Rocket Report: SpaceX at the service of a rival; Endeavour goes vertical

Rocket Report: SpaceX at the service of a rival; Endeavour goes vertical

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Space shuttle<em> Endeavour</em>, seen here in protective wrapping, was mounted on an external tank and inert solid rocket boosters at the California Science Center.
Enlarge / Space shuttle Endeavour, seen here in protective wrapping, was mounted on an external tank and inert solid rocket boosters at the California Science Center.

Welcome to Edition 6.29 of the Rocket Report! Right now, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is the only US launch vehicle offering crew or cargo service to the International Space Station. The previous version of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket retired last year, forcing that company to sign a contract with SpaceX to launch its Cygnus supply ships to the ISS. And we’re still waiting on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V (no fault of ULA) to begin launching astronauts on Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule to the ISS. Basically, it’s SpaceX or bust. It’s a good thing that the Falcon 9 has proven to be the most reliable rocket in history.

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 Galactic flies four passengers to the edge of space. Virgin Galactic conducted its first suborbital mission of 2024 on January 26 as the company prepares to end flights of its current spaceplane, Space News reports. The flight, called Galactic 06 by Virgin Galactic, carried four customers for the first time, along with its two pilots, on a suborbital hop over New Mexico aboard the VSS Unity rocket plane. Previous commercial flights had three customers on board, along with a Virgin Galactic astronaut trainer. The customers, which Virgin Galactic didn’t identify until after the flight, held US, Ukrainian, and Austrian citizenship.

Pending retirement … Virgin Galactic announced last year it would soon wind down flights of VSS Unity, citing the need to conserve its cash reserves for development of its next-generation Delta class of suborbital vehicles. Those future vehicles are intended to fly more frequently and at lower costs than Unity. After Galactic 06, Virgin Galactic said it will fly Unity again on Galactic 07 in the second quarter of the year with a researcher and private passengers. The company could fly Unity a final time later this year on the Galactic 08 mission. Since 2022, Virgin Galactic has been the only company offering commercial seats on suborbital spaceflights. The New Shepard rocket and spacecraft from competitor Blue Origin hasn’t flown people since a launch failure in September 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Iran launches second rocket in eight days. Iran launched a trio of small satellites into low-Earth orbit on January 28, Al Jazeera reports. This launch used Iran’s Simorgh rocket, which made its first successful flight into orbit after a series of failures dating back to 2017. The two-stage, liquid-fueled Simorgh rocket deployed three satellites. The largest of the group, named Mehda, was designed to measure the launch environments on the Simorgh rocket and test its ability to deliver multiple satellites into orbit. Two smaller satellites will test narrowband communication and geopositioning technology, according to Iran’s state media.

Back to back … This was a flight of redemption for the Simorgh rocket, which is managed by the civilian-run Iranian Space Agency. While the Simorgh design has repeatedly faltered, the Iranian military’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has launched two new orbital-class rockets in recent years. The military’s Qased launch vehicle delivered small satellites into orbit on three successful flights in 2020, 2022, and 2023. Then, on January 20, the military’s newest rocket, named the Qaem 100, put a small remote-sensing payload into orbit. Eight days later, the Iranian Space Agency finally achieved success with the Simorgh rocket. Previously, Iranian satellite launches have been spaced apart by at least several months. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2024. Rocket Lab was back in action on January 31, kicking off its launch year with a recovery Electron mission from New Zealand. This was its second return-to-flight mission following a mishap late last year, Spaceflight Now reports. Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket released four Space Situational Awareness (SSA) satellites into orbit for Spire Global and NorthStar Earth & Space. Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO, said in a statement that the company has more missions on the books for 2024 than in any year before. Last year, Rocket Lab launched 10 flights of its light-class Electron launcher.

Another recovery … Around 17 minutes after liftoff, the Electron’s first-stage booster splashed down in the Pacific Ocean under parachute. A recovery vessel was stationed nearby downrange from the launch base at Mahia Peninsula, located on the North Island of New Zealand. Rocket Lab has ambitions of re-flying a first stage booster in its entirety. Last August, it demonstrated partial reuse with the re-flight of a Rutherford engine salvaged from a booster recovered on a prior mission. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

PLD Space wins government backing. PLD Space has won the second and final round of a Spanish government call to develop sovereign launch capabilities, European Spaceflight reports. Spain’s Center for Technological Development and Innovation announced on January 26 that it selected PLD Space, which is developing a small launch vehicle called Miura 5, to receive a 40.5-million euro loan from a government fund devoted to aiding the Spanish aerospace sector, with a particular emphasis on access to space. Last summer, the Spanish government selected PLD Space and Pangea Aerospace to each receive 1.5 million euros in a preliminary funding round to mature their designs. PLD Space won the second round of the loan competition.

Moving toward Miura 5 … “The technical decision in favor of PLD Space confirms that our technological development strategy is sound and is based on a solid business plan,” said Ezequiel Sanchez, PLD Space’s executive president. “Winning this public contract to create a strategic national capability reinforces our position as a leading company in securing Europe’s access to space.” Miura 5 will be capable of launching about a half-ton of payload mass into low-Earth orbit and is scheduled to make its debut launch from French Guiana in late 2025 or early 2026, followed by the start of commercial operations later in 2026. PLD Space will need to repay the loan through royalties over the first 10 years of the commercial operation of Miura 5. (submitted by Leika)

Japanese launch startup sets a date. Space One, a Japanese company developing its own small launch vehicle, announced January 26 that it has set a launch date for its Kairos rocket. The first Kairos launch is slated for March 9, during a one-hour launch window opening at 11 am local time in Japan. Space One aims to become the first Japanese private company to launch a rocket into orbit, breaking into a sector long dominated by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, with its H-IIA and H3 rockets that were developed with government funding. The Kairos rocket will attempt to place a small Earth-imaging satellite into orbit for the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, an intelligence agency of the Japanese government responsible for the country’s spy satellite fleet.

Is this real? … At the end of 2022, Japanese news reports indicated Space One was on track for the first flight of the Kairos rocket in February 2023. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and the program has been delayed several times since the company’s founding in 2018. But there’s reason to take this announcement seriously, with the specificity of the launch date and the statement from a Japanese intelligence agency regarding its satellite that will be aboard the Kairos rocket. The launch will occur at a privately run facility called Spaceport Kii, located roughly 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Osaka. (submitted by tsuname)

Falcon 9, meet Cygnus. For the first time, SpaceX has launched a Northrop Grumman-owned Cygnus supply ship on a cargo delivery mission to the International Space Station, CBS News reports. This launch, using a Falcon 9 rocket, occurred on January 30 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. It was SpaceX’s 10th launch so far in 2024. Northrop Grumman launched 17 of its previous 20 Cygnus cargo missions on the company’s own Antares rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia. While Antares was grounded after a launch failure, Northrop Grumman contracted with United Launch Alliance for three flights aboard Atlas V rockets. Now, Antares is undergoing a major redesign after Northrop Grumman lost access to Russian engines, and there are no more Atlas Vs available to buy.

Only game in town … Falcon 9’s launch availability and reliability have positioned it as the only option for companies needing to put a sizable payload into orbit at any time in the next year or two. That was the dilemma faced by Northrop Grumman, a SpaceX competitor in the market to resupply the ISS, in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. The fallout of the war meant Northrop Grumman could no longer import Russian rocket engines for the Antares rocket, and the supply chain for Antares’ Ukrainian-made first stage tanks also became suspect. Northrop Grumman has partnered with Firefly Aerospace to redesign Antares with new US-built engines, but the new rockets won’t fly until at least late next year. That means Cygnus cargo ships will have to launch at least three times on SpaceX rockets to fill the gap. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

ESA gives “go” to dismantle Ariane 6. This is actually a good thing. The European Space Agency said on January 31 that preparations are underway to begin taking apart an Ariane 6 rocket on its launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana. This follows a series of ground tests in the second half of last year, culminating in a long-duration hold-town test-firing of the Ariane 6’s Vulcain 2.1 engine in November. This largely completed the qualification of the Ariane 6 rocket for its maiden flight, now scheduled for June or July of this year. With the tests complete, technicians will dismantle the full-scale test version of the Ariane 6 launcher and prepare the launch site for the arrival of the first flight-worthy Ariane 6 rocket in the coming weeks.

Upper stage news … One unresolved technical issue on the Ariane 6 program stems from an aborted test of the upper stage’s Vinci engine on a test stand in Germany in early December. While ESA said engineers are still investigating why the engine shut down prematurely during this test, the agency said it doesn’t appear to be a problem for the Ariane 6 maiden flight. “Based on the results of the analysis performed, we can confirm that the launch period for the Ariane 6 inaugural flight is unchanged,” ESA said in a statement. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Starlab to launch on Starship. The Starlab commercial space station will launch on SpaceX’s Starship rocket, Ars reports. Starlab is a joint venture between the US-based Voyager Space and the European-based multinational aerospace corporation Airbus. The venture is building a large station with a habitable volume equivalent to half the pressurized volume of the International Space Station and will launch the new station no earlier than 2028. Starlab will have a diameter of about 26 feet (8 meters). It is perhaps not a coincidence that Starship’s payload bay can accommodate vehicles up to 26 feet across in its capacious fairing.

Single launch solution … While it took 37 space shuttle flights to assemble and outfit the International Space Station, Starlab will launch on a single Starship flight. Marshall Smith, Voyager Space’s chief technology officer, said the single launch solution saves money on development and integration. The Starlab station could launch with science payloads already integrated into the vehicle and should be ready for human habitation almost immediately, he said. Starlab is one of several commercial space station concepts in development, alongside the Orbital Reef complex from Blue Origin and Sierra Space, Axiom Space’s planned commercial outpost, and another commercial station being developed by a startup named Vast.

Owning Starship. The Pentagon has approached SpaceX about potentially taking over Starship for sensitive and potentially dangerous missions as a government-owned, government-operated asset instead of contracting the company to launch payloads, Aviation Week reports. A senior SpaceX adviser discussed the proposal at a conference this week. SpaceX typically builds and operates its own rockets and spacecraft, but the concept the military has in mind would involve the government owning a Starship rocket. The Air Force Research Laboratory already has a contract with SpaceX to study using Starship for quick-response, long-range cargo delivery around the world.

Going beyond … This concept, if pursued, would go beyond the Rocket Cargo program. According to Aviation Week, the idea is similar to how the Air Force moves cargo. At times, the service contracts with private carriers to deliver cargo, but for certain critical missions it uses service “gray tail” aircraft. In this hypothetical case, the military could take a Starship off the line for a specific mission and return it to SpaceX after it is complete. (submitted by Ken the Bin, JAY500001, and Medmandan)

Endeavour goes vertical. A complete space shuttle is standing upright for the first time in more than a decade, collectSPACE reports. Earlier this week, two large cranes carefully lifted NASA’s retired winged orbiter Endeavour off a Los Angeles side street into the air and then lowered it onto an already-standing external tank with twin solid rocket boosters. No, this is not the plot of a kitschy sci-fi film where the space shuttles make a comeback. Instead, Endeavour, the youngest of NASA’s surviving space shuttle orbiters, will be displayed vertically in launch configuration at the Samuel Oschin Air and Space Center at the California Science Center. The new center won’t open to the public for at least a few more years. Until now, Endeavour has been displayed to the public horizontally inside a temporary housing.

A unique display … With Endeavour now hanging on the side of its external tank and inert boosters, construction crews in Los Angeles will start building the museum structure around it. The shuttle hardware is so big that there wasn’t a way to get Endeavour inside the structure after it was already built. Endeavour will be the only shuttle displayed in its launch-ready configuration. Atlantis is housed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, with its payload bay doors open to appear as it would in orbit. Discovery appears with its landing gear down as if it just landed at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Next three launches

February 2: Jielong 3 | Unknown Payload | Bo Run Jiu Zhou Barge, China | 03:00 UTC

February 2: Long March 2C | Unknown Payload | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | 23:45 UTC

February 4: Falcon 9 | Starlink 7-13 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, California | 02:43 UTC

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