The world’s most powerful operational rocket, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, is set to take to the Florida skies for the first time in over three years. USSF-44, a US Space Force contracted flight with a classified payload and at least one rideshare satellite, is ready for launch.
Liftoff is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 1, at 9:41 AM EDT (13:41 UTC) from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at the Kennedy Space Center.
This mission will see the Falcon Heavy rocket reach a new milestone on its fourth-ever flight. This will be both Falcon Heavy’s and SpaceX’s first mission direct to geostationary orbit (GEO). To achieve this direct-to-GEO trajectory, the Falcon Heavy upper stage will have a multi-hour coast phase between the GTO and GEO insertion burns.
Traditionally, most missions, including Falcon 9 flights, send payloads destined for GEO into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). This allows the spacecraft to propel itself into its eventual final orbit in GEO more than 35,200 km (22,000 mi) above the Earth rather than the launch vehicle.
Onboard will be at least two different spacecraft: TETRA-1 and a second unknown satellite. There is the possibility that there are additional classified payloads onboard, but exact details have not been released.
TETRA-1 was designed and built by Millennium Space Systems, a Boeing company. Completed in 2020, TETRA-1 is a microsatellite created for various prototype missions in and around GEO. TETRA-1 was the first prototype award under the US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center’s Space Enterprise Consortium Other Transaction Authority (OTA) charter. The spacecraft is based on the ALTAIR-class small satellite product line. It is the first ALTAIR satellite to qualify for operations in GEO.
The mission, originally procured as AFSPC-44 for the US Air Force, cost approximately $150 million back in 2019 and was scheduled for liftoff no earlier than Q4 of 2020. However, the mission faced multiple delays as a result of what officials called “payload readiness” issues. The exact readiness problems were not publicly released.
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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is made up of three boosters on its first stage: a center core booster and two side boosters. Each contains nine Merlin-1D engines, the same amount as a traditional Falcon 9. While the side boosters can be converted for use as Falcon 9s, the center core is enhanced to withstand the forces of liftoff that come with being connected to the side boosters and cannot be converted.
This mission will use three brand-new boosters. The side boosters, B1064 and B1065, are scheduled to land at Landing Zones 1 and 2 (LZ-1 and LZ-2) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Back in 2021, officials initially announced these boosters would land on two barges floating downrange. However, it was changed recently to a return to launch site (RTLS) profile, resulting in near-simultaneous landings at LZ-1 and LZ-2.
As a result of the challenging launch profile, the new center core, B1066, will be expended after completing its mission.
At T-50 minutes, the first stage will begin to fill with RP-1, a refined form of kerosene. About five minutes later, first stage liquid oxygen (LOX) fill begins. The first stage, including the core and side boosters, will have approximately 287,000 kg of LOX and 123,000 kg of RP-1 when full.
35 minutes before liftoff, the second stage will begin receiving RP-1, followed by LOX loading approximately 17 minutes later.
T-7 minutes until liftoff, the 27 Merlin 1D engines are chilled before ignition. Shortly before T-1 minute, Falcon Heavy’s onboard computers take over control of the count as the vehicle is “in startup,” followed shortly after by tanks reaching flight pressure.
Just before liftoff, the 27 engines on the side boosters and core begin a staggered ignition process with the assistance of TEA/TEB. Once all engines reach full thrust, the vehicle will check its health. If all is nominal, 5.1 million pounds of thrust will propel the vehicle away from LC-39A.
Less than a minute after launch, Falcon Heavy reaches Max-Q, when the vehicle is enduring the maximum dynamic forces during the flight.
All 27 engines continue to burn until about two and a half minutes after liftoff, when both side boosters cut off, followed by separation seconds later. Those boosters will perform a maneuver to flip themselves around before conducting their second burn, called a boostback burn, which puts B1064 and B1065 on course to return to LZ-1 and LZ-2.
About three and a half minutes into the flight, a series of events happen in quick succession. The center booster shuts down its nine engines before separating from the second stage seconds later. Then, the Stage 2 Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine ignites in a process known as second engine start one (SES-1). Shortly after, the payload fairing halves, which have been protecting the USSF-44 payloads before the vehicle entered space, are no longer needed and fall back to Earth to be recovered.
Meanwhile, a little more than seven minutes after lifting off, the two side boosters begin their entry burn as they once again encounter Earth’s atmosphere. That puts them on track for one final burn for each side booster known as the landing burn. This final relight will slow the vehicles down until each gently touches down at LZ-1 and LZ-2 seconds apart from each other, completing their mission approximately eight and a half minutes after first lifting off a few miles away.
These would mark SpaceX’s 150th and 151st successful landings of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters.
As this is happening, the second stage will have completed its first burn leading to second engine cutoff one (SECO-1). The next step will involve a second relight, propelling the second stage and payloads to an apogee near geostationary altitude of 35,786 km (22,236 mi).
At this point, the vehicle enters an extended coast phase. A special gray paint layer on the second stage’s RP-1 tank, which was applied before launch, will ensure the RP-1 does not freeze during the vehicle’s long gap between burns.
Following the multi-hour coast phase, one final relight, SES-3, will help circularize the orbit before deploying the satellites. The second stage will then enter a graveyard orbit away from the newly deployed satellites.
This mission is SpaceX’s 50th orbital launch this year, a record for the company, and the fourth Falcon Heavy launch ever. Despite the recent three-year gap, the Falcon Heavy launch manifest remains busy, including commercial and military launches scheduled throughout the coming years.
(Lead image: Falcon Heavy rolling out at LC-39A ahead of the USSF-44 launch. Credit: Stephen Marr for NSF)
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