Launch Roundup: Starliner delayed further; 21st flight for Falcon 9 booster; New Shepard returns to crewed missions

by Martin Smith

SpaceX reached another milestone when booster B1062 became the first in its fleet to fly for the 21st time on Friday night, exceeding the previously set limit of 20 flights per booster.

Blue Origin is also expected to launch its first crewed mission for over 18 months on Sunday, taking six more humans briefly above the Karman line. The crew includes former Air Force Captain Ed Dwight, who is about a week older than William Shatner, and set to become the oldest person to fly in space.

As the week began, all eyes were on the forthcoming maiden crewed flight test (CFT) of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft for the second week. The first attempt was stood down last Monday following concerns with a liquid oxygen relief valve on the Centaur second stage. The launch was due to be reattempted this Friday but has since been delayed further with a new target date of May 21 or later, to allow for further testing.  It will be the 100th overall mission for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, and the first time the vehicle has carried crew. This CFT mission will also be the first crewed launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station since the Apollo era.

Leading into this week, many in the northern hemisphere were treated to captivating views of a rare aurora on Friday night, caused by a level 5 geomagnetic storm — the first of this extreme G5 level since 2003. NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory noted an X-class solar flare (X5.8) on May 10. Despite concerns of disruptions to communications and GPS as the flares disturbed that layer of our atmosphere, satellites in low-Earth orbit appeared to fare better than expected. SpaceX confirmed on Monday morning that all Starlink satellites on orbit remain healthy after weathering the storm.

The electrical discharge briefly disrupted most long-distance shortwave radio signals but ham radio operators could enjoy temporarily reaching further distances than usual this week. This will be due to the ionized atmosphere reflecting more radio waves back to Earth rather than losing them to space. One launch took place during this period — a Chang Zheng 4C successfully deployed Shiyan-23 to orbit from China.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of two solar flares categorized as X5.8 and X1.5 events on May 10 and 11. (Credit NASA / SDO)

SpaceX launched its 50th Falcon 9 mission of the year on its first launch of the week. At the time of publishing, SpaceX had three Falcon 9 missions planned, carrying two Starlink missions and another for the National Reconnaissance Office, which has since been delayed into the following week.

Next week will be the fifth anniversary of the first batch of test Starlink satellites being deployed. The network, which now has 2.7 million subscribers across 75 countries and counting, is currently forecast to be on track to produce $6.6 billion in revenue by the end of the year.

There will have been 94 orbital launch attempts worldwide so far this year as the week closes — this is 27 more than the equivalent point last year and over double the year before.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 8-7

Despite what the mission numbering might suggest, as they are not always launched sequentially, this was the third launch of Starlink satellites into the Group 8 shell. The launch was delayed to the end of the window, with lift-off taking place at 11:39 AM PDT (18:39 UTC) on Tuesday, May 14 from the pad at SLC-4E at the Vandenberg Space Force Base. This was the company’s 50th Falcon 9 launch of the year so far.

The booster B1063 took its 18th flight and landed downrange on the autonomous droneship Of Course I Still Love You, stationed in the Pacific Ocean. This booster has been active since November 2020 and has supported Starlink missions deploying satellites into Groups 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 in addition to the Transporter 7 and DART missions amongst others.

Payloads on Group 8 missions have, to date, included a mix of Starlink v2 Mini satellites, and the heavier Direct to Cell variants — these have an advanced modem on board that enables cellphones to communicate directly with them, acting as a cellphone tower in space. The payload on this mission was expected to be deployed into an initial orbit of 336 by 345 kilometers, inclined 53 degrees after which the satellites will raise themselves to around 535 kilometers in altitude. The previous mission, Group 8-2, was stood down for a day before deploying 20 satellites, of which 13 were the new variant. This mission deployed another 20 satellites with the same combinations.

At the start of the week and before this launch, SpaceX had launched a total of 6,393 Starlink satellites, of which 5,233 have moved into their operational orbits and 415 have re-entered.

Deployment of Starlink v2 Mini and Direct-To-Cell satellites on the Group 8-1 mission in April 2024. The DTC satellites are furthest from view. (Credit: SpaceX)

Soyuz 2.1b | Cosmos 2576 (Unknown Payload)

A launch of a Soyuz 2.1b took place from Site 43/4 at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia on Thursday, May 16 at 21:21 UTC. Details are limited regarding the payload of multiple satellites on board for the Russian military, which were anticipated to be targeting a polar orbit.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-59

The second scheduled Starlink mission of the week was originally set to follow less than two hours after the intended launch of Starliner CFT but attracted attention of its own for the record breaking 21st flight of its booster.

B1062 became the first in the SpaceX fleet to exceed the previously set limit of 20 flights, with certification now increased for up to 40 flights for a booster. This notable booster has supported the Inspiration4, Axiom-1, and numerous other Starlink missions carrying satellites into the Group 4, 5, and 6 shells.

Lift-off took place on Friday. May 17 at 8:32 PM EDT (00:32 UTC on May 18) from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Base in Florida. On board was another batch of 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites heading into low-Earth orbit. B1062 then made the company’s 320th recovery attempt on the autonomous drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas, around 600 kilometers further downrange.

New Shepard | NS-25

Blue Origin are planning to launch their first crewed New Shepard of the year, following the successful uncrewed NS-24 mission in late December. The suborbital flight is expected to lift off on Sunday, May 19 at 8:30 AM CDT (13:30 UTC) from Launch Site One at the company’s facilities in West Texas.  

Onboard will be former Air Force Captain Ed Dwight, whose seat is sponsored by the nonprofit Space for Humanity and, at about a week older than William Shatner, is set to become the oldest person to fly in space. Accompanying him will be Mason Angel, Sylvain Chiron, Kenneth L. Hess, Carol Schaller and Gopi Thotakura.

The New Shepard program has flown 31 humans to just above the Karman line to date, with the capsule reaching an apogee of around 107 kilometers on the previous mission. NS-24 had carried 33 experimental and research payloads as well as 38,000 postcards for the company’s non-profit Club for the Future. Details are not yet available about payloads onboard this launch, the seventh human flight for the program.

Chang Zheng 2D | Unknown Payload

A Chang Zheng 2D is expected to launch from LC-9 at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre in China on the early hours of Monday, May 20 at 03:10 UTC. Details are not yet available about the payload. This will be the 90th mission for this vehicle type, which has previously lofted Yaogan 42 and Yunhai-2 military satellites into low-Earth orbit as well as the commercial Superview Neo satellite so far this year. It will also be the 95th orbital launch attempt of the year to date.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | NROL-146

A Falcon 9 was originally scheduled to launch on Sunday, May 19 at 12:22 AM PDT  (07:22 UTC) from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base, carrying a classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). This mission has since been delayed to next Tuesday, May 21.

Details are understandably limited for the payload aboard this NROL-146 mission but it is understood this will be the first of up to six batches to launch this year into a new satellite imaging constellation. The NRO awarded SpaceX and Northrop Grumman the $1.8 billion contract to build these satellites in 2021.

The NRO’s principal deputy director, Troy Meink told a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces that this will be the first operational launch of the NRO’s new proliferated architecture, noting that demonstrations on previous NROL launches had established a comfortable sense of cost and performance. While the agency has not disclosed details of the projected constellation size, nor the number of satellites in this first payload, it has suggested this project could provide a ten-fold increase in intelligence gathering and that it will quadruple the number of satellites it has in orbit.

The booster for this mission has not yet been officially declared. It is expected to land on the autonomous droneship Of Course I Still Love You.

Atlas V N22 | Starliner CFT

The highly anticipated maiden crewed launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft was originally scheduled to take place from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Monday, May 6. This first launch attempt was scrubbed due to a problem with a liquid oxygen relief valve on the Centaur second stage of the Atlas V rocket.

This valve had produced an audible rattling that was discussed on comms during the live stream and eventually led to Launch Director Tom Heter III making the decision not to proceed with the launch out of an abundance of caution. ULA noted in the post-scrub briefing that it had observed oscillation issues with this particular valve on five previous missions which, being uncrewed, had not prevented a launch. The vehicle was returned to the vertical integration facility to replace the valve.

The 52-meter-tall stack with the Starliner capsule atop an Atlas V N22 launch vehicle will soon be rolled back out to the pad at SLC-41 for its second launch attempt. This launch was originally rescheduled for Friday, May 7 but, during this week, has since been delayed until at least Tuesday, May 21 to allow for further testing. SC3 Calypso is making its second flight into space, having already chalked up two days of flight time on the uncrewed orbital flight test (OFT-1) mission in December 2019.

This CFT mission will achieve several milestones. It is the first crewed launch of this new vehicle, the first from the pad at SLC-41, and the first from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station since the launch of Apollo 7 in 1968.

 The CST-100 Starliner capsule is stacked atop Atlas V (Credit NASA/ Kim Shiflett)

The CST-100 Starliner capsule is stacked atop Atlas V. (Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

This will also be the 100th mission launched by the Atlas V rocket family, the first time an Atlas V carries a crewed spacecraft and the first crewed mission for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that isn’t conducted with a SpaceX capsule. The two experienced NASA astronauts onboard are Commander Barry “Butch” Willmore and Pilot Sunita “Suni” Williams, who will become the first woman to fly on a maiden flight of a new orbital vehicle. Suni named the spacecraft to acknowledge her love of the ocean and Jacques Cousteau’s ship which bore the same name.

The N22 configuration of the Atlas V has no fairings, two side boosters, and two RL-10A engines on the Centaur upper stage. Starliner will separate around 15 minutes after launch, following the jettison of the nosecone “ascent cover” and aeroskirt. It will then continue the journey towards the International Space Station (ISS) using its thrusters on the service module.

This will be the first time this capsule has docked with the ISS — the SC2 vehicle was previously the only Starliner capsule to do this on the OFT-2 demonstration mission. SC3 Calypso is expected to dock at the forward port of the Station’s Harmony module on May 8 at 04:48 UTC and will stay at the station for around seven days.

Atlas V and Starliner roll to the pad (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

Atlas V and Starliner roll to the pad. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

Once complete, this mission will certify the vehicle for the regular crew rotation missions to the ISS awarded to SpaceX and Boeing ten years ago as part of the Commercial Crew Program. To date, SpaceX has conducted eight operational crew missions to the ISS under this contract. Starliner will provide the redundancy sought by NASA when it awarded the contract to the two providers. Once certified, NASA will drop to one Crew Dragon launch per year and alternate crew rotations between the two vehicles, although SpaceX will also be flying Dragon for additional private missions such as Axiom-4 and Polaris Dawn.

With a diameter of 4.56 meters, Starliner is a little smaller than the Orion capsule used on Artemis missions and slightly larger than Crew Dragon and the Apollo command module. The capsule will typically carry up to four astronauts, with a mix of crew and cargo on each flight. All remaining Atlas launches are already allocated ahead of the vehicle being retired in around eight years. Six of these launches are set aside for Starliner’s missions for NASA to the ISS, as well as Kuiper missions. Starliner could then fly on Vulcan if that vehicle has been certified as human-rated by the time Starliner’s first six flights on Atlas V are complete.

Boeing Space is already working to prepare the SC2 crew module that flew the OFT-2 mission for the forthcoming Starliner-1 crew mission in 2025. Starliner-1 will stay in orbit for approximately six months. Calypso is then expected to support the second and fourth Starliner crewed missions from 2026 onwards.

 

(Lead image: The Atlas V N22 stack with Starliner Calypso awaits launch from the first crewed launch attempt last week. Credit: United Launch Alliance)

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