Launch Roundup: North Korean launch failure, Starliner CFT, EarthCARE

by Justin Davenport

As May transitions into June, a European Space Agency (ESA) mission to study the Earth’s clouds and aerosols as well as a Russian cargo ship to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) were both on this week’s docket of launches. Two Starlink and three Chinese satellite launch missions were also scheduled, as well as the repeatedly delayed Boeing Starliner crewed flight test (CFT) mission. What’s more, North Korea attempted a launch early this week, however, the launch ultimately failed.

Starlink 6-60 from Cape Canaveral launched successfully on Tuesday, May 28, followed by EarthCARE from California. The two Falcon 9 launches were followed by a Ceres 1S from a platform just off the coast of China, then the Progress MS-27 flight from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. A Chang Zheng-3B from China, another Starlink launch, and another Ceres launch from China preceded the Starliner CFT mission, which had been scheduled to fly on Saturday, June 1 but has now scrubbed. The “PREFIRE and Ice” cubesat mission on an Electron from New Zealand had been scheduled to fly on June 1 also but was scrubbed as well.

North Korea Chollima 1 | Manligyeong-1-1

The North Korean space agency launched a Chollima 1 satellite launch vehicle from Sohae on the west coast of the country at 13:44 UTC on Monday, May 27. However, the vehicle exploded during first stage flight, marking the third failure out of the launcher’s four flights to date.

The Chollima 1 vehicle, named after a mythical Korean horse, was carrying the Manligyeong-1-1 payload, thought to be a military reconnaissance satellite. The vehicle was launching the satellite into a sun-synchronous orbit, which is typically used by many observation and reconnaissance satellites. This is the first North Korean satellite launch attempt of 2024.

Starlink v2 Mini satellites prior to deployment (Credit: SpaceX)

Starlink v2 Mini satellites prior to deployment. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-60

SpaceX, fresh off launching its 6,500th Starlink satellite, is continuing its very strong launch cadence this year with the Starlink 6-60 mission. After Monday’s launch attempt was scrubbed, the launch happened on Tuesday, May 28, at 10:24 AM EDT (14:24 UTC) from Space Launch Complex (SLC) 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) in Florida. This was near the end of a four-hour window that closes at 11:28 AM EDT (15:28 UTC).

Booster B1078-10 flew on a southeast trajectory with a batch of 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites before a successful recovery on the autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) A Shortfall of Gravitas in the Atlantic. The second stage and satellites were transported to a low-Earth orbit inclined 43 degrees to the equator before deployment. The booster has previously flown the Crew-6, O3b mPOWER 3 & 4, Starlink 6-4, 6-8, 6-16, 6-31, USSF-124, Starlink 6-46, and Starlink 6-53.

This flight was the 55th Falcon 9 flight of 2024 and the 12th launch of May for SpaceX. The company is currently on pace to fly around 140 missions this year, but a possible very active Atlantic hurricane season looms, as does the need to convert Launch Complex (LC) 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to launch a Falcon Heavy this summer. Due to these factors, Falcon 9’s impressive launch cadence this year could slow somewhat in the coming months.

Illustration of the EarthCARE satellite in orbit. (Credit: ESA)

SpaceX Falcon 9 | EarthCARE

The next Falcon 9 flight following Starlink 6-60 was a mission to fly the joint European/Japanese EarthCARE — the Earth Cloud Aerosol and Radiation Explorer — environment monitoring satellite. The mission launched successfully on Tuesday, May 28, at 3:20 PM PDT (22:20 UTC) from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

The flight took a southward trajectory to a Sun-synchronous orbit, and the booster B1081-7 conducted a successful return to the launch site landing at the Landing Zone 4 concrete pad. B1081 has previously flown the Crew-7, CRS-29, Starlink 6-34, PACE, Transporter 10, and Starlink 8-1 missions.

The EarthCARE satellite, massing 2350 kg, will end up in a circular 393 km altitude orbit for its science mission. Its Sun-synchronous orbit will allow it to fly past any given point on Earth at the same local time every day.

EarthCARE is equipped with four science instruments that, together, will monitor Earth’s atmosphere to gather data that can help make more accurate climate models. These instruments are the Japanese-built Cloud Profiling Radar, Backscatter Lidar, Multi-Spectral Imager, and Broadband Radiometer.

EarthCARE being prepared for shipment to the launch site. (Credit: Airbus Space)

Together, they will observe cloud particles and aerosol distribution in the atmosphere and how they affect Earth’s radiation budget. The role of aerosols and clouds in climate change is still not well understood, and it is hoped EarthCARE’s data will fill in gaps regarding how clouds and aerosols work in the atmosphere. The spacecraft, equipped with a large solar array generating 1.7 kilowatts (kW), will have a minimum mission duration of three years.

The mission, a joint endeavor between ESA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, was not originally meant to launch on a Falcon 9. After the mission was initially approved, it was to fly aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket in June 2022, but after the Russian invasion of Ukraine that plan was changed. As the Vega-C program had suffered a test failure and needed fairing modifications, EarthCARE was finally manifested on a Falcon 9.

Fueling operations for EarthCARE at the launch site. (Credit: ESA)

The EarthCARE mission, the sixth of ESA’s Living Planet program, is one of several missions that have had to fly aboard a Falcon 9 due to the end of ESA’s involvement with the Soyuz launcher as well as issues with the Ariane 6 and Vega-C programs. Other European missions that have flown aboard Falcon 9 recently include the Euclid observatory and two Galileo navigation satellites.

If this week’s launch schedule goes as planned, this launch will be the 56th Falcon 9 launch of 2024. In addition, it will be the 13th Falcon 9 launch of May, which would set a new record for the number of launches of the type in one month. This pace is necessary to try to meet SpaceX’s goal of 148 launches this year.

A Gushenxing-1S lifts off from a sea platform. (Credit: CASC)

Galactic Energy Gushenxing-1S | “Beautiful World” – Tianqi 25-28

The Chinese company Galactic Energy launched its first mission of 2024 with the flight of the Gushenxing-1S Y2 small satellite launcher, also known as the Ceres-1S. The launch took place on Wednesday, May 29, at 08:12 UTC from the Haiyang Spaceport DeFu 15002 platform in Chinese coastal waters off Shandong province, and was visible to many residents of the city of Rizhao. The launch window was open until 09:50 UTC.

The payload was four Tianqi satellites that can communicate with Internet of Things (IoT). IoT connects devices such as home thermostats, security cameras, and wearables. These satellites were injected into low-Earth orbit and join 21 of these satellites already in orbit.

The Gushenxing-1S is a four-stage vehicle capable of flying up to 400 kg to low-Earth orbit, and its capability is somewhat similar to vehicles like the Rocket Lab Electron. The first three stages use solid fuel, and the fourth stage uses storable hydrazine liquid fuel. This flight was the 12th for this vehicle and the second since its return to flight in December 2023 following the Gushenxing-1 Y11 failure that September. This was the second Gushenxing-1 launch from a sea platform.

Progress MS-27 spacecraft undergoing testing before launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome. (Credit: Anna Kordyukova/Energiya/Roscosmos)

RKK Energiya Soyuz 2.1a | Progress MS-27

Roscosmos launched a new cargo ship to the ISS in the first of three launches scheduled for Thursday, May 30. A Soyuz 2.1a rocket launched the Progress MS-27 mission on an instantaneous window that day at 09:43 UTC from Site 31/6 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Progress MS-27 spacecraft was launched into a 51.6-degree inclination low-Earth orbit and will take approximately 48 hours to rendezvous with the ISS.

Other Soyuz and Progress missions have been able to reach ISS in as few as three hours after launch, but this is dependent on very specific launch windows that are not always available. Progress MS-27, carrying 2,540 kg of cargo to the Station, is scheduled to dock with the ISS on Saturday, June 1 at 11:47 UTC at the Poisk module’s zenith port. The Progress MS-25 has undocked from that same port on Tuesday, May 28 at 08:39 UTC to clear the port for MS-27.

This flight was the 180th overall flight of a Progress vehicle, which is derived from the Soyuz crewed spacecraft. The first Progress flight was in 1978, as the cargo ship was initially developed to service the Salyut 6 space station at the same time that the United States was developing the Space Shuttle. This was also the second Progress flight of 2024 and the third Soyuz 2.1a mission of this year.

CZ-3B/E at the pad. Credit: CASC

CASC Chang Zheng-3B/E | Paksat MM1R

The second launch of Thursday, occurring just under three hours after the launch of Progress MS-27, was a Chang Zheng-3B/E with a Pakistani geostationary communications satellite. The CZ-3B/E launched at 12:12 UTC from LC-2 at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China carrying the Paksat MM1R satellite to a geostationary transfer orbit.

The Paksat MM1R was built by China for the Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission. This satellite is designed to offer broadband, cellular backhaul, and HDTV services using C-band, Ku-band, Ka-band, and L-band equipment. Stationed at 38 degrees east longitude, the satellite will offer coverage for all of Pakistan and the surrounding region with a 15-year service life.

This launch was the third flight of 2024 for the CZ-3 and the 26th launch for China overall this year. It was also the 154th CZ-3 mission to date, as the veteran rocket continues to fly despite the emergence of newer vehicles in recent years.

Gushenxing-1 liftoff. (Credit: CASC)

Galactic Energy Gushenxing-1 | ”Heroes” – Yunyao-1-14/25/26 and Jiguang 01/02

The final launch of Thursday, May 30 has happened. A Gushenxing-1 launched at 23:39 UTC from Site 95A at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. The trajectory headed southwest as per airspace notices, resulting in the rocket and its five payloads flying to a Sun-synchronous orbit.

Three new meteorological satellites known as Yunyao Qixiang launched along with a pair of Jiguang inter-satellite communications test satellites using lasers on this vehicle. Certain meteorological forecasting satellites use a Sun-synchronous polar orbit to observe all regions of the Earth and to pass by a given point on the planet at the same time each day. This type of orbit is used by many civil and military observation satellites.

This was the second Gushenxing-1 flight of the year and the 13th overall flight of this vehicle. Unlike the Gushenxing-1S which is the version used for sea launches from a platform off the Chinese coast, the Gushenxing-1 has flown exclusively from Jiuquan, which is also the same site that hosts crewed Shenzhou launches.

View of a stack of 21 Starlink v2 Mini satellites before being enclosed in their fairing. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-64

SpaceX ended the month of May with a record-setting launch. Starlink 6-64 lifted off SLC-40 at CCSFS in Florida at 10:37 PM EDT (02:37 UTC on June 1) from Florida on the last day of May, near the end of a four-hour window that ended at 10:43 PM EDT (02:43 UTC on Saturday, June 1). The mission launched atop B1076-14 which has also flown the CRS-26, OneWeb #16, Starlink 6-1, Intelsat 40e/TEMPO, Starlink 6-3, 6-6, 6-14, and 6-21, O3b mPOWER 5/6, Ovzon-3, Starlink 6-40, Eutelsat 36D, and Starlink 6-54 missions.

A successful recovery took place on A Shortfall of Gravitas in the Atlantic after the booster launched on a southeast trajectory aligned 43 degrees to the equator. This recovery marked the fastest turnaround of a drone ship from one landing to another at just three days and 12 hours. The previous record was around four days and six hours.

A batch of 23 Starlink v2 Mini satellites will be launched into an initial low-Earth orbit. After deployment these satellites will be gradually moved to their operational orbit, joining over 5,200 Starlink satellites already in their operational orbit. This launch was the 57th Falcon 9 flight of 2024 and a record 14th launch this month based on local time as opposed to UTC.

Electron standing on the launch pad at Mahia, New Zealand. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Rocket Lab Electron|PREFIRE and Ice

The second Electron launch for NASA in recent weeks is being prepared to fly the second of two PREFIRE CubeSats but will need to wait to fly. The “PREFIRE and Ice” mission had been scheduled to fly from LC-1B at the company’s spaceport in Mahia, New Zealand on Saturday, June 1 at 03:00 UTC, but was scrubbed after two attempts in the window due to an out of family sensor reading. The next attempt has since been scheduled for Wednesday, June 5 at 03:00 UTC. Like the “Ready, Aim, PREFIRE” mission, “PREFIRE and Ice” will launch its CubeSat into a sun-synchronous orbit.

The two PREFIRE 6U CubeSats will study the radiant energy emitted by Earth’s polar regions in far-infrared wavelengths. It is hoped that these measurements will improve climate models and predictions for future changes and impacts on humanity and ecosystems; nearly 60 percent of the Arctic’s heat emissions are at wavelengths that have never been systematically studied.

This flight is the seventh launch of the Electron this year and the 49th overall launch for the vehicle since 2017. It is also the eighth flight since the type’s last failure in September 2023 as Rocket Lab hopes to fly up to 22 Electron missions in 2024. Rocket Lab is on pace to fly double-digit missions this year and could end up finishing behind only SpaceX among private launch companies for flight cadence.

The Atlas V N22 stack with Starliner Calypso awaits launch for the first crewed launch attempt on May 7. (Credit: United Launch Alliance)

ULA Atlas V N22|Boeing Starliner CFT

The final launch that had been scheduled for this week is the Boeing Starliner CFT. This launch, carrying NASA astronauts and military test pilots Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams, has been frequently delayed as issues have arisen on Starliner and its Atlas vehicle, and has now been delayed again.

Starliner CFT’s launch was scheduled to take place on Saturday, June 1, at 12:25 PM EDT (16:25 UTC) from SLC-41 at CCSFS in Florida in an instantaneous window, but was scrubbed after the countdown was stopped by the launch sequencer at T-3:50, just after being released from the T-4 minute hold. The computer ground launch sequencer did not load into the correct operational configuration for launch, and ULA is investigating the issue. There were issues with topping valves and a fan in the mission commander’s launch and entry suit that had been resolved earlier.

The spacecraft SC3 Calypso, which conducted the eventful partially successful OFT-1 flight in December 2019, will take the crew into a 51.6-degree inclination orbit with a scheduled docking to the International Space Station once the flight leaves the ground. Launch is currently scheduled for no earlier than Wednesday, June 5.

All has not gone as planned for the CFT flight so far. This flight was originally scheduled for 2020, but the OFT-1 flight’s difficulties caused a repeat OFT-2 mission to be flown. This mission itself was delayed nearly a year due to issues with the propulsion system’s valves which required deeper troubleshooting, but OFT-2 finally flew in May 2022.

The CFT flight was then scheduled for 2023, but issues with wiring harnesses and the parachute system pushed the flight back to this year. Another contributor to the flight’s delays was the visiting vehicle schedule on the ISS. During these delays, the crew for this flight changed as crewmembers either retired or were assigned to different flights.

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)

On Tuesday, May 7, everything finally seemed ready. Astronauts Wilmore and Williams boarded Calypso, and the countdown proceeded until two hours before launch when the flight was scrubbed due to issues with a valve on the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas rocket. The valve was replaced after a rollback, but further troubleshooting with a small helium leak in Calypso’s service module pushed the launch back further.

Once Calypso makes it into orbit and to the ISS, the astronauts will spend a week to 10 days aboard before ending the mission with a touchdown on land at White Sands, New Mexico, where both OFT missions were recovered. If all goes well, the next Starliner launch will be its first operational mission to the ISS next year.

This flight will be the seventh crewed launch of 2024 if it flies during the first week of June. It is also the first crewed launch from CCSFS since Apollo 7 in 1968, and will also be the first crewed launch ever from SLC-41 and the first crewed launch of an Atlas family vehicle since 1963.

(Lead image: Boeing Starliner Calypso being lifted in the VIF for mating to the ULA Atlas V N22. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflet)

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