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Rocket Report: Astra launch fails, Georgia spaceport comes to a vote

A fully stacked Starship and Super Heavy rocket on Thursday morning in South Texas.
Enlarge / A fully stacked Starship and Super Heavy rocket on Thursday morning in South Texas.

Welcome to Edition 4.32 of the Rocket Report! There are plenty of international happenings this week, with progress in Europe, Asia, and North America. But the biggest news may have come from SpaceX’s Starship presentation last night, hosted by company founder Elon Musk in South Texas. Expect full coverage on Ars Technica later this morning.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe via 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 and a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Astra launch attempt from Florida fails. The California company’s Rocket 3.3 failed to reach orbit after entering into a tumble about three minutes into flight on Thursday afternoon, Spaceflight Now reports. The rocket launch was Astra’s first attempt from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Four NASA-sponsored CubeSats were lost in the mishap.

A bad day gets worse … Control of the rocket was lost at the point of stage separation and ignition of the second-stage engine. Although the company did not immediately provide specifics, the second-stage engine appears to have ignited before the payload fairing separated. Separately, on Thursday, the company disclosed that CEO Chris Kemp and CFO Kelyn Brannon are being sued for alleged securities laws violations. Astra said the claims were without merit.

NASA selects Lockheed to build Mars Ascent Vehicle. The space agency this week awarded Lockheed Martin a $194 million contract to assemble the small rocket that will launch from the surface of Mars carrying sample rocks. This is one of several components of a complex joint mission between NASA and the European Space Agency to retrieve samples from the soil of Mars for study in labs back on Earth. Last May, NASA selected Northrop Grumman to provide the solid propulsion for the rocket.

One step of many … At present, NASA’s Perseverance rover is collecting samples on Mars. NASA’s Sample Retrieval Lander will then land near or in Jezero crater to gather the samples cached by Perseverance. This lander will then serve as the launch platform for the Mars Ascent Vehicle. Once the ascent vehicle reaches Mars orbit, the sample container carried by this rocket would be captured by an ESA-built Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft, which would bring the samples to Earth in the early- to mid-2030s. Selecting a rocket contractor is an important step, but this mission still has many funding hurdles to go. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Tfargo04)

Georgia spaceport comes down to a vote. Camden County, located in coastal Georgia, will hold a special election on March 8 to determine the fate of the proposed Spaceport Camden, The Current reports. Probate Judge Robert C. Sweatt Jr. on Tuesday issued an order verifying that the referendum was warranted by a petition filed in December and signed by at least 10 percent of the county’s registered voters, as required by the Georgia Constitution. Camden has spent over six years and $10 million to develop a commercial spaceport from which small rockets would launch vertically up to 12 times per year.

Yay or nay … The Federal Aviation Administration approved a site operator’s license for the county in December, but the license is conditioned on the county purchasing the Union Carbide property. This proposal has been controversial in the community, and now people will get to vote on a single question: “Shall the resolutions of the Board of Commissioners of Camden County, Georgia authorizing the Option Contract with Union Carbide Corporation and Camden County’s right and option to purchase the property described therein be repealed?” I’ll be fascinated to see the results. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Funding for Chinese startups roars back. Investment in China’s commercial space sector appeared to be lagging somewhat during the middle of 2021, but new rounds of fundraising suggest a huge appetite for the sector remains, SpaceNews reports. The article details a number of recent large funding rounds secured by launch startups such as Galactic Energy, Deep Blue Aerospace, Orienspace, Rocket Pi, and more.

Seeking government contracts… Much of this private sector interest appears to be driven by the potential to secure launch contracts for the Chinese government. Many of the companies with new funding cite China’s national Satellite Internet project and associated planned megaconstellation, plus commercial cargo transport to the under-construction Chinese space station, as clear opportunities. Of course, turning funding into real launch vehicles is no small feat, but some winners will certainly emerge from this competition.

Electron set for first launch of 2022. After launching six rockets last year, Rocket Lab said the window for its first launch of 2022 will open on February 28. “The Owl’s Night Continues” is the first of three dedicated Electron missions for Synspective, with two scheduled to launch in 2022 and a third in 2023, Rocket Lab said. Each mission will deploy a single StriX satellite, thereby growing Synspective’s synthetic-aperture-radar constellation.

Upping the cadence… This is an important year for Rocket Lab. The company launched six rockets in 2019, seven in 2020, and six in 2021. Rocket Lab needs to demonstrate that it can support an increased cadence and avoid a failure with Electron like the company experienced in each of the last two years. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Launcher acquires additional ride-share missions. Even as the California-based small launch company is developing a small rocket named Launcher Light, it is also working on an orbital transfer vehicle. This week, Launcher announced that it has purchased slots on three more SpaceX ride-share missions for its Orbiter tug. Those tugs will fly on Falcon 9 rideshare missions in January, April, and October of 2023, SpaceNews reports.

The last mile… Launcher’s first Orbiter tug is planned to launch on SpaceX’s Transporter-6 ride-share mission in October 2022, under a contract announced last summer. The tug will deploy CubeSats and other smallsats in their desired orbits, as well as host payloads for missions lasting up to two years. Launcher offers launch and orbit-transfer services for smallsats for between $8,000 and $25,000 per kilogram, depending on mission requirements. The company will also sell a dedicated Orbiter mission for $400,000 plus SpaceX flight costs. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

China plans more than 50 launches in 2022. China’s main space contractor aims to launch at least 140 spacecraft across more than 50 launches in 2022, SpaceNews reports. These institutional launches, coupled with the launch plans of other Chinese state-owned enterprises and new private firms, mean China could potentially exceed 60 launches in 2022. This tally would be higher than the country’s previous orbital launch record, 55, set just last year.

Lots of space station work… The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation’s major missions will include six launches to complete the construction phase of the Tiangong space station. The Tianzhou-4 cargo spacecraft will launch following the end of the Shenzhou-13 mission in March in order to support the next three-person crew launching on Shenzhou-14. The Shenzhou-14 astronauts will be aboard the Tianhe core module for the arrival of the 20-metric-ton-plus Wentian and Mengtian modules, both now expected to launch in the second half of the year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Korea invests in powerful liquid engine. South Korea will spend about $10 million over the next two years to develop a new liquid-fueled rocket engine, Yonhap News Agency reports. The money will fund the development of the manufacturing technology and core components required for a “high performance” rocket engine with a thrust of about 200,000 pounds.

Bigger engine, bigger rocket… Whether or not the engine is designed to be reusable is unclear, but it likely would be employed in a medium-lift rocket that will serve as a successor to the small-lift Nuri rocket, or Korean Space Launch Vehicle-II, which made its debut flight last year. The rocket’s third stage failed during that test flight. The new engine is part of South Korea’s efforts to invigorate its young space program.

Russia launches first rocket of the year. A Soyuz rocket lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia on Saturday, carrying an unidentified Russian military satellite to orbit. Due to its high latitude, the Plesetsk launch site is well suited for launches to high-inclination orbits often associated with reconnaissance satellites, reports.

Dozens more to come?… The mission represented the first Soyuz launch of 2022 and the first overall Russian rocket launch of the year. Another Soyuz rocket, this time operated by Arianespace, is expected to lift off this week with the 13th set of OneWeb satellites. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

India targets August launch of lunar probe. The country will make its second attempt to land on the Moon later this year, the country’s science and technology minister has confirmed. The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft is planned for an August launch from India’s Satish Dhawan Space Center aboard the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III rocket, SpaceNews reports. India is seeking to become the fourth country, after the United States, Russia, and China, to make a soft landing on the Moon.

Back for another go… India first attempted to land on the Moon in 2019, when the Chandrayaan-2 mission’s Vikram lander and its onboard rover crashed into the lunar surface. That mission’s orbiter is still flying around the Moon in good working condition, so Chandrayaan-3 will be focused on the lander. The spacecraft will seek to land about 70.9 degrees south of the lunar equator, the same landing site chosen for Chandraayan-2’s attempt. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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