Launch Roundup: Rocket Lab fails during “We Will Never Desert You” launch; SpaceX launches two boosters for 17th time

by Trevor Sesnic

The week of Sept. 18 through Sept. 24 is set to see four orbital launches, all but one of which are set to take place from US-based aerospace companies. Firstly, Rocket Lab launched its ninth Electron of 2023 on a mission dubbed “We Will Never Desert You.” However, the mission suffered a failure during staging.

Later, SpaceX launched its Starlink Group 6-17 mission from Space Launch Complex (SLC-40). Later in the week, SLC-40 saw the launch of yet another Starlink mission, dubbed Starlink Group 6-18. In between these missions was the launch of a Ceres-1 rocket, from China, which also suffered an anomaly at a currently unknown phase of flight.

These missions marked the 152nd through 155th launches of 2023; at this pace, the world is on track for over 210 launches by the end of the year, which will mark a new record. SpaceX has made up over 40% of these launches, with these two Falcon launches being its 66th and 67th Falcon flights of 2023.

Early on Sept. 25, SpaceX launched its third Starlink mission in a seven-day period. Starlink Group 7-3 launched on Monday, at 00:23 AM PDT (07:23 UTC).

Electron/Curie | We Will Never Desert You

Rocket Lab launched the “We Will Never Desert You” mission on Sept. 19, 2023, at 06:56 UTC from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula, in New Zealand. A hold was called for the opening of the window due to solar weather. However, once launched, the feed died during staging, pointing to an issue with second stage ignition. No further information was provided other than the confirmation of an anomaly.

The mission was for Capella Space — an American space tech company that operates commercial synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery satellites in low-Earth orbit. This was set to be Rocket Lab’s third mission for Capella in 2023 and the second launch in a multi-launch contract of four missions, which will deploy Capella’s new Acadia satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

The Acadia satellite on this mission masses approximately 160 kilograms and will join the existing fleet of eleven Capella satellites in a circular orbit of roughly 635 kilometers, inclined 53 degrees. These satellites aim to deliver the highest quality, high-resolution SAR imagery commercially available, with the ability to “see-through” all-weather conditions and capture clear imagery of the Earth 24 hours, seven days a week. The next-generation Acadia satellites include several new features that will enable faster downlink speeds and higher-quality images. This data will be accessible through Capella’s fully automated ordering and delivery platform.

The Electron rocket is a two-stage vehicle, standing 17 meters tall with a diameter of 1.2 meters. At liftoff, the vehicle masses roughly 12,000 kilograms, and is capable of placing 300 kilograms in LEO. The first stage of the vehicle stands at 12.1 meters tall and has nine Rutherford engines. These engines run on rocket propellant 1 (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOX), which is sent into the main combustion chamber by an electric turbopump.

The use of electric motors to spin the turbine allows Rocket Lab to greatly simplify the engine design, as the start-up of the engines requires only spinning an electric motor. This is in stark contrast to the ignition process of a traditional open-cycle engine, which requires a delicate dance between spinning mass through the turbine into the preburner and having the preburner spin the turbine.

This unique design allows for rapid production and assembly, enabling Electron to be the second most frequently launched rocket in the United States. “We Will Never Desert You” will be Electron’s ninth mission of 2023, meaning Rocket Lab has reached its long-time goal of an Electron launch every month.

Rocket Lab was not going to attempt to recover the first stage of Electron on this mission. This comes after the successful recovery of the stage on its last mission, dubbed “We Love The Nightlife,” which used a single flight-proven Rutherford engine. It is not known why Rocket Lab is not attempting recovery on this mission.

Overall, this marked Rocket Lab’s 41st mission. An investigation will be required ahead of the next launch.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-17

SpaceX launched its Starlink Group 6-17 mission on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, at 11:38 PM EDT (03:38 UTC on Sept. 20). This mission placed 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into a 284 by 293 kilometer LEO, inclined 43.00 degrees. This brought the Starlink constellation to 5,135 satellites launched, of which 4,786 are still in orbit around the Earth.

SpaceX has been working hard with the astronomy community, attempting to protect the night sky for all to enjoy. Teams developed in-house dielectric mirrors on the surface of the satellites and extremely dark black paint for angled surfaces. These significantly reduce the amount of light reflected off of the satellites toward the ground. Moreover, SpaceX has made these brightness mitigations available for other satellite operators at cost.

The first stage that supported this mission set a record as the first booster to launch for the 17th time, although it was originally going to be 1060 before SpaceX released it was actually 1058. It is currently expected that SpaceX will retire Falcon 9 first stages once they reach 20 flights, however, this number could be further pushed.

Following the launch, the first stage successfully landed on SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas. The ship was tugged downrange by Doug, marking the first mission since Starlink Group 6-10 that was tugged by this multi-purpose recovery vessel. Following the launch, Doug attempted recovery of both fairing halves.

Ceres-1 | Autumn Sonata

On Thursday, Sept. 21 at 04:59 UTC, Galactic Energy attempted to launch its Ceres-1 rocket. The vehicle was set to place a single Jilin-1 high-resolution 04B satellite into a sun-synchronous orbit, however, the mission failed during an unknown portion of the flight. This was Ceres-1’s 10th mission and first failure.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-18

Ending the week off, SpaceX launched another Starlink mission from SLC-40 on Sept. 23, at 11:38 PM EDT (03:38 UTC on Sept. 24).

This mission saw another 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites go to a 284 by 294 kilometer LEO. The booster supporting this mission was B1060, which had previously supported GPS III SV03, Turksat 5A, Transporter-2, Intelsat 33&34, Transporter-6, and 11 Starlink missions. Following liftoff it landed atop Just Read the Instructions.

This launch set a new turnaround record for SLC-40 at three days, 21 hours, and 29 minutes, barely beating the previous record of three days, 21 hours, and 40 minutes. With this launch cadence, SLC-40 would be capable of supporting over 90 launches in a calendar year.

Starlink Group 7-3

SpaceX’s Starlink Group 7-3 mission launched 21 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into a 286 by 297 kilometer low-Earth orbit. Liftoff from SLC-4 East occurred Sept. 25, and marked SpaceX’s 69th launch of 2023.

The first stage supporting this mission, B1075-6, had flown five times before. It has previously supported the SDA Tracking and Transporter 0-1 launch and four Starlink missions. Following the launch, the booster will attempt landing on SpaceX’s drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, which will be stationed just over 600 kilometers downrange.

While it is unknown if the fairings being used on this launch are flight proven, recovery of them will be attempted approximately 670 kilometers downrange, with SpaceX’s multi-purpose recovery vessel GO Beyond.

This mission took the total number of Starlink satellites launched to 5,178, of which 4,807 remain in orbit. 4,097 of these are in their operational orbits.

(Lead image: Falcon 9 sets reuse record. Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF)

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