Space transport roundup – Dec.3.2020

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

** SpaceX set to launch Starship prototype SN8 to 15 km following successful static firing of its three Raptor engines on Nov. 24th. The company currently has a FAA permit for a flight during a 3 day window opening on Dec. 4th. (There are local restrictions on closing access to the beach on weekends so the window may effectively be 1 day long.) A wet dress rehearsal took place on Wed. Dec. 2nd. Elon Musk had indicated that there would be another static firing before the flight but it looks like they may skip this.

[ Update: The flight has been postponed till Monday Dec. 7th at the earliest. Also, the max altitude will be 12.5 km rather than 15 km.]

Find more about this and other SpaceX activities below

** Arianespace launches Soyuz with reconnaissance satellite for UAE on Dec.1st from the spaceport in French Guiana: Flight VS24: Soyuz lifts off from the Spaceport in French Guiana – Arianespace

On Tuesday, December 1, at 10:33 p.m. (local time), Arianespace successfully launched the FalconEye optical observation satellite using a Soyuz rocket from the Guiana Space Center (CSG), Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. FalconEye is a very-high-performance optical Earth observation satellite developed in a consortium led by Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space for the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces (UAEAF).

See also Soyuz rocket launches Emirati military satellite after lengthy delay – Spaceflight Now.

*** A Soyuz lifted off today with three Gonets-M communications satellites from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northeastern Russia: Soyuz 2’s 110th mission to launch three civilian communication satellites –

** Mitsubishi H-IIA rocket launches military data relay satellite on Nov.29:  Japan launches joint military, scientific optical data relay satellite –

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’s H-IIA F43 launch vehicle launched the JDRS-1 satellite from the Yoshinobu Launch Complex, at JAXA’s Tanegashima Space Center, Japan, on 29 November 2020, at 07:25 UTC (16:25 Japan Standard Time – JST). JDRS-1 (データ中継衛星1号機, Data Relay Satellite No. 1) is an optical data relay satellite designed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), part of the Japanese Data Relay System (JDRS) and the first of the “Optical Intersatellite Communication System” (LUCAS).

** China’s most powerful rocket sent Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission to the Moon. The Long March 5 vehicle lifted off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site in southeastern China on Nov. 23rd with the 8,200 kg  payload that included a lunar orbiter with a return module and a lander with an ascent vehicle. The latter will transport a ~2 kg sample of lunar regolith from a spot on the Mons Rümker region on the Moon’s near side up to a rendezvous and docking with the orbiter. The sample  will be transferred to the return module, which will travel back the Earth for a landing in Inner Mongolia expected around Dec. 16-17. The lander set down on the lunar surface on Dec.1st, gathered the samples, and then the ascent module lifted on on Dec. 3rd. Rendezvous and docking with the orbiter should take place about 2 days later.

Lander sets down on the lunar surface: Watch China’s Chang’e 5 spacecraft land on the moon in this amazing video |

An image from the ascent module as it lifts off from the Moon:

A view of the Chang’e-5 lander from the ascent module as it lifts off from the Moon. Credits: China National Space Administration

** Rocket Lab successfully recovers first stage booster from the ocean after launch of 30 small satellites.  Rocket Lab Launches 16th Mission, Completes Booster Recovery | Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab, a space systems company and the global leader in dedicated small satellite launch, has successfully launched its 16th Electron mission and deployed 30 small satellites to orbit – the largest number of satellites deployed by Electron to date on a single mission.

The ‘Return to Sender’ mission also saw Rocket Lab complete a successful splashdown and recovery of the first stage of an Electron launch vehicle for the first time, bringing the stage back to Earth under a parachute after launch. The recovery of a stage is a major milestone in Rocket Lab’s pursuit to make Electron a reusable rocket to increase launch frequency and reduce launch costs for small satellites.

Approximately two and a half minutes after lift-off, at an altitude of around 80 km, Electron’s first and second stages separated per standard mission procedure. Once the engines shut down on Electron’s first stage, a reaction control system re-oriented the stage 180-degrees to place it on an ideal angle for re-entry, enabling it to survive the incredible heat and pressure known as “The Wall” during its descent back to Earth. A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descended, before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometers of descent. The stage splashed down as planned. Rocket Lab’s recovery team will transport the stage back to Rocket Lab’s production complex, where engineers will inspect the stage to gather data that will inform future recovery missions. 

The webcast of the launch:

A unique view of the upper stage as seen from the booster at the moment of the separation event:

A view from the same camera as the booster hits the water:

Rocket Lab is in the processing of disassembling the stage to determine the condition of the various components. Overall, though, the recovery is hailed as a success by the company.

Here is a summary of the return of the stage to Earth and its recovery: How to bring a rocket back from space | Rocket Lab.

We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome of our first recovery attempt and the team is thrilled. When we established the Electron program, we set out to open access to space for small satellites to make it easier, faster, and more cost effective for them to reach orbit. More than three and a half years after our first launch, and with almost 100 satellites on orbit for our customers, we’ve done just that. Reusability is about taking that up a notch. It means faster and more frequent launch opportunities and reduced launch costs. We’re delighted to be making that a reality for small satellites and by doing so, opening up a new era of possibility in orbit.

** The next Rocket Lab Electron will carry an radar earth imaging satellite to orbit for the Japanese company Synspective. The 2 week window for the launch opens on Dec. 12th.

For this mission, Rocket Lab will utilize a custom expanded fairing to encompass Synspective’s wide-body satellite – the first use of the expanded fairing options that Rocket Lab recently introduced alongside a suite of vehicle performance improvements, including advances in battery technology which enable an improved payload lift capacity up to 300 kg (660 lbs). Rocket Lab will also perform an advanced mid-mission maneuver with its Kick Stage space tug that will shield the StriX-α satellite from the sun to reduce radiation exposure ahead of payload deployment.

** Virgin Galactic targets Dec.11th for next SpaceShipTwo trip to space: Virgin Galactic Flight Test Program Update – VSS Unity Preparing For First Rocket Powered Flight From New Mexico – Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic today announced its new flight window since it paused the spaceflight preparations in response to state guidelines from the New Mexico Department of Health to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The new flight window will open on December 11, pending good weather conditions and technical readiness. This flight expects to fulfill a number of objectives, including testing elements of the customer cabin as well as assessing the upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls during boost. The flight will also carry payloads as part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program.

The flight will be conducted by essential personnel only. No guests or media will be onsite, in accordance with company and state COVID-19 protocols. The operational footprint at our New Mexico facilities has been further minimized in the past 2 weeks. Only essential staff will be onsite to support the pre-flight operations ahead of the flight and the day of flight.

** Virgin Orbit aims to send LauncherOne to orbit in launch window set for Dec. 19-20: Announcing the Window for Launch Demo 2 | Virgin Orbit

After our first Launch Demo earlier this year, we set a goal to return to flight before the end of 2020, and we’re proud that we remain on target. Now, we’re excited to announce that, pending some additional tests and operations, the launch window for our Launch Demo 2 mission will open on Saturday, December 19th, with an opportunity to launch from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM Pacific. We also have a similar launch window available on Sunday, December 20th, with further opportunities available in the following weeks, if needed.

In our first Launch Demo, we demonstrated the entire prelaunch sequence, flyout, rocket separation and unpowered flight, engine start and first stage powered flight. Our team is fired up to build on those steps and to demonstrate the rest of the rocket system, including our upper stage. Again, we’re poised to collect terabytes of data from LauncherOne as it flies, further enhancing our knowledge and proving out our system’s capabilities.

We’re taking another big first step with this mission too, as we’ll be carrying customers’ satellites on board for the first time. We are immensely grateful to our friends at NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) and NASA’s Launch Service Program (NASA LSP) for what has been an incredibly collaborative team effort. NASA created VCLS to foster the development of new commercial launch capabilities for innovative, risk-tolerant payloads; and working with them has given us the opportunity to learn about their journey while bringing them some of Virgin’s unmatched heritage of customer service, and enabling us both to build upon and enhance future missions.

LauncherOne being attached to the carrier airplane Cosmic Girl. Credits: Virgin Orbit

See also Virgin Orbit planning second LauncherOne mission for December – SpaceNews.

** Aevum Space unveiled their Ravn Autonomous Launch Vehicle (AuLV) today. The vehicle consists of an autonomous reusable aircraft that carries an expendable two stage rocket to high altitude. The company insists that the carrier is a true first stage in that it provides a net positive delta-V due to a short gap between separation and rocket engine ignition. Aevum says other air launch systems see a negative delta-V due to the several seconds of drop time before the first stage engine fires.

There is a strong focus on autonomy and fast turnaround in all aspects of vehicle operations. For example, both the first stage aircraft and the rocket use jet fuel, which can be obtained at most any airport.

Ravn X is their demo vehicle, which appears ready for flight tests. The company has several defense contracts already. The first launch is targeted for late 2021 with the ASLON-45 small satellite for the US Space Force. The company is aiming at s $5-7M per flight price tag for the 100-500 kg payloads to low earth orbits.

The RAVN X rollout starts at around 33:25 into this video of the full presentation:

More at:

[ Update: Additional info about Aevum: Michael Sheetz on Twitter: “I spoke to @aevumspace CEO Jay Skylus today, to clarify some questions about the Ravn X unveil and rollout. Thread:” / Twitter]

The RAVN X demo vehicle and Aevum founder and CEO Jay Skylus. Credits: Aevum

** Chinese company LandSpace Blue Arrow tests methane fueled engines: The joint test run of the second stage rocket engine of the Zhuque-2 liquid carrier rocket was successfully completed

From November 13th to 17th, Blue Arrow Aerospace successfully completed the joint test run of the second-stage engine of the Suzaku 2 rocket . The rocket engine used in this round of test runs is a combination of 80-ton and 10-ton “Tianque” liquid oxygen methane engines.

** Masten‘s VTVL rocket Xodiac used to test lunar surface operations: The Perils and Promise of Dust on the Moon | NASA

Two such dust innovations will be flight tested in Mojave, California, on a Xodiac vertical takeoff and vertical landing system – which functions much like a lunar lander – from Masten Space Systems. These tests are facilitated by the Flight Opportunities program, part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The goals: to help researchers advance a sensor designed to address the hazards of ejected dust, rocks, and other particles produced by rocket plumes as well as a device for collecting lunar dust and soil for analysis.

“When a vehicle lands on the Moon, it shoots out a lot of ejecta at high velocity, including dust as well as larger gravel and rocks,” said Philip Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and principal investigator for the laser-based Ejecta STORM sensor on the upcoming flight. “This can cause widespread damage from sandblasting spacecraft surfaces and solar cells to actually striking and breaking optical sensors or other instruments.”

“Having ejecta sensor data from actual lunar missions can help us improve those recommendations and will also help us protect the new spacecraft we’re sending to the Moon and even spacecraft orbiting around it – all of which is important not just to the U.S. but to the international space community as well,” Metzger said. “And then we can develop physics equations that are truly predictive to inform mitigation strategies.”

The upcoming flight test is a step in that direction. Metzger and his team will mount their sensor to Xodiac, with simulated lunar soil placed beneath it. The sensor will shine four lasers into the blowing dust cloud, measuring the amount of dust, the erosion rate of the soil, the sizes of the particles and their distribution, and other factors. Those measurements will then be used in computer modeling to provide predictions for bigger or smaller landers under a variety of landing conditions.

** French VTVL rocket development program update: Frog | [Lanceurs] FROG, un projet collaboratif innovant sur la réutilisation (Google Translate). The FROG initiative brought together a collaboration of the French space agency, CNES, with university and associated partners and commercial start-ups. The goal is to develop technologies for and flight experience with vertical-takeoff-and-landing rocket vehicles.

The program consists of developing an experimental vehicle to test guidance, navigation and control (GNC) algorithms for takeoff, stable vertical flight at low altitude and landing. By bringing together contributors from various backgrounds and specialists in their field, it aims to learn to work and innovate differently, and to harness new energies and ideas outside the traditional frameworks of space programs.

The experimental FROG project turbo-jet powered vehicle in flight. Credits: CNES

So far the project has built

 two prototypes of launchers 3 m high and 25 cm in diameter, and the developed software programs to make them take off and land vertically.

The first, powered by a model-making fighter jet turbojet capable of pushing 40 kg vertically, has already carried out several captive flights, connected to a gantry, to carry out the first phases of validation of the CNG algorithms, then, in October 2020, free flights up to about thirty meters high at the Brétigny-sur-Orge flight test center. “These tests, piloted by Badr Rmili, validate the intelligence of this miniature rocket, its ability to fly stably and land automatically,” explains Jérémie Hassin. 

The second vehicle, currently in development, will be powered by a monoergol rocket engine running on hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), supplied by the Polish Lukasiewicz institute. The objectives are similar, but with a more representative prototype of a launcher.

See also: ArianeWorks on European reusable rocket prototype Themis – SpaceWatch.Global.

** EXOS Aerospace shows the building of an engine and an engine bay for a new SARGE reusable rocket:

** Skyrora tests engine for upper stage of XL rocket: Skyrora conducts vacuum chamber engine tests to replicate space-like conditions | Skyrora

UK rocket company, Skyrora, has conducted a series of static test fires of its 3rd stage LEO engine, including a vacuum chamber test, designed to replicate space-like conditions to further advance its launch ambitions.

All tests, totalling 100 and conducted at the company’s Engine Test Complex located in Fife, Scotland, were successful, and the results met Skyrora’s test criteria. This means that this sub-system of the three-stage orbital launcher, “Skyrora XL” is ready for launch with an envisaged launch planned for 2023.

Skyrora’s LEO engine is unique as it can re-ignite numerous amounts of times in orbit to deliver payloads into different altitudes and phases, as required for the mission and acting as a ‘taxi’ service to satellite customers.

With the ongoing development of the Skyrora XL orbital vehicle, Skyrora has already signed over 23 letters of intent with interested customers and is planning to have a launch service agreement in place within the next six months. Plans such as these will open 150 – 170 job opportunities across Scotland.

** Astra aims for orbital launch in early December from Alaska spaceport on Kodiak Island: Astra to make second orbital launch attempt – SpaceNews

** Relativity Space attracts significant funding and progresses towards first launch: Relativity Space closes $500 million for scaling 3D-printed rocket production – CNBC

    • 3D-printing rocket builder Relativity Space closed a $500 million round of new capital which CEO Tim Ellis said now gives the company a “war chest” to further advance its technology.
    • “This really accelerates Relativity’s momentum and scaling as we focus beyond first launch on production and various infrastructure expansion projects,” Ellis said.
    • Relativity’s valuation climbed to $2.3 billion after this round, CNBC reported last week, making it the second most valuable private space company in the world backed by venture capital after SpaceX, according to Pitchbook.

The investors are no doubt also taking into account the value of Relativity’s technology for 3D printing of large structures beyond just rockets.

The initial Terran 1 launch is currently planned for 2021. The company recently fired the first stage engine for a Full Duration Mission Duty Cycle (MDC)

Relativity successfully completed our Aeon 1 engine Mission Duty Cycle (MDC) test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Our fully integrated Aeon 1 engine hotfired running at full power for 187 seconds, meeting the full duration required for the launch of our Terran 1 first stage. A Mission Duty Cycle test is a pinnacle milestone in engine development, as it proves that all key engine components (turbopumps, injector, chamber, igniters, etc.) can operate in a flight-like configuration. Relativity’s speed of execution, from first integrated engine testing to successful MDC in 56 days, is a tremendous accomplishment. This significant milestone validates the advantages of our 3D printing technology and best-in-class team, as we march forward towards first launch

** Russia to launch the second Angara-5 rocket from the Plesetsk spaceport as early as December 11th:

According to industry sources, the test fueling of the rocket finally took place on November 25, but various issues could delay the launch as late as December 11. That launch date was reportedly close to multiple warranties on the rocket’s systems. It is typical for the Russian rocket industry to end the warranties by December 31 of a particular year. Naturally, the delay of the mission beyond the warranty deadline might require a complex re-certification process which launch officials often want to avoid.

** Briefs:


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** SpaceX:

*** SpaceX launched twice in four days from Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral. On Saturday morning of Nov. 21st, a Falcon 9 sent the Michael Freilich ocean-monitoring satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) in California to low earth orbit. The booster returned for a landing on a pad at VAFB.

Another Starlink delivery mission was launched from Cape Canaveral on Nov. 25th. It delivered 60 more satellites to orbit and the F9 booster B1049 landed successfully, achieving a new F9 booster milestone as the first booster to be recovered for the seventh time. This was also the 100th Falcon 9 launch.

The booster looks toasted but structurally sound after its 7 flights:

** First SpaceX cargo mission with modified Crew Dragon is set for Saturday, Dec. 5th at 11:39 am EST (1639 GMT). The Dragon Dragon will then autonomously dock at the space station at around 11:30 am EST (1630 GMT) on Sunday, Dec. 6th. Weather looks iffy. Current forecast gives 40% chance of conditions suitable for launch.

** Some misc. SpaceX items:

**** Starship

As discussed above, the center of attention at Boca Chica is on Starship prototype SN8 as it prepares for a hop that’s roughly 100 times higher than the previous prototype hops. If the flight goes awry, there are  several more vehicles in the assembly line in various stages of completion:

**** Elon Musk comments on Twitter about the SN8 static fire, plans for the 15 km test flight, and other aspects of the Starship program:

  • Nov. 24 – EM: “Good Starship SN8 static fire! Aiming for first 15km / ~50k ft altitude flight next week. Goals are to test 3 engine ascent, body flaps, transition from main to header tanks & landing flip.
  • How are you feeling about Starship’s chances of landing in one piece?
    • EM: “Lot of things need to go right, so maybe 1/3 chance
    • EM: “But that’s why we have SN 9 & SN10
  • What are the minor differences between SN8 & SN9/10 that you’ve mentioned? Anything in particular that you’re testing different versions of, or just smaller improvements in general?
    • EM: “Many small improvements, but overall similar. Wiring is more robust, engines are more mature, nosecone is sealed better, etc.
    • EM: “Major upgrades are slated for SN15
  • “Is the 15km flight using the main tanks?”
    • EM: “Yes, but only slightly filled
  • When will you start utilizing / practicing ISRU and sabatier fueling at the pad? Are you actively engineering portable fueling plants yet for Mars?
    • EM: “Maybe start on that a year from now. Depends on how Starship progress goes.
  • Nov.29: “How goes the debate about the legs? Still thinking they will be similar flip out style to Falcon 9? If so, how would they be shielded on the windward side for reentry?
    • EM: “Starship legs are one of the hardest problems. Externally mounted legs require shielding, which adds mass. Wider stance adds mass. Shock absorbers add mass. That said, we need better legs.

**** Elon laid out Mars mission goals for the next few years during an interview for the Axel Springer award in Germany.

I feel fairly confident about six years from now… Earth Mars synchronization occurs roughly every 26 months,” he said, “…If we get lucky maybe four years. We want to try to send an uncrewed vehicle there [Mars] in two years.

**** FAA is updating the environmental impact studies for the SpaceX facilities and activities at Boca Chica Beach. The situation has changed considerably from the first enviro report when SpaceX was planning on doing a handful of Falcon 9 launches per year from the site. The documents posted so far include some interesting info on SpaceX’s plans

A diagram form a recent FAA environmental impact document showing plans for the VLA (Vertical Launch Area). Credits: FAA

***** Nov.27: SpaceX Boca Chica FlyoverRGV Aerial Photography

***** Dec.1SN8 Ready for FlightStarshipBocaChica/Maria Pointer – YouTube

***** Dec.1: SpaceX Boca Chica – Starships wait – Dual SPMT taken for a test run NASASpaceflight – YouTube

Ahead of more Starship SN8 pre-launch testing, a new dual SPMT set up was tested, likely ahead of its role transporting Starship SN9 to the launch site. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Nic Gautschi (@NGautschi).

***** Dec. 2: SpaceX Boca Chica – New Starship Production as SN8 gains FAA clearance to launchNASASpaceflight – YouTube

Numerous Starships – and nosecones – continue to push through production tasks as SN8 gets ever-closer to her test launch, with the FAA clearing a window that opens on Friday. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist).

**** Other Starship and space transport reports:

**** Nov.28: SpaceX Starship imminent flight to 15km, Bellyflop and Land  Marcus House

What a jam-packed episode we have for you this week. We catch up with the latest SpaceX Starship developments including another successful static fire test before the imminent Starship flight to 15km, Bellyflop and Land – This is it! It could be this coming Monday 30th based on road closure information. We have some absolutely amazing footage here from Rocketlab from their recent launch and first booster recovery. Also two launches of the Falcon 9 this week. One from the west coast launch of the Sentinel 6 ocean mapping satellite as well as the east coast launch of another batch of 60 Starlink satellites. On top of that, time for a quick catchup with the Perseverance rover as it traverses space on its way to Mars, and China launched its groundbreaking moon sample retrieval mission.

**** Nov.25: Starship Refilling in Orbit – This changes everythingMarcus House

Today we are talking about how Starship’s low-cost vision to send mass into orbit will change the lives for everyone to at least some degree. How are SpaceX intending to lower that cost? Why does it matter? Well… recent funding news for SpaceX provides incredibly beneficial resources to start the engineering involved in a huge part of this technology. That’s right… the systems needed to refill starship with Liquid Methane and Oxygen while in orbit. We also can’t forget the amazing work on the Raptor Engine. The complex engine that drives this beast. Starship will change everything if it works as planned.

**** Dec.1SpaceX Starship – SN8 launch rundown!What about it!?

What’s happening inside the SpaceX Starship on the Boca Chica 15-kilometer flight. We’ll also give CRS-21 Cargo Dragon v2 a good look before the upcoming launch!

**** Nov.29: SpaceX Boca Chica Weekly Update – 9 – Starship SN8 heads to launch week – SN9 ready to be tagged inNASASpaceflight – YouTube

** Episode T+174: SpaceX Crew-1 Kicks Off New Era for ISS – Main Engine Cut Off


=== Space Art from C. Sergent Lindsey ===

Sweatshirt imprinted with “SpaceX Delivers the Goods” by C Sergent Lindsey. Available at Fine Art America.


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