Rocket Report: Starship going offshore, Blue Origin may launch humans in April
Welcome to Edition 3.30 of the Rocket Report! This week we’re celebrating another private company—Virgin Orbit—has reaching orbit for the first time. Seeing the company’s rocket drop from an aircraft last weekend and ascend into orbit on just its second attempt was darn impressive.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Virgin Orbit goes orbital. On Sunday afternoon, Virgin Orbit joined the rare club of companies that have privately developed a rocket and successfully launched it into orbit. Moreover, with its LauncherOne rocket dropped from a 747 aircraft, the California-based company has become the first to reach orbit with an air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket.
Just its second launch attempt … The flight, which included multiple firings of LauncherOne’s upper-stage engine and successful deployment of several small satellites for NASA, caps a development program that has spanned about eight years and myriad technical challenges. Ars reported on some of the novel problems that arise with a liquid-fueled rocket launched horizontally. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
Blue Origin may launch humans in April. Following the company’s New Shepard-14 flight on January 14, it plans one more uncrewed mission before flying passengers, CNBC reports. The next test flight, NS-15, could come as soon as late February, followed by a crewed flight six weeks later, sometime in April.
Schedule remains tentative … The company declined to comment on New Shepard’s schedule, with a Blue Origin spokesperson saying that the schedule reporting “was speculative and not confirmed.” However, this is consistent with what we have heard about the company’s plans, that another successful flight would set up human tests. This leaves open the exciting possibility of commercial astronaut flights before the end of 2021. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Rocket Lab starts 2021 launch campaign. Rocket Lab successfully launched a communications satellite for German company OHB Group on Wednesday, in the first Electron mission of the year, SpaceNews reports. Rocket Lab had scrubbed the original launch attempt for the “Another One Leaves the Crust” mission four days earlier due to “strange data” from a sensor.
Is it actually a Chinese satellite? … As the publication notes, there was some uncertainty about the true nature of the payload. OHB described the GMS-T payload as a “50 kg class” satellite placed in an orbit 1,200 kilometers high and as a “prototype spacecraft for a planned new telecommunication satellite constellation.” It’s believed the primary customer for the satellite may actually be GMS Zhaopin, a Chinese company planning a satellite constellation. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
Phantom Space working on pathfinding vehicle. In a tweet on Sunday, the new company said it was nearing completion of a development model for its “Daytona” rocket. “This development model is a manufacturing and design pathfinder of the flight system and will be complete in Q1 this year,” the company said. The tweet (now deleted, but archived here) included an image of what appeared to be this pathfinder inside the factory, with several people standing around.
Everything is not as it seems … However, sharp-eyed readers noted that the image appeared to be a rendering or perhaps a composite image of a rendered rocket inside a real factory. (See archived image here). Eventually, Phantom Space founder Jim Cantrell chimed in, saying, “Guys, its RENDERING – ALL OF IT. Last time I looked, those aren’t illegal. Maybe I should review the federal code again.” This may not be entirely true. The rocket was rendered, but the photo was, in fact, real. It originally showed NASA’s abort motor for Orion, taken in 2019.
Falcon 9 sets reuse records, expands envelope. The Falcon 9 rocket took off on schedule Wednesday morning, lofting its payload of 60 Starlink Internet satellites toward orbit. Then came something of a challenge for this first stage—sticking the landing. According to SpaceX engineer Jessie Anderson, winds at the surface near the landing site were stronger than what Falcon 9 rockets have experienced on previous flights. With a safe landing, she said, it “expanded the envelope” of recovery-wind limits.
This mission reached milestones in other ways … This was the eighth flight of this Falcon 9 rocket first stage—setting a new record for the number of uses of any single rocket core, Ars reports. And its 38-day turnaround period from its last launch significantly beat the previous turnaround margin for a Falcon 9 first stage, which is 51 days.
China launches first rocket of 2021. On Tuesday, the country’s Long March 3B rocket lofted a Tiantong-1 mobile communications satellite into orbit. The launch took place form the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province, NASASpaceflight.com reports.
Many more to come … The Long March-3B launch vehicle is decades old and has been used to launch both domestic and international satellites. The Chinese government and several commercial companies in the country are expected to launch 40 or more rockets during the coming year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
French government seeks to expedite engine testing. The French space agency, CNES, and European rocket developer ArianeGroup have reached an agreement to begin testing the Prometheus rocket engine before the end of this year. The goal is to accelerate the Prometheus schedule by consolidating the test program at the Vernon site in Normandy, France.
Need to go faster … Under the agreement, ArianeGroup will receive additional funding for the site to enable the tests. Europe has a lot riding on the development of Prometheus, which it bills as a “low-cost, reusable” engine. It is expected to power a new generation of rockets after Ariane 6 and Vega C. “This agreement was signed against a backdrop of heightened global competition in the field of launch vehicles,” a news release stated.
Boeing completes Starliner software updates. Boeing recently completed its formal requalification of the CST-100 Starliner’s flight software in preparation for its next flight, the company said this week. “The work this team put into exhaustively wringing out our software is a defining moment for the program,” said John Vollmer, Starliner vice president and program manager. “We’re smarter as a team having been through this process.”
Setting up another launch … The rewriting and retesting of the spacecraft’s software came after a 2019 uncrewed test flight of the vehicle failed to complete its mission of docking with the International Space Station. This drove the decision to revamp the vehicle’s software and conduct another uncrewed flight test. The launch of this next mission, on an Atlas V rocket, is tentatively scheduled for March 29. (submitted by Ken the Bin, platykurtic, and Tfargo04)
Satellogic signs launch agreement with SpaceX. The Uruguay-based company that builds Earth-observation satellites said it has signed a “multiple launch agreement” to deliver its satellites on Falcon 9 ride-share missions. “What SpaceX has accomplished through their agile launch schedule is a perfect complement to our own business model at Satellogic,” said Alan Kharsansky, VP of Mission Engineering and Operations.
First launch coming soon … As part of its announcement, the company said SpaceX will become Satellogic’s “preferred vendor” for ride-share missions, allowing for a reduction in time between manufacturing and getting its satellites into orbit. The first launch will occur in June 2021. This seems like a notable shift as Satellogic initially launched on Chinese rockets. (submitted by Tfargo04, platykurtic, and Ken the Bin)
Putting launch into perspective. A new report from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, which is part of the Department of Commerce, estimated the US space economy “gross output” from 2012 through 2018. For the most recent year available, the space economy accounted for $177.5 billion (0.5 percent) of US gross output. Two sectors dominated the space economy: information and manufacturing.
One piece of the pie … The launch industry falls into this latter category, say the study authors. The sub-category of “other transportation equipment” was valued at $17.4 billion in 2018, and it includes space vehicles and space weapons systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. Space reaches into a broad number of industries, the report notes, including agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting, mining, and utilities, reflecting production related to research and development and remote sensing. (submitted by TH)
SLS rocket fails to complete its hot-fire test. The core stage of NASA’s rocket roared to life on Saturday afternoon in southern Mississippi, but then it stopped after just 67.2 seconds. Officials had hoped the test-firing would last for 485 seconds but believed they could get enough data with a 250-second firing, Ars reports. “It’s not everything we hoped it would be,” then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said afterwards.
To test again, or not? … A preliminary analysis identified that the test ended after an onboard sensor read pump-return pressures slightly lower than test limits. This reading came shortly after the rocket began to gimbal, or steer its engines. Publicly, NASA officials are saying they need to review data from the tests before decided whether to redo the Green Run test. But internally, Ars reports that officials are already leaning strongly toward a repeat to collect all the data needed. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Starship gets two mobile spaceports. SpaceX has acquired two former oil drilling rigs to serve as floating spaceports for its Starship launch system, NASASpaceflight.com reports. Named Phobos and Deimos, after the two moons of Mars, they are currently undergoing modifications to support Starship launch operations. Recently, SpaceX has begun hiring crane operators, electricians, and offshore operations engineers to modify the platforms.
No noise concerns here … Although SpaceX has enjoyed some autonomy at its Boca Chica launch site, as opposed to the more heavily regulated Cape Canaveral facility, the company could get even more freedom offshore. The superheavy-lift launch vehicle will have a large blast danger area and pose noise concerns if launched frequently near populated areas. (submitted by danneely, platykurtic, martialartstechie, and Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
Jan. 23: Falcon 9 | Transporter 1 ride-share | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 14:40 UTC
Jan. 27: Falcon 9 | Starlink-17 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 13:00 UTC
Feb. 15: Soyuz | Progress 77P | Baikonur Cosmodrome | 04:45 UTC