Up to 15 orbital launches are set to take place during a very busy December, not counting the opening mission of the month that resulted in the loss of the Progress MS-04 cargo ship that was set to dock with the ISS over the weekend. This month is likely to include the highly anticipated return to flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
The month began with a failure on December 1, as a Soyuz U rocket tasked with lofting the Progress MS-04 resupply ship to the International Space Station (ISS) suffered an unspecified fault during third stage flight, 382 seconds into the ascent.
The anomaly resulted in an early shutdown of the stage. However, the Progress did separate from the stage and even deployed its KURS antenna – as planned – but was not inserted into the required orbital parameters, resulting in the craft being dragged back to Earth for a destructive end to its short life in space.
The Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, has already deployed a State Commission-level investigation.
On December 5, the next launch involved Arianespace’s Vega rocket out of French Guiana. Launch occurred at 13:51 UTC.
Designated VV08 in Arianespace’s launcher family numbering system, Vega was tasked with the launch of the Göktürk-1A observation satellite.
The mission – to deploy what will be Turkey’s first governmental satellite for Earth observation – took 57 minutes, with Vega placing its passenger into a Sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of approximately 700 km. The Launch Readiness Review (LRR) was passed on Friday.
Two launches are on the cards for December 7, opening with an ISRO launch of its PSLV-XL rocket at 04:54 UTC.
The Indian rocket is set to launch the Resourcesat 2A satellite – which is cited to be the only passenger, although a graphic of the spacecraft within the fairing suggests several CubeSats may riding uphill with the primary payload.
Focus will switch to the United States later in the day, as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV prepares to loft the eighth Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS-8) mission for the U.S. Air Force.
The launch is set to take place from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-37B, with the window opening at 23:53 UTC – with the flow receiving a boost via the milestone of a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) that took place last month.
WGS-8 will mark ULA’s 70th national security launch since the company was founded 10 years ago. This will be the sixth flight in the Delta IV in her Medium+ (5,4) configuration – which has been the set up for all WGS missions conducted so far by ULA.
Two days later, launch action moves to Japan.
With additional focus due to the loss of the recent Progress vehicle, the Japanese will launch the latest HTV resupply vehicle to the International Space Station (ISS), following several delays to its launch date.
HTV-6’s launch was set to take place in early October. However, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) decided to postpone the launch after a leak was found during processing on the cargo vehicle.
Those issues appear to be behind them as the December 9 launch date was confirmed, with a T-0 at the iconic Tanegashima Space Center set for 13:26 UTC.
This mission is vitally important to the orbital outpost as it will include six lithium-ion batteries that will replace 12 aging nickel-hydrogen power packs.
While HTV-8 is in orbit chasing down the ISS, the Chinese are set to launch its Long March 3B with the first meteorological satellite in the Fengyun-4 series.
The December 11 mission will set sail from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, although a T-0 won’t – as per usual with the Chinese – be known until closer to the launch date, usually when the NOTAMs are released.
The following day will see the welcome return of Orbital ATK’s Pegasus rocket.
The launch of NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) spacecraft is scheduled for a window that opens at 13:19 on December 12.
Being an air-launch vehicle, Pegasus will be carried under the belly of the Stargazer L-1011 aircraft, with the duo conducting their first leg when they took off from California and arrived at Cape Canaveral on Friday.
CYGNSS will produce measurements of ocean surface winds throughout the life cycle of tropical storms and hurricanes, which could help lead to better forecasting of severe weather on Earth. The mission, led by the University of Michigan, will use a constellation of eight small satellites.
December 16 is arguably the flagship day of the month, with two rockets with large fanbases set to launch from opposite ends of the United States.
Launch from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-41 is scheduled to take place within a window that opens at 18:22 UTC. Atlas V will be launching in her 431 configuration, with the tail number AV-071.
EchoStar XIX will be the world’s highest capacity broadband satellite, dramatically increasing capacity for internet service in North America. EchoStar XIX will join EchoStar XVII and SPACEWAY 3 for HughesNet.
This launch will be Atlas V – and ULA’s – final launch of what has been another successful year.
Potentially notable is the length of the launch window, which is set to close at 20:22 UTC, just 14 minutes from the opening of the launch window for the next mission of the day.
That will involve the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for the first time since the stand down relating to the loss of the rocket during a Static Fire test on September 1.
While the launch of the Iridium NEXT mission has been provided with a December 16 launch date, with a T-0 of 20:36 UTC, the schedule is dependent on the closure of the investigation relating to the Static Fire accident that claimed the lives of the Falcon 9 and her AMOS-6 passenger.
The announcement of the launch date provides some confidence that green light from the FAA is imminent. Both the spacecraft and launch vehicle are at the Vandenberg launch site and are undergoing processing to be ready for the mid-December target.
Indeed, SpaceX is also thinking ahead, with the next Falcon 9 now on a road trip to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for what is currently expected to be a NET (No Earlier Than) January 8 launch date of the EchoStar 23 satellite.
Two more launches from Asia will follow the Iridium launch, should schedules hold.
The first will involve the Chinese launching its Long March 2D rocket on December 19, set to launch with the TanSat (CarbonSat) satellite from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. As the name of the satellite suggests, the spacecraft is involved in a new carbon monitoring mission that will involve international cooperation.
This will be followed by a Japanese launch of its Epsilon rocket from the Uchinoura Space Center. The December 20th launch has a T-0 of 11:00 UTC.
The Exploration of energization and Radiation in Geospace (ERG) spacecraft will orbit Earth at distances ranging from 30,000 km (19,000 mi) to 300 km (190 mi) above the Earth – tasked with a mission to study the Van Allen Belts.
Arianespace will conclude their hugely successful year with an Ariane 5 ECA dual-payload launch out of the Kourou Space Center.
Also launching on December 20, with a launch window ranging between 20:30 to 21:45 UTC, this mission is designated Flight VA234 in Arianespace’s launch family numbering system.
The mission involves JCSAT-15, the third SSL-built satellite for SKY Perfect JSAT to launch this year. This bird is a 10-kW satellite that will replace the N-SAT-110 satellite which is currently located at 110 degrees East longitude.
The second passenger is Star One D1, the largest satellite ever built for Brazil’s Embratel Star One, and is to be positioned at 84 degrees West for a planned operational lifetime of 15 years.
International Launch Services (ILS) will join the end of year party with a launch of the Russian workhorse, Proton M.
The December 22 mission from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan involves the Proton M and Breeze M combination providing the ride uphill for the EchoStar 21 spacecraft. T-0 for this mission is 16:26 UTC.
The launch of this spacecraft – formerly known as Terrestar-2 – will end a long wait for this bird to finally reach space.
Another three launches may also take place before the year is out, with the Chinese currently showing a December 26 launch target for its Long March 2D to launch Gaojing-1 and 2 (SuperView-1 and 2), potentially followed by a Kuaizhou-1A rocket out of Jiuquan with several unidentified satellites and then a Japanese SS-520 rocket with the TRICOM-1 (3U CubeSat) mission, which is still classed as late December – albeit subject to change.
(Images via ULA, JAXA, SpaceX, ILS, Arianespace, Orbital ATK and CNSA).