SpaceX’s next Falcon Heavy launch on track to carry multiple military satellites

Falcon Heavy Flight 3 made use of both flight-proven side boosters and a new center core. Note the scorched landing legs and sooty exteriors. (SpaceX)

According to one of the US Space Force 44 (USSF-44) mission’s satellite providers, SpaceX’s next Falcon Heavy launch remains on track for late 2020 and will apparently be carrying more than one military satellite to orbit.

Successfully launched just 73 days apart in April and June 2019, SpaceX already has two twice-flown Falcon Heavy side boosters in storage somewhere in Cape Canaveral, Florida, raising the possibility that one or several of the rocket’s next launches could reuse those some boosters. However, NASASpaceflight.com has already confirmed that all three Falcon Heavy Flight 4 boosters will be new, likely representing 25-30%+ of all of SpaceX’s 2020 booster production output.

That also means that publicly-visible Falcon Heavy Flight 4 launch preparations will start much sooner than later as SpaceX works to ship its new boosters from its Hawthorne, California factory to McGregor, Texas for routine acceptance testing and finally to launch facilities in Florida.

Built by a Boeing subsidiary, the TETRA-1 spacecraft’s purpose is entirely unclear aside from a focus on testing “prototype missions in and around geostationary orbit (GEO).” (Millenium Space)

Based on SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy Block 5 launch, completed on April 11th, 2019, the next rocket’s three new boosters should begin arriving in Florida by mid-2020 – perhaps just a month or two from now. Prior to Arabsat 6A’s commercial Falcon Heavy launch debut, the first of the rocket’s boosters completed acceptance testing in McGregor, Texas and arrived at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) around mid-December 2018 – a bit less than four months before liftoff.

Per NASASpaceflight’s confirmation that all-new boosters are assigned to USSF-44, it’s also true that the mission will mark the second time SpaceX has completed serial production and delivery of a complete Falcon Heavy rocket. With that first-time pathfinder run already behind SpaceX thanks to its April 2019 Arabsat 6A launch, it’s likely that manufacturing and acceptance testing will be much more streamlined, while also reducing the amount of time it will take the rocket to go from Florida arrival to lift-off.

Falcon Heavy booster B1052, B1053, and B1055 took about two months to arrive in Florida and another two months to roll out to the launch pad. (Pauline Acalin)

USSF-44 is on track to become SpaceX’s first operational Falcon Heavy launch for the US government some 15-18 months after the company successfully completed STP-2 – a certification test flight for the US Air Force – in June 2019. While some work reportedly remains before SpaceX’s super heavy-lift rocket can be considered fully certified for high-value US military launches, Millenium Space’s April 21st update states that Falcon Heavy’s USSF-44 mission is still on track to “launch in late 2020”.

Falcon Heavy’s STP-2 payload stack is pictured here in June 2019 moments before encapsulation. (SpaceX)

Given that SpaceX is likely in the midst of Falcon Heavy Flight 4 booster production and could begin delivering hardware to Florida just 2-3 months from now, Millenium Space’s comment strongly implies that launch preparations are proceeding smoothly. If SpaceX still needs to complete one or several certification milestones, both it and the US military clearly have a firm plan and are confident that Falcon Heavy can be certified by Q4 2020.

SpaceX also appears to be supporting the US military’s relatively frequent addition of small secondary satellites – often prototypes meant to test new technologies or strategies – on large launches. Whether SpaceX will add secondary dispensers to the rocket’s upper stage or the ~3.7 metric ton (~8200 lb) USSF-44 satellite deploys them itself remains to be seen, but the mission will carry at least one other passenger (TETRA-1). If past US military launches are anything to go by, at least one or two other smaller satellites may also hitch a ride on Falcon Heavy later this year.

Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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