Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Week Of Advances In Access to Space

Cygnus/Antares launch on January 9, 2014 from the Mid-Atlantic Space Coast
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The past week was the first full week of 2014 and it featured at least four significant events advancing capabilities to enter space more affordably.

On Sunday, January 5, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) succeeded in launching its Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV), including its domestically developed cryogenic upper stage, after several previous troubled attempts. This launch vehicle increases India's capabilities to launch payloads into space and to compete for commercial launch contracts.

One day later, on Monday, January 6, SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket carrying the Thaicom 6 commercial telecommunications satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit, one month after executing its first launch of a commercial communications satellite. This launch helps to build SpaceX's track record in competitively conducting launches, potentially shaking up the global launch market and enabling more affordable access to space.

On Thursday, January 9, Orbital Sciences Corporation successfully launched the Cygnus/Antares launch vehicle on its first operational cargo delivery to the International Space Station (ISS) (following the demonstration cargo delivery last September). The cargo delivered to the ISS on Sunday, January 12 included ISS supplies, student science experiments, the 28 small satellites for Planet Labs' commercial remote sensing constellation and belated Christmas gifts. The launch was delayed several times from mid-December by ISS repairs and terrestrial and space weather conditions.

Finally, on Friday, January 10, Virgin Galactic successfully conducted the third powered flight test of its SpaceShipTwo commercial suborbital space vehicle. SpaceShipTwo did not go high enough to enter space during this test flight, but it was an important step toward achieving that goal. Once test flights are completed, Virgin plans to start carrying paying passengers and research payloads (possibly later this year).

Progress in space endeavors, including the growing commercial space industry, is dependent on continued technical progress, financial backing and forward looking public policy. Still, 2014 is off to a good start in the continuing growth of space enterprise.

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