Watch: Big year in space travel

2023 was a great year to be a space rocket enthusiast, with a record number of launches and exciting breakthroughs for private companies and national space agencies.

In early December 2023, the U.S. broke the former Soviet Union’s long-standing record for the most rocket launches in a year, achieved in 1982.

As of 24 December 2023, the country’s space agency Nasa and private U.S.-based companies had launched 114 rockets this year, with several more launches due before 2024.

Over 90 of those launches came from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which also beat its 2022 record of 61 successful launches.

The company’s reusable Falcon-9 vehicle already achieved the best safety record of any rocket ever in 2022, beating the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Making SpaceX’s achievement even more commendable is that the last failure of one of its Falcon-9 rockets occurred nearly three years ago.

Even then, the launch was a success; only the booster was lost upon return to Earth.

Two boosters from a Falcon Heavy spacecraft landing after a successful launch

As of 10 December 2023, SpaceX had successfully landed rockets with the Falcon-9 boosters 289 times, of which 287 resulted in full mission successes with booster landings.

It has some distance to go before it reaches the Soyuz rocket’s 1,900 successful launches, but SpaceX’s launches are now far more frequent.

Most of the company’s launches have been focused on delivering its Internet-beaming Starlink satellites into orbit. These now number over 5,400.

However, SpaceX has also launched payloads for governments and organisations — including a spy satellite for South Korea and various scientific research satellites.

It also sent astronauts into space using Falcon-9 rockets on three launches in 2023.

Numerous rocket startups in the U.S. and China also recorded substantial progress with successful engine and launch tests in 2023.

Below are four of the best moments of space rocketry in 2023.

Two fully-integrated Starship rocket launches

The development of the rocket Nasa plans to use for the first manned missions to Mars has come along nicely, albeit a bit behind the timeframes Elon Musk initially announced.

Aside from its big successes with Falcon-9 and Falcon Heavy in 2023, SpaceX also conducted the first two fully integrated tests of its Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster system.

While both tests ended in glorious fireballs, which SpaceX jokingly calls rapid unscheduled disassemblies (RUDs), neither could be considered failures — not when considering that explosions are a regular occurrence with SpaceX prototypes and testing.

The company is known for its rapid iterative development, which can come with a high risk of failure but helps it gather precious data, as it did with Falcon-9’s development.

The first full Starship test on 20 April 2023 had a few mishaps, starting with the Super Heavy booster’s 33 Raptor engines blowing parts of its launch pad to bits and sending concrete and other debris flying hundreds of metres around Starbase.

Several of the booster’s engines also failed on its ascent, and SpaceX could not separate the ship’s first and second stages as planned.

After it began to spin out of control and SpaceX was unable to stabilise it, the flight determination system was activated, and a deliberate RUD ensued (it self-destructed).

Of some concern was that the self-destruct happened several seconds later than it was supposed to.

The second launch was much more successful, with the rocket clearing the launch pad without damaging it thanks to a new powerful water-cooled deluge system beneath a large metal plate.

In what was probably the most visually spectacular moment of rocket launches in 2023, the hot staging saw the booster and rocket separate with a bright flash of heat and gas.

The rocket pushed off successfully with all six of its engines igniting and reached as high as 148km above Earth — successfully reaching orbit — before being destroyed by the flight termination system.

All 33 of Super Heavy’s engines also kept running for the entire intended duration, while the six engines of the Starship rocket initially also appeared to perform well.

Unfortunately, the rocket booster and spacecraft were destroyed after veering off their intended courses back to Earth and into orbit. This time around, the flight termination systems appeared to work well.

Starship’s third test launch could potentially feature an off-Earth propellant-transfer demonstration.

Nasa hopes to use Starship to take astronauts back to the Moon by 2025 or 2026, before the more ambitious goal of putting humans on Mars.

First commercial flights for Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic successfully completed three commercial flights in 2023, 19 years after its founding and 13 years later than it originally planned to start trips to the edge of space.

The Galactic 01 mission on 29 June 2023 was the first of the trio, with six crewmembers (including the commander and astronaut instructor) participating in a research mission for the Italian Air Force.

The company’s VSS Unity has a rather unique launch method.

Instead of propelling itself off the ground, the VSS Unity is carried to an altitude of 47,000 feet, over 14.3km, under the belly of a custom-designed mothership aeroplane before being released and starting up its engines.

The spacecraft can then go up to 80.5km above the sea surface, qualifying as what the U.S. Air Force, Nasa, and the FAA consider to be space. However, it is below the 100km Kármán line deemed to be the start of outer space in space treaties and for aerospace records.

Passengers get to experience roughly 4–5 minutes of weightlessness while they enjoy views of the Earth from 17 windows before the ship glides back to Earth for a runway landing not too dissimilar from Nasa’s retired space shuttles.

Virgin aims to scale its commercial flights up to three launches per month and, as of June 2023, has sold about 800.

A reservation cost $450,000 when the company started selling tickets to the public in February 2022, but CNN reports that at least 600 tickets were sold at $250,000 each.

Chinese company sends first methane-fuelled rocket into orbit

While SpaceX undoubtedly has the world’s biggest methane-propelled rocket and booster, a Chinese company, LandSpace, was the first to successfully use the fuel to get a rocket into Earth’s orbit.

In addition to being safer and cheaper than kerosene, alcohol, hydrazine, and liquid hydrogen fuel types, methane-liquid oxygen fuel emits fewer harmful gasses.

In July 2023, the methane-liquid Zhuque-2 rocket reached orbit for the first time, beating Starship’s first entry into space by five months.

In early December 2023, the rocket was used again. This time, it became the world’s first methane-powered rocket to deliver satellites into orbit.

The three satellites were deployed into a 460km sun-synchronous orbit, but no other detail is known about their purpose or design.

Chandrayaan-3 makes India the fourth country to visit the Moon

After launching from Satish Dhawan Space Centre on 14 July 2023, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft entered lunar orbit on 5 August 2023.

On 23 August 2023, its lander vehicle, Vikram, touched down on the Moon’s service, making India only the fourth country to achieve this feat. It was also the first to have landed so close to the lunar south pole.

Although the landing was a success, the spacecraft subsequently failed to wake up, which meant ISRO could not deploy and use the Pragyan rover.

ISRO plans to return to the Moon with the Chandrayaan-4 mission, which seeks to retrieve samples from the surface.

However, that endeavour will take years of research and development, with the mission only slated for 2028.

Now read: James Webb Telescope reveals “candy floss” planet where it rains sand

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Watch: Big year in space travel