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The United States and China led the world in orbital launch attempts in 2016 with 22 apiece. The combined 44 launches made up more than half of the 85 flights conducted around the world.
Normally the leader in launches, Russia fell to third place in 2016 with 19 launches as the nation continued to struggle with quality control problems with its satellite boosters. The Russians conducted 27 launches in 2015.
The Europeans launched nine times followed by India with seven launches and Japan with four. Israel and North Korea launched one time apiece.
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A Busy Year in the U.S.
The U.S. went 22-for-22 in launch attempts in a year that saw United Launch Alliance (ULA) celebrate its 10th anniversary, SpaceX land multiple Falcon 9 first stages for reuse and destroy a booster on the launch pad, and Orbital ATK return its upgraded Antares booster to flight after a two-year stand down.
ULA launched 12 times during the year, with eight flights of the Atlas V and four launches of the Delta IV. SpaceX conducted eight launches of Falcon 9 while Orbital ATK flew Antares and Pegasus XL one time each.
ULA Hits the Big 1-0
ULA’s dozen launches was about average for the company but it was below the 15 flights it had targeted at the beginning of the year. In June, an Atlas V suffered a premature shutdown of its second stage while flying an Orbital ATK Cygnus supply ship to the space station. Future Atlas V launches were delayed while engineers identified and corrected the problem.
Although ULA primarily launches government satellites, the company made in-roads into the commercial market in 2016. The company launched the WorldView-4 Earth imaging spacecraft in November and the EchoStar 19 communications satellite in December. The launchers were arranged through Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services.
The Atlas V that ULA launched on Dec. 18 to end the year was the 115th successful flight in a row since the company was founded in 2006. ULA has never had a catastrophic failure in its history.
SpaceX’s Roller Coaster Year
The same can’t be said for SpaceX, which suffered the in-flight loss of a Falcon 9 and Dragon supply ship in June 2015. After a six-month grounding, the company returned the booster to service in December 2015 with a spectacular night launch of the upgraded Falcon 9 Full Thrust and the first landing of a first stage back at Cape Canaveral.
A confident SpaceX entered 2016 with an even more ambitious launch schedule than ULA. After a record seven launch attempts in 2015, the company planned to more than double that total by flying 18 times. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell spoke of launching satellites every few weeks.
Beginning on Jan. 17, SpaceX reeled off eight successful launches in a row, including two supply missions to the International Space Station. One of the missions carried Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM module, which was attached to the station to test inflatable habitats in orbit.
In April, SpaceX achieved the first successful landing of a Falcon 9 first stage on an off-shore drone ship in April. By mid-August, the company had recovered five of the eight first Falcon 9 first stages for reuse. That same month, SpaceX announced that it has its first customer to fly on a used Falcon 9 first stage.
For the first eight months, launches were going smoothly, if not quite at the pace that Shotwell had wanted. Then came Sept. 1.
SpaceX was in the midst of fueling a Falcon 9 on the launch pad for a pre-flight engine test when the second stage suddenly caught fire and exploded. The booster was destroyed along with Spacecom’s $195 million Amos-6 satellite.
The accident left the Falcon 9 grounded for the rest of the year. The company was also left to repair Launch Complex 40, the pad from which it launches most of its missions. SpaceX says it can fly Falcon 9’s in the interim from Launch Complex 39A, a former space shuttle launch pad it has renovated for Crew Dragon flights.
SpaceX traced the fire and explosion to a breach of a helium tank located inside of the second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank. The company, which believes it can prevent a recurrence through careful fueling, hopes to return Falcon 9 to flight in January.
SpaceX has experienced problems with helium for several years. In 2014, launches were delayed due to helium leaks, resulting in only six flights that year. The 2015 failure was caused by a helium tank breaking free and destroying the LOX tank. SpaceX said the most probable cause was a defective strut. NASA’s separate investigation pointed to the strut but said there were several other likely causes of the accident.
SpaceX was once again forced to delay the debut of its Falcon Heavy booster in 2016. Company officials are talking about launching the booster — which includes three Falcon 9 cores in its first stage — sometime in 2017. The first flight of the new rocket is running four years behind schedule.
Antares Returns to Flight
Orbital ATK returned its Antares rocket to flight in October with the successful launch of a Cygnus supply ship to ISS. The upgraded rocket features new, more powerful first-stage engines. An engine failure was blamed for the explosion of an Antares rocket in October 2014.
Despite the successful flight, Orbital and NASA agreed to launch the next Cygnus mission scheduled for 2017 aboard an ULA Atlas V. Officials said the decision was based on the need to maintain the schedule. Orbital ATK launched two Cygnus spacecraft on Atlas Vs while Antares was grounded.
Orbital ATK also conducted a successful flight of its air-launched Pegasus XL booster in December. The rocket placed eight small satellites into orbit that will help forecasters to better monitor hurricanes.
Orbital ATK also signed an agreement to launch Pegasus XL boosters from Stratolaunch’s giant carrier aircraft that is now under construction at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Although China launched 22 times in 2016, it was not quite as successful as America’s launch providers. China had 20 successful flights, one failure that destroyed a remote sensing satellite, and a partial failure that placed a pair of spacecraft in lower than planned orbits.
However, the failures should not overshadow the substantial successes that China’s maturing space program achieved in 2016. The year saw the country return to human spaceflight, debut two new boosters, and open its fourth spaceport.
Chinese astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong spent 30 days aboard the Tinagong-2 space station after launch aboard the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft. The 33-day mission was the longest Chinese human mission to date, paving the way for a permanent space station later this decade.
China debuted two new boosters – Long March 5 and Long March 7 – during the year, which both flew from the nation’s new coastal Wencheng Satellite Launch Center. The nation’s other three spaceports are inland, requiring boosters to fly over populated areas.
Long March 5 is China’s most powerful rocket, capable of lofting 25 metric tons (27.6 tons) into low Earth orbit (LEO) and 14 metric tons (15.4 tons) to geosynchronous transfer orbit. The booster, which is roughly equivalent to America’s Delta IV Heavy booster, will be used to launch elements of a permanent space station later this decade.
Long March 7 is a new medium-lift booster designed to replace several existing rockets that use toxic hypergolic propellants. The rocket is capable of lifting 13.5 metric tons (14.9 tons) to LEO and 5.5 metric tons ( 6 tons) to sun synchronous orbit.
The inaugural Long March 7 flight in June from Wenchang also carried a scale model of a crew capsule that will eventually replace the Shenzhou spacecraft. A second Long March 7 launch is scheduled for the first half of 2017.
Another notable launch occurred in August when China placed the world’s first quantum satellite into orbit.
“Called Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS), the satellite is designed to establish ultra-secure quantum communications by transmitting uncrackable keys from space to the ground,” the official Xinhua news agency reported. “It could also conduct experiments on the bizarre features of quantum theories, such as entanglement.”
Russia’s Woes Persist
Russia conducted 17 launches from Kazakhstan and its own territory and two Soyuz flights from the European launch center in South America. One of the launches failed in December.
Soyuz led all Russian boosters with 14 launch attempts and 13 successes. Proton was second with three flights, and Rockot flew twice. Russia’s most high profile launch came in March when the booster sent ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter to the Red Planet.
The 19 launches was a sharp reduction from the 27 Russia conducted in 2015. The reduction can be traced in large part to the Proton booster being unavailable for half the year.
The rocket suffered an in-flight anomaly in June when the second stage stopped firing prematurely. The third stage fired longer than planned to get the payload to its intended orbit, but the Proton has been grounded ever since.
Russia also suffered a failure in December when a Soyuz rocket malfunctioned, resulting in the destruction of a Progress supply ship bound for the International Space Station (ISS).
It was yet another in a long line of launch failures dating back to 2009. Over that period, the country has suffered 13 launch failures and four partial failures. In another case, the Phobos-Grunt probe bound for Mars was left stranded in Earth orbit after its on-board propulsion system failed to fire.
On the positive side, Russia opened the new Vostochny spaceport in the Far East. The cosmodrome hosted a Soyuz launch in April. Vostochny is designed to reduce Russian dependence on the old Soviet Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is located in the independent nation of Kazakhstan.
The successful flight was a bright spot in a program dogged by delays, unpaid wages and numerous arrests for alleged corruption. One group of workers grew so frustrated about over unpaid wages they wrote a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin on top of their apartment building.
India’s Space Program Matures
India launched seven orbital missions with 33 satellites aboard in 2016. That figure includes six launches of its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and one flight of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).
During the first half of the year, ISRO launched three IRNSS satellites, completing a seven-satellite constellation designed to provide regional geo-positioning services to India and the surrounding area.
In May, the Indian space agency flew the Hypersonic Flight Experiment (HEX) aboard a HS-9 sounding rocket. The winged, aircraft like vehicle was a scaled prototype for a reusable spacecraft. It reached an altitude of 70 km before crashing into the Bay of Bengal.
In August, ISRO tested a scramjet engine during a five-minute sounding rocket flight, The engine was designed to test technologies for a new rocket booster.
A Busy Year for Europe
The European launch complex in French Guiana was busy this year with seven flights of Ariane 5, two flights of Vega and two launches of the Soyuz booster. Six satellites in Europe’s Galileo navigation system were lofted from Kourou during the year.
ESA also launched its ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli entry, descent and landing demonstrator module aboard a Russian Proton booster in March. The orbiter arrived at the Red Planet and entered orbit in October. However, the lander – designed to test technology for a future rover – crashed into the surface due to a technical flaw.
ESA also moved forward with the development of the Ariane 6 booster, which is designed to replace Ariane 5 and compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The new launch vehicle is set to debut in 2020.
And the Rest…
Japan launched four times, with two flights of the H-IIA rocket and a single flight each of the H-IIB and Epsilon boosters. The nation launched the HTV-6 resupply ship to ISS in December.
Israel launched its first Shavit since 2014, sending an Ofek reconnaissance satellite into orbit. The satellite experienced malfunctions after entering orbit, but engineers were able to get it operational.
North Korea was not nearly as successful with the launch of its Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite aboard the Unha-3 booster in February. U.S. military officials reported the spacecraft was initially tumbling in orbit, but that North Korean controllers brought the satellite under control. However, there were no indications it was transmitting any data to the ground.
The launch was roundly criticized by South Korea, Japan, China and the United States as a test of a ballistic missile under the guise of a satellite launch. North Korea is under United Nations sanctions for its missile and nuclear programs.