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Launch pad video shows the Falcon Heavy liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket had its first night launch tonight, sending 24 different spacecraft toward three different types of orbit to test a wide range of technologies.

The triple-barreled rocket rose into the sky from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 2:30 a.m. ET Tuesday (11:30 p.m. PT Monday), kicking off the Defense Department’s Space Test Program-2 mission, or STP-2.

Minutes after launch, the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters separated and flew themselves to two landing pads set up at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, not far from the launch pad. The twin touchdowns were greeted with raucous cheers from SpaceX employees watching the webcast at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

Once the Falcon Heavy’s upper stage separated and headed spaceward, the center-core booster made its own supersonic descent toward a drone ship called “Of Course I Still Love You,” stationed hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic Ocean.

A webcast from the drone ship showed the booster going off-target and erupting in flames. A collective “ohhh!” came from the SpaceX crowd.

The upper stage made it to orbit successfully, and payloads provided by the Pentagon, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and several universities were deployed over the course of more than three hours.

One of the marquee payloads is a privately funded solar sail. The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 mission follows up on a successful test of the technology in 2015, and could blaze a trail for interstellar flight.

LightSail 2 is designed to be released from a satellite that’s roughly the size of a washing machine, about a week after launch, and unfurl a reflective sheet of Mylar plastic to a width of 18.4 feet. The pressure of sunlight should push against the shiny sheet like the wind pushing against a sail.

“Solar sailing is a game-changer,” Bill Nye, executive director of the Planetary Society, explained in a video preview of the mission. “These spacecraft can be steered a lot like sailing ships at sea. … Someday soon we could be sailing around the solar system with the unlimited energy of sunlight.”

Other experimental payloads include a miniaturized atomic clock designed by NASA for use in deep space, a satellite that will test a more environmentally friendly “green” propellant for next-generation rockets and spacecraft, Pentagon-funded satellites to gauge the impact of space radiation, and a constellation of six radio-sensing satellites to gather atmospheric data.

Perhaps the most unusual payload is a container holding the cremated remains of 152 people. Among those represented on Celestis’ “Memorial Spaceflight” mission are NASA astronaut Bill Pogue (1930-2014)  and space journalist Frank Sietzen Jr. (1952-2016).

This was the third Falcon Heavy launch — following up on a demonstration mission that put a Tesla Roadster into deep space in February 2018, and a launch in April 2019 that sent the Arabsat-6A telecommunications satellite to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The two side boosters for this mission were previously used for the ArabSat-6A launch.

More than an hour after liftoff, SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker reported that the SpaceX recovery ship Ms. Tree had caught a piece of the Falcon Heavy’s nose cone, or fairing, in the broad net that was spread above its deck.

“We have accomplished the first landing on the net of a Falcon payload fairing half,” Insprucker said. “So, another first-time accomplishment for the SpaceX team.”

Fairing half in net
A webcam view from the Ms. Tree recovery ship shows a fairing half from the Falcon Heavy rocket sitting in the ship’s net, toward the left side of the frame. (SpaceX via YouTube)
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