SpaceX is set to carry two dozen satellites into space Monday night aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket and spread them across the sky in a marathon mission that Chief Executive Elon Musk has described as the company’s “most difficult launch ever.”
The launch, commissioned by the U.S. Air Force, is scheduled for 11:30 p.m. Eastern Time (8:30 p.m. PT) from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
If successful, it could bolster SpaceX’s case to win more Air Force contracts to launch sensitive military satellites.
A new batch of the contracts is up for grabs, and Hawthorne-based SpaceX is competing against longtime rival United Launch Alliance — a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. — as well as Northrop Grumman Corp. and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which have never launched military satellites.
In October, ULA, Northrop and Blue Origin were awarded a combined total of about $2 billion in funding to develop new rockets to launch military satellites. SpaceX did not receive one of those development awards and formally challenged the Air Force’s decision last month.
SpaceX is still eligible to participate in a second phase of the competition, which will award launch contracts to two competitors.
A successful Monday night mission could help prove SpaceX’s case.
The launch, known as Space Test Program-2, was designed to test the capabilities of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which has launched twice before. The rocket is set to deploy satellites in three different orbits. The mission will also involve four second-stage engine burns to take the satellites to their destinations.
SpaceX and Musk have emphasized the mission’s complicated maneuvering.
“If this one is that complicated, it’s good because if it’s a complete success, it completely solidifies the case for Falcon Heavy,” said Marco Cáceres, senior space analyst for market research firm Teal Group.
Even if the launch is a failure, it will not necessarily spell doom for SpaceX’s national security launch business, largely because of the mission’s complexity and the company’s track record with its single-stick Falcon 9 rocket, Cáceres said.
Monday night’s launch will also mark the first time the Air Force will launch payloads with used SpaceX rockets. About eight minutes after liftoff, the Falcon Heavy’s side boosters — which were used during an April mission — are set to land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
SpaceX will try to land the rocket’s center core booster on a floating platform at sea about 11 minutes after liftoff.
The final satellite is scheduled to deploy about 3½ hours after liftoff.
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