Welcome to Edition 2.12 of the Rocket Report! This week’s report might as well be brought to you by United Launch Alliance—but never fear, dear readers, no one influences the report—because there is a lot going on with the Colorado-based company. This week, ULA flew its final single-stick Delta IV rocket, and the company is in the midst of transitioning to its new Vulcan-Centaur booster.
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.
Air Force seeks bids for small, medium payloads. The US Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise is requesting industry bids for the Orbital Services Program-4, intended to launch payloads of 180kg or larger into orbit. The Air Force will procure about 20 missions over the next nine years, SpaceNews reports. Bids are due August 29.
… Under the last such program, only SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now Northrop Grumman) were able to deliver payloads. With the flurry of new launch vehicles under development, however, this time around there are likely to be many more bidders. As part of the program, the Air Force seeks to increase it capacity to launch on demand. Contracts must be flexible and responsive,” Col. Rob Bongiovi said. “The program balances technology, mission risk, and schedule while leveraging rapidly evolving market forces to cultivate a resilient and affordable launch capability for US government needs.”
China’s Smart Dragon 1 reaches orbit. The semi-private China Long March Rocket Corporation successfully launched its Smart Dragon-1 booster on Saturday for the first time. The 19.5-meter long, four-stage solid-fueled launch vehicle can launch up to a 200kg payload to a Sun-synchronous Orbit. According to the company, Smart Dragon-1 has already secured six launch contracts, with its second flight planned for as soon as late 2019.
… As we’ve been saying, a multiplicity of Chinese companies is flooding the small-satellite launch market with new rockets. NASASpaceFlight.com notes that Smart Dragon-1 is the fourth new Chinese smallsat launch vehicle to debut in the last 10 months. LandSpace’s ZhuQue-1 and OneSpace’s OS-M1 both failed on their first flights, but iSpace’s Hyperbola-1 succeeded in July. All four launch vehicles use three or four solid-rocket motor stages and have a capability of several hundred kilograms to low Earth orbit. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
India invites private firms to build PSLVs. As part of the country’s “Make in India” initiative, the Indian space agency ISRO has invited companies to bid for a contract to produce up to five cores of its workhorse Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Indian space officials said they believe the country’s private aerospace industry is up to the task, The Times of India reports.
… A consortium of companies is anticipated to bid on the contracts, as no single company is expected to be able to build one of the small-satellite launch vehicles. Bids are due by early September. It is interesting to see how different countries around the world are seeking to take advantage of their rising aerospace industries. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Vulcan, Falcon 9 in a new race to the Moon. This week, Astrobotic announced that its Moon lander would be one of the payloads on the maiden flight of the Vulcan rocket, currently set for a 2021 launch. This mission came as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which seeks to deliver small science payloads to the surface of the moon.
… Not to be outdone, the Japanese company ispace on Thursday announced that it had adjusted the timeline for its first lunar lander, Mission 1, to fly in 2021. The soft-landing spacecraft will fly as a rideshare payload on a Falcon 9 rocket. ispace also announced that it plans to partner with US-based Draper, which is also in the running for future Commercial Lunar Payload Services program contracts. Thus there is not only a race to the Moon among commercial companies but between the two big US rocket companies. (submitted by platykurtic)
Japan’s rocket industry has a novel approach to competition. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Japan’s major launch company, is developing the H3 rocket to be more cost-competitive with SpaceX and other providers around the world. As that competition is heated, Nikkei Asian Review reports that the Japanese conglomerate has a plan to diversify its interest further by providing weather data services.
… The company’s “weather forecasting service” will use data from satellites launched by its rockets to predict weather for periods of two weeks to two months, according to the report. The company plans to start by selling its forecasts to big US grain traders, and other potential customers include electric utilities and marine shipping companies. The only problem we can see with this plan is that satellite data is not a weather forecast (there needs to be a good model), and weather predictions are only reliable out to about 10 days due to chaos theory. (submitted by BH)
Russia flies a fully automated Soyuz mission. With a robot rather than a cosmonaut in the commander’s seat, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft rocketed into orbit from Kazakhstan late Wednesday en route to the International Space Station, Spaceflight Now reports. This was the first Soyuz crewed vehicle to fly without cosmonauts in 33 years.
… The automated test flight was conceived to test the compatibility of the Soyuz spacecraft with the upgraded Soyuz-2.1a booster, a modernized variant of the venerable Russian rocket family that is slated to begin launching crews next March. A Progress supply ship that launched on this upgraded booster in April 2015 went into an uncontrolled spin after separating from the Soyuz third stage, and this prompted Russian officials to fly the first Soyuz crew capsule on a Soyuz-2.1a rocket without people aboard. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Final single-stick Delta IV rocket lifts off. On Thursday morning, a Delta IV-medium rocket lifted off from Florida carrying a GPS III mission for the US Air Force. (It looked amazing). The mission also marked the final flight of the GEM-60 strap-on solid-rocket motors built by Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, Spaceflight Now noted. Northrop Grumman derived the GEM-60 booster from the smaller GEM-40 and GEM-46 motors that flew on the Delta 2 and Delta 3 rockets.
… The Delta IV-Medium rocket family logged 29 missions in its career, beginning in 2002. All 29 of the Delta IV-Medium missions were successful, giving the rocket an unblemished record. But in today’s cost-competitive era, the rocket simply costs too much to fly. According to the US Government Accountability Office, the Delta IV-Medium costs $164 million per flight, nearly three times as much as a comparable Falcon 9 booster.
The VAB gets its first commercial tenant. Northrop Grumman will assemble and test its new Omega rocket inside the the Vertical Assembly Building’s High Bay 2, one of four high bays in the building at Kennedy Space Center. The company is also modifying NASA’s mobile launcher platform-3 to serve as the launch vehicle’s assembly and launch platform. Northrop Grumman signed a Reimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA for use of the facilities, the agency said.
… President Trump has said he loves to see private companies using NASA facilities and “paying rent” to the government. In this case, we’re not sure how much of this money is coming from Northrop as opposed to the government, because the Omega launch vehicle is being developed with funds largely from the US Air Force. We’re also not sure if this partnership will last should the Air Force not choose Omega as one of its two preferred vehicle for national security launch contracts from 2022 to 2026. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Clipper moves forward, but it doesn’t have a rocket yet. NASA has given its ambitious Europa Clipper mission a green light to proceed into final design and then into construction of the spacecraft, Ars reports. The multibillion-dollar mission remains on target for a launch in 2023 or 2025, but it still doesn’t have a launch vehicle, which is kind of important for a spacecraft bound for Jupiter.
… Congress has insisted that the Clipper mission fly on the Space Launch System rocket, which would provide a shorter trip by a couple of years. However, the White House has said Clipper should fly on a commercial rocket because this would cost hundreds of millions of dollars less and because there is no guarantee the Space Launch System rocket will be available for a flight in 2023 or even 2025. This largely political issue will not be solved by NASA, but the Clipper mission’s planners need to know their launch vehicle sooner rather than later to finalize its design. (submitted by Tfargo04)
Atlas and Delta factory begins transition to Vulcan. A booster prototype for the first stage of the Vulcan Centaur rocket will roll out of a sprawling United Launch Alliance factory in early September, then make the short trip across the parking lot to a test facility, SpaceNews reports. The results of the tests—expected to continue into next year—will help validate the integrity of the design.
… Five major Vulcan components are now in different stages of assembly and will be completed over the next 12 months, Mark Peller, ULA vice president of major development, told the publication. “We just finished the booster structural test article, we have two Centaur upper-stage test articles, plus a booster and upper stage for first flight,” Peller said. “Early next year, we’ll start building the second article and we’ll be transitioning the Decatur factory to recurring production of the Vulcan rocket.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Sierra Nevada designs a launch vehicle-agnostic space habitat. On Wednesday, Sierra Nevada Corporation showed off its proposed in-space habitat for the first time, Ars reports. The inflatable habitat is, first and foremost, large. It measures more than 8 meters long, and with a diameter of 8 meters, it has an internal volume of 300 cubic meters, which is about one-third the size of the International Space Station.
… The selling point for Sierra Nevada’s habitat is its size, which is possible because the multi-layered fabric material can be compressed for launch, then expanded and outfitted as a habitat once in space. It can fit within a standard payload fairing used for launch vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan booster, or NASA’s Space Launch System. It is light enough for any of those rockets to launch to the Moon.
Next three launches
August 29: Rokot | GEO-IK 2 satellite | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | TBD
Sept. 8: H-2B | Eighth HTV supply mission to ISS | Tanegashima Space Center, Japan | 21:33 UTC
Sept. 25: Soyuz | Soyuz MS-15 crew mission | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 13:57 UTC