Rocket Report: SpaceX hits the century mark, Vote for Atlas V on Election Day

Photograph of a rocket just after liftoff on a cloudy day.
Enlarge / The “In Focus” mission takes to the skies this week.

Welcome to Edition 3.22 of the Rocket Report! After a spate of recent scrubs, the Cape gets down to business in the coming week with back-to-back government launches, one by United Launch Alliance and the other by SpaceX. Fingers (and toes) are crossed.

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 orbits its 15th mission. Rocket Lab successfully launched its 15th Electron mission and deployed Earth-imaging satellites for Planet and Spaceflight Inc. customer Canon Electronics, the company said. The “In Focus” mission launched from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula at 21:21 UTC Wednesday.

So many Electrons … The mission (see the video) was Rocket Lab’s fifth launch in this calendar year, making Electron the second-most frequently flown US launch vehicle in 2020 after the Falcon 9 rocket. The company said its next mission is scheduled to take place from Launch Complex 1 in the coming weeks. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

Concerns raised about Virgin Orbit debris in Pacific Ocean. The US Federal Aviation Administration is evaluating a proposal by Virgin Orbit to fly its LauncherOne rocket from Guam, a US territory in the western Pacific Ocean. The application—for a maximum of 10 launches in a single year, and no more than 25 from the period of 2021 to 2025—includes a draft environmental assessment.

Rockets dropping into oceans … As part of its launch procedure, the Cosmic Girl aircraft would fly east of Guam before releasing the two-stage rocket. Along this flight path, the FAA has determined that falling debris may adversely affect endangered marine mammals, sea turtles, and fish species. “The impact of debris striking a marine mammal or sea turtle may result in injury or mortality to individuals,” the environmental assessment states. The FAA is accepting public comment on the assessment until November 16, Pacific Daily News reports.

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Firefly bets on making rockets with robots. On Thursday, the Texas-based rocket company announced “a substantial commitment” to increase its manufacturing capacity by transitioning large-parts manufacturing from Ingersoll Machine Tools to Automated Fiber Placement systems beginning next year. Once fully operational, the AFP capabilities could enable production the all-composite Alpha rocket airframe in as little as 14 days, the company said.

Going big on composites … “From the outset Firefly chose to utilize 21st-century materials and manufacturing processes in our spacecraft and rocket designs. Metallics were the most prevalent aerospace material of the last century; composites, which are stronger and lighter than metallics, are the choice for modern aircraft. Firefly’s Alpha is the world’s largest all-carbon-fiber liquid-fueled rocket,” said Firefly CEO Tom Markusic. The company will begin installing the manufacturing systems next May. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX details “lacquer” issue with new Falcon 9 boosters. NASA and SpaceX confirmed on Wednesday that they are targeting November 14 for the launch of the Crew-1 mission that will carry four astronauts to the International Space Station. Originally scheduled to launch on Halloween, NASA delayed the launch after an engine issue aborted an October 2 launch attempt of a Falcon 9 rocket, at T-2 seconds, carrying a GPS III satellite for the US Air Force.

“You have to be on your toes” … During a teleconference with reporters on Wednesday, SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann explained what happened with the October 2 launch abort and what has been done to address the issue going forward. In short, some masking lacquer applied before an anodizing process was not properly cleaned away before flight. For the longer, more complete story, see this Ars Technica article.

Space Force not concerned about spate of scrubs. A streak of United Launch Alliance and SpaceX launch scrubs has frustrated rocket-company executives and space aficionados. But Space Force launch managers are not discouraged and in fact see scrubs as proof that systems are working like they should, Col. Douglas Pentecost said in a report from SpaceNews.

Range safety, security are paramount … “We see that as a success,” said Pentecost, the deputy director of the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise. Pentecost spoke at a virtual space industry conference organized by AFCEA, the National Defense Industrial Association and the Air Force Association. “Falcon 9 and Delta 4 stopped within seconds of launch? This is good stuff,” said Pentecost. “We’re learning a lot; we’re working with both ULA and SpaceX to understand what happened.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Atlas V set for Election Day launch. United Launch Alliance teams mounted a top-secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office on top of an Atlas 5 rocket at Cape Canaveral Monday in preparation for a liftoff scheduled just after sunset November 3, Spaceflight Now reports. Codenamed NROL-101, this launch will be the first Atlas 5 rocket flight to be powered by a new model of strap-on solid-rocket boosters built by Northrop Grumman, replacing solid-fueled motors from Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Swapping with Delta … The Atlas 5 flight from pad 41 is going ahead next week as ULA continues resolving launch pad infrastructure issues at the company’s other Cape Canaveral launch facility. Those problems have delayed the flight of a Delta 4-Heavy rocket with a different NRO spy satellite since late August and caused ULA to swap the order of its missions to have the next Atlas 5 flight go first. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX reaches the century milestone. On Saturday, with a Starlink mission, SpaceX launched its 100th successful flight. This milestone dates to September 28, 2008, and the fourth launch attempt of the company’s Falcon 1 rocket.

Fly and re-fly … To mark the moment, the company released a video with a snippet from each of these 100 missions, and it is pretty cool to behold. SpaceX also noted that it has recovered 63 of the first stages it has launched and re-flown boosters 45 times. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Axiom close to finalizing private ISS launch. Axiom Space hopes to soon finalize its first commercial mission to the International Space Station, scheduled for late 2021, SpaceNews reports. Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom Space, said his company had lined up the customers for that first mission, a 10-day flight to the space station on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2021.

Just about done … “We have all of our customers identified and we’re about to finish their contracting,” he said. The company previously announced a contract with SpaceX for the flight and is “just about done” with a NASA contract for the mission. “We’re cautiously optimistic that, by the end of October, we will have everything in place to move forward for a launch in the fourth quarter of 2021,” he said. Finding private customers for orbital space tourism would be real boon for launch companies such as SpaceX. (submitted by Joey SiVB, platykurtic, and JohnCarter17)

BE-4 rocket engine moving into production. Blue Origin appears to have solved some development issues related to the turbopumps in its powerful BE-4 rocket engine. United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno said Friday that the problem was “sorted out” and that the full-scale, flight-configured BE-4 engine is now accumulating a lot of time on the test stand, Ars reports.

Getting past the technical stuff … Bruno’s company, ULA, is buying the BE-4 engine to provide thrust for the first stage of its upcoming Vulcan-Centaur rocket. This booster may make its debut next year, although ULA is still awaiting delivery of BE-4s for the first flight. Bruno said the focus at Blue Origin is shifting from development of the engine to ramping up production. “That is always a good moment in time in the development program, because that means your big technical stuff is behind you,” he said during Friday’s interview on The Space Show.

Ariane 6 rocket delayed until 2022. The debut flight of the Ariane 6 rocket will slip into the second quarter of 2022, European Space Agency officials said during a teleconference with reporters on Thursday. The delay is attributed to the need to resolve final technical difficulties as well as the interruption of work due to COVID-19 lockdowns in Europe, where the rocket is being assembled, and the launch site in French Guiana. ESA will also ask member states for an additional 230 million Euros to finance the rocket’s development.

Responding to SpaceX … Developed over much of the last decade, Ariane 6 is Europe’s answer to the rise of SpaceX and its low-cost Falcon 9 rocket. Although the rocket is not reusable, it is designed to be simpler, more efficient, and to deliver payloads at a lower cost. Originally, it was due to launch in 2020, but earlier this year the European Space Agency announced it would slip to the second half of 2021. Daniel Neuenschwander, Director for Space Transportation for ESA, also said the Vega C rocket debut would slip to June 2021.

SLS Green Run test delayed again. As of earlier this month, NASA and Boeing were targeting mid-November for the SLS Green Run test in Mississippi. But now that’s off. In a blog-post update, NASA said Tuesday that it now expects to set a new date next week, after Hurricane Zeta and after assessing “data from recent tests to ensure the team is ready to proceed.”

Saw something they didn’t like … Chris Bergin reported on Twitter that the test would slip into December “and possibly further” due to technical issues. The Boeing and NASA teams seem to have discovered some data from the sixth of the eight tests that are due to be completed. They want to review what they’ve found before conducting the wet dress rehearsal and, ultimately, a hot-fire test of the large core stage. This slip makes it all but certain that the SLS rocket will not make its debut launch in 2021. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Starship to be used to collect orbital debris? SpaceX could use its Starship vehicles to clear out space debris in Earth orbit, alongside the program’s more publicized purpose of ferrying people and cargo to the Moon and Mars. “Starship is an extraordinary new vehicle capability,” President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a discussion posted online October 22, Spaceflight Now reports.

Junk in the trunk … “Not only will it decrease the costs of access to space, it’s the vehicle that would transport people from Earth to Mars,” Shotwell said in an interview with Time’s technology columnist Patrick Lucas Austin. “But it also has the capability of taking cargo and crew at the same time, and so it’s quite possible that we could leverage Starship to go to some of these dead rocket bodies—other people’s rocket’s, of course—basically pick up some of this junk in outer space.” Starship will no doubt be a game changer if and when SpaceX gets it flying. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

Nov. 3: Atlas V | NROL-101 classified mission| Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 22:58 UTC

Nov. 4: Falcon 9 | GPS III-04 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 23:28 UTC

Nov. 6: Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle | RISAT-2BR2 mission | Satish Dhawan Space Center | 09:45 UTC

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