Year in Review: SpaceNews Recaps 2016


Credit: SpaceX

Credit: SpaceX


At the end of 2015, SpaceX successfully landed a Falcon 9 first stage for the first time after several unsuccessful attempts earlier in the year. In 2016, the company repeated the feat five times. After unsuccessful landing attempts on the company’s “drone ship” in January and March, the company finally landed a stage on the ship during the April 8 launch of a Dragon cargo spacecraft. The company followed that up with landings on its drone ship on two launches in May and one in August (an attempted landing on a June launch failed), as well as a landing on a pad at Cape Canaveral on another Dragon mission in July. SES is set to be the first to launch on a “flight proven” booster, flying SES-10 on the stage that flew on the April mission shortly after SpaceX resumes Falcon 9 launches in early 2017.


China now has one of the most powerful launch vehicles in service today. The country successfully launched the first Long March 5 rocket Nov. 3 from a new spaceport on the island of Hainan. It placed a technology demonstration satellite, Shijian 17, into geostationary orbit, but the real purpose of the launch was to demonstrate the rocket’s capability. With a payload capacity of up to 25,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit , it’s China’s largest rocket by far, and among the largest in the world — at least until the long-delayed debut of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy some time in in 2017. Long March 5 will be used to launch Chang’e-5, China’s first lunar sample return mission, in 2017, and is likely to be a key element of the country’s future lunar and Mars exploration plans.


“Launch. Land. Repeat.” That was the slogan Blue Origin adopted in 2016 as it carried out a series of test flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, demonstrating the ability to land and reuse the vehicle with a minimum of work between flights. The company capped off those tests with a test of the vehicle’s abort system during an Oct. 5 flight. The company warned prior to the test that the propulsion module would likely be destroyed as the crew capsule ignited its abort motor and flew away. Yet, the propulsion module survived the test and landed safely as the crew capsule parachuted to a landing. Blue Origin has retired both vehicles, and plans to resume New Shepard tests with new hardware in early 2017, wiht a goal of beginning commercial flights in 2018.


Almost exactly two years after the last Antares crashed and exploded next to its launch pad on Wallops Island, Virginia, the Orbital ATK rocket successfully returned to flight. The Antares lifted off Oct. 17, sending a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. It was also the first launch of a new version of the Antares, replacing the AJ26 engine in the first stage blamed on the 2014 failure with a more powerful RD-181 engine from Russia’s NPO Energomash. While the launch was successful, Orbital ATK announced a few weeks later it was moving the next Cygnus mission to a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 in early 2017 in order to launch more cargo to the ISS. Orbital ATK will return to the Antares for the remaining missions in its current NASA ISS cargo contract.


Arianespace set a company record with its 75th consecutive successful Ariane 5 launch Nov. 21, a streak of missions that started in 2003. The company’s Ariane 4 rocket had performed 74 successful launches in a row from 1995 to 2003.



Credit: SES O3B


SES invested $20 million in O3b in April to become the majority share owner, and quickly followed this decision by raising $1.01 billion to purchase the medium Earth orbit operator in its entirety. Combined with SES’ fleet of more than 50 geostationary satellites, the company is now offering combined services leveraging both orbits. SES also acquired RR Media, a prominent digital media services company in the broadcast arena. Through the $242 million acquisition, SES combined RR Media with its SES Platform Services business to create a new entity called MX1. The acquisition made SES a much larger player downstream of most of the satellite industry, prompting some “friend or foe” concerns by other media services companies that would otherwise be capacity buyers.


Airbus and Safran finalized the creation of Airbus Safran Launchers — the joint venture tasked with creating Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket — in June, a year and a half after initiating the combination.

The European Commission took issue with Airbus Safran Launchers intent to take over Arianespace, conducting a lengthy analysis before approving with conditions in July.

In November, Airbus Safran Launchers took controlling ownership of Arianespace when it acquired the 35-percent stake held by the French space agency, CNES. The buyout placed 74 percent of Arianespace ownership in the aerospace giant’s hands.


Speedcast’s $425 million bid for Harris CapRock continued a wave of consolidation sweeping the energy and martime telecom sectors. The combined company will have 6,200 maritime vessels under contract, plus hundreds of energy rigs when the sale closes in early 2017. Harris Corp. paid $525 million for CapRock in 2010.


Energia finally hauled in a buyer for its one-time Boeing joint venture when S7 Group, Russia’s largest private aviation holding company, agreed in September to pay $150 million for Sea Launch’s assets, including two oceangoing launch platforms that last saw action in 2014. S7 expects to get Sea Launch back to launching satellites within two years.


The actual win was anticlimactic since United Launch Alliance didn’t bid. But the $82 million contract SpaceX nabbed in April  for the 2018 launch is Falcon 9’s first big DoD award — one that puts it on a footing to take lucrative Air Force launch contracts away from a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that’s had that market  to itself since its 2006 inception.


When Luxembourg announced a 200-million-euro investment in asteroid mining, U.S.-based Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries promptly set up shop in the tiny European nation. Last month, Planetary Resources hit its first load: $27.6 million  in grants and direct investment.


Sierra Nevada Corp.’s longrunning effort to develop a reusable spacecraft called the Dream Chaser got new life in January when the company won a $1 billion contract to haul cargo to the International Space Station. Dream Chaser also booked the UN for a dedicated 2021 flight.


Global Eagle Entertainment (GEE) swooped down in May to  snatch up maritime satellite services provider EMC for $550 million. The deal feathers GEE’s aviation-heavy nest with  $200 million in new business from the commercial shipping, cruise and yacht markets.


Credit: ESA

Credit: ESA


ExoMars’ tag-along lander was never intended to survive more than a few days on the planet’s surface, but Schiaparelli’s Oct. 19  crash-and-die scenario made for bad press in Europe, raising concern that ESA governments might struggle to find the 440 million euros needed to finish funding a 2020 follow-on mission with Russia. ESA members ponied up 340 million during December’s triannual ministerial, with the balance to come from other programs.


Russia on Dec. 1 suffered its second Progress failure in less than two years when the ISS-bound cargo ship failed to reach orbit. Investigators still don’t know whether the normally reliable Progress or its Soyuz-U launcher is to blame, only that the mission appeared to be going well until shortly after the rocket’s third stage took over. Russia is on the hook for four Progress flights for 2017.


SpaceX was having a pretty good 2016  until a Falcon 9 carrying  Spacecom’s Amos-6 satellite exploded on the pad two days before scheduled liftoff. Falcon 9’s second failure in 15 months has put SpaceX further behind in flying off its backlog of antsy  customers. Elon Musk and his crew had hoped to return to flight Dec. 16 but that launch — carrying  the first 10 Iridium Next satellites — has been postponed to “early January.”


Both SpaceX and Boeing fell behind this year on development of the resuable capsules NASA’s counting on to ferry astronauts to and from ISS once its Russian Soyuz contract runs out at the end of 2018. In October, Boeing slipped CST-100’s test flights six months to mid-2018. SpaceX followed suit in December, pushing Dragon’s uncrewed test to November 2017 and postponing its crewed demo to May 2018 — a nine-month delay.


Japan’s flagship x-ray astronomy telescope, Hitomi, reached orbit in mid-February but stopped communicating with its controllers in late March. JAXA eventually concluded that a series of mistakes caused the spacecraft to spin uncontrollably, snapping off its solar panels and an instrument boom. NASA and JAXA are looking for ways to mitigate Hitomi’s loss,  but a full-fledged replacement doesn’t appear to be in the cards.


The Export-Import Bank of the United States reopen its doors last December, five months after the U.S. Congess let the bank’s authorization lapse. But the export-credit agency still cannot finance satellite deals because its board lacks a quorum for approving loans of $10 million or more. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby stymied Obama administration efforts to fill the board vacancy and get the bank lending again.


Credit: Virgin Galactic

Credit: Virgin Galactic


The glide test Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo performed Dec. 3 in the skies above Mojave, California, brings the suborbital spaceflight company a step closer to its first powered flight since the first SpaceShipTwo was destroyed in a fatal test flight accident in October 2014. Virgin Galactic intends to complete a series of approximately 10 glide tests before moving ahead with powered test flights, perhaps later in 2017.


China Great Wall Industry Corp.’s win of a $208 million contract to build and launch a high-throughput Ka-band broadband satellite for Thailand’s Thaicom to serve parts of South and East Asia was a breakthrough deal. Prior to the October award, China’s satellite export industry has relied on domestic demand and special-circumstances orders, mainly from emerging-market governments.


India’s road to a fully indigenous rocket hasn’t been easy.  After three developmental flights, including a 2010 failure, the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) flew its first operational mission in September using a cryogenic upper stage designed and built in India instead of Russia. With the succesful launch of the  INSAT-3DR weather satellite, GSLV Mark 2 is poised to conduct at least four missions in 2017 and 2018, including the launch of the Chandrayaan-2 lunar orbiter, lander and rover.


The International Space Station’s biggest addition in recent years was an inflatable module built by a billionaire-backed company that’s long aspired to build hotels in space. Three days after a SpaceX Dragon capsule delivered the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the ISS during an April cargo run, Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance announced a partnership that could eventually lead to larger Bigelow modules launching on ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.