Welcome to Edition 1.48 of the Rocket Report! Mostly good news this week, with launch-related successes in Japan, the United States, and New Zealand. We also have an interesting article written by a friend of Vice President Mike Pence, who says NASA should use Falcon Heavy rockets for the lunar return.
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.
Japanese start-up launches suborbital rocket. Interstellar Technologies launched its suborbital Momo-3 booster to an altitude of 114km on Saturday, The Japan Times reports. The booster fell into the Pacific Ocean 10 minutes after the launch. “It was a complete success. We’ll work to achieve stable launches and mass-produce (rockets) in quick cycles,” company founder Takafumi Horie told the publication.
A small team … This was the company’s third launch attempt after previous failures in 2017 and 2018. Interstellar aspires to develop a low-cost rocket to launch commercial satellites into space and, according to one source, has just 22 employees. A company must have no small amount of dedication to reach space with such a small core group, and we’re eager to see what comes next after its initial taste of success.
Rocket Lab flies sixth mission. On Sunday, an Electron launch rocket successfully launched the STP-27RD mission. The payload entailed three research and development satellites for the US Department of Defense Space Test Program that will demonstrate advanced space technologies, including a satellite to evaluate new ways of tracking space debris. The company has now deployed 28 satellites to date.
Rolling along now … “It’s a testament to our team and mission partners that Electron has placed another three satellites in orbit, just weeks after our flawless mission for DARPA,” said Rocket Lab Founder and CEO Peter Beck. It’s true. The company is on a roll, and aims to launch every two weeks by the end of the year. (We wouldn’t bet against that). Rocket Lab’s first launch from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia could also come before the end of 2019. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Relativity signs rideshare deal with Spaceflight. The rocket company Relativity announced Monday that it has signed an agreement with Spaceflight for a series of smallsat rideshare launches, beginning as early as the third quarter of 2021. The option includes an unspecified number of additional launches of Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket, SpaceNews reports.
A better number … Spaceflight officials said the ability to launch 15 or 20 customers on a Terran 1 rocket was about the right number, as it found the greater number of satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket launch in 2018 to be somewhat difficult to manage. “Getting a smaller number of payloads makes sense because you don’t have as much churn,” Spaceflight CEO Curt Blake told the publication. “If you’re talking 15 customers, 20 customers, that’s a lot easier.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Another Chinese company will try for orbit. After failed attempts last October (by LandSpace) and this March (by OneSpace), yet another Chinese company will seek to become the first one to put a satellite into orbit. The Beijing-based iSpace will attempt a June launch of an unnamed payload using its Hyperbola-1, four-stage rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, SpaceNews reports.
Bigger rocket coming … iSpace is one of the more prominent of the Chinese launch firms on the country’s startup scene, having secured more than $100 million in series A funding from Matrix Partners China, CDH Investments, tech giant Baidu, and others. Its larger rocket, the Hyperbola-2 booster, is expected to be capable of lifting 1,900 kg to LEO and will make its first flight after 2020, the company said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
SpaceX to launch dozens of Starlink satellites. SpaceX’s first launch to carry a large number of Starlink broadband Internet satellites is scheduled for May 15, according to the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell. This launch will carry “dozens of satellites,” adding more prototypes to the two currently in low Earth orbit, SpaceNews reports.
More launches coming … “This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together,” Shotwell said at the Satellite 2019 conference. “We start launching satellites for actual service later this year.” After the May launch, SpaceX anticipates launching two to six more times for its Starlink broadband constellation. When those launches occur will depend upon the performance of the first batch of satellites in orbit. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)
Production of Ariane 6 rockets begins. Arianespace said this week that it has signed an order with Ariane Group to begin manufacturing 14 Ariane 6 rockets, the first such batch that will be mass produced. These rockets, which will be flown between 2021 and 2023, will be built with contributions from 13 different European countries.
Final Ariane 5 rockets coming … Arianespace continues to work toward a 2020 launch date for the first flight of the Ariane 6 rocket, which seeks to provide a similar service as the Ariane 5 booster at a lower cost. Speaking of that venerable rocket, Arianespace said it will also produce a final batch of eight Ariane 5 rockets, which will be phased out as the Ariane 6 proves itself. (submitted by Ken the Bin and CK)
NASA considering using same Falcon 9 three times. Early Friday morning, SpaceX scrubbed the launch of a supply mission to the International Space Station. The stated reason was not a problem with the rocket but with the recovery drone ship. After the fact, NASA’s Kenny Todd said the agency was OK with the delay because of a back-up launch window the next day.
Agency wanted that rocket back … “In the end, SpaceX had to make the call,” Todd said. “But I think one of our senior engineers who’s watched an incredible number of these missions said, ‘You know, sometimes the universe is talking to you, and sometimes you need to listen to it.’ And the reality is, when we went through all of that yesterday it seemed like the universe was talking to us. So in the end, I thought it was an OK trade.” NASA also had a vested interest, as it planned to use this rocket for the next ISS supply mission (CRS-18) and possibly CRS-19 as well, Todd said. This would be the first time NASA has agreed to use the same Falcon 9 three times.
SpaceX getting better at stowing Falcon 9 legs. In the past, it has taken as much as several days for SpaceX employees to retract the landing legs on its Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 booster. But as Teslarati reports, after the CRS-17 resupply mission to the International Space Station launched on Saturday, the company was able to retract the four legs in a matter of an hour or two after a droneship brought the rocket into port.
These details matter … As the publication notes, this was not so much an issue of cost, but time. The original retraction method added days to the time needed to turn around a Falcon 9 rocket for another flight. If the company is to ever reach Elon Musk’s goal of re-flying a Falcon 9 rocket within 24 hours, details like this matter. So it’s nice to see that SpaceX continues to strive to work through every issue confronting rapid reusability. (submitted by Max Q and Ken the Bin)
Air Force solicits bids for mid-2020 launches. After considerable public debate, the US Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center has released the final solicitation for companies to bid on launch contracts for the period of 2022-2026. Proposals are due August 1, and the Air Force intends to select just two companies, SpaceNews reports. “We must move forward now. We are answering Congress’ 2014 directive to transition off the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a statement. “The industrial base is ready.”
An ongoing battle … The field of competitors is expected to include current national security launch providers United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, as well as new entrants Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. In recent months, each of these companies has waged, to a greater or lesser extent, a public relations and lobbying battle to better position itself in the competition, which will be critical for each of their business models during the coming decade. The battle is likely to continue as the US Congress sets the fiscal year 2020 budget for the Air Force in the coming months.
Moon can be reached on the cheap, Indiana pol says. Todd Rokita is a former four-term Congressman from Indiana and friend of Vice President Mike Pence. Because the vice president wants to land humans on the Moon by 2024, we were taken aback when Rokita co-authored a surprisingly radical article in The Space Review titled “Going to the Moon within five years and on the cheap: yes, it is possible.”
Doubling down on reusability … What allows the Moon program to be done at a lower cost? Rokita writes: “It’s the new availability of reusable rockets costing about five times less, like the whole world witnessed again on April 11 with the successful return of the three Falcon Heavy booster cores. This technology will allow for payloads not before even considered due to their very high costs. It has revolutionized our ability to go to Moon, Mars, and beyond.” It is not clear whether Rokita is trying to send a message to Pence or if Pence is trying to send a message to industry through the former congressman. We’re intrigued, regardless. (submitted by DR)
Next three launches
May 16: Falcon 9 | Starlink mission | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 02:30 UTC
May 21: Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle | RISAT-2B | Sriharikota, India | 23:30 UTC
May 27: Soyuz 2.1b | Glonass-M navigation satellite | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | TBD