Welcome to edition 3.04 of the Rocket Report! This week we look forward to an exciting Friday night Vega launch (or early Saturday, if you’re in Europe) that’s worth checking out if you’re near a computer. This is Vega’s return to the flight mission, and it’s always nice to see the little solid-fuel rocket, well, rocket ship of the launch pad.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss any issue, please register using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-compatible versions of the site). Each report includes information on small, medium and heavy rockets, as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Rocket Lab launches, signs two more clients† On Saturday, an Electron rocket successfully launched a series of payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and two universities on a mission delayed 2.5 months by the coronavirus pandemic. All five payloads on the rocket for the Don’t Stop Me Now mission were successfully deployed into “perfect orbit,” SpaceNews reported.
Double the fun … Then, on Thursday, Rocket Lab announced that it had signed two additional launch contracts for the NRO. The missions were awarded through NRO’s Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket contract, an initiative that allows the agency to explore new possibilities for launching small satellites through a streamlined, commercial approach. The missions are scheduled to launch within weeks of each other in late Spring 2021 from two separate pads at Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1. (submitted by JohnCarter17 and Ken the Bin)
Vega booster faces a big test† Nearly a year has passed since an Italian-made Vega rocket launched a 1.2-ton satellite from French Guiana and then failed to enter orbit. Now, the Vega rocket is ready for its return to flight mission on Friday evening at 9:51 p.m. ET (1:51 a.m. UTC Saturday). This is an important mission to do more than just get the Vega rocket back on track. It is also the first launch of a rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana since February, after which the facility was closed due to COVID-19 precautions.
Big and small … In addition, with this mission, the little Vega booster wants to prove its bona fide evidence as a booster capable of flying rideshare missions. At this launch, the rocket will debut the “Small Spacecraft Mission Service” dispenser to place payloads of various sizes in multiple orbits. Vega will launch 53 separate satellites ranging from 1kg CubeSats to 500kg mini satellites, Ars reports.
Astra is aiming for a second attempt at the end of July† Rocket builder Astra will try again for its first orbital rocket launch in July. The Oakland startup will navigate the coronavirus pandemic environment as they attempt to fly satellites to space on a regular basis, CNBC reports. The company suffered a setback in March when a fire broke out while Astra was preparing its Rocket 3.0 on the launch pad.
Iterating to a job … The company identified that problem and will ship a new rocket to Alaska late this month, ahead of a launch window that opens July 20. Astra is aiming for a job with this launch, although CEO Chris Kemp said he defines success as stable flight ahead of the first leg. “Our strategy here is to see the first leg perform, and then we have two more flights,” said Kemp. “We still plan to iterate to Earth orbit.” (submitted by Ken the Bin, JohnCarter17 and platykurtic)
MOMO-5 Sounding Rocket Doesn’t Reach Space† On Saturday, Interstellar Technologies’ MOMO-5 rocket launched but lost control around the point where it reached max Q, TechCrunch reports. The mission from Hokkaido, Japan, was moved to late 2019 and earlier this year due to a number of delays, including COVID-19.
Not a great batting average … Only one of the company’s five MOMO rocket launches has managed to reach space. The nine-meter rocket is a testbed as part of Interstellar’s plan to design a small, affordable way to put small payloads into orbit. It is clear that there is still work to be done. (submitted by tsunam, ABa, JohnCarter17 and DanNeely)
New tool to monitor China’s launch industry† If you’re like us, understanding the size of China’s launch industry can be a bit overwhelming. That includes both the government programs and a slew of new “private” companies licensed for government technology. Fortunately, Bryce Space and Technology is here to help.
Lots of missiles … In a new, data-rich image, Bryce highlights the location of the country’s four major spaceports, the organization of the launch industry, and the country’s remarkable growth in annual launches. The image also provides detailed information about the nearly two dozen missiles that are currently active or expected to be within the next two years.
Skyrora launches micro-rocket in Scotland† Edinburgh-based Skyrora launched its Skylark Nano rocket from the Fethaland Peninsula in the Shetland Islands last week. The 2-meter-long rocket reached a height of 6.1 km, the BBC reported. The Shetland site is one of three possible launch sites in Scotland and could be a good location for Arctic launches.
About those wind profiles … Skyrora said the test launch was designed to collect data for future launches. “The launch represents a crucial step towards Skyrora’s ambitions. We are ecstatic and truly proud,” said Robin Hague, the test director. The launch was aimed at “understanding the local launch conditions, and learning more about the wind profiles in Shetland is critical.” (submitted by ABa, dbayly and NotYourUsername)
NASA has confidence in Mars 2020 launch† Space agency officials say they are confident the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission will launch this summer amid special measures the agency had to take to keep the mission on track during the coronavirus pandemic. The Mars rover will launch on an Atlas V rocket between July 20 and August 11, SpaceNews reports.
A costly delay … The spacecraft will soon be encased in the fairing of the rocket and then transported to the Atlas 5 Vertical Integration Facility to be installed on top of the rocket. If Mars 2020 were to unexpectedly miss its launch window, it would have to wait for the next Mars launch window to open in 26 months, at a cost of $500 million. (submitted by platykurtic)
Spaceflight signs deal with Falcon 9 rideshare† Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it has signed an agreement to secure secondary payload sites on several of SpaceX’s rockets due to launch by the end of 2021, Geek Wire reports. It looks like a majority of the missions will be booked as secondary payloads on SpaceX’s Starlink launches.
First mission coming soon … Spaceflight’s next rideshare mission with SpaceX is scheduled for next week. The Falcon 9 rocket, along with the Starlink-9 mission, will send two of BlackSky’s Earth observation satellites into orbit. “SpaceX’s consistent launch schedule, combined with our deep expertise in mission management and integration services, provides rideshare options with greater reliability,” said Curt Blake, president and CEO of Spaceflight. (submitted by Fenris_uy, Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)
SpaceX invests in McGregor test site† In recent months, SpaceX’s Boca Chica rocket factory in South Texas has received more attention than its other facility in the central part of the state, near Waco, Texas. However, SpaceX said it plans to spend $10 million on infrastructure improvements to its “noise suppression” rocket test facility, roadworks and other upgrades, the Waco Tribune-Herald reports.
Making a big impact … The city and county are expected to contribute $2 million towards the upgrades. SpaceX leases 4,280 acres in McGregor’s industrial district, where it employs about 500 people. The company has occupied the site since late 2002, when it first leased a much smaller area and took over the facilities originally built by Beal Aerospace. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
US military takes nuclear propulsion seriously† Last month, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced its intention to have a flyable nuclear thermal propulsion system ready for demonstration in 2025. DARPA’s decision to continue developing nuclear thermal propulsion comes as critical assistive technologies growing up, Ars reports.
A super DRACO program …Through this Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO program, the defense bureau seeks technology that will enable more responsive control of spacecraft in orbit, the Moon, and everywhere in between, giving the military more operational freedom in these domains. “The activity in space on the moon is expected to increase significantly in the coming years,” Major Nathan Greiner, manager of the DRACO program, told Ars. “A nimble nuclear thermal propulsion vehicle allows the DOD to maintain Space Domain Awareness of the nascent activity within this massive volume.”
SpaceX plans to build offshore launch site† The company is hiring “offshore operations engineers” to help develop floating spaceports for Starship, the next-gen transportation system, Space.com reports. “SpaceX is building floating, super-heavy spaceports for Mars, moon and hypersonic travel around Earth,” tweeted SpaceX founder Elon Musk.
A non-subtle missile … The sea-based spaceport plan in itself is not new, as SpaceX has long talked about this possibility. But the hiring notice suggests the company is moving forward with the idea. Such a launch facility would give the company more flexibility in planning launches of the titanic rocket. “We need to be far enough away not to bother densely populated areas,” Musk tweeted. “The launch and landing are not subtle.” (submitted by Ken de Bin)
Artemis I solid rocket boosters arrive at KSC† Successfully completing the train journey from Utah to Florida included all 10 propellant segments for the SLS rocket’s Artemis I mission, NASASpaceflight.com reports. The rocket boosters are now waiting for the core phase of the rocket to arrive.
Waiting for a stacking schedule … For Artemis I, the Solid Rocket Boosters will be the first element of the stack to take shape on the Mobile Launcher, stacked in front of their nose cones, which include part of the booster separation system, among other things. The schedule for this stack is unclear due to ongoing delays with the core phase of the SLS rocket. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
June 20: Vegan | VV 16 rideshare mission | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:51 GMT
June 23: Falcon 9 | Starlink-9 mission | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 21:58 UTC
June 30th: Long March 3B | APStar-6D | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China.| To be determined