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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy – a hulking three-pronged vehicle that’s the world’s most powerful operational rocket – is about to return to the skies for the first time since mid-2019.
Take-off is scheduled for Tuesday at 9:41 a.m. ET from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket will carry satellites into space for the US military on a secret mission dubbed USSF-44.
The Falcon Heavy debuted in 2018 to much fanfare as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk elected to launch his personal Tesla Roadster as a test payload during launch. The car is still in spacetaking 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 satellite television and telephone service in orbit for Arabsat based in Saudi Arabia, and the other delivered a batch of experimental satellites for the United States defense department.
But the rocket hasn’t 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.
SpaceX attempted to land the rocket’s three boosters – the large white sticks that are tied together to give the rocket its boosted liftoff power – at land and sea landing pads so they could be handed over new and reused on future missions. He does this to reduce mission costs.
SpaceX has yet to land and retrieve all three rocket boosters after the same mission, although it has 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, big waves at sea knocked him down.
SpaceX won’t attempt to recover the core booster after Tuesday’s launch because it won’t have enough fuel remaining to guide its return trip, according to a Press release of the US Army’s Space Systems Command. However, the company will once again attempt to bring the two lateral thrusters back to their ground platforms on the Florida coast.
In a tweet, the military warned people near the launch site that the thrusters will set off two sonic booms as they roll back for landing.
Although the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world, there are two huge rockets wait in the wings claim this title.
NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket, which is currently expected to attempt its inaugural launch later in November to send the Artemis 1 uncrewed mission around the moon, sits in the massive Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building, which sits just 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, the SLS is expected to push back as much as 8.8 million pounds of thrust – 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets that powered the mid-20th century moon landings.
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 federal regulators, it could take off before the end of the year.
The Starship system should significantly outperform SLS and Falcon Heavy. The upcoming Super Heavy booster, which is designed to propel the Starship spacecraft into space, is expected to delay approximately 17 million pounds of thrust only.
SpaceX’s SLS rocket and spacecraft are an integral part of NASA 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 US Army’s Space Systems Command said only that the launch will put several satellites into orbit on behalf of Space Systems Command’s Innovation and Prototyping Delta, which focuses on the rapid development of space technology in this Concerning tracking objects in space as well as a range 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 U.S. military is a major driver of the national rocket economy, doling out lucrative launch contracts that are coveted by private launch companies, including SpaceX and its main competitor in the regionUnited Launch Alliance, which is a joint operation between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.