Launch Roundup: Soyuz resupplies the ISS; SpaceX launches more Starlink satellites

by Aaron McCrea

This week, SpaceX continued its incredible launch cadence with two more launches of Falcon 9, a Soyuz 2.1a resupplied the International Space Station (ISS), and three missions launched consecutively out of China.

The week began with Roscosmos launching the Progress MS-25 resupply capsule on a Soyuz 2.1a up to the ISS from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  Then, a Falcon 9 launched out of Vandenburg Space Force Base (VSFB) taking multiple different payloads to a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO) in one launch and also had a return-to-launch site landing. Later that day, SpaceX launched 23 more Starlink satellites to low-Earth orbit (LEO) from Cape Canaveral Space Forse Station. Next, a Chang Zheng 2C started the week for the Chinese launches with multiple payloads. Then, Galactic Energy went back to flight with its Xingchi-1 after a failure back in September. Finishing off the week with the final Chinese launch, the Jielong-3 took an internet communications satellite to SSO. 

Soyuz 2.1a | Progress MS-25

Roscosmos launched its eighth Soyuz 2.1a mission of 2023 out of Site 31/6 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. On Friday, Dec. 1 at 4:25 AM EST (09:25 UTC), Soyuz 2.1a launched to bring cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Supplies were brought up to the seven astronauts on the ISS when Progress MS-25 autonomously docked to the ISS’s Prichal module on Dec. 3 at 6:15 AM EST (11:15 UTC). 

Progress MS-25 took around 2,500 kilograms of cargo up to the ISS. Some of the specific supplies that the spacecraft brought up include 515 kilograms of fuel, 420 kilograms of water, and 40 kilograms of compressed nitrogen. All of these help keep the space station alive and in a healthy workable state. The rest of the space is left for cargo like food, and medical supplies along with stowage for scientific experiments and resource equipment. This was the 86th mission of the Progress cargo capsule and with the success of this mission, it will continue to extend the lifespan of the ISS.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | 425 Project Flight

SpaceX launched its first Falcon 9 this week out of VSFB’s launch pad, SLC-4E. This launch took off on Friday, Dec. 1, at 10:19 AM PST (18:19 UTC). Falcon 9 took five reconnaissance satellites for South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) to an SSO while taking at least three different rideshare satellites on the ride with it.

B1061 was the booster to fly on this mission. It has flown seventeen times before this launch, taking seven previous Starlink missions totaling 286 Starlink satellites and other launches like Crew-1, Crew-2, SXM-8, CRS-23, IXPE, Transporter-4, Transporter-5, Globalstar FM15, and ISI EROS C-3. It has taken B1061 only 41 days of turnaround time for the booster to be fully refurbished and reflown and is the 250th total landing of a Falcon 9

The main payload for this mission is South Korea’s DAPA reconnaissance satellite. This was the first launch in the batch of five reconnaissance satellites. Even though this satellite is in the same category as the other four satellites, it will be the only different optic satellite out of the group of five. This launch featured an electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) telescope, while the next four to launch at a later date will be synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites.

The benefit of having two different versions of imaging satellites is that EO/IR telescope satellites can image anything in the visible spectrum to the infrared spectrum but are not of much use if a cloud is in the way of the shot. SAR telescopes use radar and while not getting as clear data as an EO/IR image with a clear shot, SAR can penetrate clouds and get very good images back even when it is pitch black out. 

The reconnaissance satellite is not the only thing flying on this launch, as this mission is seemingly serving as another mini-transporter mission. While there is a chance there are many more satellites on board, the following satellites are confirmed to have launched on this mission. 

First, Ireland’s EIRSAT-1 (Educational Irish Research Satellite 1) is a CubeSat designed by the University College Dublin and Queen’s University Belfast in collaboration. It will hold three experiments, a gamma-ray module, a thermal coating test, and a new software-based attitude control system using Earth’s magnetic field. 

Next, the Space Industry Responsive Intelligent Thermal satellite will launch — a satellite operated by the University of Melbourne. The satellite was built by the Italian Space Agency in collaboration with multiple Australian space industry companies, Inovor Technologies, Sitael Australia, Nova Systems, and Neumann Space. The mission of this nanosatellite is to determine the location of X-ray and gamma-ray in space using its X-ray and Gamma-ray spectrometer

This Falcon 9 flew to around a 500-kilometer SSO. The booster, B1061 succefully returned to the launch site landing at Landing Zone 4 back at VSFB. This launch was be Falcon 9’s 279th mission to date and 84th mission this year. 

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-31

SpaceX’s second mission of this week launched on Dec. 2 2023, at 11:00 PM EST (04:00 UTC on Dec. 3). Falcon 9 sent 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites to LEO from SLC-40 out of CCSFS. The satellites headed to a 43-degree inclination orbit on a southeastern trajectory and were put into an initial orbit of 284 by 293 kilometers. This will then be raised by the satellites using their Hall-effect thrusters to reach the operational 530-kilometer circular orbit.

The booster that is preparing to launch these satellites is B1078. This was its sixth flight to date and it has carried the missions Crew 6, O3b mPOWER 3 & 4, and 4 Starlink missions, totaling 89 Starlink v2 Mini satellites. With the successful landing of B1078, it will now likely be brought back to CCSFS to be refurbished at SpaceX’s Hanger X and reflown at a later date. 

The drone ship, A Shortfall of Gravitas, is headed around 600 kilometers downrange for the landing of the booster. This will be Falcon 9’s 280th mission of all time and 85th mission of 2023. Although including Falcon Heavy and Starship, there will have been 91 total this year. This leaves only nine launches left to go in one month to reach SpaceX’s goal of 100 launches in a year.

Chang Zheng 2C | Misrsat-2

China’s first launch this week is starting with its Chang Zheng 2C rocket. This launch lifted off out of Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center’s Site 9401 (SLS-2) in China. Take off is scheduled for Dec. 4 at 11:10 PM EST (16:10 UTC) to an SSO. There are two payloads that the Chang Zheng 2C will be taking on this mission. The first was MisrSat-2, an Egyptian Earth observation satellite built in Egypt with the help of China to give Egypt experience with satellite construction. Next, there are two Starpool-02A/B satellites built by ELLIPSPACE. These satellites will be used for Multi-purpose communication, remote sensing, and navigation enhancement capabilities back on Earth. This will be Chang Zheng 2C’s 73rd total mission and the eighth of this year.

Xingchi-1 | We Won’t Stop

The second consecutive launch coming out of China is from Galactic Energy. The Xingchi-1 rocket launched on Dec. 4 at 6:45 PM EST (23:45 UTC). This launch will be out of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at Site 95A in China and headed to an SSO. The payload on this flight is not known for certain, but it is known that three satellites were located in orbit. Two of the three satellites are expected to be the Xingchi-2A and Xingchi-2B satellites.

This was the first launch of this vehicle since a failure caused it to be grounded on Sept. 21, 2023. After 75 days, the vehicle was ready for its next flight and successfully recertified its flight capabilities with a perfect launch. This was Xingchi-1’s 11th mission of all time and the seventh of this year showing a strong launch cadence for a private company until the failure put them behind.

Jielong-3 | SatNet test satellite

The Jielong-3 rocket took an unknown payload to an SSO on Dec. 5, 2023, at 2:30 PM EST (7:30 UTC). While the payload is unknown, it may include the first ever Hong Kong Star satellite which plans to provide “high-precision big data for global logistics, disaster prevention and relief, emergency response and safety, remote-sensing and smart city building.” In simpler terms, this is China’s competitor to Starlink. 

China’s first Hong Kong Star satellite preparing for flight on Jielong-3

The Jielong-3 spacecraft itself launched from a converted barge, Tai Rui, in the East China Sea. This rocket is a solid fuel-based launcher that can deliver a 500-kilogram payload to a 500-kilometer altitude into an SSO. This is Jielong-3’s second flight but the first of 2023, with its first launch happening just under a year ago.

(Lead image: An Hour before the launch of Project 425 Flight 1 at dusk Dec. 1 Credit: SpaceX)

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