SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launches Experimental Satellites

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The payloads included a NASA atomic clock and a solar sail project for the Planetary Society

SpaceX launched its first Falcon Heavy mission for the US Department of Defence early on Tuesday morning, launching 24 satellites for NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), universities and a nonprofit organisation as well as the US military.

The company described the third launch of its Falcon Heavy vehicle in Florida as one of the most complex it has attempted, with four separate upper-stage engine burns in order to deploy satellites into three distinct orbits.

The Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful space launch vehicle, lifted off at 2:30 a.m. local time (6:30 a.m. GMT) after a three-hour delay.

The craft’s two side boosters returned safely to Air Force launch pads, but the centre booster narrowly missed landing on its drone ship and crashed into the Atlantic.

The US Air Force’s 3700 kg Integrated Payload Stack (IPS). Image credit: Air Force Space & Missile Systems Centre

‘Long shot’

The central booster’s successful return had been described by SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk as “a long shot” due to the higher-than-usual speeds required for the liftoff.

The mission, called Space Test Programme 2 (STP-2), launched a 3,700-kilogramme payload called the “Integrated Payload Stack” for the US Air Force, as well as an atomic clock being tested by NASA for space navigation, a test satellite for telescope technologies and a solar sail project partly funded by the non-profit Planetary Society.

Falcon Heavy’s first test mission was carried out in February of last year, when it launched a Tesla roadster into space, with its first commercial mission launching in April, lofting the communications satellite Arabsat-6A into orbit.

The two side booster rockets used in Tuesday’s launch were reused from the April launch.

In May SpaceX began launching satellites for a planned broadband service, using a lower-powered Falcon 9 rocket.

In December of last year SpaceX carried out its first-ever mission for the US military, launching a communications satellite atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

Image credit: SpaceX