SpaceX to close out third quarter with record-breaking Starlink mission

by Alejandro Alcantarilla Romera

SpaceX closed out the third quarter of 2023 with its 70th launch of the year. The mission, Starlink Group 6-19, lifted off on Friday, Sept. 29, at 10:00 PM EDT (02:00 UTC on Sept. 30) from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40), at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The weather forecast released by the Space Launch Delta 45 predicted a 40 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for liftoff on the primary launch day. In case of further delay, there was a backup launch opportunity roughly 24 hours later, where the weather would’ve worsened to only being 35% go for launch.

With this mission, SpaceX set new records and continued to push others that have already been broken. This is set to continue in the last quarter of 2023 as the company gears up for another record-breaking year in 2024.

Starlink Group 6-19 mission

The Starlink Group 6-19 mission featured another batch of 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites that were launched into Starlink’s second-generation constellation (Starlink Gen 2).

Ahead of the launch, SpaceX’s drone ship A Shortfall Of Gravitas (ASOG) and multi-purpose recovery vessel Doug departed Port Canaveral soon after sunrise on Sept. 25.

The first and second stages for this mission rolled out from the company’s HangarX facility at Kennedy Space Center all the way to the pad the day after on Sept. 26. The booster, B1069, flew for a tenth time having previously supported the launches of CRS-24, Starlink Group 4-23, Hotbird 13F, OneWeb-15, Starlink Group 5-3, SES-18 and SES-19, Starlink Group 5-6, Starlink Group 5-12, and Starlink Group 6-9. B1069 became the eleventh booster to fly up to ten times.

The payload fairing with its 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites onboard rolled out to the pad from SpaceX’s HangarX2 building on Sept. 27. This facility, located just a few hundred meters west of HangarX, has been in use for about four months as a payload processing facility for Starlink missions.

Falcon 9 followed its traditional 35-minute automated propellant load sequence before liftoff. The first stage followed a two-and-a-half-minute powered flight through the atmosphere before shutting down its engines and separating from the second stage. It then landed atop ASOG, which was stationed about 629 kilometers downrange.

Shortly after its separation from the first stage, the second stage ignited its Merlin 1D Vacuum engine (MVacD) for about six minutes, inserting itself and the Starlink satellites into a preliminary parking orbit.

About 30 seconds after MVacD’s ignition, the fairing halves separated and returned back to Earth, splashing down approximately 650 kilometers away from the launch site. These will be recovered by Doug which is doubling as the fairing recovery boat and drone ship tug for this mission. 

Fifty-four minutes after launch, the second stage re-ignited its engine for a brief two-second burn in order to raise the orbit’s perigee, targeting the 284 by 294-kilometer deployment orbit. The satellites were deployed ten minutes later.

With this mission SpaceX added another 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites to its Starlink constellation, bringing the total number of satellites launched to 5,200. Out of these, 4,827 remain in orbit while 4,199 satellites are now in their operational orbits. 

According to data from astronomer Jonathan McDowell, in the third quarter of 2023, SpaceX has added 502 satellites to its Starlink constellation. The company has also brought up to operational orbit 511 satellites since. 

Starlink Gen 1 Starlink Gen 2
Missions V1.0  Group 2 Group 3 Group 4 Group 5 Group 6 Group 7
Orbit 550 km at 53º 570 km at 70º 560 km at 97.6º 540 km at 53.2º 530 km at 43º 525km at 53º
Satellites launched 1665 408 243 1637 699 401 63
Satellites reentered 189 3 10 68 4 15 0
Satellites in operational orbit 1405 293 233 1544 599 125 0

(Status of Starlink constellation from Jonathan McDowell data from Sept. 26 before launch)

Despite reducing the number of satellites per launch as a result of launching the heavier Starlink v2 Mini satellites, the company has also increased the cadence of Starlink launches. SpaceX launched 22 Starlink missions in the first half of the year while the third quarter alone has already seen 20 Starlink missions lifting off, with Friday’s one being the 21st. 

The company also debuted a new group of launches, Group 7, which brings these v2 Mini satellites up to the 53-degree orbital shell of Starlink Gen 2. A new group of launches, Group 8, is set to debut in the next quarter with the potential for these to be dedicated to Starlink satellites with direct-to-cell connectivity, although the company has not talked about it yet. 

SpaceX aiming to further increase launch cadence

At the beginning of the year, SpaceX was targeting to launch 100 times in 2023. The current pace would put the company at 94 launches by the year’s end but, as usual, an increase in cadence is expected in the remaining three months of the year.

SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk confirmed on Twitter the intention to launch up to 10 Falcon rockets in a month by the end of this year, followed next year by 12 launches per month every month. This would translate to 144 launches being targeted for 2024 which would shatter all of SpaceX’s records — own and worldwide. 

Starlink Group 6-19 was the tenth mission of September 2023, already reaching the goal set by Musk. The company is making great progress trying to keep up cadence with much lower turnaround times for its launch pads.

For example, at SLC-40, SpaceX is building its new crew access tower near the launch mount to provide a backup crew launch capability for its Crew Dragon program. This kind of work could have been translated into lengthy mission delays or even a complete standdown of missions from this location.

However, teams at SpaceX have planned mission operations and construction work around each other to prevent conflicts and keep launch cadence at a maximum. This includes scheduling launches during the night, when construction work would not be underway, and transporting and stacking tower sections in the few days between one mission and the next — all while the launch pad systems are turned around to also support that next mission.

Nighttime launches are also when weather both in Florida and California is the most favorable for a launch, significantly lowering the chances that these missions could be pushed further in the calendar. 

Droneship operations have also been streamlined, especially on the East Coast where these recovery ships barely spend time at port anymore. In recent weeks, it’s been usual to see these spend only a day or so before departing for their next mission. This has kept the average landing-to-landing time for these drone ships at around eight days, compared to the previous average of about ten days during the last two quarters of the year.

The third quarter of the year has been notable for the substantial reduction in customer launches performed by the company. Only four of the 24 missions in Q3 were for customers, and two of those were for government customers.

A great majority of SpaceX’s customers have been suffering delays as of late, shifting missions further into the year and some have been pushed even to 2024 as a result.

For example, the launch of the USSF-52 mission onboard a Falcon Heavy rocket was originally targeted to occur in July of this year but has since been pushed to the end of November due to payload delays. Other commercial missions have also seen delays such as the third launch of a pair of SES’ O3b mPOWER satellites which was delayed from late August to late October in order to investigate issues with the satellites’ electrical systems. 

The Polaris Dawn crewed mission has now moved into 2024 following ongoing delays in the development of SpaceX’s Extravehicular Activity suit for the mission. 

Despite these issues and delays, some notable missions lay ahead for the remainder of the year such as the upcoming launch of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, the launch of Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander to the Moon, or the launch of the US Space Force X-37B spacecraft on a yet unannounced mission. 

While SpaceX is aiming for 144 launches of Falcon rockets in 2024, there are no signs of a slowdown in Falcon’s cadence. According to sources, the rocket has a healthy manifest deep into the second half of the decade with well over a hundred missions planned each year for the next 4-5 years. 

This will include small upgrades to improve Falcon 9’s reusability and simplify operations as teams learn more about the rocket and its systems. Many of these missions will be Starlink launches as the company’s Starship rocket will need to be brought up to operational capability and into a greater and greater launch cadence to match Falcon 9’s output.

(Lead image: B1069 in port following the Starlink Group 5-3 mission. Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF)

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