Rocket Report: US military still wants point-to-point; India’s big 2024 ambitions

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Written By Sedoso Feb

Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket launched NASA’s PACE spacecraft this week.
SpaceX

Welcome to Edition 6.30 of the Rocket Report! Looking ahead, there are some interesting launches coming up in the middle of this month. Here are some we have our eyes on: Intuitive Machines’ lunar lander on a Falcon 9 and a re-flight of Japan’s big H3 rocket next week; then there’s an Electron launch of an intriguing Astroscale mission and NASA’s Crew-8 the following week. Good luck to all.

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.

Was Transporter created to ‘kill’ small launch? SpaceX’s Transporter missions, which regularly fly 100 or more small satellites into low-Earth orbit on Falcon 9 rideshare missions, have unquestionably harmed small satellite launch companies. While companies like Rocket Lab or Virgin Orbit could offer smallsat operators a precise orbit, there was no way to compete on price. “The Transporter program was created a few years ago with, in my opinion, the sole purpose of trying to kill new entrants like us,” said Sandy Tirtey, director of global commercial launch services at Rocket Lab, during a panel at the SmallSat Symposium on Wednesday.

Low-price guarantee … The panel was covered by Space News, and the rest of the article includes a lot of comments from small launch providers about how they provide value with dedicated services and so forth—pretty typical fare. However, the story does not really explore Tirtley’s statement. So, was Transporter created to kill small launch companies? As someone who has reported a lot on SpaceX over the years, I’ll offer my two cents. I don’t think the program was created with this intent; rather, it filled a market need (only Electron and India’s PSLV were meeting commercial smallsat demand in any volume at the time). It also gave Falcon 9 more commercial missions. However, I do believe it was ultimately priced with the intent of cutting small launch off at the knees.

FAA investigating Virgin Galactic’s dropped pin. Virgin Galactic reported an anomaly on its most recent flight, Galactic 06, which took place two weeks ago from a spaceport in New Mexico. The company said it discovered a dropped pin during a post-flight review of the mission, which carried two pilots and four passengers to an altitude of 55.1 miles (88.7 km). This alignment pin, according to Virgin Galactic, helps ensure the VSS Unity spaceship is aligned to its carrier aircraft when mating the vehicles, Ars reports.

Corrective actions to be required … Virgin Galactic said it reported the anomaly to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on January 31. On Tuesday, the FAA confirmed that there was no public property or injuries that resulted from the mishap. “The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic-led mishap investigation to ensure the company complies with its FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements,” the federal agency said in a statement. Before VSS Unity can return to flight, the FAA must approve Virgin Galactic’s final report, including corrective actions to prevent a similar problem in the future. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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HyImpulse ships suborbital rocket to launch site. German launch startup HyImpulse has confirmed that its SR75 rocket and all related support systems have been boxed up and have embarked on the long journey to Australia, European Spaceflight reports. SR75 is a single-stage suborbital launch vehicle that is designed to be capable of delivering up to 250 kilograms to a maximum altitude of around 200 kilometers.

Testing a pathfinder … The debut flight of SR75 had initially been slated to occur from SaxaVord in the United Kingdom. In fact, HyImpulse had received approval for the flight from the UK Civil Aviation Authority in mid-2023. However, with financial issues forcing work on the site to be temporarily slowed, HyImpulse was forced to look elsewhere. The launch will now take place from the South Launch Koonibba Test Range in Australia, possibly as soon as March. The test will certify several critical elements of the company’s larger, orbital, SL1 rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

T-Minus prepares European launches. T-Minus Engineering is preparing to launch a pair of its DART rockets from the Esrange Space Centre in Sweden, European Spaceflight reports. DART is a single-stage suborbital solid fuel rocket that’s around 3.5 meters tall. It features a booster with a diameter of 118 millimeters and a dart-shaped payload compartment with a diameter of 35 millimeters.

Putting the small into small launch … The DART rocket can carry 0.5-kilogram payloads to an altitude of up to 120 kilometers. This will be the first time the Netherlands-based company has launched in Arctic conditions. (submitted by Ken the Bin).

Big Earth science mission launches on Falcon 9. NASA’s latest mission dedicated to observing Earth’s oceans and atmosphere from space rocketed into orbit from Florida early Thursday on the SpaceX launch vehicle, Ars reports. This mission will study phytoplankton, microscopic plants fundamental to the marine food chain, and tiny particles called aerosols that play a key role in cloud formation. These two constituents in the ocean and the atmosphere are important to scientists’ understanding of climate change. The mission’s acronym, PACE, stands for Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem.

Congress kept it on track … NASA authorized development of the PACE mission nine years ago, but the climate research satellite became a target for the Trump administration. During each of Trump’s four years in the White House, the administration’s annual budget request called for zeroing-out funding for PACE, along with other Earth science missions and NASA’s education office. A groundswell of support from scientists also helped persuade Congress to maintain funding for PACE. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Meet the (not at all creepy looking) Indian android soon to launch into space. India’s space agency will send a humanoid robot into this space this year, then send it back alongside actual humans in 2025 on its long-delayed Gaganyaan orbital mission, The Register reports. The robot, named Vyommitra, is due to launch into orbit during a test flight during the third quarter of this year.

She comes in peace … The robot, whose name translates to “Space Friend” in Sanskrit, will be more advanced than the crash-test-dummy-like stand-ins that NASA has flown on some of its test missions. Vyommitra, by contrast, can conduct some life-support functions, operate six panels, and respond to queries from ground control. The humanoid speaks two languages: Hindi and English. The science robot will also conduct microgravity experiments while in orbit. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

Rocket Lab secures Neutron funding. Rocket Lab announced this week that it has closed $355 million of convertible senior notes as the company looks to bridge to its next-generation Neutron rocket. Payload Research has the details on the financing, including an explanation of what the convertible notes mean for Rocket Lab as well as investors. Interestingly, the company’s publicly traded stock plummeted 17 percent on the day of the announcement amid concerns over dilution and rising debt servicing costs.

Still, it gets them to Neutron … The company estimates it will spend roughly $250 million to build the medium-lift Neutron rocket. Rocket Lab says it continues to make progress in development, and a company spokesperson reiterated that timeline to the publication, saying, “We’re still targeting to get Neutron on the pad before the end of the year.” That is all well and good, but it’s perhaps worth remembering that SpaceX had its Falcon 9 rocket “on the pad” in January 2009 and did not launch for the first time until June 2010. So, if we’re lucky, we might see Neutron fly in 2025.

India targets 30 launches in the next 15 months. The launches are planned to occur during 2024 and the first quarter of 2025, India Today reports. The launch target was announced by IN-SPACe, an Indian agency that promotes commercial spaceflight. The organization said the launches will be conducted by the Indian space agency, ISRO, its commercial arm, New Space India, and private companies.

Taking a big step up … Among the 14 commercial missions identified, seven are being executed by NewSpace India, including two Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles that are being developed through collaboration with an industry consortium. The private Indian companies that may attempt launches are Agnikul Cosmos and Skyroot Aerospace. If this cadence occurs, it would mark a significant step forward for India, which launched seven rockets in 2023.

Where are the Lane 1 bidders? The US military’s plan to diversify its stable of launch providers is running into a problem, Payload reports. None of them is likely to fly their rockets on time. Recall that, for less critical missions, Space Systems Command has opened “Lane 1” for new launch vehicles that could handle low-risk work. The first awards are expected to be announced this spring. However, the new entrants widely seen as aiming for Lane 1—Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Firefly, and ABL Space Systems—are unlikely to reach orbit by the December 15 deadline to qualify for this year’s batch of awards.

So, who is bidding for these contracts? … The usual suspects. SpaceX, ULA, and Blue Origin bid on the Lane 1 contracts intended for unproven launchers, as well as Lane 2, a Congressional source told the publication. (Blue Origin expects its New Glenn rocket to launch before the end of this year.) Companies that miss this year’s Lane 1 deadline will have another bite at the apple on an annual basis, per Col. Doug Pentecost of the military.

US military presses ahead on point-to-point. The US Air Force is advancing plans to demonstrate point-to-point rocket travel perhaps in a few years, Space News reports. Among the reasons for optimism are SpaceX’s launch rates and ability to reuse rockets, which “dramatically changes the business case,” said Gregory Spanjers, chief scientist overseeing the rocket cargo program at the Air Force Research Laboratory. Speaking on a panel January 30 at the Space Mobility Conference, Spanjers said, “We’ve looked at this for seven years, and it never makes any sense. Now we’re finding that, indeed, it’s looking a lot more attractive than it has in the past.”

A high launch rate solves a lot of ills … Two years ago, the Air Force awarded SpaceX a $102 million five-year contract to demonstrate technologies and capabilities to transport military cargo and humanitarian aid around the world on a heavy rocket. If Starship can achieve high launch rates, it could be relatively inexpensive for cargo containers to be released from the rocket like satellites, Spanjers added. “We can insert cargo transport as part of their regular launch rate progression, and treat it just like another satellite in their flow,” he said. (submitted by Jay500001 and Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

February 9: Falcon 9 | Starlink 7-13 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. | 00:55 UTC

February 9: Soyuz 2.1 | Unknown Payload | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | 06:00 UTC

February 14: Falcon 9 | Nova C lunar lander | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 05:57 UTC

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