Welcome to Edition 3.27 of the Rocket Report! This will be our final report of 2020, and so I wanted to wish all of our regular readers happy holidays—from Christmas through the New Year and beyond. We’ll return with weekly reports beginning in the first full week of the new year. And with all sorts of rocket debuts and developmental flights on the calendar, what a year it may be.
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 seeks to increase cadence in 2021. Rocket Lab launched seven Electron boosters this year, with six successes and one failure. In an interview with Ars, the company’s chief executive, Peter Beck, said the company was on track for 10 to 12 launches this year before the COVID-19 pandemic, the launch anomaly, and other issues. “It has surely been a year of challenges,” he said.
Plenty to do … From a production standpoint, he said, Rocket Lab can maintain a cadence of one launch every month, and that will be the overall goal for 2021. Among the company’s other goals for the coming year are launching NASA’s CAPSTONE mission from Wallops Island, flying more Photon missions, and conducting a “bunch” of recovery flights to further first-stage reuse.
Vega investigation confirms cable failure. An independent investigation of Europe’s Vega launch failure in November confirmed that misconnected cables in the rocket’s upper stage doomed the mission, SpaceNews reports. After ignition, the Avum stage started tumbling, and, while the engine continued to fire, the stage went onto a ballistic trajectory, re-entering over the Arctic.
Delay of a month or two … Investigators blamed the failure on both “misleading” integration procedures that caused the workers to invert the cables and a failure to detect the problem during inspections between integration and final acceptance of the launch vehicle. The next Vega flight (VV18) had been due to take place in February. Now it may occur before the end of March, officials said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Relativity still targeting 2021 for first launch. Despite a challenging year due to COVID-19, Relativity Space CEO Tim Ellis told Ars the company remains on track to launch the Terran 1 rocket for the first time next year. This follows a successful test-firing of the vehicle’s main engine earlier in 2020. The first mission will not have a customer, so the company can focus on getting the launch vehicle safely into space, Ellis said.
Plenty of money … In 2020, the company also continued with its prodigious fundraising—pulling down an additional $500 million in November. However, Ellis said the company is still funding operations from previously raised capital and will not need any money from this new round of funding to reach orbit. Rather, the additional funding will allow for “a dramatic acceleration of our long-term plans,” including development of future rockets and the “factory of the future.”
Long March 8 debut a success. China launched its Long March 8 rocket for the first time on Monday from its Wenchang site, sending five satellites into Sun-synchronous orbits. The rocket, which has a kerosene-LOX first stage, is capable of lifting about 8.5 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. The launch also marked a step for rocket reuse, SpaceNews reports.
More tests coming … During this mission, the rocket demonstrated the capability to throttle down to 77.5 percent at maximum dynamic pressure. This represents a technology needed for first-stage reuse, and China is expected to conduct additional vertical takeoff and vertical landing tests in 2021 with this booster. Eventually, the country intends to develop a Falcon 9-like capability. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Russian space chief taunts “gentle” SpaceX workers. This weekend, as he shared photos and video of Soyuz rocket recovery operations on social media, the chief of Russia’s space program, Dmitry Rogozin, could not help but take what he perceived to be a swipe at SpaceX. In his comments, Rogozin referenced Boca Chica, where SpaceX is building a prototype of its Starship Mars rocket, and wondered whether SpaceX would be capable of working in as harsh conditions as his hardy Russian experts, Ars reports.
Too cold for you … “This is not Boca Chica. This is Yakutia, and in winter. The team in the area of the fall of the second stage of the One Web mission was deployed two days before yesterday’s launch. Temperature—minus 52°,” Rogozin wrote on Facebook. “I wonder if gentle SpaceX is able to work in such conditions?” Perhaps Rogozin should be reminded that SpaceX need not recover debris from its first stage because it recovers the rockets whole.
SLS wet dress test ends early. NASA said its engineers and those of Boeing successfully completed propellant loading during a wet dress rehearsal of the Space Launch System rocket’s core stage on Sunday, December 20. However, the test ended “a few minutes” short of the planned countdown duration, which was intended to reach T-33 seconds before engine ignition.
Hot fire in January? … This is a step forward, but it’s not yet clear whether NASA will need to repeat the test. “The core stage and the B-2 test stand are in excellent condition, and it does not appear to be an issue with the hardware,” the space agency said. “The team is evaluating data to pinpoint the exact cause of the early shutdown. Then they will decide if they are ready to move forward with the final test, a hot fire when all four engines will be fired simultaneously.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Lockheed Martin acquires Aerojet Rocketdyne. Lockheed announced Sunday evening that it had signed a deal to acquire rocket and missile propulsion manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne for $4.4 billion. James Taiclet, Lockheed Martin’s president and CEO, said the acquisition gives the company a larger footprint in space and hypersonic technology, SpaceNews reports.
No decoupling Orion from SLS any more … “The proposed acquisition adds substantial expertise in propulsion to Lockheed Martin’s portfolio,” the company said. There is a lot to unpack in this deal, but perhaps the most notable thing from a spaceflight perspective is that Lockheed, the prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft, now also has a piece of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. Aerojet built the RS-25 engines that power the SLS. Whereas once Lockheed might have supported launching Orion on another rocket, that now seems less likely with this deal. (submitted by Something Witty, platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
SN9 rolls to the launch pad ahead of test campaign. SpaceX engineers and technicians in South Texas rolled the next Starship prototype, SN9, to the launch pad on Tuesday. This time, three Raptor engines were already attached to the vehicle, as well as a nose cone and flaps—one of which was replaced after the SN9 vehicle leaned over in its high bay.
Fewer tests this time … According to a report in NASASpaceflight.com, this vehicle is likely to undergo a more streamlined ground-test campaign than SN8, perhaps requiring only a single cryo-proof testing run with liquid nitrogen, followed by a triple-Raptor static-fire test. If those tests go well and SpaceX obtains regulatory approval, SN9 could make a test flight before the end of the year or possibly in early 2021.
Congress may free Europa Clipper from SLS rocket. NASA and the Trump White House have been seeking the freedom to launch the Europa Clipper spacecraft on a commercial rocket because of the uncertainty surrounding SLS availability, the shaking of the solid-rocket boosters at launch, and the lower costs of doing so. In the final text of the appropriations bill for fiscal year 2021, Congress may finally allow this.
Some conditions to be met … Congress said NASA should launch the Clipper on the SLS if a rocket is available and if a “torsional loading analysis” determines that SLS is safe to launch the expensive spacecraft. However, if these conditions cannot be met, the authorization bill allows NASA to conduct “a full and open competition” for a commercial launch vehicle. It is likely SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket would win this competition, but not certain.
FAA begins review of SpaceX launch site. This week, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it is holding a public scoping period for the draft Environmental Assessment related to plans by SpaceX to apply for licenses for suborbital and orbital launches of its Starship/Super Heavy project at its facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
Bigger rockets, bigger review … Launches of the titanic Super Heavy rocket fall outside the initial plans SpaceX filed for the site, which was to have seen Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. The FAA will decide whether the changes have no significant impact on the local environment or require some sort of mitigation action. The deadline to submit public comments is January 22, 2021.
Exploration Upper Stage passes CDR. Boeing announced this week that, working in concert with NASA, the company has successfully completed a critical design review for the Space Launch System rocket’s Exploration Upper Stage. This is a larger, more powerful upper stage that will be used on the Block 1B variant of the SLS rocket and enable the carrying of 10 tons of cargo and a crewed Orion spacecraft in a single launch.
Rocket to be ready when? … The Boeing design for the upper stage will have four RL-10 rocket engines and larger fuel tanks than the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage that will be used on the first flights of the SLS rocket. Unfortunately, neither NASA nor Boeing has provided a cost estimate or timeline for development of the upper stage, which may take five years and cost perhaps $10 billion based upon past projects. (submitted by EllPeaTea)
Next three launches
Dec. 28: Soyuz | CSO military communications satellite | Kourou, French Guiana | 16:42 UTC
Jan. 5: Falcon 9 | Turksat 5A | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 01:27 UTC
January: Falcon 9 | Starlink-16 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | Date and time TBA