This site is reader-supported. When you click through links on our site, we may be compensated.
Welcome to Edition 1.40 of the Rocket Report! There were some Earth-shaking developments in heavy lift this week, with the announcement by NASA that it will consider using commercial rockets to perform the first Moon launch of the Orion spacecraft. Readers have also submitted a variety of interesting stories, such as Brazil considering a launch site to rival Kourou in neighboring French Guiana.
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-C rocket enters qualification phase, but slips. The new European small satellite launch system recently passed its Critical Design Review and is now ready to complete manufacturing and final testing as part of the qualification phase, according to the European Space Agency. The initial flight of the Vega-C booster, a more economical version of Arianespace's Vega rocket, is now planned for early 2020 (this is a slip from late 2019).
About a year to go … The Vega-C rocket uses Europe's new P120C solid rocket booster, which will also power the Ariane 6. The commonality should help Arianespace save costs as it attempts to attract more of the small satellite launch market. “We have a challenging 12 months ahead, starting with four Vega launches between March and November and ending with the maiden flight of Vega-C,” said Stefano Bianchi, ESA's Head of Space Transportation Development Department. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Unrulycow)
LinkSpace getting ready to land rockets. In a tweet, the Chinese launch company posted a photo of a rocket landing site with the message, “Welcome to Earth.” The company is expected to begin suborbital tests of its landing demonstrator within the coming months.
We've seen this before? … Founded in 2014, LinkSpace was among or was even the first private Chinese rocket company (more than a dozen have since followed). It seeks to develop a liquid-fueled rocket with a reusable first stage that can lift about 200kg to a Sun-synchronous orbit. The landing technology appears to be modeled after the Falcon 9 rocket.
Another new Chinese start-up enters the fray. Space Transportation had been keeping a low profile since its founding in 2018, but it recently announced that it found an angel funder, the China Aerospace Blog reports. The company aims to develop reusable rockets for payloads of 100kg to 1,000kg.
Reusability, with a twist … Space Transportation has proposed an ambitious gliding landing system for rocket reusability: illustrations of the Tian Xing-1 rocket feature a pair of fin-shaped wings that (supposedly) provide the lift necessary to enable gliding. Such a system does face technical challenges, to be sure, but it helps the new company stand out in a crowded field of Chinese startups.
Brazil may become a hub in aerospace. Brazil wants to attract launch customers by marketing itself as the cheaper alternative to Kourou, the European spaceport in neighboring French Guiana. Aerospace titans Boeing and Lockheed Martin visited the Alcântara Launch Center in December, Reuters reports. The Brazilian space agency also seeks to attract smaller firms with its equatorial location.
Security agreement needed … For now, Brazil's aim of becoming a launch site may depend on negotiating a technology safeguards agreement with the United States to protect sensitive American space launch and satellite technology. (Such an agreement is required to launch American-made rockets). The safeguard accord could be ready this year if the US State Department gets negotiating permission. (submitted by Alex)
Sabre air-breathing rocket passes PDR. The demonstrator core of Reaction Engines' air-breathing Sabre rocket propulsion system has successfully passed a preliminary design review, Aviation Week reports. The assessment clears the way for a follow-on critical design review, subsequent development, and test of the core at a newly built facility in Westcott, England, in 2020.
This would be awesome … The complete engine, ultimately built on the core to incorporate a precooler, rocket engine, and ramjet, is designed to provide air-breathing thrust from the runway to Mach 5 and beyond for hypersonic aircraft. In rocket mode, it should also provide low-cost access to space. Bringing such a promising technology into reality would be something very cool to see, obviously. But there's a long way to go.
Europe seeks to foster smaller rockets. The European Space Agency says it is studying how best to boost the continent's small satellite launch industry. To that end, ESA's Future Launchers Preparatory Programme has funded five proposals from industry for an economically viable, commercially self-sustaining micro-launcher. The five proposals came from PLD Space, Deimos and Orbex, MT Aerospace, ArianeGroup, and Avio.
Providing just enough help … At the Space 19+ conference in November, ESA will propose a program to further nurture commercially viable ideas from European industry by supporting proposals for privately led and privately funded space-transportation services, with an initial focus on launch services based on microlaunchers. European officials believe this will also help spur the development of successful commercial spaceports in Europe.
Stofiel taking unconventional route to space. With his biker-guy long hair and a messy basement, Brian Stofiel often seems like a mad rocket scientist, according to Riverfront Times. And the founder of St. Louis-based Stofiel Aerospace definitely has unconventional ideas about how to get things into space, using a combination of a balloon and a mostly plastic rocket named Hermes.
A fun story … Stofiel is a colorful personality, and new ideas are always welcome in aerospace. That the industry has reached the point where a modestly well-off family can self-fund rocket experiments with 3D-printed technology is a good thing. But for now, Stofiel has a long way to go before his aerospace ambitions become a reality. (submitted by Millenix)
China has launched its 300th Long March booster. A Chinese television broadcasting satellite lifted off last Saturday aboard a Long March 3B booster. This marks the 300th orbital launch by the country's Long March rocket family since 1970, Spaceflight Now reports. On April 24, 1970, a Long March 1 rocket carried China's first satellite into space.
Pace of launch accelerates … China's launch rate has quickened in recent years. It took 37 years to accomplish the first 100 Long March launches, eight years for the second 100 flights, and four years for the third 100 missions. This is yet another sign of the country's increasingly varied ambitions in space. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
SpaceX completes commercial crew mission. Everything went nearly flawlessly during SpaceX's first demonstration mission of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which splashed down on Friday, March 8. However, the mission almost didn't launch on time, as SpaceX engineers were dealing with first-stage valve issues in a Falcon 9 just hours before launch.
Was not disclosed … The valve was replaced, and SpaceX was able to determine that there should not be any more similar problems with the launch. The Falcon 9 was cleared before NASA's webcast began, and so the problem was not shared with viewers. In any case, there were no issues with the launch itself or Dragon's performance.
NASA proposes a commercial Orion mission: In a remarkable turnaround, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on Wednesday said the space agency would consider launching its first Orion mission to the Moon on commercial rockets instead of NASA's own Space Launch System. “I think we, as an agency, need to stick to our commitment,” Bridenstine said at a NASA hearing. “If we tell you, and others, that we're going to launch in June of 2020 around the Moon, I think we should launch around the Moon in June of 2020.”
Such a mission would require two rockets … So which will they be? Bridenstine did not name rockets during the hearing, but it seems almost certain that at least one of them would be a Delta IV Heavy built by United Launch Alliance. NASA used this rocket to launch a version of the Orion spacecraft to an altitude of 3,600km in 2014. Both United Launch Alliance and SpaceX—with its Falcon Heavy rocket—would be invited to bid on the second launch.
SLS already under siege earlier in the week. President Donald Trump's FY 2020 budget request calls for a 17 percent reduction in the budget for NASA's Space Launch System rocket, once viewed as the backbone of the space agency's efforts to explore deep space. The primary cuts would be to work on the Exploration Upper Stage, which was needed to upgrade to a second, more powerful variant known as Block 1B.
Raises all manner of questions … The lack of this upper stage means that NASA cannot co-manifest both a crewed Orion spacecraft and elements of the Lunar Gateway on the same launch of the SLS rocket. This, in turn, means that elements of the Gateway could (and would) be launched on commercial rockets. If this budget survives Congress it would raise serious questions about the future of the launch vehicle.
Meanwhile, Boeing pressing on with SLS tests. The Space Launch System's core stage prime contractor, Boeing, is moving ahead with tests of components of the rocket, NASASpaceFlight.com reports. One team is busy running test cases on the intertank test article in a large, indoor test facility at Marshall Space Flight Center. Meanwhile, another is preparing a liquid hydrogen tank for its test runs in another large (but outdoor) stand down the road.
Heads down, hard hats on … The work is continuing even as political questions about the large rocket's future swirl. The test articles are being squeezed, stretched, twisted, and bent after several hours of freezing to simulate the forces and environment that flight structures are expected to see during launch and ascent into space. These tests will help qualify the structures for first flight and validate the fidelity of computer models. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Starship getting nearer to initial tests. In the last week the first Raptor engine has been delivered to SpaceX's Brownsville, Texas, facility. And within two days of a new transporter's arrival, Starhopper was moved from the build site to the launch pad for tests. SpaceX has purchased or leased a quartet of (likely used) crawlers for the purpose of transporting Starship between the company's South Texas build, launch, and landing sites, Teslarati reports.
Looking forward, always … It was interesting to see the Starhopper on the move in South Texas even as SpaceX was just wrapping up its first commercial crew demonstration mission. It's a sign that the company always seems to have its eyes on the future and the ultimate prize of sending people to Mars. Still a very long way to go, of course, but we eagerly await Starhopper suborbital tests later this year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
March 15: Delta IV | Wideband Global SATCOM spacecraft | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 22:56 UTC
March 16: Electron | DARPA R3D2 mission | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 22:30 UTC
March 22: Vega | PRISMA Earth observation satellite | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:50 UTC