Launch Roundup: SpaceX continues toward 100 launch goal

by Trevor Sesnic

As SpaceX continues toward its goal of launching 100 times in 2023, the company launched two Starlink missions this week — one from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) in Florida and the second from SLC-4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) in California.

Later in the week, Landpsace successfully launched its third ZhuQue-2 vehicle from site 96, in the Jiuquan launch center. On Sunday, China launched the Yaogan 39 Group 05 mission atop the Chang Zheng 2D rocket from LC-3 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

These launches will mark the 199th through 204th orbital launches of 2023 — significantly above 2022’s record of 174 orbital launches, despite several weeks left in the year.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-33

SpaceX’s 92nd launch of 2023 took place on Thursday, Dec. 7 at 00:07 AM EST (05:07 UTC), when a Falcon 9 successfully launched 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into a low-Earth orbit. The mission, dubbed Starlink Group 6-33, took off from SLC-40 at CCSFS and marked SpaceX’s 125th operational Starlink mission.

Throughout these operational missions and the ride-share missions that have deployed test satellites, SpaceX has deployed a total of 5,536 Starlink satellites ahead of the mission. Of these, 372 have reentered Earth’s atmosphere, and 4,530 are in their operational orbits. All other satellites are currently in the checkout phase or in ascent/descent phases.

On Dec. 5, the Space Launch Delta 45’s weather squadron released a launch mission execution forecast noting the weather as 95% go for launch. The primary concern was liftoff winds, and upper-level wind shear is expected to be low-to-moderate. In the event of a delay, a launch window was set to open 24 hours later, with the weather remaining at 95% go.

The booster supporting this mission was B1077-9. As the name implies, the booster had supported eight previous missions: Crew-5, GPS III Space Vehicle 06, Inmarsat I-6, Starlink Group 5-10, CRS-28, Galaxy 37, Starlink Group 6-13, and Starlink Group 6-25. This booster has the fourth-quickest average turnaround time at 53.44 days, just behind B1076, B1075, and B1080.

Following liftoff, B1077 burned its nine Merlin 1D engines for two minutes and 26 seconds before shutting down and separating from the second stage. The booster then performed a one-three-one entry burn (the center engine starts, followed shortly after by two side engines, before going back to the single center engine) to slow down the booster ahead of entry. Later, the first stage the single-engine landing burned, landing on Just Read the Instructions, which was tugged downrange by Crosby Skipper. If successful, this will mark SpaceX’s 252nd total and 178th consecutive landing.

As usual, once the second stage separated, it burned for approximately six minutes, during which the two payload fairings were deployed. Both fairing halves were recovered downrange by SpaceX’s multi-purpose recovery vessel Bob, which also provided drone ship support. After second engine cut-off one (SECO-1), the stage coasted for approximately 45 minutes. It then ignited the single MVac engine for under two seconds, circularizing the orbit. The stage coasted for another 10 minutes before deploying the payload at T+1:05:19.

As the name implies, this launch placed the 23 Starlink satellites into Starlink shell six — a 530-kilometer circular orbit, inclined 43.00 degrees.

On Dec. 4, SpaceX’s vice president of launch, Kiko Dontchev, posted on X that “100 [launches] is very much on the table, but it will take excellent execution, relentless focus on safety and reliability, and a little luck with the weather!” SpaceX’s remaining missions in 2023 include USSF-52, Ovzon-3, and several additional Starlink missions.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 7-8

On Friday, Dec. 8, at 00:03 PST (08:03 UTC), SpaceX successfully launched the Starlink Group 7-8 mission from SLC-4E at the VSFB in California. This mission took 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into a 285 by 295 kilometer low-Earth orbit. Over the coming weeks, the satellites will rise into Starlink shell seven: a 530 km circular orbit inclined 53.00 degrees.

The booster supporting this mission was B1071-13 and landed downrange on SpaceX’s drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. This drone ship has seen the most landings of any drone ship (with this mission being its 77th landing) and is the only drone ship on the West Coast.

ZhuQue-2 | Flight 3

On Friday, Dec. 8 at 23:39 UTC, Landspace successfully launched the ZhuQue-2 rocket for the third time. Lifting off from Site 96, at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, in China, this mission placed four objects into a 433 by 461 kilometer orbit.

After being the first successful methane rocket to reach space and place a payload in orbit, Landspace expanded its lead on this flight.

Chang Zheng 2D | Yaogan 39 Group 05

China successfully launched the Yaogan 39 Group 05 Chang Zheng 2D rocket on Sunday, Dec. 9, at 01:58 UTC. The rocket lifted off from LC-3 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China and will mark the vehicle’s 13th mission of 2023. The Yaogan satellites are remote reconnaissance satellites.

(Lead image: Falcon 9 on SLC-4E. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

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