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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy – a hulking three-pronged vehicle that’s the world’s most powerful operational rocket – returned to the skies on Tuesday for the first time since mid-2019.
The rocket launched at 9:41 a.m. ET from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, carrying satellites into space for the US military on a secret mission dubbed USSF-44.
The Falcon Heavy debuted in 2018 to much fanfare when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk chose to launch his personal Tesla Roadster as a test payload during launch. The car is still in space, taking an oblong path around the sun that oscillates up to the orbital path of Mars.
Since that first test mission, SpaceX has only launched two more Falcon Heavy missions, both in 2019. One sent a massive TV and phone services satellite into orbit for Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat. , and the other delivered a batch of experimental satellites for the United States. Department of Defense.
But the rocket hadn’t been launched since 2019 because the vast majority of SpaceX missions don’t require the increased power of the Falcon Heavy. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, on the other hand, has launched nearly 50 missions so far this year alone.
With each launch of Falcon Heavy, the rocket makes a spectacular return to Earth.
After Tuesday’s mission, the company only attempted to salvage two of the Falcon Heavy rocket’s first-stage boosters – the large white sticks that are tied together to give the rocket its boosted liftoff power.
As planned, the center thruster was left to dive into the ocean, where it will remain, as it did not have enough fuel remaining to guide its return journey, according to a press release from the US Army’s Space Systems Command. .
The two side thrusters, however, made their characteristic synchronized landing on ground platforms near the Florida coast.
In the past, SpaceX has attempted to land the rocket’s three boosters at land and sea landing pads so they can be refurbished and reused on future missions. He does this to reduce mission costs. The company has yet to successfully reclaim all three, although they have come considerably closer. The two side thrusters made a precise and synchronized landing on ground cushions after a mission in April 2019, and the rocket’s central thruster landed on a maritime platform. But then rough waves at sea knocked him over.
Although the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world, two huge rockets are waiting in the wings to claim this title.
NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket, which is currently due to attempt its maiden launch later in November to send the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission around the moon, sits in the massive Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, which is a few miles from the launch pad where the Falcon Heavy will take off.
While the Falcon Heavy puts out about five million pounds of thrust, SLS is expected to push out up to 8.8 million pounds of thrust, or 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets that powered the mid-2000s moon landings. century.
And just across the Gulf Coast, at SpaceX’s experimental facilities in South Texas, the company is in the final stages of preparing for the first attempt at an orbital launch of its Starship spacecraft and its Super Heavy rocket. Although the test flight is still awaiting final approval from federal regulators, it could take flight before the end of the year.
The Starship system should significantly outperform SLS and Falcon Heavy. The upcoming Super Heavy thruster, which is designed to propel the Starship spacecraft through space, is expected to retard about 17 million pounds of thrust alone.
Both the SLS rocket and the SpaceX spacecraft are integral parts of NASA’s plans to bring astronauts back to the surface of the moon for the first time in half a century.
SpaceX also has its own ambitious vision for the Starship: to ferry humans and cargo to Mars in hopes of one day establishing a permanent human settlement there.
There is not much publicly available information about the USSF-44 mission. In a press release, the U.S. Army’s Space Systems Command only said the launch will put multiple satellites into orbit on behalf of Space Systems Command’s Innovation and Prototyping Delta, which focuses on rapid technology development. spatial as it relates to tracking objects in space. as well as a host of other activities.
Space System Command declined to provide additional mission information when contacted by email. He referred questions to the office of the Secretary of the Air Force, who also declined to comment.
The US military is a major driver of the national rocket economy, handing out lucrative launch contracts coveted by private launch companies, including SpaceX and its main competitor in the region, United Launch Alliance, which is a joint operation between Boeing and Lockheed. Martin.
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