June 1, 2023

Rocket Report: Virgin Galactic delays flight, Falcon Heavy nets NASA mission

Rocket Report: Virgin Galactic delays flight, Falcon Heavy nets NASA mission
Rocket Report: Virgin Galactic delays flight, Falcon Heavy nets NASA missionRocket Report: Virgin Galactic delays flight, Falcon Heavy nets NASA mission
Light streaks across the sky.
Enlarge / Inspiration4 reflected in the shores of the St. Johns River on the space coast of Florida.

Welcome to Edition 4.16 of the Rocket Report! We’ve experienced an inspiring week of spaceflight thanks to the launch of the Inspiration4 mission on Wednesday, but there is much more happening around the world when it comes to launch.

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.

Virgin Galactic delays next flight. The space tourism company said Friday that it was delaying the next flight of its VSS Unity vehicle to no earlier than mid-October. As a reason, Virgin Galactic said, “During preparation for the Unity 23 test flight, a third-party supplier recently flagged a potential manufacturing defect in a component of the flight control actuation system that they supply to Virgin Galactic.”

Investigation needed … “At this point, it is not yet known whether the defect is present in the Company’s vehicles and what, if any, repair work may be needed,” Virgin added. The component issue is unrelated to the FAA matter involving the vehicle’s previous flight, in July, carrying founder Sir Richard Branson. That issue has also yet to be resolved. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

ABL to launch NASA mission. Small-launch-vehicle developer ABL Space Systems has won a contract to launch a NASA technology-demonstration spacecraft in 2023. The NASA Cryogenic Demonstration Mission spacecraft will launch on the company’s RS1 rocket in 2023, SpaceNews reports. The RS1 vehicle may make its debut flight later this year.

Lockheed as owner-investor … NASA selected a team led by Lockheed Martin in 2020 to develop the smallsat mission, which will test cryogenic fluid management technologies in orbit using liquid hydrogen, under a $89.7 million contract. Lockheed, which is responsible for the launch services for the Cryogenic Demonstration Mission, is an investor in ABL Space Systems. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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DoD interested in small-craft nuclear propulsion. The US Defense Innovation Unit last week issued a call for bids for small nuclear-powered engines for space missions beyond Earth orbit. DoD wants “lightweight, portable and long-duration power sources that can support propulsion and on-station power for sensing and communication on small- and medium-sized spacecraft,” reports SpaceNews.

Seeking to enable new missions … The defense unit says electric and solar-based propulsion systems are not suitable for missions beyond Earth orbit and are too bulky for use on modern commercial spacecraft. “Advanced propulsion technology that enables high delta-V and electrical power to payloads, while maintaining fuel efficiency, is required to enable new DoD mission sets in space.” Submissions are due September 23, and contracts could be awarded within 60 to 90 days. NASA and DARPA are also funding nuclear-based in-space propulsion projects. (submitted by DanNeely)

Rocket catches fire on Australian launch pad. The third attempt to launch a small rocket from South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula ended badly. During the ignition of the two-stage Hapith I rocket, an “internal fault” caused the vehicle to erupt in flames, said Australian space company Southern Launch. The fire was contained to the launch pad, and no one was injured.

Lots of smoke, then a bang … Southern Launch has been trying to conduct a test flight of Taiwanese company TiSPACE’s 10.2-meter Hapith 1 rocket. The hybrid, suborbital rocket is a prototype for the larger Hapith 5 vehicle under design by the company. A witness, who did not want to be named, told the Australian Broadcast Corporation they saw black smoke coming out from the rocket stand. “And a few moments later there was a large bang and some white smoke went up and then later some steam,” the witness said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Billionaire will not appeal spaceport decision. After a court ruled against him last month, billionaire Anders Povlsen said he will not continue his challenge against the plans for a spaceport on Scotland’s A’Mhoine peninsula. Highlands and Islands Enterprise wants to build a facility for launching small satellites from an area of peatland and crofts near Tongue, The Press and Journal reports.

Still have concerns … Tim Kirkwood, chief executive of Povlsen’s Wildland Ltd., said, “Although we were deeply disappointed at the outcome of the judicial review for the A’Mhoine spaceport and felt that a justifiable case was presented to the court, we have decided that proceeding to appeal isn’t the way forward.” The first launch is targeted to occur from the spaceport in the “early 2020s.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Nova Scotia spaceport on track for groundbreaking. Maritime Launch Services is working toward addressing final environmental concerns for a spaceport in Nova Scotia and anticipates breaking ground on a launch facility in November, SpaceQ reports. The facility will be located in Canso, a town on the northeastern tip of mainland Nova Scotia.

Who will launch from there? … According to the report, Maritime has recently hired three people, including Director of Safety Yaroslav Pustovyi, Vice President Strategic Development Harvey Doane, and a soon-to-be-named director of communications. The spaceport is the first of its kind in Canada and has yet to formally announce a launch-company tenant. (submitted by JoeyS4B)

Inspiration4 launch is a success. As the Sun set over the Florida launch site on Wednesday evening, a Falcon 9 rocket soared into the darkening sky carrying four private citizens into space. About 12 minutes later, the spacecraft separated from its second stage, and the Crew Dragon spacecraft began the first of nearly four dozen orbits of planet Earth. The Inspiration4 mission had a flawless start, Ars reports.

What’s the big deal with this flight? … Inspiration4 is a mission bought by a private citizen, Jared Isaacman, and flown by a private company, SpaceX. Its primary purpose is leisure. If space is truly to become a place where thousands of people live, work, and play, we will need nongovernment missions. And Inspiration4 is the start of that era.

Spaceflight to offer lunar ride-share missions. As a secondary payload aboard Intuitive Machines’ IM-2 South Pole Mission, Spaceflight says it will execute ride-share deployments in translunar orbit, low-lunar orbit, and beyond to geosynchronous equatorial orbit. The mission is slated to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 no earlier than Q4 2022, and it will utilize Spaceflight’s new propulsive transfer vehicle, Sherpa EScape.

To the Moon and beyond … During this mission, Spaceflight will deliver a payload from GeoJump, a new company dedicated to providing smallsat ride-share opportunities, to GEO. “Spaceflight will utilize a launch with a creative trajectory and our best-in-class propulsion system to slingshot around the Moon, allowing us to deliver payloads to GEO in an environmentally safe manner,” said Grant Bonin, senior vice president of business development at Spaceflight. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Rendgrish)

Landsat 9 mission delayed a few more days. NASA said it is now targeting September 27 for the launch of its Landsat 9 mission on an Atlas V rocket. This is a delay of four days from the previous target. “Attaching the spacecraft to the Atlas V rocket has been delayed due to out-of-tolerance high winds for the operation and conflicts with other customers using the Western Range,” NASA said.

So what does that mean? … One plugged-in source told Ars that the attachment of the spacecraft to the Atlas V rocket could have occurred earlier this week but was precluded by SpaceX’s Starlink polar launch on Monday from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Then, when the range was clear, winds were out of tolerance. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, which flies the Atlas V rocket, are said to be collaborating well. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX launches first dedicated Starlink polar mission. The company launched its first dedicated polar Starlink mission on Monday as SpaceX moves into the next phase of deployment of its broadband satellite constellation, SpaceNews reports. Previous Starlink missions to midinclination orbits carried 60 satellites, while this mission carried 51.

Second to 10 … SpaceX didn’t explain if the reduced number of satellites was because of the higher inclination of the mission, increased size or mass of the satellites because of their new crosslinks, or some combination of those factors. The rocket’s first stage, making its 10nth flight, landed on a droneship in the Pacific Ocean nearly nine minutes after liftoff. It is the second Falcon 9 first-stage rocket to have reached the 10-flight milestone. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

OneWeb nears halfway mark of constellation deployment. A Russian Soyuz rocket went to orbit Tuesday from Baikonur while shepherding 34 more satellites for the commercial network being constructed by SpaceX’s satellite Internet rival OneWeb, Spaceflight Now reports.

Worldwide service next year … With the new satellites, OneWeb has launched 322 spacecraft on 10 Soyuz rockets since February 2019, nearly half of the company’s planned fleet of 648 Internet satellites. OneWeb hopes to begin Internet service to users above 50 degrees north latitude by the end of this year. Global service should begin in 2022, OneWeb says. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

What’s going on with the Yenisei rocket? For years, Russian space officials have talked up plans to build a superheavy-lift rocket named Yenisei, with a first launch planned for 2028. The goal is for the rocket to loft as much as 103 metric tons to low fEarth orbit. Recently, there were reports in the Russian media that work on the technical design of the vehicle has stopped.

No money, no rocket … But that’s not so, says Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin. He told reporters on Wednesday that the work has not stopped and that efforts to build Yenisei could begin immediately, TASS reports. Alas, he acknowledged, doing so would require “colossal” amounts of money. Since Roscosmos does not, in fact, have this kind of money, work on the rocket is stopped regardless of semantics. As for the 2028 launch date, we’re not holding our breath. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

NASA awards GOES-U launch contract to SpaceX. The space agency said last Friday that it has selected SpaceX to launch its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-U in April 2024. The environmental satellite will launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The total cost for NASA to launch GOES-U is approximately $152.5 million, which includes the launch service and other mission-related costs.

Bidding against oneselfSpaceNews reported that United Launch Alliance withdrew its bid to launch GOES-U because it did not have any Atlas 5 vehicles available. “All of the remaining 29 rockets have been sold to customers for future launches so we had to withdraw our bid for NASA’s GOES-U launch service,” spokeswoman Jessica Rye said. (submitted by Rendgrish, EllPeaTea, and Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

Sept. 20: Long March 7 | Tianzhou-3 Chinese supply mission | Wenchang Satellite Launch Center | 06:15

Sept. 27: Atlas V | Landsat 9 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. | TBD

Oct. 5: Soyuz | MS-19 crew launch | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | TBD

Listing image by Trevor Mahlmann / Ars Technica