Space transport roundup – Jan.23.2020

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

** Space X set to launch Falcon 9 with 60 more Starlink satellites this week  but the launch day depends on the weather conditions at both the Cape and the area in the Atlantic where the booster will land. Keeping launch costs as low as possible is crucial for the economic viability of the Starlink enterprise, which will involve launching thousands of satellites. And that means recovering and reusing the boosters is very important. Today, SpaceX said they were now targeting Monday for liftoff:

The on-pad test firing of the engines took place successfully last Monday:

See also:

More SpaceX items below including the latest on Sunday’s successful in-flight abort test.

** Rocket Labs‘s next Electron launch will take a NRO spysat into orbit: Rocket Lab To Launch National Reconnaissance Office Mission – Rocket Lab

See also: Rocket Lab announces NRO mission as agency diversifies launch providers –

Rocket Lab has announced its first mission of 2020 – a dedicated launch for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Their workhorse Electron rocket, launching from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, will loft the classified NROL-151 satellite to an unknown orbit. The mission was awarded by the NRO as part of their Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) program, with the goal of increasing the amount of small-lift launch providers they can choose from.

This mission will be Rocket Lab’s first launch for the NRO. The mission was nicknamed “Birds of a Feather”, likely referencing the Kiwi and Eagle, the national birds of the two involved countries.

Due to the classified nature of this launch, very few details have been made public. NROL-151’s purpose, orbit, size, and other specifications are unknown.

** A fuel leak during a static engine test by Firefly Aerospace resulted in a small fire at their Texas test facility but the company says there were no injuries or major damage to the pad or the Alpha rocket booster: Firefly confirms ‘anomaly’ and fire during first stage hotfire test – Spaceflight Now

Officials later clarified that no explosion occurred. Tom Markusic, Firefly’s CEO, told KXAN — the NBC television affiliate in Austin — that a fuel leak resulted in a small fire on the test stand.

Firefly was gearing up for the first in a series of full-scale first stage hotfire tests on a vertical stand in Briggs. The first stage of Firefly’s Alpha launcher, which the company previously said could be ready for a first flight this spring, is powered by four Firefly-built Reaver engines consuming kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants.

The company said Dec. 30 that qualification testing of the Alpha launcher’s first stage had started. The first stage is the last major piece of Firefly’s privately-developed launcher to undergo qualification testing, and the test campaign was expected to include multiple test-firings.

[ Update: More about the incident: Firefly Aerospace statement – Firefly Aerospace on LinkedIn


Here is a top down view of their Texas test facility:

And a recent photo of the booster on the pad:

Firefly Alpha first stage on test stand in Briggs, Texas. Credits: Firefly

** Boeing ends DARPA sponsored XS-1 reusable rocket project: Boeing drops out of DARPA Experimental Spaceplane program –

Boeing won the competition over teams led by Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and Masten Space Systems to build a rocket vehicle with a reusable first stage that could put 3000 lbs (1360)  into low earth orbit and be prepared for another flight in a short time. The key program goal was to demonstrate that the vehicle could fly everyday for ten straight days. It would then be up to Boeing to continue to offer the vehicle for operational satellite launch missions.

Boeing’s Phantom Express entry in DARPA XS-1 program. The winged first stage could be re-flown after a one day turnaround. The expendable upper stage would place a smallsat into low earth orbit.. Credits: Boeing

The USAF procurement establishment has tried to bring in smaller companies like Masten to compete with the big legacy aerospace behemoths on this sort of modest sized technology project. And sometimes a small firm actually makes it to the second phase in the process. However, the legacy giant still almost always wins the final round since it gets the check-boxes marked for greatest depth of engineering talent, experience, and resources. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that the project will be assigned a low priority by the giant. The opposite is true for the small company, which most likely needs the project to succeed if it is to stay in business.

See also DARPA says Boeing is pulling out of Phantom Express space plane program – GeekWire.

** Stratolaunch grows as it seeks markets for the company’s gigantic airplane:

As Stratolaunch ramps up operations after being sold last year, it says it remains interested in providing launch services as well as supporting hypersonic vehicles.

In a Jan. 21 statement to SpaceNews, Stratolaunch spokesperson Art Pettigrue confirmed the company was interested in “reliable, routine access to space” while also confirming the company was interested in hypersonics research.

“Stratolaunch is exploring the development of aerospace vehicles and technologies, including the need for reliable, routine access to space,” Pettigrue said. “This exploration includes the need to significantly advance the nation’s ability to design and operate hypersonic vehicles.”

** Dawn Aerospace expands from smallsat thrusters to smallsat launchers: Satellite propulsion startup Dawn Aerospace developing small launch vehicle –

Dawn Aerospace is commercializing thrusters that use nitrous oxide and propene instead of hydrazine. Its 5-pound-force thruster is produced without components restricted by U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, according to the company. 

Wink said Dawn Aerospace built three flight-ready propulsion systems for cubesats in 2019, and eight larger thrusters for microsatellites. This year the company aims to build 50 cubesat thrusters and 100 microsat thrusters, he said. 

Dawn Aerospace is using revenues from those sales to develop a drone-launched rocket system. Rea said the uncrewed spaceplane would fly above 100 kilometers, reaching a speed of 4-kilometers per second. An expendable two-stage rocket would then vault “several hundred kilograms” into low Earth orbit, Wink said. 

** NASA and Boeing examining Starliner thruster performance on test flight: Starliner’s thruster performance receiving close scrutiny from NASA | Ars Technica

A NASA press release following the test discussed investigations into the timing issue that led to the failure to rendezvous with the ISS and into whether another uncrewed test flight was needed. The release

… did not mention thruster performance, but an agency source told Ars that engineers are looking closely at the performance of the Starliner propulsion system. In addition to four large launch abort engines, the service module has 28 reaction control system thrusters, each with 85 pounds of thrust and 20 more-powerful orbital maneuvering thrusters, each with 1,500 pounds of thrust.

During the post-flight news conference Jim Chilton, Boeing’s senior vice president of the Space and Launch division, said the service module thrusters were stressed due to their unconventional use in raising Starliner’s orbit instead of performing one big burn. As a result, the company had to shut down one manifold, which effectively branches into several lines carrying propellant to four thrusters. “We even shut down one manifold as we saw pressure go low ’cause it had been used a lot,” he said.

The NASA source said eight or more thrusters on the service module failed at one point and that one thruster never fired at all.

In response to a question about thruster performance, Boeing provided the following statement to Ars: “After the anomaly, many of the elements of the propulsion system were overstressed, with some thrusters exceeding the planned number of burns for a service module mission. We took a few cautionary measures to make sure the propulsion system stayed healthy for the remainder of the mission, including re-pressurizing the manifold, recovering that manifold’s thrusters. Over the course of the mission we turned off 13 thrusters and turned all but one back on after verifying their health.”

** UP Aerospace developing Spyder orbital rocket: Spaceport vertical launch area bustling with activity – Albuquerque Journal

UP expects to reach another milestone in February, when it conducts static ground tests on four different solid-propellant rocket motors it’s built at the spaceport to propel a new, four-stage, satellite-carrying rocket called the Spyder into low earth orbit, Larson said. Up has been developing Spyder for about five years in cooperation with NASA to offer a reusable, low-cost alternative to rapidly launch satellites.

“It will be a huge milestone for us when we static test all four motors,” Larson said. “We’ll lock up the technology and work out all the bugs.”

The orbital Spyder system won’t fly from the spaceport, because with four stages, some of the boosters could fall back to earth over potentially inhabited areas, Larson said. Rather, it will fly from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island, where depleted stages can fall into the ocean.

But UP is also developing a suborbital version of the Spyder that will fly from the spaceport.

** History of the OTRAG clustered rocket concept:

** Here is a reminder of the single stage to orbit (SSTO) rocket from Pat Bahn of TGV Rockets and space analyst Tim Kyger: Op-ed | A Space Force needs spaceships –

In the 1990s, NASA identified three critical technology needed to make an SSTO spacecraft achievable:

(1) advanced composite materials;

(2) altitude compensating engines; and

(3) tri-propellant engines.

The required advanced composites materials have largely been developed over the past 25 years, as witness the improved aluminum alloys and more advanced carbon composites now available. The altitude-compensating engines are needed to so that one engine can both take off in the atmosphere and make orbit in a vacuum. NASA made progress on this with the one-third scale Lockheed Martin X-33 and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is currently investigating aerospike nozzles with the Affordable Responsive Modular Rocket (ARMR) Program. What has been lacking is the tri-propellant propulsion technology for SSTO-RLVs.

Entrepreneurial firms, such as TGV, have proposed novel approaches to the challenges of an SSTO-RLV. These innovations include new ways of approaching a tri-propellant engine, novel engine nozzles for altitude compensation, and new launch sites for more flexibility. Engineering for reliability, deep throttling, landing, and imaginative systems engineering are currently needed to improve the mass fraction and operability of a practical SSTO-RLV. These technologies are ready to be developed and brought into routine use in a reasonable time frame.

** SpaceX:

**** Crew Dragon spacecraft successfully escaped from a failing Falcon 9 booster shortly after launch from Pad 39A at KSC last Sunday. The in-flight abort (IFA) demonstration was the final major test flight before a Crew Dragon can carry astronauts to the ISS. There remain a couple of tests of the complete parachute system plus lots of reviews of IFA data, spacecraft and launcher systems, etc. The earliest that a Dragon will take a crew to the Station is late March but it might slip to late June.

Some videos of the IFA test:

Crew Dragon Launch Escape Demonstration

Crew Dragon Launch Escape Demonstration

Return of the Dragon:

The trunk was not expected to survive the long fall: SpaceX surprises after recovering spacecraft ‘trunk’ in one piece – Teslarati

Misc. articles:

**** The post-flight press conference:

**** SpaceX may eventually try to catch a Crew Dragon with a net as they are currently trying to perfect for the fairings during satellite launches:

More here: Elon Musk says SpaceX could catch Crew Dragon and NASA astronauts with a giant net – Teslarati.

This is not the first time Musk has mentioned such a plan. Back in February 2018, he noted that SpaceX ship Mr. Steven (now Ms. Tree), designed to catch parasailing fairing halves out of the air, “might be able to do the same thing with Dragon — if NASA wants us to, we can try to catch Dragon.” The motivation behind catching Dragon – instead of fishing it out of the Atlantic Ocean – is effectively the same reason that SpaceX is trying to routinely catch Falcon fairings: it’s much easier to reuse aerospace hardware that hasn’t been dunked and soaked in saltwater.

Of course, Musk cautioned that SpaceX would only pursue Dragon catches if NASA were open to the idea – the space agency’s conservatism is already largely responsible for the death of propulsive Crew Dragon landing, also intended to make spacecraft reuse much easier. Additionally, the CEO qualified his comments by noting that SpaceX would attempt to catch Crew Dragon only after Falcon fairing halves are being routinely and reliably caught.

**** Starship

****** Elon Musk comments on Starship plans during informal session with media following NASA’s press briefing on the abort test.

Items of interest:

  • Planned to fly later that day to Boca Chica to work with the team there.
  • Expects there to be a lengthy period of overlap with Starship, Falcon 9, Crew Dragon, and Falcon Heavy all operating.
  • Making very good progress on the Raptor engines.
    • Just finished the SN-20 unit.
    • Rate of production is increasing.
    • Each has incorporated improvements and expects these to continue up through SN-50
  • Structure development going more slowly. Will focus on that while at Boca Chica.
    • The tank domes might seem a trivial issue but attaching them such that they can withstand the required pressures is a terrifically difficult problem.
    • Listed various other structure items including the interfaces between the tanks, landing legs, heat shield, etc.
    • Orbital propellant refilling is a crucial capability and very difficult. Precision rendezvous and docking of two Starships is similar to docking two big space stations.

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Feeding the Starship Ring Making Machine – Jan.20.2020 – NASASpaceflight Channel

With Elon on site and buildings continuing to rise out of the ground, Starship SN1 Steel Rings were again on show, some being scrapped while the monolithic machine was being fed with more steel. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Facility Expansion Continues – Jan.21.2020 – NASASpaceflight Channel

More new buildings are about to be added to SpaceX Boca Chica’s facilities, alongside current and under-construction buildings. Not only a launch site, this is also a rocket (Starship) factory. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Preparing for New Starship Tank Test (Bopper 2.0) – Jan.22.2020 – NASASpaceflight Channel

SpaceX Boca Chica has been relocating test stands and mounts ahead of the transportation of the new Test Tank (fan dubbed Bopper 2.0) to the launch site for proof testing. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

****** SpaceX Boca Chica – Night Ops – Bulkhead Lift – Nose Cone Welding – Jan.23.2020 – NASASpaceflight Channel

SpaceX worked through the night to prepare the new test tank by moving the first bulkhead out of the new production facility, while welding ops continued on the Starship SN1 Nosecone. Video and Photos from Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

****** A place to build starships away from the weather:

See also SpaceX Starship factory churning out new rocket parts with Elon Musk’s help – Teslarati.

SpaceX’s South Texas team of Starship engineers and technicians – including CEO Elon Musk himself – are working around the clock to manufacture hardware that will likely become the company’s next Starship prototype in the near future.

Over the last few days, SpaceX has made quick progress churning out shiny steel rings and wrapping up propellant tank domes – the next round of full-scale Starship hardware. To better build the first flight and orbit-capable prototypes, not to mention hundreds or even thousands of Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy boosters in the years to come, SpaceX teams and contractors have spent the last two months aggressively expanding the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facilities. In fact, the very same company that built Tesla’s newest tent-based Model 3 assembly line – Sprung Instant Structures – has erected part of a massive, new Starship factory.

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