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Quarterly Launch Report: US in the Lead Thanks to SpaceX

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 5, 2021
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A Falcon 9 lifts off with 60 Starlink satellites on March 11, 2021. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

Orbital Launches, First Quarter 2021

United States13013

China launched eight times with one failure. Russia launched five times and India once. Europe and Japan are not on the board yet.

Launches by Booster

Credit: SpaceX

U.S. Launches
Record: 13-0

SpaceX led all providers with nine launches of the Falcon 9, accounting for one-third of the global total. Seven of those flights carried 420 Starlink broadband satellites, helping to raise the number of spacecraft launched to 1,385 with 1,321 still in orbit.

Launch VehicleNationSuccessesFailuresTotal
Falcon 9USA909
Long March 4CChina404
Long March 3BChina202
Long March 7AChina101

A Falcon 9 launched the Turksat 5A satellite on Jan. 7. The spacecraft is providing Ku-band television broadcast services to Turkey and other nations in the region.

On Jan. 24, a Falcon 9 launched a world record 143 satellites on its Transporter-1 rideshare mission. The payloads included 120 CubeSats, 11 microsatellites, 10 Starlink satellites, and 2 transfer stages.

SpaceX has additional Transporter missions planned for later this year. The company’s entry into the small satellite rideshare market has put pressure on smaller launch providers like Rocket Lab, which announced plans to develop a larger booster than the small Electron the company now operates.

The Transporter-1 mission marked the quickest turnaround — 27 days — between flights of a Falcon 9 first stage. A first stage flew for a record ninth time during the Starlink 21 mission on March 14.

A Falcon 9 first stage after touching down on a drone ship. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

On March 4 , SpaceX recovered its 75th first stage. The company landed eight of the nine Falcon 9 first stages in the first quarter. A first stage used to launch 60 Stalink satellites on Feb. 15 missed the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship due to an early engine shutdown.

Launches by Other U.S. Companies

Antares lifts off from Wallops Island with the Cygnus resupply ship on Feb. 20, 2021. (Credit: NASA Wallops/Allison Stancil)

Three other American companies — Northrop Grumman, Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab — conducted a total of four launches in the first quarter.

On Feb 20, a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket launched a Cygnus freighter to the International Space Station (ISS). It was the 15th operational Cygnus resupply mission.

Virgin Orbit scored its first successful launch on Jan. 17. A LauncherOne booster orbited 10 CubeSats for NASA after being dropped over the Pacific Ocean from the company’s Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl jetliner.

LauncherOne ignites after being dropped from Cosmic Girl. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

The launch was conducted under NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program. The 10 payloads were part of the space agency’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites program.

It was Virgin Orbit’s second launch. The company suffered a failure on LauncherOne’s first flight in May 2020 when a propellant line broke.

On Feb. 2, Rocket Lab Electron booster launched the GMS-T communications satellite for OHB Group of Germany from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. OHB said little about the purpose of the satellite.

Electron launches with OHB satellite. (Credit: Rocket Lab webcast)

On March 22, an Electron launched seven payloads, including:

  • BlackSky optical Earth observation satellite;
  • Rocket Lab’s Photon Pathstone mission;
  • M2 CubeSat spacecraft for the University of New South Wales and the Royal Australian Air Force;
  • Centauri 3 data relay satellite for Fleet Space Technologies;
  • Veery Hatchling weather technology demonstration CubeSat for Care Weather Technologies;
  • Myriota 7 data relay satellite for Myriota; and
  • Gunsmoke-J technology demonstration satellite for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command.

Photon Pathstone is a modified Electron Kick Stage equipped with power management, thermal control, attitude control subsystems, reaction control system, deep-space radio, star trackers and other technology that allow it to function as a separate satellite.

Illustration of the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE). (Credit: Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems)

Photon Pathstone is designed as a precursor to test systems for NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) mission. Later this year, the CAPSTONE spacecraft will be placed in an elliptical orbit around the moon that will be later used for the human-tended lunar Gateway.

“As a precursor for Gateway, a Moon-orbiting outpost that is part of NASA’s Artemis program, CAPSTONE will help reduce risk for future spacecraft by validating innovative navigation technologies and verifying the dynamics of this halo-shaped orbit,” NASA said.

Chinese Launches
Record: 7-1

Long March 3B rocket lifts off with Tiantong-1 03 satellite. (Credit: Zhang Yiyi)

China has set a goal of launching more than 40 times this year, The total would exceed the 39 launch attempts the nation made in both 2018 and 2020.

In the first quarter, China notched seven successful launches and one failure. At least half of China’s launches carried military payloads. Nine Yaogan 31 military reconnaissance satellites were launched on three separate Long March 4C rockets in January, February and March.

On Feb. 4, a Long March 3B launched the TJS 6 test satellite from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The spacecraft is believed to be a military early warning satellite.

On March 13, China conducted the first successful launch of its Long March 7A rocket one year after the variant failed during its maiden flight. The booster launched the Shiyan 9 experimental satellite, which official state media said would be used “for in-orbit tests of new technologies, including space environment monitoring.”

It was the Long March 7 booster family’s third success in four flights. Long March 7A differs from Long March 7 in that it uses a liquid third stage from the Long March 3B to launch communications satellites to geosynchronous orbit.

The Long March 7A rocket lifts off on March 12, 2021. (Credit: Wu Tong Xiaoyu)

China plans for the Long March 7 to replace the Long March 2F booster that is currently used to launch crewed Shenzhou spacecraft. Long March 7 will also launch Tianzhou cargo ships to China’s first permanent space station. The Tianhe-1 core module of the country’s first permanent space station at the end of April.

On Jan. 19, a Long March 3B rocket orbited the Tiantong 1-03 mobile communications satellite. The spacecraft is being used along with two earlier Tiantong spacecraft to provide mobile voice, short message and data services to the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and African regions.

A Long March 4C launched the Gaofen 12-02 Earth observation from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center on March 31. Chinese media said the satellite will be used for urban planning, land surveys, crop yield estimates, road network design and disaster planning.

China’s lone launch failure came on Feb. 1 when iSpace’s four-stage Hyperbola-1 booster veered off course after liftoff from Jiuquan. The rocket was carrying several unidentified payloads.

iSpace company said an errand piece of foam insulation designed to fall cleanly off the booster instead impeded the function of one of four grid fins on Hyperbola-1’s first stage. When the foam later broke free, it changed the angle of the grid fin and caused the booster to fly out of control.

It was the second launch attempt for the nominally private company. In July 2019, a Hyperbola-1 booster successfully orbited several payloads, becoming the first non-governmental organization to accomplish that task.

Observers said the Hyperbola-1 rocket featured wider second, third and fourth stages than those used for the first launch. The upgraded booster is capable of placing payloads weighing up to 300 kg in a 310-mile high sun synchronous orbit.

Russian Launches
Record: 5-0

Soyuz-2 rocket launches from Vostochny with 36 OneWeb satellites. (Credit: Roscosmos, Space Center Vostochny, TsENKI)

Russia launched variants of its venerable Soyuz booster five times during the first quarter. Russian government missions included:

  • Arktika-M1 weather/emergency communications spacecraft;
  • Lotos-S1 electronic intelligence satellite; and
  • Progress 77P resupply ship to ISS.

On March 22, a Soyuz booster launched 38 satellites from 18 nations as part of a rideshare mission managed by GK Launch Services.

The largest payload was the Korean Aerospace Research Institute’s (KARI) CAS500 1 Earth observation satellite. The 500-kg satellite includes a high-resolution electro optical payload for returning images from low earth orbit.

Other notable payloads on the flight included:

  • Astroscale’s ELSA-d active debris removal demonstration spacecraft;
  • four Earth-imaging microsatellites for Axelspace of Japan;
  • two wideband and high data-rate communications satellite for Kepler Communications of Canada;
  • first spacecraft of Sateliot’s 96-satellite Internet of Things (IoT) constellation;
  • three Technion ADELIS-SAMSON satellites designed to demonstrate long-term autonomous cluster flights of multiple spacecraft;
  • four Beesat technology demonstration satellites for the Technical University of Berlin;
  • GAUSS SRL’s UNISAT-7 spacecraft carrier, which separately deployed six nanosatellites; and
  • IoT satellites for Lacuna Space, Hiber Global and TELNET of Tunisia.

On March 25, a Soyuz launched 36 OneWeb broadband satellites. It was the fifth Soyuz launch for OneWeb, bringing the total number of satellites launched to 146. The company’s initial constellation will consist of 648 spacecraft.

Indian Launch
Record: 1-0

PLSV-C51 launches with the Amazonia-1 satellite. (Credit: ISRO)

On. Feb. 28, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle orbited Brazil’s Amazonia-1 Earth observation satellite. The spacecraft carries an optical camera to monitor deforestation and other environmental changes in the Amazon region.

The launch also carried 18 secondary payloads:

  • 12 SpaceBEE communications satellites for U.S.-based Swarm Technologies;
  • 3 UNITYsats with amateur radio and IoT technology jointly developed by Jeppiaar Institute of Technology, Sriperumbudur; G.H. Raisoni College of Engineering, Nagpur; and Sri Shakti Institute of Engineering and Technology, Coimbatore;
  • Sindhu Netra ship tracking satellite for the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation;
  • SAI-1 NanoConnect-2 technology demonstration satellite built by the National Autonomous University of Mexico; and
  • Satish Dhawan Sat designed to study space radiation by Space Kidz India.

Launches by Spaceport

An aerial view of the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and Launch Control Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 13, 2021. (Credits: NASA/Ben Smegelsky)

Florida’s Space Coast remained the busiest launch range in the world with seven flights from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and two more from the adjoining Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX conducted all nine launches.

Launch SiteLocationSuccessesFailuresTotal
Cape CanaveralUSA707
Kennedy Space CenterUSA202
Mahia PeninsulaNew Zealand202
Satish DhawanIndia101
Wallops IslandUSA101

U.S.-based Rocket Lab launched twice from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. Northrop Grumman launched the Antares booster from Wallops Island in Virginia.

The Mojave Air and Space Port supported its first orbital launch on Jan. 17 when Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl took off with LauncherOne under its wing.

Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl Boeing 747 takes off from the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

China divided its eight launches between the Jiuquan (5), Xichang (2) and Wenchang (1) spaceports.

Russia launched three times from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and one time each from the Plesetsk and Vostochny cosmodromes in Russia.

India’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre hosted its only launch on Feb. 28.