Mid-Year Global Launch Report: China & USA Continue to Battle for Lead

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV rocket carrying the NROL-47 mission lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: ULA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The world’s launch providers were extremely busy in the first half of 2018, with China and the United States battling for the lead.

There with 55 orbital launches through the end of June, which amounted to a launch every 3.29 days or 79 hours. The total is more than half the 90 launches attempted in 2017. With approximately 42 missions scheduled for the last six months of the year, the total could reach 97.

United States171018
New Zealand1001
TOTALS:53 1 155
*Russian total includes one Soyuz launch from French Guiana.

China and the United States battled for the lead with 18 launches apiece through June. China equaled its total number of launches in 2017 with a better success rate. Last year, the nation suffered one failure and one partial failure. Both China and the United States are likely to launch more than 30 times this year.

Russia, traditionally the world leader in launches, lags behind with nine successful launches. It is followed by Japan with four, India with three, Europe with two and New Zealand with one.

Launches by Booster

SpaceX launches its Dragon cargo craft on a Falcon 9 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 5:42 a.m. EDT June 29, 2018. The early-morning launch is the company’s 15th resupply mission to the International Space Station under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract. (Credit: NASA TV)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 continued to lead the world with 11 launches during the first half of the year. Add in the Falcon Heavy launch in February, and Elon Musk’s rocket company accounts for two-thirds of the American total of 18 flights.

Falcon 9USA101011
Long March 2 (C,D)China7007
Long March 3 (A,B)China5005
Atlas VUSA4004
Long March 4CChina4004
Long March 11China2002
Ariane 5Europe1012
Delta IVUSA1001
ElectronNew Zealand1001
Falcon HeavyUSA1001
GSLV Mk IIIndia1001

The Falcon Heavy flight was the highlight of SpaceX’s launch campaign. With three Falcon 9 cores as the first stage, the heavy-lift booster roared off Pad 39A and soared into the blue Florida sky. Two of the three cores made spectacular landings back at Cape Canaveral whe narrowly missed touching down on an offshore drone ship.

The cargo for the maiden flight was Musk’s red Tesla Roadster with a mannequin driver dressed in white spacesuit named Starman. SpaceX treated to world to spectacular images of the vehicle and driver orbiting the Earth before they were launched into deep space.

Starman in Elon Musk’s red Tesla in orbit around the Earth. (Credit: SpaceX)

On May 11, SpaceX launched the first of its Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters, which placed Bangladesh’s first communications satellite, Bangabandhu-1, into orbit. The Block 5, which is the final upgrade Falcon 9 booster, includes significant modifications that will allow the first stage to be launched up to 10 times with minimal refurbishment. Previous first stages have only been launched twice.

As with most things SpaceX, the Block 5 rocket flown in May was not actually the final version. The booster lacked upgraded helium tanks in the second stage designed to prevent a recurrence of the explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 on the launch pad as it was being fueled for a pre-launch engine test in September 2016. SpaceX officials have also said that additional changes to the Block 5 are likely.

NASA has stipulated that it needs seven successful flights of the final Falcon 9 Block 5 design before it will put astronauts aboard the booster for Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The flight in May did not qualify as one of the seven due to the absence of the new tanks.

Another highlight of SpaceX’s year was the launch of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in April. The spacecraft will use four cameras to monitor more than 200,000 stars to search for planets ranging from Earth sized to gas giants.

The nadir of SpaceX’s launch campaign came in January. Reports indicate that the U.S. military’s secret Zuma payload failed to separate properly from the second stage of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The payload burned up in the atmosphere.

A subsequent investigation found that Falcon 9 performed as planned, so there was no reason to ground the booster. The fault appeared to lie with the payload adapter provided with North Grumman, which built the secret payload.

Parabolic Arc has categorized the flight as a launch failure. We define a successful launch as occurring only after a satellite is released from the booster in its intended orbit. In this case, that didn’t happen even though the Falcon 9 performed as planned.

ULA Launches Key Payloads

United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched only five times through June, but two of the flights carried high-profile payloads. In March, an Atlas V blasted off from Cape Canaveral with America’s newest weather satellite, GOES S.

Mars InSight lander (Credit: NASA)

In May, an Atlas V successfully launched NASA’s InSight spacecraft to Mars in the first planetary mission ever conducted from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The lander will probe the interior of the Red Planet.

The launch included two CubeSats, MarCO A and MarCO B, that will relay entry, descent and landing data from the InSight spacecraft to controllers back on Earth. They are the first CubeSats launched on a deep-space mission.

The Atlas V launched a total of four times. ULA also launched a Delta IV booster in January with the U.S. Air Force’s NROL-47 reconnaissance satellite aboard.

The other American launch was an Antares booster that sent a Cygnus resupply ship to ISS from Wallops Island in Virginia. That flight was conducted by Orbital ATK, which has since been renamed Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.

China Ups Its Game

China launched on a record-setting pace during the first six months of 2018 with 18 flights. The Chinese Long March 2 family (C&D) launched seven times, followed by the Long March 3 (A&B) with five flights. There were four flights of Long March 4 and two flights of Long March 11.

In May, a Long March 4C lofted the Chang’e-4 relay satellite to the moon. The spacecraft will relay communications from the Chang’e-4 lander and rover, which will become the first vehicles to explore the far side of the moon after they are launched late this year.

The launch also included two microsats — the first launched to the moon — that were designed to conduct radio astronomy. One of the satellites failed in flight, but the other remains healthy.

Russia & the Rest

Soyuz rocket takes off from French Guiana on March 9, 2018. (Credit: Arianespace)

Russia’s nine launches included six flights of Soyuz-2 variants that placed satellites in orbit and sent cargo and crews to the space station. Russia also launched Proton, Rockot and Soyuz-2.1v one time each. The Rockot launch of Europe’s Sentinel B satellite marked the final commercial flight of the converted ballistic missile.

Europe’s Ariane 5 booster suffered a rare partial failure in January after a computer programming error resulted in two communications satellites being placed in wrong orbits. The spacecraft were able to reach their intended destinations using onboard propulsion.

The anomaly ended a streak of 82 successful Ariane 5 launches stretching back to 2003. The booster was grounded during the investigation into the anomaly.

Japan successfully launched the SS-520-4 rocket for the first time with a CubeSat aboard in February. The maiden flight of the small booster failed in 2017. The rocket, which orbited a single CubeSat, is intended to be an operational booster. Japanese engineers are using it to learn how to develop low-cost small launch vehicles.

Japan also launched the H-IIA booster twice and the Epsilon rocket once. The H-IIA flights orbited reconnaissance satellites for the Japanese military. The Epsilon launch flew an Earth observation spacecraft for Vietnam.

India launched three times with two PSLV flights and one GSLV Mk. II mission. The first PSLV launch in January was a return to flight for the normally reliable booster, which suffered a rare failure in August 2017 when the payload fairing failed to separate. The IRNSS-1H satellite, which is part of India’s regional navigation system, was lost.

Although the GSLV Mk. II launch was successful, controllers later lost contact with the GSAT-6A satellite after separation as the spacecraft was maneuvering to its final orbit using onboard propulsion. Efforts to resume communications with the satellite have been unsuccessful.

The GSAT-6A failure caused ISRO to recall the GSAT-11 spacecraft that was in French Guiana being prepared for launch in May aboard an Ariane 5 booster. The resulting delay was a factor in lowering Europe’s launch rate during the first half of the year.

Electron launch (Credit: Rocket Lab)

A highlight of the first half of the year was Rocket Lab’s first successful launch of its Electron booster for in January from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. The inaugural launch of the small-satellite rocket failed in June 2017.

Launches by Spaceport

Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was the world’s busiest spaceport during the first half of the year with a total of 10 launches. When you add in two launches from the adjoining Kennedy Space Center, there have been a dozen missions conducted on the U.S. Air Force’s Eastern Range.

Cape Canaveral Air Force StationUSA
(Russian Leased)
Satish DhawanIndia3003
Kourou*French Guiana (Europe)2013
Kennedy Space CenterUSA2002
Mahia PeninsulaNew Zealand1001
Wallops IslandUSA1001
* Kourou total includes one Russian Soyuz launch.

The American total of 18 launches is filled out by five flights from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and one ISS resupply mission flown from Wallops Island in Virginia.

The majority of China’s 18 launches were conducted at two of the nation’s five spaceports. Xichang hosted eight launches followed by Jiuquan with seven. The remaining three flights were conducted from Taiyuan.

Long the leader in launches, the Baikonur Cosmodrome hosted only four launches in the first half of 2018. Russia also launched three times from Plesetsk and one time each from Vostochny and Kourou in French Guiana.

Ariane 5 launches with SES-14 and Al Yah 3 satellites. (Credit: Arianespace)

There were only three launches from Kourou during the first six months of 2018, which is an unusually low number for the spaceport. The partial failure of an Ariane 5 booster and the recall of an India’s GSAT 11 spacecraft for additional checks contributed to the low number.

India’s spaceport at Satish Dhawan also saw only three launch through June. Japan’s four launches were split between Tanegashima and Uchinoura. And Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand hosted one launch of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

Space Station Support Flights

Dragon on the end of Candarm2. (Credit: NASA)

There have been six missions to the space station during the first half of the year, with three each by Russia and the United States. There were two crew flights aboard Russian spacecraft, two Dragon resupply missions, and one resupply mission apiece by the American Cygnus and Russian Progress freighters.

2/13/18RussiaSoyuz/ProgressProgress 69PResupplySuccess
3/21/18RussiaSoyuz/SoyuzISS 54SCrewSuccess
04/02/18USAFalcon 9/DragonCRS-14ResupplySuccess
06/29/18RussiaFalcon 9/DragonCRS-15ResupplySuccess

Suborbital Launches

There were 17 suborbital launches in the first half of the year, including 10 from U.S.-based facilities. Poker Flats hosted four followed by Wallops Island with three, White Sands with two and Blue Origin’s Corn Ranch with one. Two additional launches took place at an U.S.-leased military facility on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

1/19/18Black Brant IXDXL-3 (Astronomy)Poker Flats (Alaska)Success
1/26/18Terrier-Improved OrionSuper Soaker (Atmospheric research)Poker Flats (Alaska)Success
1/26/18Terrier-Improved OrionSuper Soaker (Atmospheric research)Poker Flats (Alaska)Success
1/26/18Terrier-Improved OrionSuper Soaker (Atmospheric research)Poker Flats (Alaska)Success
3/25/18Terrier-Improved MalemuteUSIP (Student payloads)Wallops Island (Virginia)Success
3/31/18Black Brant IXASPIRE (Mars 2020 supersonic parachute)Wallops Island (Virginia)Success
04/04/18Black Brant IXDXL-3 (X-ray astronomy)Kwajalein Atoll (Marshall Islands)Success
04/06/18RH-300 Mk-IIIonospheric researchTERLS (India)Success
04/16/18Black Brant IXCHESS-4 (UV astronomy)Kwajalein Atoll (Marshall Islands)Success
04/29/18New ShepardMicrogravity experimentsCorn Ranch (Texas)Success
05/13/18VSB-30TEXUS-54 (Microgravity experiments)Esrange (Sweden)Success
05/17/18OS-XBooster test launchUndisclosed (China)Success
05/29/18Black Brant IXHi-C 2-1 (Solar research)White Sands (New Mexio)Success
05/31/18VSB-30TEXUS-55 (Microgravity experiments)Esrange (Sweden)Success
06/18/18Black Brant IXEVE (Solar Dynamics Observatory calibration)White Sands (New Mexico)Success
06/21/18Terrier -Improved OrionRockOn (Student payloads)Wallops Island (Virginia)Success
06/28/18Momo-2Booster test launchTaiki (Japan)Failure

Blue Origin’s New Shepard flight at the end of April was the most followed of the suborbital launches. The vehicle carried a variety of experiments and an instrumented test dummy named Mannequin Skywalker.

On March 31, NASA tested a supersonic parachute for its Mars 2020 mission. The payload was launched aboard a Black Brant IX rocket from Wallops Island in Virginia.

The OS-X launch on May 17 involved a successful test of the first stage of a new launch vehicle being privately developed by the Chinese startup company One Space. The booster reached an altitude of 40 km (24.85 miles).

Momo-2, a privately-developed booster built by Interstellar Technologies of Japan, fell back on its launch paid seconds after liftoff from the Taiki Aerospace Research Field on June 28. Momo-2 is designed to orbit satellite, but it was making a suborbital test flight on this occasion.