Fire and Fury: SpaceX Prepares for Falcon Heavy’s Tenth Mission Tonight

The first brand-new Falcon Heavy since November 2022, with first-time-used center core and side-boosters, is elevated vertical overnight in readiness for Tuesday’s 5:16 p.m. EDT launch of GOES-U. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX continues to target a two-hour “launch window”, opening at 5:16 p.m. EDT Tuesday, for the tenth flight of its Falcon Heavy booster—the first of three planned outings by the triple-barreled heavylifter in 2024, with another pair of missions later this fall: one in October with NASA’s Jupiter-bound Europa Clipper and a second no sooner than November carrying Astrobotic, Inc.’s Griffin-1 lunar lander and NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). The giant rocket will lift off from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, laden with the 11,000-pound (5,000-kilogram) Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-U) for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The GOES-U satellite is encapsulated within the payload fairing halves of the Falcon Heavy last week. Photo Credit: NASA

As previously outlined by AmericaSpace, the GOES-U launch has met with several weeks of delay, pushed from April into June following an oxidizer leak discovered earlier this year in the Falcon Heavy’s B1087 center core during tests at the SpaceX Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas. Flying tonight’s mission, the high-energy requirements and direct insertion of GOES-U into a 22,300-mile (35,900-kilogram) Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) requires B1087 to be expended, while the B1072 and B1086 side-boosters will be recovered, returning to synchronized touchdowns on Landing Zones (LZ)-1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, about eight minutes and 11 seconds after liftoff.

The Falcon Heavy is readied for departure from the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) and transfer to Pad 39A. Photo Credit: SpaceX

At the moment of launch, the 27 Merlin 1D+ engines on the Falcon Heavy—nine each at the base of the center core and each side-booster—will pound the chests and soles of feet of spectators lining the Space Coast with 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kilograms), the third most powerful active operational launch vehicle after NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and SpaceX’s integrated Starship/Super Heavy stack. It has the capacity to reportedly deliver up to 141,000 pounds (63,950 kilograms) of payload into low-Earth orbit and as much as 59,000 pounds (27,760 kilograms) to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO).

The Falcon Heavy is currently the third most powerful operational booster in the world, with a liftoff thrust of 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kilograms). Photo Credit: SpaceX

After passing the phase of peak aerodynamic turbulence, colloquially known as “Max Q”, about 71 seconds into today’s flight, the Heavy’s side-boosters will burn out and separate at 2.5 minutes after liftoff, returning to alight on LZ-1 and LZ-2 at eight minutes and 11 seconds. Meanwhile, B1087 will burn out and be discarded just shy of four minutes into the mission, after which the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine of the Heavy’s second stage will ignite for the first of three “burns” to loft GOES-U to Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO).

Billowing smoke almost obscures Pad 39A as the 27 Merlin 1D+ engines ramp up to full power at T-0. Photo Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

The booster’s payload fairing will be jettisoned about 4.5 minutes after launch to expose the spacecraft to the harsh ultra-vacuum of the space environment for the first time. Meanwhile, the first burn of the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine will last a little over four minutes, shutting down at T+8 minutes and 23 seconds and the stack will coast for a further 18 minutes before the second burn of about 87 seconds in duration.

The Falcon Heavy launched on its maiden test flight in February 2018. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

After the Merlin 1D+ Vacuum shuts down for the second time, the combo will continue on its upward trajectory until a third burn begins at four hours, 21 minutes and 18 seconds into the flight. This final burn will last a little over a half-minute, setting up the conditions for the deployment of GOES-U at T+4 hours, 30 minutes and two seconds. According to SpaceX in a media update late Monday, this will be the highest ascent performance for any GOES mission, in order to best preserve energy expenditure.

The Falcon Heavy stands on Pad 39A ahead of April 2019’s Arabsat-6A mission. Photo Credit: Mike Killian / AmericaSpace

Weather remains unchanged, hovering at only 30-percent-favorable both for tonight’s opening “window” and a backup opportunity at the same time Wednesday. The presence of deep tropical moisture over the Florida peninsula through the week is expected to bring “high levels of moisture and light offshore low-level winds”, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base, with a substantial chance of storms, associated anvil clouds and the elevated risk of Lightning Launch Commit Criteria (LLCC) violations in the late afternoon and early evening hours.

Synchronized touchdowns of the twin side-boosters on Landing Zones (LZ)-1 and 2 following the Falcon Heavy’s launch of Arabsat-6A in April 2019. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

“The best opportunity for “Go” weather conditions,” added the 45th, “will be if the storm activity pushes far enough inland and before there is significant anvil cloud development off the top of the storm cells.”  

The Falcon Heavy flies its first nocturnal mission with STP-2 in June 2019. Photo Credit: John Studwell/AmericaSpace

The Falcon Heavy was rolled out of the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) to historic Pad 39A overnight Monday and elevated to the vertical in the pre-dawn darkness of Tuesday. With all three cores making their first—and in the case of B1087, its last—flights, this will be the sixth time that mission performance requirements have dictated SpaceX to intentionally expend the center core and recover both side-boosters.

The Falcon Heavy’s first nighttime launch with STP-2 in June 2019. Photo Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace

The Falcon Heavy sprang onto the scene for its inaugural test flight in February 2018 , during which it lofted Elon Musk’s cherry-red Tesla Roadster on a Mars-crossing heliocentric trajectory. Although both side-boosters successfully landed on LZ-1 and LZ-2, marking the first-ever simultaneous touchdowns, the center core suffered a shortfall of Triethylaluminum (TEA)-Triethylborane (TEB) chemical igniter and failed to reach its intended landing on the deck of the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) in the Atlantic Ocean. Notably, the two side-boosters were making their second flights, having previously flown as “single-stick” Falcon 9s in May and July 2016 before being reconfigured for the Heavy.

The triple-barreled Falcon Heavy flew five times in 2023. The 27 Merlin 1D+ engines of the center core and twin side-boosters are clearly visible. Photo Credit: SpaceX

It went on to deploy Saudi Arabia’s heavyweight Arabsat-6A communications satellite—marking the first time that all three Falcon Heavy cores were successfully recovered, with the center core alighting on the ASDS in the Atlantic Ocean and the two side-boosters returning to LZ-1 and LZ-2—in April 2019 and the U.S. Air Force’s mixed-manifest Space Test Program (STP)-2 payload in the giant rocket’s first nighttime launch the following June. This third mission successfully recovered both side-boosters on LZ-1 and LZ-2, but the center core was lost due to a heat-induced Thrust Vector Control (TVC) failure.

B1064 and B1065 provide side-booster support for 2023’s first Falcon Heavy on the USSF-67 mission in January. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

More than three years elapsed until the Heavy flew again in November 2022, carrying the highly classified USSF-44 payload for the U.S. Space Force, its first National Security Space Launch (NSSL). This mission had been delayed several times from its original Fiscal Year 2021 placeholder, due to payload-related matters, but it kicked off a resurgence of Heavy missions which would see the heavylifter fly five times in 2023—launching more times last year than its entire previous service history.

A Falcon Heavy stands primed for ViaSat-3 Americas in April of last year. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

First up in January was the Space Force’s USSF-67 mission, including the Boeing-built Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM (CBAS)-2 for the Space Systems Command (SSC) in El Segundo, Calif. Another mission in late April carried the huge ViaSat-3 Americas geostationary communications satellite, tipping the scales at 14,820 pounds (6,720 kilograms), with last July’s launch of the Jupiter-3 communications satellite for EchoStar, Corp., marking the Heavy’s largest and heaviest payload to date at around 20,300 pounds (9,200 kilograms).

SpaceX launches Jupiter-3 in July of last year. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Closing out 2023 in October was NASA’s Psyche mission to investigate the metal-rich asteroid of the same name. Originally slated to fly earlier in the year, Psyche met with significant delay in June 2022, following the late delivery of the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment, but NASA announced in July 2023 that the 1.5-billion-mile (2.4-billion-kilometer) mission would go ahead during a backup Psyche “launch window” the following October.

Last October’s nine-mission month included the Falcon Heavy launch of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft to explore a potato-shaped, metal-rich asteroid of the same name. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

The fifth and last Heavy of 2023 came a couple of days ahead of New Year, when the heavylifter pushed the USSF-52 payload and the Space Force’s highly classified X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) uncrewed mini-shuttle into space. Originally scheduled to fly in the latter half of Fiscal Year 2020, USSF-52 saw its Falcon Heavy launch services contract bilaterally modified in August 2021 from $130 million to $149.2 million and only in November of last year—barely a handful of weeks prior to launch—was the presence of the X-36B identified as its primary payload.

USSF-52 livery adorns the Falcon Heavy’s payload shroud. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

With tonight’s launch of GOES-U and its tenth flight, the Heavy reaches an important personal milestone and the first time since November 2022 that the vehicle has flown a mission with a brand-new core and side-boosters. Beyond this flight, it is tasked with lifting NASA’s Jupiter-bound Europa Clipper in October and no sooner than the November timeframe will also launch Astrobotic, Inc.’s Griffin-1 lunar lander and NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER).

SpaceX wrapped up 2023 with a pair of launches less than three hours apart on 28 December, including the fifth Falcon Heavy of the year with the U.S. Space Force’s USSF-52 mission. Photo Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Heading into 2025 and later, the Heavy has three Space Force payloads on its books—the USSF-75 and USSF-70 missions—together with the first Global Positioning System (GPS) Block IIIF navigation and timing satellite, as well as the integrated Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) for the NASA-led Gateway Program and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Deeper into the decade, the Heavy will also provide launch services for the next-generation Dragon XL cargo and logistics vehicle for Gateway operations in lunar orbit.

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