This Week In Spaceflight: China’s lunar plans, North Korea’s failed launch, and Starliner delays

Reviewing this week in spaceflight and upcoming events, it’s been another busy period. China now claims to be on track to land humans on the Moon by 2030, North Korea’s recent orbital launch failed, and Starliner’s Crewed Flight Test has been delayed yet again.

China Claims to be on Track for Human Landing on the Moon by 2030

China plans to land humans on the Moon by 2030 according to information released this week.

Ahead of the launch of the Shenzhou 16 mission, the China Manned Space Agency – or CMSA – talked about their lunar program, claiming that they’re “definitely on track” to put taikonauts on the surface of the Moon by 2030.

This also included details regarding the Chang Zheng 10 rocket that will be used for the initial lunar landings. CMSA claimed that the country will perform the first lunar landing mission on the rocket’s 5th and 6th flights, with one carrying the lunar lander and the other carrying the crew capsule for launch and return to Earth. This is similar to the two-launch “Earth-orbit rendezvous” approach studied – but never implemented – for the American Apollo lunar program.

This indicates that the rocket will need to launch at least four times between 2027 and 2029 for the country to make its goal of landing in 2030. 

Hakuto-R Lunar Crash Investigation Completed

iSpace’s Hakuto-R lunar lander crash-landed on the Moon on April 25th soon after communications with the vehicle were lost. The investigation into this crash is now complete and revealed an interesting software issue. 

Render of the first Hakuto-R lander. (Credit: iSpace)

The lander mistakenly thought it had landed on the surface when it was actually at an altitude of five kilometers. The investigation concluded that this was due to an error in the software that interprets the altimeter data. 

As it approached its landing site, the lander had flown over a steep cliff on the side of the crater it was landing in, changing the measured altitude by about three kilometers in the span of just a few seconds. The reading software wrongly concluded that the altitude data was incorrect and decided to simply not rely on it for the rest of the landing sequence.

Since the lander had erroneous altitude data, it pushed ahead with its landing, hovering about 5 kilometers above the lunar surface until it ran out of propellant. Following this, it went into a free fall and crashed.  

The company is moving ahead with fixing its software to try another lunar landing on its second Hakuto-R mission currently scheduled for next year.

ULA Delays Vulcan Flight Readiness Firing

A few weeks ago, ULA rolled its Vulcan rocket to perform final testing on it before its maiden launch later this year. However, things didn’t go as planned. Vulcan conducted a wet dress rehearsal – or WDR – on May 12 at Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida.

The Cert-1 Vulcan-Centaur stack rolls out to the pad at SLC-41 on May 11, the day before its wet dress rehearsal. (Credit: United Launch Alliance)

After that, the plan was to conduct a flight readiness firing of the rocket’s two BE-4 engines to validate engine startup and shutdown.  However, prior to the firing, an issue with the igniter system was found and forced a rollback of the rocket for repairs.

On May 22, just 10 days after the WDR, Vulcan again rolled out to the pad to perform this static fire test.

Unfortunately, once again, the company found more issues with the engine igniter system and the rocket had to be rolled back to fix them.

It is yet unknown whether this issue is with the ground systems that supply the fluids and power to the igniter system or if this is an issue with the system itself. One way or another, Vulcan will likely be on the ground for just a little longer.


Virgin Galactic: Unity 25

Virgin Galactic performed a suborbital flight of their SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity. Takeoff under the center wing of the carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, known as VMS Eve, occurred on May 25 at 15:16 UTC from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

VSS Unity ignites its hybrid rocket motor for its short trip to space (center right) just after being dropped by VMS Eve (center left). (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

NSF livestreamed the event capturing the drop of Unity live, followed by the ignition of its hybrid solid/liquid motor.

Unity was dropped from VMS Eve at 16:23 UTC. It reached an apogee of 87.2 kilometers before gliding down to the runway at Spaceport America, landing 14 minutes after its drop at 16:37 UTC.

If all the data from the flight looks good, Virgin Galactic plans to launch its first commercial flight later this month.

Rocket Lab: Coming To A Storm Near You

Rocket Lab launched the last two TROPICS satellites for NASA on May 26 at 03:46 UTC from Launch Complex 1B at their own spaceport in New Zealand.

Electron lifts off from Launch Complex 1B in New Zealand with two of NASA’s TROPICS satellites. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

This launch comes right at the beginning of hurricane season, so NASA will now be able to use these satellites to gather new tropical data that will be Coming To A Storm Near You.

Roscosmos: Kondor FKA #1

A Soyuz 2.1a rocket with a Fregat-M upper stage lifted off on May 26 at 21:14 UTC from Site 1S at the Vostochny Cosmodrome carrying the Kondor-FKA number 1 satellite.

The satellite was inserted into a Sun-synchronous orbit and will be used as a civilian radar imaging satellite.

SpaceX: Arabsat 7B (Badr 8)

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket on May 27 at 04:30 UTC from Florida carrying the Arabsat 7B – or Badr 8 – satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Falcon 9 B1062 supports a previous mission. (Credit: SpaceX)

The first stage, B1062, was flying for the fourteenth time and landed downrange on the droneship Just Read The Instructions.

The Arabsat 7B satellite was successfully deployed from the second stage, and will now make its way to geostationary orbit. There, it will provide satellite TV and communication services to central Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.


A GSLV Mark II rocket lifted off on May 29 at 05:12 UTC from the Second Launch Pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre.

The rocket was carrying the first NVS satellite which will serve as part of India’s constellation of positioning satellites in geostationary orbit. 

China: Shenzhou 16

This week, China launched the Shenzhou 16 mission carrying the next crew rotation to the Tiangong space station. The Chang Zheng 2F rocket launched on May 30 at 01:31 UTC from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China.

The spacecraft was commanded by veteran taikonaut Jing Haipeng who now becomes the first taikonaut to visit three space stations. 

Shenzhou-16 launches atop the Chang Zheng 2F. (Credit: CASC)

Alongside Jing were flight engineer Zhu Yanzhu and payload specialist Gui Haichao. The latter has now become the first Chinese civilian to fly into space. 

Shenzhou 16 docked to the nadir port of the Tianhe module of the Chinese Space Station at 08:29 UTC concluding a fast track, four-orbit rendezvous sequence.

With this launch, a new record was set for the most people in orbit at one time with 17 people orbiting Earth on two different space stations: six on the Chinese Space Station and eleven on the International Space Station.

SpaceX: Starlink Group 2-10

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched on May 31 at 06:02 UTC from Vandenberg carrying another 52 Starlink v1.5 satellites to Starlink’s first-generation constellation.

B1061 lifts off on a previous Starlink mission from Vandenberg. (Credit: SpaceX)

The first stage, B1061, was flying for the 14th time and successfully landed on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You. With the Arabsat 7B launch and now this mission, SpaceX has five boosters in the fleet that have flown 14 times.

The 52 Starlink satellites were deployed successfully, bringing the total number of Starlinks launched to 4,521. Of those, 4,198 remain in orbit while 3,542 are currently in their operational orbit.

North Korea Orbital Launch Attempt Fails

One of the most unusual launches this week was an orbital launch attempt carried out by none other than North Korea.

This is not the first time the country has attempted a satellite launch into orbit, it was actually the DPRK’s seventh attempt, although this number is debated since it’s hard to fully know the extent of the attempts made so far.

The Malligyong-1 satellite (right) seen during Kim Jong Un’s visit to inspect launch preparations. (Credit: KCNA)

However, unlike the previous attempts, this was publicized as a military reconnaissance satellite launch. The satellite, called Malligyong-1, was intended to be North Korea’s first spy satellite. The country has been preparing for the mission over the last few years by launching some of its technologies on suborbital missiles.

Nonetheless, the satellite won’t be able to spy on anyone or anything because its launch failed. The Chollima-1 rocket lifted off on May 30 at 21:27 UTC from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, and shortly after launch, photos were released by South Korea of the remains of the rocket in the ocean.

It is now understood that these remains are likely from the rocket’s second and third stages that separated from the first stage but were never able to achieve orbit. 

Despite the failure, North Korea shared images of the launch with the media. The country has historically been very closed off to outsiders, and this small selection of images allows us to get an insight into their developing space program.

Axiom-2 End Of Mission

This week saw the return of the Axiom-2 crew from the International Space Station.

Crew Dragon Freedom, which carried the crew of Axiom-2 to the ISS, undocked from the station on May 30 at 15:05 UTC. 

Ax-2 astronauts Peggy Whitson and Rayyanah Barnawi work on the ISS. (Credit: Axiom)

After a few orbits around the Earth, the crew donned their suits once again and strapped themselves in for re-entry into the atmosphere. Freedom executed a 12-minute-long deorbit burn on May 31 at 02:14 UTC. 

The capsule successfully splashed down off the coast of Panama City, Florida 50 minutes later at 03:04 UTC. 

With this flight, Axiom-2 commander Peggy Whitson now has a total of 675 days, three hours, and 49 minutes in space, breaking the record – that she already held – for the most days in space by a non-Russian astronaut – as well as any female astronaut.

Starliner Crewed Flight Test Delayed

Boeing’s Starliner Crewed Flight Test has been delayed yet again. 

This week, NASA and Boeing announced that they have decided to waive off their attempt at launching crew on Starliner on July 21 as they had previously planned.

Representatives from both organizations explained that in the past week, they had discovered issues with the lanyards used on the parachute system of the capsule as well as the tape used to cover wiring harnesses.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico on Dec. 22, 2019 following the first Orbital Flight Test (OFT). This same spacecraft is in the process of being refurbished and readied to fly on the Crewed Flight Test. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

As part of the final certification ahead of its crewed launch, many of Starliner’s systems were reviewed in-depth. The review uncovered that teams had improperly gathered data on the strength of the lanyards used on the capsule’s parachute system. This means that the company will need to “find a path” – as the officials stated – to re-analyze the data so that it follows the proper certification needed ahead of the crew flight. 

On top of that, it was discovered that the tape used to avoid shorts on the wiring harnesses is flammable and will need to be replaced. This not only includes replacement on future spacecraft but also on the one that was going to be used just a month and a half from now under the now-discarded plan.

Adding to these two issues, Boeing also found more valve problems on the Crewed Flight Test capsule, as they were getting ready to load propellants onboard.

Given this, Starliner’s next flight might have to wait a few more months.


June 3, 16:35 UTC – Launch and Docking of CRS-28

SpaceX is preparing to launch its 28th cargo resupply mission to the ISS from Launch Complex 39A in Florida. The Dragon spacecraft is set to dock at the station two days later on June 5th, at 09:36 UTC.

June 3, 22:26 UTC – Shenzhou 15 End Of Mission

With the launch of Shenzhou 16, it is time for the crew of Shenzhou 15 to return to Earth. After undocking from the Tiangong space station, Shenzhou 15 will deorbit for a landing in the Gobi Desert.

June 4, 09:48-13:28 UTC – Launch of Starlink Group 6-4

A Falcon 9 rocket will lift off next week from Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida carrying the next batch of Starlink v2 Mini satellites for Starlink’s second-generation constellation.

(Lead image: The Chang Zheng 5B, a variant of which launched the country’s first lunar sample return mission, takes to the skies. Credit: Xinhua)

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