Launch Roundup: Vulcan’s maiden flight, SpaceX continues launching Starlink

by John Sharp

The week of Jan. 4 to Jan. 10 saw the long-awaited maiden flight of the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan rocket carrying the Astrobotic Peregrine Mission One Lunar Lander to the Moon.

Two Chinese rockets have launched: one Kuaizhou 1A, and the Einstein Probe X-ray satellite, launched on Jan 9. from Xichang, China on board a Long March 2C launch vehicle.

Two further SpaceX launches were scheduled, with the company’s Falcon 9 rocket carrying two batches of Starlink satellites, one mission from Florida has launched and the other from California is now delayed until Jan.11.


ExPace Kuaizhou 1A | Tianmu 1 #15-18

The twenty-fifth mission of the Kuaizhou 1A rocket launched successfully on Jan. 5 at 11:20 UTC from Site 95A at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in China. The Kuaizhou 1A carried a payload of four Tianmu 1 meteorological satellites #15-18. This was the first launch of the Kuaizhou 1A in 2024, only eight days after its most recent launch on Dec. 2 which was a record two days after a launch on Dec. 25.

Kuaizhou 1A

Successful launch of Kuaizhou 1A Credit: CCTV

Kuaizhou 1A is a 4-stage rocket that utilizes solid rocket motors and provides low-cost accurate and reliable low earth orbit (LEO) launches for up to 300 kilogram payloads.

Tianmu 1 satellites are used to monitor atmospheric environmental elements and are built by the China Aerospace Science and Industry System Company.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-35

SpaceX successfully launched  Falcon 9 booster B1067.16 at 5:35 PM ET (22:35 UTC) on Jan. 7,  carrying another batch of 23 Starlink V2 mini-satellites from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The booster landed on Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship(ASDS) A Shortfall of Gravitas stationed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Falcon 9 launch

Crowds watch Falcon 9 launch Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF

After its initial burn and a long coast, the second stage relit 54 minutes and 12 seconds into flight before releasing the 23 satellites into orbit.

This is the third SpaceX mission in 2024 and the third for Falcon 9, the second Starlink mission this year.

The total number of Starlink satellites launched is now 5694.


ULA Vulcan VC2S | Peregrine Mission One 

The long-anticipated debut launch of ULA’s Vulcan VC2S mission took place at 2:18 AM EST (07:18 UTC) on Jan. 8. Launching from ULA’s newly-updated SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, this launch has a plethora of firsts to its name, including the first flight of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines and the first flight of the primary payload, the Astrobotic Peregrine Lunar Lander, with demonstration payloads aboard as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

This first certification flight was initially due to launch on Dec. 24, 2023, but was delayed following issues uncovered during the Wet Dress Rehearsal on Dec. 8 2023.

The variation of Vulcan used for this flight consists of a booster assisted by two Northrop Grumman Corporation GEM-63XL solid rocket boosters and a Centaur V upper stage. The 33.3 meters tall, 5.4 meters diameter booster is methane/oxygen fueled, with each of the two BE-4 engines producing 550,000 pounds of thrust. The two strap-on solid rocket boosters each provide a further 459,600 pounds of thrust at sea level.

The Centaur V upper stage is 11.7 meters tall and is also 5.4 meters in diameter. The Centaur provides guidance and flight management to the booster throughout the flight and also provides the payload interface. Powered by two RL10C-1-1A engines each providing 23,825 pounds of thrust, Centaur is fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

The two payloads on this mission, Peregrine and a Celestis Memorial Spaceflight Voyager payload, were encapsulated in the 5.4-meter fairing and hoisted atop Vulcan on Dec. 20 2023.

The Peregrine Lander has twenty individual payloads on board, including five specifically for NASA’s CLPS which are all scientific instruments, including a Laser Retroreflector Array which will be used to provide a permanent laser range-finding marker on the lunar surface to be used by future visiting spacecraft.

If successful, Peregrine will become the first American commercial vehicle to operate on the Moon.

The Celestis Memorial payloads are a commercial venture and feature flight capsules containing cremated remains, DNA samples, digital messages, artwork, and more, with each forming a memorial to a deceased person. There are two payloads: The Enterprise Flight for which 234 capsules will remain onboard the Centaur upper stage that will be left in a safe and stable orbit around the sun following the deployment of the Peregrine Lander; and the Tranquility Flight payload in which the flight capsules will land on the lunar surface aboard the Peregrine lander. Amongst the memorials are a number dedicated to the memory of members of the cast and crew of the Star Trek series of films and TV programs, hence the Enterprise Flight name given to one of the payloads.

The booster, SRBs and fairings were not expected to survive re-entry or to be recovered on this mission.

The vehicle was rolled out to the pad as planned on Friday, Jan. 5.

The launch took place as planned with the Vulcan booster and its two Blue Origin BE-4 engines and two SRBs performing “right on the numbers”, hoisting the Centaur V second stage and the Peregrine One payload towards orbit. After the Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) and stage separation, a ten-minute burn from the Centaur’s 2 RL10C-1-1A engines took the vehicle into orbit.

Vulcan launch

Vulcan launch as seen from Cocoa Beach Credit: Stephen Marr for NSF

The second stage then entered an almost 28-minute coast phase before performing a shorter three-minute burn to put the vehicle in a long elliptical orbit and on a trajectory to intercept the Moon. Following an attitude change, the Peregrine spacecraft separated with the Centaur performing a final burn into interplanetary space carrying the Celestis Memorial Voyager Flight payload.

Peregrine was intended to continue towards the Moon and was expected to land on Feb. 23, however, an update from Astrobotic indicates that there has been an anomaly with the systems that keep the spacecraft’s solar array pointed towards the sun, reducing their capability to recharge the batteries that power all of the onboard systems. Engineers managed to resolve this issue before the power levels became too low to recover the spacecraft but then realised that a propellant leak had resulted from the initial anomaly. Efforts continue to maximise the returns from the onboard instruments alongside those to further assess and remediate the issues.

In subsequent updates, Astrobotic confirmed that the anomaly was with the craft’s propulsion system, and released an image received from an onboard camera showing damage sustained by the craft. The batteries are now being charged and the engineers continue to investigate the data received. The latest update suggests that the propellant leak will drain the reserves within two days, after which controllers will lose the ability to steer the craft or to keep the solar array pointing towards the sun.  Comprehensive coverage of this mission is available in our dedicated launch article:


Peregrine damage

Image of Peregrine Lander showing damage. Credit: Astrobotic

Long March 2C | Einstein Probe

An advanced and highly sensitive X-ray probe to explore the high energy events in the Cosmos was launched from Xichang Satellite  Launch Centre in China on Jan. 9 at 07:03 UTC aboard a Long March 2C booster. The Einstein Probe (Aiyinsitan Tanzhen) is a collaborative project between the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Max Planck Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics.

After launch, the Einstein Probe reached its orbit at an altitude of approximately 600 km. The spacecraft circles the Earth every 96 minutes with an orbital inclination of 29 degrees and it can monitor almost the full night sky in just three orbits.

In the next six months, the operation team will be engaged in testing and calibrating the instruments. After this preparation phase, Einstein Probe will spend at least three years attentively watching the entire X-ray sky.


(Lead image: ULA Vulcan stands ready for rollout. Credit: ULA)

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