Launch Roundup – Starship launches for fourth time, Starliner launches on third attempt, Virgin Galactic to fly VSS Unity for last time

by Martin Smith

There were two high-profile missions scheduled this week after a challenging weekend that saw the scrub of another attempt to launch the first crewed Starliner and the announcement that the dearMoon project is canceled. In more positive news, it also confirmed that Chang’e 6 landed on the moon’s far side.

Starship was one of two main attractions on this week’s docket and launched on Thursday, June 6 following two wet dress rehearsals and one final destacking to arm the flight termination system ahead of the weekend. The primary goal for the ship to survive re-entry was achieved, including the much anticipated first “flip and burn” landing maneuver since prototype SN15’s successful propulsive landing a little over three years ago. Booster 11 also demonstrated a controlled soft water landing.

The crewed flight test of the Starliner vehicle successfully launched after being rescheduled to Wednesday, June 5, allowing teams to fix the ground support equipment (GSE) issue that had prevented Saturday’s launch. Before either of these significant test flights, the Chang’e 6 ascender craft launched from the lunar surface on Tuesday, June 4. It spent approximately two days collecting around 2kg of samples from the southern edge of the Apollo basin to return to Earth – the first time in history that samples have been collected from the far side.

Also scheduled this week is the final commercial launch of VSS Unity on the suborbital Galactic 07 mission before Virgin Galactic moves its attention to the new Delta class vehicle which will supersede it. Suborbital competitor Blue Origin finally returned to crewed flights of its New Shepard vehicle late last month for the first time in 18 months, however, this was the last commercial crewed flight for Virgin Galactic until sometime in 2026. This launch took place on Saturday, June 8.

SpaceX also has three scheduled Starlink missions this week, one of which has launched from Florida. Another Starlink mission was due to launch from California within a few hours of this but has now been moved to Saturday, behind another Starlink launch from Florida. Rocket Lab’s delayed “PREFIRE and Ice” mission for NASA has finally launched from New Zealand. A Galactic Energy Gushenxing-1 rocket also launched on Thursday from China as well.

Last month, the 6,500th Starlink satellite launched on the Group 6-63 mission. This launch was just 15 minutes off the exact time of the 5th anniversary of the first Starlink batch of 60 test satellites being launched in 2019. Starlink announced last week that it has crossed the three million customer mark, bringing it even closer to economic success — this equates to around 150,000 new customers per month and rising. Last week marked a year since the last Starlink Group 2 mission which formed part of the first generation of shells in the constellation, while next month will mark one year already since the last of the Group 5 missions which began to build the initial shell of the second generation.

SpaceX reached yet another cadence milestone last month with a record 14 Falcon launches achieved with the Starlink Group 6-56 mission on May 31. Booster B1062 also made a record 21st flight last month, which its sibling B1061 repeated on Saturday, while B1067 made its 20th flight on Tuesday’s Group 8-5 mission.

Even with the droneship Just Read The Instructions back in operation after a week or so in dock undergoing maintenance, the company is less likely to repeat the same number of launches this month. Historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) is currently undergoing reconfiguration ahead of the Falcon Heavy GOES-U mission currently slated for June 25 and was used only twice in May. Late last month this pad exceeded the total number of Shuttle launches it has supported (82) with Falcon vehicles which now total 83 and counting, including all nine Falcon Heavy missions to date.

Overall, 2024 through May saw 108 orbital launches (based on local time), with SpaceX accounting for 54% of them, the US and China leading the field with 60% and 25% of launches worldwide respectively.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 8-5

This was the first Group 8 mission to launch from the Cape, with the three prior missions in this shell having left pad 4E at Vandenberg on the opposite coast. Lift-off occurred at 10:16 PM EDT on Tuesday, June 4 (02:16 UTC on June 5) from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Base within a shorter-than-usual window lasting three and a half hours.

There were 20 Starlink satellites onboard, 13 of which are the newer direct-to-cell variant, and they were successfully deployed. The booster for this mission was B1067 on its 20th flight. This booster has previously supported CRS-22 on its maiden flight, going on to launch Crew-3, Crew-4, Merah Putih 2, and ten other Starlink missions amongst others. It landed safely approximately 600km downrange on the autonomous droneship Just Read the Instructions.

This was the 173rd Starlink mission. These missions have built in cadence to three times within the same week at the end of May, during which the 6,500th satellite was deployed.

As of the start of this week, there have now been 6,528 Starlink satellites launched, of which 450 have re-entered and 5,234 have moved into their operational orbits. SpaceX is in the process of retiring and deorbiting around 122 older Starlink satellites, which are expected to have a lifespan of around five years. The company has also applied for permission to deploy shells at lower altitudes below 400km whereas current shells operate from nearer 550km. These satellites would have a shorter lifespan as they are more vulnerable to atmospheric drag but would be expected to deliver services with an even lower latency.

A Rocket Lab Electron launches the PREFIRE and Ice mission (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Electron | PREFIRE and Ice

Rocket Lab succeeded in its second attempt to launch the “PREFIRE and Ice” mission – the second in a pair of CubeSat missions for NASA heading once again into a sun-synchronous orbit. The previous attempt was scrubbed on Saturday due to an out-of-family sensor reading. Lift-off happened on Wednesday, June 5 at 03:15 UTC from pad LC-1B at the company’s spaceport in Mahia, New Zealand, and both PREFIRE satellites are now in their planned science orbits.

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. The pair of satellites will pass over a given spot on Earth within hours of each other, enabling the teams to potentially catch some previously elusive shorter-time-scale phenomena.

This was the seventh Electron launch this year and the 49th overall launch for the vehicle since it became operational in 2017. Rocket Lab is on pace to fly double-digit missions this year and has said that it hopes to fly Electron up to 22 times in 2024. This would place the company second behind SpaceX for flight cadence by private launch companies. The company is currently preparing its milestone 50th mission “No Time Toulouse” to deploy five satellites for French customer Kineis IoT on June 18 (UTC).

Atlas V N22 | Starliner CFT

Starliner was expected to send astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams on their way to the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday, just days after SpaceX celebrated four years since its inaugural crewed flight in 2020. The DEMO-2 mission ushered in a new era of commercial crew missions and SpaceX have since flown 50 crew members aboard its Dragon spacecraft across 13 missions. Eight of these were operational crew missions to the ISS under the Commercial Crew Program contract which was awarded to both SpaceX and Boeing ten years ago.

This crewed flight test will provide NASA with the redundancy it sought back in 2014 by awarding the contract for the transportation of crew to and from the orbiting outpost to two separate providers. Once completed, the mission will certify the Starliner vehicle for regular crew rotation missions to the ISS. 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.

The teams at NASA, Boeing, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) decided to forego another attempt on Sunday to give the team further time to assess the ground support issue that prevented Saturday’s launch, less than four minutes before lift-off. A valve issue had disabled the topping up of the Centaur upper stage’s cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen tanks during the lead-up to launch. This was eventually resolved after first checking a solution to switch to a backup circuit through the Software Integration Lab (SIL) test environment. Ultimately, the launch was scrubbed when the ground launch sequencer failed to load and verify the correct configuration as the Atlas V vehicle proceeded into terminal count. ULA reported this work was completed on Monday.

Starliner atop an Atlas V N22 sits on the pad at SLC-41 after the scrub on Saturday, June 1.  (Credit: NASA / Joel Kowsky)

The launch took place on Wednesday, June 5 – almost a month since the original May 6 attempt which was also scrubbed due to a problem with a liquid oxygen relief valve on the Centaur upper stage. The 52-meter-tall stack left the pad at SLC-41 on Wednesday, June 5 at 10:52 AM EDT (15:52 UTC). The N22 configuration of the Atlas V has no fairings, two side boosters, and two RL-10A engines on the Centaur upper stage. Starliner separated around 15 minutes after launch, following the jettison of the nosecone “ascent cover” and aeroskirt. It then continued the journey towards the ISS using its own thrusters on the service module.

This was Calypso‘s 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 was, however, the first time this capsule has docked with the Station — the SC2 vehicle was previously the only Starliner capsule to do this on the OFT-2 demonstration mission. Initial contact between SC3 Calypso and the docking system on the forward port of the Harmony module was confirmed at 12:34 PM CDT on June 6. This followed the craft performing manual piloting demonstrations 260m away but then missing the first docking window after troubleshooting issues with the reaction control thrusters on the service module. Calypso will now stay at the Station for around seven days.

This CFT mission achieved several milestones. It was 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. This was also the 100th mission launched by the Atlas V rocket family, the first time an Atlas V carried a crewed spacecraft and the first crewed mission for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that wasn’t conducted with a SpaceX capsule. The two experienced NASA astronauts onboard were Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Pilot Sunita “Suni” Williams, who became 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 about Jacques Cousteau’s ship which bore the same name.

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, and include Kuiper missions amongst others. 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 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.

Ceres 1 | Love On Top

This was the third launch of a Galactic Energy Ceres 1 vehicle this year, all of which occurred inside 8 days, following lift-off around 05:00 UTC on Thursday, June 6 from Site 95A at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in China. The flight included an upgraded version of Galactic Energy’s Eros-1 orbital test platform which is designed to stay in orbit for up to six months and this time will test an electric thruster.

Details about the three Earth observation satellites onboard were not known until after launch and included the TEE-01B and Naxing-3A/B heading into Sun-synchronous orbit. Galactic Energy are a private Chinese company which was founded in Beijing in 2018 and first flew this four stage vehicle, also known as Gushenxing-1, in late 2020. It has since flown 13 times, including in the Ceres-1S variant which launches from an offshore sea platform, as seen on last week’s Beautiful World mission with another planned for June 19 carrying three more Yunyao-1 satellites.

Starship seen from above during the wet dress rehearsal. (Credit: SpaceX)

Starship-Super Heavy | Integrated Flight Test 4 (IFT-4)

Ship 29 and Booster 11 took to the skies for an incredible fourth integrated test flight of Starship on Thursday, June 6 at 7:50 AM CDT (12:50 UTC) from Orbital Pad A at Starbase in Texas.

Initially, this flight was anticipated to repeat the mission profile and objectives of its predecessor but SpaceX later clarified a number of significant changes that excluded further propellant transfer or payload door tests. One main focus was on Ship 29 maintaining orientation and surviving the atmospheric onslaught of re-entry. To this end, the team had spent weeks meticulously maintaining and preparing the heat shield tiles. Approximately 18,000 of these ceramic hexagonal tiles were distributed around the face of the vehicle which would be subjected to the stress of re-entry.

“Right now, we are not resilient to the loss of a single tile in most places, as the secondary containment material will probably not survive,” Elon said late last week in a conversation on X ahead of the launch. He added that a reusable orbital return heat shield is one of many tough issues to solve with this vehicle, and that “unless we make the heat shield heavy, as is the case with our Dragon capsule, where reliability is paramount, we will only discover the weak points by flying”. He made reference to the Shuttles requiring over six months of refurbishment by a large team after each flight, whereas the long-term vision for Starships is to re-fly them within a day of landing. “This will take a few kicks of the can to solve”, he added, “and requires building a new supply chain for low-cost, high-volume, and yet high-reliability heat shield tiles, but it can be done.”

Heatshield detail on Ship 29. (Credit: Sean Doherty for NSF)

Surviving the atmospheric onslaught of re-entry, Ship 29 delivered incredible external views through the most of the re-entry process through to a soft surface landing. This was made possible by the Starlink constellation which brought us more spectacular real-time views of plasma interacting with the ship on re-entry. SpaceX had addressed issues seen with Ship 28’s attitude control on the previous flight through some additional roll control thrusters. These provided resilience and redundancy after the issues were traced to the clogging of valves responsible for roll control on the previous flight. With a flap penetrated by plasma, Ship 29 made a nail biting descent down to engine relight and a successful soft landing.

The flight was, once again, suborbital and designed to forego the on-orbit engine relight simulating a deorbit burn which was unsuccessful on the previous flight. It is likely that we won’t now see a fully orbital Starship until version 2 vehicles are introduced next year. This time, both vehicles demonstrated a virtual landing over water before then being expended. Booster 11 performed no entry burn and 12 of the intended 13 engines successfully relit for the landing maneuver, before dropping to three – a landing burn that is more powerful than Falcon Heavy at launch. The booster illustrated for the first time the deceleration and control that will be required to perform the ambitious tower ‘catch’ and made a visually spectacular soft landing on the water.

This booster had many additional supports and stringers adding further reinforcement. Findings recently published from flight three showed that six of the 13 center engines used for the boostback and landing burns had shut down prematurely due to a filter blockage on the oxygen feed lines. These engines were subsequently disabled, and only two engines had successfully reignited for landing on the third flight. Additional filtration hardware inside the oxygen tanks and Raptor startup software improvements were introduced for this flight and were clearly effective.

To further aid a smoother ‘landing’, the hot stage ring was jettisoned immediately after the boostback burn shutdown. SpaceX continues to apply an iterative approach to the design of the hardware for the Starship program and introduced the hot stage ring for the second flight attempt. While there was no official rationale behind the new plans to jettison this ring in the short-term, this move would address the booster’s center of gravity which the ring would have moved up the vehicle from the original modeling before it was added. It perhaps also reduces some impacts that the ring contributed to the aerodynamic flow as well as losing some mass.

Prior to its own virtual landing around 65 minutes into the mission, Ship 29 performed another “flip & burn” maneuver to adjust its belly-down attitude to a vertical one at around 30km in altitude, ahead of its own landing burn. This was the first time this maneuver had been executed since SN15 a little over three years ago when it had made the first (and last) soft propulsive landing from a high altitude. This was also the first time this had been performed with the newer Raptor v2 engines.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 10-1

The  first Starlink mission into a Group 10 shell of the second-generation Starlink v2-Mini satelites launched on Friday, June 7 from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 9:56 PM EDT (Saturday, June 8 at 02:56 UTC). The launch was delayed until late in the window due to clouds and thunderstorms at the launch site. Onboard were 22 satellites, heading into a 266 x 279km orbit, inclined by 53.16 degrees.

Booster B1069 made its 16th launch and landing, having previously supported CRS-24, Hotbird 13F, OneWeb 15, SES-18/19, and 11 Starlink missions into Groups 4 through Group 6. The booster landed on the autonomous drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas, stationed around 618km North-East of the pad, reflecting the 53-degree orbital inclination. This was the 74th landing attempt on this droneship – all of which have been. successful.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 8-8

This Starlink mission had originally been expected to launch around five hours after Group 8-5 but was then moved to Saturday, June 8. This mission launched another batch of Starlink v2-Mini satellites into the Group 8 shell at 535km, inclined by 53 degrees. The payload of 20 satellites was expected to contain 13 of the Direct-to-Cell variants, which has not yet been confirmed.

Lift-off took place at 5:58 AM PDT (12:58 UTC) from pad SLC-4E at the Vandenberg Space Force Base, towards the end of a launch window lasting just under three-hours.

Booster B1061 became the second to fly for the 21st time. It previously supported the Crew-1 and Crew-2 missions on its initial two flights, going on to launch the CRS-23, Transporter-4 and 5 and a variety of customer missions including WorldView Legion 1&2 most recently. Prior to this mission it also had nine Starlink missions under its belt, including the development of first generation shells from Group 2 onwards. The booster landed on the autonomous droneship Of Course I Still Love You which was waiting approximately 600km downrange.

Render of the Virgin Galactic Delta vehicle. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

SpaceShipTwo | Galactic-07

This suborbital launch will be the final commercial flight for VSS Unity before Virgin Galactic shifts focus to the development and testing of its newer Delta class vehicle. This will be Virgin Galactic’s eleventh crewed spaceflight and the seventh commercial and research mission for the SpaceShipTwo vehicle.

Launch took place on Saturday, June 8, assisted by VMS Eve which took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at 8:31 AM MDT (15:31 UTC), dropping the VSS Unity almost an hour later at 9:26 AM MDT (16:26 UTC). Commander Nicole Pecile and pilot Jameel Janjua from Virgin Galactic were joined by two private Americans, a private Italian, and a researcher affiliated with Axiom Space. Research payloads include a rack-mounted experiment from Purdue University which will study propellant slosh in fuel tanks, and another testing a new type of 3D printing from UC Berkeley.

The company’s suborbital competitor Blue Origin finally returned to crewed flights of its New Shepard vehicle late last month for the first time in 18 months. Virgin Galactic will spend at least a similar period in craft development now.

The company announced late last year that it would begin to fly on a quarterly basis and only two or three more times before pivoting to focus efforts on developing and testing the new Delta class vehicle. This new craft will be able to fly six rather than four passengers up to twice a week from 2026 following a test flight which is currently anticipated in mid to late 2025 and is expected to increase monthly revenues tenfold.

(Lead image: Ship 29 stacked atop Booster 11 on the pad at Starbase ahead of IFT-4. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF )

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