Three Launches, SpaceShipTwo Flight Test Set for Next Week

SpaceShipTwo, ready for its closeup. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
SpaceShipTwo, ready for its closeup. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

A trio of orbital launches by SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corporation and ISRO will kick off the new year during the week ahead. Scaled Composites is also scheduled to conduct the third powered flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo on Jan. 9.

Sunday, Jan. 05
5:48 a.m. EST (1048 GMT)

GSLV launch vehicle on pad. (Credit: ISRO)

Date: Jan. 5, 2014
Launch Vehicle: GSLV
Payload: GSAT 14
Launch Site: Satish Dhawan
Space Agency: ISRO
Launch Window: 5:48 a.m. EST (1048 GMT)

Question: What do you get when you take a valuable communications satellite, attach it to a new cryogenic upper stage that failed to light the last time out on its maiden flight, and put it all on top of the world’s most unreliable orbital launch vehicle?

Answer: A perfect storm of sleepless nights, stomach ulcers and probably a few panic attacks.

It’s all on the line for India’s space agency ISRO as it attempts the second flight of its indigenous cryogenic upper stage, which has been in development for 20 years. The stage failed to light during a launch attempt on April 15, 2010. Eight months later, another GSLV rocket was destroyed by the range officer after its first stage caused the booster to veer off course. The rocket’s launch record is a dismal 2-4-1.

ISRO officials say they have fixed everything, but that remains to be seen. An earlier attempt to launch this same mission was scrubbed in August when the second stage developed a fuel leak.

Falcon 9/Thaicom 6
NET Monday, Jan. 06

Falcon 9 lifts off with the SES-8 satellite. (Credit: SpaceX)
Falcon 9 lifts off with the SES-8 satellite. (Credit: SpaceX)

Date: Jan. 6, 2014
Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9
Payload: Thaicom 6
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
Company: SpaceX
Launch Window: TBD

SpaceX will launch the Thaicom 6 communications satellite into geosynchronous orbit. This will be the third flight of the upgraded Falcon 9 v. 1.1 and the second attempt to launch a communications satellite after successfully orbiting the SES 8 spacecraft in December.

Antares/Cygnus 2
Tuesday, Jan. 08
1:32 p.m. EST (1832 GMT)

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

Date: No Earlier Than Jan. 8, 2014
Launch Vehicle: Antares
Payload: Cygnus 2
Launch Site: Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (Virginia)
Company: Orbital Sciences Corporation (for NASA)
Launch Window: 1:32-1:37 pm EST (18:32-18:37 GMT)

This will be the third flight for Antares after two flawless launches last year and the second Cygnus flight. Antares will launch the Cygnus freighter on the first of eight commercial cargo deliveries to the International Space Station.

Thursday, Jan. 09

SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
SpaceShipTwo in powered flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Date: Jan. 9, 2014
Launch Vehicle: WhiteKnightTwo
Payload: SpaceShipTwo
Launch Site: Mojave Air and Space Port (California)
Company: Scaled Composites (for Virgin Galactic)

The Scalies are back from winter break on Jan. 6. Word has it they will immediately begin preparations for a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo that was scrubbed due to bad weather on Dec. 18. Preliminary plans call for a drop test toward the end of the week.

This test would be the third powered flight for the eight-person suborbital space plane, which fired its engine for 16 seconds in April and 20 seconds in September. My guess is they will go up for another 3 to 4 seconds increment, but they could surprise me.

Virgin Galactic hopes to begin commercial space tourism operations in Fall 2014. That goal will require them to fire the engine much longer and to increase the pace of test flights, which are now being conducted every four months or so.