Launch preparations underway for first of up to five Falcon Heavy missions this year – Spaceflight Now

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket for the USSF-67 mission inside the integration hangar at Launch Complex 39A. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is set to kick off a busy week of launch preparations at Kennedy Space Center for the first of five planned Falcon Heavy rocket missions this year, with the goal of departing at dusk no earlier than Thursday night from the SpaceX Complex. Launch 39A on a flight for the US Space Force.

The Space Force mission, designated USSF-67, will deploy two military spacecraft into a high-altitude geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) above the equator. It will be the fifth flight of a Falcon Heavy rocket, one of the world’s most powerful launchers, and the first of five Falcon Heavy missions on SpaceX’s program by 2023.

Technicians inside SpaceX’s rocket integration hangar near pad 39A attached the three booster cores for the Falcon Heavy, and the transporter-erector needed to get the rocket to the pad rolled into the hangar on Saturday. Ground crews plan to lower the Falcon Heavy onto the transporter-erector and onto the launch pad in preparation for a test firing of its 27 Merlin main engines earlier in the week.

The Falcon Heavy will return inside the hangar after the engine firing test to receive its payload bay, which contains two Space Force satellites encapsulated within the rocket’s nose cone. SpaceX will then roll the fully assembled launcher back to Pad 39A and lift it vertically for final countdown preparations.

The launch is scheduled for no earlier than Thursday, during a launch window of 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm EST (2200-0300 GMT Thursday through Friday). The exact launch time will be revealed closer to the launch date, but liftoff is expected to occur around 6 pm EST, shortly after sunset on Florida’s Space Coast.

The Falcon Heavy will head east from the Kennedy Space Center, running on 5.1 million pounds of thrust from its 27 kerosene-fueled engines. The rocket’s two side boosters are reused from the most recent Falcon Heavy launch, the Space Force’s USSF-44 mission on November 1, and the center core booster is an entirely new item.

The USSF-67 mission’s side boosters will exit the core core stage approximately two and a half minutes into the flight. The two rocket boosters will turn around to fly tail first, then re-ignite a subset of their engines to propel themselves back to Cape Canaveral. The rockets will return to near-simultaneous landings at SpaceX recovery zones at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station about eight minutes after liftoff.

The core stage, which will slow its engines for the first phase of the flight, will fire nearly four minutes before plunging into the Atlantic. SpaceX will not attempt to recover the central core because it will dedicate all of its propellant to accelerating USSF-67’s payloads into space.

An upper stage engine will finish the task of maneuvering in a geosynchronous orbit that hugs the equator. The upper stage is expected to fire its engine three times, with a coast of approximately six hours between the second and third burns. The rocket will ascend through the Van Allen radiation belts to reach the mission’s target orbital injection altitude, approximately 22,000 miles above the equator, where the upper stage will complete its third and final engine fire.

The rocket will then release its two satellite payloads into a geosynchronous orbit, where the satellites will orbit at the same time as Earth’s rotation.

There are two main payloads on the USSF-67 mission. Publicly available Space Force mission patches suggest that one of the satellites is the Space Force’s second Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM (CBAS) spacecraft. The military’s first CBAS communications satellite, pronounced “sea bass,” launched in 2018 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

When the first CBAS satellite was launched in 2018, US military officials described it as a communications relay station designed to keep commanders in touch with top government leaders. “CBAS will augment existing military satellite communications capabilities and continuously transmit military data via space-based satellite communications relay links,” the military said in a brief 2018 mission description.

CBAS is expected to travel in the forward or top position inside the payload deck of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which will separate from the launcher a few minutes after liftoff to drop into the Atlantic Ocean for recovery and reuse.

Falcon Heavy’s 27 Merlin engines. Credit: SpaceX

The other payload on the USSF-67 mission is a ring-shaped spacecraft that houses multiple military technology demonstration experiments. Northrop Grumman developed the spacecraft, called the Long Duration Propulsion ESPA, to accommodate small military payloads on a single satellite platform, providing “an affordable path to space for both housed and detachable payloads,” the Space Systems Command of Northrop Grumman said. the Space Force.

“This bus carries hardware for five independent missions, eliminating the need for each mission to wait for a future launch opportunity,” Northrop Grumman said. Northrop Grumman assembled the spacecraft at its satellite production facility in Gilbert, Arizona.

The Space Force said that prototypes and experiments on the LDPE 3A platform “will advance warfare capabilities in the areas of in-orbit threat assessment, space hazard detection, and space domain awareness,” but military officials have not released details. additional payloads.

The Space Force has launched two previous LDPE missions, one on an Atlas 5 rocket in 2021 and another on the USSF-44 Falcon Heavy mission on November 1. Northrop Grumman developed the maneuverable LDPE spacecraft by modifying a ring-shaped structure often used to attach small satellites to their launchers, adding solar panels, computers, rocket boosters, and instrumentation to the adapter.

SpaceX introduced the Falcon Heavy rocket in a test flight on February 6, 2018, which sent a red Tesla Roadster into interplanetary space. Two Falcon Heavy missions flew on April 11, 2019 and June 25, 2019. Those missions put into orbit a commercial Arabsat communications satellite and 24 NASA and military spacecraft, respectively.

The next Falcon Heavy launch didn’t get off the ground until three and a half years later, following delays to the spacecraft assigned to fly on SpaceX’s heavy lift. The USSF-44 mission on November 1 was the first SpaceX launch to deploy payloads directly into geosynchronous orbit. The six-hour mission profile required SpaceX to make a few changes to the Falcon Heavy rocket, including adding gray paint to the exterior of the upper stage kerosene tank to help ensure the fuel didn’t freeze while the rocket was on. I floated in the cold atmosphere of space.

SpaceX aims to launch up to 100 missions this year, which would mark an increase from the 61 flights the company completed in 2022. There are five Falcon Heavy launches planned for 2023, all from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Falcon Heavy launches are scheduled alongside numerous Falcon 9 rockets and the possible debut of SpaceX’s new Starship megarocket.

There are two more Falcon Heavy missions scheduled for launch in the spring. One will launch the first ViaSat 3 Internet satellite to broadcast broadband service in the Americas for Viasat, and the other will launch the USSF-52 mission for the Space Force.

Later in the year, SpaceX plans to launch the Jupiter 3 satellite to provide Internet services for EchoStar’s Hughes Network Systems. That launch is not expected before May.

NASA’s robotic asteroid explorer Psyche is scheduled to depart from Earth on a Falcon Heavy rocket during a launch window that opens on October 10. The Psyche mission, delayed from 2022, will enter orbit around the metal-rich asteroid Psyche in 2029.

SpaceX has a backlog of 12 Falcon Heavy missions over the next few years, including all five launches planned for 2023.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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