This week was an especially busy one for the launch world, with three different organizations conducting launches on the afternoon/evening of April 28, 2021. Arianespace Vega VV18 mission started the evening by putting an imaging satellite and five other spacecraft into orbit. China launched its space station core module with the night’s activities capped by SpaceX adding another 60 Starlink satellites to its constellation.
Arianespace VV18 mission liftoff took place at 9:50 PM ET from the Kourou, French Guiana Space Center. The primary payload was Pleiades NEO 3, an Airbus optical imaging satellite capable of providing 30 centimeter resolution. A total of four NEO satellites are planned to provide twice daily revisits to areas of interest. The satellites include intersatellite links to the Airbus SpaceDataHighway for rapid transfer of imagery in real time.
Other commercial satellites delivered to space on VV18 included two Spire Global Lemur-2 satellites, Aurora Insight’s second RF survey satellite Bravo, and Eutelsat’s ELO Alpha IoT satellite. Spire Lemur-2 satellites provide a combination of ADS-B aircraft tracking, AIS ship tracking, and GPS-RO weather data, with the company operating a constellation of over 90 satellites.
Aurora Insight Bravo is the company’s third RF survey satellite and the second 6U cubesat built by NanoAvionics for the company. Both satellites include additional solar panels for more power and an added star tracker subsystem for precision pointing and navigation. The trio of satellites map network activity around the world, measuring 5G, LTE, 3G/2G, WiFi, and TV signals.
ELO Alpha is a 6U pathfinder-style cubesat built by Terran Orbital to service IoT devices for Eutelsat. The company expects to put up 25 nanosats for IoT, with the first four production satellites developed by Loft Orbital and Clyde Space.
China launched the Tianhe space station module from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on a Long March-5B rocket at 11:23 PM ET, the first of what is expected to be at least 10 launches to build a 66 ton, multiple module facility with an operational life of at least 10 years. The low Earth orbit (LEO) space station is a point of national pride for China and will be one of two crewed facilities, joining the International Space Station (ISS).
Interest in China’s activities is likely to grow with speculation that ISS may shut down in 2024 or 2028 with the threatened departure of Russian support and commercial efforts by Axiom Space and others to build privately-owned and operated facilities to supplement and ultimately replace ISS.
SpaceX’s launch of 60 Starlink satellites was the second launch for the month of April and now puts the Starlink constellation at over 1500 operational satellites. The Starlink broadband service is still in beta test/shakedown mode and is expected to transition to operational service by the end of the year, with the ability to be “fully mobile,” according to tweets from SpaceX CEO/founder Elon Musk. Starlink beta operations are expanding beyond initial US trials to globally as the company continues to secure regulatory operational rights/approvals around the world.