Welcome to Edition 3.24 of the Rocket Report! It’s December, and we could see a number of big smallsat launches this month, including from Virgin Orbit and Astra. But in the immediate future, our eyes are on South Texas, where a Starship prototype is due to make a high leap early next week.
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.
Aevum unveils its Ravn X launch system. Until now, Aevum has largely operated in the background. But now, it’s ready to show off some hardware, and it’s starting with the “Ravn X” launch system’s first stage, Ars reports. This autonomous aircraft and launch vehicle measures 24 meters long and has a wingspan of 18 meters. It has a gross takeoff mass of 25,000kg—massive for an uncrewed aerial vehicle. It will drop a rocket capable of carrying 100kg to Sun-synchronous orbit.
Seeking to make satellite delivery a commodity … The company is targeting next year for its first launch. Even as it has finalized the Ravn X first stage, Aevum has been developing a rocket with two liquid-fueled engines for its main stage, each with 5,000 pounds of thrust and a single upper-stage engine. These engines have been hot-fire tested beyond their full duration burns and have gone through qualification and acceptance testing, the company said. Aevum claims it has secured launch contracts worth more than $1 billion over the next decade, including the Air Force’s ASLON-45 mission.
Virgin Orbit sets date for second launch attempt. On Monday, Virgin Orbit announced it would try a second orbital flight of its LauncherOne rocket on Saturday, December 19. The four-hour window will open at 10am PT (18:00 UTC). During the company’s first demo flight last May, the rocket was successfully dropped from its carrier aircraft, and its engine ignited for a few seconds before running out of LOX due to a blocked line.
This time, there will be a customer … That mission carried no payloads, but this one will. Through its Venture Class Launch Services program, NASA is providing nine CubeSat missions comprising 10 total spacecraft to fly on the Launch Demo 2 mission. The company said it still has to conduct a wet dress rehearsal before embarking upon its launch attempt. Good luck! (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Relativity Space adds $500 million to funding coffers. The launch company that aims to 3D-print nearly the entirety of its rockets announced it had closed the large series D funding round in late November. This raises the valuation of the company to $2.3 billion, CNBC reports. It also makes the company the second-most valuable private space company, behind only SpaceX.
A pile of cash … “This really accelerates Relativity’s momentum and scaling as we focus beyond first launch on production and various infrastructure expansion projects,” Ellis said. We can confirm that this is A LOT of private funding for a rocket company to raise, especially prior to its first launch attempt. This can only help Relativity hold to its aggressive 2021 launch schedule. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Rocket Lab says recovered stage in “good condition.” Ten days after launching its “Return to Sender” mission, Rocket Lab provided an update on its first attempt to recover an Electron rocket first stage. “We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome of our first recovery attempt and the team is thrilled.” The rocket came back in such good condition, the company added, “We will re-qualify and re-fly some components.”
Not ready for a chopper yet … The November 20 flight marked the first time Rocket Lab has fished an Electron out of the Pacific Ocean, Ars reports. The rocket was picked up in the waters off the coast of New Zealand, where the small booster launches from. Founder Peter Beck said the company wanted to assess the health of the first stage—and make necessary modifications to heat-shield and flight software—before going to the final step of catching the Electron rocket midair with a helicopter. This could happen next year after more tests.
Billionaire invests in Shetland spaceport. Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen are investing 1.5 million pounds ($2 million) in a proposed spaceport in the Shetland Islands north of Scotland, the BBC reports. The couple’s company, Wildland Ltd., is also taking legal action to halt planning permission for Space Hub Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands.
NIMBY, rocket edition … The Danish couple, which owns a retail clothing empire, also owns thousands of acres of land in Sutherland and on other estates in the Highlands. The Povlsens have raised concerns about Space Hub Sutherland’s impact on the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Protection Area. This seems to be a rather brazen attempt to strengthen the financial case for the Shetland site and draw investment and support away from the Sutherland location. (submitted by BH)
Vector’s Jim Cantrell is back. The co-founder of the rocket company Vector has quietly started up Phantom Space, a new company planning to provide micro-satellite launch services, as well as small satellites and propulsion systems, the Arizona Daily Star reports. Cantrell told the publication he was convinced to start another satellite tech company by Michael D’Angelo, a former colleague at Vector, after they figured they could use the many lessons they took from Vector. Phantom is in the process of building four launch vehicles and hopes to launch its first orbital flight in about two years.
Fool me once … Cantrell said Phantom is taking a broader view of the still-evolving New Space industry, which has been driven by the rapid development of tiny satellites for research and communications. Rather than create a vertically integrated company that builds everything from the ground up, Phantom is integrating existing technologies—notably including proven, off-the-shelf engines for its launch vehicles—into systems to serve its customers. “We’re a space transportation company,” Cantrell said. “Thinking about the future, we don’t know what the killer app is. One thing we do know is, people have to send their objects into space and you have to move them around, and sometimes bring them back.” We’re going to take a wait-and-see approach to this one. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
NASA, SpaceX on track for next Cargo launch. The space agency said it is targeting Saturday, December 5, for SpaceX’s 21st Commercial Resupply Services mission to the International Space Station. However, weather officials with the US Air Force 45th Space Wing are predicting only a 40-percent chance of favorable weather conditions for liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Cargo Dragon spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center.
Rocket lofting its second ISS mission … This will be the first mission under the company’s second Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA and the first flight of the upgraded cargo version of Dragon 2. This flight will reuse the same Falcon 9 first stage that launched the crewed Demo-2 mission in May, sending Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the space station. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Delay of H3 rocket debut confirmed. The first launches of the new Japanese H3 launch vehicle are being delayed by issues with two components of the rocket’s main engine, SpaceNews reports. JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the prime contractor for the H3, had been aiming to hold the inaugural launch by the end of 2020 before the discovery of issues in May.
You’ve got to watch the FTP blades … Now, the rocket’s debut will slip to sometime in Japanese fiscal year 2021, beginning April 1, 2021. The problems were found with the new LE-9 engine’s combustion chamber and turbopump. “Fatigue fracture surfaces were confirmed in the apertural area of the combustion chamber inner wall and the FTP blade of the turbo pump,” according to JAXA. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Russian spaceport officials being sacked left and right. The head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, has continued a spree of firings that have seen many of the nation’s top spaceport officials fired, arrested, or both. Most recently, on November 27, Rogozin fired the leader of the Center for Exploitation of Ground-Based Space Infrastructure, which administers all of Russia’s spaceports. Andrei Okhlopkov, the leader of this Roscosmos subsidiary, had previously faced a reprimand from Rogozin for “repeated shortcomings in his work.”
Wait, there’s more … Earlier this month, Vladimir Zhuk, chief engineer of the center that administers Russian spaceports, was arrested. Several other key officials connected with the Vostochny Cosmodrome—under development since 2011 and intended to reduce Russia’s reliance on the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan—have also been recently let go. The spaceport has been mired in corruption almost since construction began, Ars reports.
NASA confirms return of 1960s Centaur booster. Scientists have confirmed that Near-Earth Object 2020 SO is, in fact, a 1960s-era Centaur rocket booster. First discovered in September, analysis of 2020 SO’s orbit revealed the object had come close to Earth a few times over the decades, with one approach in 1966 bringing it close enough to suggest it may have originated from Earth, NASA said. This timing was coincidental with the launch of the 1966 Surveyor 2 mission to the Moon, NASA said.
Using spectra data … To confirm this, a team led by Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor and planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, performed followup spectroscopy observations of 2020 SO using a NASA telescope on Maunakea, Hawaii. Reddy’s team observed another Centaur D rocket booster long enough to get a good spectrum. The rocket was from a 1971 launch and had delivered a communication satellite that was in Geostationary Transfer Orbit. With this new data, Reddy and his team were able to compare it against 2020 SO and found the spectra to be consistent with each another, thus definitively concluding 2020 SO to also be a Centaur rocket booster. (submitted by Tfargo04)