The first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is currently scheduled for Tuesday, 2018-02-06, with a two and a half hour launch window which opens at 18:30 UTC and closes at 21:00 UTC (since this is a test flight which need not enter a precise orbit, the launch time is not critical). If the launch is postponed, the same launch window will be used on successive days, subject to availability of the range. The Sunday weather forecast predicts 80% probability of favourable conditions for launch during the Tuesday window.
Falcon Heavy consists of three first stage cores derived from the existing Falcon 9 first stage. The centre core is specially strengthened to accommodate the structural loads of the boosters and heavier payload, and to attach the two side boosters, which are slightly modified Falcon 9 first stages (in fact, the two boosters to be used on this flight have previously flown on SpaceX Falcon 9 missions). The three cores ignite simultaneously on the launch pad, with a total of 27 Merlin 1D engines, nine on each core, providing liftoff thrust of 22,819 kN (5.13 million pounds of thrust). This compares to the 34,000 kN thrust of the Saturn V moon rocket, and 30,255 for the Space Shuttle (main engines plus solid rocket boosters).
But what matters isn’t thrust, but rather a launcher’s ability to deliver payload to where the customer wants it. Here, the Falcon Heavy, if it works, will become the heaviest lift launcher in service. Here, I’ll compare payload to low Earth orbit (LEO), since that’s the fairest comparison of launchers: regardless of the ultimate destination, any rocket must first achieve orbital velocity. The Saturn V could put 140 tonnes into LEO, while the Space Shuttle had a maximum payload of 24.4 tonnes (the reusable orbiter itself weighed 78 tonnes, but does not count as payload). Falcon Heavy can launch 63.8 tonnes to LEO, more than twice the payload of its closest competitor, the Delta IV Heavy (28.79 tonnes). Russia’s Proton M+ has a payload capacity of 23 tonnes, while the European Ariane 5 can deliver 21 tonnes to LEO.
This test flight will not carry a payload for a customer. Many things which can only be tested in flight, particularly the structural loads and aerodynamics of the three core first stage at max Q and separation of the two side boosters from the core (which runs at reduced thrust from shortly after liftoff until separation, and then throttles up to full thrust for the remainder of its burn), and customers who require this kind of lift capability aren’t likely to risk their payloads on a first flight. Instead, Falcon Heavy will be carrying a car.
This is Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster with its Starman test dummy on board, attached to the Falcon Heavy payload adapter. It will be enclosed in the payload fairing for launch and, if the mission is successful, injected into an orbit around the Sun which will venture as far from the Sun as the orbit of Mars (but will not approach the planet). The payload serves only as a mass simulator, but has a lot more style than the usual steel or tungsten dummy payload carried on inaugural flights of other launchers.
The three first stage cores are intended to be recovered. After separating from the centre core, the two side boosters will return to the landing zone at Cape Canaveral for near-simultaneous landings. The centre core will fly downrange and land on the drone ship in the Atlantic.
The second stage is identical to that of the Falcon 9. Once the side boosters separate, a Falcon Heavy mission is essentially identical to that of Falcon 9; the white knuckle part will be from liftoff through booster separation.
You can watch a live webcast of the launch attempt on the SpaceX Web site. Coverage usually starts around 20 minutes before the scheduled launch time.
Earlier today, Rocket Lab successfully launched an Electron rocket into orbit from their launch site on the Mahia Peninsula of the north island of New Zealand. Here is video of the final countdown and flight.
The Electron is a “smallsat” launcher with a maximum payload capacity of 225 kg to low Earth orbit, with the ability to place 150 kg in a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit. The launcher uses Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engines: nine in the first stage and one with a vacuum nozzle extension in the second stage. The engines are largely produced by additive manufacturing (“3D printing”) and are designed for high volume and low cost production. Uniquely among current rocket engines, fuel is pumped into the combustion chamber by an electric pump powered by a lithium polymer battery. This increases the efficiency of the engine from the 50% typical of gas generator cycle engines to around 95% without the plumber’s nightmare complexity and propensity to explode of staged combustion designs.
On this flight, the Electron carried three small satellites for two customers. Previously, most small satellites were launched as piggyback or ride-sharing payloads on launches of other satellites, which constrained the small satellite operators to use the same orbits and operate on the schedule of the primary payload. Rocket Lab hopes to provide responsive launch to whatever orbit the customer requires. Launch costs are quoted as less than US$ 6 million for a dedicated launch, lower than any other current launch provider. The initial goal is to support up to fifty launches per year, with the ability to grow to one hundred if demand emerges. This isn’t quite a rocket a day, but it’s a step in that direction.
Early Monday, January 8th, at 01:00 UTC (20:00 EST on January 7th at the launch site in Florida), SpaceX launched a spacecraft identified only as “Zuma”. This mission has been a mystery since word of it first became public, and the mystery appears to have just deepened even more.
In October 2017, SpaceX filed paperwork with the Federal Communications Commission requesting permission for a “Mission 1390”. This was unusual, as no mission for the range of dates requested appeared on the SpaceX mission manifest statement. A few days later, several sources reported that the flight would launch a payload built by Northrop Grumman for the U.S. government. A Northrop Grumman spokesman confirmed this, but said nothing further about the payload or its government customer. This is already unusual: classified payloads launched by the Air Force or the National Reconnaissance Office are usually identified by at least the name of the contracting agency. All that is known about this payload is that the customer is an unnamed part of the U.S. government.
Further, the intended orbit, which was not disclosed but which can be inferred from the launch site and azimuth which were disclosed as part of the range’s announcement of the exclusion area for ships and aircraft, was odd. Most spy satellites launch into polar orbit from California, or to geostationary orbit from Florida. But this satellite was headed to low Earth orbit inclined around 51 degrees to the equator—curious.
The flight was scheduled for November, 2017, and after several delays, on November 17th it was announced the flight was postponed while data on a fairing (the nose cone which encapsulates the payload during ascent through the Earth’s atmosphere) test performed for another customer were reviewed. Then it was announced that the launch attempt would stand down indefinitely, with no reason given. Launches for other customers, some of which used a payload fairing, continued nonetheless.
The mission was then announced to be launched in early January from the newly-refurbished Launch Complex 40. After additional postponements, the mission was launched on the night of January 7/8, 2018. As is usual for launches of secret payloads, the SpaceX launch webcast ceased coverage of the mission after separation of the second stage, and showed only the landing of the first stage. Here is the complete webcast; the launch occurs at the 13 minute mark.
Everything appeared to go normally, including a successful landing of the first stage.
Then, yesterday, several sources reported that the mission had failed, some saying that the spacecraft had failed to separate from the second stage, and/or the combined second stage and spacecraft had fallen to Earth (presumably to burn up in the atmosphere). Well, these things happen. But then a SpaceX spokesperson said, “We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.” If the rocket performed nominally (as planned), then the second stage and satellite would be in orbit, whether they separated or not.
Yet another unusual aspect of this mission is that unlike most SpaceX missions, where SpaceX provides the interface between the satellite and the launcher and is responsible for separation of the satellite when it reaches the intended orbit, in this case it had been disclosed that the payload adapter had been developed and provided by Northrop Grumman. This raises the possibility that it is the adapter which failed, which would be consistent with the SpaceX statement that the Falcon 9 performed successfully, since if the satellite failed to separate, that would be Northrop Grumman’s responsibility, not theirs. SpaceX has not announced postponement of other Falcon 9 missions on its manifest, as would be expected after a mission failure due to their hardware.
But again, failure of the satellite to separate would still leave it in orbit. Did it actually go into orbit, and if so, what happened subsequently? More enigmas…the National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC), a part of NASA, assigned the satellite the COSPAR designation 2018-001A, but released no orbital elements, which is routine for classified missions. But NSSDC does not assign designations to objects which failed to achieve orbit. Does this mean it did make orbit? Hard to tell: the object is now missing from the NSSDC catalogue. The US Strategic Command, which operates the Space Surveillance Network, added the object to its catalogue as USA 280, using the numeric designation customary for secret satellites. That usually means the object completed at least one orbit. But Strategic Command now says there is “nothing to add to the satellite catalog at this time”. What does that mean? Was USA 280 added by error, or is there nothing to add to its entry? They aren’t saying.
It may be conceivable that, if the satellite failed to separate from the second stage, it used its on-board propulsion to de-orbit the combined satellite and stage. That would be consistent with the SpaceX statement, the entry into the orbital catalogues, and the report that the object fell to Earth. Since nothing is known about the satellite and its capabilities, this is pure speculation.
In cases such as these, amateur sky watchers often provide clues as to what is going on, but an object in the expected orbit is presently positioned poorly with respect to the Sun for optical observation.
In summary: a secret satellite from an undisclosed government agency, launched after numerous delays into an unusual orbit, which may or may not have failed, and may or may not be in two separate catalogues of objects in orbit. Which the launch contractor says their rocket performed nominally and the satellite contractor isn’t talking.