This week nearly saw two secret spaceplanes launched within days of each other. After ground systems concerns and then weather delays, the US Department of Defense’s X-37B vehicle had its OTV-7 launch on the Falcon Heavy USSF-52 mission scrubbed from its initial planned attempt on Dec. 11. Starlink Group 6-34 was also scrubbed that same day and again a day later due to high-level ground winds, during what turned out to be quite a volatile week for planned launches.
As we go to press, a double header looks to be back on, this time on the evening of Dec. 28 with both a Falcon Heavy and a different Falcon 9 launch scheduled within four hours of each other. If the current schedule stays as-is SpaceX is also on track to complete its 300th mission in the last week of the year or the first week of the new year, depending on how schedules pan out and the way to count this said number of missions.
China launched two of its tallest active rockets this week within a fraction over 24 hours of each other. The Chang Zheng 2F/T launched China’s own equally secretive CSSHQ spaceplane on Dec. 14 for its third flight. This was followed the next day by the first and only launch this year of a Chang Zheng 5 carrying the Yaogan 41 reconnaissance satellite from the Wenchang space launch center into a high elliptical orbit.
At 52 and 57 meters tall, respectively, these are beaten in height by the less frequently flown Chang Zheng 2F/G at 58.3 meters. This is next slated to launch the crewed Shenzhou 18 mission to the Tianhe core module of the Tiangong space station in May next year.
A third Chinese mission launched another experimental craft three days later when a Hyperbola 1 Y7 took a reusable cargo spacecraft on its first orbital test for AZSPACE’s DEAR-1 mission. Conical in shape, this craft is designed to take up to 300 kilograms for up to a year in orbit. The Hyperbola rocket family has been a focus this last week following the release of video from the Hyperbola-2Y hop test, and pathfinding for the planned reusable Hyperbola 3 vehicle.
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SpaceX personnel at LC-39A prepare Falcon Heavy for rollback into the HIF – additional work is needed before launch.
— Max Evans (@_mgde_) December 13, 2023
With the delays to both the USSF-52 and Starlink 6-34 missions the SpaceX goal of 100 launches this year has shifted from being tight to unobtainable. Nonetheless, its record number of launches and overall achievement has been incredible, including its 200th successful droneship landing with Starlink Group 7-8 just a couple of weeks ago. As things currently stand, it will have achieved 97 Falcon missions this year.
Its ambitious goal of 144 intended launches next year implies an increased cadence that would average 12 per month. Achieving this also requires an increase in return-to-launch site (RTLS) missions, including Starlink missions with an optional RTLS profile.
The delayed Starlink Group 6-34 finally launched on Dec. 17 at 11:01 PM EST (04:01 UTC on Dec. 18), lifting another 23 Starlink V2 Mini satellites into low-Earth orbit.
Elsewhere, Rocket Lab’s Electron launched “The Moon God Awakens” mission on Dec. 15, the third in a planned series of 36 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites for iQPS, and Rocket Lab’s first for this customer. The satellite will use radar to map the Earth every 10 minutes, in all weather conditions, including through clouds. This was Rocket Lab’s tenth and final launch of the year following a short pause in flights after the unexpected anomaly during the “We Will Never Desert You” mission in September.
A Soyuz-2.1b rocket launched the second of ten planned satellites in the Arktika-M meteorological constellation on Dec. 16. This will utilize a highly elliptical Molniya orbit to maximize its time monitoring the higher latitudes of the Arctic region, while also providing emergency rescue communications capacity.
This busy week in space also saw several days of delay in the undocking of Cargo Dragon CRS-29 due to weather. It finally left the Harmony module of the ISS on Dec. 21, following a five-week stay, after which it splashed down off the coast of Florida.
On Dec. 18, Blue Origin’s uncrewed NS-24 mission launched at 10:43 AM CST (16:43 UTC) from Launch Site One at its West Texas spaceport. This was the first launch of New Shepard in over 15 months since the failure of an engine nozzle on the uncrewed NS-23 mission triggered an auto-abort on Sept. 12, 2022.
The vehicle was subsequently grounded until the FAA concluded its investigations this September citing 21 corrective actions. 33 science and research payloads and other cargo are also on board, including 38,000 postcards sent to Blue Origin’s “Club For The Future” which will be returned to their senders, stamped “Flown to Space,” as keepsakes.
LAUNCH! New Shepard Return To Flight (uncrewed).
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) December 19, 2023
On Dec. 21, at 08:48 UTC, Russia launched an unknown payload from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, in Russia. The payload was placed into a Sun-synchronous orbit.
On Dec. 22 at 9:32 AM PST (17:32 UTC), Firefly launched its Alpha vehicle on the “Fly the Lightning” mission from SLC-2W at Vandenberg Space Force Base, in California. This mission placed Lockheed Martin’s new wideband electronically steerable antenna (ESA) integrated onto the Terran orbital nebula satellite bus. This mission was a partial failure, with the second stage’s second burn not occurring, leading to the payload being placed into a lower-than-expected orbit.
Massing in the hundreds of kilograms, this payload will be used to demonstrate ESA’s fast on-orbit sensor calibration and deliver these rapid capabilities to the United States warfighters. It is expected that this payload is calibrated in a fraction of the amount of time that traditional payloads take, but little info has been given so far. It is unclear if these capabilities will be able to be demonstrated with the reduced orbital life of this payload.
On Friday, Dec. 23 at 12:33 AM EST (05:33 UTC), SpaceX launched yet another 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into low-Earth orbit from SLC-40. As usual for these group six missions, the second stage conducted two burns to reach the planned 285 by 293-kilometer initial low-Earth orbit. Over the coming weeks, the satellites will undergo checkouts, and raise their orbit to the 530-kilometer circular orbit at 43.00 degrees.
This mission featured veteran Falcon 9 booster B1058 flying for a nineteenth time having previously supported remarkable missions such as Demo-2, SpaceX’s first human spaceflight with Crew Dragon. With this successful launch and landing, this historic booster was then poised to be the first one to reach 20 flights but SpaceX reported early on Dec. 26 that the booster had tipped over on the droneship due to high winds and waves during its transport back to port.
Less than a half a day after Starlink Group 6-32 another Falcon 9 was originally set to lift the SARah-2 and SARah-3 satellites for the German Armed Forces. The launch was stood down for a day to allow for additional pre-flight checkouts, however, and liftoff occurred on Dec. 24 at 5:12 AM PST (13:12 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E).
The booster flying on this mission was B1075 which flew for an eighth time having previously supported six Starlink missions and the SDA-0A mission. This first stage returned to land at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 4 ground pad at Vandenberg, and SpaceX confirmed deployment of SRH2 and SRH3 37 minutes later. This launch also marked SpaceX’s 60th flight from SLC-4E to date.
Große Dinge werfen ihre Schatten voraus! 🤗Das @BaainBw ist mit beiden #SARah Satelliten🛰️auf dem Weg zur Rakete 🚀. Am 22.12.2023 ist es dann endlich so weit. Nach Übergabe an #CIR wird das #ZAbbAufkl seine Fähigkeiten zur Aufklärung für die #Bundeswehr weiter steigern können.💪 pic.twitter.com/rfuM7OixfT
— CIR Bundeswehr (@cirbw) December 19, 2023
The pair of remote sensing satellites have been built by Airbus for the German military and use synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology. They will be placed into a sun-synchronous orbit where they are intended to fly in formation with their predecessor SARah 1, building out the SAR-Lupe constellation.
A Kuaizhou 1A launched from Site 95A at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China on Dec. 25 at 01:00 UTC. This was the fourth launch of small meteorology research satellites into the Tianmu-1 constellation this year, since a Ceres-1 launched the initial pair in January 2023. Launches since then have been on this vehicle. The satellites use GNSS radio occultation by the CASIC subsidiary Xiyong Microelectronics Park.
A second launch on Christmas Day took place from a barge in Chinese coastal waters. A Chang Zheng 11H launched the Shiyan 24C mission carrying three orbtial technology testing satellites on Dec. 25 at 22:39 UTC from the Bo Run Jiu Zhou cargo vessel.
A Chang Zheng 3B/YZ-1 launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China on Dec. 26 at 03:26 UTC. On board were two more satellites contributing to the BeiDou-3 constellation which has provided full global coverage of geolocation and time information since it went operational in 2020. This is an alternative to the US Global Positioning System (GPS), Russia’s GLONASS and Europe’s Galileo positioning systems. Reaching millimeter-level accuracy (with post-processing), the third generation of BeiDou is said to be ten times more accurate than GPS. M25 and M26 are two backup satellites for the main group in medium-Earth orbit (MEO).
Another Kuaizhou 1A is expected to launch from Site 95A at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China on Dec. 27 at 06:50 UTC. Following launch the payload was understood to be four more satellites for the Tianmu-1 constellation.
On Dec. 27 at 07:03 UTC, Russia launched Cosmos 2574 atop a Soyuz 2.1v/Volga rocket. This mission lifted off from Site 43/4 at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia, carrying a military satellite into a sun-synchronous orbit for which details have not been disclosed. The Soyuz-2.1v is notably different from the more regularly flown Soyuz-2.1b on which it is based, with none of the familiar four boosters.
The fifth and final launch of a Falcon Heavy this year took place on Dec. 28 at 8:07 PM EST (01:07 UTC on Dec. 29) from LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center, carrying the X-37B vehicle. This gave us, once again, a doubleheader launch with the Starlink Group 6-36 mission launching less than three hours later from the neighboring Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) launch pad.
This was the first time that Falcon Heavy has flown this secret spaceplane after SpaceX beat ULA’s bid with Delta IV Heavy for the mission. It’s the fourth flight for the X-37B Vehicle 2 itself, which previously flew on the OTV-2, OTV-4, and OTV-5 missions.
Its sibling Vehicle 1 is the craft that spent the record 908 days in orbit on OTV-6 but Vehicle 2 spent an impressive 779 days on OTV-5 and, to date, every mission has exceeded the length of its predecessor.
While details of its target destination are classified, we can surmise from the lack of a grey thermal protection stripe on the second stage that the mission will not be inserting its payload into a geosynchronous orbit (which would require extra flight time, and this stripe to help maintain propellant temperature), nor is it heading due east. One possibility is that it could be destined for a highly inclined, highly elliptical orbit.
Side boosters B1064-5 and B1065-5 supported this mission and both returned for a landing at LZ-1 and LZ-2, while the center core B1084 was expended. These side boosters are due to be expended on its next Falcon Heavy mission, Europa Clipper, next October.
SpaceX closed out launches from Florida with another Falcon 9 carrying a batch of Starlink v2 Mini satellites in a record two hours and 54 minutes after USSF-52. The launch occurred on Dec. 28 at 11:01 PM EST (04:01 UTC on Dec. 29) with the booster landing on the droneship A Shortfall of Gravitas. Another 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites were carried on this mission into a 285 by 293-kilometer orbit at 43 degrees inclination.
This launch was the 96th, and final, Falcon launch of 2023 and the 300th SpaceX mission counting all launches, including Starship, regardless of whether they targeted or achieved orbit.
The final launch of the year from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China was a Chang Zheng 2C, lifting off from Site 9401 (SLS-2),on Dec. 30 at 00:13 UTC. The YZ-1S upper stage has since been deorbited and the payload revealed to be three satellite internet technology demonstrators for the Chinese state-owned SatNet communication constellation in a 930 x 940-kilometer orbit, inclined 50 degrees.
Delayed from planned launches on Dec. 15 and Dec. 30, SpaceX moved this mission to become their first of 2024. It lifted off on Jan. 2 at 7:44 PM PST (03:44 UTC on Jan. 3) from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base. This flight was the first to carry Starlink satellites with direct-to-cell capabilities flying six onboard alongside 15 regular Starlink v2 Mini satellites. This means that this mission carried a total of 21 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit instead of the usual 22 satellites that have been flown in recent Group 7 missions.
The booster for this mission was B1082 on its inaugural flight, which landed on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You.
For this mission, SpaceX targeted a 336 by 345-kilometer orbit at a 53-degree inclination, a departure from other prior Group 7 missions where the satellites were inserted roughly 50 kilometers closer to Earth. This may be due to the potentially different orbital insertion requirements needed for the new direct-to-cell Starlink satellites.
Starting the new year on a great note, ISRO launched the XPoSat mission on a PSLV-DL from the First Launch Pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India.
This is its first dedicated X-Ray Polarimeter mission to study various bright astronomical sources in extreme conditions and consists of two payloads massing 480 kilograms, which were deployed into low-Earth Orbit to perform spectroscopy and polarimetry.
The mission’s four-hour launch window opened on Jan. 1 at 9:10 AM IST (03:40 UTC) and successfully lifted off and delivered the payload completing 2024’s first launch.
After some schedule reshuffling following scrubs of other launches in late 2023, this communications satellite massing 1,800 kilograms for the privately funded Swedish/US Ovzon company became the payload flying on SpaceX’s second launch of 2024. This was the first from the Cape this year, lifting off on Jan. 3 at 6:04 PM (23:04 UTC) from SLC-40.
The satellite is declared to be the most powerful satellite to be placed into geostationary orbit (GEO) and will take three to four months to transition to an orbit inclined by 59.7 degrees east and with an apogee of 36,000 kilometers.
It has been in development since late 2018 in response to increased demand in under-served regions for mobile broadband connectivity. Using a combination of patented high-power beams and smart software, Ovzon-3 will be able to cover a third of the Earth from that vantage point with its steerable spot beams.
The booster for this mission was B1076 on its tenth flight, which returned to the landing site for a late night touchdown at LZ-1 after a lengthy entry burn. This is uncommon as there’s not usually sufficient propellant to land anywhere other than a drone ship for transfers to GEO, so we anticipated SpaceX have been streamlining with the possibility of a tweaked burn profile as seen on the Crew-7 and Starlink 6-24 missions recently.
(Lead image: Falcon Heavy ready to launch X-37B. Credit: Max Evans for NSF.)