Space transport roundup – Sept.11.2019

A sampling of recent articles, videos, and images dealing with space transport (find previous roundups here):

[ Update: Masten Space Systems flies the Xodiac rocket vehicle to test terrain relative navigation systems developed by Draper Lab that could one day be used for landers on the Moon, Mars and elsewhere:  One Giant Leap for Lunar Landing Navigation – NASA

But what is terrain relative navigation? And why is it so important to NASA’s Artemis program to return American astronauts to the Moon by 2024, and future human missions to Mars?

Without capabilities like GPS, which is designed to help us navigate on Earth, determining a lander vehicle’s location is much like comparing visual cues (e.g., road signs, important buildings, notable landmarks) while driving a car with those cues identified on road maps.

“We have onboard satellite maps loaded onto the flight computer and a camera acts as our sensor,” explained [Draper’s Matthew Fritz]. “The camera captures images as the lander flies along a trajectory and those images are overlaid onto the preloaded satellite maps that include unique terrain features. Then by mapping the features in the live images, we’re able to know where the vehicle is relative to the features on the map.”


** Launchpad fire ends countdown for Japanese rocket with ISS cargo vehicle:

From SFN:

Japanese officials called off the launch of an H-2B rocket and HTV space station cargo ship Tuesday after a fire broke out on the launch pad at the Tanegashima Space Center.

The fire occurred at around 1805 GMT (2:05 p.m. EDT) Tuesday, or 3:05 a.m. local time Wednesday, around three-and-a-half hours before the H-2B launcher was scheduled to lift off with an automated supply ship bound for the International Space Station.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation when officials briefed reporters on the fire four hours after cameras first observed the blaze near the base of the 186-foot-tall (56.6-meter) rocket. The launch pad was evacuated at the time of the fire, and the rocket’s manufacturer, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, reported no injuries.

** Test mission of new Soyuz spacecraft to the ISS ends with successful landing in Kazakhstan. Humanoid robot Skybot F-850 returns as well. Soyuz spacecraft, humanoid robot return to Earth after 16-day test flight – Spaceflight Now

An unpiloted Russian Soyuz spacecraft, carrying a humanoid robot instead of cosmonauts, parachuted to a rare nighttime landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan Friday (U.S. time) to wrap up a test flight to the International Space Station that paved the way for crewed launches using upgraded Soyuz boosters next year.

The 16-day test flight, which launched Aug. 22, also demonstrated technology Russia aims to use on a future automated payload return vehicle to bring cargo and experiments back to Earth.

The Soyuz MS-14 spacecraft’s descent module landed in a rural zone of south-central Kazakhstan at 2132 GMT (5:32 p.m. EDT) Friday, or 3:32 a.m. local time Saturday at the landing site, according to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

** Update on Virgin Orbit via

Virgin Orbit VP of Special Projects William Pomerantz joins us on station to talk about everything they are working on. Sounds like Virgin Orbit isn’t just near flying, but ready to come out of the gate strong with a series of vehicles already being built! In this hour long interview Jared and Will talk about the small satellite market and Virgin Orbit’s place in it, rocket reusability and the Brooke Owens Fellowship. Will is an amazing force within the NewSpace community and this is an interview you don’t want to miss!

** Virgin Galactic has ambitious plans for  the SpaceShipTwo flight rate: Virgin Galactic wants to send people to space every 32 hours by 2023 – Business Insider

According to the document, the company plans to start with 16 flights a year in 2020, then to increase this to 270 flights a year by 2023, when it will have its entire fleet of five vessels — which works out to around one flight every 32 hours.

Within four years, it will eventually have the capacity to transport 1,565 people on a year-round basis.

No word, though, on when VG will resume flight tests of the SpaceShipTwo. The last flight to high altitude took place on Feb, 22, 2019.

** Aevum wins USAF payload contract given up by Vector following suspension of work at Vector after funding shortfall:

Aevum is developing an unusual smallsat air-launch system design based on  an unmanned high-speed carrier vehicle called the Ravn: Aevum’s New Rocket-Drone Airplane Duo Could Launch Satellites Every 3 Hours |

Ravn Releases Rocket - Aevum
Ravn Releases Rocket – Aevum

The first stage of Ravn consists of a reusable, fully autonomous unmanned aircraft system designed for atmospheric flight. “The overall aerodynamic design of the vehicle has been optimized for the rocket separation,” Skylus said. “The maximum speed of the Ravn first stage is Mach 2.85 [2,186 mph, or 3,519 km/h].” 

This aircraft carries an expendable two-stage rocket engineered for spaceflight. The first stage of this rocket uses a proprietary fuel approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, while the second stage relies on liquid oxygen. “The rocket engines have already been hot-fire demonstrated,” Skylus said.

Launch of the USAF ASLON-45 mission is expected in the third quarter of 2021.

** Northrop-Grumman Pegasus launch of ICON mission is scheduled following a long delay due to technical issues with the rocket.

From SFN:

The launch of a NASA ionospheric research satellite off Florida’s east coast is targeted for Oct. 9 after persistent technical problems with its air-dropped Pegasus rocket stymied two launch opportunities last year.

The launch campaign for the Ionospheric Connection Explorer, or ICON, mission resumed this week.


** Relativity Space signs up Momentus space tug services for those payloads on the Terran 1 rocket that need to go to geostationary orbit: Relativity signs launch agreement with Momentus –

The launch agreement, announced during Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week here, covers one launch of Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket in 2021 with an option for up to five additional launches. The companies did not disclose the terms of the agreement, but Relativity offers the Terran 1 for a list price of $10 million.

The 2021 launch will fly Momentus’ Vigoride Extended tug, capable of carrying up to 350 kilograms of satellites. The tug will transport the satellites from an initial low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit using its water plasma thruster technology.

** Momentus says the water plasma thruster is working well on the company’s first prototype to reach space:

** Firefly‘s launch of the first Alpha rocket slips into next year: Firefly Aerospace pushes back first launch to 2020 –

Firefly Aerospace, one of several new rocket companies working on orbital launch services, has pushed back its first launch to early 2020 due to supplier delays.

“We were trying for this year, but won’t get there,” Eric Salwan, Firefly’s director of commercial business development told UPI. “Primarily, we are having issues with a few externally sourced components, such as the flight termination system.”

A couple of tweets showing some of the Alpha work underway:

** Update on Blue Origin facilities for New Glenn rocket production and launch:  Blue Origin continuing work on New Glenn launch complex, support facilities –

Work on Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch complex – LC-36 – is well underway. Recent aerial imagery of Cape Canaveral from NOAA shows how far Blue has come on the launch complex. Meanwhile, the company is also working on an engine factory in Alabama, and a first stage refurbishment facility near Kennedy Space Center.

**  Vikram lander spotted by Chandrayaan-2 orbiter but still no official information on why the landing failed:

Scott Manley gives his take on What We Know About India’s Failed Lunar Landing:

** Some short items:

** SpaceX

*** SpaceX has caught up with its launch manifest after groundings from accidents in 2015 and in 2016 caused long delays and a payload traffic jam: SpaceX executive says Falcon 9 is waiting for customer satellites for the first time ever

This trend is partially visible in the status of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster fleet over the course of 2019. In the first eight months of 2019, SpaceX has completed 10 launches (two Falcon Heavies and eight Falcon 9s), compared to 15 in 2018 and 12 in 2017. However, Falcon 9 Block 5 has proven itself to be extremely reliable and reusable since its May 2018 debut, truly coming into its own around the start of 2019. By May 2019, SpaceX’s fleet of flight-proven boosters had grown to eight, at least half of which were at or approaching flight-readiness.

*** In 2020 we may see Falcon launches every week or two with both customer payloads and the company’s Starlink satellites going to orbit: SpaceX plans 24 Starlink launches next year –

SpaceX hopes to launch 24 Starlink missions in 2020 as the company builds out a broadband megaconstellation that could ultimately number close to 12,000 satellites, a company executive said Sept. 10. 

SpaceX’s Starlink launch cadence will likely average “two a month,” in addition to customer launches, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said at the World Satellite Business Week conference here. 

“Next year, I hope we launch 24 Starlinks,” Shotwell said. 

*** SpaceX working through the permits process for the first test flight of the Starship Mk. 1 demonstrator, which will attempt to reach about 22 kilometers (74000 feet or 14 miles) in altitude.

From Teslarati:

On September 9th, the first signs of SpaceX planning for Starship Mk1’s South Texas launch debut appeared in the form of FCC applications, requesting permission to communicate with the rocket prototype during its first flight.

*** FAA re-evaluates environmental impact of SpaceX activities at Boca Chica Beach, Texas with the change from Falcon 9 operations to Starship development and test flights:

From BI:

By May 2018, Musk said that SpaceX was dropping its commercial-spaceport plan and instead dedicating the site to building and flying Mars rocket-ship prototypes. The company is now using different launch vehicles (Starship prototypes), different fuel (methane instead of RP-1, a rocket-grade kerosene), and a new rate of launches, as well as switching up construction projects and other details.

This shift in plans prompted the FAA to step in, reevaluate, and square these new details with the original EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] to see whether there’d be any unaddressed public-safety threats or environmental damage.

So far the FAA doesn’t see a need for a new impact statement.

*** Recent views of the Boca Chica facilities:

*** A Starship full of people might one day need to pull quickly away from an Super Heavy Booster exploding on the pad: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says Starship pad abort capabilities could come sooner than later – Teslarati

Despite a number of technical hurdles, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk believes that the company’s next-generation Starship spacecraft could eventually be capable of pad aborts in the event of a Super Heavy booster failure before liftoff.

For a vehicle as large and heavy as Starship, this would necessitate a number of compromises, but would undoubtedly serve as a major confidence-booster for prospective passengers in lieu of an established record of reliability. If Starship were capable of pad aborts like the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, high-profile and high-value customers like NASA and other space agencies could be far more willing to place astronauts and payloads on what they perceive to be a bizarre but high-performance launch vehicle.

*** Update on Starship heat shield tile tests: SpaceX tests ceramic Starship heat shield tiles on Starhopper’s final flight test- Teslarati

Although it flew under the radar in the heat of the moment, SpaceX’s final Starhopper test flight – completed on August 27th – happened to include an unusual bit of test hardware – eight (give or take) ceramic Starship heat shield tiles.

On the same day that Starhopper lifted off for the last time and completed a 150m (500 ft) hop test in South Texas, SpaceX Cargo Dragon capsule C108 wrapped up its third successful orbital mission, reentering Earth’s atmosphere with a complement of several ceramic Starship heat shield tiles. This marked the first known orbital test of Starship hardware on the same exact day that Starhopper was putting nearly identical tiles through an entirely different kind of flight test.

*** Florida Starship construction site not damaged by hurricane Dorian: SpaceX’s Starship, Florida Space Coast make it through Hurricane Dorian unscathed – Teslarati

*** Another Florida site for Starship construction spotted: