Welcome to Edition 4.25 of the Rocket Report! After the Thanksgiving holiday, we are now in the homestretch of 2021, with less than a month to go in the year. And it will be a consequential month, with a Soyuz crew launch on deck, NASA’s IXPE science mission, and—of course—the James Webb Space Telescope on December 22. Buckle up!
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.
Astra successfully reaches orbit. Astra never sought to build the best rocket, the biggest rocket, or the safest rocket. The California-based space company simply wanted to build a rocket that was just good enough—and to do it fast. On November 20, Astra proved the value of this philosophy by successfully launching a stripped-down rocket for the first time. The mission hefted a small test payload for the US Space Force into an orbit 500 km above the planet, Ars reports.
Fourth time’s the charm … The launch came five years and one month after Astra was founded by Chris Kemp and Adam London in October 2016. With this success, Astra became the fastest company to reach orbit with a privately developed liquid-fueled rocket. Named LV0007, this was the seventh rocket Astra has built, and the fourth it has attempted to put into orbit after three previous failures. The company will likely attempt its next launch early in 2022.
Rocket Lab will attempt to catch booster. Rocket Lab says it will attempt to catch a returning rocket booster midair, with a helicopter, during the company’s next recovery mission. The confirmation follows the successful demonstration of helicopter shadow operations during a November launch of the company’s small Electron rocket.
This should be fun … Although Rocket Lab has a launch planned for later in December, it will not attempt the recovery until sometime during the first half of 2022. Improvements to the launch vehicle for this next recovery attempt will include modifications to the parachute system and a thermal protection system applied to the entire stage and its nine Rutherford engines to help it endure heat of up to 2,400 degrees Celsius during reentry. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
ESA issues contract for small-launch demonstration. The European Space Agency said it would provide 11 million euros to Germany-based Isar Aerospace for two demonstration flights of the Spectrum vehicle, planned for 2022 and 2023. These two flights will each host institutional payloads of up to 150 kg that will be selected by German space agency DLR.
Spinning up commercial space … With this “Boost!” program, the European Space Agency is seeking to foster a more purely commercial launch industry on the continent. “Through this contract with ISAR Aerospace, ESA Boost! provides further support to build up key expertise in industry and to advance swiftly towards concrete milestones. New market opportunities are in reach for Europe with its own small launch vehicles—a field where time is of the essence,” said Daniel Neuenschwander of ESA.
Indian company tests 3D-printed engine. Startup company Skyroot Aerospace says it has test-fired India’s first privately developed fully cryogenic rocket engine, successfully demonstrating the technology that will power the upper stages of its upcoming Vikram-2 orbital launch vehicle. The rocket engine, named Dhawan-1, is fueled by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen, The Economic Times reports.
Going to space next year? … “This is a completely ‘Made-in-India’ cryogenic engine developed using 3D printing with a super-alloy, reducing manufacturing time by more than 95 percent,” said Pawan Kumar Chandana, co-founder and chief executive at Skyroot Aerospace. “This test makes us one of the very few companies in the world to have successfully demonstrated this technology.” Skyroot is aiming to make its first launch attempt in 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
PLD Space targets 2022 suborbital launch. Spanish launch startup PLD Space displayed a fully assembled Miura 1 reusable suborbital rocket at the National Museum of Natural Science in Madrid on November 16. Next, the rocket will be returned to the PLD Space base at Teruel Airport for combined qualification testing, including a full-mission-duration hot-fire test. After testing, the stage will be shipped to the launch site to perform a combined test—with all the ground segment and ground infrastructure—before launch, SpaceNews reports.
Orbit in a few years … Raúl Verdú, chief operating officer and co-founder of PLD Space, told the publication that the firm is targeting the second half of 2022 for launch of Miura 1. The rocket is designed to reach a maximum altitude of 150 km while carrying a payload of up to 100 kg. The orbit-capable Miura 5 rocket is now targeted for a 2024 launch, the company says. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Canadian spaceport announces first payload customer. Maritime Launch Services announced last week that Houston-based Nanoracks will be the primary customer on its first launch from a commercial spaceport. The spaceport will be built on the tip of northeastern Nova Scotia. Stephen Matier, president and CEO of Maritime Launch Services, said the launch agreement with Nanoracks is worth $45 million, according to CBC News.
Ukrainian rocket, Canadian spaceport, US payload … The first payload will be launched aboard a Ukrainian-built Cyclone-4M rocket, which has a lift capacity of 5 metric tons. The Canadian spaceport aims to conduct the first launch at the end of 2023, two more in 2024, four in 2025, and then work its way up to eight per year. (submitted by Delta Oscar Holf and Joey S-IVB)
Rocket Lab unveils its Neutron booster. Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck on Thursday provided an update on the company’s plans to develop a medium-lift rocket, named Neutron. In its current conception, Neutron is a fairly stubby rocket, and Beck said this shape was designed both for launch and reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Rocket Lab intends to use a wider-shaped rocket to catch more atmospheric drag during reentry, requiring less fuel to slow down. The structure will be made of a proprietary carbon fiber for strength and less mass, Ars reports.
A fine fairing … The first stage will have fixed landing legs, and the rocket will only land back at the launch site rather than offshore. Beck said the costs of marine landings were simply too high, and the goal is to eventually be able to launch a Neutron, land it, and launch again within 24 hours. The upper half of the rocket also has some unique characteristics. The second stage will not be reusable, so it will be as light as possible and suspended above the first stage. It will consist only of a single vacuum-optimized Archimedes engine, fuel tanks, and the payload itself. The payload fairing will open into four separate sections, release the second stage, and then close again before landing back on Earth with the first stage. (submitted by multimediavt and Ken the Bin)
James Webb cleared for late December launch. Following a scare last week, NASA and ESA officials have said they will continue launch preparations for the James Webb Space Telescope. The $10 billion instrument is slated to launch on a European-built Ariane 5 rocket no earlier than December 22. NASA said that engineers have completed additional testing to ensure the telescope’s readiness for flight, and fueling operations began on November 25, Ars reports.
No more Webb woes … The telescope has 20 small thrusters for maneuvering and will be filled with about 240 liters of hydrazine fuel and dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. The fueling process will take about 10 days. The decision to press ahead with the Webb telescope’s launch countdown counts as good news after a slightly worrisome announcement one week ago. At that time, NASA said it would delay the space telescope’s planned launch by a few days to investigate an “anomaly” during processing operations at the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.
Themis program tests propellant tanks. The European Space Agency’s Themis program seeks to develop a prototype rocket that can demonstrate a reusable first stage of a rocket. Recently, the space agency said, prime contractor ArianeGroup performed six tests in Vernon, France, to “validate the fluidic and electrical processes and sequences for the correct operation of two test propellant tanks.” The tanks were filled and then drained of cryogenic propellants.
Hoping to hop ahead … This initial phase of the Themis project involves the preparation of the flight vehicle technologies alongside firing demonstrations of its reusable Prometheus engine. Fueled by LOX-methane, Prometheus is an “ultra-low-cost” engine built extensively through additive-layer manufacturing. This has reduced the estimated cost of production by a factor of 10 compared to Ariane 5’s core-stage Vulcain engine. Initial hop tests of the demonstration vehicle could begin in 2023. (submitted by Ken the Bin)