Launch Roundup: SpaceX launches two Starlink missions; China launches Chang Zheng 5

by Aaron McCrea

A brand new week of spaceflight is approaching with SpaceX preparing to launch three Starlink missions, China getting ready to send two payloads to orbit, including one on the powerful Chang Zheng 5 (CZ-5) rocket, and Roscosmos preparing to launch Russian-built satellites to orbit atop Soyuz.

Late on Feb. 22, Starlink Group 7-15 took 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites to low-Earth orbit (LEO), followed by China launching its CZ-5 rocket to a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) on Feb. 23. SpaceX then launched its second Falcon 9 of the week on Feb. 25, with Starlink Group 6-39 lofting 24 Starlink v2 Mini satellites to LEO. Then, after a short break, Roscosmos launched a Soyuz 2.1b rocket, taking two payloads to a Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). About six hours after the launch of Soyuz, Chang Zheng 3B/E (CZ-3B/E) launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 7-15

SpaceX started the week off with the launch of the Starlink Group 7-15 mission. The mission lifted off on Feb. 22 at 8:11 PM PST (04:11 UTC on Feb. 23) from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 4E at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Group 7-15 carried 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites to LEO on a southeastern trajectory into an initial orbit of 286 by 296 kilometers, inclined by 53 degrees. These satellites added to the thousands of other Starlink satellites already providing internet to people worldwide. 

The booster for this mission is B1061, flying for the 19th time. It landed atop SpaceX’s autonomous droneship Of Course I Still Love You, which was stationed downrange in the Pacific Ocean. This was Falcon 9’s 303rd mission overall and the 17th mission of this year.

Chang Zheng 5 | TJSW-11

China continued its impressive 2024 launch schedule with the launch of CZ-5 on Feb. 23 at 11:30 UTC. Launch Complex (LC) 101 of the Wengchang Space Launch Site supported this launch from the east coast of China. CZ-5 is China’s largest active heavy-lift launch vehicle, with the capability to take 14,400 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) or 5,100 kilograms to GEO. This mission included an extended fairing for CZ-5 for the first time.

Launch of Chang Zheng 5 on the TJSW-11 mission in February 2024. (Credit: CNSA)

While CZ-5’s mission is very secretive, it is now known to be launching Tongxin Jishu Shiyan-11 into GTO. Tongxin Jishu Shiyan is a Chinese military satellite program that is believed to be used for early warning detection and signals intelligence for China’s People’s Liberation Army. 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 CZ-5’s first mission this year after launching only once last year. 

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 6-39

Starlink Group 6-39 launched on another SpaceX Falcon 9 on Feb. 25 at 5:06 PM EST (22:06 UTC), following multiple delays. Group 6-39 lifted off from SLC-40 out of the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) in Florida. The 24 Starlink v2 Mini satellites 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 that launched this mission is B1069, flying for the 13th time. It landed for the thirteenth time on the droneship A Shortfall of Gravitas around 630 kilometers downrange in the Atlantic Ocean. This means that SpaceX has successfully landed 203 Falcon 9 boosters in a row. Following this launch, SpaceX is now on pace to reach 120 total launches within 2024, falling short of the planned 148 launches. They will need to launch nearly three times a week every week from now on to reach this goal.

Roscosmos Soyuz 2.1b | Meteor-M n°2-4

A Soyuz took flight on Feb. 29 at 05:43 UTC. Soyuz 2.1b launched from Site 1S at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia for its first mission of 2024. This mission launched a Meteor-M satellite — a new generation of meteorological satellites — and 17 cubesats to SSO.

Meteor-M satellite preparing for encapsulation. (Credit: Roscosmos)

Russia and the former Soviet Union have been launching Meteor meteorology satellites since 1969. This new generation of satellites will feature a low-resolution multispectral scanner, multichannel scanning unit, imager/sounder, advanced infrared radiation sounder, data collection system, and a modified rescue radio complex. These instruments will be used for cloud cover mapping, Earth surface monitoring, sea surface wind detection, and monitoring temperature and humidity profiles. 

The 17 cubesats, built by private company SPUTNIX, will be used to automatically identify and survey shipping routes in the ocean as well as monitor agricultural land and environmental systems all over Russia.

Chang Zheng 3B/E | WHG-01

Launch of CZ-3B/E in January 2021. (Credit CNSA)

The second Chinese launch of the week saw the launch of a CZ-3B/E. This mission lifted off on Feb. 29 during a four-hour launch window at 13:03 UTC. CZ-3B/E launched from Launch Complex 2 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China on an eastern trajectory. The payload was initially uncertain but appeared to be the high orbit WHG-01 communication satellite.

The labeling on CZ-3B/E is due to it being an upgraded version of the Chang Zheng 3B (CZ-3B) and Chang Zheng 3. CZ-3B/E has an enlarged first stage and boosters compared to the CZ-3B, enabling the launch of additional mass. 

(Lead image: Launch of the Starlink Group 7-15 mission on Feb. 22, 2024.  Credit: SpaceX)

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