SpaceX on pace to shatter US launch records. Again

The latter is scheduled for Friday night with the launch of 53 of SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. It will be the twelfth Starlink launch so far this year, and it can be followed over the weekend with a new mission departing from Florida.

It has been a dizzying year of activity thus far, further cementing SpaceX’s dominance over the commercial launch industry. Under SpaceX’s leadership, the industry is moving past the annual launch heights of the space race in the mid-20th century, when most launches were conducted by governments rather than the private sector. According to data from research firm Quilty Analytics, 2021 has already set a new record with a total of 145 launches, compared to 129 in 1984, the previous record year.

If SpaceX continues at its current pace, it could launch more than 52 rockets this year alone, far surpassing last year’s record of 31.

“Even 10 years ago, launches were rare,” Chris Quilty, the founder of Quilty Analytics, told CNN Business.

In 2001, the total number of launches around the world was just 51, he noted.

“So, put that in the context of SpaceX launched 52 times alone,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible.”

Most of SpaceX’s 2022 launches focused on Starlink, its consumer internet company that relies on a large number of satellites orbiting Earth, which the company has grown since it began launching batches of the internet-beaming launch in mid-2019. satellites. The constellation now has more than 2,200 satellites in orbit, and as of March, 250,000 subscribers around the world will be using the service, a company executive said at a recent conference.

While SpaceX stands out from its rocket competitors, that doesn’t mean the company is or will be undisputed.

Two new rockets that can compete with SpaceX’s Falcons — the workhorse rockets the company uses to tow satellites and, more recently, astronauts into orbit — are expected to debut sometime next year. They are New Glenn, which is under development by Jeff Bezos-backed company Blue Origin, and Vulcan Centaur, a rocket line from legacy launch company United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The sheer number of satellites capable of launching all those vehicles, including the thousands of satellites expected to be added to the Starlink constellation from SpaceX and competing satellite internet companies, has sparked an urgent discussion about space congestion. When satellites collide, they can create dangerous plumes of debris. That has happened in the past and close calls are common.
Academics have long tried to raise awareness and caution around the issue.

Others are more optimistic that SpaceX and others are taking those risks seriously enough to avoid catastrophe.

“The companies that could create space debris would be immediately and directly affected by that space debris,” said space research group BryceTech CEO Carissa Christensen, pointing out that the collision debris would threaten their own satellites — their own investments.

With all those rockets active — and a few more smaller launch vehicles slated to launch from Florida’s Space Coast, SpaceX’s main launch site — SpaceX could also run into bottlenecks on the launch pad. Each launch requires a ground support team, including military weather personnel, to ensure a safe launch. And there are only so many launches they can handle at any given time.

“There’s not an endless number of days or launch pads or launch sites where you can get things into orbit,” Quilty noted.

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However, Christensen added that ground support on the Space Coast has proved flexible, as evidenced by SpaceX’s ability to bring a group of astronauts back from the International Space Station off the coast of Florida last Friday and then launch a Starlink mission. from a launch pad a few miles away just hours later.

Captain Jonathan Eno, an assistant director of operations with the US Space Force who is tasked with monitoring weather and other potential disruptions ahead of a launch, said ground support crews in Florida spent years preparing for the dramatic increase in the number of launches from the spaceport. The year he was assigned his role, 2019, the Space Coast — which includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral — supported just 18 launches. This year it is on track to deliver more than 60, notably including the first launch of NASA’s new moon rocket called the Space Launch System. His team is now ready to support multiple launches on the same day, even within minutes of each other.

“SpaceX makes a lot of news. They are the ones launching the preponderance of launchers right now,” he told CNN Business. “Obviously we are preparing for a different reality.”

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