Rocket Report: Starship orbital flight details, Ariane 5 may delay Webb launch

May 14, 2021 by No Comments

Enlarge / Starship SN15 takes to the skies in early April.

Welcome to Edition 3.44 of the Rocket Report! I took just three days off from work last week, and when I returned to the home office, there was an absolute torrent of launch news to catch up with. In this report, I attempt to do just that.

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.

Canadian spaceport secures funding. The company behind a proposed spaceport in Canso, Nova Scotia, has secured financing it says will allow it to begin construction on the facility this fall and get its first launch off the ground in 2022. Maritime Launch Services is receiving $10.5 million from Toronto investment bank PowerOne Capital Markets, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports.

Work to begin soon … Maritime Launch Services said it plans to launch a small rocket from the spaceport next year. This will be followed in 2023 by a medium-class lifter, a Ukrainian-built Cyclone-4M. The funding is notable because there were questions about whether the oft-delayed spaceport would ever get built. Initial work is scheduled to begin in September. (submitted by GM and JoeyS4B)

New book raises concerns about Virgin Galactic. A new book by Nicholas Schmidle, Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, does an admirable job of taking readers behind the scenes of Virgin Galactic, Ars reports. Schmidle enjoyed unparalleled access to Virgin Galactic beginning in 2014, shortly after a fatal crash of the VSS Enterprise spacecraft that killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury. (This flight test was operated by Scaled Composites, which developed the spaceship for Virgin Galactic). Few restrictions were placed on Schmidle, and he was allowed to record phone calls and meetings. This lasted for more than four years.

An analog launch system … Perhaps most importantly from the book, we get a sense of the precariousness of Virgin Galactic’s spaceflight technology. Unlike Blue Origin’s automated New Shepard launch system or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Vehicle—which can take off from Earth and dock to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit without an astronaut ever touching the controls—VSS Unity is very much an analog system. One is left wondering how the system can ever expand to frequent, reliable, and safe flight.

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Next SpaceShipTwo flight could be further delayed. Speaking of Virgin Galactic, the company says it is still not sure when it will attempt its next spaceflight. On Monday, a company official said that—while he believes Virgin Galactic corrected a problem with its SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane that aborted a test flight five months ago—the resumption of those test flights could be further delayed by a problem with the carrier aircraft.

Further analysis needed … While VSS Unity may be ready for flight, the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that carries the plane aloft, called VMS Eve, may not, SpaceNews reports. The company’s president of space missions, Mike Moses, said that, after three flights of the plane from Spaceport America in the last two weeks, post-flight inspections revealed “a potential wear-and-tear issue as requiring further evaluation and analysis.” Maintenance now would delay the schedule of flight tests for SpaceShipTwo, but Moses said it was “a little too early” to know how long that would be. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Isar Aerospace wins key award. German launch startup Isar Aerospace beat out Rocket Factory Augsburg and HyImpulse Technologies to win a German Space Agency endorsement that clears the way for it to secure $13 million from the European Space Agency’s Boost! program. Germany’s space agency, DLR, announced its microlauncher competition in May 2020 as a multiround funding drive aimed at promoting the development of domestic smallsat launchers, SpaceNews reports.

Moving to a more commercial model … The competition is funded by the German government and managed through the ESA Boost! program, which aims to foster commercial launch capabilities in Europe. Isar has raised more than $90 million in private funding since 2019, including a $75 million Series B round led by European venture capital fund Lakestar. Isar Aerospace CEO Daniel Metzler called the announcement a significant milestone. “For the first time, a government contract has been awarded to a purely privately financed space launch startup in Europe. The government is no longer funding technological development but is becoming an anchor customer,” he said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Virgin Orbit contracts for quantum satellite launches. The California-based launch company said this week it has been selected by UK-based Arqit Limited to conduct two launches to low Earth Orbit starting in 2023. The companies are discussing a further set of launches after the initial program, and this could potentially include future launches from Spaceport Cornwall in the United Kingdom.

Start building more rockets … “We currently have over a dozen missions manifested, several of which we have yet to announce,” company spokesman Kendall Russell told Ars. “We’re seeing incredibly strong demand for LauncherOne from a broad set of customers, so the team is excited to continue bringing enhancements online in the factory as we ramp up manufacturing and get into a regular launch cadence.” It’s good to see Virgin Orbit filling out its manifest.

Ursa Major sees opportunities in crowded market. Ursa Major Technologies, a Colorado-based startup that makes liquid engines for small rockets, says it has signed several commercial contracts and is looking to move into the medium-lift market. The company’s business model is based on the idea that, while many launch providers make their own propulsion systems, others will choose outsourcing so they don’t have to invest money and time in risky engine development, SpaceNews reports.

Ripley’s believe it or not … “If a propulsion company has a leg up in terms of price or reliability, it’s too much of a capital expenditure for a launch company or a vertically integrated company to try to go compete against that,” said Will Roper, a former US Air Force official and current adviser to Ursa Major. For small launchers, Ursa Major makes a 5,000-pound-thrust (22,411 N) liquid oxygen and kerosene Hadley engine. The company is working on a larger 35,000-pound-thrust (155,688 N) Ripley engine that also uses liquid oxygen and kerosene as propellant. (submitted by platykurtic)

Ariane 5 issue may delay James Webb launch. Ongoing work to address a problem seen on two previous Ariane 5 launches has kept that launch vehicle grounded for months and could delay the high-profile launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope later this year, SpaceNews reports. The rocket last launched in August 2020, and now Arianespace has publicly acknowledged the issue.

Webb now waits … “Post-flight analyses conducted on two recent Ariane 5 launches have indicated the occurrence of a less-than-fully nominal separation of the fairing, however with no adverse impact on the Ariane 5 flights in question,” the European launch company said. That would suggest that NASA’s huge telescope will miss its October 31 launch date, although perhaps only by weeks. An Ariane 5 launch of Eutelsat Quantum and Star One D2 at the beginning of the third quarter, or early July, would allow for a launch of JWST in early November, four months later. A new report from the US Government Accountability Office also says the telescope still has some schedule issues to resolve. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Falcon 9 rocket makes its 10th flight. For a Starlink launch on Sunday morning, SpaceX used a first stage that had flown into space nine previous times, Ars reports. After this launch, the B1051 booster landed safely on a drone ship, completing its 10th flight to space. This is a notable milestone because, in 2018, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the goal for its Falcon 9 rocket would be to fly each first stage booster 10 times before requiring significant maintenance.

Not going into a museum any time soon … This particular first stage is now approaching historic status. B1051 trails only NASA’s Discovery, Atlantis, Columbia, and Endeavour space shuttle orbiters in terms of spaceflights. Three of those shuttles are now in museums. Columbia was lost in a fatal accident in 2003. In flying 10 times since early March 2019, this single booster has now flown nearly as many missions as SpaceX’s primary US launch competitor. Since the first flight of B1051, United Launch Alliance has flown a total of 11 missions with expendable rockets—two Delta IV launches, two Delta IV Heavy missions, and seven Atlas V rockets.

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