Launch Roundup: China to launch methane powered ZQ-2; SpaceX to finish Starlink v1 flights


This week, LandSpace will attempt to reach orbit on its second test flight of the ZhuQue-2 rocket; SpaceX will launch the final v1.0/v1.5 Starlink satellites on Starlink Group 5-15; India will launch the Chandrayaan-3 lunar exploration mission atop their Launch Vehicle Mark 3 rocket; and Rocket Lab will launch its “Baby Come Back” mission, which will include recovery of its first stage.

These launches will mark the 102nd through 105th orbital launches of 2023. If the launch cadence stays the same for the rest of the year, globally 2023 will see ~195 orbital launches — the most in history.

ZhuQue-2 – Flight 2

The ZhuQue-2 (ZQ-2) rocket is scheduled to launch for the second time on July 12, 2023, at 01:00 UTC from Site 96 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. This launch will be an attempt to reach orbit after the failure of the maiden flight in December 2022, which was caused by a problem with a liquid oxygen inlet pipe on the second stage.

Flight two will use the same configuration as the first one, with four gas generator engines producing 268 tonnes of thrust on the first stage and one engine on the second stage. There is no public information about the payloads on board.

ZhuQue-2 moved to the left by precisely 5 hours. The first launch time is around 1AM UTC. Or, in other words, in less than 19 hours from now.

— Adrian Beil (@BCCarCounters) July 11, 2023

ZQ-2 is a Chinese commercial launch vehicle developed by LandSpace Technology, a Beijing-based company founded in 2015. It is the first Chinese rocket to use methane and liquid oxygen as propellants. If successful, the ZQ-2 will become the world’s first methane-fueled rocket to achieve orbit, ahead of other vehicles such as SpaceX’s Starship, the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Rocket Lab’s Neutron, and Relativity Space’s Terran R.

The ZQ-2 can deliver up to 6,000 kilograms of payload to a 200-kilometer low-Earth orbit, or 4,000 kilograms to a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit. The rocket has a diameter of 3.35 meters, a length of 49.5 meters, and a mass of 219 tonnes at liftoff.

Additionally, if successful, ZQ-2 will make LandSpace the second private Chinese company to perform a successful launch with a liquid propellant rocket, after Space Pioneer’s Tianlong-2 in April 2023. LandSpace is one of the leading players in China’s emerging commercial space sector, which has been supported by the government since 2014 as part of its ambition to rival the United States in space.

Falcon 9 Block 5 – Starlink Group 5-15

SpaceX is set to launch the final batch of Starlink v1.5 satellites this Friday on the Starlink Group 5-15 mission. Liftoff is scheduled to occur within a 91-minute window that opens on July 14 at 12:10 AM EDT (04:10 UTC) from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

The first stage for this mission, B1062, will become the third Falcon 9 booster to fly for a 15th time. It previously supported major missions GPS-III SV04 and SV05 as well as two Crew Dragon missions, Inspiration4 and Axiom-1. The booster will attempt a landing on A Shortfall Of Gravitas located 642 kilometers downrange in the Atlantic Ocean, northeast of the Bahamas.

This batch of Starlink v1.5 satellites will be launched into a low insertion orbit from where they’ll be tested and checked out before raising their altitude to operational orbit. This will join the previous 57 batches of Starlink v1.5 satellites launched ever since the launch of the Starlink Group 2-1 mission in 2021.

This upgraded version of the Starlink v1 satellite was the first one to include inter-satellite laser links, which allows satellite coverage over locations where no ground stations can be installed like the oceans or remote and dangerous areas of the planet.

These satellites have been launched to Starlink’s first-generation constellation (Gen 1) through the Starlink Group 2, Group 3, and Group 4 missions. They have also been launched into Starlink’s second generation constellation (Gen 2) through the Starlink Group 5 missions.

Starlink Gen 1
Starlink Gen 2

Group 2
Group 3
Group 4
Group 5
Group 6

550 km at 53º
570 km at 70º
560 km at 97.6º
540 km at 53.2º
530 km at 43º

Satellites launched

Satellites reentered

Satellites in operational orbit

(Status of Starlink constellation via Jonathan McDowell data from July 11)

Starlink v1 and Starlink v1.5 satellites are being succeeded by Starlink v2 satellites which incorporate major technological upgrades in bandwidth and size. However this satellite version can only launch on Starship and, because it is still not operational, SpaceX has produced a downsized version of it, Starlink v2 Mini, that can launch on Falcon 9.

The first batch of Starlink v2 Mini satellites was launched in February 2023 into Starlink Gen 2 as part of the Starlink Group 6 set of missions. These are expected to continue launching well into the year and possibly well after Starship is operational as Starship will have to increase its cadence substantially to completely substitute Falcon 9 to deploy these satellites.

The Starlink Gen 1 constellation started in 2019 with the deployment of the first Starlink v1.0 satellites in November of that year. According to SpaceX, these satellites have an average orbital lifespan of five years, so it is to be expected that the company will replace them as they near this limit.  In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in February 2023, SpaceX indicated it was seeking to “deploy technological improvements developed for its second-generation (“Gen2”) system, to enable the operation of upgraded hardware at the same orbits, altitudes, and inclinations as licensed under its Gen1 license.” 

Given that statement, it is very likely that SpaceX will use Starlink v2 or Starlink v2 Mini satellites to replace all of the Starlink v1.0 and Starlink v1.5 satellites deployed into Starlink Gen 1 in the 2019-2023 period.

More recently, the company also filed with the FCC for several applications to communicate with Falcon 9 rockets in support of a newer set of Starlink missions dubbed Starlink Group 7. These have been filed for launches from Vandenberg and the location of the droneship for the Falcon 9 booster landing indicates that these flights are inserting the satellites into a low orbital inclination.

Until now, Starlink Group 6 missions had seen Starlink v2 Mini satellites deployed into a 43-degree orbital inclination orbit but SpaceX received approval from the FCC to deploy Starlink satellites into two other shells at 33 and 53 degrees orbital inclination — all low orbital inclinations. It could be a possibility that these Starlink Group 7 missions are in support of any of these other two shells but details about them are scarce at this moment.

Launch Vehicle Mark 3 – Chandrayaan-3

Following Chandrayaan-1 and Chandrayaan-2, Chandrayaan-3 is India’s third mission to explore the Moon. The mission aims to land a spacecraft and a rover on the lunar south pole, where there may be water ice and other resources; however, unlike the previous lunar missions, Chandrayaan-3 does not have an orbiter. The mission will also conduct scientific experiments on the lunar soil and rocks.

The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft will be launched by the Indian Space Research Organization’s Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LVM3) from Second Launch Pad, at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, In India, on July 14, 2023, at 09:05 UTC. The LVM3 — which used to be called the Geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle mark  III — rocket can lift up to 10 tonnes of payload to low-Earth orbit or four tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit.

LVM3-M4/Chandrayaan-3 Mission:

Today, at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, the encapsulated assembly containing Chandrayaan-3 is mated with LVM3.

— ISRO (@isro) July 5, 2023

Following launch, the spacecraft will travel to the Moon and orbit it for about a month before attempting a soft landing in August 2023. The lander and rover will carry various instruments to study the landing site and its surroundings and will use lasers and X-rays to analyze the elements present on the lunar surface. Chandrayaan-3 will use cameras, reflectors, and probes to capture images, measure distance and temperature, and communicate with Earth.

Electron – “Baby Come Back”

Ending the week, Rocket Lab will launch its “Baby Come Back” mission on Friday, July 14 at 23:30 UTC from LC-1B, on the Mahia Peninsula, in New Zealand. This will mark Electron’s 39th overall mission and seventh of 2023 — reaching the launch cadence goal of one mission per month.

This launch will place a number of payloads into low-Earth orbit, including four NASA Starling technology demonstrator satellites, a LEO 3 satellite replacing Telesat’s Phase 1 LEO satellite, and two Lemur-2 aircraft traffic tracking satellites. Combined, these payloads have a mass of roughly 100 kilograms.

The trip back to Earth is a spicy one

This is what Electron’s first stage will experience as it returns from space, before a drogue and main chute slow down the stage’s descent for a gentle splashdown in the ocean. #RoadToReusability

— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) July 6, 2023

Following first stage flight, the first stage will separate from the second stage, which is still attached to the payload fairing, payload, and Curie kick stage. The booster will perform a passive re-entry — meaning that, unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Electron will not conduct a re-entry burn — before deploying a drogue parachute, followed shortly after by a main parachute. Unlike on past missions, Rocket Lab will not attempt to catch the booster with a helicopter; instead, the booster will softly splash down in the ocean, where recovery teams will then recover it with a marine asset.

This change was made after several unsuccessful helicopter pilots, with Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck, noting that the trade-off is worth it: teams will be able to recover more rockets, but they will require additional refurbishment. However, the company still hopes to fly a flight-proven booster in the near future.

(Lead image: LandSpace’s ZQ-2 rocket on the launch pad ahead of its second flight. Credit: LandSpace)

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