Welcome to Edition 2.22 of the Rocket Report! This week, there is a lot of news on medium-sized launchers, as well as the first real estimate for the combined marginal and fixed costs of a Space Launch System flight. Also, I want to note that this report publish next week as the author will be taking time off to work on a book project.
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.
Rocket Lab to fly “next-generation” Electron. The launch window for Rocket Lab’s 10th flight, named “Running Out Of Fingers,” will open on November 25. (Whoever is coming up with these names, my goodness, they’re fabulous). The company said Electron’s first stage will not be recovered from this mission but that the stage includes new hardware and sensors to inform future recovery efforts.
… In a news release, Rocket Lab said of the changes, “As part of a first-stage block upgrade, Electron’s booster will include guidance and navigation hardware, including S-band telemetry and onboard flight computer systems, to gather data during the first stage’s atmospheric re-entry. The stage is also equipped with a reaction control system to orient the booster during its re-entry descent.” The mission will be carrying an interesting and controversial payload. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)
Launcher a big winner at Air Force Pitch Day. New York-based Launcher received $1.5 million at the Air Force’s Space Pitch Day on Wednesday. The company said it only took five months to go from writing a proposal to winning a contract to accelerate work on its E-2 engine development program.
… During these events, the military gives small investments to young space companies developing technologies the Defense Department is interested in. According to Launcher, its E-2 will be the “highest performance engine in the small-satellite launcher class—with the largest thrust, lowest propellant consumption and lowest cost per-pound of thrust.” The first full-scale test of the engine could come early next year.
The Rocket Report: An Ars newsletter
Launch site on the Big Island falls through. A proposed satellite launch facility near Keaau, on the Big Island of Hawaii, will not go forward after the owner of the potential site pulled out from the project, West Hawaii Today reports. The launch site was supposed to be built on WH Shipman-owned land by the Alaska Aerospace Corp., which operates a similar satellite launch in Alaska. However, Shipman announced that it has ended all discussions on the project.
… “We’ve said all along that we wanted to make the most responsible decision based on the most accurate information,” Shipman President Peggy Farias told the publication. “We’ve listened to a lot of people, including the feelings of our families and the community, and we decided this wasn’t the right fit.” Local residents had concerns about environmental and noise impacts from the potential launch site.
SpaceX going for two reuse milestones. On Tuesday, SpaceX completed a static test firing of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage that is presently scheduled to launch on November 11 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Beyond the primary Starlink mission (which is a pretty big deal), this flight is going for two rocket-reuse milestones, Ars reports. This will be the first time that SpaceX has attempted to fly the same Falcon 9 first stage four times. This particular stage flew on July 25 and October 8 in 2018, as well as February 22 this year.
… Additionally, SpaceX will also attempt to reuse a payload fairing for the first time. After a Falcon Heavy launch of the Arabsat-6A mission in April, SpaceX recovered both halves of the payload fairing from the Atlantic Ocean. Those fairings have since been refurbished—it is not clear how much work needed to be done to clean them and mitigate the effects of any saltwater damage—and will now fly on the Starlink mission. (submitted by Azethoth666)
Northrop Grumman launches upgraded Antares. On Saturday, a more powerful version of the Antares rocket took flight from Wallops Island, Virginia, launching a cargo supply mission to the International Space Station. This was the first launch of the Antares 230+ variant, NASASpaceflight.com reports.
… According to Kurt Eberly, Antares program manager: “The biggest thing we did was strengthen the airframe of the first stage core. And that was just adding a little bit of metal to a couple of locations. And that allows us to not have to throttle down at MaxQ anymore and just fly at 100% throttle up until we reach the G-force limit, and then we throttle back.” The change allows the Cygnus spacecraft to carry more mass to the space station. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
China tests grid fins. A Chinese Long March 4B delivered an Earth-observation satellite into orbit late Saturday, with grid fins guiding the descent of the rocket’s first stage, SpaceNews reports. For the first time, the Long March 4B first stage carried a grid-fin system to constrain the area in which it falls. Most of China’s launches take place at centers far inland, resulting in debris landing downrange.
… The grid fins are intended to both reduce risk and mark a step toward future retropropulsive landings and launcher reusability. Both the launch and the test of the grid-fin system were declared successful, with the first stage falling within the designated area. In 2017, China’s space program released a space-transportation roadmap, outlining ambitions to make its launch vehicles fully reusable by 2035. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)
Boeing working toward December OFT launch. Boeing said Thursday that it is “continuing to progress” toward a December 17 target for its orbital flight test of its Starliner capsule and Atlas V rocket. This is a critical test flight that, if successful, would pave the way for a crewed Starliner mission sometime in 2020. The statement from Boeing came after a largely successful test of Starliner’s abort system on Monday.
… According to flight data, the test proceeded nominally until the main parachutes deployed—only two rather than three emerged from the capsule as it descended to the desert floor. During a teleconference with reporters on Wednesday, Boeing’s John Mulholland said the company has already identified the root cause of the issue as a poor connection between the pilot parachute and the main parachute. It is taking steps to prevent it from happening again, Mulholland said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
The White House puts a price on the SLS. In a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, first obtained by Ars, White House Budget Office Director Russell Vought put a price on the Space Launch System rocket. “The Europa mission could be launched by a commercial rocket,” Vought wrote. “At an estimated cost of over $2 billion per launch for the SLS once development is complete, the use of a commercial launch vehicle would provide over $1.5 billion in cost savings.”
… Independent estimates have pegged the SLS cost this high, but NASA has never admitted it. A $2 billion cost to launch one SLS rocket a year raises significant questions about the sustainability of such an exploration program—the government killed the similarly sized Saturn V rocket in the early 1970s because of unsustainable costs. In a response, NASA did not deny this figure. “NASA is working to bring down the cost of a single SLS launch in a given year as the agency continues negotiations with Boeing,” a spokeswoman said.
China’s heavy lifter to return by end of 2019? Components for China’s third Long March 5 rocket arrived at the country’s southern launch base in late October, as teams prepare for the first flight of the heavy-lift launcher since a 2017 mission ended in failure. Wenchang is China’s newest spaceport and has hosted four space launches to date, Spaceflight Now reports.
… The return-to-flight mission, expected in the second half of December, is a major test of the heavy-lift rocket before China commits to launching a Mars rover and a lunar sample return mission on Long March 5 vehicles next year. The booster can lift up to 14 tons to geostationary transfer orbit and is critical to China’s exploration plans over the next decade. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
NASA rejects Blue Origin bid for SLS upper stage. On Halloween, NASA posted a document that provides some perspective on the agency’s long-term plans for the Space Launch System rocket and, more specifically, its upper stage. The new document, known as a Justification for Other Than Full and Open Competition, explains why NASA rejected a lower-cost version of an upper stage for its rocket proposed by Blue Origin, Ars reports.
… NASA sets out three reasons for not opening the competition to Blue Origin. It argues that Blue Origin’s “alternate” stage cannot fly 10 tons of cargo along with the Orion spacecraft. Moreover, NASA says, the total height of the SLS rocket’s core stage with Blue Origin’s upper stage exceeds the height of the Vertical Assembly Building’s door, resulting in “modifications to the VAB building height and substantial cost and schedule delays.” Finally, the agency says the BE-3U engine’s higher-stage thrust would result in an increase to the end-of-life acceleration of the Orion spacecraft and a significant impact to the Orion solar array design. The rejection raises questions about the high overall cost of a more powerful SLS rocket.
Next three launches
Nov. 11: Falcon 9 | Launch of second batch of 60 Starlink Satellites | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida | 14:51 UTC
Nov. 20: Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle | Cartosat 3 satellite | Sriharikota, India | 03:30 UTC
Nov 22: Ariane 5 | TIBA 1 and Inmarsat 5 F5 communications satellite | Kourou, French Guiana| 21:08 UTC