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SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket launches after three-year hiatus with secret US sats

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The most powerful operational rocket flying today – SpaceX's Falcon Heavy – blasted multiple military satellites into orbit on a classified mission for the US Space Force on Tuesday, marking its fourth flight.

The 230-foot-tall vehicle launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 0941 ET (1341 UTC). The exact nature of the payloads is a secret, though we do know that the mission, USSF-44 [PDF], was for Space Force's Space Systems Command, which describes its job as "delivering lethal and resilient space capabilities to defend the nation in the contested space domain."

Which could be anything: speculate away. Although liftoff was recorded during a livestream, the separation of the different stages and the end of the flight were not broadcast. Here's what we were allowed to see:

The Falcon Heavy's two side boosters separated and successfully landed under their own power. The center core booster needed to expend all its fuel to push the payload into the Clarke orbit and will not be recovered.

"This was the first launch and landing of these Falcon Heavy side boosters, which will be prepared for re-flight on a future US Space Force mission later this year," SpaceX said.  

One of the satellites onboard is the hush-hush Tetra-1 microsat built by Millennium Space Systems and will be sent directly to a geostationary orbit, the maker confirmed. It will be used in military experiments and prototype missions.

Another member of the payload is the LDPE-2 bird built by Northrop Grumman again for military tests.

The latest SpaceX launch is noteworthy for being the fourth flight for the Falcon Heavy rocket; the last time it flew was in June 2019 for a mission with the US Air Force.

The Elon Musk company's most popular vehicle by far is the Falcon 9, which has flown hundreds of times sending different types of payloads to space. Made up of three Falcon 9 engine cores, with the central one upgraded, the Falcon Heavy is more powerful and capable of generating five million pounds of thrust at liftoff. 

Although the Falcon Heavy can carry heavier payloads than the Falcon 9, it doesn't serve as many customers. It has only been used by NASA, the US military, and Arabsat, a telecommunications corporation in Saudi Arabia so far.

"With the ability to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lbs) Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy," SpaceX said. But it will be knocked off the top spot if NASA finally gets its Space Launch System vehicle off ground.

The SLS is capable of producing 8.8 million lbs of maximum thrust and was built to send spacecraft and astronauts to the Moon. Three launch attempts to send the damned thing off into space have ended in failure so far. NASA is set to try again on November 14. ®

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