Photo Feature: Falcon Heavy Completes Picture-Perfect GOES-U Launch

SpaceX’s tenth Falcon Heavy booster thunders off Launch Complex 39A, carrying the GOES-U weather satellite. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.

On Tuesday, Florida’s Space Coast was treated to a stunning sight when SpaceX’s tenth Falcon Heavy lifted off of Launch Complex 39A.  Onboard the rocket was NASA’s GOES-U satellite, which will continue a six-decade legacy of monitoring Earth’s weather from space.  A nearly cloudless sky and a launch window which opened less than three hours before sunset combined to generate spectacular visuals.  AmericaSpace’s photography team was on site to capture images and videos of the latest GOES satellite’s climb to orbit.  As usual, the Falcon Heavy’s unique configuration resulted in memorable images, which are available in the photo gallery at the end of this article. 

Multiple remote cameras document the liftoff of GOES-U. At 2:34, a unique view of the shockwaves from the boosters as they decelerate back through the sound barrier is available.

At 5:26 PM on June 25th, Falcon Heavy’s twenty-seven Merlin 1D engines roared to life, lifting the rocket off the launch pad as its surroundings shook under the force of 5.4 million pounds of thrust.  Its center core quickly throttled down to preserve fuel for the latter portion of its ascent, while its two side boosters lifted it above the densest regions of Earth’s atmosphere.  The reusable boosters were jettisoned 2 minutes and 30 seconds into the flight.  The expendable core stage, travelling too fast to return to a drone ship after accelerating the payload to the correct velocity, was discarded 4 minutes and 4 seconds after launch.  The second stage finished the job by placing GOES-U into a parking orbit; it then reignited its engine twice over the following four hours to place the weather satellite into a highly elliptical Geostationary Transfer Orbit.  Meanwhile, the two side boosters conducted boostback burns to return to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.   They conducted nearly simultaneous vertical landings at Landing Zones 1 and 2 eight minutes after liftoff, where SpaceX engineers will begin preparing them for their next mission.

SpaceX’s triple-barreled Falcon Heavy lifts off on its maiden voyage in 2018. Since then, it has completed ten flights with a 100% success rate. Credit: Mike Killian/AmericaSpace.

GOES-U has performed well during its first two days in space.  The satellite was built by NASA, but it will be operated in orbit by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) throughout its 15-year lifespan.  Shortly after it separated from Falcon Heavy’s second stage, GOES-U made contact with the communications dishes of the Deep Space Network.  Over the coming two weeks, it will use its hypergolic thrusters to maneuver into a geostationary orbit, where it will maintain a constant vigil over the eastern United States.

The successful launch of GOES-U is also a major milestone for SpaceX.  It marks the tenth flight of the Falcon Heavy since its much-anticipated debut six years ago.  While the Falcon Heavy might look like three Falcon 9 cores strapped together, in reality, it is a much more complicated vehicle.  For instance, the center core is a unique stage which is reinforced to withstand the combined force of all 27 engines.  Prior to the launch of ViaSat-3 last May, SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk wrote, “I love that rocket, but it’s scary.  So many state changes post-liftoff” [1].  The fact that the Falcon Heavy has a spotless track record is a testament to the talent and the vigilance of the SpaceX engineering team which operates it.

One of the GOES-U Falcon Heavy’s side boosters uses its grid fins to autonomously steer itself towards the landing zone. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace.

Meanwhile, GOES-U will play a vital role in weather forecasting for years to come.  AmericaSpace’s Ben Evans provided a detailed description of the satellite’s instrument suite in a prelaunch article.  When weather forecasters show a regional image of cloud patterns or storms over the United States on TV, the background image typically comes from one of NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES).  It is no coincidence that fatalities from severe weather have declined significantly since the dawn of the Space Age.  In 1935, Florida’s infamous Labor Day storm took the lives of 422 Americans.  In 2018, Hurricane Michael, another Category 5 storm, also hit Florida yet had a smaller human toll (74 fatalities).  Due to their elevated vantage point in geostationary orbit, GOES satellites are able to monitor the entire Western Hemisphere.  They provide advance warning of severe weather events – including wildfires, tornados, and solar flares in addition to hurricanes – giving local authorities enough time to plan evacuation efforts which save lives.  Heavy-lift rockets, such as the Falcon Heavy, enable the deployment of the 6,500-pound satellites in the GOES constellation.

AmericaSpace photojournalists Jeff Seibert and Alan Walters were on site to chronicle the deployment of this crucial spacecraft.  A gallery of their photographs, beginning with preparations for the launch and ending with the touchdown of the two side boosters, is below.  

ALL images are © copyright to their respective photographers, all rights reserved. Please contact the photographer directly for permission to use or purchase via the e-mail addresses listed on our “People” page.

Falcon Heavy stands poised for launch at Launch Complex 39A. Gleaming white side boosters, such as these two cores, are a rare sight due to SpaceX’s extensive reuse of rocket hardware. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.
GOES-U is encapsulated inside its payload fairing. The band of grey paint on the second stage helps cool the propellant for multi-hour missions. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.
Clouds of water vapor swirl around Falcon Heavy as T-0 approaches in this still frame from one of our remote video cameras. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.
Falcon Heavy lifts off from historic Launch Complex 39A, carrying the GOES-U weather satellite to geostationary orbit. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.
Twenty-seven Merlin engines roar to life as GOES-U lifts off in this view from Beach Road. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.
Falcon Heavy clears the tower in this view from the rooftop of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.
Falcon Heavy climbs skyward, backdropped by a crystal-blue sky. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.
GOES-U goes supersonic 58 seconds after launch. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace.
Falcon Heavy pitches downrange as the GOES-U mission accelerates towards orbit. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace.
The Falcon Heavy’s exhaust plume expands as it climbs into the thin upper atmosphere. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace.
Vapor condenses around one of the GOES-U side boosters as it makes its way back towards the Space Coast. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace.
Shockwaves from the returning Falcon Heavy boosters propagate through the clouds as the cores decelerate through the sound barrier. The shockwaves are more readily apparent in the video at the beginning of this article. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.
A Falcon Heavy side booster uses its grid fins to autonomously steer itself towards the landing zone. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace.
One of the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters deploys its landing legs shortly before touchdown. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace.
After completing their mission, the two Falcon Heavy side boosters maneuver towards a synchronized landing at LZ-1. Credit: Jeff Seibert/AmericaSpace.
A Falcon Heavy side booster conducts a landing burn to decelerate and touch down softly at LZ-1, bringing the GOES-U launch to a close. Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace.

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