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Rocket Report: India wants its own SpaceX, Firefly targets July for Alpha launch


Photo of SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft.
Enlarge / NASA’s Space Launch System rocket will be rolling back to the launch pad in early June.

Trevor Mahlmann

Welcome to Edition 4.45 of the Rocket Report! Just as a programming note, I’ll be traveling during the second half of next week for a family reunion, so there may or (may not) be a report next week. Thank you for your patience.

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.

Firefly targets July for second Alpha launch attempt. Nine months have passed since Firefly’s Alpha rocket launched for the first time, lifting off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Unfortunately, one of the rocket’s four main engines failed about 15 seconds into the flight, and the rocket was lost about two minutes later. The period since then has been a difficult one for the company and its founder, Tom Markusic. In addition to dissecting the cause of the Alpha failure, Firefly also ran afoul of rules set by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, CFIUS.

A second second chance … Now, brighter times appear to be ahead of the company, Ars reports. The hardware for Alpha’s flight two is already on site at Vandenberg. Markusic said the company is still waiting for final range availability and launch approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, but there is a tentative launch date set for July 17. Markusic spoke to Ars about Alpha’s initial failure, the fixes to the Alpha rocket, the company’s launch plans for the remainder of this year, and finding a new investor.

Arianespace sets Vega, Ariane 6 launch windows. Arianespace plans to conduct the maiden flight of Vega C and Ariane 6 rockets in “the first week of July” and “towards the end of the year,” respectively, a senior executive said this week. Vivian Quenet, Arianespace’s managing director and head of sales for the Asia-Pacific region, announced the timetable during a fireside chat at Asia Satellite Business Week in Singapore, Space News reports.

Definition of “end of year” may vary … Vega C’s debut would be the company’s second launch of the year, after the Ariane 5 that is set to lift off June 22 from French Guiana with a pair of geostationary satellites from Malaysia and India. “After that one we will have the maiden flight of the Vega C” in the first week of July, Quenet said, and then “towards the end of the year, we have the maiden flight of Ariane 6.” When a launch company says something will happen toward the “end of the year,” that typically means it will happen the following year. So it seems more likely than not that Ariane 6 will not debut until 2023. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

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Lawsuit seeks to revoke Georgia spaceport permit. The Federal Aviation Administration granted a proposed spaceport in Camden County, Georgia, a license in December. In response, attorneys for the Southern Environmental Law Center have filed suit in US District Court to throw out the license, saying the FAA failed to correctly assess the risks of launching small rockets from the location, AP reports. The proposed flight path would send rockets over Little Cumberland Island, which has about 40 private homes, and neighboring Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness visited by about 60,000 tourists each year.

Analysis based on a tiny rocket? … Residents and the National Park Service have said they fear explosive misfires raining fiery debris could spark wildfires near homes and people. The lawsuit filed on behalf of homeowners and conservation groups says the FAA allowed county officials to minimize potential safety risks by basing their license application on a hypothetical rocket “that does not exist” and is smaller than current commercial rockets. It says the FAA didn’t follow its own policies that call for holding such “unproven” rockets to a higher standard. The FAA did not comment. (submitted by zampan987)

ABL’s first UK launch slips to 2023. Lockheed Martin and its launch partner, ABL Space, no longer expect their UK Pathfinder mission to fly this year, Space News reports. “There are a number of program dependencies that we continually manage which makes the first quarter of 2023 more favorable,” Nik Smith, Lockheed Martin’s regional director of space for the U.K. and Europe, told the publication. ABL Space and Orbex are among the competitors in something of a race to perform the first vertical launch from the United Kingdom.

Not able to launch yet … The RS1 rocket that ABL plans to use for the UK Pathfinder mission has suffered delays following a testing accident in January. ABL had previously planned to conduct RS1’s first launch from Kodiak Island in Alaska early in 2022, but now aims to debut the rocket in early summer. Dan Piemont, president and co-founder of ABL, said, “We’ll want to see a few flights of the rocket in the US before we fly it in Scotland.” ABL is also slated to fly two prototype satellites for Amazon’s Project Kuiper in the fourth quarter of 2022. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

India plans to have its own SpaceX “soon.” India’s principal scientific adviser to the government, Ajay K. Sood, says his country will soon unveil a new space policy that will encourage the rise of more ventures similar to SpaceX, IndiaTV reports. Sood said the government will encourage the manufacturing of satellites in the private sector for a range of applications, from health care and agriculture to urban development and property tax estimation.

In the next two years? … “We have not tapped the full potential of this sector,” Sood said of launch and satellite technology. “In 2022, the space sector is witnessing what the information technology sector experienced in the 1990s. We will have our own SpaceX in the next two years,” Sood added. The reality is that SpaceXes don’t grow on trees. The company was the product of a driven person (Elon Musk) with a vision and critical support from NASA at key moments. India would do well to create an environment in which government funding lets its innovators innovate, but such an industry is not created overnight.

Ursa Major announces major engine project. The company, which is seeking to become a new space leader in rocket engine technology, is already delivering small, 5,000-lb-thrust “Hadley” rocket engines to customers. And it is deep into development of a larger “Ripley” engine, with 50,000 lbs of thrust. On Thursday, the company announced yet another project, its “Arroway” engine. Ursa Major says this new engine will be a “reusable liquid oxygen and methane staged combustion engine for medium and heavy launch.” Such a thrust would place this engine in the same class as SpaceX’s Merlin 1D engine, which uses kerosene instead of methane. And yes, Arroway is named after Ellie Arroway, the SETI scientist in the movie Contact.

Arroway is the way? … Ursa Major said it plans to begin hot-fire testing Arroway next year and begin delivery to customers in 2025. Notably, the company says, “Arroway engines will be one of very few commercially available engines that, when clustered together, can displace the Russian-made RD-180 and RD-181, which are no longer available to US launch companies.” It’s an interesting parlor game to consider what launch companies might be interested in procuring these engines. It’s also an enormous challenge to bring such a powerful engine into service so quickly. I’d characterize 2025 as an aspirational date, but if Ursa Major can produce such an engine it would definitely be a boost for the US launch industry. Pun most definitely intended. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

China preps for next crew launch. Last Sunday the Long March 2F rocket for China’s next launch of three astronauts to the Tiangong space station rolled out to the pad at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. A time and date for launch has not been publicly announced, but liftoff is expected around June 5 Beijing time, Space News reports.

Crew not named yet … The three astronauts, whose identities have yet to be revealed, are expected to stay on the space station for around six months. During their stay, the crew will receive two new 20-metric-ton-plus modules, Wentian and Mengtian, in July and October respectively, Hao Chun, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, revealed in an April press conference. The crew will cooperate with ground control to move the new modules to radial docking ports using a large robotic arm. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

SLS rocket will roll to the pad in early June. NASA officials said Last Friday they are completing preparatory work on the Space Launch System rocket in the Vehicle Assembly Building in Florida and will target June 6 for rollout to the launch pad. Given this timeline, Cliff Lanham, a NASA Exploration Ground Systems Program official, said the earliest they would begin propellant loading for the “wet dress rehearsal” would be June 19. These dates are dependent upon favorable weather in Florida, which is always a challenge in June, he said. (A tropical system is due to bring heavy rainfall to the Florida peninsula this coming weekend, ahead of the rollout.)

Overall vehicle health is good … This will be NASA’s fourth attempt to complete the wet dress test, during which the vehicle is fully fueled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, and then the SLS rocket is brought into a terminal countdown. While the rocket’s four main engines will not be ignited, the countdown will reach T-9.3 seconds. Should NASA complete the wet-dress test in June, a launch in August may be possible, but more schedule slips are possible. To that end, NASA is tracking “limited life items” on the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft, but it sounds like they feel confident in the vehicle’s health through the “late fall” time frame. After that engineers may have to do more analysis.

FAA delays decision on Starship site two more weeks. On Tuesday the Federal Aviation Administration again put off the release of an environmental assessment of SpaceX’s proposed Starship launch site in South Texas. The federal agency said the delay was necessary to “account for ongoing interagency consultations.” In addition to the delay, the FAA released a compendium of all 17,000 public comments it received as part of the process.

A shorter delay … In the past the FAA has delayed the release of its assessment by a full month, so a 14-day delay suggests this decision-making process is drawing to a close. Sources have suggested this will probably be the final delay and that the FAA will likely ask SpaceX to take some mitigation efforts to protect local wildlife. Then there will probably be lawsuits as the process continues. However, it does seem likely that SpaceX will eventually get approval for test launches from South Texas. (submitted by Tfargo04)

Space Force names funded missions. The US Space Systems Command has identified which eight national security space launches were funded in fiscal years 2022 and 2023, Space News reports. Of the eight missions, five were assigned to United Launch Alliance and three to SpaceX, the two companies that in 2020 won the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 launch services procurement contract. As part of that agreement, overall, ULA was guaranteed 60 percent of launches over a five-year period, and SpaceX 40 percent.

Twice the money … The five missions for ULA will all launch on the Vulcan rocket, which has yet to launch for the first time. The three SpaceX missions will all launch on the Falcon 9 rocket. Col. Douglas Pentecost, Space Systems Command deputy director of launch enterprise, told the publication that ULA’s task orders for the five missions are worth $566 million, and SpaceX’s orders for three missions are worth $280 million. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

June 3: Soyuz | Progress 81P | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan| 09:32

June 5: Long March 2F | Shenzhou 14 | Jiuquan, China | TBD

June 7: Falcon 9 | Nilesat-301 | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 21:03 UTC





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