whether to attempt to launch the Psyche spacecraft, still on a Falcon Heavy rocket, in the next launch available in July 2023.

Although the Falcon Heavy has not been launched since 2019, SpaceX has continued to win contracts to build the Falcon Heavy missions backlog, which provides greater payload capacity than the Falcon 9 but less than the Starship and upcoming Super Heavy rocket. generation. The Falcon Heavy is powered by 27 Merlin main engines of three interconnected Falcon rocket cores, which generate 5.1 million pounds of takeoff thrust and is 229 feet (70 m) tall and 40 feet (12.2 m) wide.

The upper stage of the Falcon Heavy is mostly identical to the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, with only one Merlin engine.

SpaceX claims the Falcon Heavy is capable of placing a payload of up to 140,000 pounds, or more than 63 tons, in a low-flying orbit. This figure assumes that the Falcon Heavy’s boosters ran out close to running out of fuel and were not recovered.

SpaceX’s latest Falcon Heavy launch contract dates back to July, when NASA awarded the company a $ 255 million deal to launch the Roman Nancy Grace Space Telescope in 2026.

With the Romanian launch contract, SpaceX now has up to 13 Falcon Heavy missile missions. They include the US Space Force USSF-44, USSF-67 and USSF-52 missions scheduled for launch later this year and 2023, the launch of NASA’s Psyche asteroid probe in 2023, the launch of NASA’s Europa Clipper in 2024 to explore Jupiter’s icy moon, the launch of the first two components of the NASA Gateway mini-space station scheduled to orbit the Moon.

NASA has also entered into a contract with SpaceX for the Falcon Heavy to launch NOAA’s GOES-U geostationary weather satellite in 2024 and two commercial refueling missions to the Gateway later in 2020. The contract status for the Gateway logistics missions it is not clear. It was signed in 2020, but NASA has not yet granted SpaceX the authority to go ahead with preparations to begin refueling flights to the Gateway.

SpaceX has won contracts for two Falcon Heavy missions to launch large geostationary Internet communications satellites for Viasat and EchoStar. The Falcon Heavy will launch NASA’s VIPER robotic spacecraft to the moon in late 2024 on a commercial lunar delivery flight operated by Astrobotics.

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