Welcome to Edition 1.49 of the Rocket Report! Another week has come and gone, and we find ourselves in the middle of May. For Houston, where this report originates, this essentially means the beginning of summer. But for those of you in cooler climates, we hope there’s plenty of news herein to warm your hearts.
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.
Vega rocket preps for rideshare launch. Arianespace has finalized a payload of 42 satellites for a Vega launch as early as September, company officials said. “We are fully booked. We have no gram left of performance,” Marino Fragnito, vice president of the Vega business unit at Arianespace, said during a panel discussion at the Satellite 2019 conference, SpaceNews reports.
… This is an interesting development, as Arianespace has promoted its Vega and next-generation Vega-C rockets as the continent’s answer to the small-satellite launch competition. With this “Small Spacecraft Mission Service” launch (and more in the offing), Europe’s main rocket company may be delivering on this promise to compete for small-satellite launch contracts. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Hermeus plans to develop Mach 5.0 aircraft. A new aerospace company has entered the race to provide supersonic commercial air travel, Ars reports. On Monday, a US-based company named Hermeus announced plans to develop an aircraft that will travel at speeds of up to Mach 5. Such an aircraft would cut travel time from New York to Paris from more than 7 hours to 1.5 hours.
… “We aren’t getting into anything too miraculous,” Skyler Shuford, the company’s chief operating officer, said. “We want to do engineering, not science.” Primary materials will include titanium, and the propulsion system will be powered by a turbine-based, combined-cycle engine. Over the next five years, the company plans to work toward a demonstrator vehicle that travels at Mach 5 before developing aircraft for commercial service eight to 10 years from now. Such a fast plane might diminish appetites for suborbital, point-to-point travel later this century.
Virgin Galactic moves into new spaceport. Virgin announced that its development and testing program has advanced sufficiently to move the spaceline staff and space vehicles from Mojave, Calif., to their commercial-operations headquarters at Spaceport America, NM. The VSS Unity spacecraft and its carrier plane, VMS Eve, are set to move to New Mexico in the summer, NASASpaceFlight.com reports.
… Sir Richard Branson first announced the deal to set up a spaceport on land north of Las Cruces, NM, back in 2005. With delays to the SpaceShip Two flight program, the facility has been mostly unused since construction was completed several years ago. Now that will finally change. This is another healthy sign that tourism flights will begin on VSS Unity later this year. (submitted by FredOG and Ken the Bin)
Rocket Crafters partners with RUAG. Florida-based small-satellite launch company Rocket Crafters has entered an agreement with Switzerland-based RUAG to provide flight components for its rockets, Spaceflight Insider reports. “With their support, we will rapidly prototype our suborbital test rocket, gaining valuable flight heritage on our motors and quickly evolving into our Intrepid-1 small-satellite launch vehicle,” said Robert Fabian, president of Rocket Crafters.
… The Florida company has flown largely under the radar, and it’s not seeking to build the biggest or sleekest rocket in the small space race. Rather, it’s focused largely on controlling costs so that more people can get their experiments into space. This agreement also allows RUAG to develop product lines for smaller launch vehicles than its traditional customers. (submitted by Mars1 and Ken the Bin)
Falcon 9 to launch its heaviest payload. The first batch of SpaceX’s Internet satellites will launch from Florida on Thursday evening, weather permitting. With a mass of 18.5 tons, this will be the company’s heaviest launch to date for either the Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rocket. The rocket will boost 60 Starlink satellites, each weighing 227kg, to an altitude of 440km.
… This is the first block of Starlink satellites for what should eventually be a much larger constellation, and they will help SpaceX gauge its performance and conduct tests of several key systems. Over the coming months, these first satellites will be joined by six additional launches carrying similarly sized payloads. These launches will bring the constellation to an initial “operational” capability.
ULA to test inflatable heat shield. A flight demonstration of an inflatable heat shield, which could be used to retrieve reusable engines from United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, may be tested in late 2021 or early 2022, Spaceflight Now reports. The test would piggyback as a payload on an Atlas 5 rocket with a NOAA weather satellite.
… Both ULA and NASA are interested in the test. The rocket company hopes to, one day, recover BE-4 engines used on its Vulcan booster’s first stage. This potentially lighter heat-shield technology may also allow future NASA missions to deliver more massive rovers, landers, and eventually human-rated habitats to the Martian surface. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Jeff Bezos unveils lunar lander, Blue Moon. At a speech in Washington DC, Blue Origin’s founder outlined his sweeping vision for humanity’s future in space, citing low-cost launch and in-situ resource utilization as two key first steps. For that second step, Bezos revealed new details about “Blue Moon,” his large lunar lander capable of delivering up to 3.6 tons of cargo and scientific experiments to the lunar surface. Blue Origin has spent three years working on the vehicle, Ars reports. Naturally, it will fit within the fairing of a New Glenn rocket.
… The company also has a brand-new engine, not previously known, named BE-7 that has 10,000 pounds of thrust. It will power the Blue Moon vehicle during its descent to the lunar surface. The company will perform its first hotfire test of the BE-7 engine this summer in West Texas. In a configuration with “stretch tanks,” Bezos said Blue Moon could carry up to 6.5 tons to the lunar surface, and this would be large enough for a crewed ascent vehicle. This aligns with NASA’s vision for a multi-stage lunar lander that involves both a descent vehicle and then a different spacecraft for humans—the ascent vehicle—that will launch back from the surface of the Moon and return the crew to low lunar orbit.
NASA still wants to accelerate EM-1 launch on SLS rocket. NASA is looking at deferring some programmatic certification activities until after the Exploration Mission-1 flight in addition to its other initiatives to shorten the schedule to the inaugural launch, NASASpaceFlight.com reports. The goal remains to find ways to move the launch date back into late 2020 from the current Spring 2021 forecast.
… These kinds of activities are certainly helpful, but one can’t help but ask where this urgency has been over the last seven or eight years. In any case, it is good to see the White House and, by extension, NASA leadership holding Boeing’s feet to the fire in order to speed up development of the core stage, as well as other contractors in regard to other elements. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Europe investing in Ariane 6 upper stage. The European Space Agency has given contracts to ArianeGroup and MT Aerospace to develop a prototype upper stage that could lead to an advanced carbon-composite upgrade for the Ariane 6 rocket, SpaceNews reports. This prototype work would lead to development of an upper stage named Icarus, perhaps entering service by 2025.
… An upper stage built with carbon-composite materials instead of aluminum could lower the price of Ariane 6 launches while increasing the amount it can carry to geosynchronous orbit by up to two metric tons. This is double the previous goal and reflects the ambitions Europe has for its new large rocket. (submitted by Unrulycow)
SpaceX A/B tests its Starship builds. Company founder Elon Musk confirmed that SpaceX will develop a Starship prototype in Florida to parallel work being done in South Texas. “Both sites will make many Starships,” Musk shared on Twitter. “This is a competition to see which location is most effective. Answer might be both.” This will not be a strict A/B test, or randomized experiment. Rather, any insights gained by one team must be shared with the other, but the other team is not required to use them, Ars reports. This is consistent with how tech companies generate internal competitions to develop better products.
… Meanwhile, after about five weeks of downtime, SpaceX appears ready to ramp up activity at its Boca Chica test site in South Texas. In early April, a series of tests culminated in a short, tethered hop of a Starship prototype. Now, the company may begin testing activity again later this month. A nearby highway will be closed on May 28 between 2pm and 10pm CT or, alternatively, on May 29 and May 30. How high will they hop this time?
Next three launches
May 17: Falcon 9 | Starlink mission | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 02:30 UTC
May 17: Long March 3C | Beidou-2 G8 | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | 15:42 UTC
May 21: Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle | RISAT-2B | Sriharikota, India | 23:30 UTC