Enlarge /. A Falcon 9 launch was successful in mid-February, but the first stage failed to land.
Welcome to issue 3.35 of the missile report! There's an incredible amount of launch news this week, but let me start with this: My new book on the Origins of SpaceX, Liftoff: Elon Musk, and the Desperate Early Days SpaceX Launched, was released this week. The initial reviews have been tremendous, and if you're at all interested in the company, or just want a fun story, please read through.
As always, we look forward to readers' contributions. If you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe to it using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the website). Each report includes information on small, medium and heavy-duty missiles, as well as a brief overview of the next three launches on the calendar.
Rocket Lab Reveals Plans for Larger Missiles. This week, the US rocket company announced that it had plans to go public and develop a "neutron" rocket that can launch up to 8 tons into near-Earth orbit. "Rocket Lab got off to a small start with Electron. Now we are unlocking a new category with Neutron," said Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, in a press release. The company plans an initial launch in 2024, but is only now starting work on a new engine.
Another space SPAC … The company also said it plans to go public through a Special Purpose Acquisition Company with the Vector Acquisition Company. The public offering will enable Rocket Lab to raise the funds it needs to accelerate its growth plans, including the development of the Neutron vehicle. Ars interviewed Peter Beck about these plans and will discuss them in more detail in an upcoming article. (submitted by EllPeaTea, platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
NASA awards the contract for a Mars ascent rocket. The Space Agency has awarded Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation the contract for the Mars Ascent Propulsion System as part of its efforts to collect rock samples from the Martian surface. The paid, fixed-fee contract has a potential value for mission services of $ 60.2 million and a maximum potential value of $ 84.5 million, according to NASA.
Lots of work to do … Together with the successful launch of the Mars Perseverance Rover, this award brings NASA and ESA one step closer to realizing the Mars Sample Return Mission. This two-stage rocket will be a vital element in helping the mission to obtain and return the samples that the Mars Perseverance rover will collect for its return to Earth. There is still a long way to go, and we shouldn't expect samples to land on Earth before the late 2020s. However, this is a positive step forward.
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Astra acquires NASA contracts for TROPICS missions. NASA has selected Astra Space to provide launch services for the agency's time-resolved observations of precipitation structure and storm intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats or TROPICS mission. The introduction of the constellation of six CubeSats will begin as early as next year.
Eye on the storm … The launch service contract for the TROPICS mission is a fixed price contract worth 7.95 million US dollars and consists of three separate launches of Astra rockets. The CubeSats provide quick refreshing microwave measurements that can be used to determine the temperature, pressure and humidity in hurricanes as they arise and develop. This is a nice win for Astra and will likely increase the confidence of other potential customers in its launch system. Related: Astra Reveals Its 100 Year Plan to SpaceNews. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)
India starts its first mission in 2021. On Saturday, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle sent the Brazilian Earth observation satellite Amazonia-1 and 18 smaller payloads into orbit. The mission was hailed as the first dedicated commercial mission by NewSpace India Limited, a Government of India company under the Department of Space, SpaceNews reports.
Back on track … The launch is India's first of 2021 after a 2020 badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Satish Dhawan Space Center conducted its first (and only) mission in 2020 with the launch of the Earth observation satellite EOS-1 and nine smaller payloads in November. India is expected to launch a number of missions over the coming months, including the flight of the country's first geostationary earth observation satellite. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
SpaceX wins contract for hypersonic heat shield. The Air Force Research Laboratory has placed a $ 8.5 million contract with SpaceX to study advanced materials and manufacturing techniques for heat shields to protect hypersonic vehicles in flight, SpaceNews reports. An AFRL spokesperson said this was a competitive program with multiple bidders.
The re-entry gets hot … Heat protection is an important technology to protect hypersonic vehicles from the intense heat that occurs when flying at more than five times the speed of sound. SpaceX has previously developed advanced heat protection systems to protect the Dragon human spacecraft capsule and its next generation spacecraft spacecraft. (submitted by Rendgrish)
Starliner launch slips indefinitely. Recently, NASA announced it was delaying the launch of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft on an Atlas V rocket from March 25 to April 2. Now the Orbital Flight Test-2 mission has been postponed again without a new date being set. In a press release, NASA attributed the delay to "winter storms in Houston and the recent replacement of avionic boxes." This reset the program about two weeks.
Starting in a few months … The winter storms weren't a picnic (trust me), but most homes and businesses that lost power after about three days got their power back. NASA cited other factors it weighs in setting a new date, including "the volume of verification and validation analysis required prior to the test flight and the schedule for the visiting vehicle on the International Space Station". Sources said the launch now would likely be no sooner than the end of May. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Relativity floor plans Falcon 9 competitor. Relativity Space, the 3D printed rocket builder, is making another big bet: developing a fully reusable rocket that is matched to the power and capabilities of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Named the Terran R, the reusable missile is "an obvious evolution" of the company's Terran 1 missile, Tim Ellis, CEO of Relativity, told CNBC.
Don't skip Terran 1 … "I've always been a big fan of reusability. No matter how you look at it, including 3D printing, reducing costs and (increasing) automation of a launcher, reusability must be part of this future "added Ellis. The company said it remains committed to developing the smaller Terran 1 rocket, which is scheduled to fly for the first time later this year. (submitted by Gavron and Ken the Bin)
SpaceX updates when Falcon 9 fails to land. On February 16, during its sixth mission into orbit, a first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched its payload of 60 satellites into near-earth orbit. However, the booster then failed to land safely on a drone ship in the Atlantic.
Watch out for starting holes … SpaceX's Benji Reed gave an update on what was happening this week during a press conference for the upcoming Crew 2 mission. A Merlin rocket engine boot developed a hole and sent hot gas "where it shouldn't be," Reed said, turning itself off during the flight of the first stage. So there was not enough thrust to land. The company continues to investigate. (submitted by Ken the Bin, platykurtic and JohnCarter17)
Cape Canaveral will evaluate the weather rules for takeoff. Spaceflight Now has an interesting article this week about the length of time US space forces will be working with companies like SpaceX to adjust their launch windows and deal with the weather. This includes strategies to prepare for two different launch windows on a given day to prevent weather delays.
Some good predictions … In an interview with the publication, SpaceX advisor Hans Koenigsmann praised Space Force officials. He said the Space Force's 45th Weather Squadron, which is tracking take-off weather conditions at Cape Canaveral, was "absolutely amazing". "The level of detail we get is remarkable how good the forecast is," said Koenigsmann. "There are starts where we work with the weather officer all the time trying to find the right time." All of this is being done to increase the number of launches the Cape can make in any given year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next OneWeb launch on track. This week, Roscosmos said the next OneWeb satellite launch, due later this month, will be the second fully commercial launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia. It is being carried out by the European launch service provider Arianespace for OneWeb with the Soyuz launcher.
Scrambling to catch up … The satellites have already arrived at the spaceport to integrate with the rocket. The mission will add 36 satellites to the existing OneWeb constellation of 110 satellites. OneWeb is committed to accelerating the implementation of its satellite internet service as SpaceX continues to launch approximately 120 Starlink internet satellites per month.
Starship is making its third test flight at high altitude. The Starship prototype, known as the SN10, landed this time after the previous two flights had failed. It stood there for about 10 minutes. Suddenly the vehicle rose briefly in a violent explosion and bounced back against the pad. That landing was undoubtedly a step forward as SpaceX engineers apparently figured out the pesky propellant and raptor relight issues that sank the previous two attempts at landing.
But is it enough progress? … What we don't know is how NASA will see it, reports Ars. Will it be viewed positively? Or negative, with the third destruction of a spaceship in three flights? This is important as the agency is nearing a down-select on its Human Landing System contract next month that may or may not see billions of dollars going to SpaceX for its Starship program. NASA could opt for more conventional landers being developed by teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics.
NASA veterinarian George Abbey says the SLS missile should be reconsidered. In a policy brief for the Biden administration, Abbey – the former director of the Johnson Space Center and an influential longtime leader in human space travel – gave an overview of the rocket Space Launch System. The aim of the document was to provide decision-makers with "relevant and effective ideas" in support of the country's political goals.
Launch costs should play a role … "Given the current availability of a significant number of commercial launch vehicles with proven payload capabilities and the advancement of the industry in providing a launch vehicle with significantly greater lifting capabilities, the Biden Administration should consider the need for the SLS during its annual budget review" writes Abbey, who is now a Senior Fellow in Space Policy for Rice University.
Some explanations why New Glenn was late. Ars offers a behind-the-scenes report on why New Glenn is unlikely to hit the market before at least 2023. The biggest benefit is that Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos made the crucial decision to jump straight from New Shepard to New Glenn without an intermediate step. "It's like NASA went straight from Alan Shepard to the Saturn V rocket, but then had to make the Saturn V reusable as well," noted a source.
Step by step, but not always? … The story also describes the management style of Bob Smith, who became CEO of Blue Origin in 2017 and tried to implement a cultural change from a hobby shop to a large aerospace company. Some employees struggled with his leadership style and complained that he was acting too slowly. Another factor behind the delay is that Blue Origin simply has higher priorities right now, specifically completing the BE-4 engine for the United Launch Alliance and competing for the NASA Human Landing System contract.
The next three starts
8th of March: Falcon 9 | Starlink-20 | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 03:41 UTC
March 12th: Long March 7A | XJY-06 02 | Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China | 13:34 UTC
March, 20th: Soyuz 2.1a | Carpooling including Astroscale ELSA-d Mission | Baikonur Cosmodrome | TBD