Launch Roundup: SpaceX to launch next ISS crew rotation; Electron launches debris removal demonstration

by Martin Smith
ADRAS-J spacecraft. (Credit: Astroscale)

Despite multiple scrubs and delays due to weather violations, SpaceX broke its own cadence record in January with 10 launches and landings in a calendar month. Those weather challenges have prevailed into February. Between these and the pad logistics related to launching the Intuitive Machines IM-1 mission, PACE satellite, USSF-124, and an upcoming crewed mission, it currently looks unlikely that the company will repeat this target by the end of February.

Nonetheless, SpaceX continues to set milestones, with Falcon 9’s 300th mission occurring with the launch of the IM-1 on Feb. 15 and booster B1082 achieving SpaceX’s 200th successful landing since the last failed one, during the Starlink Group 7-14 mission. The company almost launched a Falcon 9 from each of its three key launch pads within eight hours on the busy evening of Feb. 14, but the initial attempt of the Starlink Group 7-14 mission was scrubbed while on the pad. Despite this, SpaceX still reset the record for the shortest amount of time between three consecutive launches of Falcon to almost 23 hours when that mission flew the next day.

Two further non-Starlink missions on Falcon 9 are planned from the east coast in the next couple of weeks. The most anticipated of these will be SpaceX’s eighth crew rotation mission to the International Space Station (ISS), carrying commander Matthew Dominick, pilot Michael Barratt, and mission specialists Jeanette Epps and cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin.

Crew Dragon Endeavour is flying for the fifth time on Crew-8. This crew can expect to see cargo arrivals during their stay on the ISS from Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus, SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon, and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane. The astronauts will also get to greet the crew of the Boeing Crew Flight Test during their stay when Starliner arrives in April.

Also launched on Falcon 9 this week was a new high-throughput communications satellite for Indonesia, which has a 15-year expected lifespan and will strengthen the communications architecture across the archipelago. SpaceX also lofted an additional batch of Starlink satellites into the Group 6 shell.


Falcon 9 launches its 300th mission, Intuitive Machine’s IM-1 mission, on Feb. 15. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

Rocket Lab’s Electron launched Astroscale’s ADRAS-J demonstration mission, which plans to make advancements toward the removal of large-scale space debris from low-Earth orbit. In this first phase of the project, the spacecraft will illustrate a safe and methodical approach toward an unresponsive object in orbit (a discarded rocket upper stage), capturing images and other data as it then orientates around the stage, demonstrating that it can maintain a fixed position close by.

Lastly, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) launched its first Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) rocket since May 2023, delivering the successor to the INSAT-3DR weather research satellite. Sporting a six-channel imager and a 19-channel sounder, the INSAT-3DS will provide meteorological and disaster warning services to India from a geostationary orbit.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 7-14

SpaceX launched another stack of Starlink satellites on Feb. 15 at 1:34 PM PST (21:34 UTC) from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 4E out of Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Starlink Group 7-14 was carrying a payload of 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites, headed to an inclined 53-degree orbit on a southeastern trajectory with an expected initial orbit of approximately 286 by 295 kilometers. The satellites will be added to the thousands of active Starlink satellites in orbit, giving internet to people all over the world.

The booster for this mission was B1082, taking its second flight with this mission. It landed on the Of Course I Still Love You autonomous droneship which was stationed 610 kilometers downrange on the west coast, making this SpaceX’s 200th successful landing since the last failed one.  This was the 29th total orbital launch of 2024 and the 300th launch of Falcon 9. 


The second flight of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) H3-22 rocket launched on Feb. 17 at 9:22 AM JST (00:22 UTC) from LA-Y2 out of the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. H3 is classified as a medium-lift launch vehicle and uses cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen in its first and second stages, with two or four optional SRBs.

This mission used two boosters along with a short payload fairing, taking three payloads into a Sun-synchronous orbit.

The first flight of H3 experienced a failure of the second engine ignitor, causing the test payload to fall short of orbit. While flight two was originally planned to launch the ALOS-4 Earth observation satellite, the vehicle failure caused JAXA to elect to fly the Vehicle Evaluation Payload-4 (VEP-4) mass simulator, although there were also two small satellites onboard for this flight.

CE-SAT-1E is a 70-kilogram Earth observation satellite built by Canon Electronics Inc., and TIRSAT is a five-kilogram 3U cubesat from Japan Space Systems to test infrared sensors for Earth observation. While there is an inherent risk to flying an unproven rocket, the customers were confident in the new vehicle’s ability to take their payloads to orbit.


The INSAT-3DS weather research satellite launched on an Indian GSLV rocket from the Second Launch Pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, on Feb. 17 at 5:35 PM IST (12:05 UTC).

This was the 7th flight for the INSAT series of satellites and is the successor to the INSAT-3DR satellite, which was similarly delivered to a geostationary orbit by an expendable GSLV back in September 2016.

Built by ISRO, this advanced meteorological satellite will deliver weather surveillance, forecasting, and disaster warning services to India. The mission is fully funded by the Ministry of Earth Sciences.

An onboard six-channel imager is complemented by a 19-channel sounder, and the satellite will also provide a Satellite Aided Search & Rescue transponder and a message relay for terrestrial data collection platforms.

Electron/Curie | On Closer Inspection

Rocket Lab’s ‘On Closer Inspection’ mission launched on an Electron rocket from Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand, on Feb. 19 at 3:52 AM NZDT (14:52 UTC on Feb. 18).

Onboard was the Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) spacecraft, which was selected by JAXA as the initial phase of their Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration Project.

ADRAS-J craft approaches the unresponsive discarded upper stage of an H-IIA rocket. (Credit: Astroscale)

ADRAS-J craft approaches the unresponsive discarded upper stage of an H-IIA rocket. (Credit: Astroscale)

The goal of the mission is to safely approach, characterize, and fly an observational inspection path around a large uncommunicative piece of space debris in low-Earth orbit. It will follow a series of measures and processes set out in November 2021 after consultation with various space agencies, ministries, and industry experts, including leading private space companies.

For this demonstration, the target is the upper stage of a discarded Japanese H-IIA rocket which is still orbiting at around 600 kilometers in altitude. The ADRAS-J craft will approach the stage using a series of corkscrew-style “safety ellipse” maneuvers. Once close, it will continue to execute a series of “Rendezvous and Proximity Operations,” which are a combination of maneuvers and data collection.

Images and data will be collected as the spacecraft then performs a further fly-around maneuver, determining the target’s spin rate and axis so that the craft can demonstrate a safe orientation around it. ADRAS-J will complete the demonstration by settling into a stable position a short distance away, aligned with the object’s orientation.

In the next phase, the target object would be actively engaged and removed from orbit. This mission is directly informing the company’s other ongoing programs, including Astroscale’s End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-Multiple and Astroscale’s Clearing Outer Space Mission through Innovative Capture missions, which is part of the UK’s Active Debris Removal initiative.

Indonesian TelkomSat HTS-113BT is loaded into its container inside the clean room (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

Indonesian TelkomSat HTS-113BT is loaded into its container inside the clean room (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

Falcon 9 Block 5 | TelkomSat HTS-113BT

The launch of TelkomSat HTS-113BT atop a Falcon 9 occurred from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at the start of a two-hour window on Feb. 20 at 3:11 PM ET (20:11 UTC), deploying the 4,000-kilogram satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit.

Designed, built, and operated by Thales Alenia Space for the state-owned PT Telkom Satelit Indonesia, or TelkomSat, this new broadband communications satellite will strengthen the telecommunications structure across the archipelago. Operating in the Ku- and C-bands, this high-throughout communication satellite is built upon the Spacebus-4000B2 platform and will provide over 32 billion bits per second (Gbps) capacity from its position in geostationary orbit, stationed at 113 degrees east.

The satellite, also known as “Merah Putih 2”, left Thales Alenia Space’s clean rooms in Cannes, France, late last year and was shipped to the Cape from Nice, arriving at Port Canaveral in late January to then make a final trip to the integration facility. Thales Alenia Space will be delivering in-orbit support throughout the satellite’s expected 15-year lifecycle, as well as providing the ground control segment and on-site training and support for the customer’s engineering team.

Booster B1067 landed successfully on the autonomous droneship Just Read The Instructions, 650 kilometers downrange, completing its 17th flight.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 7-15

SpaceX launched the next batch of 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites from the west coast on Feb. 22 at 8:11 PM PST (04:11 UTC on Feb. 23) at from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The booster for this flight was fleet leader B1061 making its 19th flight, a record previously achieved by B1058.  It landed on the droneship Of Course I Still Love You, waiting further downrange in the Pacific Ocean.

The satellites will be sent on a southeastern trajectory into an initial orbit of approximately 286 by 296 kilometers, inclined 53 degrees.

Starlink v2 Mini satellites prior to deployment (Credit: SpaceX)

Starlink v2 Mini satellites prior to deployment (Credit: SpaceX)

Chang Zheng 5B | TJSW-11

A Change Zheng 5B/YZ-2 lifted off from Launch Complex 101 of the Wenchang Space Launch Site in China on Feb. 23 at 11:30 UTC,  launching  with the Yuanzheng-2 upper stage for the first time.

While CZ-5’s mission was very secretive, it is now known to have launched Tongxin Jishu Shiyan-11 for the Chinese military satellite program that is believed to be used for early warning detection and signals intelligence for China’s People’s Liberation Army. CZ-5 was heading for GEO since one of the few bits of information that is known about the the Tongxin Jishu Shiyan satellites is that they operate in GEO.

This was the fifth mission for this three stage vehicle to date, which has previously launched the Tianhe, Wentian and Mengtian modules for the Tiangong space station.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-39

The latest addition to the Group 6 shell of the Starlink constellation launched from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Base on Feb. 25 at 4:34 PM EST (21:34 UTC).  The 24 Starlink v2 Mini satellites were headed to LEO on a southeastern trajectory to an initial orbit of approximately 275 by 285 kilometers, inclined by 43 degrees. This was the largest number of the v2 Mini satellites carried by Falcon 9 thus far.

The booster for this flight was B1069 on its 13th flight, which landed on the droneship A Shortfall of Gravitas around 630 kilometers downrange in the Atlantic Ocean.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Crew-8

Crew Dragon Endeavour carried SpaceX’s eighth crew rotation mission to the ISS, carrying commander Matthew Dominick, pilot Michael Barratt, and two mission specialists Jeanette Epps and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin. Epps was previously assigned to a Boeing Starliner mission but was later moved to Crew-8.  The launch was repeatedly delayed due to weather constraints and finally flew from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center on March 3 at 10:53 PM ET (03:53 UTC on March 4), missing the opportunity to launch on the fifth anniversary of the Demo-1 and the first anniversary of the Crew-7 mission, had it not been scrubbed on March 2.

All crew members except pilot Michael Barratt were making their first flight into space on this mission. Barratt previously served as a flight engineer for Expeditions 19/20 and has spent a total of 212 days in space, including time aboard Space Shuttle Discovery during the STS-133 mission in 2011.

SpaceX Crew-8 - Left to Right: Roscosmos cosmonaut and Mission Specialist Alexander Grebenkin, Pilot Michael Barratt, Commander Matthew Dominick, and Mission Specialist Jeanette Epps. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX Crew-8 – Left to Right: Roscosmos cosmonaut and Mission Specialist Alexander Grebenkin, Pilot Michael Barratt, Commander Matthew Dominick, and Mission Specialist Jeanette Epps. (Credit: SpaceX)

This was the ninth human spaceflight as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program and the maiden flight for booster B1083, which returned to the Cape to land at Landing Zone 1 a few miles south of LC-39A. This was the fifth flight of C206 Endeavour, which has also launched crew for the Axiom-1, Crew-2, Crew-6, and the historic Demo-2 missions.

Dragon Endeavour performed a series of maneuvers before docking autonomously with the forward-facing port of the Station’s Harmony module. The four astronauts met the members of the Expedition 70 crew and spent a few days of handover with the outgoing Crew-7 crew, who will then undock from the Station and splash down off the coast of Florida.

During their stay, this crew can expect to see the arrival of three different cargo craft — Cygnus (NG-21), Cargo Dragon (CRS-30), and the maiden flight of Sierra Space’s long-anticipated Dream Chaser spaceplane.

They can also look forward to greeting the astronauts of Boeing’s Crew Flight Test on Starliner in April, as well as welcoming three new crew members who are scheduled to arrive on a Soyuz in March (MS-25). They will also see Loral O’Hara depart back to Earth on a Soyuz.

(Lead image: Astroscale’s ADRAS-J spacecraft. Credit: Astroscale)

Related Articles