Space Year Review 2012: Launch vehicles – Falcon 9, Delta IV and Soyuz show robustness in mishaps but not so for Safir or Proton

by | Jan 3, 2013 | Seradata News | 0 comments

According to the Flightglobal SpaceTrak database, at 78 orbital launch attempts in 2012, there were six less launches than in the previous year. With 139 spacecraft on these flights (Shenzhou 9’s orbital module is counted as an autonomous spacecraft) there were two more launched in the year compared to 2011.This increase is mainly as a result of an increase in the number of small satellites of under 100kg (38 in 2012 compared to 23 in 2011) which were often launched as multiple payloads.  

There were six failures:two Russian Proton failures, two Iranian Safir failures (not acknowledged by Iran), one North Korean Unha 3 failure and one US Falcon 9 failure though this flight was partially successful. With respect to national flights,Russia took top position with 24 attempts (two failures) China maintaining the runner up spot. China matched its 19 launch attempt record in 2012 but went one better than the previous year by having no failures. USA was a distant third with 13 (1 partial failure).

Probably the most significant launch, in terms of international politics, was the first confirmed orbital success of North Korea’s Uhna-3 rocket in December (after its April launch failure) – though the Kwangmyongsong 3-2 satellite payload showed no signs of working once it reached orbit. The implication of this first successful North Korean orbital launch is that a significant nuclear weapon payload could be launched by such a rocket onto nearby nations, even if its three-stage liquid fuel configuration makes quick and stealthy launches difficult to achieve. With warhead miniaturisation, even the USA could be theoretically be reached using a ballistic or fractional orbital bombardment technique.

Launch vehicle reliability year was characterised by some notable successes and also some embarrassing failures. Iran, using similar launch vehicle technology to North Korea, was unable to achieve success and had two unannounced failures of its Safir 2 launch vehicles in May and September respectively.

The Metop B launch by a Soyuz 2-1A Fregat rocket had a stage velocity shortfall which was rectified by its upper stage. The launch of GPS IIF-3 by a Delta IVM+ 4,2 had a similar escape when its upper stage RL-10 engine had less thrust than expected. Fortunately, the on-board flight control systems compensated for the lower thrust levels and the satellite reached the correct orbit.

Probably the “greatest escape” was that of the Dragon CRS-3 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) which still made it to orbit despite an engine blow out during its Falcon 9 ascent. Luckily, the remaining eight Merlin 1C first stage engines had enough performance to get this prime payload into its correct orbit. Its lower priority Orbcomm OG2-01 communications satellite co-payload was not so lucky as there was not enough fuel to get it to its right orbit. Nevertheless, industry observers were impressed by the robustness of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. While there were other issues with the lack of radiation hardness of some of  Dragon spacecraft’s systems, NASA gained confidence that SpaceX would be able to move cargo to and from the ISS on a safe and regular basis giving it a lead over its Orbital Sciences competitor which has yet to launch its Antares rocket.

Less fortunate than SpaceX was Khrunichev and its International Launch Services marketing partner after an upper stage fault on their Proton M/Breeze M rocket stranded two communications satellites, Telkom 3 and Express-MD 2, in useless orbits.   Worse was to come for this derivative rocket from the 1960s. In November, the Proton M’s Breeze M (Briz-M) upper stage underperformed again, this time stranding the Yamal 402 spacecraft. Fortunately, the Yamal 402 spacecfaft was able to use its own propulsion system to recover itself to its correct orbital location, albeit with some loss of lifespan. Nevertheless, questions are being asked about the Breeze M upper stage design and its quality control.  With its not improving failure rate and with its increasing cost base (caused by high Russian inflation) the Proton M launch vehicle’s marketing firm, International Launch Services, is having its work cut out just trying to hold market share against its competitors.   Hopes are higher for its much delayed replacement, the Angara launch vehicle which is due to enter service in 2014.

Of the other main launch providers, Arianespace had a good year with a pretty full order book and seven successful flights of its main Ariane 5 ECA workhorse and the Ariane 5 has now had an impressive run of 53 flight successes to date. During the year, Arianespace also had further two good Soyuz launches and Vega’s successful maiden flight. Arianespace finallly received the green light from the European Space Agency’s formal council meeting in Naples to proceed with its Midlife Evolution upgrade to the Ariane 5 while also moving ahead with the preliminary design of the Ariane 6.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) continues to add to its bulging commercial order book with notable orders arriving from the US Air Force. While the Falcon 9 launch vehicle has a smaller payload than its main competitors, it benefited from a move to smaller “all electric” commercial communications satellites. However, while satellite operators are attracted to the new low-cost outfit, its overfull schedule has led some to take out back up reservations with other launch providers in case their launch is delayed. Sea Launch became a beneficiary of this.  

Sea Launch itself had some bad news after Intelsat 19’s solar array damage was initially being blamed on its Zenit 3-SL (Sea Launch) flight in June. However, it all turned out well in the end as a formal investigation later found that the rocket was in the clear and that a design/manufacturing error by Space Systems/Loral that was the cause. Sea Launch managed two more successful flights.

With respect to larger rockets, as the Space Shuttle orbiters were retired to their museums, the NASA heavy-lift Space Launch System SLS), had its Space Shuttle main engine RS-25D/E configuration confirmed though the design of its advanced boosters has not yet been confirmed. NASA provided funding to retire some of the risk of the competing designs with a booster using a derivative Saturn V’s F1 engine produced by the Dynetics/Rocketdyne team becoming the main liquid fuel contender against  ATK’s advanced solid rocket booster.

The quest for reusability had a mixed year. While the US Air Force pulled out of its programme researching liquid reusable flyback boosters, Russia continues with its efforts concentrating on LOx (liquid Oxygen)/Methane engines for just such a purpose. That propellant combination figured again when Elon Musk, leader of SpaceX noted that his firm was pressing ahead with fully reusable launch vehicles and would use lox/methane burning engines to do so, with the hope of one day reaching Mars with such technology. To test the concept of reusable stages, SpaceX began test flights of its Grasshopper test vehicle.

Finally, in the United Kingdom, Reaction Engines whose slow-burn project to build a reusable space plane is now over 20 years old, finally announced that it had completed its ESA-sponsored test of its pre-cooler heat exchanger which it promises will revolutionise the aerospace and other industries. 

The writer of this article, David Todd, has a small shareholding in Reaction Engines. Phil Hylands contributed to this article. 

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