Launch Roundup: Second half of 2024 begins with more launches from front runners US & China

by Martin Smith

Moving into the second half of 2024, the first week of July began with the third launch of the Japanese H3 rocket in the early hours of Monday morning UTC—covered in our previous launch roundup.

The week ahead continued with one Starlink mission from SpaceX, pushing the number of Starlink satellites launched to over 6,700. The fifth flight of Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle took place on the night of Wednesday, July 3 from Vandenberg Space Force Base.

Two more launches were expected to follow from China with another mission successfully launched on Thursday aboard a Chang Zheng 6A. The anticipated first flight of the year for i-Space’s Hyperbola-1, initially delayed to Friday, has since been removed from the schedule until a future date. SpaceX also launched the first communication satellite built in Turkey on Monday, July 8.

This week marks the first anniversary since the final flight of an Ariane 5. Its successor, the Ariane 6, now stands ready for its maiden launch next week.

Another new vehicle, Space Pioneer’s Tianlong-3, which has been expected to make its maiden launch later this year, suffered a setback on Sunday when part of the vehicle took flight earlier than expected. During a static fire test the first stage of the rocket, which uses kerosene and liquid oxygen as propellants, left the pad and was destroyed after several seconds of flight,  falling 1.5 km.

The company reported a structural failure in the connection between the rocket and the test stand. Still in development, this Chinese vehicle is similar in height and approach to the Falcon 9 with a reusable first stage.

The first half of the year saw 124 orbital launch attempts in total, with only a few failures, carrying 14 crew and over 1330 payloads into orbit. The US and China accounted for 81% of the launches over those six months, with 57% and 24% shares respectively. SpaceX was responsible for over half of all orbital launches with 54%. The only other launches flying from the US in the first half of the year were: the last Delta IV Heavy, the first Vulcan Centaur, the recent Atlas V launch of Starliner, and an Electron launching a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office.

For comparison, just two years ago this same number of launches was only reached with the last launch of September, and the count was at 75 by this midway point of the year. One year ago the industry had yet to pass the 100 mark, with 98 orbital launches by the end of June. With weather slowing launches recently, and 67 missions under its belt so far, SpaceX is not yet at the halfway mark for its ambitious goal of 148 launches in 2024. There is still time to reach that mark if the company returns to the launch cadence shown in May, with 14 flights in the month, based on local time.

Fleet leader B1062 launching Starlink Group 10-3 from SLC-40 last week (Credit: SpaceX)

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 8-9

The week’s first Starlink mission launched from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Wednesday, July 3 at 4:55 AM EDT (08:55 UTC) towards the end of the launch window – this was the 70th SpaceX launch of the year.

The previous launch from this pad saw booster B1062 reach the milestone of 22 flights for the first time last week. The pad is approaching its 200th Falcon 9 launch soon, though possibly not this month, with 196 launched from this location to date, including this mission.

The booster for this mission was B1073 on its 16th flight. It had previously supported launches including Bandwagon-1, CRS-27, Hakuto-R, Amazonas Nexus, SES-22 and 10 Starlink missions. The booster landed on the autonomous droneship A Shortfall of Gravitas, which had seen 75 landings and successful recoveries prior to this one. This is the booster that suffered a rare abort at ignition during an attempt to launch Starlink Group 10-2 mid June, subsequently causing the mission to slip behind Astra 1P and to be launched with an alternative booster, B1078.

With this mission, the company has launched over 6,700 Starlink satellites to date. At the start of this week, SpaceX had launched 6,698, of which 477 had re-entered, and 5,232 had moved into their operational orbit. The company added Madagascar to the long list of over 100 countries now able to access the high-speed, low-latency internet service last week.

Firefly Alpha FLTA005 | ELaNa 43 “Noise of Summer”

Originally scheduled for Wednesday, June 26, at 9:03 PM PDT (Thursday, June 27, at 04:03 UTC), the launch date for Firefly Aerospace’s two-stage Alpha rocket’s first flight of 2024 took place on time at 9:04 PM PDT on July 3 (4:04 UTC on July 4).  A launch attempt on Monday, July 1, was aborted seconds before liftoff because of a problem with ground support equipment on the launch pad. The mission is due to launch from SLC-2W at VSFB carrying an array of CubeSats to orbit.

The launch was successful, with the second stage reaching nominal orbit insertion and entering a 40-minute coast phase prior to payload deployment.

This mission is part of the Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 contract between NASA and Firefly. The eight CubeSat satellites in the payload include four built by universities, one built by an educational non-profit organization, and three built by NASA.

The Venture Class launch services program is intended to give more frequent and lower-cost access to space for payloads with a higher risk tolerance. Payloads built by educational institutions and non-profit organizations are eligible to be selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI), intended to assist such projects, and each flight is given an Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) mission name and number, this flight being ELaNa 43.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston is flying two R5 satellites, S4 and S2 2.0. These small, free-flying devices are built using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components and are intended to test their suitability as low-cost on-orbit inspection devices.

NASA Ames Research Center also has a satellite aboard — TechEdSat 11 (TES 11) — that includes the latest and largest iteration of NASA Ames’ exo-braking experiment, which uses an umbrella-like device to increase drag on a spacecraft and bring it safely out of orbit more quickly.

For more information on the payloads please see our article for the flight.

Firefly announced a partnership with the Swedish Space Corporation last week to jointly launch satellites from the recently inaugurated Esrange Space Center in Sweden, targeting a first launch in 2026. The FAA also added Firefly’s vehicles to its Space Data Integrator last week, tracking them in near-real time during launch operations.

Chang Zheng 6A | Tianhui 5 Group 02

A Chang Zheng 6A launched from LC-9A at the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in China’s Shanxi Province on Thursday, July 4 at 22:49 UTC, carrying two satellites into Sun-synchronous orbit.

This was the third launch for this two-stage vehicle type which has been active since 2022 and is capable of lifting 5,000 kg to orbit, assisted by four side boosters. The single-stick CZ-6C variant made its debut this May.

The payload was a pair of satellites that have been described as being used for cartographic purposes, surveying land resources, and geographic mapping, as well as for scientific experiments. Tianhui translates to “Sky Drawing”. This was China’s 31st orbital launch of the year.

Türksat 6A following construction and testing in March, ahead of being shipped to Florida (Credit: TÜBİTAK UZAY / Turkish Century)

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Türksat 6A

There had been some schedule shuffling during the week between this mission and Starlink Group 9-3, which will now follow this mission next week. The launch of the first large communications satellite built in Turkey was delayed repeatedly during the launch window due to unfavourable weather but did successfully launch at 7:30 PM EDT (23:30 UTC) on Monday, July 8 from SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The satellite was scheduled to be released into a geosynchronous transfer orbit on the way to a geostationary orbit at 35,786 km over the equator, positioned at 42 degrees east longitude. The booster B1076, on its 15th flight, landed on the autonomous droneship Just Read The Instructions.

Massing approximately 4,250 kg with onboard propellant, the satellite is equipped with 20 Ku-band and 3 X-band transponders. It will provide data relay for commercial, civil government, and military communications over Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, and much of Asia.

The Türksat 6A project began almost ten years ago and the main contractor, TÜBİTAK UZAY, reported that its reach will cover 118 countries and up to 4.5 billion people.

Hyperbola-1 ahead of the launch of DEAR-1 in December 2023 (Credit CCTV)

Hyperbola-1 | Unknown Payload

A launch was expected from Site 95A at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China on Friday, July 5 at 23:40 UTC but has since been removed from the schedule for this week. The Hyperbola-1, also known locally as the Shuang Quxian-1 or SQX-1, is a four-stage solid-fuel powered rocket, guided by liquid-propellant attitude control engines. This will be the seventh flight to date for this vehicle type.

First flown five years ago this month, the Hyperbola-1 has a 50% success rate following some issues on early flights, such as fuel valve blockages and payload fairings failing to separate. The last two missions have been successful, however, taking a dummy payload and subsequently the DEAR-1 prototype recoverable experimental spacecraft into a Sun-synchronous orbit last December. Beijing-based i-Space became the first Chinese private company to achieve orbit with the vehicle’s maiden flight.

At just under 21 m in length and 1.4 m in diameter, the vehicle can launch up to 300 kg into low-Earth orbit. Details of the payload and its destination had yet to be disclosed ahead of the launch.

(Lead image: Falcon 9 launch (Credit – Julia Bergeron for NSF)

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