SpaceX dominated, China surged and Russia had another clean sheet as American astronauts flew from U.S. soil again in a year of firsts.
First in a series
by Douglas Messier Managing Editor
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was a very busy launch year with a number of firsts in both human and robotic exploration. A total of 114 orbital launches were attempted, with 104 successes and 10 failures. It was the same number of launches that were conducted in 2018, with that year seeing 111 successes, two failures and one partial failure.
There were 27 orbital launch attempts with 26 successes and one failure during the first quarter of 2021. The United States accounted for nearly half the total with 13 launches behind nine flights by SpaceX.
China’s Long March 7A rocket made its first successful flight on Friday, placing a technology verification satellite into orbit nearly a year after the booster failed in its maiden launch.
The booster lifted off at 1:51 a.m. from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in southern China. The payload was the Shiyan-9 satellite, which will demonstrate new technologies.
A variant of the Long March 7 rocket, the three-stage booster is equipped with a third stage powered by hydrogen and liquid oxygen that is adapted from the older Long March 3B.
Long March 7A, which features four strap-on motors, is capable of launching 7 metric tons to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). This is a significant improvement on the Long March 3B, which can lift 5.5 metric tons to LEO.
Long March 7A’s first two stages and strap-on motors are powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen. These are cleaner propellants than the toxic hypergolic ones used on the Long March 3 and Long March 2 boosters, which Long March 7A will replace.
The maiden flight of Long March 7A failed during a classified launch on March 16, 2020. Long March 7 has succeeded in both of its launches.
China has succeeded in five of its six launches in 2021. An i-Space Hyperbola-1 booster carrying several unidentified payloads failed after launch on Feb. 1.
A Chinese Long March 3B booster failed after launch on Thursday, destroying an Indonesian communications satellite and providing a spectacular nighttime light show for residents of Guam as debris burned up in the atmosphere.
China’s Xinhua news agency said the Long March 3B’s third stage malfunctioned after launch from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.
The booster was carrying the Palapa-N1 geosynchronous communications satellite. The spacecraft was owned by Palapa Satelit Nusantara Sejahtera, which is a joint venture of Pasifik Satelit Nusantara and Indosat Ooredoo.
Palapa-N1, also known as Nusantara Dua, would have provided C-band and Ku-band broadcast and broadband services for Indonesia and neighboring regions. The China Academy of Space Technology built the spacecraft based on its DFH-4 platform.
Debris from the launch reentered the atmosphere near Guam. Officials said the debris posed no threat to the U.S. territory.
It was China’s second launch failure in less than a month. On March 16, the maiden launch of the Long March 7A rocket went awry, destroying a classified government satellite. Chinese officials have not announced the cause of the failure.
A Long March 7A booster failed after liftoff from the Wenchang Space Launch Center on Monday, destroying a new technology verification satellite known as Xinjishu Yanzheng-6.
Official Chinese news media acknowledged the failure of the new booster without providing any details concerning the loss. Very little is known about the lost payload.
Long March 7A is an upgraded version of the two-stage Long March 7 booster that was successfully launched two times in 2016 and 2017. Long March 7A employs a third stage powered by two cryogenic YF-75 engines that operate on liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid hydrogen.
Long March 7A’s first two stages are powered by RP-1 and LOX. The rocket also includes four small strap-on boosters attached to the first stage.
The booster is designed to replace older models of Long March launchers that are powered by toxic hypergolic fuels.