Welcome to Edition 1.41 of the Rocket Report! This week we definitely have an international flavor, with news about spaceflight efforts from Brazil, Italy, Japan, the UAE, and the United States. There also is a fun story about hypersonic launch completing some initial tests with evidently promising returns.
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.
Brazilian spaceport wins key US agreement. Brazil’s decades-long effort to launch satellites from its underused Alcântara Launch Center could finally be bearing fruit, Parabolic Arc reports. On Monday, Brazil and the United States signed a Technology Safeguards Agreement that will allow American companies to launch orbital rockets from Alcântara.
Near the equator … The long-discussed launch site lies just 2 degrees from the equator, making it an ideal location from which to launch geosynchronous communications satellites. Brazilian officials say that a number of established US space companies, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and SpaceX, have expressed interesting in launching from the spaceport. For now, the agreement brings that possibility a step closer, but it remains to be seen whether any US rocket company, large or small, will commit to the site. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Italian rocket company sees revenue jump. Avio, the company that builds Europe’s light-lift Vega rocket and the future Vega C, said March 14 that revenue for 2018 increased 13 percent to $440.6 million while net profit jumped by 18 percent, according to SpaceNews. “What is behind our business is a very rapidly growing segment of the market,” Avio CEO Giulio Ranzo told the publication. “All of these low Earth orbit small satellites, one way or another they are growing very fast.”
A competitive market … The Vega rocket competes with India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, and the Vega C rocket will be slightly more powerful as it seeks customers for small satellites and rideshare missions. Avio has four Vega missions planned this year which, barring delays, would be the highest number of Vega launches in a single year since the rocket’s debut in 2012. The Vega C booster should debut in 2020. This schedule would put the European company ahead of most other small-satellite launchers coming online soonish. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Japanese launch start-up to try again; with help. After failed launches in 2017 and 2018, Interstellar Technologies is keener to take advice from the Japanese space agency, JAXA, and the country’s large rocket-maker Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. “We realized that it is difficult to develop a large rocket entirely on our own,” said Chief Executive Takahiro Inagawa, according to Asian Review.
Larger rocket planned … The company says it will try to launch its Momo rocket again this spring. The booster is capable of lifting 10kg to an altitude of 100km. The company’s larger Zero rocket, capable of lifting 100kg to low Earth orbit, may be ready for its first test flight in three or four years. Interstellar wants to keep Zero launch costs down to about $5 million. As always, take these projected launch dates with a grain of salt.
Ram accelerator launch concept conducts initial tests. Founded by Blue Origin employee number 10, Mark Russell, HyperSciences recently conducted a series of high-altitude tests at a New Mexico launch site, TechCrunch reports. The company launched “a number of projectiles” ranging from 1.5ft long to more than 9ft long. The ram accelerator launches projectiles from the surface at more than five times the speed of sound.
Lots of Gs … The idea is that the initial jolt imparts enough energy to send payloads on a high suborbital trajectory. (NASA has supported the concept with a Phase I research grant). Such a method could never be used for sensitive payloads, of course, because the initial G forces are extreme, 600 to 1,000 times the force of gravity at the Earth’s surface. But certainly some payloads can tolerate this, opening the way for lower-cost access to space.
Satellite Internet secures more funding. As rocket companies look to find new launch contracts amid the downturn in geostationary missions, there’s been considerable interest in the low Earth orbit satellite constellations proposed by several companies. The financial health of at least some of those ventures appears solid, as OneWeb held its largest fundraising round to date and secured $1.25 billion in new capital, Fierce Wireless reports.
Aggressive launch schedule ahead … In February, OneWeb launched its first six satellites on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana. Now it is gearing up to launch as many as 650 satellites over the next several years on a variety of rockets, including Arianespace’s Ariane 6 booster. OneWeb will begin an aggressive launch schedule, with monthly launches of 30 satellites at a time, beginning in the fourth quarter of 2019, the company said. (submitted by whiteknave and Unrulycow)
Expect a lull in Vandenberg launches in 2019. A reader reports that Col. Michael Hough, Commander of Vandenberg Air Force Base’s 30th Space Wing, spoke at a California Central Coast Civic event earlier this month and predicted first a decrease followed by an increase in launches from Vandenberg’s Western Range this year. At present, Hough said, just one launch is squarely on the calendar for 2019. (That would be SpaceX’s May 16 launch of the Radarsat Constellation Mission).
Busier times ahead … There are other possible missions as well (another Falcon 9 carrying the SAOCOM 1B satellite is on the manifest for 2019, but apparently it will slip). Firefly has also indicated its desire to launch its Alpha rocket from Vandenberg late this year. Despite the lull in 2019, Hough expected busier days ahead and said the California-based launch site is preparing for a slew of commercial tenants, including Firefly Aerospace, Vector, Northrop Grumman, Relativity Space, Rocket Lab, and Blue Origin. (Submitted by SLC Kicks)
Starliner flight delayed until later this summer. It appears likely that Boeing’s first flight of the Starliner capsule (which would be on an Atlas V rocket) will not take place until August. This newsletter’s author shared as much on Twitter last week, and now Reuters is hearing the same thing. We reached out to Boeing’s public relations department earlier this week for confirmation but have not heard anything official back yet.
This was coming … The delays are no surprise, as they’ve been rumored for some time. Boeing has yet to complete a pad abort test, which originally was scheduled for last June. If there’s one bright spot for Boeing, it’s that we’re told the company is trying to get Starliner into a configuration that is very close to the final design for a crewed mission so as to minimize the time between flight tests.
Mars Hope Mission on track for 2020 launch. That’s according to NASA’s science chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, who spoke with the media on Wednesday from the sidelines of the Global Space Congress in Abu Dhabi. “I believe there’s a really good chance that the UAE will make it. Everything I hear from our US partners and from partners and colleagues here is that this mission is on track for 2020,” Zurbuchen said, according to Gulf News.
T-16 months … NASA is providing technical support for the mission and will make its deep-space network available for communications. This is the first Arab mission to Mars, and the satellite will study the planet’s thin atmosphere after launching on a Japanese HII-A rocket built by Mitsubishi. The launch date is currently set for July 2020.
SpaceX scraps expensive carbon fiber tooling. SpaceX appears to have permanently scrapped both its Port of Los Angeles-based Starship and Super Heavy development tent, as well as the custom-built tooling meant to support the fabrication of carbon composite spaceships and boosters. These toolings may have been worth tens of millions of dollars, Teslarati reports.
All in on stainless steel … The company had only accepted delivery of the toolings from Ascent Aerospace a year ago. More recently, Elon Musk has praised the thermal properties of stainless steel for his reusable rocket and spaceship. It remains to be seen whether decision to pursue a stainless steel design in place of carbon fiber was a very expensive mistake, a stroke of genius, or something in the middle. It appears at this point there is no going back.
Air Force to soon take bids on mid-2020s launch. Before the end of March, the US Air Force may issue an opportunity for rocket companies to bid on contracts for about 25 launches between 2022 and 2026. The “request for proposals” is filled with intrigue—and will have major implications for all of the big US rocket companies, Ars reports.
Incumbents favored … As part of this competition, the Air Force will choose only two companies to meet its launch needs from 2022 to 2026, with one provider winning 60 percent of the contracts and the other taking 40 percent. There is no provision to on-ramp other companies during the time frame. This sets up a rather frantic competition between the incumbents, ULA and SpaceX alongside newcomers Blue Origin (with its New Glenn booster) and Northrop Grumman (with its Omega rocket). Moreover, the timing appears to prejudice the competition in favor of the incumbents, which already have existing launch systems the government can assess.
Blue Origin studying re-purposed upper stages. Blue Origin has studied re-purposing upper stages of its future New Glenn launch vehicle to serve as habitats or for other applications as part of a series of NASA-funded commercialization studies, SpaceNews reports. The study was part of a series of study contracts awarded by NASA last August to assess future concepts to support commercial human spaceflight in low Earth orbit.
First, you gotta fly … Blue Origin was one of 13 companies, ranging from aerospace firms to consultancies, that received NASA contracts for LEO commercialization studies. The contracts had a total value of $11 million, with no individual award larger than $1 million. So far, the space agency hasn’t released the results of those studies or even an executive summary. (We’d like to see them, for sure). In any case, Blue Origin knows that it has to get New Glenn flying before it worries about what to do with upper stages. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Upcoming Falcon Heavy launch critical for reuse certification. SpaceX’s next launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket may come as soon as the April 7 to April 10 period, and this mission to loft the Arabsat communications satellite will use new hardware. But if that flight is successful, the side boosters will be reused on the next Falcon Heavy flight later this summer, and the Air Force will be watching, Spaceflight Now reports.
Eyeing reusability … The Air Force has already certified the Falcon Heavy for national security launches, but it has yet to allow its payloads to fly on used boosters. “This provides an early opportunity for the Air Force to understand the process for using previously flown hardware with the goal to open future EELV missions to reusable launch vehicles,” an Air Force official told the publication. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
March 22: Vega | PRISMA satellite | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:50 UTC
March 24: Electron | DARPA R3D2 mission | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 22:30 UTC
March 25: OS-M1 | OneSpace first orbital test flight | Jiuquan, China | TBD