Monday, January 4, 2021

In Other Space News

Virgin Orbit appears to be readying a test flight of their LauncherOne, an air-dropped small satellite lifter.  The tentative launch date is January 10th and the launch is likely to take place out of west coast facilities as did their previous attempt.  The one which ended with the launch vehicle apparently disintegrating soon after release.
LauncherOne is a rare air-launched rocket and is designed to be dropped from a modified Boeing 747 passenger jet (named “Cosmic Girl”).  For a cost of $12 million, LauncherOne will be able to place up to 600 kg (~1300 lb) into low Earth orbit.

Virgin Orbit also wants to develop a tiny third stage that would enable the small rocket to send payloads of 25-50 kg or more to the Moon and beyond.
The mission has bumped into this year after delays from Covid - they're in California - and going through periods when they didn't have enough people to get things done.

After that last loss of vehicle and mission, Peter Beck (Rocket Lab) and Elon Musk (SpaceX) tweeted moral support to the Virgin Orbit team.  "Orbit is hard."

Similarly, startup Firefly Space, has been steadily moving toward the first test of their orbital class rocket, Alpha.  The last time we talked about Firefly Space, last March, they were talking about testing it "this summer" - as in summer of '20.  As you might expect, that was too ambitious.
Firefly's first Alpha booster arrived at its Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) launch pad in November, while Alpha's orbital upper stage wrapped up a qualification static fire in December - shipment to Firefly's California launch pad TBD.

The cause of the delay is unclear but it's not exactly surprising for a new rocket's first launch campaign and a startup's first launch attempt.
Firefly Alpha.

Blue Origin made a show of christening a used cargo ship currently being modified into a seagoing landing platform for the New Glenn's massive boosters.  Since Blue Origin took possession of the ship - formerly known as Stena Freighter - more than two years ago, almost nothing has visibly changed.  The visible changes are the removal of two aft exhaust stacks and renaming the ship Jacklyn after Bezos' mother.  It appears to be nowhere close to ready for New Glenn booster landings. 

Which may not be a problem because the New Glenn appears to be nowhere close to ready to fly.  Aside from two aluminum rings, maybe a fifth of a tank dome, and two "pathfinder" BE-4 engines that are (1) not meant for New Glenn and (2) not meant for flight, Blue Origin has yet to reveal New Glenn flight hardware of any kind. The last real official announcement of the first launch date ("2021") came almost two years ago in January 2019 and is now comically ludicrous with just ~12 months left and zero flight hardware in work.

Meanwhile, the last time we talked about the SLS static firing test, word was they hoped to resume testing this month.  They're close-mouthed about it and no news is available.  I'm trying. 


  1. Hello SG, The differences between Aevum, Orbital / Northrup Grumman and Virgin do not seem that great. Each company has some competitive advantage with Aevum at half the (projected) cost. Countries have been air launching rockets for 100 years, is this so difficult, can any competitor be excluded? Is there really a market for this?

    1. That last question is the biggie. There have been people saying the launch market isn't that big and that we're headed for a shake out of the small launch companies with lots going out of business. This has been going on for a couple of years now. Aevum has a really cool looking booster, but it's as you say: countries have been air launching rockets for a long time and it's never really caught on.

      Aevum says there's a good reason for that. Air launching is supposed to make up for a first stage and give the upper stage enough velocity increase to replace a big booster launching on the ground. In reality, something like Virgin's LauncherOne carried by a 747 does get a big velocity push, but they drop the rocket and the 747 maneuvers to get out of the way. By the time its engines light, the rocket has lost velocity and is accelerating downward.

      I'd like some numbers to see just how much better they'll be.

      The Space Shuttle boosters were supposed to be reusable like a plane. They parachuted into the ocean, were picked up, refurbished and rebuilt. I've read many times that it was never cost effective and cheaper than buying new solid rockets.

    2. Haven't seen much of a shake-out before, but I've been around enough to see what happens when Excess Launch Capacity comes into play. There was a huge crush as the satellites with a design life of ~7 years were wearing out and being replaced with satellites with a 10~15 life. When we went through that cycle, it was really a low point, as there just weren't many launches, and the launch providers were very aggressively lowering their prices just to keep the doors open. The market for rides to GTO is pretty limited, for a lot of reasons. There's been a push towards small, LEO/MEO satellites that do less, for fewer people, than a Big Bird in geostaionary orbit. That "worry" kind of disappeared with the people wanting to build out huge constellations of LEO birds, all linked together, for various uses. These sates will need replacing as they fail, and is a driving factor in the coming requirement to be able to de-orbit them on command.

  2. The Head Guy at Sea Launch when I was first there left and went to SpaceX. He was only there about a year, and then went to Rocketdyne, declaring that SpaceX was "A rich man's playtoy".

    I'm sure he's surprised about his comments these days, but I think his description fits Blue Origin perfectly.....

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  4. Here's an organization that you may be interested in. I stumbled across their website doing a random walk around the internet. I have no idea how serious they are, or what they expect. Or how successful they will be in the long run, but I do like their spirit.

    Copenhagen Suborbitals

    I liked their hybrid rocket engine. (Solid fuel/liquid oxidizer) Though they have apparently abandoned that for their new rocket.

    Here's the propaganda from the "About Us" page.

    Copenhagen Suborbitals is the world’s only manned, amateur space program. We’re located in Denmark with followers from all over the world.

    Since 2011, we’ve built and flown 6 homebuilt rockets and space capsules from a ship in the Baltic Sea, and some day one of us will fly into space.

    1. I kept track of Copenhagen Suborbitals for awhile, then came to the conclusion they were essentially an amateur rocket club led by a guy with a deathwish.

      Remember that Chinese gentleman of a couple centuries ago who tried to launch himself on a chair festooned with big bottle rockets underneath? Like that.

  5. Thank you for your insight SG and Everyone.