The week of July 16 through July 23 saw four more launches take place around the world, potentially increasing the orbital launch count to 108 so far in 2023. This included Rocket Lab’s launch of the “Baby Come Back” mission (which featured a first stage recovery attempt), two more SpaceX Starlink v2 missions, and the launch of a Chinese Kuaizhou 1A rocket with an as-yet-unknown payload.
The global launch cadence is such that if the current pace is maintained, the year will come to a close with up to 195 orbital flights completed — the most in history.
Electron — “Baby Come Back”
Rocket Lab started the week off with the launch of their 39th Electron mission on Tuesday, July 17, at 01:30 UTC from Launch Complex 1B in New Zealand. The mission codenamed “Baby Come Back” was in reference to their latest attempt to recover the first stage. This marked the seventh Electron mission of 2023, bringing the California-based company’s cadence to one launch per month so far.
This launch saw a number of payloads placed into low-Earth orbit (LEO), including four NASA Starling technology demonstration payloads, a LEO 3 satellite replacing Telesat’s Phase 1 LEO satellite, and two Spire satellites carrying Global Navigation Satellite System Radio Occultation (GNSS-RO) payloads that provide global weather intelligence – the data acquired by these satellites can be assimilated into weather models to improve the accuracy of forecasts. These payloads have a combined launch mass of approximately 100 kilograms.
Seven satellites are hitching a ride to space together on Electron this week🚀🛰️
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) July 11, 2023
Following first stage flight, the Electron booster separated from the second stage. As the upper stage and payloads continued on to orbit, the first stage performed a passive reentry — meaning no engine burns were used. Instead, a drogue chute deployed, followed soon after by a main chute to slow the booster’s descent.
Initial attempts to recover the Electron booster utilized a helicopter to try and catch the booster in mid-air, but this has been shelved in favor of ocean-based recovery, where the booster will softly splash down in the water and be retrieved by teams aboard a marine vessel. Future reusable Electron boosters will feature additional waterproofing to enable quicker turnaround times.
Falcon 9 Block 5 — Starlink Group 6-15
SpaceX launched another batch of Starlink v2 Mini satellites on a Falcon 9 as part the Group 6-15 mission Wednesday evening, July 19, from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. An attempt on Tuesday night was scrubbed after an abort at T-5 seconds due to “an alert on the second stage”.
However, the second attempt launched without issue, and was the first launch of v2-mini satellites from Vandenberg, as all previous launches have taken place from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
This mission marked the 48th SpaceX launch of 2023 and the 46th Falcon 9 launch of the year so far. The first stage for this mission landed on SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still Love You, stationed downrange in the Pacific Ocean.
The mission saw 15 upgraded Starlink satellites launched on a southeasterly trajectory into a 315-by-323 kilometer orbit with an inclination of 43°, where they will be individually tested and checked out before raising their altitudes to operational orbits (530 kilometers circular).
The first batch of v2 Mini satellites were launched in February 2023 from Cape Canaveral as part of the Group 6-1 mission, with four more flights taking place afterwards. All future Starlink launches on Falcon 9 rockets will feature the v2 Mini satellites, as they incorporate major technological upgrades in bandwidth and size compared to their v1 and v1.5 counterparts.
The second-generation v2 Mini satellite and its larger v2 variant — designed to launch aboard Starship rockets — are expected to succeed the current-generation constellation deployed by SpaceX in the 2019-2023 period.
Deployments of v2 Mini satellites into other orbital shells with inclinations of 33° and 53° respectively are also on the cards, as SpaceX has received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to do so. Another set of Starlink launches from Vandenberg under the Group 7 name have also been planned, but details regarding this are scant at this point in time.
Kuaizhou 1A — Unknown Payload
Midway through the week, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) launched a Kuaizhou 1A small-lift rocket Thursday, July 20, at around 03:20 UTC from Site 95A at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center.
This was the 21st flight of a Kuaizhou 1A launch vehicle since its debut in January 2017 and its third mission of the year. The payload for this mission is as-yet-unknown.
The four-stage Kuaizhou 1A vehicle stands at a height of 19.8 meters and has a diameter of 1.4 meters, with the ability to place up to 300 kilograms of payload into LEO. The majority of the stages are solid fueled, with the exception of the upper stage.
The Kuaizhou 1A is one of several members of its rocket family that bears the same name. It is of similar class to the Kuaizhou 1 (which debuted in 2013), but is smaller than the Kuaizhou 11 version, which first launched in 2020 and is capable of delivering up to 1,500 kilograms to LEO. Two other vehicles — the medium-lift Kuaizhou 21 and the heavy-lift Kuaizhou 31 — are currently planned to be developed.
The Kuaizhou rocket family is said to be a series of “quick reaction” orbital launch vehicles, with the purpose being to conduct launch preparations as rapidly as possible, thus reducing the cost of launch and enabling more customers to purchase flights on the rocket. According to a statement once made by CASIC, launch readiness time can be given several hours after flight preparations have started.
Falcon 9 Block 5 — Starlink Group 6-6
SpaceX closed the week out with the launch of the Starlink Group 6-6 mission on a Falcon 9 from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Liftoff was set for Saturday night before it was scrubbed late in the final window due to weather. Launch eventually occurred 8:50 PM EDT on July 23 (00:50 UTC on July 24).
This was the 49th SpaceX launch of 2023 and the 47th Falcon 9 flight of the year so far. The booster for this mission – B1076-6 – landed on one of SpaceX’s Just Read The Instructions drone ship stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.
Starlink 6-6 carried 22 v2 Mini satellites to an initial parking orbit of 315-by-323 kilometers, where checkouts and individual tests of each satellite will be conducted before their orbits are raised to operational altitudes.
The v2 Mini satellites mass around 800 kilograms, as opposed to around 307 kilograms per v1.5 satellite. As such, fewer v2 Mini satellites are able to be launched on Falcon 9 than on first-generation flights. However, the v2 Mini can provide four times the capacity thanks to a more powerful phased array antenna.
SpaceX is currently authorized to launch up to 7,500 satellites for its second-generation Starlink constellation. Once the Starship launch system becomes mature enough to carry satellite payloads, the full-size v2 satellites — massing roughly 1,200 kilograms each — are expected to be launched in larger numbers, with Falcon 9 launching batches of the smaller v2 Minis in tandem.
(Lead image: Rocket Lab recovery teams work to retrieve an Electron first stage from the water after splashdown. Credit: Rocket Lab)