Welcome to Edition 1.30 of the Rocket Report. Thanks to everyone for your support this year! It’s amazing how much we’ve grown, both in terms of subscriptions to the newsletter and readers of this weekly post. To celebrate the holidays, we’ll be taking a break, so our next report will arrive on January 11.
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.
Russia to decommission Rokot launcher. According to Russian sources, the Rokot vehicle will make two final launches in 2019 and then be decommissioned, Spacewatch reports. The Rokot vehicle, with a capacity of 2 tons to LEO, has made 29 successful launches since its first flight in 1990.
… The current Rokot vehicle has a Ukrainian-made control system. In August 2018, the Russian state space corporation, Roscosmos, announced that the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center will develop a Rokot-2 satellite launch vehicle with a Russian-made control system. Time will tell whether such a rocket can be cost-competitive with the myriad small-satellite launch vehicles now coming online. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Rocket Lab launches Electron for the fourth time. The mission on December 16, designated Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)-19, took place just over a month after Rocket Lab’s last successful orbital launch, The fourth Electron vehicle offered a dedicated launch for NASA’s small-satellite program.
… We said we’d be impressed if Rocket Lab closed out the year with two launches in November and December, and the company has done what it promised to do. That suggests Rocket Lab is well on its way to a higher launch cadence in 2019. (submitted by __d and Ken the Bin)
Firefly reaches launch agreement with Spaceflight. Through the agreement, Spaceflight will offer dedicated rideshare launch opportunities on the Firefly Alpha launch vehicle, and work with Firefly to identify payloads where the rocket has excess capacity. “Spaceflight has a proven expertise in payload aggregation and mission management,” said Firefly CEO Tom Markusic in a news release. “Its recent SSO-A dedicated rideshare mission set a new standard for complex small-satellite aggregation and deployment. It was a significant step forward for the entire NewSpace industry.”
… Such deals indicate that Firefly continues to make progress toward the first launch of its Alpha vehicle. Ars recently had a chance to visit the company, and it is making progress with both the first- and second-stage engines. Firefly’s schedule calls for a launch in late 2019, which is ambitious, but possible.
Pentagon interested in smallsat launchers. The US military will have growing demands for space vehicles that can launch small satellites to orbit on short notice, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord told . “I think we need to look at launch service capability for small sats as well as large,” Lord said.
… Lord made the comments after visiting Virgin Orbit. This is consistent with what other military officials have said, noting the future battlefield in space may require nimble deployment of smaller assets. The new class of rockets that may be able to launch nearly on demand will meet these needs. We wonder how many of these small launch companies are basing their business models on exactly these kinds of military contracts. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Virgin, other companies looking at Guam launch site. Officials at the A.B. Won Pat International Airport in Guam are conducting feasibility studies on becoming a spaceport, reports. The island appears to be seeking horizontally-launched vehicles. “We’ve been working with Virgin Orbit since April. They came to us—in large part because of our location,” the airport’s executive manager, Chuck Ada, said. “They’re a very forward-thinking and exciting company, and we’re both very keen on this opportunity.”
… Guam’s airport has large runways, a favorable climate, and a latitude only about 14 degrees north of the equator. With dozens of locations around the world vying to become spaceports, one advantage all of these smaller rocket companies have is plenty of places to choose to fly from. (submitted by Unrulycow)
Maine dreaming of a launch site, too. The Maine Technology Institute has awarded $50,000 for a feasibility study of a small-satellite launch site in the state, and the Maine Space Grant Consortium has committed more than $88,000, according to an AP report. The next step is to find out whether there’s a market for such a facility in Maine, a state with a small tech sector but no shortage of open sky to send satellites into.
… The former Loring Air Force Base in far northern Maine would serve as the launch site, while the former Brunswick Naval Air Station closer to the state’s busy coast would house mission control. The fact that the mission control and launch facilities are 300 miles apart could be an advantage for the project, boosters said. To us, that seems optimistic. But we wish them well. (submitted by Mark)
Blue Origin delays next flight until 2019. After a couple of attempts for its 10th flight of the New Shepard launch system, the company is standing down for the year. “Through fixing the ground infrastructure issue, we have determined additional systems need to be addressed,” Blue Origin tweeted.
… The company has not disclosed what this particular flight will test, but as Blue Origin gets closer to human flights (presumably later in 2019), certainly the company wants everything to go right. The delay, therefore, is understandable.
Aphelion Orbitals calls it quits. The New Jersey-based company, which sought to build “the smallest orbital vehicle possible,” is ending that effort. “Here are the slides from Aphelion Orbitals’ last pitch deck before winding down operations,” company co-founder Matthew Travis wrote on LinkedIn. “We had a good plan, ambitious yet competent. It’s so sad we just ran out of time.”
… This is the brutal reality of the smallsat launch market. As more companies reach the marketplace in the coming year, it will be more difficult for other companies to raise money at the very time they need infusions of cash to reach the launchpad. We wish the employees of Aphelion well as they move back into the job market.
Commercial crew on track for January launch. SpaceX released photos of its Crew Dragon spacecraft this week, and the company showed off the vehicle’s built-in solar arrays as well as its Falcon 9 launch vehicle being integrated for launch. One source, who has (rightly) been skeptical about past launch dates set by the commercial crew program, expressed optimism that both SpaceX and NASA are working effectively toward a January launch date for this mission.
… Perhaps sometime around mid-July 2019, humans could launch into space from Florida again. Were this to indeed happen in July, it would be almost precisely eight years since the final space shuttle mission took place. Something to look forward to in 2019!
Air Force studying reusable rockets. The military opted for a new Block 5 booster for the launch of its GPS 3 mission this month, but it is open to reusable rockets. “We are continuing to look at this as we try to drive down uncertainty,” said Walter Lauderdale, mission director of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate, according to . “As we work through this first flight together, we will look at the performance [and] do all the calculations and analysis so we can continue to look for opportunities in the future.”
… We’re already seeing evidence in the commercial market that satellite operators are getting comfortable with previously flown first stages. It seems increasingly likely that what SpaceX started with the vertical landing of Falcon 9s will, over time, likely become more of an industry norm. If it’s safe and costs less, the Air Force will undoubtedly eventually come aboard. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Dream Chaser passes a key milestone. Sierra Nevada Corp. announced this week that it completed a milestone in its Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract called Integrated Review 4. With that milestone, the company is cleared to move ahead into assembly of the Dream Chaser vehicle that will deliver cargo to the station, reports.
… “This comprehensive review approved moving the Dream Chaser program into the production phase so we can get Dream Chaser to market as a critical space station resupply spacecraft as soon as possible,” Fatih Ozmen, co-owner and chief executive of the company, said. The first Dream Chaser launch, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, is planned for no earlier than late 2020. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)
Falcon Heavy may fly in March and April next year. The Falcon Heavy made its debut back in February, so it’s been a long wait for a follow-up. But now NASA officials say they expect to see two Falcon Heavy missions in spring 2019, with the Arabsat-6A spacecraft flying in March and the Air Force’s Space Test Program 2 mission in April, reports. The latter mission includes several NASA payloads.
… The two launches will use the same set of first-stage booster cores. “They will recover and reuse the boosters,” Nicky Fox, director of the agency’s Heliophysics Division, said. “So we’re kind of watching what happens with that first launch.” Frankly, we’re ready to see more Falcon Heavy launches. Last February’s flight was a big highlight of 2018.
Delta IV Heavy now targeted for NET Dec. 30 launch. United Launch Alliance’s planned December 19 launch of the NROL-71 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office was scrubbed due to indications of elevated hydrogen concentrations within the port booster engine section, the company said. The scrub occurred with less than 20 minutes to go in the countdown.
… The team is currently reviewing all data and set the next launch attempt no earlier than December 30, 2018. Best of luck to ULA and the people there who now will have to work through the holidays.
And finally … Just for fun, the comic xkcd had the following helpful information to understand how a rocket launch really works. See y’all in 2019!
Next three launches
Dec. 21: Proton-M | Blagovest N13L communications satellite | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 00:15 UTC
Dec. 22: Falcon 9 | GPS III-01 for Air Force | Cape Canaveral, FL, | 13:55 UTC
Dec. 25: Long March 3C | TJS-3 Geo comms satellite | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | TBD