SpaceX’s most powerful rocket returns to flight and nails a synchronized landing

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The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches on secret mission USSF-67 for the US Space Force at Cape Canaveral, Florida, US, January 15, 2023.

JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS


MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. (CNN) — SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the towering launch vehicle known for the aerial acrobatics of its boosters and synchronized landings on return to Earth, took to the skies Sunday, delivering national security payloads into orbit for the US Army.

Dubbed USSF-67, the mission took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:56 p.m. ET, marking the fifth successful flight of the rocket that was recently dethroned as the world’s most powerful operational launch vehicle. This mission was initially advertised to launch on Saturday, and the reason for the one-day delay was not immediately clear.

The Falcon Heavy debuted to much fanfare in 2018 when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed his personal Tesla Roadster as a test payload at launch. The car is still in space following an elongated path around the sun that swings out to the orbital path of Mars.

The rocket followed up that test mission with two launches in 2019 before taking a three-year hiatus; the vast majority of SpaceX’s missions do not require the boosted capability of the Falcon Heavy. On the other hand, the Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX’s workhorse, has launched more than 60 times in 2022 alone. groups of astronauts to space as well Starlink satellites and a variety of other spacecraft.

But SpaceX is now making it lucrative military launch contracts it signed years ago for the Falcon Heavy. The missile returned to flight in November with the launch of the US Army’s USSF-44 mission, and Sunday’s launch followed up on that display.

“USSF-44 contained six payloads on one satellite that will carry communications, space weather detection and other technologies to near geosynchronous orbits,” said the Army’s Space Operations Command.

And USSF-67 will use the same type of spacecraft deployed on USSF-44 called LDPE, which is essentially a space bus that can carry smaller satellites. The Falcon Heavy also carried a communications satellite, the Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM, for the US Space Force.

Additional details about the satellites on Sunday’s mission were not immediately available.

With every launch, the Falcon Heavy rocket puts on a dramatic show back to Earth.

After Sunday’s mission, the company recovered two of the Falcon Heavy rocket’s first stage boosters — the long white sticks that were tied together to give the rocket its increased power at launch. After expending most of their fuel, the side boosters fell away from the central core and reoriented to cut back through Earth’s atmosphere.

As they approached the ground, the boosters re-ignited their engines and completed a synchronized landing on ground cushions near the Florida coastline. It’s a signature move for SpaceX, which routinely repairs and reuses its rocket boosters to lower the cost of launches.

SpaceX did not attempt to recover the center booster due to fuel requirements.

The company has not yet successfully recovered all three boosters, although it is getting close. The two side boosters made an accurate, synchronized landing on ground cushions after an April 2019 mission, and the rocket’s center booster landed on a seafaring platform. But rough waves toppled it.

All about this rocket

For many years, the Falcon Heavy was the most powerful operational missile in the world. But in November, NASA’s new lunar rocket, dubbed the Space Launch System, or SLS, stole that title with its inaugural launch. SLS launched the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission around the moon, paving the way for future missions with astronauts on board.

While the Falcon Heavy takes about 5 million pounds of thrust, SLS delivers a whopping 8.8 million pounds of thrust — 15% more than the Saturn V rockets that powered the Apollo moon landings.

At its South Texas experimental facilities, SpaceX is in the final stages of preparations for the first orbital launch attempt of its Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket. While the test flight is still awaiting final approval from federal regulators, it could begin in the coming weeks.

If successful, SpaceX’s starship would dethrone the SLS as the most powerful rocket flying today.

The Starship system is expected to outperform both SLS and Falcon Heavy. The forthcoming Super Heavy booster, which is designed to launch the Starship spacecraft into space, is expected to defer about 17 million pounds of thrust.

However, it’s not all a competition. Both SpaceX’s SLS rocket and spaceship are integral to NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in half a century.

SpaceX has its own ambitious vision for the starship: to transport people and cargo to Mars in the hopes of one day establishing a permanent human settlement there.

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