SpaceX Achieves Milestone with Over 5,000 Active Starlink Satellites, while China Prepares for Taikonauts’ Journey to Space Station

In the world of space exploration, the week of October 23-30 is set to be an exciting one for low-Earth orbit (LEO). Multiple launches are scheduled, with most of them heading to existing constellations. China and SpaceX are the key players in this eventful week.

China is kicking off the week with two launches. The first is the Chang Zheng 2D, scheduled for October 23, at 20:01 UTC from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. While the payload remains secretive, it is believed to include three Yaogan 39-04 reconnaissance satellites. These satellites are expected to have electronic sensors capable of gathering intelligence by locating ground radar systems. This technology could provide a strategic advantage in military operations, including the ability to jam electrical signals. The Chang Zheng 2D rocket, one of China’s reliable workhorses, will be making its 10th flight of the year and its 83rd total launch since its maiden flight in 1922.

Following the Chang Zheng 2D launch, China is set to launch the Chang Zheng 2F/G on October 25, at 11:14 PM EDT. This mission will carry three taikonauts to the Tiangong space station in LEO. Tiangong is a three-module space station launched on April 29, 2021, and operated by the China Manned Space Agency. The station can accommodate up to six crew members and is equipped with various experimental racks. The mission’s goal is to gather information on human reactions in a weightless environment for long periods and test technologies like rendezvous maneuvers and regenerative life support systems. The crew for Shenzhou 17 will be announced by the People’s Liberation Army Astronaut Corps shortly before launch.

SpaceX is also joining the action with two Falcon 9 launches. The first one, scheduled for October 28 at 7:13 PM EDT, will carry a batch of 23 Starlink v2-mini satellites to LEO. The Falcon 9 will launch from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The payload will be placed into a 284 by 293-kilometer orbit using Hall-effect thrusters. The booster will attempt to land on the autonomous drone ship “Just Read The Instructions,” and the fairing halves will be recovered further downrange. This launch will mark the 49th Starlink mission this year and the 268th mission of Falcon 9’s operational life.

The second Falcon 9 launch by SpaceX is also scheduled for October 28, but at 11:16 PM PDT. This mission, known as Starlink Group 7-6, will carry 22 Starlink v2-mini satellites to LEO. The launch will take place from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Space Force Base. The satellites will be delivered to an initial deploy orbit of 286 by 296 kilometers and will raise their orbits to the operational 530-kilometer circular orbit in the coming months. The booster will return to SpaceX’s drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You,” stationed in the Pacific Ocean, and the fairings will be recovered further downrange.

This particular launch is a significant milestone for Starlink, as it will bring the number of active Starlink satellites in orbit to over 5,000, specifically 5,011. With around 4,400 operational satellites already in space, the remaining 600 just need to raise their orbit to become fully operational.

Overall, this week promises to be a busy and momentous one for low-Earth orbit. With China launching military reconnaissance satellites and sending taikonauts to the Tiangong space station, and SpaceX expanding its Starlink constellation, the skies above are set to become even more crowded with satellites. The advancements and achievements in space exploration continue to push boundaries and pave the way for future scientific endeavors.