Launch Roundup: SpaceX continues high cadence

by John Sharp

After SpaceX achieved a record-breaking 12 Falcon 9 launches in March, the company continued this cadence during the first week of April. Missions this week included a Starlink flight, a mystery-shrouded launch from China, then another three Falcon 9’s toward the end of the week — two more Starlinks and the first of a series of new mid-inclination rideshare missions,  Bandwagon-1.

The high cadence of SpaceX missions means that the missions are very susceptible to cascading schedule changes when a flight encounters a delay.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 7-18

SpaceX’s first April mission launched on Monday, April 1, at 7:30 PM PDT (Tuesday, April 2, at 02:30 UTC). The Falcon 9 had been scheduled to launch from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) on Saturday, March 30, but was scrubbed due to unfavorable weather in the area.

The vehicle flew on a southeast trajectory with a minimal “dogleg” maneuver required to get its batch of 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into an orbit inclined 53 degrees to the equator. The booster supporting this mission was B1071-15, which last flew the Starlink Group 7-13 mission in February. After stage separation, it landed downrange on the autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still Love You. This particular ASDS is based out of Long Beach, California for VSFB flights and is the only one assigned to the Pacific at present.

This flight was the 32nd Falcon 9 launch of 2024. SpaceX’s 31 previous orbital flights this year — not counting Starship IFT-3, which also took place in March — matches the 2021 total of 31 launches for the whole year and would exceed the total number of launches for the company for any given calendar year before that.

Long March 2C | Yaogan-42 01

A Long March 2C successfully launched on Tuesday, April 2, at 22:55 UTC from Launch Complex 3 at Xichang Satellite Launch Center, Sichuan, China, this was the fourth launch of the year for the Long March 2C. The single payload is being reported as Yaogan-42 01.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 6-47

On Friday, April 5, at 5:12 AM EDT (09:12 UTC), SpaceX launched another batch of Starlink v2 Mini satellites from CCSFS SLC-40. The launch time was delayed for three hours early on launch day.

A Shortfall of Gravitas, the newest ASDS, sailed from Port Canaveral to take up position downrange in support of this mission, which flew on a south-easterly trajectory to place the satellites into a 43-degree inclination orbit. The SpaceX support vessel Doug was also downrange to recover the two fairings.

Flying for its 14th time, B1069 supported this mission, marking the booster’s tenth Starlink mission. B1069 has also flown CRS-24, Hotbird 13F, OneWeb 1, and SES-18/19 missions. The booster made a successful landing on the ASDS and will be returned to Florida to be readied for its 15th flight.

This was Falcon 9’s 33rd mission this year.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 8-1

SpaceX’s next launch out of VSFB launched from SLC-4E on Saturday, April 6, at 7:25 PM PDT (Sunday, April 7, at 02:25 UTC) following delays caused initially by the Starlink 7-18 mission being rescheduled, and added to by bad weather at Vandenberg the previous day.

Booster B1081 launched the first of a new group of Starlink v2 Mini satellites into low-Earth orbit before landing 642 kilometers downrange on the SpaceX ASDS Of Course I Still Love You. SpaceX has confirmed that there are a further six of the new direct to cell Starlink satellites aboard this mission, which carried a total of 21 satellites.

The booster completed its sixth flight, having previously launched Crew-7, CRS-29, Starlink Group 6-34, Pace and Transporter 10.

The Falcon 9 second stage was fitted with a grey-painted mission extension kit, which is generally used when the stage is required to stay in orbit for longer than usual, the paint helping to manage the temperature of propellant aboard the stage. SpaceX indicated that the payloads were deployed one hour, two minutes, and 28 seconds into the flight, following two burns of the stage’s vacuum-optimized Merlin engine.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Bandwagon-1

The Bandwagon-1 mission is the first of a new rideshare service by SpaceX that will launch multiple satellites into mid-inclination orbits, as opposed to the Sun-synchronous orbits (SSO) of the Transporter missions. This provides another launch option for small satellite operators, who have been largely relying on smaller launchers such as Rocket Lab’s Electron to reach mid-inclination orbits.

Liftoff for this mission was Sunday, April 7,  at 7:16 PM EDT (23:16 UTC), launching to a 45.4-degree orbital inclination with at least one insertion orbit around 590 kilometers in altitude, the Falcon 9 launched from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center before performing a return-to-launch-site landing at Landing Zone 1, just a few miles to the south.

The booster for this launch was B1073, flying its 14th mission after a 34-day turnaround. The booster’s previous missions include nine Starlink launches, CRS-27, Amazonas Nexus, Hakuto-R Mission-1, and SES-22.

The second stage was fit with the stubby nozzle version of the vacuum-optimized Merlin engine, as this is a relatively light payload, at roughly 1,500 kilograms.

Eleven payloads were carried on this mission, including one for South Korea’s 425 Project, which is the second of five satellites for this constellation to be launched by SpaceX. The satellite was built by a consortium with Thales Alenia Space, who built the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) payload, Korean Aerospace Industries, and Hanwha Systems Corporation. The first of this constellation, an optical Earth observation satellite, launched in December from SLC-4E at VSFB in California.

Additionally, the Institute for Q-shu Pioneers of Space, Inc. has launched a SAR satellite, QPS-SAR-7, named “TSUKUYOMI-II.” This small high-resolution X-band SAR Earth observation satellite will be the first of more than 30 operational satellites in the constellation. The satellite features a 3.6-meter diameter antenna of only 10 kilograms with a resolution of 0.7 meters and can identify cars on the road. It features two deployable solar arrays and electric thrusters for station keeping and deorbiting.

Capella Space’s Acadia-4 satellite, which also launched on this mission. While Capella has used SpaceX for multiple launches to SSO in the past, the previous Capella flights to mid-inclination orbits have all launched on Rocket Lab Electrons, including one that was lost in a failed Electron launch in September 2023. These are SAR satellites with 700 megahertz radar bandwidth.

India’s first private sector-produced military satellite, TSAT 1A, was built by Tata Advanced Systems Limited in collaboration with the Latin American firm Satellogic. Controlled by a new ground control center in Bengaluru, this satellite “empowers India with a sovereign eye in the sky, capable of capturing images with a resolution of 0.5 meters.”

TSAT-1a readied for integration. (Credit: SattelLogic)

Six Hawkeye 360 satellites are used to detect electronic signals to monitor human activity across the globe and assist with emergencies. The Space Flight Laboratory at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies manufactures the bus and integrates the radio frequency payload developed by HawkEye 360.

Tyvak International’s CENTAURI-6 satellite was also onboard.

(Lead image: Delta IV Heavy stands ready to launch.  Credit: ULA)

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