SpaceX has assembled the fourth Falcon Heavy for the rocket’s first launch in 40 months.
A photo shared by SpaceX on Oct. 23 shows it mated Falcon Heavy’s three first-stage boosters in preparation for pre-launch testing. Simultaneously, workers completed the equally important task of converting 39A’s transporter/erector (T/E), which has been configured for single-core Falcon 9 rockets for more than three years.
The transporters/erectors that SpaceX uses for all Falcon launches are kind of like a mobile spine and launch tower combined. Their first objective is to transport horizontal Falcon rockets to and from their integration hangars and launch pads. They are also responsible for raising Falcon rockets vertically and lowering them for transport or worker access. More importantly, they connect to a pad’s ground systems and distribute thruster, gases, power, and communications to the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy through multiple umbilicals and quick-disconnect ports.
Falcon Heavy, which can only be launched from LC-39A, has three times more boosters than Falcon 9 and requires significant pad T/E modifications when switching between the two. The process is much more difficult when switching from F9 to FH, and waiting nearly three and a half years between Falcon Heavy launches probably didn’t make the conversion any easier. But on October 23, after extensive testing and weeks of work, the Pad 39A T/E retrieved the “reaction frame” that attaches to the bottom of Falcon rockets and was brought back to horizontal.
Thanks to the nature of the infrastructure of the Falcon Heavy and the Pad 39A, the continuation is more or less guaranteed. During normal Falcon 9 operations, the 39A integration hangar is large enough for two or three independent Falcon boosters to remain while the T/E rolls inside to retrieve a complete Falcon 9. More importantly, the Falcon 9 booster and upper stage can technically be integrated. on the side and nibble on the T/E when ready. But with Falcon Heavy, which has a first stage similar to three Falcon 9 boosters sitting side by side, there isn’t enough room inside the hangar to fit the rocket with the T/E inside.
For Falcon Heavy, the T/E can therefore only return to the hangar once the three boosters and the upper stage of the rocket have been fully assembled and are suspended in the air. SpaceX’s Oct. 23 photo shows that three of the four cranes needed for this lift appear to be in place already, further confirming that T/E’s rollback is imminent. Once the T/E has returned to the hangar and the Falcon Heavy is attached, the rocket will finally be transported to the pad and brought upright for the wetsuit rehearsal (WDR) and static firing tests.
Update: SpaceX began taxiing the T/E to the Pad 39A integration hangar around 1:00 a.m. EDT on October 24.
The US Space Force’s USSF-44 payload – a mysterious pair of satellites that are more than two years behind schedule – certainly won’t be installed on Falcon Heavy during pre-launch testing, so the rocket will have to return to the hangar at least one more time after the test to have its payload fairing attached.
Combined, this pre-launch process could easily take a week or more. Multiple sources report that Falcon Heavy is set to launch no earlier (NET) than 9:44 a.m. EDT (1:44 p.m. UTC) on October 31 on Halloween. But even if the rocket is released today (October 24), the odds are stacked against Falcon Heavy to sail through its first built-in pre-launch tests in 40 months, and delays are likely.
For Falcon Heavy’s fourth launch, the rocket’s three boosters – B1064, B1065 and B1066 – are new, as are its upper stage and payload fairing. An FCC permit for the launch confirmed that SpaceX will intentionally expend the rocket’s new central core while its twin side thrusters attempt a near-simultaneous landing at Cape Canaveral. USSF-44 will be SpaceX’s first attempt to launch directly into geostationary orbit (GEO), an exceptionally difficult mission that requires the rocket’s upper stage to travel through space for approximately 4-6 hours between burns. majors.
If successful, Falcon Heavy will insert the mysterious USSF-44 satellites into a circular orbit approximately 35,600 kilometers (~22,150 mi) above the Earth’s surface. At this altitude, the orbital velocity matches the Earth’s rotation, and spacecraft can effectively hover – indefinitely – above their region of choice.
Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world. At takeoff, it weighs approximately 1420 tonnes (~3.1 M lbf) and can produce over 2300 tonnes (~5.1 M lbf) of thrust. In a fully expendable configuration, Falcon Heavy can launch 26.7 tonnes (59,000 lb) to elliptical geostationary transfer orbit and 63.8 tonnes (141,000 lb) to low Earth orbit. SpaceX does not advertise its direct-to-GEO capabilities.