With “very active weather expected” in the coming days, as low pressure over the southwestern Gulf of Mexico moves northwards, SpaceX has a bottleneck of two missions targeting liftoffs from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida no sooner than 10:19 a.m. EDT tomorrow and from storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at neighboring Cape Canaveral Space Force Station as soon as late Friday evening. Teams yesterday elected to stand down the launch of the year’s fourth Falcon Heavy—carrying NASA’s Psyche spacecraft uphill to explore a potato-shaped, metal-rich asteroid of the same name—due to forecasted poor weather along the Space Coast.
It will be the eighth Falcon Heavy to fly since its dramatic maiden voyage in February 2018. Since then, the triple-barreled heavylifter completed a pair of missions in 2019, another late last fall and three more in January, April and July of 2023, with Psyche and the U.S. Space Force’s highly classified USSF-52 squeezed into the year’s final quarter.
As previously noted by AmericaSpace, the 13-times-used B1067 core was planned to fly as early as 9:06 p.m. EDT Sunday from the Cape’s SLC-40, laden with a 22-strong batch of Starlink internet communications satellites for emplacement into low-Earth orbit. However, despite benefiting from an 80-percent probability of acceptable conditions and multiple T-0 opportunities over a span of several hours, Mother Nature eventually forced SpaceX teams to call off the attempt.
“Standing down from tonight’s Falcon 9 launch attempt, due to upper-level winds,” the Hawthorne, Calif.-headquartered organization tweeted. “Teams are assessing the next available opportunity.”
Hopes to fly during a second group of launch attempts, the first opening at 8:42 p.m. EDT Monday and the last closing at 12:10 a.m. EDT Tuesday, also came to nought as SpaceX elected to stand down the Starlink mission in favor of the higher-priority Psyche. Yesterday, the triple-barreled Falcon Heavy rocket—which comprises the never-before-used B1079 center core and the B1064 and B1065 side-boosters, both making the fourth flights of their respective careers—was raised to the vertical on Pad 39A for an opening launch attempt at 10:16 a.m. EDT Thursday.
But a steadily deteriorating weather picture envisaged only a 20-percent chance of acceptable conditions on Thursday, with a marginal improvement to 50-50 for a pair of backup opportunities at 10:19 a.m. EDT Friday and 10:24 a.m. EDT Saturday. “Don’t be paranoid,” NASA tweeted as Psyche shifted its launch date to Friday the 13th. “It’s not a Black Sabbath…it’s because of weather conditions at @NASAKennedy.”
“The trend has been towards just enough to shift Spaceport weather into a more diurnal pattern with best chances for showers and storms later in the day,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base of Friday’s 50-50 chances. “The late morning backup launch window looks to be before coverage increases, but it will unsettled enough that early activity can’t be ruled out along with anvils from any ongoing storms to the west.”
In the meantime, on Wednesday a satisfactory Launch Readiness Review (LRR) for Psyche was completed, with NASA and SpaceX teams offering a definitive “Go for Launch”, pending the weather. Following liftoff, the Heavy’s side-boosters will be discarded about 2.5 minutes into the flight, executing Entry and Landing Burns to alight with synchronized grace on solid ground at Landing Zones (LZ)-1 and 2 at the Cape at about 8.5 minutes.
Meanwhile, the B1079 center core will be expended on this flight, due to the high-energy demands of getting Psyche airborne. It will shut down at just shy of four minutes past launch, after which the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of its second stage will ignite for a pair of “burns”—the first running for six minutes, the second lasting some 150 seconds—to deliver the 5,750-pound (2,600-kilogram) Psyche on the first leg of its 1.5-billion-mile (2.4-billion-kilometer) trek to a metal-rich primordial object of the same name, which sits in a belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Deployment of Psyche will occur about 62 minutes into tomorrow’s flight.
The spacecraft will obtain a gravity-assisted boost from Mars three years hence, before reaching the asteroid Psyche in August 2029. There, it will spend at least 21 months circling the 140-mile-wide (220-kilometer) asteroid from a range of orbital “regimes” of steadily decreasing altitude, from “Orbit A” at 430 miles (700 kilometers) to “Orbit D” at just 53 miles (85 kilometers).
Those orbits will facilitate a range of observations of Psyche, one of relatively few asteroids predominantly composed of iron and nickel, once thought to be the exposed remnant of a protoplanet’s core. The spacecraft will search for possible magnetic-field signatures, undertake topographical mapping, investigate the asteroid’s gravitational field and conduct analyses of surface chemical composition.
As for B1067’s Starlink mission, SpaceX officially states that teams are “evaluating” the next available opportunity, although this will certainly occur after Psyche is airborne. However, Patrick Space Force Base’s website notes that Eastern Range assets will reopen for the Starlink launch at 6:55 p.m. EDT Friday.
Flying for the 14th time, B1067 will end this mission with a touchdown on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “A Shortfall of Gravitas”. The drone ship put to sea out of Port Canaveral last week and is currently positioned about 390 miles (630 kilometers) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.