Welcome to Edition 3.28 of the Rocket Report, our very first of 2021, and a Happy New Year for what promises to be a great year for rockets! We start January off as busy as can be with a Space Launch System hot-fire test, likely another Starship flight, followed by a second orbital attempt by LauncherOne.
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 sets date for second launch attempt. After delaying its Launch Demo 2 mission from December due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virgin Orbit announced a new window opening from 7am to 10am PT (15:00-18:00 UTC) on Wednesday, January 13th. Should there be an issue, the company said it had additional opportunities later in the month.
Going for orbit … “With COVID-19 a constant watch item, we’re testing more often than ever and using every approach available to protect everyone’s health. The numbers in our local communities are still severe—please stay safe and cover your faces!” the company added in a separate tweet. Wishing the company the best of luck after its first attempt, in May 2020, fell short after the failure of a liquid-oxygen feed line. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Rocket Lab sets first launch of 2021. The company said the 10-day launch window for its next mission, “Another One Leaves the Crust,” will open on January 16. This dedicated mission for the European space technology company OHB Group will orbit a single communication microsatellite that will enable specific frequencies to support future services from space.
First of a dozen flights? … The mission will launch from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula. Rocket Lab will not be attempting to recover Electron’s first stage for this mission. Rocket Lab honcho Peter Beck has previously told Ars that he expects his company will launch about one dozen missions this year, nearly doubling its total of seven last year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Expect lots of small-rocket debuts this year. As part of a larger feature previewing spaceflight in 2021, Ars noted the flurry of small-satellite launch activity on the horizon. During the first half of this year, we should see Firefly’s Alpha booster take flight. At some point, US startup ABL Space Systems should debut its RS1 rocket. And during a recent interview with Ars, Relativity Space’s CEO Tim Ellis reaffirmed that his company is on track to debut its Terran 1 rocket toward the end of 2021.
Don’t forget about overseas boosters, either … Internationally, there should be some small-rocket firsts as well. India is expected to fly its Small Satellite Launch Vehicle, or SSLV, for the first time during Q1 of 2021. And Europe’s next-generation Vega C rocket should now launch in mid-2021 after some delays. One or more of China’s myriad small launch companies will also debut rockets this year, certainly. This should make for a fun year in launch!
SpinLaunch expands New Mexico test site. The California-based company expects to perform the first suborbital tests of a prototype of its centrifugal system for launching small satellites later this year from New Mexico, SpaceNews reports. The company has raised $80 million to date as it seeks to develop a mass accelerator that would, in effect, serve as the first stage of a small-satellite launch system.
Spinning into space … SpinLaunch said it planned to hire 59 more people at the site “and complete the build of its centrifugal launch system for its next phase of development.” Objects launched from the centrifuge will reach a speed of Mach 5 and go to an altitude of about 100 kilometers before landing at White Sands. Those tests may begin some time in 2021, company officials said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Indian company first solid-rocket stage. Skyroot Aerospace said it has successfully test-fired a solid propulsion rocket stage, named Kalam-5, which is a demonstrator for a larger rocket. According to Business Standard, this is the first time an Indian private company has successfully designed, developed, and tested a full solid-propulsion rocket stage. “The test results closely matched our predictions, and this success gives great confidence for our Vikram-I vehicle development,” said Pawan Kumar Chandana, co-founder & CEO of Skyroot.
Fundraising and flying in 2021 … The company plans to test-fire the third stage of its Vikram-1 rocket and is targeting launch of a complete vehicle by the end of this year. Skyroot is founded by engineers and scientists who previously worked for India’s space program, ISRO. It is in the process of raising an additional $15 million. (submitted by JohnCarter17 and Ken the Bin)
Canadian balloon-launch startup wins CSA grant. The Canadian Space Agency awarded $500,000 to a Toronto-based launch company, SpaceRyde, as part of a technology development program last year. The funds will be used to develop a rocket nozzle for the company’s launch system for small satellites.
Up in the air … What’s novel about SpaceRyde is that the company seeks to launch a rocket from a balloon lofted above the lower atmosphere. During a test in 2019, the company demonstrated a balloon system that stabilized itself nearly 11km above the Earth’s surface. If SpaceRyde is working on a rocket-engine nozzle, presumably it has a ways to go until an initial launch. (submitted by Delta Oscar Golf)
Reusable rockets entered the mainstream in 2020. As the year progressed, it became clear that SpaceX launch customers had gotten a lot more comfortable with flying on used, or “flight-proven,” first stages of the Falcon 9 rocket. Commercial customer Sirius launched its XM-7 satellite on the seventh flight of a Falcon 9 booster in December. NASA also agreed to fly humans on used rockets, and the Space Force will put its GPS satellites on them as well, Ars reports.
Other companies interested, too … Notably, Rocket Lab also recovered its Electron first stage for the first time. “When we look back on 2020, we will say this year was a watershed moment,” said Randy Kendall, vice president of launch and enterprise operations for The Aerospace Corporation, in an interview. “Commercial, civil, and national security missions have all signaled their intent to fly their most precious payloads on previously flown rockets.”
SpaceX wins contract to launch SDA satellites. The California company has been awarded a $150.4 million contract to launch as many as 28 satellites for the Pentagon’s space agency, the Space Development Agency. This includes 20 data-relay satellites known as the Transport Layer, and the other eight are missile-warning satellites known as the Tracking Layer, SpaceNews reports.
Best value sought … SpaceX will launch these satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, and the agency estimates the satellites will be ready to fly in late 2022. In its request for bids in October for the contracts, the agency said it would select a provider that offered the “best value” based on several criteria such as price, schedule, and past performance. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
China targets 40 launches in 2021. China’s main space contractor, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), aims to conduct more than 40 orbital launches in 2021, including launching a space station module and human spaceflight missions, SpaceNews reports.
Not all made it … The country attempted 39 launches in 2020, with CASC conducting 34 of them. Four of the country’s launches failed to reach orbit, including two by CASC and two by private companies. Multiple private launch attempts are likely in 2021 again, including that of LandSpace’s Zhuque-2 methane-liquid oxygen rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin)