Washington (AFP)

The rate of launch of American rockets should increase significantly in 2020, according to the government on Wednesday, a dynamism largely carried by private companies including SpaceX.

The US government expects to issue between 40 and 50 licenses in the 2020 budget year (which began in October), said Wayne Monteith, head of the United States Aviation Agency (FAA) for space flights, at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington.

By 2019, by comparison, 31 licenses had been granted by the FAA. These permits relate to rocket launches in orbit, but also test flights of small space tourism vessels (from the Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic companies), or even the return to Earth of SpaceX's Dragon cargo capsules, from the International Space Station ( ISS).

"This industry is pushing the limits of what's possible," said Wayne Monteith.

At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, the United States and the USSR each launched dozens of launches each year, but the majority were military and funded by the federal state.

Wayne Monteith hailed SpaceX, which launched the fourth cluster in its constellation to provide high-speed internet, Starlink, on Wednesday morning, and is expected to send astronauts to the International Space Station this year for the first time.

But 2019 also saw the rise of a smaller American company, Rocket Lab, which has made 10 launches since 2018 with small rockets from New Zealand.

"Our ultimate goal is to launch one rocket a week," Shane Fleming, a vice-president of Rocket Lab, told the same conference.

China has become the leading country in terms of rocket launches in recent years, but the Chinese space industry relies heavily on the public and military sectors. There were 34 launches in China in 2019 compared to 21 for the United States and 25 for Russia, according to Gunter's Space Page.

In 2020, SpaceX wants to accelerate the rate of its launches, not only for its customers who wish to put satellites into orbit, but also to build its Starlink constellation. Last year, the company founded by Elon Musk, also boss of the electric car manufacturer Tesla, had mentioned a target of 2 launches per month.

© 2020 AFP