A quick overview of what’s due to go up/come down in January and February:
Dragon on Falcon 9 (SpaceX): Dragon, made and launched by the private company SpaceX, will demonstrate approach to and docking with the International Space Station per their COTS contract. Currently the target launch date is 7 February, but this may be pushed back by a few days (the launch window each day is pretty small). Upon launch, the unmanned capsule will synchronize orbit with Station, practice maneuvers at a safe distance, and finally approach for docking. Astronauts aboard the station will grab Dragon with the Canadarm2 (eh!), and guide it to the PMA-2 dock on Node 2, between the European and Japanese lab modules (at least, that’s what the SpaceX pictures show). This will be the first time a privately-owned spacecraft has docked with Station.
The Falcon 9 rocket is also made by SpaceX; it is a two-stage rocket with nine LOX/kerosene engines in the first stage, and one LOX/kerosene engine in the second. Both Dragon and Falcon 9 are currently at Cape Canaveral in preparation for the launch.
Vega (ESA/Arianespace): Vega, a new rocket manufactured by Arianespace, will see its first flight within the next two months (hopefully). Its target launch date is currently 9 February. Slightly smaller than a Shuttle booster rocket (SRB), it is a four-stage rocket designed to carry payloads up to 1500 kg (3300 lbs) into polar and low-earth orbits. The first three stages are solid rockets, burning an AP/Al/HTPB composite (HTPB 1912). The last stage, to maneuver the payload, has a liquid UDMH/NTO engine. Currently due to be fired in late January/early February, Vega will carry two satellites and nine CubeSats into orbit from ESA’s launch site in French Guiana.
Antares (Orbital): Orbital’s vehicle for their COTS contract is the Antares rocket. A two-stage rocket, its first test flight is currently set for sometime during the first quarter of 2012, probably in February or March; it will fly from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The first stage is powered by an NK-33 (AJ-26) engine, bought and modified by Aerojet from Russia and propelled by LOX/kerosene. (I got to see a bunch of them when I was out at Aerojet.) ATK’s Castor 30 solid rocket engine will take the second stage to orbit, carrying the Cygnus spacecraft.
Less exciting: China is due to put up satellites on two Long March rockets (4B and 3A) in January; the U.S. will launch satellites on a Delta IV and Atlas V in January and February; and Japan will launch an H-2A carrying Japanese and South Korean satellites to orbit. Russia, proud provider of space access to the world, will launch three Protons and one Soyuz rocket in January and February, carrying communications and government services satellites. Its clients include Sirius XM Radio and Al Yah Satellite Communications of Abu Dhabi.
Russia’s Phobos-Grunt coming down: The failed Russian Mars probe, which never made it out of Earth’s orbit, is forecast to break up upon reentry, sometime between 10 and 20 January. Expect excited trackers on Twitter (#PhobosGrunt) and elsewhere, much like the UARS satellite reentry. Acclaimed space photographer Thierry Legault has been able to capture video of the probe in its decaying orbit.
Fortunately, the Russians say that the tanks containing the UDMH/NTO propellants, both of which are very toxic, are aluminum. They are predicted to fail as the spacecraft plummets downward, allowing the propellants to burn up in the atmosphere. (Four years ago, a US satellite carried hydrazine, similar to UDMH, in a titanium tank. Based on the predicted survival of the fuel, the satellite was shot down.)
One more thing: NASA has released a collection of high-resolution photos from the Gemini missions. Take a look at the link (Wired), they’re pretty awesome.