The most powerful missile in the world is finally back after an absence of 3 years

Zoom / Falcon Heavy removes the tower during its maiden flight on February 6, 2018.

Trevor Mahelman

Early Tuesday morning, the Falcon Heavy will make its first flight since June 2019, ending a long period of inactivity for the world’s most powerful operational rocket. Powered by 27 Merlin engines in its first stage, the rocket will carry two payloads of space technology into orbit for the US Space Force.

Before the long-awaited launch of the USSF-44, it’s natural to wonder why it’s been more than 40 months since the missile’s last flight. And perhaps most importantly, does this indicate that the Falcon Heavy – which was developed in-house at SpaceX, at the company’s expense, for half a billion dollars – was a mistake?

But first, some details about the launch, which was scheduled for 9:41 a.m. ET (13:41) Tuesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Meet me at GEO

This will be SpaceX’s first “direct to GEO” mission, meaning that the powerful Falcon Heavy rocket will launch its payload directly into a geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface. These payloads are typically injected into a transfer orbit, and then the propellant on board the spacecraft is used to lift the craft into a circular geostationary orbit. In this case, however, the first and second stages of the Falcon Heavy will do all the work.

Little is known about the two spacecraft launched on this Space Force mission. The basic load is rated. The secondary payload is a small satellite called Tetra-1, a prototype for the type of satellite the US military hopes will one day fly into geostationary orbit — to do something.

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In an emailed press release discussing the launch, the Space Force wasn’t particularly helpful in describing the satellites: “The Long Duration Propulsive EELV Secondary Payload Adapter (LDPE ESPA)-2 and Shepherd Demonstration will carry a variety of payloads that will enhance and accelerating the progress of space technology for the benefit of future recording programmes.”

Thanks guys, this is very clear. Maybe you can mix up some more obscure acronyms next time.

What we do know is that this mission will require the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy to run much longer than usual, with about six hours between the initial launch of the Merlin vacuum engine and the final launch. This will provide a good test of the upper stage’s ability to perform for a long time.

why all this time?

The long gap between flights was not caused by the lack of Falcon Heavy missiles. In essence, the Falcon Heavy consists of a basic stage which is a modified version of the first stage of the Falcon 9 missile, and two side-mounted boosters that are somewhat less modified. There are other structural modifications, but essentially, SpaceX can manufacture (and reuse hardware) as many Falcon Heavy rockets as the market desires.

It’s just, well, there was no overwhelming desire. To put the demand for the Falcon Heavy into perspective, in the 40 months since the last heavy launch, SpaceX has launched a Falcon 9 rocket 111 times. That doesn’t mean there’s 100 times the demand for the Falcon 9, but it does indicate that by continuing to improve the performance of the single-core Falcon rocket, SpaceX eroded some of the potential markets for the Falcon Heavy when it was designed for nearly a decade. Ago.

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However, there is still demand. Recently, the problem of payloads has been delayed. The USSF-44 mission was originally scheduled for December 2020. Another Space Force mission aboard the Falcon Heavy, USSF-52, was originally supposed to fly in October 2021. NASA’s Psyche Asteroid mission was supposed to fly in September But it was also postponed after the flight. The payload was not ready.

In fact, there is a fair amount of demand for a rocket as big as the Falcon Heavy. In SpaceX’s current statement, there are 10 more Falcon Heavy missions between now and the end of 2024. Some of those missions may be delayed due to payload readiness, but there are customers out there.

Who buys?

The short answer is the government. Including the USSF-44, the next 10 missions most likely to fly aboard the Falcon Heavy include five flights for NASA, three for the US Space Force, and two primarily for commercial satellite customers.

The US military is particularly keen to see the Falcon Heavy installed. While the Falcon 9 missile is powerful, it does not have the ability to hit all nine of the Department of Defense’s missiles reference orbitals Needed for launch providers to hit it. So with the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX has an advantage in terms of bidding on military launch contracts. The only other working American missile capable of this is the United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 heavyweight missile, but it retires within two years. Its replacement, Vulcan, has yet to fly.

SpaceX’s upcoming Starship and Super Heavy craft will of course be able to reach all nine orbits. Although it will likely take years away from the “stable” configuration required by the government, it is nonetheless on the way. Because of this, the Falcon Heavy will likely have a limited shelf life, said Todd Harrison, managing director of Metrea Strategy Insights.

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“Once SpaceX’s new Super Heavy is operational and has a proven track record of ensuring national security customers, the Falcon Heavy will no longer be needed,” Harrison said. “So I suspect its useful life is probably less than five years and probably a few launches during that time. But it’s nice to keep an eye on it when it’s launched, especially when those lateral reinforcements come back to Earth synchronously.”

The Falcon Heavy has also proven popular on some of NASA’s major science missions, including the Psyche spacecraft, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, and the Europa Clipper. NASA awarded the last mission to SpaceX About a year ago, for launch in 2024. This was a validation for the Falcon Heavy rocket, with NASA entrusting a spacecraft that cost about $4 billion for the big rocket.

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