(CNN) — SpaceX has been on track for success in 2022, delivering 18 rocket launches and two astronaut splashdowns in just the first 130 days of the year — an unprecedented pace for the company and the commercial launch industry.
The latest is scheduled for Friday night with the launch of 53 from SpaceX Starlink internet satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. It will be Starlink’s 12th launch so far this year, and another mission due to launch from Florida could follow over the weekend.
It’s been a dizzying year of activity so far, further cementing SpaceX’s dominance over the commercial launch vehicle industry. Led by SpaceX, the industry is on track to surpass the annual space race launch highs of the mid-20th century, when most launches were conducted by governments rather than the private sector. According to data from research firm Quilty Analytics, 2021 already set a new record with a total of 145 launches, compared to 129 in 1984, the previous record year.
If SpaceX keeps up its current pace, it could launch more than 52 rockets this year alone, far surpassing its record of 31 set last year.
“Just 10 years ago, launches were rare,” Chris Quilty, founder of Quilty Analytics, told CNN Business.
In 2001, the total number of launches worldwide was just 51, he noted.
“So put that in the context of SpaceX alone, which has been launched 52 times,” he said. “It’s pretty incredible.”
Most of SpaceX’s launches in 2022 have been focused on Starlink, its consumer internet business that relies on hoards of orbiting satellites, which the company has expanded since it began launching batches of the internet-beaming satellites in mid-2019. The constellation now has more than 2,200 satellites in orbit and as of March 250,000 subscribers using the service worldwide, one company Executive said at a recent conference.
While SpaceX stands out from its rocket competitors, that doesn’t mean the company is or will be unchallenged.
Two new rockets that will rival SpaceX’s Falcons — the workhorse rockets the company uses to launch satellites and, more recently, astronauts — are slated for launch in the next year or so. They are New Glenn, which is being developed by Blue Origin, backed by Jeff Bezos, and Vulcan Centaur, a line of missiles from the old launcher United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The sheer number of satellites that all of these vehicles can launch, including the thousands of satellites expected to complement SpaceX’s Starlink constellation and competing satellite internet companies, have sparked an urgent discussion about space congestion. When satellites collide, they can create dangerous debris clouds. That is happened in the pastand close calls are a common occurrence.
Others are more optimistic that SpaceX and others take these risks seriously enough to avoid catastrophe.
“The companies that might be producing space junk would be immediately and directly affected by this space junk,” said Carissa Christensen, CEO of space research group BryceTech, noting that the collision junk would threaten their own satellites — their own investments.
With all of those rockets active — and a few other smaller launchers also slated to launch from Florida’s Space Coast, SpaceX’s primary launch site — SpaceX could run into bottlenecks on the launch pad, too. Each launch requires a ground support team, including military weather personnel, to ensure a safe launch. And there’s only a limited number of launches they can handle at the same time.
“There aren’t infinite days or launch pads or launch sites where you can put things into orbit,” Quilty noted.
However, Christensen added that ground support at Space Coast has proven flexible, as evidenced by SpaceX’s ability to return a group of astronauts from the International Space Station off the coast of Florida last Friday and then launch a Starlink mission from one Launch pad a few miles away just hours later.
Capt. Jonathan Eno, a U.S. Space Force deputy chief of operations tasked with monitoring weather and other possible disruptions before a launch, said ground support crews in Florida have been working for years to prepare for the dramatic increase in the number of launches from spaceport. In the year he was assigned his role, 2019, the Space Coast — which includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral — supported just 18 launches. This year it’s on track to support more than 60, in particular the first launch of NASA’s new moon rocket, called the Space Launch System. His team is now ready to support multiple launches on the same day, even within minutes.
“SpaceX makes a lot of headlines. They’re the ones launching the vast majority of launch vehicles right now,” he told CNN Business. “Obviously we’re just preparing for a different reality.”
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