Rocket Report: China discovers grid fins, NASA acknowledges Starship program

Welcome to Edition 2.09 of the Rocket Report! This week, we’ve got a few highs but more lows—including small-rocket launch failures in Australia and Japan. We’ve also got some interesting news about a large reinsurance company backing out of the market after some recent, high-profile aerospace failures.

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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.

China experiments with grid fins. The launch of a Long March 2C from Xichang last week included a first use of grid fins by China, SpaceNews reports. The fins are intended to minimize the threat posed by the spent first stage to populated areas downrange. This two-stage rocket has a lift capacity of 1.25 tons to low Earth orbit. For this launch, the rocket’s interstage section included four grid fins that strikingly resemble those used to guide SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters back to landing areas.

… The test comes in apparent response to increased awareness and visibility of spent boosters falling downrange near populated areas. Initially, Chinese officials said the grid fins should allow a hard landing within a smaller drop zone. This would reduce the need for evacuating and inconveniencing locals, as well as minimize launch costs. But grid fins could also be a step toward controlled descent and landings, which could lead to reuse of rocket stages. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Privately launched Momo-4 rocket fails. A small experimental rocket launched by a Japanese aerospace startup failed shortly after takeoff Saturday when its onboard computer detected an abnormality and shut off the engine, The Japan Times reports. According to Interstellar Technologies Inc. (which launched the rocket), the vehicle only reached an altitude of 13 kilometers before falling into the sea some 9km offshore from its launch site of Taiki, Hokkaido.

 … The rocket’s predecessor, the Momo-3 rocket, launched in May and became Japan’s first privately funded rocket to reach an apogee of more than 100km. The failed rocket is the same model as Momo-3, which measures about 10 meters long, 50 centimeters in diameter, and weighs 1 ton. After failing on three of its first four tries, the next move for Interstellar Technologies is unclear. (submitted by tsunam and Ken the Bin)

NASA seeks to break the “tyranny of launch.” The space agency recently awarded a $73.7 million contract to Made In Space Inc. to build and fly a spacecraft it calls Archinaut One, with the aim of constructing two 10-meter solar arrays in orbit. These two arrays will power an ESPA-class satellite, and the mission is slated to launch in 2022 on an Electron rocket. This is a substantial award for Made In Space, which will allow the company to accelerate its in-space manufacturing efforts, Ars reports.

 … This is also an important step toward breaking the “tyranny of launch,” by which every mission that leaves Earth is constrained by its dimensions, i.e., size, mass, and its ability to survive the dynamic forces of launch. By manufacturing satellite components in space, Made In Space hopes to unfetter some of those launch constraints.

Australian firm suffers a setback during launch attempt. A modest Australian company named Gilmour Space Technologies attempted to launch its One Vision suborbital rocket on Monday. However, at T-7 seconds to launch, the booster suffered an anomaly that resulted in the premature end of the mission.

 … The company’s founder, banker Adam Gilmour, explained that, “Initial investigations show that a pressure regulator in the oxidizer tank had failed to maintain the required pressure, and this caused the upper half of the rocket to be ejected as helium escaped. On the positive side, there were no explosions due to the safe nature of hybrid rocket engines, and no observable damage to the engine.” The company says it will attempt to launch an “enhanced version” of its suborbital rocket in the near future. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

ULA balances mission success with schedule. The Atlas V rocket launch of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency 5 mission for the US Air Force has been delayed twice now. That pushes its scheduled launch back more than a month to NET August 8, according to ULA. An article by provides a good overview of delays to recent ULA launches and how it is difficult to launch both on time and safely.

 … From the article: “Going back to Atlas V launches from 2016 and 2017, there were eight reported delays from 19 launches that lasted more than a day, and these delays were only related to vehicle or ground service issues, omitting weather and customer-related delays. ULA routinely claims to be the most on-time launch provider in the United States. And while true, analysis of the past few launches shows a 42% scrub delay rate.” (submitted by TM)

Space insurer Swiss Re leaves market. Swiss Re, the world’s second-largest reinsurance company, informed clients and brokers July 31 that it has stopped insuring satellites and launches. According to a report in SpaceNews, the firm’s decision was driven by “bad results of recent years and unsustainable premium rates.”

 … The decision follows the destruction of the Emirati imaging satellite Falcon Eye 1 during a July 10 Vega launch failure. This cost insurers an estimated $407 million, as well as a $183 million payout to Maxar Technologies for the failure of its WorldView-4 imaging satellite in January. Another launch or satellite failure could drive even more insurers out of the space market, an analyst said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA and SpaceX nominated for an Emmy. Teams from the NASA and SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Program are among six finalists in the Outstanding Interactive Program category for their coverage of SpaceX’s Demo-1 mission in March 2019. According to NASA, “The nomination recognizes the teams’ tremendous efforts in sharing with the world Crew Dragon’s historic journey to the International Space Station.”

 … The joint broadcast between NASA and SpaceX during the Demo-1 mission was excellent, capturing both the excitement at the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne and NASA’s traditional gravitas. We’re eager to see what the agency and Boeing come up with for the Starliner test flight this fall. The Emmy Awards ceremony will be held Sunday, September 22, 2019. (submitted by George Moromisato)

NASA to work with SpaceX on orbital refueling. In an announcement that has both technical and political significance, NASA said Tuesday that it has signed a Space Act Agreement with SpaceX to “Work with Glenn and Marshall to advance technology needed to transfer propellant in orbit, an important step in the development of the company’s Starship space vehicle.” This appears to be the first official recognition of SpaceX’s Starship project by NASA. And one of SpaceX’s principal engineers behind the Starship project, Paul Wooster, has identified orbital refueling as one of most difficult technology challenges the company will have to overcome in order to realize its Mars ambitions.

… NASA has previously done considerable work studying the handling, transfer of, and storage of rocket fuels such as liquid oxygen, hydrogen, and methane in space. Those substances are a challenge to work with and susceptible to boil off in the space environment (hydrogen atoms can even migrate directly through metal fuel tanks). NASA’s Space Technology program will fund the time the agency’s people spend working on these problems as well as any agency test facilities used. In effect, teams from the company and agency will work together to solve the problem, each paying for its own part of the effort.

More money coming for Blue Origin? On Wednesday evening, hours after the stock markets had closed, Amazon founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission that showed he had sold $1.8 billion worth of Amazon shares over the final three days of July. After taxes, he will net about $1.4 billion, Forbes reports.

… Bezos has sold large amounts of Amazon stock before, but this appears to be the largest sale to date when measured in dollars. He sold Amazon stock worth $1.7 billion in May and November of 2017. In the same year, Bezos told reporters at the US Space Symposium that he was selling $1 billion worth of Amazon stock every year to fund Blue Origin, his space-exploration company.

Officially, NASA will retain the SLS Green Run test. Four months after suggesting a critical test for the Space Launch System could be skipped to address development delays, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said that the test will be retained, SpaceNews reports. In an agency statement, Bridenstine announced that NASA will proceed with the “Green Run” test of the SLS, in which its core stage performs an eight-minute static-fire test at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. NASA did not disclose when the test will take place, although it’s widely expected to be some time next year.

 … Bridenstine has been looking for ways to accelerate development of the SLS rocket. Removing the six-to-nine month process of moving the core stage to Stennis, assembling it, testing it, and more would achieve that objective. However, safety experts—including the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel—strongly urged the administrator to keep the test. For what it’s worth, Ars reported in April that the Green Run test was going to happen. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

August 3: Falcon 9 | Amos-17 mission | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 22:52 UTC

August 5: Proton | Blagovest No. 14L comms satellite | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 21:55 UTC

August 6: Ariane 5 |  Intelsat 39 & EDRS-C/HYLAS 3 comms satellites | Kourou, French Guiana | 19:30 UTC

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