Rocket Report: A Chinese launch you must see; Vulcan’s stunning debut

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Enlarge / Vulcan launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Monday.
United Launch Alliance

Welcome to Edition 6.26 of the Rocket Report! We’re just 11 days into the new year, and we’ve already had two stunning rocket debuts. Vulcan soared into space on Monday morning, and then a medium-lift rocket from China, Gravity-1, made a picture-perfect launch from a mobile pad in the Yellow Sea. It feels like this could be a great year for lift.

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.

Vega C return-to-flight mission gets a date. The European Space Agency said it is targeting November 15 for the return to flight of the grounded Avio-built Vega C launch vehicle, European Spaceflight reports. I’ll be honest. I had to double-check the calendar to make sure that it is in fact January, because that’s an oddly specific date for a launch 10 months from now. But it appears there is some, ahem, flexibility in that date. ESA director of space transportation Toni Tolker-Nielsen says: “The nominal date is 15 November. There is a very detailed plan that is leading to this.”

But then there are the caveats … The director of space transportation did, however, add that there was a month of schedule risks that may affect the launch date, summarizing that the launch “should be at least before the end of the year.” Tolker-Nielsen’s final word on the matter was not all that convincing. “We’re pretty sure of that,” he concluded. Vega C was grounded following a failed flight in late 2022. The flight is expected to carry the Sentinel 1C Earth observation satellite to orbit, which will replace the failed Sentinel 1B satellite, plugging a significant data gap. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

China completes commercial launch pad.  A newly completed launch pad on China’s Hainan Island could increase China’s access to space, boosting national constellation projects and commercial launch plans, Space News reports. The first launch pad at Hainan Commercial Launch Site was finished in late December. It is the first of two pads that will host liquid propellant launch vehicles.

Fewer rockets falling into villages … The development is intended to ease a bottleneck of access to launch facilities for both national and commercial launch service providers and allow Chinese entities to speed up plans to launch a range of constellations. It should also increase China’s ability to deploy and maintain space assets, including remote sensing, communications, and other systems for civil and military purposes. Finally, it may help reduce incidents of booster debris falling around inhabited areas following launches from the country’s inland spaceports of Jiuquan, Taiyuan, and Xichang. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Will spaceport make Australia a military target? Space company Equatorial Launch Australia has proposed a massive expansion of its space center near Nhulunbuy, around 1,000 km east of Darwin, which saw the launch of three NASA suborbital rockets in mid-2022. If approved, the plans would see the Arnhem Space Centre grow from one launchpad to 14, with the goal of launching dozens of rockets a year, the Australian Broadcast Corporation reports. The goal is to launch its first orbital rocket by 2025, said the launch site chief executive, Michael Jones.

But there’s a catch … While the plans have been welcomed by the local government and local businesses, they have drawn concerns from some, including a politician and Yolŋu traditional owner Yiŋiya Guyula. The Yolŋu are Aboriginal people who live in the Northern Territory of Australia. Guyula voiced fears that the Arnhem Space Centre could lead to missile testing and development on Yolŋu land. Other local officials have said the spaceport could result in the area becoming a potential military target. (submitted by ZygP)

Self-eating rocket engine passes test. Autophage engines, in which the rocket effectively consumes itself, were first proposed and patented in 1938. However, it took until 2018 before engineers designed and fired one in a controlled manner. Nearly five years on, and more progress is being made: more energetic liquid propellants can be used, and the fuselage can be fed into the rocket without buckling, The Register reports.

Eat your way to space … A prototype, dubbed Ouroborous-3, generated 100 newtons of thrust at the MachLab facility at Machrihanish Airbase in Scotland. A video of the test shows the rocket in action, demonstrating the fuselage being consumed while the rocket is throttled and pulsed. It’s possible that a suborbital flight using this kind of engine could take place as early as 2027. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

Gravity-1 solid rocket makes a stunning debut. A Chinese startup firm, Orienspace, has successfully launched its Gravity-1 rocket from a mobile platform in the Yellow Sea, Space News reports. The Gravity-1 rocket consists of three stages and four boosters. It can lift around 6,500 kilograms of payload to low Earth orbit, or 3,700 kilograms to 700-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit when using a kerosene-liquid oxygen third stage. The video of the launch is pretty epic.

A number of firsts … Founded in 2020, Orienspace is already making waves in the Chinese quasi-commercial space race. Gravity-1 is now the largest rocket in the sector in terms of launch capacity. It is also the first to use boosters, one of a handful to reach orbit on the first attempt, and the first to have a debut launch from the sea. Worth noting: the solid rocket motors for Gravity-1 were provided by the Academy of Aerospace Solid Propulsion Technology, which is part of the government-operated China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Mars mission slips due to HIII delays. The launch of a Japanese mission to collect samples from the Martian moon Phobos and return them to Earth, previously scheduled for later this year, has slipped to 2026, Space News reports. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, confirmed the two-year delay in the launch of the Martian Moons eXploration, or MMX, mission, blaming it in part on the H3 rocket that will launch the spacecraft.

Will have to make the next window … “Owing to evaluate the demonstration results of the second H3 rocket test vehicle and considering the importance to ensure sufficient time for preliminary verification of MMX on the ground, the launch schedule for Japanese rockets has been reviewed,” the agency said. The H3 made its inaugural launch in March 2023 but failed to reach orbit when its second stage engine did not ignite, likely because of an electrical issue. A second H3 launch could occur as soon as February 14. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Vulcan makes an impressive debut. Right out of the gate, United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket chased perfection, Ars reports. Vulcan hit its marks after lifting off from Florida’s Space Coast for the first time early Monday, successfully deploying a commercial robotic lander on a journey to the Moon and keeping ULA’s unblemished success record intact. “Yeehaw! I am so thrilled, I can’t tell you how much!” exclaimed Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO, shortly after Vulcan’s departure from Cape Canaveral. “I am so proud of this team. Oh my gosh, this has been years of hard work.”

A much-needed win … This was a pivotal moment for ULA, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The Vulcan rocket will replace ULA’s mainstay rockets, the Atlas V and Delta IV, with lineages dating back to the dawn of the Space Age. ULA has contracts for more than 70 Vulcan missions in its backlog, primarily for the US military and Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband network. It took nearly a decade for ULA to develop it, some four years longer than anticipated, but the first flight took off at the opening of the launch window on the first launch attempt. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

Here’s what is next for Vulcan. ULA has set aside the next 60 days to review data from the “Cert-1” certification mission that launched on Monday morning, Ars reports. If the data looks good from that flight, the company will move into preparations for the next launch. ULA Vice President Gary Wentz said the earliest opportunity to launch this Cert-2 mission is “April-ish.” The hardware will likely be ready, but there are some questions about the Dream Chaser spacecraft. This will be the second certification launch for Vulcan, opening the way for the company to begin launching national security payloads.

Five more Vulcans in 2024? … The first of these missions will likely be the USSF-106 mission, which will carry a demonstration navigation satellite and other payloads for the Space Force. This mission’s earliest possible launch date would be June, but it almost certainly will slip a bit later into the summer. And after that? ULA plans to move into an operational cadence as soon as possible. “It’s dependent on whether the spacecraft are ready to support those launches,” Wentz said. “So we anticipate some movements in the manifest, but right now as a baseline, there are six Vulcans contractually on the manifest.” It probably won’t happen, but who doesn’t want to see more Vulcans fly?

NASA delays Artemis missions. Citing “crew safety” as the agency’s chief priority, NASA officials outlined a new schedule for the Artemis lunar program on Tuesday, Ars reports. The roughly one-year delay for each of the next three missions (Artemis II, now September 2025; Artemis III, September 2026; and Artemis IV, September 2028) did not come as a huge surprise given ongoing hardware issues. In fact, the dates for Artemis III and Artemis IV are likely still very optimistic.

You’ve got to be realistic … The Artemis II delays are due to three separate issues with the Orion spacecraft, including its heat shield, some critical components for valves, and batteries that could be impacted by certain emergency abort scenarios. As for Artemis III, the delay is attributed primarily to the Starship rocket. “We must be realistic,” NASA associate administrator Jim Free said. “We’re looking at our Starship progress, and need for propellant transfer, the need for numerous landings. We’re looking at our spacesuits that we’re acquiring in a different manner than we’ve done before, and developing the new spacesuits as well. It’s an incredibly large challenge and a really big deal.”

New Glenn spotted in the wild. Space photographers in Florida, including John Kraus, snapped photos this week of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket being moved outside the company’s Merritt Island campus. The hardware in question is the first stage of the flight version of the New Glenn launch vehicle. Company officials have been expressing confidence, of late, that the very large rocket will take flight for the first time in 2024.

Lots of work to do … Sources confirmed that this is the actual flight hardware, which is indeed a promising sign. However, the vehicle had no BE-4 rocket engines, and there is considerably more work that must be completed to outfit the rocket for launch. We also don’t know the status of the rocket’s upper stage, which presumably will undergo testing in the coming months. Still, I’m starting to believe 2024 might be real. What a year this would be for big rockets.

Next three launches

January 12: H-IIA | IGS-Optical 8 | Tanegashima Space Center, Japan | 4:44 UTC

January 12: Falcon 9 | Starlink 7-10 | Vandenberg Space Force Base | 08:59 UTC

January 14: Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-37 | Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida | 00:52 UTC

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