Launch Roundup: Axiom-3 crew and Tianzhou 7 cargo space station missions this week

by Justin Davenport

A pair of missions to space stations headline the launches for the week of Jan. 10 to Jan. 17. Axiom-3 will be flying four private astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), becoming the first crew launch of 2024. Crew Dragon Freedom will fly from Florida, with a multinational crew, for a mission to the Station lasting around two weeks.

The Tianzhou 7 cargo spacecraft headed for the Chinese Space Station Tiangong has flown this week, and Japan has launched a military reconnaissance satellite aboard one of its last H-IIA rockets. In addition, the Gravity-1 rocket developed by the Chinese firm OrienSpace made its maiden flight. Starlink 7-10 and Starlink 6-37 have now launched successfully, while a Kuaizhou-1A launched successfully from Jiuquan on Jan. 11.

The Tianzhou-7 flight launched on Wednesday, Jan. 17, while Axiom-3 launched on Thursday, Jan. 18. Starlink 7-11 has now been delayed with the next attempt to be determined. These launches would continue what is a rapid cadence of flights so far this year. 2023 featured 220 orbital launch attempts which is a new record, but 2024 is likely to eclipse this. 

The launch of a Kuaizhou 1A rocket. (Credit: CNSA)

CASIC Kuaizhou 1A Y24| Tianxing-1-02

On Thursday, Jan. 11, at 03:52 UTC, a CASIC Kuaizhou 1A successfully launched from Site 95A at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. Before the launch, the vehicle and payload had been unknown.

CAS Space had been thought to be flying its Kinetica-1 vehicle, and it later had been believed that Galactic Energy was going to the Ceres-1 instead. Many Chinese launches are not announced in advance, and the vehicle and payload are not known before the flight.

The Kuaizhou-1A, developed by the China Aerospace and Science and Industry Corporation’s subsidiary ExPace, is a four-stage launcher that is capable of flying payloads up to 200 kilograms to a sun-synchronous orbit. Three of the stages are solid-fueled while the fourth stage is liquid-fueled.

This flight launched the Tianxing-1-02 satellite, which is described as a satellite for spatial environment measurement purposes. It was placed into a sun-synchronous orbit, which is often used by observation satellites as it allows for passing over a given point on Earth at the same time of day.

The Kuaizhou 1A has now flown twice in 2024, and 26 times overall with 24 successes.

The Gravity-1 launch vehicle before its maiden flight. (Credit: OrienSpace)

OrienSpace Gravity-1 Y1 | 3x Yunyao-1

A new launch vehicle made its debut, developed by the Chinese commercial sector. OrienSpace’s Gravity-1 is a new medium-lift rocket that promises to be the most capable all-solid fueled vehicle in the world.

Gravity-1’s maiden flight, also known as Y1, launched successfully on Thursday, Jan. 11 at 05:30 UTC from the purpose-built launch ship Dongfang Hangtiangang in the East China Sea just off the Chinese coast near the port city of Haiyang. The rocket is thought to have carried three satellites, and a NOTAM hints at a 50-degree inclination orbit.

The three satellites are now identified as Yunyao-1 small weather satellites using GNSS radio occultation. These satellites are thought to be part of a larger constellation of up to 90 satellites, with only a few already launched. However, the exact details are highly uncertain.

Gravity-1 has three solid-fueled stages and four solid-fueled strap-on boosters. The rocket’s listed payload capacity to low-Earth orbit is 6,500 kilograms, which would also make Gravity-1 able to lift heavier payloads than any other Chinese commercial launcher built so far. This capacity is also higher than the Delta II 7000H series, the highest-performing variant of that retired rocket family.

An H-IIA 202 rocket rolls out ahead of the IGS-Optical 6 mission in February 2018. (Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA)

Mitsubishi H-IIA F48 | IGS-Optical 8

While Japan is working on returning the H-III to flight after its initial launch failure, the country is flying out the last H-IIA vehicles. H-IIA F48 is the third to last flight of the system that started operations in 2001 and will be replaced by the H-III. 

The H-IIA 202 series rocket launched successfully on Friday, Jan. 12, at 04:44 UTC from LA-Y1 at the Tanegashima Space Center in southern Japan. The F48 vehicle (48th flight of the H-IIA) flew the IGS-Optical 8 military reconnaissance and civil disaster observation satellite into a sun-synchronous polar orbit. 

Now that this H-IIA has flown, there will be just two flights left for the veteran launcher. The GOSAT-GW greenhouse gas monitoring satellite and the IGS-Radar 8 reconnaissance satellite will be the last payloads flown by a vehicle that has served Japan for over two decades.

A view of a stack of Starlink satellites including a Starlink Direct To Cell satellite at the top. The deployable antenna and its hinge can clearly be seen in this image. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX Falcon 9|Starlink 7-10

The second launch of a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base this month was originally set to fly on Jan. 9 and was then scrubbed due to high level winds on its attempt on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 13.  The launch took place on Sunday, Jan 14 at 0:59 AM PST (08:59 UTC), carrying 22 Starlink satellites to an orbit inclined 53 degrees to the Equator.

Falcon 9 B1061-18 landed successfully on Of Course I Still Love You out in the Pacific after high winds and choppy seas in the Pacific near southern California had caused multiple delays to the flight.

This flight was SpaceX’s fourth launch of 2024 and B1061-18 is the second in the fleet to land for an 18th time.  The booster started its career by flying out of Florida before being transferred to the West Coast, and the veteran rocket started out with flying the Crew-1 mission, the first operational Crew Dragon mission to the ISS.

Since then, B1061 has flown Crew-2, SXM-8, CRS-23, IXPE, Starlink 4-7, Transporter-4, Transporter-5, Globalstar FM-15 and USA 328 to 331, Starlink 3-3, EROS-C3, Starlink 2-7, 3-5, 2-10, 7-1, 7-5, and 425 Project Flight 1 plus rideshares.

Video capture from a Falcon 9 flight showing Starlink v2 Mini satellites being deployed. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-37

SpaceX has added the Starlink 6-37 launch to this week’s schedule. This flight had been slated for launch on Saturday, Jan. 13 at 8:10 PM EST (03:10 UTC Jan. 14) from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. However, the launch time was first moved back and then scrubbed with no reason given.

Starlink 6-37 successfully launched on Sunday, Jan. 14 at 8:52 PM EST (01:52 UTC Jan. 15) after being pushed back from the beginning of the window. The booster for this flight is B1073-12, and it successfully landed on A Shortfall of Gravitas out in the Atlantic after flying a southeast trajectory.

This launch took 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites up to an orbit with a 43 degree inclination. As part of SpaceX’s effort to launch 144 Falcon family missions in 2024, some Starlink missions could fly a reduced number of satellites to orbit while being able to return to the launch site (RTLS) and land on a concrete pad instead of using a drone ship. In this case, no RTLS landing was done.

B1073 started its career with Starlink 4-15 from Cape Canaveral in May 2022, and it has also flown SES-22, Starlinks 4-26 and 4-35, HAKUTO-R Mission 1, Amazonas Nexus, CRS-27, Starlinks 6-2, 5-11, 6-12, and 6-27. This was the fifth launch of the year for SpaceX.

The Tianzhou-6 spacecraft. (Credit: CASC)

Chang Zheng 7 Y8 | Tianzhou 7

The first launch to a space station scheduled for this week is the Tianzhou 7 cargo ship set to fly to the Chinese Space Station. This flight would be delivering cargo needed for the Shenzhou 17 crew aboard the Chinese Space Station now.

Tianzhou 7 successfully launched on Wednesday, Jan. 17 at 14:27 UTC from LC-201 at the Wenchang Space Launch Site on Hainan Island. The Chang Zheng 7 Y8 vehicle was tasked with sending Tianzhou 7 and its cargo to the space station, which is in a 391 by 386-kilometer low-Earth orbit inclined 41.5 degrees to the Equator. For comparison, the International Space Station is in a 422 by 413-kilometer orbit inclined 51.6 degrees to the Equator.

After Tianzhou 7 separated from the launch vehicle, it was scheduled to dock with the Chinese Space Station after a three hour flight to get there. This is the first time the Chinese program has done this short of a flight to its space station, whereas Russia has had a number of Soyuz and Progress spacecraft taking a fast rendezvous profile to ISS.

The Tianzhou spacecraft is larger than the Progress, Cargo Dragon, and Cygnus vehicles that supply the International Space Station with cargo. This is because the Tianzhou cargo ship is derived from China’s first space station, Tiangong-1, which reached orbit in 2011.

Crew Dragon Freedom undocks from the ISS following the Crew-4 mission. (Credit: NASA TV)

Falcon 9 | Axiom-3

The Axiom-3 (AX-3) mission, using the Crew Dragon C212 Freedom, is flying four private astronauts, representing five nations, to the ISS for an approximate two-week mission.

AX-3 successfully launched on Thursday, Jan. 18, at 4:49 PM EST (21:49 UTC) from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Wednesday’s attempt was scrubbed with some six hours to go before launch, and the scrub was called to give additional time for prelaunch checkouts and data analysis.

It had been thought that this would be the first crewed launch from SLC-40, but a Starlink launch will now be using it. A crew access arm and launch tower were built and finished last year at SLC-40 to provide redundancy in the event of a mishap or other issue that would place Pad 39A out of commission.

Falcon 9 B1080 made its fifth flight on this mission, while Crew Dragon Freedom is making its third flight. B1080 conducted a successful return to the launch site and landing at the LZ-1 concrete pad, while Freedom docked with ISS at 5:42 AM EST (10:42 UTC) on Saturday, Jan. 20.

B1080’s first flight was the Axiom-2 mission which also used Crew Dragon Freedom making its second flight. This booster also has flown the Euclid telescope as well as Starlink 6-11 and Starlink 6-24.

The Axiom-3 crew in a prelaunch photo. (Credit: Axiom Space)

Dual US/Spanish citizen Michael Lopez-Alegria, a veteran of previous Space Shuttle and Crew Dragon missions, would command the crew. At least one astronaut on a private mission to ISS must have Station experience, which Lopez-Alegria does have.

Astronaut Walter Villadei of Italy, who has flown to the edge of space aboard the VSS Unity during a suborbital flight, is going to orbit for the first time while Alper Gezeravci has become the first Turkish person to fly to space. ESA astronaut Marcus Wandt of Sweden would conduct the “Muninn” mission for the agency alongside Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, conducting what is dubbed the “Huginn” mission during his six-month stay aboard the Station.

The AX-3 flight was the sixth SpaceX launch of 2024, as the company attempts to fly up to 144 missions this calendar year. In addition, it is the first of two crewed flights scheduled for this month, and the first of at least 12 currently planned for this year.

View of a stack of 21 Starlink v2 Mini satellites before being enclosed in their fairing. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX Falcon 9|Starlink 7-11

Starlink 7-11 was set for launch on Jan. 18 at 8:04 PM PST (04:04 UTC Jan. 19) from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base but SpaceX stood down from the launch, for reasons not stated. The launch had been rescheduled for Friday, Jan. 19 at 6:15 PM PST (02:15 UTC Jan. 20).

However, the launch aborted at T-59 seconds, just after the Falcon 9’s computers took control of the countdown, in what is known as startup. The booster for this flight is B1063-16, and it would land on Of Course I Still Love You in the Pacific when it does fly. Another attempt had been scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 20 at 9:53 PM PST (05:53 UTC Jan. 21), just four minutes before the close of the day’s launch window. However, SpaceX stood down due to weather, and rescheduled the launch for Jan. 21 at 6:59PM PST (02:59 UTC Jan. 22). This attempt was also scrubbed due to weather, with the next attempt on Tuesday, Jan. 23.

B1063 made its launch debut on Nov. 21, 2020 with the launch of Sentinel-6A Michael Freilich, and has also flown the Starlink V1 L28, DART, Starlink 4-11, 4-13. 3-1. 3-4, 4-31, and 2-5, Transporter 7, Iridium-9/OneWeb #19, Starlink 5-13, Transport & Tracking Layer Tranche 0 Flight 2, Starlink 7-4, and Starlink 7-7. All but one flight has taken place from Vandenberg, with Starlink V1 L28 flying from Cape Canaveral.

This flight is due to carry up to 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites to an orbit inclined 53 degrees to the Equator and would be the seventh SpaceX launch in 2024 barring unforeseen delays and manifest changes.

(Lead image: B1080 carrying Crew Dragon Freedom rolls toward LC-39A on a prior mission. Credit: SpaceX)

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