Sunday, June 2, 2024

Small Space News Story Roundup 37

A couple of short stories that caught my eye

Redesigned Vega C motor passes static-fire test

The European Space Agency had a bit of good news this past week. Twice, really, but the bigger and better news was that Avio, the prime contractor for the second stage engine on the Vega C, conducted a successful static fire test of the Zefiro-40 engine on May 28th at the company's facility in Italy. The static firing was 94 seconds, as expected, and pronounced successful.

The Zefiro-40 was implicated in the failure of the second Vega C launch in December 2022, which an investigation blamed on faulty carbon-carbon material used in the motor’s nozzle. Avio found a new supplier for that material, but the nozzle failed in a static-fire test in June 2023, leading to a redesign of the nozzle itself.

“Initial post-test review indicates that the new nozzle assembly performed as expected throughout the scheduled 94 seconds burning time of the test, simulating a nominal in-flight performance,” Avio said in a statement.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher commented that the engine's thrust curve matched the predicted, theoretical performance expected of the engine.

A second test firing is planned for October to confirm the performance of the motor, but Ashcbacher called this test “the most important milestone” in returning the vehicle to flight. “The one today confirms that the redesign of the nozzle with the new carbon-carbon inserts is good.”

Their plan is to return the Vega C to flight before the end of this year. 

Their second good news was the launch of their EarthCARE satellite on the same day, although that was done under contract by SpaceX as the ESA is currently without launch capabilities. This is a good step along the way to resuming flight.

As for their other, larger launch vehicle, Ariane 6, they're close to naming a date for the first flight but haven't gotten more specific than, "the first two weeks of July." It has been stacked and otherwise worked on and tested since April.

The Japanese billionaire behind the Starship tourist flyby of the moon has cancelled the mission

Back in October of 2022, the story arose that SpaceX had begun accepting bids for a second tourist flight around the moon in their Starship. This was to be in addition to one that had already been on the books since 2018. That first mission was a well-publicized plan to send a space tourist on a lunar orbital mission by 2023.  The tourist is Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa who planned to take a small crew of artists with him.

In a June 1 message, Yusaku Maezawa announced he was canceling his “dearMoon” mission, which was to fly him and eight artists around the moon on a Starship vehicle. He cited ongoing delays in the mission and uncertainty when it would launch.

“Arrangements were being made with SpaceX to target the launch by the end of 2023,” the dearMoon project said in a statement posted on its website. “Unfortunately, however, launch within 2023 became unfeasible, and without clear schedule certainty in the near-term, it is with a heavy heart that Maezawa made the unavoidable decision to cancel the project.”

“I signed the contract in 2018 based on the assumption that dearMoon would launch by the end of 2023,” Maezawa posted on social media June 1. “I can’t plan my future in this situation, and I feel terrible making the crew members wait longer, hence the difficult decision to cancel at this point in time.”

In December of '22, Maezawa announced his selection of the crew to accompany him. 

The crew included: Tim Dodd, creator of the YouTube channel Everyday Astronaut; D.J. and electronic music producer Steve Aoki; artist and choreographer Yemi A.D.; photographer Karim Iliya; filmmaker Brendan Hall; Indian TV actor Dev Joshi; and South Korean rapper T.O.P. Two backup crewmembers, dancer Miyu and snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington, were also selected.  

Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa (center), and the dearMoon project selectees with two backup crew members. (Image credit: dearMoon)

The second tourist flight, the one being arranged starting in October of '22 is apparently unaffected. That's the mission that gets most of the column space in my post. 

Dennis Tito, the first commercial space tourist to visit the ISS in 2001, announced that he and his wife would fly on a Starship mission around the moon along with up to 10 other people. Neither he nor SpaceX announced a date for the mission then or provided updates on its status since then.

There are more private missions in the queue. The first crewed orbital Starship flight is currently being referred to as a Polaris Program mission, led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, which also aims to fly the first private spacewalk on a SpaceX Dragon capsule, currently "penciled in" as No Earlier Than July. 

Without a doubt, part of the reason for this is that Starship is behind schedule and has yet to fly successfully and reliably. While there are plenty of places to point fingers, I think that it comes down to how radically different Starship/Super Heavy are compared to every other rocket ever. These aren't "have to work really well once and then we throw it away." They want to launch them pretty much as often and reliably as good aircraft. When you work on things no one has ever done before, you have to solve problems that nobody has ever solved before. 


EDIT June 3, 2024 1040 AM ET: Thanks to the first comment from Anonymous at 10:16 AM, for pointing out a frankly hilarious "write-o-graphical" error about the date in the first paragraph of the second story.


  1. "This was to be in addition to one that had already been on the books since 1918."....

    Okay now, that's some serious pre-flight planning right there....

    1. Hah! Thanks. All the proof-reading staff here can come up with can never exceed the ability to read exactly what you want it to say.