HomeScienceRocket Report: Virgin Galactic cleared for flight, Blue Origin “bet and lost”

Rocket Report: Virgin Galactic cleared for flight, Blue Origin “bet and lost”

Night time at a giant rocket hanger.
Enlarge / Under the stars with the Ariane 6 launch base at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.

Welcome to Edition 4.18 of the Rocket Report! As usual, it has been a busy week in the world of lift, and as it draws to a close so does the month of September. With three months left in the year, will we see any more orbital rocket debuts in 2021?

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.

The FAA clears Virgin Galactic to resume flights. On Wednesday, the FAA said it has closed its investigation into the July 11 launch of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle. “The investigation found the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its assigned airspace on its descent from space,” the FAA stated. “The FAA also found Virgin Galactic failed to communicate the deviation to the FAA as required. Virgin Galactic was not allowed to conduct flight operations as the investigation was ongoing. The FAA required Virgin Galactic to implement changes on how it communicates to the FAA during flight operations to keep the public safe. Virgin Galactic has made the required changes and can return to flight operations.”

Flying into a larger air space … Virgin Galactic said, for future flights, its protected air space would be larger to “ensure that Virgin Galactic has ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions.” The company will also take steps to ensure it communicates notifications to the FAA in real time. Virgin Galactic continues to say its next spaceflight, named Unity 23, will take place no earlier than mid-October. This flight will carry members of the Italian Air Force. Another thing to watch in October: employee stock options vest in late October. How many will take the money and run? (submitted by rico.j and Ken the Bin)

Aerospace Corp. CEO says small launch is “oversubscribed.” In an interview with SpaceDotBiz, Steve Isakowitz, president and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, commented on space markets he feels have more supply than demand, and cited the small launch industry. “I think it’s been said that there are up to a hundred different companies trying to get into that business. I think right now there’s less than a dozen that have the capital to be serious and maybe half of that are likely to make a real go at it. In some markets we’re just going to see too much supply.”

Demand for dedicated launch? … The small-launch industry is predicated on increased production of small satellites and a desire for dedicated launches, Isakowitz said. But the industry could go in other directions. “We’re looking at a large number of smaller satellites, and some of the big questions are whether it’s better to have that market aggregated with bigger launch vehicles or as secondary payloads on those vehicles,” he said.

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

Honda to develop a small, reusable rocket. In a news release on Thursday, the company said, “This rocket development was initiated by the proposal made by young Honda engineers who wanted to build a small rocket by utilizing core technologies, such as combustion and control technologies, that Honda has amassed through the development of various products.” It is intended to have a capacity of about 1 metric ton to low Earth orbit.

The world needs more rockets? … Honda says there currently “are not enough rockets available to meet demand for satellite launches.” While this technically may be true at this exact moment, it’s difficult to see that still being the case whenever Honda succeeds in developing and launching a small reusable rocket. I also wonder whether this is a case of automotive engineers assuming rocket science cannot be all that difficult. I look forward to following Honda’s progress. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

OneSpace plans to launch from boats and trains. Chinese launch firm OneSpace has released a new promo video for its Linglong series of modular, solid-fueled rockets. The rocket appears to come with options for an enhanced upper stage, as well as the potential to add two or even four strap-on boosters.

Boats and trains … The two-minute video emphasizes the modular nature of the rocket and how well it has been designed for transport in cargo containers. The video also shows the rocket launching not just from standard launch sites, but from a boat and a train. The latter depiction suggests such a rocket might be used as an ICBM, although presumably the company is marketing it for commercial payloads. (submitted by IA)

RocketStar ready for second suborbital flight attempt. New York-based RocketStar plans to launch its aerospike-powered rocket for the first time this fall, carrying a prototype satellite for resource-mapping startup Lunasonde on a brief suborbital trip. The 12-meter rocket that RocketStar calls Cowbell aims to reach 21 km on its test flight, depending on final safety requirements from NASA, SpaceNews reports. The rocket will fly from Launch Complex 48—a multiuse launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

From sea to land … Although RocketStar estimates this mission will only last eight minutes, Lunasonde expects that will be enough time for its onboard subsurface radar imager to collect reflectance data. RocketStar had planned to launch Cowbell on its first suborbital launch in early 2019 to test what the company has described as a proprietary aerospike engine. The delay was attributed to shifting from a sea-based launch pad to one on land. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)

Phantom Space claims $240 million satellite launch deal. Phantom Space, the company led by former Vector CEO Jim Cantrell, says it has reached a “deal valued at up to $240 million to design, build and launch a 72-satellite constellation” for an Internet-of-things company called Ingenu. The partnership comes as Phantom Space is looking to lower the barriers for new commercial applications in space, Fox Business reports. The satellites are expected to launch on Phantom’s Daytona launch vehicle in late 2023.

Deere in the headlights … The story contains an interesting correction at the end. Apparently, someone claimed that Ingenu was a subsidiary of John Deere. “This article previously stated that Ingenu is a subsidiary of John Deere, however it is not. In a statement, Ingenu said John Deere dealers, and to a lesser extent John Deere Corporate, are ‘aware of Ingenu’s satellite initiatives in regards to what benefits those initiatives in conjunction with their technology can bring to their environment.'” We’ll leave it to readers to assess the viability of Phantom’s ability to deliver on this deal.

First Axiom mission gets a launch date. NASA said that Axiom will launch its first private mission to the International Space Station, Ax-1, no earlier than February 21, 2022, Space Explored reports. The four passengers, believed to be paying $55 million each, will fly to the station on a Crew Dragon vehicle.

Along for the ride … The crew includes Michael López-Alegría; a former NASA astronaut and VP of Axiom Space who will serve as the mission commander. Larry Connor will serve as the mission pilot. Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe will be flying to the station as mission specialists. This will be the first all-private mission to the space station. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Fuel depot to launch within a year or so. Orbit Fab, a startup offering a refueling service in space, will launch a propellant tanker to geostationary orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 lunar lander mission projected for late 2022 or early 2023. The payload will get to geostationary orbit aboard a Spaceflight Sherpa-ES orbital transfer vehicle using a novel “lunar flyby” trajectory that takes the vehicle first around the back of the Moon, SpaceNews reports.

Depot—there we said it … The company said its fuel depot will store about 100 kg of hydrazine. “We’ve already got several million dollars worth of contracts from the Space Force and Air Force, who are funding flight qualification of the fueling ports,” CEO Dan Faber told the publication. The plan is to send “fuel shuttles” to orbit over the next couple of years. This is a step toward on-orbit fuel storage and transfer, long seen as a key enabling technology for sustainable spaceflight. (submitted by Ken the Bin).

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