The most powerful rocket in the world finally returns after 3 years of absence

The most powerful rocket in the world finally returns after 3 years of absence

Enlarge / Falcon Heavy clears the tower during its maiden flight on February 6, 2018.

Trevor Mahlman

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

Ahead of this long-awaited USSF-44 launch, it’s natural to wonder why it’s been over 40 months since the rocket last flew. And perhaps more importantly, does it suggest that the Falcon Heavy – developed in-house at SpaceX, at the company’s expense, for half a billion dollars – was a mistake?

But first, some details on the launch, which is scheduled for 9:41 a.m. ET (1:41 p.m.) Tuesday from Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Meet me at GEO

This will be SpaceX’s first “direct-to-GEO” mission, meaning the mighty Falcon Heavy rocket will launch its payload directly into geostationary orbit nearly 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface. Typically, these payloads are injected into a transfer orbit and then the spacecraft’s onboard thruster is used to raise the vehicle into a circular geostationary orbit. In this case, however, Falcon Heavy’s first and second stages will do all the work.

Not much is known about the two spacecraft launched on this mission for Space Force. The main payload is classified. The secondary payload is a small satellite called Tetra-1, which is a prototype of a kind of satellite that the US military hopes to one day fly into geostationary orbit – to do something.

In an emailed press release discussing the launch, Space Force wasn’t particularly helpful with its description of the satellites: “The EELV Long Duration Propulsion Secondary Payload Adapter (LDPE ESPA)-2 and the Shepherd’s demonstration will carry a variety of payloads that will support and accelerate advances in space technology for the benefit of future recording programs.”

Thanks guys, that’s super clear. Maybe you could mix up some more inscrutable acronyms next time.

What we do know is that this mission will require Falcon Heavy’s upper stage to operate for a much longer period than usual, with approximately six hours between the initial firing of its Merlin vacuum engine and a final firing. . This will provide a good test of the upper stage’s ability to operate for an extended period.

Why so long?

The long interval between flights did not occur due to a shortage of Falcon Heavy rockets. Essentially, the Falcon Heavy consists of a center stage which is a modified version of the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket and two slightly less modified side thrusters. There are other structural adaptations, but basically SpaceX could manufacture (and reuse the hardware) for about as many Falcon Heavy rockets as the market wants.

It’s just that, well, there wasn’t an overwhelming desire. To put the Falcon Heavy request into perspective, in the 40 months since the last heavy launch, SpaceX flew the Falcon 9 rocket 111 times. That doesn’t mean there’s 100 times the demand for the Falcon 9, but it does suggest that by continuing to improve the performance of the single-core Falcon rocket, SpaceX has eroded some of the potential market for the Falcon Heavy when it was designed about a decade ago. from.

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

In truth, there is reasonable demand for a big rocket like the Falcon Heavy. On SpaceX’s current manifesto, there are 10 more Falcon Heavy missions by the end of 2024. Some of these may well be pushed back due to payload readiness, but there are customers there- down.

Who buys?

The short answer is the government. Including USSF-44, the next 10 missions most likely to fly on 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 a proven Falcon Heavy. Although the Falcon 9 rocket is powerful, it does not have the ability to hit the nine Department of Defense rockets. reference orbits necessary for its launch providers to strike. So with the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX has a bidding advantage on military launch contracts. The only other operational US rocket capable of doing so is United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy rocket, but it is retiring in two years. His replacement, Vulcain, has yet to fly.

SpaceX’s next Starship and Super Heavy booster will of course be able to reach all nine orbits. While it’s likely years away from a government-required “stable” configuration, it’s on the way nonetheless. Because of this, Falcon Heavy will likely have a limited lifespan, said Todd Harrison, managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights.

“Once SpaceX’s new Super Heavy is operational and proven to provide national security customers, Falcon Heavy will no longer be needed,” Harrison said. “So I suspect its useful life is maybe less than five years and probably only a handful of launches in that time. But it’s a beauty to behold when it launches, especially when those side boosters come back for land in sync.”

Falcon Heavy has also proven popular for some key NASA science missions, including the Psyche spacecraft, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, and the Europa Clipper. NASA gave SpaceX this latest mission about a year ago, for launch in 2024. It was a huge validation for the Falcon Heavy rocket, as NASA gave a spacecraft that cost about $4 billion to the big rocket.

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