Rocket Report: Virgin Orbit may launch this month, Rocket Lab is back

Patrick
Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Welcome to Edition 2.43 of the Rocket Report! This is probably the longest report we’ve published, and it’s due to the surfeit of news in the world of launch. So much is happening, especially on the small side of things, and we’re doing our best to stay on top of things.

As always, we welcome reader submissions for these updates—in fact we’d struggle to put out each issue without this help. We especially encourage international tips. And if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe to this weekly report as an e-mail newsletter.

Virgin Orbit targeting first launch this month? Virgin Orbit could attempt its first orbital test launch later this month over the Pacific Ocean southwest of Los Angeles, Spaceflight Now reports. This launch would cap a development program for an air-launched small-satellite carrier that began in earnest eight years ago. A dedicated mission on LauncherOne costs $12 million.

A big moment for small launch … Virgin Orbit completed a cryogenic captive-carry test of the LauncherOne rocket April 12, demonstrating the performance of the launch vehicle, its Boeing 747 carrier jet, telemetry and tracking systems, and ground teams. Another source confirmed to Ars that the company is indeed working toward the launch of its first rocket during the second half of this month. (submitted by JohnCarter17 and Ken the Bin)

Virgin will also launch its rocket from Guam. On Thursday, the Virgin Orbit subsidiary which provides launch services for the US national security community announced it has signed a new agreement with the Department of the Air Force, allowing the company’s LauncherOne system to conduct missions to space from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.

Seeking responsive launch … Virgin Orbit and its VOX Space subsidiary first expressed interest in launching from the Pacific island of Guam in mid-2019. Due to Guam’s low latitude and clear launch trajectories in almost all directions, the company’s uniquely mobile LauncherOne system can effectively serve all orbital inclinations, such as delivering up to 450kg to a 500km equatorial orbit. The Air Force’s STP-27VP mission will be the first launch from Guam.

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Rocket Lab resumes launch operations. The New Zealand-based company said in a news release Thursday it has resumed preparations for its next Electron launch following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions at Launch Complex 1. The mission will launch payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office, NASA, and the University of New South Wales. The launch was originally scheduled for March 27.

Getting back to speed quickly … After returning to operations with safety measures in place, the company completed a successful wet dress rehearsal on May 7. The company said it plans to announce a 14-day launch window for the mission soon. “Our focus in recent years has been to structure Rocket Lab’s teams and operations in a way that enables rapid production and launch capability in order to respond quickly to our customers’ needs and spool up launch operations within days,” CEO Peter Beck said.

COVID-19 hobbles Japanese startups. Interstellar Technologies, a Japanese startup, was primed to test-launch its demonstration rocket on May 2. But less than four days before the countdown, the project was abruptly blocked by a town on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, which cited coronavirus concerns, News On Japan reports. The company (which is also based in Hokkaido) says it has yet to work out a new launch date, which could be months or even a year away.

Funds focus on portfolio companies … The town’s mayor says the launch was opposed by farmers who feared the rocket would draw a crowd of people who could bring the virus to their community. The delay not only pushes back the company’s plan to develop a commercial rocket but puts a severe strain on its cash position. The virus is also exacerbating the ability of Japanese firms such as Ale Co. to raise funds. (submitted by tsunam)

Firefly obtains “quality” certification. The Texas-based rocket company announced this week that it has received the AS9100 Quality Certification. This certification is a quality-management practice that is widely used and standardized across the entire aerospace industry, NASASpaceFlight.com reports.

Getting closer to launch … This will allow Firefly to move from the development phase to the production phase as Firefly is getting ready for the first flight of the Alpha rocket. As part of this process, Firefly has required all suppliers to be AS9100 certified to ensure quality assurance, as qualification testing begins for full production capabilities. Firefy is still targeting summer 2020 for Alpha’s first launch. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

Progress made on explosion-based rocket engines. Rotating detonation engines, or RDEs, sound like something out of science fiction, but the concept is about as old as the Space Age itself. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, aerospace engineers working on rocket engines envisioned RDEs as a way to turn a problem into a solution. The idea is to use a series of controlled explosions to boost a rocket into space.

Plenty of work left to do … Now Kareem Ahmed and a team of researchers from the University of Central Florida and the US Air Force published the test results from the first rotating detonation engine to use hydrogen and oxygen for propellant, Wired reports. The promise of these engines is that they are theoretically lighter, faster, and cheaper than traditional rocket engines. The first phase of this work involves understanding precisely what is happening and how to control things. (submitted by aluhut, danneely, platykurtic, and killswitch1984)

SpaceShipTwo makes first test flight from New Mexico. The WhiteKnightTwo aircraft (owned by Scaled Composites), with the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo (owned by Virgin Galactic) attached to it, took off shortly before 11am ET last Friday from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. After reaching a planned altitude of about 15,000 meters, WhiteKnightTwo released SpaceShipTwo, which glided back to the runway at the spaceport, SpaceNews reports.

First customers, when? … Virgin said it would begin preparations for the next test immediately, starting with a review of the data collected from this flight. It did not state when that test flight would take place or if it would be another glide flight or a powered test flight. Separately, the company reported a $60 million loss in the first quarter of 2020. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)

Proposed Georgia spaceport still in limbo. Camden County has partnered with an investment group to push forward plans for a spaceport on the Georgia coast as the Federal Aviation Administration weighs whether to approve the controversial project, Parabolic Arc reports. The county seeks to launch small rockets from the location.

Waiting on the feds … Whether the FAA will issue a spaceport license for the site remains unclear. The agency has raised a number of safety concerns about the planned facility, which would see launch vehicles fly over the Cumberland islands. A group of homeowners with property on the islands has waged a campaign against the proposed spaceport on safety grounds. Possible self-dealing by a local congressman is unlikely to help the spaceport’s case. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)

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