The World’s Most Powerful Rocket Finally Returns After a 3-Year Absence
As early as Tuesday morning, the Falcon Heavy will fly for the first time since June 2019, ending a long period of inactivity for the world’s most powerful, operational missile. Powered by 27 first-stage Merlin engines, the rocket will launch two space technology payloads into orbit for the US Space Force.
Ahead of this highly anticipated launch of the USSF-44, it’s natural to ask why it’s been over 40 months since the missile last flew. And perhaps more importantly, does this suggest that the Falcon Heavy — developed in-house at SpaceX, at the company’s own expense, for half a billion dollars — was a mistake?
But first, some details about the launch, which will take place Tuesday at 9:41 a.m. ET (1:41 p.m.) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Meet me at GEO
This will be SpaceX’s first “direct-to-GEO” mission, meaning the powerful Falcon Heavy rocket will launch its payload directly into geostationary orbit nearly 36,000 km above Earth’s surface. Such charges are typically injected into a transfer orbit and then the propellant on board the spacecraft is used to move the vehicle into a circular geostationary orbit. In this case, however, Falcon Heavy’s first and second stages will do all the work.
Not much is known about the two spacecraft that will be launched on this mission for Space Force. The primary payload is classified. The secondary payload is a small satellite called Tetra-1, a prototype for a type of satellite that the US military hopes one day to fly into geostationary orbit — to do something.
In an emailed press release discussing the launch, Space Force was not particularly helpful with its description of the satellites: “The Long Duration Propulsive EELV Secondary Payload Adapter (LDPE ESPA)-2 and Shepherd Demonstration will support a variety of payloads. that will promote and accelerate the advancement of space technology for the benefit of future Programs of Record.”
Thanks guys, that’s super clear. Maybe next time you could use some more inscrutable acronyms.
What we do know is that this mission requires the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage to operate for much longer than usual, with approximately six hours between the first firing of the Merlin vacuum engine and the last firing. This will be a good test of the upper stage’s ability to perform for an extended period of time.
Why so long?
The long gap between flights has not occurred due to a shortage of Falcon Heavy missiles. Essentially, the Falcon Heavy consists of a core stage that is a modified version of the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket, and two side-mounted boosters that are slightly less modified. There are other structural changes, but in principle SpaceX could produce (and reuse) hardware for about as many Falcon Heavy rockets as the market wants.
It’s just that, well, there hasn’t been an overwhelming desire. To put the question of Falcon Heavy in perspective, in the 40 months since the last heavy launch, SpaceX has flown the Falcon 9 rocket 111 times. That doesn’t mean there’s 100 times the demand for the Falcon 9, but it does suggest that by continuing to improve the performance of the single-core Falcon rocket, SpaceX eroded some of the potential market for Falcon Heavy when it was about was designed for a decade. past.
However, there is still demand. Lately, the problem has been delayed payloads. The USSF-44 mission was originally scheduled for December 2020. Another Space Force mission on the Falcon Heavy, USSF-52, was originally scheduled to fly in October 2021. NASA’s Psyche Asteroid mission was scheduled to fly in September, but was also delayed after the payload wasn’t ready.
In reality, there is reasonable demand for a large rocket like the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX’s current manifesto lists 10 more Falcon Heavy missions between now and the end of 2024. Some of those may be pushed back due to load readiness, but there are customers out there.
The short answer is the government. Including USSF-44, the next 10 most likely missions to fly the Falcon Heavy include five flights for NASA, three for the US Space Force and two primarily for commercial satellite customers.
The US military especially wants to see a proven Falcon Heavy. Although the Falcon 9 missile is powerful, it cannot hit all nine Ministry of Defense missiles reference jobs required for its launch providers to hit. So with the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX has an advantage when it comes to bidding on military launch contracts. The only other operational US missile capable of this is the United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy missile, which will be retired in two years. His replacement, Vulcan, has yet to fly.
SpaceX’s upcoming Starship and Super Heavy booster will, of course, be able to reach all nine orbits. While it’s probably years away from a “stable” configuration required by the government, it’s still on the way. As a result, Falcon Heavy will likely have a limited shelf life, said Todd Harrison, director of Metrea Strategic Insights.
“Once SpaceX’s new Super Heavy is operational and has a proven track record of ensuring national security customers, Falcon Heavy will no longer be needed,” Harrison said. “So I’m guessing its lifespan might be less than five years and probably just a handful of launches in that time. But it’s a beauty to see when it launches, especially when those side boosters return in sync to land.”
Falcon Heavy has also proved popular for some of NASA’s major science missions, including the Psyche spacecraft, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, and the Europa Clipper. NASA awarded the last mission to SpaceX about a year ago, for a 2024 launch. This was a huge validation of the Falcon Heavy rocket, when NASA entrusted a spacecraft that cost about $4 billion to the large rocket.
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