Launch Roundup: Rocket Lab returns to flight; SpaceX launches more Starlink

by Anthony Iemole

SpaceX had a lighter week of launches, with Rocket Lab, Russia, and China also launching rockets. Following several delays, SpaceX launched the Starlink Group 6-34 mission.

Rocket Lab returned to flight on Friday with “The Moon God Awakens” mission. This comes after a previous mission, dubbed “We Will Never Desert You,” failed to reach orbit on Sept. 19, 2023, and will set a new yearly launch record for the company. Russia launched a Soyuz 2.1b with the Arktika-M n°2 remote sensing and emergency communications satellite on Saturday.

Throughout the week, China conducted three launches, with including China’s reusable spaceplane, similar to the United States X-37B.

Chang Zheng 2F/T | CSSHQ

On Thursday at 14:10 UTC, a Chang Zheng 2F/T rocket launched China’s reusable spaceplane into orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China. Very little is publicly known about this spaceplane, even less than the X-37B, which this vehicle is believed to be based on.

This marked the third flight of this spacecraft and will be the second time it will be in space in 2023. The last launch of this vehicle occurred on Aug. 4, 2022, and returned to Earth earlier this year on May 8.

Electron/Curie | The Moon God Awakens 

On Friday, Rocket Lab launched the “The Moon God Awakens” mission aboard their Electron rocket, officially returning the vehicle to flight after its last mission ended in failure when an electrical arc within the power supply system on the second stage occurred, causing the vehicle to lose power and shut down its engine shortly after separation from the first stage.

Liftoff took place from Pad B at Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

Mission patch for “The Moon God Awakens” mission. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

This mission carried the QPS-SAR-5 satellite for the company iQPS. This satellite is a small, synthetic aperture radar satellite weighing only ~100 kilograms and will be used to collect high-resolution photos of Earth from orbit.  QPS-SAR-5 will join the other satellites in the iQPS constellation, and once completed, the constellation will consist of 36 satellites capable of monitoring specific points of the Earth as often as every 10 minutes.

This mission also set a new yearly launch record for Rocket Lab, closing 2023 out with ten launches, beating the company’s previous record of nine in 2022.

Chang Zheng 5 | Yaogan-41

On Friday, a Chang Zheng 5 launched the Yaogan 41 mission from the Wenchang Space Launch Site in China. The launch occurred at 13:41 UTC and was successful.

This was the sixth launch of the regular Chang Zheng 5 configuration and the tenth for the Chang Zheng 5 vehicle family.

Chang Zheng 5 rolling out to the pad at Wenchang. (Credit: CASC)

Soyuz 2.1b | Arktika-M n°2

Russia launched a Soyuz 2.1b rocket from Site 31 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Arktika-M is a remote sensing and emergency communication satellite designed to monitor high-latitude areas of Earth and weighs ~2100 kilograms. Arktika-M will be launched into an Molniya orbit. This highly elliptical orbit takes 12 hours to complete and allows a satellite to pass over the same spot every 24 hours, making it very useful for communication satellites in high-latitude areas.

The Arktika-M n°2 satellite ahead of launch. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Hyperbola-1 | DEAR-1

On Sunday, the private Chinese aerospace company i-Space launched its Hyperbola-1 rocket with the DEAR-1 experimental recoverable satellite. Liftoff from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center occurred at 07:00 UTC on Dec. 17, 2023.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-34

Following several delays due to weather, SpaceX successfully launched another batch of 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites on a Falcon 9 from SLC-40 on Dec. 19, at 04:01 UTC.

B1081-3 was the first stage booster assigned to this mission, marking a 39-day turnaround after launching the CRS-29 resupply mission to the International Space Station in November. After launch, the booster landed on the drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas in the Atlantic Ocean.

(Lead image: Electron on the pad in New Zealand ahead of its launch on Friday. Credit: Rocket Lab)

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