Welcome to Edition 4.06 of the Rocket Report! After years and years of promises, the era of suborbital space tourism is really and truly upon us. What a weekend we have coming up in launch: Richard Branson is set to make his long-awaited spaceflight board the rocket-powered VSS Unity on Sunday morning. I’ll be on site, in New Mexico, to take in the scene and report back.
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.
Astra unveils plans for growth as it goes public. One week has passed since Astra became a publicly traded stock as part of a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. (The company’s stock, ASTR, is up about 10 percent during that time). In an interview with Ars, Astra chief executive Chris Kemp said the company is using the funds raised from this transaction—about a half-billion dollars—to continue operations, accelerate growth toward a larger launch vehicle, and to become a space services company. The company’s next launch of its Rocket 3 series is on track for later this summer, and there are plans for two more launches this year. The company hopes to reach a monthly cadence by the end of 2021, Kemp said, and it is targeting a total of 15 launches next year.
Bigger rocket, same price … Rocket 3 has a payload capacity of 50 kg to a 500-km orbit. Following about eight more launches of this small Rocket 3, the company will move to Rocket 4, which will have a single engine with 40,000 pounds of thrust instead of the five smaller engines that power Rocket 3. This new rocket will have the capacity to lift about 200 kg to low Earth orbit. Notably, the company’s price per launch, about $3.5 million, will not increase as its rockets become more capable. “We will continue to increase the performance up to about 500 kilograms, and we will drive scale up and costs down,” Kemp said. Astra is also developing a spacecraft that Kemp envisions becoming the “iPhone” of space, where users can upload their “apps” onto the spacecraft, which already has power, thrust, and other capabilities. The goal is to make it easy for companies or small groups to develop a use case for space and test it in orbit—but not to actually have to build the satellite.
Webb telescope passes launch review test. The James Webb Space Telescope is one step closer to launch after a review of its Ariane launch vehicle, while NASA continues a separate review of the name of the spacecraft itself, SpaceNews reports. The European Space Agency announced July 1 that it, along with Arianespace, had successfully completed the final mission-analysis review for the launch of JWST on an Ariane 5.
Late November? … Two Ariane 5 launches are ahead of the Webb flight from Kourou, French Guiana. While both NASA and ESA are maintaining a formal “launch-readiness date” of October 31 for JWST, the schedule of upcoming launches suggests Webb will launch no earlier than the second half of November. Speaking at a June 30 “meeting of experts” held in place of a formal meeting of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee, Eric Smith, program scientist for the telescope at NASA, declined to give a specific launch date. “Historically, they have taken about 60 days between launches,” he said. “But we need to wait until the launch provider says this is the current schedule.” (submitted by EllPeaTea)
Shuttle landing facility converted into commercial space. As Space Florida’s Exploration Park fills up, the economic development agency is opening up new opportunities for commercial space near Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. After NASA turned the old Shuttle Landing Facility over to Space Florida, the entity is converting the facility into an area called the “Launch and Landing Facility.”
Lots of runway available … The utility-corridor project is more than a mile long and will provide power, water, and communications service to large portions of property adjacent to the landing facility, Space Florida said. It will open “development opportunities for companies wishing to join the Cape’s growing commercial space ecosystem,” the agency adds. Although Space Florida has not yet disclosed potential tenants, it notes that the landing facility has an air traffic control tower, navigational aids, fire and EMS services, and more.
China launches three times in four days. China launched a data-tracking and relay communications satellite Tuesday, marking the country’s third successful mission in four days, SpaceNews reports. A Long March 3C lifted off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on Tuesday, sending a Tianlian-1 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit.
Many more to go this year … The mission was close on the heels of launches from each of the other two Chinese inland spaceports. (Those spaceports saw a Long March 2D and a Long March 4C lift off.) Tuesday’s launch was China’s 22nd of 2021, including one failure of a commercial rocket. The country’s institutional space corporation plans to launch more than 40 rockets this year. Chinese commercial companies are also planning launches this year, including LandSpace, iSpace, Deep Blue Aerospace, ExPace and CAS Space. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
OneWeb reaches coverage milestone. Earlier this month Arianespace launched its eighth mission for the satellite company OneWeb, growing its constellation to 254 spacecraft, SpaceNews reports. After the 36 new satellites raise their orbit over the next month, they will complete OneWeb’s interim goal of expanding its footprint to the 50th parallel and above. They will cover Canada, Northern Europe, Alaska, the UK, and Arctic regions, ahead of partial commercial services before the end of this year.
Full constellation next year? … Using the Europeanized version of the Russian Soyuz rocket, OneWeb is aiming for four or five more satellite launches this year, and it needs 10 more to provide global services with a constellation of 648 satellites. OneWeb seeks to partner with enterprises and governments to provide connectivity rather than delivering services directly to consumers. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Nauka gets a new launch date. After a delay due to correct a technical problem, Russia has rescheduled the launch of its spacious Nauka module to the International Space Station for July 21 at 14:54 UTC. The large science module will launch into orbit on a Proton booster from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Not likely to be abandoned soon … According to Roscosmos, the Nauka module will dock to the nadir port of the Russian service module on July 29. This long-delayed segment of the space station will add much-needed research capacity to the Russian side of the ISS, and it suggests that, despite recent bluster, the Russians intend to participate in the space station program for years to come. (submitted by EllPeaTea)
The Blue Origin-ULA marriage is straining. On July 20, Jeff Bezos will fulfill the dream of a lifetime by climbing aboard his New Shepard spacecraft and taking a ride into space. Yet it seems unlikely that everyone in the space community will be celebrating. Bezos made his fortune at Amazon through competitive pricing and timely delivery of goods to his customers worldwide. But so far at least, his Blue Origin space company has been a less reliable vendor, Ars reports.
Sagging relationship … This has been especially of concern to United Launch Alliance, which is relying on Blue Origin-built engines for its new Vulcan rocket. The US Space Force is also watching, as it is counting on the Vulcan booster to help launch some of its most precious satellites into orbit. Blue Origin’s powerful BE-4 rocket engine is years late. Privately, multiple sources told Ars the relationship between Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance isn’t good. “There is great concern about this engine development,” one person in the industry said. “It’s much more than Tory Bruno is showing publicly. There is great concern that Blue is not putting enough attention and priority on the engine.”
Comparing performance of heavy-lift rockets. As part of a meeting of the planetary sciences decadal survey committee, NASA’s Launch Service Program presented a chart of characteristic energy (C3) for various existing and near-term commercial launch vehicles. Reporter Jeff Foust shared this chart on Twitter.
Digging into the details … There are plenty of interesting numbers on this chart, which shows that the expendable variant of the Falcon Heavy rocket is the most powerful booster available today for a planetary mission, with a 50 percent greater performance than the Delta IV Heavy.
Don’t expect SLS rocket to be used for science missions. In a briefing about the Space Launch System for members of the planetary science decadal survey this week, Robert Stough of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center said that, if scientists are contemplating missions that require the use of the SLS, they should be talking with NASA now to secure manifest slots no earlier than the late 2020s or early 2030s.
Book your launch for next decade now? … “Given the demands of the Artemis program between now and the late 2020s,” he said, “it’s going to be very difficult to squeeze a science mission in that time frame.” While NASA has a goal of being able to launch three SLS missions in a 24-month period and two in 12 months, the supply chain is currently limited to one SLS per year, SpaceNews reports. That will change by the early 2030s, Stough said. It’s not clear there is much demand from science missions for an SLS launch, given its high cost. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)
Next three launches
July 21: Proton | Nauka module | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 14:54
July 27: Ariane 5 | Star One D2, Eutelsat Quantum | Kourou, French Guiana | TBD
July 30: Atlas V | Starliner OFT-2 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 18:53 UTC