Rocket Report: SpaceX readies Super Heavy, Russia tests new engine

Photos of SN11 in flight.
Enlarge / SN11 nears apogee on March 30, 2021 over SpaceX’s South Texas launch site.

Welcome to Edition 3.39 of the Rocket Report! This week, we have another exploding Starship to cover, as well as two—count ’em two—stories that originate Down Under. Finally, one of the most promising Scottish spaceports has run into a pretty serious roadblock.

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 Galactic reveals its newest spaceplane. On Tuesday, Virgin Galactic unveiled the newest vehicle in its fleet, named VSS Imagine. The first in the “SpaceShip III” line of spacecraft, it represents an upgrade from the current VSS Unity vehicle that Virgin Galactic is testing. According to Virgin Galactic, the new vehicle has been optimized to limit the mass of its structure—and therefore its overall weight. The company anticipates a performance increase that will allow VSS Imagine to carry six passengers on short suborbital flights, whereas VSS Unity can carry only four customers in its main cabin.

A potentially significant step forward … For Virgin Galactic, there remain very serious questions about whether it will ever reach an operational cadence of dozens of flights per year, let alone hundreds (VSS Unity has gone to space just twice, most recently in February 2019). The new announcement suggests that the company is at least progressing toward such a cadence that would allow many humans on Earth to experience the “overview effect” from seeing the whole planet from space, Ars explains. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Launcher opens Southern California facility. The small rocket company Launcher has moved across the country as it takes its next steps in the development of its rocket, SpaceNews reports. The company had been based in New York City and will now occupy a 24,000-square-foot building it is leasing in Hawthorne, California, a few blocks from the sprawling headquarters of SpaceX.

Starting small … That building will be the company’s home for the development of its Electron-sized vehicle Launcher Light, with the aim of beginning test launches in 2024 and moving into commercial service in 2026. “Building the first vehicle, and potentially up to four for test flights, it’s definitely big enough,” Launcher founder Max Haot said of its new facility. “Toward the end, it will get a bit cramped.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Scottish spaceport hits major roadblock. The Historic Environment Scotland agency has rejected an application to develop a spaceport on Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands in Scotland. The public agency said the current plans would have an “extensive” impact on the former Skaw radar station to the point where it would no longer be deemed a site of national importance, Shetland News reports.

Not ABL to launch from there … The historical agency said it is a “remarkably well-preserved military complex dating back to the 1940s” which was used to warn the authorities about aircraft observed in the radar’s transmission area. Shetland Space Centre CEO Frank Strang said the company will “vigorously contest” the refusal. This is a notable setback, given that Lockheed Martin and ABL Space had been planning to launch from the facility.

Rocket Crafters rebrands as Vaya Space. Florida rocket company Rocket Crafters has rebranded as Vaya Space and plans a new, larger rocket than it had been pursuing, now named Dauntless, company President Rob Fabian told UPI. The plan for Dauntless is to lift about 1 metric ton to low Earth orbit, Fabian said. That’s more than twice as powerful as the Intrepid rocket the company abandoned.

The spirit of the company … “We think that capability is where the competitive market is today,” Fabian told UPI in an interview. “We chose the name Dauntless because we believe it embodies the spirit of the company.” With a workforce of about two dozen people and $10 million raised in the last year, we’re going to remain somewhat skeptical that Vaya Space is going anywhere any time soon. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Australia grants launch license to civilian facility. The federal industry minister, Karen Andrews, announced that South Australian company Southern Launch will be able to launch suborbital satellites from its Koonibba test range site. The facility is located in the far west of South Australia. Southern Launch’s chief executive, Lloyd Damp, told The Guardian that the company intended to start launches before the end of 2021.

Working with the native community … Damp said that obtaining the license and the ongoing operation of the facility would not be possible without the support and involvement of the Koonibba Community Aboriginal Corporation. “It was critically important to work with Koonibba to understand how we could use the land.” (submitted by dbayly)

Gilmour Space signs launch deal. Another Australian rocket company, Gilmour Space Technologies, says it has reached a deal to launch six Fleet Space Centauri nanosatellites in 2023. The Queensland company said the satellites will launch on its Eris rocket. “This launch is going to involve an Australian-built payload in an Australian-built satellite, on an Australian-built rocket,” said Flavia Tata Nardini, CEO of Fleet Space, in an emailed news release.

Targeting orbit in 2022 … Gilmour is developing the three-stage Eris vehicle to deliver up to 305 kg to low Earth orbit. The first stage is powered by four hybrid rocket engines. The vehicle will launch from a mobile system, and its first test flight is scheduled for next year.

NASA confirms launch date for Crew-2 mission. Following the latest in a series of reviews for the second crew rotation mission with astronauts on an American rocket and spacecraft from the United States, NASA and SpaceX confirmed they’re continuing to work toward a launch of the Crew-2 mission to the International Space Station no earlier than 6:11 am EDT (10:11 UTC) on April 22.

Recycling rockets for humans … For this mission, the first to launch on a previously flown Falcon 9 rocket, NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur will serve as spacecraft commander and pilot, respectively. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet will join as mission specialists. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Russia is testing the RD-171MV engine. Roscosmos said at the end of March that the advanced LOX-kerosene engine completed a run of eight test-fires. The cycle of test-firings, which occurred over a period of three months, were successful and confirmed the operability of the engine, the Russian space corporation said.

Replacing the Proton … Now, the RD-171MV engine will be delivered to the Progress Rocket and Space Center, where it will eventually undergo integration tests with the first stage of the Soyuz-5 rocket. This rocket, with a capacity of 18 metric tons to low Earth orbit, is conceived of as a replacement for the Proton vehicle and may make its debut in 2023. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

Is it aliens? No, just a Falcon 9 upper stage. About one month ago, a Falcon 9 rocket launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center carrying a payload of 60 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit. It was the first of four such missions flown in March by SpaceX. The entire mission was nominal, except for a problem with the rocket’s second stage. There was not enough propellant after this launch to ignite the Merlin engine and complete the burn, Ars reports.

Look up in the sky … So the propellant was vented into space, and the second stage was set to make a more uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere. Last Thursday night, three weeks after launching, this second stage re-entered the thicker part of Earth’s atmosphere and, in doing so over populated areas, provided some spectacular views for the Portland and Washington state region. Videos shared on various social media networks showed what appeared to be an invasion by an alien armada.

SpaceX loses another Starship during testing. Despite a thickly fogged launch site in South Texas, SpaceX let its SN11 Starship prototype fly on Tuesday morning at 8 am local time. An onboard camera showed the vehicle making a nominal ascent to about 10 km, shutting off its three Raptor rocket engines in turn. As the vehicle ascended, it cleared the low cloud deck into blue skies. Starship then hovered before beginning its return to Earth, Ars reports.

Engine 2, where are you? … At 5 minutes 47 seconds into the flight, one of Starship’s three Raptor engines relit to begin the final landing sequence, and then the engine-bay camera cut out in SpaceX’s webcast. Contact with the vehicle was lost, at least in terms of live video pictures. Shortly after this, pieces of the Starship vehicle began raining down on the launch site, and there were reports of a series of small explosions. SpaceX founder Elon Musk said “something significant” happened after Engine 2 relit for the landing sequence. The company is now investigating, cleaning up the area, and preparing to roll SN15 to the launch site.

NASA begins assembly of Artemis II rocket. Boeing is moving parts of the second Space Launch System to begin assembly of the forward, or upper, part of the rocket’s core stage for the Artemis II Moon mission. In late March, the intertank was moved to the vertical assembly area at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans where the core stage is manufactured, the space agency said.

A few years of lead time … The intertank flight hardware is part of the upper portion of the core stage that will help power Artemis II, the second flight of the deep-space rocket and the first crewed lunar mission of NASA’s Artemis program (this mission will fly four astronauts around the Moon but not land there). It’s not clear when this mission will fly, as it will depend on completion of the Artemis I flight next year, and development of ground systems equipment at Kennedy Space Center. We would guess it launches no earlier than late 2023. (submitted by Tfargo04 and Ken the Bin)

Super Heavy booster getting closer to flight. As SpaceX has put its Starship rocket through its paces over the last several months, careful observers have been wondering where the launch system’s first stage—known as Super Heavy—was in development. Thanks to SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s musings on Twitter, we now have some answers about this titanic booster.

Next stop, orbit? … The company has completed its build of Booster Number 1, or BN1, at its South Texas facility, Musk said. This large vehicle essentially served as a “pathfinder” for the manufacturing process and will now be scrapped. The company is already beginning to assemble BN2, he added, with the goal of getting it to the launch pad before the end of April, complete with a few engines (probably four, to start). “It might even be orbit-capable if we are lucky,” Musk added.

Blue Origin expanding its Florida footprint further. The rocket company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos plans to expand its Merritt Island manufacturing campus by 70 acres, according to plans filed with the state on March 26. The project is labeled as “South Campus Phase 2,” and it will rise just south of where Blue Origin previously launched a 90-acre expansion of its spacecraft production efforts, the Orlando Business Journal reports.

Well, they’re certainly good at building rocket buildings … This new expansion will equip Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin with new manufacturing and processing facilities to support its mission to build rockets and spacecraft that can take humans and supplies beyond Earth’s orbit. That likely would lead to further expansion of the company’s workforce. In fact, Blue Origin has 27 Space Coast jobs listed on its website. Those positions include engineers and project managers. The construction timeline is unknown.

Next three launches

April 7: Falcon 9 | Starlink-23 Internet satellites | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 16:34 UTC

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

April 18: GSLV | The GISAT 1 geoimaging satellite | Satish Dhawan Space Center, India | TBD