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Rocket Report: FAA decision day, or another delay? Using a balloon first stage

The Space Launch System rocket rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building this week.
Enlarge / The Space Launch System rocket rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building this week.

Trevor Mahlmann

Welcome to Edition 4.41 of the Rocket Report! For your situational awareness, Rocket Lab’s “There and Back Again” mission is now scheduled for 22:35 UTC on Friday from Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. The company is seeking optimal weather for the launch and subsequent recovery of the first stage by helicopter. Can’t wait to see it.

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.

Angara 1.2 rocket finally ready for flight. Russian space journalist Anatoly Zak reports that the Angara 1.2 vehicle—a single-core version of the Angara booster—is finally ready for its debut flight. It may launch as early as Friday from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia, carrying the small MKA-R spacecraft. The vehicle, Zak notes, has been under development for 25 years in various guises.

Let’s put that development time into perspective … Back in 1997, Beal Aerospace was the hot, new rocket startup in the United States. United Launch Alliance was eight years from existence. SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket was nearly a decade from launching. There were still 50 space shuttle flights to go before the program’s completion. Oh, and the Soyuz rocket had already been flying for 30 years.

Advocates for a Michigan spaceport look UP …  As it does from time to time, The New Yorker has dipped its toes into coverage of the space industry. This time the magazine’s reporting takes readers to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where a vertical launch spaceport has been proposed on the shores of Lake Superior. The Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association is pushing the spaceport concept forward, saying that a command-and-control center will be operational by 2023. The site will be able to accommodate rockets up to the capacity of about 1 metric ton to low Earth orbit, such as Firefly’s Alpha vehicle.

An online petition opposing the spaceport has 25,000 signatures … I grew up in southern Michigan, which really is a world apart from the Upper Peninsula. The northern part of the state is remote, beautiful, and full of bugs during the summer. At least that’s what I remember from several visits there as a kid. Anyway, the story is the usual one of spaceport promoters talking up the economic prospects of such a facility, and nearby residents who say they don’t want the facility for various reasons. “I’m not going anywhere,” Dennis Ferraro, 75, told the publication. “They’re going to scatter my bones or ashes on this property. I’m committed to leaving this land for people a hundred years from now. Hopefully, it will look the same.” (submitted by Tfargo04)

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.

German microlaunch competition picks a second winner. Rocket Factory Augsburg says it won a competition held by the German Aerospace Center, DLR, for small launch vehicles. As part of the 11 million euro award, the German government will fly a 150 kg payload on each of the first two flights of the company’s small rocket, RFA One. Rocket Factory Augsburg says its rocket has a lift capacity of 1,350 kg to low Earth orbit, so there probably will be other payloads on these first two flights.

Nudging the industry upward … “We are very pleased to have won DLR as an anchor customer and are honored by the confidence the German government is placing in us,” said Jörn Spurmann, chief commercial officer at RFA. “We believe that buying services from newly emerging and commercially acting Space Transportation companies is the right direction for European spaceflight.” The German microlauncher competition seeks to strengthen the country’s space industry. During the first round of the competition, in 2021, Isar Aerospace also won contracts worth 11 million euros.

Vega-C rocket being readied for launch. The first stage for the European Space Agency’s new Vega C rocket arrived in French Guiana on April 15 and was followed by the interstage a week later. In its news release, the European Space Agency did not set a target for the launch but has previously been working toward a June liftoff of the small launch vehicle.

Same price, more lift … For its debut mission, Vega C will have as its principal payload the LARES-2 scientific satellite for the Italian Space Agency, in addition to six European research CubeSats. Financed by the European Space Agency, Vega-C is intended to increase performance from the original Vega rocket from 1.5 metric tons to about 2.2 tons to a reference 700 km polar orbit. There will be no increase in price for the vehicle, which has a cost of $37 million, according to the US Government Accountability Office. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Launcher fires E-2 engine at full thrust. The California-based launch company said it has successfully fired its E-2 rocket engine at full thrust for the first time. The E-2 is a closed-cycle, 3D-printed LOX-kerosene rocket engine with 22,000 pounds of thrust. A single E-2 engine will boost the company’s expendable Launcher Light to low Earth orbit with up to 150 kg of payload.

A stepping stone to bigger things … As a next step, Launcher plans to test the engine again in early May with the same thrust chamber and injector. The company’s goal is to increase C* (a measure of efficiency) from 90 percent in earlier tests to 98 percent. Launcher aims to one day build a larger reusable orbital launch vehicle. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Chinese launch firm scores another funding round. Deep Blue Aerospace announced A+ round financing earlier this month as it seeks to develop a reusable orbital rocket. The new round was led by CMBC International Holdings, the amount of which was undisclosed, and it came just three months after Deep Blue raised $31.5 million in A-round funding, Space News reports.

Building on earlier tests …The funding will go toward the development of the reusable Nebula-1 kerosene-liquid oxygen rocket, the “Thunder” engine series, and additive manufacturing processes. Despite the new funding, however, the first orbital launch and recovery of Nebula-1 is now expected in 2024, whereas earlier statements had targeted a first launch in 2023. Last year Deep Blue carried out a 10-meter and 100-meter vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) test.

US Solid rocket startup also lands funding. A startup that manufactures solid rocket motors announced Tuesday that it has closed a $20 million Series A funding round, Space News reports. Indiana-based Adranos was founded in 2015 by former Purdue University aerospace engineer Brandon Terry and Chris Stoker. The company manufactures solid rocket motor propulsion systems for hypersonic boosters, tactical missiles, and space launch vehicles.

And then there were three … The fundraising was spurred by Adranos’ successful tests of its proprietary aluminum-lithium alloy fuel called ALITEC. The fuel was tested on tactical missile-sized solid rocket motors under a program jointly funded by the US Navy and US Air Force. With only Northrop Grumman and Aerojet Rocketdyne presently supplying solid rocket motors in the United States, military officials have signaled they would welcome another domestic provider. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Balloon launch company tests innovative engine. Canadian launch startup SpaceRyde has conducted a test fire of what it says is the world’s first gimbaling hybrid rocket engine, Payload reports. The Toronto company is building what it hopes will be Canada’s first orbital rocket, and it has a novel first stage. A balloon will bring the small-lift rocket above 99 percent of the atmosphere, where the booster will then fire up its engines and attempt to launch to orbit.

Pivoting to position payloads … The rocket will be vacuum-optimized due to the thinness of the atmosphere at launch altitude. The gimbaled engine that SpaceRyde is currently testing can be maneuvered around by its operators, generating thrust in the direction of their choosing. The proposed rocket will have a capacity of 150 kg, and SpaceRyde hopes to begin commercial operations in 2023. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX launches second crew mission in 19 days. Beneath a starry Florida sky on Wednesday morning, a Falcon 9 rocket streaked spaceward carrying four astronauts. A few minutes later Commander Kjell Lindgren, Pilot Bob Hines, and Mission Specialists Jessica Watkins and Samantha Cristoforetti were safely in orbit. The Falcon 9 first stage, making its fourth flight, soon landed in the center of a drone ship, Ars reports.

Building up that cadence … All in all, it was SpaceX’s seventh human spaceflight in less than two years and its fifth crew mission for NASA to the International Space Station. This launch came just 19 days after the company’s previous Crew Dragon flight of the Axiom-1 mission on April 8. The company’s director of human spaceflight programs, Benji Reed, said this week that he thinks SpaceX can presently support as many as six human spaceflights a year.

Starship permitting decision coming? By the time you read this, the Federal Aviation Administration may have released an update on the Starship launch site permitting status. But as of Thursday night, the agency’s website still estimates April 29, 2022, as the completion date for “environmental review and permitting” of SpaceX’s South Texas launch site.

That’s Friday … The FAA has previously delayed this decision several times, and that’s very likely what will happen again. But usually the FAA has publicly released the delay by now. Whenever it acts, the FAA is expected to issue one of three rulings: a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), a Mitigated FONSI, or a Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. A “FONSI” would allow the formal launch licensing process to proceed. If a full Environmental Impact Statement is needed, launches from South Texas would likely be delayed by years as more paperwork is completed.

Vulcan makes solid rocket motor block buy. The launch contract from Amazon’s Project Kuiper for 38 Vulcan rocket missions has already spurred United Launch Alliance to make a large purchase of 116 RL-10 engines for the Centaur upper stage. Now, ULA is moving to purchase solid rocket boosters for those flights.

A big booster deal … Space journalist Stephen Clark reports that ULA is expected to sign an agreement with Northrop Grumman to purchase GEM 63XL solid boosters for about $2 billion. Kathy Warden, Northrop’s CEO, said the boosters will cover ULA’s need for Vulcan launches for the Kuiper program and additional missions.

Next three launches

April 29: Long March 11 | Gaofen satellites | A barge on the Yellow Sea | 03:30

April 29: Angara 1.2 | MKA-R mission | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | 19:55

April 29: Falcon 9 | Starlink 4-16 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 21:27

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