Rocket Report: Astra to launch from Florida, NASA troubleshoots SLS issue

Enlarge / SpaceX launched NASA’s IXPE mission on a Falcon 9 first stage that had previously flown four times.

Welcome to Edition 4.26 of the Rocket Report! Don’t look now, but we’re less than two weeks from the momentous launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope is fully fueled and has just been moved to the facility where it will be stacked atop the Ariane 5 rocket. Is anyone else nervous?

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.

France to accelerate reusable-rocket plans. On Monday, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire announced a plan for Europe to compete more effectively with SpaceX by developing a reusable rocket on a more rapid timeline. “For the first time Europe … will have access to a reusable launcher,” Le Maire said. “In other words, we will have our SpaceX, we will have our Falcon 9. We will make up for a bad strategic choice made 10 years ago.”

Go faster … The new plan calls for the large, France-based rocket firm ArianeGroup to develop a new small-lift rocket called Maïa by the year 2026. This is four years ahead of a timeline previously set by the European Space Agency for the development of a significantly larger reusable rocket. Maïa will have a lift capacity of up to 1 metric ton to low Earth orbit and be powered by a reusable Prometheus rocket engine. As Ars explains, the politics of this are complicated.

Astra’s next launch will be from Florida. The small-launch company, which has previously flown its small rocket from Alaska and went orbital earlier this year for the first time, announced Monday that its next launch will take place from Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Base. Astra plans to launch a small satellite for NASA with its Rocket 3 vehicle no earlier than January 2022.

Speedier approvals … Astra and Space Launch Delta 45, a part of the United States Space Force, shortened the multi-year approval time to months for the launch site. “Launching out of the Cape allows us to serve customers with mid-inclination delivery needs, broadening our market,” said Martin Attiq, chief business officer at Astra. “This is an additional step in our global spaceport strategy and positions us to serve the broad low Earth orbit market.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Ursa Major raises $85 million. The Colorado-based manufacturer of liquid engines for small space launchers and hypersonic vehicles announced Tuesday it has closed an $85 million Series C fundraising round. The company said the new funding will help accelerate production to meet current demand and begin the development of its next-generation engines, SpaceNews reports.

Next stop, orbit? … Ursa Major’s engines have yet to be launched to orbit. The company said it has back orders for more than 50 engines and has received several research-and-development contracts from commercial customers and the US government through 2022. Its customers include Stratolaunch, Phantom Space, Generation Orbit, the US Air Force, and the Defense Manufacturing Institutes. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Chinese company reaches orbit a second time. Rocket company Galactic Energy launched its second Ceres-1 rocket on Monday, becoming the first Chinese private firm to reach orbit twice, SpaceNews reports. The four-stage Ceres-1 solid rocket lifted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, successfully placing five satellites into a roughly 500-km Sun-synchronous orbit.

Orbit feels twice as nice … The launch follows the company’s first launch in November 2020, which made Galactic Energy only the second Chinese private rocket firm to reach orbit, following the success of iSpace in July 2019. Since that time iSpace has failed with both of its subsequent orbital launch attempts, both of which took place this year. Galactic now plans five launches in 2022 with the Ceres vehicle, which can lift 300 kg to Sun-synchronous orbit, the company says.

Rocket Lab launches sixth mission of 2021. The company completed its “A Data with Destiny” mission on Thursday, with the Electron rocket delivering the two BlackSky Gen-2 Earth-imaging satellites to a circular 430 km orbit. This brings the total number of satellites deployed by Rocket Lab to 109, the company said. This was Rocket Lab’s final launch for 2021, which featured six flights and five successful missions.

BlackSky an important customer … This flight was part of a multilaunch agreement with Spaceflight to deploy numerous BlackSky satellites on Electron. Rocket Lab has now deployed seven satellites to low Earth orbit for BlackSky on missions beginning in 2019. Next year could be a consequential one for Rocket Lab as it attempts the first in-air recovery of an orbital rocket’s first stage. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Orbex to build launch pad for rocket tests. The UK-based launch company announced Thursday that it has begun construction of its first state-of-the-art “launch platform,” which it claims is the first orbital space launch pad to be built in the UK in more than a half-century. The platform, known as Orbex LP1, will be constructed by Motive Offshore Group at a test site near Kinloss, close to the Orbex headquarters in Forres, Scotland. It should be fully operational early next year.

Launch site yet to be built … “The ability for our engineers to test Prime on its own launchpad is a major advancement on the roadmap to launch,” said Chris Larmour in the company’s announcement. This platform, however, will not actually be used for orbital launches. Rather, Orbex said, it will help to “accelerate” plans to launch the Prime rocket from its “home” spaceport at Sutherland in Northern Scotland. Orbex said it plans to launch Prime for the first time later in 2022, but as with all inaugural launch dates, one should be appropriately skeptical.

Coastal Maine town delays spaceport decision. The town of Jonesport voted Wednesday for a six-month moratorium on a proposal to develop an aerospace facility sought by bluShift Aerospace. Primarily local fishermen are pushing back against the project, the Central Maine Times Record reports, due to concerns that it would interfere with fishing schedules and that gear could be damaged and tangled with parachutes coming down alongside rockets.

Shifting into a lower gear … Sascha Deri, the CEO of bluShift, said that he is in full support of the moratorium and creating local rules to regulate aerospace. “It gives ample time to work out together to figure out a way that we can work around the fishing and other industries which take advantage of the ocean’s resources,” he said. The proposed location for the launch site is on an island, although the mission control facility would be closer to town. The cost of the project would be in the range of $1 million. (submitted by Kered557)