Welcome to Edition 3.03 of the Rocket Report! We just passed a week of the highest of highs, with Saturday’s Crew Dragon launch, and the lowest of lows, as this country’s racial prejudice was laid bare. Jeff Manber, the CEO of Nanoracks, said it well: “The space community can, and must, do better to become part of the solution to the horrific challenges America faces today.” We agree.
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.
Vega set for return-to-flight mission. After an in-flight accident in July 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic, Arianespace has resumed preparations for the Vega rocket’s return to service mission. This launch will also demonstrate the rocket’s utility as a platform for rideshare missions. Launch is targeted for June 18, local time, NASASpaceflight.com reports.
Spitting out satellites … The rocket’s Small Spacecraft Mission Service is a modular dispenser that serves as an interface for a group of microsatellites and CubeSats. It is also being designed to be as responsive as possible to meet the needs of the growing launch market for institutional and commercial customers. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
Despite explosion, Exos engine test a “success.” In late May, Exos Aerospace tested a new engine for its SARGE R2 rocket. The small company hoped to do a 55-second test firing, but the test only lasted for 15 seconds before there was an explosion. Company co-founder John Quinn said the failure was due to old ground-support equipment.
A shoestring budget … “We knew the test-stand was nearing its end-of-life,” he said. While it ran, however, the engine performed at the “high end” of its design range and was said to survive with minimal damage. Exos is seeking to build a small suborbital rocket with just 20 employees, which would be remarkable—if it succeeds. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Germany initiates microlauncher competition. According to the German space agency, about $560,000 each will be provided to a maximum of five start-up companies. After this design phase, winners are chosen by an expert jury based on technical, economical, and operational criteria.
Better get moving … Two finalists will then each receive about $12.5 million to develop and qualify their rockets, along with two demonstration launches. Funding will be provided by the European Space Agency for the competition, which should be fun to follow. Completing demonstration flights by 2023, as specified in the announcement, seems really ambitious.
Rocket Lab sets date for next launch. Rocket Lab will resume launches of its Electron small launch vehicle in June as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic ease at its New Zealand launch site, SpaceNews reports. The company has rescheduled its “Don’t Stop Me Now” launch for June 11, local time, from its launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula.
Lord of the pandemic response … The announcement of the new launch date comes as New Zealand scales back its response to the pandemic. The island nation stepped down to Alert Level 2 of its response plan May 29, allowing larger gatherings of people, as the country has reported only a handful of new cases of COVID-19 since the middle of the month. (submitted by JohnCarter17 and Ken the Bin)
Long March 11 lifts off from Xichang. China’s smallsat launcher, the Long March 11 booster, sent two experimental technology satellites into orbit on Saturday. The country’s state news service reported that it was the first time that the Long March-11 was launched from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.
Solids all the way … The Long March 11 has a lift capacity of about 700kg to low Earth orbit, and it is the only Long March rocket to use solid-rocket-motor technology exclusively. Previously, the Long March-11 has been launched primarily from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China and once from a mobile platform in the Yellow Sea. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Branson holding company sells more Virgin shares. A regulatory filing by Richard Branson’s Vieco 10 holding company indicates it has sold a block of 12.3 million shares in Virgin Galactic Holdings, Bloomberg reports. The offering represents 16 percent of the stock’s public float as of February 26, the publication determined. Vieco 10 held 89.8 million shares in Virgin Galactic as of May 22.
Salvaging business operations … Branson sold 25 million shares last month worth more than $300 million. He did so in an effort to shore up his portfolio of global leisure, holiday, and travel businesses that have been affected by the “unprecedented” impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Falcon 9 launches humans for the first time. The Falcon 9 rocket had launched 84 times before Saturday. In fact, no US rocket now flying has launched as much as the Falcon 9 rocket. So, another launch on Saturday was kind of routine in that sense. But for the first time, the Falcon 9 rocket carried two humans on board, inside a Crew Dragon spacecraft. That changed everything, Ars reported. The launch and ascent to the International Space Station was entirely successful.
Moving at speed … Before Saturday, only the national space programs of Russia, the United States, and China had launched humans into orbit. Now, SpaceX—with NASA’s funding and considerable help—joined that exclusive club. “SpaceX and Elon have delivered on everything that NASA has asked them to deliver on, and at a speed that we never would have guessed,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the launch, noting the company’s attention to commercial crew over the last eight months.
SpaceX lands same first-stage booster a fifth time. Just four days after the company’s historic Crew Dragon mission, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on Wednesday evening from Florida, carrying a payload of 60 satellites. The second stage placed them into orbit while the first stage returned to Earth and landed on the Just Read the Instructions drone ship, Ars reports.
Try, and try again … This was the second time SpaceX attempted to fly a Falcon 9 first stage five times. During the first effort in March, the rocket suffered an engine failure on the way to orbit. While the primary mission was successful (despite the shutdown of one of its engines), the first stage failed to make a drone-ship landing. SpaceX later traced the problem to a solution used to clean the engines between flights. It’s notable that NASA has already approved SpaceX to use flight-proven boosters for future crewed missions. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Leak at Fregat storage facility in Kourou. The Russian-made Fregat upper stage is used on the Soyuz rocket. According to TASS, French officials recently discovered a toxic leak of oxidizer in the storage facility for Fregat boosters in Kourou, French Guiana. A Europeanized version of the Soyuz rocket launches from there. It was not clear whether any launch hardware was affected.
Russians en route … The report says that Russian specialists will be dispatched to the location at the beginning of June to look into the situation on site and take the necessary measures. Two Soyuz launches with the Fregat upper stage are expected from Kourou this fall, tentatively in September and October. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)
A gator and a Dragon walk onto a pad. During SpaceX’s first attempt to launch the Crew Dragon spacecraft, on May 27, there was an unauthorized visitor to the launch pad. A couple of hours before liftoff, an alligator wandered through the security gate and onto Launch Complex-39A, WGN9 reports.
Gator be gone … “There are gators that end up in the craziest places,” said gator wrangler Frank Robb. “They still have the ponds on the pad that they use to cool the pads off… those are natural ponds in that secure area that gators end up in all the time.” Grabbing the interloper wasn’t too difficult though. “I put a rope on him, caught him, and he loaded up in the truck pretty easy,” Robb said. (submitted by danneely)
Another Starship prototype goes boom. Last Friday, SpaceX prepared its latest iteration of the Starship prototype vehicle, known as Serial No. 4, or SN4, for a static fire test in Texas. The Raptor engine appeared to fire nominally for a couple of seconds and shut down as planned. However, about one minute after engine shutdown there was some kind of uncontrolled gaseous leak, and one minute later the vehicle exploded almost instantaneously—a truly rapid Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly, Ars reports.
SN5, SN6 waiting in the wings … The company’s founder, Elon Musk, later explained that there was an unexpected problem with quick-disconnect at the launch site. With plenty of hardware being built up in South Texas, the limiting factors for the next round of tests could be the company’s ability to construct a second test stand and convince the Federal Aviation Administration it understands the problem and has corrected it.
Next three launches
June 11: Electron | “Don’t Stop Me Now” | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 04:43 UTC
June 17: Long March 2D | Gaofen 9-03 | Jiuquan, China.| 07:25 UTC
June 19: Vega | Rideshare mission | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:51 UTC
Note: There are other near-term launches without exact dates.