Rocket Report: China launches crew mission, SpaceX runs into road troubles – Ars Technica
Welcome to Edition 4.03 of the Rocket Report! This week saw two significant launches back-to-back. On Wednesday evening, US time, China launched its first crewed mission to its new space station, which was also the country’s first human spaceflight in nearly five years. And then, less than a day later, the US Space Force joined the ranks of reusable launch customers.
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.
Blue Origin sells first New Shepard seat for $28 million. A ticket to take a brief trip to space with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on July 20 has been sold at auction for $28 million. The bidding process, which began in early May, drew offers from more than 7,000 participants from 159 countries, Blue Origin said. The price had stood at $4.8 million ahead of Saturday’s live auction, which was streamed online, the Financial Times reports.
Two passengers yet unnamed … The identity of the winning bidder has not yet been made public but will be revealed in the coming weeks, Blue Origin said. Whoever it is will be traveling with three other passengers, including Bezos and his younger brother, Mark. The “fourth and final” passenger will be announced soon, the company said. The winning bid amount will be donated to Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s foundation focused on STEM education programs. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Rocket Lab will design two small Mars spacecraft. Rocket Lab said Tuesday it has been awarded a subcontract by the University of California, Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory to design two Photon spacecraft for a scientific mission to Mars. The twin-spacecraft science mission seeks to enter orbit around Mars to understand the structure, composition, variability, and dynamics of the red planet’s unique hybrid magnetosphere. This mission is being developed under NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program.
Not launching on an Electron … The two spacecraft are planned for launch in 2024 to Mars, ride-sharing aboard a NASA-provided launch vehicle. After an 11-month trip to Mars, the Photon spacecraft will insert themselves into elliptical orbits around Mars and conduct a 1-year primary science mission. Needless to say, building even a small Mars spacecraft is a big step forward for the New Zealand launch company. And NASA, too, deserves credit for broadening its Solar System exploration program to alternative approaches. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)
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Minotaur 1 rocket makes a rare appearance. For the first time in nearly eight years, a Minotaur 1 rocket launched into space Tuesday from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket, which is derived from Cold War-era surplus missiles, carried three classified satellites into orbit for the US National Reconnaissance Office, Ars reports.
Not old space, but oldest space … The Minotaur 1, which has the capacity to launch a little more than 500 kg into low Earth orbit, is a mix of decades-old technology and modern avionics. The vehicle’s first and second stages are taken from a repurposed Minuteman II missile, the second generation of land-based, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Minuteman II missiles were retired in 1970.
Astra seeks weekly launch cadence. The California company’s CEO, Chris Kemp, told NASASpaceflight.com that Astra will launch its next booster, Rocket 3.3, as early as this summer. By the end of the year, the Rocket 3 series is planned to launch on a monthly basis, Kemp said. So far, Astra has reached space, with the launch of Rocket 3.2 last December. But the booster did not quite reach orbit. The company has since extended the length of the rocket by 5 feet so that it can carry more fuel.
Increasing production of Rocket 3 series … “We were actually only planning on making about eight of these rockets. So we’ve increased the production run for the Rocket 3 series to a dozen. And we’ll be flying those monthly starting in the fourth quarter. And then that monthly rate will ramp up to weekly with the Rocket 4 series starting next year.” Rocket 4.0 will include a new engine—replacing the Delphin and Aether first- and second-stage engines currently used on Rocket 3—with “much higher performance,” according to Kemp. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Launcher unveils orbital transfer vehicle. The small launch company said Wednesday it is building a “universal orbital transfer vehicle and satellite platform” to accommodate small satellites. The vehicle can carry up to 150 kg of customer satellite payloads and, using its independent propulsion system, will deliver customer satellites to desired orbits.
Dual compatibility … The transfer vehicle has been designed to be compatible with both the Launcher Light vehicle, under development, as well as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The new orbiter is contracted to make its inaugural flight to Sun-synchronous orbit via a Falcon 9 ride-share mission in October 2022. Launcher’s own small orbital launch vehicle is slated for its first flight in 2024. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Phantom Space names VP of launch ops. The Arizona-based startup announced Tuesday that it has hired Mark Lester to serve as its Vice President of Launch Operations. The company also said it was expanding into a Tucson-based 32,000-square-foot facility that will serve as its rocket factory. Previously, Lester was the chief executive of Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which operated the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island.
Phantom space, real rocket? … “My aim is to propel Phantom Space and the overall commercial space launch industry into a new era of safe, routine, and on-demand access to space for the masses,” Lester said in the news release. Phantom Space, co-founded by Jim Cantrell, is targeting the first quarter of 2023 for its first orbital launch. Those familiar with Cantrell’s past launch ventures may have some skepticism about that date, however.
China launches first crewed mission in nearly five years. The Shenzhou-12 spacecraft docked with China’s space station module hours after launching late Wednesday, marking the first crewed visit to the new facility, SpaceNews reports. Shenzhou-12 and its crew of three launched on a Long March 2F from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Astronauts Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming, and Tang Hongbo will spend three months aboard the 16.6-meter-long, 4.2-meter-diameter Tianhe module.
A record-length spaceflight … The crewed mission is the third of 11 launches planned for the construction of the three-module Chinese Space Station, which is named “Harmony of the Heavens.” China’s seventh crewed flight overall, this mission is planned to far surpass the Chinese human spaceflight duration record of 33 days set by Shenzhou-11 in 2016. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
Falcon 9 lofts first national security mission on used booster. Shortly before noon on Thursday, local time, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying a GPS III satellite for the US Space Force. As Ars reports, this is the first time a national security mission has flown on a previously used Falcon 9 first stage. This rocket previously launched another GPS satellite in November 2020.
Sending a signal … This represents an important signal from the military that it is ready to embrace reused rockets for its most important missions. The launch is also something of a final frontier for SpaceX as it seeks to push forward the reuse of Falcon 9 first stages. NASA has already launched its highest-value missions—astronauts—on a reused first stage with the Crew-2 flight in April.
NASA sets Halloween launch date for Crew-3. NASA said this week it has adjusted target launch and return dates for upcoming crew missions to and from the International Space Station based on visiting vehicle traffic. NASA’s SpaceX Crew-3 mission will now target a launch on a Falcon 9 rocket no earlier than Sunday, October 31, with NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Kayla Barron, and Dr. Tom Marshburn as well as ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer.
One crew arrives, one leaves … Following Crew-3’s arrival, Crew-2 NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, JAXA astronaut Aki Hoshide, and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet are targeting early- to mid-November for a return to Earth inside Crew Dragon Endeavour off the coast of Florida. The next crew-rotation mission is targeted for no earlier than mid-April 2022, but whether this will be a SpaceX or Boeing mission will be determined at a later date. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Space Force stands up “Space Safari” program. The US Space Force recently created the Space Safari Program Office to rapidly acquire, integrate, and execute specific launch needs. “These missions are not typically a part of an enduring program of record, but respond to high priority needs to deploy space systems quickly to respond to emerging threats,” the Space and Missile Systems Center said in a news release.
Three weeks to get ready … The launch of the Odyssey mission on a Pegasus XL rocket last Sunday offers an example of this kind of capability. The Space Force’s technology demonstration satellite was developed in less than a year, and Pegasus operator Northrop Grumman was given just three weeks to get ready for the flight. “The Space Safari team intends to push the envelope when it comes to the US Space Force’s ability to rapidly plan and conduct all aspects of future space missions,” said Col. Dennis Bythewood, Director of Special Programs. The military has long aspired to have a rapid, responsive launch capability. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Rendgrish)
SLS core stage bolted to solid boosters. The core stage for NASA’s first Space Launch System rocket has been installed between two solid-fueled boosters on a mobile launch platform at the Kennedy Space Center, Spaceflight Now reports. A “soft mate” between the core stage and solid rocket boosters, longer versions of the solid-fueled motors used on the space shuttle, was completed in High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on Saturday evening, followed by a “hard mate” on Sunday.
Carrying the load … Following this, a crane disconnected from the core stage, leaving the two 54-meter-tall solid rocket boosters to carry the full weight of the rocket. The SLS main stage is suspended between the Northrop Grumman-made boosters, which are stacked on mounting pins on the mobile launch platform. NASA hopes to launch the SLS and Orion crew capsule on an uncrewed test flight around the Moon as soon as late November, but this launch, in all likelihood, will slip into 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Blue Origin seeks chief engineer for New Glenn. In a new job posting on LinkedIn, Blue Origin is hiring a chief engineer for the first stage of its New Glenn rocket. Among the responsibilities, per the job posting, is to “Provide independent review of corrective actions for major failures at the program/product level and work with functional managers in addressing systemic issues.”
Just standard language … So is the wording of this posting reflective of serious problems with New Glenn or simply boilerplate language? It’s the latter, a spokeswoman for the company told Ars, saying, “We could’ve done a better job phrasing that bullet point in the job description—this is not an indication of any failures, it’s a part of a chief engineer’s role to address, prevent and mitigate any potential failures.”
SpaceX criticized for closing public roads. On Friday, June 11, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz wrote to SpaceX Senior Director Shyamal Patel regarding the company’s closure of two county roads near its Starship build site in South Texas. The roads, Remedios Avenue and Joanna Street, are located just off of the main thoroughfare through the region, State Highway 4. When staff members from the DA’s office attempted to drive on these public roads, they were barred by SpaceX security.
“The actions of SpaceX and its staff … may constitute crimes in the state of Texas,” Saenz wrote. “This conduct is unacceptable. And I strongly believe you, Mr. Patel, and SpaceX, also knew it was unacceptable.” The original complaint came from the “Save RGV” organization, which seeks to minimize effects from SpaceX’s activities on the Rio Grande Valley. SpaceX was asked to reply to the concerns raised in Saenz’s letter by Monday, June 14. (submitted by DanNeely)
Next three launches
June 18: Long March 2C | Three Yaogan satellites | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | 06:25 UTC