Falcon Heavy hauls military satellites to high orbit after spectacular sunset launch

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket fires away from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida with two U.S. Space Force satellites. Credit: SpaceX

A U.S. military data relay satellite and a rideshare platform with its own suite of payloads rocketed into a sunset sky over Florida’s Space Coast Sunday on a Falcon Heavy launcher, putting on a dazzling show for local residents and visitors as the rocket’s two side boosters returned to Cape Canaveral for landing.

The Falcon Heavy lifted off from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 p.m. EST (2256 GMT) Sunday. The mission is the first of five Falcon Heavy rockets SpaceX plans to launch this year for the Space Force, NASA, and commercial customers.

Following a smooth countdown, the Falcon Heavy lit its 27 Merlin main engines and throttled up to full power, producing 5.1 million pounds of ground-shaking thrust as the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket climbed away from the historic launch complex. The Falcon Heavy rolled onto a course due east from Kennedy Space Center, targeting an equator-hugging geosynchronous orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) above Earth.

The rocket’s two side boosters, each with nine engines, shut down about two-and-a-half minutes into the flight and dropped away from the core stage of the Falcon Heavy. The side boosters fired thrusters to flip around into a tail first orientation, then they each ignited three of their engines to thrust back toward Cape Canaveral for landing.

The core stage, which flew at partial thrust for the first few minutes of the flight, throttled up its nine engines to full power for another 90 seconds before jettisoning to fall into the Atlantic Ocean. Then the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy ignited for the first of three burns to first place the mission’s two Space Force satellites into a preliminary parking orbit, then raise the altitude and reduce the inclination to reach a circular geosynchronous orbit.

The Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters, meanwhile, returned to Cape Canaveral for near-simultaneous landings. The boosters ignited their engines in a final braking maneuver before settling on Landing Zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The timing of the launch and landings, just minutes after sunset in Central Florida, created conditions for a dazzling display as the Falcon Heavy soared into space. The day’s last rays of sunlight illuminated the rocket’s exhaust plume as the engines powered the launcher into the sky, including the colorful interaction between the plumes from the core stage and the two side boosters firing at the edge of space.

The Space Force confirmed the successful outcome of the semi-classified mission, designated USSF-67, about six hours after liftoff, the time it took for the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage to deploy the two satellites into the targeted high-altitude geosynchronous orbit, where the payloads will orbit in lock-step with Earth’s rotation.

“We had another fantastic launch today on a Falcon Heavy, just two months after our first National Security Space Launch mission using this launch system, and while the launch itself was impressive, I am most proud of the fact that we placed important capabilities into space that help our nation stay ahead of very real and growing threats,”  said Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, program executive officer for assured access to space at the Space Force’s Space Systems Command.

“We’re certainly on a roll with 96 consecutive successful national security space launches, and the takeaway is that we’ve really got a spectacular team working together on our most challenging launch profiles to ensure our mission partners get on orbit with confidence,” Purdy said in a statement.

The Falcon Heavy held the distinction as the most powerful operational rocket in the world until November, when NASA’s Space Launch System moon rocket took off on its inaugural flight. The Falcon Heavy, still the world’s most powerful commercial rocket in service, measures nearly 40 feet (12.2 meters) wide with three Falcon rocket boosters connected together.

SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy rocket is on the verge of becoming the most powerful rocket ever to fly, when it takes off from Texas on its first orbital test flight in the coming weeks or months.

Exhaust from 27 Merlin 1D engines fill the frame in this view from SpaceX. The Falcon Heavy rocket took off from Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 p.m. EST (2256 GMT) on Jan. 15. Credit: SpaceX

The two satellites on the USSF-67 mission launched on missions supporting military communications and technology demonstration experiments.

The Space Force’s CBAS 2 satellite rode in the upper position of the dual-payload stack. CBAS 2 (pronounced “sea bass”) is the military’s second Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM mission, following the first CBAS satellite which launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket in April 2018.

According to the Space Force’s Space Systems Command, CBAS 2 “is a satellite destined for geosynchronous orbit to provide communications relay capabilities in support of our senior leaders and combatant commanders.”

A Space Force spokesperson said they could not release the identity of the manufacturer of the CBAS 2 satellite. Officials did not disclose any more details about the spacecraft’s mission.

“The mission of CBAS 2 is to augment existing military satellite communication capabilities and continuously broadcast military data through space-based satellite relay links,” Space Systems Command said.

The other payload on the USSF-67 mission was a ring-shaped spacecraft hosting multiple military tech demo experiments. Northrop Grumman developed the spacecraft, called the Long Duration Propulsive ESPA, or LDPE, to accommodate small military payloads onto a single satellite platform, providing “an affordable path to space for both hosted and separable payloads,” said the Space Force’s Space Systems Command.

“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 Gilbert, Arizona, satellite production facility. All five of the LDPE 3A payloads will remain attached to the spacecraft throughout their missions, a Space Force spokesperson told Spaceflight Now.

The LDPE 3A spacecraft launched on the the Falcon Heavy rocket includes two “demonstration prototype” payloads from Space Systems Command, the military said. One of them, called Catcher, comes from the Aerospace Corporation. Catcher is a prototype sensor to provide “local space domain awareness insights,” Aerospace Corporation said. It is based on a previous Aerospace Corporation-developed instrument called Energetic Charged Particle-Lite, or ECP-Lite, to demonstrate new miniaturized technology that can diagnose adverse effects of radiation, charged particles, and other space weather events on spacecraft in orbit.

The other Space Systems Command payload on the LDPE 3A spacecraft is called WASSAT. According to Sandia National Laboratories, WASSAT is a prototype wide-area sensor consisting of four cameras to search for and track other spacecraft and space debris in geosynchronous orbit, where communications, missile detection, intelligence-gathering, and weather monitoring satellites operate.

The military’s Space Rapid Capabilities Office has three payloads on the LDPE 3A spacecraft, including two operational prototypes for space situational awareness missions, and one “operational prototype crypto/interface encryption payload providing secure space-to-ground communications capability,” Space Systems Command said in a statement.

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

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

The next Falcon Heavy launch didn’t take off until three-and-a-half years later, following delays in spacecraft assigned to fly on SpaceX’s heavy-lifter. The USSF-44 mission Nov. 1 was the first SpaceX launch to deploy payloads directly into geosynchronous orbit. The six-hour mission profile required SpaceX to make some changes to the Falcon Heavy rocket, including the addition of gray paint on the outside of the upper stage’s kerosene tank to help ensure the fuel did not freeze as the rocket coasted in the cold environment of space.

The same strip of gray paint was on the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy rocket for the USSF-67 mission.

The USSF-67 mission was SpaceX’s first mission awarded by the Pentagon’s National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract. ULA and SpaceX won rights in 2020 to launch the military’s most expensive and critical space missions over a period of five years. The Space Force awarded SpaceX a $316 million contract to launch the USSF-67 mission.

Artist’s concept of a Long Duration Propulsive ESPA spacecraft, based on Northrop Grumman’s ESPAStar satellite bus. Credit: Northrop Grumman

The Falcon Heavy rocket on the USSF-67 mission reused the two side boosters from the USSF-44 launch in November. Both boosters will be making their second flights to space, while the rocket’s center core was brand new. SpaceX did not attempt to recover the core stage on Sunday’s launch.

“The efficiencies garnered from reusability benefit all customers, adding flexibility to a dynamic launch queue and cost savings,” Space Systems Command said.

SpaceX and the Space Force have agreed to refurbish and reuse the side boosters from the USSF-44 and USSF-67 missions for the next Falcon Heavy launch for the military. That launch, named USSF-52, is scheduled to take off no earlier than April.

SpaceX plans to launch its next mission Wednesday from Cape Canaveral. A Falcon 9 rocket will launch on another satellite delivery flight for the Space Force, this time with a GPS navigation spacecraft.

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