Launch Roundup: SpaceX reaches its 40th Falcon 9 flight of 2024

by Martin Smith

With seven Falcon 9 launches flown this month already, SpaceX’s rapid pace continues with another three flights originally planned for this coming week from both the east and west coasts. One of two planned launches on Wednesday, April 17 has since been postponed, leaving Starlink missions which flew on Wednesday and Thursday. Additionally, a Chinese Chang Zheng 2D launched on Monday, and another launched on Saturday.

Not content with breaking new cadence records in the first quarter of the year with an impressive 31 launches, SpaceX continued to reach new milestones last week. The company celebrated the first 20th launch and landing of a booster with B1062 during the Starlink 6-49 mission — a booster that has flown eight astronauts to space. The company also completed three orbital launches from Vandenberg in just 11 days, including the fastest turnaround time ever for Space Launch Complex (SLC) 4E at four and a half days between the USSF-62 and Starlink Group 8-1 missions.

Thursday’s Starlink Group 6-52 mission was the company’s 40th Falcon 9 mission of the year to date. To put this, and its increasing cadence, in context, it took SpaceX until late June last year to reach this point, and early September to reach this stage in 2022. A year ago this week, the company had launched 23 missions so far.

With everything going to schedule and having already notched up seven missions in April, the company was initially expected to finish this week with ten Falcon 9 flights completed. It was only a few months ago that the team celebrated this feat as a new monthly milestone at the end of January.

The unexpected postponement of WorldView Legion 1 & 2 the day before the originally scheduled launch on Wednesday,  means the company has now completed the week at nine flights so far this month – this launch is now postponed until next week. The company is making good progress now towards the still-ambitious goal of 148 flights this year and is also close to reaching 300 successful recoveries, which could be achieved before the end of April.

The United States and China account for 82 percent of launches so far this year, China being the second busiest nation for launches, with 15 total at the start of this week. The launch of a Chang Zheng 2D in the early hours of Monday morning increased this count further, lifting an Earth observation satellite to orbit. As the week began, there have been a total of 72 orbital launches worldwide so far this year, with SpaceX accounting for around 52 percent of all orbital launches this year.

Chang Zheng 2D | SuperView Neo 3-01

A Chang Zheng 2D (CZ-2D) launched from Site 9401 (SLS-2) at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China on Monday, April 15, at 04:12 UTC at the start of a brief 25-minute launch window.

This was the third flight of the two-stage CZ-2D vehicle this year, all of which have taken place in a period lasting just over three weeks. The rocket has previously lifted both the secretive Yaogan 42-01 remote sensing satellite and the Yunhai-2 Group 02 meteorological satellites into low-Earth orbit for the Chinese military in recent weeks.

This time, the payload was the SuperView Neo 3-01 Earth observation satellite, heading into a Sun-synchronous orbit. Built for China Siwei Survey and Mapping Technology Co. Ltd. by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the satellite boasts 0.5-meter resolution over nine image wavelength bands and a 130-kilometer-wide imaging swath. The SuperView Neo constellation is planned to extend to 28 satellites, the first four of which were launched in pairs back in April and July 2022.

The CZ-2D is a reliable workhorse, produced by the state-owned Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology. It has been actively carrying satellites into Sun-synchronous and other low-Earth orbits for over 30 years. With 87 previous launches under its belt, the vehicle has only suffered one partial failure, occurring over seven years and 55 flights ago when the payloads were placed into a lower-than-intended orbit.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-51

The first Starlink mission of the week launched from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday, April 17, at 5:26 PM EDT (21:26 UTC). As with other missions into this Group 6 shell, the Falcon 9 carried another batch of 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites into an initial 284 by 292-kilometer orbit, inclined 43 degrees.

Support ship Bob left Port Canaveral with the droneship to support this mission on Sunday. The booster, B1077, was on its 12th flight and is no stranger to Starlink Group 6 missions.  It has also supported Crew-5 on its maiden flight as well as CRS-28 and CRS NG-20 cargo missions to the International Space Station. The booster successfully landed on the autonomous droneship Just Read the Instructions, located downrange in the Atlantic, around eight and a half minutes after launch.

This was the 50th mission into the Group 6 shell of the constellation, with more to follow. Recent missions are being sent in numerical order, with the exception of Group 6-50 which currently remains unlisted.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-52

The second Starlink mission of the week launched from neighboring SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station carrying another batch of Starlink v2 Mini satellites into the same Group 6 shell of the constellation. Liftoff occurred at 6:40 AM EDT (22:40 UTC) at the start of a four-and-a-half-hour launch window on Thursday, April 18.

The booster, B1080, was making its seventh flight and has only been flying since last May. In that time it has supported two previous Starlink missions into this same shell, two crewed flights for Axiom-2 and Axiom-3, the CRS-30 cargo mission to the ISS, and the launch of the Euclid telescope. Despite issues with this portion of the SpaceX livestream, it was confirmed to have made a successful landing on the autonomous droneship A Shortfall of Gravitas further downrange which recently supported the 20th landing of a booster with B1062. This was the 66th landing on this droneship out of 66 attempts, the 299th Falcon booster landing, and the 225th successful landing since the last failed one.

SLC-40 was the pad from which the Group 6-49 and Group 6-48 missions launched during the previous week, the latter of which was unusually delayed twice into its launch window for undeclared reasons that did not appear to be weather-related. This was SpaceX’s 180th launch from this pad.

As noted in the introduction, this was SpaceX’s 40th Falcon 9 mission of the year already, and the 325th orbital Falcon 9 mission to date. At the start of this week, 6,189 Starlink satellites had been launched, of which 402 had re-entered, and 5,196 were in operational orbits.

Chang Zheng 2D | Unknown payload

A second Chang Zheng 2D (CZ-2D) launched this week, this time from LC-3 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China. Lift-off on Saturday, April 20 at 23:34 UTC during a brief 21-minute launch window.

As is typical with some Chinese launches, there was uncertainty around the payload before launch. Onboard was the Yaogan 42-02 “remote sensing” military satellite for which details are classified. This was the fourth flight of the two-stage CZ-2D vehicle this year, all of which will have taken place in 30 days, and the 76th orbital launch attempt of the year in total.

(Lead image: The 20th launch of Falcon 9 booster B1062. Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

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