June 9, 2022

Rocket Report: Four Falcon Heavy launches this year; meet the Baguette-one

A French startup named its rockets the Baguette-one and the Orbital-Baguette-1.
Enlarge / A French startup named its rockets the Baguette-one and the Orbital-Baguette-1.

Welcome to Edition 4.46 of the Rocket Report! This report is coming to you a day early because I’ll be on vacation for a while—long enough that there may not be a newsletter next week. We’ll see. In terms of happenings I’m likely to miss, look for the Federal Aviation Administration to finally decide on SpaceX’s Starship launch site in South Texas by next Monday.

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.

France picks two small launch companies. As part of its France 2030 economic development plan, the European country seeks to provide technical and financial support to develop a nascent small-launch industry. More than a dozen companies applied in a competitive bid process, and last Friday, two companies were named. According to Challenges, HyPrSpace and Sirius Space Services won. Amazingly, HyPrSpace’s first rocket will be named Baguette-one. They are instantly my favorite rocket company ever.

No half-baked plans … The value of the awards was not disclosed, but in calling for projects, the government said it would provide from 400,000 euros to 1.2 million euros in the initiation phase, then from 1.2 to 5 million euros for the development phase. The French government has also said it would provide payloads for the first launches of these companies. In Europe, France trails Germany and Great Britain in developing a new space commercial launch industry.

Terran 1 rocket arrives in Florida. Relativity Space chief executive Tim Ellis tweeted on Sunday that the first stage of the company’s Terran 1 rocket had arrived at its integration and launch facilities in Florida. Relativity plans to conduct first stage testing in Florida, which will take place over the next few months. After assembling the first and second stages, along with the rocket’s nose cone, teams at Launch Complex-16 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Base will complete fit checks to make sure the pad hardware correctly accommodates the rocket, Florida Today reports.

Having fun in the Sun … A launch is unlikely to occur before fall, but Ellis has said he is confident that Terran 1 will fly this year. The Terran 1 is designed to carry 1.25 tons to low Earth orbit for $12 million. To focus solely on reaching orbit, Relativity Space has not put an operational payload on top of Terran 1. The company has also shown some cheek in naming the mission, calling it “Good Luck, Have Fun.” We hope they have both luck and fun. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Vega-C launch date set. The European Space Agency has set a July 7 target to launch its new Vega-C rocket. The launch is currently planned to take off from the European spaceport in French Guiana, at 11:13 UTC, the space agency said. The single-body, 35-meter-tall solid rocket can lift 2.2 metric tons into a 700 km polar orbit.

More bang for the buck … The Vega-C replaces the Vega rocket, offering about 50 percent more performance for a comparable price, estimated to be $37 million. For this debut flight, Vega-C will carry as its primary payload the LARES-2 satellite, a scientific mission of the Italian Space Agency. Six CubeSats built by European universities and research establishments will fly as secondary payloads. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Astra to launch next mission soon. The small launch company announced Wednesday that it is targeting no earlier than June 12 to launch the TROPICS-1 mission for NASA. The launch date is pending the issuance of a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration. This is the first of three TROPICS satellite launches for NASA, which have a total contract value of $8 million for Astra.

Hoping for three of four … Overall, this will be Astra’s sixth orbital launch attempt of its Rocket 3.0 vehicle. Most recently, the company successfully orbited more than 20 small satellites as part of a rideshare mission on March 15. After three unsuccessful test flights of Rocket 3.0 starting in September 2020, two of the last three launches have made it to orbit. The company is hoping to reach a monthly launch cadence later this year.

NASA plans launch from Australia. The US space agency plans to make its first launch from a commercial spaceport in Australia on June 26, Spacewatch reports. NASA plans to conduct a launch of its suborbital Black Brant IX rocket from the Arnhem Space Centre, which is located on the Gove Peninsula in Australia’s Northern Territory. NASA has previously launched from a military site, near Woomera, in southern Australia.

Two more in store … This mission will be the first of three NASA science launches flown in quick succession from Down Under. For NASA, having launch options in the Southern Hemisphere is a boon to science as it expands access to the Southern night sky. For Australia, NASA’s decision to launch from Australia is another sign that the country’s efforts to develop a commercial space launch industry might bear fruit. (submitted by platykurtic and Ken the Bin)

Dragon launch delayed due to propellant issue. NASA and SpaceX have delayed the launch of a Cargo Dragon spacecraft for at least a couple of weeks due to an issue during the prelaunch loading of hypergolic propellants, Ars reports. The space agency planned to launch the spacecraft on June 12 but announced the delay in an email on Monday evening to reporters. On Tuesday morning, Mission Control in Houston told astronauts on board the International Space Station that the launch date would slip until at least June 28.

Inspections and testing … “During propellant loading of the Cargo Dragon spacecraft, elevated vapor readings of mono-methyl hydrazine were measured in an isolated region of the Draco thruster propulsion system,” the space agency’s statement said. “The propellant and oxidizer have been offloaded from that region to support further inspections and testing.” Draco thrusters provide on-orbit maneuvering propulsion for the Dragon spacecraft. NASA said that it is working with SpaceX to identify the source of the elevated readings and take any corrective actions.

Stagnant GEO market sees first launch of 2022. A Falcon 9 rocket launched Egypt’s Nilesat on Wednesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida. This was SpaceX’s 23rd Falcon 9 launch of the year, making for an average of one flight every 6.87 days. Notably, Spaceflight Now reports, this was the first truly commercial launch into a geostationary transfer orbit worldwide this year.

Smaller, closer satellite trend … The geostationary satellite launch market was once a lucrative business for launch providers, including SpaceX. For decades, Arianespace, in particular, built its business and designed its rockets around this orbit. But the satellite market has shifted to smaller spacecraft, including constellations flying in lower-altitude orbits, to beam broadband signals to consumers.

SpaceX targeting four Falcon Heavy launches. SpaceX founder Elon Musk said on Twitter this week that the company aims to complete four Falcon Heavy launches during the second half of this year. This would represent a significant increase in tempo, as the company has flown three Falcon Heavy missions since 2018. And it has been three years since the most recent launch of the big booster.

Eager to see an old friend … These four launches are likely to be: NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission, in September, the ViaSat-3 mission, and two missions for the US Space Force. If history is any guide, and it often is, at least one if not more of these missions will slip into 2023, most likely due to payload issues. But it will nevertheless be good to see the titanic Falcon Heavy rocket taking to the skies again.

ULA finalizes large booster buy. United Launch Alliance has finalized a deal worth more than $2 billion to purchase GEM 63 and GEM 63XL boosters, Northrop Grumman announced Wednesday. Northrop said the large contract would allow it to increase production capacity and modernize with new state-of-the-art facilities and tooling. “Northrop Grumman’s GEM 63XL is the longest monolithic, single-cast solid rocket booster ever produced,” said Wendy Williams, vice president, propulsion systems, Northrop Grumman.

Another implication of the Kuiper buy … The GEM 63 solid rocket booster flew its inaugural flight in November 2020, and to date, 13 GEM 63 boosters have supported four Atlas V launches. The new GEM 63XL booster will support ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket later this year, and this large contract award was spurred by the need to meet the demand to launch Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellites. This deal is another signal of how Amazon’s blockbuster launch buy is a huge jolt to the US space industry. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Vulcan rocket debut unlikely in 2022. Speaking of the Vulcan rocket, its debut is likely to slip again. Publicly, United Launch Alliance is holding to a “late” 2022 launch debut for the large Vulcan rocket. However, Ars reports that another delay now seems inevitable, with the rocket moving to a demonstration launch in 2023. Two main issues are holding Vulcan back from making its debut: the readiness of its main engines, which Blue Origin is building, and the payload that it will carry. At this point, neither appears likely to support a 2022 launch.

A lot riding on this rocket … The BE-4 rocket engines are close to completion but are still in production at Blue Origin’s facility in Kent, Washington. Based on current internal timelines, the two flight engines for Vulcan’s debut will not be delivered to United Launch Alliance until August. Although a delay into 2023 will not be the end of the world for ULA, it is important to get Vulcan flying safely soon. The rocket company has bet its entire future on the success of Vulcan, which will replace both its Atlas and Delta fleets of rockets later this decade.

Next three launches

June 7: Falcon 9 | Nilesat-301 | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 21:04 UTC

June 12: Rocket 3.0 | TROPICS-1 | Cape Canaveral, Florida| 16:00 UTC

June 13: Electron | CAPSTONE | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 09:03 UTC

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