Rocket Report: Clarity on Dragon’s loss, key SLS rocket test to occur

Welcome to Edition 1.47 of the Rocket Report! This week, we have some news on failures both recent and not-so-recent—this week’s Crew Dragon spacecraft from SpaceX, as well as two Taurus XL launches from eight and 10 years ago. There’s also the usual smattering of news from around the world, including some innovations in China.

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.

Firefly tests Alpha upper stage. For 300 seconds, the rocket’s Lightning-1 engine fired, blowing white and yellow flames out of its exhaust nozzle. The five-minute test demonstrated the performance of the engine and upper stage over an entire cycle of flight in space, during which the upper stage would boost a satellite and insert into orbit, Ars reports.

 … Firefly is attempting to complete development of its Alpha rocket, which has a capacity of up to 1 ton to low Earth orbit, for a launch by the end of this year from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company could reach another milestone as early as August, when Firefly anticipates performing the first long-duration test of the Alpha rocket’s first stage.

Blue Origin launches 38 microgravity experiments. The reusable rocket-capsule combo aced its 11th test mission on Thursday: the uncrewed flight set a new record for the number of experiments carried by New Shepard, reports. “A beautiful, beautiful launch of the booster and capsule today. Incredible,” said Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales, during live commentary. “This has been quite the morning.”

… Aiding research has always been part of New Shepard’s job description, but the vehicle was designed primarily to carry paying customers. Every successful suborbital test flight brings this latter vision closer to reality, and company officials are still saying New Shepard could begin flying people as early as this year. The New Shepard capsule that will do just that is now on site at the West Texas spaceport. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)

Rocket Lab aiming for second launch of 2019. The company is preparing its STP-27RD mission for flight on Saturday, New Zealand time. This will be Rocket Lab’s fifth orbital mission, and the company’s second launch in 2019. (Overall, it is Rocket’s sixth launch). The Air Force payload consists of three satellites (SPARC-1, Falcon ODE, and Harbinger) that will be deployed in a precise sequence.

 … Weighing in at a total of 180kg, the three satellites will lift off aboard an Electron rocket from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. The launch window is open from May 4-17. On launch day, liftoff can occur any time between 06:00 and 10:00 UTC. The mission’s nickname is delightful: “That’s a funny looking cactus.” It reflects the Air Force’s Space Test Program base in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Two Chinese startups report progress on reusable launch. Space Transportation carried out a test on April 22 in northwest China that involved launching a 3,700kg technology demonstrator named Jiageng-1, SpaceNews reports. The 8.7-meter-long Jiageng-1 has a wingspan of 2.5 meters and is a stepping stone toward the larger, future Tianxing-I-1, which will be a vertical-takeoff/horizontal-landing reusable launch vehicle.

 …. Another company, LinkSpace, followed a March 27 low-altitude untethered launch and landing test of its RLV-T5 tech demonstrator with a second launch and recovery. The April 19 flight saw the 8.1-meter-tall rocket reach an altitude of 40 meters, twice as high as previously. A test to send the vehicle to an altitude closer to 1km is planned for later in 2019. This is just a taste of the commercial launch activity now flourishing in China since the government eased restrictions in 2014. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Skyrora seeking launch sites in the United Kingdom. Skyrora—the Edinburgh-based new-space launch company that is aiming to become the first UK private company to launch payloads into Earth orbit—is searching for launch sites in the British Isles from where it can conduct a series of launcher tests over the coming year, Space Watch reports.

 … Skyrora says it will make three test launches over the next 12 months, with the first expected to take place over the next few months. This is part of the company’s effort to certify its Skyrora XL satellite launch vehicle, which is 10 meters tall and will be able to loft a 100kg payload into low Earth orbit. While Skyrora is believed to be open to using launch sites outside of the UK, its preference is to use one in the British Isles. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Long March 11 may launch from the sea. China plans to launch a Long March 11 carrier rocket at sea this year, according to the state news service, Xinhua. The country’s first seaborne rocket launch is scheduled for mid-2019 in the Yellow Sea, said Jin Xin, deputy chief commander of the rocket. The report contained no details about the launch platform itself.

 … Chinese officials believe seaborne launches will lower costs and provide a commercial edge for the Long March 11, which has a capacity of 700kg to low Earth orbit. It is not immediately clear how this would be less expensive, but at least a launch at sea wouldn’t subject nearby residents to falling debris, as occurs with some other Chinese launches.

SpaceX shares more information on Dragon anomaly. The company’s vice president of mission assurance, Hans Koenigsmann, said Thursday the “anomaly” occurred during a series of tests with the spacecraft, approximately a half-second before the firing of the SuperDraco thrusters. At that point, he said, “There was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed,” Ars reports.

 … Investigative teams from SpaceX and NASA are carefully reviewing telemetry data and high-speed imagery, Koenigsmann said, and soon they will begin analyzing pieces of the spacecraft recovered at the test site near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Because this was a ground test, there is ample data for engineers to consider. He admitted the failure did come as “a shock” to some of the company’s engineers. It is too early to determine a probable, or root, cause, but Koenigsmann expressed confidence in the SuperDraco thruster system.

After a decade, NASA reveals cause of two rocket failures. Combined, the loss of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory and Glory satellites cost the space agency $700 million after they launched on Taurus XL rockets but failed to reach orbit. This week, NASA posted a summary of its decade-long investigation into the mission failures. Long story short: faulty aluminum extrusions used in the mechanism by which the payload separates from the rocket, known as a frangible joint, prevented the separation from fully occurring.

… The investigation found that the provider of the extrusions, SPI, had falsified records about the materials used in its extrusions for about a decade. Internal handwritten accounts of SPI’s material properties tests revealed that the company made alterations to more than 2,000 test results between about 1996 and 2006, affecting more than 200 customers. The government no longer does business with SPI.

NASA will perform key test of SLS rocket. For much of March and April, in response to a desire from the Trump administration to accelerate development of the Space Launch System rocket, NASA has been looking at ways to launch the large booster in 2020 instead of further delaying it. Among the options has been skipping a “green run” test of the rocket’s core stage—an all-up firing of the rocket’s four main engines for the full duration of an ascent to orbit. By skipping the test, NASA could have shaved that much time from the development of a rocket that is already more than two years late, possibly allowing the agency to keep the rocket to its latest launch date of mid-2020.

 … In a memo shared with senior agency managers at the end of April, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, said the green-run test would proceed. He also acknowledged that the first test flight of the rocket, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), would likely be delayed beyond 2020. “Ultimately, it was my recommendation to the agency that we stay the course with the plan that we have had for many years,” Gerstenmaier wrote in the memo, dated April 22, which Ars obtained. “Although there is no certainty in when we launch, I believe this is the best approach to achieving a successful EM-1 flight test and put NASA on the path to achieving an EM-2 crewed mission in 2022 and a Lunar Surface mission in 2024.”

War of words continues over Air Force launch procurement. The Air Force continues to edge toward soliciting bids for launch contracts from 2022 to 2026, despite concerns raised by some in Congress. After House Armed Service Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) complained that the process was rushed, he received a reply from Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on April 25, SpaceNews reports.

 … “The time is right to start the Launch Service Procurement competition by releasing the request for proposals now in order to select the two best-value offers next spring… and meet the deadline set by Congress to end our reliance on the RD-180 engine,” Secretary Wilson wrote. Smith is said to be unsatisfied with Wilson’s response and is weighing what steps to take next. Regardless of whether the Air Force issues the solicitation, this battle will undoubtedly bleed into the fiscal year 2020’s budget process. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

May 3: Falcon 9 | Dragon CRS-17 ISS supply mission | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 07:11 UTC

May 4: Electron | STP-27RD mission | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 06:00 UTC

Mid-May: Falcon 9 | Starlink mission | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | TBD

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