Welcome to Edition 1.15 of the Rocket Report! This week, we have news about both Virgin rocket companies, an astounding number of Chinese launches, and the military waiting for SpaceX. There is also the scoop that the Trump White House is relying on an upgraded SLS rocket to meet its desire of putting humans on a station near the Moon.
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.
Virgin nears LauncherOne captive-carry tests. Virgin Orbit has completed three flight tests with a specially designed launch pylon/payload adapter beneath its left wing, and the company will soon begin captive-carry tests, Aviation Week reports. If these tests are successful, the campaign will culminate with the release of an inert vehicle over a desert test range and is designed to clear the way for an initial attempt at air-launching the first rocket to orbit.
On target for a 2018 launch … Virgin Orbit says it is “very pleased” with data from the pylon tests and that it will “soon” mount the rocket under the 747s wing. These tests are critical precursors to actual rocket launches from the aircraft, and it seems that, as Virgin moves through this phase, the company remains on track for the maiden flight of its LauncherOne rocket later this year.
Exos launches its first suborbital rocket. Exos Aerospace performed a test launch of a reusable suborbital sounding rocket from New Mexico on Saturday, SpaceNews reports. The company did not specify how high the rocket got, but video showed the booster descending under a parachute and landing about 15 minutes later a short distance from the pad.
Only the first test … “This was a very successful test for us,” said John Quinn, chief operating officer of Exos, on the webcast. “Were very excited that we had all of our recovery systems operational.” The company hopes this “pathfinder” launch will help it secure new customers, including NASAs Flight Opportunities program for parabolic and suborbital research payloads. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)
Sign up for the Rocket Report
Leave this field empty if you're human:
What's going on at Spaceport America? Not much, apparently. The Web publication Rocketgut! recently visited Spaceport America in New Mexico and found a stark contrast between the spaceport and its surroundings, including the nearby town Truth or Consequences: "Space entrepreneurs like Virgin CEO Richard Branson often claim they are democratizing spaceflight. But no one in T or C is going to space anytime soon. A Virgin ticket costs $250,000, more than three times the town's median home price. Adding to the insult is a quarter-percent sales tax residents have been paying for 10 years."
Still waiting … Virgin Galactic might yet fly its VSS Unity spacecraft into space this year, but not many people in rural New Mexico seem to expect this. Overall, the story depicts the stark contrast between the aggressive schedules and hype rampant in the aerospace industry and the reality on the ground.
Aerojet reports progress with Hall thrusters. Aerojet announced that it recently tested the power elements of its "Advanced Electric Propulsion System" Hall thruster string. In particular, the company wanted to test the discharge supply unit and the power-processing unit to prove the systems ability to convert power at a high-efficiency level and produce minimal waste heat. The test, which took place in a thermal vacuum chamber at the US space agencys Glenn Research Center, was a success, Spaceflight Insider reports.
Gateway power … 13kW Hall thrusters are a technology needed for NASA's lunar Gateway, to be used by the Power and Propulsion element scheduled to launch no earlier than 2022 on a commercial rocket. If all goes well, the first humans could visit the Gateway in 2024. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Stofiel Aerospace hires veteran to help reach pad. The St. Louis-based Stofiel Aerospace has considerable ambitions to develop an on-demand orbital vehicle, but it lacks experience. The company sought to address that this week by adding Ken Sunshine, a veteran space-company finance executive, to its board of directors. Sunshine co-founded Vector Aerospace as well as served as the chief financial officer for leading space companies Virgin Galactic and Moon Express.
Show-us, please … Missouri is the Show-Me state, and when Stofiel says it will launch to the edge of space this year, we really need to see that flight to become believers. Sunshine's addition should help the small company navigate some of the many challenges between developing a rocket and actually launching it.
NASAs ICON mission gets a new launch date. After a delay in June, a Pegasus-XL launch of NASAs Ionospheric Connection Explorer satellite is now set to take place on October 6, NASASpaceflight.com says. Based on range requirements and availability, the launch of the ICON mission will take place from the East Coast rather than the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll.
More Pegasus launches? … With the rise of other, lower-cost small-satellite launch companies, it is not clear how many more Pegasus-XL launches we will see. In 2020, we may see a few from the Stratolaunch aircraft. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
China sets a national launch record. Chinas launch of a pair of Beidou navigation satellites late last week saw the country set a new annual orbital launch record, SpaceNews reports. Fridays launch was Chinas 23rd of 2018, surpassing the national record of 22 set during 2016.
More to come … The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the main contractor for the space program, aims to carry out around 35 launches in total this year. That total could be bolstered further by a private launch or two from China. Overall, this significant jump in orbital launches reinforces the seriousness of Chinese activities in space. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)
India shares more details about human spaceflights. The countrys minister of state for Atomic Energy and Space, Jitendra Singh, said the “Gaganyaan” mission was expected to send three people into a 300-400km orbit for seven days, NDTV reports. The mission would launch on a GSLV Mk III (which has made two successful flights and has a capacity of 10 tons to low Earth orbit) by 2022, according to the minister.
Spacecraft needed … An extended orbital flight is considerably more ambitious than a suborbital flight, especially an initial mission of seven days. This would require a fairly sophisticated spacecraft, which will be a challenge to design, test, build, and fly within four years. It can be done, but as we have seen with the commercial crew program in the United States, schedules are tricky things when you want to put people into space.
Air Force eager for SpaceX GPS launch. After not launching any GPS satellites in 2017, the Air Force is eager to put at least one GPS 3 satellite in orbit before the end of this year. The launch date for the first GPS 3 already has slipped several months to allow more time to test SpaceXs upgraded Falcon 9 Block 5. The date was moved “by mutual agreement” to December 15, a spokesman for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center told SpaceNews.
A critical launch … And that may be an understatement, according to the publication. The Falcon 9 needs a good start after winning five of the first six GPS 3 launches. Lockheed Martin, which is building a 10-satellite constellation, has also been trying to make up for lost time following a string of delays that set the program back by several years and hundreds of millions of dollars. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
A lot of SpaceX launches seem to be slipping into Q4. A significant number of SpaceXs Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches initially scheduled near the beginning or middle of the second half of 2018 are all scooting right into October, November, and December, Teslarati reports. The multiple launch delays can be traced to either payload (as the company prepares for rideshare launches) or rocket issues.
Fifteen launches and counting … Achieving the roughly 8 to 10 launches tentatively remaining on SpaceXs 2018 manifest will require extensive reuse of Block 5 boosters if multiple slips into 2019 are to be prevented, the site reports. That certainly seems possible, even if it means a busy holiday period for the California rocket company. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
First OneWeb constellation launch delayed. The first launch of OneWebs low-Earth-orbit broadband constellation may slip into early 2019 on a Soyuz rocket, officials from OneWeb and launch provider Arianespace told SpaceNews. “Arianespace had an urgent customer need, and being good partners we can move around a bit, but we are hoping to get up as early in our launch window as possible,” OneWeb founder Greg Wyler said.
The satellites are ready? … Wyler dismissed reports in Russian media that setbacks with the satellites (each weighing 145 kilograms and carrying 10 gigabits per second of capacity) were the reason for the delay. OneWeb has contracted with Arianespace for up to 20 Soyuz launches, but it has also announced deals with Virgin Orbit and Blue Origin for the launch of as many as 2,000 satellites. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)
NASA counting on upgraded SLS rocket by 2024. During a visit to Johnson Space Center last week, Vice President Mike Pence said, “Our administration is working tirelessly to put an American crew aboard the lunar orbital platform before the end of 2024.” This timeline requires that an upgraded version of the SLS rocket, known as Block 1B, be ready to complete a station in lunar orbit, Ars reports.
EUS, anyone? … The key SLS upgrade is the Exploration Upper Stage, which will require four or five years (and billions of dollars) to build and test. NASA needs the more powerful variant of the SLS in order to launch both the Orion spacecraft with crew and a small habitation module at the same time. Not much work is presently being done on this upper stage, and, privately, many engineers at NASA and outside the agency have a healthy skepticism about the readiness of the Block 1B by 2024. (We do, too).
Updated Falcon Heavy performance numbers. The social news site reddit calls attention to a NASA site updated with the latest Falcon Heavy performance data. “We know many of our users have been anticipating this and hope everyone finds these updates helpful in planning exercises,” NASA's Launch Services Program stated in providing the update.
The undisputed king … The new performance numbers indicate that the expendable version of the Falcon Heavy is more powerful than the Delta IV Heavy rocket, previously the worlds most capable, even for very high-energy missions where the Deltas hydrogen upper stage has a big performance advantage. (submitted by rpexyz)
The SLS mobile launch tower goes mobile. The mobile platform intended to carry NASAs Space Launch System is scheduled to trek to the rockets launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week, Spaceflight Now reports. Workers at the Florida launch base have installed more than a half-dozen retractable arms, umbilical connections, and support masts on the mobile launcher over the past 18 months, following a lengthy process to redesign the towers base to accommodate the heavy-lifting Space Launch System.
A costly refurbishment … The saga of this tower is the saga of modern-day NASA, it would seem. The tower was initially built for NASAs Ares 1 rocket, a single-booster launcher that never flew on an orbital mission before its cancellation in 2010. NASA has spent the better part of a decade and a billion dollars building and modifying the tower, a testament to the agencys ability to spend an epoch working on a project and a pile of money doing so. The tower could finally be used for an orbital launch in 2020.
Next three launches
Sept. 9: Falcon 9 | Telstar 18 VANTAGE | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station | 03:28 UTC
Sept. 10: HII-B | HTV-7 mission to International Space Station | Tanegashima, Japan | 22:32 UTC
Sept. 15: Delta II | ICESat-2 mission | Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. | 12:46 UTC