SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket passes static firing test after three years of preparation

After knocking out a few figurative cobwebs, SpaceX tested a Falcon Heavy rocket for the first time since June 2019.

Shortly before the static fire, NASASpaceflight’s Thomas Burghardt reported that the first Falcon Heavy launch in 40 months – a mission for the US Space Force known as USSF-44 – slipped Oct. 28-31 at the earliest (NET) at 9:40 a.m. EDT (1 p.m. 40 UTC), Tuesday, November 1. USSF-44 will be Falcon Heavy’s fourth launch since February 2018.

During its 10-second static firing on October 27, Falcon Heavy – the highest performing rocket currently operational – appeared to ignite all 27 Merlin 1D engines on its first stage, likely producing up to 2,350 tonnes (5.18 million lbf) of thrust. Only three liquid-propelled rockets and two rockets supplemented with solid rocket boosters produced more thrust at sea level, and the last of those five vehicles (NASA’s Space Shuttle) was permanently retired in 2011.

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will take back the crown when it debuts (hopefully) later this year, but Falcon Heavy will remain the most powerful commercially available rocket until NASA’s own Starship SpaceX makes its debut. After Starship’s debut later this year or early next year, Falcon Heavy will continue to be the second most powerful commercial rocket for the indefinite future.

After more than three years of downtime, SpaceX unsurprisingly appeared to have minor issues preparing Falcon Heavy for a full wetsuit rehearsal and static fire. SpaceX taxied the rocket – without a payload fairing – to the launch pad late on October 25, by which time the launch target had already slipped to October 31. Falcon Heavy then sat horizontally for about 30 hours before SpaceX lifted it vertically and fully secured the rocket and transporter/erector to the pad’s ground systems.

Another 12 hours of work later, SpaceX was ready to begin static fire test operations, and Falcon Heavy started at 8 p.m. EDT on October 27, 50 hours after deployment. In the most recent launch of the Falcon 9 satellite from Pad 39A, the rocket lifted off about 30 hours after deployment. While preparing for the first launch of Falcon Heavy Block 5 (Flight 2 overall) in April 2019, the rocket went vertical 12 hours after deployment, 18 hours faster than Flight 4. 3 in June 2019, Falcon Heavy conducted a static firing test 25 hours after deployment – 25 hours faster than Flight 4.

Falcon Heavy Flight 2 – the first Block 5 version of the rocket – sits horizontally at Pad 39A. (Pauline Acalin)
Falcon Heavy Flight 3. (NASA)

Before it can launch, Falcon Heavy will need to return to the LC-39A hangar to have its fairing installed (containing two classified USSF-44 satellites) and then return to the pad, repeating the deployment process. Falcon Heavy Flight 3 holds the record (5d 4h) for the shortest gap between a static shot and launch. Falcon Heavy’s updated launch target is 4 days and 14 hours after its static launch, meaning SpaceX will need to break that record to launch USSF-44 as planned.

Update: The USSF-44 payload fairing – satellites safely encapsulated inside – towards Pad 39A less than four hours after Falcon Heavy Flight 4 static firing.

Either way, with one successful static shot under its belt, Falcon Heavy’s fourth launch is now all but guaranteed within the next 5-10 days. The rocket’s fifth launch – carrying ViaSat’s first ViaSat-3 communications satellite – could follow as soon as December 2022, and four more Falcon Heavy launches are currently scheduled between January and August 2023.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket passes static firing test after three years of preparation

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