Welcome to Edition 3.38 of the Rocket Report! This week, we have launch news from around the world, including several snippets from across the pond, where Europe is grappling with the rise of SpaceX and how best to nurture its nascent commercial launch industry. As always, there is a lot to go on.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss any issues, 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 payload rockets, as well as a quick look at the next three launches on the schedule.
Relativity shows that 3D printing rockets work. Very real questions remain as to whether or not this additive manufacturing approach is ultimately feasible. The acid test will come when Relativity tries to reach orbit. However, the company’s 3D printing technology appears to be working. In fact, two recent milestones in the development of the company’s Terran 1 rocket suggest that the technology is working very well, Ars reports.
A new kind of printing press … Relativity CEO Tim Ellis said the company recently printed the second stage that will be used in the maiden flight of the Terran 1 rocket, which is currently scheduled to take place before the end of 2021. The stage was printed at a speed of about 1 linear foot per day, so in print time it took about three weeks total to produce the 20 foot high second stage. The company was also able to quickly replace and test a copper alloy for the Aeon engine’s combustion chamber and nozzle thanks to additive manufacturing.
Rocket Lab wins multi-mission launch contract. Rocket Lab announced Thursday that it will launch multiple missions to low Earth orbit for BlackSky, a provider of real-time geospatial intelligence and global monitoring services. Nine BlackSky satellites will launch on five Electron missions in 2021.
Some positive news for Electron … The deal represents the largest number of satellites BlackSky has committed to a single launch provider to date, and includes the successful launch of BlackSky’s latest spacecraft on the shared-ride mission “They Go Up So Fast. “from Rocket Lab earlier this week. The BlackSky satellites each weigh 130 kg. It goes without saying that this contract is a validation of Electron’s performance to date and a promise for the future. (presented by Ken the Bin)
ESA promotes two more small startup companies. As part of its effort to support small startup startups, the European Space Agency said it has awarded two more “Boost!” Contracts. These awards went to British companies. Orbex received a prize of 7.45 euros and Skyrora received 3 million euros. ESA co-finances the Orbex Prime launch vehicle avionics, software and guidance, navigation and control activities. It is also co-financing the qualification of the main rocket engine destined for the first and second stage of the Skyrora XL.
A small step for a new space … “There is growing momentum in European private sector-led space transportation initiatives such as Orbex and Skyrora. This emerging dynamism is crucial to the long-term success of the European space sector,” said Lucía Linares, Chief strategy and institutional launches at ESA’s Directorate of Space Transportation. Previously, the Boost! The program presented awards to three German-based startup companies. This is a small but notable step towards supporting a more purely commercial launch industry in Europe. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
Arianespace signs agreement for 10 Vega-C launches. The Europe-based launch company said this agreement will allow Vega’s maker Avio to purchase long-life items for the production of Vega-C rockets, with the first delivery expected in 2023. The new satellite launch vehicle small, an update on the current Vega rocket will debut later this year or early 2022.
Greater competitiveness? … The announcement follows the commitment of several European countries to launch their payloads on the new rocket. “Several European Earth science and observation programs, notably Copernicus, will fully benefit from Vega C’s increased competitiveness,” said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace. The big question on my mind is whether Vega-C can win any commercial launch contracts or if it can only attract institutional missions. (presented by Ken the Bin)
ABL Space raises $ 170 million in new funding. The California-based rocket company announced Thursday that it has closed a Series B investment round that values ABL Space at $ 1.3 billion. The funding round was led by T. Rowe Price Associates and stands out at a time when many other competitors have raised money through Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, or SPACs.
Send and shoot … The company confirmed that it is on track to launch its RS1 rocket later this year, which is designed to be capable of lifting 1 metric ton into low Earth orbit. One cool feature of the RS1 rocket is that ABL says it can be transported in shipping containers and launched from any suitable location in the world. ABL already says it has contracts with 10 different clients: five commercial clients, four clients of the US Department of Defense and one client of a national space agency. (presented by Ken the Bin)
Europe is starting to freak out about SpaceX. There now appears to be a growing concern in Europe that the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets will not be competitive in the near future launch market. The finance ministers of France and Italy have concluded that the launch market has changed dramatically since 2014, when the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets were first designed. According to a report by Le Figaro, ministers believe that the ability of these new European rockets to compete for commercial launch contracts has deteriorated significantly since then.
The principal cause? Spacex … Thanks to its low-cost, reusable Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has been able to cut prices for large commercial satellites that could be raised by the Ariane 6, Ars reports. The company’s small satellite rideshare program similarly threatens the Vega-C rocket. Because of this, the French and Italian ministers are calling for Europe to provide a meaningful “technological and industrial” response to the rise of SpaceX. It is unclear what form this would take or how quickly European nations could act in response.
GK Launch Services completes the first fully commercial mission. A Soyuz rocket launched 38 satellites from 18 countries on Monday in the first commercial carpool mission that GK Launch Services has organized without a Russian government satellite on board, SpaceNews reports. The elegant rocket was painted blue and white to commemorate the upcoming 60th anniversary of the first manned space flight.
Selling the Soyuz … South Korea’s remote sensing satellite CAS500-1 was the main payload, but the mission included small satellites from 18 other countries. A subsidiary of Roscosmos, GK Launch Services operates commercial Soyuz-2 launches from Russian spaceports. With the decline of the Proton rocket, the Soyuz is now clearly Russia’s most commercially competitive rocket. (presented by Ken the Bin)
The launch of Starlink marks a great anniversary of SpaceX. A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched another set of Starlink satellites on March 24. This was the ninth Falcon 9 mission of 2021 and the fourth this month, reports SpaceNews. Seven of those nine launches, including the four in March, have been dedicated to Starlink, increasing the size of the constellation to more than 1,300 satellites.
From Kwaj with love … This launch, coincidentally, took place exactly 15 years after SpaceX made the first launch of its Falcon 1 rocket from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. That March 24, 2006 launch was unsuccessful as the single engine on the first stage failed about 30 seconds after takeoff. By the way, there is a good book on the Falcon 1 that was published recently. (presented by Ken the Bin)
Russian company developing a space plane. A couple of years ago, Russian weapons manufacturer Kalashnikov acquired NPO Molniya, which built the Buran spacecraft decades ago and is now working on reusable space systems. Now, Reuters reports that Molniya is developing a reusable space plane. It is unclear how much of the funds is being provided by the Russian government.
Is the project really real? … A full-size model of the plane was unveiled in a closed pavilion during a Russian military forum last year, and the project is now under development, said the director general of Molniya’s production research facility. “The goal has already been set and the development of a civil multipurpose complex with an orbital plane is in full swing,” said official Olga Sokolova. As always, it is difficult to know how much of this is talked about and how much is real hardware. (presented by Imbrium)
SpaceX to conduct second SN11 hot fire test. SpaceX completed an initial static fire test of its SN11 spacecraft prototype on Monday, March 22. While the test seemed to nominally continue, the data must have shown some problem. Reporter Michael Baylor said The company had to remove one of the vehicle’s three Raptor engines and will now target no earlier than Friday for a second static fire test of the vehicle.
Hit the landing this time? … Although there is talk of attempting to fly on Friday after the static fire test, this most likely means that the SN11 won’t make its test flight until next week. SpaceX seeks to successfully land (and save) the full-scale spacecraft prototype for the first time after a high-altitude flight.
NASA continues to work on the second SLS vehicle. Technicians at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, completed a weld to join the two main parts of the launch vehicle stage adapter for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, the space agency said.
Get a head start … The adapter, a cone-shaped piece of hardware connecting the upper and lower stages of the rocket, will fly on Artemis II, the first manned mission in NASA’s Artemis program. The complete stage adapter is approximately three stories high and 30 feet in diameter. This hardware is unlikely to fly into space before the end of 2023 or 2024. (sent by Something witty)
Next three releases
March 25th: Soyuz | Mission OneWeb-5 | Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia | 02:47 UTC
28th March: GSLV | The GISAT 1 geoimage satellite | Satish Dhawan Space Center, India | TBD
April 9th: Soyuz | Soyuz MS-18 crew mission | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 07:42 UTC