SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket returns to flight after 3 years

SpaceX launches the world’s most powerful rocket, Falcon Heavy, on a Space Force mission.

The Falcon Heavy rocket shown during a ground test at its launch site in Florida in October. 

Table of Contents

  • Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Tuesday launched the first Falcon Heavy mission in over three years.
  • SpaceX’s rocket is carrying the classified USSF-44 mission for the U.S. Space Force, which is also the first operational national security mission for Falcon Heavy.
  • SpaceX continues to launch its Falcon series of rockets at a high rate, with Tuesday’s mission marking the company’s record 50th launch this year.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy — a towering, three-pronged spacecraft that is the world’s most powerful operational rocket — returned to the skies for the first time since mid-2019 on Tuesday.

The rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9:41 a.m. ET, carrying satellites to space for the US military in a covert mission known as USSF-44.

The Falcon Heavy made its premiere in 2018 to much excitement, with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk opting to launch his own Tesla Roadster as a test cargo. The automobile is still in space, following an oblong route around the sun that extends all the way to Mars’ orbit.

However, the rocket had not launched since 2019, as the great majority of SpaceX’s missions do not require the increased power of the Falcon Heavy. In contrast, SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket has launched roughly 50 missions this year alone.

With each Falcon Heavy launch, the rocket makes a spectacular display back on Earth.

SpaceX has attempted to land all three of the rocket’s boosters — the towering white sticks tied together to provide the rocket increased power at liftoff — on land and sea landing pads so that they can be repaired and reused on future missions. This is done to reduce mission costs.

Following the launch on Tuesday, the corporation attempted to recover only two of the Falcon Heavy rocket’s first-stage rocket boosters. According to a news release from the US military’s Space Systems Command, the centre booster was let to fall into the water, where it will remain abandoned, because it did not have enough residual fuel to direct its voyage home.

The side boosters, on the other hand, made their trademark synchronised landing on ground pads near the Florida shore.

Everything about this rocket

Though the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world, two gigantic rockets are vying for the distinction.

NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket is sitting in the Kennedy Space Center’s towering Vehicle Assembly Building, just a few kilometres from the launch pad where the Falcon Heavy will take off.

While the Falcon Heavy produces approximately five million pounds of thrust, SLS is planned to produce up to 8.8 million pounds of thrust – 15% greater thrust than the Saturn V rockets that powered the mid-twentieth-century moon landings.

Everything about this mission

There isn’t a lot of public information on the USSF-44 mission. The US military’s Space Systems Command said in a news release that the launch will place multiple satellites into orbit on behalf of the Space Systems Command’s Innovation and Prototyping Delta, which is focused on rapidly developing space technology as it relates to tracking objects in space, among other things.

When contacted via email, the Space System Command declined to give additional information regarding the mission. It referred questions to the Air Force Secretary’s Office, which similarly declined to respond.

The US military is a major driver of the domestic rocket economy, awarding lucrative launch contracts to private launch companies such as SpaceX and its main competitor in the field, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX’s Falcon series rockets continue to be launched at a rapid clip, with Tuesday’s mission marking the company’s 50th launch of the year. However, the corporation is still working on the even larger Starship rockets that it hopes will eventually replace them.