The first Falcon Heavy rocket flight since 2019 is set to begin Tuesday to launch SpaceX’s longest launch mission to date, a nearly six-hour flight into geosynchronous orbit more than 20,000 miles above the equator with an array of Payloads for the US Space Force. The two powerful rocket’s reusable side boosters will return to Cape Canaveral for landing.
The mission’s high-altitude target orbit means the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy will need to sail for about six hours through the Van Allen radiation belts before re-igniting its engine and deploying Space Force satellites.
The long-term mission required SpaceX to make some changes to the Falcon Heavy rocket. The most obvious modification is to add a gray paint on the outside of the upper stage kerosene fuel tank, which will help ensure the fuel doesn’t freeze as the rocket spends hours in the cold space environment.
The launch, designated by the USSF-44 Space Force, will be the fourth flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket currently flying. But it’s the first Falcon Heavy mission since June 25, 2019, after a series of delays SpaceX customers have encountered.
The USSF-44 mission has been delayed by nearly two years from the original schedule in late 2020. The Space Force has blamed the delay on problems with satellites.
The launch will be the first fully operational national security mission to fly on SpaceX’s heavy-lift spacecraft. The latest launch of the Falcon Heavy in June 2019 carried 24 military and NASA experimental satellites on the Space Test Program-2 or STP-2 mission. The STP-2 mission has been described as a test flight of the missile before a future launch with the most critical national security payloads.
“We have worked alongside SpaceX to ensure that the Falcon Heavy meets all of our requirements and achieves a successful launch,” said Walt Lauderdale, Space Force mission manager for the USSF-44 launch. “This will be the first launch of the Falcon Heavy in more than three years, and we are excited to take these payloads into space. This launch is a significant event and continues a strong partnership that enhances the ability to serve the nation for years to come.”
“This launch culminates years of effort by a dedicated team consisting of mission-focused people from across the US SpaceX and SpaceX. The Falcon Heavy is an important component of our overall lifting capacity, and we are very excited to be ready for launch,” Brigadier General Stephen Purdy said. , executive officer of the Space Force’s Secured Access Program.
The Space Force has released little information about the satellite launches on the Falcon Heavy rocket.
There are two payloads stacked on top of the other inside the Falcon Heavy’s nose cone. One is called Shepherd Demonstration, and the other is the second long-duration ESPA, or LDPE 2, spacecraft, that itself hosts six payloads—three that will remain attached to the spacecraft and three that will deploy from LPDE 2 to perform its missions. Special missions.
A fully assembled Falcon Heavy rocket blasted off to Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Monday afternoon, aboard a tanker a quarter mile from the hangar to the launch pad. The SpaceX teams planned to lift the Falcon Heavy’s vertical plume on Platform 39A overnight in preparation for takeoff Tuesday during a 30-minute window at 9:41 AM EDT (1341 GMT).
Forecasters expect there will be a 90% chance of good weather on Tuesday, with light winds and scattered clouds expected. “The main weather concern will be the rogue Atlantic shower or the reinforced cumulus that licks the coast,” the Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron wrote in a report released Monday.
After receiving their supplies of kerosene and liquid oxygen, the Falcon Heavy’s three first stage boosters fire and throttle their 27 main engines to produce 5.1 million pounds of thrust, twice the power of any other operational rocket in the world. The missile will head east from the launch site, where it curves over the Atlantic before throwing two side-mounted boosters into flight for two and a half minutes into flight.
The side boosters will push their cold gas thrusters and re-ignite three engines each to reverse course and begin returning to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for a landing in SpaceX’s two recovery areas 9 miles (15 kilometers) south of Platform 39A. The boosters are aimed at near-simultaneous vertical landings less than 10 minutes after takeoff.
The base stage, which will throttle its engines again in the first stage of flight, will shoot longer before disposing of it to drop into the Atlantic. It will not be restored in the USSF-44 mission. The upper stage engine will finish the task of putting USSF-44 payloads into an equator-synchronous orbit about 22,000 miles (36,000 km) above Earth.
The rocket will launch the LDPE 2 and Shepherd Demonstration satellites into orbit to complete the Falcon Heavy launch sequence. The satellites will orbit in a steady step with the Earth’s rotation, a feature that makes geosynchronous orbit a popular location for military communications, early warning and reconnaissance satellites.
Most satellites bound for geosynchronous orbit are dropped by a launcher into an egg-shaped transfer orbit. This requires the spacecraft to use its own thrust resources to orbit at an operational altitude above the equator.
Some launches deploy their satellites directly into geosynchronous orbit. Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets made by United Launch Alliance, a competitor to SpaceX in the US launch industry, have achieved this feat before. But Tuesday’s launch will be SpaceX’s first attempt to put payloads directly into geosynchronous orbit.
SpaceX has tested its long-duration coastal capabilities on previous flights, including the launch of the Falcon Heavy on the STP-2 mission in 2019, which lasted three and a half hours from takeoff to the final burn of the upper stage engine. In December 2019, SpaceX conducted a six-hour long coastal test on the upper stage of a Falcon 9 rocket after launching a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
The Space Force said the Shepherd Demonstration satellite on the USSF-44 mission “hosts payloads that mature technologies and accelerate risk mitigation efforts to inform recorded programmes.” An Army spokesperson said the Shepherd Demonstration satellite carries multiple space force payloads, and is based on the “ESPA Ring,” a circular structure with accessory ports for experiments and instruments.
A Space Force spokesperson declined to provide additional details about the Shepherd Demonstration mission in response to questions from Spaceflight Now.
Built by Northrop Grumman, the LDPE 2 spacecraft is similar to the LDPE 1 satellite launched in December 2021 on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket. LDPE 2 hosts six circumferential port payloads, apparently similar to the design of the Shepherd Demonstration spacecraft, and has a system Its own propulsion to maneuver in space. The spacecraft is capable of launching small satellites into orbit, and a Space Force spokesperson has now confirmed to Spaceflight that three of the LDPE 2 payloads will separate as free jets into geosynchronous orbit.
One of the small “sub-satellites” using LDPE 2 is believed to be Tetra 1, a small micro-satellite created by Millennium Space Systems, a subsidiary of Boeing. The Tetra 1 satellite has been designated for launch on the USSF-44 mission, and is designed to “prototype missions, tactics, techniques, and procedures in and around geosynchronous orbit,” military officials said in a 2020 statement.
The LDPE 2 host spacecraft may also carry two Lockheed Martin CubeSats on a demonstration mission to test the maneuverability and navigation capabilities of future small satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Two LINUSS small satellites — short for the Lockheed Martin In-space Upgrade System of Satellites — are designated to fly on the USSF-44 mission as of early 2021, according to the Orbital Debris Assessment Report Published on the Federal Communications Commission website.
The LINUSS A1 and A2 satellites, owned by Lockheed Martin and built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, are designed to separate from the LDPE 2 spacecraft about two months after launch, and then perform maneuvers using their miniature propulsion systems. After separated by several hundred miles from each other, one of the satellites will approach its companion to a range of only 160 feet (about 50 meters).
The demos will test capabilities that could be used on future satellite service missions, or on an inspector spacecraft that can approach other objects in orbit. Lockheed Martin said the LINUSS mission will also showcase high-performance onboard image processing, smallsat propulsion, inertial measurement units, machine vision, 3D-printed components and reconfigurable flight software. The company said it developed the LINUSS mission using internal funding.
The LINUSS CubeSats are approximately 8 inches by 8 inches by 12 inches, and weigh approximately 47 pounds (21.5 kg) at launch.
Spaceflight Now asked the Space Force last week if the Tetra 1 spacecraft and the LINUSS satellites were still on the USSF-44 mission, and if they represented the three payloads that would separate from the LDPE 2 spacecraft. A Space Force spokesperson declined to confirm whether the satellites All three are still intended for USSF-44 launches.
The Space Force says the LDPE program allows the military to affordablely send small, secondary payloads into geosynchronous orbit, helping to accelerate “the service pivot toward new, more flexible space architectures.”
“This capability has the broad potential to fill capacity gaps in our space systems architecture and provide beneficial services to our mission partners through frequent, low-cost access to orbit,” Brig said. General Tim Sigba, Executive Officer of the Space System Command Program for Space Domain Awareness and Combat Power.
“LDPE 2 hosts a variety of payloads that advance technology related to communications and space weather sensing,” a Space Force spokesperson said.
The next military mission to fly the Falcon Heavy rocket, called USSF-67, will launch the LDPE 3 spacecraft and a Space Force communications satellite alongside. Scheduled for launch in January, it will use the same Falcon Heavy side boosters flown on the USSF-44 mission, assuming a successful recovery in the landing areas at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, according to the Space Force.
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