A look ahead to the coming year in space finds the introduction of new launch vehicles in the United States and Russia and a third attempt to launch a Russian-Korean rocket from South Korea. Meanwhile, China will send another crew to its orbiting space station and a rover to the moon.
Orbital Sciences to Spread its Wings
Orbital Sciences Corporation will debut a new rocket and spacecraft this year designed for the resupply of the International Space Station. In February, the company plans to launch its new Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia. The rocket will carry a mass simulator for its new Cygnus freighter.
That flight would be followed up in April by a demonstration mission that would send Cygnus to be berthed with the International Space Station. If that flight goes well, it would allow Orbital to begin delivering up to 20 tons of cargo to ISS during eight Cygnus flights under a $1.9 billion agreement with NASA. Orbital officials say the company would fly one, and possible two, of those commercial resupply flights by the end of the year.
Russia: What is Old is New Again
In April, a venerable Soviet-era rocket will debut with a new look. The Soyuz-2-1v is a modification of the traditional Soyuz launch vehicle with the four first-stage boosters removed and an NK-33 engine, which dates back 40 years to the moon race.
After nearly two decades in development, the Angara rocket will make its debut later in the year. Formally approved in 1995, Angara is a family of rockets capable of putting light to heavy payloads into orbit. Angara is designed to replace a number of existing Soviet-era boosters, several of which are produced in Ukraine.
Russian officials say the rockets are ready to go and there are only minor delays in completing launch facilities at Plesetsk. Officials expect to set a launch date for the first Angara 1.1 launch vehicle in March. That flight will be followed by a test of the larger Angara A5 rocket.
South Korea Hopes Third Time is a Charge
South Korea will make it third attempt to launch the KSLV-1 (Naro-1) rocket sometime later this month after two previous failures. The rocket consists of a Russian-supplied first stage (the Angara core with a less powerful engine) and a South Korean-supplied upper stage.
The first flight failed in August 2009 when the payload shroud failed to separate. A second launch attempt in June 2010 failed most likely due to a failure of the upper stage.
China to Return to Orbit, Aim for Moon
In June, China will send a second three-person crew to the Tiangong-1 space station. The two-man, one-woman crew of Shenzhou 10 will visit the station one year after the crew of Shenzhou 9 spent 11 days at the orbiting facility, which is roughly half the size of the early Soviet Salyut stations. It will be the final mission before Tiangong-1 is de-orbited.
China will also send a lander and rover to the moon at the end of this year. The Chang’e 3 mission will explore the lunar surface for three months. If the rover is successful, it will reduce the top award in the Google Lunar X Prize from $20 million to $15 million. None of the competitors in the Google-sponsored private moon race are likely to get there before the Chinese.