Welcome to issue 2.33 of the Rocket Report! There’s a lot of exciting news this week, both with very small rockets and with SpaceX’s spacecraft getting closer to launch. In fact, the Astra could be launched as early as next Tuesday.
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 Caught Moon Mission† For a fixed-price contract of $9.95 million, Rocket Lab has signed a deal with NASA to launch the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment CubeSat to the Moon. This CAPSTONE mission is planned to be launched in early 2021. “This mission is all about demonstrating new capabilities quickly and cost-effectively, and we’re partnering with small businesses to do this,” said Christopher Baker, a NASA official.
That’s quite a deal …I don’t care who you are, or how small your payload is, spending less than $10 million for a ride to the moon is quite a bit. It won’t be particularly fast, as the mission will take three months to reach a halo orbit around the moon. But this is a nice coup, as small satellite launch vehicles appear to play a role in solar system exploration, extending their mandate beyond low Earth orbit. (submitted by Unrulycow, platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
Astra may launch next week† Speaking to reporters, the program manager of DARPA’s launch challenge said Astra will be able to launch two orbital rockets from Alaska’s Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island and still claim the $10 million prize. Todd Master said dealing with all the hassle associated with launches from distant sites “wasn’t really our goal in solving the challenge,” GeekWire reports.
Deadline approaching … The DARPA contest requires a company to launch twice within 14 days, and Astra says it will launch from separate pads at Kodiak that are about 300 yards apart. Astra has until March 1 to perform its first launch to a specified solar synchronous orbit and is likely to attempt to launch no earlier than February 25. For more information about Astra’s ambitions, read here. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Unrulycow)
VSS Unit moves to New Mexico† In what Virgin Galactic described as “another critical step towards commercial services”, the company successfully launched its VSS . moved Unit spacecraft to Spaceport America’s Gateway to Space building. Attached to the aircraft carrier, VMS Evethe spacecraft made the journey from Mojave, California, where Virgin’s manufacturing facilities are located.
More tests coming soon … According to a company press release, the captive carry flight provided engineers with the ability to use VSS . to evaluate Unit for more than three hours at high altitudes and cold temperatures, a longer period of time than experienced during missions to space. These environmental assessments of system performance are difficult to replicate at ground level. The company said it is planning additional test flights from New Mexico but did not say when commercial service will begin, although it is expected to begin sometime in 2020.
Rocket Crafters Suffers Engine Test Anomaly† The Florida-based motorcycle company conducted a test last week that resulted in an accident that threw debris, News 6 reports. The overpressure anomaly sparked several small wildfires that were extinguished by the cocoa fire department. No one was injured.
Dangerous plastic … Rocket Crafters is looking to develop a hybrid rocket engine that uses a 3D printed solid fuel pellet advertised to burn “smoothly and reliably every time.” Pieces of plastic debris from the anomaly caused two large holes in the roof of the building where the test took place. (submitted by Ken de Bin)
Michigan Promotes Lake Huron Launch Site† A state task force selected a facility on the shores of Lake Huron, Wurtsmith Airport, as a candidate to become a horizontal launch facility, the Detroit Free Press reports. The selection of Wurtsmith, who retired as an air force base in 1993, was announced Tuesday in the state capitol by a group of lawmakers and the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturing Association.
However, more money is needed … The state authorized $2 million to conduct a feasibility and site selection study on the project, but no money was included in the 2021 budget proposed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer earlier this month. Although the $2 million was earmarked and spent for the study, more state funding will be needed as the project moves forward. (submitted by Ken de Bin)
Crew Dragon is allowed to fly space tourists. Space Adventures announced on Tuesday an agreement with SpaceX to fly up to four paying space tourists on a standalone mission aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft by the end of 2021 or 2022. They could reach heights two to three times higher than the International Space Station. Space Adventures is in talks with several potential customers, but the company isn’t expecting firm commitments from paying passengers until after Crew Dragon’s maiden flight with astronauts.
All in all, the price is not that high … The free-flyer mission would last up to five days after launching on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Spaceflight Now reports. The passengers would undergo a training period of several weeks in the United States and the mission would likely be autonomous. Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures, suggested on Twitter that the price per seat could be less than $50 million. (submitted by Ken the Bin, Unrulycow and platykurtic)
SpaceX misses landing of drone ship† The launch of a Falcon 9 rocket went on Monday morning, but just as the first stage was about to land on the Of course I still love you drone ship, the missile did not appear. The company later confirmed that the first stage made a “soft landing” in the water near the drone ship, Ars reports.
Just missed the 50th landing … The primary mission to launch 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit was completely successful. However, SpaceX has become so good at the remarkably difficult task of landing orbital rockets on a drone ship that we take it for granted. If this landing had been successful, it would have been SpaceX’s 50th overall return to the first stage.
Blue Origin opens BE-4 engine factory† Blue Origin formally opened a factory Monday that the company plans to use to produce engines for both its vehicles and for the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, SpaceNews reports. The 350,000 square meter factory will produce BE-4 and BE-3U motors. The facility, which was built in just over a year, will eventually accommodate more than 300 employees and produce up to 42 engines per year.
Now all you need is a rocket … The completion of the plant is just one of many milestones for Blue Origin this year, said CEO Bob Smith. Another major construction project, Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, will be “largely finished” this year. That site will host New Glenn’s launches that the company now expects to begin in late 2021, according to a fact sheet. We’re betting 2022 at the earliest for that launch. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Unrulycow)
Starship may roll to launch pad soon† SpaceX teams have begun stacking Starship SN1 in Boca Chica, Texas, NASASpacelfight.com reports. The rocket is preparing for its maiden flight, during which the vehicle will fly to an altitude of approximately 20 kilometers and then land propelled at the launch site. Under the most aggressive timeline, the entire Starship can be stacked and moved to a nearby launch pad by the end of the month.
A spring launch? … If all goes well, there could be a static fire of the SN1 vehicle’s three Raptor engines in early March, potentially setting the stage for the 20km hop within a few weeks of the static fire. The company has not yet received a launch permit from the Federal Aviation Administration. (submitted by Unrulycow)
Russian heavy-lift missile for second launch† According to the Russian news agency TASS, the Angara A5 missile will fly in the second or third quarter of this year. The rocket will be delivered to the Plesetsk Cosmodrome north of Moscow later this spring. It has a payload of 24.5 tons to low Earth orbit, or slightly more than the Block 5 version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
That’s quite a gap … The A5 rocket has an interesting design, with a central core powered by an RD-191 rocket engine (kerosene-LOX, derived from the RD-180), and four boosters arranged around this central core and also be powered by the same engine. The A5 booster made a successful debut in 2014, but has not flown since, likely due to financial difficulties with the manufacturer, the Khrunichev Center, which also builds the Proton booster. (submitted by KP)
Los Angeles Board Approves SpaceX Permit† On Thursday, the LA Board of Harbor Commissioners voted to approve a new permit for SpaceX to lease and land facilities in the Port of Los Angeles to locate and reuse facilities there for its Starship plant. The deal has yet to be approved by the LA City Council, which will hear the matter next week, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Spaceship Shipping … “I am very excited to see what SpaceX will be able to bring to the future of not only space exploration and technology in Los Angeles, but also the Port of Los Angeles,” said Jaime Lee, chairman of the Board of Harbor Commissioners . minutes before Thursday’s vote. SpaceX will likely build large portions of its Starship vehicles in Los Angeles and complete assembly of the entire vehicle in Texas or Florida before launching.
Next three launches
February 25: Rocket 3.0 | DARPA launch challenge | Kodiak Island, Alaska | 20:30 UTC
March 2nd: Falcon 9 | CRS-20 mission to resupply space station | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida | 06:45 UTC
March 5th: Falcon 9 | Starlink-5 mission | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | To be determined
List image by Rocket Lab/Kieran Fanning