Update December 18th: 9:30AM ET: It seems that Rocket Tuesday is shifting to Rocket Wednesday. SpaceX’s launch has also been postponed until Wednesday. ULA’s Delta IV Heavy is the only rocket still scheduled to fly today.
Update December 18th: 8:56AM ET: And then there were two: Blue Origin also delayed its flight due to issues with the rocket’s ground infrastructure.
Update December 18th, 8:21AM ET: Already this Rocket Tuesday is down to three launches instead of four. Arianespace’s Soyuz launch has been delayed 24 hours due to high-altitude winds above the launch site.
Original Story: The space industry is rocketing through the last few weeks of 2018. Today, there are four rockets slated to launch from locations all over the Western Hemisphere. Thanks to how the orbital mechanics of these flights worked out, you could potentially watch a launch during breakfast, lunch, and dinner (depending on when you eat your meals, of course).
Here are the four rocket missions set for takeoff today, including what they’re launching and how to watch them.
First Breakfast: SpaceX’s Falcon 9
What is it launching? SpaceX is launching its latest national security payload for the US Air Force — a satellite called GPS III SV01. The satellite was originally scheduled to fly on a Delta IV rocket made by the United Launch Alliance, but the Air Force decided to switch it over to a Falcon 9. Once in orbit, the satellite will join the current constellation used for GPS, ensuring it stays operational.
Where is this happening? The mission is taking place from SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
When can I watch? SpaceX’s launch window lasts from 9:11AM ET to 9:35AM ET, so the Falcon 9 can take off within that timeframe. Typically, the company’s live streams get started 15 to 20 minutes prior to takeoff. (Update: SpaceX had to delay the launch to Wednesday, after a strange sensor reading triggered an abort of the final countdown sequence.)
Anything else? Unfortunately for SpaceX fans, there won’t be a signature Falcon 9 landing after this flight. SpaceX needs all the fuel it can muster to get this satellite to space, so the company isn’t saving any leftover propellant to perform a landing. The rocket doesn’t have any landing legs or grid fins needed for steering, ensuring this vehicle is going bye bye after launch.
But, this flight does mark the last mission of the year for SpaceX, and if it’s successful, it will bring the company’s total 2018 launch count to 21. That’s the most missions SpaceX has ever done in a year, beating a record 18 launches from 2017.
Second Breakfast: Blue Origin’s New Shepard
What is launching? Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight venture Blue Origin plans to do another test flight this week, as early as Tuesday morning. The company is planning to fly its New Shepard suborbital rocket again. The vehicle is designed to fly to the edge of space, and then land back on Earth. Ultimately, Blue Origin wants to fly tourists to space with the vehicle, and the company has been flying the New Shepard multiple times in preparation of the first crewed flights.
This flight won’t be carrying people, but it will carry a handful of research payloads from various universities and NASA centers — a deal arranged through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. One will measure the electromagnetic fields surrounding the New Shepard vehicle during flight, while another will test out how to measure rocket fuel in microgravity. And if the flight is like previous New Shepard launches, it seems likely the company will have a test dummy on board — one appropriately named Mannequin Skywalker.
Where is this happening? Blue Origin flies the New Shepard out of the company’s launch facility in Van Horn, Texas.
When can I watch? Blue Origin will have a live stream of the flight. The once very secretive company used to never stream test flights, but then started to get into the habit of live-streaming them a few years ago. Blue Origin is aiming to fly at 9:30AM ET on Tuesday, but if necessary they could launch later in the week. A notice from the Federal Aviation Administration says that Blue Origin can launch between 9AM ET and 3PM ET any day from December 18th through December 20th. (Update: This is no longer happening on Tuesday. Blue Origin may try again on Wednesday.)
Anything else? This will be the third test flight of the year for Blue Origin, potentially with the same New Shepard vehicle. Blue Origin retired its last New Shepard in 2016, after launching and landing it five times. Since then, the company has been flying an upgraded version of the New Shepard that is easier to reuse and sports actual windows. That particular vehicle has launched three times so far, and this week, it could go to space and back a fourth time.
However, we’re still waiting for the next big milestone: when people fly on a New Shepard for the first time. Blue Origin is aiming for that to take place in 2019, and will use a brand-new vehicle for the job — one that is rated for carrying crew. That vehicle, the fourth New Shepard rocket that the company will fly, is already at Blue Origin’s West Texas launch facility.
(Early) Lunch: Arianespace’s Soyuz
What is it launching? Europe’s main launch provider, Arianespace, is sending up a military satellite for France, using a Soyuz rocket. The satellite is called CSO-1, and it’s the first of three identical satellites that France will use for surveillance, imaging the Earth for national security. The satellite will also be accessible to multiple European nations, including Germany, Sweden, and Belgium. Italy may even join in the near future.
Where is this happening? The flight is taking place from Arianespace’s South American launch facility in French Guiana.
When can I watch? Liftoff is scheduled for 11:37AM ET, and Arianespace should have a live stream on its YouTube channel before takeoff. (Update: this is now scheduled for December 19th.)
Anything else? This is also Arianespace’s last launch of the year, bringing the company’s total missions to 11 for 2018.
(Late) Dinner: ULA’s Delta IV Heavy
What is it launching? The military’s primary launch provider, the United Launch Alliance, is planning to launch its most powerful vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy. On the rocket is a classified satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office called NROL-71. Since it’s classified we don’t know much about it, though we do have one of the NRO’s intense mission patches — which sports an angry-looking eagle.
Where is this happening? The Delta IV Heavy is slated to take off out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
When can I watch? The launch is set for 8:57PM ET. Originally, this mission was supposed to happen two weeks ago, but ULA ran into a number of issues leading up to the flight. Hopefully those problems have been solved, and the Delta IV Heavy can make it to space this evening.
Anything else? As is the case for all the above companies, this is the last launch of the year for ULA. If it goes up, it will be the company’s ninth mission of 2018. However, weather is looking the worst for this launch, with only a 20 percent chance of favorable conditions.
The perfect storm
Four launches in a day may seem like a lot, but this isn’t the first time we’ve had such a gathering of rockets before. In fact, there have been at least three instances in which four rockets have launched to orbit within a 24-hour period, according Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and avid spaceflight statistician. The most recent perfect storm happened in 1989, says McDowell, when a Japanese H-1 rocket, two Soyuz rockets, and a US Titan 23G rocket launched to orbit between September 5th and September 6th.
All of those went to orbit, though, while the New Shepard that is launching today is only suborbital. And when it comes to suborbital records, those are much different. There have been times when upwards of 30 suborbital sounding rockets have launched from the same site within the same day, says McDowell. However, it’s possible that we may still match the four-launch record for a single day. On December 19th, an Indian GSLV rocket is slated to fly to orbit at 5:30AM ET — less than 24 hours after SpaceX is supposed to fly. If the GSLV and all the other orbital rockets launch on time, then that’s four launches within a day, once again.
Luckily, space enthusiasts might not have to wait years for the next four-launch day. There are dozens of orbital launch sites all over the globe, and more and more commercial players entering the field. And when you add in suborbital players like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, that only increases the chances of simultaneous launch dates. With all that activity, days of four-plus launches are a definite possibility in the future.