Welcome to Edition 2.17 of the Rocket Report! The big news of this week came when SpaceX founder Elon Musk revealed his Starship in South Texas on Saturday night. The vehicle remains a long way from orbit, to be sure. Yet SpaceX sure seems a lot closer to realizing its dream of a flight-worthy Starship and Super Heavy than it did three years ago.
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.
Relativity Space is terran up the venture capital markets. Relativity Space announced Tuesday that it has closed a $140 million Series C funding round led by Bond Capital and Tribe Capital. (The puns come at no additional cost). With this funding, Relativity Chief Executive Tim Ellis told Ars that the company is fully funded to complete development of its Terran 1 rocket and reach orbit. However, instead of that happening in 2020, the first launch has now slipped into early 2021.
Plenty of investor confidence … Relativity has ambitious plans to 3D-print the entirety of its rockets, reducing workforce costs and increasing the company's ability to iterate on rocket design. By using 3D printing, the company can evolve its rocket design from mission to mission, incorporate more complex geometries, and basically try more things more quickly. The new round of funding suggests key investors certainly believe in the company's path forward.
New Shepard seat "hundreds of thousands of dollars." Blue Origin has always shied away from saying how much it will cost to fly into space on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship, but now the company's CEO has said it will be expensive. "Any new technology is never cheap, whether you're talking about the first IBM computers or what we actually see today," Bob Smith said at a TechCrunch conference, according to GeekWire. "But it'll be actually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to go, initially."
Price to come down eventually? … Smith added that, over time, "We're going to get this down to the point where middle-class people" can afford a ticket to space. I'm middle class. I make a reasonable salary and, of course, I would love to go to space. But I have to wonder what Jeff Bezos would consider an affordable price for the middle class. (Based on the results of this informal poll, my readers think said price point is under $25,000). (submitted by Ken the Bin)
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Rocket Lab demonstrates flexibility. New Zealand-based launch provider Rocket Lab has announced its next commercial mission, "As The Crow Flies," will take an Astro Digital satellite to orbit in October. Interestingly, this launch originally had a different payload but was switched out on fairly short notice. This kind of thing really isn't done much in the world of launch services, TechCrunch notes.
A step forward … "Electron is a launch-on-demand service—we're ready when the launch customer is," Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck told the publication. "Electron is designed for standardized, rapid production—we don't build to tail numbers. This ensures we can have launch vehicles on standby, ready to be assigned a payload for launch on demand." This is one bit of evidence that the new-space launch industry is moving toward long-promised launch-on-demand services. (submitted by trimeta and Ken the Bin)
Virgin Galactic, Italy sign research agreement. On Wednesday, Virgin Galactic signed an agreement with the Italian Air Force to have humans fly on board its suborbital spacecraft and conduct scientific research. The deal marks the first time a government has bought a ride on a private suborbital space mission to conduct any kind of human-led experiments. The first research flight could take place as early as next year, the company said.
First mission possibly in 2020 … "We're delighted to work with the Italian Air Force to further space-based research and technology development through this historic mission," Virgin's chief executive, George T. Whitesides, said in a news release. The announcement is significant for a couple of reasons. First, with a notional mission date of 2020, it buttresses the idea that Virgin Galactic may finally move into commercial operations with VSS Unity next year. The agreement also suggests that there may be a fairly robust market for suborbital spaceflight research.
Is Pegasus finally ready to fly? A Northrop Grumman Pegasus XL rocket is back at Cape Canaveral after a cross-country ferry flight Tuesday under an L-1011 carrier jet. The rocket is ready for final checkouts and a countdown dress rehearsal before an airborne launch off Florida's east coast October 9 with NASA's Ionospheric Connection Explorer satellite, Spaceflight Now reports. Three solid-fueled rocket motors on the Pegasus XL launcher will propel the ICON spacecraft into a 575km orbit.
Final flight of the Pegasus? … The mission was originally supposed to launch in June 2017 from near Kwajalein Atoll, the home of a remote US military test site in the Marshall Islands. A series of delays has pushed the launch forward to this month. This is the last-known mission on the Pegasus manifest, and it's possibly the final flight the rocket will ever make. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Tfargo04)
Three more Chinese companies progressing toward flight. In a roundup of the Chinese new-space industry, in which 20 Chinese private firms are believed to be developing or manufacturing launch vehicles, rocket engines, or related components, SpaceNews reports on three companies taking concrete steps toward their first launches.
Too much to track … Last week, a company called Galactic Energy carried out a successful 74-second hot-fire test of the second stage for its first launch vehicle. Another firm, Space Trek, announced it will perform a test flight of a suborbital rocket in the near future from a site in northwest China. And Beijing Deep Blue Aerospace Technology Co., Ltd., announced a successful thrust chamber hot test for a kerosene-liquid-oxygen engine. We could have a separate newsletter devoted entirely to Chinese rockets, but one is enough for me to edit, thank you very much. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Lunar Lander to ride on Falcon 9 rocket. Intuitive Machines confirmed its plans this week to launch a commercial lunar lander aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida's Space Coast in 2021. This mission will deliver multiple payloads to the Moon, including up to five science instruments for NASA, Spaceflight Now reports. The Houston-based company's first robotic Nova-C lander will carry up to 220 pounds, or 100 kilograms, of payloads to the Moon's surface.
Likely a rideshare mission … Trent Martin, vice president of aerospace systems for the company, said, "Essentially, we're a primary (payload). The reason it's Read More – Source