On Nov. 1, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket in the world, launched for the USSF-44 mission, a US Space Force contracted flight with a classified payload and at least one rideshare satellite, for the first time in more than three years. Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at the Kennedy Space Center saw the scheduled launch at 9:41 AM EDT (13:41 UTC). The US Space Force declared the mission successful a few hours later.
On its fourth launch, the Falcon Heavy rocket accomplished a remarkable feat on this mission. This was the first direct voyage to geostationary orbit for Falcon Heavy and SpaceX. (GEO). The Falcon Heavy upper stage had a lengthy coast phase between the GTO and GEO insertion burns to achieve this direct-to-GEO trajectory.
Traditionally, most missions, including Falcon 9 launches, place payloads bound for geostationary orbit in this orbit (GTO). This enables the spacecraft to launch itself, independent of the launch vehicle, into its intended final orbit in GEO, more than 35,200 kilometres (22,000 mi) above the Earth.
TETRA-1 and a second unidentified satellite were at least two separate spacecraft aboard. There might have been further classified payloads on board, but specifics weren’t made public before launch. A Boeing business, Millennium Space Systems, created and constructed TETRA-1. The microsatellite TETRA-1, which will be finished in 2020, was built for several prototype missions in and near GEO.
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Under the Space Enterprise Consortium Other Transaction Authority (OTA) charter of the US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, TETRA-1 was the prototype awarded. The ALTAIR-class small satellite product line serves as the foundation for the spacecraft. It is the first ALTAIR satellite to meet the requirements for GEO operations.
Purchased initially as AFSPC-44 for the US Air Force in 2019, the mission cost over $150 million and was due to launch no early than Q4 of 2020. The mission, however, experienced numerous delays because of problems with the “payload readiness,” as officials put it. The specific preparedness issues weren’t made available to the public.
A centre core booster and two side boosters make up the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Each has the same number of Merlin-1D engines—nine—as a conventional Falcon 9 aircraft. The centre core is strengthened to withstand the forces of liftoff that occur with being attached to the side boosters and cannot be converted. However, the side boosters can be converted for use as Falcon 9s.
Three new boosters were used in this mission. At the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Landing Zones 1 and 2 (LZ-1 and LZ-2), the side boosters B1064 and B1065 touched down. Officials first declared that these boosters would touch down on two barges that were drifting downrange in 2021.
Since it was recently altered to a return to launch site (RTLS) profile, LZ-1 and LZ-2 have had almost simultaneous landings. The new centre core, B1066, was spent after completing its mission because of the problematic launch profile.
I heard a rocket launch today. A Falcon Heavy really did launch the USSF-44 mission and you can read all about it or check out the @NASASpaceflight livestream replay.https://t.co/vak4RsG7uChttps://t.co/80txPxBTZj pic.twitter.com/ijFBakJY2Q
— Julia Bergeron (@julia_bergeron) November 1, 2022
The first stage started to fill up with RP-1, a purified form of kerosene, at T-50 minutes. The first stage, liquid oxygen (LOX) fill, started after five minutes. When completely loaded, the first stage, including the core and side boosters, could hold about 287,000 kg of LOX and 123,000 kg of RP-1.
The second stage started receiving RP-1 35 minutes before liftoff, and 17 minutes later, LOX loading started. The 27 Merlin 1D engines were chilled before the ignition at T-7 minutes before takeoff. As the vehicle was “in startup” just before T-1 minute, Falcon Heavy’s onboard computers took control of the count. The tanks then reached flight pressure shortly after.
With TEA/TEB, the 27 side boosters and core engines started a staggered ignition sequence just before liftoff. The vehicle verified its status once all engines reached maximum thrust. The car was propelled away from LC-39A by 5.1 million pounds of force, with all systems operating normally. The moment the Falcon Heavy arrived at Max-Q, less than a minute after taking off, the vehicle was subject to the highest dynamic pressures of the flight.
Up until two and a half minutes after liftoff, all 27 engines were still operating. At that point, both side boosters switched off, and separation occurred a few seconds later. After flipping themselves around, those boosters fired their second burn, a boost back burn, which set B1064 and B1065 on a track to return to LZ-1 and LZ-2.
The central booster cut off its nine engines three and a half minutes into the flight before detaching from the second stage. Then, in a process known as the second engine start one, the Stage 2 Merlin Vacuum (MVac) engine ignited (SES-1). Soon after, the payload fairing pieces that had shielded the USSF-44’s payloads before it entered space split apart and fell back to Earth for recovery.
Less than seven minutes after launch, the two side boosters started their entry burn as they came back into contact with Earth’s atmosphere. That put them on course for the landing burn, the final burn for each side booster. The vehicles completed their mission about eight and a half minutes after taking off from a few kilometres distance thanks to this final relight, gently touching down at LZ-1 and LZ-2 seconds apart from one another.
These landings celebrated Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets’ 150th and 151st successful landings for SpaceX. The second stage finished its initial burn at this time, resulting in a dual engine cutoff one (SECO-1). The next step entailed a second relight, which lifted the second stage and payloads to an apogee of approximately 35,786 km, close to geostationary orbit (22,236 mi).
The vehicle then started an extended coast phase. The RP-1 tank on the second stage received a unique grey paint coat applied before launch to prevent freezing while the car was in between burns. One last relights, SES-3, helped circularise the orbit after the lengthy coast phase before deploying the satellites. The second stage will depart from the recently placed satellites and enter a graveyard orbit.
This mission was the fourth Falcon Heavy launch and the 50th orbital launch for SpaceX this year, a record. Despite the most recent three-year break, the Falcon Heavy launch manifest is still full, with commercial, civil, and military launches planned for the upcoming years.