While the spaceflight world waited for the Starship Integrated Flight Test-2 (IFT-2) launch that happened from Texas this week, three other launches were scheduled, from China as well as both main coasts of the United States. One was a Chang Zheng-2C (CZ-2C) from China, and another is Starlink 6-28 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS), which launched successfully on the very early hours of Nov. 18. There is also Starlink 7-7 from Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) in California on the late evening of Nov. 18, after Starship IFT-2’s launch earlier that day.
Many Chinese launches are not announced well in advance, and there is always a possibility that the country could add another flight to this week’s manifest, but for right now the flight that occurred on Nov. 16 is the only Chinese flight on the schedule between Nov. 13 and Nov. 19. The only other flights besides this and Starship that are firmly scheduled so far this week are the Starlink launches out of Florida and California.
The first launch of the week happened at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China on Thursday, Nov. 16. The launch vehicle was a CZ-2C with a YZ-1S liquid upper stage flying from SLS-2 at Jiuquan. Launch time was at 03:55 UTC, and the trajectory sent the Haiyang 3-01 ocean observation satellite into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit after a successful flight.
These types of orbits are commonly used by Earth observation and reconnaissance satellites. Possible payload candidates for this flight had been said to be Aiji-2 or Siwei Gaojing-3 01/02, while Yaogan-32 03 A/B and Jishu Ceshi A/B had also been mentioned as candidates.
However, the actual payload that was launched was the Haiyang 3-01 satellite. The Haiyang series is a constellation of satellites that is designed to continuously monitor the world’s oceans for environmental changes.
The Haiyang satellite launched this week is the first of a new generation of spacecraft designed to observe changes in the color of oceans, lakes, and rivers, and is a successor to the Haiyang-1 satellites. Other Haiyang satellites have different instruments for observing maritime environment dynamics. Nine Haiyang satellites have been launched so far since 2002.
As far as satellites that could be launched by future CZ-2C rockets, Aiji is one of the more prominent ones. Aiji is the Chinese word for Egypt, and this satellite, an Earth observation spacecraft, is a joint project by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the Egyptian Space Agency. The satellite, also known as MisrSat-2, was finished at a new satellite assembly and testing center, built by China, in New Cairo, Egypt.
Egypt has become the first African country with complete satellite assembling and integration testing capabilities. The testing facility and MisrSat-2 satellite would follow the flights of the Egyptian Horus-1 and Horus-2 remote sensing satellites — also flown from SLS-2 at Jiuquan — aboard CZ-2C vehicles earlier this year.
Siwei Gaojing-3 01/02 is a pair of satellites that use synthetic aperture radar to observe Earth even through clouds or otherwise less-than-ideal imaging conditions for optical satellites. This pair would join another two Siwei Gaojing satellites already in orbit. The China Siwei Survey and Mapping Technology Co. Ltd. is an Earth observation company that is a subsidiary of CASC.
The Yaogan-32 satellites are remote sensing spacecraft for military purposes similar to the United States satellites with a prefix of USA or certain Soviet/Russian Kosmos satellites. Not much is currently known in the West about the Jishu Ceshi satellites.
The long-awaited Starship IFT-2 launch happened Saturday Nov. 18 at 7:03 AM CST (13:03 UTC) from the Orbital Launch Pad at Starbase, Texas, near the start of a 20 minute launch window. The schedule was firmed up after the FAA granted the launch license for this flight, following a study by the US Fish and Wildlife Service of the water deluge system added after the eventful IFT-1 launch.
IFT-2 was planned to launch on Friday, Nov. 17, but has been pushed back due to the need to replace a grid fin actuator. The flight is to test out major improvements in the booster, ship, and launch pad. Booster 9 and Ship 25 had been planned to launch on a flight that is meant to take the ship to a speed just short of orbital velocity, then descend to the ocean off Hawaii.
Starship launched on the thrust of 33 Raptor engines on the first stage, and the stack made it to the objective of testing hot staging. Booster 9 conducted a boost back burn but was lost before it could demonstrate a soft ocean landing. Ship 25 ignited all six Raptor engines and flew almost all the way to its planned near-orbital trajectory before the flight termination system activated at an altitude of 150 kilometers. This was the first Starship flight to reach space.
The next planned flight was a Falcon 9 launch of Starlink satellites from Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40) at CCSFS. That launch has been delayed twice now from its Thursday night slot, to Friday, Nov. 17 – due to weather at the recovery site – and now to 12:05 AM EST (05:05 UTC) on Nov. 18 when it launched into a cloudy sky.
There were 23 v2 Mini satellites aboard. B1069 made its 11th flight, going on a southeast trajectory like other Group 6 launches. Just Read The Instructions, towed by the tug Signet Titan, was the drone ship for the booster landing 630 kilometers downrange. The landing was successful.
B1069’s previous flights were the CRS-24 cargo flight to the ISS, Starlink 4-23, Hotbird 13F, OneWeb #15, Starlink 5-3, SES-18 and 19, Starlinks 5-6 and 5-12, and Starlinks 6-9 and 6-19. The booster had an eventful recovery after the CRS-24 flight, with damage to the landing legs and the Merlin engines as well as the Octagrabber recovery fitting, but it was fixed and has had a successful flying career.
Group 6 satellites use a low-Earth orbit inclined 43 degrees to the Equator, and there have been 27 of these launches so far. These satellites will use a 530 kilometer altitude circular orbit when they become operational. This flight is the 80th Falcon 9 launch of 2023, as well as the 84th overall orbital SpaceX Falcon family flight.
The fourth flight of this week was Starlink 7-7 from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base. It launched successfully early in the morning of Nov. 20 on the West Coast after weather-related delays followed by a scrub. Launch time was 2:30 AM PST Nov. 20 (10:30 UTC). The trajectory used by Group 7 launches out of VSFB, including this one, is southeast to an orbit inclined 53 degrees to the Equator.
B1063 made its 15th flight. This booster started its career by flying the Sentinel-6A Michael Freilich mission, and that was followed by Starlink V1 L28, DART, Starlink 4-11, 4-13, 3-1, 3-4, 4-31, and 2-5. Transporter-7 followed afterward, then the Iridium-9/OneWeb #19 mission, Starlink 5-13, Transport & Tracking Layer (Tranche 0), and finally Starlink 7-4 have been flown. The booster landed successfully on Of Course I Still Love You in the Pacific, making this the 173rd straight successful Falcon landing. There have been 246 successful Falcon landings out of 258 attempts.
This flight would be the seventh Group 7 flight, and all Group 7 flights so far have been out of VSFB. The Starlink 7-6 flight carried 22 v2 Mini satellites, as opposed to earlier flights that carried 21, and there were 127 satellites launched for this group before this launch. Starlink 7-7 deployed 22 satellites.
In addition, Starlink 7-7 launched around nine days after Transporter-9. This would be close to a record time between launches for the SpaceX operation at VSFB, and would likely be fairly close to the fastest turnaround possible with the current launch infrastructure.
The transporter-erector at SLC-4E uses an older structure that does not retract in a “throwback” manner like the newer structure in Florida, so the turnaround time is slightly longer for the West Coast pad. Nevertheless, this flight would be the 25th Falcon 9 launch out of VSFB, along with being the 81st Falcon 9 and 85th SpaceX Falcon family orbital flight of 2023.
There are currently over 5,000 Starlink satellites in orbit, out of 5,422 Starlink satellites launched overall through the life of the project, from 2018 onward. This includes around 730 v2 Mini satellites, which were developed to be launched from the Falcon 9 as the full-sized Starlink v2 satellites to be launched on Starship are not yet able to be launched.
The v2 Mini satellites have improvements over the v1.5 satellites that preceded them. These include more powerful argon Hall-effect thrusters as well as a more powerful phased array antenna. Each v2 Mini satellite can provide four times more bandwidth than a v1.5 satellite. The Starlink broadband service is now available throughout the United States as well as many other countries and on all six non-polar continents.
SpaceX is attempting to make 100 Falcon family flights in one calendar year for the first time. Over the past six years, the Falcon family has made record-breaking strides in its yearly launch cadence, beginning with its first double-digit launch year in 2017.
From 2017, when the Falcon 9 achieved 18 flights, including the first flights with reused boosters, to this year, the Falcon rocket family has continuously increased its launch cadence through improvements such as the Block 5 booster as well as launch pad upgrades and additional drone ships. For 2024, SpaceX is planning up to 144 flights, or 12 flights per month.
(Lead image: Falcon 9 B1076 at SLC-40 prior to the SES mPOWER 5 & 6 flight. Credit: SES)