FOUR, count 'em, FOUR big rockets launching in next seven days

NASA tests Orion, Japanese head to asteroid, France and China loft satellites

Antares rocket fails

Spaceports are increasingly common these days but, if the coming week is anything to go by, then some sort of rocketry air traffic control could be something the boffins need to sort out.

In all, four launches are planned for the coming week, from four different countries. This rate of activity is a reflection of quite how popular and (relatively) inexpensive space science has become.

First to launch on Wednesday, if bad weather doesn't delay the lift-off for a third time, is the Japanese space agency's Hayabusa2 asteroid-smashing mission. The probe will be sent out to asteroid 1999JU3 with an ETA of 2018, whereupon it will drop a bomb onto the space rock, land to collect material from inside the crater, and then return the samples to Earth in 2020.

On Thursday NASA is planning the maiden flight of its Orion crew capsule from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The four-person capsule will be blasted up atop a Delta IV-Heavy booster and orbit the Earth a couple of times before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean for retrieval, at which point NASA will take it apart to see how it handled the stress.

The Orion capsule is going to be central to NASA's plans for getting to Mars and back, as well as other deep space missions. It was developed to be mated to the as-yet unbuilt Space Launch System, which will be the largest rocket ever flown out of our gravity well – provided Congress funds its development.

On the same day the jungles of French Guiana will shake as French commercial spacefaring firm Arianespace fires off another Ariane 5 rocket into low-earth orbit. The rocket will hopefully deliver its payload of a telecommunications satellite for DIRECTV and an Indian GSAT-16 communications relay station.

Finally on Saturday the Chinese will fire off one their Long March 4B heavy lift rockets from the launch pad in Taiyuan. The rocket contains the fourth unit of the China–Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS) program and will be used to survey the climate on Earth using four types of camera.

The launch crew will be crossing fingers and toes that this launch goes to plan. Its predecessor, CBERS 3, failed to reach its assigned altitude and crashed back to Earth just over a year ago and a second failure will see Chinese rocketry experts lose some serious face. ®

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