SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy takes command of the USSF-44 on its first flight in three years

The world’s most powerful operational rocket, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, took to the skies over Florida for the first time in more than three years on November 1 for the USSF-44 mission, and the US Space Force has contracted a secret payload and flight-sharing at least one satellite.

Liftoff took place on time at 9:41 a.m. EDT (13:41 UTC) from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center. Several hours later, the US Space Force confirmed that the mission was a success.

In this mission, the Falcon Heavy rocket has reached a new milestone on its fourth flight ever. This was the first direct mission of both Falcon Heavy’s and SpaceX to geostationary orbit (GEO). To achieve this direct path to GEO, the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy experienced a multi-hour coastal phase between the GTO and GEO input burns.

Traditionally, most missions, including Falcon 9 flights, send payloads directed to geostationary orbit to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO). This allows the spacecraft to propel itself into its final orbit and ultimately into geosynchronous orbit more than 35,200 km (22,000 mi) above Earth in place of the launch vehicle.

On board were at least two different spacecraft: TETRA-1 and another unknown satellite. There was the possibility of additional secret payloads on board, but the exact details were not revealed before takeoff.

The TETRA-1 was designed and built by Millennium Space Systems, a subsidiary of Boeing. Completed in 2020, TETRA-1 is a small satellite built for various prototyping missions in and around GEO. TETRA-1 was the first prototype award under the US Space Force’s Other Transactions Authority (OTA) charter of the Center for Space and Missile Systems. The spacecraft is based on the ALTAIR-class small satellite production line. It is the first GEO-qualified ALTAIR satellite for operations.

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The mission, originally purchased as AFSPC-44 for the US Air Force, cost nearly $150 million in 2019 and was scheduled to take off no later than the fourth quarter of 2020. However, the mission faced multiple delays as a result of what officials called Payload “Standby.” Exact readiness issues have not been released publicly.

The TETRA-1 satellite is under construction ahead of its flight on the Falcon Heavy. (credit: Millennium Space Systems)

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket consists of three boosters in its first stage: a central and two-sided booster. Each has nine Merlin-1D engines, the same amount as conventional Falcon 9 engines, and while the side boosters can be converted for use like Falcon 9s, the center core is optimized to withstand the take-off forces that come with contacting the side boosters and cannot be converted.

This mission used three brand new boosters. Side boosters, B1064 and B1065, It landed at Landing Zones 1 and 2 (LZ-1 and LZ-2) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Back in 2021, officials initially announced that these reinforcements would land on two floating barges. However, it was recently changed to the return to launch site (RTLS) profile, resulting in near-simultaneous landings at LZ-1 and LZ-2.

As a result of the difficult launch profile, the core of the new center, B1066, was expended after completing its mission.

At the T-50 minute, the first stage began filling with RP-1, a refined form of kerosene. After about five minutes, the first phase of liquid oxygen (LOX) filling began. The first stage, including the core and lateral reinforcers, contained approximately 287,000 kg of LOX and 123,000 kg of RP-1 at full.

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At the T-35 minutes before takeoff, the second stage began receiving RP-1, followed by loading LOX approximately 17 minutes later.

In the T-7 minutes until takeoff, 27 Merlin 1D engines were cooled before ignition. Shortly before the T-1 minute, the Falcon Heavy’s onboard computers took over control of the count because the vehicle was “in the starting line”, followed shortly after by the tanks reaching flight pressure.

Just before takeoff, the 27 engines on the side and core boosters started a TEA/TEB-assisted staggered ignition. Once all engines reach full thrust, the vehicle is validated. With all nominal regulations, 5.1 million pounds of thrust pushed the car away from the LC-39A.

Less than a minute after launch, the Falcon Heavy reached Max-Q, when the vehicle withstood the maximum dynamic forces during flight.

All 27 engines continued to burn until about two and a half minutes after takeoff, when both lateral boosters were cut off, followed by a separation seconds later. Those boosters then performed a maneuver to flip themselves before performing a second burn, called a boost burn, which set B1064 and B1065 on their course to return to the LZ-1 and LZ-2.

After about three and a half minutes into flight, the central booster shut down its nine engines before detaching from the second stage. Next, the Merlin Vacuum (MVac) second stage engine set off in a process known as Second Engine Start (SES-1). Soon, half of the payload, which had been protecting the USSF-44’s payload before the vehicle entered space, broke off and fell back to Earth for recovery.

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Meanwhile, a little over seven minutes after liftoff, the two side boosters began to burn their entry as they encountered Earth’s atmosphere again. This puts them on track for one last burn of each side booster, known as a landing burn. This final retreat slowed the vehicles until they each landed gently at LZ-1 and LZ-2 seconds apart, completing their mission about eight and a half minutes after the first takeoff a few miles away.

These landings marked SpaceX’s 150th and 151st successful landings of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.
While this was happening, the second stage completed its first burn cutting off the second engine (SECO-1). The next step involved a second re-illumination, pushing the second stage and payloads to a peak point near a geostationary altitude of 35,786 km (22,236 mi).

The Falcon Heavy is seen during start-up on the LC-39A, showing the gray bar on the RP-1 upper stage tank. (credit: Sawyer Rosenstein for NSF)

At this point, the car entered the extended coast stage. A special gray paint layer on the RP-1 second stage tank, which was applied before launch, ensured that the RP-1 did not freeze during the long gap between burns in the car.

After the several-hour coast stage, a final relay, SES-3, helped rotate the orbit before the satellites were deployed. The second stage will enter a graveyard orbit away from the newly deployed satellites.

The mission was SpaceX’s 50th orbital launch this year, a record for the company, and the fourth Falcon Heavy launch ever. Despite the gap of the last three years, the Falcon Heavy launch manifest remains busy, with military, civilian and commercial launches scheduled over the coming years.

(Main image: Falcon Heavy launch on the USSF-44 mission. Credit: Stephen Marr for NSF)

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