Welcome to Edition 4.29 of the Rocket Report! There is plenty to discuss this week, including an accident in the Mojave (oh no!) and flights by two different rocket-carrying aircraft within days of each other (oh yes!).
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.
ABL loses second stage during test firing. Observers at Mojave Air and Space Port in California reported hearing a boom around 1:30 pm local time on Wednesday. A plume of black smoke followed. A few hours later, ABL Space Systems confirmed that the second stage of the RS1 rocket that it’s developing was destroyed in an accident, SpaceNews reports. ABL is well-capitalized and has dozens of launch contracts for RS1 with Lockheed Martin, Amazon, and other companies.
Rockets remain hard … “This afternoon we lost Stage 2 of RS1 in a test anomaly,” Dan Piemont, president of ABL Space Systems, told the publication. “Everyone is safe and the team did an admirable job navigating the anomaly working to save the test stand.” ABL is working toward the debut launch of its RS1 vehicle from Kodiak Island, Alaska, with the intention of launching this year. What’s not clear is how significantly this will set back ABL. Losing a second stage is not optimal, but these things happen in development. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Skeptical financiers take a closer look at Virgin Galactic. Financial trade publications are starting to raise serious questions about the valuation of Virgin Galactic, which became publicly traded in 2019 via a special-purpose acquisition company. The latest issue involves the company’s plans to raise up to $425 million of convertible debt, which essentially allows Virgin Galactic to receive a lower interest rate on debt in exchange for a fixed price on stock shares. The Financial Times explains more here. Apparently, the terms of this deal (the financial wizardry of which is beyond the capacities of a simple space writer) were adverse for existing shareholders.
Plummeting stock price … Publications have also started to take note of the stark disconnect between Virgin Galactic’s projections at the time it went SPAC in 2019 and where it is today. For example, Virgin Galactic forecast $398 million in revenues in calendar year 2022, whereas analysts now expect it to bring in $7.9 million. “Let’s just hope their aerospace engineering is a touch more precise than their financial engineering. For their customers’ sake,” the Financial Times says snarkily. Virgin Galactic’s stock has fallen from a high of $59.41 in February 2021 to less than $10 today.
Virgin Orbit completes third successful flight. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket lofted seven small satellites for three different customers on January 13, Space.com reports. This marks the third straight successful mission for the California-based company. LauncherOne flew for the first time in May 2020 on a test flight that carried no satellites. That launch failed after a fuel line in the rocket’s first-stage engine ruptured.
To space with regularity … Since then, Virgin Orbit’s next three flights have all gone orbital. For a company just starting to launch rockets, one launch every six months is an impressive cadence. This month’s flight really helps to establish LauncherOne’s status as a reasonably timely and reliable small-satellite rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Chinese firm moves toward launch of methane rocket. Chinese private company Landspace is pushing forward with the first launch of its new methane-fueled Zhuque-2 rocket and the construction of launch facilities at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. Satellite imagery and deleted social media postings indicate that work is progressing on a new complex for facilitating methane-liquid oxygen launch vehicles there, SpaceNews reports.
Could this be the first methane rocket? … Development at the facility in the Gobi Desert suggests the presence of a Zhuque-2 test vehicle and a new flame trench. Additionally, Landspace CEO Zhang Changwu said in an interview last November that Zhuque-2 could lift off in the first quarter of 2022. Jiuquan currently only handles launches of older hypergolic Long March rockets and solid rockets, necessitating a new complex. Depending on whether SpaceX gets FAA permission to move ahead with Starship launches from South Texas, Zhuque-2 could be the first orbital launch attempt of a rocket using methane and liquid oxygen.
Radian plans to build SSTO spaceplane. Radian Aerospace has exited stealth mode by announcing plans to develop one of the holy grails of spaceflight—a single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane, Ars reports. Radian said it is deep into designing an airplane-like vehicle for people and cargo. The spacecraft could take off from a runway, ignite its rocket engines, spend time in orbit, and land on a runway. On Wednesday, Radian announced that it had recently closed a $27.5 million round of seed funding, led by Fine Structure Ventures. To date, Radian has raised about $32 million.
A really, really hard problem … “We all understand how difficult this is,” said Livingston Holder, Radian’s co-founder, chief technology officer, and former head of the Future Space Transportation and X-33 program at Boeing. In response to this quote, a senior aerospace industry source texted me, saying, “Do they really?” It’s safe to say there’s a fair amount of skepticism that such a venture will work, but the wider space community is hopeful.
Stratolaunch flies again. Stratolaunch flew its giant “Roc” aircraft for just the third time on Sunday, SpaceNews reports. The plane returned to the Mojave Air and Space Port 4 hours, 23 minutes later, after a flight that took the plane to a peak altitude of more than 7,160 meters and a top speed of 330 kilometers per hour. The Roc’s flight met all the company’s objectives, including testing the retraction and extension of the landing gear on the left fuselage.
Powering up for powered flight … The flight took place nearly nine months after the previous Roc test flight. That flight, in turn, took place two years after the inaugural flight of the plane, which was originally developed to serve as a platform for an air-launch system. After that first flight, the company changed ownership and shifted direction to focus on hypersonic flight testing. Under that new direction, Stratolaunch will use Roc as a platform for launching a series of hypersonic vehicles. A powered vehicle, the TA-1, could fly as soon as the end of the year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Texas provides small spaceport grants. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has announced $10 million in grants to be awarded to spaceports in Houston and South Texas, the Houston Chronicle reports. The state’s Spaceport Trust Fund will give $5 million to the Houston Spaceport Development Corp. and $5 million to the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. The Spaceport Trust Fund provides money to help develop infrastructure for Texas spaceports.
Some manufacturing, some launch … The Houston spaceport will not support vertical launches. Instead, it is focused on attracting a cluster of aerospace companies that can invent, develop, and manufacture space technologies. The spaceport was a finalist a few years ago for Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine manufacturing facility but lost out to Huntsville, Alabama. Cameron County is where SpaceX is building and testing its Starship system and where the company hopes to launch from, pending Federal Aviation Administration clearance. (submitted by DanNeely)
A readable guide to launch planning. Nearly all launch companies publish some version of a “Payload User’s Guide.” A guide will typically describe what services the company offers and what its rocket can do. These documents are often too brief or too technical to offer much insight for casual observers of the launch industry.
Virgin Orbit earns a gold star … Virgin Orbit’s “Service Guide,” however, is a refreshing contrast. Although it was updated last August, I only discovered the document after a reader flagged it for me recently. This user’s guide is written in almost a conversational tone and offers rich explanations for concepts to help readers learn more about shock, vibration, and other limits during launch. It’s a must-read for real rocket nerds. (submitted by CentralCoast)
Russia will build final Proton rocket in 2022. Roscosmos is in the process of building four more Proton rockets before it shuts down production of the venerable booster, Ars reports. These four rockets will be added to its present inventory of 10 flight-ready Proton-M rockets. Russia said it plans to launch these remaining 14 Proton rockets over the next four or five years. During this time frame, Russia plans to transition payloads—such as military communications satellites—that would have launched on the Proton booster to the new Angara-A5 rocket.
The Proton rocket predates the Saturn V booster … The final flight of the Proton rocket will bring an end to a long era. The first Proton rocket launched in 1965, nearly 57 years ago, amid the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Variants of the Proton rocket have launched 426 times, with about a 10 percent failure rate. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
Falcon 9 completes third mission of 2022. SpaceX is off to a great start this year, launching its third rocket of 2022 on Tuesday night from Florida, Spaceflight Now reports. This rocket carried 49 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit, bringing the total number of Starlink spacecraft built and launched to 2,042, including prototypes and testbeds no longer in service.
Eight launches in 50 days … The first stage’s successful drone ship landing completed the 10th flight for this particular booster, B1060. The booster debuted on June 30, 2020, with the launch of a US military GPS navigation satellite. This is the fourth Falcon 9 first stage to have reached the 10-flight milestone. Additionally, SpaceX has shown an increasingly robust cadence, completing eight Falcon 9 launches within the last 50 days. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
SpaceX receives rocket cargo funding. The US Air Force has awarded SpaceX a $102 million, five-year contract to demonstrate technologies and capabilities to transport military cargo and humanitarian aid around the world by rocket, SpaceNews reports. The contract was awarded on January 14 by the Air Force and is part of the “Rocket Cargo” program to see how point-to-point rocket launches might expedite military logistics.
Heavy rocket wanted … Greg Spanjers, rocket cargo program manager, said that the contract formalizes a government-industry partnership to help “determine exactly what a rocket can achieve when used for cargo transport, what is the true capacity, speed, and cost of the integrated system.” The contract is not specific to any of SpaceX’s launch vehicles, but only SpaceX’s Starship-Super Heavy launch system is being designed with the potential for point-to-point capabilities. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Ariane 6 core stages arrive in French Guiana. Now that the European Space Agency has successfully launched the James Webb Space Telescope, the agency’s rocket focus is turning toward the successful debuts of the new Vega C and Ariane 6 boosters. To that end, the core stage of the pathfinder Ariane 6 rocket has reached the European launch site in French Guiana, the agency says.
Marrying a rocket and its ground systems … Ariane 6’s central core comprises a first and second stage. The lower stage is from ArianeGroup’s Les Mureaux site in France; the upper stage is from ArianeGroup’s Bremen factory in Germany. The stages will be used in combined tests to verify all the interfaces and functions between the Ariane 6 launch vehicle and ground facilities at the spaceport. This work will culminate in a hot fire test. Flight versions of the Ariane 6 hardware are due to arrive later this year, and the European Space Agency is still (publicly, at least) working toward a 2022 launch debut. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
January 21: Atlas V | USSF-8 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | TBD
January 27: Falcon 9 | COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation satellite | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 23:11 UTC
January 29: Falcon 9 | Starlink 4-7 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | TBD