Rocket Report: Analyst dings Virgin Galactic, Astranis moves to Falcon Heavy


The Inspiration4 mission, inside a Crew Dragon, splashes down on Saturday in the Atlantic Ocean. Interest in such tourist missions is soaring.
Enlarge / The Inspiration4 mission, inside a Crew Dragon, splashes down on Saturday in the Atlantic Ocean. Interest in such tourist missions is soaring.

Welcome to Edition 4.17 of the Rocket Report! After the successful conclusion of the Inspiration4 mission this past weekend, we can now look ahead to some significant launches in the days ahead. First up is NASA’s Landsat 9 mission on an Atlas V rocket. And in a little less than two weeks, Russia launches a film crew on a Soyuz vehicle to make a movie in space.

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.

Astra licenses rocket engines from Firefly. Astra, the small launch company that recently went public, has signed a roughly $30 million deal for the rights to manufacture Firefly Aerospace’s Reaver rocket engines in-house, the Verge reports. Under the deal, which closed earlier this year, Firefly will send up to 50 of its Reaver rocket engines to Astra’s rocket factory in Alameda, California, where a development engine was already delivered in late spring for roughly a half-million dollars.

From five engines to two … Astra engineers have been picking apart the engine for detailed inspection, said a person familiar with the terms, who, like others involved in the deal, declined to speak on the record because of a strict non-disclosure agreement. Fusing Firefly’s engines with Astra’s own rocket technology would help Astra reach its publicly stated “500 kg to 500 km” goal. The company’s current rocket—simply called Rocket—has yet to reach orbit after three attempts. This rocket uses five of Astra’s Delphin engines and is designed to lift up to 150 kg to low Earth orbit. A new version using two Firefly Reaver engines could lift 500 kg. (submitted by Rendgrish, EllPeaTea, and Ken the Bin)

Bank of America rips Virgin Galactic. Analysts at Bank of America who cover Virgin Galactic’s publicly traded stock are upset by the company’s failure to disclose that a SpaceShipTwo suborbital flight carrying founder Richard Branson flew outside of its assigned airspace on July 11, Parabolic Arc reports. This deviation resulted in an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration and the grounding of the company’s only operational spaceplane.

A poor strategy in aviation … “Point blank, in our view, it is unacceptable to have an event during a flight that, per FAA regulations, is considered a mishap and then claim that the mission was a full success,” analyst Ronald Epstein wrote in a note to investors. “The old adage, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, generally is a poor strategy in aviation.” The Virgin Group and Branson sold a combined $800 million worth of stock during a seven-week period when shareholders were in the dark about the incident and subsequent actions. The news was only revealed by an article in The New Yorker published on September 1. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Rocket Lab to launch mission for Astroscale. Rocket Lab announced Tuesday that it has signed a dedicated launch contract with Astroscale to launch the Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) satellite on an Electron rocket. The mission is scheduled to launch in 2023.

Grabbing space junk … Once deployed by Electron’s Kick Stage, the ADRAS-J satellite is designed to rendezvous with a piece of orbital debris, a long-abandoned upper-stage rocket body. ADRAS-J aims to demonstrate proximity operations and obtain images of the rocket body, delivering observational data to better understand the debris environment. A planned second phase of the mission intends to demonstrate a de-orbiting of the debris. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Indian launch firm to access government facilities. Indian startup Agnikul Cosmos signed an agreement with India’s Department of Space on Friday for access to ISRO facilities and expertise for the development of its two-stage small-satellite Agnibaan launch vehicle. The company’s two-stage Agnibaan rocket is designed to launch payloads weighing as much as 100 kg into a 700 km orbit, Parabolic Arc reports.

Technical expertise, too … The agreement will enable “undertaking multiple tests and access facilities at various ISRO centers for testing and qualification of their single-piece 3D-printed Semi Cryo engine and other systems,” ISRO said. It will also enable Agnikul to leverage technical expertise from ISRO for testing and qualifying its space launch vehicle systems and subsystems. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Starliner launch date remains indefinite. Nearly six weeks have passed since Boeing said it would de-stack its Starliner spacecraft from an Atlas V rocket and return the vehicle to its factory for “deeper-level” troubleshooting of problematic valves. On Tuesday, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight operations, Kathy Lueders, said teams of engineers and technicians from Boeing and NASA are continuing to assess the issue with sticky valves, Ars reports. “I think the team’s making great progress on further troubleshooting,” she said.

Slipping to early 2022 … Boeing and NASA will reach a decision point in the “next few weeks,” she said, when they will decide whether to remove the valves from the service module for additional study. If this is the case, Boeing would likely pull forward a service module intended for a future crewed flight and use it for the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 mission. A new date for this OFT-2 mission has yet to be set, and Lueders indicated one may not be set any time soon. She suggested the mission probably will slip to 2022. “My gut is that it would probably be more likely to be next year, but we’re still working through that timeline,” she said.

Falcon 9 to launch Turkish satellite. Türksat will launch its first domestically built communications satellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9, the Turkish government has announced. The Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure said it awarded SpaceX a contract for the launch of Türksat 6A, scheduled for the first quarter of 2023. The ministry did not disclose the terms of the contract, SpaceNews reports.

SpaceX offered the best deal … In a government statement, Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Adil Karaismailoğlu said the government considered “many launcher companies” before selecting SpaceX, “which offers the best solution in terms of both technical, administrative and financial aspects.” Türksat 6A will be the country’s first communications satellite built domestically, by the TÜBİTAK Space Technologies Research Institute. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX sees high demand for free-flyer missions. Four amateur astronauts returned from a three-day private spaceflight this weekend overflowing with enthusiasm about the experience. “Best ride of my life,” said Sian Proctor shortly after emerging from the Crew Dragon capsule. Future customers for such a free-flying orbital experience, however, weren’t waiting for the initial reviews to express their interest in going to space. Even before the Crew Dragon spacecraft splashed down on Saturday night, the Inspiration4 mission had already ignited a firestorm of interest, Ars reports.

It’s a good thing the rocket is reusable … “The amount of people who are approaching us through our sales and marketing portals has actually increased significantly,” said Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs for SpaceX, during a call with reporters after the space tourism mission landed. “There’s tons of interest rolling in now.”

FAA releases initial report on Boca Chica launch site. The Federal Aviation Administration released a draft environmental review of SpaceX’s plans for orbital launches from South Texas on Friday, kicking off a 30-day public comment period. The long-awaited procedural step is the first of several regulatory hurdles that SpaceX must clear before obtaining final permission to launch its Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage from a site near Boca Chica, Texas, Ars reports.

Final decision to come later … Such a launch likely remains months away, but it now appears that the feds will ultimately greenlight South Texas for orbital launches. That seemed far from assured before today. The document, formally called a Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment, evaluates the potential environmental impacts of SpaceX’s Starship program, including launch and reentry. It also reviews debris recovery, the integration tower and other launch-related construction, and local road closures between Brownsville and Boca Chica beach.

China to reveal heavy-lift plans next week. China’s institutional rocket developer, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, will formally unveil designs for two heavy-lift rockets at this year’s Airshow China in South China’s Guangdong Province. The event runs from September 28 to October 3, the Global Times reports.

New names, new plans … Officials have discussed plans for the Long March 5-DY and Long March 9 vehicles before but will likely formalize names and specifics for these vehicles, which will support deep-space exploration missions as well as human lunar landings about a decade from now. First-stage reuse is expected to be a part of the plans announced next week. (submitted by IA)

Astranis to launch on Falcon Heavy. Astranis announced Thursday that its first commercial communications satellite will now launch as a secondary payload on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on a direct-inject mission set for spring 2022. Switching from a Falcon 9 rocket will allow the spacecraft to arrive at its orbital slot within days of launch, the company said.

No need for months of orbit raising … “Launching on Falcon Heavy will get us on-orbit months faster, allowing us to serve customers in Alaska that much sooner,” said John Gedmark, CEO of Astranis. “This is a huge win for our customers in Alaska.” Astranis previously launched a demonstration CubeSat on India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

Sept. 27: Atlas V | Landsat 9 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. | 18:11 UTC

Oct. 1: Epsilon | Rapid Innovative Payload Demonstration Satellite 2 | Uchinoura Space Center, Japan | 00:48

Oct. 5: Soyuz | MS-19 crew launch | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 08:55 UTC



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