Welcome to Edition 1.36 of the Rocket Report! Lots of news this week on smaller rockets and the spaceports around the world that aspire to launch them. There’s also an interesting report that may explain, at least in part, why recent Iranian attempts to launch rockets have ended in failure. And so much more…
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.Ars Technica
Firefly targeting late 2019 launch. As part of a feature, Ars explores the factors that led to the dissolution of Firefly in 2016 and the investments by Max Polyakov that brought the company back in 2017. The company’s first attempt at its Alpha rocket strove for idealism (with aspects such as an aerospike engine design) that might ultimately have cut costs but required more time and development funds to realize. Eventually, both of those resources ran out.
A brawnier booster … The new Alpha will be more powerful (up to 1 ton to LEO) to meet what Polyakov believes is a sweet spot in the small-satellite launch market. Accordingly, Polyakov, Markusic, and Firefly’s engineering team redesigned Alpha with larger and more powerful engines to give it more lift. And critically, they also moved toward a simpler design. They shed the aerospike concept and went to a more traditional nozzle. The company is working toward a late 2019 launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but as always with development projects, we’ll have to wait and see.
US may be sabotaging Iranian launch efforts. As noted previously in this newsletter, Iran’s two recent rocket launch attempts (on January 15 and February 5) both failed. That is part of a pattern where 67 percent of the country’s launch attempts have failed during the last 11 years. The New York Times reports that the Trump White House has accelerated a secret American program to sabotage Iran’s missiles and rockets, which is part of an expanding campaign by the United States to undercut Tehran’s military and isolate its economy.
Long-running program … According to the newspaper, the far-reaching effort was created under President George W. Bush and sought to slip faulty parts and materials into Iran’s aerospace supply chains. The program was active early in the Obama administration but had eased by 2017, when Mike Pompeo took over as the director of the CIA and injected it with new resources. It is impossible to say how much this effort could have contributed to Iran’s launch failures, which are part of almost every nascent test program.
Branson eyes Apollo 11 anniversary for flight. As he makes plans for his first flight aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft, Virgin’s head honcho, Richard Branson, is looking toward July 20. “My wish is to go up on the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing—that’s what we’re working on,” Branson said during an event to honor Virgin Galactic at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, PhysOrg reports.
More tests to come … The company still wants to perform additional test flights before taking more than a crew of two to the edge of space, the 80km boundary it targets for spaceflights. By July, Branson believes, those tests will be complete, but he will defer to his experts. “I need to wait for our team to say they’re 100 percent happy. I don’t want to push them,” he said. Branson also revealed that he spends about $35 million a month on Virgin Galactic. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Orbex raises $40 million, targets 2021. The United Kingdom-based startup launch company has raised $40 million, Peter B. de Selding reports. The company also unveiled the design for its two-stage Prime rocket. The company anticipates that the booster will make its first flight from a Scotland-based spaceport in 2021, carrying an experimental payload from UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology.
An aggressive timeline … During a media event, the company touted what it called “the world’s largest 3D-printed rocket engine” that will power the Prime rocket’s second stage. It will burn bio-propane gas. Frankly, 2021 seems like an aggressive timeline for the startup to reach space, and we wonder how it will fare in a crowded launch market. Still, given that so many satellites are manufactured in the UK, a launch company based there would seem to have some geographical advantages. (submitted by trimeta, Interplanetary, compkriss, and Ken the Bin)
Is Russia developing a new hypersonic spacecraft? Russian media outlets have shared images of a new hypersonic uncrewed vehicle being developed with funds from the country’s space agency. Outfitted with a single Briz-M upper-stage engine, the spacecraft is reportedly being designed to reach an altitude of 160km and speeds of Mach 7, according to ScienceAlert.
Five years from flight … Schematics provided by a Russian company named ISON, which is building the rocket, indicate the automated space plane would be air-launched before returning to Earth under a parachute. The first test flights of the spacecraft may come as early as 2023, but as with all such launch dates from Russia, we’ll believe it when we see it. (submitted by Unrulycow)
Stratolaunch gets FAA certificate for flight. The Federal Aviation Administration has cleared the world’s largest airplane for takeoff, but when the Stratolaunch “Roc” vehicle will take to the air is not exactly clear, GeekWire reports. Stratolaunch told the FAA last August that Roc was ready for inspection, and the agency subsequently issued an experimental airworthiness certificate.
No flight date yet … This clears the way for flight tests at Mojave Air and Space Port in California, and Stratolaunch told the FAA it planned approximately 15 flights over 40 hours. The certificate does not allow for commercial operation. So far, Stratolaunch has conducted several runway tests of the aircraft, but the company has not indicated when the massive airplane will take flight.
Australian launch site inks service provider. Australia’s first commercial spaceport, Equatorial Launch Australia, announced that it has signed a contract with US-based TriSept Corporation to offer launch integration services, rideshare, and dedicated missions to small satellite customers. This agreement will help the spaceport provide an efficient launch and recovery location, SpaceWatch reports.
No tenant yet … The spaceport, located in northern Australia, is just 12 degrees from the equator. It will likely target smallsat launchers, although at this time it has been linked to no rocket companies. And until there is a tenant with a close-to-operational rocket, it is difficult to determine how much any proposed spaceport is aspirational and how much is actual. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Northern Michigan launch site setback. The state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has killed an “under-the-radar” effort to help develop a rocket-launching facility in northern Michigan, Bridge Magazine reports. Outgoing Governor Rick Snyder had authorized a $2.5 million grant to help develop a commercial launch site there. The venture had hoped to begin launching rockets by 2022.
Lack of details … The plan, apparently, was to use the grant money to develop a “request for information” for northern Michigan communities, specifying how much land and infrastructure the launch initiative needed, and to use that to raise more funding. However, critics of the proposal said it lacked details. It is not clear whether the proposal is now dead or will be revamped and returned to Whitmer.
SpaceX to protest Lucy launch award. SpaceX has filed a protest over the award of a launch contract to United Launch Alliance for a NASA planetary science mission, claiming it could carry out the mission for significantly less money, SpaceNews reports. The US Government Accountability Office has until May 22 to issue a decision. “NASA has issued a stop-work order on the agency’s Lucy mission after a protest of the contract award was filed with the Government Accountability Office,” a spokesperson said.
Not just price? … This is the first time SpaceX has protested a NASA decision on a launch contract, and the company argues it can provide the launch for a “dramatically lower” price than ULA offered. When it won the award, ULA said it had offered the agency the assurance it could hit a 20-day launch window in 2021. SpaceX, which launches more frequently than ULA, also said it could provide such an assurance. Needless to say, this will be a closely watched decision. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Unrulycow)
Arianespace to launch CubeSats on Soyuz. Space Daily reports that, as part of an upcoming mission, an array of CubeSats with a total capacity of 12 units will fly on a Soyuz rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana. Arianespace will fly the satellites for Open Cosmos as part of a rideshare on its launch of COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation satellite mission, the CHEOPS satellite for the European Space Agency (ESA), and the ANGELS and EyeSat missions for the French space agency.
To space within 10 months … “This contract clearly reflects Arianespace’s unwavering commitment to new players like Open Cosmos, which drive the dynamic small-satellite market,” Stéphane Israël, chief executive officer of Arianespace, said. “It also reflects our ability to offer available, flexible, and competitive solutions for all market segments, thanks to our family of launch vehicles.” With a launch by the end of 2019, this allows Open Cosmos to get to space quickly.
Behind the scenes of GEM 63 development. A lengthy article in The Space Review tells the story of the development of Northrup Grumman’s new GEM 63 solid rocket motor, which will be used by several rockets. The new booster will come in two versions: the GEM 63 (Graphite-Epoxy Motor case, 63-inch diameter) for the Atlas V and, later, the GEM 63XL (eXtended Length) for the new Vulcan.
Not always sexy … Solid rocket boosters aren’t the sexiest bit of aerospace, but they do get the job done in getting a rocket off the launchpad. “The biggest challenge of this effort has been to reduce cost, and the technical decisions reflect this,” the article states. In this case, there is a preference for low cost and simplicity over strict performance in the new family of solids.
Pentagon will audit Falcon Heavy certification. In a memorandum released Monday, the Pentagon’s inspector general informed Air Force leadership that it will evaluate the military’s certification of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for national security missions. The memorandum does not explain why the inspector general believes such an evaluation is necessary, Ars reports.
How much does this concern SpaceX? … The Air Force certified the Falcon Heavy rocket in June 2018, after the company’s initial flight of the large booster in February 2018. The Air Force also announced at the time that it had awarded SpaceX a contract to launch the AFSPC-52 satellite. A SpaceX official told Ars the company was not informed about the audit before the announcement and believe it concerns the certification procedures themselves, rather than the performance of the Falcon Heavy rocket.
NASA restarts RS-25 test program. For the first time since a space shuttle main engine test was shut down early in December, the space agency has tested one of the engines that will power the Space Launch System rocket. The last test on December 12 was manually cut off after only 30 seconds, coincident with a fire observed near the engine’s head, NASASpaceFlight.com reported.
Back on track … Wednesday’s 500-second test was the eighth in the “Retrofit 1b” series for prime contractor Aerojet Rocketdyne’s production restart program, which is both testing the refitted engines for SLS launches and beginning to manufacture new RS-25 engines for future SLS missions. Whereas the space shuttle re-used its engines on each flight, the SLS rocket will use them only for a single launch before discarding them. (submitted by Ken the Bin)