Space 2023: SpaceX’s Starship Leads List of Two Dozen New Launchers That Could Fly This Year

Starship/Super Heavy on the launch pad at Boca Chica, Texas. (Credit: SpaceX)

Part 3 of a Series

SpaceX’s massive Starship/Super Heavy launcher leads a list of more than two dozen new launch vehicles that could have their maiden flights this year. The manifest included new launchers from established players Arianespace and United Launch Alliance as well as scrappy startups across the globe. Payload capacities to low Earth orbit range from 100 metric tons down to 65 kg.

With the caveat that launch schedules are notoriously unreliable, and that not all of these boosters will launch this year, let’s take a look at what lies ahead in 2023.

Super Heavy/Starship system in flight. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX’s Big Rocket

The most anticipated launch of the new year is SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy booster from the company’s Starbase facility in south Texas. Starship will land in the ocean off the coast of Hawaii without completing a full orbit around Earth.

SpaceX’s fully-reusable system is designed to lift at least 100 metric tons into low Earth orbit and radically reduce launch costs. The company will eventually attempt to land Super Heavy back on the launch pad where it lifted off.

The success of the giant two-stage launcher is critical to NASA’s Artemis lunar program and Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars. SpaceX is developing a version of Starship to land astronauts at the Moon’s south pole no earlier than 2025.

Yusaku Maezawa at SpaceX headquarters. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has booked a trip around the moon on Starship for himself and eight selected individuals. The mission is on the books for this year, but there is a high probability it will slip into 2024 or later given that the rockets haven’t flown yet.

New Boosters for a New Year

In addition to SpaceX, four other large launch vehicles are scheduled to make maiden flights this year.

Launch Vehicle Maiden Flights, 2023

Company/AgencyLaunch VehicleCapacityRetiring Launch Vehicle(s)
USA
SpaceXStarship/Super Heavy100,000 kg LEON/A
United Launch AllianceVulcan Centaur27,200 kg LEO, 14,400 kg GTOAtlas V, Delta IV Heavy
Blue OriginNew Glenn45,000 kg LEO, 13,600 kg GTON/A
EUROPE
ArianespaceAriane 621,650 kg LEO, 11,500 kg GTOAriane 5
JAPAN
JAXAH34,000 kg SSO, 7,900 kg GTOH-IIA

United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur’s maiden flight will carry Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lunar lander. NASA is paying the Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic to transport experiments and technology demonstrators to the moon under its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

Vulcan Centaur will also carry the KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 communications satellites for Amazon’s Kuiper constellation. Jeff Bezos’ company will eventually consist of 3,236 satellites.

Artist’s conception of Vulcan Centaur rocket. (Credit: ULA)

Amazon also plans to launch Kuiper satellites aboard Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. (Both companies were founded by Bezos.) New Glenn’s maiden flight could be conducted this year, although it might slip into 2024.

Ariane 6’s maiden launch has been delayed until the fourth quarter due to development delays. There are only two more Ariane 5 launches planned before the rocket is retired.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has scheduled the inaugural flight of its H3 booster for Feb. 12. The rocket will replace the H-IIA launch vehicle that is being retired, and the H-IIB that was already retired.

RS1 booster on the launch pad. (Credit: ABL Space Systems)

The Big Three

Here we will take a look at smaller launch vehicles being developed by American, Chinese and Russian companies. These three nations conducted 93 percent of all orbital launch attempts last year.

American, Chinese and Russian Launch Vehicle Maiden Flights, 2023

CompanyLaunch VehicleCapacityNotes
USA
ABL SpaceRS11,350 kg LEOLaunch planned for January
Relativity SpaceTerran 11,479 kg LEO, 898 kg SSO3D printed rocket
Astra SpaceRocket 4.0300 kg LEO, 200 kg SSOLaunch could slip into 2024
Phantom SpaceDaytona450 kg LEOSchedule uncertain
CHINA
Rocket PiDarwin-1270 kg LEO, 150 kg SSOReusable launch vehicle
OrienspaceGravity-13,000 kg LEO
i-SpaceHyperbola-21,900 kg LEO2 stage liquid-fueled, reusable rocket
Galactic EnergyPallas-15,000 kg LEO
CAS SpaceZK-23,550 kg SSO
RUSSIA
RoscosmosIrtysh (Soyuz 5)18,000 kg (uncrewed) LEO, 15,500 kg (crewed) LEO, 5,000 kg GTO

ABL Space is preparing to launch its RS1 rocket from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska later this month after multiple unsuccessful attempts at the end of last year. The launch window runs from Jan. 9-13.

Relativity Space’s Terran One is built using additive manufacturing (3D printing). Other launch providers have developed parts using 3D printing, but not an entire booster.

Russia’s Irtysh rocket, also known as Soyuz 5, is being developed to replace several boosters. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ended cooperation between the two nations on the Zenit family of launchers. (Zenit’s first stage is built in Ukraine.) Irtysh will also fill a gap left when Russia decided to scrap plans for the Proton Medium and Angara A3 boosters.

RFA One launcher in flight (Credit: Rocket Factory)

Europe

There is a lot of activity in Europe these days as companies develop new launch vehicles and spaceports are built in the United Kingdom, Sweden and Norway to support them.

European Launch Vehicle Maiden Flights, 2023

CompanyLaunch VehicleCapacityNotes
UK
OrbexPrime150 kg SSOLaunches from Space Hub Sutherland (Scotland)
SkyroraSkyrora XL315 kg SSOLaunches from SaxaVord (Scotland), Spaceport Nova Scotia
GERMANY
Rocket Factory AugsburgRFA One1,300 kg SSOLaunches from Andoya (Norway), French Guiana
Isar AerospaceSpectrum1,00 kg LEO, 700 kg SSOLaunches from Andoya (Norway), French Guiana

European governments have embraced “New Space” by providing new launch facilities. Projects include:

  • opening up Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana to Rocket Factory Augsburg and Isar Space,
  • building orbital launch facilities at Andoya in Norway and Esrange in Sweden, where only suborbital sounding rockets have been flown,
  • building the SaxaVord and SpaceHub Sutherland spaceports in Scotland for vertical launches, and
  • granting a spaceport license to Newquay Cornwall Airport in England, where Virgin Galactic will operate its air-launch service.

The German Aerospace Center is funding the launch of satellites aboard Rocket Factory Augsburg and Isar Aerospace rockets. European governments are also funding research into reusable launch vehicles.

Launch of Blue Whale 0.1 rocket. (Credit: Perigee Aerospace)

India, Japan & Asia Pacific Launchers

New launch vehicles are being developed in Japan, India, Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

Launch Vehicle Maiden Flights, 2023

Company/AgencyLaunch VehicleCapacityNotes
JAPAN
JAXAEpsilon S1,400 kg LEO, 600 kg SSONew 1st & 3rd stages, performance enhancements
Interstellar TechnologiesZERO100 kg SSO
Space OneKairos150 kg SSO
INDIA
Skyroot AerospaceVikram I480 kg LEOSkyroot conducted India’s first private launch with Vikram-S suborbital rocket in November
Agnikul CosmosAgnibaan100 kg LEOBuilt 1st private launch pad in India at ISRO spaceport
AUSTRALIA
Gilmour Space TechnologiesEris Block 1305 LEO, 215 kg SSO
SOUTH KOREA
Perigee AerospaceBlue Whale 165 kg LEO, 50 kg SSOLaunched Blue Whale 0.1 suborbital rocket last year
TAIWAN
TiSPACEHapith V390 kg LEO, 350 kg SSO

Epsilon S will be an upgraded version of the Epsilon solid-fuel booster that Japan uses to launch smaller payloads. Epsilon’s first stage is a modified version of the SRB-A3 motor used by the H-IIA rocket that is being retired once the H3 booster is operational. The Epsilon S first stage will be a modified version of the SRB-3 strap-on motor developed for the H3 booster. Epsilon S will also have a newly designed third stage.

Staff members pose with the first Terran rocket at the launch pad in Florida. (Credit: Relativity Space)

How Many is Enough?

It will be interesting to see how many of these launch vehicles actually fly this year. Some will succeed. Others will fail — an outcome that is not unusual for maiden launches.

The question hanging over all of these ventures is how many launch vehicles will the market support. There are probably too many rockets chasing too few satellites. And there is competition for established launch providers.

On Tuesday, SpaceX launched its sixth Transporter rideshare mission with 114 satellites aboard. The company has launched 550 payloads on Transporter missions since January 2021. These missions have been great for satellite operators, but have made matters much more difficult for companies developing small launch vehicles. SpaceX is not the only company offering rideshare and secondary payload opportunities on large rockets.

The world is entering a launch vehicle bubble. And all bubbles pop, eventually. When they do, business failures and consolidations are the order of the day.

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