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SpaceX back for another try at Falcon Heavy launch of secret spacecraft

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy sits on Launch Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center ahead of the USSF-52 mission. (SpaceX/TNS)

First it was weather, then something went awry on the ground, but SpaceX and the Space Force are set to once again try to send up the powerhouse Falcon Heavy rocket with the secretive X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on board Thursday night. And if all goes well, SpaceX could follow up with a Falcon 9 launch just hours later.

Flying for only the ninth time ever, but fifth time this year alone, the Falcon Heavy on the USSF-52 mission is aiming for an 8:07 p.m. liftoff from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39-A during a four-hour window that runs 7-11 p.m. with a backup opportunity at 8:06 p.m. Friday during the same window.

Space Launch Delta 45’s weather squadron forecasts an 80% chance for good conditions, which improved to 95% in the event of a 24-hour delay.

Launch fans were out in force with about a mile backup leading into Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center by 3 p.m. where visitors who paid extra get a chance to view liftoff from the Apollo/Saturn V Center at the Banana Creek viewing site about three miles from the launch pad.

The two side boosters are making their fifth flight and will attempt a recovery landing at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Landing Zones 1 and 2. Their return after liftoff will bring the signature double sonic booms for each booster for many along the Space Coast, although the house-rumbling sound could be heard deeper into Central Florida as well.

The launch comes more than two weeks since poor weather, and then what SpaceX reported was a “ground side issue” found less than an hour before liftoff forced delays.

The launch is the third time Falcon Heavy has flown for the Space Force, but it’s the first time the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle made by Boeing is getting such a powerful ride. Its six previous launches, the first of which came in 2010, were all on either United Launch Alliance Atlas V or SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets.

Falcon Heavy can send the spacecraft with its top-secret payloads to higher orbits, though, with its 5.1 million pounds of thrust on liftoff, the most powerful rocket available for regular launches. A Space Force press release said the X-37B would be heading to “new orbital regimes” as part over the spacecraft’s “experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform.”

The X-37B’s missions have all been classified, with each mission lasting for longer durations. Its sixth trip that concluded last November with a touchdown at the former Shuttle Landing Facility at KSC lasted nearly 909 days. To date, the spacecraft has traveled more than 1.3 billion miles and spent more than 3,774 days in space.

Sometimes, the spacecraft brings along partners for the ride including the second time NASA has flown a seed-based experiment to study how exposed plant seeds fare on long-duration spaceflight while subjected to harsher radiation than at lower orbits. This helps NASA inform its Artemis program missions its plans for deep space including trying to land a human on Mars by 2040.

Just like the sixth trip into space, the latest version of the X-37B, features a service module that allows for hosted experiments with partner agencies. It previously carried NASA’s first go at a seed experiment, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module experiment, and was able to deploy the FalconSat-8 satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“The X-37B government and Boeing teams have worked together to produce a more responsive, flexible, and adaptive experimentation platform,” said the director of the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, William D. Bailey in a press release. “The work they’ve done to streamline processes and adapt evolving technologies will help our nation learn a tremendous amount about operating in and returning from a space environment.”

As far as Falcon Heavy goes, its settling in to a mix of commercial and military launches as well as having flown its first-ever launch for NASA this year.

The rocket first flew in 2018 sending up Elon Musk’s Tesla on a trip out past Mars. It only flew two more times in 2019 before taking more than a three-year break, but then began launching regularly beginning with SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy mission for the Space Force last fall.

For this fifth flight of 2023, the head of the Space Force’s Assured Access to Space program, Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, who is based at Patrick Space Force Base and is also in charge of Space Launch Delta 45 and the Eastern Range, said teams have been resilient with the higher cadence of launches.

“Our team has done amazing work to prepare for this critical launch, and we’re doing even more behind the scenes,” she said. “We are honing our processes to make our launch capabilities even more responsive to national security needs. We are also making our spaceports more resilient to ensure that our ability to place capabilities into orbit never falters.”

The business of the Space Coast was apparent during the first go-round to launch Falcon Heavy, as rockets were on the pad at three launch sites. SpaceX also had a Falcon 9 awaiting launch at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 and United Launch Alliance had rolled its new Vulcan Centaur back out to Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41 for a wet dress rehearsal ahead of its upcoming launch.

Since then, SpaceX has managed two more Cape Canaveral launches of Falcon 9 rockets on Starlink missions, but ULA won’t fly its Vulcan Centaur until at least Jan. 8.

If Falcon Heavy flies, it will mark the Space Coast’s 71st launch of the year with SpaceX responsible for all but four of them.

Coming up right after, though, is what could be launch No. 72, another Starlink launch from SLC 40.

That Falcon 9 is slated to fly at 11:01 p.m. during a four-hour window that runs through 2:59 a.m. Friday, and could set a record between SpaceX launches between Space Coast pads. The previous record was on Oct. 13 when the Falcon Heavy Psyche launch for NASA from KSC preceded a Starlink mission from Cape Canaveral by 8 hours and 42 minutes.

The first-stage booster for the flight is making its 12 launch and SpaceX is aiming for a recovery landing on the droneship A Shortfall of Gravitas in the Atlantic Ocean.


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