SpaceX launched its massive Falcon Heavy rocket for the sixth time ever on Sunday, April 30.
Falcon Heavy lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida Sunday at 8:26 p.m. EDT for the ViaSat-3 Americas mission. It lifted three satellites to geostationary orbit.
Though it will eventually be overtaken by SpaceX’s Starship, Falcon Heavy is currently SpaceX’s largest and most powerful operational rocket.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy flies again
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy mission took off a few days after originally intended due to weather delays and an abort – for reasons SpaceX has not specified – during the last minute of countdown on April 28.
Due to the nature of Sunday’s mission, the three satellites weren’t deployed until roughly 4.5 hours after launch. This was due to the fact that geostationary orbits are achieved at altitudes higher than 22,000 miles (35,000 km) over the equator. As a point of reference, low Earth orbit satellites fly at altitudes of roughly 1,200 miles ( 2,000 km ).
The primary payload of the mission was Viasat-3 Americas, a broadband satellite weighing 14,000 pounds (6,400 kilograms) that will be operated by Viasat. Falcon Heavy also launched Arcturus, a communications satellite operated by Astranis Space Technologies, and GS-1, an IoT communications cubesat that will be operated by Gravity Space. All three satellite operators are based in the U.S.
Falcon Heavy doubles its mission log in 2023
Though SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket has successfully launched to orbit more than 200 times, Falcon Heavy has flown a total of six times.
The massive launch system, essentially made up of three Falcon 9s strapped together and an upper stage, has flown fewer times as it’s used for specialized missions to higher orbits. It also faced a long string of delays mainly caused by customer payload issues that led to a three-year launch hiatus between 2019 and 2022. This year, so far, Falcon Heavy has doubled its mission log by flying three times.
Falcon Heavy first launched to orbit on February 6, 2018. The massive rocket’s first-ever flight famously lifted Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster and a mannequin in a spacesuit called Starman into space. Just eight minutes after that historic launch, SpaceX landed two boosters simultaneously for the very first time at adjacent landing pads at Cape Canaveral.
For Sunday’s mission, none of the reusable Falcon 9 boosters returned to the landing pad, as they didn’t have enough fuel left over for a landing maneuver. Instead, they were discarded into the ocean.
Falcon Heavy was recently dethroned by NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The U.S. space agency’s Moon rocket produced roughly 9.5 million lbs of thrust at liftoff, while Falcon Heavy’s three Falcon 9 boosters produce approximately 5 million lbs of thrust. However, SpaceX’s enormous Starship launch system, which recently performed its first full test flight, produced 16.7 million lbs of thrust at liftoff. That rocket isn’t fully operational yet, but it has a number of crewed missions in the pipeline.