Space transport roundup – Dec.16.2020

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

** Dec.9: First high altitude flight test of a SpaceX Starship prototype successfully demonstrated two key requirements for returning from orbit: (1) controlled stable flight while in a horizontal orientation during unpowered descent and (2) the flip to vertical maneuver after restarting the engines. The vehicle was powered by three Raptors, which fired for nearly five minutes before reaching the 12 km altitude. (Two of the engines shut down sequentially during the later phase of the ascent.) This provided a big gain in the amount of data on in-flight performance of the LOX/Methane engines compared to the short hops with earlier prototypes.

Unfortunately, during the SN8 vehicle’s relatively short vertical descent to the bullseye of the landing pad, a drop in pressure from the propellant tank in the tip of the nosecone reduced the thrust of the Raptor engine and the vehicle landed too hard and exploded. This operational problem can be prevented in a straight-forward manner in future flights. After 60+ successful Falcon 9 booster recoveries, the company knows how to land a rocket vertically.  However, SpaceX has had no experience with flying a rocket in a horizontal attitude and controlling it with side fins. It also had never swung a vehicle from horizontal to vertical. So this was a very successful test. While it might have flown again if it landed safely, SN8 was never intended to provide more than suborbital test data.

This multi-exposure image nicely captures the liftoff and return of Starship SN8’s epic test flight:

A view of SN8 from the landing pad:

An analysis by Scott Manley: SpaceX’s Biggest Starship Flight Is A Spectacular Success Even After Crash Landing

Articles and commentary about the test:

Find more on SpaceX activities below

** Dec.16: Astra reaches space for first time but falls just short of orbit: The launch from the Alaskan spaceport sent the upper stage of the two-staged Rocket 3.2 to 390 kilometers in altitude and “just a half a kilometer per second short” of orbital velocity according to Astra CEO Chris Kemp. According to Eric Berger,

The company had not quite gotten the mixture of kerosene to oxidizer correct—something that is difficult to test on the ground—and wound up with an excess of liquid oxygen. Had the upper stage burnt kerosene for a few more seconds, the upper stage would have reached orbit. As it was, the booster peaked at an apogee of 390km above the Earth’s surface.

Kemp claimed this flight nevertheless exceeded the team’s expectations for the rocket, which did not have a payload on board.

Kemp has said that it would take three launches before they achieved orbit. Last March, Rocket 3.0 was destroyed in a fire on the pad and, in September, Rocket 3.1 flew for 30 seconds before a guidance problem led to a shutdown of the engines and the loss of the vehicle. Rocket 3.3 is expected to fly early in 2021 and it will carry a payload for a customer.

The company’s goal is to offer very low cost access to orbit for small satellites. To achieve this they have sought a simple but robust rocket design that can be built at low cost. According to Astra,

Rapid test and iteration are the cornerstones of our development process. We’ve performed thousands of rocket engine tests at our headquarters in Alameda, a few hundred feet away from where those engines are designed and built. We can afford to experiment quickly and repeatedly because our rockets are far less expensive. The rockets are primarily constructed from lightweight aluminum, instead of costly composite and 3D printed materials.

Small crews for launch are also a part of the plan: Astra set up a rocket launch with five people and came within seconds of orbit | Ars Technica

Astra was founded to provide rapid, low-cost access to space for small satellites. The quick turnaround between its first and second flights suggests it may make good on this promise. It’s impressive, too, that the company needs just five people to set up its launch site. At Kodiak, Astra has a concrete pad and a tent. A week before launching the rocket, its launcher, propellant, and other equipment arrived in four shipping containers from California. A team of five set the launch system up, and employees back at Astra’s headquarters in Alameda, California, controlled the launch through cloud computing.

The company needs to prove in 2021 that it can build and operate rockets that not only get to orbit but do so reliably and frequently.

More at:

Astra rocket on launch pad at Kodiak Island spaceport. Credits: Astra

** Dec.15: Rocket Lab Electron rocket puts Synspective StriX-α synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite into a 500km circular orbit. This was the 17th Electron launch. There was no attempt to recover the first stage.

** Dec. 12: Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo test flight aborted after avionics failure prevents engine ignition: Virgin Galactic Update on Test Flight Program – Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: SPCE), a vertically integrated aerospace and space travel company, announced an update following its recent test flight on December 12, 2020. During the test flight, the rocket motor did not fire due to the ignition sequence not completing. Following this event, the pilots conducted a safe landing and return to Spaceport America, New Mexico as planned.

Virgin Galactic is now conducting post-flight analysis and can so far report that the onboard computer which monitors the propulsion system lost connection, triggering a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor. This system, like others on the spaceship, is designed such that it defaults to a safe state whenever power or communication with sensors is lost. The pilots in the spaceship, as well as the engineers and pilots in mission control, are well prepared for any off-nominal results, as they plan and rehearse many potential scenarios during pre-flight simulation practice sessions, including a scenario where the rocket motor does not ignite after release from the mothership.

More at:

** Dec. 14: Russian Angara-5 rocket launches from Plesetsk Cosmodrome. This is the third launch of an Angara family rocket and the first in six years.

** Dec. 13: ULA Delta IV Heavy launches NROL-101 spysat after multiple delays since original summer target launch date:

** Dec. 10: China launches Long March-11 rocket with two GECAM gravity research satellite. Mission lifts off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China’s Sichuan Province.

** Dec. 6: China launches Long March 3B with Gaofen-14 optical stereo mapping satellite:

** Blue Origin releases update on testing of BE-7 engine, which will power a lunar lander vehicle for cargo and people: Blue Origin’s BE-7 Engine Testing Further Demonstrates Capability to Land on the Moon – Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s BE-7 engine program continues its testing at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. This week, the program kicked off the fourth thrust chamber test series of its high-efficiency engine. The hotfire testing further validates the engine that will power Blue Origin’s National Team Human Landing System (HLS) in support of NASA’s Artemis program.

So far in this recent campaign, the thrust chamber was tested for a duration of 20 seconds. This brings the cumulative testing time on the BE-7 thrust chamber to 1,245 seconds. The BE-7 is a high-performance, additively manufactured liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen lunar landing engine with 10,000 lbf of thrust – throttling down to 2,000 lbf of thrust for a precise landing on the Moon.

“This thrust chamber test measured the ability to extract energy out of the hydrogen and oxygen cooled combustor segments that power the engine’s turbopumps – the key to achieving high engine performance,” said John Vilja, senior vice president, Engines, Blue Origin. “The high specific impulse, deep throttling, and restart capabilities of the BE-7 make it the ideal engine for large lunar payload transport as well as many other in-space applications. Thanks to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center team for their support in this testing. We value this partnership and are looking forward to more test campaigns with them.”

Within the National Team’s Human Landing System architecture, the BE-7 is used on both the Descent Element and Transfer Element.

“BE-7 is an additively manufactured, high-performance, dual-expander cycle engine, generating 40 kN (10,000 lbf) thrust.” Credits: Blue Origin

See also Jeff Bezos shows off Blue Origin’s BE-7 engine — and makes a bold prediction –

** Latest on the human lunar landing system from the Blue Origin-led National Team: National Team Submits Moon Proposal to NASA – Blue Origin

The Blue Origin-led National Team submitted its Option A proposal to land the first woman and next man on the Moon in partnership with NASA. Blue Origin leads the HLS National Team, which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper. Together, these partners guided Apollo, established routine orbit cargo transfer, developed today’s only crewed lunar spaceship, and pioneered planetary precision landing with liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen vehicles. During the base period alone, the National Team is completing 25 technical demonstrations and counting, making key progress toward NASA’s mission. Learn more about the technical demonstrations and the approach to get America back to the Moon to stay:

** NASA includes Blue Origin’s New Glenn heavy lifter on list of rockets that can compete for payload launch services:

Today, NASA awarded Blue Origin a NASA Launch Services II (NLS II) Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract to launch planetary, Earth observation, exploration, and scientific satellites for the agency aboard New Glenn, Blue Origin’s orbital reusable launch vehicle. The contract allows Blue Origin to compete for missions through Launch Service Task Orders issued by NASA. Project managers at NASA Centers around the country can now design spacecraft to take advantage of New Glenn’s unique seven-meter fairing and heavy-lift performance for a broad range of missions.       

** Interview with Aevum CEO and founder Jay Skylus: The Big Business Of Small Satellites – Are We There Yet – Space – 90.7 WMFE

A new company plans to launch small satellites from the belly of a drone. It joins the growing number of small launch companies popping up to send tiny payloads into space. So what’s the market for these small satellites?

** ESA funds Space Rider reusable space plane. The uncrewed vehicle will launch atop a Vega-C rocket and take small payloads to and from low earth orbit, carry science missions, etc. First flight set for 2023. ESA signs contracts for reusable Space Rider up to maiden flight – ESA

ESA signed two contracts with industry on 9 December at Palazzo Chigi in Rome, Italy in the presence of Italian government representatives. The first contract is for delivery of the Space Rider flight model including the reentry module and the AVUM orbital service module, by co-prime contractors: Thales Alenia Space Italy and Avio. The second contract covers the delivery of the ground segment by Italian co-prime contractors: Telespazio and Altec.

Activities are on track for the first flight of Space Rider in the third quarter of 2023 from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.

Scientific experimentation in microgravity for pharmaceutics and biology are key examples of a Space Rider service.

Further applications include in-orbit demonstration and validation of a variety of technologies for several applications, such as robotics for exploration, instrumentation for Earth observation, surveillance for Earth disaster monitoring, and satellites inspection.

ESA’s Space Rider.

Space Rider will also provide non-space-based companies with a shortcut into the space arena, bypassing the need to become expert space users.

Space Rider is about the size of two minivans. The reentry module hosts the cargo bay, offering a 1200 litre volume for up to 800 kg of customer payloads seated on a high-technology platform that supplies power along with thermal, control, data-handling and telemetry capability. The reentry module is powered in orbit by Vega-C’s upper stage AVUM+ enhanced with a Life Extension kit serving as service module during missions of at least two months.

Sophisticated avionics of Space Rider distributed along the two modules allow complex manoeuvring for experiments in space. An open cargo bay door gives a field of view to Earth or deep space, and fine pointing capability.

At the end of the mission, a final burn of the Space Rider orbital module will send the reentry module with its user payloads towards the reentry trajectory for a smooth ride back to Earth with a soft precision landing on the ground. After payload recovery and minimal refurbishment, the Space Rider reentry module will be ready to take its next set of payloads on its follow-on mission.

Two Space Rider landing sites are viable: Kourou in French Guiana and Santa Maria in the Azores archipelago (Portugal).

Kourou in French Guiana is considered as the primary landing site because it allows maximum mission performance while Santa Maria is considered as the secondary landing site, suitable for high altitude inclination orbits.

A Space Rider mission to orbit and back. Credits: ESA

**ESA study examines a two-stage RLV  powered by Reaction Engines SABRE air-breathing rocket engine:

An ESA-funded study has highlighted the challenges and benefits of launch services based on reusable hypersonic spacecraft to complement Europe’s launch capabilities beyond 2030. The proposed system uses a hybrid air-breathing rocket engine called SABRE.

The Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, SABRE, is being developed by Reaction Engines in the UK and has previously been supported by ESA. This engine could be used to power a horizontally launched vehicle using either a one- or two-stage-to-orbit concept. In both cases, the SABRE-powered first stage would be fully reusable.

During flight, SABRE is designed to reach hypersonic speed through Earth’s atmosphere before switching to rocket mode on the climb to orbit.

In a two-stage launch system the upper stage carrying the payload would be released at an altitude of about 150 km to continue its path to orbit while the first stage would return to land on Earth for reuse.

Reaction Engines conducted this study supported by ArianeGroup and Bryce Space & Technology. ArianeGroup provided guidance on cryogenic technologies and proposed concepts of an upper stage for exo-atmospheric flight phases. Bryce Space & Technology provided market perspective beyond 2030 and supported business analysis for the launch service.

** ESA funds Themis reusable booster program:

On 15 December, ESA signed a contract worth €33 million with prime contractor ArianeGroup in France for the ‘Themis Initial Phase’. This first phase of the Themis involves preparation of the flight vehicle technologies, the test bench and static firing demonstrations at Vernon in France. It also includes the preparation of the ground segment at the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, Sweden, for the first ‘hop’ tests and any associated flight vehicle modifications.

The aim with this programme is to complete tests early on in the development cycle. This will achieve technological milestones that will accelerate development and guide the final build.

The vehicle will be powered by the Prometheus reusable engine:

ESA’s Prometheus is a highly versatile engine capable of providing 1000 kN of variable thrust and is reignitable which makes it suitable for core, booster and upper stage application. An onboard computer handles engine management and monitoring in real time – a crucial feature for reusability.

Themis is 30 m high and 3.5 m in diameter. This single-stage vehicle demonstrator holds 130 tonnes of liquid oxygen/methane to fuel three aligned Prometheus engines.

Suborbital flight tests are scheduled as of 2023 at Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

The “Themis Demonstrations Pillars” plan for the Themis booster development. Credits: ESA

** Date set for re-flight of Boeing uncrewed Starliner vehicle to the ISS: NASA and Boeing Target New Launch Date for Next Starliner Flight Test – Commercial Crew Program/NASA

NASA and Boeing now are targeting March 29 for the launch of Starliner’s second uncrewed flight test to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) is a critical developmental milestone on the company’s path toward flying crew missions for NASA.

For the OFT-2 mission, the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, dock to the International Space Station and return to land in the western United States about a week later as part of an end-to-end test to prove the system is ready to fly crew.

The OFT-2 Starliner spacecraft is nearing final assembly inside the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The vehicle’s reusable crew module has been powered up and final checkouts of the avionics, power and propulsion systems are nearing completion. The spacecraft’s parachutes, landing airbags, base heat shield, and its back shells are installed signifying the completion of the vehicle build phase. In the coming weeks, teams will load the crew module with cargo, including Rosie the Rocketeer, and weigh the vehicle before mating it to its service module, which is already complete.

In parallel, Boeing technicians continue to refurbish the crew module flown on Starliner’s first Orbital Flight Test while also building a brand-new service module for NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test (CFT), which is now targeting launch in summer 2021, following a successful OFT-2 mission.

See also

** Dawn Aerospace obtains license for suborbital flights of uncrewed spaceplane: Dawn Aerospace Licensed to Fly NZ’s First Spaceplane — Dawn Aerospace

In a world-first, the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has granted Dawn Aerospace an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate to fly a suborbital spaceplane from a conventional airport.

Authorised under Civil Aviation Rule Part 102, Dawn is setting a new precedent for how we access space. Presently, flights will operate without the need for restricted airspace, proving the worlds of spaceflight and civil aviation can fly in harmony.

Dawn’s Mk-II Aurora is the latest development in a series of test vehicles that will one-day launch satellites into space. Designed to take off and land from regular airports, it is capable of multiple flights per day. To achieve that, Dawn must fly just as other aircraft do, without the need to shut down airspace and have exclusion zones, as is typical for rocket launches.

The initial flights of the Mk-II Aurora are set to begin in 2021 from an airport in a remote area of the South Island of New Zealand.

Here is an interview with Stefan Powell, the Chief Technology Officer for Dawn Aerospace:

** Additive manufacturing of rocket engines at Launcher : The magazine Metal AM profiles Launcher’s use of 3D printing techniques to manufacture rocket engines: Metal Additive Manufacturing and the new Space Race: The inside track with Launcher and AMCM – Metal AM (pdf).

[Igor Nikishchenko, former Deputy Chief Designer in the Liquid Propulsion Department Yuzhnoye, the Ukrainian company that designed the Zenit launch vehicle,] continued, “ “As mentioned, one of the most challenging tasks in the development of rocket engines is the production of combustion chambers with narrow, complex-shaped channels used for cooling. The mechanical processing of such channels, and especially their subsequent enclosure, is a difficult technical challenge. For many years I thought about the possibility of a cheaper solution and then, just a few years ago, the opportunity to solve this problem appeared – Additive Manufacturing. Unfortunately, so far only relatively small combustion chambers can be manufactured using AM, and the choice of materials is also limited – until only recently, copper alloys could not be easily processed by AM. Therefore, I am very pleased that it was Launcher who contributed to the creation of the world’s largest AM machine capable of processing copper alloys, the AMCM M4K. Using it, we have made the largest copper-alloy combustion chamber, which will also be the most efficient of the additively manufactured chambers.”

** Briefs:


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** SpaceX:

Since the previous roundup on Dec. 3rd, SpaceX successfully launched two Falcon 9 rockets and recovered the boosters. This totals 25 launches for 2020, well  exceeding SpaceX’s previous record of 21 launches in a single year (2018). One more launch is planned for 2020. The launch of the NROL-108 spysat is currently set for Dec. 17th.  Despite the pandemic, SpaceX is crushing its annual launch record | Ars Technica.

*** Dec. 6: Falcon 9 launches Cargo Dragon to the ISS, booster on fourth flight lands successfully on platform at sea. This is the first mission of a cargo vehicle derived from the Crew Dragon spacecraft. It docks autonomously rather than berths via a crew controlled robotic arm. The reusable vehicle is currently certified for up to 5 missions. The cargo missions will launch from Pad 37B, which provides the crew access arm and allows for time sensitive materials for experiments to be loaded shortly before launch.

The Dragon reached the station on Dec. 7th. Here’s a video of the approach and docking:

A time lapse of the approach. The view of the ISS is quite striking. The lighting seems to give it a more 3D impression than the usual views.

The ISS currently has two SpaceX vehicles docked to it. The Northrop-Grumman Cygnus-14 is the other commercial cargo vehicle. There are also three Russian vehicles including a Soyuz crew capsule and two Progress cargo vessels.

A rendering of the vehicles currently attached to the ISS. Credits NASA

More at:

*** Dec.13th: F9 sends SiriusXM  SXM 7 satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. The spacecraft was built by Maxar Technologies to provide digital radio services.

*** Starlink gets a financial boost from FCC’s rural Internet connectivity subsidy program. With Starlink, SpaceX has created its own high-launch demand market to drive the development of low cost, high flight-rate reusable orbital rocket vehicles. The higher the flight rate, the greater the payoff from reusability. Starlink satellites now dominate the manifest for the Falcon 9 (14 of the 24 flights so far in 2020 were for Starlink). Putting the approx. 1500 satellites into orbit for the baseline service would almost certainly be far too expensive for SpaceX if not for the launch cost reduction provided by reusing the F9 boosters and fairings. It will certainly require Starships to achieve the goal of eventually orbiting tens of thousands of satellites.

So an extra $900M from the FCC bolsters Starlink, which in turn bolsters SpaceX’s rockets:

*** Starship

Following last week’s SN8 flight (see above), Starship prototype SN9 was set to move to the launch area at Boca Chica and prepare to do a high altitude flight as well (hopefully, with a better ending). However, two days after the SN8 test, SN9 fell against the corner of the High Building when part of its stand support collapsed

A large crane was move to the front of the High Bay and on Dec.13th it lifted the vehicle back to upright. Later it moved the vehicle out of the bay and damage to a fin on the nose cone and to afin near the base could be clearly seen.

No official word yet on the incident, but road closure schedule hints at plans to move the vehicle to the launch area after Christmas. So presumably they will replace the damaged fins within the next week or so.

**** Status of the various prototypes as of Dec. 9th:

**** Dec.10: SN8 Flight [8K] – SpaceX Starship Boca ChicaStarshipBocaChica/Maria Pointer – YouTube

Watch SN8’s historic flight in 8K shot from the Pearl hotel in South Padre Island. This one’s short and to the point. We can’t wait for SN9! Thanks Elon Musk and the entire SpaceX team! What a show! On to Mars!!! Photos by Sean Kirk and Haley Aleman Video and Post Production by John Davis

**** Dec.10: SpaceX Boca Chica Flyover Gallery 12/10/2020 RGV Aerial Photography

**** Dec.10: SpaceX Boca Chica – Starship SN8 Remains Inspected After Historic Test FlightNASASpaceflight – YouTube

Starship SN8 cleanup begins as Elon Musk and the SpaceX Team take a closer look at its remains. Starship SN9, next in line to fly, is ready to roll out to the launch pad for its test campaign culminating in a flight test similar to SN8’s. Video & Photos from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist)

**** Dec.12: SpaceX Boca Chica – Tankzilla secures Starship SN9 as future vehicles continue prepsNASASpaceflight – YouTube

The impressive Liebherr LR1600/2 Crawler Crane (dubbed “Tankzilla”) has secured the leaning Starship SN9 inside the High Bay ahead of potentially moving it on to a new stand. Meanwhile, work on future Starships continued at the Production Site. Video & Photos from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist)

**** Dec.15: SpaceX Boca Chica: Starship SN14’s Nosecone Section Spotted – LOX Delivered to the Launch SiteNASASpaceflight – YouTube

With Starship SN9 secured, work continues toward fully stacking SN10. SpaceX is still cleaning up of the landing pad while liquid oxygen is delivered for future Starship testing. Finally, SN14’s nosecone section has been spotted outside of the tents. Video & Photos from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist)

**** Dec.16: SpaceX Boca Chica: SN10’s Nosecone Gets its Flaps – Large Pieces of SN8 Cleared for Next Flight NASASpaceflight – YouTube

Starship SN10’s nosecone has a flap mounted, bringing it closer to final stacking. Large pieces of SN8 cleared from the landing pad in preparation for SN9’s rollout and flight. Video & Photos from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist)

*** Other Starship and space transport reports:

**** Dec.12: Starship SN8 wreckage & Flight info, SN9 tips over, CRS-21, Chang’e 5 samples in lunar orbitMarcus House

What else can we say about this week other than it has been constant anticipation, excitement, disappointment, excitement again, and yea… You get the idea. We have a lot today to cover with all Starship SN8 wreckage & Flight info, the SN9 tips over story, coverage of CRS-21, and Chang’e 5 samples in lunar orbit now. On top of that Delta IV Heavy NROL-44 and Hayabusa2 capsule re-entry over Australia. This has been one massive week!

**** Dec.11: SpaceX Starship SN8 Epic Flight – Complete & Detailed 12.5 km Testflight Recap!What about it!?

Today I’ll explain to you, what actually happened during the SpaceX Starship SN8 12.5 kilometer test flight. What went right and what went wrong in an as much as possible detailed analysis.

**** Rocket Report: SN8 meets its fate, SLS Green Run tests to resume next week | Ars Technica


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