Welcome to Edition 2.39 of the Rocket Report! We’re celebrating a huge milestone this weekend, with the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 13. We’ll have more coverage of that on Ars, so keep your eyes open. In the meantime, the launch industry continues to move along in fits and starts despite the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world. As a result there’s lots of news, so we’ll jump right into it.
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.
Rocket Lab completes midair tests of Electron. The company said it successfully completed a midair recovery test, which involved snagging an Electron test stage from the sky with a helicopter. The successful test was deemed “a major step forward” in Rocket Lab’s plans to reuse the first stage of its Electron launch vehicle for multiple missions.
Must-see Kiwi TV … The test took place in early March, before “Safer at Home” orders were issued and before New Zealand entered Alert Level 4 in response to the COVID-19 situation. A helicopter dropped an Electron first-stage test article, then a parachute deployed from the stage, before a second helicopter closed in on the descending stage and captured it at around 1,500 meters using a specially designed grappling hook to snag the parachute’s drogue line. The video is definitely worth checking out. (submitted by Ken the Bin and NotYourUsername)
Astra trims staff to survive pandemic. Rocket builder Astra, a San Francisco-area startup, recently reduced its staff through a mix of furloughs and layoffs in order to survive delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, a person familiar with the situation told CNBC. Astra cut its overall headcount to about 120 employees from about 150 last month. The majority of the dismissed workers were furloughed for three months, with only a handful laid off permanently.
Funding into 2021 … Astra has customer contracts for a few dozen launches and had raised about $100 million from investors, and the company’s leadership expects it has enough cash to last until the first quarter of next year. Astra was previously hoping to close a new round of funding in the next few months, but investors across the United States have frozen new deals, instead focusing on helping existing portfolio companies survive. After an anomaly with its first Rocket 3.0 launch attempt last month, the company plans to take another rocket up to Alaska in a few months. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
China suffers a second launch failure in a month. The Long March 3B rocket is one of China’s oldest active and most reliable boosters, with more than five dozen successful launches. On Thursday, however, the rocket failed when it attempted to launch an Indonesian telecommunications satellite, Nusantara Dua, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. Due to unspecified reasons, the third stage did not fire as anticipated, and the 5.5-ton satellite fell back into Earth’s atmosphere, Ars reports.
Batting .750 … This is China’s second failure in eight launch attempts this year and the second in less than a month. On March 16, the launch of the relatively new Long March 7A failed to reach orbit after lifting off from Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site. It is not clear what effect these two high-profile failures will have on China’s launch industry, which had planned to conduct more than 40 launch attempts this year.
Soyuz safely launches crew to the space station. In happier launch news, on Thursday, a Soyuz-2.1a rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and safely boosted Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner and American astronaut Chris Cassidy toward the International Space Station, SpaceNews reports. They docked safely about six hours later.
Working with a skeletal crew … While Soyuz crews normally go into quarantine a couple weeks before launch, there were additional restrictions before this launch due to the global pandemic, including reduced staffing at the launch site and a prohibition on guests. “I knew I was going to be in quarantine these two weeks, but what’s really different is everybody else around us is in quarantine, too,” Cassidy said in a prelaunch interview on NASA TV. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
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Falcon 9 launch delayed due to COVID-19. The US Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center has decided to reschedule the launch of the third GPS 3 satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to minimize the potential of COVID-19 exposure to the launch crew and operators, SpaceNews reports. The launch on a Falcon 9 rocket was scheduled for late April and is now projected for June 30 at the earliest.
Constellation in good shape … The Space and Missile Systems Center decided that the current GPS constellation with 31 satellites in orbit is providing adequate services, so taking a pause in launches would not affect operations and allows the range to focus on the health of the workforce, SMC said. The Space Force still intends to complete three GPS 3 launches this year. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)
But a Starlink launch on Falcon 9 may go ahead. SpaceX is preparing to launch another batch of satellites for the Starlink Internet network from Florida’s Space Coast as soon as April 16, a sign that launch operations at Cape Canaveral could continue at a reduced pace amid the global coronavirus pandemic, Spaceflight Now reports.
The space broadband race rages on … Despite the delay of some launches, the military-run Eastern Range, which supports launch operations at Cape Canaveral, remains open amid the coronavirus pandemic. And beyond this Starlink-6 mission, SpaceX is proceeding with the launch of additional Starlink broadband satellites, sources told the publication. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Boeing to refly Starliner test flight without crew. Boeing announced on Monday evening that it will refly its Starliner spacecraft, without astronauts, to demonstrate the vehicle’s safety for NASA, Ars reports. “We are committed to the safety of the men and women who design, build and ultimately will fly on the Starliner just as we have on every crewed mission to space,” Boeing said in a statement. Boeing said it would pay for the re-flight, for which it set aside $410 million early this year.
Another launch for ULA … The decision follows the initial uncrewed flight of Starliner last December, when what was supposed to be a week-long mission was cut to two days and a plan to dock with the International Space Station was abandoned due to a “mission elapsed time” error. The mission will require a new Atlas V rocket, which may be available toward the end of 2020. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Studies assess effect of megaconstellations. One of the biggest lines of business for rockets in the 2020s is expected to be the launch of thousands of satellites to provide broadband Internet from low Earth orbit. For example, four of SpaceX’s six launches so far this year have lofted Starlink satellites into space. Astronomers have been increasingly concerned about the effect of these bright birds on ground-based observations of the heavens.
Worrying about twilight … According to one study, two European Southern Observatory telescopes will be “moderately affected” in their observations by the rise of big, new satellite constellations, while wide-field telescopes will be “severely affected.” Long exposures at twilight of around 16 minutes could see roughly 3 percent of their observations “ruined,” the study team found, while shorter exposures would see about 0.5 percent of observations hurt by satellites. Dark-night observations would be less affected, as the satellites would be in shadow, N2YO reports. (submitted by rochefort)
NASA seeks revenge on Mars. Calling it the first “purely revenge-based mission” to ever be attempted on the Red Planet, NASA officials announced Wednesday the successful launch of the Vengeance Rover to pay back Mars for killing Opportunity in 2018. “This is a historic launch that will bring our administration closer to the goal of getting sweet vengeance on Mars for what it did to the Opportunity Rover back in 2018—you hear that, you son of a bitch? We’re coming for you,” the space agency’s administrator told The Onion.
Powered by hate … Agency sources told the publication that “the Vengeance Rover would be able to [rain] down hellfire on Mars indefinitely without maintenance due to its being powered exclusively by sheer malice and spite.” About damn time. (submitted by person_man)
SpaceX loses third Starship prototype. Last week, SpaceX workers in South Texas loaded the third full-scale Starship prototype—SN3—onto a test stand at the company’s Boca Chica launch site. On Wednesday night, they pressure-tested the vehicle at ambient temperature with nitrogen, and SN3 performed fine. But early on Friday morning, during a cryogenic test, SN3 failed and collapsed on itself, Ars reports.
Test and fail … Shortly after the failure, SpaceX’s founder and chief engineer, Elon Musk, said on Twitter, “We will see what data review says in the morning, but this may have been a test configuration mistake.” A testing issue would be good in the sense that it means the vehicle itself performed well, and the problem can be more easily addressed. The company is now working on SN4 and will probably put it on the test stand before the end of this month as it continues with its iterative design approach toward the next-generation launch vehicle.
Marshall, Stennis likely closed for “several weeks.” On Monday, the leader of one of NASA’s largest field centers that has been effectively closed by the coronavirus pandemic said she expects it will be at least several weeks before personnel can start working on site again. “I just don’t know when we’ll be able to come back to work,” Jody Singer, director of Marshall Space Flight Center, said, according to SpaceNews. “This virus is dictating our timeline. We must let the data drive our decisions.”
SLS work on hold … The decision to allow people back at Marshall will be based on several factors, including White House “social distancing” protocols, guidance from NASA Headquarters, as well as coordination with local officials. That return will likely be a phased approach, she said, moving from Stage 4 to Stage 1—normal operations—in a gradual way. Work on the Space Launch System rocket is effectively halted while Marshall and Stennis Space Center, in Mississippi, are at Stage 4 levels. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Northrop says it is progressing toward Omega launch. In an interview with NASASpaceflight.com, a Northrop Grumman vice president said the company is making steady progress toward the debut of its large Omega rocket. The company has finalized the investigation of the nozzle anomaly on the C600 booster static fire test last year and completed a successful C300 booster static test in February. Northrop Grumman seeks to stack the first Omega rocket in High Bay 2 of the Vehicle Assembly Building in spring 2021, company VP Charlie Precourt said.
Waiting on contract decisions … “We wanted to be able to do a pathfinder with the hardware by the fall, the coming fall and winter, so that in the spring we’d be ready to do launch operations. And I think we’re still on track to do that,” he said. The ultimate fate of Omega will likely be decided later this year, when the US Air Force selects two providers for launch contracts in the mid-2020s. Northrop is one of four bidders. (submitted by platykurtic)
Next three launches
April 16: Falcon 9 | Starlink-6 mission | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida | 21:31 UTC
April 25: Soyuz | Progress supply mission to ISS | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 01:51 UTC
There are no other missions with confirmed launch dates and times at this moment.