Rocket Report: Demo-2 launch this spring, concerns about Firefly’s backer

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The Rocket Report is published weekly.
Enlarge / The Rocket Report is published weekly.


Welcome to Edition 2.32 of the Rocket Report! We're building toward a big weekend in launch from the East Coast, with both an Antares rocket from Wallops and a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral on the docket. In the meantime, enjoy a smorgasbord of news about topics both controversial and crowning.

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.

Questions raised about Firefly's backer. In an investigative piece, Snopes digs into the association between the rocket company's financial backer, Max Polyakov, and a series of deceptive dating sites. After Firefly nearly died in 2016, Polyakov stepped forward with an estimated $75 to $100 million, allowing the company to rehire former employees and expand operations. The company's first launch is expected during the second quarter of this year.

A new twist on sex in space? … According to the report, Polyakov's investment group “shares office space and staff with Together Networks, a company that is home to websites like nastymams.com and that uses deceptive tactics to sign people up for recurring credit card charges. Firefly's acting CFO and Co-Founder Mark Watt and Firefly's Co-Founder Max Polyakov have had, at the very least, a historical financial interest in a labyrinthine network of holding companies that own or maintain these websites. The affiliate marketing platform that drives income from these sites is riddled with abuse.” (submitted by JF and Respice)

Another Iranian launch attempt fails. A pair of Iranian satellites did not reach orbit on Sunday after their Simorgh launch vehicle failed to inject them with enough velocity, Ars reports. “Stage-1 and stage-2 motors of the carrier functioned properly, and the satellite was successfully detached from its carrier, but at the end of its path it did not reach the required speed for being put in the orbit,” Defense Ministry space program spokesman Ahmad Hosseini told state TV.

A different definition of unstoppable … The Simorgh rocket is a more powerful variant of a small-satellite launch vehicle developed in the country, with a capacity of 350kg to orbit. It has a terrible track record, however, with at least three failures and no successful orbital missions. Afterward, Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi (who is expected to be a presidential candidate in 2021) painted the mission in a fairer light. “We're UNSTOPPABLE!” he tweeted. Bless his heart.

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India shows off its anti-satellite missile. Recently, India's Ministry of Defense held DefExpo 2020 in the northern part of the country. The event seeks to promote India as a “defense manufacturing hub,” but it is essentially an arms bazaar. Ars reports that one of the main exhibits of this week's show is a large display showing off a copy of the hardware used during Mission Shakti, the successful anti-satellite test conducted by India in March 2019.

Mixed messages … The exhibit of Mission Shakti hardware this week in northern India indicates the pride the country has in the test—but it also may serve other purposes. “This appears to be a move by India to brag about its anti-satellite weapons capability, possibly even offering it up for export,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation. “Either way, I think it undermines India's messaging immediately after the Mission Shakti that it was a one-off demonstration and would not become an operational capability.”

PLD Space moving toward suborbital launch. The Spanish launch startup said it has secured a second customer for the first flight of its Miura 1 reusable, suborbital rocket, SpaceNews reports. The company is also addressing development issues that prevented the mission from occurring last year. PLD Space planned to launch Miura 1 in 2019, but delayed the rocket’s debut after a “series of test firing anomalies” during engine development

Two launch sites … For its first mission, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida will fly four student- and faculty-built experiments alongside two microgravity experiments for the Bremen, Germany-based ZARM research center. The company has not set a launch date for the Miura 1 flight or for its orbital rocket, the Miura 5 vehicle. The company plans to launch Miura 1 rockets from El Arenosillo, on the southwestern coast of Spain, and the Miura 5 from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in South America. (submitted by trimeta)

Plans for Scottish spaceport revealed. The development agency for a Scottish spaceport, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, has finally submitted its plans for the facility to the Highland Council. The spaceport would comprise a launch control center and a single launch pad alongside associated infrastructure, including roadways, fuel storage, office premises and antennas, Highland News & Media reports.

Too bright? … Local residents have expressed concerns about environmental impacts. The application includes measures to address and minimize impact on the land and marine environments, including levels of light and noise that could be generated, especially around launch times. Work must begin on the site fairly soon if it is to be ready for the planned 2022 debut of the Orbex Prime rocket. (submitted by iCowboy and Ken the Bin)

Amazon wants to “whip” payloads into orbit? Amazon Prime Air VP Gur Kimchi has a patent for a launch system that could theoretically send payloads into space on the end of a miles-long whip, guided by a phalanx of drones attached to the lash. A patent application published this week lays out an unusually detailed description of the system, right down to how the gear teeth in the mechanism could be arranged, GeekWire reports.

Whip it real good … Although the patent description delves into the possibilities for boosting payloads to low Earth orbit and then using orbiting platforms with tethers to transfer those payloads into even higher orbits, the inventors make clear there are other applications as well. For example, smaller whips could send drones or other types of aerial vehicles into the air from ships at sea or from planes in the air. Packages could be flung up on drones for processing on aerial fulfillment centers. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Solar Orbiter successfully launches on Atlas V. The 1.8-ton spacecraft lifted off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida on Sunday. The rocket flew in a rare configuration that featured a 4-meter fairing and a single solid-rocket booster, Space.com reports.

A good start to the year … Solar Orbiter separated from the rocket as planned 53 minutes after liftoff. And, a few minutes later, the mission team had established communications with the spacecraft. It was the first launch of the year for United Launch Alliance, which has a fairly busy manifest for the remainder of 2020, and the 82nd overall launch of the Atlas V rocket.

Speaking of rare Atlas V variants. The last unflown variant of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 launcher—fitted with a five-meter fairing and a single strap-on solid rocket booster—will carry a pair of US military space surveillance satellites toward geosynchronous orbit from Cape Canaveral late this year, according to Spaceflight Now.

What's the 311 on the 511? … This is an Atlas 511 variant, with a single solid-fueled motor providing an additional boost during the first 90 seconds of flight. It will launch the next pair of satellites for the Space Force's Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program. The most-used version of the Atlas 5 to date is the “401” variant with a four-meter fairing and no solid boosters. The Atlas 5-401 has flown 38 times, including the first Atlas flight in 2002. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

SpaceX Demo-2 mission likely to occur this spring. NASA and SpaceX are closing in on the first launch of humans into orbit from US soil since 2011, when the space shuttle made its final flight. Although the space agency has not yet said so publicly, NASA is working toward a May 7 launch of a Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station, Ars reports. The spacecraft shipped to Kennedy Space Center this week.

A bit mundane? … Mostly, said Doug Loverro, NASA's chief of human spaceflight, paperwork is what stands between Dragon and a launch. “Even though it sounds mundane, there is a load of paper that has to be verified, and signed off, and checked to make sure we've got everything closed out,” he said. “It is probably one of the longest things in the tent to go ahead and do. It's underappreciated but critically important. You've got to make sure you've done everything you need to do along the way.”

Japan launches its first rocket of 2020. The island nation launched an optical reconnaissance satellite from the Tanegashima Space Center Sunday aboard an H-2A rocket after a 12-day delay caused by a nitrogen leak, Spaceflight Now reports. The H-2A rocket with the IGS Optical 7 satellite flew in the basic “202” configuration with two strap-on solid-rocket boosters. Heavier satellites launching on the H-2A sometimes need four boosters to reach orbit.

A second attempt … Japanese crews returned the H-2A rocket to its vertical assembly building at Tanegashima for repairs following the aborted countdown January 27. Officials from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, builder and prime contractor for the H-2A rocket, said the leak detected during the previous countdown was in the system providing conditioned air to the rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX may spin off Starlink in a IPOBloomberg first reported that SpaceX is considering a public offering for its Starlink satellite Internet business. The company's president Gwynne Shotwell discussed the possibility last week at a private investor event put on by JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Miami. It could provide an opportunity for employees at SpaceX to cash in some of their shares of the privately held rocket company.

The right stuff … “That particular piece is an element of the business that we are likely to spin out and go public,” said Shotwell, SpaceX's chief operating officer. “Right now, we are a private company, but Starlink is the right kind of business that we can go ahead and take public.” The offering remains unlikely to happen soon but presumably would occur when SpaceX has built out the first part of its network and begun to offer service. It will be fascinating to see its value. (submitted by whiteknave)

SpaceX seeks to buy out residents in Boca Chica. A deeply reported story, The Atlantic dives into the issue of a small community near SpaceX's launch site in South Texas. Ultimately, if SpaceX is to launch large rockets from this location just north of Mexico and near the Gulf of Mexico, it will have to buy out a handful of holdout residents.

Asked to leave … Over the last five years, local residents have become space fanatics and legal experts, Musk supporters and thorns in his side, trying to make sense of their place in a strange story that could someday end millions of miles away from Earth. “They're here to stay,” one homeowner said of SpaceX, “and they want us to leave.” (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)

NASA launches camera strapped to rocket to take Sun photos. Expressing excitement about the collaborative mission with the European Space Agency, NASA officials announced Monday the successful launch of a sweet Nikon DSLR camera strapped to a rocket to gather photos of the Sun, The Onion reports.

A little bit of panic … “Thus far, we've been limited in our ability to take images of the Sun, but this baby is a top-of-the-line camera, which, according to a number of Amazon reviews, takes really great pics,” said NASA senior project manager Melissa Bolton. At press time, NASA engineers were panicking after realizing that they had forgotten to remove the lens cap. The article's use of a camera duct-taped to the Space Launch System rocket is a nice touch. (submitted by Ken the Comedian)

Next three launches

Feb. 14: Antares | NG-13 ISS Supply mission | Wallops Island, Virginia | 20:43 UTC

Feb. 15: Falcon 9 | Starlink-4 mission | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida | 15:46 UTC

Feb. 18: Ariane 5 | JCSAT-17 & GEO-KOMPSAT-2B | Kourou, French Guiana | 22:18 UTC

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