Welcome to Edition 1.32 of the Rocket Report! As we get deeper into the new year, the launch business is starting to heat up, especially among the smaller rockets. Companies are eyeing launch sites, securing launch contracts, and scrambling on development of their rockets. This is simply going to be a huge year for small-sat launchers, and we’re going to do our best to stay on top of everything.
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.
Relativity Space to launch from historic Florida site. The company that aspires to 3D print almost the entirety of its rockets has reached an agreement with the US Air Force to launch from historic facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Relativity Space said Thursday it has a multiyear contract to build and operate its own rocket launch facilities at Launch Complex 16, Ars reported.
Up to a 25-year lease … Under terms of the competitively awarded agreement, the site will officially be a “multiuser” facility for five years. However, if Relativity meets certain milestones and begins regularly launching rockets, it will be able to convert the agreement into a 20-year, exclusive right to use the launch site. “This was definitely our top choice, I would say by quite a bit,” Relativity co-founder Tim Ellis said. “We looked at every launch site in the United States.”
Iranian small-satellite launch fails. The third stage of an Iranian Simorgh rocket failed Tuesday, preventing the booster from putting the 90kg Payam satellite into orbit. Prior to the launch, Iran said it intended to send two nonmilitary satellites, Payam and Doosti, into orbit. The Payam, which means “message” in Farsi, was an imagery satellite that Iranian officials said would help with farming and other activities, the AP reports.
US concerned about launch program … US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has alleged that Iran’s space program is serving as a precursor to the development of a missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon to the mainland United States. Regardless, it is not clear how this failure will affect the country’s plans to launch the Doosti satellite. The Simorgh rocket used in Tuesday’s launch attempt is believed to have a capacity of about 350kg to low-Earth orbit. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
China firm scores smallsat launch win. Via the China Great Wall Industry Corporation, China’s new Long March 6 rocket has won a major commercial launch contract, with an agreement for up to six flights over two years to deploy 90 small remote-sensing satellites for Argentina-based Satellogic. The contract comes amid increased competition in the smallsat launch market, Ars notes.
Launch availability cited … Emiliano Kargieman, the founder and chief executive of Satellogic, said the company looked at a range of launch providers, including Rocket Lab and other emerging companies. “With all of the small-launch companies coming online, we will definitely consider them for future plans,” Kargieman said. “But for the rollout we need to do in the next 24 months, this relationship gives us the best option for meeting that goal.” China-based Tencent has helped raised money for Satellogic.
Virgin eyes Guam launch site with interest. Although no final agreements have been signed, senior Virgin Orbit executives say they are looking closely at flying Cosmic Girl missions from Guam as a base for their LauncherOne rocket. “We have looked around,” Richard DalBello, vice president of business development and government affairs for Virgin Orbit, told The Guam Daily Post. “There are other alternatives,” but “we believe that Guam is the best alternative.”
A few weeks at a time … The Virgin officials told the paper they envision flying the Cosmic Girl aircraft into the US territory for a period of four to eight weeks, during which the company would fly a series of missions. The Cosmic Girl would then return to the continental United States. The company and the Guam airport authority have been in talks for nearly a year, and the A.B. Won Pat Guam International Airport Authority still needs to obtain a spaceport license from the FAA. (submitted by BH)
SpaceX cuts workforce to get “leaner.” SpaceX will lay off up to 10 percent of its work force, the company said Friday evening. The company characterized the job cuts as “a strategic realignment” designed to ensure it is positioned to succeed for the long term, Ars reported. Although some reports said up to 850 people were terminated from a workforce of about 6,000, SpaceX said that the cuts were capped at 10 percent.
From development to operations … “To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space-based Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company,” a company official said. These cuts were not unexpected. SpaceX had grown rapidly, needing to engineer Falcon 9 various iterations, Dragon, Dragon 2, Falcon Heavy, Starlink, Starship, and more. Now it is done with development of a lot of those projects and no longer needs to build hundreds of Merlin engines or dozens of Falcon 9 cores a year. Same with Dragons. So SpaceX needs fewer people in production. When you hear about low-cost rockets and reuse, that means fewer people are needed.
Arianespace faces a challenging year. Amid increasing competition and a downturn in geostationary-satellite orders, Arianespace must find commercial customers for its new Ariane 6 rocket. “For Ariane 6, we aim at 14 launches [for the first model], so production has to start very soon for these, and this has to be ordered very rapidly,” Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation, said this week. Seven of those launches are meant to be commercial, SpaceNews reports.
Here to stay … “I’m always optimistic, but it’s extremely challenging,” Neuenschwander said. “We are probably facing the biggest challenge for the European space transportation sector since the last failure of Ariane 5, in 2002.” Regardless of the financial challenges, however, ESA officials reiterated that Europe will remain in the business of launching its own rockets. Overall, Arianespace is targeting 12 launches this year. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Unrulycow)
India targets midsummer for reusable second-stage test. “We are working on a reusable launch technology in order to recover the first and second stages of a rocket so that we can reuse them to cut cost and carry heavier payloads,” the chairman of India’s space organization, Kailasavadivoo Sivan, told Times of India. The first stage will land like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, but the second stage will be shaped like a miniature space shuttle, gliding back to Earth and landing on a runway.
A helicopter test … Sometime in June or July, the Indian official said, a helicopter will drop a mock-up of the second-stage shuttle from a “considerable height” to determine its ability to glide back to Earth. An additional test from orbit would be conducted at a later date. This is an interesting approach to rocket reusability, so we’ll look forward to this test with interest.
SpaceFund rates the “reality” of launch companies. A new effort led by some new space pioneers has published a rating system for the credibility of launch providers. In its own words, “The SpaceFund Reality rating is an effort to provide critical, intelligent, and non-biased information about the status of the growing space industry and to make as much of this data available to the public as possible.”
An interesting start … Companies are rated on a scale from 9 (hello SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and others) to 0 (mostly un-funded startups you’ve probably never heard of). The SpaceFund “should not be used as the sole basis of any business, investment, or partnership decision.” It is not clear how this effort will handle conflicts of interest, but we do appreciate the effort to bring some clarity to this diverse and rapidly changing launch industry. Although some will certainly quibble with the ratings, it strikes us as a reasonable first stab at a moving target.
Test stand for SLS rocket “Green Run” almost complete. Activation of the B-2 test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for the “Green Run” test campaign of the first Space Launch System Core Stage is almost complete. NASA and its contractor workforce are moving into practice and simulations of the upcoming tests while finishing up remaining tasks, NASASpaceFlight.com reports.
Test may occur in about a year … The B-2 test stand has been previously used for Saturn, Shuttle, and Delta 4 stage tests. During the “Green Run” test, the entire SLS core stage will be fired to simulate a launch of the vehicle and ascent into space. It is one of the major milestones in preparing the SLS rocket for launch. NASA has yet to set a date for the test, which could occur at the end of 2019 or early 2020. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
ULA sets new date for Delta IV Heavy flight. After multiple delays, United Launch Alliance said this week that “everything is progressing” toward the Delta IV Heavy launch carrying the NROL-71 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. The mission is set to lift off on a Delta IV Heavy rocket on Saturday, January 19, from Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Ready to go? … Launch time is 11:05am local, Pacific Time. Weather currently is 60 percent go. This is an important mission for ULA, which was originally scheduled to be launched in September before being scrubbed for various technical and weather reasons, including a hydrogen leak, in December. Watching a Delta IV Heavy launch is always good value.
Vulcan rocket design “nearly fully mature.” United Launch Alliance will conduct the final design review for its new flagship Vulcan rocket within months, it said on Wednesday, Reuters reports. “The design is nearly fully mature,” ULA systems test engineer Dane Drefke said during a tour of Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The final design review is a critical step toward reaching Vulcan’s first flight in early 2021.
Job cuts done now … According to the report, ULA has started cutting and building hardware, and it has begun structural and pressure testing at its Decatur, Alabama, factory. Engineers were also modifying the Florida launchpad and tower to accommodate Vulcan. ULA does not envision more job cuts and has been adding engineers in Florida and elsewhere. “We are now optimal-sized,” Drefke said, adding that ULA will be hiring more engineers as it moves into production. (submitted by BH)
Next three launches
Jan. 19: Delta IV Heavy | NROL-71 | Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. | 19:05 UTC
Jan. 21: Long March 11 | Jilin-1 (imaging satellites) | Jiuquan, China | TBD
Jan. 24: PSLV | Microsat-R mission | Sriharikota, India | 18:08 UTC