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Rocket Report: Blue Origin protests Starship, China launches space station


The Delta IV Heavy rocket launches on April 26, 2021. Yes, it's ok that the rocket is on fire.
Enlarge / The Delta IV Heavy rocket launches on April 26, 2021. Yes, it’s ok that the rocket is on fire.

United Launch Alliance

Welcome to Edition 3.43 of the Rocket Report! Please note that there will be no publication of this report next week as I will be taking several days off from work beginning Wednesday. The publication will return on May 13—thank you for your patience.

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 rocket returns to flight. It was a success for Europe’s Vega small launch vehicle on Wednesday night, carrying a next-generation imaging satellite for Airbus Defence and Space into low Earth orbit. It is Vega’s first mission since a November 16 launch failure destroyed two Earth observation satellites, Space News reports. An independent investigation pinned that failure on cables that were improperly connected in the upper stage of the rocket, which Italian rocket-maker Avio builds.

Not waiting on Vega C … The Pleiades Neo 3 spacecraft, launched for Airbus, had been slated to launch on the upgraded Vega C rocket in 2020. However, Airbus shifted gears after the debut flight for Vega C was pushed into mid-2021, following a separate Vega launch failure in July 2019. That failure destroyed the FalconEye1 imaging satellite for the United Arab Emirates and was blamed on a structural failure in the rocket’s solid-fuel second stage. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

NASA awards contract for propellant depots. NASA’s Space Technology program awarded a $25 million contract to Eta Space this week to demonstrate the storage and transfer of liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants in space. “The ability to refuel in space is critical to meeting NASA’s goals of sustainable space exploration,” says Dr. William Notardonato, CEO of Eta Space, in a news release. It’s refreshing to see the space agency moving ahead with propellant depot technology, considered an essential part of a sustainable space program.

NASA says the “D” word … After launch in late 2023, the nine-month LOXSAT 1 mission will demonstrate the capability of fuel storage and transfer. Eta Space will then use private funding to develop a commercial depot intended to serve multiple customers. LOXSAT 2 will provide liquid oxygen and RP-1 to refuel the upper stages of multiple small launch vehicles, with the goal of enabling inner Solar System missions at lower cost. The choice of fuels suggests the company could be working with Rocketlab, Astra, Virgin Orbit and/or Firefly.

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

Blue Origin to start selling tickets on New Shepard. “It’s time,” Blue Origin announced on Thursday morning. The company said it would provide details on May 5 about pricing for rides on its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft. The company encouraged those interested to sign up on its website to “learn how you can buy the very first seat on New Shepard.” May 5, of course, is the 60th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight that made him the first American in space.

It is about time … Blue Origin has been successfully showcasing the flight capabilities of the New Shepard launch system since November 2015, so it is indeed about time that they start to sell tickets. A demonstration mission with “test passengers” could happen as early as May. It’s not yet clear whether Blue Origin will begin private tourist flights later this year, or in 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Virgin Orbit to launch from Brazil. The Brazilian Space Agency and Brazilian Air Force announced Wednesday the selection of Virgin Orbit to bring an orbital launch capability to Brazil. Missions using Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system will take place from the Alcântara Launch Center, located just two degrees south of the equator. Although Alcântara has hosted dozens of launches of uncrewed, suborbital sounding rockets, Brazil has never successfully completed a domestic launch to orbit.

No date yet for a first launch … Virgin’s goal is to have essentially zero footprint on the ground. The company plans to transport its entire system, including ground support vehicles, Cosmic Girl, and the rocket itself to the launch site. Brazil also announced deals with C6 Launch Systems (of Canada), Orion AST (US), and Hyperion (US) for eventual launches, but none of these companies has rockets that yet exist. (submitted by dra2840 and Ken the Bin)

Rocket Factory Augsburg to launch from Norway, too. German startup Rocket Factory Augsburg has signed with the Norway-based Andøya Spaceport for a 2022 flight of the company’s RFA One small-satellite launch vehicle, High North News reports. The decision comes just weeks after another German launch company, Isar Aerospace, also announced it would launch from Andøya.

Straight shot for a polar launch … “This agreement secures launch capacity to cover the first years of operation for us. We are very happy that Europe’s most advanced rocket launch complex is partnering with us,” said Jörn Spurmann, chief commercial officer. Andøya Space has a permit for up to 30 launches per year from its location 69 degrees north and above the Arctic Circle. (submitted by trimeta)

NASA sounding rocket set for aurora mission. The space agency’s largest sounding rocket, the Black Brant XII rocket, will launch a solar science mission from NASA’s Wallops Flight Center in Virginia as early as May 7. The KiNET-X experiment is designed to test the understanding of how auroral electrons are energized. The process is thought to occur at extremely small scales.

Studying the solar wind … The University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute said in a news release that its space and plasma scientists hope to use data from the mission to advance our understanding of a key interaction between the solar wind and the planets. The interaction between the solar wind and a planet’s magnetosphere appears as the aurora. (submitted by Shlazzargh)

SpaceX strikes a deal with the Port of Long Beach. After twice signing a deal to lease space at the Port of Los Angeles and then scrapping those plans, SpaceX has a new deal: to use a waterfront facility at the Port of Long Beach for the recovery of its rocket boosters. The Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners on Monday approved the Hawthorne company’s use of a 6.5-acre marine terminal, the Los Angeles Times reports.

SpaceX will pay $107,000 a month … The site will be used to dock the vessels that ferry used SpaceX first-stage rocket boosters to shore and offload equipment. SpaceX is set to take over the site Saturday. The site was previously used for two decades by Sea Launch, a satellite-launch company that blasted rockets to space from a modified floating oil rig in the Pacific Ocean. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Russian second-stage engine completes test cycle. Roscosmos announced that the Russian engine manufacturer Energomash has completed “a cycle of fire tests of the standard chamber” for its RD-1024MS engine. The engine is intended to power the second stage for the forthcoming Soyuz 5 rocket.

Ready to build full engines … The engine has a thrust of about 120,000 pounds in a vacuum, so it is fairly beefy for a second stage. With these tests complete, Roscosmos said it now has confidence to begin building developmental engines for ground-fire testing. The Soyuz 5 rocket is due to make its debut sometime in the mid-2020s and is seen as a potential replacement for Russia’s Proton vehicle. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Long March 5 lofts space station module. China successfully launched a 22-metric-ton module late Wednesday, beginning an intense period of missions for constructing the nation’s own space station, Space News reports. A Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket lifted off from the coastal Wenchang spaceport at 11:23 pm ET, and the core module of the Tianhe station was deployed eight minutes into the mission.

Busy schedule ahead … This module will now raise its orbit to an altitude of around 370 kilometers above the Earth. An uncrewed Tianzhou-2 cargo spacecraft should rendezvous and dock with Tianhe in mid to late May, ahead of the visit of three astronauts aboard Shenzhou-12 in June. These three missions will be the first three of 11 launches across 2021 and 2022 to build the planned 66-ton, three-module orbital outpost. (submitted by Tfargo04, EllPeaTea, and Ken the Bin)

Blue Origin protests Starship award. After NASA announced this month that SpaceX had won a contract to develop a Human Landing System award, Blue Origin responded with a lengthy protest, The New York Times reports. Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said NASA’s decision was based on flawed evaluations of the bids misjudging advantages of Blue Origin’s proposal and downplaying technical challenges in SpaceX’s. He also said NASA had placed a bigger emphasis on bottom-line cost than it said it would.

Bezos versus Musk … “It’s really atypical for NASA to make these kinds of errors,” Smith said in an interview. “They’re generally quite good at acquisition, especially its flagship missions like returning America to the surface of the Moon. We felt that these errors needed to be addressed and remedied.” Dynetics, the third bidder, also appealed the award. The protests will be considered by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The response offered on Twitter by SpaceX founder Elon Musk to the protest was quintessentially Musk-like. (submitted by Ken the Bin).

ULA launches first mission of 2021. United Launch Alliance boosted a classified National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite on a Delta 4 Heavy rocket on Monday from Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The flight of NROL-82, a classified national security mission, marked ULA’s first launch of the year, Space News reports.

Only a few more chances to see this beast fly … NROL-82 is the first of four remaining Delta 4 Heavy missions that the Space Force contracted with ULA and are projected to be completed by 2024. ULA then plans to retire the Delta 4 Heavy, which is the second-most-powerful rocket in the world, and replace it with the new Vulcan Centaur rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

China unveils a rocket rendering similar to Starship. At a Chinese space conference last weekend, a booth operated by China’s main state-owned rocket manufacturer, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, also spotlighted the potential for suborbital point-to-point transportation. Ars reports that one of the concepts looked strikingly like SpaceX’s Starship vehicle, showing a large vehicle capable of vertical takeoff and vertical landing.

Shiny? Check. Flaps? Check. Yep, that’s a Starship … The concept is notable not only for its appearance to Starship—the vehicle’s exterior is shiny, like the stainless steel structure of Starship, and the first and second stages are similarly seamless—but in its function as well. Although Starship has primarily been promoted as a vehicle to take humans to the Moon and Mars, SpaceX also developed a point-to-point concept back in 2017. It’s not clear whether China would also develop a Starship-like vehicle for interplanetary transport.

SLS rocket core stage arrives at Kennedy Space Center. On Wednesday, the Space Launch System program delivered the core stage rocket to the center’s Launch Complex 39 turn basin wharf. The delivery followed a 15-month test campaign during which NASA and core stage contractor Boeing completed a successful series of Green Run tests at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Challenging probably means impossible … “With the delivery of the SLS core stage for Artemis I, we have all the parts of the rocket at Kennedy for the first Artemis mission,” said John Honeycutt, the SLS program manager. The core stage was offloaded from the barge on Thursday and moved into the Vertical Assembly Building. NASA is still working toward a 2021 launch of the SLS vehicle, but the agency’s acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk, said Thursday this date would be “challenging.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

May 4: Falcon 9 | Starlink-25 | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 19:01 UTC

May 17: Atlas V | SBIRS GEO 5 satellite for missile early warning detection | Cape Canaveral, Fla.| TBD

May 27: Soyuz 2.1b | OneWeb 7 | Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia | TBD





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