Launch Roundup: 100th launch of the year, Starliner delays, NASA’s PREFIRE-1 mission

by John Sharp

There are two launches from China to start this week, the first of which will be the 95th launch attempt of the year worldwide. If all goes to plan, this week should see the 100th launch of 2024, although the schedule is rather fluid at present. SpaceX has already passed 50 launches this year and continued its high cadence with the launch of the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) NROL-14 mission. This classified payload’s launch has been rescheduled from last week.

SpaceX continued to launch Starlink missions but only launched two of the three scheduled for this week. The launch cadence had previously been slightly hindered on the East Coast while one of the autonomous drone ships was undergoing maintenance, but it is now back in service.

Rocket Lab conducted the first of two rapid succession launches for a NASA science mission, both from New Zealand on Saturday. Meanwhile, Boeing’s Starliner Crewed Flight Test (CFT) mission has been delayed until June 1.

A very last-minute update for this Roundup was a North Korean satellite launch that failed to reach orbit.

Lastly, a Chinese sea launch was scheduled for Saturday, with four internet satellites aboard, but is now also delayed beyond the scope of this Roundup.

Long March 2D | Beijing-3 C1~C4

The first launch of the week took place on Monday, May 20, at 03:06 UTC from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in China. The two-stage Long March 2D carried four Beijing-3 Earth observation satellites for Chinese EO satellite operator 21AT (Twenty First Century Aerospace Technology Company Ltd). The satellites will form part of the Beijing 3C constellation and were placed into a Sun-synchronous orbit at approximately 500 kilometers in altitude.

It was noted that the Long March 2D carried grid fins, suggesting that China is possibly making experimental attempts to land these boosters for reuse. However, the hazard warnings issued still suggest that this booster landed in the sea, and no landing barges have been reported.

Liftoff of Long March 2D and four Beijing-3 satellites. (Credit: China Aerospace News)

Kuaizhou 11 | Four satellites inc. Wuhan-1

A second Chinese launch took place on Tuesday, May 21, at 04:15 UTC from Site 95A at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, China. The Kuaizhou 11 is a new four-stage booster capable of lifting 1,500 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit The rocket lifted four, probably commercial, satellites into orbit, including a Wuhan-1.

This was the Kuaizhou-11’s first flight of the year, its third overall. The rocket is owned by the ExPace Technology Corporation, part of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, and is designed to give commercial access to low Earth orbit.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 | NROL-146

Previously scheduled for May 19, and May 21, a SpaceX Falcon 9 launched Wednesday, May 22, at 1:00 AM PDT (08:00 UTC) from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base, carrying a classified mission for the NRO. Lift-off occurred at the start of the three-hour, nine-minute launch window available for this mission. Details are understandably limited for the payload aboard this NROL-146 mission, however, it is understood that this will be the first of up to six missions 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 would 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. Many commentators have suggested that these could be versions of the SpaceX StarShield satellite.

The booster for this mission,  B1071 flew its 16th flight, landing successfully on the autonomous droneship Of Course I Still Love You. Previously, B1071 has launched NROL-87, NROL-85, SARah-1, SWOT, Transporter-8, Transporter-9, and nine Starlink missions. The NRO later confirmed the successful deployment of the classified payload.

Some observers have noted that the booster may have landed rather heavily and that the Merlin engine bells may have been too close to the deck of the drone ship for SpaceX’s Octograbber robotic to get beneath the booster and secure it to the deck. Crews may have to manually chain the booster down. This was confirmed by photographs of the booster and Of Course I Still Love You on their return to port.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 6-62

SpaceX continues to launch missions out of numeric sequence by skipping Starlink Groups 6-60, and 6-61, and moving directly to Starlink Group 6-62. This mission, launched from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, launched on Wednesday, May 22, at 10:35 PM EDT (Thursday, May 23, 02:35 UTC), which was just after the start of a four-hour launch window.

Booster B1080  launched a further batch of  23 v2 Mini Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit at an orbital inclination of 43 degrees. The booster was flying its eighth flight, having previously launched ESA Euclid, Ax-2, Ax-3, CRS-30, and three Starlink missions.

The autonomous drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas sailed from Port Canaveral to support this mission. The booster landed softly on the drone ship some 600 kilometers down the south-easterly ground track, near the Bahamas.

The second stage, having reached an elliptical orbit, coasted until around 55 minutes into the flight when it performed a second short burn to circularize the orbit, prior to releasing the payload of Starlink satellites successfully. The satellites will now slowly raise themselves to their operating orbits.

At the start of this week, prior to this launch, 6459 Starlink satellites had been launched, of which 429 have been deorbited, leaving 6030 in service. SpaceX is said to be deorbiting 122 of the older V1 satellites now that V2 is very much established in orbit.

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink Group 6-63

SpaceX launched Starlink Group 6-63 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, May 23, at the end of the launch window lasting from 6:45 PM to 10:45 PM EDT (22:45 to May 24, 02:45 UTC). Lift-off occurred at 10:45 PM EDT (Friday, May 24, at 02:45 UTC). The payload consisted of 23 V2-mini Starlink satellites.

It was reported that autonomous drone ship Just Read The Instructions left Freeport being towed by fairing recovery vessel Bob, late afternoon on May 19. The pair sailed directly to the landing zone to support this mission, 600 kilometers southeast of the pad along the launch trajectory. The booster landed successfully on the drone ship eight minutes and 15 seconds into the mission.

SpaceX confirmed the successful deployment of 23 satellites following the second stage’s coast and circularization burn around one hour after launch. The Starlink satellites will now raise themselves to an operating orbit of around 550 kilometers, at a 43-degree inclination.

The booster supporting this mission was B1077, flying for the thirteenth time, having previously launched Crew-5, GPS III, Space Vehicle 06, Inmarsat I6-F2, CRS-28, Intelsat G-37, NG-20, and six Starlink missions.

This was the 99th launch attempt worldwide in 2024, and the 54th Falcon 9 mission this year.

Rocket Lab Electron | NASA PREFIRE Launch 1

Originally scheduled to launch during a one-hour window starting on Wednesday, May 22, at 07:15 UTC, but delayed by severe weather to no earlier than Saturday, May 25, at 07:15 UTC, the mission lifted off at 07:41 UTC following a short delay for high ground winds. Launched from Launch Complex 1, Pad B, in Mahia, New Zealand, and is the first launch of NASA’s PREFIRE mission.

This was the first of two launches to take place in rapid succession, with the second expected to launch within three weeks of the first, most likely in early June. This launch is the 100th orbital launch attempt of 2024 worldwide and came on the seventh anniversary of Rocket Lab’s first launch in 2017.

NASA’s PREFIRE (Polar Radiant Energy in the Far-InfraRed Experiment) mission will study the heat loss from Earth’s polar regions and provide data on our changing climate. “Ready, Aim, PREFIRE” is the name given to the first mission, and “PREFIRE and Ice” will be the second. While each of the identical satellites will follow different orbits, the orbits are carefully aligned such that PREFIRE-2 will pass over specific areas several hours after PREFIRE-1, allowing identical measurements to be taken at regular intervals, examining how melting ice and other environmental changes affect the rate of heat loss from the polar regions.

PREFIRE-1 and PREFIRE-2 encapsulated in their fairings ahead of their flights. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Both of these small 6u Cubesats are not much larger than a shoebox. PREFIRE-1 will be lofted to a circular orbit of 525 kilometers, at an orbital inclination of 97.5 degrees. Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck confirmed that despite Electron’s plenty of surplus performance for the two missions, Rocket Lab would not be carrying any additional payloads or planning any technology tests during the two PREFIRE launches. For PREFIRE-1, Electron’s first stage burned for two minutes and seven seconds, with the second stage continuing until nine minutes and 19 seconds into the flight. A kick stage performed a short orbit circularization burn before successful payload deployment after 53 minutes and six seconds.

Chollima-1 | Malligyong-2

A last-minute announcement was made by North Korea that it intended to launch a satellite sometime between May 27 and June 4, and it appears to have launched and failed shortly after May 27, 13:00 UTC.  Reports near the Chinese border saw a large fireball a few moments after launch.

The failure was confirmed by the Korean Central News Agency, which said that the Manryong-1-1 military recognizance satellite failed to reach orbit due to an explosion in the first stage of the new Chollina launch system. The kerosene and liquid oxygen-powered booster was launched from the Seosong Satellite Launch Site in Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province. Investigations into the cause of the explosion were continuing.

Ceres-1S | Tianqi 25-28

Chinese commercial company Galactic Energy’s Ceres-1 (Yao-2) was scheduled to launch the “Beautiful World” mission on Saturday, May 25, at approximately 10:00 UTC, but has now been delayed to no earlier than May 29, at 08:40 UTC. This will be a sea launch from near Rizhao in the Yellow Sea. The launch vessel will likely be Borun Jiuzhou, which recently launched other missions and is known to be in the Rizhao area.

Four “Internet of Things” communications satellites will be launched into low Earth orbit as part of the planned 38-strong Apocalypse Constellation.

Ceres-1S is a four-stage booster that stands 19 meters tall and 1.4 meters in diameter. The first three stages are comprised of solid propellant with hydrazine being used in the fourth stage.

ULA Atlas V N22 | Boeing Starliner CFT

Boeing’s CFT mission was scheduled to launch from United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) SLC-41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida no earlier than Saturday, May 25, at 3:09 PM EDT (19:09 UTC). However, following meetings of all parties, this launch opportunity will not be taken, and a new no earlier than the time of Saturday, June 1, at 12:25 PM EDT (16:25 UTC) has been set. Officials held a news conference on Friday and confirmed this target launch time, but it is subject to a delta flight readiness review ahead of the launch.

This would have been the second launch attempt for this already long-delayed mission, following a previous scrub on May 6.  Astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore (Commander) and Sunil “Suni” Williams (Pilot) had just completed the initial ingress of their Starliner capsule Calypso before the scrub was called on the first attempt. Teams had heard a noisy valve, identified as the pressure relief valve for the liquid oxygen tank on the Centaur second stage of the Atlas V booster. The issue could not be resolved without breaching ULA’s flight rules for crewed spacecraft, resulting in the scrub of the first launch attempt.

The booster was drained of propellants and teams at ULA worked through the night to gather data and to ascertain whether the valve’s constant cycling had come close to exceeding its life limit. This proved to be the case, and the booster and its spacecraft payload were rolled back to the nearby Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) for the valve to be replaced. Following the replacement of the faulty valve, a pressure test revealed a helium leak in Starliner’s Service Module, which then required more time to investigate and mitigate. This resulted in the revised launch date moving from May 17 to May 21, and subsequently to May 25. The source of the leak is reported to be a flange within one of the reaction control system thrusters that enable precision attitude control of the spacecraft. Further tests and checks are being made to ensure that the helium leak will not pose any danger during the flight, and to confirm that sufficient redundancy is available should further issues arise. The new launch time will not be confirmed until these matters have been resolved.

It is understood that the crew remained in quarantine throughout the delays, although they were allowed to leave their quarantine site for some days while the repairs and checks were completed.

On launch day, following its rollout back to the launch pad, the Atlas V will be fully fuelled with kerosene and liquid oxygen. The crew will then be suited up and travel out to the pad, where they will visually inspect the booster before ascending the tower to the crew arm and white room, where they will be assisted in boarding the Starliner capsule and get strapped into their custom-fitted seats. Once suit leak tests have been performed and all safety checks completed, the crew support team will seal the hatch on Calypso and vacate the pad, leaving the crew ready for final checkouts before launch.

Starliner ready for launch prior to the scrub. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

This mission will be the 100th Atlas V to fly and the first to carry a crew. Pilot Suni Williams will become the first female astronaut to fly on the maiden flight of an orbital crewed vehicle, and this will be ULA’s third mission this year.

The Atlas V’s N22 configuration 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. Using thrusters on the service module, Starliner will then continue the journey to the International Space Station (ISS).

This will be the first time this capsule has docked with the ISS, as the SC2 vehicle is the only Starliner capsule to dock with the Station, doing so during the Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) demonstration mission. SC3 Calypso is expected to dock at the forward port of the Station’s Harmony module on May 22 at 21:53 UTC and will stay at the Station for around seven days. This port was vacated by the SpaceX Crew-8 Dragon spacecraft on May 2, when the crew relocated Endeavour to the space-facing port to make way for Starliner.

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 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 is 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 onward.

(Lead image: Atlas V and Starliner in the VIF. Credit: ULA)


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