Welcome to Edition 1.12 of the Rocket Report! This week we have all kinds of stories about small rockets, the scoop on a Texas rocket company back from the dead, and some commercial crew launch dates that we may believe. Or maybe not.
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.
New report quantifies surge in small rockets. In an updated report on the state of the small-satellite launch industry, Carlos Niederstrasser quantifies the increase in potential small launch vehicle contenders, defined as rockets capable of carrying up to 1,000kg to low-Earth orbit. The growth has been remarkable. “The total number of efforts we are tracking… has increased from a mere 31 in 2015 to over 101 in 2018,” he writes.
Boom times … “It is clear that the market will not be able to support most of this [sic] new entrants, but it is equally clear that both the founders and the capital markets think that there will be room for multiple players,” the report states. There is so much activity that grappling with all of it is almost impossible. But certainly this newsletter will try.
It’s Business Time delayed into late 2018. Originally, the third flight of Rocket Lab’s Electron launcher was due to occur in April 2018, and this was eventually delayed until June. After engineers discovered an issue with the rocket’s motor controller, the company stood down its launch attempt. The new launch date will come in November, the company said this week.
They seem confident … Rocket Lab has softened the blow of this additional launch delay by promising that the fourth flight of the Electron vehicle will occur “within weeks” of the third flight. That mission is tentatively scheduled for December. If the company succeeds with this, it will send a strong signal that Rocket Lab truly has entered an operational phase. By the way, the company also added an order for 10 Electron launches this week. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Firefly back in full force after nearly dying. In late September 2016, the Austin-based Firefly rocket company announced it was furloughing its entire staff, citing financial problems when an unnamed investor backed out. SpaceNews takes a deep dive into how the company has come roaring back in recent months with new investment.
Targeting 2019 … The company says it is on track for a first launch in September 2019, and it has an agreement with the US Air Force to take over Space Launch Complex 2 West, a launchpad currently used by United Launch Alliance’s soon-to-retire Delta 2 rocket. Firefly is also looking for East Coast launch sites. Frankly, this is a company we had written off as dead, so seeing the renewed energy is wonderful. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Copenhagen Suborbitals launches a small rocket. On Saturday, the amateur group Copenhagen Suborbitals launched its Nexø II rocket to an altitude of about 10km. The organization has not yet released full details of the flight, which it characterized as “a successful launch.”
Small step along the roadmap … The Danish group says the Nexø rocket class is a technology demonstrator in advance of building the significantly bigger Spica rocket that will take an astronaut into space. That seems like a giant leap right now, but we nonetheless wish the company well. (submitted by Byrdal)
Space Florida proposes new launchpads at KSC. Florida Today reports that Space Florida—the aerospace economic development agency of the state of Florida—wants to develop pads at Launch Complex 48. Those pads would support Boeing’s Phantom Express, the quick-turnaround launcher for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In addition, the state has proposed building three landing pads at KSC to provide more options for SpaceX or Blue Origin boosters returning from space. Other reusable vehicles may possibly use the pads as well.
Multi-use pads … “We’re continuing to assess anywhere where we think the infrastructure is going to be stressed as the launch cadence continues to increase,” Space Florida’s general manager, Jim Kuzma, said. The state envisions a shared facility, and potential users could include the likes of Rocket Lab, Firefly Aerospace, or Vector Space Systems.
Government eyes point-to-point transport. The head of Air Force transportation, Gen. Carlton Everhart, is said to be interested in the idea of moving supplies using space vehicles and how this could transform military logistics. SpaceNews reported on the military’s interest in point-to-point transport through suborbital space.
Rapid, responsive, and costly … One option for the military would be to “preposition” cargo at spaceports for fast crisis response and have it pre-packed in rocket fairings. Virgin Orbit is looking at potentially serving this market if the military is truly interested. Previously, SpaceX has said its Big Falcon Rocket could provide point-to-point transport around the world. This would be a unique capability for the military, but the upfront investment would certainly be costly. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
World View suffers half-a-million dollars in damage. An explosion of a hydrogen-filled balloon during ground testing at World View’s Arizona-based headquarters in December caused $475,000 in damage, the Arizona Daily Star reports. The matter came to light after a critic of the company (who is also a member of the Pima County Board of Supervisors) asked for a report. The disclosure comes as World View seeks to ramp up stratospheric balloon flights for research payloads for NASA and other customers.
No lasting damage … There was no damage to Spaceport Tucson, according to the report. The company has hired a safety director and is instituting new training, operating, and workplace procedures to avoid such incidents in the future, World View CEO Jane Poynter said in a letter to the supervisors.
Spanish rocket startup signs lease to test engines. PLD Space plans to quadruple the size of its engine test facility at Spain’s Teruel Airport, following a new 25-year lease that began this month. This will allow the company to conduct full-duration, four-minute engine test firings for its suborbital Arion 1 rocket, SpaceNews says.
Seeking reusability … PLD is one of the rare small launch companies that seeks to develop a reusable launch vehicle. PLD has so far raised 18 million euros, and in addition to building its first two Arion 1 suborbital rockets, the company has plans for an orbital rocket called Arion 2. This is one of the European commercial launch companies we are most intrigued by.
SpaceX reflies a Block 5 rocket for the first time. On Tuesday, the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket delivered its satellite payload into space and then returned to a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. This was the same booster used during a May 11 launch and marked the first time SpaceX has re-used its new Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9. The turnaround was less than three months.
Going for three? … This immediately raised questions about the third use of this booster. It could happen later this year, perhaps as a side booster of a Falcon Heavy launch or a commercial mission in a few months. Either way, using a Block 5 rocket three times in half a year suggests that it may indeed be capable of 10 or more flights as Elon Musk has predicted.
NASA sets new commercial crew launch dates. NASA has delayed the uncrewed and crewed test flights of the Starliner and Dragon spacecraft again. Under the latest timeline, SpaceX has a November 2018 date for its uncrewed test and April 2019 for its crew test flight. Boeing slipped to late 2018/early 2019 and mid-2019 for its test flights. We have slightly more confidence in these dates, especially the November 2019 timeframe for SpaceX’s first demo flight. But a good source suggested the company was still pretty optimistic overall.
Finally, a party in Houston … NASA released the new dates in conjunction with the announcements of the nine astronauts who will fly on the first two crewed missions for each of the two spacecraft. Ars reports how this ceremony was a joyous one in Houston and represented a cathartic experience after seven painful years in “Space City” following the end of the space shuttle program. (submitted by George Moromisato and Ken the Bin)
A Falcon 9 rocket will launch 71 satellites. Later this year, Spaceflight Industries will coordinate the largest rideshare in US history with a Falcon 9 launch. A total of 71 satellites is scheduled to fly, The Verge reports, including 15 larger microsatellites and 56 smaller standardized satellites known as CubeSats. The probes range from 5kg to 300kg.
A lot to wrangle … “Probably the biggest technical challenge is sequencing all of the spacecraft off the payload stack,” said Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight’s launch services group. It will take several hours to deploy all of them. This launch serves as more evidence that as the number of smaller satellites seeking to reach low Earth orbit rises, the competition for the business will see many new entrants, both from existing launch vehicles like the Falcon 9 rocket as well as the myriad new, smaller competitors. It will be fun to watch. (submitted by whiteknave)
Blue Origin holds onto 2020 New Glenn launch date, but. A Reuters article says that, privately, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos believes the 2020 launch date for New Glenn is “very aggressive.” Eutelsat SA has padded its contract, which covers the launch of a geostationary satellite in the period 2021-2022, so that Blue Origin will incur no penalties if it is late, the report says.
So when does New Glenn fly? … . The private firm has been tight-lipped on New Glenn’s production status and plans for bringing it to market. But recent photos of the interior of its rocket factory in Florida, where tooling did not appear to be fully installed yet, support the idea that a 2020 launch date simply isn’t feasible. And honestly, this is to be expected when a relatively young company attempts to scale from a rocket with 110,000 pounds of thrust to a rocket with 4 million. But we have no doubt Blue Origin will ultimately get there.
Bezos to offer clues about work with Air Force next month. The Air Force Association says that Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, will address the Air, Space & Cyber Conference held from September 17-19 in National Harbor, Maryland. Bezos is expected to offer his perspective on the advancements of space and technology and how the commercial industry can better partner with the Air Force.
We are intrigued … The design of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket has always seemed suited for military missions, especially sending large satellites to geostationary space. This speech, following the expected award of Air Force Launch Service Agreement contracts in August, could finally provide us a better view into how the military launch market aligns with Blue Origin’s interests. And these are things we would very much like to know.
Next three launches
August 11: Delta IV Heavy | Parker Solar Probe | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station | 07:33 UTC
August 21: Vega | ADM-Aeolus | Kourou, French Guiana | 21:20 UTC
August 24: Falcon 9 | Telstar 18 VANTAGE | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station | 03:33 UTC