Friday, September 22, 2023

Small Space News Story Roundup 20

A couple of stories that are small but notable - from this week's Rocket Report from Ars Technica.

About that FAA Proposal To Reduce Space Debris

There are two common states to agencies like the FAA "solving" these problems: insane overregulation versus either too little, too late, or both.  Of the two, the first one is most likely to kill real progress, while the second says that the proposal is pretty much meaningless.  Thankfully, this appears to be the case with the FAA proposal.  

The new rule requires US commercial launch operators to dispose of the upper stages of their launch vehicles to reduce the amount of big debris up there.  

The rule, which is now in a 90-day public comment period, would allow companies to meet the requirement through a controlled reentry of the upper stage, maneuvering the spent rocket toward a less congested, or graveyard, orbit, sending the rocket to an Earth-escape trajectory, retrieving the upper stage within five years, or allowing the rocket body to come back to Earth with an uncontrolled reentry within 25 years.

Too little, too late or both? 

The upper stages of nearly all US commercial launches in the last few years would already meet the proposed FAA standards. SpaceX and United Launch Alliance regularly de-orbit their upper stages once they deploy their payloads. On launches carrying satellites to higher orbits, SpaceX and ULA rockets are typically left in transfer or graveyard orbits, where there's a lower risk of a collision with another piece of space junk. It is already US government policy to require similar upper-stage disposal standards on all launches with NASA or military satellites. It's likely these new standards will be felt most by small satellite launch providers, which have tighter mass margins and less leftover fuel on the upper stage for a disposal maneuver.  

Since SpaceX is in the range of 90% of US launch vehicles, and ULA is most of the rest, I'll go with too late and pretty much meaningless.

The next test for the ESA's Ariane 6 vehicle is delayed again.

The Ariane 6 development has been lagging and the European Space Agency is without the replacement for their Ariane 5. A full duration static firing of the Ariane 6 first stage was scheduled for October 3rd, but is now on hold pending resolution of a problem discovered during preparations for the test.

The European Space Agency announced this week that the next major ground test for the continent's long-delayed Ariane 6 rocket won't happen in early October. Ground teams were preparing to load a test version of the Ariane 6 rocket with propellant and fire its main engine for nearly eight minutes on a launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana. This was supposed to be a final exam, of sorts, for the Ariane 6 ahead of its first flight next year. ESA said teams discovered a problem affecting the hydraulic thrust vector control system on the Ariane 6 test rocket. This system will be used to gimbal, or pivot, the rocket's main engine. "Further investigations are necessary before running this long-duration hot firing test," ESA said.

An updated schedule hasn't been released yet, but it would be beyond surprising if they could launch in '23.  The lack of a capable booster is what moved the Euclid space telescope to SpaceX along with a mission called Hera (last story in that roundup) a multi-spacecraft mission to a near-Earth asteroid Didymos to study the impact crater on its smaller partner, Dimorphos, from NASA's DART mission last year.  Euclid is in place (at Lagrange point L2) on orbit and Hera is currently waiting for a favorable launch window about 13 months from now.  

As I noted back before Euclid's launch, the ESA is, at best only temporarily, unable to launch anything.  

Atlas V for First Kuiper Test Mission Being Stacked and Readied 

Now that the SILENTBARKER / NROL-107 Atlas V mission has launched, thus clearing the ULA launch facilities, preparations have begun for the Amazon/Kuiper Internet satellite test mission.  This is the mission that was supposed to fly on the first flight of Vulcan Centaur until both parties agreed to swap the mission onto another Atlas V

Less than a week after launching its previous Atlas V mission, United Launch Alliance started stacking its next Atlas V rocket on its mobile launch platform at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. This began with the raising of the first stage with its Russian-made RD-180 engine on September 16. Later in the week, ULA ground crews installed the Centaur upper stage. This is one of 18 Atlas V rockets remaining on ULA's launch manifest before retiring the workhorse rocket in favor of the next-generation Vulcan rocket.

A tentative launch date hasn't been released, just No Earlier Than (NET) October.  

The Centaur upper stage rolls toward the Vertical Integration Facility on Cape Canaveral SFS.  The Atlas V body is visible in the open doors of the VIF as a brownish cylinder just left of the large vertical member marked "ULA".  ULA photo.


  1. "Only temporarily, unable to launch anything" extended long enough is forever.

  2. Just wait until the EPA and IRS get their hands on Mars!

  3. FAA rules don't apply to other countries. And like ocean pollution...the US is NOT the major contributor. More pointless political posturing without actually solving the problem.

  4. If the regulation aspect of space travel gets to be too onerous, has anyone ever noticed that the distance from the Boca Chica manufacturing facility to their launch site is roughly the same as the distance to Mexico?

  5. Go Atlas! What a remarkable rocket with many varied roles over the years.

  6. I know FAA bills itself as a regulatory agency, I've looked at them as an enforcement agency. That perspective may alter the question of 'too little, too late'.
    If a U.S. company were to locate outside U.S., or use facilities in foreign countries ... the FAA has extended their reach.