After several days of severe thunderstorms, hail and even lightning on the launch pad, the weather cleared for SpaceX to launch its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday night.
The liftoff of the most powerful active rocket on the market from KSC’s Launch Pad 39-A took place at 8:26 p.m., marking the 21st launch of the year from the Space Coast.
Its primary payload is the ViaSat-3 Americas broadband communications satellite, the first of three planned for the company aimed at geostationary orbit. Also flying are the Astranis MicroGEO satellite and Gravity Space’s GS-1 satellite.
It’s only the sixth launch for the rocket, but the second so far in 2023. Among active rockets, its power is bettered only by NASA’s Space Launch System, which has flown just once, and SpaceX’s under-development Starship, which exploded before reaching space during a test launch earlier in April.
It’s essentially three Falcon 9 rockets linked together with 27 Merlin engines that produce 5.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. Previous launches have brought thousands of spectators to the Space Coast.
Unlike previous Falcon Heavy launches, however, SpaceX did not return any of its three first-stage boosters for vertical landing. Typically, the two side boosters will attempt to return to the nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station Landing Zones 1 and 2, resulting in sonic booms for the crowds, while the center booster will aim for a drone ship landing.
However, the required orbital destination to insert the payloads meant that SpaceX had to use up as much fuel as possible. Two of the three boosters have flown before, with one launching for the eighth time and another for the third time. Center stage is the rookie.
The crews attempted to launch Friday just hours after Falcon 9’s successful liftoff from Cape Canaveral, but aborted the countdown less than a minute before liftoff. The weather was bad all day Friday, but it appeared to clear up for both launch attempts. This followed the Falcon Heavy scrubs on Tuesday and Wednesday due to weather. This included a lightning strike on one of Pad 39-A’s turrets, but the teams released the rocket to continue with the launch.
The ViaSat-3 primary payload is the first of three planned in a new generation of satellites for Carlbad, Calif.-based Viasat Inc., which together aim to provide near-global coverage. Deployment won’t happen until 4½ hours after takeoff.
The heart of the satellite is integrated into a structure built by Boeing Satellite Systems. Called ViaSat-3 Americas, it will have a coverage area that includes most of North America, including the entire continental US, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America.
It is scheduled to go live in June, after which it is projected to be able to deliver up to 1 terabit of data per second in the Ka-band of frequencies, the same range that is planned for Amazon’s Kuiper project when it launches in a few years.
“There are several participants in this frequency regime,” said Viasat CEO Dave Ryan. “Some are there, some are not yet, but it’s a very big market. We believe it can definitely keep a lot of people in the market.”
The next ViaSat-3 satellite will cover Europe, the Middle East and Africa, followed by the final satellite for Asia and the Pacific. All of its existing satellites are currently in geosynchronous orbit, but it has operated in LEO in the past.
“We believe that in the future a multi-orbit strategy will be the best idea because each orbit has its pros and cons,” he said. “Geosynchronous orbit is by far the most efficient for delivering broadband capacity to Earth.”
Each launch can come six to nine months after another. The next one will come on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, with the final launch provider still to be determined.
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“Nearly half of the capacity of the ViaSat-3 fleet is designed to be available to areas that are currently unconnected or underserved – and the constellation will have the flexibility to move bandwidth from areas of low demand to areas of high demand,” the company said in a press release.
SpaceX may launch up to five Falcon Heavy missions in 2023. After that launch, SpaceX has one planned for the Space Force, called USSF-52, which is expected in the first half of 2023, launching a private telecommunications satellite for Hughes Network Systems. called Jupiter 3, and the launch in October of NASA’s Psyche probe headed for the metal-rich asteroid of the same name that orbits the sun beyond Mars.
Its first flight was in 2018, a test launch that sent Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster into space. SpaceX followed that with a commercial payload in April 2019, a Department of Defense mission in June 2019, then a three-year drought before canceling two launches in the past six months.
Excluding Starship, which failed to orbit, SpaceX has already flown 28 missions at its three other launch facilities, including eight from Vandenberg Space Force Base. Most come from KSC and Cape Canaveral.
To date, the company has completed 227 successful orbital missions, managing 188 booster recoveries, enabling 160 re-flights of those boosters.
It is managing 61 launches in 2022 and could have as many as 100 this year, according to the company’s CEO Elon Musk, with the majority coming from the Space Coast.
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