Venus, a planet close to Earth with an inferno of hot gases, could be host to a possible sign of life. The recent discovery has got some of the most important figures in private spaceflight excited.
In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, scientists announced they detected traces of phosphine gas in the Venus atmosphere. The gas is normally associated with life on Earth. But at nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the surface of Venus isn’t exactly hospitable to life in the form we’re used to – and the team can’t explain how the gas got there. Lead author Jane Greaves described the discovery as “very unexpected and very exciting.”
For Peter Beck, CEO of private spaceflight firm Rocket Lab, the discovery reaffirmed his focus on Venus as a destination. While SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has outlined a plan to build a city on Mars, and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos wants to build floating space cities, Beck has instead zeroed in on planning a trip to Venus.
“Today’s research highlights why we need to go, and soon,” Beck tells Inverse.
Private interest in Venus —Breakthrough Initiatives also announced intent to look into Venus further. On Tuesday, the private space science organization, funded by Russian investor Yuri Milner, announced plans to fund a research study into the possibility of life on the planet.
In a statement on the initiative’s website, Milner stressed the importance of exploring the discovery:
“Finding life anywhere beyond Earth would be truly momentous. And if there’s a non-negligible chance that it’s right next door on Venus, exploring that possibility is an urgent priority for our civilization.”
Meanwhile, Beck has spoken before about his passion for Venus. In August 2020, he said during a livestream that he’s “madly in love with Venus,” with plans to host a private mission to the planet in 2023. The mission would target aerial environments around 30 miles above the surface, where conditions are closer to those found on Earth.
“I’ve always had a passion for Venus,” Beck tells Inverse.
“It has long been hypothesized that its atmosphere could potentially support some kind of life, and I’ve always been eager to send a probe to find out. More than just the search for life though, Venus is a pretty good Earth analog for runaway climate change, so I believe there’s a lot we can learn from Venus’ past and apply to Earth’s future.”
Venus has attracted the attention of fans interested in the emergent new space race, a race with a more prominent role for private firms. A map shared on Reddit last month showed what the planet would look like if its surface was covered in a similar amount of water to Earth. The map followed on from a previous map that applied the same treatment to Mars. Both planets have been the subject of discussion around terraforming, a human-powered transformation of the atmosphere and surface.
For now, the only Earthly visitor near Venus is Akatsuki, a Japanese space probe. It’s contributed to the study of the planet’s gravity waves, equatorial jet streams, and the physics of its clouds.
While Rocket Lab is one of the key firms in this new space race, Beck’s focus for Venus is the Photon spacecraft. The company’s satellite designs support launches to a variety of altitudes.
“About a year ago when work began in earnest on our mission to lunar orbit for NASA, we set out to design a Photon spacecraft capable of a mission to the moon, but also to Venus,” Beck says. “Development of that spacecraft and mission is now well underway. The first mission to Venus will be a private one with an atmospheric probe to take a closer look at the potential for life, but it won’t be the only mission to Venus.”
Measurements of trace gases in planetary atmospheres help us explore chemical conditions different to those on Earth. Our nearest neighbour, Venus, has cloud decks that are temperate but hyperacidic. Here we report the apparent presence of phosphine (PH3) gas in Venus’s atmosphere, where any phosphorus should be in oxidized forms. Single-line millimetre-waveband spectral detections (quality up to ~15σ) from the JCMT and ALMA telescopes have no other plausible identification. Atmospheric PH3 at ~20 ppb abundance is inferred. The presence of PH3 is unexplained after exhaustive study of steady-state chemistry and photochemical pathways, with no currently known abiotic production routes in Venus’s atmosphere, clouds, surface and subsurface, or from lightning, volcanic or meteoritic delivery. PH3 could originate from unknown photochemistry or geochemistry, or, by analogy with biological production of PH3 on Earth, from the presence of life. Other PH3 spectral features should be sought, while in situ cloud and surface sampling could examine sources of this gas.
Delayed a year by a launch failure, the coronavirus pandemic and a stretch of stiff upper level winds this summer, an Italian-made Vega rocket vaulted into orbit from French Guiana on Wednesday night and deployed 53 small satellites from 13 countries to punctuate a flawless return to flight mission.
The rideshare launch set a record for the most satellites ever flown on a European rocket, and helped validate process changes introduced to resolve the problem on the Vega’s second stage that caused a failure on the launcher’s previous mission.
The 98-foot-tall (30-meter) rocket lit its solid-fueled first stage at 9:51:10 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0151:10 GMT Thursday), immediately boosting the Vega launcher away from the European-run Guiana Space Center on the northern coast of South America with nearly 700,000 pounds of thrust.
Heading north into a clear late night sky, the Vega rocket flew downrange over the Atlantic Ocean and shed its first stage around two minutes after liftoff.
The Vega’s second and third stage Zefiro 23 and Zefiro 9 motors ignited to continue the climb into orbit, followed by four burns of the rocket’s liquid-fueled AVUM fourth stage to place the 53 payloads into two distinct polar orbits 320 miles (515 kilometers) and 329 miles (530 kilometers) above Earth, each tilted at an angle of about 97.5 degrees to the equator.
“For Europe, it’s the very first time we’ve arranged a so-called rideshare mission,” said Giulio Ranzo, CEO of Avio, the Italian company that builds most of the Vega rocket. “We’re very happy for this to open up the new market for small satellites for Europe.”
The solid-fueled Zefiro 23 second stage on Wednesday night’s mission included improvements designed to address a structural deficiency that led the destruction of a Vega rocket on its previous launch in July 2019.
The failure last year caused the rocket and its payload — Falcon Eye 1 military reconnaissance satellite for the United Arab Emirates — to crash back to Earth in the Atlantic Ocean north of French Guiana.
Avio said an independent investigation into the July 2019 launch failure concluded super-hot gas from burning solid propellant impinged on the structure of the Vega rocket’s Zefiro 23 second stage, resulting in a “thermo-structural failure” on the second stage’s forward dome.
The hot gas, which burns at more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (3,000 degrees Celsius), damaged or burned through the carbon fiber structure on the second stage. The structural failure led to the in-flight breakup of the launch vehicle with the UAE’s Falcon Eye 1 spy satellite.
According to Ranzo, Avio’s CEO, investigators determined a “manufacturing anomaly” slipped through Avio’s quality control checks.
“We had thermal protection (on the second stage) where the thickness was perhaps less than one millimeter short, so we had a very, very tiny deviation that was undetectable to all the quality checks,” Ranzo said in March during an interview with Spaceflight Now.
“So what we have done is we have greatly improved the technologies to allow for the manufacturing quality controls — using not only ultrasound but also digital radiography — in a much finer way with respect to work we used to do in the past,” Ranzo said.
Avio pulled hardware from the company’s Zefiro 23 production line in Italy, ran it through the improved quality control checks, and successfully test-fired the rocket motor at a test site in Sardinia.
Ranzo said Avio also added extra thermal insulation on the Zefiro 23 second stage motor.
“It’s probably not necessary, but we increased the safety margin,” he said in March. “So we are now approaching the flight with much better comfort with respect to safety.”
Engineers also modified parts of the Vega’s telemetry, flight safety and self-destruct devices, Ranzo said.
An independent investigation panel issued 20 recommendations, including 14 mandatory action items that were implemented before the return to flight mission Wednesday night.
The changes made the Vega rocket “even more robust,” said Roland Lagier, Arianespace’s chief technical officer.
The 53 spacecraft deployed by the Vega’s AVUM upper stage come from 21 customers in 13 countries, including European Space Agency member states, the United States, Canada, Argentina, Thailand and Israel.
Watch replays of tonight’s Vega launch showing rocket darting into the night sky over French Guiana with nearly 700,000 pounds of thrust.
Sized to carry small-to-medium-class payloads into orbit, the Vega rocket flew with a new payload accommodation structure designed to allow dozens of satellites to launch on the same mission. The modular structure can be adapted to accommodate various numbers of small satellites of different sizes, and Arianespace and Avio plan to make it a regular part of their commercial launch service offering after Wednesday’s successful “proof of concept” demonstration flight.
The Small Space Mission Service, or SSMS, payload dispenser that flew for the first time Wednesday night was jointly funded by the European Space Agency and the European Commission. SAB Aerospace in the Czech Republic and Bercella in Italy designed and manufactured the dispenser.
Aggregating numerous small payloads on a single rocket can reduce launch costs for individual satellite operators.
“This project is a very important one because it shows flexibility, agility, and also cost reduction,” said Jan Woerner, ESA’s director general.
Arianespace declared success after the Vega rocket released its 53 payloads into orbit late Wednesday.
“With Vega’s successful return to flight, we are delighted to have served 21 customers from 13 different countries,” said Stéphane Israël, Arianespace’s CEO. “These satellites will serve a variety of different applications, including Earth observation, the battle against climate change, telecommunications, the Internet of Things, science, as well as education. With this shared launch, space becomes accessible to everyone, including research labs, universities and startups.”
The SSMS proof of concept flight was supposed to launch last September, but that schedule was impacted by the investigation into the Vega launch failure in July 2019. With the investigation and required reliability improvements complete, teams in French Guiana were in the final stages of readying the Vega rocket and its payloads for launch in late March when the coronavirus pandemic forced a suspension of launch operations at the spaceport in South America.
Work resumed in May, and engineers hoped to launch the Vega rocket in late June. But a stretch of unacceptable upper level winds kept the rocket grounded, and managers decided to stand down and recharge batteries on the launcher and its satellites after a series of scrubbed launch attempts.
The Vega rocket missed a launch slot in mid-August due to delays in the launch of a heavy-lift Ariane 5 rocket. Arianespace called off another launch attempt Tuesday night as a typhoon threatened a telemetry station in South Korea that was needed to track the Vega rocket after liftoff.
With the typhoon threat passed, Arianespace finally proceeded with the Vega’s launch Wednesday night.
The first satellite released into a 320-mile-high (515-kilometer) orbit by the Vega’s AVUM upper stage was Athena, a 304-pound (138-kilogram) spacecraft built by Maxar in California. Athena is a small experimental communications satellite for PointView Tech, a subsidiary of Facebook, that will test technologies that could be used in a future constellation of small satellites to provide global broadband Internet services.
Athena is PointView Tech’s first satellite.
A 330-pound (150-kilogram) spacecraft developed by the Italian space company D-Orbit also rode to space on the Vega rocket. D-Orbit’s ION Satellite Carrier is loaded with 12 SuperDove Earth-imaging CubeSats for Planet, which will be released after the carrier craft separates from the Vega rocket’s upper stage in orbit.
Counting the 12 SuperDoves inside the ION Satellite Carrier, the SSMS proof of concept mission is actually launching with 65 satellites.
D-Orbit plans to develop more capable CubeSat carriers for future missions with propulsion systems that could maneuver customers’ nanosatellites into different orbital slots after separation from their launch vehicle. That capability could give CubeSat operators the ability to still put their spacecraft into tailored orbits even if launching on a rideshare flight to a slightly different altitude or inclination.
The launch marked the first use of D-Orbit’s InOrbit Now, or ION, service.
The largest satellite ever built in Luxembourg also hitched a ride into orbit on the Vega launch vehicle. Named ESAIL, the 246-pound (112-kilogram) spacecraft was developed in partnership between ESA and exactEarth, a Canadian company with maritime tracking sensors on more than 60 satellites already in orbit.
ESAIL is part of an ESA initiative called SAT-AIS, managed within ESA’s telecommunication program office, which aims to foster the development of a fleet of small satellites to receive and relay Automatic Identification System signals from ships.
Built by LuxSpace, ESAIL was funded by the Luxembourg Space Agency and other ESA member states. The project also received private funding from exactEarth, which will operate the satellite on a commercial basis.
A major user of ESAIL satellite data will be the European Maritime Safety Agency. Officials say ESAIL will improve fisheries monitoring, maritime fleet management, environmental protection, and border and maritime security services.
Slovenia’s NEMO-HD Earth-imaging microsatellite was also on the Vega launch. The 143-pound (65-kilogram) NEMO-HD spacecraft will collect medium-resolution color still and high-definition video imagery that can be downlinked to the ground in realtime.
NEMO-HD was built in Canada at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory for the Slovenian Center of Excellence for Space Sciences and Technologies, or SPACE-SI.
A 99-pound Spanish microsatellite named UPMSat 2 was also on the SSMS rideshare cluster. Loaded with tech demo payloads, it was developed as an educational project by students at the Polytechnic University of Madrid since 2009.
The ÑuSat 6 Earth-imaging microsatellite also launched Wednesday night. It’s the next spacecraft to join a remote sensing satellite fleet owned by Satellogic, an Argentine company.
Headquartered in Buenos Aires with a satellite manufacturing facility in Montevideo, Uruguay, Satellogic is building a fleet of satellites to cover the globe with visible, hyperspectral and infrared imagery. The company is one of several startups active in the commercial Earth-imaging market, along with Planet, BlackSky, ICEYE, and others.
Satellogic plans to deploy a fleet of 90 microsatellites primarily using Chinese rockets. ÑuSat 6 will be Satellogic’s 11th satellite to launch, and the first to fly on a European rocket.
A small satellite designed to monitor greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere was also deployed by the Vega rocket. The GHGSat-C1 satellite, with a launch mass of about 34 pounds (15.4 kilograms), is owned by a startup named GHGSat based in Montreal.
The Canadian-built spacecraft is the second to launch for GHGSat, which says the satellite will be capable of detecting methane emissions from specific sources, such as oil and gas wells. Buoyed by financial infusions from climate-focused investment funds, the oilfield services company Schlumberger, and the governments of Canada, Alberta and Quebec, GHGSat aims to field a fleet of greenhouse gas-monitoring satellites to feed data to regulators and industry.
After deploying the seven heavier payloads, the Vega rocket’s AVUM upper stage lit its liquid-fueled engine two more times to boost itself into a slightly higher orbit.
The SSMS dispenser then ejected 46 smaller nanosatellites over a period of less than three minutes.
The smaller payloads included 14 SuperDove remote sensing spacecraft for Planet, and eight Lemur-2 CubeSats for Spire’s fleet of maritime, aviation, and weather monitoring nanosatellites. The SuperDove and Lemur-2 satellites are about the size of a shoebox.
The remaining payloads deployed by the Vega rocket Wednesday night included:
12 tiny SpaceBEE satellites — each about the size of a slice of bread — for Swarm Technologies’ low-data-rate communications network
FSSCat A and B, two environmental monitoring CubeSats developed by developed by ESA and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain
DIDO-3, a CubeSat for the Swiss company SpacePharma
PICASSO, developed for ESA by the Belgian Institute of Space Aeronomy to collect data on the atmosphere and ozone
SIMBA, a Belgian CubeSat to measure how much solar energy enters Earth’s atmosphere
TRISAT, a CubeSat developed by the University of Maribor in Slovenia
AMICalSat, a CubeSat jointly developed by the Grenoble University Space Center in France and Moscow State University in Russia
NAPA 1, a CubeSat that will be Thailand’s first military satellite
Kepler Communications’ TARS tech demo CubeSat
OSM-1 CICERO, the first satellite manufactured in Monaco
Tyvak 0171, a CubeSat built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems of California for an undisclosed customer
With the Vega rocket back in service, Arianespace’s next mission is scheduled for launch Oct. 16 from the spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. A medium-lift Russian Soyuz rocket is being prepared to loft the Falcon Eye 2 military spy satellite for the United Arab Emirates.
Built by Airbus, Falcon Eye 2 is a twin to the Falcon Eye 1 surveillance craft destroyed during the Vega launch failure last year.
The next Vega rocket is scheduled to launch in November the Spanish SEOSat-Ingenio Earth observation satellite and the French Taranis scientific research satellite.
For the first time in more than 16 months, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster has been spotted heading west towards the company’s California pad, a sure sign that the next West Coast launch is just over the horizon.
First spotted in West Texas on August 20th, the Falcon 9 booster – wrapped in a class black plastic cocoon – was captured a second time three days later between Arizona and California. The rocket wrapped up the ~2600 kilometer (~1600 mi) journey from SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas development and test facilities early on August 24th, arriving at the company’s Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) Space Launch Complex 4 (SLC-4) facilities.
At least according to publicly-available launch manifests, the unknown Falcon 9 booster will be spending a fair bit of time in SpaceX’s SLC-4E hangar before its first Californian launch. Still, considering that many misinterpreted a year-old regulatory document as confirmation of SpaceX’s permanent withdrawal from VAFB just earlier this month, a surprise booster arrival is an encouraging sign.
As of now, SpaceX has two or three possible West Coast missions scheduled in the last few months of 2020, but there’s a strong chance that they’ll suffer delays as they near their tentative launch dates. Up first is the joint NASA-ESA Sentinel 6A (Sentinel 6 Michael Freilich, Jason-CS A) ocean topography satellite, one of two new spacecraft meant to continue work done by the Jason-3 spacecraft (launched by SpaceX in 2016). According to a joint review completed on June 25th and referenced in an official document (PDF), SpaceX and NASA are working towards the first Sentinel 6A launch attempt no earlier than (NET) November 10th, 2020.
NASA awarded SpaceX the $97 million launch contract in 2017, all but guaranteeing that Sentinel 6A will fly on a brand new Falcon 9 booster. The fact that the booster spotted in transport over the last week was never seen East of Texas strongly implies that it’s a new Falcon 9 SpaceX tested in McGregor before shipping back to California, in which case Sentinel 6A is almost certainly SpaceX’s next VAFB launch.
In the likely event that the booster that arrived at VAFB on August 24th is unflown, it’s probably Falcon 9 B1063. Germany’s SARah-1 radar imaging satellite is possibly the only other West Coast launch on SpaceX’s manifest that could warrant sending a new booster to California, but recent signs point towards that ~2200 kg (4850 lb) spacecraft launching in Q1 2021 (a delay from Q4 2020) as part of a dedicated SpaceX rideshare mission.
Less likely, SARah-1 could have been manifested on SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare mission, scheduled to launch in December 2020. Either way, as fairly complex and expensive one-off science spacecraft, both SARah-1 and Sentinel 6A are liable to slip right from their current launch targets, meaning that Falcon 9 B1063 will likely spend at least 2-3 months in storage between now and the start of its first launch flow.
Regardless of the payload or the first stage launching it, SpaceX shipped its former West Coast drone ship landing platform to Florida more than a year ago. Any Falcon 9 booster launching from California will thus have to be expended or land back on land at LZ-4.
While SpaceX and its mystery Falcon 9 booster wait for their next West Coast launch, the company will likely take advantage of the opportunity to familiarize an almost entirely new team of pad and launch engineers and technicians. After its June 2019 Radarsat Constellation Mission launch, SpaceX effectively mothballed its Vandenberg pad and either laid off or transferred the vast majority of employees specific to SLC-4. SpaceX began hiring to rebuild that team in early 2020.
Thanks to a major multi-launch US military contract SpaceX won just a few weeks ago, the company’s Vandenberg facilities are all but guaranteed to remain active – even if only intermittently so – for most of the 2020s.
On August 15, 2020, Ariane 5 flight VA253 lifted off from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana and delivered two telecom satellites Galaxy-30 and BSAT-4B, and the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2), into their planned transfer orbits.
Europe’s Ariane 5 has delivered two telecom satellites Galaxy-30 and BSAT-4B, and the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV-2), into their planned transfer orbits. There are also four notable updates to the launch vehicle.
Arianespace announced liftoff at 23:04 BST (00:04 CEST, 19:04 local time) this evening from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, for a mission lasting about 47 minutes.
Galaxy-30, with a launch mass of 3298 kg, was the first to be released after about 27 minutes. The 2875 kg MEV-2, also housed in the upper berth of the fairing, was released about seven minutes later.
Following a series of burns controlled by Ariane’s computer, the Sylda structure encasing the 3530 kg BSAT-4B was then jettisoned. BSAT-4B was released into its own transfer orbit about thirteen minutes after MEV-2.
Galaxy-30 is owned by Intelsat and will deliver high-performance broadcast distribution capabilities, including ultra-high definition and over-the-top streaming media, while also supporting broadband, mobility and enterprise network solutions. It has a design life of 15 years.
The MEV-2 is owned by Northrop Grumman and will be used for in-orbit satellite servicing.
BSAT-4B, owned and operated by Japan’s Broadcasting Satellite System Corporation, will provide ultra-high definition direct-to-home television services across the Japan archipelago. The satellite has a design life of at least 15 years.
The performance requested for this launch was about 10 468 kg. The satellites totaled about 9703 kg, with payload adapters and carrying structures making up the rest.
This is the first launch following the restart of operational activities at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, after the suspension of launch campaigns that was imposed on 16 March 2020 due to COVID-19 measures.
Also on this flight, there are four new technical modifications to Ariane 5.
New onboard technology called Kassav is the first version of an autonomous tracking kit developed by CNES in partnership with ArianeGroup. Independently of the operations of the launch vehicle, Kassav uses dedicated telemetry to send real-time information on Ariane’s position and speed to the Flight Safety team at Europe’s Spaceport.
CNES funded the kit development and checks for safe use while ESA funded and oversaw the installation on the launch vehicle. Kassav will now be used on all Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 flights.
A further modification to Ariane 5’s fairing will minimize depressurization at separation as this two-part nose cone is jettisoned away from the launch vehicle in space. Manufactured by RUAG Space Switzerland, the fairing protects the customer payloads from the acoustic, thermal and aerodynamic stresses during the ascent. New hardware ensures that venting ports around the base of the fairing remain fully open on the way to space, allowing the pressure to equalize within the fairing prior to opening and falling away from the rocket.
This alteration is part of the preparation for the launch of the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) set for October 2021. These changes mitigate concerns that residual air pressure in the folds of the JWST sunshield membranes could cause high stresses at the time of fairing separation, potentially damaging sensitive components.
The vehicle equipment bay (VEB), the ‘brain’ of the launch vehicle controlling the avionics, guidance system and other key components that interfaces with the upper stage, has been made 85 kg lighter on its central cone thanks to the use of new material and removal of metallic interfaces. This modification increases Ariane 5’s total payload capability to geostationary transfer orbit to 10 300 kg.
During the redesign of the cone, the membrane that separates the VEB and the upper stage was also made a few kilograms lighter using innovative manufacturing technologies. This membrane will continue to be used on all Ariane 5 flights and also incorporated in the upcoming Ariane 6.
Flight VA253 was the 109th Ariane 5 mission.
Artist’s view of the James Webb Space Telescope on an Ariane 5 launcher. Credit: ESA – D. Ducros
About Ariane 5
Ariane 5 is operated by Arianespace at Europe’s Spaceport. It is able to carry payloads weighing more than 10 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit and over 20 tonnes into low-Earth orbit. Its performance perfectly complements that of Europe’s Vega light-lift launch vehicle, and Soyuz.
Europe’s next-generation Ariane 6 rocket will eventually replace Ariane 5. Available in two versions, it will be capable of a wide range of missions to any orbit.
Welcome to Edition 3.08 of the Rocket Report! We are now approaching the middle of the 2020 Mars launch window, and it appears as though we will see the UAE, China, and United States all launch missions to the Red Planet during the last 10 days of the month. Exciting times ahead!
As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Chinese Kuaizhou-11 launch ends in failure. The launch of a new Chinese Kuaizhou-11 commercial solid rocket ended in failure last Friday, resulting in the loss of two satellites, SpaceNews reports. Terse reports from Chinese media state that the specific cause of the failure is “under further analysis and investigation.”
China’s third launch failure of 2020 … The Kuaizhou-11 is a larger version of the Kuaizhou-1A solid rocket, operated by Expace, a commercial spin-off from the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., a state-owned missile maker. The rocket has a diameter of 2.2 meters and a mass at liftoff of 78 tons. It is capable of delivering 1,000 kilograms to a 700km Sun-synchronous orbit. (submitted by Ken the Bin, JohnCarter17, and platykurtic)
Small-launch contracts diverted to small-business loans. The $116 million that the US Department of Defense set aside for small-launch contracts under the Defense Production Act have been redirected to other priorities, SpaceNews reports. The Pentagon had approved funding the small-launch contracts but, at the last minute, decided to shift the money to small-business loan programs that were considered a more urgent priority. It is unlikely that those contracts will be awarded any time soon, the US Air Force’s top procurement official Will Roper said.
DoD says of the funds: You can’t aevum … About a month ago, the military announced it intended to award contracts to six small-launch providers financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. On July 1 DoD withdrew the contracts that would have been awarded to Aevum, Astra, X-Bow, Rocket Lab, Space Vector, and VOX Space to launch two rideshare missions over the next 24 months. Awarding the launch contracts now will require additional funding from Congress. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
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Next frontier for small rockets: Deep space? In a feature, Ars explores the potential for small satellites (and the new low-cost rockets that launch them) to transform planetary science. Instead of spending a decade or longer planning and developing a mission before spending hundreds of millions (to billions!) of dollars bringing it off, perhaps we can fly a mission within a couple of years for a few tens of millions of dollars.
The Moon, Mars, and beyond … In recent years, a new generation of companies is developing new rockets for small satellites that cost roughly $10 million for a launch. Already, Rocket Lab has announced a lunar program for its small Electron rocket. “I think this is a huge, disruptive program for the scientific community,” Rocket Lab’s chief said. And Virgin Orbit has teamed up with a group of Polish universities to launch up to three missions to Mars with its LauncherOne vehicle.
Minotaur IV rocket launches NRO mission. A Northrop Grumman Minotaur IV solid-propellant rocket launched the NROL-129 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office on July 15 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, SpaceNews reports. The classified NROL-129 mission carried four remote-sensing payloads.
Putting old missiles to good use … This was the Minotaur IV’s first flight from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Island Facility. It was the NRO’s first launch on a Minotaur IV, a four-stage vehicle made with three government-furnished solid-rocket motors from decommissioned Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles. (submitted by JohnCarter17 and Ken the Bin)
Korean satellite launch postponed. The planned launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Tuesday from Cape Canaveral of a South Korean military communications satellite has been delayed in order to address an issue on the launcher’s second stage and potentially replace the hardware if necessary, Spaceflight Now reports.
Being extra paranoid … This is the second SpaceX mission to be postponed indefinitely in recent days as the company tries to cut turnaround times for reused rockets and produce new upper stages at a rapid rate to meet a fast-paced launch schedule in the coming weeks. “We’re being extra paranoid,” tweeted Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO. “Maximizing probability of successful launch is paramount.” Launch is now set for no earlier than July 19. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Spaceflight to debut Sherpa-FX on Falcon 9 mission. The Seattle-based rideshare-management company said this week it will be flying its next-generation orbital-transfer vehicle, Sherpa-FX, on a dedicated rideshare mission with SpaceX. This mission is scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 no earlier than December 2020. This is another step toward big rockets offering customizable satellite delivery.
Last-mile delivery … “In-space transportation is essential to meeting our customer’s specific needs to get their spacecraft delivered to orbit exactly when and where they want it,” said Grant Bonin, senior vice president of business development for Spaceflight Inc. “If you think of typical rideshare as sharing a seat on a train headed to a popular destination, our next-generation Sherpa program enables us to provide a more complete ‘door-to-door transportation service.'” (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Hope Mars probe launch delayed by weather. After two previous weather delays, a Mars orbiter financed by the United Arab Emirates will be launched between July 20 and 22, the Khaleej Times reports. The new launch time will be announced depending on the weather conditions.
Third time’s the charm? … A Japanese H-2A rocket was originally due to launch on July 15. But the “persistence of thunderstorms, cumulative clouds and unstable weather conditions in the coming days on Tanegashima Island” have now delayed the launch twice. The rocket and spacecraft are both said to be in good condition. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Arianespace will phase out Ariane 5 in 2022. Program delays have forced EUMETSAT to reserve a pair of Ariane 6 rockets for two European weather satellites originally anticipated to launch on Ariane 5 rockets, SpaceNews reports. Only one of three planned satellites, MTG-I1, will be completed before Arianespace switches completely to Ariane 6 rockets.
Two more years of Ariane 5 … MTG-I1, an imaging satellite, will launch on an Ariane 5 rocket in 2022, the last year Ariane 5 will be available, said Paul Counet, EUMETSAT’s head of strategy. The sounding satellite MTG-S1, for which EUMETSAT had a firm Ariane 5 launch contract, is now scheduled to launch in 2023 on an Ariane 6, as well as another bird launching in 2025. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Rocket for next crew mission arrives in Florida. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will launch NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program has arrived in Florida, the space agency said. This mission will carry NASA astronauts Victor Glover, Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi to the International Space Station for a full-duration mission.
Taking flight in a couple of months … A launch date will be determined after the completion of SpaceX’s crew-demonstration mission, which is likely to return to Earth in early August. This suggests the flight will take place no earlier than late September. The rocket will now undergo prelaunch processing in the company’s facility on nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
No big rockets in 2020, but seven are coming. 2020 was supposed to be the year of the big rocket. At one point, as many as four large, powerful boosters were slated to take flight this year. Alas, we now know for sure that none of them is going to make it this year, because Arianespace’s Ariane 6, NASA’s Space Launch System, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur will all slip to 2021 at the very least.
Seven deadly predictions … However, all of those rockets and three more—Japan’s H3, Northrop Grumman’s Omega booster, and SpaceX’s Super Heavy first stage—are coming at some point in the next couple of years. In a new article, Ars makes wild guesses as to when each of these seven new rockets may ultimately make its debut. Spoiler alert: we think H3 probably will be first and New Glenn last.
SLS static-fire test may occur in October. NASA and Boeing say they are on track to perform a major static-fire test of the core stage of the Space Launch System in October, a key milestone ahead of a first launch in late 2021, SpaceNews reports. Crews working on testing the SLS core stage at the Stennis Space Center have run into “no issues” so far during a series of tests collectively known as the Green Run, said John Shannon, Boeing vice president and program manager for the rocket.
Up to test number four … Three of eight Green Run tests have been completed. These include applying forces to the core stage to simulate launch conditions, powering on the stage’s avionics, and testing the systems that would shut down the stage if there’s a problem during testing. Shannon said work is underway on the fourth test: checking components of the rocket’s main propulsion system. If the test firing does occur in October, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, that would be a positive step forward for the program. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)
ESA confirms Ariane 6 delay to late 2021. Of the big four rockets that once had debuts set for this year, Ariane 6 was the last to announce a delay. “While we know that the maiden flight will not take place before the second semester of 2021, we cannot at this moment precisely quantify the delay, and we cannot provide an exact launch date,” Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation, said.
The pandemic played a big role … SpaceNews reports that pandemic-induced delays with Ariane 6’s launch pad construction, solid-rocket-booster testing, and productivity losses at Ariane 6 industrial sites had compromised the rocket’s original schedule. Neuenschwander also said problems with the cryogenic arms at the Ariane 6 launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, were contributing to the delay. (submitted by Ken the Bin and JohnCarter17)
SLS rocket replaces Saturn V on Alabama tags. Alabama has traded the glory of a past Moon rocket for the promise of a new launch vehicle on the latest version of its space-exploration-themed specialty license plate, Collect Space reports. The redesigned “Alabama Space Tag” replaces the depiction of the historic Saturn V booster with NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket. The new plate marks the first time that the Saturn V has not appeared on an Alabama plate in 15 years.
Funds go to a good cause … The Alabama Department of Revenue began issuing the new Space Tag in May. Like the “Save the Saturn V” plate that it replaced, sales benefit the state’s home for one of the three remaining Apollo-era rockets. Net proceeds will be distributed to the US Space and Rocket Center Foundation to be used toward the Davidson Saturn V Center in Huntsville where the Saturn V is located. It’s a good cause, at least. (submitted by JohnCarter17)
Next three launches
July 19: Falcon 9 | Anasis-2 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 21:00 UTC
July 19: H-2A | Emirates Mars Mission “Hope” | Tanegashima, Japan | TBD
July 23: Long March 5 | Tianwen-1 Mars mission | Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China | TBD
Rocket Lab’s 13th mission ended in failure on Saturday, after the company’s rocket experienced “an anomaly” after launching to space. As a result, Rocket Lab lost its rocket, as well as all the satellites it carried on board.
The company’s Electron rocket successfully took off at 5:19PM ET from Rocket Lab’s primary launch facility on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. The launch seemed to proceed just fine for the first crucial minutes, but about six minutes into the launch, live video from the rocket stalled. At that point, Rocket Lab’s livestream indicated that the rocket started to lose speed, and the vehicle dropped in altitude.
Rocket Lab eventually cut the livestream. Afterward, the company revealed that the Electron rocket had been lost during flight. The company said in a statement that the still-unidentified issue occurred about four minutes into flight.
An issue was experienced today during Rocket Lab’s launch that caused the loss of the vehicle. We are deeply sorry to the customers on board Electron. The issue occurred late in the flight during the 2nd stage burn. More information will be provided as it becomes available.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck apologized for the failure. “We are deeply sorry to our customers Spaceflight Inc., Canon Electronics Inc., Planet, and In-Space Missions for the loss of their payloads,” Beck said in a statement. “We know many people poured their hearts and souls into those spacecraft. Today’s anomaly is a reminder that space launch can be unforgiving, but we will identify the issue, rectify it, and be safely back on the pad as soon as possible.”
Beck praised the launch team for their “professionalism and expertise,” and for handing the situation safely. “I’m proud of the way they have responded to a tough day. We’re working together as a team to comb through the data, learn from today, and prepare for our next mission.”
The mission, named “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen,” carried mostly Earth-imaging small satellites. The primary payload was Canon Electronics’ CE-SAT-IB, designed to demonstrate Earth-imaging technology with high-resolution and wide-angle cameras. The rocket also carried five SuperDove satellites from the company Planet, designed to image Earth from above. The last payload was a small satellite called Faraday-1, from In-Space Missions, which hosted multiple instruments from startups and other organizations that needed a ride to space.
Planet’s CEO Will Marshall announced the loss of the satellites on Twitter, noting that the company has plans to launch even more satellites this summer on two separate launches. “While it’s never the outcome that we hope for, the risk of launch failure is one Planet is always prepared for,” the company said in a statement. Planet is about to launch up to 26 of its SuperDove satellites on a European Vega rocket in August, from South America.
Since its inception, Rocket Lab has put 53 spacecraft into low Earth orbit on 12 separate missions, with this weekend’s launch the third for Rocket Lab this year. The majority of the company’s flight have been successful. Rocket Lab’s very first flight in 2017, called “It’s a Test,” was the only flight that didn’t operate according to plan; the rocket successfully launched and made it to space, but didn’t reach orbit. All of Rocket Lab’s other missions have been picture perfect since then, making today’s flight the first major failure for the company.
UPDATE July 5th 9:02AM ET: Added statement from Rocket Lab
Rocket Lab has returned to active launch status from its first launchpad in New Zealand, after the global COVID-19 pandemic temporarily paused its work there. Early this morning, it flew its 12th Electron launch vehicle from its launch site on NZ’s Mahia Peninsula, carrying payloads on behalf of the U.S. National Reconnaisance Office (NRO), NASA, and the University of New South Wales Canberra.
The launch occurred at 1:13 AM EDT (5:13 PM local time) and went off without a hitch. Rocket Lab later confirmed that payload deployment also went exactly to plan once the Electron reached its target orbit.
Rocket Lab has been gearing up for significant expansion of its launch capabilities, with a new launch site in the U.S. on Wallops Island in Virginia. The launch facility is now open, and its first mission had been scheduled to fly earlier this year, but that launch got pushed back in part because of delays resulting from NASA’s efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19 with facility closures and a focus on essential missions.
New Zealand is now fully out of lockdown, however – the country’s fast action and relatively small, dispersed population allowed it to contain cases of COVID-19 fairly quickly, and reduce the infection rate to zero. That’s good news both for Rocket Lab’s existing operation, and for its ongoing work to establish a second launch site at its Mahia facility, which is well underway and could go into operation sometime later this year.