Launch Roundup: SpaceX surpass 2022’s launch count with Starlink Group 6-12; China to launch three missions

by Trevor Sesnic

The first week of September will see only four orbital launches and a single sub-orbital crewed launch. SpaceX started the week off with its Starlink Group 6-12 mission and ended it with the 6-14 launch. China will then launch two back-to-back missions with the Ceres-1S and Chang Zheng 4C. Virgin Galactic will then launch its fourth crewed mission of four months with Galactic-03. Finally, China will end the week with a Chang Zheng 6A launch.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-12

Starting off the week, SpaceX launched its first Starlink mission from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) in over six months on Sunday, Sept. 3, at 10:47 PM EDT (02:47 UTC on Sept. 4). Falcon 9 launched 21 Starlink v2 Mini satellites to a 284 by 293-kilometer low-Earth orbit, inclined 43.00 degrees.

This launch will take the Starlink constellation to 4,704 satellites in orbit, of which 3,963 are in their operational orbits. Overall, SpaceX will have launched 5,048 Starlink satellites, of which 344 have been deorbited either for testing purposes or for on-orbit failures.

The booster that supported this mission, B1073-10, first flew on the Starlink Group 4-15 mission in May 2022. Since then, it has supported SES-22, Starlink Group 4-26, Starlink Group 4-35, HAKUTO-R Mission 1, Amazonas Nexus, CRS-27, Starlink Group 6-2, and Starlink Group 5-11.

Following liftoff, the booster landed on SpaceX’s recovery vessel Just Read the Instructions, which was rapidly turned around following the launch of the Starlink Group 6-11 mission, which occurred on Aug. 27.  SpaceX’s multi-purpose recovery ship Doug will provide drone ship support for this mission and will attempt to recover both fairing halves from the water roughly 45 minutes after liftoff.

As typical on East Coast Starlink missions, Falcon 9 conducts two burns of its upper stage, deploying the 21 satellites 65 minutes after launch.

This mission marked the second Starlink mission from LC-39A of 2023. In comparison, SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station has launched 21 Starlink missions this year and Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base has seen 12. Due to the three Falcon Heavy launches and five Dragon launches thus far in 2023, LC-39A has been undergoing near-constant pad conversions.

For Falcon Heavy missions, teams must remove the side rainbirds, make changes to the reaction frame to support the propellant loading of three boosters, make changes to the transporter erector, and change the pad’s countdown software to handle the different vehicle, in a process that takes roughly two weeks in both directions.

Additionally, for Dragon launches, SpaceX must modify the top of the transporter erector, removing the fairing airconditioning and supply lines for Dragon. This process is quicker than pad conversions for Falcon Heavy, but still adds roughly a week to pad turnaround times.

For these reasons, LC-39A has launched significantly fewer missions this calendar year than SpaceX’s other pads. Despite this, Starlink Group 6-12 will mark SpaceX’s 62nd Falcon launch of 2023 — surpassing the company’s 2022 record of 61 orbital launches in a year. If SpaceX’s launch cadence remains roughly constant for the rest of the year, the company is expected to reach roughly 95 launches, including Starship.

Ceres-1S | The Little Mermaid

On Tuesday, Sept. 5, at 07:34 UTC, the Ceres-1S rocket launched four internet satellites into low-Earth orbit for China. This launch took place from the Maritime launching platform, which was stationed in the Yellow Sea. This marked both the first maritime launch of the Ceres-1 rocket and the first private Chinese launch from a sea platform.

The Ceres-1S is a four-stage rocket that stands 19 meters tall with a fairing diameter of 1.4 meters. The vehicle can place up to 400 kilograms into a low-Earth orbit. This mission will mark its fifth mission of 2023 and ninth overall.

Chang Zheng 4C | Yaogan 33-03

A day later, China successfully launched its Chang Zheng 4C rocket from Site 9401 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, in China. Liftoff happened at 18:18 UTC on Sept. 6. The payload was a single Chinese remote-sensing satellite, named Yaogan 33-03.


JAXA successfully launched the smart lander for investigating the moon (SLIM) and X-ray imaging and spectroscopy mission (XRISM) atop the H-IIA 202 rocket on Sept. 6, at 23:42 UTC. The mission lifted off from LA-Y1 at the Tanegashima Space Center, in Japan and marked JAXA’s first mission of 2023.

SLIM will be Japan’s first lunar surface mission and will demonstrate the ability to precisely land on the surface. During its descent, it will utilize data collected by JAXA’s SELENE lunar orbiter mission to land within 100 meters of a target. The lander will explore the lunar surface near the Marius Hills Hole, a possible entrance to a lava tube. H-IIA placed the spacecraft into a trans-lunar injection.

The H-IIA rocket lifted off from Tanegashima. (Credit: JAXA)

XRISM is a joint NASA and ESA mission that aims to study the structure of the universe, outflows of galaxy nuclei, and dark matter. Onboard are a pair of instruments: Resolve is a soft X-ray spectrometer that uses a lightweight X-ray mirror and microcalorimeter to detect energy and intensity of X-rays with an accuracy of 5-7 eV in the .3-12 keV range. The second instrument is Xtend, a sift X-ray imager that uses four CCD detectors and an identical X-ray mirror to cover a large field of view of 38 arc minutes on a side in the .4-13 keV range. This will enable detailed studies of the physics and chemistry of various cosmic phenomena, such as black holes, galaxy clusters, supernova remnants, and more.

The satellite will be operated from low-Earth orbit.

SpaceShipTwo | Galactic-03

The Galactic-03 mission was Virgin Galactic’s third commercial mission using the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity spacecraft. The mission, which provided passengers with a few minutes of weightlessness and incredible views of Earth, launched on Sept. 8, at 9:22 AM MDT (15:22 UTC). This marked SpaceShipTwo’s 17th mission and fifth of 2023.

The spacecraft was carried to around 45,000 feet by carrier aircraft VMS Eve before being released and igniting its hybrid rocket engine. This engine, burning liquid nitrous oxide and solid rubber, burned for around 60 seconds, taking the spacecraft to an altitude of roughly 80 kilometers.

Crew members for this mission purchased their tickets as early as 2005 and the full crew has not been announced. VSS Unity was piloted by Nicola Pecile and Michael Masucci — veterans of the company. The astronaut instructor is Colin Bennett and the mothership VMS Eve was piloted by pilots Jameel Janjua and Kelly Latimer.

Galactic-03 marked Virgin Galactic’s fourth spaceflight in four months, with Galactic-02 having just flown 29 days before launch on Aug. 10.

Starlink Group 6-14

On Friday, Sep 8. at 9:12 PM EDT (03:12 UTC on Sept. 9), SpaceX launched its second Starlink mission of the week. This launch, Starlink Group 6-14, lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40, at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, in Florida.

The Falcon 9 placed 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into a 284 by 294-kilometer low-Earth orbit, inclined 43.00 degrees. Following the launch, the booster B1076-7 landed on A Shortfall of Gravitas. The booster has previously supported CRS-26, OneWeb Launch 16, Intelsat 40e, and three Starlink missions.

This landing marked the 150th consecutive successful landing in a row.

Chang Zheng 6A | Yaogan 40

Ending the week off, China launched a Chang Zheng 6A from Launch Complex 9A at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in China. Liftoff happened at 04:30 UTC on Sept. 10.

(Lead image: Credit: Falcon 9 launches with lunar transit. Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF)

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