Rocket Report: Starship could save Mars Sample Return; BE-4s for second Vulcan

Enlarge / A BE-4 engine is moved into position on ULA’s second Vulcan rocket.

Welcome to Edition 6.40 of the Rocket Report! There was a lot of exciting news this week. For the first time, SpaceX launched a reusable Falcon 9 booster for a 20th flight. A few miles away at Cape Canaveral, Boeing and United Launch Alliance completed one of the final steps before the first crew launch of the Starliner spacecraft. But I think one of the most interesting things that happened was NASA’s decision to ask the space industry for more innovative ideas on how to do Mars Sample Return. I have no doubt that space companies will come up with some fascinating concepts, and I can’t wait to hear about them.

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.


Going vertical Down Under. Gilmour Space has raised its privately developed Eris rocket vertical on a launch pad in North Queensland for the first time, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports. This milestone marks the start of the next phase of launch preparations for Eris, a three-stage rocket powered by hybrid engines. If successful, Eris would become the first Australian-built rocket to reach orbit. Gilmour says the maiden flight of Eris is scheduled for no earlier than May 4, pending launch permit approvals. This presumably refers to a commercial launch license from the Australian government.

A milestone for Australia… Rockets from the United States and the United Kingdom have launched satellites from Australian soil before, but Gilmour aims to become the first to do this with an entirely homemade rocket. The Eris rocket is capable of hauling about 670 pounds (305 kilograms) into a Sun-synchronous polar orbit. This puts Eris in the same class as other commercial small satellite launchers, such as Rocket Lab’s Electron. While the commercial outlook for the Eris rocket might seem somewhat dubious, it could make history in Australia and provide that nation with its first indigenous orbital launch capability. (submitted by Onychomys)

Astrobotic seeks military business. Astrobotic is making a strategic move into the defense sector with its Xogdor reusable rocket, designed to test payloads at the edge of space, Space News reports. Perhaps most famous for its commercially developed lunar landers, Astrobotic also builds and tests small reusable rockets with vertical and vertical landing capability. These rockets were developed by Masten Space Systems, which filed for bankruptcy in 2022. Astrobotic acquired Masten a couple of months later. The next rocket developed by Astrobotic and Masten, named Xogdor, is scheduled to debut in 2025. “We think the opportunities to leverage a platform like this are extensive, and they haven’t fully been explored,” said Sean Bedford, Astrobotic’s director of business development for propulsion systems.

New opportunities … Masten, and now Astrobotic, has historically flown small reusable rockets at low altitudes in the atmosphere to test propulsion technology and navigation sensors for precision landings on Earth or other planets. The liquid-fueled Xogdor will be a different animal, standing 27 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter. An upgraded version of Xodgor will have the ability to fly to altitudes higher than 62 miles (100 kilometers), according to Astrobotic. The Xogdor is funded by a NASA contract, but Bedford said Astrobotic is looking for ways the rocket can support the US military, the Missile Defense Agency, and other defense organizations for hypersonic research testing and point-to-point transportation. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

Orbex gets another tranche of funding. UK-based small launch developer Orbex got another boost from Scotland’s national bank and other investors as it gears up for its first orbital launch, though that mission still does not have a set date, TechCrunch reports. Orbex said it received £16.7 million ($20.8 million) from six financial backers in an update to its Series C funding round, which closed in October 2022 at £40.4 million ($50 million). Founded in 2015, Orbex is a privately held company, so we don’t have any insight into its financial situation, but this latest funding round should be enough to keep Orbex going while it prepares for the inaugural test flight of its Prime rocket, a two-stage, 62-foot-tall (19-meter) rocket designed to loft small satellites into low-Earth orbit.

Testing and launch now in sight? … Orbex’s Prime rocket has faced chronic delays, and it’s been a while since the company revealed any real schedule for the first test flight from Scotland. In mid-2022, Orbex aimed to launch Prime in late 2022 or early 2023. When Orbex announced its fresh funding Thursday, the company stated that “testing and launch (are) now in its sights.” The new funding will help Orbex ramp up development of Prime and “ensure full readiness and scalability for its launch period.” Whenever that is. (submitted by EllPeaTea)


20-for-20 for SpaceX’s fleet leader. For the first time, SpaceX launched one of its reusable Falcon 9 boosters on its 20th mission with a flight to deliver 23 more Starlink Internet satellites to orbit, Ars reports. The successful launch and landing April 12 broke a three-way tie in SpaceX’s fleet for the most-flown Falcon 9 rocket. Another launch later this month will also use a Falcon 9 booster making its 20th flight. Pretty much every day, SpaceX is either launching a rocket or rolling one out of the hangar to the launch pad. At this pace, SpaceX is redefining what is routine in the space industry, but the rapid-fire launch rate also means the company is continually breaking records, mostly its own.

Six launches in eight days … This was also the sixth launch of a Falcon 9 rocket in a period of eight days, more flights than SpaceX’s main US rival, United Launch Alliance, has launched in 17 months. The booster used on April 12, tail number B1062, has now launched more than 550 spacecraft, mostly Starlinks, plus eight commercial astronauts on two crew missions. When SpaceX debuted the latest version of its Falcon 9 rocket, the Falcon 9 Block 5, officials said the reusable first stage could fly 10 times with minimal refurbishment and perhaps additional flights with a more extensive overhaul. Now, SpaceX is certifying Falcon 9 boosters for 40 flights.

Russia’s space chief is dreaming big. Yuri Borisov, head of Roscosmos, recently spoke at a Russian space museum about the country’s future launch plans. Among the topics was Russia’s next-generation Amur-CNG rocket, a reusable vehicle conceived as a competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Borisov said the Falcon 9 could be reused about 10 times, and then claimed the Amur-CNG would be capable of much more, perhaps up to 100 flights per booster, Ars reports. The problem is the Amur-CNG is nothing more than a paper rocket at this stage. When Russian officials first discussed the Amur rocket in 2020, its first flight was scheduled for 2026. Now, that has slipped to 2028 or 2029. This is probably still an optimistic timeline, and if Amur ever flies, it will surely take even longer to recover and reuse the booster, not to mention getting to 100 flights.

Russian bluster … This clearly was a message intended to placate an audience that must be wondering why SpaceX has launched more than three dozen rockets so far in 2024, whereas Russia has mustered just half a dozen. However, Borisov’s claims fall well short of reality. Russia’s once-vaunted launch industry has been much in decline due to a combination of factors, including an aging fleet of rockets, a reduction in government investment, and the country’s war in Ukraine driving away Western customers. So officials turn to bluster, and this is what we’re seeing here.

Everything is coming together for Starliner. Ground teams on Florida’s Space Coast hoisted Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft atop its United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket this week, putting all the pieces in place for liftoff May 6 with two veteran NASA astronauts on a test flight to the International Space Station, Ars reports. This will be the first time astronauts fly on Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, following two test flights without crew members in 2019 and 2022. The Starliner Crew Flight Test (CFT) will wrap up a decade and a half of development and, if all goes well, will pave the way for operational Starliner missions to ferry crews to and from the space station.

Safety scrutiny … In parallel with final preparations of the rocket and spacecraft, NASA and Boeing managers are participating in several reviews this month to formally clear Starliner for its first flight with astronauts. Members of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) are sitting in on these reviews. Congress set up the independent panel in 1968, shortly after the deadly Apollo 1 fire, to advise NASA on safety matters. For years, ASAP members have tracked the technical problems that plagued the Starliner program, including software woes, valve corrosion, and most recently, flammable material inside the spacecraft and parachutes that didn’t measure up to design specifications. “Now that the launch date is nearly here … we have stepped up our fact finding in line with NASA’s prelaunch activity,” said Susan Helms, a retired Air Force general, former astronaut, and current chair of the safety panel.

Looking back at SpaceX’s first sooty rocket. Ten years ago this week, when a Falcon 9 rocket took off from Florida, something strange happened. Dramatically, as the rocket lifted off, a geyser of dirty water splashed upward alongside the vehicle, coating the rocket in grime. Eric Berger’s reporting on the story of why this occurred is fascinating, particularly for reporters like me who covered the launch when it happened. Essentially, SpaceX creatively solved a problem with a leaky liquid oxygen connection by trickling water from the launch pad’s fire suppression system over the oxidizer pipe. The fluid inside was flowing at cryogenic temperatures, so the water quickly froze to seal the leak. The water continued trickling over the liquid oxygen pipe through the countdown, so by the time the Falcon 9 took off, tens of thousands of gallons of water had flowed into the launch pad’s flame trench. When the rocket fired its engines, dirty water and steam erupted up the side of the booster like a Bellagio fountain.

No harm, no foul … This didn’t cause any problem for the rocket, but Berger’s story jogged my memory from covering this launch. This story is a wonderful illustration of how quick-thinking aerospace engineers can solve problems on the fly. In this instance, thanks to this problem-solving, the small liquid oxygen leak on the launch pad didn’t delay the mission to resupply the International Space Station. In many ways, this was an entirely different era for SpaceX, which was still basically a startup in 2014. This was just the ninth flight of a Falcon 9 rocket. Now, SpaceX has launched more than 330 Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and dominates the global launch industry.

Final hotfire for Ariane 6’s upper stage. ArianeGroup, builder of Europe’s Ariane rocket family, conducted the final hotfire test of the new Ariane 6 rocket’s upper stage in Germany. This hotfire test of the upper stage’s Vinci engine was delayed from late last year, and its purpose was to gather data for future Ariane 6 missions beyond the rocket’s inaugural flight planned for the middle of this year. While previous test-firings focused on demonstrating the upper stage’s ability to operate under normal conditions with its cryogenic Vinci engine, this hotfire test focused on operating the upper stage during “off-nominal” conditions.

APU … A major objective of this recent upper stage hotfire test involved the Ariane 6’s Auxiliary Propulsion Unit (APU). The APU is a nifty little device on the upper stage responsible for pressurizing the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant tanks, settling propellants before each ignition of the restartable Vinci engine and generating small amounts of additional thrust on demand. This thrust can allow the Ariane 6 rocket to more precisely inject satellites into orbit, deploy clusters of payloads into slightly different orbits, and deorbit the stage at the end of its mission. This final hotfire test included three long APU boosts for a total duration of 66 minutes. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)


SpaceX could play a role in Mars Sample Return. NASA’s $11 billion plan to robotically bring rock samples from Mars back to Earth is too expensive and will take too long, so officials are tasking government and private sector engineers to come up with a better plan, Ars reports. SpaceX’s giant Starship, designed with Mars missions in mind, could be part of the solution for NASA to bring back samples from the red planet cheaper and sooner than the 2040 schedule the agency laid out this week, according to Scientific American. NASA is encouraging companies to submit ideas using capabilities that are part of the Artemis lunar program. Starship is under contract to be the human-rated lander for the first two Artemis crew missions to the Moon’s surface.

Somehow the solution … “The only conclusion you can really draw from that is they’re hoping Starship somehow is the solution here,” said Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser for the Planetary Society, in an article published by Scientific American. That could provide MSR (Mars Sample Return) with a whopper of a solution. NASA is already funding Starship, the largest rocket in history, to the tune of billions of dollars to ferry astronauts to the lunar surface—but Starship also has the potential to launch immense payloads off other worlds and back to Earth. “Starship has the potential to return serious tonnage from Mars within [about] 5 years,” noted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on X, formerly Twitter, on April 15 in response to NASA’s MSR solicitation.

ULA has received two more BE-4 engines. Blue Origin has delivered both BE-4 main engines United Launch Alliance needs for the second flight of its Vulcan rocket later this year. The first engine was delivered in February, and ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno, posted an image on X this week showing the second BE-4 engine being installed on the Vulcan first stage at the company’s factory in Alabama. Bruno previously said the first two flightworthy BE-4 engines performed flawlessly on the first Vulcan mission in January but that the supply chain for BE-4s remained in the critical path for ramping up Vulcan’s flight rate to a goal of two launches per month by the end of next year.

Fall launch … ULA plans to launch the second test flight of Vulcan this fall, a few months later than hoped. The main driver to this schedule appears to be the readiness of Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane, which is undergoing environmental testing in Ohio before its delivery to Cape Canaveral for launch preparations. Dream Chaser is designed to ferry cargo and experiments to and from the International Space Station. If Dream Chaser isn’t ready this year, ULA will face a choice about what to do with the second Vulcan launch. The Space Force is eager for ULA to launch the second Vulcan flight as soon as possible to get the rocket certified for national security missions.

Next three launches

April 20: Long March 2D | Unknown Payload | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | 23:45 UTC

April 22: Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-53 | Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida | 22:40 UTC

April 23: Electron | NeonSat-1 and ACS3 | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 21:30 UTC


Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top