Falcon Heavy: SpaceX's Workhorse Readies for Its Most Challenging Test Yet

The world's most powerful rocket is gearing up for an ambitious launch.

SpaceX is about to take on the Falcon Heavy’s next major challenge: a launch that reuses two cores from a previous mission, the first time that the world’s most powerful rocket will reuse boosters.

The Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2, set for launch no earlier than June 24, will be the Falcon Heavy’s third-ever flight. The rocket packs a powerful punch, with over five million pounds of liftoff thrust, a figure only ever bested by NASA’s Saturn V that last flew in 1973. But while SpaceX has made saving boosters a key aspect of its mission to drive down the costs of space missions, this is only the first time that the rocket will reuse boosters.

The mission will lift off at 11:30 pm. Eastern time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at Launch Complex 39-A. This weekend, the brand new center core is set to arrive at the complex, ready to be joined to the reused side boosters:

Reusing cores is a key part of CEO Elon Musk’s plan to reduce the costs of space travel, paving the way for its most ambitious projects like the one to establish a colony on Mars. Where a Falcon 9 launch costs $62 million, around $46.5 million of that covers the booster itself. That makes saving the cores a highly lucrative prize, but also means SpaceX must develop a system capable of smoothly steering a rocket back to Earth safety after a high-pressure launch.

For June’s Falcon Heavy launch, the firm is expected to re-use the side boosters from the Arabsat-6A mission in April. During this mission, the two side cores successfully landed on land-based pads while the central booster landed on the Of Course I Still Love You drone-ship in the Atlantic Ocean. These boosters differed from the ones used in the February 2018 test mission, debuting a more powerful “Block 5” variant.

The mission, which will be managed by the United States Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, will send 24 satellites into space. The company has declared it “among the most challenging launches in SpaceX history,” due to a mixture of four upper-stage engine burns, three deployment orbits, and a propulsive passivation maneuver to top it all off. The whole mission is expected to last six hours.

The launch is expected to provide data for future National Security Space Launch missions, while also demonstrating to the Missile Systems Center how the rocket performs when reusing boosters.

The satellites on board run a broad spectrum. It includes the DSX, designed to collect data on low-Earth orbit radiation, and the GPIM that could provide a more environmentally-friendly alternative to regular spacecraft propulsion systems.

Falcon Heavy SpaceX Elon Musk
Falcon Heavy 

Two of the satellites on board were actually built by students, one from the Georgia Institute of Technology that demonstrates satellite rendezvous technology and another from Michigan Technological University to work with unresolved optical imagery. SpaceX has launched student projects into space before, like the one from Kevin Glunt who last month saw his team’s creation fired up to the International Space Station.

These payloads are all rather more pedestrian than the rocket’s first challenge. When the Falcon Heavy debuted it sent up Musk’s red Tesla Roadster, kitted with a “Starman” dummy wearing a spacesuit in the driver’s seat and a sound system playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” on loop. The car has continued on to journey around Mars and has started circling back toward Earth.

If SpaceX can prove its Falcon Heavy side boosters are reusable, it places it in a good position for developing its Starship, the fully-reusable ship designed to ferry humans to Mars, refuel and return home. All this starts with proving that these powerful rockets can be reused in the first place.