Launch roundup: Starship launches third integrated test flight

by Martin Smith
Dawn breaks over Starbase with Ship 28 stacked on Booster 10 while tests have begun with Ship 29 (Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF)

The focus of the week ahead is dominated, of course, by the much anticipated third test flight of Starship.  

Once speculated to potentially fly as early as late February, the weeks leading up to flight have seen notably fewer stacks of the ship and booster than were seen during the second flight test campaign.  Besides testing already beginning on hardware for flight four, there have been some interesting, and sometimes peculiar, events as these vehicles prepared for flight.

This flight aside, Japanese company Space One re-attempted the maiden flight of its KAIROS launcher which had scrubbed during its first launch attempt last week.  Although the rocket briefly launched on Wednesday, it suffered a rapid unscheduled disassembly seconds after lifting off.

Rocket Lab has launched the latest in a series of StriX Earth observation satellites for Synspective on its Electron rocket — the first to join this constellation since late 2022. Finally, there was one Falcon 9 launch of 23 more Starlink satellites this week on the Group 6-44 mission which launched out of the Cape after being stood down on two initial attempts.

Electron/Curie | Owl Night Long

Rocket Lab’s third launch of the year was for its customer Synspective during a short window lasting a little over an hour. Launch happened on March 12 at 15:03 UTC, from Launch Complex 1B at the Mahia Peninsula, in New Zealand.

This StriX-3 Earth observation satellite joined an existing constellation in a Sun-synchronous orbit that uses Synthetic Aperture Radar to transmit microwave pulses toward the Earth’s surface and interpret the signals reflected to create an image of the target area.  

Integration of the wide-bodied StriX-3 satellite into the fairing (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Integration of the wide-bodied StriX-3 satellite into the fairing. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

This series of satellites has a ground resolution of between one and three meters and a swatch width of between 10 and 30 kilometers.  The wide-bodied size of this satellite utilized Electron’s expanded fairing option and was further shielded from radiation exposure before deployment at T+53 minutes, thanks to a maneuver by the kick stage which will ignite three minutes earlier.

This was the fourth launch in this series, which began with “The Owl’s Night Begins” mission in 2020 and has since been followed by “The Owl’s Night Continues” and “The Owl Spreads its Wings,” both in 2022.

Space One | KAIROS

The Japanese commercial company known as Space One was scheduled to make its debut in the world of orbital space launch with its new KAIROS small satellite launcher but the rocket exploded on its second attempt just seconds after launching on March 13 at 11:01 AM JST (02:01 UTC).

The explosion appeared to begin at the interstage, at an altitude of around 50 to 100 meters, and was likely caused by the automated flight termination system.  This will be clarified later when Space One completes its assessment.

Space Port Kii is a new, dedicated, launch facility built between 2019 to 2021 that was also making its debut with this maiden flight. Debris from the stages fell within the spaceport grounds and to the west, leaving the pad and key infrastructure seemingly undamaged – the rocket was expected to be heading south.

Kairos launches on March 13 from Spaceport Kii before then exploding (Credit: Space One)

Kairos launches on March 13 from Spaceport Kii before then exploding (Credit: Space One)

KAIROS was flying a prototype quick response satellite for the Japanese Government Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center, which operates Japan’s IGS satellites and is roughly the equivalent of the US National Reconnaissance Office.

KAIROS is a four-stage launcher, 18 meters high, with three solid-fueled rocket stages and a fourth liquid-fueled upper stage to make the final push into orbit. The rocket, just under one and a half meters wide and massing 23 metric tons, is capable of flying a 250-kilogram payload to a low-Earth orbit inclined 33 degrees to the Equator, or a 150-kilogram payload into a sun-synchronous polar orbit.

The rocket is of a similar size and width to the Rocket Lab Electron. It is roughly similar in capability to the original version of Electron before its 2020 upgrade in payload capacity. Similarly to Rocket Lab’s Mahia launch site, Space Port Kii is a dedicated launch site for Space One.  Space One still aims to launch frequently and have the world’s shortest time between contract and launch, to try to lower the cost of access to space.

Chang Zheng 2C | DRO-A/B

A third flight of the Chang Zheng 2C took place from launch pad LC-3 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China on March 13 at 12:51 UTC  Details of the payload were unclear prior to launch but are now understood to be two craft from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

These were intended to perform communication and navigation tests from a distant retrograde orbit around the moon, although a problem with the YZ-1S upper stage resulted in the payload being deployed to the wrong orbit.

Starship | IFT-3

The third integrated flight test of Starship took place shortly after sunrise on March 14 at 8:25 AM CDT (13:25 UTC) following months of preparation, the closure of the mishap investigation, and a successful WDR on March 3. The launch was initially delayed towards the end of the two-hour window to clear some range violations caused by boats in the Gulf of Mexico.

The flight plan featured some additional tests that were conducted for the first time on this flight. Ship 28 was the first to fly with the electric, rather than hydraulic, thrust vector control, amongst several improvements made to both the ship and booster since the previous test flight.  Booster 10 now has a flatter, more bowl-shaped elliptical common dome, while Ship 28 has some structural improvements, some vent position changes, and a working payload door.

Excitement was once again guaranteed, especially with the incredible onboard camera views throughout the mission, thanks to the Starlink network.  Had Ship 28 achieved its full intended journey, it was not heading for Hawaii this time and was instead due to make a hard landing in the Indian Ocean — a change in the flight plan that allowed for some additional tests during the mission.

Starship demonstrated a controlled ascent and a nominal insertion as intended, cruising through stage separation within the first three minutes of the flight at an altitude of 71 kilometers. The super heavy booster was seen to return for an ocean landing at around T+7 minutes which appeared to be faster and harder than expected after some tumbling as it broke through the clouds, resulting in its destruction.

This mission additionally saw a test opening and closing of the ship’s payload door around T+12 minutes which was followed by a demonstration of internal propellant transfer during Ship 28’s coast phase at around T+24 minutes at an altitude of 210 kilometers. This transfer test is important to keep Starship on track for its part in the forthcoming Artemis missions, despite NASA recently announcing delays to the timeline for the program and pushing dates back by a year.

10,000 kilograms of liquid oxygen was expected to be transferred between the header and main tank to achieve a “Tipping Point” milestone in what will have been the largest transfer to date of cryogenic propellant in space. Propellant transfers will be a recurring theme in future flight demonstrations, for which SpaceX has requested the FAA extend the limit of five launches per year to allow for at least nine in 2024.

Ship 28 was then expected to demonstrate the first relighting of Raptor engines in space within the first hour of its journey, and then begin a controlled re-entry eight minutes later at around T+49 minutes.   SpaceX opted to skip the de-orbit burn at an altitude of around 135 kilometers, at which point the ship was seen maneuvering into a re-entry attitude.  The reasons for skipping this burn will be clarified later after a data review.

The revised timeline included a hard, destructive, splashdown landing in the Indian Ocean just over an hour after launch at around T+64 minutes. This revised location allowed these additional demonstrations, in particular the in-space engine burn, to be conducted safely. Plasma was seen on the body and flaps as the ship passed below 100 kilometers and the signal was lost as the ship entered an expected blackout phase at 65 kilometers while still traveling at a speed of over 25,000 kilometers per hour.  SpaceX later updated that the ship was lost before splashdown – this will have prompted a mishap investigation.

Ignition as Starship begins the IFT-3 mission (Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF)

Ignition as Starship begins the IFT-3 mission (Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF)

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-44

Another batch of 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites was bound for the Group 6 shell orbiting at 559 kilometers, inclined by 43 degrees.  This flight had been scrubbed for two days running, following a countdown hold during the second attempt on March 14.  SpaceX noted that the revised launch date gave its team the opportunity to work through an issue with the transporter erector’s cradle arms which resulted in the strongback not retracting.  The third attempt was also pushed back a little into the four-and-a-half-hour window on March 15 but did launch at 8:21 PM EDT (00:21 UTC on March 16) from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

The booster for this mission was B1062 on its 19th flight.  It landed on the autonomous drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas, located further downrange approximately eight minutes after lift-off – this was SpaceX’s 295th Falcon recovery attempt.  As had been seen on the last few missions for this shell, the Raptor vacuum engine no longer carried a stiffener ring.

Once again the mission was not carrying 24 satellites – the highest number launched to date on the Group 6-39 mission which also set a Falcon 9 record of the highest payload mass carried to a useful orbit of 17,500 kilograms.  The two subsequent Group 6 missions continued to carry 23 but the company aims to increase this to 28 Starlink satellites in single trips by the end of the year.  

This was the fourth Falcon 9 mission of the month, following nine in February and a record ten flights in January.  Recent launches have included several non-Starlink missions with more complex logistics, and some delays due to challenging weather conditions.  These have collectively impacted the cadence that SpaceX initially hit the ground running with at the start of the year. If the company maintains the current pace it could finish the year having achieved between 110 and 120 Falcon 9 launches.   

(Lead image: Dawn breaks over Starbase. Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF)

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