Space transport roundup – Apr.4.2020

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

** Starship prototype SN3 collapses near end of pressure testing of propellant tanks. Rather than an explosive rupture as in previous tank failures, the center tank just crumpled and collapsed. Apparently, the weight of the liquid nitrogen in the upper tank overcame the structural integrity of the middle tank. This could have happened if the middle tank was de-pressurized prematurely. This is the sort of mistake Elon Musk was referring to in a Tweeter posting after the failure in which he said, “this may have been a test configuration mistake.”

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** Japan’s Oita airport becomes alternative site for Virgin Orbit LauncherOne missions: Oita Partners with Virgin Orbit to Establish First Horizontal Spaceport in Asia | Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit, the California-based small satellite launch company, has announced a new partnership with Oita Prefecture to bring horizontal launch to Japan. With the support of regional partners ANA Holdings Inc. and the Space Port Japan Association, Virgin Orbit has identified Oita Airport as its preferred pilot launch site — yet another addition to the company’s growing global network of horizontal launch sites — in pursuit of a mission to space from Japan as early as 2022.

Virgin Orbit and Oita Prefecture have agreed to commence a joint technical study to facilitate development of the future spaceport.

Oita Prefecture is widely recognized in Japan as not only a top-ranked tourist destination, but also as a hub for numerous high-tech ecosystems, including the steel, petrochemical, semiconductor, and automobile industries. The Oita Prefectural Government now has ambitions to extend that leadership into the space domain.

** Booster returned to earth via parachute during the latest Chinese Long March 3B launch. This is to limit potential damage to

** Sierra Nevada reports on progress with the VORTEX propulsion system: SNC Leverages VORTEX® Engine Technology for DARPA’s OpFires Program

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), the global aerospace and national security leader owned by Eren and Fatih Ozmen, reached a major milestone in the advancement of hypersonic propulsion with its patented VORTEX engine, advancing to the next phase of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Operational Fires (OpFires) program.

Through OpFires, SNC is extending its hybrid VORTEX engine capabilities to advanced, deep throttling, restartable propulsion systems. The system utilizes benign solid fuel with a liquid oxidizer, both of which are storable on Earth and in space. Recent testing shows positive results in being able to package significant energy into a small volume that will have the ability for deep throttling and smooth restart capabilities on command. “The VORTEX flows integrated into the hybrid significantly improves performance of the hybrid engine” said Dr. Marty Chiaverini, director of Propulsion Systems at SNC.

“This program opens up a new market for SNC for preplanned or on-demand propulsion control capabilities that are applicable to both military and beyond Earth orbit propulsion capabilities,” said Tom Crabb, vice president of SNC’s Propulsion & Environmental Systems business unit. “Deep throttling and restart capabilities expand the tools for smart and unpredictable trajectories for various vehicles and systems.”

The first two phases of DARPA’s OpFires program focus on the propulsion technologies required to deliver diverse payloads to a variety of ranges. Since Phase 1 contract award, SNC has made critical discoveries in advanced rocket motor technology for the OpFires upper stage, completing more than 30 motor trials from subscale through full size. SNC hopes to demonstrate these engines in flight and offer the engines to new, promising vehicle systems.

In addition to the deep throttling, restartable, storable system for DARPA, SNC is expanding its propulsion capabilities and products with near-term flight for its Dream Chaser® spaceplane Reaction Control System, maturation of upper stage engines and development of other liquid storable engines for spacecraft, lunar, and other exploration and protection applications. SNC is also co-investing with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for development of the engine for USAF needs. For more information, visit

** Plans to fly Blue Origin‘s New Shepard this month sparks dissension within the company ranks due to corona virus concerns:

The company management responds that they are taking proper precautions and not planning any layoffs: Bezos’ Blue Origin says it is hiring, denies report of possible layoffs – CNBC

** Firefly to apply launcher technology to lunar lander: In parallel with rocket development, Firefly launches lunar lander initiative – Spaceflight Now

A souped-up version of the Israeli Beresheet moon lander built in Texas could be ready to carry NASA science and technology payloads to the lunar surface before the end of 2022, according to officials from Firefly Aerospace.

Firefly’s Genesis lander is one of several major projects being developed by the company headquartered just north of Austin, Texas.

The company is also developing the Alpha small satellite launcher, and a bigger rocket named Beta is on the drawing board.

Officials hope to learn this month whether NASA will sign Firefly to deliver experiments to the moon.

Genesis Lunar Lander proposed by Firefly and partners for missions to the Moon’s south pole in 2022. Credits: Firefly

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** Briefs:


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** Cargo Dragon for CRS-20 mission to depart from ISS and return to Earth on April 6th: NASA TV to Air U.S. Cargo Ship Departure from Space Station | NASA

Filled with more than 4,000 pounds of valuable scientific experiments and other cargo, a SpaceX Dragon resupply spacecraft is set to leave the International Space Station Monday, April 6. NASA Television and the agency’s website will broadcast its departure live beginning at 9:30 a.m. EDT.

Robotic flight controllers at mission control in Houston will issue commands at 9:52 a.m. to release Dragon using the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm. Expedition 62 Flight Engineer Drew Morgan of NASA will back up the ground controllers and monitor Dragon’s systems as it departs the orbital laboratory.

Dragon will fire its thrusters to move a safe distance from the station, then execute a deorbit burn as it heads for a parachute-assisted splashdown around 3:40 p.m. in the Pacific Ocean, southwest of Long Beach, California. The splashdown will not air on NASA TV.

Dragon launched on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket March 6 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and arrived at the space station three days later.

** NASA’s “retro, modern” worm logo festoons the side of the Falcon 9 booster for the crew demo mission set to go to the ISS in May: The Worm is Back! | NASA

The worm is back. And just in time to mark the return of human spaceflight on American rockets from American soil.

The retro, modern design of the agency’s logo will help capture the excitement of a new, modern era of human spaceflight on the side of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Demo-2 flight, now scheduled for mid- to late May.

NASA’s “worm” logo on the side of the booster for the first Crew Dragon flight with astronauts.

** Tests continue in preparation for first crewed flight of Dragon 2 to the ISS: NASA Flickr

On Monday, March 30, 2020 at a SpaceX processing facility on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, SpaceX successfully completed a fully integrated test of critical crew flight hardware ahead of Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program; the first flight test with astronauts onboard the spacecraft. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley participated in the test, which included flight suit leak checks, spacecraft sound verification, display panel and cargo bin inspections, seat hardware rotations, and more. Photo credit: SpaceX


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** Watch astronauts rehearse arrival at the pad and entering Crew Dragon. This is part of the preparation for the first crewed Dragon 2 mission to the ISS:

**** Starship

****** New design for the Starship  legs:

****** The Starship takes advantage of the connection to Tesla: SpaceX Starship outfitted with Tesla battery packs and motors – Teslarati

Following in the footsteps of the late Mk1 vehicle, SpaceX’s latest Starship prototype has been outfitted with several Tesla battery packs and motors over the last few weeks.

CEO Elon Musk has confirmed in the past that SpaceX intends to try to use Tesla batteries to power Starship rockets and Tesla motors to drive the ships’ large aerodynamic control surfaces. By all appearances, a Tesla Model S motor’s appearance on the exterior of a Starship prototype recently moved to the launch pad is a first for SpaceX. However, in 2019, SpaceX at one point planned to use and even installed battery packs on Starship Mk1 components before the ship was prematurely destroyed during testing. The nosecone those battery packs were installed in still sits in the middle of SpaceX’s growing Boca Chica rocket factory.

For Starship SN3, the purpose of its ~200 kWh of battery power is rather self-explanatory. The purpose of the Tesla Model S motor recently installed on its side is much less clear.

****** Videos from the NASASpaceflight YouTube channel show activities leading up to the SN3 test failure plus some scenes of the cleanup:

****** March 31: SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN3 Test Readiness/SN4 Preps

******  April 2: SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN3 comes to life as SN4 waits in the wings

****** April 3: SpaceX’s Starship SN3 prototype fails cryogenic proof test

****** April 3:  SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN3 remains dismantled

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