Launch Roundup: NASA’s PACE mission, Chinese art satellites, and more Starlink missions

by John Sharp

February started with two Chinese launches. On Feb. 2, a Long March 2C rocket launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China at 23:37 UTC, carrying 11 satellites for a Geely Constellation.

A Chinese multistage solid rocket, Jielong-3, launched from a barge in coastal waters off Yangjiang in the South China Sea a few hours later on Feb. 3 at 03:06 UTC, after the first attempt was scrubbed. The payload consists of at least five satellites for a rideshare mission, including an interactive art installation venture, led by artists Xu Bing and Beijing Wanhu Creation.

After launching a Falcon 9 from all three of its operational launch pads in less than four days, SpaceX was targeting  Feb. 3, at 6:43 PM PST (Feb. 4 at 03:43 UTC), for the next Starlink mission from Vandenberg. This mission has now been delayed due to unfavorable recovery conditions until no earlier than Feb. 6, 5:38 PM PST (Feb. 7, 01:38 UTC). SpaceX’s manifest continues with a Falcon 9 scheduled to loft NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission to a Sun-synchronous polar orbit on Feb. 6. High winds in the recovery zone have delayed this mission by 24 hours.

CASC Long March 2C | GeeSpace GeeSAT-02

A Long March 2C rocket launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China on Feb. 3 at 07:37 AM CST (Feb. 2 at 23:37 UTC). This mission added a further 11 satellites into a constellation for the Geely Technology Group — a Chinese car manufacturer that also builds and launches satellites for use with their self-driving navigation technology. The company launched its initial nine satellites in June 2023.

Each of the satellites has a mass of 130 kilograms and also carries ocean observation instruments in addition to the primary vehicle navigation equipment. The mission has been declared a complete success, with all of the satellites deployed to their intended orbit.


Long March 2C launches 11 GeeSAT-02 satellites. Credit: OurSpace

CASC/China Rocket Jielong-3 | Rideshare

Launched on Feb. 3 at 10:57 AM CST (Feb. 4 at 02:57 UTC) from Bo Run Jiu Zhou Barge, five miles offshore in coastal waters off Yangjiang, Jielong-3 (Smart Dragon-3) is a rideshare mission for China Rocket, a commercial subsidy of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.  The rocket is a four-stage and all-solid, and the early stages are expected to fall back to the sea in a line due south of the launch site to the west of Australia. The previous launch attempt on Feb. 2 was scrubbed, likely due to weather constraints.

While information regarding Chinese payloads can be sparse, the payloads for this mission are known. The first is Shaanxi Zhixing Space Technology Co., Ltd.’s SmartSat-X1, a synthetic aperture radar-equipped spacecraft, which is part of a constellation of 12 satellites built for China Electronics Technology Group Corporation.


A Jielong-3 lunches 9 satellites. Credit CAST Group

Another satellite, SCA-1, is claimed to be the first “art satellite.” The Xu Bing Art Satellite Extraterrestrial Resident Project is led by artists Xu Bing and Beijing Wanhu Creation. Adhering to the concept of participation and sharing, Xu Bing set the concept of this satellite as “inviting domestic and foreign artists to participate in the resident creation of art projects, share the rights and interests of the use of this satellite for free, complete their works, and jointly explore this extremely futuristic field.”

The satellite has a display screen facing out into space with a selfie camera to enable the output to be viewed. Artists will be invited to participate in trials of the AI software installed to generate images from their input and using data collected by the satellite itself. The special series of space art will eventually be published and exhibited.

The remaining payloads include Xingshidai-18 (Star Times-18), also known as “Rongpiao,” built by China Star Aerospace, as well as Xingshidai-19 and Xingshidai-20.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | PACE

SpaceX expected to launch NASA’s PACE Earth-observation mission on Feb. 6 at 1:33 AM EST (06:33 UTC) from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The booster for this mission will be B1081 which is expected to perform a return-to-launch-site landing a few miles south of SLC-40 at Landing Zone 1, however the high winds here have caused a 24 hour delay.


NASA render of PACE. Credit: NASA

According to NASA, PACE “represents the nation’s next great investment in understanding and protecting our home planet. The mission will provide global ocean color, cloud, and aerosol data that will provide unprecedented insights into oceanographic and atmospheric responses to Earth’s changing climate. PACE will help scientists investigate the diversity of organisms fueling marine food webs and the U.S. economy, and deliver advanced data products to reduce uncertainties in global climate models and improve our interdisciplinary understanding of the Earth system.”

The satellite will be launched to a 676.5-kilometer Sun-synchronous polar orbit with a 98-degree inclination with 13:00 local crossing time. The vehicle will be managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD.

There are three main instruments onboard PACE. The first is the Ocean Color Instrument and two polarimeters — HARP2 and SPEXone. These instruments will allow PACE to provide measurements that enable predictions of the “boom-bust” cycle of fisheries, the appearance of harmful algae, and other factors that affect commercial and recreational industries. What’s more, PACE will observe clouds and tiny airborne particles, known as aerosols, that absorb and reflect sunlight. Many scientists and agencies rely on these key data to forecast weather patterns, visibility, and air quality. PACE will observe the oceans, clouds, and aerosols to better understand their interactions.

Assembly of PACE was completed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in early 2023, after which it was transported to the Astrotech Space Operations Facility near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in November. NASA and SpaceX technicians mated the craft to the payload adapter on Wednesday, Jan. 24, before it was finally encapsulated into the Falcon 9 fairings and readied for launch.

This launch will be SpaceX’s 11th for 2024. At the current cadence, only 130 or so of the targeted 144 launches will be achieved this year, although the pace is likely to increase as weather conditions improve into the spring and summer months.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 7-13

SpaceX had been targeting Feb. 3 at 6:43 PM PST (Feb. 4 at 02:43 UTC) for the launch of its next Starlink mission, Starlink Group 7-13, from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 4E at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. However, there is a delay to this flight due to unfavorable recovery conditions, and recovery vessels are now heading back to port. SpaceX have not yet announced a new launch date, but a newly released Federal Aviation Authority Advisory Note suggests it will be no early than Feb. 6 at 5:38 PM PST (Feb. 7 at 01:38 UTC).

An expected 22 v2 Mini satellites will be lofted to a 53-degree inclination orbit on a southeastern trajectory. The booster will land on the autonomous droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” downrange in the Pacific Ocean.

The specific booster set to launch the mission is not yet known. Group 7-13 is now set to be the 12th SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the year, and the 26th orbital launch attempt for the year overall.

(Lead image: NASA’s PACE arrives at the processing center ahead of launch. Credit: NASA)

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