Falcon Heavy rocket on the launch pad for one of SpaceX’s most complex missions – Spaceflight Now

Falcon Heavy rocket on the launch pad for one of SpaceX’s most complex missions – Spaceflight Now

The 27 Merlin engines on the Falcon Heavy’s three first stage boosters. Credit: SpaceX

The first Falcon Heavy rocket flight since 2019 is scheduled for Tuesday to kick off SpaceX’s longest launch mission to date, a roughly six-hour climb into geosynchronous orbit more than 20,000 miles above the equator with a bundle of payloads for the US Space force. The powerful rocket’s two reusable side boosters return to Cape Canaveral for landing.

The mission’s high-altitude target orbit means that the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage will have to fly through the Van Allen radiation belts for about six hours before restarting its engine and deploying the Space Force’s satellites.

The protracted mission required SpaceX to make some changes to the Falcon Heavy rocket. The most visible change is the addition of gray paint to the outside of the upper stage’s kerosene fuel tank, which will keep the fuel from freezing if the rocket spends hours in the cold environment of space.

The launch, which the Space Force has designated USSF-44, marks the fourth flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket currently flying. But it is the first Falcon Heavy mission since June 25, 2019, after a series of delays experienced by SpaceX customers.

The USSF-44 mission has been delayed about two years from its original late 2020 schedule. The Space Force blames the delay on satellite-related issues.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket rolls up the ramp to pad 39A on Monday. Credit: SpaceX

The launch will be the first fully operational national security mission to fly on SpaceX’s heavy-lifter. The Falcon Heavy’s most recent launch in June 2019 carried 24 experimental satellites for the military and NASA on the Space Test Program-2, or STP-2, mission. The STP-2 mission was announced as a demonstration flight of the missile for future launches with more critical national security payloads.

“We’ve been working side-by-side with SpaceX to ensure that the Falcon Heavy meets all of our requirements and has a successful launch,” said Walt Lauderdale, the Space Force’s mission director for the USSF-44 launch. “This will be the first Falcon Heavy launch in more than three years and we are excited to get these payloads into space. This launch is an important milestone and continues a robust partnership that strengthens a capacity that will serve the nation for years to come.”

“This launch is the culmination of years of effort by a dedicated team of mission-oriented individuals from the US Space Force and SpaceX. The Falcon Heavy is an important part of our overall lift capability and we are very excited to be ready for launch,” said Brig. Gene. Stephen Purdy, Space Force Program Director for Guaranteed Access to Space.

The Space Force has released little information about the satellites being launched on the Falcon Heavy rocket.

There are two charges stacked on top of each other in the Falcon Heavy’s nose cone. One is called the Shepherd Demonstration, and the other is the Space Force’s second Long Duration Propulsive ESPA, or LDPE 2, spacecraft, which itself houses six payloads – three that will remain attached to the spacecraft and three that will be deployed from LPDE 2 to perform their duties. own missions.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket rolls toward the launch pad for the USSF-44 mission Monday. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

The fully assembled Falcon Heavy rocket rolled into launch complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Monday afternoon, on a transporter the quarter mile from the hangar to the launch pad. SpaceX teams planned to bring the Falcon Heavy vertically onto pad 39A overnight in preparation for launch Tuesday during a 30-minute window opening at 9:41 a.m. EDT (1341 GMT).

Forecasters predict a 90% chance of good weather for Tuesday’s launch, with light winds and scattered clouds. “The main weather concern will be a rogue Atlantic rainstorm or a reinforced cumulus cloud sweeping along the coast,” the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron wrote in a forecast released Monday.

After the Falcon Heavy’s three first stage boosters are supplied with kerosene and liquid oxygen, they ignite and throttle their 27 main engines to produce 5.1 million pounds of thrust, roughly twice the power of any other operational rocket in the world. . The rocket will fly due east from the launch site, arcing over the Atlantic Ocean before launching the two side-mounted boosters two and a half minutes into the flight.

The side boosters will pulse their cold gas thrusters and re-ignite three engines each to reverse course and begin returning to the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to land in SpaceX’s two recovery zones, about 15 kilometers south. from path 39A. The boosters will aim for near-simultaneous vertical landings less than 10 minutes after takeoff.

The nuclear stage, which turns its engines back for the first stage of flight, will fire longer before being jettisoned to fall into the Atlantic Ocean. It will not be recovered during the USSF-44 mission. An upper stage motor completes the task of placing the USSF-44 payloads in geosynchronous orbit around the equator, some 36,000 kilometers above Earth.

The Space Force’s patch for the USSF-44 mission. Credit. US space force

The rocket will launch the LDPE 2 and Shepherd Demonstration satellites into orbit to complete Falcon Heavy’s launch sequence. The satellites will orbit in the same orbit with Earth’s rotation, a feature that makes geosynchronous orbit a popular location for military communications, early warning and reconnaissance satellites.

Most satellites going into geosynchronous orbit are deposited into ovoid orbit by their launch vehicle. That requires the spacecraft to use its own propulsion resources to orbit at operational height above the equator.

Some launches put their satellites directly into geosynchronous orbit. The Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, built by United Launch Alliance, a rival to SpaceX in the US launch industry, have previously achieved this feat. But Tuesday’s launch will be SpaceX’s first attempt at placing payloads directly into geosynchronous orbit.

SpaceX tested its long shore capability on previous flights, including the Falcon Heavy launch on the STP-2 mission in 2019, which took three and a half hours from launch to the final combustion of the upper stage engine. In December 2019, SpaceX conducted a lengthy six-hour coastal experiment on the upper stage of a Falcon 9 rocket after launching a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

The Shepherd Demonstration satellite on the USSF-44 mission “hosts payloads that mature technologies and accelerate risk mitigation efforts to inform record programs,” the Space Force said. A military spokesman said the Shepherd Demonstration satellite carries multiple Space Force payloads and is based on an “ESPA ring,” a circular structure with mounting ports for experiments and instruments.

The Space Force spokesperson declined to provide additional details about the Shepherd Demonstration mission in response to questions from Spaceflight Now.

The LDPE 2 spacecraft was built by Northrop Grumman and is similar to the LDPE 1 satellite launched on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket in December 2021. LDPE 2 houses six payloads on perimeter ports, apparently similar to the design of the Shepherd Demonstration spacecraft, and has its own propulsion system for maneuvering in space. The spacecraft is capable of launching small satellites into orbit, and a Space Force spokesperson confirmed to Spaceflight Now that three of the LDPE 2 payloads will be separated as free flyers in geosynchronous orbit.

One of the small “subsatellites” running on LDPE 2 is believed to be Tetra 1, a small microsatellite built by Millennium Space Systems, a subsidiary of Boeing. Military officials said in a 2020 statement that the Tetra 1 satellite was assigned to launch on the USSF-44 mission, and is designed to “create prototypes and tactics, techniques and procedures in and around geosynchronous orbit.” “.

The US Space Force’s Tetra 1 satellite. Credit: Millennium Space Systems/Boeing

The LDPE 2 guest spacecraft could also carry two Lockheed Martin CubeSats on a demonstration mission to test maneuvering and navigation capabilities for future small satellites in geosynchronous orbit. The two LINUSS smallsats — short for Lockheed Martin In-space Upgrade Satellite System — were assigned to fly the USSF-44 mission beginning in early 2021, according to a report. assessment report orbital debris published on the Federal Communications Commission website.

The LINUSS A1 and A2 satellites, owned by Lockheed Martin and built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, are designed to separate from the LDPE 2 spacecraft approximately two months after launch and then perform maneuvers using their miniature propulsion systems . After reaching a distance of several hundred miles from each other, one of the satellites will approach its companion to a range of only 160 feet (about 50 meters).

The demonstrations will test capabilities that could be used in future satellite maintenance missions, or on inspector spacecraft that could approach other objects in orbit. the LINUSS mission will also demonstrate high-performance onboard image processing, smallsat propulsion, inertial measurement units, machine vision, 3D-printed components and reconfigurable flight software, Lockheed Martin said. The company said it developed the LINUSS mission using internal funding.

The LINUSS CubeSats are approximately 8 inches by 8 inches by 12 inches and weigh approximately 47 pounds (21.5 kilograms) at launch.

Spaceflight Now asked the Space Force last week whether the Tetra 1 spacecraft and the two LINUSS satellites will remain on the USSF-44 mission and whether they will be responsible for the three payloads that will separate from the LDPE 2 spacecraft. A Space Force spokesman declined to confirm whether the three satellites are still assigned to the USSF-44 launch.

Artist’s concept of the LINUSS A1 and A2 satellites in orbit. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The Space Force says the LDPE program will enable the military to more affordably send small and secondary payloads into geosynchronous orbit, turning the “spindle of the service to new, more resilient space architectures.” accelerated.

“This capability has broad potential to fill gaps in our space system architecture and provide useful services to our mission partners with frequent and low-cost orbit access,” said Brig. Gene. Tim Sejba, program director of the space system command for space domain awareness and combat power.

“LDPE 2 houses a variety of payloads that advance the technology in communications and space weather detection,” said a Space Force spokesperson.

The next military mission to fly a Falcon Heavy rocket, dubbed USSF-67, will launch the LDPE 3 spacecraft and a Space Force communications satellite simultaneously. That launch is scheduled for January and will use the same Falcon Heavy side boosters flown on the USSF-44 mission, assuming a successful recovery at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station landing zones, the Space Force said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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