Thursday, May 25, 2023

Weekly Small Space News Story Roundup 9

Rocket Lab's TROPICS Launch Was Scrubbed 

The launch of the final TROPICS satellite mission talked about last night was scrubbed due to poor weather in New Zealand, and has been rescheduled for tonight at 11:30 PM EDT.  The NASA video feed should go live at 11:15 PM EDT.

In a Similar But Unrelated Story 

Unrelated because any similarity between weather at Rocket Lab's Māhia Peninsula launch site and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station is purely coincidental.  Here on the "Space Coast" we've had a weird week of weather caused by some stalled frontal areas overhead. 

You guessed it, SpaceX's launch of the ARABSAT BADR-8 mission to a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit from SLC-40 was scrubbed on its last attempt to launch due to weather and has been moved to Friday night at 11:25 PM EDT.  There's a two hour launch window (127 minutes) unlike the virtually instantaneous windows of most SpaceX missions.  Video coverage will go live Friday night at 11:15 PM.

Virgin Galactic Aces Its (Probably) Final Test Flight 

The "Unity 25" flight this morning (May 25th) was the fifth successful test flight of their air-dropped, small-crewed, winged vehicle and Virgin Galactic's first trip to suborbital space since July 2021, when it sent up billionaire Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and several other passengers.  The apparent success opens the door to commercial operations to begin soon. 

"We think if all this goes well, we'll be ready to fly our first commercial flight in June," Mike Moses, president of spaceline missions and safety at Virgin Galactic, told in a preflight call yesterday (May 24).

That coming landmark mission, he added, is a research flight booked by the Italian Air Force.

Virgin Galactic uses a carrying aircraft, called VMS Eve, and a two-pilot, six-passenger portion that goes to space, called VSS Unity.  Unity is attached to Eve and is held there until the two reach an altitude of about 50,000 feet.  At that point, Unity drops and fires its rocket engine to reach suborbital space. 

After the flight, Virgin Galactic reported that Unity reached a maximum speed of Mach 2.94 and a peak altitude of 54.2 miles or 87.2 km.  Recall that while NASA awards astronaut wings to those who make it to 50 miles, most countries consider 100 km or 62 miles as the entry to space.  

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity snapped this selfie during its fifth crewed spaceflight, which occurred on May 25, 2023. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic via Twitter)

The "Unity 25" name of the mission comes from being the 25th time the Unity vehicle has flown including captive-carry flights that don't release the vehicle and glide flights entirely in the atmosphere.

The company is aiming to increase its launch cadence and launch more regularly.  

Virgin Galactic aims to fly roughly once per month with Eve and Unity once commercial operations begin, Mike Moses said. But the company is aiming even higher than that over the long haul: It's building a fleet of new "Delta-class" space planes designed to be capable of flying once a week.

Once those new vehicles enter service, a milestone targeted for 2026, Virgin Galactic could be flying paying customers to suborbital space every day. (A ticket to ride with the company currently costs $450,000, and hundreds of people have booked a seat to date.)

$450,000?  They didn't even go vertically 60 miles, flying a few hundred miles horizontally but at much lower altitudes costs more like 1/1000 of that.  To borrow a conclusion I posted for Richard Branson's flight in '21:

Let's face it: missions like this are not about stretching technology's limits, nor about who the first rich tourist in space is - that record was set in 2001 by Dennis Tito.  They're about lowering the threshold for ordinary folks like us.  Right now, we can fly around the planet thousands of times the distance they flew vertically today for tiny fractions of what these missions cost or what the mission Blue Origin flies in nine days auctioned their spare seat for.  When people can fly suborbital missions for what flights across the US cost today, it will be a common vacation.  

That's still years away.


  1. When SpaceX gets Starship human rated, they could sell a short term orbital flight for about $30,000 in 2023 dollars on a 100 passenger Starship.

  2. I read a financial analysis on why Virgin Orbit couldn't hack it, and they also analyzed Virgin Galactic. Galactic needs to fly weekly to generate enough revenue to be in the black, they said. At 450K per ride, ain't gonna happen.

    1. To me the big question is how many people are there out there willing to put up $450k for a short adventure. I know they make a bigger deal out of it, but the flights aren't very long. They can make a half day out of it with things to do before and after the flight, but it's not a two week trip to an exotic getaway.

      If you can get a trip for a week or two for 1/10 of that, say $45k, how big is the market for the bragging rights to a suborbital flight?