Launch Report – The spacecraft prepares for its third integrated test flight

Next week's focus, of course, is on Starship's long-awaited third test flight.

Once the possibility of flight was speculated as early as late February, the weeks leading up to the flight saw significantly fewer ship and booster stacks than were seen during the second flight test campaign. Besides the testing that has already begun on the fourth flight hardware, there have been some interesting, and sometimes strange, events as these vehicles prepare for flight.

Aside from this flight, Japan's Space One is expected to re-attempt the maiden flight of its KAIROS launcher, which was wiped out during the first launch attempt last week. The launch is currently expected to take place no later than Wednesday.

There is one Falcon 9 launch scheduled for more Starlink satellites with the Group 6-44 mission out of the Cape, and Rocket Lab has launched the latest in a series of StriX Earth observation satellites for Synspective on its Electron rocket – the first to join this constellation since late 2022.

electron/kuri | Long Night Owl

It was Rocket Lab's third launch this year of its client Synspective during a short window that lasted just over an hour. The launch took place on 12 March at 15:03 UTC, from Launch Complex 1B on the Mahia Peninsula, in New Zealand.

This StriX-3 Earth observation satellite joins an existing constellation in sun-synchronous orbit that uses synthetic aperture radar to transmit microwave pulses toward the Earth's surface and interpret the reflected signals to create an image of the target area.

Integration of the StriX-3 wide-body satellite into the fairing. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

This series of satellites has a ground resolution of 1 to 3 meters and a sample width of 10 to 30 km. The wide-body size of this satellite used the expanded electron option and was further protected from radiation exposure prior to deployment at T+53 minutes, thanks to a kick stage maneuver that would ignite three minutes earlier.

It was the fourth launch in the series, which began with the mission “The Owl's Night Begins” in 2020, and has since been followed by “The Owl's Night continue” and “The Owl's Spreads Wings”, both in 2022.

Space One | Kairos

The Japanese commercial company known as Space One is set to make its debut in the world of orbital space launches with its new KAIROS small satellite launcher. KAIROS is scheduled to fly from Space Port Kii, a new, dedicated launch facility built between 2019 and 2021 that will also make its debut.

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KAIROS was scheduled to launch on Saturday, March 9, from the Space One launch pad at Space Port Kii, located on the southern coast of Osaka on the main island of Honshu. However, the countdown at T0 was canceled and the first stage was not operated. The countdown was restarted at X-14 minutes for another attempt, but this resulted in another abort at the revised T0. The launch was then postponed for today and will be attempted again on March 13, again at 11:01 AM JST (02:01 UTC).

Space One's KAIROS stands on the pad at Spaceport Kii during the first launch attempt.  (Credit: SpaceOne)

Space One's KAIROS stands on the pad at Spaceport Kii during the first launch attempt. (Credit: SpaceOne)

KAIROS is launching a rapid response satellite prototype for the Japan Cabinet Satellite Intelligence Center, which operates Japan's IGS satellites and is roughly equivalent to the US National Reconnaissance Office.

Kairos is a four-stage launch pad, 18 meters high, with three solid-fueled rocket stages and a fourth liquid-fueled upper stage to make the final push into orbit. The rocket, which is less than a meter and a half wide and weighs 23 metric tons, is capable of delivering a 250-kilogram payload to a low-Earth orbit inclined 33 degrees to the equator, or a 150-kilogram payload into a sun-synchronous orbit. Polar orbit.

The rocket is the same size and width as the Rocket Lab Electron. It is almost identical in capability to the original version of the Electron before its 2020 upgrade in payload capacity. Similar to Rocket Lab's Mahia launch site, Space Port Kii is a dedicated launch site for Space One. The company aims to launch frequently and have the world's shortest time between contract and launch, to try to reduce the cost of getting into space. Space One joins a somewhat crowded field of small satellite launch operators.

Chang Cheng 2C | Unknown payload

Based on NOTAMs, a third flight of Chang Zheng 2C is planned from the LC-3 launch pad at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China no later than March 13. At this time, payload details are not available.

Falcon 9 Block 5 | Starlink 6-44 kit

Another batch of Starlink v2 Mini satellites is headed to the Group 6 shell orbiting at an altitude of 559 kilometers, tilted at 43 degrees. This flight will launch no later than March 13 from LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center.

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The booster for this mission has not yet been announced, but is likely to be either B1080-6 or B1062-19. It is expected to land on an autonomous drone ship, located further away, about eight minutes after take-off. As seen in the last few missions of this projectile, it is expected that the Raptor vacuum engine will no longer carry a strengthening ring.

It is also unclear whether this mission will include another 24 satellites – the highest number launched to date in the 6-39 constellation mission which also set a Falcon 9 record for the highest payload mass carried to useful orbit of 17,500 kg. The two subsequent Group 6 missions continued to carry 23 satellites, but the company aims to increase that number to 28 Starlink satellites on single flights by the end of the year.

This will be the fourth Falcon 9 mission of the month, following a record nine flights in February and a record ten flights in January. Recent launches have included several non-Starlink missions with more complex logistics, and some delays due to difficult weather conditions. Collectively, these issues have affected the cadence SpaceX initially got off to at the beginning of the year. If the company maintains its current pace, it could end the year with between 110 and 120 Falcon 9 launches.

Spacecraft | IFT-3

Starship's third integrated flight test is currently scheduled to take place no later than March 14 During a two-hour window Starts at 7:00 AM CST (12:00 UTC). The required regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the form of a launch license is expected to be issued as soon as the previous day.

Pending regulatory approval, all signs are good for a launch in the coming days following the Raptor's vacuum motor replacement and subsequent initial spin testing, the closure of the mishap investigation, and a successful WDR on March 3.

Ship 28 and Booster 10 have now reached the stage of installing the automated flight termination system and arming devices, and we hope this will be the final assembly for launch. Meanwhile, SpaceX has released a revised flight plan with some additional tests that will be performed for the first time on this flight.

Ship 28 will be the first ship to fly using an electric, rather than hydraulic, propulsion vector control system, among many improvements made to both ship and booster since the previous test flight. Booster 10 now has a flatter bowl-shaped common elliptical dome, while Ship 28 has some structural improvements, some changes to the vent placement, and a working payload door.

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While excitement will be guaranteed once again, a successful mission will not imply the ship's arrival in Hawaii this time, after some changes to the flight plan. If Ship 28 achieves its intended full flight, it will instead make a hard landing in the Indian Ocean, a change in course that allows for some additional testing during the flight.

Close-up of the engine compartment of Ship 28 during stacking operations (Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF)

Close-up of the engine compartment of Ship 28 during stacking operations. (Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF)

As before, hot staging is planned for the first three minutes of flight and this mission will additionally see the payload door opening and closing tested before T+12 minutes. This will be followed by a demonstration of the internal propellant transfer during the ship's shore phase 28 at approximately T+24 minutes. This transfer test is important to keep Starship on track for its role in upcoming Artemis missions, although NASA recently announced delays to the program's timeline and pushed back dates by a year.

It is expected that 10,000 kilograms of liquid oxygen will be transferred between the head and the main tank to achieve the “tipping point” in what will be the largest transfer to date of cryogenic fuel in space. Propellant transfers will be a recurring topic in future flight demonstrations, for which SpaceX has asked the FAA to extend the limit of five launches per year to allow at least nine launches in 2024.

All going well, Ship 28 will then demonstrate the first restart of the Raptor's engines in space during the first hour of its flight, and will then begin a controlled re-entry eight minutes later at about T+49 minutes.

The revised schedule predicts a hard, devastating landfall in the Indian Ocean just over an hour after launch at about T+64 minutes. This revised location allows additional demonstrations, particularly the in-space engine combustion and subsequent entry trajectory, to be performed safely.

Close-up of the spacecraft stack during tests with the quick disconnect arm (Credit: Sean Doherty for NSF)

Close-up of the spacecraft stack during tests with the quick disconnect lever. (Credit: Sean Doherty for NSF)

(Main image: Dawn breaks over Starbase. Source: BocaChicaGal for NSF)

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