February 1, 2023

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From start to finish, Sunday’s launch of the Falcon Heavy delivered stunning visuals

Zoom in / The Falcon Heavy rocket launched about 10 minutes after sunset Sunday from Florida.

Trevor Mahlman

The Falcon Heavy launched Sunday night for the fifth time in five years from Florida. However, this was the first launch of the three-core booster in twilight, and that rare evening light provided some startling new insights into the launch and return of the rocket.

Post-sunset illumination can be seen in the introductory image above, which shows red hues bouncing off the white cores and upper stage. This color comes from the rocket gaining enough altitude to be in line of sight with the sun.

Now the second most powerful rocket in the world after NASA’s Space Launch System, the Falcon Heavy always puts on a great show, launching 27 Merlin engines simultaneously. It holds the record for the rocket with the most first-stage engines to reach orbit—at least, that will hold until SpaceX’s Starship rocket flies later this year.

The rocket lifted off at 5:56 p.m. ET (22:56 UTC) on Sunday.
Zoom in / The rocket lifted off at 5:56 p.m. ET (22:56 UTC) on Sunday.

Trevor Mahlman

Sunday’s launch was named USSF-67 and carried two payloads into geostationary orbit for the US Space Force. This was the Space Force’s second Falcon Heavy launch, and it’s scheduled for launch later this spring.

This engine shot shows the rocket’s three separate cores, each a modified version of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with its individual shaft.

27 Merlin engines power the first stage of the Falcon Heavy rocket.
Zoom in / 27 Merlin engines power the first stage of the Falcon Heavy rocket.

Trevor Mahlman

The rocket is shown here climbing into the sky before booster separation, which occurs about 2 minutes and 30 seconds after launch. After this point, the side boosters will separate from the center of the rocket.

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Falcon Heavy is high above the Florida coast.
Zoom in / Falcon Heavy is high above the Florida coast.

Trevor Mahlman

The center core then burns for an additional 30 seconds before the kerosene and liquid oxygen fuel is exhausted. Meanwhile, the side-mounted boosters must stop their forward motion and reorient themselves back to landing areas a few kilometers from the launch site.