Welcome to edition 3.24 of the Rocket Report! It’s December and we could see some big smallsat launches this month, including from Virgin Orbit and Astra. But for the foreseeable future, our eyes are on South Texas, where a Starship prototype will make a big jump early next week.
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.
Aevum unveils its Ravn X launch system. Until now, Aevum has largely operated in the background. But now it’s ready to show off some hardware, and it’s starting the first phase of the “Ravn X” launch system, Ars reports. This autonomous aircraft and launch vehicle is 24 meters long and has a wingspan of 18 meters. It has a gross takeoff mass of 25,000 kg – huge for an unmanned aerial vehicle. It will drop a rocket that can carry 100 kg to a sun-synchronous orbit.
Want to make satellite delivery a commodity … The company is aiming for its first launch next year. Even now that it has completed the Ravn X first stage, Aevum has developed a rocket with two liquid fuel engines for the main stage, each with 5,000 pounds of thrust and a single engine in the top stage. These engines are hot-fire tested after their full burn time and have undergone qualification and acceptance tests, the company said. Aevum claims it has landed launch contracts worth more than $1 billion over the next decade, including the Air Force’s ASLON-45 mission.
Virgin Orbit sets date for second launch attempt† On Monday, Virgin Orbit announced it would attempt a second orbital flight of its LauncherOne rocket on Saturday, December 19. The four-hour window opens at 10:00 AM PT (6:00 PM UTC). During the company’s first demo flight last May, the missile was successfully dropped from the carrier aircraft and the engine ignited a few seconds before the LOX ran out due to a blocked line.
This time there is a customer … That mission carried no payloads, but this one did. Through the Venture Class Launch Services program, NASA offers nine CubeSat missions, consisting of 10 spacecraft to fly on the Launch Demo 2 mission. The company said it has yet to hold a wet dress rehearsal before embarking on its launch attempt. Good luck! (submitted by Ken de Bin)
Relativity Space Adds $500 Million to Funding Cache† The launch company, which plans to 3D print nearly all of its rockets, announced that it had closed its major Series D funding round at the end of November. This raises the company’s valuation to $2.3 billion, CNBC reports. It also makes the company the second most valuable private space company, behind only SpaceX.
A ton of money… “This really accelerates Relativity’s momentum and scale-up as we focus on manufacturing and various infrastructure expansion projects after the initial launch,” Ellis said. We can attest that this is A LOT of private funding for a rocket company to raise, especially ahead of its first launch attempt. This can only help Relativity stick to its aggressive 2021 launch schedule. (submitted by Ken de Bin)
Rocket Lab says the restored stage is in “good condition.” Ten days after launching its “Return to Sender” mission, Rocket Lab provided an update on its first attempt at recovering a first stage of an Electron rocket. “We couldn’t have wished for a better result from our first recovery attempt and the team is excited.” The missile came back in such good condition, the company added: “We will requalify some components and fly again.”
Not ready for a helicopter yet … The Nov. 20 flight marked the first time Rocket Lab has fished an Electron out of the Pacific, Ars reports. The rocket was picked up in waters off New Zealand, where the small booster is being launched. Founder Peter Beck said the company wanted to assess the health of the first stage — and make any necessary changes to the heat shield and flight software — before taking the final step to capture the Electron rocket in mid-air with a helicopter. This could happen next year after more testing.
Billionaire invests in Shetland spaceport† Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen are investing £1.5 million ($2 million) in a planned spaceport in the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, the BBC reports. The couple’s company, Wildland Ltd., is also taking legal action to stop planning permission for Space Hub Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands.
NIMBY, rocket edition … The Danish couple, who own a retail clothing empire, also own thousands of acres of land in Sutherland and other Highland estates. The Povlsens have expressed concern about the impact of Space Hub Sutherland on the Caithness Special Area of Conservation and Sutherland Peatlands. This appears to be a rather brazen attempt to bolster the financial case for the Shetland site and divert investment and support away from the Sutherland site. (submitted by bra)
Jim Cantrell from Vector is back† Rocket company co-founder Vector has quietly started Phantom Space, a new company that plans to provide microsatellite launch services, as well as small satellites and propulsion systems, the Arizona Daily Star reports. Cantrell told the publication he was convinced to start another satellite technology company by Michael D’Angelo, a former colleague at Vector, after they thought they could use the many lessons they learned from Vector. Phantom is building four launch vehicles and hopes to launch its first orbital flight in about two years.
fool me once … Cantrell said Phantom has a broader view of the still-evolving New Space industry, which has been driven by the rapid development of small satellites for research and communication. Rather than creating a vertically integrated company that builds everything from the ground up, Phantom is integrating existing technologies—particularly including proven, turnkey engines for its launch vehicles—into systems to serve its customers. “We’re a space transport company,” Cantrell said. “When we think about the future, we don’t know what the killer app is. One thing we do know: people have to send their objects into space and you have to move them and sometimes bring them back.” We’re going to take a wait-and-see approach here. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
NASA, SpaceX on track for next Cargo . launch† The space agency said it is targeting SpaceX’s 21st Commercial Resupply Services mission to the International Space Station on Saturday, December 5. However, U.S. Air Force 45th Space Wing weather officials predict only a 40 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for the launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Cargo Dragon spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center.
Rocket ready for second ISS mission … This will be the first mission under the company’s second Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA and the first flight of the enhanced cargo version of Dragon 2. This flight will reuse the same Falcon 9 first stage that the manned Demo-2 mission launched in May, sending Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the space station. (submitted by Ken de Bin)
H3 Missile Debut Delay Confirmed† The first launches of Japan’s new H3 launch vehicle are being delayed by problems with two components of the rocket’s main engine, SpaceNews reports. JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the prime contractor for the H3, had set a target of holding the inaugural launch by the end of 2020 before problems were discovered in May.
You have to look at the FTP blades … Now the rocket’s debut will be sometime in Japan’s 2021 fiscal year, beginning April 1, 2021. The problems were found with the combustion chamber and turbo pump of the new LE-9 engine. “Fatigue fracture surfaces were confirmed in the apertural area of the combustion chamber inner wall and the turbo pump FTP blade,” said JAXA. (submitted by Ken de Bin)
Russian spaceport officials are fired left and right† The head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, has continued a series of fires that have seen many of the country’s top spaceport officials fired, arrested, or both. Most recently, on November 27, Rogozin fired the leader of the Center for Exploitation of Ground-Based Space Infrastructure, which manages all Russian spaceports. Andrei Okhlopkov, the leader of this Roscosmos subsidiary, had previously faced a reprimand from Rogozin for “repeated failings in his work.”
wait, there’s more … Earlier this month, Vladimir Zhuk, chief engineer of the center that manages Russian spaceports, was arrested. Several other key officials involved in the Vostochny cosmodrome — in development since 2011 and intended to reduce Russia’s reliance on the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan — have also been recently fired. The spaceport has been mired in corruption almost since construction began, Ars reports.
NASA Confirms Return of 1960s Centaur Booster† Scientists have confirmed that Near-Earth Object 2020 SO is, in fact, a 1960s Centaur rocket booster. First discovered in September, analysis of 2020 SO’s orbit revealed that the object had come close to Earth several times over the decades, with one approach in 1966 bringing it close enough to suggest it may be from the Earth, NASA said. This timing coincided with the launch of the Surveyor 2 mission to the moon in 1966, NASA said.
Using Spectra Data … To confirm this, a team led by Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor and planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, conducted follow-up spectroscopy observations of 2020 SO using a NASA telescope at Maunakea, Hawaii. Reddy’s team observed another Centaur D rocket booster long enough to get a good spectrum. The rocket was from a 1971 launch and had delivered a communications satellite that was in geostationary transfer orbit. With this new data, Reddy and his team were able to compare it to 2020 SO and found that the spectra were consistent with each other, definitively concluding 2020 SO that it was also a Centaur rocket booster. (submitted by Tfargo04)