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Rocket Report: A new space race in India, Elon’s hat is safe for now


Smoke spews from a rocket launch.
Enlarge / An Atlas V rocket lifts off on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

Welcome to Edition 3.45 of the Rocket Report! This week we have an Indian commercial space race to dig into, an explanation of why Elon Musk’s hat is probably safe, and much, much more to discuss in the realm of launch.

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 reviewing data after second failure. Rocket Lab said Monday that it is continuing to review data from the flight of its 20th Electron launch, which failed to reach orbit after lifting off on Saturday, May 15. The US-based company said the rocket experienced an anomaly “almost three minutes” into the launch of two BlackSky Global satellites after the rocket’s first and second stages had separated, Ars reports.

Second-stage issues … “Preliminary data reviews suggest an engine computer detected an issue shortly after stage two engine ignition, causing the computer to command a safe shutdown as it is designed to do,” the company said. “The behavior had not been observed previously during Rocket Lab’s extensive ground testing operations, which include multiple engine hot fires and full mission duration stage tests prior to flight.” Despite the setback on Saturday, the company did make some progress on reusable launch, recovering the first stage from the Pacific Ocean. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Bidding war ensues for first New Shepard seat. On Wednesday morning, Blue Origin unsealed the high bid for its auction of a spaceflight seat. The bid of $1.4 million soon rose to $2 million, Ars reports. As of this writing, bidding is at $2.8 million. The auction is for one seat on the first flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch system. This autonomous vehicle—a rocket and capsule that ascends to an altitude above 100 km—has six seats for passengers. The company plans to fly its first mission on July 20.

Future flights expected in 2021 … Blue Origin has not said who else will be aboard this first mission or whether the passengers will include Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos. The unsealed online auction for this seat will continue until June 10. Then, on June 12, the company will hold a live online auction among verified bidders to finally sell the seat. The money from the winning bid will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future. Beyond this auction, Blue Origin has not released pricing for New Shepard flights, although more price tags are anticipated this year.

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Virgin Galactic confirms test-flight date. The company said Thursday that its next rocket-powered test flight of VSS Unity will be conducted on Saturday, May 22, pending weather and technical checks. This test flight will be crewed by two pilots and will carry research payloads as part of the NASA Flight Opportunities program. A key objective of the flight will be to test the remedial work completed on Unity to lower the EMI levels experienced last December when the onboard computer halted ignition of the rocket motor.

A lot riding on this mission … Following this flight, the company said it will complete an “extensive data review” to inform the next steps of its test-flight program. This is an important mission for Virgin, as VSS Unity has not gone to space for more than two years even though competitor Blue Origin is set to fly its first paying customers in July. The company’s stock price has fallen from a high of $62.80 in February to about $20 a share today. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

Astra signs multilaunch contract with Planet. The California-based launch company announced its first commercial customer this week, saying the imagery company Planet has agreed to contract for several launches. “Astra was founded with the vision to create a healthier and more connected planet, and we couldn’t be more excited to start this journey with Planet whose mission and values are so closely aligned with our own,” said Chris Kemp, founder, chairman, and CEO of Astra.

Next stop orbit? … The rocket company also disclosed plans to launch payloads up to 500 kg to a 500 km, mid-inclination orbit. This is beyond the capacity of its current Rocket 3 vehicle, so this likely would require a brand-new launch system. Details, I hope, will be forthcoming. Meanwhile, Astra is preparing for its next launch attempt sometime this summer, in which it will seek to reach orbit after very nearly doing so on a mission in December.

Georgia senator raises concerns about Camden spaceport. Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) has sent a letter to Federal Aviation Administration officials expressing concerns about the environmental review process for a spaceport in Camden, Georgia. “This is not the time to cut corners on environmental review or cut out public participation in the evaluation of this project,” Warnock wrote in the letter obtained by Ars.

Worried about launch failures … The senator explained that he had heard from many residents with concerns about the potential for rocket-launch failures and the potential damage to “pristine beaches, maritime forests, unique wildlife, and the solitude of [Georgia’s] wilderness.” The intervention of Warnock may throw up additional roadblocks in what has already been a contentious approval process for the Camden spaceport. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Skyroot says it has raised $11 million. An India-based launch company, Skyroot Aerospace, announced on Thursday that it has raised $11 million in Series-A funding. The company said in an emailed news release, “This is so far the largest investment in the Indian space startup scene after the Indian cabinet approved private sector participation in space activities.”

Seeking aggressive growth … We can’t verify that claim (see the next news item), but $11 million is nonetheless a fat cent as Skyroot seeks to develop its Vikram I rocket, a solid-propellant-based vehicle designed to deliver a few hundred kilograms to low Earth orbit. Company co-founder Naga Bharath Daka added that the company plans to raise an additional $40 million to fuel “aggressive growth” over the next few years.



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