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Rocket Report: Falcon 9 says Aloha to Hawaii, Blue Origin to abandon ship?

A Falcon 9 rocket launched the NROL-85 mission on April 17.
Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket launched the NROL-85 mission on April 17.


Welcome to Edition 4.40 of the Rocket Report! There is a lot happening in spaceflight this week, but I’m probably most excited about Rocket Lab’s attempt to capture the first stage of its Electron rocket in mid-air. This launch (and capture?) will happen no earlier than 22:35 UTC (6:35pm EDT, 3:35pm PDT) on Saturday April 23.

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.

Rocket Lab signs multi-launch deal with HawkEye 360. The Virginia-based satellite company HawkEye 360 has contracted with Rocket Lab for three Electron launches to deliver 15 satellites into low-Earth orbit by 2024. The first of the three missions is scheduled to be Rocket Lab’s inaugural Electron mission from Launch Complex 2 on Wallops Island, Virginia. This first flight will launch no earlier than December 2022, Rocket Lab said.

2022 be or not to be … Rocket Lab will first deploy three HawkEye 360 satellites as part of a rideshare mission, followed by six satellites each on two dedicated Electron launches. I’m slightly skeptical of the 2022 launch date for the first mission, as a good rule of thumb for launches is that if you’re in the first half of a year, and a company indicates that it is planning a launch for the fourth quarter of the same year, it probably will slip into the following year. Here’s to hoping Rocket Lab proves me wrong. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Georgia officials seek private funding for spaceport. Camden County is forging ahead on plans for a spaceport despite last month’s public referendum that overwhelmingly rejected the county’s purchase of the property for the facility, The Current reports. Earlier this month, three executives from Spearhead Capital Advisers gave the County Commission their plans—in very broad terms—to raise funds for a public-private partnership in Camden. The facility will be located on a 400-acre marsh site a few miles west of Cumberland Island.

Sunset for the spaceport authority? …  Camden County has, so far, spent more than $11 million to receive a site operator’s launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December. Private investors would fund the infrastructure, and both the county and private investors would recoup costs and ultimately profit from fees to use the spaceport. Potential tenant launch companies have not been named. Meanwhile, a state legislator has submitted a bill to sunset the county’s spaceport authority. In explaining the legislation, the state representative said the public’s vote against the spaceport should be respected. (submitted by zapman987)

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.

Space Force plans “responsive” launch in 2023. As part of the fiscal year 2022 defense budget, Congress added $50 million for the US Department of Defense to better use commercial launch services during a conflict; this would help the government replace damaged satellites or deploy new ones quickly. This week, the US Space Force said it plans to conduct a 2023 “responsive space” demonstration where private launch companies will be challenged to deploy satellites on short notice, Space News reports.

Who will deliver? … The $50 million appropriation for tactically responsive launch will fund a demonstration not just of launch vehicles but also of capabilities to integrate payloads quickly. Companies like Virgin Orbit have actively lobbied for funding for this program, which would boost small launch services providers that don’t require conventional launch facilities—and claim they can respond within days or hours.

OneWeb reaches a launch agreement with India. In a short news release, OneWeb said it signed a “historic contract” with India’s space agency, ISRO, to help deliver OneWeb’s first-generation broadband satellite constellation. However, beyond saying the first launch would occur later in 2022 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, the release offered few details. Since its launch agreement with Russia fell through in the wake of the war in Ukraine, OneWeb has also said it is working with SpaceX to replace six Soyuz launches.

It’s all GSLV to me … Europe-based space reporter Peter B. de Selding said the agreement is for two launches, at least one of which will be on India’s Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV). It is not surprising that OneWeb would partner with India for space launches, as Indian conglomerate Bharti Global holds the largest stake in OneWeb. The real question concerns what kind of cadence India can reach with the GSLV, which has not successfully launched since 2019 and has had difficulty overcoming issues with its cryogenic upper stage following a failure in 2021. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

SpaceX tops lift list in Q1 2022. BryceTech has released its 2022 Q1 report examining rocket launches and satellite deployment. Unsurprisingly, the firm found that SpaceX topped the charts with 11 rockets launched, carrying a total of 502 spacecraft. Across all these spacecraft, the upmass launched into orbit by SpaceX totaled 115.9 metric tons; the rest of the world combined didn’t manage to launch half that, Payload notes.

Continuing trend toward commercial satellites … Of the 624 spacecraft launched in Q1 of 2022, 88 percent are owned and operated by commercial companies. (The majority of these are SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, of course). This trend continues one identified by BryceTech in Q3 and Q4 of 2021. In those quarters, 82 percent and 78 percent of all spacecraft launched were owned and operated by commercial companies. This will almost certainly continue as more OneWeb and Project Kuiper satellites are launched. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Falcon 9 puts on a show over Hawaii. On Sunday morning local time, April 17, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California carrying the classified NROL-85 payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. Due to the classified nature of the launch, the SpaceX webcast ended shortly after liftoff. But observers in Hawaii got a spectacular view of the second stage a few hours after the launch.

Second stage does a barrel “nrol” … The Subaru Telescope on top of Mauna Kea recorded what appeared to be a flying whirlpool in the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, Live Science reports. Really, the video is quite spectacular. This is clearly the second stage of the Falcon 9 reentering Earth’s atmosphere, spinning, and venting the extra propellant in its fuel tanks. Such phenomena have been observed before, but this is one the best views I’ve seen. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SLS rocket rolling back to VAB for repairs. On Saturday night, NASA said it would roll the large Space Launch System (SLS) rocket from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) in the coming days. This marks a notable step back for the program, which has tried since April 1 to complete a “wet dress rehearsal” test, during which the rocket is fueled and brought to within 10 seconds of launch, Ars reported. Each of three fueling attempts were scuttled by one or more technical issues with the rocket, its mobile launch tower, or ground systems that supply propellants and gases. During the most recent attempt on Thursday, April 14, NASA succeeded in loading 49 percent of the core-stage liquid oxygen fuel tank and 5 percent of the liquid hydrogen tank.

Summer slipping into fall launch? … NASA and its contractors will use the next several weeks to address problems that cropped up during the fueling tests. For example, gaseous nitrogen system supplier Air Liquide will upgrade its capabilities. NASA will also replace a faulty check valve on the upper stage of the rocket and fix a leak on the mobile launch tower’s “tail service mast umbilical,” a 10-meter-tall structure that provides propellant and electricity lines to the rocket on the pad. During a Monday news conference, NASA officials declined to set a timeline for how long the rocket will be in the VAB, saying it would be at least “weeks.” A launch before August now seems unlikely.

Sorry, Mom, Blue Origin may not use “Jacklyn.” In December 2020, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos visited Pensacola, Florida, to rename a large rocket recovery ship “Jacklyn” after his mother. “New Glenn’s first stage will come home to the Jacklyn after every flight,” Bezos wrote on his Instagram account. “It couldn’t be more appropriately named—Mom has always given us the best place and best heart to come home to.” A year and a half later, Blue Origin appears to be reconsidering that possibility, the Pensacola News Journal reports.

Coming home may be too expensive … The 600-foot former cargo ship has been docked at the Port of Pensacola since 2018, undergoing a retrofit so it can serve as a landing platform for the first stage of New Glenn. A Blue Origin spokesperson told the publication that no final decision has been made yet. The company is looking at “different options” for recovery vessels that give the best chance for mission success while also being safe and cost-effective, the spokesperson said. It seems unlikely that Blue Origin will revert to ground-based landings; it seems like Blue Origin is instead seeking a more economical option than the massive “Jacklyn” for recovery operations. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA completes upper stage “test article.” The space agency said Tuesday that it has completed the manufacturing of a hydrogen tank barrel that will be tested as a weld confidence article for the Space Launch System’s new upper stage. This more powerful “Exploration Upper Stage” will be used for launches starting with the Artemis IV mission later this decade. This upper stage will have the capacity to send both the Orion spacecraft and cargo into lunar orbit at the same time.

There is no rush … Boeing has the lead contract to develop the upper stage, and it likely will be a lucrative one as NASA awarded it under “cost-plus” terms. Although Artemis III—the first crewed landing—is nominally scheduled to occur in 2025, it will almost certainly be delayed until 2026, 2027, or even later due to various development issues. This means that Boeing will likely be able to stretch the development contract for the Exploration Upper Stage, which uses the RL-10 engine, out for nearly a decade.

Next three launches

April 23: Electron | There and Back Again | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 22:35 UTC

April 26: Falcon 9 | Crew-4 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 08:15 UTC

April 27: Angara 1.2 | MKA-R mission | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | TBD

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