Rocket Report: SpaceX raises more cash, Buy your own New Glenn

The James Webb Space Telescope lifts off from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25.
Enlarge / The James Webb Space Telescope lifts off from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25.
ESA – S. Corvaja

Welcome to Edition 4.27 of the Rocket Report! And after two weeks away, the Rocket Report is back. I’d like to say I’m tanned, rested, and ready, but hey, one out of three isn’t bad. Anyway, there’s a ton of news to report after the holiday hiatus, so let’s jump right into it.

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.

Ukrainian investor asked to divest from Firefly. The US government has requested that Max Polyakov, a wealthy Ukrainian tech entrepreneur, sell his stake in the rocket company Firefly Aerospace Inc., Bloomberg reports. The military cited national security concerns in making the request. Polyakov backed Firefly with $200 million in 2017 after the company declared bankruptcy and is credited with turning the company around. Polyakov had already stepped back from the company’s board of directors a year ago

Alpha on hold … Government and aerospace industry officials, however, have continued to express objections to Polyakov’s control of the company amid fears that valuable technology could make its way to Ukraine, Russia, or other nations trying to develop rocket programs. Polyakov has agreed to sell his 50 percent ownership stake in the company for the sake of Firefly. In the meantime, it appears that work toward the second launch of the company’s Alpha rocket at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California has been put on hold. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Design flaw cited in Korean rocket failure. The failed October debut of South Korea’s first domestically built rocket, the KSLV-2, is being blamed on improperly anchored helium tanks inside the three-stage rocket’s upper stage, SpaceNews reports. The kerosene and liquid oxygen-fueled rocket released its dummy payload into an unsustainable orbit when its upper-stage engine shut down 46 seconds early. A failure investigation led by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute found that improperly designed structures allowed helium tanks inside the upper stage to come loose during flight, resulting in a leak that deprived the rocket’s engine of liquid oxygen.

Fortifying the anchors … The helium tanks with the faulty anchors were inside the upper stage’s oxidizer tank, which was filled with liquid oxygen needed for the rocket’s ignition. With the helium tanks coming loose, they disrupted pipelines within the oxidizer tank and led the liquid oxygen to leak, resulting in early termination of the ignition. The issue will be corrected by fortifying the helium tank anchors in the KSLV-2. A second test flight of the KSLV rocket should come later this year. (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.

FAA approves Georgia spaceport, but. The long-running saga over whether proponents of a spaceport in coastal Georgia could move ahead appeared to reach a conclusion in December when the Federal Aviation Administration issued Spaceport Camden a site operator’s license on December 20. But then the project hit another snag over a land dispute.

Will it come to a vote? The Current reports that Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett issued a temporary restraining order preventing Camden County, for now, from closing on the purchase of the 4,000-acre Union Carbide tract where the county intends to build a spaceport. Opponents requested the restraining order on behalf of themselves and about 4,000 other county voters who signed a petition seeking a referendum on the purchase of the property. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

More orbital rockets launched in 2021 than ever before. More rockets made orbital launch attempts during 2021 than in any previous year in history, breaking a record that dates to the space race, Ars reports. There are no official records of such matters, but several good online resources provide a compendium of data that includes both orbital launch attempts and successes. Based on this information, a total of 144 orbital launches were attempted in 2021, of which 133 were successful. This total does not include two unannounced launch attempts by Iran’s Simorgh vehicle.

China and SpaceX lead the way … Last year’s numbers surpass the total orbital launch attempts in 1967 (122 successes out of 139 launch attempts) and a previous record for successes in 1976 (125 successes out of 131 attempts). 2021 was a rocket renaissance. The total number of global launch attempts has doubled during the last decade. From 2000 to 2010, the government and commercial operators launched, on average, fewer than 70 orbital rockets a year.

Arianespace reports strong performance in 2021. The French launch firm said it flew 15 successful Ariane, Soyuz, and Vega missions in 2021, while revenues grew by 30 percent and exceeded 1.25 billion euros. Arianespace capped a banner year by triumphantly launching the James Webb Space Telescope for NASA on Christmas Day. Because of the Ariane 5 rocket’s technical performance, Webb will have extra fuel for a longer life in space.

More busy times ahead … For 2022, Arianespace plans up to 17 launches, including the debuts of the small-lift Vega C rocket and potentially the larger Ariane 6 rocket. “Kudos to Arianespace’s teams and their government and industry partners for their tremendous work throughout 2021,” said Stéphane Israël, chief executive officer of Arianespace. “We were able to call on our family of launchers to meet our customers’ requirements, efficiently and competitively. We are now eagerly looking forward to meeting the challenges of 2022.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Angara A5 rocket launches, but upper stage fails. During the final week of 2021 Russia’s Angara A5 rocket lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. This was the third test flight of the rocket. This configuration of the Angara rocket contained the same first stage as the first two flights, consisting of a single “Universal Rocket Module” core powered by an RD-191 engine with four additional “URM” cores serving as attached boosters. However, for its third demonstration flight, the Angara A5 used a new upper stage named “Persei.”

Falling back to Earth … During the December 27 flight, the core stage and boosters performed nominally, as did a second stage. And after the Persei upper stage and its mass simulator deployed, its RD-0124 engine performed a nominal initial burn. But a second burn to put the payload into a higher, stable orbit failed, Ars reports. This Persei stage, tracked as IPM 3/Persey, harmlessly re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on Wednesday. Russia will likely return to using the conventional Briz-M upper stage for operational Angara missions.

SpaceX raises an additional $337 million. SpaceX disclosed the new funding in a regulatory filing at the end of December, Reuters reports. This comes after the company achieved a valuation of greater than $100 billion earlier this year based upon its launch business and prospects for the Starlink satellite Internet constellation.

A big financial liftTeslarati notes that this brings the amount of capital raised by SpaceX in 2021 to $1.85 billion. Why does SpaceX need so much money? Is it not profitable? Because, for the last half-decade, the company has been simultaneously developing a next-generation rocket, Starship, and the ambitious Starlink constellation. Both have required prodigious amounts of capital and are years away from returning significant money. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SLS rocket launch delayed into spring, at least. NASA said Wednesday that it is now targeting “mid-February” for an initial rollout of the Space Launch System rocket to the launch pad, Ars reports. The space agency set the new date after engineers and technicians successfully removed a faulty engine controller from one of the four space shuttle main engines that power the massive rocket. An engine controller is basically a flight computer that communicates between the engine and the rocket; this one had failed communication tests in late November.

April, May, or summertime? … Prior to the engine-controller issue, NASA had hoped to conduct the wet dress rehearsal in early January, thereby preserving an opportunity to launch during a two-week window in February. That never seemed realistic, and NASA has now lost six to eight weeks of schedule before even getting to the wet dress test. In its update Wednesday, NASA said it will set a target launch date after a successful wet dress rehearsal. Theoretically, if all goes smoothly, SLS might make its launch window in April. However, more realistically, May probably offers the earliest launch opportunity.

China could accelerate Moon-rocket development. A new Chinese heavy-lift rocket, based upon three cores like the Delta IV Heavy or Falcon Heavy rockets, could be ready for a debut flight by as early as 2026, SpaceNews reports. Long Lehao, a senior space industry figure and Long March launch-vehicle designer, said the kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket could be used to put Chinese astronauts on the Moon. The new-generation crewed launch vehicle first emerged as a concept at a 2018 airshow.

To the Moon, pretty soon … The proposed rocket gained formal government backing earlier this year, and this is the first time a timeframe for an inaugural launch has been publicly announced. The envisioned crew-rated rocket would be capable of sending 27 metric tons into lunar transfer orbit. Standing 90 meters tall, it will combine three Long March 5 cores, each five meters in diameter. Theoretically, this would allow China to launch humans to the Moon before 2030, although the country has publicly committed to no lunar landing dates. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

FAA delays Texas spaceport decision for two months. Days before the end of 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration said it would require a 60-day extension to release a “Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment” for SpaceX’s plan to launch Starships from near Boca Chica in South Texas. The FAA now plans to release the Final PEA on February 28, 2022, the agency says.

Scads and scads of comments … “SpaceX, under the supervision of the FAA, is currently drafting responses for the over 18,000 public comments received on the Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment. SpaceX is also preparing the Final PEA for the FAA’s review and acceptance,” the agency said. The delay was needed to response to the high volume of comments. (submitted by Tfargo04)

Blue Origin joins rocket cargo program. The rocket company owned by Jeff Bezos has signed a cooperative agreement with the US military to explore the possibility of someday using its rockets to transport cargo and people around the world, SpaceNews reports. A cooperative research and development agreement was signed December 17 with Blue Origin, a US Transportation Command spokesman said. USTRANSCOM oversees global military logistics operations.

And then there were three … The command last year signed similar agreements with SpaceX and with Exploration Architecture Corporation. Blue Origin is the third company to ink an agreement for the rocket cargo program. Under terms of these agreements, the companies agree to share information about their products and capabilities, but the government does not commit to buying anything. The rocket cargo project will use modeling and simulations to analyze the military utility, performance, and cost of transporting loads on commercial rockets and air-dropping cargo payloads. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Ariane 6 test stages on their way to Kourou. The core-stage and upper-stage test articles for Europe’s next-generation rocket, Ariane 6, are now en route to the launch site, ArianeGroup says. After final assembly at Les Mureaux in France and completion of all its functional acceptance tests, the core stage was taken to the French port of Le Havre. The ship then sailed to Bremen, Germany, to load the upper stage before setting sail for French Guiana. The two stages are scheduled to arrive at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana in January.

Hot fire test ahead … Once there, these test stages will be integrated horizontally in Ariane 6’s new Launcher Assembly Building. Then the Ariane 6 will be brought to a vertical position and installed inside its mobile gantry before being fitted with its solid rocket boosters. Ariane 6 will not lift off during the combined tests, but the main stage will be hot fire tested and the Vulcain 2.1 engine will be ignited several times on the launch pad, which will serve as a test bench. The Ariane 6 rocket is scheduled to launch during the second half of 2022. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

2022 may be a big year for super-heavy rockets. Or maybe not. By my count, there are five heavy-lift rockets that could make their orbital launch debuts in 2022: the European Space Agency’s Ariane 6, NASA’s Space Launch System, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, SpaceX’s Starship, and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. But the question is, will any of them? If so, how many of the five?

Over/under is set at 2.5Ars attempts to forecast the launch date for each of these vehicles and finds that two of them—Starship and the Space Launch System—have the best chance of launching by mid-2022. Less certain are Vulcan and Ariane 6, although both have a solid chance to make it during the second half of this year. There is no chance New Glenn makes its debut in 2022, and even 2023 seems like a stretch at this point.

Buy your very own New Glenn rocket. Speaking of New Glenn, Blue Origin has begun selling a 108th-scale model of the rocket on its website for $445. When completed, the model stands more than 34 inches tall and has landing legs deployed.

BE-4 engines not included … The first and second stages separate, and there is some nice detail about the upper stage, with its two BE-3U engines. Intentional or not, the model does not come with BE-4 engines. I find that uncommonly amusing. (submitted by RP)

Next three launches

Jan. 6: Falcon 9 | Starlink | Kennedy Space Center | 21:49 UTC

Jan. 13: Falcon 9 | Transporter 3 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 15:25 UTC

Jan. 24: Falcon 9 | COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 23:11 UTC

Leave a Reply

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