SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the World’s Most Powerful Rocket, Launches

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the World’s Most Powerful Rocket, Launches

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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy — a towering, three-tier vehicle that is the world’s most powerful operational rocket — returned to the sky on Tuesday for the first time since mid-2019.

The rocket launched at 9:41 a.m. ET from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which carries satellites to space for the United States military in a secret mission called USSF-44.

The Falcon Heavy debuted to much fanfare in 2018 as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk chosen to launch his personal Tesla Roadster as a test charge at launch. The car is still in spacefollow an elongated path around the sun that swings out to the orbital path of Mars.

Since that first test mission, SpaceX has launched just two other Falcon Heavy missions, both in 2019. One sent a hulking TV and phone service satellite orbiting Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat, and the other provided a series of experimental satellites for the US Department of Defense.

But the rocket hadn’t launched since 2019, as the vast majority of SpaceX’s missions don’t require the Falcon Heavy’s boosted power. SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, on the other hand, has launched nearly 50 missions this year alone.

With each Falcon Heavy launch, the rocket returns a dramatic display to Earth.

After Tuesday’s mission, the company only attempted to restore two of the Falcon Heavy rocket’s first stage rocket boosters — the tall white sticks tied together to give the rocket its increased power on takeoff.

As planned, the middle booster had to dive into the ocean, where it will remain, as it didn’t have enough leftover fuel to accompany its journey home, according to one press release of the US Army’s Space Systems Command.

However, the two side boosters made their signature synchronized landing on ground pads near the Florida coast.

In the past, SpaceX has attempted to return all three of the rocket’s boosters to landing pads on land and sea so that they can be refurbished and reused on future missions. It does this to reduce mission costs. The company has not yet managed to get all three back, although it has come dramatically close. The two side boosters made a precise, synchronized landing on ground pads after an April 2019 mission, and the rocket’s center booster landed on a seafaring platform. But then, rough waves at sea have knocked it over.

Although the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world, there are two huge rockets waiting in the wings to claim that title.

NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket, currently slated to be inaugural launch later in November to pilot the unmanned Artemis 1 mission around the moon sits in the Kennedy Space Center’s towering Vehicle Assembly Building, which is just miles from the launch pad where the Falcon Heavy will fly.

While the Falcon Heavy releases about five million pounds of thrust, SLS is expected to delay as much as 8.8 million pounds of thrust – 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets that propelled the moon landings in the mid-20th century.

And just over the Gulf Coast, at SpaceX’s experimental facilities in South Texas, the company is in the final stages of preparing the first orbital launch attempt of its Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket. Although the test flight is still pending final approval from federal regulators, it could take off before the end of the year.

The Starship system is expected to outperform both SLS and Falcon Heavy by a wide margin. The upcoming Super Heavy booster, which is designed to jump the Starship spacecraft into space, is expected to slow down 17 million pounds of thrust alone.

Both SpaceX’s SLS rocket and spacecraft are an integral part of NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the surface of the moon for the first time in half a century.

SpaceX also has its own ambitious vision for the spaceship: transporting people and cargo to Mars in hopes of one day establishing a permanent human settlement there.

There is not much publicly available information about the USSF-44 mission. In a press release, the US Army’s Space Systems Command said only that the launch will put multiple satellites into orbit on behalf of the Space Systems Command’s Innovation and Prototyping Delta, which is focused on rapidly developing space technology related to tracking objects in space and a range of other activities.

The Space System Command declined to provide additional information about the mission when reached by email. It referred questions to the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, which also declined to comment.

The US military is one of the primary drivers of the domestic rocket economy, handing out lucrative launch contracts coveted by private launch companies, including SpaceX and its main competitor in the areaUnited Launch Alliance, a joint operation between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

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