– Sep 11, 2020 12:01 pm UTC
Welcome to Edition 3.15 of the Rocket Report! The realm of small lift overflows with news in this edition. And as usual, our report covers news from around the world, spanning this week from Germany, to China, to India, to South America. Ours is a global enterprise.
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.
Rocket Lab launches a Photon satellite. The launch company said it has sent its first in-house-designed and -built operational satellite into orbit. “First Light” was deployed to orbit on Rocket Lab’s 14th Electron mission, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical,” which lifted off from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand on August 31. The mission’s primary customer was a 100kg microsatellite for Capella Space.
Not just a rocket company anymore … Photon’s launch cements the company’s “evolution from a launch provider to an end-to-end space solutions company that offers turnkey satellites and spacecraft components, launch, and on-orbit,” a news release said. Photon is designed to provide in-space services such as power and propulsion to satellites, even allowing for deep-space missions to the Moon and Venus. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Virgin Galactic sets date for next test flight. Virgin Galactic plans to conduct its next crewed spaceflight test on October 22, according to documents the company filed with the Federal Communications Commission, CNBC reports. This flight will likely be the first of two that the space tourism company has planned to complete testing of its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft system, and it should have just two test pilots on board.
Commercial service, finally, next year? … Virgin Galactic said last month that the second test spaceflight, for which no date has yet been set, will have four “mission specialists” inside the cabin. If both test flights succeed, Virgin Galactic expects to fly founder Sir Richard Branson in the first quarter of 2021. This milestone flight would mark the beginning of the company’s commercial tourism service. (submitted by Ken the Bin, JohnCarter17, and DanNeely)
LandSpace raises $175 million. Chinese launch firm LandSpace has raised $175 million in series C+ round funding for development of its Zhuque-2 series of methane/liquid-oxygen launch vehicles, SpaceNews reports. The funding comes two weeks after Chinese competitor launch firm iSpace secured $173 million in series B funding. Both are impressive cash hauls that signal serious intent.
A powerful small rocket … LandSpace is working toward an inaugural launch of the Zhuque-2 in June 2021. The 49.5-meter-tall, two-stage Zhuque-2 will be capable of delivering 4,000kg to a 200km low-Earth orbit or 2,000 kilograms to 500kg Sun-synchronous orbit, according to LandSpace. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
NASA sounding rocket launches DUST-2 mission. A two-stage Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket launched on Tuesday from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico carrying the DUST-2 science mission. NASA said the rocket launched the payload to an apogee of approximately 346km before descending back to Earth by parachute.
Cheap access to microgravity … DUST-2’s goal is to study how individual atoms, shed by dying stars and supernovae, stick together. When they do, the atoms form dust grains—some of the basic building blocks of our universe. “What we’re trying to do is duplicate what happens in at least two astrophysical environments,” said principal investigator Joe Nuth, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Blue Origin vets start several new companies. Blue Origin turned 20 years old this week, and although the privately held company hasn’t yet put people into space or put a rocket into orbit, it has spawned a new generation of space startups, Cosmic Log reports. Relativity Space is fairly well known, but more companies are currently emerging from semi-stealth mode.
Launch and in-space propulsion … One of them, Stoke Space Technologies, appears to be working on technology to enable the reuse of upper stages. Reach Space Technologies seems to be a propulsion company. And Starfish Space says it is working on an “on-demand, in-space transportation service.” We’ll add all of them to our list of companies to track! (submitted by Ken the Bin and BH)
Brazil launch site evaluating proposals. The Brazilian Space Agency says it has begun evaluating 11 proposals from companies interested in launching rockets from the Alcântara Space Center, located on the country’s northern Atlantic coast. The site, at just 2 degrees south of the equator, offers prime territory from which to launch equatorial missions.
Turning to commercial use … Following an initial analysis, the companies will have until October 30, to finalize their proposals, Parabolic Arc reports. It is not clear how many companies the Brazilian spaceport will accept, but it seems likely to prioritize companies with mature, or nearly mature, rocket designs. The spaceport has been used, until now, primarily for military launches. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Australian rocket firm signs Aussie payload. Gilmour Space Technologies says it has signed an Australian customer for the first launch of its Eris rocket, no earlier than 2022. Space Machines Company has contracted to launch a 35kg spacecraft to orbit. “This could well be the first Australian payload to be launched to orbit on an Australian rocket, from an Australian launch site,” said Adam Gilmour, co-founder and CEO of Gilmour Space.
Talking a big game by the middle of the decade … The first Eris rockets are advertised as having the capacity to launch payloads up to 305kg into low-Earth orbit and 215kg into 500km Sun-synchronous orbits. The company says its goals are to reach a flight rate of 12 launches a year by 2025 and to help spur a broadening of the Aussie space industry. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)
Germany considers North Sea launch facility. The German government is studying a proposal from German industry to create a mobile launch pad for satellites in the North Sea. Under the plan, small satellites weighing up to one tonne would be launched with German-built rockets. The Federation of German Industries is lobbying for the project, the BBC reports.
A good spot for polar launches … The pad would be a public-private partnership. German media quote the BDI proposal as saying, “a German launchpad is technically feasible and makes strategic and economic sense.” Among the companies that could potentially launch from the platform is Isar Aerospace. (submitted by cpushack, Ken the Bin, and JohnCarter17)
China launches a secretive spaceplane. Following months of low-key preparations at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, China launched an experimental reusable spacecraft on Friday, SpaceNews reports. A Long March 2F launch vehicle delivered the spacecraft into orbit following launch at an unspecified time.
Maybe an X-37B clone? … “After a period of in-orbit operation, the spacecraft will return to the scheduled landing site in China. It will test reusable technologies during its flight, providing technological support for the peaceful use of space,” the Xinhua report stated following the launch. The plane landed after about two days in space. This Twitter thread by NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel provides more interesting details about where the mission landed. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Chandrayaan-3 Moon mission may launch next year. India’s “Chandrayaan-3” lunar mission is likely to be launched in the first quarter of 2021, DNA India reports. After the Chandrayaan-2 mission was lost last September, the Indian space agency said it would try again to make a soft landing on the Moon’s surface.
Enter Chandrayaan-3 … Because the orbiter launched with the Chandrayaan-2 mission remains functional, this follow-up launch will only carry a lander. It is expected to launch on a GSLV Mark III rocket from India’s Satish Dhawan Space Center, and India will attempt to become just the fourth country to make a soft landing on the Moon. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
China still has a toxic rocket problem. On Monday, a Long March 4B rocket launched from China’s Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center carrying a remote-sensing satellite. This 50-year-old spaceport is located in north-central China, about 500km to the southwest of Beijing. As often happens with the first stages of Chinese rockets launching from the inland Taiyuan facility, the spent Long March 4B booster fell downstream of the spaceport. In this case, it landed near a school and created a predictably large cloud of toxic gas.
Living the hydrazine dream (or nightmare) … The use of hydrazine as a fuel for launch vehicles has been phased out for most of the world, Ars reports. The last major US rocket to use hydrazine was United Launch Alliance’s Delta II rocket, which used the toxic fuel in its second stage. Yet the majority of China’s launch fleet is powered by hydrazine fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. This includes its human-rated Long March 2F rocket as well as the widely used Long March 4 family.
Delta IV Heavy launch reset for September 18. United Launch Alliance teams have determined the cause behind a Delta IV Heavy rocket’s dramatic, last-second abort late last month, Florida Today reports. This sets the stage for another attempt no earlier than a week from Friday, and an exact time has not been released. This will be the third attempt to launch the NROL-44 classified mission.
Rip in the regulator … On August 29, a torn diaphragm in one of three pressure regulators at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 37 caused the computer-controlled scrub just three seconds before liftoff, ULA CEO Tory Bruno said via Twitter on Wednesday. The engines briefly lit on fire, but the rocket remained firmly on the pad. (submitted by BH and JohnCarter17)
Military takes wait-and-see approach to super-heavy lift. The US military is happy with the current offerings from United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, but it is keeping an eye on future super-heavy rockets under development. That’s according to comments made this week by Brig. Gen. D. Jason Cothern, who oversees launch services procurement for the US Space Force (SpaceNews reported on his comments).
If you build it, will they come? … “We believe the current providers address the plans we have today for the near future.” That’s what Gen. Cothern said in response to a viewer’s question on the potential military value of super-heavy-lift vehicles like Starship and New Glenn, which are being developed to fly to the Moon and beyond. As to what might be required in the next generation of launch vehicles, “as the lead acquirers for military space, it’s a question that’s dear to us,” Cothern said. (submitted by JohnCarter17 and platykurtic)
SpaceX may roll a test tank to pad this week. The next tests at SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility are likely to involve a test tank rather than a full-scale Starship prototype, NASASpaceflight.com reports. This “SN7.1” model is a larger test tank than its predecessor, SN 7, and made from 304L-series stainless steel (or at least a variant of that alloy). It is likely to be pushed to the bursting point so that SpaceX engineers can understand its limits.
Prepping for another pop … While 304L may not be the “final” alloy SpaceX is hoping to utilize on Starships and Super Heavies in the longer-term future, all previous Starships have been made from the 301-series alloy. Future versions, beginning with SN8, will use the new alloy. With two launch mounts available, it remains to be seen if SN7.1 will take up residence on Starship’s regular mount or the second test mount. (submitted by platykurtic)
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World news – GB – Rocket Report: Delta IV Heavy gets a new date, SpaceX to destroy test tank