Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The One-Ton-Class Orbital Rocket Race

The race to be the first privately developed one-ton-class orbital booster to attain orbit seems to have an unlikely leader at the moment.  ABL Space Systems has announced a several day launch window for their RS-1 vehicle toward the end of August, potentially as early as August 29th, from their launch site at Alaska's Pacific Spaceport Complex. The dates that appear in documents from the Spaceport indicate potential dates of August 29 to 31, followed by September 6 - 10.  

Per a regulatory document filed on August 4th, that launch debut could happen before any of ABL Space's main competitors. While there are many other companies developing similarly-sized rockets (capable of launching 1-2 tons or ~2200-4400 lb to low Earth orbit) both in the US and around the world, it just so happens that Firefly Aerospace, Relativity Space, and ABL Space are neck and neck. Firefly's unfortunate but unsurprising failure on its first launch attempt means that all three companies are still in the running to become the first NewSpace company to successfully build and launch a one-ton-class rocket.

As we've said many times, Space Is Hard.  Orbit is Hard.  ABL successfully tested out their RS-1 first stage on July 9th at the Pacific Spaceport Complex, on Kodiak Island.  Further, the second stage of the booster was tested in May, and they say all of their hardware is flight ready.  Obviously, Firefly thought that all of their hardware was flight ready and proven out before their failure on their first launch attempt so ABL's confidence is no guarantee.  While the Pacific Spaceport document didn't specifically mention ABL was going to launch, they're the only company known to be approaching ready to launch up there. 

ABL Space Systems RS-1 - their image.

If the RS-1 reminds you of a smaller version of SpaceX's Falcon 9, nine sea-level engines on the first stage and a version of the same engine on the upper stage optimized to run in a vacuum,  it might be helpful to know the company was started by SpaceX engineers.  According to some site that sells that sort of info and won't let me look at it ("your browser isn't cool enough!!"). Certainly, it isn't hard to find the general pattern of what's in a Falcon 9; nowhere near as hard a figuring out what it takes to copy one.  

Around August 9th, Firefly Aerospace announced that the launch window for its second Alpha rocket would open on September 11th, setting up a minor space race. Simultaneously, Relativity CEO Tim Ellis recently suggest that its first Terran 1 launch could be just a few weeks away, meaning that all three companies could potentially be targeting the same few-week period.

It's an interesting little three way race: Relativity, Firefly and ABL. ABL appears to have a shot at being first but we'll have to keep an eye on it.




  1. Amazing that we have three contenders. "Have Space Suit, Will Travel" may happen in our lives.

    1. There was something I saw a few years ago and got talked about for a news cycle or two that said if we can stay alive to 2030, we'll become immortal. All diseases and conditions will be cured and we'll never wear out with age.

      You may have gathered I didn't believe it, but ignoring the obvious thoughts about how to pay for everything it's interesting to contemplate a future with things like this going on.

  2. I guess those are "metric tons" or 1000 Kg. Long tons are close but aren't used much anymore.

    1. I should have pointed that out. Yeah, a metric ton (1000 kg) converted to pounds. Not exactly 2200 lbs, but close enough when you're talking one or two metric tons - 2204.6.

  3. Well, hey, you can be "ready for space" and yet have a hardware failure, an electrical connection fail, or make a software error. Just gotta test, analyze whet went wrong, fix. Repeat.

    Good luck, guys!