by Douglas Messier
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy booster lit up the skies over Florida on Tuesday in a spectacular early morning launch that orbited 24 spacecraft for the Department of Defense, NASA, NOAA and private satellite operators.
Lifting off of Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on its first nighttime launch, the Falcon Heavy’s three core boosters rode columns of fire that blazed across the black sky. The two side boosters, which previously flew in April, separated from the main core and landed safety back at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
After burnout and separation from the second stage, the central core attempted to land on an offshore drone ship in what SpaceX officials said would be a difficult recovery attempt. Live video showed the booster crashed into the ocean and exploding in flames close to the drone ship.
In another first, SpaceX’s Ms. Tree ship captured one half of the rocket’s payload shroud in a giant net. The company plans to reuse its payload fairings, which cost $6 million apiece.
After reaching orbit, the rocket’s second stage spent almost 3.5 hours deploying 24 satellites that collectively made up the Defense Department’s Space Test Program-2 mission. The mission required restarting the second stage engine three times, a new first for a SpaceX rocket.
The payloads on the mission included:
U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicle Directorate’s Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX) spacecraft, which will conduct basic research on the radiation environment of medium-Earth orbit (MEO).
NOAA’s COSMIC-2, a six-satellite constellation that will provide will provide next-generation Global Navigational Satellite System radio occultation data. Radio occultation data is collected by measuring the changes in a radio signal as it is refracted in the atmosphere.
The mission is a collaboration of NOAA, the U.S. Air Force (USAF), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), 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).
NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock, which is designed to improve the way satellites navigate during deep-space missions.
NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GMIP), which is testing a safer, less toxic fuel for use on satellites.
LightSail-B, which a citizen-funded solar sailing spacecraft from The Planetary Society.
Oculus-ASR, a satellite developed by students at the Michigan Technological University designed to provide calibration opportunities for ground-based observers attempting to determine spacecraft attitude and configuration.
Prox-1, a microsat developed by students at the Georgia Institute of Technology to demonstrate satellite close proximity operations and rendezvous.
Twin E-TBEx CubeSats, which will measure the distortion of radio signals traveling through the ionosphere using beacon tones transmitted from the six COSMIC-2 satellites.
The TEPCE CubeSat, which will demonstrate the feasibility of using electrodynamic propulsion by deploying a 1 km electrically conductive tether and performing orbit-changing maneuvers without consuming any fuel.
The Launch Environment Observer (LEO) & StangSat, which measured thermal and vibration environments during launch and will demonstrate wi-fi data transmission between the two CubeSats.
The PSAT amateur radio data relay CubeSat, which will assist students and researchers around the world.
Space weather and ionospheric modeling experiments from the Naval Research Laboratory.