Welcome to Edition 1.17 of the Rocket Report! This week, we discuss a lot of new launch contracts, a Japanese plan to build a suborbital spaceplane, and Chinese plans to develop a potentially recoverable payload fairing. Also, check the launch schedule. Three launches in three days!
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Japanese company working on suborbital spaceplane. Move over Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, because the Japanese startup PD AeroSpace says that it is developing a spaceplane that will be able to fly tourists to suborbital altitude by 2023. The spaceplane will use both an air-breathing jet engine mode as well as a rocket mode to generate thrust, Universe Today reports.
… At present, 11 company employees are working to create a scaled-down, unmanned aerial vehicle to test PD AeroSpace’s propulsion concept. Once work is finished on this vehicle, the company will conduct a test flight that will bring the UAV to an altitude of 100km. We have to say that it is easy to draw up such concepts, but damned hard to implement them. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
NASA tests heat shield on suborbital rocket. UP Aerospace launched its SpaceLoft suborbital rocket on Wednesday, allowing NASA to deploy a new umbrella-like heat shield at an altitude between 100 and 120km. The new technology, called the Adaptable Deployable Entry Placement Technology (ADEPT), stores like a folded umbrella inside smaller rockets and opens handle-up in space to protect larger payloads as they enter a planet’s atmosphere, Reuters reports.
… “At the larger scales, it could be used for something as grand as human Mars explorations or potentially human cargo landings on Mars,” the project’s principal investigator told Reuters. NASA has invested in several small suborbital launch systems recently, so it is nice to see how they are enabling future plans to explore deep space.
More predictions of trouble for small-launch industry. At the World Satellite Business Week conference, representatives from Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab expressed skepticism about all of their potential competitors. “There’s a lot of noise in the system right now,” said Dan Hart, president and chief executive of Virgin Orbit, per . “There’s another announcement every week, I think, of somebody who wants to build a launch system. At this point, I see renderings every week of incredible concepts for launch systems. I think the industry is probably hiring as many artists as engineers.”
… It should be noted that Virgin Orbit hasn’t launched its rocket yet, either. But the company does seem to be making progress. We’ve said for some time that the small-satellite launch industry is booming and will at some point go bust. For observers, it makes this a most interesting time. For those involved in the fight, we imagine it’s fun and stressful. (submitted by joeB and Ken the Bin)
SpaceX Block 5 results better than expected. SpaceX chief operating officer and president Gwynne Shotwell said this week at the World Satellite Business Week Conference that the Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 rocket first stages are returning in better shape than anticipated. According to Jeff Foust, Shotwell said the company has reduced refurbishment time down to four weeks.
… This is great news, but honestly we never really doubted the engineering prowess of the company. (Its timelines? Sure.) SpaceX still hopes to reach its goal of a one-day turnaround next year. The bigger question in our minds is whether SpaceX will turn this increased reusability into substantially lower prices. Right now it really has no incentive to do so, as it is already the lowest-cost provider in its class. (submitted by George Moromisato)
China may be taking steps toward fairing recovery. China tested the use of a parafoil on the payload fairing of its latest orbital launch last Friday, with the aim of improving accuracy of its return to Earth and potentially eventual reusability, GBTimes reports. The test came during the launch of the Haiyang-1C marine observation satellite aboard a Long March 2C rocket.
… According to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, a parafoil was attached to part of the fairing to help guide its descent to Earth with ‘improved accuracy’ and prevent landing in undesirable areas. Future tests could pave the way to capture and reuse of the components. Or, at the very least, stop rocket parts from falling on people’s homes.
Eutelsat signs long-term deal with Arianespace. In a long-awaited commercial contract, Arianespace and Eutelsat Communications have signed an agreement that covers five launches until 2027. With this agreement, Eutelsat is the first commercial customer to sign up to Ariane 6, Arianespace’s next-generation launch vehicle.
… Eutelsat is one of Arianespace’s biggest customers, with three other launches already on the books. This announcement comes at a time when Arianespace, Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and others are all competing with SpaceX for commercial launch opportunities. Which is a big deal because…
GEO downturn has commercial launchers looking elsewhere. With orders for geostationary orbit satellites declining, potentially permanently, commercial launch service providers are looking to government and other markets to make up for lost business, reports. “The market is very soft. It was last year, this year, and I don’t know that it’s going to change dramatically next year, either,” SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell said. “I think we’re in a permanent low level of GTO satellites.”
… In discussions with several launch providers, they’ve talked about expanding into new markets for satellites including countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia who want to get into space. Time will tell whether that’s enough to support commercial launch operators in the US, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and elsewhere. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
ULA wins a commercial launch on its Atlas V. United Launch Alliance beat out SpaceX and Arianespace to win a launch contract for an upcoming Viasat satellite, according to . The deal is the Colorado-based rocket maker’s first commercial contract since taking full responsibility for sales and marketing of the Atlas V from Lockheed Martin in January.
… Dave Ryan, Viasat’s president of space systems, said the company was won over by the reliability of the Atlas V rocket and its history of launching on time. The company has shown less patience with launch delays than other satellite operators, and notably switched its ViaSat-2 satellite from SpaceX to Arianespace after the Falcon Heavy was not be able to launch the satellite in 2016. It will be interesting to see if ULA can be competitive on more commercial launches in the future. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
SpaceX to launch private Moon mission. SpaceIL’s lunar lander is “go” for launch as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that’s due to send a telecommunications satellite into geosynchronous orbit, Spaceflight announced this week. The rideshare launch is expected early next year, and the SpaceIL payload would represent the first non-governmental landing on the Moon, GeekWire reports.
… SpaceIL was one of the competitors in the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, which was terminated early this year when organizers determined that none of the teams could get to the moon before the March deadline. It’s nice to see at least one competitor pressing on ahead even without the prize. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy launches delayed. Air Force managers have pushed back the next flight of United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4-Heavy rocket from a launchpad in California until no sooner than early December. The first launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has also been pushed back until some time early next year, Spaceflight Now reports. The ULA mission is to loft a classified spy satellite, NROL-71, and SpaceX will launch the US Air Force’s Space Test Program-2 mission.
… The Air Force did not disclose reasons for the delays. However, they are likely due to payload integration and/or booster issues, and they come as the Air Force is focused on upgrading its GPS navigation network. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
Sept. 14: HII-B | HTV-7 mission to International Space Station | Tanegashima, Japan | 20:59 UTC
Sept. 15: Delta II | ICESat-2 mission | Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. | 12:46 UTC
Sept. 16: PSLV | Earth observation satellites | Satish Dhawan Space Center, India | 16:37 UTC