When the Falcon Heavy rocket launched for the first time in February, some critics of the company wondered what exactly the rocket's purpose was. After all, the company's Falcon 9 rocket had become powerful enough that it could satisfy the needs of most commercial customers. One such critic even told me, "The Falcon Heavy is just a vanity project for Elon Musk."
At the time, the rocket only had a couple of launches on its manifest, including the 6-ton Arabsat 6A satellite for Arabsat of Saudi Arabia, and the Space Test Program-2 mission for the US Air Force. However, since that time SpaceX has seen the rocket certified for national security missions by the US military and has signed several additional launch contracts.
Last week, the Swedish satellite company Ovzon signed a deal for a Falcon Heavy launch as early as late 2020 for a geostationary satellite mission. And just on Thursday, ViaSat announced that it, too, had chosen the Falcon Heavy to launch one of its future ViaSat-3 satellite missions in the 2020 to 2022 time frame.
"We selected SpaceX as they continue to demonstrate their commitment to advancing space technologies," Dave Ryan, president of space systems at ViaSat, said in a news release. "Their proven technology is both powerful and efficient enough to thrust a ViaSat-3 spacecraft close to geostationary orbit."
That Tesla flight
In explaining their rocket choice, both Ovzon and ViaSat cited the ability of the Falcon Heavy to deliver heavy payloads "direct"—or almost directly—to geostationary orbit, an altitude nearly 36,000km above the Earth's surface. Typically, rockets launching payloads bound for geostationary orbit drop their satellites into a "transfer" orbit, from which the satellite itself must spend time and propellant to reach the higher orbit. (More on these orbits can be found here).
Back in February, SpaceX got a fair amount of pushback for launching the "frivolous" payload of a Tesla into an orbit that would bring it near Mars. However, the key thing about that launch was not so much the payload—and to be clear, NASA was offered a more or less "free" launch if it wanted something delivered into deep space—but the mission profile itself which was a test flight.
On the day before launch, SpaceX founder Elon Musk explained that the rocket would demonstrate the capability to send payloads directly to geostationary orbit by firing its second stage after a prolonged shutdown during which the rocket would coast. “The six-hour coast is needed for a lot of the big Air Force intel missions for direct injections to GEO,” Musk said.
This six-hour period was about twice as long as the longest coasts the Falcon 9 rocket had made.
This turns out to have been a shrewd move. The demonstration flight of the Falcon Heavy apparently convinced not only the military of the rocket's direct-to-geo capability but satellite fleet operators as well. The Falcon Heavy rocket now seems nicely positioned to offer satellite companies relatively low-cost access to orbits they desire, with a minimum of time spent getting there in space.