Rocket Report: SN8 meets its fate, SLS Green Run tests to resume next week
December 11, 2020
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Photo of Starship SN8 launch attempt.
Enlarge / Starhopper survived, but SpaceX’s SN8 Starship prototype did not.

Welcome to Edition 3.25 of the Rocket Report! These are wild times in the world of launch. The window for Virgin Galactic’s first powered launch from its New Mexico facility opens Friday, and this is on top of United Launch Alliance’s attempt to fly NROL-44 Thursday night on its Delta IV Heavy rocket, SpaceX’s SXM-7 launch on Friday, and Astra’s next orbital attempt, also on Friday.

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 Galactic launch window opens Friday. The company says it remains on track for its first powered flight from its New Mexico spaceport. Pilots CJ Sturckow and David Mackay will fly the vehicle on a trajectory that will go above the 80km altitude that the company defines as space, SpaceNews reports.

No crowds invited … The flight, which New Mexico has been waiting nearly a decade for and has lavishly spent to obtain, will be a fairly low-key affair due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Virgin Galactic said it would proceed with the test flight using limited staff at the spaceport. “Only essential staff will be on-site to support the preflight operations ahead of the flight and the day of flight,” the company said, adding that there will be neither guests nor media at the spaceport to witness the flight. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

Astra set for Rocket 3.2 launch attempt. The California-based rocket company is targeting a window from 11am PT (19:00 UTC) to 2pm PT (22:00 UTC) on Friday, December 11, for its next attempt to reach orbit. The attempt will take place from the company’s facilities at a spaceport in Kodiak, Alaska.

Learning, trying again soon … Astra’s small rocket is powered by five Delphin main engines, each with 6,500 pounds of thrust. The company last tried to reach space in September, with its first orbital launch attempt. A problem with the rocket’s guidance system scuttled that attempt. With Rocket 3.2, Astra has made some changes, primarily to the second stage, to increase its chances of reaching orbit. There will be no public livestream of the launch.

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Isar Aerospace raises $91 million. One of the most promising European small-launch startups, Germany-based Isar Aerospace, said Wednesday it has raised $91 million from investors. The company says this funding will allow it to reach the first flight of its Spectrum rocket, Reuters reports.

Deep into development … As Ars has previously reported, Isar plans to complete a fully integrated engine test in mid-2021, and the company will work toward qualifying the engine for flight by the end of 2021. Isar is targeting 2022 for its first launch. The Spectrum rocket is intended to launch a payload with a mass of up to 1 ton to LEO. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Orbex also raised some money. A United Kingdom-based launch company, Orbex, says it has raised an additional $24 million in venture-capital funding as it continues development of its small-satellite launcher, Ars reports. This booster is planned to be similar in size and performance to Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle.

Sticking with 2022 for now … The company’s chief executive officer, Chris Larmour, said this brings the total amount of money raised by Orbex to $69 million. The company presently has 55 employees, but Larmour said the plan is to expand to around 90 by the middle of 2021 with this new round of funding. This staffing level, he said, should be enough employees to reach orbit with. The company is targeting 2022, but Larmour acknowledged this could slip.

TriSept purchases a Terran 1 launch. The launch-integration company TriSept has purchased a launch from Relativity Space that it plans to use for a smallsat ride-share mission as soon as 2022, SpaceNews reports. TriSept announced the contract Thursday for a launch of Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket no earlier than 2022. The launch will take place either from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station or Vandenberg Air Force Base, depending on the requirements of the mission.

Excited for the rocket … “The overall performance capability and volume of the fairing of the Terran 1 open up a different portion of the marketplace,” Jason Armstrong, director of integration services at TriSept, said. “It also allows for us to do cost-sharing in that rideshare approach that gets us to a very attractive price point for both the individual rideshare payloads and that primary tenant. We’re pretty excited what Terran 1 produces for the industry.” Relativity is working toward Terran 1’s first launch attempt in late 2021.

Dawn Aerospace earns flight license. Dawn Aerospace said it has received approval from the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority to begin flying its Dawn Mk-II Aurora on suborbital flights. The 4.8-meter-long test vehicle is part of its campaign to develop a spaceplane to conduct multiple daily flights from conventional airports, SpaceNews reports.

Solving tech, then solving regulation … Dawn Mk-II Aurora flights are presently scheduled to begin in 2021 from an airport on New Zealand’s South Island. “The challenge of getting to space is equal parts the vehicle, the launch infrastructure, and the regulation,” Stefan Powell, Dawn Aerospace co-founder and chief technology officer, said. “We have made great strides in revolutionizing the hardware. Today is a significant step towards the rest.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Starliner gets a new launch date. NASA and Boeing are targeting March 29 of next year for the launch of Starliner’s second uncrewed flight test to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. During this Orbital Flight Test-2 mission, the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Boeing said.

Crewed flights would follow … As part of this mission, Starliner is scheduled to dock to the International Space Station and return to land in the western United States about a week later as part of an end-to-end test to prove the system is ready to fly crew. If the test occurs in March, it would come about 15 months after Boeing’s initial Starliner test flight had to be ended early due to software problems. This led to NASA requesting a second test flight before flying its crew members. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX has already set annual launch record. Sunday’s launch of a Cargo Dragon to the International Space Station was the 24th successful one for SpaceX this year—including 23 orbital flights and a demonstration of Crew Dragon’s abort system back in January. This means the company has already smashed through its previous record of yearly launches, 21, set back in 2018, Ars reports.

Still more work to do … And the company is not done, as it may launch two or possibly three more missions this month. Next up for the Falcon 9 is the launch of a large satellite for Sirius XM to geostationary transfer orbit, possibly as early as Friday. These numbers are all the more remarkable because SpaceX reached them during a pandemic, which halted launch activity for months in the European Union and India.

Starship makes successful test flight before fiery end. On Wednesday evening, SpaceX launched its Starship vehicle for its first high-altitude test flight. The vehicle’s Raptor engines performed well, and it used reaction control thrusters to perform was has become known as a “belly flop” so it could return to Earth at an angle of attack of about 70 degrees. This went very well, Ars reports. However, pressure in the Starship header tanks, located in the upper part of the vehicle, was not high enough. Effectively, this deprived the Raptor engines of the thrust they needed to slow down. So Starship crashed into the landing pad and created a fiery spectacle.

Another vehicle waiting in the wings … Despite this, company founder Elon Musk appeared to be thrilled with the results, exuberantly noting on Twitter that SpaceX had acquired all of the data it needed. Moreover, the unprecedented belly-flop maneuver and demonstration of Starship’s aerodynamics bode extremely well for the company’s plans to reuse the vehicle. Because SpaceX is hardware-rich, it is expected to roll the next Starship prototype, SN9, to the launch pad in the coming days. SN9 may take flight before 2020 is over.

NASA to continue SLS wet dress test next week. During a call with reporters on Thursday, NASA’s program manager for the Space Launch System, John Honeycutt, said an initial attempt to perform a wet dress rehearsal was stopped after liquid oxygen introduced into the core stage was too warm. NASA and Boeing are reworking their procedures, and they intend to try the test again next week. If the test goes well, the agency could conduct a hot fire test of the core stage and its four main space shuttle engines by the last week of December. This would allow for the shipment of the core stage to Kennedy Space Center by February.

And a bold prediction … Honeycutt said several tests as part of the “Green Run” series at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi have addressed concerns he had, such as hydrogen leaks in the vehicle. Asked by Ars about his expectations for the hot fire test and how the core stage will perform, Honeycutt said, “We’ve learned enough to know that, in all likelihood, we’re not going to have big issues that cause us to stand down for a significant period of time.” He expects that maybe there will be a few “small things” to fix.

Next three launches

Dec. 11: Delta IV Heavy | NROL-44 mission | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 01:00 UTC

Dec. 11: Falcon 9 | Sirius XM7 satellite | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 16:19 UTC

Dec. 11: Rocket 3.2 | Second orbital launch attempt | Kodiak, Alaska | 19:00 UTC

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