Welcome to Edition 3.04 of the Rocket Report! This week we’re looking ahead to an exciting Vega launch on Friday evening (or early Saturday, if you’re in Europe) that will be worth watching if you’re near a computer. This is Vega’s return-to-flight mission, and it’s always fun to watch the small, solid-fueled rocket, well, rocket off the launch pad.
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, signs two more customers. On Saturday, an Electron rocket successfully launched a set of payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and two universities on a mission delayed 2.5 months by the coronavirus pandemic. All five payloads on the rocket for the Don’t Stop Me Now mission were successfully deployed in a “perfect orbit,” SpaceNews reported.
Double the fun … Then, on Thursday, Rocket Lab announced that it had inked two additional launch contracts for the NRO. The missions were awarded through the NRO’s Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket contract, an initiative that enables the agency to explore new opportunities for launching small satellites through a streamlined, commercial approach. The missions are scheduled for launch within weeks of each other in late spring 2021 from two separate pads at Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1. (submitted by JohnCarter17 and Ken the Bin)
Vega booster faces a big test. Nearly a year has gone by since an Italian-made Vega rocket launched a 1.2-ton satellite from French Guiana only to subsequently fail at reaching orbit. Now, the Vega rocket is set for its return-to-flight mission on Friday night at 9:51pm ET (01:51 UTC Saturday). This is an important mission for more than just getting the Vega rocket back on track. It also is the first launch of a rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana since February, after which the facility closed down due to COVID-19 precautions.
Big and small … Additionally with this mission, the small Vega booster seeks to prove its bona fides as a booster capable of flying rideshare missions. On this launch, the rocket will debut the “Small Spacecraft Mission Service” dispenser to deploy payloads of varying sizes into multiple orbits. Vega will launch 53 separate satellites, ranging from 1kg CubeSats up to 500kg mini-satellites, Ars reports.
Astra targeting late July for second attempt. Rocket builder Astra will try again for its first orbital rocket launch in July. The Oakland startup will be navigating the coronavirus-pandemic environment while trying to begin flying satellites to space regularly, CNBC reports. The company suffered a setback in March when a fire broke out as Astra was getting its Rocket 3.0 ready on the launchpad.
Iterating to orbit … The company diagnosed that issue and will ship a new rocket up to Alaska at the end of this month, for a launch window that opens on July 20. Astra is aiming for orbit with this launch, although CEO Chris Kemp explained said he defines success as a stable flight for the first stage. “Our strategy here is to see the first stage perform, and then we have two more flights,” Kemp said. “We still intend to iterate towards orbit.” (submitted by Ken the Bin, JohnCarter17, and platykurtic)
MOMO-5 sounding rocket fails to reach space. On Saturday, Interstellar Technologies’ MOMO-5 rocket launched but suffered a loss of control at around the point it reached max Q, TechCrunch reports. The mission from Hokkaido, Japan, was rescheduled from the end of 2019 and earlier this year due to a number of delays, including COVID-19.
Not a great batting average … Only one of the company’s five MOMO rocket-launch attempts has succeeded in reaching space. The nine-meter rocket is a testbed as part of Interstellar’s plan to design a small, affordable means of delivering small payloads to orbit. Clearly, there is work left to be done. (submitted by tsunam, ABa, JohnCarter17, and DanNeely)
New utility to track Chinese launch industry. If you’re like us, trying to grasp the extent of China’s launch industry can be a little overwhelming. That includes both the government programs as well as a slew of new “private” companies that have licensed government technology. Fortunately, Bryce Space and Technology is here to help.
A lot of rockets … In a new, data-rich graphic, Bryce highlights the location of the country’s four main spaceports, the organization of its launch industry, and the country’s remarkable growth in annual launches. The graphic also provides detailed information on the nearly two dozen rockets that are either currently active or expected to be within the next two years.
Skyrora launches micro-rocket in Scotland. Edinburgh-based Skyrora launched its Skylark Nano rocket from the Fethaland peninsula in the Shetland Islands last week. The 2-meter-long rocket reached an altitude of 6.1km, the BBC reported. The Shetland site is one of three possible launch sites in Scotland and may offer a good location for polar launches.
About those wind profiles … Skyrora said the test launch was designed to gather data for future launches. “The launch signifies a vital step towards Skyrora’s ambitions. We’re ecstatic and truly proud,” said Robin Hague, the test director. The launch was intended to “understand the local launch conditions, learning more about the wind profiles in Shetland, is critical.” (submtited by ABa, dbayly, and NotYourUsername)
NASA confident in Mars 2020 launch. Space agency officials say they’re confident that the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission will launch this summer amid the special measures the agency had to take to keep the mission on track during the coronavirus pandemic. The Mars rover is scheduled to launch on an Atlas V rocket between July 20 and August 11, SpaceNews reports.
A costly delay … The spacecraft will soon be encapsulated inside the rocket’s payload fairing, then transported to the Atlas 5 Vertical Integration Facility to be installed on top of the rocket. If Mars 2020 were to unexpectedly miss its launch window, it would have to wait until the next Mars launch window opens in 26 months, at a cost of $500 million. (submitted by platykurtic)
Spaceflight signs Falcon 9 rideshare deal. Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it has signed an agreement to secure spots for secondary payloads on several of SpaceX’s rockets due for launch through the end of 2021, Geek Wire reports. It appears as though a majority of the missions will be booked as secondary payloads on SpaceX’s Starlink launches.
First mission up soon … Spaceflight’s next rideshare mission with SpaceX is scheduled to launch as early as next week. The Falcon 9 rocket is due to send two of BlackSky’s Earth-observation satellites into orbit along with the Starlink-9 mission. “SpaceX’s consistent launch schedule, coupled with our deep expertise in mission management and integration services, offers rideshare options with greater reliability,” said Curt Blake, president and CEO of Spaceflight. (submitted by Fenris_uy, Ken the Bin, and JohnCarter17)
SpaceX to invest in McGregor test site. In recent months, SpaceX’s Boca Chica rocket factory in South Texas has gotten more attention than its other facility in the central part of the state, near Waco, Texas. However, SpaceX said it plans to spend $10 million on infrastructure improvements to the rocket test facility for “noise suppressors,” road work, and other upgrades, the Waco Tribune-Herald reports.
Making a big impact … The city and county are expected to contribute $2 million to the upgrades. SpaceX leases 4,280 acres in McGregor’s industrial district, where it employs about 500 people. The company has occupied the site since late 2002, when it first leased a much smaller area, taking over facilities originally built by Beal Aerospace. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
US military gets serious about nuclear propulsion. Last month, through a presolicitation, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced its intent to have a flyable nuclear thermal propulsion system ready for a demonstration in 2025. DARPA’s decision to push forward with development of nuclear thermal propulsion comes as critical enabling technologies are maturing, Ars reports.
A super DRACO program … Through this Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO program, the defense agency seeks technology that will allow for more responsive control of spacecraft in Earth orbit, lunar orbit, and everywhere in between, giving the military greater operational freedom in these domains. “Activity in cislunar space is expected to increase considerably in the coming years,” Maj. Nathan Greiner, manager of the DRACO Program, told Ars. “An agile nuclear thermal propulsion vehicle enables the DOD to maintain Space Domain Awareness of the burgeoning activity within this vast volume.”
SpaceX plans to build sea-based launch site. The company is hiring “offshore operations engineers” to help develop floating spaceports for Starship, its next-gen transportation system, Space.com reports. “SpaceX is building floating, superheavy-class spaceports for Mars, moon & hypersonic travel around Earth,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted.
A not-subtle rocket … The sea-based spaceport plan by itself is not new, as SpaceX has long talked about this possibility. But the hiring notice suggests the company is moving forward with the idea. Such a launch facility would give the company more flexibility in scheduling launches of the titanic rocket. “We need to be far enough away so as not to bother heavily populated areas,” Musk tweeted. “The launch & landing are not subtle.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Artemis I solid rocket boosters arrive at KSC. Successfully completing the cross-country train trip from Utah to Florida were all 10 propellant segments for the Artemis I mission of the SLS rocket, NASASpaceflight.com reports. The rocket boosters will now wait for the rocket’s core stage to arrive.
Waiting for a stacking schedule … For Artemis I, the Solid Rocket Boosters will be the first element of the stack to take shape on the Mobile Launcher, being stacked before their nose cones, which contain, among other things, part of the booster separation system. The schedule for this stacking is unclear due to ongoing delays with the SLS rocket’s core stage. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
June 20: Vega | VV 16 rideshare mission | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:51 UTC
June 23: Falcon 9 | Starlink-9 mission | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 21:58 UTC
June 30: Long March 3B | APStar-6D | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China.| TBD