SpaceX record-breaking first half of 2023 following Starlink launch

SpaceX’s last launch of the first half of 2023 occurred Friday, June 23, carrying 56 Starlink v1.5 satellites. Liftoff was in the second launch window of the day at 11:35 AM EDT (15:35 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The mission, Starlink Group 5-12, marked the 44th mission of the year for the company and wraps up a record-breaking first half of the year. Over 50 missions are on tap for the second half of the year that, if achieved, would put the company close to its goal of 100 launches in 2023.

The mission also broke the record turnaround time for launches from SLC-40 — a record that SpaceX has broken several times in the last year. 

Following the usual 35-minute long propellant load sequence, Falcon 9 ignited its nine Merlin 1D engines on the first stage for a two-and-a-half-minute ascent. This was followed by their shutdown and the first and second stages separated.

The first stage for this mission, B1069, flew for an eighth time and landed on SpaceX’s drone ship Just Read The Instructions located 639 kilometers downrange. This will be the 55th successful landing on this drone ship and the 129th consecutive landing of a Falcon booster since the last landing failure.

After stage separation, the single Merlin 1D Vacuum (MVacD) engine on the second stage ignited and burned for approximately six minutes to insert the satellites into a preliminary low-Earth parking orbit. 

About 20 seconds into the MVacD’s first burn, the fairing halves separated and initiated their return back to Earth for recovery. The fairing halves for this mission will be recovered by SpaceX’s multi-purpose recovery vessel Bob. With SpaceX achieving its long-time goal, this mission will feature a fairing half flying for its 10th time — a first. 

Once in its initial parking orbit, the second stage coasted for about 45 minutes to reach the orbit’s highest point or apogee. At apogee, the MVacD engine will briefly ignite for a second time to raise the altitude of the lowest point of the orbit or perigee. 

After that, the second stage initiated an end-over-end rotation to create the inertia needed to deploy the Starlink satellites riding on top of its payload adapter. 

The satellites were deployed into a 298-by-340-kilometer orbit at a 43-degree orbital inclination. After that, they’ll use their krypton-fueled Hall Effect thrusters to raise their orbit, first to a 350-kilometer high orbit for checkouts and then into their operational 530-kilometer high orbit.

This mission carried 56 Starlink v1.5 satellites, bringing the total of Starlink satellites launched to 4,698. Of these, 4,368 satellites remain in orbit with the rest having reentered already. 90 are in orbit but either non-responsive or actively deorbiting, 590 are in orbit and moving to operational orbit, and 3,688 satellites are in their operational orbit. 

Starlink Gen 1 Starlink Gen 2
Missions V1.0  Group 2 Group 3 Group 4 Group 5 Group 6
Orbit 550 km at 53º 570 km at 70º 560 km at 97.6º 540 km at 53.2º 530 km at 43º
Satellites launched 1665 408 243 1637 541 86
Satellites reentered 178 3 10 68 2 7
Satellites in operational orbit 1423 152 233 1544 306 30

(Status of Starlink constellation from Jonathan McDowell data from June 22 before launch)

These will be among the last Starlink v1.5 satellites that SpaceX intends to launch. Only two more missions with these satellites remain on the company’s schedule, both set for early July. 

All Starlink missions for the foreseeable future will feature Starlink v2 Mini satellites, at least until SpaceX’s Starship rocket is ready to launch the full-size Starlink v2 satellites and other future variants that are planned.

This year has been a record-breaking one for SpaceX. The company has carried out 44 missions and broken several turnaround records multiple times in just six months, a testament to its launch tempo.

Starlink launches dominated SpaceX’s schedule with 22 out of the 41 Falcon 9 launches this year having been dedicated to Starlink. This included the start of deployment of Starlink v2 Mini satellites — a downsized version of the Starlink v2 satellite made to fit inside Falcon 9’s payload fairing.

The company also continued its smallsat rideshare program with the launch of the sixth, seventh, and eighth Transporter missions. These three missions carried a combined number of 237 payloads for multiple smallsat customers. 

This year saw the debut of a new configuration for the MVacD engine. This configuration features a shorter nozzle extension aimed at reducing the cost and manufacturing time for the only expendable engine on Falcon 9. This allows the company to increase production volume and reduce the cost of the MVacD engine.

The first half of 2023 also saw the launch of four Dragon missions to the International Space Station — also a record. Two of these were crewed missions, Crew-6 and Axiom-2, that brought the total of people launched into orbit by SpaceX to 38. 

Falcon Heavy also launched twice carrying multiple payloads directly into geosynchronous orbit. The second of these two launches featured the first fully expendable Falcon Heavy mission as well.


Falcon Heavy ahead of the ViaSat-3 Americas mission. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

This year also saw the debut of SpaceX’s Starship rocket, the world’s largest and most powerful rocket ever launched. The company is now working toward at least three more launches of this rocket this year, with the first of those set to take place no earlier than August. 

As it currently stands, SpaceX is on track to launch 91 missions if it were to keep the current cadence. However, this may not be the case, as it has been usual for the company to increase its cadence in the second half of every recent year. 

For example, in 2022 the company had launched 27 missions in the first half of the year and 34 in the second half. Assuming a similar proportion of launches, this would mean SpaceX could launch 99 times this year, just one mission short of its goal of 100 launches in 2023. 

Two major problems have seemingly been dragging SpaceX’s schedule behind its target goal: a slow cadence at the start of the year from the company’s launch pad on the US west coast and the inability to increase cadence at Launch Complex 39A due to multiple conflicts.

At the start of the year, SpaceX had set out to launch at least 30 times this year from Vandenberg, meaning that it would have needed an average 12-day turnaround from the west coast launch pad. 

However, the start of the year featured an unusual weather pattern off the coast of California. Multiple launches were delayed for several days as a consequence of it and these delays accumulated over time. SpaceX has been able to make up for it in recent missions, breaking the record launch pad turnaround time twice — the latest being nine days, nine hours, and 44 minutes between Transporter-8 and Starlink Group 5-7


Launch of the Transporter-8 mission. (Credit: SpaceX)

On the other hand, Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) has been mostly used for Falcon Heavy and Dragon missions this year. As a result, the launch pad has supported fewer launches than it did at this same moment last year. 

LC-39A is the only launch pad that can support Falcon Heavy missions and it needs several days of work to configure it either for Falcon Heavy or Falcon 9 missions. Over the course of the year, multiple Falcon Heavy missions have seen delays due to the readiness of their payloads, sometimes reshaping the whole LC-39A manifest for the rest of the year. 

Sometimes the reconfiguration work was already well underway to be able to then undo it, launch a Falcon 9 mission, and then restart that work and launch a Falcon Heavy mission. This is the case of the launchpad’s next launch which was previously scheduled to feature the USSF-52 mission for the US Department of Defense using a Falcon Heavy rocket. 

This launch is now scheduled to occur no earlier than September of this year due to payload-related delays. The next launch from LC-39A is now planned to carry the Echostar 24 satellite also atop a Falcon Heavy rocket. The gap between the last launch, CRS-28, and this one will likely be of over 40 days, a span of time that could have allowed two or even three regular Falcon 9 missions if it weren’t for all of the conditions mentioned above.

Even if the company were to find time and reallocate work to perform a Falcon 9 mission from LC-39A, it would need to feature a return to launch site (RTLS) landing for the first stage. This is because the company’s two drone ships on the east coast are already used for the regular cadence of launches from SLC-40. No mission featuring an RTLS landing is expected in Florida until at least August. 


Launch of CRS-28 to the ISS. (Credit: SpaceX)

This problem also brings into question the fate of SpaceX’s schedule from Florida when the Echostar 24 mission launches in the next month or so. This launch will feature a double drone ship landing, meaning that both drone ships will not be available for any other mission taking place from the space coast. 

For SpaceX to increase its launch tempo during the second half of the year, it will likely need to make more use of its Vandenberg launch pad. Only two known customer missions remain from this launch pad for the rest of the year, meaning that the company could focus solely on Starlink missions to drive up this cadence.

This summer will also feature fewer customer missions from Florida, allowing SpaceX to increase the launch cadence by launching Starlink missions — missions that the company can control better and therefore launch at a higher cadence. 

Some notable missions for the second half of the year include the launch of the Polaris Dawn mission which will feature the first commercial extra-vehicular activity in orbit. 

Another notable mission includes the launch of NASA’s Psyche mission set to study a metallic asteroid of the same name.

Starting off the second half of the year next week is also another notable mission, ESA’s Euclid observatory, which will study dark matter and dark energy in our universe. This mission is set to launch no earlier than July 1 at 11:11 AM EDT (15:11 UTC).

(Lead image: B1069 on SLC-40 ahead of the Hotbird 13F mission. Credit: Thomas Burghardt for NSF)

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