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Rocket Report: NASA installs SLS software, India’s GSLV fails to reach orbit

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A rocket leaves a cloud of smoke behind as it launches it a blue sky.
Enlarge / A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft launches from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Welcome to Edition 4.11 of the Rocket Report! Another week down in 2021, and another week closer to the end of the year. I’m eager to see which companies that have talked about debut launches in 2021—including Firefly, ABL Space, and Relativity—actually succeed. Only a little more than four months remain to reach that goal.

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.

Rocket Lab to launch Moon mission from New Zealand. The company will launch the CAPSTONE mission to the Moon from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand during the fourth quarter of 2021, Radio New Zealand reports. This will be Rocket Lab’s first lunar mission, and the 20 kg satellite will validate innovative navigation technologies and verify the dynamics of a halo-shaped orbit around the Moon.

So many firsts … This is the first mission to launch directly in support of NASA’s Artemis program, and it will also demonstrate the use of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft platform as a translunar injection stage. This mission was originally due to launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, this year. However, issues with that facility, including certification of a flight-termination system, evidently remain unresolved. (submitted by dbayly and Ken the Bin)

Astra, ABL, Relativity tapped for Space Force contracts. ABL Space Systems Corp., Astra Space, and Relativity Space will join a pool of launch providers that are eligible to compete for missions awarded under the US Space Force Orbital Services Program (OSP)-4, SpaceNews reports. The addition of the three companies was announced Monday by the Space and Missile Systems Center. As part of this Space Force program, eligible vendors will compete for individual orders and must be able to launch payloads larger than 180 kg to any orbit within 12 to 24 months from contract award.

Eligible to compete with a large pool of bidders … The OSP-4 contract program was created in October 2019, and eight companies were selected at that time: Aevum, Firefly, Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, VOX Space, and X-Bow Launch. Up to 20 missions will be awarded over the next nine years, and the program is authorized to spend up to $986 million for launch contracts during that period. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Firefly to sell engines, spaceflight components. The Austin-based rocket company announced it has opened a new line of business to supply rocket engines and other spaceflight components to the emerging New Space industry. In a news release, Firefly said the idea was born out of the “overwhelming” interest in Firefly’s technology and the need, within the New Space industry, to shorten the time to market and have a reliable and consistent sourcing partner.

Inherent advantages? … “Our goal with this line of business is to become the Tier 1 supplier of components to the New Space industry,” Tom Markusic, CEO of Firefly Aerospace, said. “Our component sales business model has inherent advantages over businesses that focus on a single (e.g., rocket engines) or narrow range (e.g., valves) of components.” It will be interesting to see how this progresses. In the meantime, we’re eager to see when Firefly will static fire test its Alpha rocket and launch the vehicle for the first time. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Chinese spaceplane raises funds. Chinese firm Space Transportation raised more than $46.3 million for its hypersonic spaceplane plans in a new funding round announced this week. The funds will be used for development of commercial suborbital and hypersonic vehicles, with Space Transportation setting out a 10-year roadmap for development of its reusable vehicles, SpaceNews reports.

An ambitious timeline … The company has plans for various large-scale technology verification flights through 2022 and aims for a first flight of a prototype suborbital space-tourism vehicle in 2023. The first crewed test will be in 2025. A first “global” hypersonic vehicle flight is slated for 2028, with a full-scale global hypersonic-vehicle flight set for 2030. We’ll see. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Unrulycow)

Japanese company to market Epsilon rocket. Japan’s IHI Aerospace plans to market a version of the little-used Epsilon small launch vehicle to commercial customers, although at prices significantly higher than similar vehicles in development, SpaceNews reports. JAXA developed the solid-fuel Epsilon as a successor to the M-V small launch vehicle. The rocket made its debut in September 2013 and has launched four times, most recently in January 2019. All launches were successful.

Good luck with that … Epsilon S will need to carry at least 600 kg to Sun-synchronous orbits and 1,400 kg to low Earth orbits. Pricing will depend on whether payloads are the primary payload or a secondary payload on launches. For secondary payloads, IHI will offer a “market price” similar to what SpaceX charges for ride-share payloads. That seems unlikely, as a dedicated launch has an estimated price of $25 million to $30 million to reserve an entire Epsilon S. That’s completely noncompetitive with SpaceX or other new commercial launch vehicles in Epsilon’s class. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

There are more small rockets than ever, survey finds. The number of small-launch-vehicle projects continues to grow despite the pandemic and the widespread belief that there is a significant oversupply of such vehicles, SpaceNews reports. Carlos Niederstrasser of Northrop Grumman has conducted an annual survey of rockets with payload capacities no greater than 1,000 kg and available to commercial or US government customers since 2015. The total has grown to 155 vehicles.

Not a slowdown … “I was really expecting to see a slowdown in the number of new launch vehicles that we were seeing coming out of the woodwork in the last few years,” he said during a conference session Wednesday. “It turns out that slowdown has not happened at all.” He found the number of vehicles in active development declined slightly from last year, to 48, with a decrease as well in the number of vehicle concepts on a “watch” list that have not yet entered active development. More than 40 vehicles are now classified as defunct, about 10 more than last year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

GSLV rocket launch fails. An Indian Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle tumbled out of control five minutes after liftoff Wednesday when the rocket’s cryogenic upper stage failed to ignite, destroying a long-delayed Earth observation spacecraft, Spaceflight Now reports. The failure ended a streak of 16 straight successful Indian space launches.

A technical anomaly … After good performance from the rocket’s strap-on boosters, first stage, and second stage, the mission ran into trouble when the rocket’s third stage was supposed to take over to accelerate the EOS-03 spacecraft into orbit. The Indian Space Research Organization said the cryogenic upper stage did not ignite due to a “technical anomaly.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

ULA honors forward-thinking employee. NASA and United Launch Alliance are working toward a September 2022 launch of the “Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator” mission on an Atlas V rocket, the space agency said. After the satellite makes its way to orbit, the payload will descend back to Earth from low Earth orbit to demonstrate if the inflatable aeroshell, or heat shield, can slow down and survive re-entry.

Honoring a beloved employee … NASA and ULA are dedicating this mission in honor of Bernard Kutter, manager of advanced programs at ULA, who passed away last year. Kutter was not only an advocate for more commonplace access to space, but also the technologies that could make it a reality. The ULA engineer took a keen interest in NASA’s inflatable heat shield design, which could enable the safe return of rocket engines for reuse as well as land the kind of large payloads required for crewed missions to Mars. Anyone in the industry who knew Kutter liked him and appreciated his passion for sustainable space projects, like propellant depots. This is a nice touch by ULA and NASA.

Intuitive Machines books third Moon mission on Falcon 9. The Houston-based company said its IM-3 mission will launch in the first quarter of 2024 and include a Nova-C-class lander to land 130 kg of payloads on the lunar surface. The mission will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket, according to an Intuitive Machines news release.

Three planned lunar excursions … This will be the third planned mission for the company, with IM-1 launching in the first quarter of 2022, to be followed by IM-2 in the fourth quarter of 2022. The company plans to launch lunar science payloads for NASA as well as deliver for commercial customers. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA installs SLS flight software. The space agency said that engineers and technicians have installed the flight software that will help steer, fly, track, and guide the Space Launch System rocket during launch and ascent to space. Engineers loaded the flight software onto the rocket on August 6 after powering up the core stage, which contains the flight computers.

That’s a lot of scenarios … “The mission certification and performance certification tests are the next step for the rocket’s software on the path to launch and flight ahead of Artemis I,” said David Beaman, SLS systems engineering and integration manager. The flight-software test campaign for the Artemis I mission involves more than 300,000 different mission scenarios. NASA has not set an official launch date for the mission, but I expect it to occur during the first half of 2022.

SpaceX is building skyscrapers to the stars. Last Friday, SpaceX technicians and engineers stacked a Starship and its Super Heavy booster for the first time. The full stack measured about 120 meters, or approximately the height of a 30-story building. The only difference? This skyscraper was not secured to the bedrock dozens of meters below its foundation. This skyscraper was meant to fly, Ars reports.

One iconic photo … Afterward, SpaceX founder Elon Musk sent a clear message to the FAA and other federal regulators upon whom he is reliant for permission to launch. One evocative photo he shared, in particular, drove home his message to anyone watching. It showed workers standing beneath Starship as it was lowered onto the first-stage rocket. In releasing a black-and-white version, Musk knew exactly what he was doing in harkening back to the age of skyscrapers. Holding back Starship means holding back this progress, Musk wanted regulators to understand. For no longer does our vision stop in the clouds—it extends far, far beyond them.

Next three launches

August 16: Vega | Pléiades Neo 4 | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:50 UTC

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

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