2022 was a record year for space with 180 successful rocket launches to orbit — the most ever, and 44 more than in 2021. The launches were dominated by rockets from US company SpaceX and from the Chinese government and businesses.

“Space traffic is shooting up, pun intended,” says Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics Harvard & Smithsonian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who maintains space-flight databases and this month published his analysis of launches in 2022.

SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, California, sent one of its Falcon rockets into orbit once every six days, on average, throughout the year. Its total of 61 successful launches is tied with a 1980 record, for Soviet R-7 rockets.

Most of the SpaceX launches carried commercial payloads, including the company’s own network of Starlink communications satellites. There are now more than 3,300 operational Starlinks, by far the largest satellite constellation ever (see ‘Orbital traffic’). The growing congestion in space means that, between late 2020 and late 2022, SpaceX has had to move its Starlinks out of the way more than 26,000 times to prevent collisions with other objects in space.

Orbital traffic: Area chart showing number of objects weighing more than 100 kg in low Earth orbit from 2005 to 2023.

Data from Jonathan McDowell

In addition to SpaceX, other US rocket providers accomplished 17 launches in 2022, according to McDowell’s analysis. They included the November launch of NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, which is meant to ferry astronauts to the Moon in the coming years.

Growing space presence

China conducted 62 successful launches, 9 more than in 2021 (see ‘Space race’). Many were government launches, but a quickly growing fraction belongs to commercial rocket providers. Overall, China’s launch rate in 2022 was almost triple that of Russia. “China is replacing Russia as the number-two space power,” McDowell says.

In October, China launched its solar observatory, nicknamed Kuafu-1. It also sent up the third and final major module of its orbiting space station, Tiangong, which is now complete.

Other scientific launches of the year included NASA’s water-mapping Surface Water and Ocean Topography satellite, a private lunar lander from the Japanese company ispace and South Korea’s first Moon mission.

SPACE RACE. Graphic detailing the 180 successful rocket launches to orbit in 2022 by country.

Data from Jonathan McDowell

Europe’s launch total plummeted from 15 successful launches in 2021 to only 5 last year. The European Space Agency stopped launching Russian-made Soyuz rockets after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

New Zealand, by contrast, saw a record-setting nine launches in 2022. The US company Rocket Lab sends commercial payloads into orbit from Mahia, New Zealand.

The coming year could break more records than the last. SpaceX has said it hopes to launch 100 times in 2023 — missions will include the first orbital flight of its enormous Starship vehicle, which is meant to eventually carry humans to the Moon and Mars.