Launch Roundup: China returns to the moon, SpaceX keeps up high launch cadence

by John Sharp

This week, China returns to the Moon with the Chang’e-6 mission, making the first-ever attempt to collect samples from a site on the far side, near the lunar South Pole.

SpaceX keeps up its high cadence with the launch of the long-delayed WorldView Legion satellites from Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) at the Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) in California. Additionally, two further Starlink missions launched successfully this week.

Lastly, no launch permit was issued for Gilmour Space’s Eris 1 orbital rocket, previously expected to make its maiden flight on May 4, this launch is now on hold.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | WorldView Legion 1 & 2

Originally scheduled to launch from SLC-4E at VSFB on April 17, a Falcon 9 was set to carry two satellites massing a total of 1,500 kilograms into a Sun-synchronous orbit. This first launch attempt was postponed the day before launch and rescheduled for Wednesday, April 24, before being postponed again. SpaceX has not commented on the reason for the delays.

Liftoff occured on Thursday, May 2, at 11:36 AM PDT (18:36 UTC), at the start of a 14-minute launch window. The booster, B1061, making its 20th flight, returned to land on the pad at Landing Zone 4 located around 400 meters away from the launch pad.

Booster B1061 has previously supported Crew-1, Crew-2, SXM-8, CRS-23, IXPE, Transporter-4, Transporter-5, Globalstar FM15, ISI EROS C-3, Korea 425, and nine Starlink missions. The booster became the third to fly for the 20th time. This is one of the few boosters that have flown from both Vandenberg and the Cape.

SpaceX reported that the fairing halves on this mission were flying on their 16th (a new record), and 13th flights.

The second stage, with its reduced length “stubby” nozzle, shut down after 10 minutes and seven seconds, with SpaceX reporting nominal orbital insertion. SpaceX reported that the two payloads were deployed successfully after coasting for a short period, becoming Falcon 9’s 300th successful payload deployment since the Amos 6 explosion.

The WorldView Legion satellite constellation is Maxar Technologies’ next-generation constellation of Earth observation satellites, designed and built in-house at the company’s facilities in Palo Alto and San Jose, California. DigitalGlobe, which was later taken over by Maxar, first announced its selection of SpaceX as the launch provider in 2018 when the satellites were initially anticipated to launch in two blocks of six. Hardware-based delays, as well as the complexity of the technology, have caused several setbacks. The planned constellation will now consist of six satellites in total that will be launched in pairs and will orbit in polar and mid-inclination orbits.

The satellites are the first to utilize a new Maxar 500 series bus platform with better stability, agility, and pointing accuracy. When fully deployed, they will occupy an approximately 500-kilometer altitude orbit, providing 30-centimeter high-resolution imagery and eight-band multispectral imagery across 15 revisits per day over the most active regions of the world. The satellites will triple the company’s coverage in 30-centimeter class resolution, capturing five million square kilometers of imagery each day. The satellites are designed with a 10-year lifespan.

Applications will include supporting national security missions for monitoring and surveillance of ground-based potential threats or verifying enforced sanctions and treaties. The satellites also provide a variety of maritime monitoring functions such as the surveillance of natural disasters, pollution, and oil spills through to the detection of illegal fishing, piracy, drug smuggling, or human trafficking. Utilizing artificial intelligence algorithms, the WorldView Legion satellites can support the ability to detect, identify, and respond quickly to suspicious activities. Maxar worked with its instrument partner Raytheon to develop a smaller telescope that requires less power.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 6-55

SpaceX launch operations switched focus to the east coast for the launch of another batch of Starlink v2 Mini satellites to low-Earth orbit. A Falcon 9 launched from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Thursday, May 2, at 10:37 PM EDT (Friday, May 3, at 02:37 UTC), 48 minutes into a 3-hour, 28-minute launch window. The T-0 time was delayed three times during the countdown, no official reason has been given for the delays.

The booster, B1067, performed a landing on the autonomous droneship A Shortfall of Gravitas located 599 kilometers downrange along the southeasterly flight path, slightly nearer to the coast than most of the recent Starlink missions.

Booster B1067 flew for the nineteenth time, having previously supported launches for CRS-22, Crew-3, Turksat 5B, Crew-4, CRS-25, Hot Bird 13G, mPOWER 1 & 2, Satria, Merah Putih 2, and nine Starlink missions.

Long March 5 Y8 | Chang’e-6 lunar sample return

A Long March 5 launch vehicle lifted the Chang’e-6 mission from pad LC-101 at the Wenchang Space Center, China, on Friday, May 3, at 09:27 UTC just 10 minutes into the launch window of 09:17 and 10:18 UTC. NSF have a dedicated launch article here. The four side-boosters separated succesfully and the hydrolox powered first stage continued to power the payload towards orbit before separation and second-stage ignition. After a short burn,, the stage shut down for a ten-minute coast period for the spacecraft to reach the equator. The trans-lunar insertion burn took place nearly twenty-nine minutes into the flight, after which Chang’e-6 separated and continued on its journey to intercept the Moon’s orbit

Following the success of Chang’e-5 in 2020, China is sending Chang’e-6, which was manufactured as a duplicate backup copy of Chang’e-5, to undertake the first sample return from the far side of the Moon. Chang’e-5 previously returned 1,731 grams of samples, including a one-meter-deep core from a site in the Moon’s northern hemisphere, on the “near side.”

The proposed landing site is located in the southern portion of the Apollo crater, which itself lies within the larger South Pole-Aitkin (SPA) impact basin on the lunar far side. It is hoped that samples collected from the target area may include lunar mantle material ejected by the original impact that created the SPA basin. The Apollo crater was named in 1970 following the landing of Apollo 11 in 1969. Robert Grant Aitken was an astronomer whom the large impact basin was named after. These craters were used as navigational identifiers by the crew of Apollo 17.

The Chang’e-6 spacecraft is a four-part vehicle with a launch mass of 8,200 kilograms. An orbiter forms the core structure and carries the main engines, lander (descent and ascent modules), return capsule, and four payloads. Once the spacecraft reaches the Moon and enters a lunar orbit, the lander will separate from the orbiter portion of the spacecraft and descend to the Moon’s surface to make a soft landing. It is hoped that the lander will collect approximately two kilograms of surface soil and rocks (using a scoop) and subsurface samples (using a drill). After collection, the small ascent stage will carry the samples into lunar orbit and will autonomously dock with the orbiter. The samples will then be robotically transferred to the re-entry capsule that will be returned to Earth orbit aboard the orbiter. Finally, the capsule will separate and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere on the 53rd day of the mission.

Render of Chang’e-6 in lunar orbit. (Credit: CGTN)

Chinese authorities opened up this mission to international partners, and four further payloads are aboard the vehicle. The first is the Bajisitan Lifang (Pakistani CubeSat), also known as SJTU Siyuan-2. The design and development of ICUBE-Q are a collaborative effort between the Pakistan Institute of Space Technology’s faculty and students, Pakistan’s national space agency SUPARCO, and China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU). The cubesat will be used to detect traces of ice on the lunar surface.

Next is the DORN (Detection of Outgassing Radon) instrument, which is a French instrument designed to study the transportation of lunar dust and other volatiles between the lunar regolith and the lunar exosphere, including the water cycle. The third instrument is an Italian instrument called the Instrument for Landing-Roving Laser Retroreflector Investigations (INRRI), consisting of a passive laser retro-reflector to be used for laser range-finding of the lander, similar to those used on the Schiaparelli, InSight, and recent lunar landers, such as IM-1 and SLIM.

The Swedish Negative Ions on Lunar Surface (NILS) instrument will detect and measure negative ions reflected by the lunar surface.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 6-57

A further batch of 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 to low Earth orbit at 2:14 PM EDT (18:14 UTC) on Monday, May 6, from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.\

The launch took place shortly before the end of the launch window which extended from 12:36 PM EDT (16:36 UTC) to 2:48 PM EDT (18:48 UTC).

This was the fifteenth flight of booster B1069 which landed successfully on the SpaceX autonomous drone ship Just Read The Instructions, stationed 599 kilometers south-east of the pad, near the Bahamas. Eight Falcon 9 boosters have now completed 15 flights.

The total number of Starlink satellites launched is now 6350, 414 of which have de-orbited, leaving 5936 in orbit.

The next launch is the Starliner Crewed Flight Test, which will be covered in the next Launch Roundup.

(Lead Image: A Long March 5 rocket rolls out with Chang’e-6 in China. Credit: CNSA)

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