Falcon Heavy Launches, GOES-U Heads for Geostationary Orbit

SpaceX’s tenth Falcon Heavy takes flight at 5:26 p.m. EDT Tuesday, carrying the GOES-U satellite towards geostationary orbit. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX successfully launched its first Falcon Heavy of the year on Wednesday evening, the triple-barreled booster lifting the 11,000-pound (5,000-kilogram) Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-U) almost to Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Heavy—flying for the first time since November 2022 with a brand-new center core and pair of side-mounted strap-on boosters—went airborne from historic Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 5:26 p.m. EDT, ten minutes after the opening of a two-hour “launch window”.

Video Credit: Lockheed Martin

Tonight’s launch came against many odds, with forecasters having predicted only a 30-percent chance of acceptable weather for both the primary launch opportunity today and a backup attempt on Thursday. Potential violations of the Cumulus Cloud Rule, the Anvil Cloud Rule and the Surface Electric Fields Rule were of principal concern.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches the final mission of the new R series satellites with GOES-U Video credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

“Deep tropical moisture will remain over the Florida peninsula through this week as the Atlantic ridge axis slowly slides southwards,” noted the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base in a Monday update, adding that “high levels of moisture and light offshore low-level winds” were expected to potentially “trigger showers/storms in the early to mid-afternoon, before the evening launch window opens”. These storms and their associated anvil clouds were predicted to produce several Lightning Launch Commit Criteria (LLCC), with the best opportunity for a “Go” condition expected when storm activity pushed far enough inland before significant anvil development.

GOES-U was transported from Lockheed Martin’s Littleton, Colo., facility, via Buckley Space Force Base, to the Cape in January. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

As previously outlined by AmericaSpace, GOES-U is the fourth and final member of the next-generation Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R network of spacecraft, built by Lockheed Martin at its Littleton, Colo., facility, and operated by NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS). When operational, it will spend approximately 15 years conducting weather forecasting, storm tracking and meteorological research from geostationary orbit at an altitude of 22,300 miles (35,900 kilometers).

A Falcon Heavy rocket launches GOES-U, the final of a new series of weather satellites for NOAA Photo Credit Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace

Contracts to fabricate instruments for the GOES-R network were awarded way back in 2006 and Lockheed Martin was selected by NASA in December 2008 to build an integrate an initial pair of satellites, each carrying the option of one additional spacecraft, at a total cost (including exercised options) of $1.09 billion. That pair of satellites—GOES-R and GOES-S—were launched atop United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V boosters in November 2016 and March 2018.

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

The “additional” option was activated in May 2013 to build GOES-T—which was launched via a ULA Atlas V in March 2022—and GOES-U. In September 2021, NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) selected SpaceX to launch GOES-U, with a targeted launch date of April 2024.

Based upon Lockheed Martin’s A2100A “bus”, GOES-U weighs about 11,000 pounds (5,000 kilograms) and its unfurled solar arrays will afford it around four kilowatts of electrical power. Aboard the spacecraft, in pride of place, sits L3Harris Technologies’ Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) to acquire terrestrial imagery across 16 spectral bands, including two visible, four near-infrared and ten infrared channels. 

Encapsulated inside its two-piece payload fairing, GOES-U moves from Astrotech Space Operations to Pad 39A last week. Photo Credit: NASA

This will enable observations of cloud formation, atmospheric motions, convections, land-surface temperature mapping, ocean dynamics and aerosols and air quality. The ABI’s sensitivity represents a twofold enhancement over earlier GOES incarnations.

Alongside the ABI, the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) will observe lightning emissions at near-infrared wavelengths, helping to alert forecasters to severe weather, developing storms and tornadoes. First utilized aboard GOES-R, this instrument can detect lightning by day and night, with a detection rate of 70-90 percent of all strikes within its viewing area. 

The Falcon Heavy inches its way out of the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) on Monday. Photo Credit: SpaceX

A group of solar and space environment sensors also reside aboard the GOES-T bus. The Extreme Ultraviolet and X-ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS) will examine solar irradiance upon Earth’s atmosphere, whilst the Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI) will produce full-disk images of the Sun at extreme ultraviolet wavelengths.

Rounding out the GOES-T payload are the Magnetometer (MAG) and Space Environment In-Situ Suite (SEISS). The former will furnish generalized data on geomagnetic activity as part of ongoing efforts to predict solar storms and facilitate large-scale space environment modeling, whilst the latter comprises four sensors to monitor proton, electron and heavy ion fluxes in the magnetosphere.

The Falcon Heavy rolls to the pad yesterday. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The seventh and last payload aboard GOES-U is the Naval Research Laboratory’s Compact Coronagraph (CCOR)-1, which will examine the Sun’s outer corona to investigate large-scale plasma events responsible for geomagnetic solar storms. All told, the giant satellite is approximately the size of a small school bus.

GOES-U was delivered from Lockheed Martin’s facility in Littleton, Colo., via Buckley Space Force Base in Aurora, Colo., to Florida, aboard a C-5M Super Galaxy airlifter, arriving on the Space Coast last 23 January. It was then transported to Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville for final testing, fueling and encapsulation inside the Falcon Heavy payload shroud for its impending launch.

Last night’s Falcon Heavy was the first flight of the rocket with a brand-new set of center core and twin side-boosters to fly since November 2022. The core was intentionally expended. Photo Credit: SpaceX

But the mission met with several weeks of additional delay, due to issues pertaining to the Falcon Heavy itself. During routine pre-flight testing of the B1087 center core last January at SpaceX’s Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, a liquid oxygen leak was detected, triggering a decision to postpone the GOES-U launch from late April until May at the soonest, before the mission was ultimately slipped an additional few weeks to No Earlier Than (NET) 25 June.

Earlier this month, final checkouts of GOES-U and the loading of the satellite with more than 5,000 pounds (2,270 kilograms) of station-keeping fuel and oxidizer were completed and on 10 June it was mated to its Falcon Heavy Payload Attach Fitting (PAF). Encapsulated within the twin payload fairing halves, GOES-U was rolled out of the Astrotech Space Operations facility in Titusville and moved overnight on 13/14 June to the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at Pad 39A for mating to the Falcon Heavy.

Pounding the ground with 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kilograms) of thrust, the Falcon Heavy takes flight. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Last Thursday, NASA, NOAA, SpaceX and GOES-U mission managers gathered for the customary Flight Readiness Review (FRR), which concluded with unanimous approval to proceed with integration of the payload stack atop the Falcon Heavy. The giant rocket was rolled out overnight Monday/Tuesday and elevated vertical on Pad 39A.

Although this was the tenth outing by a Falcon Heavy, GOES-U marked the first time since November 2022 that the entire booster—center core and side-boosters—were all embarking on their first flights. The high-energy requirements of the launch, which will emplace GOES-U into a near-GEO altitude, demanded that the B1087 center core be expended on this mission, but the B1086 and B1072 side-boosters both returned to Earth and were recovered for future flights.

Last night’s mission is the first of two Falcon Heavies targeting launches this year, with NASA’s Europa Clipper set to fly in October. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Liftoff came at 5:26 p.m. EDT, the 27 Merlin 1D+ engines—nine each on the center core and twin side-boosters—pushing the Falcon Heavy off Pad 39A under a combined thrust of 5.4 million pounds (2.4 million kilograms), retaining its place as the third most powerful active operational rocket in the world behind NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and SpaceX’s integrated Starship/Super Heavy stack. It has the capacity to 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).

Passing the period of peak aerodynamic turbulence, or “Max Q”, about 71 seconds into ascent, the B1086 and B1072 side-boosters shut down and separated on time about 2.5 minutes after liftoff. They commenced a graceful pirouette back to Earth, alighting with synchronized precision on the dual pads at Landing Zones (LZ)-1 and LZ-2 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at T+8 minutes and 11 seconds.

On-board rocket-cam perspective during the early stages of ascent. Photo Credit: NASA

In the meantime, B1087’s own Merlins shut down on time at just shy of four minutes into ascent and the center core was jettisoned. This set the stage for three “burns” by the single Merlin 1D+ Vacuum engine on the rocket stage, the first of which kicked off at T+4 minutes and six seconds and lasted a little more than four minutes. During this timeframe, the Falcon Heavy’s two-piece payload fairing was discarded, exposing the GOES-U spacecraft to the harsh ultra-vacuum environment for the first time.

Following the first shutdown of the second stage, the stack drifted for about 18 minutes before a second burn at 26 minutes into the mission. This short firing lasted under 90 seconds and the stack entered another prolonged period of coasting until a final burn was scheduled to take place at T+4 hours, 21 minutes and 18 seconds.

The B1086 and B1072 side-boosters are jettisoned a little past 2.5 minutes into ascent. Photo Credit: NASA

Lasting barely a half-minute, this final burn assisted in lifting GOES-U to near-GEO altitude in what SpaceX described earlier this week as the greatest energy performance ever achieved on a GOES launch. Deployment of the satellite occurred at 4.5 hours into the flight.

Although it marked only the first Falcon Heavy launch of 2024, tonight’s flight was the 65th overall SpaceX mission of the year. The other 64 launches have been accomplished by 16 reusable Falcon 9 boosters, including two new vehicles which came online for the first time in January and March.

The twin side-boosters approach synchronized touchdowns at Landing Zones (LZ)-1 and 2, downrange at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Photo Credit: NASA

Those 64 launches saw SpaceX complete ten launches in a single calendar month for the first time in January, then eleven and twelve launches in March and thirteen and fourteen launches in May alone. Two boosters have reached life-leading 21st flights and in early March a pair of missions flew just one hour and 51 minutes apart, setting a new launch-to-launch turnaround record.

So far, as June enters its final week, eight launches have been achieved—caused in part by a week-long stand-down following a T-0 pad abort on 14 June, coupled with weather issues which impacted two Falcon 9 flights—although at least two more Starlink missions are anticipated before the month’s end. Another Falcon Heavy is currently targeted to fly during a three-week “window” in October to deliver NASA’s Jupiter-bound Europa Clipper out to the vicinity of distant Jupiter.

With characteristic perfection, the side-boosters conclude the first mission of their respective careers. Photo Credit: NASA

The 7,000-pound (3,175-kilogram) Clipper, which was delivered from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., to the Space Coast, aboard an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III airlifter last month, will spend 5.5 years voyaging out to Jupiter before it conducts a detailed survey of its large “Galilean” moon Europa, seeking signs of recent or ongoing geological activity, searching for subsurface lakes and identifying the depth and salinity of its hypothesized oceans.

Contracts worth $178 million were awarded by NASA to SpaceX in July 2021 to launch Europa Clipper, substantially lower than might have been attainable using the cargo variant of the Space Launch System (SLS). Current plans envisage the mission launching as early as 10 October, the opening day of a 21-day planetary “window”.

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