SpaceX lights up the Florida sky with Falcon Heavy launch


Following a three-year hiatus, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket celebrated its second successful launch in two months, lifting off Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:56 p.m. ET and carrying two satellites to geostationary orbit. 

Spectators on Florida’s Space Coast were treated with not just a twilight launch, which is known for producing cool views thanks to some atmospheric effects, but also a double landing of the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters back at Cape Canaveral roughly 8 minutes after liftoff.

Sonic booms crackled across the sky when the boosters touched down. The Falcon Heavy’s center core was discarded in the ocean and the two recovered boosters will be refurbished and flown again.  

The massive rocket, essentially three of SpaceX’s Falcon rockets strapped together, is designed for heavy payloads. Powered by 27 Merlin 1D engines, the Falcon Heavy launched two satellites as part of a semi-classified mission for the United States Space Force, dubbed USSF-67. SpaceX was awarded $316 million for this launch in 2020. 

The launch marked the first national security launch of the year. It was also Falcon Heavy’s fifth flight since its inaugural flight in 2018, as well as its second national security space launch following the USSF-44 mission last November. 

The two satellites on board will support military communications as well as some technology demonstration experiments. 

First is the CBAS 2 satellite, which is the second Continuous Broadcast Augmenting SATCOM satellite to launch. The first hitched a ride to space in 2018 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. 

Specific details on the CBAS 2 satellite are scarce due to the nature of its mission, but the Space Force did disclose that it is designed to operate in geosynchronous orbit and will provide communication relay capabilities to the military.

Also on board is a suite of technology demonstration missions housed in a spacecraft called the Long Duration Propulsive ESPA, which was built by Northrop Grumman. Much like a rideshare mission, this spacecraft houses multiple experiments that help reduce the cost of access to space. 

Officials at Northrop Grumman said that this spacecraft holds five different payloads, each with its own mission.

Two of those payloads are sponsored by the Space System Command: Catcher, which is a prototype sensor that will provide details on local space domain awareness, and WASSAT, which is designed to search for other spacecraft or spacecraft debris in orbit. 

Three additional payloads, from the military’s Space Rapid Capabilities Office, also aim to provide space situational awareness as well as secure space-to-ground communications. 

This mission was the second Falcon Heavy to launch in just two months, following a three-year hiatus. SpaceX says that was partly because there were delays in building the satellites, but also because Falcon Heavy is designed for larger, heavier payloads so there’s not as much need for it as a traditional Falcon 9 rocket. 

Falcon Heavy’s next mission is slated for this summer, when it will launch an interplanetary satellite to explore a metal asteroid called Psyche. That mission was also delayed from 2022 due to technical difficulties with the payload. 

The heavy lifter is also slated for other notable missions including launching NASA’s Europa Clipper mission and key components of NASA’s lunar Gateway in 2024, as well as the Grace Roman telescope in 2026.