Space transport roundup – Nov.18.2020

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

** 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.

See also:

Find more about SpaceX activities below

** 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

From ESA:

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.

** Recent launches in China:

*** China aims to launch lunar sample return mission on a Long March 5 rocket before the end of November. The LM-5 provides the largest payload capability in the Chinese LM family. This will be the 6th launch of a LM-5 variant. The vehicle rolled out to the pad at the Wenchang spaceport  in Hainan Province in southern China on Nov. 17th. Rocket to lift Chang’e 5 moved to launch pad –

Long March 5 rolls to the launch pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province on Nov 17, 2020. Credits: Shi Xiao/

Video from CCTV of the rollout:

*** Long March 3B rocket puts Tiantong 1-02 comm-sat into orbit on Nov.12th.

*** Long March-6 puts 10 Satellogic Aleph-1 Earth observation satellites into orbit after lift off from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center on Friday, Nov.6.2020.

*** 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.

** Indian PSLV sends remote sensing satellite and nine commercial smallsats into orbit. This was the first PSLV launch this year due to postponements caused by the COVID-19 pandemic: PSLV successfully launches EOS-01 and nine customer satellites from Sriharikota – ISRO

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.

Rocket Lab:

“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.

** Rocket Lab’s first Electron launch from the US is postponed till 2021 due to system certification issues. First Rocket Lab U.S. launch delayed to 2021 – SpaceNews

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.”

** Update on Firefly‘s first launch of the Alpha rocket: Firefly closes in on debut flight with rocket delivery to Vandenberg launch site –

** 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.

Before starting commercial flights, VG plans for a second test flight after this one and then a flight with Richard Branson on board in first quarter of 2021.

** Spaceflight Inc expands its space tug options with two additional next-generation orbital transfer vehicles (OTVs). Spaceflight Inc. Unveils Propulsive Orbital Transfer Vehicles to Launch Smallsats to Custom Orbital Destinations – Spaceflight

The company says

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.

See also New Propulsive Sherpa OTVs Coming in 2021 – Spaceflight Blog.

** The latest on Launcher Space, a small New York based company developing smallsat rockets with an emphasis on 3D printing of the engines.

** Orbit Fab launching in-space propellant depot system: Fill Them Up… In Space… That’s Orbit Fab’s Plan – SatNews

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.

** Briefs:


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** SpaceX:

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:

*** Launch of NASA’s Sentinel-1 earth observation satellite set for Nov. 21st launch from Vandenberg AFB. Static fire test of Falcon 9 booster completed:

*** Another Starlink constellation launch is set for the evening of Nov. 21st from Cape Canaveral. For the first time, a F9 booster will boost a payload for the 7th time: B1049’s Flight History. And the first time a F9 first stage.

Reviews of Starlink broadband Internet services by beta test users are mostly positive so far. SpaceX needs Starlink to be popular and profitable to sustain future programs:

*** Big payment for a NRO launch covers other items beside the rocket: SpaceX explains why the U.S. Space Force is paying $316 million for a single launch – SpaceNews

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.

*** Latest on commercial launch of a private citizens crew for Axiom in late 2021: Israeli Eytan Stibbe second member of SpaceX private flight for Axiom – CNBC

    • 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

**** Starship

**** 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:

Fixes planned:

See also Starship SN8 hoping for speedy return to testing as additional vehicles line up –

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.13Starship Test Destroys Raptor Engine, But Burst Disc Saves Rest Of Vehicle

**** Meanwhile, work continues on multiple prototypes from SN9 up through SN15.

**** Elon expects costs to drop dramatically when there are lots of Starships flying often:

**** A Sampling of recent videos from Boca Chica

***** Nov.13: SpaceX Boca Chica – SN8 Static Fire #3 and Pneumatic Anomaly – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

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)

***** Nov.13: – RGV Aerial Photography

***** Nov.16 : SpaceX Boca Chica – Raptor SN42 greets Starship SN8 – Brand new SN46 arrives – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

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)

***** Nov.17 : Boca Chica – SN9 Transporter Testing – NASASpaceflight – YouTube

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)

***** Nov. 17: Waiting for SN8 and a Look Back in Time – StarshipBocaChica/Maria Pointer – YouTube

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.

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