Welcome to Edition 3.26 of the Rocket Report! Even though we’re nearing the end of 2020, news from the world of launch is not slowing down. We’ll try to keep on top of it, even as the holidays approach. To that end, we’ll publish one final newsletter next week, but it will come out two days early.
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.
Astra very nearly reaches orbit. Poor weather prevented Astra launch attempts on Friday and through the weekend, but by Tuesday, the upper-level winds over the spaceport in Kodiak, Alaska, lessened, Ars reports. And so, despite the leaden skies overhead, Rocket 3.2 ignited its five main engines and launched. It followed its planned flight trajectory nearly dead-on. A couple of minutes into flight, the main engines shut down, and the second stage separated. Its engine, too, lit. This upper stage then burnt all of its propellant and simulated the deployment of a payload into space.
Alas, Rocket 3.2 did not reach orbit … The company had not quite gotten the mixture of kerosene to oxidizer correct—something that is difficult to test on the ground—and wound up with an excess of liquid oxygen. Had the upper stage burnt kerosene for a few more seconds, the upper stage would have reached orbit. As it was, the booster peaked at an apogee of 390km above the Earth’s surface. This flight represents a significant success for Astra, which now will likely find it easier to attract launch contracts and capital. The company’s next launch, of Rocket 3.3, is likely within a few months.
Virgin Galactic space plane fails to ignite engine. On Saturday, nearly two full years after its last powered flight, Virgin Galactic attempted to send its sleek SpaceShipTwo space plane on its third suborbital flight above 80km. However, shortly after the space plane was released from its carrier aircraft, named White Knight Two, the ignition sequence to light the space plane’s motor did not complete, Ars reports.
Making it safely home … As a result, the rocket motor failed to fire, and the two pilots on board safely glided the vehicle back to a runway in New Mexico rather than soaring above the atmosphere. This flight came almost exactly two years after the company’s first successful suborbital flight in December 2018 and 22 months since its second suborbital flight in February 2019. Prior to Saturday’s flight attempt, Virgin Galactic’s stock had closed at $32.04 per share. By Thursday morning the stock price had fallen to a little above $25 a share. (submitted by platykurtic)
NASA awards second round of small launch contracts. As part of its Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 program—which delivers small satellites including CubeSats, microsats or nanosatellites to space—NASA gave awards to three companies. These contracts are intended to support small-launch companies and provide NASA with low-cost access to space for small payloads.
Earning a stamp of approval … Winners of fixed-price awards are Astra Space ($3.9 million), Relativity Space ($3.0 million), and Firefly ($9.8 million). While the money conferred by these awards is always welcome, such contracts also serve as a “stamp of approval” by NASA, and they may help the launch companies find additional commercial customers. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
European Space Agency supports Space Rider. The European Space Agency has finalized a $200 million contract with Thales Alenia Space Italy and Avio to deliver Space Rider—Europe’s first robotic orbital spaceplane—in time for a mid-to-late 2023 launch atop an expendable rocket, SpaceNews reports.
New plane, new rocket … Thales will build Space Rider’s reusable reentry module, and Avio will deliver an expendable service module and propulsion system. The spaceplane’s planned 2023 launch, aboard a next-generation Vega C rocket, is not covered under the December 9 contract. The spaceplane will spend approximately two months in orbit before jettisoning its service module and reentering Earth’s atmosphere, gliding back to a landing zone under a parafoil. (submitted by platykurtic)
Europe studies air-breathing launcher. A lot of news has come out of Europe this week, but this bit is among the most interesting. The European Space Agency said it is studying the use of the Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, or SABRE, being developed by Reaction Engines. This engine could be used to power a horizontally launched vehicle using either a one- or two-stage-to-orbit concept, the space agency said.
Opportunities and challenges … Potentially fully reusable, SABRE is designed to reach hypersonic speed through Earth’s atmosphere before switching to rocket mode on the climb to orbit. “The results of this study highlight the technical and economic challenges of a reusable launch vehicle based on existing SABRE technology. It encompassed the space and ground segment right up to maiden flight,” explained Jamila Mansouri, Space Transportation beyond LEO Manager at ESA. This study could be a precursor to ESA funding development of the technology. (submitted by markmuetz)
Virgin Orbit delays launch due to pandemic. The California launch company had been working toward the second flight of its LauncherOne rocket this weekend but said it could no longer support that date due to COVID-19. In a series of tweets, Virgin Orbit said “skyrocketing” levels of local cases led the company to institute a new batch of precautionary quarantines.
Not enough people … “Consequently, we’ve fallen below the number of staff we feel we require to prudently and safely proceed with pre-launch operations. Our priority now is ensuring the well-being of our team, and to support the few who have tested positive,” the company tweeted. Virgin Orbit will now assess impacts to its launch schedule. The pandemic sucks, and we wish Virgin Orbit well and great success with LauncherOne in 2021. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Second Angara A5 rocket lifts off. On Monday, an Angara A5 rocket launched from Russia’s Plesetsk spaceport, and it appeared to perform a successful test flight, Russian Space Web reports. Six years have passed since Russia first launched this vehicle, and this much-delayed mission may signal that the Angara is finally getting ready for commercial service.
Will it be a commercial success? … Presently, the booster is expensive to fly, but Russian officials say that, when they build more of them, the medium-lift rocket can be launched for less than $60 million. Eventually, Russia plans for the Angara rocket to replace the Proton booster, but the country has released few details about launch contracts for Angara. It faces stiff international competition from the Falcon 9 and other rockets. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
United States sets a record for licensed commercial launches. The US Department of Transportation said this week that it supported a record 35 commercial launches so far in 2020. The prior record of 33 commercial launches was set in 2018. The Federal Aviation Administration says that it could license as many as 50 launches next year.
Seven different locations … These commercial space launches cover a diversity of missions, including the first FAA-licensed crewed mission to the International Space Station, cargo-only resupply of the ISS, private satellites, and the testing of space capsules and rocket systems. The launches occurred from seven locations both domestic and foreign: Alaska, California, Florida, New Mexico, Texas, Virginia, and New Zealand. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
ESA to modernize French Guiana spaceport. At a European Space Agency council meeting this week, members agreed to a new contract that will maintain and modernize Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana. The launch range provides services for the Ariane 5, Vega, and Soyuz rockets, and it is being upgraded for the forthcoming Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets (here are some new photos of the Ariane 6 launch pad).
Going green in the jungle … According to ESA and the French space agency, CNES, these launch range updates will “improve the availability and cost efficiency of the facilities, and will address end-of-life overhauls of certain systems such as the water and air conditioning underground networks as well as the road network.” Notably the spaceport will also seek to derive 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources.
Falcon 9 sets commercial reuse record. On Sunday, a Falcon 9 rocket launched the Sirius XM-7 satellite into orbit from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The rocket’s upper stage deployed the SXM-7 satellite into a geostationary transfer orbit 31 minutes after liftoff. The rocket’s first stage successfully landed on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean, SpaceNews reports.
Getting comfortable with reuse … Of note, this Falcon 9 first stage was making its seventh flight—it had previously launched the Demo-1 commercial crew test flight, the Radarsat Constellation Mission, and four sets of Starlink satellites. This is a remarkably well-used booster for a commercial mission, and it signals a wider acceptance of “flight proven” rockets by SpaceX customers.
ArianeGroup wins contract for reuse demonstrator. This week, the European Space Agency awarded the France-based launch company a 33 million-euro development contract for the Themis reusable-rocket-stage demonstrator. Powered by the Prometheus engine, this technology is expected to serve as the basis for a low-cost, reusable rocket akin to SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
But there’s a catch … According to the ArianeGroup news release, this demonstrator will showcase Europe’s capability “in the field of reusability” by 2022. This will put European Space Agency member states in the position of moving forward with a reusable launcher “around 2030.” This would come a full 15 years after SpaceX landed its first Falcon 9 rocket, and it just seems woefully behind the curve to us. (submitted by rodik)
NASA says New Glenn is eligible to compete for launch contracts. NASA’s Launch Services Program said it has on-ramped Blue Origin’s large New Glenn rocket into its pool of boosters eligible to compete for launch contracts. These contracts support the agency’s science, human exploration, and technology programs, as well as NOAA and other federal agencies.
An update on New Glenn, please? … This is a nice plum for Blue Origin, which has been seeking more government contracts to support is projects. However, left unsaid in both the NASA as well as Blue Origin news releases on this topic is when New Glenn might be ready for its first launch. The company has been mum on the topic for a while, but many of us are eager to know how development efforts are coming along. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
The Delta IV Heavy gets back on track. After months of delays, United Launch Alliance’s largest rocket got off the pad and safely delivered the NROL-44 mission into space for the National Reconnaissance Office. The December 10 mission followed a series of scrubs due primarily to ground-service equipment issues at the company’s Florida launch pad.
A long time on the pad … Preparations for this launch started more than a year ago, SpaceNews reports. This Delta 4 Heavy was rolled out to the pad in November 2019. The NROL-44 payload was delivered in July. The Delta 4 Heavy is slated to be retired after launching four more NRO missions over the next few years. Two will be from Cape Canaveral and the other two from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
Dec. 18: Soyuz | OneWeb-4 mission | Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia | 12:26 UTC
Dec. 18: Falcon 9 | NROL-108 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 14:00 UTC
Dec. 20: Long March 8 | Classified mission named XJY 7 | Wenchang, China | 04:00 UTC