Welcome to edition 3.23 of the Rocket Report! Times are right when SpaceX launches a rocket on Thursday night and United Launch Alliance has the potential to break through its streak of scrubs on Sunday. After that, the next big US launch will be the Crew-1 mission that takes four people into space — the most people launched at once in more than a decade.
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 tries to recover in first phase† Rocket Lab said Thursday it will attempt to restore the first stage of its Electron rocket for the first time with its next mission, scheduled for mid-November. Company founder Peter Beck said he wasn’t sure what Rocket Lab would fish out of the ocean. It could be a nearly intact first kick or, he admitted, “a smoldering stump.” The key to this test, he said, was collecting data about the parachute system, Ars reports.
Catch a falling missile … With the current recovery plan, as the Electron rocket descends lower in the atmosphere, a pilot parachute will be deployed, followed by a main parachute. If all goes well, the rocket should splash into the ocean at less than 10 meters per second. After this (and likely other splashdown tests) show the company’s ability to return the first stage in its entirety, the final step will be trapping the vehicle in mid-air using a helicopter. This prevents water damage to the vehicle from the ocean.
ESA supports three small start-ups† On Tuesday, the European Space Agency said it’s Boost! support contracts with three German New Space companies: HyImpulse Technologies, Isar Aerospace Technologies and Rocket Factory Augsburg. All three companies are developing launch vehicles for small satellites – and it’s going to be a fun ‘space race’ to watch in Germany.
A helping hand … The contracts are worth EUR 500,000 each and are intended to help the companies transition from development to operation. Awards to other companies may be announced in the future. “We look forward to supporting these companies in achieving their ambitious goals, promoting diversification and competitiveness of the European space sector,” said Jorgen Bru, Commercial Services Manager of ESA. (submitted by platykurtic)
Virgin Orbit invests in launch customer† SpaceNews reports that Virgin Orbit plans to invest in financially troubled satellite constellation company Sky and Space Global (SAS), and to partner with it on launch and satellite services. SAS said Virgin Orbit will take a whopping 14.7 percent stake in the company by buying shares at a price of $0.14 each.
Canceled launch deal … The investment appears to be valued at approximately $2 million, and in exchange for the investment, the companies will cancel a previous launch agreement worth $55 million Australian. SAS will also sign a three-year “launch and advisory agreement” with Virgin Orbit for $1 million per year, and the two companies will agree to promote each other’s services. Unless SAS goes through a major recovery, this appears to be a significant loss of launch contracts for Virgin Orbit. (submitted by Ken de Bin)
Vector is restarting operations, apparently† Vector, the small launch vehicle developer that went bankrupt in 2019, is getting a second chance under new ownership, with changes in both technology and initial markets, SpaceNews reports. Vector has raised more than $100 million to develop a family of small launchers, but the company suspended operations in August 2019 and laid off most of its employees after one of its key investors pulled out.
Will switch to a more conventional fuel, RP-1 … The new owner of Vector’s launchers is a consortium led by John Moran, and the company’s new chief executive is Robert Spalding, a retired Air Force brigadier general who previously served on the National Security Council staff. “We thought there was tremendous value. They had $100 million invested in trying and failing,” Spalding said, referring to the facilities and infrastructure it had developed. “There were a lot of things that they had done well, and there… [are] just a few things they did wrong.” We’ll see. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)
SpaceX flies an unproven rocket† Before Thursday night, SpaceX hadn’t launched a brand new rocket since June, when it staged a GPS III satellite for the US Space Force on a Falcon 9 rocket. Since then, the company has launched several commercial missions and its own Starlink satellites on a variety of rockets previously flown, and all of them have been successful. However, when the company attempted to launch a new Falcon 9 first stage — this was for yet another GPS satellite, dubbed GPS III-04 — on Oct. 2, the attempt was dropped at T-2 seconds.
Three flights on new first stages … In late October, the company said it had addressed the issue, which is a good thing, because SpaceX had three major missions for the US government, all planned to fly on new rockets. First there was a second attempt to launch the GPS III-04 satellite, and this was successful. Following this, SpaceX will attempt to fly its second manned mission and the Sentinel-6 satellite for NASA later this month, Ars reports.
Europe’s “best answer” to Falcon 9 is in trouble† European space officials announced late last week that the debut of the Ariane 6 rocket will be delayed again — this time until the second quarter of 2022. This large rocket, which has roughly a similar lift capacity to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster, was originally due to launch before the end of 2020. “We can say today that COVID-19 has led to an expansion of activities on the critical path,” said Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transport at the European Space Agency, Ars reports.
Losing precious time … In response to competition from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, the Ariane 6 was designed to fly more cost-effectively. Originally, the European Space Agency planned to debut the Ariane 6 rocket now. While the rocket might cost more than a Falcon 9, it had the ability to put two large satellites into geostationary orbit and would have had decades of launch reliability. A few years ago, this seemed like a plausible line of reasoning. But since then, SpaceX has made significant strides to increase the Falcon 9’s reliability. Now Ariane 6 may also have to compete with Super Heavy.
Another scrub for ULA with an Atlas V rocket† A problem with the ground systems again caused United Launch Alliance on Wednesday evening. Prior to the opening of the Atlas V launch window on Wednesday evening, a problem related to ground system liquid-oxygen valves could not be resolved in time for a launch attempt from Florida. The NROL-101 mission will now take off no earlier than Sunday.
United Launch Alliance could use a successful launch … This was the second ground systems delay for this Atlas V launch, Ars reports. And the last few months have been tough for the company as it struggled to launch a new mission for the National Reconnaissance Office, a key customer who pays a premium to get its expensive satellites into space. To be launched on a Delta IV Heavy missile on a nearby trail, this NROL-44 mission has been scrubbed half a dozen times since late August. A new date has yet to be announced publicly.
SLS solves technical problems with Green Run† While a late-season hurricane may have delayed operations at NASA’s engine testing facility in Mississippi by a few days, Boeing and the space agency are also experiencing technical issues with the core stage of the SLS rocket. In a report, NASASpaceflight.com highlights two issues that are likely to delay the Green Run hot-fire test until December or early 2021.
Technical thicket … A problem involves one of four liquid-hydrogen front valves that isolate the tank from the inlets of each of the four RS-25 Core Stage engines before starting the engine. The front valves open just before the engine fires and then supply propellants to the engines as they fire. Another issue was reported with the performance of the thrust vector control system during test case five. NASA has not yet updated a target date for the Green Run test. (submitted by Ken de Bin)
China continues from March 9 9† In recent years, it was thought that China would continue to develop a Saturn V-class rocket to launch future manned missions to the moon and into deep space. But this no longer appears to be the case, SpaceNews reports in a survey of the country’s lunar architecture that excludes the previously unveiled Long March 9 vehicle.
Three cores and never again …Instead, a concept with three first-stage 5-meter cores and clusters of YF-100K engines is now appearing – improved versions of the YF-100 kerosene engines used by China’s new Long March 5, 6 and 7 launchers. be an integral part of China’s plans. This rocket may look like a Falcon 9 or Delta IV Heavy. We welcome China’s sharing of its launch architecture plans. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
Nov 5: Falcon 9 | GPS III-04 | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 23:24 UTC
Nov 6: Long March 6 | 10 Satellite Logic | Taiyuan, China | 03:18 GMT
Nov 8: Atlas V | NROL-101 classified mission | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 22:36 UTC