In a launch Elon Musk is calling the most difficult yet for his company, SpaceX will attempt to deposit 24 satellites into three different orbits around Earth. Here’s everything you need to about tonight’s launch, including how to watch.
The launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is scheduled for 11:30 p.m. ET, with a generous launch window of four hours. Should the launch be scrubbed, SpaceX will try again tomorrow at the same time. SpaceX will begin its live webcast around 20 minutes prior to launch, which you can watch right here:
The first of 24 satellite deployments should start about 12 minutes after launch, with the entire mission lasting around four hours, according to SpaceX. This will be only the third launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket, and will include a pair of previously used side boosters, which delivered the Arabsat-6A satellite to orbit back in April. The boosters will attempt to land at SpaceX’s Landing Zones 1 and 2 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, while the core section will attempt to land on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You, which is stationed in the Atlantic some 1,240 kilometers (770 miles) off the Florida coast. As Teslarati reports, that’ll be a distance record for a Falcon booster landing.
This U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) mission, called Space Test Program-2 (STP-2), is being managed by the U.S. Air Force, and it will include a number of firsts. It will be SpaceX’s first night launch of the Falcon Heavy; the first DoD mission to use the SpaceX heavy-lift rocket; and the first Falcon Heavy mission to deploy multiple satellites. Another potential first will be a successful catch of the capsule’s two half-shell fairings in a large net propped up by a marine vessel named Mr. Steven.
The two dozen satellites packed atop the Falcon Heavy will be deposited into three different Earth orbits. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted, “This will be our most difficult launch ever.”
In another SpaceX first, the launch will involve four separate upper-stage burns; the company has never ignited an upper stage engine more than three times during the primary stage of a mission, as SpaceFlightNow reports.
For this mission, SpaceX and the DoD have partnered with multiple commercial, national, and international partners, including NOAA, NASA, universities, and not-for-profits.
Among the 24 satellites going up is the Air Force Research Laboratory Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX) satellite, which will monitor the effects of solar radiation in medium Earth orbit.
DSX will be used to study the deleterious effects of radiation on electrical components, circuits, and materials. This will “ultimately enhance the nation’s capability to field resilient space systems,” according to a Hill Air Force Base press release. This mission includes NASA’s Space Environment Testbeds (SET) experiments, which will be used to determine how solar radiation impacts hardware over time.
NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission is an effort to develop more environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional chemical propulsion systems. Working with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation and other collaborators, NASA will use a small satellite to test a new kind of fuel—a hydroxyl ammonium nitrate fuel/oxidizer blend called AF-M315E. Mission controllers will conduct a series of orbital maneuvers “to demonstrate the performance of the propellant during attitude control maneuvers, changes in orbital inclination and orbit lowering,” according to NASA.
Excitingly, the Falcon Heavy will also deploy the crowd-funded LightSail 2 spacecraft built by the Planetary Society. The goal is to create “the first spacecraft in Earth orbit propelled solely by sunlight,” as noted by the Planetary Society. LightSail 1 proved its space worthiness back in 2015, but this time around its developers will try to use incoming solar rays to raise the spacecraft’s orbit.
“Through solar sailing, we should be able to increase our orbit altitude on the order of a half kilometer per day,” said David Spencer, project manager for the mission and a Purdue University professor, during a recent teleconference, as reported by SpaceNews. “If we get a measurable increase in altitude on a regular basis and see the apogee, the far point in the orbit, increasing over time, that’s a win for us.”
The LightSail 2 cubesat will be enclosed within the Prox-1 satellite built by students from Georgia Tech, and deployed about a week after launch at an altitude of 720 kilometers (447 miles), according to the Planetary Society.
“This is a dream over forty years in the making,” said Bill Nye, the CEO of the Planetary Society, in an email to Gizmodo. “Tens of thousands of people from around the world came together to make this moment possible. Solar sailing is a game changer. The descendants of LightSail 2 may one day visit another star. Go LightSail 2!”
The NOAA-sponsored Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC-2) constellation will consist of six satellites. Working in low Earth orbit, the satellites will improve our ability to monitor the effects of space weather on the Earth’s atmosphere.
To that end, the constellation will collect data about temperature, pressure, density, and water vapor within the various layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. The COSMIC-2 mission is a partnership involving the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), the U.S. Air Force, and Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO), and it will provide “a revolutionary increase in the number of atmospheric and ionospheric observations, which will greatly benefit the research and operational communities,” according to a UCAR press release.
NASA will also be deploying its Deep Space Atomic Clock—a one-year mission that could eventually help probes navigate autonomously through deep space. You can read our recent blog about that project here.
The Falcon Heavy will also release a dozen Oculus-ASR nanosatellites, each weighing 154 pounds (70 kg). Built by a student group from Michigan Technological University, these satellites will be used as targets for calibrating ground-based telescopes tasked with monitoring spacecraft in orbit.
SpaceX will also be delivering the cremated remains of 152 people. Called “Memorial Spaceflights,” this project is being run by the private company Celestis. Notable individuals having their ashes sent into space include NASA astronaut Bill Pogue, basketball star Masaru Tomita, and space journalist Frank Sietzen, as BGR reports. The container holding the ashes is expected to fall back into Earth’s atmosphere after about 25 years.
That’s certainly a lot for a single launch! Fingers are firmly crossed that things go smoothly tonight, given how much money, time, and work went into this launch.