Thursday, May 23, 2024

Launch Roundup: Starliner prepares for second launch attempt; Falcon 9 to launch first batch into new spy constellation

NASALaunch Roundup: Starliner prepares for second launch attempt; Falcon 9 to launch first batch into new spy constellation


For the second week, all eyes are on the forthcoming maiden crewed flight test (CFT) of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The first attempt was stood down last Monday following concerns with a liquid oxygen relief valve on the Centaur second stage. The launch will be reattempted this Friday and 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 will launch its 50th Falcon 9 mission of the year on its first launch of the week. At the time of publishing, SpaceX has three Falcon 9 missions planned, carrying two Starlink missions and another for the National Reconnaissance Office. While details are classified, this is known to be the first of a new proliferated spy satellite constellation, delivered by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. The second of these Starlink missions currently has a launch window less than two hours after the Starliner launch, making it a busy night at the Cape.

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 96 orbital launch attempts worldwide so far this year as the week closes — this is 29 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 will be the third launch of Starlink satellites into the Group 8 shell. The launch is scheduled for 9:29 AM PDT (16:29 UTC) on Tuesday, May 14 from the pad at SLC-4E at the Vandenberg Space Force Base. This will be the company’s 50th Falcon 9 launch of the year so far.

The booster has not yet been officially declared, and will land on the autonomous droneship Of Course I Still Love You. The most likely candidates are B1063-18 and B1075-11 which are both refurbished and awaiting assignment.

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 is 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.

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 is anticipated from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia from 20:00 UTC on Tuesday, May 16. The window extends to May 26 according to exclusion zone notices that indicate an impact zone in the Barents Sea.

No details for the payload are currently available, which is anticipated to be targeting a polar orbit.

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 is now scheduled for Friday, May 7 at 6:16 PM EDT (22:16 UTC). 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.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-59

The second scheduled Starlink mission of the week is currently set to follow less than two hours after the planned launch of Starliner CFT. Lift-off is planned for Friday. May 17 at 7:52 PM EDT (23:52 UTC) from either SLC-40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Base or SLC-39a at the Kennedy Space Center. There is a typical four-hour launch window in which to launch this batch of Starlink v2 Mini satellites into low-Earth orbit.

With details still emerging, the booster is not yet assigned, nor is the autonomous drone ship on which it will land, around 600 kilometers further downrange.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | NROL-146

A Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch no earlier than Sunday, May 19 from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base, carrying a classified mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). 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.

(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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