Welcome to Edition 2.41 of the Rocket Report! Lots of news this week, topped by the ascent of the Falcon 9 rocket to the status of “most experienced” rocket now active in the United States. Not bad for a booster that has been flying for less than a decade. We also have news of Iran’s surprise launch this week and much more.
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.
Iran Guard reveals secret space program. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard launched its first satellite into space Wednesday, the AP reports. This action dramatically showcased what experts described as a secret military space program that could advance its ballistic missile development amid wider tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States.
A pretty big success … Using a mobile launcher at a new launch site, the Guard said it put the “Noor,” or “Light,” satellite into a low orbit circling the Earth. The paramilitary force said it used a “Qased,” or “Messenger,” booster to put the device into space. The Guard described this previously unheard-of rocket as using both liquid and solid fuel. None of this could be immediately verified by Western experts. (submitted by JohnCarter17 and Ken the Bin)
Firefly signs deal with Spaceflight for 2021 launch. Texas-based launch company Firefly said Wednesday it had reached a deal with Spaceflight to manage payloads on a 2021 launch of its Alpha booster to Sun-synchronous orbit. The rocket has a capacity of 630kg to such an orbit, and as the mission’s “anchor customer,” Spaceflight will work to maximize the usage of that lift capability.
Larger lift among the littles … Firefly sees the larger capacity of its rocket as a major asset in the smallsat launch competition. “Our Alpha launch vehicle will quickly fill a major market gap with the capability to deliver 1 metric ton to low-Earth orbit and 630kg to the highly desirable 500km SSO, about four times the current payload capability of other small satellite launch vehicles,” Firefly’s Tom Markusic said in a news release. The company is still targeting this summer for Alpha’s first launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)
NASA narrows design for Mars ascent vehicle. What type of rocket should be used as part of a mission architecture to return samples from the Red Planet to Earth? Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, have determined a two-stage, solid-fuel rocket is the best choice for the Mars Ascent Vehicle, Spaceflight Now reports. In a sole-source procurement announcement earlier this month, NASA said it intends to award Northrop Grumman a contract to deliver 20 rocket motors—10 first-stage and 10 second-stage motors. The motor sets include test articles and primary and backup flight-ready motors.
Expect a return no earlier than 2031 … The first element of the Mars Sample Return mission is NASA’s Perseverance rover scheduled to depart Earth in mid-July. Perseverance will collect core samples from Martian rocks and store them in tubes for retrieval by a future rover that could launch as soon as 2026. The Mars Ascent Vehicle would launch the samples from the surface of Mars to an Earth-return orbiter. (submitted by platykurtic)
Falcon 9 becomes most experienced active US rocket. With the latest Starlink mission on Wednesday successfully delivering an additional 60 satellites into low-Earth orbit, the Falcon 9 rocket has now launched 84 times. This surpasses the total flights by United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, Ars reports.
Improve as you fly … The Atlas V rocket first launched on August 2, 2002; SpaceX first flew the Falcon 9 rocket on June 4, 2010. Notably, the Falcon 9 has assumed the mantle of most-experienced rocket while making multiple revisions to its design and incorporating first-stage reuse. In short, SpaceX increased the flight rate of its rocket even as the company has aggressively sought to optimize its performance.
Official at Soyuz launch tested positive for COVID-19. On April 9, a Soyuz-2.1a rocket launched from Baikonur, carrying three crew members to the International Space Station. According to the New York Post, an official at the launch location, Evgeniy Mikrin, subsequently tested positive for coronavirus. Mikrin is the deputy head of Energia Rocket and Space Corporation.
Who was that masked man? … During the pre-launch preparations, Mikrin could be seen sitting next to Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin, when both men were separated by glass from the crew. However, Rogozin, having had close contact with Mikrin, was subsequently observed close to the cosmonauts, prior to launch. Rogozin is believed to have worn a mask during his time around the crew. In the wake of this report, Roscosmos claimed it was “impossible” that the crew was exposed to COVID-19. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
NASA sets launch date for Crew Dragon mission. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will launch on May 27 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center, at 4:32pm ET (20:32 UTC). This test flight will carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station for a multi-month mission—as long as 110 days but probably less, Ars reports.
Pandemic pains … NASA and SpaceX must still clear some hurdles before the mission takes place, notably a final parachute test, so this launch date may well slip to the right. There are also complications due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put several NASA centers on mandatory telework and prevented all but essential travel. But the fact that the space agency has published a date lends confidence to a crew launch from the United States within two to three months. In related news, on Thursday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said people should stay home and not travel to Kennedy Space Center to view the launch.
Two Soyuz launches from Kourou postponed until the fall. Launch activity at the European spaceport in French Guiana has been suspended since March 16, and it’s not clear when the facility will open. However, new launch dates for two Soyuz launches may offer some clue as to when operations will return to normal.
No official date yet … A Europeanized version of the Russian Soyuz rocket was due to launch missions in February and March from French Guiana. Now, according to Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin, the launches will take place in September, TASS reports. This could signal a time frame for reopening the launch site, but European space officials have not set a target date for resuming operations. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Musk explains engine-out failure on Falcon 9 launch. On March 18, one of the Falcon 9 rocket’s nine Merlin 1D engines failed during launch. Although the Starlink-5 satellites made orbit, this precluded a fully controlled return of the first stage. SpaceX appears to have concluded its investigation into the failure and identified a relatively simple fix.
Coming clean on cleaning procedure … According to company founder Elon Musk, a “Small amount of isopropyl alcohol (cleaning fluid) was trapped in a sensor dead leg & ignited in flight,” causing the engine to fail. A source told Ars that the company has already replicated the problem during tests and that fixing it will require changing some cleaning procedures. This should have no effect on the upcoming Crew Dragon launch.
Cubesat delivered for next Falcon Heavy mission. Yes, you read that right. Millennium Space Systems has completed the development and integration of a cubesat scheduled to be launched to geosynchronous orbit later this year on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rideshare mission for the US Space Force, SpaceNews reports.The satellite is based on Millennium Space Systems’ ALTAIR line of small satellites.
Smallsats in big orbits … The company said Tetra-1 is the first of the ALTAIR satellites to qualify for operations in the geosynchronous orbit space environment 22,236 miles above the Earth’s surface. It will be manifested on the US Space Force rideshare mission known as USSF-44, presently scheduled for a late 2020 launch. (submitted by Ken the Bin and DanNeely)
Another Starship prototype moves to the launch site. Residents near SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site shared images (here and here) of the latest Starship prototype moving into place for tests. Later, Elon Musk shared a drone’s eye view. SN4 will seek to pass cryogenic pressure tests that have destroyed several previous prototypes. Initial tests could begin as soon as this weekend.
The factory is working … What we are witnessing with the assembly line production of Starships in South Texas seems to be unprecedented in spaceflight. The next step is for SpaceX to move beyond cryogenic and engine tests into actual flights. If successful, such flights may begin to really silence some of the doubters who view Starship as a distraction, or worse.
Next three launches
April 25: Soyuz | Progress supply mission to ISS | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 01:51 UTC
May 16: Atlas V | USSF 7 mission | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | TBD
May 20: H2-B | HTV-9 ISS Supply mission | Tanegashima Space Center, Japan | 17:30 UTC
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