Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news about fascinating discoveries, scientific advances and more.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy — a towering, three-pronged vehicle that’s the world’s most powerful operational rocket — returned to the skies on Tuesday for the first time since mid-2019.
The rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9:41 a.m. ET and carried satellites into space for the US military in a secret mission called USSF-44.
The Falcon Heavy debuted to much fanfare in 2018 when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk decided to launch his personal Tesla Roadster as a test payload at launch. The car is still in space, taking an elongated orbit around the sun that swings out to the orbit of Mars.
Since that first test mission, SpaceX has only launched two other Falcon Heavy missions, both in 2019. One sent into orbit a giant television and phone services satellite for Arabsat from Saudi Arabia, and the other delivered a series of test satellites for the US Department of Defense .
But the rocket hadn’t launched since 2019 because the vast majority of SpaceX’s missions don’t require the Falcon Heavy’s boosted power. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 workhorse rocket, on the other hand, has launched nearly 50 missions so far this year alone.
Each time Falcon Heavy launches, the rocket puts on a dramatic show on Earth.
After Tuesday’s mission, the company was only attempting to recover two of the Falcon Heavy rocket’s first stage boosters — the tall white sticks strapped together to give the rocket its increased power at launch.
According to a press release from the US military’s Space Systems Command, the medium booster was crashed into the ocean as planned, where it will remain as it did not have enough fuel left to make its journey home.
However, the two lateral boosters made their characteristic synchronized landing on bottom plates near the Florida coast.
In the past, SpaceX has attempted to land all three of the rocket’s boosters back on land and sea landing pads so they can be refurbished and reused on future missions. This is done to reduce mission costs. The company has not yet been able to locate all three, although it has come dramatically close. The two side boosters landed pinpoint and synchronized on floor plates after a mission in April 2019, and the rocket’s center booster landed on a naval platform. But then rough waves at sea tumbled it over.
Although the Falcon Heavy is the world’s most powerful operational missile, two mighty missiles are waiting in the wings to claim the title.
NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket, currently scheduled to attempt its inaugural launch later in November to send the unmanned Artemis 1 mission around the moon, sits in Kennedy Space Center’s towering Vehicle Assembly Building, which is just a couple lies miles from the launch pad where Falcon Heavy will take off.
While the Falcon Heavy puts out around five million pounds of thrust, the SLS is expected to put out up to 8.8 million pounds of thrust – 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets that powered the lunar landings in the mid-20th century.
And across the Gulf Coast, at SpaceX’s test facilities in South Texas, the company is in the final stages of preparations for the first orbital launch attempt of its Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket. Though the test flight is still awaiting final federal approval, it could fly before the end of the year.
The Starship system is expected to far outperform both SLS and Falcon Heavy. The forthcoming Super Heavy Booster, designed to propel the Starship spacecraft into space, is said to delay about 17 million pounds of thrust alone.
Both SpaceX’s SLS rocket and spacecraft are integral parts of NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface for the first time in half a century.
SpaceX also has its own ambitious vision for the spacecraft: to ferry people and cargo to Mars in hopes of one day establishing a permanent human settlement there.
There is not much publicly available information about the USSF-44 mission. In a press release, the US military’s Space Systems Command said only that the launch will put several satellites into orbit on behalf of the Space Systems Command’s Innovation and Prototyping Delta, which focuses on the rapid development of space technology in relation to the pursuit of objects in space and a range of other activities.
Space System Command declined to provide additional information about the mission when reached via email. It referred questions to the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force, which also declined to comment.
The US military is one of the main drivers of the domestic rocket economy, awarding lucrative launch contracts coveted by private launch companies including SpaceX and its main competitor in this space, United Launch Alliance, a joint operation by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.