Launch Roundup: SpaceX finishes Starlink v1 flights – China launches methane powered ZQ-2

This week, LandSpace reached orbit on its second test flight of the ZhuQue-2 rocket; SpaceX launched the final v1.0/v1.5 Starlink satellites on Starlink Group 5-15; and India launched the Chandrayaan-3 lunar exploration mission atop their Launch Vehicle Mark 3 rocket.

These launches will mark the 102nd through 104th orbital launches of 2023. If the launch cadence stays the same for the rest of the year, globally 2023 will see ~195 orbital launches — the most in history.

ZhuQue-2 – Flight 2

The ZhuQue-2 (ZQ-2) rocket launched for the second time on July 12, 2023 from Site 96 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. This launch was claimed to have reached orbit after the failure of the maiden flight in December 2022, which was caused by a problem with a liquid oxygen inlet pipe on the second stage.

Flight two used the same configuration as the first one, with four gas generator engines producing 268 tonnes of thrust on the first stage and one engine on the second stage. There is no public information about the payloads on board.

ZQ-2 is a Chinese commercial launch vehicle developed by LandSpace Technology, a Beijing-based company founded in 2015. It is the first Chinese rocket to use methane and liquid oxygen as propellants. If successful, the ZQ-2 will become the world’s first methane-fueled rocket to achieve orbit, ahead of other vehicles such as SpaceX’s Starship, the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Rocket Lab’s Neutron, and Relativity Space’s Terran R.

The ZQ-2 can deliver up to 6,000 kilograms of payload to a 200-kilometer low-Earth orbit, or 4,000 kilograms to a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit. The rocket has a diameter of 3.35 meters, a length of 49.5 meters, and a mass of 219 tonnes at liftoff.

ZQ-2 makes LandSpace the second private Chinese company to perform a successful launch with a liquid propellant rocket, after Space Pioneer’s Tianlong-2 in April 2023. LandSpace is one of the leading players in China’s emerging commercial space sector, which has been supported by the government since 2014 as part of its ambition to rival the United States in space.

Launch Vehicle Mark 3 – Chandrayaan-3

Following Chandrayaan-1 and Chandrayaan-2, Chandrayaan-3 is India’s third mission to explore the Moon. The mission aims to land a spacecraft and a rover on the lunar south pole, where there may be water ice and other resources; however, unlike the previous lunar missions, Chandrayaan-3 does not have an orbiter. The mission will also conduct scientific experiments on the lunar soil and rocks.

The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft was launched by the Indian Space Research Organization’s Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LVM3) from Second Launch Pad, at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, In India, on July 14, 2023, at 09:05 UTC. The LVM3 — which used to be called the Geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle mark  III — rocket can lift up to 10 tonnes of payload to low-Earth orbit or four tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit.

Following launch, the spacecraft will travel to the Moon and orbit it for about a month before attempting a soft landing in August 2023. The lander and rover will carry various instruments to study the landing site and its surroundings and will use lasers and X-rays to analyze the elements present on the lunar surface. Chandrayaan-3 will use cameras, reflectors, and probes to capture images, measure distance and temperature, and communicate with Earth.

Falcon 9 Block 5 – Starlink Group 5-15

SpaceX launched the final batch of Starlink v1.5 satellites no earlier than Saturday on the Starlink Group 5-15 mission, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Friday’s attempt was scrubbed inside the terminal count, after which SpaceX conducted a static fire test of the vehicle. The launch occurred without issue on Sunday, July 16 at, 00:50 EST (04:50 UTC).

The first stage for this mission, B1060, became the second Falcon 9 booster to fly for a 16th time following in the footsteps of booster B1058 which broke this record last week. It previously supported missions like GPS-III SV03, Turksat 5A, two Transporter missions, and ten Starlink launches. It also became one of the few boosters to fly customers nearing the 15th flight mark with the launch of Galaxy 33 and 34 satellites on its 14th flight. The booster landed on A Shortfall Of Gravitas located 642 kilometers downrange in the Atlantic Ocean, northeast of the Bahamas.

This mission saw 54 Starlink v1.5 satellites launched into a 299-by-339 kilometer orbit from where they’ll be tested and checked out before raising their altitude to operational orbit. This will join the previous 57 batches of Starlink v1.5 satellites launched ever since the launch of the Starlink Group 2-1 mission in 2021.

This upgraded version of the Starlink v1 satellite was the first one to include inter-satellite laser links, which allows satellite coverage over locations where no ground stations can be installed like the oceans or remote and dangerous areas of the planet.

These satellites have been launched to Starlink’s first-generation constellation (Gen 1) through the Starlink Group 2, Group 3, and Group 4 missions. They have also been launched into Starlink’s second generation constellation (Gen 2) through the Starlink Group 5 missions.

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 645 108
Satellites reentered 181 3 10 68 2 10
Satellites in operational orbit 1419 170 233 1544 354 47

(Status of Starlink constellation via Jonathan McDowell data from July 11)

Starlink v1 and Starlink v1.5 satellites are being succeeded by Starlink v2 satellites which incorporate major technological upgrades in bandwidth and size. However this satellite version can only launch on Starship and, because it is still not operational, SpaceX has produced a downsized version of it, Starlink v2 Mini, that can launch on Falcon 9.

The first batch of Starlink v2 Mini satellites was launched in February 2023 into Starlink Gen 2 as part of the Starlink Group 6 set of missions. These are expected to continue launching well into the year and possibly well after Starship is operational as Starship will have to increase its cadence substantially to substitute Falcon 9 to deploy these satellites completely.

The Starlink Gen 1 constellation started in 2019 with the deployment of the first Starlink v1.0 satellites in November of that year. According to SpaceX, these satellites have an average orbital lifespan of five years, so it is to be expected that the company will replace them as they near this limit.  In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in February 2023, SpaceX indicated it was seeking to “deploy technological improvements developed for its second-generation (“Gen2”) system, to enable the operation of upgraded hardware at the same orbits, altitudes, and inclinations as licensed under its Gen1 license.” 

Given that statement, it is very likely that SpaceX will use Starlink v2 or Starlink v2 Mini satellites to replace all of the Starlink v1.0 and Starlink v1.5 satellites deployed into Starlink Gen 1 in the 2019-2023 period.

More recently, the company also filed with the FCC for several applications to communicate with Falcon 9 rockets in support of a newer set of Starlink missions dubbed Starlink Group 7. These have been filed for launches from Vandenberg and the location of the droneship for the Falcon 9 booster landing indicates that these flights are inserting the satellites into a low orbital inclination.

Until now, Starlink Group 6 missions had seen Starlink v2 Mini satellites deployed into a 43-degree orbital inclination orbit but SpaceX received approval from the FCC to deploy Starlink satellites into two other shells at 33 and 53 degrees orbital inclination — all low orbital inclinations. It could be a possibility that these Starlink Group 7 missions are in support of any of these other two shells but details about them are scarce at this moment.

(Lead image: LandSpace’s ZQ-2 rocket on the launch pad ahead of its second flight. Credit: LandSpace)

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