WASHINGTON – SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful launch vehicle in operation, orbited Tuesday on the first national security space launch mission for the U.S. Department of Defense.
The launch services and satellite technology company owned by billionaire Elon Musk has not flown the Falcon Heavy since 2019. The rocket lifted off from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, hosting two classified satellites that are part of the Space Force’s USSF. 44 mission.
“This launch culminates years of effort by a dedicated team comprised of the US Space Force and mission-focused people at SpaceX,” Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, Program Executive Officer for Assured Access to Space, said in an Oct. 27 press release. “Falcon Heavy is an important component of our overall lift capacity.”
For today’s flight, Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters, which provide the thrust needed to propel the vehicle beyond Earth’s atmosphere, returned to the two landing zones after separating from the rocket. The company aims to reuse recovered boosters for future missions.
USSF-44 was scheduled to launch in 2020, but was delayed by two years due to payload issues. The Space Force has not released many details on the satellites, but a spokesperson told C4ISRNET in an Oct. 28 email that the mission has at least six payloads ranging from communications to space weather sensing.
The service previously confirmed that one of the spacecraft is named TETRA-1, a microsatellite built by Millennium Space Systems, a subsidiary of Boeing. The satellite is designed for “various prototype missions,” according to the company’s website.
The rocket also carried the Space Force’s long-duration Propulsive Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle secondary payload adapter. Built by Northrop Grumman, the ring-shaped system has six ports, allowing the Space Force to attach multiple small payloads. The service calls this capability a “freight train for space.”
This was the second launch of the LDPE, and the Space Force plans to fly it one more time before transitioning to a new version of the Rapid On-Orbit Space Evaluation Ring, known as ROOSTER. The service awarded Northrop a $22 million contract in July for ROOSTER, which will provide low-cost rides into space for small satellites.