Launch Roundup: Falcon 9’s 300th Flight and SpaceX to launch lunar lander

by Aaron McCrea

On the week of the sixth anniversary of the first flight of Falcon Heavy, SpaceX launched four separate Falcon 9 missions. Meanwhile, Roscosmos resupplied the International Space Station (ISS) with Progress MS-26 launching on Soyuz.

Early Thursday morning, Falcon 9 launched from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) taking NASA’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) Earth-observing satellite to a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). Then Roscosmos launched Cosmos 2575 out of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. Heading back to America, this week’s first batch of Starlink satellites launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) in California on Friday.

Closing out this extended week, SpaceX launched USSF-124 out of SLC-40 at CCSFS.  Heading to Russia, a Soyuz 2.1a launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan taking supplies up to the ISS. Then SpaceX launched from LC-39A taking the Nova-C lunar lander on a trip to the moon.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | PACE

On Thursday, Feb. 8 at 1:33 AM EST (06:33 UTC), SpaceX launched NASA’s PACE Earth-observation satellite on a Falcon 9 out of SLC-40 from CCSFS.  

PACE is a long-term Earth-observation satellite that will show constant models of global ocean color, cloud, and aerosol data. This satellite has many different uses all in one package and will benefit humanity’s understanding of the Earth by watching for changes and inconsistencies to predict environmental phenomena such as weather, visibility, and air quality. 

The booster launching this mission was B1081-4, which propulsively returned to Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) shortly after launch. The second stage inserted PACE into a 676.5-kilometer Sun-synchronous polar orbit inclined 98 degrees.

Roscosmos Soyuz 2.1v – Cosmos 2575

Early on Feb. 9 at 2:03 AM EST (07:03 UTC), Roscosmos launched two unknown military satellites to a Sunsyncronous Orbit. This payload is believed to be Cosmos 2575. The Cosmos distinction is given to many different types of military satellites which makes it challenging to track down what this exact satellite will be used for. This launch flew out of Site 43/4 of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. This was Soyuz 2.1v’s 12th mission of all time and the first mission of this year. 

Soyuz 2.1v lifting off out of Site 43/4 of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia (Credit: Roscosmos)

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 7-13

Following multiple delays due to unfavorable recovery and cloud conditions, SpaceX officially launched Falcon 9 on Feb. 9 at 4:34 PM PST (Feb. 10 at 00:34 UTC) for the launch of Starlink Group 7-13 from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. SpaceX has targeted Feb. 6 and Feb. 8 for this launch although both attempts were scrubbed due to “excessive weather conditions”.

An expected 22 v2 Mini satellites were lofted to a 53-degree inclination orbit on a southeastern trajectory. The booster B1071 has now launched 14 times and landed on the autonomous droneship “Of Course I Still Love You” downrange in the Pacific Ocean. SpaceX announced on X that with this mission, B1071 delivered over 134 metric tons and 279 Starlink satellites to orbit.

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

The specific booster set to launch the mission is not yet known. Group 7-13 is set to be the 11th SpaceX Falcon 9 launch of the year, and the 25th orbital launch attempt for the year overall.

SpaceX Falcon 9 – USSF-124

SpaceX continued its unmatched launch schedule with the launch of USSF-124 on Wednesday, Feb. 14. The launch happened at 5:30 PM EST (22:30 UTC) with Falcon 9 lifting off out of SLC-40 of CCSFS in Flordia. 

This mission launched four of the Space Development Agency’s Tranche 0 satellites built by L3Harris. These satellites were created to add to the United States missile warning system. They were supposed to launch on SDA Tranche 0B back in September 2023, but due to delays, were not ready for launch until recently. 

B1078 rolling past the Vehicle Assembly Building to SLC-40 for the launch of USSF-124 (Credit: Max Evans of NSF)

The main payload for this flight is a classified mission for the United States Space Force. What is known about the mission is that two satellites were launched. One of the satellites was built by L3Harris and the other was built by Northrop Grumman. They were developed for the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor mission. This experimental mission is expected to test new sensors on the satellites to track hypersonic missiles easily with less of a heat signature. 

The booster for this flight was B1078 launching for its seventh flight. This launch featured a return to launch site landing at Landing Zone 2. The landing site is different than normal due to the Nova-C mission which will also have a booster return to Landing Zone 1. This may cause SpaceX to have to wait to recover B1078 until B1060 has also landed next to it. This could be the first time this has ever happened not including Falcon Heavy’s simultaneous landings. 

Roscosmos Soyuz 2.1a | Progress MS-26

The next resupply mission to the ISS launched on a Soyuz 2.1a to low-Earth orbit on Feb. 14 at 10:25 PM EST (03:25 UTC) from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. This mission took Progress MS-26 to the ISS, carrying food, water, oxygen, fuel, and more to keep the Station and its astronauts healthy. 

This was Soyuz 2.1a’s 74th overall mission but the first of 2024. Progress MS-26’s docking time is set at 1:12 AM EST (06:12 UTC) on Feb. 17, although the date of its departure from the Station is unknown at this time. This was the 179th Progress mission since the first flight back in 1978.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Nova-C (IM-1)

Falcon 9’s next mission to the Moon is launched early on Feb. 15 at 1:05 AM EST (06:05 UTC). Falcon 9 took Intuitive Machines’ first Nova-C lunar lander to a trans-lunar injection. Lifting off from historic LC-39A at KSC in Florida, Falcon 9 launched with booster B1060 on its 18th flight and then returned to LZ-1 while the second stage did the heavy lifting, taking Nova-C out to the Moon.

The IM-1 Nova-C lander during final assembly. (Credit: Intuitive Machines)

Nova-C is the next lunar lander in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. CLPS was created to give private companies the resources to build commercial lunar landers to send NASA payloads to the Moon before the crewed Artemis III landing. It carries five NASA payloads and four private or university payloads and will study plume-surface interactions, radio astronomy, and space weather interactions on the lunar surface. The lander will touch down in Malapert A, a crater near the south pole of the Moon.

SpaceX has upgraded LC-39A’s strongback with new propellant connections to load Nova-C with liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellants while vertical on the launch pad. Recently, SpaceX performed tests on the new system at the pad before the integrated vehicle was brought out for a wet dress rehearsal.

The landing of Nova-C is planned for Feb. 22 with the operation time on the lunar surface being nearly 14 Earth days. Intuitive Machines is following closely after Astrobotics’ Peregrine Mission One — another CLPS lander — which failed to land on the Moon last month after a propulsion system malfunction.

If everything goes well with this flight, Intuitive Machines has a second lunar lander lined up to launch in the second quarter of this year to send more NASA, university, and commercial payloads to the lunar surface.

(Lead image: Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 Nova-C lander before encapsulation in Falcon 9’s payload fairing. Credit: SpaceX)

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