Rocket Report: Branson sells Virgin Galactic shares, LEGO’s deep-space rocket

Patrick
Enlarge / The Rocket Report is published weekly.

Welcome to Edition 2.44 of the Rocket Report! There’s so much to get to in this week’s report, but we’d like to call special attention to a busy launch weekend with the potential for two launches within 24 hours from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This would set a record for the Cape and it would be cool to see an Atlas V and Falcon 9 take off in such quick succession.

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.

Branson to sell some of his Virgin Galactic shares. Sir Richard Branson, the founder and largest shareholder of suborbital spaceflight company Virgin Galactic, will sell more than a fifth of Virgin Group’s majority stake in the company to raise funds to aid its other companies affected by the pandemic, SpaceNews reports.

Needing some cash flow … Branson plans to sell up to 25 million shares, accounting for about 22 percent of his overall stake in the company. That sale would generate $485 million at the price of $19.40 per share at the close of trading May 11. Many of Branson’s businesses are being hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, which increases the need for Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit to begin commercial spaceflights soon. (submitted by DanNeely and JohnCarter17)

Shakeout looming in smallsat launch industry. In an interview with SpaceNews, Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck reiterated that the small-satellite launch industry is one of the most fragile sectors of the defense industrial base. “Too many companies are going after a market opportunity that’s only really big enough for two,” Beck said.

Who will be left standing? … A recent study by Quilty Analytics estimated there are well over 100 small launch companies. “Nearly all of the contenders will fail, though there is room for perhaps two winners among the venture space launch field,” said the study. Rocket Lab, of course, expects to be among those left standing, and this seems reasonable since it is the only company presently flying. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)

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There are now a dozen US spaceports. Last week the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation issued a launch-site operators license, better known as a spaceport license, to the Titusville-Cocoa Airport Authority. While some of the 12 FAA-licensed spaceports in the United States have high-profile customers—like Spaceport America in New Mexico, which serves as the home base for Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle—many of the others have no launch companies using them, SpaceNews reports.

Staffing up to meet demand … To help support a growing number of launch sites, Congress directed the FAA in a 2018 reauthorization bill to establish an Office of Spaceports. The FAA formally opened the office as part of a reorganization announced in early April. It will address issues such as licensing, infrastructure improvements, technical support and promotion of spaceports, as well as strengthening the resilience of the commercial space transportation infrastructure.

Relativity completed printed-tank test. Relativity Space passed a key milestone this winter when it conducted a series of tests using a 3D-printed tank, which the company increasingly pressurized until it burst. “It’s a pretty big deal to show that the materials actually work and the manufacturing process actually works,” Relativity CEO Tim Ellis told CNBC.

Testing the tiny tank … Although the tank was a fifth the size of the one that will be used for Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket, it was structurally representative of the pressures and stress that the full-size rocket would undergo during a launch. Ellis said the tank burst at about “10 percent more than the requirements with the safety factor” needed for a launch. “It’s definitely sufficient for the whole launch vehicle,” Ellis said. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)

Rocket Crafters concluded 3D-printed-engine tests. The Florida rocket development company said Wednesday it had concluded a new round of test-firings of its hybrid rocket engine, and it plans a test flight with a small rocket in New Mexico later this year, UPI reports. The relatively small Comet engine has 5,000 pounds of thrust.

Next stop, New Mexico … “We’re excited about the data we’ve seen and to fly a rocket soon,” said Rob Fabian, the company president. “The engine performance for the tests were on track with models.” Rocket Crafters plans to test-launch a sounding rocket, or small rocket, to about to about 20km from New Mexico’s Spaceport America, but a date has not yet been set. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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