Pat Norris, FRAeS, RAeS Space Group Committee member, provides an overview of government and scientific space highlights to look out for this year.
Last year, in 2012, saw China perform more launches (19) than the US (16) for the first time but 2013 is unlikely to see that repeated as new US launchers begin to come on stream. 2012 also saw North Korea join the league of launcher nations and 2013 may well see its neighbour and rival South Korea join the same club. Satellites and rockets to watch for over the coming 12 months are outlined below under the following headings:
- International Space Station
- Space science
- Environmental science
- UK in space
- Military space
In 2012 NASA regained some of the prestige it had lost in recent years with the successful landing of Curiosity on Mars but there seems little in the NASA pipeline for 2013 with anything like the same public appeal. The launch of the first of the new generation Tracking & Data Relay System (TDRS) satellites in January 2013 represents an important milestone as the TDRS constellation has not been replenished for more than a decade. The Landsat programme has been without a launch for even longer, so the launch of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) in February will give that faltering programme a boost.
The other main highlights of NASA’s year concern the International Space Station, and how to get there and back. Orbital Sciences hopes to join SpaceX as a supplier to the ISS with the first launch of its Antares rocket in January, followed in April with the launch of the Cygnus resupply capsule. Eight resupply missions are scheduled to reach the ISS in 2013: four Russian Progress, two American (SpaceX) Dragon, one European ATV (labelled Albert Einstein) and one Japanese HTV — the Dragon missions are the only ones that can return material to Earth. Four Soyuz launches will ferry crew to and from the ISS in 2013, the one in May will bring the first of ESA’s class of 2009 astronauts for a six-month stay: Luca Parmitano. Britain’s member of that class, Tim Peake, will be at the RAeS in London on 7 February.
The ISS itself will finally incorporate all of its major facilities with the delivery in December 2013 of the Russian Multipurpose Laboratory Module which includes the European Robotic Arm.
China will grab a lot of the space science headlines with the launch in the autumn of Chang’e 3 carrying a plutonium-powered rover to the Moon’s surface. This follows on from the spectacular flyby of near-Earth asteroid Toutatis by Chang’e 2 in December 2012. The samples collected by Chang’e 3 on the Moon are due to be returned to Earth in about 2017 by Chang’e 5. NASA’s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) satellite (to be launched into lunar orbit in August) seems tame by comparison.
The regular Mars launch window opens in November 2013. India will launch its first mission to the red planet, Mangalyaan, while NASA will launch its Maven probe — both will go into orbit around Mars.
Canada, the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA will launch satellites to study the Earth’s magnetosphere and the Sun but for many the highlight of 2013 will be the launch of ESA’s Gaia star mapper mission in October. This two-ton satellite will be placed near the L2 Lagrange point (1·5m km from Earth) to pinpoint the position and motion of a billion stars in the galaxy. It will produce a star atlas of the Milky Way that will provide the basis for astronomical research for decades to come. It represents a continuation and strengthening of the work of ESA’s Hipparcos mission two decades ago. Astrometry, which Hipparcos and Gaia perform, lacks the glamour of visiting a planet but it underpins studies of stars, interstellar clouds and galaxies and will thus leave a long-lasting scientific legacy.
Gaia will also detect thousands (perhaps millions) of objects inside the Solar System, thus adding to our knowledge of the minor planets and asteroids. While Gaia detects such objects serendipitously, Canada’s Sapphire (January launch) has been designed for the job: it is intended to augment the US Department of Defense’s (DoD) network that tracks tens of thousands of objects in Earth orbit — problems caused by these objects and solutions for dealing with them will be the subject of a conference on 2 July at the RAeS.
The launch of the first of Europe’s Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) satellites in the autumn will be a major milestone for the European Commission and ESA. The C-band imaging radar on Sentinel-1A will carry on the mission of similar radars on ESA’s ERS-1, ERS-2 and Envisat satellites. Several other Sentinels in the GMES family are under construction.
In April 2013 ESA’s technology demonstrator mission Proba-V (‘V’ stands for vegetation) satellite will be the main payload on the second launch of the Vega rocket.
Several other countries will launch Earth observing satellites, including France, India, Kazakhstan (see below) and Russia.
UK in space
The launch of the fourth and final Skynet-5 military satcom brought 2012 to an exciting end for British audiences. Highlights in 2013 will include the summer launch of the six ton Alphasat telecommunications satellite that represents a joint venture between ESA and London-based satcom operator Inmarsat.
Other UK satellites and payloads to be launched in 2013 include a clutch from Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) in Guildford. Of these, media interest is likely to focus on the launch in autumn 2013 of the first two operational Galileo navigation satellites, with payloads supplied by SSTL. Satellites three and four (of the 22 on order) may also make it to orbit before the end of 2013.
In addition to Galileo, three satellites built by SSTL will be launched in the first half of the year — the platform for Sapphire (mentioned above) was built in Guildford and on the same launch (provided by ISRO using the PSLV) will be the UK’s first ‘Cubesat’ STRaND-1 built in collaboration with the University of Surrey. Later in the year a Soyuz-2 will loft the UK’s TechDemoSat-1 built by SSTL together with the Clydespace-built UKube-1. In the closing months of 2013 the Russian Lomonosov satellite using a Surrey avionics suite and the Kazakhstan ‘Medium Res’ imaging mission using a Surrey platform are due to be launched.
The Soyuz rocket carrying the Galileo satellites will be busy in 2013. Besides its missions from Kourou (French Guiana) carrying Gaia and Galileo, another important Soyuz launch will be in February from Baikonur (Kazakhstan) carrying six second generation Globalstar telecom satellites. These are the last of an order for 24 satellites and should enable Globalstar to offer its clients a level of telephone service similar to that of the original constellation.
Arianespace had one of its most successful years in 2012 with the launch of seven Ariane 5 rockets — 2009 is the only other year when seven launches were achieved. Ariane 5 has now had a decade of 53 successful launches in a row. The economics of Ariane’s business is very sensitive to achieving at least six launches a year, so it will be interesting to see if the 2012 launch rate can be maintained in 2013.
America’s SpaceX Falcon-9 has a big order book but its relatively slow launch rate to-date has allowed Ariane 5 to continue to prosper. In April 2013 the first launch of Falcon-9 with the upgraded Merlin 1-D engine will take place — this is intended to be the workhorse Falcon-9 for the next few years and its performance will be watched with interest.
Another reason for Ariane 5 continuing to dominate commercial launches is the troubles afflicting the upper stages of Russia’s Proton, the US’s Atlas and Delta-IV, and India’s GSLV launchers. All these rockets are due to carry important payloads to orbit in 2013, subject to fixing their faults to the satisfaction of their payload customers. The first launch of the US Antares rocket in January has already been mentioned and other significant milestones will be the first test launch of Japan’s new Epsilon rocket and, in January, the third attempt by South Korea to launch its KSLV-1 rocket.
The US military’s dependence on Atlas V and Delta IV launchers is proving problematic due to them sharing the RL-10 upper stage engine: in particular, the RL 10B-2 version on Delta IV performed below specification in the October 2012 launch of GPS-IIF navigation satellite and, until that anomaly is diagnosed and corrected, future Delta IV launches with that configuration are grounded. The first mission affected is the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS)-5 that was scheduled for a February 2013 launch. Mission managers have continued to launch with the Atlas V, which uses the RL 10A version, despite the cause of the October 2012 launch being undiagnosed.
In addition to WGS-5, the second in the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS — pictured) satcom series, the third in the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satcom series and the second in the geostationary orbit variant of the Space-Based Infra-Red System (SBIRS) series are due to be launched in 2013, along with one or more of the remaining nine GPS-IIF satellites under construction. The big and successful push in 2010 to 2012 to replenish the US spy satellites has now eased but we may expect the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to orbit two or three undefined satellites during the course of the year.
In Russia, the successful completion of the Glonass satnav constellation in 2012 has been spoiled by poor performance of some of the satellites in orbit. Press reports indicate that the Defence Ministry is refusing to accept the Glonass system for operational use because of its technical shortcomings.
China is expected to continue to launch military satellites for telecommunications, surveillance, data relay and navigation — some with dual civil/military missions. This would build on its impressive deployment of the past five years as described in the article ‘China aims for the high ground’ by Pat Norris in Aerospace International, October 2012.