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Rocket Report: Russia responds to Western sanctions, UK spaceport moves ahead

A rocket leaves a trail of fire as it roars across a blue sky.
Enlarge / As the space world watched Russia threaten to withhold Soyuz launches, SpaceX causally sent its ninth rocket of 2022 into orbit on Thursday, another batch of Starlink satellites.

Welcome to Edition 4.34 of the Rocket Report! There is a famous quote said by Vladimir Lenin, of all people, that goes, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” This has been a week in spaceflight where a decade has happened with the separation of the Russian space program from the West.

The full ramifications of the Western sanctions and Russia’s reaction has yet to be told. But the effects on spaceflight in general (and launch in particular) will be profound. It is certainly a story I’ll be covering in the months and years to come.

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.

UK spaceport clears key regulatory hurdle. Construction of the first vertical launch spaceport in the United Kingdom is scheduled to begin in late March, BBC reports. This week, the SaxaVord UK Spaceport received planning approval from its local authority, Shetland Islands Council. Previously known as the Shetland Space Centre, SaxaVord will be located on Unst, the northernmost of the Shetland Islands, to the north of Scotland.

Almost there … There is yet one final hurdle: The planning approval provides Scottish Ministers with a 28-day window to review the application by SaxaVord UK Spaceport. Should the ministers not request a further review, construction on the $57 million spaceport will move forward next month. The privately-funded spaceport will consist of three launchpads, with future tenants including the US-based ABL Space Systems rocket company as well as Britain-based Skyrora. Ambitiously, SaxaVord officials are targeting an initial launch this year. We’ll see. (submitted by Paul Byford and Ken the Bin)

Branson, Palihapitiya face an investor lawsuit. Chamath Palihapitiya and Richard Branson face an investor lawsuit that alleges they were aware of defects in Virgin Galactic’s spaceships but still capitalized on an inflated stock price to sell shares, Yahoo! News reports. The investor lawsuit, filed by Virgin Galactic shareholder Thomas Spiteri, seeks damages from the space travel company’s directors and others in management. Branson founded Virgin Galactic, and Palihapitiya helped take the company public in 2019.

Sold at the top … The lawsuit alleges that Palihapitiya took advantage of his role as company chairman to sell 10 million shares for $315 million on “inside information” before abruptly leaving his role last month. The suit also alleges that Branson sold 16 million shares for about $458 million while the stock was “artificially inflated.” Branson and Palihapitiya were aware “or were highly reckless in not knowing” of the safety problems in the company’s Eve and Unity spacecrafts yet failed to openly disclose these to the public, the lawsuit states.

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.

Another Iranian launch fails. Iran likely suffered another failed launch of a satellite-carrying rocket last weekend, AP reports. Satellite images from Maxar Technologies show scorch marks at a launch pad at Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s rural Semnan province on Sunday. A rocket stand on the pad appears scorched and damaged, with vehicles surrounding it. An object, possibly part of the gantry, sits near it. Successful launches typically don’t damage rocket gantries because they are lowered prior to takeoff. The failure likely involved the small-satellite Zuljanah rocket.

Never left the pad … Typically, Iran will immediately trumpet launches that reach space on its state-run television channels, and the country has a history of not acknowledging failed attempts. Separate images from Planet Labs PBC suggest the attempted launch likely occurred sometime after Friday. Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. The US military’s Space Command did not detect a launch over the weekend, said Army Lt. Col. César Santiago, a Pentagon spokesperson. That suggests the rocket never left the launch pad. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Tfargo04)

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