Rocket Report: Europe wants a super-heavy lifter, Starship nets launch contract

Rocket Report: Europe wants a super-heavy lifter, Starship nets launch contract

All the news that’s fit to lift —

“We are definitely seeing significant attrition. That should surprise no one.”

Skyrora announced this week it has completed a hot fire test of its XL rocket's second stage.

Enlarge / Skyrora announced this week it has completed a hot fire test of its XL rocket’s second stage.


Welcome to Edition 5.07 of the Rocket Report! We are now just 11 days away from NASA’s first attempt to launch its SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. I’ve reported this story for more than 11 years and can hardly believe we’ve reached this moment. Starting Monday, I’ll have a lot of coverage—good and bad—on Ars to put this moment into context. Be sure to check it out.

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.

Really—the Electron is going to Venus. Rocket Lab announced this week plans to self-fund the development of a small spacecraft and its launch on an Electron rocket. The craft will send a tiny probe flying through the clouds of Venus for about five minutes at an altitude of 48-60 km. Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck has joined up with several noted planetary scientists, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sara Seager, to design this mission, Ars reports.

A bold self-bet … Electron will deliver the spacecraft into a 165 km orbit above Earth, where the rocket’s high-energy Photon upper stage will perform a number of burns to raise the spacecraft’s orbit and reach escape velocity. Assuming a May 2023 launch—there’s a backup opportunity in January 2025—the spacecraft would reach Venus in October 2023. Once there, Photon will deploy a small 20 kg probe into the Venusian atmosphere. If Beck succeeds with a Venus mission, he’ll certainly catch the attention of scientists, NASA, and others interested in what would be a promising new era of low-cost, more rapid exploration of the Solar System.

Small rocket industry growth slows. Fewer new small launch vehicles are entering the market, and more vehicles are going defunct as demand for such vehicles lags expectations, Space News reports. In a presentation at the Small Satellite Conference, Carlos Niederstrasser of Northrop Grumman discussed the latest version of an annual survey of the small launch vehicle industry, focused on vehicles capable of placing up to 1,000 kg into low-Earth orbit and available commercially.

Ride share may threaten small launch demand … The survey now includes 166 launch vehicle projects, far higher than the 31 the same survey identified in 2015. However, growth in the number of those vehicles is now slowing. “There is no longer the crazy growth we were seeing back in ’16 or ’17,” Niederstrasser said. In addition, the number of systems that have gone defunct for technical, financial, or other reasons has grown. “We are definitely seeing significant attrition,” he added. “That should surprise no one.” (submitted by Mike Richards, EllPeaTea, and Ken the Bin)

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Rocket Lab hits milestones with next launch. The company’s next mission, a launch in mid-September from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula, is a dedicated launch for Japanese Earth-imaging satellite constellation operator Synspective. It will also be Rocket Lab’s 30th launch. Rocket Lab notes that, in addition, the mission will deliver its 150th payload and 300th Rutherford engine to space. Nine Rutherford engines power the Electron’s first stage, and a single one powers the upper stage.

Breaking a cadence record … The single StriX-1 satellite manifested on this Electron launch will bring Rocket Lab’s tally of satellites delivered to orbit to 150, with a quarter of those delivered to space in the past three months alone, including the CAPSTONE satellite to the Moon for NASA. This will be the seventh launch of the year for Rocket Lab, and if all goes well it would set a new record for successful missions in a calendar year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Skyrora completes second stage test. The United Kingdom-based launch company announced Thursday the completion of a static fire test of the second stage of its Skyrora XL orbital rocket. Completing the test brings Skyrora closer to entering commercial operations, with the rocket’s inaugural orbital launch scheduled for 2023 from the Saxa Vord Space Centre in northern Scotland. The 20-second test burn of a single 70 kN liquid engine operated within design margins and achieved the expected thrust, the company said.

Quick setup … The three-stage XL launch vehicle is a small rocket, with a lift capacity of about 300 kg to low-Earth orbit, and is of modular design so that it can be easily transported to the launch site. Skyrora previously tested the third stage of its XL launch vehicle in December 2020. The first stage of Skyrora XL is currently in construction, with hot-fire tests due to take place in mid-2023. “Our Skyrora team went from clean tarmac to a full static fire test in just 2.5 days,” said the company’s chief operating officer, Lee Rosen. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX aims to double Vandenberg cadence. Following an August 12 launch of another batch of Starlink satellites, SpaceX has extended its annual Falcon 9 launch record from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. This was the eighth Falcon 9 launch from the spaceport this year. The company’s previous high-water mark from Vandenberg was six launches, in 2018.

Are you tenacious? … But the company is not stopping there. In a post on LinkedIn, SpaceX’s manager of Falcon 9 operations, Steven Cameron, said the company is hiring to support a higher launch cadence. “We are hiring skilled technicians as we move to increase the launch cadence on the West Coast by more than double,” Cameron wrote. “Dont [sic] have the background we are looking for? Thats [sic] ok, are you tenacious? We will train you.” (submitted by MB)

Europe looks to SpaceX to fill interim launch need: The European Space Agency (ESA) has begun preliminary technical discussions with SpaceX that could lead to the temporary use of the company’s rockets after the Ukraine conflict blocked Western access to Russia’s Soyuz rockets, Reuters reports. ESA is looking for alternative launch options because of delays to its Ariane 6 rocket, which remains in development and probably will not fly for the first time until at least the middle of 2023.

Only SpaceX has the capacity right now … ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said he is also considering Japan’s H3 rocket, which is also in the final stages of development, as well as India’s fleet. But only SpaceX has the capacity with its reusable Falcon 9 rocket to meet near-term demand. “The likelihood of the need for backup launches is high,” he said. “The order of magnitude is certainly a good handful of launches that we would need interim solutions.” OneWeb and Northrop Grumman have also recently booked launches on the Falcon 9 after Ukraine-related issues with Russian rockets and engines. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Canadian spaceport has a potential US tenant. Maritime Launch Services, which is attempting to develop a spaceport in Nova Scotia, Canada, reported a quarterly loss of $4.3 million for the three-month period that ended June 30, 2022, SpaceQ reports. The spaceport firm also says it has a “letter of intent” for an alternative medium-class launch vehicle for the site. It originally intended to launch the Ukrainian Cyclone 4M booster, with a lift capacity of 5 metric tons to low Earth orbit. But there are concerns about the availability of the rocket due to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Mum’s the word from Maritime … In its document, Maritime Launch Services states, “If it is required, the medium-class launch vehicle capability of the Cyclone 4M can be replaced with at least two others that are in development in the United States, one of which with we have a letter of intent.” Presumably, this refers to rockets under development by Rocket Lab and Firefly, but for now the Canadian company isn’t saying. (submitted by JS)

NASA rolls SLS rocket to the launch pad. The Space Launch System rocket has reached its pad at Kennedy Space Center and remains on track to attempt a liftoff no earlier than August 29 at 8:33 am ET (12:33 UTC). The rocket’s rollout follows completion of a flight termination system test over the weekend. This was the final major test of the launch system and spacecraft prior to rollout, and it marks the completion of all major pre-launch activities, Ars reports. NASA continues to target three dates to attempt the Artemis I launch: August 29, September 2, and September 5.

Orion to fly a long time … Each of the three upcoming launch opportunities would allow for a “long-class” mission for the Orion spacecraft, which will be uncrewed and fly into lunar orbit for several weeks before returning to Earth and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The missions would range in length from 39 to 42 days. The Artemis I mission represents a significant step forward for NASA and its ambitions for a deep space human exploration program. The rocket’s next launch will carry four astronauts around the Moon, and its third launch is scheduled to enable a human landing there, possibly in the mid-2020s.

Europe looking at developing reusable heavy lifter. A deadline is coming up for European countries and companies to respond to an “Invitation to Tender” for a new heavy-lift rocket. The European Space Agency issued the tender on June 28, 2022, and plans to close it on September 12. The space agency is seeking preliminary ideas for a “European reusable and cost-effective heavy-lift” rocket. The initial contracts will be small, valued at 200,000 to 500,000 euros.

A huge leap in performance … “This analysis has as its purpose to develop an adapted and more performant transport means to accommodate large space infrastructures (e.g. space-based solar power, space data centre, etc.) and deep space missions,” the document states. “It is foreseen that after 2035, with the European Green Deal initiative, current European launch vehicles will not be able to transport large payloads with the necessary cadence.” This could be a reference to Europe’s interest in space-based solar power. The goal of this vehicle will be to deliver “at least” 10,000 metric tons to orbit a year. That’s, umm, a lot.

Starship inks first commercial satellite customer. Asia’s largest satellite operator, SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation, announced Thursday that it plans to launch its Superbird-9 communications satellite on SpaceX’s Starship rocket. “Superbird-9 will be launched by SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle in 2024 to geosynchronous transfer orbit,” the company’s news release states. “SpaceX’s Starship is a fully reusable transportation system that will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle.”

Small satellite, big rocket … The first Starship missions will almost certainly carry the company’s own Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit. There have also been human missions announced, including Polaris 3 with Jared Isaacman, and the Dear Moon project. But until now, there had been no announcements of commercial satellite customers. It seems likely that Superbird-9 could be launched by a Falcon 9 or at least a Falcon Heavy, so perhaps SpaceX gave the Japanese company a discount for being a first mover. In any case, it’s a notable announcement for Starship as the program moves closer to an orbital launch attempt. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Jacklyn recovery ship to be scrapped. We’ve previously reported that Blue Origin had moved from the large “Jacklyn” rocket recovery ship to a more economical option, similar to the autonomous drone ships that SpaceX uses for the Falcon 9 rocket. But now, the Jacklyn ship is being sent from the Port of Pensacola in Florida to Brownsville, Texas, to be scrapped, Space News reports. Blue Origin had already put “tens of millions” of dollars into refitting the 180-meter long ship, which was to catch the first stage of the New Glenn rocket.

Sorry, mom … “Blue Origin is committed to safe and cost-effective access to space, and after careful consideration have made the decision to transition away from the Jacklyn as a landing solution,” a company spokesperson told the publication. A source said the costs of refitting “Jacklyn,” which was named after Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos’ mother, were far higher than originally anticipated. This necessitated the move toward drone ships. The Brownsville port is a few miles away from where SpaceX is building its Starship vehicle. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

August 19: Long March 2D | Yaogan military satellite | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | 17:36 UTC

August 19: Falcon 9 | Starlink 4-27 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 19:24 UTC

August 28: Falcon 9 | Starlink 4-23 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 01:52 UTC

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