A Successful Year for U.S. Launch Providers as New Vehicles Debut

A false color infrared image of the Antares launch. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
A false color infrared image of the Antares launch. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Part 1 of 2

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

It has been a busy year for American rocket companies, with 19 successful missions flown by the nation’s three launch providers. The U.S. space transportation fleet became more diverse as three boosters and a cargo vessel made successful maiden flights in 2013.

Launch highlights for the year include a number of significant missions and firsts:

  • Orbital Sciences Corporation debuted its new Antares launch vehicle with two flawless flights in April and September;
  • Orbital’s new Cygnus freighter made a successful demonstration flight to the International Space Station (ISS), paving the way for commercial cargo deliveries and successfully closing out NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program;
  • SpaceX successfully debuted an upgraded version of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle in September;
  • On the same flight, SpaceX succeeded in a controlled re-entry of a Falcon 9 first stage, a crucial step toward its goal of making the rocket reusable;
  • Two month later, SpaceX launched a commercial communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit for the first time;
  • Orbital’s Minotaur V made a successful maiden flight in September by sending NASA’s LADEE orbiter to the moon;
  • United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V launched the space agency’s MAVEN probe to Mars two months later;
  • ULA increased its launch tempo, with 11 flights of the highly reliable Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles;
  • The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) in Virginia came into its own in 2013, with three orbital launches and the LADEE mission to the moon;

A Perfect Year

U.S. launch providers went 19 for 19 this year, with no major launch anomalies. The 19 launches involved eight different types of rockets and took place from three different spaceports. One vehicle, Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus XL, was air launched from a modified L-1011 jetliner.

U.S. ORBITAL LAUNCHES, 2013
#DateLaunch VehicleCompanyPayloadLaunch SiteResult
101/30Atlas VULATDRS KCCAFSSuccess
202/11Atlas VULALDCMVAFBSuccess
303/01Falcon 9SpaceXCRS 2CCAFSSuccess
403/19Atlas VULASBIRS GEO 2CCAFSSuccess
504/21AntaresOrbital SciencesAntares Demo
& Nanosats
MARSSuccess
605/15Atlas 5ULAGPS 2F-4CCAFSSuccess
705/24Delta IVULAWGS 5CCAFSSuccess
806/27Pegasus XLOrbital SciencesIRISVAFB
(L-1011)
Success
907/19Atlas VULAMUOS 2CCAFSSuccess
1008/07Delta IVULAWGS 6CCAFSSuccess
1108/28Delta IVULANROL-65VAFBSuccess
1209/06Minotaur VOrbital SciencesLADEEMARSSuccess
1309/18Atlas VULAAEHF 3CCAFSSuccess
1409/18AntaresOrbital SciencesCygnus 1MARSSuccess
1509/29Falcon 9 v. 1.1SpaceXCASSIOPEVAFBSuccess
1611/18Atlas VULAMAVENCCAFSSuccess
1711/19Minotaur IOrbital SciencesORS 3MARSSuccess
1812/03Falcon 9 v. 1.1SpaceXSES 8CCAFSSuccess
1912/05Atlas VULANROL-39
& Nanosats
VAFBSuccess

U.S. Orbital Launches by Company

ULA led all launch companies with 11 successful flights this year, followed by Orbital Sciences with five and SpaceX with three.

U.S. LAUNCHES BY COMPANY, 2013
CompanyLaunchesLaunch VehiclesLaunch Sites
ULA 11Atlas V (7), Delta IV (4)
CCAFS, VAFB
Orbital Sciences 5Antares (2), Minotaur I (1),
Minotaur V (1), Pegasus XL (1)
MARS, VAFB (L-1011)
SpaceX 3Falcon 9 (1), Falcon 9 v1.1 (2)CCAFS, VAFB

Orbital Sciences Corporation

Antares lifts off with a Cygnus freighter. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)
Antares lifts off with a Cygnus freighter. (Credit: Orbital Sciences Corporation)

The Virginia-based company had a very successful year, with five launches of four different rockets. The company debuted two new launch vehicles this year.

ORBITAL SCIENCES LAUNCHES, 2013
#DateLaunch VehiclePayloadLaunch SiteResult
104/21AntaresAntares Demo
& Nanosats
MARSSuccess
206/27Pegasus XLIRISVAFB
(L-1011)
Success
309/06Minotaur VLADEEMARSSuccess
409/18AntaresCygnus 1MARSSuccess
511/19Minotaur IORS 3 (29 satellites)MARSSuccess

The Antares launches were the company’s most significant achievements of 2013. The maiden flight in April went flawlessly, placing a Cygnus mass simulator and several cubesats into orbit. The successful mission capped years of development of the new rocket in partnership with NASA under the COTS program.

In September, a second Antares rocket sent the first Cygnus freighter to ISS on a demonstration mission with another flawless launch. Although Cygnus suffered a computer glitch that delayed its berthing with the station, the vehicle performed extremely well throughout its mission, leading NASA to declare the flight a complete success.

Cygnus berthed at ISS. (Credit: NASA)
Cygnus berthed at ISS. (Credit: NASA)

The successful mission meant Orbital could begin to deliver cargo to ISS on a commercial basis. The first of eight flights was scheduled for earlier in December. However, NASA postponed the mission until early January to allow astronauts to repair the station’s malfunctioning cooling system.

After the demonstration flight ended, NASA was able to declare its COTS program completed. In addition to its partnership with Orbital, the space agency also worked with SpaceX to develop the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon freighter. SpaceX has already made multiple cargo runs to ISS.

In addition to the Antares missions, Orbital successfully completed three other launches in 2013. The most prominent was the LADEE mission in September, which was the maiden flight of the Minotaur V launch vehicle. The spacecraft is now in orbit around the moon, where it is studying lunar dust and the satellite’s thin atmosphere.

ladee_launch_minotaur
Two months later, the smaller Minotaur I launcher set a new world record by lofting 29 satellite in low Earth orbit, including the first spacecraft ever built by high school students. The record stood for less than two days when a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket placed 32 spacecraft into orbit.

Orbital also orbited NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) in June using an air-launched Pegasus XL booster. The spacecraft is providing data to allow solar and heliospheric scientists to study the interface between the photosphere and corona.

SpaceX

Falcon 9 lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: SpaceX)
Falcon 9 lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX flew only three missions this year, although two of them involved major milestones that are crucial to the company’s long-term success.

SPACEX LAUNCHES, 2013
#DateLaunch VehiclePayloadLaunch SiteResult
103/01Falcon 9CRS 2CCAFSSuccess
209/29Falcon 9 v. 1.1CASSIOPEVAFBSuccess
312/03Falcon 9 v. 1.1SES 8CCAFSSuccess

In March, SpaceX flew its second commercial resupply mission to ISS. The launch went fine, but upon entering orbit, three of Dragon’s four thruster pods were inoperable. Engineers found a fix for the problem, and the vehicle berthed with ISS a day later than planned. The rest of the flight, which ended with a successful splashdown in the Pacific, was uneventful.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)
SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

In late September, SpaceX debuted the Falcon 9 v. 1.1, a significantly upgraded rocket with more powerful engines, longer fuel tanks, a payload shroud and a handful of other improvements. The rocket was designed to enable the company to send spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit, a capability the earlier Falcon 9 model did not have.

The rocket worked as planned, succeeding in its primary mission of deploying Canada’s CASSIOPE satellite into low Earth orbit. However, a planned relight of the second stage failed when lines froze. The test was not crucial for the flight, but the second stage would need to relight to put communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit on future missions.

During this same flight, SpaceX succeeded in bringing the Falcon 9’s first stage through the atmosphere in a controlled descent. The test didn’t work entirely; the vehicle eventually rolled and tumbled before crashing into the ocean. However, the company declared the experiment to be a successful and an important milestone on a path toward landing the stage back on Earth for reuse.

falcon9_relit_stage2
The first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket just before hitting the ocean. (Credit: SpaceX)

In early December, SpaceX successfully launched a second Falcon 9 v.1.1  after multiple mission scrubs. This time the second stage re-fired as planned, sending the SES-8 communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit. It was a major achievement for SpaceX, which has a large manifest of commercial satellites to launch.

ULA

atlasv_nrol39
An Atlas V rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: ULA)

The venerable launch company increased the pace of its launches this year to 11, and it reached a milestone of 75 successful flights in a row since the company was formed. The launch total included seven Atlas 5 and four Delta IV flights.

ULA LAUNCHES, 2013
#DateLaunch VehiclePayloadLaunch SiteResult
101/30Atlas VTDRS KCCAFSSuccess
202/11Atlas VLDCMVAFBSuccess
303/19Atlas VSBIRS GEO 2CCAFSSuccess
405/15Atlas 5GPS 2F-4CCAFSSuccess
505/24Delta IVWGS 5CCAFSSuccess
607/19Atlas VMUOS 2CCAFSSuccess
708/07Delta IVWGS 6CCAFSSuccess
808/28Delta IVNROL-65VAFBSuccess
909/18Atlas VAEHF 3CCAFSSuccess
1011/18Atlas VMAVENCCAFSSuccess
1112/05Atlas VNROL-39
& Nanosats
VAFBSuccess

Ten of the 11 launches placed military or intelligence satellites into orbit. The exception was the Nov. 18 launch of NASA’s MAVEN probe to Mars. The orbiter will study the Red Planet’s atmosphere and how the world lost its water and atmosphere in the distant past.

The Atlas V and Delta IV are both used almost exclusively for U.S. government launches. However, there is international interest in using the highly reliable Atlas V for commercial launches. In September, Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services (a partner in ULA) announced that it had sold an Atlas V launch for  Mexico’s Morelos-3 communications satellite. ULA is looking to sell additional commercial launches in the future to supplement its government work.

In Part 2, we will look at the year ahead