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Rocket Report: Secret CIA smallsat launcher, Falcon 9 test, Soyuz passes 50

Rocket Report: Secret CIA smallsat launcher, Falcon 9 test, Soyuz passes 50

Enlarge / The Electron launch vehicle is ready to soar.Rocket Lab reader comments 2 with 2 posters participating Share this story Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Reddit Welcome to Edition 1.34 of the Rocket Report! We’ve got lots of news this week about large rockets, from New Glenn to the Falcon Heavy…


The Electron launch vehicle is ready to soar.
Enlarge/The Electron launch vehicle is ready to soar.

Welcome to Edition 1.34 of the Rocket Report! We’ve got lots of news this week about large rockets, from New Glenn to the Falcon Heavy and Ariane 6 boosters. There’s also a delightfully intriguing story about the CIA’s plan during the 1960s to launch spy satellites on an as-needed basis.

As always, wewelcome 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.

Virgin Galactic lays off dozens of employees. Virgin Galactic laid off about 40 employees in January as it transitions from building its VSS Unity spaceship in California to launching commercial flights from southern New Mexico. The cuts were necessary “to position our organization for the drive to commercial operations” and to “make room for new skillsets that we need to bring in over the course of this year,” Aleanna Crane, a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman,told NM Politics.

Employees moving, too… According to Crane, fewer than 5 percent of the company’s employees were let go. While unfortunate, such cuts are perhaps not such a great surprise considering that the company is transitioning from design and development into vehicle operations. Dozens of employees are expected to move from California to the New Mexico spaceport this year as part of that transition.

But Rocket Lab is staffing up. The launch company is searching for “problem solvers” as it boosts staffing levels at its New Zealand-based Mahia launch site,The Gisborne Heraldreports. A spokeswoman said there were more than 20 Rocket Lab team members in Mahia to support Launch Complex 1 and that the company would like to add an additional 10 employees this year to support monthly launches.

From launch to logistics… Current open roles include jobs such as a project engineer, launch technician, electrical technician, and logistics assistant. The roles will include preparing the Electron rocket for launch to managing the logistics of feeding, training, housing, and transporting employees at the remote location. “Our team is dedicated [and] driven, and we focus on every detail of our work [and] understanding how each piece of the puzzle affects everyone else’s work,” Launch Complex 1 manager Chuck Dowdell told the publication. (submitted by trimeta)

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Chinese companies prepping for orbital launches. Chinese private companies OneSpace and iSpace are progressing with plans to make their first successful orbital launches in the first half of 2019,SpaceNewsreports. OneSpace’s 19-meter-tall, four-stage OS-M will be able to carry a 205-kilogram payload to LEO. iSpace’s 20-meter Hyperbola-1 rocket, with three solid stages and fourth liquid stage, can deliver 150 kilograms of payload to a 700-kilometer-altitude Sun-synchronous orbit.

Competition still open… These private firms are competing to make the first successful orbital launch by a privately-owned Chinese company. LandSpace tried in October of last year, but a failure of the third stage of the Zhuque-1 solid rocket precluded a successful mission. Despite their status as private companies, the rocket firms are apparently receiving substantial technical aid from China’s State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Georgia site submits launch application. The Camden County Board of Commissioners formally submitted its application for a Launch Site Operator License to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation,Parabolic Arc reports. The submission marks more than three years of work to comply with the detailed regulatory requirements necessary to conduct orbital and suborbital launches from southeast Georgia.

A massive milestone?… “This is a massive milestone for Camden County,” said County Commission Chairman Jimmy Starline. Perhaps it is, but it is hard to have too much confidence in any launch site without an anchor tenant that will use the launch range. We eagerly await that announcement in the future. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

The CIA once considered using the A-12 to launch smallsats. The Drivehas dug upa bit of Cold War history that seems relevant today. Back in the 1960s, the CIA considered modifying Lockheed’s high-altitude A-12 reconnaissance aircraft to launch small satellites to observe the Soviet Union and other countries of interest. The plan called for the aircraft to ascend to 80,000 feet at a speed of Mach 3.1 and release a Polaris A-3 missile.

What is old is new… This missile would then deploy a satellite into a shallow orbit that would pass over the Soviet Union, China, India, or another target of interest. Then a recovery capsule containing the film canister would detach from the the satellite and re-enter the atmosphere over the Pacific to the West of Hawaii. The CIA envisioned this system as a rapid-response capability that, unlike spy planes, could not be shot down. Why the CIA never proceeded is not clear, but it’s worth noting that, more than 50 years later, the military remains interested in a new generation of small-satellite launchers for this same rapid-response capability to deploy assets into orbit. (submitted by JF)

Falcon 9 for commercial crew launch hot-fired. On January 24 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, SpaceXperformed a hot-fire testof the Falcon 9 rocket that will fly its first commercial crew demonstration mission. This flight will not carry crew members, but it will serve as a test of the launch system, Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the company’s ability to dock the vehicle safely with the International Space Station.

And a launch date?… NASA has yet to announce a specific launch date for the mission. One source told Ars late last week that the working date was February 23, but then we heard this week that the Demo-1 mission has now slipped into early March. That seems probable as NASA and SpaceX work through final technical and approval hurdles for this critical launch. We’re eager to see the Crew Dragon fly, but safety takes precedence.

The Soyuz rocket has flown for more than 50 years. In a report on the longest-flying family of rockets,Aviation Weeknotesthat the first rocket officially named Soyuz was launched in 1966. Since then, it has since flown 1,050 times, of which 1,023 were successful. Production of Soyuz rockets peaked in the early 1980s at about 60 vehicles per year.

Not done yet… The Soyuz has been successfully marketed around the world. In 2017, GK Launch Services—a joint venture of Roscosmos subsidiary Glavkosmos and Kosmotras, an operator of Dnepr launch vehicles—was created to provide commercial launch services with the Soyuz from Russia’s leased facility at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and from the new Vostochny spaceport in Russia’s Far East. Launch prices start at $48.5 million.

Blue Origin breaks ground on BE-4 engine facility.Blue Origin held a groundbreaking ceremony in Huntsville, Alabama, on Friday, January 25, to formally mark the start of construction of a factory for building BE-4 engines. “This engine production facility demonstrates commitment to the state of Alabama,” Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said at the event. The factory is scheduled for completion in March 2020,SpaceNewsreports.

Two different engines… When complete, the factory will build dozens of BE-4 engines a year for both United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan as well as Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket. The factory will also produce the BE-3U engine, which will be used as the upper stage for New Glenn and potentially other large rockets. Blue Origin is also exploring the possibility of using a nearby Marshall Space Flight Center test stand for acceptance testing for both the BE-3U and BE-4 engines. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Falcon Heavy targeting early March for next launch. After the federal government re-opened this week, SpaceX applied for two FCC permits for an upcoming Falcon Heavy launch,Ars reports. These applications indicate that the launch of the Arabsat 6A mission will occur no earlier than March 7 from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. This is consistent with existing estimates for the current launch date.

Must stick the landing… The landing permit also confirms that SpaceX will seek to land the two side boosters at its landing zone along the Florida coast—setting up for a repeat of the dramatic side-by-side landings during the inaugural Falcon Heavy test flight last February. The company will also attempt to land the center core on an ocean-based drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean about 1,000km offshore. A lot is riding on these landings, as SpaceX intends to reuse both the side boosters and the center core for its third Falcon Heavy mission, Space Test Program-2. This flight could occur as early as April, although some slippage to the right seems likely,

New Glenn gets a significant new customer. Telesat announced on Thursday that it had signed “a multi-launch agreement” with Blue Origin for its New Glenn rocket to “play a key role” in deploying Telesat’s global LEO satellite constellation, which will deliver fiber-like broadband services anywhere on Earth. Among the factors cited was New Glenn’s sizable 7-meter payload fairing.

A big win… “Blue Origin’s powerful New Glenn rocket is a disruptive force in the launch-services market which, in turn, will help Telesat disrupt the economics and performance of global broadband connectivity,” Dan Goldberg, Telesat’s President and CEO, saidin a news release. Blue Origin expects New Glenn to have its maiden flight in 2021 from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Needless to say, this is a big win for a rocket still at least two years from flight.

China targets July for next Long March 5 flight. China’s largest booster will have its return-to-flight mission this summer, the country’s state news service, Xinhua,reports. During just its second launch, on July 2, 2017, the rocket failed about six minutes after liftoff. An official said the cause of the failure has been found but did not elaborate.

Moon launch targeted… This is China’s most powerful rocket, with a lift capacity of 25 tons to low Earth orbit. If the third flight is successful, China’s ambitious Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission will follow late this year, officials said.Overall, China’s state launch agency will attempt 30 orbital missions in 2019. (submitted by Unrulycow)

Ariane 6 rocket SRB undergoes second test. The P120C motor was successfully tested for 135 seconds on Monday at the European Spaceport in French Guiana, the European Space Agency said. The 13.5m solid rocket motor was first tested in July and will undergo one final firing on the test stand before it is put into service. That could happen as early as later this year on the Vega-C rocket.

Dual-use booster… Europe has considerable infrastructure built around the development and fabrication of solid rocket motors, and both of its next-generation rockets will use them. The new P120C solid rocket booster will equip both Ariane 6 (in both its two-booster Ariane 62 and its four-booster Ariane 64 versions) as well as the first stage of Vega-C rocket, designed to lift smaller satellites into orbit. The booster was co-developed by ArianeGroup and Avio, through their 50/50 joint venture Europropulsion. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

Feb. 5: Ariane 5 | HellasSat 4/SaudiGeoSat 1 and GSAT 11 | Kourou, French Guiana | 21:01 UTC

Feb. 19: Falcon 9 | PSN 6/SpaceIL Lunar Lander | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 01:58 UTC

Feb. 21: Soyuz | EgyptSat-A | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 16:47 UTC

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