It's been three years, but SpaceX's Falcon Heavy might finally launch again this month
It's been a while since SpaceX launched Falcon Heavy to orbit.
A string of payload delays has stopped the heavy-duty rocket from hitting the launch pad since the summer of 2019.
Now though, as per a report from SpaceFlightNow, a military spokesperson has announced Falcon Heavy may finally fly again as soon as October 28 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The 28-engine rocket, SpaceX's most powerful operational launch system, will lift a delayed national security mission for the U.S. Space Force.
SpaceX's Falcon Heavy will finally fly again
The upcoming Falcon Heavy mission, codenamed USSF-44, will come hot on the heels of SpaceX and NASA's Crew-5 astronaut mission, which launched a Russian astronaut as well as the first native American astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS).
USSF-44 is expected to launch from Launch Complex 39A, and SpaceX team members will prepare the launch pad ahead of the mission. Unlike Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy uses three Falcon boosters, instead of one, in order to triple the total thrust and lift heavier payloads into orbit. The exact launch time has not been released yet.
It will be SpaceX's fourth launch of Falcon Heavy and its first time using the launch system since June 2019. The reason Falcon Heavy hasn't flown for so long is largely due to payload delays as well as the logistical complexity of these missions compared with SpaceX's Falcon 9 missions, which typically launch smaller satellites, payloads, and crew.
The USSF-44 mission, for example, was originally meant to launch near the end of 2020, but it has been delayed by issues with the U.S. Space Force payload set to launch aboard Falcon Heavy. The Space Force has revealed very little information about the payload of USSF-44.
The U.S. Space Force's mystery payload
We do know, though, that USSF-44 will launch a microsatellite called TETRA 1, built by Millennium Space Systems, a subsidiary of Boeing. As per SpaceFlightNow, Space Force officials said that the satellite is designed to "prototype missions and tactics, techniques and procedures in and around geosynchronous Earth orbit." Aside from that, the U.S. Space Force originally also announced it will launch another spacecraft on USSF-44, though its use and specifications remain classified.
It is worth noting that original documents show the combined mass of the Space Force's payload would be roughly 8,200 pounds or about 3.7 metric tons. The TETRA 1 satellite would likely only be a small fraction of that total weight.
Falcon Heavy will deliver the mysterious payload to a high-altitude geosynchronous orbit — an orbit that allows a satellite to match Earth's rotation — roughly 22,000 miles (35,405 km) above the equator. The launch system's upper stage will perform several burns to reach that altitude, and it will be one of SpaceX's most technically challenging launches to date.
Falcon Heavy versus Starship
With roughly 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, Falcon Heavy is the world's most powerful operational rocket system. SpaceX is also, of course, working on getting its fully reusable Starship rocket into orbit.
If Starship delivers on its promise, it will generate approximately 17 million pounds of thrust. The rocket, which will also act as a lunar lander for NASA's upcoming Artemis III mission, has undergone a number of static fire engine tests in recent months ahead of launch.
CEO Elon Musk recently announced on Twitter that the much-hyped Mars-bound launch system could finally perform its maiden orbital flight in November. Either way, it's a year full of milestones for SpaceX, as the private space firm breaks its own record for most launches in a year with every consecutive launch.