SpaceX is about to launch its Falcon Heavy rocket for the third time, the company’s first-ever night launch of its mammoth rocket and one of the company’s hardest launches ever.
A four-hour launch window for the rocket opens tonight, Monday June 29 at 11.30pm Eastern time. The rocket is set to lift off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launch will be streamed live online, which you can follow here about 20 minutes before liftoff.
On board the rocket is a rideshare mission for the US Air Force called Space Test Program-2 (STP-2). While this is a very varied set of payloads, this mission is mostly intended to enable the Air Force to certify the Falcon Heavy for national security missions in the future.
In total there are 24 satellites on board the spacecraft, and SpaceX will be tasked with deploying them in three different orbits. This means the rocket will have to restart its engine four times while in space, a process expected to take three and a half hours as the rocket is put through its paces.
“This will be our most difficult launch ever,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wrote on Twitter.
These satellites have a variety of purposes, heralding from US government agencies and universities. One is a solar sail experiment spacecraft called Lightsail 2, designed by the non-profit organization The Planetary Society. This will test out means to travel through space while being pushed by the Sun alone and is the follow-up to the organization’s Lightsail 1 mission in 2015.
Also on board is an atomic clock developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) called the Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC), designed to be 50 times more accurate than existing atomic clocks in space. There’s also another NASA mission to test out a new form of “green” spacecraft propulsion, composed of something called hydroxylammonium nitrate.
There’s a memorial spacecraft on board that will be taking a small amount of ashes from 152 people into space, not too dissimilar to the mission we reported on towards the end of 2018. And there’s also satellites that will measure radiation in orbit, monitor how radio transmissions are hampered by Earth’s atmosphere, and much more.
Of course, almost no SpaceX launch these days would be complete without a rocket landing, and this launch will be no exception. The two side boosters on the rocket will land back at Cape Canaveral, while the central core booster will land far out into the Atlantic Ocean, 1,240 kilometers to be precise, on the company’s drone ship Of Course I Still Love You.
And that’s not all, because the company will also attempt to catch the nose cone of the rocket – known as the fairing – out in the ocean. The two pairs of the nose cone will descend via parachute, and a boat with a giant net will attempt to catch them as they fall to Earth, enabling them to be used again on future missions.
The launch is set to be one of SpaceX’s most ambitious and feature-packed launches ever. Tonight’s flight of the most powerful modern rocket, boasting 5.1 million pounds of thrust from its 27 Merlin engines, will be succeeded by multiple landings and a whole host of orbital maneuvers. It should be well worth staying up for and watching, either in person in Florida or from the comfort of your own home.