SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches first U.S. national security mission
WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon Heavy lifted off Nov. 1 at 9:41 a.m. Eastern from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, carrying the U.S. Space Force USSF-44 mission to geostationary Earth orbit.
This was the vehicle’s first national security space launch mission, its fourth flight since 2018 and the first in more than three years.
The Falcon Heavy is made up of three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together, with 27 engines powering the first stage and one engine in the second stage.
USSF-44 — originally scheduled to launch in 2020 and delayed multiple times — was a direct-to-geostationary orbit launch carrying two Space Force satellites and small rideshare payloads.
About two and a half minutes after liftoff, both side boosters separated. The second stage separated from the core stage just over four minutes after liftoff. After second-stage separation, SpaceX ended the live webcast and did not show views of the second stage or the payloads at U.S. government request.
Both side boosters landed back at SpaceX’s Landing Zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, about eight and a half minutes after liftoff. SpaceX said these boosters — the company’s 150th and 151th successful recoveries — will be refurbished for future national security space missions.
The expendable center core was jettisoned into the Atlantic Ocean and was not recovered as the mission’s performance requirements did not allow enough fuel to return the stage back to Earth.
The Space Systems Command in a news release Tuesday evening confirmed the mission was successful.
USSF-44 marked a milestone for SpaceX as its first direct-to-GEO operational mission, requiring the Falcon Heavy upper stage to perform a long-duration coast and engine re-start. Typically SpaceX has deployed satellites to a geostationary transfer orbit and the spacecraft use their own propulsion to reach their final orbit 22,000 miles above Earth.
USSF-44 carried the Tetra-1 satellite and the LDPE-2 ESPA-class ring with six small satellites attached. Tetra-1 was built by Millennium Space Systems under a 2018 contract. The Space Force plans to use Tetra-1 as a test platform for rendezvous and proximity operations.
The LDPE-2 is the Long Duration Propulsive EELV Secondary Payload Adapter, a satellite bus made by Northrop Grumman. It hosted six payloads to demonstrate communications, space weather sensing and other technologies. This was the second of three missions for the LDPE program, which the Space Force views as an important capability to get payloads to GEO relatively quickly.
LDPE-1 launched aboard the Space Test Program mission on Dec. 7, 2021. LDPE-3A is scheduled to launch with the USSF-67 mission in 2023, also on a Falcon Heavy.
USSF-44 was SpaceX’s 50th launch of 2022.