Welcome to Edition 2.05 of the Rocket Report! Some interesting news this week, including US military interest in a SpinLaunch concept, as well as a frank admission by some European rocket scientists that reusable boosters like the Falcon 9 are probably the way to go.
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.
DOD shows interest in SpinLaunch. New Mexico-based SpinLaunch announced that it has received an “other transaction authority,” or OTA cost-sharing contract from the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon’s technology outreach office in Silicon Valley. Rocket Lab and Vox Space previously announced they entered OTA agreements with DIU. With a budget of $15 million, the Defense unit sought proposals from vendors for “responsive launch” options and selected four from a total of 24 submissions, SpaceNews reports. The fourth company has not been disclosed.
Spinning to space … The Defense unit defines responsive launch as “low-cost, precise, and on-demand deployment of small payloads into space.” SpinLaunch has a novel means of reaching space. The company encapsulates payloads in a launch vehicle and uses ground-based energy to hurl the vehicle out of its electric kinetic launcher. There are no ground-based rockets or rocket fuel involved, and the spinner can be powered by renewable energy like solar or wind. The agreement with the Defense unit suggests the concept is more than just fanciful. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Small launch companies seek streamlined government contracts. An official from Rocket Lab, Lars Hoffman, recently said that the government adds cost and complexity to procuring low-cost launches through mission-assurance processes developed for far larger, and more expensive, launches. Other small launch providers on a panel at the National Space Society meeting agreed, according to SpaceNews.
Can’t afford to fail … “The thing that the government hasn’t quite realized yet is that we’re operating in a very competitive environment. The global marketplace is incredibly competitive. We can’t fail. If we fail, our business fails,” Hoffman said, motivating companies to provide their own mission assurance. “We don’t treat government customers any differently. They treat themselves differently by adding all this on top.” One solution mooted was adding small launch services to General Services Administration schedules. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
University of Washington wins collegiate launch competition. The university’s Society for Advanced Rocket Propulsion won the top prize at this year’s Spaceport America Cup competition, held over the weekend in New Mexico, GeekWire reports. The rocket rose to a height of 17,000 feet and was then successfully recovered.
Lots of competitors … Category award winners are determined on the basis of several metrics, including a preliminary design report, a technical presentation at the event, and pre-launch judging as well as flight performance and recovery. The world’s largest collegiate rocket engineering contest is run by the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association, and it drew 120 teams from 14 countries. Each team is required to design, build, and fly a rocket that can reach 10,000 feet or 30,000 feet, depending on the contest category. (submitted by Ildatch).
Europe eyes development of Falcon 9-like rocket. This month, the European Commission revealed a new three-year project to develop technologies needed for two proposed reusable launch vehicles, Ars reports. The commission provided €3 million to the German space agency, DLR, and five companies to, in the words of a news release about the project, “tackle the shortcoming of know-how in reusable rockets in Europe.”
Candid admission … This new RETALT project’s goals are explicit about copying the retro-propulsive engine-firing technique used by SpaceX to land its Falcon 9 rocket first stages back on land and on autonomous drone ships. The Falcon 9 rocket’s ability to land and fly again is “currently dominating the global market,” the European project states. “We are convinced that it is absolutely necessary to investigate Retro Propulsion Assisted Landing Technologies to make re-usability state-of-the-art in Europe.”
SpaceX nabs a payload fairing for the first time. After more than 18 months of concerted effort, SpaceX successfully caught a Falcon fairing half in Mr. Steven‘s (now named GO Ms. Tree) net for the first time ever, a significant milestone on the path toward payload-fairing reusability. The catch came shortly after the launch of the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket early Tuesday from Kennedy Space Center, Teslarati reports. The fairing half-sailed into port Thursday morning.
Useful for Starlink … By catching the fairing half before it hit the ocean, SpaceX can better analyze the condition of a truly flight-proven, saltwater-free fairing half, perhaps allowing the company to conclude that they can be reused with relative ease. True fairing recovery and reuse would ultimately be a boon for all SpaceX missions, but it would particularly benefit the company’s own Starlink launches by cutting the price of a new fairing from each internal mission’s marginal cost. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Israeli group cancels second Moonshot. The SpaceIL management committee apparently has its eyes on a bigger prize. Two and a half months after Beresheet lunar spacecraft crashed onto the surface of the moon, SpaceIL’s management committee met Tuesday and, after lengthy discussions, announced that a Beresheet2 project would not be challenging enough, Globes reports.
OK, then … SpaceIL said that “A similar voyage to the Moon would not set the required threshold for a breakthrough mission and therefore it has been decided to seek a more significant challenge.” SpaceIL will look to the public for suggestions on such a challenge and hopes that the “Beresheet effect” will have an impact on today’s younger generation. On one hand, it’s hard not to admire their pluck. On the other hand, perhaps one needs to crawl before walking. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Falcon Heavy rocket aces Air Force test. On Tuesday morning, a Falcon Heavy rocket launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and later that day, the US Air Force’s Space & Missile Systems Center declared that all had gone well with the complicated mission. “All satellites are on orbit and have made contact,” the Air Force unit said. This was a critical mission, and SpaceX appears to have satisfied everything an important customer wanted, Ars reports.
Two birds, one stone … With this launch, SpaceX demonstrated to the Air Force that it is acceptable to fly on used first stages, as well as to use the Falcon Heavy rocket for high-value national security missions. “This was a momentous launch for NASA, NOAA, and the DOD,” said Col. Dennis Bythewood, program executive officer for Space Development. “The SpaceX Falcon Heavy allows the Air Force to begin using previously flown rocket technology to further reduce the cost of launch. This mission demonstrated SMC’s continuing commitment to leverage the most innovative technologies to deliver cost-effective space capabilities.”
Whither China’s Long March 5 rocket? China’s most powerful rocket has been out of commission since a launch failure two years ago, carrying a communications satellite. The rocket was scheduled to finally launch again in July. But now, SpaceNews reports, critical components for this launch appear to be lagging behind schedule for transport to the Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on the southern island of Hainan.
More secrecy … There has been no official or media update on the status of the planned July mission, and Chinese censors are apparently keen to keep word about problems from leaking out. Should activities indicating preparations for launch begin immediately, the Long March 5 would be ready for flight no earlier than September. This rocket is critical to China’s ambitions for more lunar and Mars missions, as well as development of its low-Earth-orbit space station.
Air Force says two is the right number in competition. Air Force officials continue to press their case against legislative efforts to allow more than two companies to receive contracts in the next phase of the national security space-launch program. “Two is the right number from a mission assurance perspective,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Launch Systems Enterprise Directorate at the Space and Missile Systems Center, told SpaceNews.
Fewer providers, less integration risk … The House Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act directs the Air Force to create more opportunities for new entrants to compete in the Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement. However, Bongiovi insisted that having more than two launch contractors in Phase 2 puts missions at risk because of the time and cost of integrating new providers. Satellites potentially would have to be modified to integrate across more providers. “Stability begets mission success,” he said. “We want to leverage competition. But in a risk-balanced way.” The Senate has yet to agree to the House provision.
NASA awards contract for second mobile launcher. NASA announced this week that it has selected Bechtel National to design and build a second mobile launcher at Kennedy Space Center. The cost-plus contract has a total value of approximately $383 million. The mobile launcher is expected to be built in 44 months and will be used for the Block 1B version of the Space Launch System rocket, which has a more powerful upper stage.
What’s the hurry? … One of the big questions is why such a contract would need to be cost-plus when NASA has already had mobile launchers built before. Also, NASA officials have admitted they don’t need the Block 1B version of the SLS rocket to carry out the Trump administration’s Artemis Moon landings. So what is the rush to build a launcher for a rocket that is, at a minimum, at least five years from flying? (submitted by JohnCarter17 and Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
June 29: Electron | Make It Rain mission | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 04:30:00 UTC
July 5: Soyuz 2.1b | Meteor M2-2 weather satellite | Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia | 05:41 UTC
July 6: Vega | Falcon Eye 1 | Kourou, French Guiana | 01:53 UTC