The big rocket is back after a 40-month hiatus, but with far fewer customers than the popular Falcon 9.
SpaceX will launch its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket from Florida on a classified mission for the US Space Force, marking the rocket’s return after a hiatus of more than 3 years. The launch is scheduled for Tuesday at 9:41 a.m. local time. The flight will be just the Falcon Heavy’s fourth launch since its February 2018 debut, a relatively rare launch frequency for a vehicle hailed as the most powerful rocket in use today.
When Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., first announced plans to make the rocket in 2011, it was touted as a new and powerful option for customers who needed to launch large satellites. The large rocket has about a dozen launches planned over the next few years, with most of the flights destined for the Department of Defense and NASA’s science missions.
But the Falcon Heavy has failed to deliver on its commercial promise as a can-do rocket, in much the same way as the Falcon 9. It accounts for a small fraction of SpaceX’s launches, while the workhorse Falcon 9 handles most of the company’s business. . The Falcon Heavy’s low launch frequency appeals to the current satellite launch market, as well as changes in SpaceX’s strategy for the market. The company has massively upgraded its Falcon 9 rocket over the past decade, making it a more powerful rocket. And as SpaceX focuses on its very large interplanetary rocket, Starship, for more ambitious deep space missions, there seems to be less need for the Falcon Heavy.
Caleb Henry, a senior analyst at the research and consulting firm Quilty Analytics, said: “The Falcon Heavy is being pressured on both sides – on the one hand by the Falcon 9, which has taken on much of its responsibility, and on the other, by Starship, who can assume Falcon Heavy’s future responsibilities.”
The Falcon 9 has proved suitable for much of the commercial satellite market, especially as the rocket’s capabilities have grown. Prior to 2016, SpaceX listed the Falcon 9 as capable of launching 29,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. Thanks to several upgrades, the Falcon 9 can now take more than 50,000 pounds to low Earth orbit.
While the Falcon Heavy can lift a lot more than that — more than 140,000 pounds into low Earth orbit — its nose cone is still the same size as the Falcon 9, limiting the number of satellites it can carry. “It launches payloads that have more mass, but it can’t accommodate something with significantly greater volume,” said Carissa Christensen, CEO of BryceTech, an aerospace analytics company. “So there are only certain payloads that really need a Heavy instead of the 9.”
With much of the commercial satellite market being satisfied by the Falcon 9, that really leaves only the largest payloads en route to distant orbits for the Falcon Heavy. It’s a small pool made up mostly of Department of Defense national security satellites, NASA science payloads, and just a handful of the largest commercial satellites from customers like Viasat Inc. and EchoStar Corp.
One advantage the Falcon Heavy still has over the Falcon 9 is that it can send larger satellites directly into geosynchronous orbit, a 22,000-mile path that was popular for telecommunications. The Falcon 9 can also get satellites into this orbit, but usually the rocket has to lift the satellites into a lower transfer orbit first. From there, the satellites lift themselves to the higher orbit. That process takes time, often months, which prevents companies from using their satellites right away.
“What we have seen is that the [geostationary] market has dried up,” Henry said. “And on top of that, a surprising number of customers are willing to wait and actually allow their spacecraft to raise that orbit over the course of several months.”
The Falcon 9 is also SpaceX’s favorite rocket for launching its Starlink satellites over the internet from space into low Earth orbit. It’s probably due to the rocket’s agility. The Falcon 9 can take off from multiple locations in Florida and California, while the Falcon Heavy can currently only be launched from one SpaceX location. And the Falcon 9 has a significantly shorter lead time, making it easier to launch more satellites in a given year. “There is a stronger business case for the Falcon 9,” Henry said.
Many of the more ambitious applications touted by SpaceX for the Falcon Heavy, such as flying passengers to distant space destinations like the moon, are no longer planned for the rocket. Such trips are now reserved for SpaceX’s Starship rocket, which is tasked with landing humans on the moon for NASA. For missions closer to home, the Falcon 9 continues to shuttle people back and forth to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit.
Still, despite the challenges, it’s too early to write off the Falcon Heavy. It takes years for satellite manufacturers to develop new spacecraft, so it’s possible more vehicles that need Falcon Heavy’s capabilities will come online soon. “Maybe you have a vehicle with more capacity, and it takes a while for the loads to catch up,” Christensen said.