Another Day, Another Launch — Or Make That Three, Just in the U.S. (UPDATED)

Another Day, Another Launch — Or Make That Three, Just in the U.S. (UPDATED)

The space business is hopping as 2018 comes to a close.  Following fast on the heels of the Virgin Galactic and Rocket Lab launches in the past four days, Blue Origin will make another test flight of its New Shepard rocket tomorrow (Tuesday).  That’s on top of two other U.S. launches scheduled for tomorrow by established launch service providers SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA).  The multiple launches underscore the diversity of rockets now available to customers seeking access to space. That’s not counting international competitors like Europe’s Arianespace, which also will be launching tomorrow. [UPDATE: As noted below, things did not go as planned today, but it may just mean that the launch bonanza is delayed one day.  Stay tuned.]

The U.S. launches are from sites across the country:  Cape Canaveral, FL (SpaceX); West Texas (Blue Origin); and Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA (ULA).

The rockets range in capability from Blue Origin’s small suborbital New Shepard to SpaceX’s mid-sized Falcon 9 Block 5 to ULA’s very large Delta IV Heavy, the most capable operational launch vehicle in the world today.  (SpaceX tested a larger rocket, Falcon Heavy, in February but it has not flown an operational mission yet.)

SpaceX and ULA will be placing national security satellites into orbit. Blue Origin will be testing its reusable rocket intended eventually to take people on suborbital spaceflights.  No one will be aboard tomorrow, but nine NASA-sponsored experiments will make the trip.

Here is a brief summary of each launch in the order of when their launch windows open. All will be livestreamed.

9:11 am ET: SpaceX launch of the first GPS III satellite for the Air Force from Cape Canaveral, FL.  [UPDATE: The launch was scrubbed.  First, upper level winds pushed the planned liftoff to 9:34 pm ET, with just 3 minutes remaining in the revised launch window.  Then, minutes before launch, an onboard computer detected an “out of family reading on first stage sensors.”  SpaceX did not have enough time left in the window to recover from whatever the problem was.  The next opportunity is tomorrow (December 19) at 9:07 am ET.  If they can fix the technical problem, the weather forecast is 80 percent favorable.]

GPS III is a modernized version of the ubiquitous Global Positioning System of positioning, navigation and timing satellites. This satellite is GPS III SV-01. The launch window is open for 26 minutes and the weather forecast is 90 percent favorable.

This is SpaceX’s first national security space launch.  No attempt will be made to recover the first stage of the Falcon 9 Block 5 because all of the fuel is needed for the mission. SpaceX will livestream the launch on its website beginning 15 minutes before the launch.

Vice President Mike Pence will attend the launch.  According to his official schedule he will make remarks at 10:00 am ET. They may be carried on or  He then will tour the SpaceX commercial crew facilities and the Crew Dragon capsule.

9:30 am ET: Blue Origin test launch of its reusable New Shepard rocket in West Texas.  [UPDATE: The launch was scrubbed at about 9:10 am ET “due to a ground infrastructure issue.”  They may try again tomorrow.]

One of Blue Origin’s slogans is “Launch. Land. Repeat.”  Indeed, this will be the fourth flight of this specific rocket.  It is the 10th launch for the New Shepard program overall (named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space in 1961).  Blue Origin will webcast the launch on its website begining at 9:00 am ET.  NASA will broadcast it on NASA TV and NASA Live since it is carrying nine NASA-sponsored payloads.  This is the third Blue Origin flight to carry NASA payloads.

8:57 pm ET. ULA launch of NROL-71, a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA. [UPDATE: The launch was scrubbed due to high ground winds.  ULA will try again tomorrow, December 19, at 8:44 pm ET.]

This is the second attempt to launch this satellite.  The first attempt on December 8 was scrubbed just 7.5 seconds before liftoff  due to “an unexpected condition during terminal count” as ULA described it.  Unfortunately the weather forecast for tomorrow’s launch is only 20 percent favorable.  The launch will be webcast beginning at 8:30 pm ET on ULA’s website.

While all three are very important, the most public attention may be focused on Blue Origin’s flight.  Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin is a competitor to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic for sending passengers on suborbital trips to space.  Virgin Galactic just completed a successful test flight four days ago that took two pilots and four NASA experiments to an altitude of 82.7 kilometers (51.4 miles).  Branson says the first commercial passengers will fly next year.  The price is $250,000 per ticket.

Blue Origin also says it is on the verge of doing the same thing.  In a video tweeted today, a company representative says that “Tail 4 will be flying humans to space next year.” The ticket price has not been announced.

Exactly where space begins — at 80 kilometers (50 miles) or 100 kilometers (62 miles) — is the subject of debate.  If one accepts the 80 kilometer definition, then Virgin Galactic’s flight on December 13 was the first launch of an American-made rocket from American soil to take Americans into space since the last flight of NASA’s space shuttle in 2011.

The two systems are completely different. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane is carried aloft under the WhiteKinghtTwo aircraft to about 45,000 feet (8.5 miles or 13.7 kilometers). The spaceplane is then dropped, fires its rocket engine, ascends to “space” and then glides back to a runway landing. Blue Origin’s New Shepard launches like a typical rocket, ascends vertically to space, and returns vertically to land back where it started. The crew capsule is ejected on the way down and lands separately under parachute.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are just two examples of the growing interest in access to space for educational, commercial and governmental purposes.  New rockets are under development ranging from very small — like Rocket Lab’s Electron that placed 13 cubesats into space on Sunday — to very large like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and ULA’s Vulcan — to extra large like NASA’s Space Launch System and SpaceX’s Starship (formerly BFR).  With so much competition, it is not clear if there is a sufficient market to support all these efforts, especially since the United States is not the only country in the business.

As an example, a fourth launch is scheduled tomorrow by Europe’s Arianespace at 11:37 am ET (1:37 pm local time at the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana).  Arianespace is using a Russian Soyuz rocket to place a French military imaging satellite, CSO-1, into orbit.  Arianespace has been launching Russia’s mid-sized Soyuz rockets from Kourou since 2011. This is the 20th such launch.  Soyuz fills a niche in launch capability between Europe’s small Vega and large Ariane 5 rockets. [UPDATE: The launch was postponed one day due to upper level winds.]

In short, tomorrow is a veritable bonanza of domestic and international space launch capacity on display in a single day.


This article has been updated.

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