Welcome to Edition 1.27 of the Rocket Report! After a week off for Thanksgiving break, we’re chock full of news about rockets and engines from around the world—some of which seem fanciful, and some of which are real developments.
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 flies its rocket for the first time. No, it wasn’t a powered flight, but Virgin Orbit did perform a “captive-carry” test flight on November 18 in Victorville, located to the northeast of Los Angeles. The company strapped its 21-meter LauncherOne rocket to a modified 747 aircraft and took to the skies. “The vehicles flew like a dream today,” Virgin Orbit Chief Pilot Kelly Latimer said. “Everyone on the flight crew and all of our colleagues on the ground were extremely happy with the data we saw from the instruments on-board the aircraft, in the pylon, and on the rocket itself. From my perspective in the cockpit, the vehicles handled incredibly well, and perfectly matched what we’ve trained for in the simulators.”
Next stop, powered flight … This flight leads into the final step before an actual in-air rocket launch, which will involve at least one drop test when the carbon-fiber rocket is released from the 747 aircraft without firing its engine. This will be done in order to gather data about its free-fall performance through the atmosphere. After this test, Virgin Orbit will attempt an orbital launch early in 2019, the company says. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
PLD Space targets 2019 for suborbital launch. The Spanish rocket startup PLD Space says it is on track for the first launch of its Miura-1 suborbital rocket, SpaceWatch reports. This will be a technology demonstration launch, intended to show progression toward a vehicle that can put satellites into orbit. The launch will take place from a site in southern Spain known as “El Arenosilla.”
A rebranding … PLD Space has re-branded its rockets from Arion 1 and 2 to the suborbital Miura-1 and orbital Miura-5 (which has five engines). The company is positioning the Miura-5 as a European microlauncher, which will come online sometime in 2020 or later. PLD Space now has more than 40 employees, according to its website. Speaking of European micro-launch companies, the European Space Agency recently produced a nice rundown. (submitted by Herebus)
German space agency develops reusable engine. DLR researchers have developed a reusable rocket engine specifically for the launch of small satellites, Parabolic Arc reports. The rocket engine consists of two central components, a metal injector head manufactured by means of metal 3D printing, and a ceramic combustion chamber. The rocket engine was designed with additive manufacturing in mind for use in an economical, European microlauncher.
Lower costs sought … “Thanks to this relatively new manufacturing technology, we need significantly fewer parts and process steps, which speeds up the manufacturing process for the injector and reduces production costs. At the same time, we have been able to significantly reduce the mass of the components, which is always a very important factor in aerospace applications,” says Markus Kuhn, responsible for the project at the DLR Institute of Structures and Design. Soon, it seems as though we may have more small satellite rocket designs than small satellites themselves. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Korea successfully tests rocket engine. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute successfully flew a single-engine, single-stage KSLV-II test launch vehicle on Wednesday. This flight was intended to test the performance of the KARI 75-ton engine that goes into the Nuri (KSLV-II) rocket currently in development, and expected to be launched in 2021, Wesley Hwang-Chung reported. The critical rocket motor combustion time was maintained for 151 seconds, surpassing an initial goal of 140 seconds.
First indigenous Korean rocket … This was a positive step toward development of the first fully Korean rocket, which will lift about 1.5 tons to low Earth orbit. Hwang-Chung and others were enthused. “The distance was too far for the naked eye to properly see the rocket,” he wrote. “Only the fiery dot could be seen rising up to the sky. But the P1000’s powerful zoom was more than good enough to capture the sight in its full glory.” (submitted by wesley96)
Russia has a nuclear-powered rocket? The Moscow-based Keldysh Research Center posted a video of its nuclear-powered rocket. I will be able to land on Mars after seven months and can be re-launched into space just 48 hours after landing. According to RT (yes, we know), the propulsion system comprises “a gas-cooled fission reactor that powers a generator, which in turn feeds a plasma thruster.”
Elon using old-tech … In the video, the institute’s head, Vladimir Koshlakov, says SpaceX and Elon Musk are using old technology. Also, Elon apparently has only been successful because of government subsidies. Whatever. When your country is flying 50-year-old rocket and spacecraft technology, you don’t get to say other countries are using “old tech.” Also, build the engine and stop making YouTube videos, and we might believe this could exist some day. (submitted by Rudde and Ken the Bin)
Rocket carrying Australia’s first commercial payload launched. The five-meter rocket, developed by Queensland-based BlackSky Aerospace, was successfully launched into the sky from a farm in the town of Tarawara, west of Goondiwindi, in the state’s Outback border region. The rocket reached an altitude of 5.1km before landing about two kilometers away from the launch site, ABC News Online reported.
One small step … “This Sighter190 research rocket is the first in Australia to catapult a commercial payload to about the same height as Everest, and that’s happening right here in our own backyard in Queensland,” Queensland Manufacturing Minister Cameron Dick said. Queensland is among the Australian states making a play for a piece of the commercial aerospace industry. (submitted by David Woodward and dbayly)
Private companies building a spaceport in Japan. All Nippon Airways operator ANA Holdings and trading house Marubeni will set up a spaceport in Japan as early as 2021, Nikkei reports. The launch site will be used for private space travel and feature 3km runways for craft that take off horizontally like airplanes. A newly formed company named “Spaceport Japan” is advancing the project.
No site yet … The company has not chosen a site yet. Overall, Spaceport Japan apparently wants to secure a foothold in the international space-business race by building Asia’s first space travel hub for private spacecraft launched from airplanes, such as Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity. It is not known whether Spaceport Japan has contracted with any space-tourism companies. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
A busy week ahead in launch. Space journalist Chris Gebhardt noted on Twitter that the next nine days promises as many as seven orbital launches, beginning with a successful Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on Thursday and culminating with United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy mission to deliver the heavy NROL-71 payload on December 7.
Is this a record? … We’re not sure if this is any kind of record, but there will be a remarkable amount of diversity in launch sites, including India, Russia, Kazakhstan, French Guiana, and the East and West coasts of the United States. Record or not, if this is the future of launch, we like it a lot.
NASA launches safety review of SpaceX and Boeing. The Washington Post first reported that NASA will undertake a “months-long assessment” that will involve hundreds of interviews designed to evaluate the culture of the workplaces. The review was prompted by concerns about the behavior of SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the paper said. The review comes as both companies are striving to complete development of commercial crew spacecraft in 2019.
What is really at play here? … This was an interesting development. We have heard several reasons for this, from NASA wanting to perform a CYA review in case something goes wrong with these commercial spaceflights to, (more plausibly in our opinion) an effort by a few Congressman to detract from SpaceX’s efforts to win the race to the commercial crew launchpad. Remember, there are people in Congress who don’t like commercial crew in general and SpaceX specifically. We’re told NASA human spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmaier did not view this review as necessary but was not really in a position to resist. (submitted by Ken Kubiak)
Space is fighting for airspace. The increasing pace of US launch activity has put the industry increasingly in conflict with the far older (and far larger_ commercial aviation industry regarding access to the national airspace system in the United States, The Space Review reports. At a recent meeting jointly organized by the FAA and the Air Traffic Control Association, representatives of the aviation industry called out their space counterparts as the new kids on the block who need to do a better job following rules and not disrupting the business of commercial aviation.
Pushing back … Launch advocates pushed back on this characterization. “Let me say a little bit about the term ‘new entrant.’ It’s an interesting term that we use often to talk about commercial space and other things,” said Kelvin Coleman, acting administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, later. “I think it’s a bit of a misnomer, given that we’ve been launching rockets commercially in this country for quite a while.” Hopefully some fruitful steps forward can be found in the dialogue following this meeting. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
ArianeGroup gets a new CEO. The company reported in a news release that André-Hubert Roussel has been appointed by the ArianeGroup as Chief Executive Officer, effective January 1, 2019. He will replace Alain Charmeau, founder of ArianeGroup, who will retire after a transition period. Charmeau has overseen the European rocket firm during a turbulent time when it has competed with SpaceX and sought to develop a lower-cost rocket, the Ariane 6 booster, to compete.
Turbulent times … “It is now Andre-Hubert Roussel who must continue the adventure to ensure the success of ArianeGroup as a competitive and innovative group, guaranteeing independent and strategic access to space for Europeans,” Charmeau said in the news release. “On this occasion, I would like to thank all ArianeGroup employees for their engagement as well as our customers from both civil and defense markets for their trust.” Ars has more on Charmeau and the job he has done, in this feature.
NASA will replace SLS with commercial rockets? Business Insider caused something of a kerfuffle by reporting on comments made by Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s associate administrator, at The Economist Space Summit. “I think our view is that if those commercial capabilities come online, we will eventually retire the government system and just move to a buying launch capacity on those [rockets],” he said.
Not really new … In reality, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine himself has made these kinds of comments. It’s something easy to say right now, because Blue Origin’s New Glenn and SpaceX’s BFR rockets are unlikely to both come online before another five to seven years. This will provide NASA (and Congress) plenty of time to continue funding the SLS rocket until it makes at least one or two flights. (submitted by Rudde, NezumiRho, and Max Q)
What is up with all the BFR changes? In recent weeks, SpaceX founder Elon Musk has made a number of pronouncements on Twitter about the “mini” BFR upper stage that will fly on a Falcon 9 rocket. He also proposed changes to the big rocket itself. Oh, and he’s also changed the name of the rocket to “Super Heavy” and the upper stage to “Starship.” Ars attempts to make some sense of what is going on.
Optimizing for something … “It suggests that Musk is still trying to find the sweet spot between performance, cost effectiveness, and a product he can sell to customers, investors, and the government,” the article says of the changes. For the sake of humanity, we’re rooting for Musk to succeed, even if we have some skepticism.
Next Falcon Heavy rocket on the test stand. About 10 days ago, a side booster for SpaceX’s next Falcon Heavy launch was spotted in a vertical position at the company’s McGregor, Texas, first-stage test stand. This means that it was likely just days away from the rocket’s first static-fire ignition test, Teslarati reports.
Probably a satellite … SpaceX has not definitively specified which payload will launch on the next Falcon Heavy rocket. However, it probably will be the commercial Arabsat 6A satellite rather than the USAF’s STP-2 rideshare mission, and the launch could come as early as January 2019. We eagerly await the show. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
Nov. 30: Rokot | Three military comms satellites | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | 02:00:00 UTC
Dec. 2: Falcon 9 | Spaceflight SSO-A | Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. | 18:31 UTC
Dec. 3: Soyuz FG | Soyuz MS-11 crew launch | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 11:31 UTC