The powerful Falcon Heavy launches two Space Force satellites in spectacular fashion

With thunder, SpaceX launched a triple-core Falcon Heavy rocket for the U.S. Space Force on Sunday, boosting a military communications satellite into space along with a maneuverable cargo carrier hosting five classified technology demonstration packages.

Generating more than 5 million pounds of thrust from 27 Merlin engines powering the rocket’s center core and twin boosters, the Falcon Heavy lifted off from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 p.m. EST, flying east across the Atlantic Ocean.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy carrying two US Space Force satellites takes off from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Ramp 39A to begin SpaceX’s third launch of the new year.

William Harwood/CBS News

A huge rocket, second only to NASA’s much more expensive one Space Launch System rocket for the moon in takeoff power, put on a spectacular show for spaceport workers, area residents and tourists alike, soaring into the glare of the setting sun on a brilliant stream of flaming exhaust.

It was only the fifth flight of the Falcon Heavy, which debuted in 2018 with a launch Tesla roadster into space with a doll in a suit behind the wheel.

While the Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in SpaceX’s inventory, it will be dwarfed by the company’s reusable Super Heavy/Starship, which is preparing for its first test flight in the next few months from Boca Chica, Texas.

Ascending into the glare of the setting sun, the Falcon Heavy put on a spectacular show as seen from the roof of the CBS office at the Kennedy Space Center.

William Harwood/CBS News

If it works as planned, the massive Super Heavy will generate 16 million pounds of thrust, twice that of NASA’s SLS and three times that of the Falcon Heavy.

But the tri-core Falcon Heavy, making its second launch for national security, recorded a perfect ascent into space on Sunday.

The two side boosters fired for two and a half minutes before falling off and flying back to a synchronized side landing at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Heralded as usual with shotgun blasts, the boosters flew for the first time aboard Space Force’s Falcon Heavy last November and both will be used again in an upcoming mission.

The central core booster fired for an additional minute and a half before it too fell away, leaving the rest of the ascent to the Falcon Heavy’s second stage. Unlike the side boosters, the core stage used all of its propellant gas as planned to exit the lower atmosphere and recovery was not possible.

The second stage used its unique vacuum-optimized Merlin engine to achieve an initial parking orbit before heading to a target geosynchronous orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. But as usual with many military launches, details have not been released.

The Space Systems Command said in a pre-launch news release that the Falcon Heavy was carrying two satellites for the USSF-67 mission: a military communications relay station and a deployable satellite with five technology demonstration payloads.

Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM (CBAS)-2 is designed to operate in geosynchronous orbit “to provide communications relay capabilities in support of our senior leaders and combatant commanders,” the statement said. “The mission of CBAS-2 is to augment existing military satellite communications capabilities and continuously broadcast military data via space-based satellite relay links.”

The second satellite, Long Duration Propulsive ESPA (LDPE)-3A, is a payload carrier equipped with its own propulsion and navigation systems “to rapidly place multiple, disparate payloads into orbit and provide critical data to inform and influence future U.S. Space Force programs.”

For the USSF-67 mission, the hosted payloads included operational prototypes for “enhanced situational awareness” and encryption technology for space-to-ground communications. Two other payloads will likely test space weather sensors and possibly test tracking equipment for other satellites.

The Falcon Heavy’s two sidecars have completed tandem landings at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station after helping lift the rocket out of the lower atmosphere.


LDPE is “a space freight train for experiments and prototypes in geosynchronous Earth orbit that can manifest in any National Security Space Launch mission with available mass margin,” said Col. Joseph Roth, director of innovation and prototyping at the Space Systems Command.

“LDPE’s modular … design and standard interfaces provide the perfect platform to host a wide variety of payloads in many mission areas.”

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