Welcome to Edition 1.42 of the Rocket Report! This was another big week for boosters, with NASA’s Space Launch System under the gun. Almost immediately after Vice President Mike Pence said NASA would look at alternatives if existing contractors couldn’t get the job done, the White House and NASA’s administrator were getting blowback from political supporters of the big rocket.
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.
Maiden launch of Chinese OS-M rocket fails. For the second time, an orbital launch attempt by a private Chinese company has failed. On Wednesday, OneSpace Tech’s OS-M Chongqing launch vehicle took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center and attempted to orbit the small Lingque-1B technology demonstration satellite, but it failed shortly after entering second stage flight, NASASpaceflight.com reports.
… OneSpace was founded after Chinese state institutes started licensing technology to the “private” sector. That was in 2015, and since then, the company has launched three main business lines, starting with the development of the M-series commercial launch vehicle to provide high-frequency, cost-effective, and high-quality launch service to small- and micro-satellite customers. Space is hard in China, too. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)
DARPA seeks to demo nuclear rocket in orbit. The defense research agency plans to demonstrate a nuclear thermal propulsion system that can be assembled on orbit to expand the US operating presence in cislunar space, according to . The agency is seeking $10 million in 2020 to begin a new program, Reactor On A Rocket, to develop a high-assay low-enriched uranium propulsion system.
… In a nuclear thermal rocket, propellant such as liquid hydrogen is heated to high temperature in a reactor and then expelled through a rocket nozzle to produce thrust. The projectile has a higher specific impulse than a chemical rocket. $10 million is a small amount to devote to what would certainly be an expensive research and development program. (submitted by danneely)
Two Minotaur launches planned from Wallops. Northrop Grumman is gearing up for as many as four launches this year at Virginia’s Wallops Island (including two Cygnus cargo supply missions to the International Space Station) and a pair of Minotaur rocket flights for the US government’s spy satellite agency, Spaceflight Now reports.
… The classified missions will launch aboard a Minotaur 4 rocket (which uses decommissioned motors from the Air Force’s retired Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missile) and a smaller Minotaur 1 (which uses a similar combination of stockpiled solid-fueled missile motors and new upper stages but is based on the Minuteman missile). With Rocket Lab also developing facilities at Wallops, the Virginia coast may see increasing amounts of activity. (submitted by Unrulycow)
Canadian launch plan runs into environmental concerns. Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment has raised concerns about the Cyclone 4M rocket that Maritime Launch Services proposes to launch from an as-yet undeveloped spaceport in the Canadian province. The Ukrainian-built 4M booster’s second stage is fueled by hydrazine. The Department of Environment has until May to decide whether to allow the project, reports.
… In response to the concerns, Maritime Launch Services filed a report that notes the use of hydrazine by NASA’s space shuttle on SpaceX’s Dragon Capsule and other vehicles. “While both the (European Space Agency) and NASA identify the advantages of developing a green alternative to hydrazine, both agencies still rely on and use it for current and planned future launches,” the report stated. Hydrazine is nasty stuff, but it’s pretty darn useful. (submitted by GM)
Russia to cut costs of its Proton rocket. Roscosmos will cut the cost of launching a Proton-M carrier rocket to the level of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to become more competitive. The cost savings will be achieved through “lower expenses on ground-based preparations,” Roscosmos Chief Dmitry Rogozin said, according to TASS.
… “Proton-M rockets are about at the level of Falcons by their price. Now we have taken steps to reduce the cost of launch services for us by cutting some expenses on the Center for the Operation of Ground-Based Space Infrastructure,” Rogozin said. This is an interesting development, but with the recent failures of the Proton, it’s not clear whether international customers will be more concerned about reliability or price. (submitted by Unrulycow)
New FAA rule seeks to streamline launch. After Tuesday’s National Space Council meeting, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed rules to streamline federal commercial space transportation requirements for future launch, reentry, and launch-site providers. The administration also wants to maintain safety during launches and reentries.
… According to the FAA, the proposed rule would provide a safe, performance-based regulatory approach to commercial space transportation. It would promote safety practices by creating flexibility for operators to meet safety requirements and by enhancing collaboration among stakeholders. Several aerospace officials praised the government for moving quickly and completing the new rules in about 12 months, within the deadline set by Vice President Mike Pence. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Dream Chaser passes another milestone. The space plane developed by Sierra Nevada has passed NASA’s Integrated Review Milestone 5, a key status check on the company’s performance of a variety of ground and flight operations. Sierra Nevada said the vehicle remains on track for a launch in 2021 atop an Atlas V rocket.
… According to the company, the review included development of the vehicle’s flight computers and software, mission simulator, and Mission Control Center. Sierra Nevada also performed cargo demonstrations using high fidelity mock-ups of the vehicle and its cargo module, showing loading and unloading time and efficiency. Dream Chaser is contracted with NASA for at least six cargo flights to the station in the early 2020s. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Germany has a plan to catch rockets. The German space agency, DLR, has initiated a study on a novel reusable launcher concept that would use a winged first-stage booster captured on descent by an aircraft and towed back to land, reports. The three-year study seeks to develop a “rocket catcher” with an international team that will build on previous DLR simulations and flight experiments
… My favorite part about this seemingly bonkers idea is that it’s named FALCon. Landings like those SpaceX conducts with the Falcon 9 booster require extra fuel to propulsively slow the vehicle when it returns to Earth, the project leader told the publication. By equipping a booster with wings and gliding it to a recovery aircraft, the rocket stage can use more fuel to deliver a payload into orbit. This, we have to see. (submitted by Ken the Bin and danneely)
A high-definition Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX recently updated the Falcon 9 page of its website with a new video showcasing some of the rocket’s recent launches and landings. One of the playback options allows for 4K video, and , Ars reports.
… Some highlights of the video include close-ups of the Falcon 9 engines re-lighting to prepare for landing and deployment of the landing legs themselves. But really, this is something that should be just watched rather than read about.
Alabama lawmakers seek assurances on the SLS. The questions came at a House Appropriations hearing a day after Vice President Mike Pence put the Space Launch System rocket program on notice in regard to his desire to send humans to the lunar surface by 2024. “If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will,” Pence said.
… Alabama Rep. Martha Roby asked for NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s assurance that the SLS rocket remained essential to NASA’s exploration plans. Robert Aderholt, another Alabama representative, said, “The SLS and Orion programs are, of course, key to the health of our national aerospace supplier base.” Rarely has it been more clear that Congress really doesn’t prioritize the “exploration” aspect of exploration systems development.
Also, NASA is looking at accelerating SLS. This week, Bridenstine also acknowledged that the idea to launch the first Orion lunar mission on commercial rockets was dead. Instead, he was seeking ways to accelerate that mission on the SLS booster, reports. The biggest idea (which we hear will be adopted after a 45-day study) involves skipping a Green Run test at Stennis Space Center, which removes five to eight months from the schedule.
… At the House appropriations hearing this week, Bridenstine said, “The question is, is that necessary? Could we test each engine individually at very high off-nominal kinds of conditions to get certainty, or at least eliminate as much risk, or almost as much risk, as we would if we ran the green run.” We’re eager to hear what NASA’s safety panels, which absolutely roasted SpaceX for using load-and-go fueling on the Falcon 9 rocket, will say about this idea.
Air Force doesn’t want to delay launch competition. A final solicitation for industry bids for the Launch Service Procurement competition will be released sometime in the next two weeks, said Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, commander of the Air Force Space And Missile Systems Center. This is the competition for military launch contracts from 2022 to 2026 that has spurred some controversy.
… Thompson’s comments came during a Senate subcommittee hearing, covered by . Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), the subcommittee’s chairwoman, and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), the ranking member, challenged Thompson to explain the Air Force’s rationale for narrowing the field of competitors from four to two by 2020. “We are ready to issue an RFP for the LSP,” Thompson said. “All potential offerors have sufficient maturity. We expect a robust competition.” Thompson’s acronym game is strong.
Blue Origin expanding Florida facilities again. The rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos plans to add a 90-acre “south campus” to its already expansive facilities at Exploration Park, near the entrance to Kennedy Space Center. The south campus will nearly double the size of land Blue Origin already leases from NASA, reports.
… The company declined to provide details, but according to documents obtained by the newspaper, “The facilities will provide for the manufacture and provisioning of commercial space launch vehicles.” That a company building an exceptionally large rocket needs more space near its launchpad in Florida shouldn’t come as a surprise. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
March 28: Electron | DARPA R3D2 mission | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 22:30 UTC
March 30: Long March 3B | Tianlian 2-01, a TDRS satellite | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | 16:30 UTC
April 1: PSLV | 29 smaller satellites on a rideshare mission | Sriharikota, India | 04:00 UTC