Space transport roundup – Aug.7.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images dealing with space transport:

Artist's view of an Electron booster returning from space.
Artist’s rendering of an Electron first stage booster returning from space. Credits: Rocket Lab

** Rocket Lab to recover and reuse first stage of Electron rocket: Rocket Lab Announces Reusability Plans For Electron Rocket | Rocket Lab

Work on Rocket Lab’s Electron first stage reuse program began in late 2018, at the end of the company’s first year of orbital launches. The plan to reuse Electron’s first stage will be implemented in two phases. The first phase will see Rocket Lab attempt to recover a full Electron first stage from the ocean downrange of Launch Complex 1 and have it shipped back to Rocket Lab’s Production Complex for refurbishment. The second phase will see Electron’s first stage captured mid-air by helicopter, before the stage is transported back to Launch Complex 1 for refurbishment and relaunch. Rocket Lab plans to begin first stage recovery attempts in the coming year.  

A major step towards Rocket Lab’s reusability plans was completed on the company’s most recent launch, the Make It Rain mission, which launched on 29 June from Launch Complex 1. The first stage on this mission carried critical instrumentation and experiments that provided data to inform future recovery efforts. The next Electron mission, scheduled for launch in August, will also carry recovery instrumentation.  

Rocket Lab Founder and Chief Executive Peter Beck says reusing Electron’s first stage will enable Rocket Lab to further increase launch frequency by reducing production time spent building new stages from scratch.

Animation of snagging the stage with a helicopter:

A video of the press conference about the new scheme:

** Ariane 5 launches on Flight VA249 with the Intelsat 39 comm-sat and the EDRS-C “SpaceDataHighway” satellite, which will be the second node in the European Data Relay System (EDRS) for keeping remote sensing satellites in low earth orbit in constant contact with ground stations.

** Northrop-Grumman’s Cygnus cargo vehicle departs from ISS: NG-11 Cygnus departs Station for months of on-orbit free-flight tests –

After 110 days at the International Space Station, the Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS) NG-11 Cygnus resupply vehicle has departed the orbital outpost. 

But in a significant change from previous missions, Cygnus will not perform a destructive re-entry within the next few weeks, instead remaining on orbit until the end of the year to test new systems aboard the craft that will aid NGIS in their ability to offer Cygnus as a free-flying science platform for ISS, non-Space Station, and future NASA needs.

After departing the International Space Station, the NG-11 Cygnus will – as is customary – deploy a series of Cubesats from both a forward hatch-mounted deployer and its standard CubeSat deployer mounted on its service module on the rear of the craft.

** Another step made in construction of the third SpaceShipTwo rocketplane:

** ULA set to launch Atlas V with USAF’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF 5) communications satellite:

Roll to Pad: Atlas V AEHF-5

ULA plans another launch later this month from Cape Canaveral. A Delta IV is to put a USAF GPS satellite into orbit on August 22nd: GPS satellite installed atop Delta 4 launcher – Spaceflight Now.

The GPS mission will be the last for the Medium configuration of the Delta IV rocket. A National Reconnaissance Office contract was announced today for a launch of the Delta IV Heavy for 2024. That might be the last flight for that very expensive vehicle. ULA receives contract for what could be the final Delta 4 Heavy mission –

** Russia launches a Proton-M carrier rocket from the Baikonur space center with a Blagovest communications satellite: Russian military satellite launched from Baikonur reaches orbit – TASS

** An update on the Planetary Society’s LightSail-2 spacecraft in orbit: LightSail 2 Nears 2 Weeks of Solar Sailing – The Planetary Society

Scott Manley discusses the LightSail-2 demonstration mission:

See also:

** An update on Virgin Orbit from the company’s CEO Dan Hart:

** Blue Origin’s big BE-4 LOX/Methane engine reaches full power in tests:

See also Jeff Bezos touts full-power firing of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine – GeekWire

Getting the BE-4 into operation is crucial to Blue Origin’s space ambitions.

The rocket engine, which runs on liquefied natural gas and packs 550,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff, is destined for use on Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket. It’s also supposed to power United Launch Alliance’s next-generation, semi-reusable Vulcan rocket.

Both those rockets are currently scheduled to have their maiden launches in 2021.

** SpaceX

*** Falcon 9 successfully launches the AMOS-17 communications satellite:

A view from outside the Cape via

The booster did not return for a soft landing but instead burned all its propellant to obtain maximum performance for this big payload going to GEO. However, one of the fairings was recovered:

*** SpaceX’s new Smallsat Program offers low cost launch opportunities starting in 2020:

From Ars Technica:

The announcement brings SpaceX squarely into the already-heated competition for the burgeoning small-satellite launch market. Although the number of large-satellite launch contracts has stagnated, customer demand for much smaller payloads to a variety of orbits has grown. As a result, a number of companies have been founded in the United States and elsewhere to develop small rockets for smallsat launch services. SpaceX’s entry into this market with the much larger Falcon 9 rocket (at a price of about $15,000 per kilogram) represents a threat to those companies both from a standpoint of securing launch contracts but also by attracting venture-capital funding.

However, Greg Autry, a professor who directs the Southern California Commercial Spaceflight Initiative, said he expects that payload integrators such as Spaceflight will be most hurt by this move. Other companies offering launches in the neighborhood of 150kg (including Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and Vector) will retain the advantage of offering dedicated service on their much smaller rockets for a particular orbit.

*** Elon Musk to give an update on Starship/Super Heavy Booster design and development on August 24th: Musk will update the status of Starship development on August 24 | Ars Technica

In a series of tweets on Saturday night, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said he planned to provide an update on the development of the company’s Starship project on August 24. This new spacecraft will serve as both the upper-stage of a large rocket as well as a vehicle capable of propulsively landing on distant worlds and returning to Earth.

Musk said the update would take place in Boca Chica, an unincorporated area along the southern Texas coast near the border with Mexico. This is where the company recently flew a stubby prototype of Starship and is also building a full-scale version of Starship for suborbital tests called Starship Mk1. A separate team of SpaceX engineers is building a similar prototype, Starship Mk2, in Cocoa, Florida.

*** And Musk says a Starship orbital demonstrators will fly within a month or so: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says first orbital Starship prototype flight debut is just weeks away – Teslarati

According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, one or both of the company’s two orbital Starship prototypes could be “ready to fly” – or nearly so – by the end of August. Even if Musk is off by one or several months, it would still make for a spectacular achievement.

The focus of the conversation that led Musk to the classic Musk-time prediction was the topic of a long-promised presentation on SpaceX’s Starship program. Although just a few weeks shy of the usual schedule, 2019’s presentation – set for August 24th in Boca Chica, Texas – more or less follows an annual September update tradition that Musk has consistently followed since 2016. Each year, Musk has given the public a glimpse into the constantly evolving process of designing SpaceX’s next-generation Mars-bound rocket. Despite the tradition’s consistency, 2019 is simply different.

*** Outdoor assembly of Starship demonstrators in Florida and Texas quickens as the public watches from outside the fences: SpaceX’s Florida Starship hits growth spurt as Texas Starship begins bulkhead installation – Teslarati

In the last week alone, SpaceX’s twin orbital Starship prototypes have made some truly jaw-dropping progress. Onlookers have witnessed Florida’s Starship push through a rapid growth spurt, while the company’s Texas team has begun to install propellant tank bulkheads and work on a triple-Raptor thrust structure.

Meanwhile, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has suggested that one or both of the orbital-class Starship prototypes could be “almost ready to fly” by August 24th, the date of the CEO’s next official update on Starship (formerly BFR and ITS). Although the actual challenge of building a massive, orbital-class launch vehicle is far subtler than the visible steelwork needed to build its primary structure and pressure vessels, the veritable leaps forward made in both Texas and Florida in the last 7-10 days are extremely encouraging signs.

For example: SpaceX preps Texas Starship’s second tank dome for installation in latest milestone – Teslarati

Growing up in South Texas:

*** Everyday Astronaut Time Dodd talks

… about the SpaceX Starship and Super Heavy programs, his experiences in Boca Chica and what we can look forward to with SpaceX’s Moon and Mars plans.

*** Scott Manley reviews the enviro review for Starship facilities and operations at Kennedy Space Center:

*** The Crew Dragon may not launch with a crew until early next year: SpaceX’s crewed Dragon launch debut likely to slip into 2020 as NASA pursues “realistic” dates – Teslarati

In a recent blog post, NASA made it clear that changes happening to leadership within the agency – specifically within the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate – are impacting the timelines to return astronauts to the International Space Station(ISS) from US soil. Agency conflicts are just the latest of several setbacks that have impacted the schedule of SpaceX’s crewed Crew Dragon launch debut.

Initially, the SpaceX Demo-2 mission set to carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS was slated to occur in the summer of 2019. That demonstration flight has since dropped off of the NASA launches and landings schedule, at least through October. SpaceX is now targeting a Demo-2 launch no earlier than December 2019 but an array of critical milestones must be completed to achieve that goal and both SpaceX and NASA have been keen to express that a crewed Crew Dragon launch in 2019 is a huge stretch.

*** SpaceX will use a stripped down Crew Dragon for the next phase of the ISS cargo resupply contract with NASA: SpaceX to begin flights under new cargo resupply contract next year – Spaceflight Now

SpaceX is set to retire its current fleet of Dragon capsules, in use since 2010, next year and begin flying supplies to the International Space Station on a new variant of the Dragon spacecraft based on the model in development to carry astronauts.

After originally awarding SpaceX a cargo transportation contract in 2008 that eventually totaled 20 Dragon missions, NASA selected the company for a follow-on contract — known as Commercial Resupply Services-2 — in 2016 for at least six additional Dragon deliveries through 2024.

The changeover to SpaceX’s next-generation Dragon — called Dragon 2 or Crew Dragon — for cargo missions next year will come with several benefits, including a faster process to recover, refurbish and re-fly the capsules.

For cargo missions, SpaceX has designed a version of the Crew Dragon, or Dragon 2, spacecraft without SuperDraco abort engines. The launch abort system has been a stumbling block in the Crew Dragon program after a spacecraft exploded during moments before a ground test-firing of the abort engines in April.

*** An overview of the many projects SpaceX is pursuing simultaneously: SpaceX present to future: From retesting boosters to planning a Starship pad –

SpaceX is busy on all fronts, from its bread and butter commercial satellite launches to planning its ultimate future of deep space transportation and multi-planetary colonization. A second static fire test was ordered – and completed for Falcon 9 B1047.3 ahead of next week’s AMOS-17 launch, while a key environmental report shed new details on the company’s plans for a Starship launch pad at its Kennedy Space Center (KSC) 39A complex.

*** A nice view of the Starhopper in the morning:


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