WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful launch vehicle in operation, carried its first National Security Space Launch mission for the U.S. Department of Defense to orbit on Tuesday.
The launch services and satellite technology company, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, hasn’t flown the Falcon Heavy since 2019. The rocket lifted off from 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 mission-focused people from across the U.S. Space Force and SpaceX,” Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, program executive officer for assured access to space, said in an Oct. 27 press release. “The Falcon Heavy is an important element of our overall lift capability.”
For today’s flight, the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters, which provide the thrust needed to carry the vehicle beyond Earth’s atmosphere, returned to two landing zones after separating from the rocket. The goal is for the company to reuse the recovered boosters for future missions.
USSF-44 was scheduled to launch in 2020, but payload issues caused a two-year delay. The Space Force hasn’t offered much detail on the satellites, but a spokesman told C4ISRNET in an Oct. 28 email there are at least six payloads ranging in mission from communications to space weather sensing.
The service previously confirmed that one of the spacecraft is called TETRA-1, a microsatellite built by Millennium Space Systems, a subsidiary of Boeing. The satellite was created 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 features six ports, allowing the Space Force to attach multiple small payloads. The service calls the capability a “freight train to space.”
This was LDPE’s second launch and the Space Force plans to fly it once more before transitioning to a new version called 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 to space for small satellites.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.