Welcome to Edition 3.07 of the Rocket Report! This week, we’re getting close to the opening of the Mars launch window, which occurs about every two years when Earth and the Red Planet align. It looks like United Arab Emirates’ Mars Hope mission will the first of three probes to launch this summer, possibly as early as July 14.
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.
Second-stage failure leads to loss of Electron rocket. On Sunday morning, local time, in New Zealand, Rocket Lab launched its 13th mission. The booster’s first stage performed normally, but just as the second stage neared an altitude of 200km, something went wrong, and the vehicle was lost, Ars reports. The mission, dubbed “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen,” carried 5 SuperDove satellites for the imaging company Planet, as well as commercial payloads both for Canon Electronics and In-Space Missions.
Learning after a loss … “I am incredibly sorry that we failed to deliver our customers satellites today. Rest assured we will find the issue, correct it and be back on the pad soon,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab. Rocket Lab has plenty of experience to draw upon as it works to identify and fix the underlying problem with its second stage. There can be little doubt the issue will be resolved.
Shavit-2 rocket launches Israeli satellite. The Israeli government and Israel Aerospace Industries on Monday conducted a previously unannounced launch of a reconnaissance satellite, NASASpaceflight.com reports. A Shavit-2 rocket deployed the Ofek 16 satellite into low Earth orbit. This is the first launch of the smallsat launcher in nearly four years.
Seeking the horizon … Ofek 16 is a small electro-optical imaging satellite, which will capture high-resolution images of the Earth for Israel’s Ministry of Defense. The name Ofek, from the Hebrew word אופק, meaning Horizon, has been applied to all of Israel’s military satellites regardless of their mission, including two early demonstration missions and subsequent optical and radar reconnaissance spacecraft. (submitted by immune, Max Q, Ken the Bin, and JohnCarter17)
Military prepping for a rare Minotaur 4 launch. Crews working on Virginia’s Eastern Shore have raised a top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office atop a solid-fueled Minotaur 4 rocket for liftoff on July 15. It is the first Minotaur launch in nearly three years, Spaceflight Now reports. The Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman a $38 million contract to launch the NROL-129 mission, military officials confirmed in early 2019.
No public viewing … The Minotaur 4 rocket can carry payloads of up to 1.7 tons into low-Earth orbit. NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility plans to provide a live video webcast of the Minotaur 4’s liftoff July 15, but officials are not opening the NASA Visitor Center at Wallops for launch viewing or hosting media representatives to cover the launch in person. NASA cited the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for the closure. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Virgin Orbit will launch again no earlier than September. The flight of the first LauncherOne booster ended shortly after it was dropped from a 747 aircraft in late May, with an “anomaly” occurring a few seconds following engine ignition. The company has not said much since then, but it recently did apply for a second launch communications permit.
That’s a big window … According to the document submitted to the US Federal Communications Commission, the second mission will again take off from Mojave, California, on a 747 aircraft. The earliest date for the launch is September 2020, and the proposed window extends all the way through February 2021. It was not immediately clear when Virgin Orbit is targeting within this window.
A NY launch company with big plans wins contract. On Thursday, iRocket announced that it had signed a Phase II RAPID Other Transaction Agreement contract with the US Air Force. The contract has a value of $1.5 million. The funding is designed to help the company ramp its reusable-launch-vehicle technology onto the Air Force’s $986M OSP-4 Orbital Launch Services program.
Ready to compete with SpaceX? … The New York-based company aspires to develop cost-effective small launch vehicles that can support 300kg and 1500kg payloads for space research and exploration, and by 2025 it plans to offer on-orbit satellite servicing. “iRocket will be competing with SpaceX,” company CEO Asad Malik told Ars.
Russia exploring a reusable Angara A5 rocket. This week, in a short announcement on its website, Roscosmos said it is working to modernize and “further develop” the Angara family of rockets. Among the proposed modifications, Roscosmos said, was that the “Angara-A5VM variant will be reviewed with reusable stages.” The announcement comes as the Angara A5 rocket may finally make its second flight this fall.
Sounds like bluster … We have no idea what this means for a rocket that has flown just one time, in 2014, and costs more than other comparable boosters on the market. But you’ll have to forgive us if we don’t believe the Angara A5 rocket will become reusable any time soon. After all, reuse makes little sense for a booster no one seems to want to use in the first place. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter 17)
Mars rover mated to Atlas V rocket. NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover has been hoisted on top of its United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral for liftoff this month, Spaceflight Now reports. The meeting of the Atlas V with the Perseverance rover completed assembly of the 60-meter rocket, which began May 28 with the lifting of the Atlas V’s first stage on its mobile launch platform.
Forward progress is a good thing … Omar Baez, NASA’s launch director for the Perseverance mission, said Wednesday that the launch is on track for July 30. The launch window opens at 7:50am EDT (11:50 UTC), with launch opportunities available at five-minute intervals. The launch was originally scheduled for July 17, the opening of an interplanetary launch period that extends into mid-August. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
British government buys OneWeb, plans investment. The British government and Indian mobile network operator Bharti Global placed the winning bid to acquire OneWeb, which had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March after running out of funding. Additionally, OneWeb said it has secured $1 billion in new funding: $500 million comes from the British government to “deliver first UK sovereign space capability,” while the other $500 million come from Indian mobile network operator Bharti Global to recapitalize OneWeb’s constellation effort, SpaceNews reports.
Sticking with Soyuz? … OneWeb said the funding will “effectuate the full end-to-end deployment of the OneWeb system,” but it did not specify if that system is the original 650-satellite constellation the company was pursuing prior to bankruptcy. OneWeb presently has 74 satellites in low-Earth orbit. Arianespace had completed three of an expected 21 Soyuz launches for OneWeb prior to the startup’s bankruptcy proceedings, and it is unclear how many of those will now proceed or whether OneWeb will reevaluate its launch options. (submitted by platykurtic and JohnCarter17)
COVID-19 to delay astronomy mission launch. A nearly three-month stoppage of on-site work due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus at NASA’s Marshall Space Fight Center in Alabama is expected to push back the launch of the IXPE X-ray astronomy satellite from May 2021 until some time later next year, Spaceflight Now reports.
No new date yet … The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, mission is assigned to launch on a previously flown SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Work on assembling the mirrors at Marshall was delayed after the space center was closed to all nonessential personnel. NASA is still assessing COVID-19’s impacts to cost and schedule. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Next Ariane 5 mission to loft three satellites, not two. The next flight of Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket, set for July 28 from French Guiana, will carry a record payload of three multi-ton satellites toward geostationary orbit, including a pair of US-built commercial communications payloads and Northrop Grumman’s second robotic satellite-servicing spacecraft, Spaceflight Now reports.
Nearing 25th anniversary … The Ariane 5 typically carries two large satellites at a time on missions toward geostationary orbit. But for this mission, two of the satellites will fit together inside the larger upper section of the Ariane 5 payload fairing. The third spacecraft, meanwhile, will ride below in the lower berth. The mission will mark the 109th flight of an Ariane 5 rocket since 1996. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Europa Clipper may launch on a Falcon Heavy. One of the big questions in recent years has been how NASA will get its multibillion-dollar Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon. In the past, Congress has said the spacecraft must go on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, but this came with downsides. For one, the SLS rocket likely will cost NASA at least $1.5 billion more than a commercial rocket. Also, because building the large rocket takes so long, an SLS will probably not be available for the Clipper before 2026, Ars reports.
US House gives tentative OK for commercial booster … Because the spacecraft may be ready to launch as early as 2024, and storing it would lead to increased costs, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has studied alternative launch vehicles. Among the most promising is a Falcon Heavy booster with a kick stage. The new FY 2021 House budget bill says NASA “shall use the Space Launch System, if available, as the launch vehicles for the Jupiter Europa missions.” The bill also plans for an orbiter launch no later than 2025. We’ll have to see what the Senate does.
Restoring Apollo test stand is a real challenge. Blue Origin knew it was taking on a big job, but restoring Test Stand 4670 at Marshall Space Flight Center turned out even bigger than the company thought, AL.com reports. “As we performed mitigation and sandblasting work, we discovered significant corrosion in the primary structure including rust that penetrated through 3-inch steel plates,” lead engineer Scott Henderson said. Corrosion was expected, as the stand has been out in the weather since 1960, but holes in 3-inch steel were not.
Engine tests on hold until fall 2021 … Blue Origin is adding 300 tons of steel to refurbish the stand, and the extra work means that tests will not begin at the facility until at least September 2021. The company will use the stand to perform “acceptance tests” on each of the BE-3U and BE-4 engines it will build at a new rocket engine plant also in Huntsville. The engines will help boost Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket and also the giant Vulcan Centaur rocket being developed at United Launch Alliance in Decatur. (submitted by Infosec)
Next three launches
July 11: Falcon 9 | Starlink-9 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla.| 15:00 UTC
July 14: H-2A | Emirates Mars Mission “Hope” | Tanegashima, Japan | 20:51 UTC
July 14: Falcon 9 | Anasis-2 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 21:00 UTC