Recent challenges with weather concerns and the movement of key flights such as USSF-52 and Axiom-3 have impacted Falcon 9 launch dates, not least Starlink Group 7-11 which scrubbed three times and is now awaiting launch on Tuesday.

SpaceX had two drone ships and the two fairing recovery ships in port for maintenance last week and is looking to launch nine Falcon 9s by the end of this month. This falls a little short of the target of 12 per month to make its ambitious goal of 144 flights this year, but there is plenty of time for cadence to increase.

With Starlink Group 6-38 being added late last week to the schedule from LC-39A, likely the final Falcon 9 launch of the month is expected the following day on Jan. 29 from the neighboring LC-40 pad.  This significant launch is for the NG-20 cargo mission — the first time a Cygnus spacecraft will fly aboard this launcher. This is the first of three missions purchased with SpaceX to fulfill Northrop Grumman’s Phase 2 contract to supply the International Space Station (ISS) until the new Antares 330 vehicle becomes operational.

Northrop Grumman is currently readying the Cygnus cargo module for launch. On board will be several experiments including 3D printing of metal parts and semiconductors in microgravity, remote control robotic surgery, and three new capsules which will gather data on different heat shields as they re-enter the atmosphere.

The week ahead will also see Virgin Galactic send VSS Unity suborbital with another four paying customers.  This is potentially the penultimate flight before operations pause and the company turns its attention to developing and testing its new Delta class vehicle.

Rocket Lab’s Electron will launch four space situational awareness satellites for its customer Spire which will deliver critical, and timely data for the first time to the satellite community including orbit tracking, collision avoidance, and proximity warnings.

Kinetica 1 | Third flight

A six-hour launch window is currently expected for a third launch of the Lijian 1 rocket, also known as Kinetica 1, from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in China, starting on Jan. 23 at 04:05 UTC.

Developed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), this four-stage solid propellant light launch vehicle has a first stage which seems to be derived from the DF-31 long-range intercontinental ballistic missile. It is capable of placing about 2,000 kilograms into low-Earth orbit.  The payload is currently understood to be five observation satellites made by Minospace heading for a Sun-synchronous orbit.

VSS Unity after the Galactic 05 mission. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

SpaceX Falcon 9 | Starlink 7-11

Starlink 7-11 was set for launch on Jan. 18 at 8:04 PM PST (04:04 UTC Jan. 19) from SLC-4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base but SpaceX stood down from the launch, for reasons not stated. The launch had been rescheduled for Friday, Jan. 19 at 6:15 PM PST (02:15 UTC Jan. 20).

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However, the launch aborted at T-59 seconds, just after the Falcon 9’s computers took control of the countdown, in what is known as startup. The booster for this flight is B1063-16, and it would land on Of Course I Still Love You in the Pacific when it does fly. Another attempt had been scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 23 at 4:35 PM PST (00:35 UTC Jan. 24).

B1063 made its launch debut on Nov. 21, 2020, with the launch of Sentinel-6A Michael Freilich, and has also flown the Starlink V1 L28, DART, Starlink 4-11, 4-13. 3-1. 3-4, 4-31, and 2-5, Transporter 7, Iridium-9/OneWeb #19, Starlink 5-13, Transport & Tracking Layer Tranche 0 Flight 2, Starlink 7-4, and Starlink 7-7. All but one flight has taken place from Vandenberg, with Starlink V1 L28 flying from Cape Canaveral.

This flight is due to carry up to 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites to an orbit inclined 53 degrees to the Equator and would be the seventh SpaceX launch in 2024 barring unforeseen delays and manifest changes.

SpaceShipTwo | Galactic-06

Having achieved six suborbital spaceflights in six months during 2023, Virgin Galactic is opening its new year with its eleventh spaceflight to date.

The company announced late last year that it will now fly every quarter and only two or three more times. VSS Unity is scheduled to launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico on NET Jan. 26 carrying four more customers on what could yet be its penultimate mission.

Following this mission, a Galactic-07 flight is then expected in Q2 and it has not yet been determined if there will be a Galactic-08 mission before Virgin Galactic pauses flights this summer to pivot and focus efforts on developing and testing their 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.

Electron is prepared for the Four of a Kind mission. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Electron/Curie | Four of a Kind

Electron’s first mission of the year has been rescheduled as a precaution to avoid an incoming weather system and to allow for additional pre-launch checkouts. It is now expected to lift off on Jan. 27 at 06:15 UTC from Pad B at Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula during a 45-minute launch window.

The payload is four Low Earth Multi-Use Receiver (LEMUR) space situational awareness (SSA) satellites which have been built and will be operated by Spire Global Inc. for their customer NorthStar Earth & Space.

These satellites will be placed into a 540-kilometer circular orbit inclined at 97 degrees. Spire will be the first to simultaneously monitor all near-Earth orbits and is making this precise and timely data available as a service to the global satellite community.  This data will include tracking and orbit determination, collision avoidance, and proximity alerts.

As with previous missions, the Electron first stage will be recovered by a Rocket Lab marine recovery vessel after a parachute splashdown. Rocket Lab assesses and repurposes certain components, such as reusing its first recovered Rutherford engine last year, and is still working towards re-flying a recovered stage. The company plans to fly 22 missions this year — over double the nine missions flown last year.

This Electron includes a silver thermal protection system (TPS) to help the carbon composite structure survive the extreme forces of re-entry from space, as well as an extended carbon-composite shield over the Rutherford engines.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink Group 6-38

This final Starlink mission of the month has been recently added to the schedule for NET Jan. 28 at 6:04 EST (23:04 UTC), launching from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.  This four-hour launch window needed the pad to be clear of the Axiom-3 launch and is next scheduled to be used for the IM-1 flight on Feb. 10.

The booster and recovery methods are not yet confirmed.

KREPE-2 capsule re-enters Earth’s atmosphere. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)

Falcon 9 Block 5 | CRS NG-20

This is the first time a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft is flying on a Falcon 9, having previously flown on the now-retired Antares 230+ rocket. Three Falcon flights have been purchased for these cargo resupply missions to the ISS to bridge the gap until the new Antares 330 becomes operational.

This launch is expected to lift off from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Jan. 29 at 12:29 EST (17:29 UTC) with new SpaceX booster B1072 on its maiden flight, returning to land on the pad at LZ-1 approximately eight minutes following launch.

Dubbed the S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson, the NG-20 craft celebrates the life and achievements of Dr. Robertson who was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1998 and was due to fly to the ISS in 2002 before an untimely death the year prior from injuries sustained in a plane crash.

This will be the 20th flight of the Cygnus cargo ship, which is comprised of the US-built service module (based on the GEOStar platform) and a pressurized module by Thales Alenia which is manufactured in Italy and France. As part of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Phase 2 contracts, these three Falcon missions could include some late loading of payloads.

As we move to a higher launch rate, we are adopting more of a factory model where the equipment is always running except for planned and unplanned maintenance. In this case, JRTI is going through a planned dry dock while pad 40 also undergoes a planned maintenance period. The… https://t.co/s230wbWccx

— Kiko Dontchev (@TurkeyBeaver) January 18, 2024

Experiments on board this craft include a miniature surgical robot with two “hands” that will help the team to test the process in microgravity and any time delays of performing remote surgery in space with an operator on the ground. This experiment benefits from advances in miniaturization as well as NASA’s research dating back more than 15 years.  It will pave the way for longer-duration missions where the likelihood that crew members may require medical procedures increases.

The cargo also includes a couple of manufacturing experiments. A metal 3D printer will test the additive printing of small metal parts in microgravity, while a new platform will test thin film semiconductor production in space. The former could enable the manufacture of parts for spacecraft on long-duration missions, avoiding the need to pack or even predict the parts they might need. The experiment is also expected to benefit manufacturing back here on Earth.

Additional experiments include a 3D cell culture which will enable the astronauts to study cartilage degeneration diseases, while the Kentucky Re-entry Probe Experiment-2 (KREPE-2) will further test thermal protection systems during atmospheric re-entry. Building on the KREPE-1 mission, several heat shields will be tested using three different capsules armed with various sensors that will capture data as they go through actual re-entry conditions. The experiment will also inform steps to protect people and structures back on Earth from wildfires.

(Lead image: Cygnus craft, the S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson, is prepared for the NG-20 mission by the Northrop Grumman team.. Credit: Northrop Grumman)

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