Welcome to Edition 2.26 of the Rocket Report! We’ve got a feature-length report today, stuffed like a stocking full of stories about launch from around the world. This is our final issue before a holiday break, but we’ll be back with all the news that’s fit to lift on January 9.
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 to build second New Zealand pad. Mere days after completing a new launch site in Virginia, Rocket Lab announced this week that it has started work on a second pad at its original launch site in New Zealand. This Pad B at Launch Complex 1 is scheduled to become operational by late 2020, SpaceNews reports.
Weekly launches? … Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said the decision to build the second pad was driven by an anticipated increase in its launch rate. After six launches of its Electron rocket in 2019, the company anticipates launching once a month in 2020 and eventually higher cadences. “The additional pad really gives us the capacity to get down to one launch every week, which is what we’ve always been driving to,” he said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Air Force plans active smallsat launch campaign in 2020. The small-launch division of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center is preparing to launch nine missions in 2020, just about doubling the number of launches conducted in 2019, according to SpaceNews. “It will be a busy year,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Rose, chief of the small launch and targets division, which is part of SMC’s Launch Enterprise Systems Directorate.
Five this year … In 2019, five missions were carried out by the small-launch directorate: STP-2 aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the Ascent Abort-2 flight test of the launch abort system for NASA’s Orion spacecraft from a modified Peacekeeper missile, STP-27RD aboard a Rocket Lab Electron vehicle, an MDA intercept flight test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, and (most recently) a flight test of a prototype conventionally configured ground-launched ballistic missile in support of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Vector files for bankruptcy protection. Four months after laying off nearly the entirety of its 150-person staff, the micro-launch company filed for bankruptcy on December 13, SpaceNews reports. Vector had been one of the leading companies in the small-launch-vehicle market until August, when the company said that a “significant change in financing” led it to pause operations.
Funding falls through … The publication said the August layoffs were triggered when one of the company’s major investors, venture fund Sequoia, withdrew its support due to concerns about how the company was managed. That came as Vector was working on a new funding round, and Sequoia’s decision had a domino effect, causing other investors to back out. (submitted by Ildatch and Ken the Bin)
India’s PSLV makes its 50th launch. Earlier this month, the 50th flight of India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle successfully delivered 10 spacecraft from five nations into orbit. This mission was also the 75th overall launch from India’s primary spaceport at Sriharikota, Spaceflight Now reports.
Two failures … The PSLV’s first mission lifted off from Sriharikota on September 20, 1993, but failed to reach orbit after encountering a problem during separation of the rocket’s second and third stages. The PSLV’s only other launch failure occurred August 31, 2017, when the rocket’s payload shroud did not jettison, preventing the rocket from placing an Indian navigation satellite into orbit. The rocket has become a workhorse in the small-satellite launch industry.
Exos Aerospace identifies cause of launch failure. Exos has found the cause of the October launch failure of its Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with Guidance (aka SARGE rocket), according to the company’s co-founder. John Quinn, Exos Aerospace’s co-founder and chief operating officer, told Space.com that a composite part just below the nose cone failed, causing the cone to slide down into the rocket. The booster then flew nearly horizontally, beyond any hope of recovery.
Sticking with it … “What’s really interesting is, the component that failed was one that we replaced,” Quinn said. The replacement was made based on data gathered during the company’s third launch, which was successful. But engineers saw some moderate signs of stress in the composite part, so they decided to put in a new piece for the fourth launch. The company is already targeting another launch date for the first quarter of 2020, depending on the progress of the redesign and certain external matters, such as the renewal of its government launch license. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
New Shepard conducts 12th test flight. On December 11, Blue Origin launched its suborbital New Shepard rocket and crew capsule on an uncrewed test flight from the company’s launch and landing facility in West Texas. This was the 12th total test flight of the New Shepard launch system, and the third such flight in the year 2019, NASASpaceFlight.com reports.
Human flights in 2020? … This mission is expected to be one of the last uncrewed flights scheduled to occur before Blue Origin gets ready to fly human passengers on the New Shepard vehicle, with the first crewed launch most likely occurring sometime next year. The company has yet to begin selling tickets or even set a price for the 10-minute, out-of-this-world experience. Maybe that changes next year. Maybe not. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Trump ally buys Stratolaunch. Geek Wire reports that the new owner of Stratolaunch, the space venture started by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is Steve Feinberg, a secretive billionaire with close ties to President Donald Trump. In October, Stratolaunch announced that it had transitioned ownership from Allen’s holding company, Vulcan Inc., but it did not identify who had bought the company.
Jean Floyd says for now … Private-equity firms typically replace existing managers as a prelude to realigning businesses they buy, which can involve firing, automation and offshoring. However, it appears that Jean Floyd, Stratolaunch’s president and CEO since 2015, remains in his role for now. Last week, Floyd tweeted that Stratolaunch had grown from 13 to 87 employees over the past two months. He also reported that the company’s new mission was “to be the world’s leading provider of high-speed flight-test services.” Maybe in 2020 we’ll see what that means.
Copper-titanium alloys show promise. The current titanium alloys often used in additive manufacturing typically cool and bond together into crystals that make them prone to cracking. However, a new report in the journal Nature suggests that a titanium-copper alloy may solve these problems and allow for the stronger material to be used more widely.
Building a stronger booster? … “We report on the development of titanium–copper alloys that have a high constitutional super-cooling capacity as a result of partitioning of the alloying element during solidification, which can override the negative effect of a high thermal gradient in the laser-melted region during additive manufacturing,” authors write in the journal. They say this could have applications in the aerospace and biomedical industries. This work remains at the laboratory level for now, but it could have long-term implications for spaceflight. (submitted by rochefort)