Launch Roundup: SpaceX launches Galaxy 37; will launch Starlink Group 6-8

Breaking into the 31st week of 2023, from July 31 to Aug. 6, not much is held in store in terms of launches. Up first this week, a momentous flight took place when the last Antares 230+ flew to LEO during the NG-19 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Following slightly more than a day later, a Chang Zheng 4C carrying the Fengyun-3F meteorological satellite took to the skies from Jiuquan, China. Shortly after that, it was the turn of a Falcon 9 transporting Maxar-built Galaxy 37 inside its fairing. It will be deployed into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), with the satellite reaching a geostationary orbit (GEO) by itself.

Following an aborted launch attempt last week, Rocket Lab will launch Capella Space’s Acadia satellite to a mid-inclination LEO.  Finally, SpaceX launched the Starlink Group 6-8 mission.

Antares 230+ — CRS2 NG-19, S.S. Laurel Clark

The launch vehicle lifted off from Wallops Flight Facility hauling cargo for crew and equipment in orbit, under a second commercial resupply services (CRS) contract NASA granted Northrop Grumman in 2016.

Liftoff occurred at 8:31 PM EDT on Aug. 1 (00:31 UTC on Aug. 2). Once the rocket completed all phases of flight, Cygnus S.S. Laurel Clark was in a 165 by 309-kilometer orbit, inclined by 51.64 degrees. Two days later, Canadarm2 on the ISS should capture the freighter at 9:55 UTC on Aug. 4.

Ship Laurel Clark travels loaded with north of 3,700 kilograms of an assortment of goods, including items for over 40 experiments, as well as food, consumables, and hardware, like the exploration portable water dispenser. A definitive cargo manifest has not yet been made public, as it is probably being finalized. 

On the science side of this mission, some experiments will see their capabilities augmented, like the flow boiling condensate experiment and the cold atom lab. Saffire-VI will set on fire sample materials inside the Cygnus once it unberths and before deorbiting. A multi-needle Langmuir probe will characterize plasma outside the hull of the station.

Regarding the rocket, Northrop Grumman’s Antares bade farewell to its 200-series. The breakout of the armed conflict in February 2022 signified an end to the supply of Ukrainian first stages and Russian first stage RD-181 engines. A backlog of them allowed the firm to proceed with the NG-18 and the NG-19 mission. Nevertheless, taking measures was needed when facing the future.

Consequently, the company purchased three Falcon 9 rides for its Cygnus spacecraft. This is not the first time for the cargo ship: ULA’s Atlas V took care of three of these launches after the Antares 130 failure. Simultaneously, Northrop has also announced its partnering with Firefly Aerospace, which will provide new first stages and engines. 

Provided no delays arise, Antares 330 should debut in October 2024. For the last time, the expendable, two-stage medium-lift Antares 230+ rose, riding on close to 3,850 kilonewtons of thrust by two RD-181 engines. These run on rocket-grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOX), while the second stage Castor 30XL uses solid QDL-1 propellant. 

The launch vehicle is 42.5 meters tall, 3.9 meters in diameter, and masses 285 tonnes for liftoff. Summing up its different configurations’ capabilities, it can launch up to 8,000 kilograms of payload to a LEO, 3,000 kilograms to a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), and 1,600 kilograms to an Earth-escape trajectory.

Chang Zheng 4C — Fengyun-3F

At 03:47 UTC on Aug. 3, a Chang Zheng 4C (CZ-4C) provided by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation successfully placed the Fengyun-3F (FY-3F) weather satellite in orbit. 

Once in the targeted SSO, the present Fengyun will replace FY-3C residing in the morning orbit. Developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), this spacecraft masses 2,250 kilograms and is expected to last three to four years. The FY-3F procures electrical power using a single solar panel and batteries and should be lofted onto a circular 800-kilometer orbit, inclined by 98.8 degrees. Its suite of instruments comprises a total of 10, two of which are new developments, while another three are upgraded versions.

FY-3 satellites embody the second generation of polar-orbiting meteo-sats, with the 3F expected to be dedicated to atmospheric probing, weather forecasting, and climate change monitoring. If the CZ-4C successfully fulfills its task, China will have launched 20 FY satellites of two generations, out of which eight will still be operational, orbiting Earth.

Chang Zheng 4C climbs toward orbit with Ziyuan-1 02E

The CZ-4C is the latest addition to the CZ-4 family, with its first flight in 2006. Its development and manufacture fell under the sphere of SAST, and its services are mainly oriented toward launching into SSO. It is an expendable three-stage, medium-lift rocket powered by: a YF-21C engine on stage one, a YF-24E on stage two, and two YF-40Cs on stage three. All of these engines run on hypergolic propellants, a distinctive sign of the old CZ launchers.

Standing 47.98 meters tall, with a maximum diameter of 3.35 meters, the Chang Zheng 4C liftoff mass is approximately 250 tonnes. It is capable of placing 4,200 kilograms of payload mass into a LEO, and about 2,900 kilograms into a SSO. 

Falcon 9 v1.2 Block 5 — Galaxy 37

Lifting off at 01:00 AM EDT on Aug. 3 (5:00 UTC), SpaceX Falcon 9 lofted the Galaxy 37 satellite, built by Maxar, to a GTO. The mission launched from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) with the rocket heading due East, later touching down on Just Read the Instructions. The booster supporting this mission was B1077-6, which has previously supported the Crew-5, GPS III SV06, Inmarsat I-6, Starlink Group 5-10, and CRS-29 missions.

Intelsat will operate this communications satellite from GEO at the 127 degrees West slot, providing services in the United States and North America. Transmitting only in C-band, this spacecraft joins another six needed to comply with newly imposed US Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) band regulations. Another payload on this satellite, Horizons 4, will operate in the Ku-band.

The manufacturer based the Galaxy 37 on the SSL-1300 satellite platform, featuring a pair of solar arrays. These generate a supply of up to 12 kilowatts of electrical power, with batteries to feed/support the spacecraft through the solar night. Supporting up to 5,500 kilograms of satellite mass at launch, this bus allows for GEO satellites to fit in four-meter class fairings. Future iterations of this bus are planned, with the expanded 1300 versions seeing up to a 40% increase in performance. 

Notably, Galaxy 37’s ride to space was originally an Ariane 64, which needed change because of FCC-derived deadlines. Having switched launch vehicles, it now cruised atop SpaceX’s partially reusable, two-stage Falcon 9. Nine Merlin 1D engines power its booster through 845 kilonewtons of thrust each, while a single MVacD generates 942 kilonewtons of force for the second stage.

Propellants, RP-1 and LOX, are stored in tanks inside both stages. The rocket features a liftoff mass of 550 tonnes, standing 70 meters tall, as a whole, with a diameter of 3.7 meters. The reusable fairing has a diameter is 5.2 meters, with a length of 13.1 meters. It is unclear if the fairing is flight proven for this mission.

Electron — “We Love The Nightlife”

After signing a deal with Rocket Lab in February of this year, the company will launch its first mission for Capella Space’s Acadia satellite constellation. Following an aborted launch attempt on July 30 due to low igniter pressure in an engine, the Electron is still waiting to lift off from Launch Complex 1B, at the Mahiah Peninsula, in New Zealand, with a scrub called late into the count on Sunday morning.

Electron will place the single satellite into a 640-kilometer circular mid-inclination orbit in what will be the first of four launches by Rocket Lab for the Acadia synthetic aperture radar (SAR) constellation — an Earth-imaging constellation slated to offer increased imaging capability and better communications connectivity for customers. These satellites are designed, manufactured, and operated by Capella Space.

Falcon 9 v1.2 Block 5 — Starlink Group 6-8

Closing the week, or starting the next one depending on where you are, another Falcon 9 from SpaceX lifted off from the cape. During the US evening, the launch came from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, with the Starlink Group 6-8 mission beginning its journey.

22 satellites were sent to 530 kilometers in altitude and 43 degrees in inclination. However, they will be left in a lower orbit, raising themselves up from there. So far, the company has placed 4,881 Starlink satellites in orbit, but about 4,540 remain. In the past, other Starlink versions were used, but now only v2 Minis are being launched. On the other hand, the full v2s await Starship.

Booster 1078-4 used, and successfully landed on SpaceX’s drone ship A Shortfall Of Gravitas placed east of The Bahamas, about 660 kilometers downrange. Close to that point, one of SpaceX’s recovery vessels also patiently waited to later scoop the jettisoned fairings from the water.

Starlink is SpaceX’s solution to solve latency issues typical of GEO satellites. Instead, this gargantuan LEO constellation reduces communication distances, speeding up the process. As a consequence, online activities like gaming, streaming, among others, benefit from the trait. Another key feature is internet accessibility from remote areas, allowing thousands to gain access to everything it has to offer.

(Lead image: Falcon 9 launching the Galaxy 37 mission. Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

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