Rocket Report: Next Falcon Heavy launch date set, Soyuz 5 engines clear tests

Photo of a Falcon Heavy rocket launch.
Enlarge / The Falcon Heavy rocket could launch again in one month.

Welcome to Edition 4.15 of the Rocket Report! This week, we have an update on the cause of the Alpha rocket launch failure and scads of news about medium-lift rockets. Also, for email subscribers, please accept our apologies for sending out an old edition of the newsletter.

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.

Alpha rocket explodes due to engine-out. Firefly Aerospace’s first launch of its Alpha rocket ended in failure when the rocket exploded 2.5 minutes after liftoff last Thursday, September 2. The video can be seen here. Two days after the launch, Firefly said the rocket failed when one of its first-stage engines shut down seconds after liftoff, SpaceNews reports. One of the four Reaver engines in the rocket’s first stage, designated engine 2, shut down 15 seconds into the flight.

No more fuel to burn … “It was an uneventful shutdown—the engine didn’t fail—the propellant main valves on the engine simply closed and thrust terminated from engine 2,” the company stated. The rocket continued to ascend using the remaining three engines—but with reduced thrust. That would explain the underperformance apparent in the flight: according to the company’s press kit, the vehicle was supposed to reach Mach 1 67 seconds into the flight, but launch controllers did not report that the vehicle was supersonic until 2 minutes 20 seconds after liftoff. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Rocket Lab lands multilaunch contract. The company said it has been awarded a contract to deploy an entire satellite constellation across five dedicated Electron missions for Kinéis, a global Internet-of-Things connectivity provider. The constellation will be deployed in rapid succession, beginning in the second quarter of 2023. Terms were not disclosed.

A big contract for a small rocket … “We are glad to entrust our constellation of 25 satellites to Rocket Lab,” said Kinéis CEO Alexandre Tisserant. “They are the leaders in small satellite launch and the obvious choice as launch partner to activate our constellation at such a pace.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

The Rocket Report: An Ars newsletter
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.

Rocket Lab seeks to catch up on lost “delta” revenues … The block-buy contract with Kinéis came as Rocket Lab disclosed a net loss of $32.5 million for the first half of 2022, Stuff reports. Founder Peter Beck expressed hope New Zealand’s tough lockdown restrictions will lift by the end of September, allowing the company to catch up on launches that have been delayed because of the COVID-19 delta variant outbreak.

Strict borders policy … According to Beck, Rocket Lab previously had three launches scheduled for late August and September, before the delta outbreak. New Zealand had some of the “most restrictive Covid measures globally” including current ‘stay at home orders’ which prevented launch operations from taking place, Beck said. “In addition, New Zealand’s strict international border restrictions have created delays. However, we have been successful in securing our customers’ entry into New Zealand so far,” he said. (submitted by platykurtic)

Korea seeks to develop commercial space industry. Starting next year, South Korea’s government will transfer state-owned space-launch-vehicle technologies to domestic aerospace companies, SpaceNews reports. To accomplish this, the government plans to spend $593 million from 2022 through 2027. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute, a state-run space technology developer that has played a central role in developing the nation’s first domestic space launch vehicle, KSLV-2, will be responsible for the public-to-private transfer.

Getting private companies involved … The transfer will be done so that the Korean aerospace institute and selected companies can do joint development and launch tests. “The time has come to make a departure from state-led development of space launch vehicles toward one in which the private sector plays an expanded and more active role,” said Yong Hong-taek, the science ministry’s vice minister. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Dawn Aerospace completes first round of test flights. The New Zealand-based space company has been working toward developing a reusable, uncrewed spaceplane. It took a step toward that goal this summer with a series of test flights of its Mk-II Aurora suborbital vehicle. The flights reached about 1 km in altitude and used jet engines instead of rocket engines, Stuff reports.

Big plans in the offing … The company hopes its suborbital Mk-II plane, the predecessor to the two-stage-to-orbit vehicle Mk-III, will be the first vehicle to access space multiple times per day. The Mk-II serves as a technology demonstrator for the Mk-III and will be used to capture atmospheric data for weather and climate modelling and scientific research. (submitted by platykurtic and Nicholas)

Webb telescope gets a launch date. NASA announced in August that the James Webb Space Telescope had passed its final ground-based tests and was being prepared for shipment to its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana. Now, the oft-delayed $10 billion telescope has an official launch date: December 18, 2021, Ars reports. The date was announced on Wednesday by NASA, the European Space Agency, and launch provider Arianespace. The space telescope will launch on an Ariane 5 rocket.

Un lancement en toute sécurité, s’il vous plaît … Why the most expensive scientific instrument NASA has ever built launching on a European rocket? Because the European Space Agency is conducting the launch for NASA in return for a share of observation time using the infrared telescope. Webb will observe wavelengths of light longer than those of the Hubble Space telescope, and this should allow the new instrument to see the earliest galaxies of the Universe. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

Space Force leans into innovative launch concepts. In June, a previously flown Falcon 9 booster lofted a new-generation Global Positioning Satellite for the US Space Force. This marked a watershed moment for the US military and the concept of reusable rockets, as the Space Force entrusted a satellite worth about a half-billion dollars to the new technology. Using a refurbished booster—this particular first stage launched a GPS III satellite in November 2020—did save the Space Force money. By agreeing to launch two of its new GPS III satellites on used rockets, essentially, the US government pocketed $52 million in cost savings.

Banking on innovation … This was certainly welcome, Space Force officials said, and it’s nice to have the potential to increase launch tempo. However, the most important factor, according to the chief of the US Space Force, is tapping into American innovation, Ars reports. “While innovation and speed inevitably come with risk, the biggest threat to our success is moving too slowly and refusing to change,” said Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations. “This launch proves the Space Force will smartly innovate to grow our national advantage in a contested space environment.”

India to make only minor tweaks for human launches. The Indian Space Research Organization will make only minor tweaks to its GSLV Mark III rocket for human spaceflight missions, WION reports. These changes to the country’s most-advanced rocket are meant to improve its reliability for undertaking the daunting task of lifting a human-carrying spacecraft into orbit.

Getting closer to human flights … As part of its Gaganyaan program, India is planning two test flights before a mission carrying Indian astronauts into orbit. The human-rated version of the rocket will put the 7.5-ton Gaganyaan spacecraft into a 170 x 400 km orbit, after which the spacecraft’s onboard propulsion will raise the Gaganyaan module to a uniform 400 km. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

NASA confirms launch targets for crew missions. The third full-crew rotation mission on a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle will take place no earlier than October 31, the space agency said. This Crew-3 mission will launch three NASA astronauts (mission commander Raja Chari, pilot Tom Marshburn, and mission specialist Kayla Barron) and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

Another flight next spring … Mission teams also are targeting no earlier than April 15, 2022, for the launch of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission to the space station for a six-month science mission aboard the microgravity laboratory. Crew-4 will be commanded by Kjell Lindgren with Bob Hines as pilot, both NASA astronauts. ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will be a mission specialist and command the ISS Expedition 68 crew, while the remaining crew member has yet to be named. If this schedule holds, Crew Dragon would fly seven human missions in less than two years. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Tests of Soyuz 5 rocket engines complete. Roscosmos says that it has completed testing of the RD-171MV rocket engine that will power the new Soyuz 5 booster. Intended to be a versatile rocket, used for both crewed and uncrewed launches, the Soyuz 5 launch vehicle is designed to be able to launch up to 17 tons of payload into low Earth orbit.

Old engines, new purpose … The modern RD-171MV is a modification of the RD-170 engine that was created in the mid-1980s as part of the Energia-Buran program. With testing complete, the engine will now be shipped to the Progress Rocket Space Center for integration with a Soyuz 5 first stage. The new rocket may debut as soon as late 2023. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

SpaceX wins Yahsat launch contract. Yahsat has selected SpaceX to launch its next-generation Thuraya mobile connectivity satellite in 2023, the companies announced September 8. A Falcon 9 will launch the Thuraya 4-NGS satellite (currently) being built by Airbus Defence and Space for UAE-based Yahsat) in the second half of 2023. The companies did not disclose terms of the launch contract, SpaceNews reports.

Least risky launcher … Ali Al Hashemi, chief executive of Yahsat, told the publication that his company did a competitive tender process for the satellite but that SpaceX offered by far the best proposal. “We think SpaceX is the most reliable choice for our mission, to ensure to our shareholders that we will achieve our mission on time,” he said. “It’s the least risky launcher as we see it.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Florida mulls tax breaks for launch companies. State Rep. Tyler Sirois is proposing new tax breaks for commercial space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, Florida Today reports. The “Zero G, Zero Fee Act” that Sirois introduced this week would exempt such things as rocket fuel and parts from Florida sales tax or other fees for the next 20 years and would prohibit the Sunshine State from taxing any takeoffs or landings. Sirois says the tax break will keep Florida competitive in the commercial space industry as other states are also getting in the launch business.

What about the Wright brothers? … “Florida is in tough competition with places like Texas and California and Mississippi that really have an aggressive approach to capturing commercial aerospace business,” Sirois, a Republican from Merritt Island, said. He said he came up with the idea for the bill following Blue Origin’s first crewed launch from West Texas in July. He heard afterward that some members of Congress said that such takeoffs and landing should be taxed the way commercial airplane flights are. “And I think that that’s exactly the wrong message to send to an industry that is still largely in development stages,” Sirois said. “I would liken it to this: How many test flights would the Wright brothers have attempted if a tax collector were standing at the end of the runway?” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Firm date for next Falcon Heavy. At the 2021 Small Payload Ride Share Symposium, Space Force officials revealed that they’re targeting October 9 for the launch of the USSF-44 mission on a Falcon Heavy rocket, Teslarati reports. Currently the most powerful rocket in the world, the Falcon Heavy last launched in June 2019. This will be the fourth overall launch of the big SpaceX rocket.

Direct to GEO … This mission was originally scheduled for a late 2020 launch, but due to “payload readiness” the launch has been delayed on several occasions. The rocket will carry two classified payloads and will be SpaceX’s first mission to launch direct to geostationary orbit. The rocket hardware appears to have been ready, in Florida, for several months now. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX planning Texas factory for Raptor engine. SpaceX is planning a $150 million expansion of its McGregor, Texas, test facility to expand its capacity to rapidly produce Raptor rocket engines. The city of Waco and McLennan County plan to chip in $6 million for the effort, assuming work wraps up by 2025 and the company’s McGregor payroll of 578 employees grows by 400, the Waco Tribune-Herald reports.

Rapid, reusable engine production … City council documents related to the McGregor deal provided scant information on the expansion and did not even mention rocket production. But during Tuesday’s council meeting, Waco City Manager Bradley Ford said the expansion would make the 4,280 acres SpaceX leases in McGregor’s industrial park home to “the most advanced rocket engine factory in the world.” SpaceX hopes to build two to four Raptor engines a day. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

Sept. 14: Soyuz | OneWeb 10 | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 18:07 UTC

Sept. 15: Falcon 9 | Inspiration 4 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 01:00 UTC

Sept. 23: Atlas V | Landsat 9 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. | 18:11 UTC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *