Rocket Report: Virgin Galactic delayed again, June targeted for next SLS test

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Tory Bruno shared an image of a brightly painted Vulcan rocket first stage tank this week on Twitter.
Enlarge / Tory Bruno shared an image of a brightly painted Vulcan rocket first stage tank this week on Twitter.
Tory Bruno

Welcome to Edition 4.42 of the Rocket Report! I am sorry to say there will be no Rocket Report next week as I will be traveling to Washington, DC, to participate in the Ars Frontiers conference on Thursday. I’ll be speaking with former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver about commercial spaceflight and to an esteemed panel about the problem of space debris.

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.

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Rocket Lab grabs a booster from the sky. For the first time on Monday evening, Rocket Lab attempted to catch the falling first stage of its Electron booster with a helicopter. And briefly, it succeeded with this mid-air recovery, Ars reports. As the rocket descended beneath its main parachute at about 10 meters per second, a drogue chute trailed behind with a 50-meter line. A Sikorsky S-92 helicopter tracked this descending rocket, and it, too, had a 50-meter line with a hook on the end of it.

Sounds like an easy fix … “It’s kind of like Ghostbusters in some way,” said Peter Beck, founder and chief executive of Rocket Lab, in a call with reporters on Monday night. “You want those two streams to cross. Those two lines cross, and slide up one another, and then there’s a grapple and capture.” That’s exactly what happened on Monday before the pilots of the helicopter felt that the load induced on the vehicle was outside of what had been predicted in simulations. So they jettisoned the rocket, where it was recovered at sea. Beck said, with real data in hand, solving this problem for the next Electron recovery attempt should be “trivial.” (submitted by platykurtic, Ken the Bin, and EllPeaTea)

Angara 1.2 successfully takes flight. Last Friday Russia’s Angara 1.2 rocket launched a payload for the Russian Aerospace Forces in its operational flight. Previously, the Angara rocket has made one suborbital test flight to verify that all systems worked, as well as three test flights of the A5 variant to prove its ability to launch payloads to a geostationary orbit, NASASpaceflight.com reports. The mission was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

Little and big versions … While the Angara 1.2 can only launch 3,800 kg to low Earth orbit, the more capable version, the Angara A5, has flown the majority of the Angara missions to date. Angara A5 uses four strap-on URM-1s, a larger second stage, and can opt to use a third stage based on the requirements of the mission. This is the first of three planned Angara launches in 2022, with one more launch planned for Roscosmos, the Russian state space agency, and one commercial flight for South Korea. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

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Virgin Galactic delays start of commercial service. In its first-quarter 2022 financial results released Thursday, Virgin Galactic said it now plans to resume flights of its VSS Unity spacecraft in the fourth quarter of 2022, and start commercial service during the first quarter of 2023. Previously the company had been planning to start commercial flights before the end of this year. “Against a backdrop of escalating supply chain and labor constraints, our teams are containing the majority of these issues to minimize impact on schedules,” Vigin Galatic CEO Michael Colglazier said.

It’s not a question of demand … Virgin Galactic had a net loss of $93 million during the first quarter of this year but said demand for its services was strong, and that it had “cash equivalents, restricted cash and marketable securities of $1.22 billion” on hand. The issue for Virgin Galactic is not demand, the issue is whether it can meet that demand with a vehicle that to date has had a very low flight rate compared to the company’s projections. Now it will be at least another year before we begin to get an answer to that question.

Canadian spaceport names a launch tenant. A spaceport under development in Nova Scotia, Canada, this week named the first launch company that will use the facility. Reaction Dynamics, which is based in Quebec, plans to launch its small hybrid-fueled rocket as early as 2024, the Toronto Star reports. “Canada’s first launch is going to include a Canadian launch site, a Canadian launch vehicle—Reaction Dynamics’—and Canadian satellites,” said spaceport developer Stephen Matier of Maritime Launch Services.

There are a few caveats … I should probably note that the Nova Scotia spaceport has not actually been built yet, and there is some local opposition to the project. Also, this is the first time I’ve heard of Reaction Dynamics. And with absolutely no disrespect intended, the founder of the company, Bachar Elzein, appears to have started the company after working as a research assistant at Polytechnique Montréal. And according to his LinkedIn page, the company’s “propulsion test lead” seems to have worked as a ski instructor for two years before joining the company. So 2024? Maybe not. (submitted by JoeySIV-B)

France doubtful about smallsat launcher viability. The French space agency, CNES, says it will be difficult for Europe to support even one or two small launch vehicles, according to the Space Intel Report ($). This is perhaps not surprising, as the French government has typically viewed commercial launch startups as competitors to Arianespace and sought to downplay their potential. Italy, where Vega-manufacturer Avio is based, has had a similar attitude.

Politically, it’s a fine line … The rise of small-launch companies in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Spain has prompted something of a schism in European policy toward rockets. There is pressure on European commissioners to steer launch contracts to Arianespace from some countries and to the emerging commercial space industry from others. The European Space Agency has sought to mediate while recognizing the importance of the commercial space industry to NASA.

Vaya Space names new CEO. The Florida-based launch company announced this week that it has hired “well-known multinational business leader” Brent David Willis as chief executive officer, replacing CEO Grant Begley. Vaya Space is developing a small hybrid launch vehicle named “Dauntless,” which the company says will be launching in 2023. It is advertised as having a capacity of up to 1 metric ton to low Earth orbit.

Some florid language from a Florida company … I read a lot of press releases from launch companies, but I have to say some of the language in the Willis announcement was a little bit over the top. It touts Vaya Space as a “leader in sustainable space access,” which I suppose is because the company’s rocket engine is fueled by recycled plastic. But I think, to be a leader in space access, you probably have to demonstrate that you have accessed space. (submitted by SK)

Korean firm will launch from Brazil. A South Korean launch startup, Innospace, says it has signed a deal to launch from the Alcântara launch site in northern Brazil. Innospace will make a test launch of a single-stage, suborbital rocket in the fourth quarter of this year, Payload reports. This HANBIT TLV rocket is intended to validate the first stage of the HANBIT Nano, Innospace’s forthcoming small launcher with 50 kg of payload capacity.

If you build it, they will come? … Brazil has been attempting to bring commercial companies to Alcântara for several years, upgrading infrastructure around the facility and boasting of the location just 2 degrees south of the equator. Last April, Virgin Orbit announced that it would launch from Alcântara. In addition, companies such as Hyperion, Orion AST, and C6 Launch are negotiating agreements with Brazilian authorities. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Isar Aerospace to launch Norwegian satellites. The Norwegian technology company Kongsberg plans to launch three satellites to monitor shipping on the northern seas, the NRK broadcasting company reports. Kongsberg plans to be the first commercial customer to launch from the Andøya Space Center in northern Norway. The launches will be carried out by German launch startup Isar Aerospace.

Test launch later this year … Kongsberg is the largest space technology company in the Nordic region and owns 10 percent of the Andøya Space Center, which offers a good location from which to launch satellites into polar orbit. According to the report, Isar is still planning a test launch of its Spectrum rocket later this year, with the first Kongsberg satellites to possibly reach orbit next year. (submitted by SvenErik1968)

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SpaceX continues to make Falcon 9 efficiency gains. SpaceX launched its first Falcon 9 rocket on June 4, 2010, nearly a dozen years ago. During those first years, the company grappled with a whole host of challenges, from things as seemingly simple as trying to transport the rocket over land instead of by sea or air to more demanding tasks such as producing enough Merlin engines. The company’s first 50 flights took nearly eight years to complete, for a cadence of one mission every 56.6 days, Ars reports.

Learning from those early lessons … During its next 50 launches, the company began to fly the rocket more frequently, averaging a launch every 19.4 days. And of these 50 launches, 35 were conducted with reused first stages. Last month, SpaceX launched its 150th Falcon 9 rocket. The cadence during this period increased to launching a booster on average every 10.1 days. Remarkably, of the company’s last 50 rocket launches, 47 have used a previously flown first-stage booster.

First Ariane 5 launch of 2022 set for June. Arianespace has announced that the Ariane 5 rocket will make its first flight of the year on June 22. Flying on board the rocket will be Malaysian satellite operator Measat’s Measat-3d and state-funded NewSpace India Limited’s GSAT-24, Space News reports. Both are communications satellites bound for geostationary orbit.

European launch for an Indian satellite? … It’s interesting that the Indian communications satellite, GSAT-24, will not be flying aboard the country’s GSLV Mark III vehicle. That could be due to the fact that the large Indian rocket has had upper-stage issues or lacks an available core for the mission. It may also be because GSAT-24 has a mass of 4 tons, which is at the upper limit of what the GSLV Mark III is advertised to lift to geostationary orbit. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Satellogic signs deal with SpaceX. Earth-imaging company Satellogic announced Wednesday that it has signed a contract with SpaceX to launch 68 more satellites as it continues to build out its constellation, Space News reports. The multiple launch agreement reserves capacity for an unspecified number of future SpaceX launches. The companies did not disclose the terms, but a spokesperson for Satellogic said the agreement covers payloads on at least four launches starting in early 2023.

A steady stream of launches … Satellogic announced a similar agreement with SpaceX in January 2021 covering four rideshare launches. Satellogic flew four satellites on the Transporter-2 rideshare mission in June 2021 and five on the Transporter-4 mission that launched April 1. “Today’s announcement ensures that we will be able to continue to launch our satellites as they are produced and that we remain on track to collect every square meter of the Earth’s surface every week in 2023,” Emiliano Kargieman, chief executive and co-founder of Satellogic, said. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Tfargo04)

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SpaceX engineer says NASA should plan for Starship capabilities. As part of its Artemis program to return humans to the Moon this decade, NASA has a minimum requirement that its “human landing system” must be able to deliver 865 kg to the lunar surface. This is based on the mass of two crew members and their equipment needed for a short stay. However, in selecting SpaceX’s Starship vehicle to serve as its human lander, NASA has chosen a system with a lot more capability. Starship will, in fact, be able to deliver 100 metric tons to the surface of the Moon—more than 100 times NASA’s baseline goal, Ars reports.

That’s a lot of elephants … Aarti Matthews, Starship Human Landing System program manager for SpaceX, spoke at a conference last week where she discussed how NASA might take advantage of this capability beyond the Artemis Program. “If you, as an engineer, are developing an in situ resource utilization system, what does your system look like when you have no mass constraint?” she said. “What about when you have no volume constraint? That would be the exciting thing that I would like to hear from NASA engineers, what they can do with this capability.”

NASA targets June for next SLS test. In a call with reporters on Thursday NASA’s chief of human exploration, Jim Free, said the agency is making progress to ready the Space Launch System rocket for its next wet dress test. Among the fixes made in recent weeks has been the replacement of a “check valve” in the rocket’s upper stage, which had been forced open by a small piece of rubber. How that piece of debris got into the valve remains under investigation.

Work remains … If all goes well the agency plans to roll the rocket back to the launch pad by the end of May. It will target “early or mid” June for the next attempt to complete a fueling and countdown test of the rocket, Orion spacecraft, and ground systems. This will be the fourth attempt, and Free acknowledged that it may not be the last if more problems arise. After this test, NASA still needs to roll the rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building to arm the flight termination system, before, finally, the rocket can be launched. NASA is currently looking at launching no earlier than August, but it must work around the planned liftoff of its Psyche asteroid mission on a Falcon Heavy.

Next three launches

May 6: Falcon 9 | Starlink 4-17 | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 09:42

May 9: Long March 7 | Tianzhou 4 resupply ship | Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China| 18:15

May 10: Falcon 9 | Starlink 4-13 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, California | TBD

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