More than three years after a SpaceX rocket’s Falcon Heavy made its way into orbit, the 28-engine launcher is finally set to launch again as soon as October 28 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a much-anticipated national security mission for the United States. A military spokesman for the Space Force said.
The Falcon Heavy rocket mission, codenamed USSF-44, is expected to be the next launch from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy after the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule carrying a crew of four to the International Space Station on Wednesday. SpaceX ground teams on Platform 39A will set up the Falcon Heavy board, which has a different configuration than the Falcon 9 with three Falcon rocket boosters connected together to double the launcher’s overall thrust.
The daylight launch is expected in the morning hours, but the Space Force has not officially released a launch time for the USSF-44 mission, the fourth flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and the first since June 2019.
The long gap between Falcon Heavy launches was caused by payload delays. The USSF-44 mission was originally scheduled to launch in late 2020, but nearly two years ago due to problems with the Space Force payload meant to fly on the rocket. A military spokesperson told Spaceflight Now that the USSF-44 payload issues have now been resolved, without providing additional details.
The Space Force has released little information about what the Falcon Heavy rocket will carry into orbit on the USSF-44 mission.
One of the payloads designated for the USSF-44 mission is a small satellite named TETRA 1. Built by Millennium Space Systems, a Boeing company headquartered in El Segundo, California, the small spacecraft is designed to “prototype missions, tactics, and technologies.” and procedures in and around geosynchronous orbit,” Space Force officials said.
Military officials have not released any additional details about the Tetra 1 mission.
The Pentagon’s original procurement statement to potential launch providers for the USSF-44 mission indicated that the mission would be launched with two spacecraft. But that was four years ago, and the Space Force has not released any updates to the final number of satellites designated for the flight.
In the RFP for the USSF-44 launch, the Air Force told potential launch providers to assume the combined mass of the two payloads to be less than 8,200 pounds, or about 3.7 metric tons. TETRA 1 alone will make up a small portion of that mass.
The Falcon Heavy is expected to move satellites on the USSF-44 mission to high-altitude geosynchronous orbit. The rocket’s upper stage will launch multiple times to position the satellites at positions more than 22,000 miles above the equator. The upper stage flight profile will include a coastline lasting more than five hours between burns, making the USSF-44 mission one of SpaceX’s most demanding launches to date.
On the The latest Falcon Heavy mission, The rocket’s upper stage completed four burns over a three-and-a-half hour course in an Air Force-sponsored demonstration flight.
Complex orbital maneuvers during the June 2019 mission of the Military Space Test Program were required to place 24 satellite payloads into three distinct orbits. They also exercised the capabilities of the Falcon Heavy and the Merlin upper stage engine before the Army entrusted the launcher with more significant and more expensive national security payloads on future flights.
SpaceX will use three newly manufactured boosters for the USSF-44 mission. All reinforcements for the USSF-44 mission were delivered to the launch base in Florida last year.
According to the Space Force, the hard launch coil will leave no motive left to retake the Falcon Heavy center. The primary stage will be spent on USSF-44, while the rocket’s two side boosters will return to near-simultaneous landings in the SpaceX recovery area at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, according to a spokesperson for the Space Force’s Space Systems Command.
This is a change from what the Space Force had previously said. A military spokesperson said in 2021 that the Falcon Heavy side boosters on the USSF-44 mission will target landing on two SpaceX unmanned ships floating in the Atlantic Ocean.
Tom Ochinero, SpaceX’s vice president of commercial sales, said last month that the company plans six Falcon Heavy missions over the next 12 months, among a busy schedule of Falcon 9 missions that fly an average of more than once a week.
USSF-44, the mission scheduled to launch later this month, is the next Falcon Heavy mission on SpaceX’s schedule. The new generation broadband satellite or USSF-67 mission of the Space Force will likely be the next Falcon Heavy launch after the USSF-44.
Viasat said last week that the first of three Viasat 3 series broadband internet satellites, which have been booked for launch on the Falcon Heavy toward geosynchronous orbit, are scheduled to launch before the end of the year. But industry sources said the first launch of the Viasat 3, which has already been delayed due to supply chain issues affecting satellite manufacturing and payload, may be delayed until early 2023.
The Space Force said its USSF-67 mission, which the military says will launch into geosynchronous orbit like the USSF-44, is currently scheduled for January. The Army hasn’t officially revealed the payloads for the USSF-67 mission, but the mission patches for the USSF-67 launch indicate that it will carry the second spacecraft of the SATCOM or CBAS program. The first CBAS satellite was launched in 2018, and officials said the satellite was designed to transmit communications signals between senior commanders and military combatant commanders.
Another Space Force satellite delivery mission aboard the Falcon Heavy, codenamed USSF-52, is now scheduled to launch in the second quarter of 2023 – between April 1 and June 30.
Other Falcon Heavy missions scheduled to launch in the next 12 months include EchoStar’s heavyweight Jupiter 3 commercial broadband satellite and Hughes Network Systems later in 2023.
NASA’s Psyche asteroid explorer, which was scheduled to launch in August this year aboard the Falcon Heavy, has been grounded due to software testing issues. NASA is reviewing plans to solve software issues, and the space agency will decide in the coming weeks whether to attempt to launch the Psyche spacecraft, still on a Falcon Heavy rocket, in the next available launch in July 2023.
Although the Falcon Heavy hasn’t launched since 2019, SpaceX has continued to win contracts to build the Falcon Heavy mission backlog, which provides more payload capacity than the Falcon 9 but less than the next-generation Starship and Super Heavy rocket. The Falcon Heavy is powered by 27 Merlin main engines of three interconnected Falcon rocket cores, generating 5.1 million pounds of thrust on takeoff and is 229 feet (70 m) high and 40 feet (12.2 m) wide.
The upper stage of the Falcon Heavy is mostly identical to the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, with a single Merlin engine.
SpaceX says the Falcon Heavy is capable of placing a payload of up to 140,000 pounds, or more than 63 metric tons, into a low-altitude orbit. This figure assumes that the Falcon Heavy’s boosters have burned out near fuel exhaustion and have not been recovered.
SpaceX’s last Falcon Heavy launch contract was in July, when NASA awarded the company a $255 million deal to launch the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope in 2026.
With the Romanian launch contract, SpaceX now has up to 13 Falcon Heavy rocket missions. They include the US Space Force’s USSF-44, USSF-67, and USSF-52 missions scheduled for launch late this year and 2023, the launch of the NASA Psyche asteroid probe in 2023, the launch of the NASA Europa Clipper in 2024 to explore the icy moon of Jupiter, the launch of The first two components of the NASA Gateway mini-space station planned to orbit the Moon.
NASA also contracted SpaceX for the Falcon Heavy to launch NOAA’s GOES-U geostationary weather satellite in 2024 and two commercial resupply missions to the Gateway later in 2020. The contract status for the Gateway logistics missions is unclear. It was signed in 2020, but NASA has not yet given SpaceX the authority to move forward with preparations to begin resupply flights for the Gateway.
SpaceX has won contracts for two Falcon Heavy missions to launch large geostationary Internet communications satellites for Viasat and EchoStar. The Falcon Heavy is scheduled to launch NASA’s robotic VIPER spacecraft toward the moon in late 2024 on a commercial lunar delivery flight operated by Astrobotics.
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