Welcome to Edition 5.33 of the Rocket Report! Phew, there is a lot going on this week. The "Heavy rockets" section of this week's report is loaded with news this week about Starship, New Glenn, and Vulcan. Be sure to check it out. And maybe also reserve some time your calendars Monday morning.
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.
Relativity Space retires Terran 1, goes bigger. This may be one of the final times that Relativity Space falls under the "small rocket" category in this report. Why? Because Relativity Space made a flurry of announcements on Wednesday about its past and future, including the retirement of its Terran 1 rocket after just a single launch attempt last month. "Terran 1 was always meant to develop technologies that were pushing the bounds for what was needed for Terran R," the company's chief executive, Tim Ellis, told Ars.
All in on Terran R ... Relativity also announced some major changes to the Terran R. It will be larger and more powerful than previously disclosed, with a total thrust of 3.35 million pounds and fully expendable lift capacity of 33.5 metric tons. The company is setting aside second stage reuse for now—it's not economically viable, Ellis said—and will focus on first stage reuse similar to what SpaceX does with the Falcon 9. Relativity is also moving away from an approach of additively manufacturing the entire rocket and will use aluminum alloy straight-section barrels. It's a bold move that puts Relativity in competition alongside United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, and Rocket Lab to be the "second" US launch company after SpaceX.
Rocket Lab to launch two TROPICS missions in May. The two dedicated missions, each consisting of two CubeSats, flying on Electron are expected to launch within approximately two weeks of each other in May 2023, the company said. The TROPICS constellation will monitor the formation and evolution of tropical cyclones, including hurricanes, and will provide rapidly updating observations of storm intensity for NASA.
Racing the start of the Atlantic hurricane season ... The two missions were initially scheduled to lift off from Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport within NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia but will now take place at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand to support a second-quarter launch window that will see the satellites reach orbit in time for the North American 2023 hurricane season. Originally, the satellites were to launch on Astra's 3.3 vehicle. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Firefly completes static fire test for next mission. The Texas-based launch company said Wednesday night that it completed a full-duration static fire test for the third launch of its Alpha rocket, confirming that "all systems and components are operating within flight parameters before launch." The test was conducted at the company's facilities at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.
An uncertain launch date ... The company has not provided a launch date for the mission. In fact, as part of the Space Force's VICTUS NOX responsive space mission, Firefly will need to have the payload encapsulated, mated, launched, and placed into low-Earth orbit within 24 hours of receiving the launch notice and orbit requirements. The program aims to demonstrate the United States’ capability to rapidly respond to on-orbit needs during a conflict.
Sanctions impacting Russian launch demand. European Union sanctions imposed on Russia-owned rocket-maker Khrunichev Center will not slow rocket production, but they will impact customer demand, center Chief Alexey Varochko said Monday, Payload reports. The Khrunichev Center is a Russian-owned launch manufacturer responsible for building the heavy-lift Proton-M and Angara launch vehicles.
Dropping demand ... According to Varochko, Khrunichev builds its rockets without using any foreign components. The homegrown supply chain, developed through years of sanction pressures, will likely shield the company from manufacturing disruptions. However, some foreign customers, like South Korea, are walking away from contracts. “Probably, some of our foreign partners may be afraid of the emergence of so-called secondary sanctions from the EU countries because of business ties with us,” said Varochko.
Ariane 5 set to launch ambitious science mission. With a mass of 6 metric tons, the Jupiter Ice Moons Explorer—or JUICE—is the largest deep space mission launched by the European Space Agency and one of the largest by any nation to the outer planets. After a weather delay on Thursday, the spacecraft is now scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket at 8:14 am ET (12:14 UTC) on Friday from Kourou, French Guiana.
Penultimate flight of the Ariane 5 ... Because the spacecraft is so massive, it will require several planetary flybys to build up the energy to reach the Jovian system. After its launch, JUICE will fly by Earth three times, as well as Venus, before entering orbit around Jupiter in 2031. Then, from 2031 through 2034, it will make nearly three dozen flybys of Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto, exploring their icy shells in greater detail. This is a super exciting mission that I can't wait to see take flight.
China declares a price war on SpaceX. Chinese space authorities plan to drastically cut the cost of space launches in response to challenges from SpaceX's reusable rockets, the South China Morning Post reports. According to the publication, the country's Long March rockets can deliver a payload to orbit at about $3,000 per kilogram. The country's space officials are apparently concerned about the potential for SpaceX's Starship to reduce the cost by a factor of 10 or more.
It will take some time ... The details in the article are fairly sparse, but Chinese space officials appear to be contemplating the development of a large reusable space plane that can carry both large amounts of cargo and passengers into low-Earth orbit, as well as being capable of point-to-point travel. Dubbed the Long-Range Aerospace Transportation System, Chinese officials are aiming to develop the vehicle and bring it into operational readiness by the 2040s. (submitted by brianrhurley and OtherSystemEngineer)
Europe unlikely to pivot to reuse soon. During an interview with French radio station Franceinfo, Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said Europe would have to wait until the 2030s for a reusable launch vehicle, European Spaceflight reports. Israël explained that, in his opinion, Ariane 6 would fly for more than 10 years. Europe would then look to transition to a reusable successor for introduction in the 2030s.
A decade is a long time ... Europe currently has two development programs as part of an effort to develop a reusable launch vehicle, Prometheus and Themis. However, these programs are more akin to SpaceX's Grasshopper test vehicle rather than something resembling a reusable, orbital-class rocket. If Europe waits another decade or longer to introduce a reusable launch vehicle, it will fall significantly further behind the United States and China in launch technology. (submitted by EllPeaTea)
Starship may launch Monday, April 17. SpaceX is very close to launching its Super Heavy/Starship rocket on a near-orbital flight test. On Thursday afternoon, officials from Cameron County, where the company's Starbase launch facility is located in South Texas, updated their planned road closures to include April 17, from midnight local time (05:00 UTC) through 2 pm CT (19:00 UTC) for "spaceflight activities." It is anticipated that SpaceX's launch window will open at 7 am local time (12:00 UTC).
They're going for it ... Note that such a road closure is still subject to SpaceX receiving a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Multiple sources have told me that SpaceX expects to receive a license in time for a launch attempt on Monday morning, but nothing is official until a license is in hand. With that said, I think there is a pretty healthy chance that SpaceX will attempt a launch on Monday. It's almost time to rumble.
SpaceX may lease High Bay 1 in NASA's VAB. Last August, NASA issued an agency announcement asking for industry proposals to lease the Vehicle Assembly Building High Bay 1 at Kennedy Space Center. This is the same iconic building in Florida where NASA stacks its Space Launch System rocket. In November, NASA selected a proposal. However, agency spokeswoman Patti Bielling declined to name the winner, telling Ars that terms are still being negotiated, and "the process does not conclude until the parties execute the lease, at which time NASA will announce the selection."
Starship processing ... I bring this up because two people have told me that SpaceX won the competition to use the high bay for its Starship program. The sources said SpaceX does not plan to perform stacking operations inside the VAB, but rather will use the facility for storage and integration of payloads on Starship before flight. This might be an interim usage by SpaceX while the company develops a larger facility on Roberts Road near the Florida spaceport. It sounds like SpaceX will continue to build Starships in South Texas and ship them to Florida for the time being.
New images of Centaur anomaly. Last Friday, Ars published an image of the Centaur V anomaly that occurred on March 29 while testing the Vulcan rocket's upper stage at Marshall Space Flight Center. The photo shows the anomaly—a fireball of hydrogen igniting—to the left of Blue Origin's rocket engine test stand. After the photo was published, United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno offered a more detailed assessment of the anomaly. "Most of what you’re seeing is insulation and smaller bits from the test rig. One piece of the hydrogen tank’s dome, about a foot square, ended up a few feet away. The test article is still inside the rig and largely intact, which will significantly help with the investigation." On Thursday, Bruno shared video of the accident. It's dramatic.
Debut launch delayed until later this summer ... The loss of the Centaur upper stage raises questions about ULA's schedule for the debut launch of its much-anticipated heavy-lift Vulcan rocket. For a couple of years, ULA has said it was waiting on Blue Origin to deliver BE-4 engines for the rocket's first stage. The fact that ULA was still doing qualification testing of the Centaur upper stage suggests it was also a pacing item for the new launch vehicle. ULA and Bruno had previously set May 4 as a launch date for the first Vulcan mission, but that will no longer occur. Later this summer is now likely a reasonable "no earlier than" date for the mission.
NASA mission confident in New Glenn date. The head of a NASA Mars mission flying on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket says he is confident the vehicle will be ready in time for a launch next year, Space News reports. “It hasn’t launched yet and we are concerned about that,” said the principal investigator for ESCAPADE, Rob Lillis of the University of California Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratory
On the other hand ... “But, having seen the Blue Origin facility at Cape Canaveral, I was much less concerned after seeing all the work they’ve done. I’m confident they will likely be ready for the launch of ESCAPADE.” In his presentation to the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, Lillis said the current launch window for the mission is August 6 through 15 of 2024. However, he later tweeted that the window “is approximate and provisional." Blue Origin is making progress on New Glenn, but I am less confident than Lillis in a 2024 launch. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Who will buy ULA? It has been about six weeks since Ars first reported that United Launch Alliance is up for sale by its parent companies, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, who each own a 50 percent stake. In that time, there has been a flurry of speculation about who will acquire the company. However, this week, the Space Case newsletter makes a compelling case that Lockheed is likely to buy out Boeing and operate the launch company on its own.
Doubling down ... The newsletter sets a value of $4 billion to $5 billion on ULA based on its operating income of about $200 million. It also provides a credible rationale for Boeing wanting to sell its share for immediate revenue, which could shore up Boeing's balance sheet. So what's the case for Lockheed? "Lockheed Martin isn’t looking to sell its stake in ULA. It has ample financial flexibility and is looking to double down on the recent success of its space businesses. Additionally, it is the only company that could see material cost savings by fully acquiring ULA," the newsletter states. This aligns with what I've heard of late, but we'll see.
Blue Origin looks to Vandenberg. It's not official, but two sources suggested to me this week that Blue Origin has found a West Coast launch site for its New Glenn rocket. The company is working with the US Space Force to take over Space Launch Complex-6 at Vandenberg Space Force Base.
Still some time to go ... The move will not occur until the Delta IV Heavy is done flying, even though the large rocket has no more West Coast launches left. The National Reconnaissance Office wants to protect the option of a West Coast launch on the Delta rocket if needed. New Glenn's first Vandenberg launch would be at least a few years from now.
Next three launches
April 11: Falcon 9 | Transporter 7 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. | 06:47 UTC
April 14: Ariane 5 | Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer | Kourou, French Guiana | 12:14 UTC
April 16: Long March 4B | Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, China | 01:40 UTC