Rocket Report: Russia developing a space plane, Europe frets about SpaceX

Hot fire test of integrated second stage for ABL Space System's RS1 rocket in the fall of 2020.
Enlarge / Hot fire test of integrated second stage for ABL Space System’s RS1 rocket in the fall of 2020.
ABL Space Systems

Welcome to Edition 3.38 of the Rocket Report! This week, we have launch news from around the world, including several snippets from across the pond, where Europe is grappling with the rise of SpaceX as well as how best to foster its nascent commercial launch industry. As ever there is much to track.

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.

Relativity proving that 3D-printing rockets works. There remain very real questions about whether or not this additive-manufacturing approach is ultimately feasible. The acid test will come when Relativity attempts to reach orbit. Nevertheless, the company’s 3D-printing technology does seem to be working. Two recent milestones in the development of the company’s Terran 1 rocket, in fact, suggest the tech is working really well, Ars reports.

A new kind of printing press … Relativity CEO Tim Ellis said the company recently printed the second stage that will be used on the inaugural flight of the Terran 1 rocket, which is presently scheduled to take place before the end of 2021. The stage was printed at a rate of about 1 linear foot per day, so in printer time it took about three weeks in total to produce the 20-foot tall second stage. The company was also able to quickly replace and test a copper alloy for its Aeon engine combustion chamber and nozzle thanks to additive manufacturing.

Rocket Lab nabs multimission launch contract. Rocket Lab announced Thursday that it will launch multiple missions to low Earth orbit for BlackSky, a provider of real-time geospatial intelligence and global-monitoring services. Nine BlackSky satellites will launch across five Electron missions in 2021.

Some positive news for Electron … The deal represents the largest number of satellites BlackSky has committed to a single launch provider to date, and it includes the successful launch of BlackSky’s latest spacecraft on Rocket Lab’s “They Go Up So Fast” ride-share mission earlier this week. The BlackSky satellites each weigh 130 kg. Needless to say this contract is a validation of Electron’s performance to date and a promise for the future. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

The Rocket Report: An Ars newsletter

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

ESA boosts two more small launch companies. As part of its effort to support emerging small launch companies, the European Space Agency said it has awarded two more “Boost!” contracts. These awards went to British companies. Orbex received an award of 7.45 euros, and Skyrora received 3 million euros. ESA is co-funding the avionics, software and guidance, navigation and control activities for Orbex’s Prime launch vehicle. It’s also co-funding the qualification of the main rocket engine intended for the Skyrora XL first and second stages.

One small step for new space … “There is a growing impetus in European privately led space transportation initiatives, like the ones from Orbex and Skyrora. This emerging dynamism is crucial in the long-term success of the European space sector,” said Lucía Linares, Head of Strategy and Institutional launches in the ESA Directorate for Space Transportation. Previously, the Boost! program gave awards to three Germany based launch companies. This is a small but noticeable step toward the support of a more purely commercial launch industry in Europe. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Arianespace signs deal for 10 Vega-C launches. The European-based launch company said this agreement will allow Vega manufacturer Avio to procure long-lead items for the production of Vega-C rockets, with the first delivery expected in 2023. The new small-satellite launch vehicle, an upgrade over the current Vega rocket, is due to make its debut later this year or early in 2022.

Greater competitiveness? … The announcement follows a commitment by several European countries to launch their payloads on the new rocket. “A number of European Earth observation and science programs, most notably Copernicus, will fully benefit from the greater competitiveness of Vega C,” said Stéphane Israël, chief executive officer of Arianespace. The big question in my mind is whether Vega-C is able to win any commercial launch contracts or whether it is only able to attract institutional missions. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

ABL Space raises $170 million in new funding. The California-based rocket company announced Thursday that it has closed a Series B investment round that values ABL Space at $1.3 billion. The funding round was led by T. Rowe Price Associates, and stands out at a time when a lot of other competitors have raised money through special-purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs.

Ship and shoot … The company confirmed that it is on track to launch its RS1 rocket later this year, which is designed to be capable of lifting 1 metric ton to low Earth orbit. One interesting feature of the RS1 rocket is that ABL says it can be transported in shipping containers and launched from any suitable location in the world. Already, ABL says it has contracts with 10 distinct customers: five commercial customers, four US department of defense customers, and one national space agency customer. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Europe is starting to freak about SpaceX. There now appears to be increasing concern in Europe that the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets will not be competitive in the launch market of the near future. Economic ministers in France and Italy have concluded that the launch market has changed dramatically since 2014, when the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets were first designed. According to a report in Le Figaro, the ministers believe the ability of these new European rockets to compete for commercial launch contracts has significantly deteriorated since then.

The primary cause? SpaceX … Thanks to its reusable, low-cost Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has been able to slash prices for large commercial satellites that could be lofted by the Ariane 6, Ars reports. The company’s small-satellite ride-share program similarly threatens the Vega-C rocket. Because of this, the French and Italian ministers are calling for Europe to offer a significant “technological and industrial” response to the rise of SpaceX. It is not clear what form this would take or how quickly the European nations could move in response.

GK Launch Services completes first all-commercial mission. A Soyuz rocket launched 38 satellites from 18 countries on Monday, in the first all-commercial ride-share mission GK Launch Services has arranged without a Russian government satellite onboard, SpaceNews reports. The stylish rocket was painted blue and white to commemorate the upcoming 60th anniversary of the first human spaceflight.

Selling the Soyuz … South Korea’s CAS500-1 remote-sensing satellite was the primary payload, but the mission included small satellites from 18 other countries. A subsidiary of Roscosmos, GK Launch Services operates commercial Soyuz-2 launches from Russian spaceports. With the decline of the Proton rocket, the Soyuz is now clearly Russia’s most commercially competitive rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Starlink launch marks a big SpaceX anniversary. A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched another set of Starlink satellites March 24. This was the ninth Falcon 9 mission of 2021 and the fourth this month, SpaceNews reports. Seven of those nine launches, including all four in March, have been dedicated to Starlink, increasing the size of the constellation to more than 1,300 satellites.

From Kwaj with love … This launch, by coincidence, took place exactly 15 years after SpaceX conducted the first launch of its Falcon 1 rocket from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. That March 24, 2006, launch was unsuccessful, as the first stage’s single engine failed about 30 seconds after liftoff. By the way, there’s a good book about the Falcon 1 which was recently published. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Russian company developing a spaceplane. A couple of years ago, the Russian weapons maker Kalashnikov acquired NPO Molniya, which built the Buran spacecraft decades ago and now works on reusable space systems. Now, Reuters reports that Molniya is developing a reusable spaceplane. It is not clear how much of the funding is being provided by the Russian government.

Is the project really real? … A full-size model of the plane was presented at a closed pavilion during a Russian military forum last year, and the project is now under development, said the general director of the Molniya research-to-production facility. “The goal has now been set and the development of a multi-use civilian complex with an orbital plane is in full swing,” the official, Olga Sokolova, said. As always, it is difficult to know how much of this is talk and how much is real hardware. (submitted by Imbrium)

SpaceX to conduct second SN11 hot-fire test. SpaceX completed an initial static-fire test of its SN11 Starship prototype on Monday, March 22. While the test appeared to proceed nominally, the data must have shown some problem. Reporter Michael Baylor said the company had to remove one of the three Raptor engines on the vehicle, and will now target no earlier than Friday for a second static fire test of the vehicle.

Stick the landing this time? … Although there is some talk about trying to fly on Friday after the static-fire test, more likely this means SN11 will not make its test flight until next week. SpaceX is seeking to successfully land (and save) the full-scale Starship prototype for the first time after a high-altitude flight.

NASA continues work on second SLS vehicle. Technicians at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, completed a weld to join the two major parts of the launch vehicle stage adapter for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, the space agency said.

Getting a head start … The adapter—a cone-shaped piece of hardware that connects the rocket’s upper and lower stages—will fly on Artemis II, the first crewed mission of NASA’s Artemis program. The completed stage adapter is approximately three stories tall and 30 feet in diameter. This hardware is unlikely to fly into space before late 2023 or 2024. (submitted by Something witty)

Next three launches

March 25: Soyuz | OneWeb-5 mission | Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia | 02:47 UTC

March 28: GSLV | The GISAT 1 geoimaging satellite | Satish Dhawan Space Center, India | TBD

April 9: Soyuz | Soyuz MS-18 crew mission | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 07:42 UTC