Welcome to Edition 1.02 of the Rocket Report! This collaborative effort with readers of Ars Technica seeks to diversify our coverage of the blossoming launch industry. The Rocket Report publishes as a newsletter on Thursday and on this website every Friday morning.
We welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe in the box below. 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.
Rocket Lab sets a date for its third Electron launch. After a delay from April, Rocket Lab has set a new 14-day launch window that will open from June 23 to July 6. The company says the original launch window was moved from April after unusual behavior was identified in a motor controller during a wet dress rehearsal. The team used the additional time to review data, identify the cause of the issue, and fix it. This extra time also allowed Rocket Lab to add additional payload to its launch vehicle, including a “drag sail” that could be attached to small satellites and deployed once they reached the end of their useful life, Stuff reports.
It’s business time… Electron has flown twice in a year. After this flight, the company says it will begin true commercial operations by moving into a monthly launch cadence. That would be a significant achievement after the first three flights had six-month gaps between them. (submitted by hugo84)
SpaceShipTwo edges closer to space. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane performed a successful test flight May 29, reaching a top speed of Mach 1.9 and altitude of 34,900 meters. According to Space News, these were both records for the SpaceShipTwo test flight program. Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, says he expects to become an astronaut during the next 12 months.
Billionaire race to suborbital space… Branson’s comments set up an interesting battle between him and Jeff Bezos, who also will probably fly on one of the first human flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard system.
Stratolaunch plane “very close” to first flight. In an interview with Politico, Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd said the company plans the first flight of the world’s largest airplane this summer. “In order to hit first flight, there are certain taxi tests that you need to go through and tests leading up to first flight. We had scheduled five taxi tests leading up to first flight. We’ve done two of them. We have three more to do. So we’re not ready to talk about exactly when we’re going to do first flight, but it’s very soon; it’s later this year, this summer,” he said.
Rocket wanted... The key question remains what the Stratolaunch plane will one day serve as a platform for launching into space. The Pegasus rocket it is contracted for weighs just 50,000 pounds. Floyd said the plane can carry and launch a rocket 11 times as heavy as that.
A rocket that eats itself. First came bio-engineering… and now bio-rocketry? Engineers in Scotland and Ukraine are working on a small “autophage” rocket that consumes itself during ascent. The autophage engine consumes a propellant rod that has solid fuel on the outside and oxidizer on the inside, according to PhysOrg. The researchers say such a rocket could be good for launching CubeSats.
Launch lunch… This is actually kind of a brilliant concept to shed large quantities of mass on the way to orbit and deal with the problem of an empty fuel tank. Whether it’s practical, who knows. At present, the engineers are working with an engine prototype in the lab now and have no direct path to building a rocket around it. (submitted by Byron Hood, danneely, and VonSagan)
Kuwait rocket group aspires to launch. The Kuwait Rocket Propulsion Group is a made up of young Kuwaiti researchers focused on the design, manufacture, testing, and launch of rockets in Kuwait. They seek to launch the first Arabian suborbital liquid bipropellant rocket up to 100km. Upon reaching apogee, they intend to deploy Kuwait’s flag in space and photograph it with Earth in the background. So far, the group has done some cold-flow tests.
Reality check … OK, so this group is still pretty far from space. But it’s nice to see that the desire to reach space and do cool things there crosses all cultural and political borders. Good luck! (submitted by Naser Ashknani)
The Block 5 rocket still needs one more key upgrade. Quartz first reported that during its initial flight, the Block 5 booster flown by SpaceX did not use the advanced composite overwrap pressure vessels, or COPVs, that it intends to use for commercial crew flights. This means this flight did not count toward the seven flights NASA has said it wants to see of the new booster before it is safe for crew missions. These COPVs won’t be ready until August.
Not really good… During a call with reporters before the launch, SpaceX head honcho Elon Musk said he believes that the new Falcon 9 met NASA’s stringent criteria for flying humans into space but that he “could be mistaken.” It’s kind of hard to believe that someone as famously detail-oriented as Musk would mistake that, but then again, he does have a lot on his mind.
Soyuz to launch three crew to the ISS. Next Wednesday, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will launch Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos, Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA, and Alexander Gerst of the European Space agency to space. They will take the longer, two-day journey to reach the station rather than the faster six-hour transit.
Epps nixed… This was the mission that NASA bumped astronaut Jeanette Epps from in January. So far, Epps has kept quiet about the incident publicly, hoping to get back into the astronaut rotation.
Italy retains production of Ariane solid rocket boosters. European Space Agency member states have agreed to keep all production of P120 solid rocket boosters in Italy instead of opening a second production line in Germany. Space News reports that Germany will instead produce turbo pumps for the upcoming Ariane 6 rocket and redirect its P120 funds toward technology-maturation work on a carbon fiber upper stage that could give Ariane 6 another 1,000kg of lift capacity.
Rocket politics… We don’t pretend to understand the internal politics of ESA, but we do suspect that these kinds of political decisions result in similar inefficiencies as we see in US government rocket production.
Flight version of BFR engine under development. After winning an award at the International Space Development Conference, SpaceX propulsion leader Tom Mueller said the methane-fueled Raptor engine that will power the Big Falcon Rocket is coming along. GeekWire reports that Mueller told the audience, “I don’t want to say too much. We’re building up the test stand right now. We’ve got the first flight version of that engine in work. We’ve been running the development engine quite a bit. It’s running great.”
The key question… Is the BFR real? Certainly SpaceX acts like it is. But so far, not many policymakers in Washington, DC are taking it seriously. If SpaceX can start to showcase real hardware in action, however, that could change perceptions in terms of funding from NASA and the US military. (submitted by tmckendr)
NASA deep into planning more Block 1 SLS flights. After Congress appropriated money for the construction of a second Mobile Launcher, NASA was freed up to plan more than one flight on the initial Block 1 configuration of the Space Launch System rocket. A new report in NASASpaceFlight.com goes into technical detail about what these additional flights may be like.
The downside… The upside of more Block 1 flights for NASA is that it probably gets astronauts into deep space more quickly. The downside is that it removes the pressure for developing Block 1b and the Exploration Upper Stage and punts those programs into an uncertain future.
Speaking of the second Mobile Launcher. NASA has issued an RFI for “the purposes of identifying potential prime contractors and/or joint ventures to provide services for the design, fabrication, assembly, and test of the Mobile Launcher 2.” This is the larger mobile launcher needed for the Block 1b SLS rocket and its Exploration Upper Stage. This RFI will inform NASA’s request for proposals for the Mobile Launcher that will likely be issued in the coming months.
Five years, $500 million… These are the numbers we’re hearing for total construction time, including the proposal process and the amount that building the second launcher is likely to cost. It’s a nice boon for Kennedy Space Center.
Next three launches
June 4: Falcon 9 FT | SES-12 satellite | Space Launch Complex-40, Cape Canaveral | TBD
June 5: China Long March 2C | Pakistan sensing satellite | Xichang Satellite Launch Center | TBD
June 6: Soyuz FG | ISS crew launch | Baikonur Cosmodrome | 11:12 UTC