2023 has been another year with a record number of orbital launches


Enlarge / A solid-fueled Ceres 1 rocket, developed by the Chinese company Galactic Energy, fires away from an ocean-going launch platform in the Yellow Sea on September 5.

Led by SpaceX and China, the world’s launch providers have put more rockets and payloads into orbit so far in 2023 than in any prior year, continuing an upward trend in launch activity over the last five years.

On Sunday, the Transportation Security Administration reported that it screened more than 2.9 million airline passengers making their way through US airports after Thanksgiving. It was the busiest day in history for US airports.

A few days earlier, the world’s spaceports set a new record with the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with another batch of Starlink Internet satellites from Florida. This launch on November 22 was the 180th launch of 2023 to put its payload into orbit, eclipsing the mark of 179 successful orbital launches from last year.

Global launch activity stagnated after the end of the Cold War, when Russia, and to a lesser extent the United States, cut back on their military space programs. For nearly 30 years, the record number of orbital launches in a calendar year stood at 129, a tally from 1984. In 2005, only 52 rockets made their way into orbit.

There were 135 successful orbital launches in 2021, then 179 in 2022, and as of Wednesday, there have been 183 so far in 2023, with the world on pace for roughly 200 by the end of December. If you include SpaceX’s two Starship test flights, which could have accelerated to near orbital velocity, there have been 11 launch attempts this year that fell short of reaching orbit.

Massive numbers

SpaceX is leading the way with 87 orbital launches of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets—all successful—plus the two Starship test flights. This is nearly half of the world’s total number of launches. About two-thirds of SpaceX’s launches have carried satellites into space for the Starlink broadband network.

China has launched 54 orbital missions so far this year: 53 successes and one failure. Russia is in third place at 15 orbital launches. Ars will revisit these numbers at the end of the year to see if SpaceX reaches its goal of 100 launches in 2023 and if the worldwide number climbs to 200.

You can bet on more than 200 launches in 2024 if SpaceX achieves its goal of flying 12 times per month next year, which would give the company 144 launches during the course of the year. China’s launch tally next year will likely be similar to this year’s number.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket streaks into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on November 22. This mission was the 180th launch of the year to successfully reach orbit.
Enlarge / A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket streaks into orbit from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on November 22. This mission was the 180th launch of the year to successfully reach orbit.

SpaceX

It will probably only go up from there. SpaceX will launch the giant Starship rocket in parallel with continued flights of the smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. China plans to launch large “mega-constellations” of communications and broadband satellites in the coming years. This will require more flights by that country’s stable of launchers.

The deployment of Amazon’s Kuiper Internet satellites will also drive an uptick in launches. After putting its first two Kuiper test satellites into orbit last month, Amazon has contracts for 76 more commercial launches: 46 with United Launch Alliance for Vulcan and Atlas V missions, 18 with Arianespace for Ariane 6 rockets, and 12 New Glenn missions booked with Blue Origin, with a contract option for 15 more.

While the number of launches is clearly on the rise, it’s also constructive to consider how much mass is going into orbit. BryceTech, an analytics and research firm focused on the space industry, reported that all of the world’s launches placed more than 1,000 metric tons—2.2 million pounds—of payload mass into orbit from January 1 through September 30, the first three quarters of the year.

More than 80 percent of this payload mass was launched by SpaceX, primarily to populate the Starlink network with more satellites. Each Falcon 9 launch with a full load of 23 second-generation Starlink satellites represents the heaviest payload that a single SpaceX rocket has sent into orbit. A stack of 23 second-gen Starlinks weighs more than 40,000 pounds, or about 18.4 metric tons. The payloads on these Starlink launches add up.

Among space-faring nations, China is comfortably in second place in terms of the number of launches and payload mass deployed into orbit. All of China’s rockets delivered a little more than 80 metric tons of payload into orbit through the first nine months of the year, according to BryceTech, about a tenth of the mass hauled into orbit by SpaceX.

Through September 30, the world’s launch operators had collectively hauled about the same mass into orbit in nine months as they did during all of 2022, according to BryceTech’s analysis.



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