Rocket Report: SpaceX goes vertical, smallsat launch dates slip

Welcome to Edition 2.27 of the Rocket Report! We’re back after a lengthy holiday break, refueled and ready for a new year. 2020 promises to be a huge year in the launch industry, with the potential for several dedicated smallsat rockets taking flight for the first time, as well as the likelihood of large tallies in China, the United States, and Europe.

We’ll try to be your guide to all the action.

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.

Virgin plans orbital launch in early 2020. After falling short of plans to begin launches in 2019, Virgin Orbit now expects to perform its first orbital launch attempt in early 2020, SpaceNews reports. The company said it plans to perform a taxi test of “Cosmic Girl,” its modified Boeing 747 aircraft, with a LauncherOne vehicle attached. That will be followed by a captive-carry flight in which the rocket will remain attached to the plane throughout the flight.

… After these tests, Virgin Orbit will be ready to release its rocket for an orbital test flight. If successful, this may allow the company to move into regular operations relatively quickly. The company said in its statement that it has flight hardware in its Long Beach, California, factory for a half-dozen rockets and is developing automation “to help us build more.” Virgin is just one of several smallsat launch companies hoping to reach orbit in 2020. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Firefly now targeting April 2020 for Alpha debut. Speaking of other smallsat launchers, Firefly Aerospace has pushed the planned debut launch of its Alpha rocket to April, reports. Developing the two-stage rocket’s avionics system “gave us fits,” Firefly CEO Tom Markusic said. That’s because the company was originally hoping to make Alpha’s flight-termination system fully autonomous, he explained.

… When the vendor could not qualify that advanced system in time, the vendor switched to the more traditional “human in the loop” system. But waiting for parts pushed back Firefly’s December 2019 launch time frame to something closer to March 2020. Firefly then chose to take a little more time for further refinements. When it’s ready, the rocket will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Russia’s Rokot vehicle has made its final launch. The Russian booster capable of lifting nearly 2 tons to low Earth orbit debuted in 1990 and has had a reasonable record of success, with 31 out of 34 successful launches. But its cost—reportedly more than $40 million per mission—appears to have priced the vehicle out of the current launch market.

… The final launch occurred on the day after Christmas, when the Rokot vehicle sent three Gonets-M communications satellites into orbit. The launch was Russia’s 25th and final orbital mission of 2019, a number that includes three Soyuz launches performed by Arianespace from the Centre Spatial Guyanais in French Guiana, reports. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX becomes the world’s largest satellite operator. With its third launch of 60 Starlink Internet satellites on Monday, SpaceX became the company with the most satellites in orbit. And with perhaps 20 more Starlink launches planned for this year, SpaceX is only getting started, Ars reports.

… Building and managing a fleet of satellites—let alone getting them to communicate with each other and ground-based terminals—is a huge and wholly different task than launching rockets into space. This is a new business for SpaceX and the company’s first one with business-general public customers. It’s a grand experiment. But with three launches under its belt and the world’s most reusable rocket, SpaceX seem to have a head start on its competitors.

Arianespace targeting a huge leap in 2020. Arianespace is poised to launch up to 22 missions this year, a number that would nearly double the company’s record, SpaceNews reports. Half of the European launch provider’s 2020 manifest is composed of OneWeb launches, slotted for 10 European modified Soyuz missions, and the inaugural launch of the Ariane 62 rocket late in the year.

… Of the 22 missions, 14 are planned from Europe’s spaceport, the Guiana Space Center, on the coast of South America. The remaining eight are Soyuz missions the company expects will be split about even between Russia’s spaceports, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East. (submitted by Unrulycow)

China, United States to compete for 2020 launch supremacy. For the second year in a row, China dominated the global rankings in terms of orbital launches. The Communist country finished 2019 with 34 orbital launch attempts and 32 successes. Russia ranked second, with 25 attempts and successes, followed by the United States with 21 out of 21 successful launches. The coming year should see this global competition tighten, Ars reports.

… China has declared its intention to launch 40 or more orbital missions in 2020, and private companies operating in the country could add to that total. But the United States should also see a surge of growth. After SpaceX launched 13 rockets in 2019, the company is expected to take a significant step forward with a mix of commercial satellites, NASA payloads, and its own Starlink Internet satellites. If all goes well, SpaceX could launch its Falcon 9 rocket 30 or more times this year. United Launch Alliance should be more active, too.

China’s Long March 5 successfully returns to flight. On December 27, 2019, China’s most powerful rocket, the Long March 5, made a successful return to flight by launching an eight-ton satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. The rocket, with a lift capacity similar to the Delta IV Heavy, returned to service after a failure during its second mission in 2017, SpaceNews reports.

… The successful launch means China can 1) proceed to test a related launcher that’s needed to construct its planned space station and 2) attempt to launch its first independent interplanetary mission to Mars this summer. The Chang’e-5 lunar-sample return mission is expected to follow in late 2020 on a Long March 5. All these missions are predicated on the big booster getting back on track. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Boeing packs SLS core stage for green run test. On Wednesday, Boeing moved the completed core stage of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket from the Michoud Assembly Facility onto the space agency’s Pegasus Barge. When weather conditions are favorable, the barge will carry the 64-meter rocket from the rocket factory near New Orleans to the Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi, Ars reports.

… Once in the Magnolia State, the rocket will undergo a series of tests and checks to ensure the integrity of the core stage before an all-up firing of its main engines for about eight minutes. Depending on weather and how well the vehicle performs, Boeing’s John Shannon said this “green run” test could be completed by July or August. More likely, however: engineers will have to tackle issues that crop up, and the testing regime will not be finished before October. Following the tests at Stennis, barring major issues, the core stage will be shipped to Kennedy Space Center on the Florida coast. A launch in 2021 remains possible, although NASA has yet to set a new date.

SpaceX plans mobile launch gantry. In anticipation of winning a national security launch competition for missions from 2022 to 2026, SpaceX is finalizing plans to build the new moveable tower at pad 39A. Company officials told Spaceflight Now that its function will be similar to mobile gantries in use at other launch pads, such as service towers used by United Launch Alliance at the company’s Delta 4 launch pads at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

… SpaceX currently installs satellites onto Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets horizontally inside hangars near the company’s launch pads. But some of the US government’s most sensitive and expensive intelligence-gathering satellites are designed to be mounted on their launch vehicles vertically. SpaceX officials said the vertical integration capability is required for participants in the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SLS contractor convicted of buying bad parts. Seongchan “Steven” Yun, who worked for CBOL Corporation, was found guilty after he reportedly purchased Chinese parts for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and tried to cover it up. Yun was responsible for a contract that would provide stainless steel tubing to carry rocket fuel in ground-support equipment at Kennedy Space Center, MSN reports.

… The contract specifically required the steel be provided by the United States. Instead, Yun procured the materials from China and tried to cover up the foreign exchange. Investigators found Yun instead had parts shipped to KSC and then created false certifications asserting the steel tubing conformed to all of NASA’s requirements. He will be sentenced to up to 10 years in federal prison in March. (submitted by danneely)

Next three launches

Jan. 15: Long March 2D | Jilin 1, ÑuSat 7 & ÑuSat 8 | Taiyuan, China | 02:53 UTC

Jan. 16: Ariane V |KONNECT and GSAT-30 satellites | Kourou, French Guiana | 21:05 UTC

Jan. 18: Falcon 9 | Crew Dragon In-Flight Abort test | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 13:00 UTC

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