As the world stands on the cusp of another year of space exploration activity, several U.S. launch providers—United Launch Alliance (ULA), SpaceX, and Orbital ATK—are primed to embark on perhaps the most ambitious 12 months to date, with Atlas V, Delta IV, Antares, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy rockets destined to deliver missions into low-Earth orbit, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), as well as sending a spacecraft onto a trajectory to encounter Comet Bennu. Four piloted Soyuz missions will transport four Americans, six Russians, and one astronaut apiece from Japan and France to the International Space Station (ISS), allowing the sprawling multi-national outpost to continue unprecedented scientific research and respond to around a dozen unpiloted Dragon, Cygnus, Progress, and H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) visitors.
Significantly, Orbital ATK’s Antares booster will return to flight, after an 18-month hiatus, and SpaceX’s mammoth Falcon Heavy will embark on its maiden voyage, snatching the crown from ULA’s Delta IV Heavy to become the largest and most powerful rocket in active operational service, anywhere in the world.
For ULA, which flew 12 times in 2015—including its 100th overall mission, a record-tying nine flights within a single calendar year by its workhorse Atlas V booster and its first foray toward the International Space Station (ISS)—the New Year promises to achieve even grander heights for the Centennial, Colo.-based launch services provider. Its Atlas V and Delta IV boosters were originally intended to fly on 16 occasions, which might have marked out 2016 as a record-tying year, equaling ULA’s across-the-board accomplishment from 2009. However, the recent decision to delay the launch of NASA’s Mars-bound InSight lander and its subsequent deletion from the 2016 manifest has left this year with a still-impressive roster of 15 launches, the second-highest ever achieved by ULA.
If accomplished on schedule, 2016 should still see as many as 11 Atlas V missions, the most ever conducted within a single calendar year, easily eclipsing the nine flights achieved by this particular launch vehicle in both 2014 and 2015.
On 3 February, an Atlas V will loft the 12th and final member of the Global Positioning System (GPS) Block IIF constellation into a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) of about 11,047 nautical miles (20,460 km). Flown out of Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on behalf of the U.S. Air Force, GPS IIF-12 will complete the “interim” Block IIF network of global positioning, velocity, and timing satellite assets, ahead of the introduction of the upgraded GPS Block III, which is expected to come online in 2017. These Block IIF satellites have been delivered to orbit atop a mixture of ULA Atlas V and Delta IV rockets between May 2010 and the launch of GPS IIF-11 last October.
Four classified payloads, flown on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), are slated to ride aboard a pair of Atlas Vs and a pair of Delta IVs, two of which will launch from the Cape and two others from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. On 10 February, a Delta IV Medium+ (5,2) will deliver the NROL-45 payload into orbit. This will be followed by a Delta IV Heavy, the most powerful member of ULA’s fleet and currently the most powerful booster in active operational service, anywhere in the world, which will launch in May—on its first flight since the Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, back in December 2014—to insert the NROL-37 payload into orbit.
The usage of these two vehicles is indicative of the size, mass, and possible orbital destination of their satellite cargoes. The Delta IV Medium+ (5,2) carries the potential to boost up to 23,320 pounds (10,580 kg) into low-Earth orbit and up to 11,970 pounds (5,430 kg) into Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), whilst the Heavy can deliver up to 63,470 pounds (28,790 kg) to low-Earth orbit and 31,350 pounds (14,220 kg) to GTO. It has been suggested that NROL-45 may be a low-Earth-orbiting Topaz radar-imaging satellite—a successor to the Lacrosse/Onyx generation, the first of which flew aboard Shuttle Atlantis on STS-27, way back in December 1988—whilst the heavyweight NROL-37 could possibly represent an “Advanced Orion” Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) sentinel, tasked with the interception of missile telemetry and positioned at a geostationary altitude of about 22,300 miles (35,700 km).
Interestingly, the Medium+ (5,2) configuration will be embarking on only its second mission, having undertaken its maiden voyage in April 2012. The second pair of NRO launches for 2016—designated “NROL-61” and “NROL-79”—will both be lofted atop Atlas V boosters, from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-41 in June and from Vandenberg’s SLC-3W in December. Of these, the former will be delivered to orbit by an Atlas V in its “411” variant, equipped with a single strap-on booster and capable of launching up to 26,780 pounds (12,150 kg) into low-Earth orbit and up to 13,100 pounds (5,950 kg) to GTO. It has been speculated that NROL-61 might be an upgraded Satellite Data Systems (SDS), or “Quasar,” communications relay for classified reconnaissance satellites, whilst NROL-79 will fly atop a barebones Atlas V 401 and could be a member of the Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS). In fact, NROL-79 entered the headlines in the fall of 2014, when it was speculated that the contract for its launch might be contested by SpaceX, which had earlier received Air Force certification to carry classified payloads. Ultimately, however, NROL-79 was added to the Air Force’s ongoing $11 billion ULA contract in January 2015.
In addition to these classified missions, five other military flights are on ULA’s books for 2016. The fifth and final member of the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS-5) is scheduled to rise from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V in May, heading for geostationary orbit and tasked with providing global communications narrowband (64 kbits/sec and lower) connectivity to U.S. and allied military forces in “disadvantaged” areas, including heavily forested and limited-satellite-access areas. Another Atlas V will boost the third Geosynchronous (GEO-3) element of the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) aloft in July, which will form part of an evolving network of geosynchronous and Highly-Elliptical-Orbiting (HEO) satellites to provide advanced early-warning, missile-defense, and battlespace characterization features. GEO-3 follows on from the earlier GEO-1 launch in May 2011 and GEO-2 in March 2013.
Also launching in July will be the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-6 mission, laden with a pair of highly maneuverable Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellites, dedicated to U.S. Strategic Command surveillance operations and utilizing a battery of electro-optical systems to observe other objects in space. This forms part of the Air Force’s ongoing exploration of the geosynchronous environment at an altitude of 22,300 miles (35,700 km) and enable the development of new collision-avoidance mechanisms. Wrapping up 2016’s military load in September and December will be the latest Wideband Global Satcom (WGS-8) high-capacity communications satellite and the fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-4) satellite for fast and secure links between civilian leaders and their military assets worldwide.
Numerous other missions will also fly aboard ULA’s vehicles this year, including a rare commercial communications satellite payload—the multi-spot-beam Ka-band EchoStar XIX (also known as “Jupiter-2”)—whose launch contract between Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services (LMCLS) and ULA was announced in August 2015. Targeted for November 2016, this will mark only the fourth such satellite launched by ULA, following ICO-G1 in April 2008, Intelsat-14 in November 2009, and last October’s Morelos-3 and hints at an anticipated resurgence of interest from commercial clients, following the Air Force’s “block buy” of 36 Atlas V and Delta IV “cores,” which has begun to drive costs down. Also destined for ULA launches in 2016 are a second ISS-bound Cygnus cargo ship (OA-6), which will fly in March, the WorldView-4 commercial Earth-imaging satellite in September, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R in October for weather forecasting, storm tracking, space weather monitoring, and meteorological research, as well as the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) to intercept Comet Bennu in September.
The year is also expected to see a run of flight operations for SpaceX, which marked a spectacular Return to Flight (and return to land) of its first Upgraded Falcon 9 booster on 21 December, delivering a personal-best-setting 11 Orbcomm Generation-2 (OG-2) satellites into low-Earth orbit. SpaceX managed to equal its personal best from 2014 in having flown as many as six successful missions in a single calendar year. Although SpaceX’s website provides little detail on exact target dates for its forthcoming launches, it is expected that a “standard” Falcon 9 v1.1—equipped with older-specification Merlin 1D engines—will be employed to deliver the Jason-3 Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM) into low-Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., no sooner than 17 January. Equipped with a radar altimeter, GPS receiver, microwave radiometer, Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA), and the French-built Doppler Orbitography and Radiopositioning Integrated by Satellite (DORIS) hardware, Jason-3 will conduct global ocean-surface measurements, in support of ongoing efforts to understand the climatic implications of a steadily warming Earth.
This will be followed by the long-awaited launch of the SES-9 communications satellite, flying atop an Upgraded Falcon 9, whose voyage to GTO has been cleared following a successful restart of the second-stage Merlin 1D+ engine on the recent RTF mission. Flying on behalf of the Luxembourg-based SES satellite services provider, SES-9 will be positioned at 108.2 degrees East and provide Direct-to-Home (DTH) broadcasting across eastern Asia and Indonesia, together with maritime communications in the Indian Ocean. It remains to be seen if an attempt will be made to land the Upgraded Falcon 9 first-stage hardware from the SES-9 mission back at Cape Canaveral. As outlined in a recent AmericaSpace article, SpaceX plans to fly at least four Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Dragon cargo missions to the ISS in 2016, carrying the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) aboard CRS-8 in February, the International Docking Adapter (IDA)-2 aboard CRS-9 in March, and multiple payloads devoted to neutron star interior studies, stratospheric aerosol content monitoring, lightning imaging, high-resolution Earth observations, and the testing of a Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA) aboard CRS-10 and CRS-11 in June and August. It remains possible that the CRS-12 Dragon may also fly before year’s end, tentatively scheduled for a December launch.
In spite of the absence of a definitive 2016 launch manifest for its other payloads, SpaceX’s plan anticipates the inaugural test flight of its Falcon Heavy booster—capable of transporting up to 117,000 pounds (53,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit and up to 46,700 pounds (21,200 kg) to geostationary altitude—by mid-year, with speculation that it may occur in the April-May timeframe. With a far higher payload-to-orbit capability than the Delta IV Heavy, the Falcon Heavy comprises a trio of Falcon 9 “cores,” each equipped with nine Merlin 1D+ engines. However, its total payload-to-orbit capability will fall short of the long-since-retired Saturn V, which carried the potential to boost 310,000 pounds (140,000 kg) to low-Earth orbit, but which flew its last mission way back in May 1973. On its “Demo Flight,” the Falcon Heavy will launch from the historic Pad 39A site at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.
A subsequent Demo Flight, perhaps as soon as October 2016, will carry the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program (STP)-2 payload in support of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) certification process for the Falcon Heavy, before operational missions get underway with numerous heavyweight passengers, including its first-contracted commercial customer, Intelsat, as well as the ViaSat-2 satellite, which is expected to beomce the world’s highest-capacity communications satellite when it reaches orbit. No specific dates for either commercial mission have yet been announced.
In tandem with this opening salvo of Falcon Heavy missions, SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9—flying in its Upgraded configuration, with an enhanced suite of Merlin 1D+ engines, utilizing full 100-percent-thrust and generating a propulsive yield of 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kg) at liftoff—has a long backlog of payloads to deliver, all of which will fly from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. These include commercial satellites to provide communications services across Latin America (Eutelsat 117 West B), the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia (ABS-2A and Amos-6), as well as Japan, eastern Asia and the Pacific region (JCSat-14). Two missions in August and October are each poised to boost 10 Iridium NEXT second-generation mobile voice and data communications satellites into low-Earth orbit. This forms part of a $492 million contract, agreed back in June 2010, which at the time was “the largest single commercial launch deal ever signed.” Under the terms of the contract, SpaceX will deliver 70 Iridium NEXT satellites aloft, of which 20 will ride aboard the two Upgraded Falcon 9 missions in late 2016.
As well as its commitment to fly as many as five Dragon cargo missions to the ISS, SpaceX also confidently expects to launch its Crew Dragon on a 30-day unpiloted demonstration flight to the station, as soon as December 2016. It will dock at the IDA-2 interface, positioned at the forward end of the Harmony node. Successful passage of this critical Commercial Crew milestone will enable the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch services provider to stage its 14-day crewed demonstration to the ISS in April 2017. Four NASA shuttle and ISS veterans—Suni Williams, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley, and former Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken—were named in July 2015 to support Commercial Crew operations.
Other U.S. providers aiming for space in 2016 include Orbital ATK, which has already reserved a ULA Atlas V for its OA-6 Cygnus cargo mission in March, but which expects its upgraded Antares booster to be ready for a return to flight from Pad 0A at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Va. The cryogenic Antares—whose “130” variant, equipped with Aerojet Rocketdyne-furnished AJ-26 first-stage engines, suffered a catastrophic turbopump failure and explosion, seconds after liftoff, in October 2014—has since completed a thorough accident investigation process. Damage to the Pad 0A site has been repaired and already-planned upgrades to the “230” configuration, which utilizes Russian-built RD-181 liquid-fueled engines on its first stage, and a second stage powered by the Castor-30XL solid-rocket motor, are nearing completion. According to Novosti, Orbital ATK is expected to fly two Antares 230-boosted Cygnus missions towards the space station in 2016, with OA-5 scheduled for launch on 31 May and OA-7 on 4 October.