Launch Roundup: SpaceX surpasses 5,000 active Starlink satellites and sets booster reuse record

by Aaron McCrea

The week of Oct. 23 through Oct. 29 has been a big one for low-Earth orbit (LEO) with all but one flight headed to already existing constellations. This includes two Falcon 9 launches on opposite sides of the country, one Russian Soyuz 2.1b launch, and two different launches planned out of China, one involving humans.

Two Chinese launches started the week, with the first being a Chang Zheng 2D which flew from LC-3 at Xichang Satellite Launch Center. Then, a Chang Zheng 2F/G launched out of LC-90 at the China Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, before a Soyuz 2.1b launched out of Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The first Falcon 9 launch of the week launched Starlink satellites on the other side of the world out of SLC-4E at Vandenberg Spaceforce Base (VSFB). Then, on the other side of America, Falcon 9  launched even more Starlink satellites out of SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS).

Late on Friday, SpaceX launched the Starlink Group 6-26 mission. This set a new reuse record, as the booster flew for its 18th time.

Chang Zheng 2D – Yaogan 39 Group 04

China successfully launched more military reconnaissance satellites into LEO on Monday, Oct. 23, at 20:03 UTC out of LC-3 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China. While not much information is known about the payload, the Yaogan 39-04A, 39-04B, and 39-04C reconnaissance satellites are in the payload bay. These satellites became the 135th, 136th, and 137th Yaogan class satellites launched by China.

The Yaogan satellites are believed to be ELINT capable, which means that they use electronic sensors to gather intelligence by locating the radar of ground systems. This capability can give a strategic advantage to military endeavors like jamming any type of electrical signal. 

The satellites were launched using a Chang Zheng 2D, which is one of China’s workhorse rockets. This was its 10th flight of 2023 and its 83rd total launch since its maiden flight on Aug. 2, 1922.

Chang Zheng 2F/G – Shenzhou 17

China didn’t stop with only one launch this week. Next up on the list was the Chang Zheng 2F/G taking three taikonauts to the Tiangong space station in LEO. The launch occurred at 11:14 PM EDT on Oct. 25 (03:14 UTC on Oct. 26) out of LC-90 at the China Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center and was China’s 12th crewed mission and 17th Shenzhou mission.

The Tiangong space station is a three-module, 340-cubic-meter space station first launched on Apr. 29, 2021, and is operated by the China Manned Space Agency. The station can hold up to six crew members at a time and houses 23 pressurized experimental racks and 52 exposed experimental racks. China plans to gain information on how humans react in a weightless environment for long periods of time, and multiple technologies like rendezvous maneuvers in orbit and regenerative life support using Tiangong. 

Shenzhou 17 will continue to expand the lifespan of Tiangong’s already two-and-a-half years in orbit by bringing a new crew up to work on the space station for six months. The crew of this mission is Commander Tang Hongbo, Operator Tang Shengjie, and System Operator Jiang Xinlin announced by the People’s Liberation Army Astronaut Corps on Oct. 25.  

Soyuz 2.1b – Lotos-S1 n°08

The Space Forces of the Russian Federation launched a Soyuz to LEO on Friday, Oct. 27 at 2:04 AM EST (06:04 UTC). The mission has not been confirmed, but it is believed to be the military resonance satellite Lotus-S1. Launched out of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia at Site 43/3, the Soyuz 2.1b delivered a single 6,000 kilogram satellite to LEO which will add to the six Lotos-S1’s already in orbit.

These reconnaissance satellites are an upgrade to the 130 Soviet-era Tselina satellites which had its final flight in 2007. The Lotos-S1’s likely use ELINT to intercept radio signals for military usage on tracking and military assets and jamming communications. This is Soyuz 2.1b’s 4th launch of 2023 and 84th mission of all time.

Falcon 9 – Starlink Group 7-6

With SpaceX’s goal of launching 100 times this year, in the coming weeks SpaceX will be launching many Starlink missions. This week’s first Starlink mission took place at 2:00 AM PDT on Oct. 29 (09:00 UTC). Like all Group 7 missions, this launch took place from SLC-4E from VSFB. This Falcon 9 placed 22 more Starlink v2-mini satellites into LEO — the most satellites launched on a Group 7 mission. 

Booster 1075 took these 22 Starlink satellites on a southeastern trajectory inclined at a 53-degree angle to the equator. The second stage of Falcon 9 then placed the satellites in an initial deploy orbit of 286 by 296 kilometers. In the coming months, the satellites will raise their orbits to the operational 530-kilometer circular orbit.

This is booster 1075’s seventh launch and will be its sixth Starlink launch with its only other flight being for Space Development Agency’s Tranche 0 satellites.

The booster completed its mission by returning to SpaceX’s drone ship, Of Course I Still Love You, stationed on the West Coast. This ship was operating 631 kilometers downrange in the Pacific Ocean. The fairings are also to be recovered around 681 kilometers downrange.

Falcon 9 – Starlink 6-25

The second Falcon 9 launch of this week was attempted on Oct. 29 at 8:20 PM EDT (00:20 UTC on Oct. 30) but was aborted at T-30 seconds before liftoff. The next day, Falcon 9 was recycled and launched at 7:20 PM EDT on Oct. 30 (23:20 UTC) and competed its mission. Launching from SLC-40 at CCSFS in Florida, the Falcon 9 took a batch of 23 Starlink v2-mini satellites to LEO on booster 1077.

This launch flew on a southeastern trajectory inclined at a 43-degree angle to the equator. This placed the payload into a 284 by 293-kilometer LEO. Then the Starlink v2-mini will use its Hall-effect thrusters to reach a stable circular orbit at 530 kilometers.

This is Booster 1077’s eighth flight with it taking two Starlink missions, Crew-5, GPS III Space Vehicle 06, Inmarsat I6-F2, CRS-28, and Intelsat G-37 to orbit before this flight.

This booster then landed on one of SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ships, Just Read The Instructions, which was downrange in the Atlantic Ocean and was Falcon 9’s 225th total landing. About 50 kilometers further downrange, the fairing halves splashed down and plan to be recovered. This will be Falcon 9’s 50th Starlink mission this year and will also be the 269th mission of Falcon 9’s operational life. 

Starlink hit another massive milestone with this flight. While there are around 4,400 operational Starlink satellites, this launch increased the number of active Starlink satellites in orbit over 5,000 to exactly 5,011. The leftover 600 just need to raise their orbit to 530 kilometers to become operational.

Falcon 9 – Starlink 6-26

On Saturday, Nov. 4 at 8:37 PM EDT (00:37 UTC), SpaceX successfully launched the Starlink Group 6-26 mission from Space Launch Complex 40, at CCSFS. This mission set a reuse record as the first stage, B1058, flew for its 18th time. The vehicle placed 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into a 285 by 293-kilometer orbit, inclined 43.00 degrees.

B1058 flew just 45 days ago when it supported the Starlink Group 6-17 mission. In total, this booster has supported SpaceX Demo Mission 2, Anasis-II, CRS-21, Transporter-1, Transporter-3, and 13 Starlink missions. After its 15th flight, the booster underwent thorough inspections, as SpaceX aimed to prove Falcon 9 is capable of supporting up to 20 flights. It is unclear at this moment if SpaceX will attempt to further increase the maximum number of flights of each booster.

Following stage separation, the first stage landed on SpaceX’s ASDS A Shortfall of Gravitas, which was stationed just over 600 kilometers downrange in the Atlantic Ocean. Successful landing marked the 241st total and 167th consecutive booster landing, and the booster’s designation changed to B1058-19.

As usual for Group 6 missions, the second stage conducted two burns before placing the Starlink satellites into the aforementioned orbit. The satellites will spend the coming months increasing their orbit to the 530-kilometer circular orbit.

(Lead image: Soyuz 2.1b launching the Lotos-S1 mission. Credit: Roscosmos)

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