Start counting down to launch.
Last year, space fans saw the long-awaited first test flight of a NASA-bound Space Launch System rocket, but this year could see more action at the launch pad, with a slate of new rockets trying to go first.
“There’s a lot to look forward to,” said Colleen Anderson, a technology historian at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “It’s going to be an interesting time with first flights for many new launch vehicles.”
From new boosters to replacement workhorses to the much-anticipated first flight of a giant rocket expected to be the tallest and most powerful ever built, this year has you covered.
Few rockets attract the kind of curiosity and awe that SpaceX’s behemoth Starship does.
Standing at 394 feet tall (with a 164-foot-tall spacecraft called Starship also attached), the launch vehicle is completely stacked taller than NASA’s retired Saturn V rocket used during the Apollo moon program, as well as new agency. Spatial Address System.
The next generation rocket is designed for missions to the moon and eventually Mars.
The giant booster will play an important role in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the moon and establish bases on the lunar surface. If successful, the rocket will not only pave the way for more regular flights to the moon, but also reduce the cost of those trips.
“Starship has the opportunity to really revolutionize the way we do space transportation, so it’s a big deal,” said Laura Forczyk, executive director of Astralytical, an Atlanta-based space consulting firm.
The starship is what is known as a super-heavy lift launch vehicle, which refers to rockets that can carry more than 110,000 pounds into orbit. SpaceX has said its reusable Starship could lift up to 330,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit.
Starship is expected to launch its first unmanned orbital flight this year, although SpaceX has not announced a specific date. Last month, the company said it had completed a “wet dress exercise” that involved fully fueling the rocket with 10 million pounds of propellant, as it would before liftoff.
Next, SpaceX will likely perform another key safety test by firing all 33 Raptor engines on the first stage of the booster – a demonstration known as a “static fire test.” Then, once the company receives a license from the Federal Aviation Administration, Starship could finally take flight from SpaceX’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas.
Another new rocket that could play a vital role in the coming years is the Vulcan Centaur, developed by the United Launch Alliance based in Denver.
The Vulcan Centaur is a heavy lift designed to carry satellites and other spacecraft to various orbits around Earth. The approximately 200-foot-tall rocket will be used for commercial launches, and for launches on behalf of NASA and the Space Force.
The Vulcan Centaur is expected to replace the United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy rockets.
The various parts of the rocket are being assembled at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station ahead of its first flight. That launch, called Certification-1, will carry two demonstration satellites into low Earth orbit, place a commercially built lunar lander into a highly elliptical orbit above Earth, and deliver another payload to a trajectory it will pass the Earth-moon. system.
The launch of the Vulcan Centaur is an exciting opportunity for United Launch Alliance, a longtime contractor for NASA and the military. It also sets the new booster to replace some of the most widely used rockets currently available, according to Anderson, the technology historian.
“With the Atlas V and the Delta IV apparently retiring, this rocket is very important to the launch capabilities of the United States right now,” Anderson said.
American space companies aren’t the only ones busy designing new rockets that could fly this year. France-headquartered Arianespace is preparing a new booster called Ariane 6 for its initial launch.
The nearly 200-foot-tall rocket is designed to deliver satellites and other payloads into Earth orbit. The booster is expected to replace the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, although it would be able to operate at a lower cost.
Anderson said Ariane 6 will provide important mid-range launch capabilities but will likely face stiff competition from other companies, including SpaceX.
Like other Arianespace rockets, the Ariane 6 will be launched from a spaceport in South America, located northwest of Kourou in French Guiana.
No specific date has yet been announced for the first test flight.
The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is preparing its new rocket for its maiden flight this month.
The booster, called H3, will carry the Earth observation satellite into orbit on the test flight. Liftoff is currently scheduled for February 12th.
The rocket will be launched from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Center, on the southeast coast of Tanegashima, an island south of Kyushu.
Another rocket in the works
Several other private American companies are developing new rockets that could fly this year or in the coming years.
Relativity Space, an aerospace firm headquartered in Los Angeles, aims to launch a 3D-printed rocket called Terran 1. While 3D printed parts have been used to build boosters before, this is the first rocket developed entirely with additive manufacturing.
ABL Space Systems, a company headquartered in El Segundo, California, attempted to launch its RS1 rocket on its first flight last month, but failed. Launched on January 10 at the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island. Shortly after the scheduled liftoff, ABL reported that the rocket failed to achieve orbit.
“After taking off, RS1 had an anomaly and shut down prematurely,” tweeted the companyadding that he later worked with officials from the FAA and the Alaska spaceport.
Although not a new rocket, California-based Rocket Lab launched its Electron rocket for the first time on US soil on January 24. Previous missions have taken place at Rocket Lab in New Zealand. For the Virginia launch, the booster took off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, carrying three small satellites into orbit. The company is developing a new rocket, called Neutron, but the booster is not expected to fly until next year.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com