Even though it's practically December that doesn't mean the year is winding down for spaceflight. On the contrary, it's going to be a busy month: Fourteen launches are scheduled for the month of December, roughly one every other day, and there are some you don't want to miss!
(No earlier than) December 2/3
Hayabusa 2 will launch on an asteroid sample return mission atop an H-2A rocket from Tanegashima Space Center, Japan. Hayabusa 2 is slated to rendezvous with asteroid 1999 JU3 in 2018 and tasked with returning a sample to Earth in 2020. This is JAXA's second asteroid sample retrieval mission. The first Hayabusa craft returned an asteroid sample to Earth in 2010. "Hayabusa" is Japanese for peregrine falcon.
If Hayabusa 2 launches on December 3, the launch time in the U.S. fill fall on December 2: 11:22 p.m. EST / 8:22 p.m. PST. Hayabusa 2 has been delayed twice due to weather. I will post updates here if the launch slips again.
NASA is scheduled to launch its new Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle on its first uncrewed mission to space: Exploration Flight Test One (EFT-1). Orion marks NASA's return to human spaceflight and is widely expected to pave the space agency's path to crewed Mars landings and other deep space missions.
A United Launch Alliance's Delta 4-Heavy rocket will carry the Orion craft to orbit. This is a heavy lift vehicle with a triple-body rocket that brings the power of the Saturn V from the Apollo era Moon landings back to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Orion will reach an altitude of 3,600 miles above Earth. For comparison, the International Space Station orbit is ca. 220 miles above Earth. The Space Shuttle, retired in 2011, was not capable of traveling beyond low Earth orbit.
Exploration Flight Test One will test many of Orion's critical systems, such as its heat shield that must withstand temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as re-entry speed reaches 20,000 miles per hour. Other Orion components to be tested during EFT-1 include the launch abort system and the parachute system that will help land Orion off the coast of California after completing two orbits.
The launch window for EFT-1 on December 4 is 7:05-9:44 a.m. EST / 4:05-6:44 a.m. PST. This is going to be rough on us West Coasters.
Update 2 - December 18: SpaceX CRS-5 launch moved up into the first week of January 2015. Click here for current updates and more info about the new launch date and time.
Update 1 - December 16: Launch re-scheduled for December 19, 10:22 a.m. PST (19:22 CET)
December 16 (original date before re-schedules)
Delayed multiple times since September 12, SpaceX's cargo delivery to the International Space Station is now scheduled for December 16, launching a Dragon cargo capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket from pad SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral. This mission will be the private space company's fifth cargo delivery to the ISS under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract. The mission is named CRS-5 and has a brief launch window: 2:31 p.m. EST / 11:31 a.m. PST.
For SpaceX, CRS-5 is quite a bit more than another supply run to the ISS, as the company will further test the re-usability of its flagship Falcon 9 rocket. From its inception, SpaceX has aimed to make spaceflight more affordable and accessible. Reusable rocket stages are a crucial factor in the quest to develop rockets that are significantly cheaper to fly than single-use rockets.
On a mission earlier this year, SpaceX began post-launch re-usability testing by guiding the Falcon 9's upper stage (the rocket stage to be recovered) to hoever upright above the ocean for a few seconds before it tipped over sideways into the water. SpaceX uses a combination of landing legs, grid fins, retro rockets and stabilizing technologies to enable Falcon 9's upper stage to perform a precision soft landing on water and eventually on land.
This time, Falcon 9's upper stage is expected to land on an autonomous spaceport drone ship. Last week on twitter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave us a glimpse of what to expect on December 16 - a historic milestone never before achieved: precisely land and recover a rocket that is intact and reusable, without the need to fish it out of the water.
Testing operation of hypersonic grid fins (x-wing config) going on next flight pic.twitter.com/O1tMSIXxsT
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 22, 2014
Autonomous spaceport drone ship. Thrusters repurposed from deep sea oil rigs hold position within 3m even in a storm. pic.twitter.com/wJFOnGdt9w
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 22, 2014