Long Beach, California — January 8, 2021 — Virgin Orbit, the California-based responsive space launch company, announced today that it has signed a launch services agreement with Junior Astronaut, a UK-based company that provides Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education programs for young space enthusiasts. Flying as a rideshare onboard several upcoming missions — including missions from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, UK — Junior Astronaut’s Nanonaut payload will remain affixed to LauncherOne’s upper stage.
Each Nanonaut payload can be tracked and monitored via telemetry from Earth using Junior Astronaut’s smartphone app. The app also offers a number of STEM-based activities such as algebra tutorials and other educational teasers, supporting Junior Astronaut’s broader purpose of inspiring young students to become more engaged and excited about space.
Founded in 2020, Junior Astronaut exists to encourage young people toward careers in STEM and space science through participation. In addition to the Nanonaut program, Junior Astronaut will soon offer space camps and a flight experiments package to take young people’s interest to the next stage.
Virgin Orbit launches for Junior Astronaut will commence no earlier than mid-2021.
“Knowledge is the most powerful tool for shaping a better future for everyone. The Junior Astronaut program is designed to inspire young people to push the limits of the unknown, to discover and innovate. The way to do this is education. Space is such an inspirational way to get people interested. We want space to be accessible to everyone, and for the next generation to push boundaries and move all our societies forward. Space is how they will do this,”
said Miranda Ashcroft, Junior Astronaut co-founder.
“With every LauncherOne mission, we want to chip away at the barriers preventing equitable access to space, so this partnership with Junior Astronaut is particularly meaningful to our team,” said Stephen Eisele, Virgin Orbit’s vice president of business development. “These Nanonauts are all about getting students to recognize that they too can have a role in shaping the future of space, and we’re really excited to help bring them into the fold. These are the kinds of missions that will capture the hearts and minds of tomorrow’s space innovators.”
Virgin Orbit is in the midst of final preparations for Launch Demo 2, its second orbital test flight with the LauncherOne system, currently expected to occur in mid-January.
About Virgin Orbit: Virgin Orbit builds and operates the most flexible and responsive satellite launcher ever invented: LauncherOne, a dedicated launch service for commercial and government-built small satellites. LauncherOne rockets are designed and manufactured in Long Beach, California, and will be air-launched from our modified 747-400 carrier aircraft – allowing us to operate from locations all over the world in order to best serve each customer’s needs. Virgin Orbit’s systems are currently in an advanced stage of testing, with initial orbital launches expected soon. To learn more or to apply to join Virgin Orbit’s talented and growing team, visit virginorbit.com.
About Junior Astronaut: Junior Astronaut is a worldwide charitable organization that wants to awaken young people’s curiosity and guide them towards choosing a STEM career. Junior Astronaut’s vision is to bring forth a new generation of STEM professionals that will have the knowledge, creativity, drive, and empathy to address global challenges through innovation. Our mission is to create thrilling participative programs that nurture real life skills and inspire a sense of wonder, curiosity, and the desire to explore. Our initiatives include the Nanonaut program, space camps, in-flight experiments, zero gravity experiences, and – in the future – a full sub-orbital experience. In the long term, we aim for youths who start our program to one day build STEM careers at NASA, ESA, or other world-renowned space companies like Virgin Orbit.
** Dec.9: First high altitude flight test of a SpaceX Starship prototype successfully demonstrated two key requirements for returning from orbit: (1) controlled stable flight while in a horizontal orientation during unpowered descent and (2) the flip to vertical maneuver after restarting the engines. The vehicle was powered by three Raptors, which fired for nearly five minutes before reaching the 12 km altitude. (Two of the engines shut down sequentially during the later phase of the ascent.) This provided a big gain in the amount of data on in-flight performance of the LOX/Methane engines compared to the short hops with earlier prototypes.
Unfortunately, during the SN8 vehicle’s relatively short vertical descent to the bullseye of the landing pad, a drop in pressure from the propellant tank in the tip of the nosecone reduced the thrust of the Raptor engine and the vehicle landed too hard and exploded. This operational problem can be prevented in a straight-forward manner in future flights. After 60+ successful Falcon 9 booster recoveries, the company knows how to land a rocket vertically. However, SpaceX has had no experience with flying a rocket in a horizontal attitude and controlling it with side fins. It also had never swung a vehicle from horizontal to vertical. So this was a very successful test. While it might have flown again if it landed safely, SN8 was never intended to provide more than suborbital test data.
This multi-exposure image nicely captures the liftoff and return of Starship SN8’s epic test flight:
** Dec.16: Astra reaches space for first time but falls just short of orbit: The launch from the Alaskan spaceport sent the upper stage of the two-staged Rocket 3.2 to 390 kilometers in altitude and “just a half a kilometer per second short” of orbital velocity according to Astra CEO Chris Kemp. According to Eric Berger,
The company had not quite gotten the mixture of kerosene to oxidizer correct—something that is difficult to test on the ground—and wound up with an excess of liquid oxygen. Had the upper stage burnt kerosene for a few more seconds, the upper stage would have reached orbit. As it was, the booster peaked at an apogee of 390km above the Earth’s surface.
Kemp claimed this flight nevertheless exceeded the team’s expectations for the rocket, which did not have a payload on board.
Kemp has said that it would take three launches before they achieved orbit. Last March, Rocket 3.0 was destroyed in a fire on the pad and, in September, Rocket 3.1 flew for 30 seconds before a guidance problem led to a shutdown of the engines and the loss of the vehicle. Rocket 3.3 is expected to fly early in 2021 and it will carry a payload for a customer.
The company’s goal is to offer very low cost access to orbit for small satellites. To achieve this they have sought a simple but robust rocket design that can be built at low cost. According to Astra,
Rapid test and iteration are the cornerstones of our development process. We’ve performed thousands of rocket engine tests at our headquarters in Alameda, a few hundred feet away from where those engines are designed and built. We can afford to experiment quickly and repeatedly because our rockets are far less expensive. The rockets are primarily constructed from lightweight aluminum, instead of costly composite and 3D printed materials.
Astra was founded to provide rapid, low-cost access to space for small satellites. The quick turnaround between its first and second flights suggests it may make good on this promise. It’s impressive, too, that the company needs just five people to set up its launch site. At Kodiak, Astra has a concrete pad and a tent. A week before launching the rocket, its launcher, propellant, and other equipment arrived in four shipping containers from California. A team of five set the launch system up, and employees back at Astra’s headquarters in Alameda, California, controlled the launch through cloud computing.
The company needs to prove in 2021 that it can build and operate rockets that not only get to orbit but do so reliably and frequently.
** Dec.15: Rocket Lab Electron rocket puts Synspective StriX-α synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite into a 500km circular orbit. This was the 17th Electron launch. There was no attempt to recover the first stage.
Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: SPCE), a vertically integrated aerospace and space travel company, announced an update following its recent test flight on December 12, 2020. During the test flight, the rocket motor did not fire due to the ignition sequence not completing. Following this event, the pilots conducted a safe landing and return to Spaceport America, New Mexico as planned.
Virgin Galactic is now conducting post-flight analysis and can so far report that the onboard computer which monitors the propulsion system lost connection, triggering a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor. This system, like others on the spaceship, is designed such that it defaults to a safe state whenever power or communication with sensors is lost. The pilots in the spaceship, as well as the engineers and pilots in mission control, are well prepared for any off-nominal results, as they plan and rehearse many potential scenarios during pre-flight simulation practice sessions, including a scenario where the rocket motor does not ignite after release from the mothership.
** SpaceX set to launch Starship prototype SN8 to 15 km following successful static firing of its three Raptor engines on Nov. 24th. The company currently has a FAA permit for a flight during a 3 day window opening on Dec. 4th. (There are local restrictions on closing access to the beach on weekends so the window may effectively be 1 day long.) A wet dress rehearsal took place on Wed. Dec. 2nd. Elon Musk had indicated that there would be another static firing before the flight but it looks like they may skip this.
[ Update: The flight has been postponed till Monday Dec. 7th at the earliest. Also, the max altitude will be 12.5 km rather than 15 km.]
On Tuesday, December 1, at 10:33 p.m. (local time), Arianespace successfully launched the FalconEye optical observation satellite using a Soyuz rocket from the Guiana Space Center (CSG), Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. FalconEye is a very-high-performance optical Earth observation satellite developed in a consortium led by Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space for the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces (UAEAF).
** Crew Dragon docks to ISS a day after launch from KSC. The Falcon 9 lifted off on Sunday evening and 27 hours later the Dragon with four astronauts (Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Soichi Noguchi) aboard reached the station. The F9 booster successfully landed on a droneship in the Atlantic. This was the first operational mission for the Crew Dragon. Last week the system obtained official certification from NASA as a human-rated transport.
** Arianespace Vega rocket fails to reach orbit. This is the second Vega failure in past three launches. The payload included the Earth observation satellites SEOSAT-Ingenio from Spain and TARANIS from France, representing about $400M in value. A mix-up in cabling appears to be the prime suspect: Human error blamed for Vega launch failure – SpaceNews. See also
Two and a half months after Vega’s successful return to flight, the Vega launch vehicle lifted off as scheduled on 17 November at 02:52 CET / 22:52 local time on 16 November from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The first three stages functioned nominally until the ignition of the AVUM upper stage, eight minutes after departure from the launch pad. At that time, a degraded trajectory was detected, followed by a loss of control of the vehicle and the subsequent loss of the mission.
The launcher fell in a completely uninhabited area close to the drop zone planned for the Zefiro-9 stage.
Initial investigations, conducted overnight with the available data, indicate that a problem related to the integration of the fourth-stage AVUM nozzle activation system is the most likely cause of the loss of control of the launcher.
** ULA Atlas V puts NRO spysat into orbit with launch from Cape Canaveral. This was the first Atlas V launch using Northrop Grumman GEM 63 rocket motors for the three side boosters.
*** China’s Galactic Energy company sends payload to orbit on first orbital launch of the CERES-1 rocket. The vehicle uses solid-fuel motors in the first 3 stages and the final stage uses a hydrazine based liquid fueled engine. The company is developing the Pallas-1 with all liquid propulsion stages for launch in 2021.
Today, India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, in its fifty first flight (PSLV-C49), successfully launched EOS-01 along with nine international customer satellites from the First Launch Pad of Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC) SHAR, Sriharikota.
PSLV-C49 lifted-off at 1511 Hrs (IST), after a delay of nine minutes because of inclement weather conditions observed during countdown. After 15 minutes and 20 seconds, EOS-01 was successfully injected into its orbit. Subsequently, nine commercial satellites were injected into their intended orbits. After separation, the two solar arrays of EOS-01 were deployed automatically and the ISRO Telemetry Tracking and Command Network at Bengaluru assumed control of the satellite. In the coming days, the satellite will be brought to its final operational configuration.
EOS-01 is an earth observation satellite, intended for applications in agriculture, forestry and disaster management support.
The nine customer satellites from Lithuania (1), Luxembourg (4) and USA(4) were launched under a commercial arrangement with NewSpace India Limited (NSIL).
** Rocket Lab to attempt recovery of first stage booster on launch set for November 20. This will be the first attempt to recover an Electron booster. The company has been carrying out tests of booster return during recent flights.
“Recovering the first stage of a small launch vehicle is uncharted territory. What we’re trying to achieve with Electron is an incredibly difficult and complex challenge, but one we’re willing to pursue to further boost launch cadence and deliver even more frequent launch opportunities to small satellite operators,” says Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO. “Bringing a whole first stage back intact is the ultimate goal, but success for this mission is really about gaining more data, particularly on the drogue and parachute deployment system. Regardless of the condition the stage comes back in, we’ll learn a great deal from this test and use it to iterate forward for the next attempt.”
Electron’s first stage will undertake the following complex maneuvers on its journey back to Earth:
Approximately two and a half minutes after lift-off, at an altitude of around 80 km, Electron’s first and second stages will separate per standard mission procedure. Electron’s second stage will continue into orbit, where the Kick Stage will separate and deploy the satellites.
With the engines now shut down on Electron’s first stage, a reaction control system will re-orient the stage 180-degrees to place it on an ideal angle for re-entry, designed to enable it to survive the incredible heat and pressure known as “the wall” during its descent back to Earth.
After decelerating to <Mach 2, a drogue parachute will be deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descends.
In the final kilometres of descent, a large main parachute will be deployed to further slow the stage and enable a controlled splashdown.
A Rocket Lab vessel will rendezvous with the stage after splashdown and retrieve it for transport back to Rocket Lab’s Production Complex for inspection.
If tests with splashdowns are successful, the plan for subsequent flights is to use a helicopter to grab the booster in the air by its parachute and return the booster to the launch site for refurbishment and re-use on future launches.
One reason for the delay, Rocket Lab said, was that it was waiting on NASA to certify the autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) that will be used on the rocket to provide range safety. NASA controls the launch range at the Wallops Flight Facility, where LC-2 is located. “There’s a very long certification process that, quite frankly, we probably underestimated how long it would take,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in an interview in August.
That certification process is ongoing. In a Nov. 10 talk at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable webinar, David Pierce, director of NASA Wallops, mentioned preparations for Rocket Lab’s first launch as part of an overview of the facility’s activities. “We’re really proud of our work with Rocket Lab,” he said. “We’re working really hard to support Rocket Lab with a launch in ’21.”
** Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo flight postponed due to pandemic restrictions. including a “stay at home” order from the New Mexico governor for the rest of November. The first rocket powered SS2 flight to high altitude since February 2019 had been set for late this week. It would also be the first space flight for a SS2 from the New Mexico spaceport, which is now VG’s primary operating site.
it is developing two additional next-generation orbital transfer vehicles (OTVs) that will debut in 2021. Its first, Sherpa-FX, will fly on a fully dedicated rideshare mission with SpaceX, dubbed SXRS-3 by Spaceflight, no earlier than December 2020. The next two ESPA-class space vehicles in the company’s portfolio are designed to provide more orbital diversification, including flexible manifest changes, deployment to multiple altitudes and orbital planes, and rapid launch solutions.
Sherpa-FX, the first innovative orbital transfer vehicle to debut, is capable of executing multiple deployments, providing independent and detailed deployment telemetry, and flexible interfaces, all at a low cost. This free flyer separates from a launch vehicle prior to deploying any satellites, with satellite separations initiated by onboard avionics once clear of the launch vehicle. It is quickly configurable and can move from vehicle to vehicle and mission to mission. It includes independent, near real-time, worldwide telemetry via GlobalStar. It will carry 14 spacecraft, including hosted payloads, on the upcoming SXRS-3 mission.
Sherpa-LTC features a high thrust, bi-propellant, green propulsion subsystem integrated seamlessly within the available space of the original free flyer. By including this new propulsion technology from Benchmark Space Systems, Sherpa-LTC provides a low cost, rapid orbital transfer for many sizes of small spacecraft. It’s compatible with all launch vehicles Spaceflight currently works with and enables reaching higher orbits quickly through SpaceX Starlink missions and similar flights. It is scheduled to fly the second half of 2021.
Sherpa-LTE is a high specific impulse (Isp), Xenon propellant, electric propulsion OTV. It builds on the Sherpa program by incorporating ACE (Apollo Constellation Engine), a low thrust, high efficiency, radiation hardened Hall thruster propulsion system developed by Apollo Fusion, Inc. As ACE systems are able to generate over 6 km/s of delta-V, Sherpa-LTE now has the capability to deliver customers to GEO, Cislunar, or Earth-escape orbits. The Sherpa-LTE provides a low-cost alternative to purchasing full direct-inject launch vehicles and will extend the ability of small launch vehicles that are currently under development to reach beyond low Earth orbit. The Sherpa-LTE is targeted to fly mid-2021.
Orbit Fab has signed an agreement with Spaceflight Inc. to launch the company’s first operational fuel depot to orbit. Tanker 001 Tenzing, which will provide fuel for the fast growing in-orbit servicing industry, is expected to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 no earlier than in June 2021.
Once launched, Tanker 001 Tenzing will store propellant in sun synchronous orbit, where it will be available to satellite servicing vehicles or other spacecraft that need to replenish fuel supplies. The tanker is one of several payloads to launch on a Spaceflight Sherpa orbital transfer vehicle, which is capable of executing multiple deployments. Spaceflight’s first OTV, Sherpa-FX, is scheduled to debut no earlier than December 2020 on a SpaceX rideshare mission and provides independent and detailed deployment telemetry, and flexible interfaces, all at a low cost.
Following the successful launch of the Crew Dragon to the ISS (see top item), SpaceX has several more launches coming up in the next few weeks, including two set for this Saturday at opposite coasts of the country:
The $316 million contract [to launch a National Reconnaissance Office satellite in fiscal year 2022] was the first awarded to SpaceX under the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 launch service procurement. The other provider selected in this program, United Launch Alliance, was awarded $337 million to launch two missions comparable to the one awarded to SpaceX.
This raised eyebrows because SpaceX’s previous national security launch bids were priced much lower than ULA’s. A recent Falcon Heavy launch contract SpaceX won from NASA, for example, was $117 million. In the first Phase 2 award, ULA is launching two missions almost for the price of one SpaceX mission.
But [SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne] Shotwell insisted the company’s launch prices are not going up. SpaceX is however charging the government for the cost of an extended payload fairing, upgrades to the company’s West Coast launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force in California, and a vertical integration facility required for NRO missions.
Former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe is the second member of the all-private crew that SpaceX is scheduled to launch late next year for Axiom Space, the company confirmed to CNBC on Monday.
President of Israel Reuven Rivlin made the announcement shortly after SpaceX launched its Crew-1 mission for NASA on Sunday evening.
Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, who previously worked for NASA and flew to space four times, will be the mission commander for AX-1, with Stibbe set to serve as a mission specialist.
Axiom has yet to name the remaining two members of the AX-1 mission
**** A high altitude flight of the prototype Starship SN8 was delayed when an engine failed during a test firing. The test aimed to emulate the situation during landing when the engines are fed with propellants from the spherical reserve tanks in the nosecone and in the main oxygen tank. The failure of the engine led to the failure of the pneumatic system that controls the venting of the tanks. The header tank might have blown off the top of the rocket but a burst valve gave way and saved the day.
Elon Musk commented about what happened:
About 2 secs after starting engines, martyte covering concrete below shattered, sending blades of hardened rock into engine bay. One rock blade severed avionics cable, causing bad shutdown of Raptor.
And Scott Manley talks in this video posted soon after the test and before Elon’s comments but he still provides some interesting info about the propulsion system: Nov.13: Starship Test Destroys Raptor Engine, But Burst Disc Saves Rest Of Vehicle
**** Meanwhile, work continues on multiple prototypes from SN9 up through SN15.
SN8 fired up its engines for the third time, but suffered a loss of pneumatics and was unable to drain the LOX header tank in the nosecone- luckily a burst disk prevented a potentially catastrophic overpressure event. Some liquid that looked like molten metal could be seen dripping from Raptor after firing. Also included, a comparison of all 3 SN8 static fires so far. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@TheJackBeyer)
Meanwhile, in Boca Chica! New Raptor SN42 paid a visit to Starship SN8, but wasn’t installed. Then SN46(!) turned up in the RaptorVan, sporting a pumpkin! (Fresh from Halloween testing at McGregor?) Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@TheJackBeyer)
SN9 was tested with the newly assembled extra wide Self Propelled Modular Transporter, work on SN8 continued, and a nosecone barrel section was worked on inside the nosecone fabrication tent. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@TheJackBeyer)
You will see in this video that I knew early on that my view (and yours) was going to be different forever and just took pictures of everything. It was a responsibility to document SpaceX progress before we had to move and I thought that was the end of BocaChica Maria. Thankfully as we sold, SpaceX asked me to continue documenting with perks because we cooperated with the buyout. I was keeping something familiar and being a SpaceX influencer.
**** Other Starship and space transport reports:
**** Nov.17: SpaceX Starship Engine: Problem solved! & Crew Dragon Crew-1 Flight Summary – What about it!?
Today amongst other things I’ll explain to you, what SpaceX is doing to fix the engine problems on Starship Serial Number 8 and I’ll give you a detailed launch summary for the SpaceX and NASA Crew-1 Dragon launch.
**** Nov.14: Super Heavy’s Super Precision, Starship Updates and the NASA/SpaceX Crew-1 Launch – Marcus House
This is quite the week for SpaceX. We, of course, have all the amazing Starship Updates for the week, including some interesting talk on Super Heavy’s Super Precision capability. On top of that we have the NASA/SpaceX Crew-1 Launch. This is going to be quite the milestone for SpaceX. The static fire is done, and the final preparations are underway. On top of that, we just witnessed the launch of ULA’s NROL-101 mission.
** ULA Atlas V launch of the NROL-101 spysat for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is currently set for Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 5:38 pm EST (2238 GMT) from Cape Canaveral. A roll-out on Monday was aborted and the vehicle moved back into the Vertical Integration Facility. ULA said the vehicle “experienced an upper payload environmental control system flow rate reduction” and they decided to postpone the launch to investigate the issue.
The payloads on ‘In Focus’ included the latest flock of Planet’s Earth-imaging SuperDove small satellites, each integrated with and deployed from Rocket Lab’s Maxwell satellite dispensers. Flock 4e’ bolsters Planet’s constellation of Earth-observation satellites already on orbit providing medium-resolution global coverage and near-daily revisit. Canon Electronic’s mission objective with their CE-SAT-IIB microsatellite is to demonstrate the company’s Earth-imaging capability with a middle-size telescope equipped with an ultra-high sensitivity camera to take night images of the Earth and small size telescopes suitable for CubeSat use.
The ability to change orbital inclinations means more flexibility for our customers, enabling them to position each and every satellite juuuuuust right. It also opens up an even wider range of missions possible from LC-1 and LC-2. pic.twitter.com/96vDbRAJIe
Sunday’s launch carried a third-generation Uragan-K satellite, Uragan-K No.15L, which is the third Uragan-K to be launched. This class of satellite was originally intended to consist of two prototype satellites for on-orbit testing in an operational environment prior to the entry into service of the operational Uragan-K2 series. Delays to the Uragan-K2 project have led to Russia ordering 11 additional Uragan-K satellites, including No.15L – which will be pressed into service.
China launched a new group of triplet satellites for the Chuangxin-5 (CX-5) constellation on Monday. Launched under the name Yaogan Weixing-30 Group-7, the three satellites were orbited by a Chang Zheng-2C launch vehicle from the LC-3 Launch Complex of the Xichang Satellite Launch Center, with launch taking place at 15:19 UTC.
Like the previous missions on the series, this mission is once again classed as involving new remote sensing birds that will be used to “conduct electromagnetic probes and other experiments.”
As was the case in previous launches of the Yaogan Weixing series, analysts believe this class of satellites is used for military purposes, in particular forming a high-revisit smallsat constellation for signal intelligence missions or imaging activities.
ABL Space Systems has completed integrated stage testing of the RS1 small satellite launch vehicle. Testing was performed on the RS1 second stage with the in-house designed E2 liquid rocket engine at the Area 1-56 test site on Edwards Air Force Base. Critical aspects the campaign included handling of the propellant tanks, operating pressurant management systems, and refining the stage arming and engine startup sequences, all of which were accomplished successfully. This test campaign builds on the successes of eighteen months of extensive component, engine and stage testing.
ABL manufactures engines and stages in state-of-the-art facilities in El Segundo, California. By staying highly verticalized and focusing on low-cost, scalable manufacturing processes, ABL delivers industry leading capability and pricing to the small satellite community. RS1 can deliver one metric ton to sun synchronous orbit, 400 kilograms to geosynchronous transfer orbit, and 250kg to lunar injection orbit.
“Simplicity is key,” said Harry O’Hanley, Founder and CEO of ABL. “Our company is just over three years old. Yet, we’ve moved markedly faster and been more capital efficient than others because we avoid exotic, unproven architectures and manufacturing processes. Unless an innovation adds measurable value to our customer, we do not pursue it.”
ABL supports a variety of customers throughout the defense, civil and commercial sectors, with over $44 million in announced contracts and a deep customer backlog. RS1 is best in class in all dimensions that launch customers value: price – as low as $9,000/kg; capability – the highest lift capacity throughout the cislunar volume; reliability – only proven technologies in the system; and cadence – existing production lines can produce a launch vehicle in under thirty days.
ABL will continue performing stage test operations at Edwards Air Force Base in the coming weeks to accumulate additional run time on the engine and stage. The launch vehicle system will undergo a series of stress tests to demonstrate performance in a variety of different flight conditions. RS1 is scheduled for an initial launch in the first quarter of 2021 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where ABL has received a Right of Entry for LC-576E from the 30th Space Wing.
** Protolaunch optimizing rocket propulsion systems for small payload transports.
Protolaunch has taken a bottom-up design philosophy to propulsion development, designing specifically for small payloads from the outset. Based on work conducted at the University of Cambridge, Protolaunch has developed a novel thermodynamic cycle that eliminates the need for any turbomachinery while enabling the use of cleaner biofuels, and simplifying propellant handling and storage.
Protolaunch technology leverages thermodynamic optimisations to eliminate the need for complex pumps & turbmachinery and reduce manufacturing complexity.
Our propulsion technology presents a number of strategic advantages over turbomachinery or high-pressure blow-down. Our technology is the key enabler for a dedicated microlauncher and will facilitate a future of dedicated launches for small payloads.
Talon-A is a fully reusable, autonomous, liquid rocket-powered Mach 6-class hypersonic vehicle with a length of 28 feet (8.5 m), wingspan of 11.3 feet (3.4 m), and a launch weight of approximately 6,000 pounds (2,722 Kg). The Talon-A will conduct over 1-minute of hypersonic flight testing, and glide back for an autonomous, horizontal landing on a conventional runway. The vehicle will also be capable of autonomous take-off, under its own power, via a conventional runway.
…Our next spaceflight is set to deliver that first taste of human spaceflight for the state and, having completed two spaceflights, we as a team know how special these historic moments can be.
If all goes to plan, not only will this flight be the first human spaceflight to depart from New Mexico, it will also mark Virgin Galactic Pilot CJ Sturckow’s sixth time in space, and will see him become the first person to have flown to space from three different U.S. States, an extraordinary professional achievement. I too have had a long relationship with space. At NASA I worked numerous Space Shuttle missions and oversaw the launch of 12 flights, and I have managed another two during my time at Virgin Galactic. This mission will mark number 15! One thing is for certain, the feeling you get from witnessing your team run a safe and successful mission, followed by greeting the astronauts on their return to earth, never ceases to thrill me.
One thing to note about this flight is that once we are in space, we will be flying slightly differently than how we plan to fly with our Future Astronauts. This is because we’ll have three NASA payloads in the cabin, flown through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. Unlike our Future Astronauts, these payloads aren’t on board for the view, so instead of stopping the vehicle pitch in the inverted position for the best views of Earth, we’ll pitch the vehicle 270 degrees following boost to get to the entry attitude as soon as possible. This maneuver will maximize time for the payloads to remain in data-collection mode. Carrying these payloads not only makes this test flight a revenue-generating one, but also demonstrates our commitment to facilitating regular, accessible space-based scientific research.
The payloads will be placed in the spaceship cabin, where we have other test objectives planned. While we have flown passenger seats on previous flights, this will be the first time in flight where we actively recline the seats once in space, which will create extra room when Future Astronauts are floating in zero gravity. For this first test of the seat recline in a space environment, we will have instrumented test mannequins strapped in.
Since our last flight to space, we’ve refined and upgraded a few other elements on the spaceship. We’ve extensively tested these changes on the ground and in our previous two flights from Spaceport America, and we are now ready to test them on a rocket-powered flight. We’ve made upgrades to the horizontal stabilizers (known as H-Stabs), which are the flight control surfaces on the outboard of the feather booms. We’ve also made improvements to the flight control system that commands these Hstabs to move in response to pilot inputs. We’ve already flown these improvements on our last two glide flights, and they performed well. Together these mods will enhance the performance of the spaceship and support long-term commercial service.
“VMS Eve has the ability to test pilot proficiency by simulating the glide and approach-to-land phase of flight for SpaceShipTwo pilots. The cockpit structure of Eve is almost identical to that of Unity: the same pilot seats and windows, as well as very similar flight controls and instruments. This, coupled with the fact that with Eve’s landing gear down, and one set of speed brakes out, it descends on the same flight path angle as SpaceShipTwo, means that the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window. This makes Eve a very valuable in-flight simulator for the spaceship’s final approach and landing phases.’’
VMS Eve is airborne and headed to Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences for standard landing approach practice. If you’re in the area you may see the 140ft wingspan in the sky! Pilots for this flight are CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay with Flight Test Engineer, Brandon Parrish pic.twitter.com/0JJOv9Rt66
Virgin Galactic today announced the appointment of two new pilots into its Pilot Corps, bringing the total number of pilots to eight.
Jameel Janjua and Patrick Moran will be based at Spaceport America, New Mexico, and join the Virgin Galactic team as preparations for commercial service continue.
Both will embark on an extensive training program before flying SpaceShipTwo. In addition to the Spaceship, the pilots will also train to fly the carrier aircraft, VMS Eve. VMS Eve provides a way for the pilots to fly simulated parts of the SpaceShipTwo flight trajectory, gaining valuable hands-on training. Other assignments for the pilots will include flying other company support aircraft, working mission control, flight planning, and support various detailed engineering and project roles across the company.
** Firefly Aerospace raising public profile as it nears first launch: Here are four recent items of interest involving the company:
Firefly has signed a Launch Services Agreement (LSA) with Spire Global (Spire) for the launch of Lemur spacecraft on the Alpha launch vehicle. The LSA will provide for the launch of Spire spacecraft on multiple Alpha missions over the contract period. Firefly has also executed an LSA with Geometric Space Corporation for the full payload capacity of an Alpha launch vehicle.
In addition to the customer agreements, Firefly also provided information on recently achieved Alpha milestones. The Alpha Flight 1 Stage 1 performed a 35 second static fire, including a full suite of thrust vector control maneuvers. Subsequently, a 15 second final trim test was performed, and the stage will now ship to Firefly’s launch complex at Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB).
Concurrently, the Alpha Flight 1 payload fairing successfully completed a separation test. The payload fairing separation system was designed and manufactured by Firefly. The system is operationally recyclable, allowing for multiple tests of the flight unit.
Firefly is also nearing completion of its Launch Control Center, Integration Hangar, and launch pad, including assembly of the Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) at historic Space Launch Complex 2 West (SLC-2W) at VAFB. Firefly’s TEL, built by Firefly’s design and fabrication teams in Texas and California, is being integrated and will soon commence ground system activation.
Firefly’s fairing separation system was designed and manufactured in-house. It is “operationally resettable” so we are able to fully test each fairing prior to launch. Alpha Flight 1 fairing passed the test and is ready to fly! pic.twitter.com/Q8hHTKa8UI
Firefly will install the first of two planned AFP systems in May 2021 at its manufacturing and test facility in Briggs, Texas, where Alpha will be requalified using AFP manufacturing processes. Firefly’s new Florida Space Coast factory and launch site at Cape Canaveral will house the second automated assembly line beginning 2022 and will ultimately be capable of producing an estimated 24 Alpha rockets per year, with the Briggs plant switching to automated developmental builds of the larger Beta launch vehicle.
Firefly’s new automated rocket factories will produce a broad range of benefits, including a 30-50% reduction in composite materials waste, increased repeatability, reduced touch labor and build times, and a tailored and optimized structure that further reduces weight and overall costs.
Blue Origin appears to have solved some development issues related to the turbopumps in its powerful BE-4 rocket engine.
United Launch Alliance chief executive Tory Bruno said Friday that the problem was “sorted out,” and that the full-scale, flight-configured BE-4 engine is now accumulating a lot of time on the test stand. Bruno made his comments about one hour into The Space Show with David Livingston.
Bruno also indicated that they are continuing with plans to recover the first stage engine pod in a later model of the Vulcan.
Development of the Centaur V upper stage is apparently going well:
He also expressed excitement about the performance of Vulcan’s new Centaur V upper stage. The current Centaur III vehicle uses a single RL-10, but the new Centaur V will use a pair of uprated RL-10s. The new upper stage should provide more than twice as much energy thanks to its low mass and high performance. “I’m really excited about that,” Bruno said. “It’s a pretty incredible upper stage.”
In the next two weeks, we will build up duration and then replace the heat sink chamber used in this test with the actual world largest 3D printed single piece combustion chamber (with actual flight size nozzle).
Simon Feast, Future SABRE Studies Lead, will be delivering a symposium keynote lecture on the Development Status of SABRE, as part of the Space Propulsion symposium on Hypersonic Air-breathing and Combined Cycle Propulsion, and Hypersonic Vehicles – In this pre-recorded talk, he discussed the SABRE design and engineering challenges as well as the technical strategy behind the development programme. IAC-20-C4-7-1 The Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) – Development Status Update
NASA and Masten Space Systems announced that the Space Technology Mission Directorate has chosen Masten for two Tipping Point awards as part of the agency’s Artemis mission to return to the Moon. The first award is for Masten’s Metal Oxidation Warming System (MOWS) which is being developed in partnership with Penn State as a chemical heating solution to help spacecraft survive in sunlight-deprived lunar environments. The second award will drive completion of Masten’s state-of-the-art aerospace testbed, named Xogdor, to provide the industry an updated flight test analog for critical Artemis technologies.
Masten will mature its Xogdor flight vehicle to operational service to provide an updated system for testing aerospace technologies in a relevant flight environment. Over this three year project, Masten will complete the development and flight testing of a Xogdor vehicle. The defined effort will support risk reduction of technologies through flight testing in pursuit of NASA’s Moon-to-Mars campaign with a focus on building an EDL (Entry, Descent, Landing) test capability for near-term lunar missions. Xogdor will be the sixth vehicle in Masten’s line of reusable rockets, which have had more than 600 successful VTVL (Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing) flights over 15 years of heritage.
“Xogdor is poised to become the industry’s state-of-the-art testing analog with performance capabilities far exceeding those of currently available EDL testbeds,” said Masten CTO, Dave Masten. “Through this Masten-NASA partnership, Xogdor will be available to test critical Artemis technologies, including hazard detection instruments, precision landing avionics, innovative flight software, Plume Surface Interaction (PSI) experiments, and other critical EDL experiments as early as 2023.”
Masten Space mentioned Xogdor as far back as 2011 but has not had sufficient funding till now to build it.
In just 5 days, the Skyrora team completed a full static fire test of the Skylark L rocket, on a mobile launch complex built from scratch. The team also managed to carry out tests leading up to the ground rocket test during this time, to ensure maximum safety precautions were applied.
An animation of Skyrora’s Skylark XL launch system:
Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech) has delivered a design concept to NASA as part of a study on nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) flight demonstration. NTP technology provides unprecedented high-impulse thrust performance for deep space missions such as crewed missions to the moon and Mars. The NASA-sponsored study, managed by Analytical Mechanics Associates (AMA), explored NTP concepts and designs enabling deep space travel.
“We want to lead the effort to open new frontiers in space, and do it quickly and safely,” said Dr. Michael Eades, principal engineer at USNC-Tech. “Our engine maximizes the use of proven technology, eliminates failure modes of previous NTP concepts, and has a specific impulse more than twice that of chemical systems.”
Advancements in nuclear fuel design and passive safety measures pioneered by Ultra Safe Nuclear (USNC, USNC-Tech’s parent company) with Fully Ceramic Micro-encapsulated (FCM™) fuel enabled USNC-Tech to create a novel NTP concept with specialized performance capabilities. The enhanced safety characteristics and design flexibility of the USNC-Tech concept is a critical step forward in achieving extensibility of NTP systems to deep-space missions.
The USNC-Tech NTP concept uses a specialized variation of USNC’s FCM™ fuel, featuring high-assay low-enriched Uranium (HALEU) ZrC-encapsulated fuel particles. This variation enables high-temperature operation while maintaining the integrity of the fuel. FCM™ fuel is extremely rugged, enabling a new family of inherently safe space-optimized reactor designs that ensure astronaut safety and environmental protection. Using low quantities of HALEU, this unique NTP concept delivers high thrust and specific impulse previously only achievable through high-enriched uranium. Furthermore, FCM™ fuel leverages pre-existing supply chains and manufacturing facilities used by terrestrial nuclear reactor developers, reducing production risks and enabling sustainable industry involvement.
In an NTP system, exceptionally high levels of thrust are achieved by passing propellant through a specialized reactor core, reducing interplanetary transfer durations. Additionally, NTP systems achieve expanded payload mass capabilities due to their two-fold increase in specific impulse compared with chemical propulsion systems. As a result, NTP offers an entirely new mode of in-space transportation, enabling rapid movement of high-mass spacecraft architectures to deep space destinations (current NTP designs could deliver a crew to Mars in as few as three months) and a new, highly agile degree of cislunar mobility. If designed with commercial sustainability in mind, modern NTP systems can offer these benefits to commercial space entities in addition to government agencies like NASA and the DOD, enabling new business opportunities such as rapid orbital logistics services.
** How Can Soyuz Reach The Space Station In Only 3 Hours? – Scott Manley
This week Soyuz MS17 set a space station record by going from launch to docking with the International Space Station in only 3 hours and 3 minutes, half the time that Soyuz used to take, and much faster than the day long approaches used by US spacecraft. For Soyuz is has much shorter on orbit endurance compared to US spacecraft and is much less spacious than the US equivalents, incentivizing fast rendezvous trajectories.
*** As many as nine Falcon 9 missions could take place over the next two months. The first is the launch of the Air Force’s GPS 3 SV04 satellite set for liftoff from the SLC-40 pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on November 5th during the window 6:24-6:39 pm EST) p.m. EST (2324-2339 GMT). The booster passed a static firing test on the pad on Oct. 31st:
Static fire test complete – targeting Thursday, November 5 for Falcon 9 launch of GPS III-4 from SLC-40
** Falcon 9 launch of the NASA Sentinel-6 spacecraft, which will measure the height of the ocean, it was set for November 10th from Vandenberg AFB, on the coast of California but may now slip a few days.
We will have more on Sentinel-6 after the teams complete data review on the West Coast. More to come. (2/2)
A simulation of the Sentinel 6 launch on the Falcon 9:
*** The recent Starlink 14 launch became the 100th successful SpaceX rocket mission:
On Saturday, October 24, 2020, SpaceX completed its 100th successful flight since Falcon 1 first flew to orbit in 2008. Over the course of these flights, SpaceX landed Falcon’s first stage booster 63 times and re-flew boosters 45 times.
*** The Starlink broadband Internet constellation is taking an increasingly important role in SpaceX launch vehicle operations and future development.
The majority of Falcon 9 launches are now devoted to delivering Starlinks to orbit.
Reuse of Falcon 9 boosters is key both to the rapid launch rate of Starlink satellites and the affordability of orbiting so many spacecraft.
The level of initial customer demand will help indicate whether the service will be a profitable enterprise and fulfill the company’s goal of helping to fund the development of Starships and the establishment of a permanent settlement on Mars.
At the current launch rate, the constellation by the middle of next year could reach the minimum size – 1,440 satellites in 72 orbital planes of 20 satellites each – needed to provide global coverage.
Starships will be needed for affordable orbital installation of the ~30k satellites that the company says is required to provide high performance broadband services globally to a large number of users.
Since the last report, a lot has happened at Boca Chica, as usual:
Oct.20: Successful static firing of three Raptor engines attached to the SN8 prototype Starship. More about this below.
Oct.23: Starship SN8 got a nosecone and finally looked like a real spaceship: The nosecone, with fins attached for air braking on return from high altitude, was moved from the assembly area to the launch site and then a huge crane lifted and set it carefully atop the barrel section. Immediately multiple workers standing in platforms attached to the long high arms of boom lifts (also known as cherry-pickers) attending to the seam. See videos below.
Multiple Starships and the first Super Heavy booster are under construction. Here is a nice display of components seen by observers watching the Boca Chica site:
Stacking of Super Heavy booster SN01 could soon start now that the High Bay hangar is nearly completed. As shown in the above figure, many of the barrel sections for the Super Heavy are already built.
Here is an infographic describing the test flight of the SN8 prototype:
UPDATE: My latest @SpaceX Starship SN8 infographic (I have added a few more stats). After the mission launch I will adjust the visuals if needed & data then repost. Follow me on Twitter & look out for updates. Larger free printable version at https://t.co/arXjhichpBpic.twitter.com/JuqNXFSrCT
**** Elon Musk gave an update on the Starship program during an online interview for the Mars Society convention last week:
lon Musk’s comments with questions relayed from the Mars Society Membership by Dr. Robert Zubrin, James L. Burk, and Carie Fay. Following Elon’s 30 min time, Dr. Zubrin took additional questions. This special event was part of the 2020 Mars Society Virtual Convention from October 14-18, 2020. For more details on this event and The Mars Society, visit http://www.marssociety.org
According to his comments on Twitter, Musk may release a more detailed written update soon.
**** Estimates of launch cost for Starships:
2/ Here are the inputs I’m using.
Know that Raptor cost should come down by 50%, maybe more. Refurb cost should also come down.
Early Tuesday, October 20th, three Raptor engines on the SN8 Starship prototype fired together for the first time: SpaceX Boca Chica – SN8 First Ever 3 Raptor Static Fire – NASASpaceflight – YouTube
SN8 fires up its three Raptor engines for the first time ever in this static fire test. Also included is the preburner test a few hours before. […] SN8 on Pad A Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@TheJackBeyer)
A long highlight video of Thursday’s historic event of Starship SN8 nosecone stacking and the surprise double Raptor merry-go-round. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Bayer (@thejackbeyer) and Nic Gautschi (@NGautschi).
***** Oct.26: SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship Factory Drive-Thru – New Flaps Delivered and New Nosecone Moved Outside – NASASpaceflight – YouTube
Mary provides us with one of her classic driving tours of the SpaceX Boca Chica complex, new body flaps were delivered, and a new nosecone was rolled out of the production tent. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Nic Gautschi (@NGautschi).
While Starship SN8 has to wait a few more days until the second Static Fire test campaign, four additional SPMTs arrived, along with large concrete blocks for the Orbital Launch Pad. The final structural test nosecone met its demise and heck, there’s a lot more….there always is at SpaceX Boca Chica. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack Beyer (@TheJackBeyer)
While Starship SN8 waits for pre-launch testing, SN9 received her aft flaps and SN10 was stacked! That’s three new and stacked Starships for those keeping score. The SPMT squad also rolled out to the launch site. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Theo Ripper (@TheoRipper).
**** Other Starship and space transport reports:
**** Oct.31: SpaceX Starship – Final preparation for SN8 flight – Space news update – Marcus House
The progress at BocaChica continues with SpaceX Starship SN8 going through some more testing prior to its 15-kilometer flight that we are thinking will be occurring in the upcoming week. These are the final preparation for SN8 flight. We have an overall Space news update with Starlink’s beta looks to have expanded to the public so we will talk about that along with SpaceX’s incredible 100 flight milestone. We’ve got a new Crew 1 launch date set which is exciting. Interesting news with confirmation that there are traces of water on sunlit areas of the moon. We’ll dive into that. And yes, yet another beautiful flight by RocketLabs launching Electron mid-week.
**** Nov.3: SpaceX Starship orbital Starlink flight from ignition to landing! – What about it!?