Launch Roundup: two missions to the ISS, including first Dragon 2 from SLC-40

by John Sharp

SpaceX is preparing to launch three Falcon 9s, including two Starlink missions. Additionally, launching this week are two Chinese rockets, an Electron, and a crewed Soyuz.

SpaceX will continue to strive for a record-breaking year by launching from all three of its Falcon 9 launch pads this week, which will take its launch total to 10 for March, with several days remaining. This week will also see the first launch of a SpaceX Dragon 2 spacecraft from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. This launch will be the first to make use of the newly added crew access arm as the CRS-30 mission heads to the International Space Station (ISS).

China will launch a relay satellite and a pair of navigation technology experimental satellites to lunar orbit to support future missions. This will be followed the next day by a launch of several Earth observation satellites.

Russia will launch a crew to the ISS, and Rocket Lab will launch a classified payload.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 7-16

SpaceX launched 20 Starlink V2 Mini satellites to a 53-degree inclination orbit on a southeastern trajectory, with an initial orbit of 305 by 314 kilometers. The launch took place on Monday, March 18, at 7:28 PM PDT (02:28 UTC on March 19) from Space Launch Complex 4E, at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. This was SpaceX’s tenth launch from Vandenberg this year.

The booster, B1075, landed successfully on SpaceX’s autonomous spaceport drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, becoming the 30th successful recovery since the loss of B1058 in stormy seas in late December last year. This was the booster’s tenth flight, and brings SpaceX’s tally of active Falcon 9 cores with ten or more flights to 11.

Speculation following this launch suggests that there may have been two further classified payloads aboard this flight, possibly two of the recently announced Star Shield satellites. While there has been no official confirmation, there are some indications, for example from Celestrak, that this is indeed, the case.

Chang Zheng 8 | Queqiao-2 Tiandu-1 & 2

China launched its Queqiao-2 relay satellite on a Chang Zheng 8 Yao-3 on March 20, at 00:31 UTC from LC-201 at the Wenchang Space Launch Site in Hainan Province. The payloads are reported to have been deployed. The antenna and solar array on Queqiao-2 have been deployed successfully, and the spacecraft is said to be on a nominal lunar transfer trajectory.

Larger and more capable than its predecessor the Queqiao-2 is said to carry science payloads including a very-long-baseline interferometry system array neutral atom imager, and a camera to capture extreme ultraviolet radiation.


Long March 8 on the pad. (Credit: CASC)

With a mass of around 1,200 kilograms and a 4.2-meter antenna, the relay satellite has an expected lifespan of at least eight years. It will be sent into an inclined elliptical 24-hour lunar orbit that will support the Chang’e-6 lunar far-side sample return mission and will also provide relay communications for the Chang’e 7 and 8 missions, for which its orbit will be adjusted to 12 hours.

Also sharing a ride are a pair of navigation technology experimental satellites from the Deep Space Exploration Laboratory. Named after the Huangshan Mountains’ Tiandu Peak, the Tiandu-1 and Tiandu-2 satellites have a mass of 61 and 15 kilograms respectively.

The pair will fly in formation in a lunar orbit to verify the calibration of the navigation system for high-precision orbit determination, using inter-satellite ranging methods. They will also perform other communications and signal routing activities, and the data will inform the development and implementation of the planned Queqiao Communication and Remote Constellation System.

Long March 2D/YX-3 | Yunhai-2 Group 2

A Long March 2D was launched carrying the Yunhai-2 Group 2 Earth observation satellite to orbit on March 21, at 05:27 UTC. Launching from Launch Area 4, Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China, this satellite is part of the second Group, following several Group 1 launches over the past five years.

The launcher has previously flown 85 times since 1992 and this was China’s 13th orbital launch of 2024.

Rocket Lab Electron | NROL-123 Live and Let Fly

This mission will be Rocket Lab’s first launch from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). This follows four successful launches from New Zealand for the agency.

Originally targeting Thursday, March 21, 2:40 AM EDT (06:40 UTC), the countdown entered a long hold, just over four minutes before this time. Lift-off took place at 3:25 AM EDT (07:25 UTC).

This was Rocket Lab’s fourth mission from Launch Complex 2, a dedicated pad for the Electron rocket, located at Virginia Spaceport Authority’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport within NASA Wallops.

The launch service was acquired using NRO’s Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract. RASR enables the NRO to explore new opportunities for launching small satellites through a streamlined, commercial approach. The launch trajectory was toward the southeast, but no further details of the classified payload have been made known.

This was Rocket Lab’s 46th launch and has been confirmed as successful by Rocket Lab and the NRO.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | CRS SpX-30

Following the completion of work on the tower at Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, SpaceX launched a cargo Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 on Thursday, March 21, 4:55 PM EDT (20:55 UTC). This was the first Dragon 2 to launch from SLC-40 and enabled crews to test out the new crew arm as they performed late-loading operations before launch. This is seen as part of the certification process for the crew launch facilities at SLC-40 before they are used for the first crew launch.

Dragon 2

Dragon 2 atop Falcon 9 at SLC-40 (Credit: SpaceX)

This was booster B1080’s sixth flight. The booster performed a return-to-launch-site landing a few miles south of SLC-40 at Landing Zone 1.

Arrival at the station occurred Saturday, March 23, at 11:20 UTC. The SpaceX cargo Dragon spacecraft docked autonomously at the zenith port of the station’s Harmony module.

Roscosmos Soyuz 2.1a | Soyuz MS-25

Roscosmos had scheduled a crewed Soyuz 2.1a rocket to the ISS on March 21, at 8:21 PM EST (13:21 UTC) from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. This launch was aborted with appropriately 20 seconds remaining, due to low voltage on the vehicle.

The mission launched successfully at the second attempt on Saturday, March 23, 12:36 UTC.

Soyuz 2.1a

The Soyuz 2.1a is assembled, ready for flight. (Credit: Roscosmos)

The crew is led by Commander Oleg Viktorovich Novitsky (Russia), and the remaining seats are taken by Marina Vasilevskaya (Belarus) and NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson (USA).

Commander Novitsky has flown three previous missions to the ISS, totaling 531 days in space, while this will be Marina Vasilevskaya’s first spaceflight.

Tracy Dyson is traveling under the “seat swaps” arrangement between NASA and Roscosmos, allowing for continuity of occupation of the ISS by both agencies in the event of either having launcher issues. According to Joel Montalbano, manager of NASA’s International Space Station program: “that integrated crew agreement provides for Soyuz and SpaceX missions, one a year in 2022, 2023, and 2024.” Dyson has flown two previous missions and performed three spacewalks, totaling over 22 hours, and will join the Expedition 71 crew on arrival.

Docking with the ISS was achieved, as expected on Monday, March 25 at 15:10 UTC, after a two-day, 34-orbit rendezvous.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 6-42

Rounding off the week, SpaceX’s third launch was another Starlink mission. Finally launching on Friday, March 22, at 11:09 PM EDT (March 24, 03:09 UTC), following first, a 40-minute, then, a further 3-hour delay, announced late into the countdown. No reason has been given for the delay, though weather conditions were most likely.

The Falcon 9 launched 23 Starlink V2 Mini satellites to a 43-degree inclination orbit on a southeastern trajectory, with an expected initial orbit of 275 by 283 kilometers.

The mission launched from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida using booster B1060 on its 19th flight, which makes a total of four boosters to have completed 19 flights, three of which are still active.

The booster landed on the SpaceX autonomous spaceport drone ship Just Read the Instructions.

This was the 57th launch attempt for 2024 worldwide.

(Lead image: CRS-30 headed downrange from Florida’s space coast, en route to ISS. Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

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