Rocket Report: Amazon bypasses New Glenn, SLS ready for Florida shipment

NASA and Boeing work to remove the SLS rocket core stage from its test stand in Mississippi.
Enlarge / NASA and Boeing work to remove the SLS rocket core stage from its test stand in Mississippi.

Welcome to Edition 3.42 of the Rocket Report! This week we’ve got an update on Virgin Orbit, which has signed a multilaunch deal for its LauncherOne vehicle. Additionally, NASA has provided a couple of news items on the Space Launch System rocket, suggesting progress on not just the first core stage, but for those of cores for future Artemis launches.

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 Orbit to launch six satellites for QinetiQ. The California-based satellite-launch company said on Wednesday it has been selected by defense and security company QinetiQ and geospatial analytics company HyperSat to launch a series of six hyperspectral satellites to low Earth Orbit. The first satellite will launch no earlier than 2023 on Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket.

A six-pack of satellites … “Virgin Orbit is making good on our promise to unleash the small satellite revolution,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “It’s extremely exciting to join with our partners to deploy new capabilities and new ideas that will shape our world.” This is a nice contract win for Virgin Orbit, especially if it ultimately results in six separate launches for its rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Isar Aerospace signs deal with Airbus. The Germany-based launch company, Isar, said Airbus Defence and Space has committed to one launch, plus options, of a small Earth-observation satellite. Isar announced in an e-mail news release that this deal constitutes the first major launch contract between an established space company and a privately financed European launcher company.

Mission will launch from Norway … Founded in 2018, Isar is developing the “Spectrum” rocket, which has a capacity of about 1 ton to low Earth orbit. Airbus manufactures and operates Earth observation and communication satellite systems. “Isar Aerospace offers an innovative and attractive small launcher solution that is complementary to existing medium and large launchers in Europe,” said Philippe Pham, Airbus’ Head of Earth Observation, Navigation & Science Satellites.

Space Force to fly on used Falcon 9 in June. The US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center successfully delivered the fifth Global Positioning System (GPS) III satellite to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in early April. Built by Lockheed Martin for the military, this satellite will launch on a previously flown Falcon 9 rocket, the Space Force said in an e-mail news release.

Reuse goes from novel to ordinary … This will be the first time the US military launches a National Security Space Launch mission on a used rocket, and this really represents the final frontier in terms of the US government placing its most valuable satellites on reused boosters. This satellite will join the operational constellation of 31 GPS satellites, delivering enhanced performance and accuracy through a variety of improvements.

Amazon chooses ULA as satellite-launch partner. Amazon announced on Monday that its first Project Kuiper satellites will launch into low Earth orbit on an Atlas V rocket, Ars reports. Amazon did not say when the first launch will occur, but the company said it had contracted with United Launch Alliance for nine launches to begin building out its constellation of 3,236 satellites. A spokesman declined to say how many of the satellites each Atlas V rocket would be capable of launching.

When New Glenn? … Based upon its license with the Federal Communications Commission, Amazon must launch at least 50 percent of its proposed constellation by July 2026. News releases from Amazon and United Launch Alliance were silent on the choice of the Atlas V instead of Blue Origin’s New Glenn or ULA’s Vulcan to begin launching satellites before this deadline. “We will need multiple launch vehicles and launch partners to support our deployment schedule,” the company’s blog post states. Blue Origin is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

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China developing a 13,000-satellite megaconstellation. Although the plans remain opaque, Chinese officials are working to coordinate development of a national satellite network to deliver broadband Internet from low Earth orbit. The government is seeking to manage development of at least two networks by state-owned corporations, SpaceNews reports.

Becoming a national priority … China’s National Development and Reform Commission added “satellite internet” to a list of “new infrastructures” in April 2020. The confirmation of yet another megaconstellation increases the urgency for governments to develop protocols for managing the increased number of satellites in low Earth orbit. And for the purposes of this newsletter, it will be interesting to see what rockets China uses to launch all of its satellites. The country does not yet have a reusable vehicle. (submitted by perfectfire)

No Russians to ride on a Falcon 9 this year. NASA’s acting administrator said Tuesday he does not expect Russian cosmonauts to start launching to the International Space Station on US commercial crew vehicles until next year, Spaceflight Now reports. A proposed agreement with Russia to ensure the space station is always staffed with an international crew is awaiting US government approval. The no-funds-exchanged agreement has been in discussion by NASA and Russian space agency officials for years, but sign-off of a final deal has hit roadblocks in recent months.

Maybe early next year … Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said Tuesday that the draft version of an “implementing agreement” between NASA and Roscosmos is still being reviewed by the US State Department. “We’re waiting for the final signatures from the State Department on the implementing agreement, and then we’ll provide that draft to Roscosmos and begin negotiations,” Jurczyk said. Most likely, the first mission for a Russian will not occur until Crew-4 at the earliest. This flight is currently slated to launch during the first quarter of 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA selects Starship for lunar lander program. NASA has selected SpaceX and its Starship vehicle to serve as the lunar lander for its Artemis Program, Ars reports. About a year ago, NASA gave initial study and preliminary development contracts for Moon landers to SpaceX, Dynetics, and a team of aerospace heavyweights led by Blue Origin. As part of that initial contract, the cost of SpaceX’s bid was about half that of Dynetics and one-fourth the amount received by Blue Origin. That frugality, at least in part, led NASA to choose SpaceX as the sole provider of landing services during the down-select phase.

From South Texas to the Moon … “We looked at what’s the best value to the government,” said Kathy Lueders, chief of the human exploration program for NASA. NASA said it will award SpaceX $2.89 billion for development of the Starship vehicle and two flights. Starship is a fully reusable upper stage that will launch atop the Super Heavy rocket. SpaceX is in various states of testing and developing both of these vehicles at its facility in South Texas. Needless to say, this is a huge win for SpaceX and its ambitious Starship launch program. (submitted by cheweyallen, Ken the Bin, and Rendgrish)

Vulcan added to Launch Services Program. NASA said it has added United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan-Centaur rocket to its “Launch Services Program.” Effectively, as part of an on-ramp provision, the rocket will become eligible to bid on NASA launch contracts beginning in June 2025. Development of Vulcan-Centaur is ongoing, and while an initial flight could occur later this year, more likely it will slip into 2022.

Science, exploration, and more … To qualify for NASA’s program, launch providers must be domestic and have the capability to put at least 250 kg into 200 km orbit. After certification by NASA engineers, participants in the program then become eligible to bid on missions for NASA’s science, human exploration, and space technology directorates. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA moves SLS core stage from test stand. More than 15 months after it arrived at Stennis Space Center, the Space Launch System rocket’s core stage is finally getting ready to leave. NASA said that crews worked on Monday and Tuesday to remove the first flight core stage of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket from the B-2 Test Stand in preparation for its barge transport to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Next stop, launch site … After a series of long but ultimately successful tests that confirmed the vehicle was ready for flight, the stage now will be loaded on NASA’s Pegasus barge for transport to Kennedy, where it will be prepared for launch of the Artemis I mission. NASA officials now say that launching the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft this year will be “challenging,” but they have not yet given up hope. Realistically, a launch will occur no earlier than next February. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Work continues on future SLS core stages. This week NASA said technicians and engineers continue to make progress manufacturing additional core stages of the SLS rocket. NASA and Boeing, the prime contractor for the core stage, are in the process of conducting one of the biggest Artemis II milestones: assembling the top half of the core stage.

Three core stages at a time … In another part of Michoud Assembly Facility in southern Louisiana, work is being done to weld elements of the core stage for the Artemis III rocket, NASA said. Engineers and technicians use friction-stir welding methods to connect the panels that make up each piece of hardware together and build larger structures. NASA anticipates beginning preliminary work on the Artemis IV rocket in May. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

April 23: Falcon 9 | Crew-2 mission on used booster | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 09:49 UTC

April 25: Soyuz 2.1b | OneWeb 6 | Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia | 22:14 UTC

April 26: Delta IV Heavy | NROL-82 | Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. | 19:39 UTC