With a thunderous roar, SpaceX launched a trinuclear Falcon Heavy rocket for the US Space Force on Sunday, sending a military communications satellite into space along with a maneuverable payload carrying five secret technology demonstration packages.
Generating more than 5 million pounds of thrust from 27 Merlin engines powering the rocket’s central core and twin boost boosters, Falcon Heavy lifted off from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 p.m. EST, turning east over the Atlantic Ocean.
The huge rocket, second only to NASA, is much more expensive Lunar Rocket Space Launch System at takeoff power, will put on an impressive show for spaceport workers, area residents and tourists as it rises into the glare of the setting sun atop a glittering plume of fiery exhaust.
It was only the fifth Falcon Heavy flight to make its debut in 2018, launching Tesla Roadster into space with a mannequin in a space suit driving.
While the Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in SpaceX’s inventory, it will be dwarfed by the company’s fully reusable Super Heavy/Starship, which is preparing for its first test flight in the next few months from Boca Chico, Texas.
If it works as planned, the giant Super Heavy will generate 16 million pounds of thrust, twice that of NASA’s SLS and three times that of the Falcon Heavy.
But the tri-nuclear Falcon Heavy, making its second national security launch, had a perfect spacewalk on Sunday.
The two side boosters fired for two and a half minutes before falling back and flying back to synchronized side landings at the Space Force Station at Cape Canaveral. Announced as usual with gunshot-like sonic booms, the boosters flew for the first time on Space Force’s Falcon Heavy last November and both will be used again in a future mission.
The central core booster continued to operate for another minute and a half before it too fell away, leaving the rest of the Falcon Heavy’s second stage ascent. Unlike the side boosters, the main stage used all its fuel as planned to complete the exit from the lower atmosphere, and recovery was impossible.
The second stage used a single vacuum-optimized Merlin engine to enter an initial parking orbit before advancing to a target geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. But, as usual in many military launches, details are not released.
In a pre-launch news release, the Space Systems Command said the Falcon Heavy was carrying two satellites for the USSF-67 mission: a military relay station and a deployable satellite with five technology demonstration payloads.
Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM (CBAS)-2 is designed to operate in geosynchronous orbit “to provide communications relay capabilities in support of our senior leaders and combatant commanders,” according to the release. “The mission of CBAS-2 is to augment existing military satellite communications capabilities and to continuously transmit military data via space-based satellite relay links.”
The second satellite, Long Duration Propulsive ESPA (LDPE)-3A, is a payload carrier equipped with its own propulsion and navigation systems “to rapidly place a variety of payloads into orbit and provide critical data to inform and influence future US space programs .”
For the USSF-67 mission, deployed payloads included operational prototypes for “enhanced situational awareness” and encryption technology for space-to-ground communications. The other two payloads are expected to test space weather sensors and possibly test equipment for monitoring other satellites.
LDPE is “a freight train to space for experiments and prototypes in geosynchronous earth orbit that can be demonstrated in any national security space mission with available mass,” said Col. Joseph Roth, director of innovation and prototyping for the Space Systems Command.
“LDPE’s modular … design and standard interfaces provide an ideal platform for hosting a wide variety of payloads in many mission domains.”