Launch Roundup: Project Kuiper Protoflight and Galactic 04 highlight this week

by Justin Davenport

United Launch Alliance (ULA) flew only its second Atlas V of 2023, as Amazon’s subsidiary Kuiper Systems LLC is finally placed its first Kuiper demonstration satellites into orbit. This week also featured a launch from China, three Falcon 9 Starlink launches, a Virgin Galactic suborbital tourist flight, and one of the final flights for the original Vega small satellite launcher.

The Project Kuiper Protoflight is the first flight of Amazon’s Kuiper broadband satellite constellation, which is a direct competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink. Just hours before the scheduled Kuiper launch, Virgin Galactic flew the first Pakistani to the edge of space along with five other people on a suborbital flight aboard VSS Unity.

Yaogan 36-3 liftoff from Xichang. (Credit: CNSA)

Chang Zheng-2D Y84 | Yaogan 39-03 A, B, C

The first launch of this week was from China. A Chang Zheng-2D launch vehicle reportedly flew from LC-3 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China, with the launch on Thursday, Oct. 5 at 00:24 UTC. Three Yaogan military reconnaissance satellites were on board, headed for low-Earth orbit. This would be the ninth CZ-2D flight of 2023 and the 81st mission of the type overall.

View of a stack of 21 Starlink v2 Mini satellites before being enclosed in their fairing. (Credit: SpaceX)

Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-21

The second launch for this week was Falcon 9 B1076-8 flying a batch of 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The launch flew a trajectory to the southeast and inclined 43 degrees to the Equator.

The barge Just Read the Instructions was 630 kilometers out in the Atlantic to support the latest successful booster recovery.

This was the first SpaceX orbital launch this month, the 70th SpaceX orbital mission of 2023, and the 67th Falcon 9 launch so far this year. In addition, B1076 was coming off a turnaround of only 26 days.

VSS Unity ignites its hybrid rocket motor for its short trip to space on Unity 25 (center) just after being dropped by VMS Eve (left of center). (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

Virgin Galactic VSS Unity | Galactic 04

On Friday, Oct. 6, Virgin Galactic flew the Galactic 04 tourist mission on a suborbital trajectory from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Six people were on board, and the flight was set to go to a similar altitude as other powered flights to the edge of space with the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity — 80 to 90 kilometers.

Galactic 04 was commanded by Kelly Latimer, with former Shuttle astronaut CJ Sturckow as the pilot in the right-hand seat. Virgin Galactic lead astronaut trainer Beth Moses was making her sixth spaceflight past the unofficial “McDowell Line” at 80 kilometers that has been used as the point where the US Air Force and FAA awarded astronaut wings.

The Federation Aeronautique Internationale recognizes 100 kilometers as the “Karman line” where space begins, but astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell authored a published scientific paper that states that there is no significant difference between the space environment at 80 kilometers and at 100 kilometers altitude above Earth.

Mission patch for Galactic 04. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The passengers on this flight were Ron Rosano, Namira Salim, and Trevor Beattie. Rosano is a NASA Solar System Ambassador from the San Francisco Bay Area, while Salim, a Karachi-born woman, the first Pakistani to fly into space as defined by the “McDowell Line.” Beattie, born in Birmingham, England, is a British advertising executive.

Galactic 04 is Virgin Galactic’s fifth flight to the edge of space this year and the sixth flight of VSS Unity in 2023. In addition, this flight would be the tenth crewed spaceflight of 2023, with three Crew Dragons, one Soyuz, and one Shenzhou mission also flying human beings to space.

The Project Kuiper Protoflight payloads in their fairing (Credit: ULA)

Atlas V 501 | Project Kuiper Protoflight

The Atlas V mission, known as the Project Kuiper Protoflight, launched on Friday, Oct. 6, at 2:06 PM EDT (18:06 UTC) from SLC-41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. This mission used the 501 variant of the veteran launch vehicle. The Atlas V 501 uses the core, outfitted with kerosene and liquid oxygen burning a Russian-built RD-180 engine, without any solid rocket boosters, along with a five-meter fairing.

The Project Kuiper Protoflight Atlas V carried two prototype satellites for the upcoming Kuiper broadband satellite constellation, which needs to place half of its 3,236 satellites in orbit before July 2026. These satellites, known as Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2, are set to be placed into a circular 500-kilometer low-Earth orbit inclined 30 degrees to the Equator.

Kuipersat-1 and Kuipersat-2 would finally reach orbit over five years after SpaceX launched its prototype Starlink satellites Tintin A and B. The Kuiper constellation, which got its name from the Kuiper Belt of objects orbiting beyond Neptune, is planned to provide broadband to unserved or underserved regions, and like Starlink, will be marketed to consumers.

Schematic of the Atlas V 500 series. (Credit: ULA)

A good portion of Kuiper’s satellites are planned to fly on ULA Atlas V or Vulcan rockets, while Blue Origin and Arianespace have also received contracts to fly these satellites. A shareholder lawsuit has been filed by a pension fund that believes the Amazon board of directors acted in bad faith and did not properly consider flying the satellites aboard SpaceX and its Falcon 9.

This was only the 20th commercial mission for ULA, which has flown many national security and NASA missions aboard its rockets over nearly two decades. The Kuiper Protoflight mission was also the eighth and final flight of the Atlas V 501 configuration. All future Atlas V flights will involve the 551 or N22 configurations. The N22 will be used for Starliner missions while the 551 configuration will be used by eight Project Kuiper missions, USSF-51, and ViaSat-3 EMEA.

The Arianespace VV23 mission logo (Credit: Arianespace)

Arianespace Vega VV23 | THEOS-2, FORMOSAT-7R/TRITON, SSMS no. 5

The final missions of the original Vega rocket, VV23, launched into a sun-synchronous polar orbit from ELV-1 from the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana.

However, the launch was scrubbed after an issue appeared with the launch pad just 14 seconds before T0 on Friday. However, Arianespace launched the Vega on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 8 at 10:36 PM Kourou time (01:36 UTC on Monday, Oct. 9) and the flight successfully launched the THEOS and TRITON satellites, then the 10 CubeSats to finish out one of the last Vega flights.

Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-22 and Starlink 7-4

After Starlink 6-21’s successful launch from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, SpaceX were trying to attempt back-to-back Starlink flights from both major coasts of the US within a seven-hour period. Both of these flights also involving boosters making their 14th flight.

Starlink 6-22 was set to be the first one to fly, on Sunday, from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.  B1067-14, carrying 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites on a southeast trajectory inclined 43 degrees to the Equator, with a booster landing on A Shortfall of Gravitas, was first up. Launch time had been set for Sunday, Oct. 8 at 11:38 PM EDT (03:38 UTC on Monday, Oct. 9). However, there was a hold at the T-23 second mark and a scrub due to upper-level winds.

Starlink 6-22 launched successfully on Friday, Oct. 13, less than nine hours after the successful Falcon Heavy Psyche launch from Florida. Launch time was 7:01 PM EDT (23:11 UTC) and the payload was deployed. B1067-14 successfully landed on A Shortfall of Gravitas. 

Just hours later, Starlink 7-4 using B1063-14 did launch from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Launch time was 12:43 AM PDT (07:43 UTC) on Monday, Oct. 9. 21 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into an orbit inclined 53 degrees to the Equator. As usual for Vandenberg Starlink launches, Of Course I Still Love You was the barge that supported booster landing operations.

This Falcon 9 launch was the 68th launch of the type this year, and the 71st SpaceX orbital launch of 2023.

(Lead image: The Project Kuiper Protoflight Atlas V 501 with its payload installed. Credit: Julia Bergeron)

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