Falcon Heavy lifts off! SpaceX finally launches the world's most powerful rocket again

Falcon Heavy's 27 Merlin engines generated 5 million pounds of thrust for the first time in more than three years.
Chris Young
Falcon Heavy during launch.
Falcon Heavy during launch.

SpaceX / YouTube 

SpaceX has finally launched Falcon Heavy again, more than three years after it last took to the skies.

Falcon Heavy is made up of three modified Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, making it the world's most powerful operational rocket. The mission, called USSF 44, launched two secretive satellites to orbit for the U.S. Space Force. The rocket and payloads took to the skies at 09:41 ET from Pad 39A from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Approximately ten minutes after launch, Falcon Heavy's two side boosters came down for a dramatic side-by-side landing. More than three years later, watching Falcon Heavy's boosters land at the same time is still a breathtaking sight — a marvel of engineering in motion.

Falcon Heavy: The “world’s most powerful operational rocket” flies again

Falcon Heavy is the world's "most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two," SpaceX says on its website. That’s thanks to the fact it uses three Falcon 9 boosters to give it a massive 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. Shortly after launch, two of those boosters descended back to Earth for a tandem landing in what has become an iconic representation of SpaceX’s engineering capabilities.

In its live stream, SpaceX pointed out that the tandem landing constituted the 150th and 151st successful landing of an orbital-class rocket. SpaceX says on its website it was the first launch and landing of these specific boosters and that they "will be prepared for re-flight on a future U.S. Space Force mission later this year." The central booster will not be reused, however, as it performed a planned reentry and fell into the ocean.

The entire launch can be viewed in the SpaceX YouTube video embedded below. This particular launch stream was shorter than usual as the U.S. Space Force requested SpaceX not share footage of its classified payload online. The footage shared shows the leadup to launch, the launch itself, and the booster landings.

Little concrete information is known about the satellites the USSF 44 mission sent to orbit, other than the fact that they will be launched to a high-altitude geosynchronous orbit. This means they will orbit at the same speed as Earth and cover a set region of space. One of the satellites is a microsatellite called TETRA 1, built by Millennium Space Systems, a subsidiary of Boeing. The name of the other satellite has not been disclosed.

Falcon Heavy's fourth successful launch

Unlike SpaceX's workhorse Falcon 9 rocket — which will break a record for most successive flights in a year every time it flies between now and January — Falcon Heavy had only flown a total of three times before today's launch.

USSF 44 is the first Falcon Heavy launch since June 2019, due largely to payload delays that were likely exacerbated by the pandemic. The massive launch system's first-ever flight took place in February 2018, and it famously launched Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster and a mannequin wearing a spacesuit called Starman to space. Just eight minutes after that historic launch, SpaceX landed two boosters simultaneously for the first time at adjacent landing pads at Cape Canaveral.

Last week, SpaceX shared an impressive image on Twitter of Falcon Heavy's 27 Merlin engines in the hangar at Launch Complex 39A. SpaceX is, of course, also building its new, fully reusable Mars-bound Starship launch vehicle. All going to plan for SpaceX, Starship will eventually strip Falcon Heavy of its title as the world's most powerful operational rocket. Starship is expected to generate a mind-blowing 17 million pounds of thrust thanks to 33 next-generation Raptor engines.

Just this week, a U.S. official reportedly stated the next-generation Starship rocket might reach orbit for the first time in December. That will be a test flight, though, meaning Falcon Heavy will retain its title for a while yet.

This was a live news piece and it was updated as more information emerged.

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