China Surpassed U.S. in Launches, Payloads in 2012

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By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

China’s surging space program moved into second place in 2012 in terms of both orbital launches and payloads, passing the United States and inching closer to Russia.

China successfully launched 19 rockets last year, placing a total of 30 payloads into orbit, according to an annual report released by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). Russia led all nations with 34 payloads on 24 launches, while the United States came in third with 28 payloads on 13 launches.

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Russia continued to have quality control problems with its Proton rockets, with one Proton M suffering a failure and a second experiencing a partial failure. Twenty-two of Russia’s 24 domestic launches were conducted at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, with two Russian Special Forces missions launched from Plesetsk.

The U.S. total included two commercial launches by SpaceX with its Falcon 9 rocket, which sent Dragon freighters to the International Space Station. Although NASA paid for the flights, they are licensed by the FAA and categorized as being commercial launches.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) conducted 10 launches for U.S. government agencies, with six Atlas V launch vehicles and four Delta IV rockets. The company’s rockets launched nine payloads for the Department of Defense and one for NASA.

Orbital Sciences Corporation orbited the NuSTAR scientific satellite for NASA satellite using the Pegasus XL booster.

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Europe was in fourth place overall with 25 payloads on 10 launch vehicles, including seven successful Ariane 5 flights. Europe’s total was boosted by two Russian Soyuz 2 rockets that were launched out of Kourou as well as the inaugural flight of the continent’s new Vega light launch vehicle. The two Soyuz launches are not counted as part of Russia’s totals.

Ukraine does not figure into the global launch totals, even though the nation built three Zenit boosters that successfully orbited communications satellites last year. These launches are listed as “Multinational” because the boosters are made for Sea Launch, a company that is 95 percent owned by Russia’s Energia company, and their launches licensed by the FAA because the ocean-going platform they use is based in the United States.

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Japan launched two H-11 rockets with 10 payloads aboard last year, while India launched four payloads aboard two PSLV rockets. Relative newcomers Iran and North Korea had three and two launches, respectively.

Soviet-era rockets and their descendants continue to dominate the international launch market, accounting for 29 of the 78 launches last year. There were 14 launches of variants of the venerable Soyuz booster, which first flew in 1963. Proton rockets were used for an additional 11 launches. The Zenit 3SL placed three satellites into orbit. And the Rockot launch vehicle, which flew once in 2012, is a converted Soviet ICBM.

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Commercial launches and payloads continue to be dominated by Russia and Europe:

  • Russia continues to lead the world in placing commercial payloads into space, with seven commercial launches and 10 payloads.
  • Europe was in second place with six commercial launches that placed seven commercial payloads into space.
  • Sea Launch lofted three commercial satellites into orbit with three launches.
  • China and the United States were tied with two commercial launches apiece that each placed three payloads into orbit. Both commercial launches were performed by SpaceX with its Falcon 9 rocket.

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Commercial launch revenues continued to be dominated by Europe, which earned $1.32 billion in 2012. Europe was followed by Russia with $595 million, Sea Launch with $300 million, the United States with $108 million, and China with $90 million. The U.S. commercial revenues were from SpaceX launches.

Non-commercial launches continue to dominate, making up 58 of the 78 missions last year. A total of 139 payloads were launched last year, with 27 commercial satellites and 112 non-commercial ones.

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Forty-two communications satellites were launched, making up 30 percent of the total. Five crewed launches occurred in 2012, four to the International Space Station and the fifth to China’s Tiangong-1 orbital facility.