If you need to measure whether the pace of space activity is really increasing or if people just get excited about rockets, consider that for the first time in five years, three orbital rockets will launch today on three different continents—and all three are on commercial missions.
First, just after midnight GMT on June 1, a Japanese HII-A rocket operated by Mitsubishi launched a satellite intended to enhance global positioning system usage over Japan and the surrounding region, allowing more precise navigation in dense cities, for example.
Then, if all goes as planned, Elon Musk’s SpaceX will fly its 11th mission to the International Space Station on behalf of NASA, at 5:55 pm EST/21:55 GMT. For the first time, much of its Dragon spacecraft will be reused from previous missions, part of the company’s cost-cutting efforts.
And finally, coming in just under the wire at 7:45 pm EST/23:45 pm GMT, an Ariane 5 rocket will launch two communications satellites, one each from ViaSat and Eutelsat, from the European space champion’s South American spaceport in French Guiana.
According to data kept by astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, the last time three orbital rocket launches occurred on the same day was on May 17, 2012. Then, Russia launched a military satellite and a Canadian broadcast satellite on separate rockets, as a Japanese rocket launched satellites for its own space agency and Korea’s. Triple launches also occurred on June 15, 2010 (two Russian launches, including a convoy of astronauts to the International Space Station, and a Chinese launch) as well as on December 21, 2005 (again, two Russian launches, and an Arianespace launch from its Guiana space center).
So today’s will be only the fourth triple-launch day in the last 17 years. By contrast, there were seven such days during the decade of the 1990s. The return of a triple-launch date, while essentially a coincidence, is a sign that after several years of growing pains, commercial rocket companies are starting to hit the tempos that have promised to boost access to space while reducing the cost.
Those dreams were delayed by funding struggles; a launch failure and a fueling accident at the newest rocket giant, SpaceX, that kept its rockets grounded for 10 months in the last two years; and even political turmoil in French Guiana, home to Arianespace’s launch site.
Now, the three major commercial space access providers are hoping to clear out a multi-year backlog of satellites. SpaceX is anticipating a dozen more missions this year, and has managed to maintain its goal of one launch every two weeks in May, with three launches anticipated in June. ULA, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, expects to fly eight more missions this year. Arianespace also has eight more launches on its manifest, but is still resetting its plans following the political discord in French Guiana.
The pace of launch being reached by the rocket firms has had knock-on effects for both satellite operators and manufacturers. At Boeing’s busy satellite factory in Los Angeles, an over-crowded floor has finally started to clear, with two satellites it built launched in the last two months and a third, Viasat-2, scheduled to fly today. Having multiple rockets in operation is easing the burden on the executives responsible for the multi-ton, multi-million-dollar flying computers we rely on in space.
“Launch vehicles come and go, in a way; they have periods of issues, take time to come back and restore reliability, or sometimes they have congestion problems,” Michele Franci, the chief technical officer of Inmarsat, told Quartz after the company’s Boeing-built comms satellite launched on a SpaceX rocket from Cape Canaveral on May 16. “Having diversity in the choice of the launchers, having access to more than one, is really important to hedge your bets and protect the deployments of your assets.”
That kind of confidence, along with falling prices spurred by SpaceX’s push into reusability, has led to a flood of private investment into space start-ups, from satellite makers to companies marketing small rockets specially made for launching the latest generation of lightweight satellites.