SpaceX Falcon Heavy lifts off with heaviest commercial communications satellite ever

SpaceX will make another attempt Friday to launch the world’s heaviest commercial communications satellite atop a Falcon Heavy rocket after technical problems halted a countdown on Wednesday. Liftoff from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A with the Jupiter 3/EchoStar 24 satellite is scheduled for 11:04 p.m. EDT (0304 UTC Saturday).

The U.S. Space Force 45th Weather Squadron at Cape Canaveral is forecasting a 75 percent chance of acceptable conditions for launch during the 99-minute launch window.

On Wednesday the Falcon Heavy was fully fueled but, with one minute, five seconds left on the clock, the launch director called an abort. SpaceX initially retargeted the launch for Thursday, potentially setting up a record-breaking doubleheader with a Falcon 9 launching from neighboring pad 40. But it pushed the launch back another day to resolve the issues with the rocket. On Friday afternoon the company said in a Tweet: “All systems are looking good.”

It will be the seventh mission for the Falcon Heavy and the third flight of the rocket this year. The Falcon Heavy’s twin side boosters, which have made two previous flights, will return to SpaceX’s Landing Zones 1 & 2. The rocket’s core stage will need all its capacity to loft the giant satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit and will not be recovered.

Falcon Heavy stands on the launch pad early this morning as a Falcon 9 lifts off from pad 40 on a Starlink delivery mission. Image: SpaceX.

The Jupiter 3/EchoStar 24 satellite, housed inside the rocket’s payload fairing, will be the heaviest commercial communications satellite ever launched. The 9-metric-ton satellite will expand reach of the HughesNet satellite internet service to nearly 80 percent of the population across the Americas. It features 300 spot beams to target coverage and has 500 Gbps of capacity.

Sharyn Nerenberg, the vice president of corporate communications at EchoStar, said following launch, Jupiter 3 will go through the process of orbit raising and testing as it arrives in its orbital slot of 95 degrees West longitude. It will take the place of EchoStar’s Spaceway 3 satellite, which launched back on Aug. 14, 2007.

“The Hughes’ Jupiter fleet of satellites is actually the largest Ka-band fleet across the Americas,” Nerenberg said. “It’s comprised of the Jupiter 1 satellite, the Jupiter 2 satellite, three hosted payloads over Latin America and soon, the Jupiter 3 satellite.”

Nerenberg is relying on the Falcon Heavy for this launch because it needs the capability of a heavy lift rocket for such a massive satellite. The previous Jupiter missions used Arianespace’s Ariane 5 in 2012 and ULA’s Atlas V rocket in 2016.

Falcon 9 pictures at pad 39A prior to its first launch attempt on Wednesday. Image: Adam Bernstein/Spaceflight Now.

Nerenberg said launching to geostationary orbit allows them to reach more people with fewer satellites.

“A geostationary satellite is proven, it’s time-tested and they’re great at laying down dense broadband capacity right where our customers need it the most,” Nerenburg said. “And so, Jupiter 3 was designed to do exactly that. It was custom designed to lay down the most capacity possible where we know our customers really need it.”

She said the improved broadband connectivity is designed to help those in rural areas of the Americas.

“Additionally, Jupiter 3 is going to be great for cellular backhaul for mobile network operators, helping them extend reach to more people beyond their terrestrial towers, where their terrestrial towers can reach,” Nerenberg said. “It’s also going to be used for aeronautical connectivity, for WiFi in the sky for airplanes traveling across North and South America. They’ll be able to have higher speeds in flight.”

Service using Jupiter 3 is expected to begin this fall in the fourth quarter of 2023, according toe Nerenberg.

Our live coverage of the Falcon Heavy countdown and launch will begin at 9:45 p.m. EDT (0145 UTC).