Most Challenging SpaceX Falcon Heavy Mission to Date

Updated: Jun 25, 2019

SpaceX is looking to make history, yet again, with its upcoming Falcon Heavy STP-2 (Space Test Program-2) mission for the U.S. Department of Defense (U.S. DoD) managed by the U.S. Airforce. This launch will be the third launch of the Falcon Heavy vehicle in less than 16 months and features a rideshare list of payloads. Although it is not the heaviest payload to be launched by SpaceX, this will be the most challenging mission to date.

This launch of Falcon Heavy will be flying with reused side boosters collected from the previous Falcon Heavy flight in April of 2019 and a brand new center core booster. All three boosters are Block V Falcon 9 boosters meaning they are designed to be rapidly reused. It will mark the first ever reused Falcon Heavy flight for the U.S. Air Force.

On board is a total of 24 different satellites and spacecraft. The STP-2 mission features payloads from various partners including NASA, the U.S. DoD, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Universities, and private customers. According to SpaceX, this mission will feature four separate upper stage burns, three different orbit deployments, and a final propulsive passivation maneuver and is expected to last an estimated 6 hours from launch.

The STP-2 Payload Stack Image Credit: SpaceX

Among the manifest is the Space Vehicle Directorate’s Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX) vehicle for the Air Force Research Laboratory featuring three experiments. These experiments will focus primarily on collecting information about space weather. According to the SpaceX launch manifest DSX will carry The Wave Particle Interaction Experiment (WPIx), The Space Weather Experiments (SWx), and The Space Environment Effects (SFx). Also on board is COSMIC-2 which is a six satellite constellation that is a collaborative initiative by many agencies including NOAA and Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO), the UK’s Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), the Brazil Institute of Space Research (INPE), and the Australia Bureau of Meteorology (BoM). STP-2 will also carry a number of other satellites.

Joining the larger satellites are a number CubeSats for different agencies and universities. One such cubesat is the Planetary Society’s LightSail-2, a citizen-funded spacecraft that will use energy collected by the sun to sail through space. More information about LightSail-2 can be found at the Planetary Society’s website.

LightSail 2 Illustration Credit: The Planetary Society

Celestis Memorial Spaceflights will also be sending a payload to space. The company makes it possible for people to memorialize their loved ones by sending their cremated remains into space. STP-2 features the remains of 152 different people in a small metal sleeve that will launch aboard the Orbital Testbed Satellite.

For more information about all of the spacecraft and experiments flying on STP-2 please visit the SpaceX launch profile.

Another factor marking this particular mission as challenging is the continued effort to return and land three boosters simultaneously and safely. The most recent launch attempted this, but resulted in only two reusable booster recoveries. The two side boosters returned to Cape Canaveral and performed synchronized landings at Landing Zone 1 & 2 (LZ-1,2). The center core initially performed an off-shore landing on the drone ship ‘Of Course I Still Love You’, but was later damaged during recovery efforts due to rough seas and weather conditions. STP-2 will see Of Course I Still Love You used for the furthest recovery attempt to date. The new landing zone is approximately 240km further out to sea than any other recovery attempt.

LZ-1 withstood some damage following an anomaly that occurred during testing of the returned Demonstration Mission-1 Dragon capsule, but has since been cleared to resume operations. The droneship has experienced updates to the onboard booster securing device often referred to as Octagrabber. The updates made to Octagrabber have not been officially confirmed, but are expected to aide in the recovery of the center core booster. With the previous attempt the Octagrabber was not able to be utilized because of some design differences between a Falcon 9 booster and a Falcon Heavy center core.

SpaceX will also attempt to recover both halves of the payload fairing. This has been successfully done many times now with the aide of the recovery vehicles GO Searcher and GO Navigator out of Port Canaveral, FL. These vessels carefully scoop up the massive fairing halves from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and transports them back to port to be offloaded and stored for later use as demonstrated with the last Falcon Heavy mission.

Joining the recovery vessels is SpaceX’s unique fairing catching vessel now named Ms. Tree which features a large catching net hoisted above the vessel on large metal arms. The vessel has completed many sea catching trials, but has yet to successfully catch a fairing half in operation. A recent test was performed earlier this week in preparation of the STP-2 mission fairing catching attempt. Ms. Tree left port shortly after the rest of the recovery fleet as it can travel at a faster rate. Currently, Ms. Tree and the rest of the recovery fleet, including the droneship, are stationed at the center core landing zone approximately 1200km offshore.

With all of these goals set forth for what will be the most challenging mission to date, launch day is shaping up to be nothing short of extremely exciting. Be sure to follow along with all of our socials for updates, as well as, tune into the SpaceX Webcast which will go live about 15 minutes prior to the four hour launch window.