Launch Roundup: SpaceX to launch three Starlink missions; India to test crew abort system

Another busy period in spaceflight is underway with three Falcon 9 rockets with Starlink payloads and the first test flight of India’s Gaganyaan crew-capable spacecraft. Starlink 6-23 flew – ahead of 6-24 – from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) in Florida, while Starlink 7-5 flew out of SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) in California. These three missions together carried 66 Starlink v2 Mini satellites to low-Earth orbit.

India was also scheduled to launch a test abort of the Gaganyaan crew-capable spacecraft, similar in principle to the July 2019 Orion AA-2 test from Cape Canaveral. However, the test aborted just before liftoff. Another attempt was scheduled for the same day, and the flight was successfully completed.

Falcon 9 — Starlink 6-23

On Tuesday, Oct. 17, at 8:39 PM EDT (00:39 UTC on Oct. 18), SpaceX launched its 70th Falcon 9 of 2023, carrying a batch of 22 Starlink satellites to low-Earth orbit. Starlink 6-23, flew on a southeast trajectory inclined 43 degrees to the Equator, to place the payload into a 293 by 284-kilometer low-Earth orbit.  Once in this orbit, the satellites will spend the coming months raising their orbits to Starlink shell six — a 530-kilometer circular orbit, inclined 43.00 degrees.

As usual for these Starlink missions, the second stage utilized a two-burn profile to reach the aforementioned initial orbit; following second engine cutoff one at T+08:34, it coasted for just over 45 minutes, until reignition for two seconds at T+53:59.  Once complete, the stage coasted for an additional 11 minutes, where it rotated over its long axis. At T+1:05:17, the two tension rods deploy, allowing for the 22 Starlink satellites to slowly drift away from the vehicle.

Following B1058 and B1060, the B1062 is the third booster to fly for its 16th time. The booster has previously supported GPS III SV04, GPS III SV05, Inspiration-4, Axiom Mission 1, Nilesat-301, OneWeb 17, Arabsat 7B, and eight Starlink missions. Having supported Starlink Group 6-7 just 81.83 days before the planned T0, this marked a significant reduction in the quickest time between the 15th and 16th flights of a booster, with the previous record being 193.54 days between Transporter-6 and Starlink Group 5-15.

Following launch from SLC-40 at the CCSFS, the booster landed on SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) Just Read the Instructions, which will be stationed in the Atlantic. The ASDS was tugged downrange by Signet Titan, and, following fairing recovery on the Psyche mission, multi-purpose recovery vessel Bob will provide ASDS support. Bob will also recover both fairing halves roughly 45 minutes after launch.

This flight would is the 70th Falcon 9 and 74th overall orbital mission for SpaceX in 2023. Overall, this was Falcon 9’s 264th launch, 196th flight with a flight-proven booster, 236th landing, and 162nd consecutive landing.

Falcon 9 — Starlink 7-5

The second Falcon 9 launch of the week carried a batch of 21 Starlink satellites into a low-Earth orbit. However, unlike the Group 6 missions surrounding it, the payload was placed in a 286 by 297-kilometer orbit, inclined 53 degrees to the Equator. Starlink 7-5 successfully launched aboard B1061-16 from SLC-4E at VSFB on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 1:23 AM PDT (08:23 UTC). 

The booster landed on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, which was tugged downrange in the Pacific Ocean by Kimberly C. The rocket followed the Californian coast, allowing for a more massive payload than the 43-degree trajectory, which requires a sizable “dogleg” maneuver on the Group 6 launches out of VSFB. 

This flight was the 71st Falcon 9 and 75th overall orbital mission for SpaceX this year.

A Falcon 9 launches the first batch of Starlink v2 mini satellites from Florida. (Credit: Stephen Marr for NASASpaceflight/L2)

Falcon 9 — Starlink 6-24

This week’s final scheduled Starlink launch carried a batch of 23 Starlink satellites into a low-Earth orbit inclined 43 degrees to the Equator, as is the practice with Group 6 Starlink launches. Starlink 6-24 launched aboard B1080-4 from SLC-40 at the CCSFS on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 10:17 PM EDT (02:17 UTC on Oct. 22).

The booster landed successfully on A Shortfall of Gravitas, after the drone ship returned from bringing B1067-14 back to Port Canaveral from the Starlink 6-22 mission on Friday, Oct. 13. The payload was deployed at 03:22 UTC, one hour and five minutes after liftoff.

The flight was the 72nd Falcon 9 and 76th overall orbital launch for SpaceX in 2023. This flight appears to be the Falcon 9 with the heaviest payload to fly, at 18,400 kilograms. Prior to this mission 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites were typically carried for these Group 6 flights.

Following these three launches, 5,331 Starlink satellites will have been launched, of which 4,971 will remain in orbit. 4,306 of these are in their operational orbits, with the other nearly 600 satellites rising to their operational orbits.

Gaganyaan TV-D1 – GSLV Mk. 2 L40 Booster

India plans to become the fourth nation to launch human beings from its own soil, on an indigenous spacecraft, after the USSR/Russia, United States, and China. The Gaganyaan crewed spacecraft was about to get its first flight test, on Saturday, Oct. 21, but weather had pushed back the initial launch time. The weather cleared and the launch was authorized for 03:15 UTC.

However, the launch had a hold called at T-5 seconds, and the booster engine did not ignite. The flight computer stopped the count. However, the cause was found quickly, and a new attempt was set for 04:30 UTC on the same day.

This time the booster successfully launched and the abort system was tested. The Gaganyaan capsule deployed its drogue and main parachutes, and successfully splashed down to complete the flight. Afterward, ISRO chairman S. Somanath stated “I’m very happy to announce the successful accomplishment of the TV-D1 mission.”

For this flight, an uncrewed Gaganyaan test capsule is mounted atop a single L40 booster, derived from the strap-on boosters used on the GSLV Mk. 2 launch vehicle. The rocket carrying the capsule was scheduled to fly to an altitude of around 11 kilometers before a test abort was called. The flight appeared to conform to its mission plan.

Afterward, the launch escape system was tested, and the unpressurized capsule descended under parachutes to a splashdown in the Bay of Bengal, 10 kilometers from the Sriharikota launch site. The touchdown velocity was planned to be 8.5 meters per second.

This flight was the first test flight before a crewed launch, with the immediate next step being another abort test, followed by an uncrewed flight of the full vehicle, in the coming months.

(Lead image: Falcon 9 launches after sunset on the Starlink 6-22 mission. Credit: Sawyer Rosenstein for NSF)

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