Welcome to edition 1.04 of the Rocket Report! This collaboration with Ars Technica readers aims to diversify our coverage of the booming launch industry. The Rocket Report appears as a newsletter on Thursdays and on this website every Friday morning.
We welcome reader submissions and if you don’t want to miss a song, subscribe in the box below. 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.
Was a missile launched from Washington state? Early in the morning of Sunday, June 10, a photographer in northern Washington captured a 20-second exposure of what exactly looked like a rocket or missile launch. But there are no known launch pads nearby. Questions about a nearby naval station on Whidbey Island were answered with a simple, “It wasn’t us.”
So what was it? … The mystery was apparently solved by The Drive’s website, which concluded that the ghostly image was not a rocket: “Unfortunately, this was nothing more exciting than a helicopter flying in a straight line in the wee hours of a quiet Sunday morning on the picturesque Puget Sound. Above all, this photo serves as an extra reminder that sometimes there is much more to an image than meets the eye.” (submitted by R. Saecker)
Aerojet completes assembly of its first AR-22 engine. The engine was assembled at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and will undergo a series of daily tests in Stennis starting this summer. This rocket engine will power the fast, reusable Phantom Express spaceplane that Boeing is building for DARPA. The AR-22 engine is an update of the space shuttle’s reusable main engine and delivers approximately 375,000 pounds of thrust. The new AR-22 is optimized to require significantly fewer refurbishments between flights.
Coming to a runway near you … The Phantom Express will launch its upper stage to place small satellites in low Earth orbit and then land on a runway to prepare for its next flight. The maximum payload is approximately 1.4 tons, at a cost of $5 million per launch. The first test flights of the vehicle could begin in 2020. (submitted by routej1)
PLD Space raises another $10.6 million. According to Space news, Spanish startup PLD Space raised this money last month from public and private investors to develop a pair of reusable launchers. The company says the funding will provide the funds needed to begin construction of the first two Arion 1 suborbital rockets, designed to carry up to 100 kilograms each, for launches in the second half of 2019.
A boost of confidence… PLD Space has been around since 2011, so there have been some questions about whether it will ever make it to space. This funding is therefore important for his efforts to develop both the Arion 1 and, ultimately, the Arion 2 orbital vehicle. The company has grown from six to 40 people in the past 18 months, company officials said. (submitted by Ken de Bin)
Time for talk is ending soon, Vector chief says. Launch company Vector has gotten a lot of good press in recent years, but now it’s time to deliver, says company co-founder Jim Cantrell. “It’s always important to have positive press, but we live on good deeds more than good press these days,” he told Tucson.com. Vector plans to build a new 100,000-square-foot rocket factory near Tucson International Airport.
When will the Vector-R fly? …Cantrell has said the company’s rocket will make its first orbital flight in 2018, and in the Tucson.com article, he says the mission will come sometime in October, when Vector plans to launch from a range in Alaska. It’s safe to say that the aerospace industry is skeptical about whether this will actually happen. However, if Vector meets his deadline, the achievement is commendable. (submitted by Izzy)
Rocket Lab signs deal for three more launches. GeekWire reports that Seattle-based Spaceflight is partnering with Rocket Lab for three launches over the next year, including one of the first launches for BlackSky’s Earth-observing constellation. All three launches will send an assortment of small satellites into low Earth orbit from Rocket Lab’s facility in New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula.
First on the market reaps the loot … Part of Rocket Lab’s appeal is that it has a vehicle that is now about to enter commercial flight, with two test flights already completed. These three additional flights will take place in late 2018 and early 2019 (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Pegasus XL launch delayed. NASA officials and Northrop Grumman decided on Friday, June 8, to return a Pegasus rocket and its carrier plane from Hawaii to California, canceling a trip to Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific for a June 14 launch of a NASA research satellite. During the first leg of the ferry trip from California, engineers found “off-rated data” that forced the launch of NASA’s ICON spacecraft to be delayed, SpaceFlightNow reported. The launch system will now undergo additional testing.
Few future flights … With the cost of the Pegasus now ranging from $40 to $55 million, as much cheaper small satellite rockets come online, it’s not clear how many more flights of the Pegasus vehicle there will be. The rocket’s first flight came back in 1990.
SpaceX plans major expansion in Florida. In a draft environmental impact statement, SpaceX said it plans to develop facilities, including a booster processing hangar and a launch control center on 67 acres of KSC property. According to Space newsthe document does not state how many Falcon 9 launches are expected, but it expects up to 54 landings per year of the Falcon 9 first stage, either at Cape Canaveral or on a drone ship at sea.
Big plans for the Space Coast, but … The document clearly states that SpaceX plans to do many Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches from Florida. But notably absent from the environmental assessment is any discussion of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket. This supports recent comments from company officials that the “Mars rocket” will likely be tested and likely flown from SpaceX’s Brownsville, Texas location. (submitted by Ken de Bin)
Florida plans a launch wave. In addition to SpaceX’s plans for more activity, Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello also sees a lot of activity from other companies. He recently outlined his vision for 100 rocket launches a year and thousands of high-tech jobs. “This isn’t far-fetched, and it’s short-term,” DiBello told the National Space Club Florida Committee during a presentation in Cape Canaveral. “The industry’s growth is inevitable, and we can make it happen or we can manage it well.”
Florida has a bright future … In the seven years since the end of the space shuttle program, Florida has positioned itself well for growth, especially at a time when many other locations have attempted to develop competing spaceports. This forward-thinking stance of the Florida community about the future of American spaceflight contrasts with other historically leading NASA centers, such as the Johnson Space Center and the Houston area.
SpaceX begins posting applications for the BFR. According to devoted SpaceX fans on the company’s subreddit, this is the first orbit SpaceX has posted for specific work on the Big Falcon Rocket. The job seeks a “BFR Build Engineer,” a position who “will research, test and develop new hardware, software and automation efforts that can support advanced metal and composite joining methods for the BFR.”
Qualifications … Candidates for the job must have a bachelor’s degree in engineering and hands-on experience with complex mechanical systems. The ‘additional requirements’ section also advises applicants that they should be ‘available to work long hours and weekends as required’. That sounds about right if you’re trying to build a titanic rocket to take 100 people to Mars at once.
Aerojet hot firing next generation RL10 engine thrust chamber. Aerojet Rocketdyne says its next-gen RL10 engine chamber is built almost entirely using 3D printing. “This marks another important milestone in our effort to fully qualify components built with additive manufacturing for use in many of our production engine systems,” said the company’s CEO and president, Eileen Drake, in a press release.
Important for future missiles … Both NASA’s Space Launch System and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rockets will rely on the RL10 engine to power their upper stages. To the extent that 3D printing can lower the cost of RL10 motors, those big boosters will become a little more competitive.
Next three launches
June 17: Soyuz 2.1b | Glonass M navigation satellite | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | 21:45 UTC
June 20: Long March 3B | Two Beidou satellites | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | To be determined
June 20: Long March 2C | Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite | Taiyuan, China | To be determined