Launch Roundup: Virgin Galactic performs crewed suborbital mission; SpaceX launches Euclid

by Justin Davenport

Four launches are planned for the week of June 24 to July 1. The Russians opened the launches, with a Meteor weather satellite riding a Soyuz rocket on Tuesday, June 27, while Virgin Galactic flew its Galactic 01 crewed suborbital mission Thursday, June 29. Firefly’s Alpha rocket was thought to be making its first operational flight with the DARPA Victus Nox mission no earlier than the last week of June, and SpaceX ended the week with the launch of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Euclid telescope on Saturday, July 1.

The Euclid spacecraft, a visible and near-infrared telescope intended to measure the influence of dark matter and dark energy, is scheduled to launch atop a Falcon 9. Galactic 01 is the first commercial mission for VSS Unity and Virgin Galactic, 12 years after Sir Richard Branson initially predicted the start of commercial flights.

Soyuz 2.1b — Meteor-M no. 2-3

The first launch of the week was the Soyuz 2.1b rocket with the Meteor-M no.2-3 weather satellite onboard, along with 42 other rideshare payloads. The launch occurred Tuesday, June 27, at 11:34 UTC from Site 1S at Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia.

The 2,750-kilogram satellite is the third in a series of Meteor-M second-generation satellites and flown to its operational sun-synchronous polar orbit by a new version of the Fregat upper stage. The updated and modernized version of Fregat made its first flight on this mission.

The Meteor weather satellite and its Fregat upper stage being mounted onto the Soyuz rocket (Credit: Roscosmos)

The Meteor-M satellite is equipped with six instruments. A low-resolution multi-spectral scanner for global and regional cloud cover mapping, a multichannel Earth surface monitoring scanner, and an atmospheric imager/sounder that can measure sea surface winds are aboard.

In addition, an advanced IR sounder for atmospheric temperature and humidity, a data collection system, and a rescue radio complex are included on the spacecraft. This satellite is one of a series that will replace the older Meteor-M3 satellites.

In addition to the Meteor satellite, 42 CubeSats flew as rideshare payloads. The CubeSats are from Russia and international organizations.

Virgin Galactic — Galactic 01

The second spaceflight of the week, a crewed Virgin Galactic suborbital flight took place from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The Italian Air Force contracted Virgin Galactic to fly a research mission with its personnel onboard on SpaceShipTwo’s second powered flight of 2023.

The SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity was launched from the White Knight Two VMS Eve carrier aircraft and flew to around 80 – 90 kilometers altitude with Mike Masucci and retired Italian Air Force lieutenant colonel Nicola Pecile as the pilots. Virgin Galactic astronaut trainer Colin Bennett – instead of Beth Moses, who had earlier been slated to fly this mission – flew with Italian personnel Col. Walter Villadei, Lt. Col. Angelo Landolfi, and Pantaleone Carlucci.

VMS Eve and VSS Unity take off on the Unity 24 unpowered glide flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Mike Masucci and Colin Bennett have flown to the edge of space before, but the Italian personnel conducted their first flight. Villadei and Landolfi are Italian Air Force officers, while Carlucci is a civilian aerospace engineer and researcher for the National Research Council of Italy. Nicola Pecile was making his first flight to the edge of space as well.

The crew operated various experiments during the flight. Villadei, the commander of the Italian Air Force “Virtute 1” mission on this flight – was wearing a suit to measure biometric data during the flight, while Landolfi measured cognitive performance in microgravity. Carlucci had his heart rate and other metrics measured during the flight.

VSS Unity reached a maximum speed of Mach 3, and after its reentry performed a gliding flight to land at Spaceport America’s long runway. The flight had been initially scheduled for 2021 but was delayed due to the need to refurbish and modify both Unity and Eve after Sir Richard Branson’s flight.

Firefly Alpha – Victus Nox

The Firefly Alpha, after successfully reaching orbit last year, is now set for its first operational flight. Launching a DARPA payload on short notice under the name “Victus Nox,” Alpha will launch from Space Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W) at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The launch time and date are not yet known, and Firefly has 24 hours to launch the satellite after the US Space Force gives the order to launch the payload. The launch is expected to happen sometime this week. The satellite’s purpose is listed as “space domain awareness,” and the flight is meant to test a rapid launch capability for the DoD.

Firefly Alpha FLTA002 on the pad at VSFB before launch. (Credit: Michael Baylor for NSF)

Falcon 9 — Euclid

SpaceX successfully launched ESA’s Euclid telescope atop a Falcon 9 booster. Euclid was originally scheduled to fly aboard a Soyuz rocket but this had to be changed due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. ESA needed to contract with SpaceX to launch Euclid due to the retirement of the Ariane 5 and delays to Ariane 6.

The 2,100-kilogram Euclid telescope launched from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, on Saturday, July 1, at 11:12 am EDT (15:12 UTC). The payload will be sent to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point, which is used by the James Webb Space Telescope and other scientific missions.

Artist’s impression of the Euclid space telescope. (Credit: ESA/C. Carreau)

Euclid is a visible to near-infrared space telescope built by Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space, and developed by ESA and the Euclid Consortium. The telescope’s primary purpose is to research dark matter in the universe by measuring the acceleration of the universe, which will allow scientists to better understand what dark matter is and how it affects our universe. Euclid is a Korsch-type telescope and is one of the medium-class missions in ESA’s Cosmic Vision program.

(Lead image: Falcon 9 at SLC-40. Credit: SpaceX)

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