Welcome to Edition 4.12 of the Rocket Report! This issue comes complete with some late-breaking news: Firefly has completed a static fire test of its Alpha rocket. This is a big moment and sets up the company’s very first launch attempt next month.
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.
Firefly completes static fire test. The Texas-based rocket company announced Thursday that it successfully completed a static fire test of its Alpha rocket the day before. This critical test paves the way for a launch attempt as early as September 2 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
Becoming the Alpha … During the test, the vehicle was fully fueled with kerosene and liquid oxygen, and its four first-stage Reaver engines were fired for 15 seconds. This is a big moment for Firefly as it seeks to bring Alpha to the market ahead of other rockets in the class of launchers that can deliver about 1 ton to low Earth orbit. Its primary competitors in this range are Relativity Space and ABL Space.
Virgin Orbit working on “evolved” rocket. NASA’s Stennis Space Center says it reached a Space Act Agreement with Virgin Orbit last November for testing of a new version of the company’s Newton 3 engine (N3.2). Testing of the thrust chamber assembly for this upgraded engine on the E-1 Test Stand, Cell 1, began March 30 and lasted through July 20. A total of 87 hot fire tests were performed during the testing period, with a combined test time of 974 seconds.
Design changes will appear in the Newton 3 engine … “Virgin Orbit has been working with the Stennis test team since late 2020 on a variety of complex, engine-related activities,” said Tom Alexiou, program manager for Virgin Orbit’s evolved launch vehicle. “Their support of us has been exemplary in all facets of the program. We continue to maintain an excellent working relationship and look forward to our latest N3.2 engine development testing program that will take us into 2022.” We’ll try to get more details about performance upgrades for this “evolved” version of LauncherOne.
Park service concerned about Georgia spaceport. The long-running effort to build a commercial launch facility in Camden County, Georgia, has run into another hurdle, The Brunswick News reports. Department of the Interior officials, in a letter to FAA officials, expressed concerns about the impacts a failed launch could have on the barrier island, including “fires, explosions, or releases of propellants or other hazardous materials.”
No final decision from the FAA yet … Spaceport opponents welcomed the intervention by the National Park Service. “I have hope the Park Service’s strong position of opposition to Spaceport Camden will give the FAA another good reason to not grant a launch license to Camden County,” said Megan Desrosiers, director of the environmental group One Hundred Miles. “I’m grateful that the local Park Service leaders put the work in and stuck with it for all these years and that this position was released before a decision was made about the launch license.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)
New Shepard-17 launch announced. Blue Origin says the next launch of its New Shepard system will take place on Wednesday, August 25, at 8:35 am local time (13:35 UTC) from Launch Site One in West Texas. The mission will fly a NASA lunar-landing-technology demonstration a second time on the exterior of the booster, 18 commercial payloads inside the crew capsule (11 of which are NASA-supported), and an art installation on the exterior of the capsule.
Putting reuse to the test … This will be the 17th New Shepard mission to date and the fourth flight for the program in 2021. Overall, it will be the eighth flight of this RSS HG Wells spacecraft and booster, which last launched in October 2020. Blue Origin Plans to use this vehicle for uncrewed flights going forward, while the newer RSS First Step (which launched Jeff Bezos in July) will be for future human flights. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Take a trip inside Relativity Space’s factory. In a 20-minute video, filmmaker Derek Alexander Muller dives into Relativity’s 3D rocket-printing technology and has an extensive interview with company co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis. The video features long shots inside the factory of the 3D-printing process and the company’s hardware.
Meet the nerd behind the company … Elements of both the Terran 1 rocket as well as the much larger Terran R rocket appear in the video. The interview with Ellis is also fun, because it captures both his nerdiness and passion for rockets and technology. Clearly, he’s in this business because he wants to make a difference, and he seems to be accomplishing just that. Worth a watch. (submitted by Robert Stetka)
Vega launches second Pléiades Neo satellite. Arianespace launched a second satellite for the Pléiades Neo imaging constellation Monday on a Vega rocket. The Pléiades Neo 4 satellite lifted off from French Guiana at 9:47 pm EDT, successfully separating from the rocket about an hour later, SpaceNews reports.
Amazing graphics … The mission is Vega’s first since returning to flight April 28, following a November 16 failure that an investigation pinned on improperly connected cables in the rocket’s upper stage. The Arianespace webcast of the launch was outstanding, featuring some of the best graphics for a launch webcast I’ve ever seen. They were produced by a French company named Light and Shadows. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)
Astra’s next launch to feature upgraded rocket. The California launch company will introduce an upgraded version of its small launch vehicle on its next flight, set for no earlier than August 27, SpaceNews reports. During an earnings call last Friday, Astra CEO Chris Kemp said those upgrades include stretching the tanks in the rocket’s first stage to increase the amount of propellant they can hold, reducing the mass of the upper stage, adding sensors to provide data about the vehicle’s flight environment, and consolidating more than a dozen unspecified components on the upper stage into a single unit.
Three launches in 2021 … That particular rocket, known by the internal designation LV0006, has been shipped to Kodiak and was scheduled to arrive August 16. The launch will be the first since the company’s Rocket 3.2 vehicle fell just short of reaching orbit on a launch from Kodiak in December 2020. Astra expects to conduct two additional launches this year. Kemp said the dates for those future launches aren’t “locked in” yet but that the company hopes to demonstrate a monthly launch cadence before the end of the year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Japan conducts rotary detonation-engine experiment. In late July, the Japanese S-520-31 sounding rocket launched a detonation-engine system for the JAXA Space Science Institute. The Japanese space agency said this experiment marks the first time that rotary and pulse detonation engines were successfully demonstrated in space.
Applying the technology to space exploration … Such detonation engines are theoretically more efficient than a traditional combustion engine and should weigh less than a traditional rocket engine. JAXA plans to use data from this test for potential development of detonation engines for kick stages as well as first- and second-stage rocket engines. (submitted by Michael Börner)
United Launch Alliance to mandate vaccines. United Launch Alliance will require all employees to receive vaccinations against COVID-19 beginning September 1, CNBC reports. “The recent increase in cases in our communities and among our teammates is beginning to stress the schedule and negatively impact our ability to meet our commitments to our customers,” ULA CEO Tory Bruno wrote on Wednesday in a company-wide email.
Bruno said he did not take this step lightly, but … “This requirement is in alignment with our US government customer and industry direction and will place us in a much better position to meet the nation’s needs and our manifest commitments while protecting the health of everyone at our facilities,” Bruno added in the email. ULA is one of the first large space companies to take this step.
China moving toward “commercial cargo” model. Last January, China issued a proposal for low-cost cargo transportation solutions to its new space station in low Earth orbit. This initiative is similar to that of NASA’s commercial cargo program, currently being flown by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman. Chinese firms are expected to deliver 1 to 4 tons and potentially return scientific experiments to Earth.
Two bidders, at least … SpaceNews reports on interest by at least two Chinese companies in the initiative. Space Pioneer cited cargo missions as part of a fundraising round in July. And now Beijing-based Interspace Explore has reached a deal with Chinese private launch firm Galactic Energy for launch of the Zhengzhang-1 demonstration returnable satellite. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
Starliner grounded due to valve issue. Boeing said last Friday that its Starliner spacecraft will be grounded indefinitely while it continues to investigate problems with the valves in the propulsion system. The decision to move Starliner precludes a launch date this month, and it may prevent a launch before 2022, Ars reports. United Launch Alliance, which is providing the Atlas V rocket, will need to focus its attention on NASA’s Lucy mission, due to launch in mid-October.
Rocket reuse of a sort … While it is possible Starliner could be readied for a November launch, Boeing official John Vollmer did not sound optimistic. “It’s probably too early to say whether it’s this year, or not,” he said. “I would certainly hope for as early as possible, and if we could fly this year, it would be fantastic.” The Atlas V rocket first stage that was to launch Starliner will now be repurposed to launch the Lucy asteroid mission. The special dual-Centaur engine second stage will be reserved until Starliner is ready to fly.
Blue Origin escalates feud with NASA. The company filed suit in the US Court of Federal Claims on Friday and received a protective order to seal the documents on Monday. The lawsuit concerns a NASA contract award for a Human Landing System and follows a decision in late July by the US Government Accountability Office that rejected a protest by Blue Origin and Dynetics over NASA’s $2.9 billion award to SpaceX to further development of its Starship program. On Thursday, as a result of the lawsuit, NASA said it had agreed to a “stay” on work on the Human Landing System contract until November 1.
Talks to mediate the dispute failed … As recently as last week, senior leaders at NASA and Blue Origin were in talks to forestall such a lawsuit. NASA would still like to include Blue Origin in its Artemis program, a source familiar with those talks said. However, the space agency does not appear to have come to an agreement with the company. NASA said it was aware of the lawsuit and that the space agency was reviewing its details. Ars reports on why Blue Origin is likely pursuing this course of action. (submitted by multimediavt and Ken the Bin)
Concerns raised about Aerojet, Lockheed merger. Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan has expressed concerns about vertical mergers in which a large corporation seeks to acquire a major supplier. Her comments target the defense industry and may have implications for Lockheed’s proposed $4.4 billion acquisition of engine-maker Aerojet Rocketdyne, SpaceNews reports. The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice are responsible for reviewing mergers in the defense industry and can block them if competition is reduced.
Khan remains skeptical … Lockheed Martin said the company, if the acquisition of Aerojet is approved, would provide propulsion products for the entire industry. “I am skeptical that behavioral remedies alone are sufficient to prevent a vertical merger from causing harm,” Khan wrote in her letter to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) “This is especially true for vertical mergers involving large firms with substantial market power at one or more levels of the supply chain. The larger the market share, the higher the risk that a vertical merger will result in a reduction of competition post-merger.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
August 19: Soyuz | OneWeb 9 | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 22:33
August 27: Rocket 3.3 | Space Test Program mission for Space Force | Kodiak Island, Alaska | 21:00 UTC
August 28: Falcon 9 | CRS-23 ISS Supply mission | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 07:37 UTC