Category Archives: Rockets

Space transport roundup – April.8.2021

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

** Apr.8: The Starship prototype SN15 moved to launch site. The vehicle has many upgrades according to Elon Musk. A test flight could happen within a week or two. I certainly hope it achieves the first successful landing of a Starship (without a post touchdown explosion) after rising to high-altitude (~10km).

** Apr.7: Falcon 9 puts another batch of 60 Starlinks into orbit. This is the tenth SpaceX Falcon 9 mission in 2021. The total number of Starlink satellites in orbit is increased to 1,378. The first stage booster made its 7th successful landing. And it makes for the 79th booster landing to date. Both fairing halves were also previously flown.

More at:

** Mar.30: Starship SN11 lifted off in dense fog, flew to 10 km, descended back into fog bank, and then exploded just before landing. The fog prevented the usual eruption of replays of a Starship explosion across the Web but also kept anyone from seeing exactly what happened. The SpaceX website offered this info:

On Tuesday, March 30, SpaceX launched its fourth high-altitude flight test of Starship from Starbase in Texas. Similar to previous high-altitude flight tests, Starship Serial Number 11 (SN11) was powered through ascent by three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee – approximately 10 km in altitude. SN11 performed a propellant transition to the internal header tanks, which hold landing propellant, before reorienting itself for reentry and a controlled aerodynamic descent.

Shortly after the landing burn started, SN11 experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly. Teams will continue to review data and work toward our next flight test.

On Twitter, Elon initially provided some hints of what happened:

On April 5th, he revealed the results of subsequent analysis:

For the Falcon 9, SpaceX has always emphasized that the nine engines on the first stage are shielded from one another such that even a catastrophic failure of one will not affect the others and prevent destruction of the rocket. There have in fact been a couple of in-flight engine failures and the boosters continue to fly nonetheless. (The most recent case occurred in February and did prevent the booster from successfully landing.)  The Raptors do not appear to be shielded in the prototypes flow so far and perhaps this “hard start”, i.e. engine explosion, was so violent that no practical shielding could have prevented the obliteration of the vehicle anyway.

More about Elon’s comments:

Here is the SpaceX webcast video:

A view of the debris field:

Elon is already looking ahead to the next upgrades:

See also:

Find more news and info on the Starship program and other SpaceX activities below…

** Reusable orbital launch systems are now in development by several companies around the world. As demonstrated by the successful reuse of the Falcon 9 first stages, reusability is key to lowering launch prices significantly and competing successfully with SpaceX.

Some of the companies are even aiming to recover and reuse not only the first stage of their two stage rockets but the second stage as well. There is essentially a kilogram loss in payload mass for every kilogram added to enable the return and recovery of a second stage. SpaceX decided to pursue development of full reusability with the Starship system rather than reduce the F9’s payload capability with a reusable upper stage. As a rocket scales up in size, the impact on the total payload from reusability diminishes. Attaining full reusability with a small or a mid-range launch system and still offering a commercially viable payload capability is quite a challenge. The companies aiming for full reusability are currently keeping their design plans secret.

Here is a list of several companies aiming for reusable launchers:

** Will Blue learn vertical landing the SpaceX way? SpaceX’s success at landing F9 boosters remains an amazing feat to watch. Eric Berger talks about how this capability has changed his thinking on what is possible with rockets and spaceflight: SpaceX landed a rocket on a boat five years ago—it changed everything | Ars Technica.

SpaceX learned to do vertical landing with test hops of the Grasshopper demonstrator at their McGregor, Texas  facility and by setting stages down softly onto the ocean surface on Falcon 9 missions.

Blue Origin intends to land the first stage of its New Glenn rocket on a ship at sea. Blue recently announced that the first New Glenn flight would not happen before the end of 2022. I’m wondering, though, if in the meantime they will do some short hops of a first stage prototype like the Grasshopper. The ship will be sailing to provide what Blue claims will be more stable pad than the SpaceX stationary platforms. However, landing on a moving target still looks like a tough challenge, especially without any practice even with landing on solid ground.

** Mar.30: Virgin Galactic rolls out VSS Imagine, the first of the next generation SpaceShip III vehicles: Virgin Galactic Unveils VSS Imagine, The First SpaceShip III In Its Growing Fleet – Virgin Galactic

    • SS Imagine will commence ground testing, with glide flights this summer
    • Breakthrough livery design allows Imagine to mirror the surrounding environment as it moves from Earth to Space
    • Manufacturing ramps up on next SpaceShip III in the fleet, VSS Inspire

Virgin Galactic today unveiled the Company’s first Spaceship III in its growing fleet, VSS Imagine. The spaceship showcases Virgin Galactic’s innovation in design and astronaut experience. Imagine also demonstrates progress toward efficient design and production, as Virgin Galactic works to scale the business for the long-term. VSS Imagine will commence ground testing, with glide flights planned for this summer from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The breakthrough livery design, finished entirely with a mirror-like material, reflects the surrounding environment, constantly changing color and appearance as it travels from earth to sky to space. Along with providing thermal protection, this dynamic material is naturally appealing to the human eye, reflecting our inherent human fascination with space and the transformative experience of spaceflight.

Leveraging a modular design, the SpaceShip III class of vehicles are built to enable improved performance in terms of maintenance access and flight rate. This third generation of spaceship will lay the foundation for the design and manufacture of future vehicles.

As VSS Imagine begins ground testing, manufacturing will progress on VSS Inspire, the second SpaceShip III vehicle within the Virgin Galactic fleet. The introduction of the Spaceship III class of vehicles is an important milestone in Virgin Galactic’s multi-year effort that targets flying 400 flights per year, per spaceport.

See also: Virgin Galactic unveils new suborbital spaceplane – SpaceNews

** Mar.25: Arianespace/Russian Soyuz puts 36 OneWeb satellites into orbit: The launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in northern Russia brings the total number of OneWeb satellites in low earth orbit to 146 . The goal is 648 satellites to provide Internet services globally. Flight ST30: Arianespace successfully deploys OneWeb constellation satellites – Arianespace

Arianespace has launched 146 OneWeb satellites to date. Soyuz successfully orbited the initial six from French Guiana during February 2019. In February and March 2020, Arianespace and its Starsem affiliate successfully launched 68 OneWeb satellites from Baikonur Cosmodrome, as well as an additional batch of 36 satellites from the Vostochny Cosmodrome during December 2020.

Pursuant to an amended launch contract with OneWeb, Arianespace will perform 14 more Soyuz launches through 2021 and 2022. These launches will enable OneWeb to complete the deployment of its full global constellation of low Earth orbit satellites by the end of 2022.

Internet services above 50 degrees north latitude should be available by the end of this year.

See also:

Continue reading Space transport roundup – April.8.2021

Space transport roundup – March.7.2021

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

** SpaceX SN10 became the first Starship prototype to make a successful vertical landing on March 2nd. Unfortunately, a propellant leak of some sort led to a destructive explosion several minutes after the landing. Here’s the SpaceX webcast, which ended before the explosion. Here is the SpaceX webcast video:

An earlier attempt to lift off in the mid-afternoon was aborted just as the engines fired. Elon Musk said on Twitter, “Launch abort on slightly conservative high thrust limit. Increasing thrust limit & recycling propellant for another flight attempt today.” About three hours later the vehicle lifted off. The ascent to 10 kilometers, the sequential shutdown of the engines as the rocket reached apogee, the flip to the horizontal “belly-flop” orientation, and the  aerodynamic control of the vehicle during the descent, all appeared to go quite well.

The technique of bringing all three engines back to life at the start of the flip from horizontal to vertical also appeared to work well.  This differed from the previous two landings where two engines were fired up for landing. However, for the SN9 flight, one of the two engines failed during startup and this led to the explosive landing. Elon Musk subsequently (see transcript below) said they would start up all three engines to insure that at least two would operate for the landing.  This worked for SN10. After the vehicle was vertical and stable,  two of the three engines were shut off and the vehicle descended in a controlled hover via one engine.

Note that the Starship hovering capability differs from the Falcon 9 booster. The F9 booster’s Merlin engine cannot throttle down sufficiently to hover. If the engine did not shut down at the instant the vehicle touches the landing pad, the booster would accelerate back up. The greater power, efficiency, and deep throttling capabilities of the Raptor engines allow for hovering the Starship. This will also be true for the Super Heavy booster. (That’s one reason SpaceX  believes they can bring a Super Heavy directly into a catch mechanism on the launch stand. Hovering allows for much greater precision and gentler handling during the landing.)

The SN10 vehicle leaned somewhat after the landing. In closeup videos of the vehicle as it was descending, three of the legs can be seen dangling after deployment rather than in a latched position as intended. The vehicle then rested on the metal skirt surrounding the engines on the side where it should have been supported by legs.

During the final vertical descent, one can also see flames along one side after the two engines stopped firing.  After the engines were shut off, there was a fire along one edge along the ground near the same section. Perhaps a methane valve was stuck open or propellant line burst. A robotic water cannon soon began spraying the flames but after a few minutes stopped for some reason and before long the the explosion occurred.

The loss of the vehicle was disappointing but ultimately will be of little significance. These early prototype flights are providing important data on previously untried systems and maneuvers, especially the Raptor engines, the belly-flop descent and the flip to vertical maneuver. Perhaps this vehicle would have flown once more if the landing had gone perfectly but regardless it eventually would have been dismantled and sent to the recycling bin. It was never intended for space.

Everyday Astronaut provides hi-res video of the flight and explosion:  Starship SN10 [4k, Clean Audio & Slow Mo Supercut]

Scott Manley’s analysis: SpaceX’s Starship SN10 Successfully Lands After Amazing Flight. Dismantles Itself Spectacularly

Some articles and commentary:

Find more news and videos on the Starship  program and other SpaceX activities below…

** Rocket Lab going public through a SPAC arrangement that will bring in sufficient capital to fund development of the medium-lift Neutron launch system. The SPAC deal gives a value of about $4.1B for Rocket Lab and will produce about $750M in cash.

The Neutron represents a change in strategy for Rocket Lab and founder Peter Beck, who had previously stated the company had no interest in developing a rocket larger than their operational Electron smallsat launcher. The Neutron will enable the company to put large batches of smallsats into orbit as SpaceX does with the Falcon 9 for Starlink and Rideshare missions. Rocket Lab Unveils Plans for New 8-Ton Class Reusable Rocket for Mega-Constellation Deployment | Rocket Lab

Some features of the Neutron project:

  • First flight in 2024
  • $200M est. for development
  • Payload:
    • 8000 kg into low earth orbit,
    • 2000 kg to the Moon
    • 1500 kg to Mars or Venus
  • Reusable first stage via powered landing at sea
  • Propellants: LOX and Kerosene
  • Two stages
  • 40 meters tall
  • 4.5 meter fairing diameter
  • Initial launch site will be Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, Virginia. (An Electron launch pad facility is nearly operational there.)
  • A factory to manufacturing the rocket will be placed near the launch site.
  • Engine development will be the biggest hurdle.
  • Human spaceflight capable eventually

** Feb.28: Russia launches first Arktika weather satellite on Soyuz 2-1b rocket: Russia’s Soyuz-2-1b launches Arktika-M No.1 weather satellite –

The Arktika (Арктика, meaning “Arctic“) satellites will carry out a variety of missions to compliment other satellite constellations with additional coverage of Russia’s most northern regions. The Arktika-M component of this program focuses on meteorology, with its satellites carrying multi-spectral imaging payloads to help gather data for forecasting. These spacecraft are also equipped with a communications payload to relay data from remote surface-based weather stations and emergency signals.

Each Arktika-M satellite has a mass of about 2,100 kilograms (4,600 lb) and is designed to operate for ten years. Constructed by NPO Lavochkin, the Arktika-M spacecraft are based on the company’s Navigator platform. The spacecraft are three-axis stabilized and carry a pair of deployable solar arrays to generate power.

Original plans called for a pair of Arktika-M spacecraft to be launched, however Russia now plans to deploy at least five over the next four years. A follow-on Arktika-MP series is expected to begin launching in 2026.

See also: Russia launches Arctic weather satellite – Spaceflight Now

** Feb 27: Indian PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) carries Brazil’s Amazônia-1 remote sensing satellite and 18 secondary smallsats into sun-synchronous orbit: India, Brazil launch Amazônia-1 on PSLV rocket –

The Indian Space Research Organization has launched their first mission of 2021 with a flight of their Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) to deliver Brazil’s Amazônia-1 satellite, along with 18 co-passengers, into Sun-synchronous orbit.

Liftoff from First Launch Pad at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota, India, occurred Sunday, 28 February at 10:24 IST at the launch site — which is 04:54 UTC, or Saturday, 27 February at 23:54 EST.

Amazônia-1 is the first Earth observation satellite designed, built, tested, and operated completely by Brazil and is the first of three such satellites planned by the National Institute of Space Research (INPE), a Brazil’s space research and exploration company. 

See also:

** Feb.25: Blue Origin says first New Glenn launch now targeted for late 2022. This is something of a surprise since first launch had generally been assumed would happen in late this year or early 2022. New Glenn’s Progress Towards Maiden Flight – Blue Origin

As major progress is being made on the New Glenn launch vehicle and its Cape Canaveral facilities, the schedule has been refined to match the demand of Blue Origin’s commercial customers. The current target for New Glenn’s maiden flight is Q4 2022. The Blue Origin team has been in contact with all of our customers to ensure this baseline meets their launch needs.

This updated maiden flight target follows the recent Space Force decision to not select New Glenn for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement (LSP). 

New Glenn is proceeding to fulfill its current commercial contracts, pursue a large and growing commercial market, and enter into new civil space launch contracts. We hope to launch NSSL payloads in the future, and remain committed to serving the U.S. national defense mission. 

Recent milestones include completion of a New Glenn first stage mockup simulator, completion of a structural test facility, and hardware milestones for tanks, stage modules, and composite fairings.

In addition to program progress, more than 600 jobs have been created in the region. Blue Origin has invested more than $2.5 billion in facilities and infrastructure at all sites, including $1 billion invested in the rebuild of historic LC-36, which is nearing completion.

Blue also posted three videos about the status of the New Glenn facilities in development on Cape Canaveral:

See also:

** Blue Origin displays full-scale mock-up of lunar lander descent element, which is in development by the Blue-led National Team. aiming to win the NASA Artemis lunar program contract for the lunar landing system: Blue Origin shows off a test version of its cargo lunar lander – GeekWire

The company intends to have a cargo-only version of the descent element lander ready to take on a demonstration mission to the moon one year in advance of the first crewed landing for NASA’s Artemis program.

“That provides an enormous amount of risk reduction,” Blue Origin chief scientist Steve Sqyures — a veteran of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover missions — explained in the video. “We get to practice. … We can pre-position material, and it can be whatever you want it to be. We can begin to build up Artemis Base Camp.”

Sqyures said the cargo lander will have a crane system to offload a rover and other payloads. NASA’s Langley Research Center has already provided a crane for the pathfinder tests, and Sqyures said Honeybee Robotics is developing a payload-lowering davit system.

Here is a brief video update: Lunar Descent Element Demo Mission – Blue Origin

At our Huntsville, Alabama factory, we built a full-scale pathfinder of our Descent Element lander in preparation for our demonstration mission. This mission will happen a year before landing crew on the Moon. By proving out our technology and pre-positioning equipment, it will start America’s sustainable return to the Moon. To learn more about the Blue Origin-led HLS National Team, visit:

** Jeff Bezos expected to spend more time with Blue Origin after stepping down as CEO of Amazon. In addition to the lunar lander development mentioned above, Blue needs to begin crewed suborbital New Shepard rocket flights and, as mentioned above, get the New Glenn heavy lifter into operation.

Continue reading Space transport roundup – March.7.2021

Space transport roundup – Feb.1.2021

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

SpaceX intended to fly the Starship SN9 prototype last Thursday and again on Friday but the vehicle remained grounded due to a failure to obtain a FAA license. The exact reason for the refusal has not been revealed to the public but it apparently involves issues regarding non-compliance with the license for the flight of SN8.

For Tuesday Feb.2, an air traffic clearance bulletin has been issued and it appears likely that the FAA will grant SpaceX a launch license according to Christian Davenport on Twitter:

Now hearing the FAA could approve the SpaceX modification to its license for SN9 as early as today, possibly “within the next couple of hours.” Could see Starship fly as soon as tomorrow.

For more details about the FAA and the test flight , see:

The SpaceX Starship webpage includes the following statement about the SN9 test:

As early as Monday, February 1, the SpaceX team will attempt a high-altitude flight test of Starship serial number 9 (SN9) – the second high-altitude suborbital flight test of a Starship prototype from our site in Cameron County, Texas. Similar to the high-altitude flight test of Starship serial number 8 (SN8), SN9 will be powered through ascent by three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee – approximately 10 km in altitude. SN9 will perform a propellant transition to the internal header tanks, which hold landing propellant, before reorienting itself for reentry and a controlled aerodynamic descent.

The Starship prototype will descend under active aerodynamic control, accomplished by independent movement of two forward and two aft flaps on the vehicle. All four flaps are actuated by an onboard flight computer to control Starship’s attitude during flight and enable precise landing at the intended location. SN9’s Raptor engines will then reignite as the vehicle attempts a landing flip maneuver immediately before touching down on the landing pad adjacent to the launch mount.

A controlled aerodynamic descent with body flaps and vertical landing capability, combined with in-space refilling, are critical to landing Starship at destinations across the solar system where prepared surfaces or runways do not exist, and returning to Earth. This capability will enable a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.

There will be a live feed of the flight test available here that will start a few minutes prior to liftoff. Given the dynamic schedule of development testing, stay tuned to our social media channels for updates as we move toward SpaceX’s second high-altitude flight test of Starship!

** Starship SN10  prototype moved to the launch area. The largest crane at Boca Chica had been moved earlier in the week to the launch site and with the SN9 flight/landing canceled, SpaceX decided to move SN10 on Friday from the assembly area to the launch pad and lift it onto the second launch mount. There were no Raptor engines installed and Elon Musk later said they would do cryo pressure tests before installing them.

Find more about other SpaceX activities below.

** Virgin Galactic aims to fly SpaceShipTwo Unity during a window that opens on February 13th. Virgin Galactic Flight Test Program Update – Virgin Galactic

The flight window will open on February 13 with opportunities to fly throughout February, pending good weather conditions and technical readiness. The test flight will be crewed by two pilots and will carry research payloads as part of the NASA Flight Opportunities program.

Pre-flight preparations are already underway at Spaceport America, New Mexico, including rigorous steps to prepare the vehicles, pilots, teams and facilities, with safety procedures as a top priority. In addition, the Virgin Galactic Pilot Corps has completed two flights with its mothership, VMS Eve, for routine pilot proficiency training. This training included using the mothership to simulate the glide and approach-to-land phase of flight for SpaceShipTwo, showing the versatility of VMS Eve as more than just a mothership.

A key objective of the upcoming flight will be to test the remedial work that has been completed since the December 12, 2020 flight when the onboard computer halted ignition of the rocket motor. The team has since conducted the root cause analysis, completed the corrective work required, and carried out extensive ground testing. The next stage will be to assess and verify this work during a rocket-powered flight.

The flight will incorporate all of the original test objectives from the previous test flight, including evaluating elements of the customer cabin, testing the live stream capability from the spaceship to the ground, and assessing the upgraded horizontal stabilizers and flight controls during the boost phase of the flight.

See also

** Feb.1: The iSpace Hyperbola-1 fails on its second launch attempt. Amateur footage of the launch from the inland Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center shows the vehicle in trouble shortly after liftoff. The 4-stage solid-fueled rocket, most likely derived from a Chinese missile, was carrying the Fangzhou-2 (Ark-2) satellite.

** Jan.29: Chinese Long March 4C carries three Yaogan 31 remote sensing satellites into low earth orbit. These satellites are generally believed to be military reconnaissance satellites that provide optical and radio-electronic surveillance of the US Navy and other maritime activities.

** Jan.20: Rocket Lab’s first Electron launch of 2021 puts OHB satellite into orbit. There was no attempt to recover the first stage booster on this launch.

The payload for this mission has been shrouded in secrecy since Rocket Lab announced the planned launch Jan. 5. The name of the satellite itself was not disclosed by OHB until after liftoff, and a press kit for the mission did not include the satellite’s mass or orbital altitude, stating only that it was going into an orbit at an inclination of 90 degrees.

Rocket Lab said in its announcement of the upcoming launch that the payloads “will be a single communication microsatellite that will enable specific frequencies to support future services from orbit.” OHB, which built the satellite, procured the launch last August. At the time it cited “an unmatched delivery time” by Rocket Lab, who agreed to launch the payload within six months.

The ultimate customer for the satellite may be GMS Zhaopin, a Chinese company planning a satellite constellation. It has been linked to a German company, KLEO Connect, that has announced plans for a constellation to provide internet of things services.

** A Virgin Orbit LaunchOne rocket successfully put 10 smallsats into orbit on the second demo mission. The first demo mission last May failed when the engine shut off shortly after igniting due to a breach in a liquid oxygen supply line. The company now plans to move into full commercial operations. Virgin Orbit Aces Second Launch Demo and Deploys NASA Payloads – Virgin Orbit

For today’s picture-perfect mission, Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft, a customized 747-400 dubbed Cosmic Girl, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately 10:50 A.M. and flew out to a launch site over the Pacific Ocean, about 50 miles south of the Channel Islands. After a smooth release from the aircraft, the two-stage rocket ignited and powered itself to orbit. At the conclusion of the flight, the LauncherOne rocket deployed 10 CubeSats into the team’s precise target orbit, marking a major step forward for Virgin Orbit in its quest to bust down the barriers preventing affordable and responsive access to space.

The payloads onboard LauncherOne today were selected by NASA LSP as part of the agency’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI). Nearly all of the CubeSat missions were designed, built and tested by universities across the U.S., including Brigham Young University (PICS), the University of Michigan (MiTEE), and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (CAPE-3).

This flight also marks a historical first: no other orbital class, air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket had successfully reached space before today.

With this successful demonstration in the books, Virgin Orbit will officially transition into commercial service for its next mission. Virgin Orbit has subsequent launches booked by customers ranging from the U.S. Space Force and the U.K.’s Royal Air Force to commercial customers like Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL, and Denmark’s GomSpace.

The company’s next few rockets are already well into integration at its Long Beach manufacturing facility.

A “Mission Recap” video:

LauncherOne has successfully reached orbit! Virgin Orbit’s unique air-launched system successfully delivered small satellites for 9 different missions precisely into their target 500km circular, 60.7 degrees inclination orbit on January 17, 2021. The flight was conducted from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Kern County, California — the first orbital launch ever to occur from there. This “Launch Demo 2” flight was conducted for NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services program. Unlike traditional ground-launched rocket, Virgin Orbit’s system uses a 747 jet as its flying launch pad and mobile mission control, allowing flexible and responsive launch from almost anywhere on the planet!

Some VO internal webcast videos posted at International Rocket Launches – YouTube:

See also

** Jan.14: Blue Origin flew the fourth New Shepard vehicle for the first time on Thursday, January 14th at the company’s facility in West Texas.This vehicle includes additional design changes and will be used for the first flights with people on board. Mission NS-14 successfully demonstrates crew capsule upgrades – Blue Origin

The crew capsule descends for a landing after reaching over 100 kilometers in altitude. Credits: Blue Origin

Mission NS-14 featured a crew capsule outfitted with astronaut experience upgrades for upcoming flights with passengers onboard. Capsule upgrades included:

    • Speakers in the cabin with a microphone and a push-to-talk button at each seat so astronauts can continuously talk to Mission Control.
    • First flight of the crew alert system with a panel at each seat relaying important safety messages to passengers.
    • Cushioned wall linings and sound suppression devices to reduce ambient noise inside the capsule.
    • Environmental systems, including a cooling system and humidity controls to regulate temperature and prevent capsule windows from fogging during flight, as well as carbon dioxide scrubbing.
    • Six seats.

Also today during ascent, the booster rotated at 2-3 degrees per second. This is done to give future passengers a 360-degree view of space during the flight.

This flight continued to prove the robustness and stability of the New Shepard system and the BE-3PM liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine.

Also onboard today were more than 50,000 postcards from Blue Origin’s nonprofit Club for the Future. The Club has now flown over 100,000 postcards to space and back from students around the world. More information here.

** Blue reportedly plans to fly the  first New Shepard mission with people on board in early spring: Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin aims to fly people on New Shepard by April – CNBC

Beyond the upgrades, CNBC has learned that NS-14 also marked one of the last remaining steps before Blue Origin flies its first crew to space.

The flight was the first of two “stable configuration” test flights, people familiar with Blue Origin’s plans told CNBC. Stable configuration means that the company plans to avoid making major changes between this flight and the next.

Additionally, those people said that Blue Origin aims to launch the second test flight within six weeks, or by late February, and the first crewed flight six weeks after that, or by early April.

Blue Origin’s next flight, NS-15, will also include a test of loading and unloading the crew, the people said.

The company did not verify this info but it clearly sounds quite plausible.

** Video tour of Blue Origin’s engine production facility in Huntsville, Alabama. During the webcast of the above New Shepard test, a video tour of the company’s engine facility in Huntsville was shown.

** Blue releases video of long duration, full-thrust firing of BE-4 engine: Jeff Bezos released the video on Instagram:

“Perfect night! Sitting in the back of my pickup truck under the Moon and stars watching another long duration, full thrust hotfire test of @BlueOrigin’s BE-4 engine. #GradatimFerociter

The BE-4 will power the first stages of Blue’s New Glenn rocket and ULA’s Vulcan.

More about the BE-4 status: Jeff Bezos kicks back with a BE-4 rocket engine test in Texas – GeekWire.

Scott Manley reviews all of the engines developed so far by Blue:

Blue Origin has been around longer than SpaceX, but they’re a lot more secretive about their technology and the things they’ve built. I wanted to make an overview of the 6 different rocket engines they’re designed and tested and the vehicles that have been propelled by them.

** Jan.19: Chinese Long March 3B rocket takes communications satellite into orbit from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in the Sichuan province. The third of the Tiantong-1 series of S-Band mobile communications services satellite will move into a geostationary orbital slot.

Continue reading Space transport roundup – Feb.1.2021

Virgin Orbit to Launch Stem Education Payloads for UK’s Junior Astronaut program

An announcement from Virgin Orbit and UK’s Junior Astronaut program:

Virgin Orbit to Launch Stem Education Payloads for UK’s Junior Astronaut
Junior Astronaut’s Nanonaut Satellite Can be Tracked from Space Via Smartphone App,
Helping to Inspire a New Generation of Space Enthusiasts

Long Beach, California — January 8, 2021 — Virgin Orbit, the California-based responsive space launch company, announced today that it has signed a launch services agreement with Junior Astronaut, a UK-based company that provides Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education programs for young space enthusiasts. Flying as a rideshare onboard several upcoming missions — including missions from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, UK — Junior Astronaut’s Nanonaut payload will remain affixed to LauncherOne’s upper stage.

LauncherOne rocket released from carrier aircraft. Credits: Virgin Orbit

Each Nanonaut payload can be tracked and monitored via telemetry from Earth using Junior Astronaut’s smartphone app. The app also offers a number of STEM-based activities such as algebra tutorials and other educational teasers, supporting Junior Astronaut’s broader purpose of inspiring young students to become more engaged and excited about space.

Founded in 2020, Junior Astronaut exists to encourage young people toward careers in STEM and space science through participation. In addition to the Nanonaut program, Junior Astronaut will soon offer space camps and a flight experiments package to take young people’s interest to the next stage.

Junior Astronaut to begin a flight experiments program. Credits: Junior Astronaut

Virgin Orbit launches for Junior Astronaut will commence no earlier than mid-2021.

“Knowledge is the most powerful tool for shaping a better future for everyone. The Junior Astronaut program is designed to inspire young people to push the limits of the unknown, to discover and innovate. The way to do this is education. Space is such an inspirational way to get people interested. We want space to be accessible to everyone, and for the next generation to push boundaries and move all our societies forward. Space is how they will do this,”

said Miranda Ashcroft, Junior Astronaut co-founder.

“With every LauncherOne mission, we want to chip away at the barriers preventing equitable access to space, so this partnership with Junior Astronaut is particularly meaningful to our team,” said Stephen Eisele, Virgin Orbit’s vice president of business development. “These Nanonauts are all about getting students to recognize that they too can have a role in shaping the future of space, and we’re really excited to help bring them into the fold. These are the kinds of missions that will capture the hearts and minds of tomorrow’s space innovators.”

Virgin Orbit is in the midst of final preparations for Launch Demo 2, its second orbital test flight with the LauncherOne system, currently expected to occur in mid-January.

About Virgin Orbit: Virgin Orbit builds and operates the most flexible and responsive satellite launcher ever invented: LauncherOne, a dedicated launch service for commercial and government-built small satellites. LauncherOne rockets are designed and manufactured in Long Beach, California, and will be air-launched from our modified 747-400 carrier aircraft – allowing us to operate from locations all over the world in order to best serve each customer’s needs. Virgin Orbit’s systems are currently in an advanced stage of testing, with initial orbital launches expected soon. To learn more or to apply to join Virgin Orbit’s talented and growing team, visit

About Junior Astronaut: Junior Astronaut is a worldwide charitable organization that wants to awaken young people’s curiosity and guide them towards choosing a STEM career. Junior Astronaut’s vision is to bring forth a new generation of STEM professionals that will have the knowledge, creativity, drive, and empathy to address global challenges through innovation. Our mission is to create thrilling participative programs that nurture real life skills and inspire a sense of wonder, curiosity, and the desire to explore. Our initiatives include the Nanonaut program, space camps, in-flight experiments, zero gravity experiences, and – in the future – a full sub-orbital experience. In the long term, we aim for youths who start our program to one day build STEM careers at NASA, ESA, or other world-renowned space companies like Virgin Orbit.

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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.

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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.

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