Welcome to Edition 1.03 of the Rocket Report! This collaborative effort with readers of Ars Technica seeks to diversify our coverage of the blossoming launch industry. The Rocket Report publishes as a newsletter on Thursday and on this website every Friday morning.
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Virgin Orbit “months” away from first rocket launch. In an in-depth feature on Virgin Orbit, the company’s VP of special projects, Will Pomerantz, told Ars that the LauncherOne rocket is nearing completion. “We are getting pretty darn close,” Pomerantz said when Ars visited Virgin Orbit recently for a tour of the factory. “I’m always hesitant to put dates on it, because we’re always wrong, like everyone in the industry. But I think we’re months away.”
… “As awesome a goal as it is to put humans on Mars—or SUVs on Mars, or send robots past Pluto—that’s not what we’re trying to do,” Pomerantz said. “We’re trying to do the simplest, cheapest vehicle that we think is commercially viable in the long run.” Even so, regular, low-cost access to desired orbits for small sats would be revolutionary, and this is underwriting a heated competition to develop new, smaller rockets.
Firefly signs an agreement for up to six Alpha launches. The Austin, Texas-based Firefly has contracted with the small satellite company Surrey Satellite Technology Limited for up to six launches of its Alpha rocket. The launches are scheduled to occur between 2020 and 2022. “The Alpha launch vehicle allows for deployment of SSTL satellites as a primary payload to [its] preferred orbit, rather than flying as a secondary payload on a larger launch vehicle,” Firefly CEO Tom Markusic said. Per Space News, the price is about $10 million per launch.
… This is welcome news for a small rocket company that was all but dead a year ago. If the Alpha rocket truly flies commercially in 2020, this date would put Firefly behind some competitors in the small satellite launch industry but could nevertheless make them players in the small space race.
Iceye seeks a provider for 18 small satellite launches. The company, which seeks to deliver synthetic aperture radar coverage around the globe, previously launched a test satellite on India’s PSLV rocket in January. Iceye wants to launch 18 satellites weighing 85kg each to a Sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 400 to 600km. The company has released an RFI.
… Once again, for providers of small satellite launch vehicles, getting to the launchpad sooner rather than later is critical.
Nonprofit group offers $1 million college space prize. A group called Base 11 announced this week that it will award $1 million to the first student-led university team to design, build, and launch a liquid-propelled, single-stage rocket to an altitude of 100km by the end of 2021. The prize seeks to increase minority participation in the aerospace industry. The announcement was made at Tomorrow’s Aerospace Museum in Compton, California.
… We’ve noticed a recent uptick in activity by colleges engaged in rocket building. Some of them are seeking to develop suborbital launchers like this, and the Base 11 prize seems likely to spur those activities further. (In college, I drank beer and went to football games).
Floating your way to space? One reader sent word about progress being made by JP Aerospace, a California-based company seeking to float its way to space. The volunteer, DIY-space program envisions using several stages of airships to get from the ground to station at about 140,000 feet and then employing solar-electric propulsion to get from an altitude of about 180,000 feet into space. The proposed airships are giant, but the company has reported some progress with prototypes on its blog.
… JP Aerospace does not appear to be particularly well financed, but that doesn’t mean its approach is full of, err, hot air. Several other companies, such as WorldView Enterprises and Zero 2 Infinity are experimenting with somewhat related technologies. The more, the merrier. (shared by envy887)
Putin says Russia must restore its leadership in launch. The Kremlin tweeted that sentiment this week at the same time Roscosmos budget cuts may be hitting the Russian launch industry. Ars reports that the reduced budget could forestall a rocket-development project intended to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and a new super-heavy lift booster.
… This potential mess falls into the lap of the new leader of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, who has spent the last four years taunting NASA and is sanctioned by the US government. It is not clear how Rogozin will develop cost-effective new launchers to compete with the Falcon 9 at a time when that rocket is pushing rapidly into reusability. Perhaps a trampoline might serve as a low-cost, reusable first stage.
Antares 230 rocket to get an upgrade. Orbital ATK prepares for the second round of commercial cargo contracts to supply the International Space Station, and it intends to upgrade its Antares 230 rocket to provide more lift. According to NASASpaceFlight.com, the most significant upgrade involves adding some structural capability to the intertank bay, which is between the liquid oxygen and RP-1 tanks. This will permit the upgraded rocket, to be known as the Antares 230+, to maintain full 100-percent engine throttles as it passes through Max-Q, the moment of maximum mechanical stress on the vehicle.
… The upgrades will allow Orbital ATK to offer a greater performing vehicle to the commercial launch market, but so far there are no publicly known contracts for such a launch on the Antares vehicle.
SpaceX launches its 11th rocket of the year. SpaceX flew one of its final Block 4 rockets early on Monday, June 4, to send the SES-12 satellite to geostationary orbit. This was the company’s 11th flight of this year, and with one more flight likely in June, it keeps SpaceX on pace for a record two-dozen launches in 2018.
… Without a booster landing or other significant tech advancements, this was kind of a ho-hum launch for SpaceX that continued its high flight rate but lacked the pizzazz of a Block 5 launch or fairing recovery attempt.
Indian space agency contemplating a medium-lift rocket. The Indian Space Research Organisation’s most powerful rocket, the GSLV Mk III, can lift 4 tons to geostationary transfer orbit. According to the, ISRO is looking to develop an indigenous capacity to launch heavy satellites like the GSAT-11, which weighs 5,725kg. The cost for such a launch vehicle would be about half that charged by foreign companies, ISRO believes. The agency is continually looking for ways to shave costs because of its relatively modest budget.
… There are some interesting times ahead for India’s launch industry. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle has filled a useful role for small satellites, but one big question is how competitive it will be when companies such as Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and Vector come fully online.
NASA chief endorses SLS rocket, and yet. In a meeting with Washington, DC-based reporters Wednesday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed a number of questions, including the agency’s development of the Space Launch System rocket. Space News reported that Bridenstine said the SLS offers NASA a unique capability but that he would be open to revisiting the agency’s support for it if commercial vehicles with similar capabilities enter service in the future. “If there comes a day when someone else can deliver that, then we need to think differently,” he said. “It’s always evolving.”
… Reasonable people have been saying this for a while. If Falcon Heavy continues to fly, if New Glenn flies, if BFR testing begins, the conversation about SLS will change unless the vehicle does not become significantly more affordable. The thing is, no senior leader at NASA has ever said that publicly. In this sense, Bridenstine’s comments seem significant.
Falcon Heavy may launch twice more this year. SpaceX now plans to launch the US Air Force’s STP-2 technology demonstration mission in October and, according to Space News, will launch a commercial satellite for Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat in December of this year, or January 2019. The Falcon Heavy rocket made a successful debut in February.
… As Ars reported earlier this year, the increased performance of the Falcon 9 rocket has taken some of the Falcon Heavy’s customers. The real killer app for the heavy-lift rocket may be planetary-science missions, and NASA officials have told us they’re excited about the rocket’s potential. But so far we have yet to see any contracts signed. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Orbital ATK lobbying for the Omega rocket. In a “brand” article for Roll Call, which covers Capitol Hill, Orbital ATK Vice President Mike Laidley writes that, by “leveraging facilities and capabilities used by other Government programs, the increased business base generated by Omega will save taxpayers $600 million over the next 10 years.” The heavy version of the proposed Omega rocket will have the capacity to lift as much as 10 tons to geostationary transfer orbit. In related news, Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of Orbital ATK was approved this week.
… Later, Laidley writes that “very soon, the Air Force will announce three launch-service agreements to support further development of EELV class launch systems.” This, of course, is the key line. With the LSA awards, the Air Force will fund three launch systems. If Orbital ATK wins, Omega will proceed. If not, well, probably not. Not surprisingly there is an abundance of intrigue surrounding the LSA decision.
Next three launches
June 11: Japanese H-II A | Radar 6 satellite | Tanegashima Space Center | 04:00-06:00 UTC
June 14: Pegasus XL | NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer | Air launch from Kwajalein, Marshall Islands | 14:06 UTC
June 15: Long March 2C | Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite | Taiyuan, China | TBD