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Rocket Report: Neutron may land in Virginia; it’s to be Starship for Starlink

Grainy photograph of smoke-haloed rocket.
Enlarge / SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is seen returning to Earth after its 10th flight to space.

Welcome to Edition 4.28 of the Rocket Report! As I write this introduction, I’m watching Virgin Orbit’s livestream for its “Above the Clouds” mission, and the company’s LauncherOne vehicle has successfully reached orbit. All systems appeared to be nominal through stage separation, with great views from the rocket as the payload fairing broke away. This makes three successful missions in a row for the company after an initial failure in May 2020—pretty darn impressive.

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.

A short’s take on Astra is brutal. When space companies go public, they can often raise a lot of capital, quickly. But going the route of a Special Purpose Acquisition Company also opens a company’s record and financials up to much greater scrutiny. Part of the process, too, allows traders to “short” a stock by betting that its value will fall. For Astra Space, one of the financial firms shorting the stock is Kerrisdale Capital, which recently published its rationale for doing so in a report titled Headed for Dis-Astra.

Aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play? Kerrisdale summarizes its report thusly, “We are short shares of Astra Space, a $2.0bn space launch company formed at the peak of the 2021 SPAC bubble—with no revenue, no track record of reliability, and no established market for its undersized vehicle. A story stock that’s yet another example of the questionable businesses going public via SPACs, Astra faces massive obstacles in its quest to develop a viable business model.” Clearly the report is slanted against Astra, but it makes for worthwhile reading to better understand the economics of small launch.

Gilmour moves ahead with engine tests. Australian launch company Gilmour Space Technologies said it has successfully hot-fired a hybrid rocket engine with 25,000 pounds of thrust. The company said this is the most powerful rocket engine ever developed in Australia. The test lasted 75 seconds, and next month Gilmour plans to move into qualifying the engine for flight. Gilmour is developing a rocket named Eris to deliver up to 305 kg to low Earth orbit.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance … As it tackles technical challenges, Gilmour is also working with state and federal officials in Australia to greenlight a small spaceport at Abbot Point State Development Area in Bowen, North Queensland. “We hope to be able to launch Australia’s first sovereign-made rocket from Queensland sometime in the latter half of 2022,” said company CEO Adam Gilmour. (submitted by Gibson and Ken the Bin)

Ariane 5 performance a boon to Webb. Last weekend, NASA’s mission systems engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope, Mike Menzel, said the agency had completed its analysis of how much “extra” fuel remained on board the telescope. Roughly speaking, Webb has enough propellant on board for 20 years of life. This is twice the conservative prelaunch estimate for Webb’s lifetime of a decade, and it largely comes down to the performance of the European Ariane 5 rocket that launched Webb on a precise trajectory on Christmas Day, Ars reports.

More like Ariane Fine, amirite? Prior to launch, the telescope was fueled with 240 liters of hydrazine fuel and dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. Some of this fuel was needed for course adjustments along the journey to the point in space, about 1.5 million km from Earth, where Webb will conduct science observations. The remainder will be used at Webb’s final orbit around the L2 Lagrange point for station-keeping and to maintain its orbit. So every kilogram of fuel saved on Webb’s journey to the Lagrange point could be used to extend its life there.

Falcon 9 rocket launches its 550th satellite. With clearing skies and moderate winds, SpaceX’s Transporter-3 rideshare mission safely launched into space on Thursday. The Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage sent its upper stage and a payload with 105 small satellites on its way into low Earth orbit. Then, the Falcon 9 first stage made a smooth landing back near its launch site, Ars reports.

A well-traveled rocket … The first stage was making its 10th flight. Remarkably, this single Falcon 9 rocket first stage has now launched 550 satellites into orbit, as well as one Cargo Dragon and one Crew Dragon. It has flown, on average, every two months since its first launch. Rocket reuse seems to be more than a fad.

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.

Virginia likely to house Neutron production facility. This week, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, announced that the state is a finalist for a new facility to support part production, assembly, integration, and test operations for Rocket Lab’s Neutron vehicle. This is not a huge surprise, as Neutron is expected to launch from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore, and Rocket Lab wants to build the booster close to the launch site for logistics purposes.

Positive cash flow for Neutron rocket … A medium-lift vehicle with a fully reusable first stage, Neutron is expected to launch for the first time during the mid-2020s, depending on how its development goes. Virginia has offered to support the project through a one-time $30 million appropriation to Virginia Space to pay for improvement to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Additionally, the state approved an investment of up to $15 million to support site improvements and construction of a building on 28 acres to be leased to Rocket Lab as part of the proposal.

Russia seeks to launch 30 rockets in 2022. On Thursday, Roscosmos released remarks from its director general, Dmitry Rogozin, about space activities in 2021 and looking ahead to 2022. Counting a Europeanized version of the Soyuz rocket, Roscosmos completed 25 orbital launches in 2021. Of these, 14 took place from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, five from Vostochny, five from Plesetsk, and one from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana.

Taking “great risks” … For this year, Rogozin said, “We are planning about 30 launches of space rockets, with more than 10 of them commercial ones.” Rogozin also commented on last year’s launch and deployment of the Nauka module to the International Space Station with this cryptic remark: “This is a very important achievement, we did something we had not been able to do for many years, we made decisions, understanding that there would be great risks.” We’ll leave it to our readers to read these particular tea leaves.

India begins qualification testing of upper-stage engine. The Indian space agency ISRO said this week that it had successfully conducted a 720-second qualification test of the CE-20 rocket engine. This liquid-fueled engine powers the upper stage of the powerful GSLV Mk III rocket, which will be used as part of the country’s Gaganyaan human spaceflight campaign.

Human flights within a couple of years … This test, the agency said, “ensures the reliability and robustness of the cryogenic engine for induction into the human-rated launch vehicle for Gaganyaan.” At present, India plans two orbital test flights of a human spacecraft later this year and in 2023, with a crewed flight to follow late in 2023. It is not clear whether the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to further slippage of these dates. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

ULA working toward first launch of 2022. United Launch Alliance will kick off its campaign for the new year with the launch of the USSF-8 mission for the US Space Force, the company said. Two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program spacecraft were hoisted aboard the Atlas V on Monday. The rocket launch is scheduled for January 21. It will be the 75th Atlas V to launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Picking up the pace this year? … ULA launched five rockets in 2021, including four Atlas V missions and one Delta IV Heavy. The company should have as many as 7 to 10 launches this year, depending on its customer readiness, and its new Vulcan rocket could potentially debut. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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