Welcome to Edition 1.19 of the Rocket Report! Lots of news this week about the development of rocket engines in the United States, South Korea, and elsewhere. There are also milestones for the Ariane 5 rocket and an anniversary for SpaceX.
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.
SpaceX hits 10 years since the Falcon 1. In an in-depth feature, Ars recounts the harrowing eight weeks following the failed third flight of the Falcon 1 rocket and the finally successful fourth flight. “If we had not reached orbit on that attempt, SpaceX would not exist,” Elon Musk recalled. “That was a very tough launch emotionally.” Shortly after the Falcon 1 launch, SpaceX intensified work on developing its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.
An industry changer … It is difficult to overstate the impact of that successful launch on September 28, 2008, and a commercial launch a year later. “To launch a satellite before SpaceX, money had to be no object,” said Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson. “It could be $90 million or $170 million or whatever they happened to want that day. These are incredibly formidable barriers to entry for a new venture.” Worth a read.
Stratolaunch reveals its PGA rocket engine. In a gallery of images showcased by Aviation Week, Stratolaunch reveals concept drawings of its engine that will be capable of 200,000 pounds of thrust. The story notes that the company’s proposed medium-lift rocket, designed to carry six tons to low Earth orbit, will have three cores, each containing a single PGA engine.
Lots of uses for the engine … The fully-reusable Black Ice spaceplane will also be powered by three PGAs for single-stage, air-launch-to-orbit capability. A human-rated version of the vehicle, which is designed for in-orbit maneuvers and cargo return, remains a long-term possibility. The company says it has done early testing of the PGA engine, included hot-fire tests of a sub-scale injector assembly.
Northrup Grumman seeks to cut small-launcher costs. Faced with growing competition from startups entering the field, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is looking to reduce costs on its existing Pegasus and Minotaur rockets, SpaceNews reports. “Over the years, our designs and our concepts and our architecture [have] evolved with a focus on reliability,” Phil Joyce, vice president of small space launch programs at Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, said. “That reliability doesn’t always come cheap.”
Not competitive with rockets coming online … The high costs associated with the Pegasus—NASA’s 2014 contract for the launch of the ICON spacecraft on a Pegasus was valued at $56.3 million, including payload processing and other services—has led to limited demand for the vehicle despite a surge in interest in small satellites. The Pegasus has launched only four times in the last 10 years. Competitors are developing rockets with a similar lift capability to Pegasus in the $10 million to $20 million range. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
South Korea to test first-stage engine. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute says it is making progress on its first indigenous rocket, the KSLV-II, which could be ready for flight by 2021. The agency has announced that the next step will come between October 25 and 31, when it performs an in-flight test of a single kerosene-fueled engine. During the test, the single-engine booster is expected to reach an altitude of about 100km for a suborbital flight, Yonhap reports.
An important test … The current design for the KSLV-II rocket calls for four of these engines to power the first stage and a single engine for the second stage. With this program, South Korea seeks to develop a low-cost booster capable of lifting up to 1.5 tons to low Earth orbit. The government hopes to use it for its own purposes, as well make it available for commercial launches.
Norwegian company launches a hybrid rocket. Nammo’s Nucleus rocket, which combines solid and liquid propellant, reached an altitude of more than 107km in less than three minutes on Thursday, and it splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, 180km off the coast of Norway.
Potentially lower costs … A liquid hydrogen-peroxide oxidizer and a rubber-like substance were used as fuels. The liquid and solid fuels remain separated inside the rocket until mixed at ignition. Because hybrid propellants have low evaporation rates, they can be loaded safely, well before launch. This potentially reduces the cost of launch-service operations compared with other technologies.
Vector patents its propylene-fuel rocket engine. Vector has received a patent for its liquid oxygen-propylene rocket engine, three of which will power its orbital Vector-R rocket, Ars reports. Never used before in a larger engine, propylene has useful properties of higher density and specific impulse that will give Vector’s small rocket more performance.
A simpler design … With no turbopumps, the engine design can be simpler, and the designers don’t have to worry about bubbles, or cavitation, in the propellant. “For us, every little bit of extra performance we can get matters,” Vector co-founder John Garvey said. The company is still working toward a maiden launch of its Vector-R rocket this year, from a launch site in Alaska.
Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine will power Vulcan. The latest financial release from aerospace manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne reveals that the company spent none of its own money on development of the AR1 rocket engine this spring. Moreover, the quarterly 10-Q filing indicates that Aerojet may permanently stop funding the engine with its own money altogether—a sign the company has no immediate customers, Ars reports. This includes United Launch Alliance.
Good for Blue … On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Blue Origin had indeed won a contract from United Launch Alliance for its Vulcan rocket, beating Aerojet. An announcement was expected later Thursday. (submitted by Unrulycow)
Ariane 5 rocket makes its 100th launch. On Tuesday, the Ariane 5 flew its 100th mission, lifting two satellites weighing 10 tons to geostationary transfer orbit, BBC News reports. The Horizons 3e spacecraft and Azerspace-2/Intelsat 38 platform were delivered in good condition.
The rocket is not done yet … “Ariane 5 has been a great success, and it’s not over; we still have four or five years left with this product,” said Alain Charmeau, chairman of ArianeGroup. “And even though this is the 100th flight, we continue to improve the product. We continue to grab a few extra kilos in payload performance we can offer to our customers.” It seems increasingly likely that the James Webb Space Telescope will be the last flight of the Ariane 5 rocket before Arianespace moves on to the more price-competitive Ariane 6 booster. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Japanese company picks SpaceX for lunar launches. A Japanese firm named ispace announced that it has two missions planned to the Moon within the next three years and that it has acquired ride-share launches on two Falcon 9 rockets to carry out those flights. The launches will be in mid-2020 and mid-2021.
Japan and SpaceX … The last few weeks have been good for the Asian country and California rocket company, between this announcement and the Big Falcon Rocket space tourist. “We are entering a new era in space exploration, and SpaceX is proud to have been selected by ispace to launch [its] first lunar missions,” SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said of the lunar lander announcement. This buttresses the perception that SpaceX is helping to pioneer a new era of somewhat non-governmental deep-space flight. (submitted by Unrulycow)
Northrup fires up its GEM-63 motor. For the first time, Northrup Grumman test-fired its GEM-63 solid-rocket motor this week. The booster, or a variant of it, is slated to be used by United Launch Alliance for its Atlas V and Vulcan rockets, as well as for Northrup’s own Omega launch vehicle.
A successful test … According to SpaceFlight Insider, the 110-second test was successful and marked the beginning of a test-regimen that will have the new solid-rocket motor ready for use as early as 2019. (submitted by Ken the Bin).
After a nearly two-week delay, H-IIB rocket launches. First a typhoon, then technical issues, and finally more weather problems delayed the launch of a large Japanese rocket and its HTV spacecraft payload. The rocket finally launched, successfully, on Sunday morning Japan time, from Tanegashima in the southern part of the country, Spaceflight Now reports.
Unsung hero … Japan’s reliable rocket is a large HTV spacecraft capable of carrying more than five tons of supplies, and it has been an important backstop for NASA as it has transitioned to commercial resupply of the International Space Station. In this case, the HTV also brought some interesting experiments into space, as well as a small sample return capsule that will allow for research to be brought back from orbit.
Spacecom cancels contracts with SSL and SpaceX. Israeli satellite operator Spacecom said September 25 that it has terminated contracts awarded earlier this spring to manufacturer Space Systems Loral and launch provider SpaceX for Amos-8, SpaceNews reports. The telecommunications satellite will be built in Israel instead.
A full refund … According to the filing with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, Spacecom “is entitled to receive a return of funds paid to SpaceX for the launch of AMOS-8, minus an agreed-upon amount that will remain with SpaceX.” Spacecom had ordered Amos-8 from Space Systems Loral as a replacement for the Amos-6 satellite destroyed during SpaceX’s Falcon 9 fueling mishap in September 2016. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Signs of activity in South Texas, finally. As SpaceX begins to develop hardware for the Big Falcon Rocket and Spaceship, activity around the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, facilities has expanded in recent months, especially in recent weeks. That’s according to reports made by Teslarati, based upon observations by local observers. Among the recent arrivals are two large vacuum-insulated tanks for liquid oxygen and liquid methane/natural gas.
Soil surcharging work done … Over the last two years, the SpaceX site was essentially leveled, loaded with hundreds of tons of soil, plumbed with drainage pipes, and then left alone to have gravity do the rest of the work. This allowed the unsteady soil of coastal Texas to become drained and compacted, which should make it stable enough to build launch facilities. This all suggests that site work is proceeding toward potential BFR tests late in 2019. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
Sept. 29: Kuaizhou-1A | Centispace-1 S1 satellite | Jiuquan, China | 04:05 UTC
Oct. 7: Falcon 9 | SAOCOM 1A satellite | Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. | 02:22 UTC
Oct. 11: Soyuz-FG |Soyuz MS-10 with Aleksey Ovchinin and Nick Hague| Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 08:39 UTC