We are in the midst of a major shift in spaceflight, made possible by increasingly affordable rocket launches and satellites. As a result, the space above us is buzzing with rockets, satellites, astronauts, and of course, space tourists.
Thursday August 4 marked an exceptionally active day for the space industry with six launches to space, with each marking different milestones. The day saw the launch of South Korea’s first mission to the Moon, the first Egyptian and Portuguese nationals to reach space, and some missions involving secret satellites—including a possible spaceplane. Here’s a roundup of the unusually launch-heavy day, and perhaps a glimpse into the future of spaceflight.
China launched a Long March 4B rocket on Wednesday at 11:08 p.m. ET (11:08 a.m. Beijing time on Thursday) from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center. This was China’s 28th liftoff of the year, but it wouldn’t the nation’s only launch of the day.
The Long March 4B carried three satellites, including the Terrestrial Ecosystem Carbon Inventory Satellite (TECIS 1), which is designed to monitor forest vegetation around the world to study the effect of aerosols. The other two satellites, HEAD 2G and the Minhang Youth Satellite, will collect ship and flight data and involve students in space science, respectively.
China’s second launch of the day was substantially less straightforward. The nation’s space agency sent a reusable Long March 2F carrier rocket to orbit from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, state media reported.
The launch was a test of reusable rocket technology, and the rocket will remain in orbit for an unspecified period of time before returning back to Earth. Although there hasn’t been much detail about the experimental spacecraft, there is speculation that it might be a spaceplane, according to Space News.
This historic launch marked two major firsts: South Korea’s first mission to the Moon and private company SpaceX’s first attempt to send a payload to a lunar orbit.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket took off at 7:08 p.m. ET on Thursday from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, carrying the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter (KPLO). Also known as Danuri, the probe is mainly designed to test technologies needed for future lunar exploration and is scheduled to reach lunar orbit in mid-December. Images gathered by KPLO will also help South Korea scout potential landing spots for a future mission on the Moon.
Private space company Blue Origin launched six more people to space on a quick, suborbital trip that lasted for roughly 10 minutes. The brief flight made history by sending the first Egyptian and Portuguese citizens to space.
The company’s reusable New Shepard rocket lifted off at 9:57 a.m. ET on Thursday and fell back through the atmosphere to land in the Texas desert. As the parachutes deployed, one passenger joked, “We’re not going to die!” Sara Sabry, a biomedical engineer from Egypt, was chosen to go on board the trip by nonprofit organization Space for Humanity, while Portuguese investor Mário Ferreira also made history as part of the NS-22 mission. Blue Origin’s sixth human flight brings the total number of passengers the company has taken to suborbital space to 31.
In a packed streak of liftoffs, Rocket Lab launched a small classified payload to orbit on Thursday at 1 a.m. ET from the company’s private spaceport in New Zealand.
The secretive payload is property of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which designs and operates U.S. spy satellites. Naturally, the purpose of this latest addition to Earth orbit was kept under wraps, with the company writing that the satellite is designed to “support the NRO to provide critical information to government agencies and decision makers monitoring international issues.” Thursday’s lift off marked Rocket Lab’s second launch for the NRO.
United Launch Alliance launched the Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (SBIRS GEO 6) satellite using its trusty Atlas V rocket, which it did on Thursday at 6:29 a.m. ET.
This, the sixth and final satellite of the mission, completes Space Force’s Space Systems Command constellation, which is designed to detect and track missiles. The first of the six satellites launched in 2011.
That’s a lot for a single 24-hour period and a sure sign that we’ve entered into a new era in spaceflight. Space has never seemed closer or more accessible than it does today. The mind boggles at what’s to come.