Welcome to Edition 4.07 of the Rocket Report! Looking back to Virgin Galactic’s flight and ahead to Blue Origin, we’re continuing to experience a very special moment in human spaceflight history this week, with final preparations underway for Jeff Bezos and the first crew flight of New Shepard. I’ll be on hand, in West Texas, to report on all the action for Ars.
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.
Richard Branson finally does it. A new era opened this past weekend when Sir Richard flew alongside Virgin Galactic employees Beth Moses, Sirisha Bandla, and Colin Bennett above 80 km, NASA’s definition of space. In doing so, the spacecraft’s pilots and crew opened a future that is full of both promise and uncertainty. Spaceflight has changed forever. In a feature, Ars explores the history of private spaceflight and digs into its future.
Consider this … During the last 50 years, the vast majority of human flights into space—more than 95 percent—have been undertaken by government astronauts on government-designed and government-funded vehicles. Starting with Branson and going forward, it seems likely that 95 percent of human spaceflights over the next half-century, if not more, will take place on privately built vehicles by private citizens. So when Branson said, “Welcome to the dawn of the new space age” after his flight, he was not wrong.
Blue Origin firms up launch details. As Blue Origin continues final preparations for its July 20 human spaceflight, the company has been rolling out announcements this week. On Wednesday, Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future, announced 19 nonprofit charitable organizations will each be offered a $1 million grant to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and help invent the future of life in space. The funds are made possible by the recent auction for the first paid seat on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.
Youngest person to fly into space … Then, on Thursday, the company announced that the $28 million auction winner would not, in fact, be flying on the July 20 launch because he or she “has chosen to fly on a future New Shepard mission due to scheduling conflicts.” Instead, Blue offered the seat to the runner-up, hedge fund manager Joes Daemen. Therefore, the fourth passenger on the July 20 launch will be Daemen’s 18-year-old son, Oliver. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
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India sets plans for next mission as pandemic wanes. After a devastating wave of COVID-19 swept across India earlier this year, the country is getting back to launching rockets. The Indian space agency, ISRO, said it would launch the geostationary imaging satellite GISAT-1 onboard the GSLV-F10 rocket on August 12, Devdiscourse reports.
A five-month delay … This would be the first Indian launch since February, when the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle flew a ride-share mission. The GISAT-1 launch was originally supposed to take place in March and will take off from the country’s Sriharikota spaceport. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Chinese firms preparing for hop tests. A number of Chinese rocket firms are preparing to carry out their first hop tests in a bid to develop reusable launch vehicles, SpaceNews reports. For example, Beijing Deep Blue Aerospace Technology said this week it carried out a 10-second static fire test of the 7.3-meter-high “Nebula-M” technology verification test vehicle. The goal is to pave the way for an orbital launch of the company’s reusable Nebula-1 launch vehicle.
Increasingly ambitious launch sector … The test is one of a number of efforts by Chinese companies to develop reusable, cost-reducing liquid-fueled launch vehicles. According to the publication, these developments are a reaction to changes in the launch sector initiated in the United States, namely the emergence of private launch companies and the shift to reusability pioneered by SpaceX. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Speaking of Chinese new space companies. It seems like there is a never-ending list of new commercial launch companies in China. That’s why I appreciated this graphic shared this week by Ruohong Zhao on Twitter. It shows, as of this month, the status of liquid-fueled rocket development in China.
Engine details, too … The graphic highlights seven different launch vehicles, ranging from the Zhuque-2 rocket, with a lift capacity of 6 tons to LEO, down to the microlauncher Darwin-1, with about 250 kg of capacity. It’s a good resource, with lots of information about the engines themselves. Also, don’t forget that several solid-fueled vehicles are in development as well.
Student group claims rocket-engine record. A student organization at Concordia University in Montreal says it has developed the most powerful rocket engine ever built by students. “This summer, we blew the record for student rocket power fully out of the water,” the student group said on its fundraiser page. “Our hotfire tests have produced upwards of 35kN of thrust.” Video of the test can be seen here.
Striking for the Kármán line … As part of the Base 11 Space Challenge, the Concordia students are competing to become the first college team to build a rocket that lofts a payload above the 100 km Kármán line. The students say they’re planning to test their “Star Sailor” rocket within the next six months. We admire their efforts and those of other student groups around the world. (submitted by Kilkenny)
FAA seeks to limit impact of launches on airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration has started to use a new tool intended to better integrate commercial launches and re-entries into the National Airspace System, reducing the disruptions those events have on aviation, SpaceNews reports. The FAA began to use the “Space Data Integrator” with the June 30 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral on the Transporter-2 ride-share mission.
Quicker reopenings … Under development by the FAA for several years, this data integrator automates the transfer of data about launches and re-entries to air traffic controllers so they have up-to-date information on the progress of those activities, including any anomalies that might create debris or other aviation hazards. That can allow controllers to more efficiently manage air traffic around those closures. The intent is to allow quicker reopening of airspace once a launch or re-entry has safely transited airspace. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
India tests Vikas rocket engine for human missions. The liquid-fueled Vikas engine is not new, having been used to power the stages of several Indian rockets over the years. However, as India gets closer to launching its first crewed mission later this decade, it needs to demonstrate the engine’s ability to burn for longer and above its current operational limits.
Working toward crew launches … To that end, this week the Indian space agency, ISRO, said it successfully conducted the third long-duration test of the Vikas engine. The engine was fired for a duration of 240 seconds, and its performance met the test objectives as well as closely matching with predictions. The Vikas engine will power the GSLV-Mark III rocket that will launch a crewed mission as early as 2023. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
Kokorich finds new calling in Swiss launch company. The Russian founder of Momentus and its former CEO, Mikhail Kokorich, tells Quartz he is fighting to clear his name after the US Securities and Exchange Commission penalized Momentus and its special purpose acquisition company, Stable Road. More interestingly for the purposes of this newsletter is that Kokorich says he’s starting a rocket company in Switzerland.
Rockets launching from neutral territory? … Kokorich now lives there and says he’s owed a payout from Momentus. His new company is called Destinus and will develop “the technology for near-space vehicles, hybrids between airplane and a rocket. These vehicles will be capable of low-cost delivery for express cargo between continents in 60-90 minutes.” Good luck with that, Mikhail.
Super Heavy may soon see first light. More than two months have passed since the last Starship test launch from South Texas, and since then SpaceX technicians and engineers have been assembling the Super Heavy boosters themselves. The company rolled “Booster 3” to the launch pad at the beginning of July. This is the first full-scale booster prototype to actually undergo testing, and it has passed cryogenic pressure tests of its fuel tanks.
Test firing when? … This week, the company added three Raptor rocket engines to Booster 3 and told area residents it may conduct a static fire test of the vehicle as soon as Monday, Ars reports. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said Booster 3 will not launch, but if all goes well with its ground testing, the company will proceed with a launch of Booster 4. This rocket is already being built at the company’s assembly facility a few kilometers from the launch site in South Texas. Whereas SpaceX is testing Booster 3 with three Raptor engines, a fully orbital version of Super Heavy will have 33 of the methane-fueled Raptors. Crazy, we know.
Also, SpaceX runs afoul of the FAA in Boca. Even as SpaceX has been building its Super Heavy boosters, the company has also been constructing a large launch tower for orbital flights. The Federal Aviation Administration warned Elon Musk’s SpaceX in a letter two months ago that the company’s work on a launch tower for future Starship rocket launches is yet unapproved and will be included in the agency’s ongoing environmental review of the facility in South Texas.
Tear down the tower? … “The company is building the tower at its own risk,” an FAA spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday, noting that the environmental review could recommend taking down the launch tower. The FAA last year began an environmental review of SpaceX’s Starship development facility, as Musk’s company said it planned to apply for licenses to launch the next-generation rocket prototypes from Boca Chica. While the FAA completed an environmental assessment of the area in 2014, that review was specific to SpaceX’s much-smaller Falcon series of rockets.
Technology Next three launches
July 21: Proton | Nauka module | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 14:58
July 27: Ariane 5 | Star One D2, Eutelsat Quantum | Kourou, French Guiana |TBD
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July 30: Atlas V | Starliner OFT-2 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 18:53 UTC
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