Rocket Report: Russia plans nuclear space tug, Falcon Heavy launch delays – Ars Technica
Welcome to Edition 3.46 of the Rocket Report! This week we have a mix of milestones to report for the Federal Aviation Administration and SpaceX, some launch delays, and as usual, some quirky news. Next week, the newsletter turns 4 years old—hard to believe I’ve been at this so long.
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Virgin Galactic gets back into space. On Saturday, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft flew above 80 km for the third time, completing a much-anticipated return to space following more than two years of downtime. The flight, which crested at an altitude of 89.2 km, was piloted by CJ Sturckow and Dave Mackay, Ars reports. The flight was significant for Virgin Galactic, as the last time VSS Unity successfully carried out a powered spaceflight was February 2019.
Reaching a higher flight rate … Probably the biggest question for Virgin looking forward is whether it can sustain the kind of cadence needed to become a profitable company. After two flights in late 2018 and early 2019, Saturday was only the third flight of VSS Unity. This is a rate of one flight about every 300 days. As it seeks to ramp up commercial activity, the company has set a goal of 400 spaceflights per year, across multiple vehicles, from Spaceport America. Virgin lost $130 million in the first quarter of 2021, and it needs to reach a high cadence of flights to become profitable. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Britain establishing launch regulations. Beginning this summer, the UK government says spaceports will be able to seek a license to operate in the country. “The laying of these regulations puts us firmly on track to see the first UK launches take place from 2022, unlocking a new era in commercial spaceflight for all 4 corners of our nation,” said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
A race to British space … The mechanisms for licensing and regulating spaceports and commercial launches come as sites in Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland all vie to offer vertical- or horizontal-launch facilities. Each is hoping to become the first site of an orbital launch from the United Kingdom as early as 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
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Inside Sweden’s emerging spaceport. This week, The New York Times published a feature that goes behind the scenes of Sweden’s Esrange space complex that is seeking to compete with other European facilities, including those in the Azores Islands, the UK, and Norway. The government-owned Swedish Space Corporation, which manages the site, is offering launch services to private ventures wishing to send satellites into space.
Europe is going its own way … “Europe really needs to build infrastructure to get to space,” said Stefan Gustafsson, a senior vice president at the Swedish Space Corporation. “We can provide a proper space base.” When a reporter visited the site, the main activity consisted of engine testing by two fiercely competitive German space startups, Rocket Factory Augsburg and ISAR Aerospace Technologies. A good read, the story offers on-the-ground insights into Europe’s different approaches to commercial space. (submitted by trimeta)
PLD Space wins support for reuse study. The Spanish launch startup said it has won 1 million euros from the European Space Agency to allow the company to study “the hypersonic and supersonic phase of the rocket’s re-entry to the atmosphere.” In this case, “the rocket” refers to the MIURA 5 launcher under development. The analysis will help inform plans for launching the MIURA 5 rocket from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana as well as demonstrating technologies for its recovery.
Flying in a few years … Among the technologies PLD Space is studying are propulsive braking during atmospheric reentry and structures that can survive the rigor of reentry and be used for additional flights. Capable of carrying a few hundred kilograms to low Earth orbit, the MIURA 5 vehicle is expected to debut in 2024. Assessing its potential for reuse is part of a range of strategies being employed by the European Space Agency to study the reuse of rocket first stages.
French company wins grant for tanks. A small company called Venture Orbital Systems is seeking to develop the first all-French rocket since 1975. The firm said this week it has won 100,000 euros from the Grand Est region in northeastern France to design the cryogenic aluminum tanks for its proposed Zephyr rocket. This is a local program that provides funds to startup companies.
Beaucoup de travail à faire … This is the first I’ve heard of Venture Orbital and its small Zephyr rocket that seeks to loft a mere 80 kg to low Earth orbit. Venture Orbital looks like it will start with a smaller “Boreal” suborbital rocket to serve as a test bed. The company said it also raised 750,000 euros at the end of 2020. Great to see some French companies entering the new space race. (submitted by trimeta)
Falcon 9 launches 100th success in a row. In what has become a fairly routine process, SpaceX launched another 60 satellites on Wednesday. This was the company’s 13th Starlink mission of 2021, and it might have gone largely unnoticed but for a significant milestone: this marked the 100th consecutive successful flight for the Falcon 9 rocket, Ars reports. This record dates back to June 2015, when the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage failed during the launch of a cargo supply mission to the International Space Station.
Flying more than once a week … Since that time, the company’s Falcon 9 has had an unblemished run of 99 successful launches. SpaceX has lost one additional mission, but this didn’t occur during a launch. Rather, the Amos-6 payload blew apart in September 2016 during a propellant loading that preceded a static fire test. The overall cadence of Falcon 9 launches continues to increase, with six missions in the last 33 days.
Nauka module gets a launch date. The long-delayed Russian addition to the International Space Station will launch on a Proton rocket on July 15 of this year, Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin confirmed this week on Twitter. The announcement came after tests of the module confirmed its readiness to go to space.
Finally going to space … We’ve wondered whether this day would ever come. The 13-meter-long module was originally supposed to launch to the space station in 2007. It has been delayed for various reasons, including a lack of funding. Once attached to the station, the Nauka module will add some much-needed modernization to the Russian side of the station and serve as that country’s primary in-space research facility.
Viasat seeks a halt to Starlink launches. Satellite operator Viasat is asking the FCC to stop SpaceX from launching more Starlink satellites as it heads to court to compel a thorough environmental review of the rapidly growing megaconstellation, SpaceNews reports. On Friday, Viasat formally asked the Federal Communications Commission to stay an April 27 license modification that allows SpaceX to continue building out the broadband constellation, which already numbers more than 1,600 satellites.
SpaceX keeps going … Starlink surpassed the 1,584 satellites permitted under its previous license in 550-kilometer orbits soon after launching a fresh batch of 52 satellites May 15. SpaceX launched 60 more on Wednesday. If the FCC does not grant a stay by June 1, Viasat intends to go to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where it will seek a stay and review of the modification order. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
FAA licenses its 400th launch. The FAA is responsible for protecting public safety during commercial space operations, and it announced this week that, with Virgin Galactic’s flight from New Mexico on Saturday, it has licensed 400 launches. The launches occurred in seven US states, four foreign countries, and the international waters of the Pacific Ocean. An FAA license is required to conduct any commercial space launch or reentry, the operation of any launch or reentry site by US citizens anywhere in the world, or by any individual or entity within the United States.
A good safety record … The first licensed launch occurred in New Mexico, when a Space Services Starfire launched from White Sands Missile Range in 1989. According to the agency, the number of licensed commercial space launches has dramatically accelerated from only one in 2011 to a record 39 in 2020. The growth is expected to continue as the industry looks toward space tourism in the coming years. There have been no fatalities, serious injuries, or significant property damage to members of the public during any FAA-licensed launch.
Falcon Heavy launches delayed. The next launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket has been delayed from July to October to await the readiness of its US military payload, and the following Falcon Heavy flight has been rescheduled from late this year to sometime in 2022, Spaceflight Now reports. The missions are the first two launches of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rockets to carry the military’s highest-priority national security payloads. The USSF-44 mission has moved from a launch date in July to October to “accommodate payload readiness,” according to Col. Douglas Pentecost, deputy director of SMC’s launch enterprise.
Two years since last big Falcon launch … The following mission, USSF-52, was previously scheduled for launch in October of this year but has now been moved into 2022 “based on launch manifest priorities,” Pentecost said. The most recent Falcon Heavy launch in June 2019 was also for the US military, but it carried a cluster of lower-priority experimental satellites into orbit. The Falcon Heavy missions are expected to be the fourth and fifth flights of SpaceX’s triple-core heavy-lifter. Both launches will take off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
Russia planning a nuclear space tug? Russia says it will debut a “nuclear-powered space tug” in 2030 that will conduct a 50-month mission to the Moon, Venus, and then Jupiter. The first mission of Russia’s nuclear-powered transport and energy module, Zeus, will last 50 months, Roscosmos Executive Director for Long-Term Programs and Science Alexander Bloshenko told reporters, TASS reports.
Do we really think this will happen? … Last December, TASS continues, Russia’s space corporation, Roscosmos, and design bureau Arsenal signed a contract for developing a preliminary project of a nuclear-powered space tug, Nuklon, to be used in deep space missions. This all sounds very cool, but given the country’s recent record with space projects, I’d file this under “nyet likely to happen.” (submitted by Rendgrish)
A $600 trip to the Moon. Back in 1961, the Douglas Aircraft Company had big plans. According to a report from the archives of Science News, the company said it was planning a “single-stage nuclear rocket” that could take people to the Moon for $600. This would include the cost of “pilot, stewardesses, food, and other direct operating factors.”
Could it happen today? … Notably, the report says the success of the venture would hinge on “making the spacecraft reusable, as conventional aircraft now are.” Douglas’ assertion is interesting both for the absurdity of the cost but also because of how SpaceX’s fully reusable Starship might actually enable such a vision to become partially true in the next decade or so. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
May 28: Soyuz | OneWeb 7 mission | Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia| 17:38 UTC
May 29: Long March 7 | Tianzhou-2 resupply mission to Chinese space station | Wenchang, China| 12:56 UTC
June 3: Falcon 9 | CRS-22 ISS supply mission | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 17:29 UTC