It will be a bumper year for big space launches to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, including many manned flights, but the real shocker is the number of satellites and spaceships being launched by private companies.
Never mind Elon Musk’s twelve-thousand-small-satellite Starlink programme, which is already becoming a traffic hazard after only 1,892 satellites have been launched, sixty at a time. (The Chinese have lodged a complaint.) There are 39 other companies in eleven different countries whose vehicles are scheduled to make their maiden flights this year.
There’s ‘Blue Whale 1’ from Perigee Aerospace in South Korea, ‘Agnibaan’ from AgniKul Cosmos in India, and ‘RFA One’ from Rocket Factory Augsburg in Germany. Not to mention ‘Hyperbola-2’ from i-Space in China, ‘Eris’ from Gilmour Space Technologies in Australia, and ‘Terran 1’from Relativity Space in the United States.
It’s like 1910, when there were hundreds of start-up car manufacturers in the world. ‘Blue Whale 1’ is a two-stage, two-tonne rocket that can put a 50-kg. satellite into a 500-km.-high Sun-synchronous orbit (useful for imaging, weather and spy satellites). Perigee plans to launch up to forty Blue Whale 1 rockets a year from an Australian site at $2 million each.
But the four really heavy lifters are all American, and all are attempting first flights this year. Blue Origin’ is designed to deliver 45 tonnes to low Earth orbit (LEO), but only the first stage is reusable. ‘Vulcan-Centaur’, mostly for military use, lifts 27 tonnes into LEO and 12 tonnes to a lunar transfer orbit. The upper stage is the latest iteration of a seven-decades-old design.
Space Launch System (SLS) is NASA’s own new heavy lifter. It will ultimately be able to deliver 95 tonnes to LEO and 27 tonnes to a lunar transfer orbit, and it’s the space agency’s preferred vehicle for flights to the Moon and Mars. First flight no earlier than March, but once again we’re dealing with an ‘expendable’ rocket. An expensive way to travel.
The star of the show, without a doubt, is Elon Musk’s Starship, whose first flight is still tentatively scheduled for this month.
It may well crash and burn – most of his maiden flights do – but that’s the way he works, and he plans at least a dozen more launches this year. If there are bugs in the newly celebrated marriage of the super-heavy launch vehicle and the passenger- and cargo-carrying Starship proper, he’ll weed them out in the end.
Starship is the real thing: room for a hundred people or a thousand cubic metres of cargo. Both parts are reusable, and the Starship can refuel in orbit. It will land on the Moon, and eventually on Mars. It will be, as Musk said, “a generalized transport mechanism for the greater solar system.”
All of these advances, with the probable exception of Musk’s favourite child, will be overshadowed by the various space exploration spectaculars coming up this year. But the real news is that after marking time for fifty years, we are actually off the planet at last.
Cargo to orbit now costs a large but attainable amount, and Earth orbit and the surface of the Moon will begin to accumulate a human population. (A thousand people in fifteen years?) Mars will take a little longer, probably, but we’re on our way.