SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket just launched two Space Force satellites

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on 1 November – REUTERS/Steve Nesius

By Leah Crane,
Published by New Scientist, 1 November 2022

After a long hiatus, SpaceX’s enormous Falcon Heavy rocket has launched for the fourth time, carrying two secretive satellites from the US Space Force into high orbits

SpaceX’s colossal Falcon Heavy rocket has launched for the fourth time. It is the most powerful rocket in use today, but it hasn’t launched since June 2019. Because of its incredible power, it can shuttle satellites into orbits that other operational rockets can’t reach, and despite the long hiatus the 1 November launch went off without a hitch.

This launch carried two satellites from the US Space Force, which has released scant details on what they will be used for – one of the two is classified. Both are now heading towards orbits about 36,000 kilometres above the ground in what is called a geostationary orbit, meaning the satellites will remain over the same spot on the planet and appear motionless in the sky.

Usually, when satellites are placed in geostationary orbit, the rocket drops them off lower down and then the satellites use onboard boosters to push themselves up into their final orbits. The Falcon Heavy is so powerful, however, that it will bring them to their final orbits over six hours or so following the launch.

The long delay between launches wasn’t caused by any problems with the rocket – both the first and second launches went smoothly from liftoff until the boosters landed back on the ground. Instead, the satellites intended to be launched kept getting delayed. There are 10 more missions on the docket in the next two years, though, so it is likely to fly again soon.

Those missions include several major NASA spacecraft: the Europa Clipper craft to visit Jupiter’s ocean moon, the Psyche craft to check out a strange metal asteroid, and even the first parts of a planned space station orbiting the moon.

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