Launch Roundup: Russia returns to the Moon with Luna 25 mission, Virgin Galactic completes first fully private space tourism flight

by Bella Richards

It’s a busy week in spaceflight, especially for Russia. The week of Aug. 7 following through to Aug. 13 has seen Russia launch two missions to space, including the nation’s fourth-generation radio navigation satellite, GLONASS-K2, and Roscosmos’s first mission to the Moon in over four decades, dubbed Luna 25.

SpaceX launched a batch of its Starlink v2 Minis into low-Earth orbit (LEO), and another on Thursday night. What’s more, China launched another unknown payload into space.

Lastly, Virgin Galactic completed the second of its previously announced human spaceflight missions, Galactic 02, which sent three fully private tourists to the edge of space. With this week’s launches now complete, the total number of orbital launch attempts in 2023 has increased to 123.

Soyuz 2.1b/Fregat-M — Glonass-K2 No. 13 (Kosmos-2569)

The Russian Space Force successfully launched the first of its fourth generation GLONASS-K2 satellites into space on Monday, Aug. 7. The satellite launched atop a three-stage Soyuz 2.1b/Fregat-M rocket from Russian spaceport Plesetsk Cosmodrome at 9:20 AM EDT (13:20 UTC), marking the second launch for the rocket in 2023. The Fregat-M is the optional upper stage that typically flies on either the Soyuz 2.1b or Soyuz 2.1a launch vehicles.

Soyuz-2.1B medium-lift rocket launches GLONASS-M satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in 2018. (Credit: Russian Space Force)

GLONASS-K2 is the latest radio satellite navigation system developed by ISS Reshetnev (Information Satellite Systems), likened to Galileo or GPS. The satellite is unpressurized and masses 1,645 kilograms and will launch into a circular orbit with an orbital period of 11 hours, 15 minutes, and 44 seconds.

The satellite is the first of 24 that will eventually form the GLONASS-K2 constellation. The satellites are expected to operate for ten years, and while its lifespan is the same as its predecessor, GLONASS-K, it has been designed with several advancements, including more power, more accurate chronometers, and additional CDMA signals.

The first GLONASS satellites were operational from 1982 to 2005, followed by the GLONASS-M constellation, which launched from 2003 to 2016 and is still in use. In 2011, the first GLONASS-K satellite was launched into space and represented the first unpressurized version of the Russian navigation satellites, therefore greatly reducing its mass.

Falcon 9 Block 5 — Group 6-20

The latest batch of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites were launched on Monday, Aug. 7 at 11:57 PM EDT (03:57 UTC). The 15 v2 Mini satellites were into LEO from Vandenberg Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4E) in California.

The first stage for this mission, B1075-5, flew for a fifth time. It landed on ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ drone ship in the Pacific Ocean located 659 kilometers downrange.  The launch marked the 55th mission for SpaceX in 2023 — and the 51st for the Falcon 9.

A Falcon 9 launches the first batch of Starlink v2 mini satellites from Florida. (Credit: Stephen Marr for NASASpaceflight/L2)

Chang Zheng 2C (CZ-2C) 5-m S-SAR-02 (Huanjing-2F)

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) successfully launched an S-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite into space on Wednesday, Aug. 9, at 6:53 AM CST (22:53 UTC Aug. 8). The payload lifted off atop a Chang Zheng 2C (CZ-2C) rocket — also known internationally as a Long March 2C — from Launch Complex 9 at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in China. The launch marked the sixth mission for the CZ-2C in 2023.

According to the CASC, the satellite is part of a preliminary constellation to support emergency management and environment monitoring, similar to the one launched last October.  The satellite launched into Sun-synchronous orbit, and is set to be used by the Ministry of Emergency Management and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment for providing basic data for disaster relief and contribute to land resources surveys, water conservancy, agriculture and forestry.

The two-stage CZ-2C completed its last flight on July 9 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China, sending the Weixing Hulianwang Jishu Shiyan payload into LEO, which was confirmed to be an internet constellation satellite technology pathfinder.

SpaceShipTwo — Galactic 02

Virgin Galactic flew its second commercial mission on Thursday, Aug. 10, sending three private customers onboard the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity spacecraft into suborbit. The vehicle lifted off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, carried by the White Knight Two VMS Eve aircraft before release.

The crew of Galactic 02 included pilots CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses, and private customers Jon Goodwin, Keisha Schahaff, and Anastatia Mayers. Moses was a passenger on VSS Unity’s test flight in February 2019.

Jon Goodwin was the second person with Parkinson’s disease — and the first Olympian — to travel to space, after competing in the 1972 Munich Olympic games. The two remaining customers, Keisha Schahaff and Anastatia Mayers, were the first mother-daughter duo to travel to space.

Further, the two also became the first space tourists from the Caribbean Islands. Anastatia is the second youngest person to be on a spaceflight at 18 years old, followed slightly behind by Oliver Daemen, who flew on Blue Origin’s NS-16 mission in July 2021 — also at the age of 18.

Galactic 02 was the first fully private space tourism mission for Virgin Galactic, following Galactic 01, which carried three members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council of Italy. Virgin Galactic expects to complete space tourism flights every month from now on.

Soyuz 2.1b/Fregat-M – Luna 25 & Others

For the second time within a week, a Soyuz 2.1B/Fregat-M rocket launched a payload into deep space, and the mission is the first return to the Moon for Russia since 1976. Luna 25 is the first mission part of Roscosmos’s new Moon exploration program and lifted off from Site 1S at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia on Friday, Aug. 11 at 7:10 PM EDT (23:10 UTC), with a total launch mass of 1,750 kilograms.

Luna 25, also known as Luna-Glob-Lander according to NASA, is a Russian lunar lander mission set to probe the south-polar region of the Moon. The spacecraft will study the composition of the polar regolith and the plasma and dust components of the lunar polar exosphere. The mission will carry 30 kilograms of scientific instruments, including a robotic arm for soil samples and drilling hardware, and is built to survive on the lunar surface for at least a year.

Luna-25 being installed on the stand of the space head and docked to the upper stage Fregat-M. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Alongside Luna 25 there was a plan for 13 other small satellites for different customers, including two 6U Cubesats developed by Sputnix, with the rocket to launch the payloads into a Trans Lunar Injection (TLI) to slingshot the spacecraft toward the Moon. However, this plan may have been removed from the mission, given they are not evident in the payload photos.

Followed by Luna 25 will be Luna 26, set to map the lunar surface, then Luna 27, a heavy lander that will collect samples of the surface, then Luna 28, which will return the samples to Earth, and finally Luna 29, which will land a heavy lunar rover on the Moon.

Falcon 9 Block 5 –Group 6-9

Only days after two previous Starlink launches, SpaceX sent another 22 v2 Minis into space on Aug. 11. The company launched the batch of Starlink satellites at 1:17 AM EDT (05:17 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Given Falcon 9’s launch location, the rocket’s first stage, B1069, landed on the “Just Read The Instructions” drone ship, which was located 639 kilometers downrange from Cape Canaveral. The mission marked the ninth flight of this first-stage booster, which has launched the CRS-24, Eutelsat HOTBIRD 13F, OneWeb 1, SES-18,  SES-19, and four previous Starlink missions.

The booster’s most recent flight took place on June 23, when it placed 56 Starlink v1.5 satellites into orbit. This flight was the 44th for SpaceX in 2023 and closed off the first half of the year of launches. With the successful launch of Starlink 6-9, SpaceX has now completed 56 missions this year, with Falcon 9 having completed 52 of them.

Falcon 9 was originally set to launch late on Aug. 10, but its launch time was pushed back into the early morning hours of Aug. 11. According to SpaceX, there were four additional launch windows for the launch on Aug. 10, starting at 10:46 PM EDT (02:46 UTC on Aug. 11) until 01:17 AM EDT on Aug. 11 (05:17 UTC). On Friday, Aug. 11, there were five more backup launch windows set from 9:30 PM EDT (01:30 UTC on Aug. 12) until 12:52 AM EDT on Aug. 12 (04:52 UTC). Falcon 9 would ultimately launch at 1:17 AM EDT (05:17 UTC) on Aug. 11.

SpaceX is aiming to complete 100 launches in 2023, following the completion of a record-breaking 61 orbital launches in 2022. After completing three Stalink missions within just one week, the company is on its way to reaching its goal if it successfully maintains this launch cadence.

(Lead image: Launch of the Soyuz 2.1b/Fregat-M rocket sending the first GLONASS-K2 satellite into space. Credit: Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation)

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