Welcome to Edition 1.04 of the Rocket Report! This collaborative effort with readers of Ars Technica seeks to diversify our coverage of the blossoming launch industry. The Rocket Report publishes as a newsletter on Thursday and on this website every Friday morning.
We welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe in the box below. 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.
Did a rocket launch from Washington state? Early on the morning of Sunday, June 10, a photographer in northern Washington captured a 20-second exposure of what looked just like a rocket or missile launch. But there are no known launchpads nearby. Inquiries to a nearby naval station on Whidbey Island were responded to with a simple, "It wasn't us."
So what was it? … The mystery was apparently solved by The Drive website, which concluded the ghostly image was not a rocket: "Sadly, this wasn't anything more exciting than a helicopter flying in a straight line in the wee hours of a quiet Sunday morning on the picturesque Puget Sound. Above all else, this photo serves as another reminder that sometimes there is much more to an image than what immediately meets the eye." (submitted by R. Saecker)
Aerojet completes assembly of first AR-22 engine. The engine was assembled at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and will undergo a series of daily hot-fire tests at Stennis starting this summer. This rocket engine will power the rapid, reusable Phantom Express spaceplane that Boeing is building for DARPA. The AR-22 engine is an update of the space shuttle's reusable main engine and delivers about 375,000 pounds of thrust. The new AR-22 has been optimized to need significantly less refurbishment between flights.
Coming to a runway near you … The Phantom Express will launch its upper stage to deploy small satellites into low Earth orbit and then land on a runway to be prepared for its next flight. The maximum payload is about 1.4 tons, at a cost of $5 million per launch. The first flight tests of the vehicle could begin in 2020. (submitted by routlej1)
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PLD Space raises an additional $10.6 million. According to SpaceNews, the Spanish startup PLD Space raised this money last month from public and private investors to develop a pair of reusable launch vehicles. The company says the funding will provide the resources needed to begin building the first two Arion 1 suborbital rockets, designed to carry up to 100 kilograms each, for launches in the second half of 2019.
A boost of confidence … PLD Space has been around since 2011, so there have been some questions about whether it will ever get into space. This funding is therefore significant for its efforts to develop both the Arion 1 and, eventually, the Arion 2 orbital vehicle. The company has grown from six to 40 people over the last 18 months, company officials said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Time for talk ending soon, Vector chief says. The launch company Vector has gotten a lot of good press in recent years, but now it is time to deliver, says company co-founder Jim Cantrell. "It's always important to have positive press, but we're kind of living on good deeds more than good press these days," he told Tucson.com. Vector is planning construction of a new, 100,000-square foot rocket factory near Tucson International Airport.
When will the Vector-R fly? … Cantrell has said the company's rocket will make its first orbital flight in 2018, and in the Tucson.com article he says that mission will come sometime in October, when Vector plans to launch from a range in Alaska. It is safe to say the aerospace industry is skeptical as to whether this will actually occur. However, if Vector meets its deadline, the achievement will be commendable. (submitted by Izzy)
Rocket Lab inks deal for three more launches. GeekWire reports that Seattle-based Spaceflight has partnered with Rocket Lab for three launches over the next year, including one of the first launches for BlackSky's Earth observation constellation. All three launches will send an assortment of small satellites into low Earth orbit from Rocket Lab's facility on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula.
First to market reaps the spoils … Part of the attraction of Rocket Lab is that it has a vehicle now about to enter commercial flight, with two test flights already completed. These three additional flights will occur in late 2018 and early 2019. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Pegasus XL launch delayed. NASA and Northrop Grumman officials decided on Friday, June 8, to return a Pegasus rocket and its carrier aircraft from Hawaii to California, canceling a trip to Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean for a June 14 launch of a NASA research satellite. During the first leg of the ferry flight journey from California, technicians found "off-nominal data" necessitating the delay of the launch of NASA's ICON spacecraft, SpaceFlightNow reported. The launch system will now undergo additional testing.
Few future flights … With costs of the Pegasus now ranging from $40 to $55 million while much cheaper small-satellite rockets come online, it is not clear how many more flights of the Pegasus vehicle there will be. The rocket's first flight came back in 1990.
SpaceX plans large expansion in Florida. In a draft version of an environmental impact statement, SpaceX declared that it intends to develop facilities that would include a booster processing hangar and launch control center on 67 acres of KSC property. According to SpaceNews, the document doesn't mention how many Falcon 9 launches are expected, but it anticipates up to 54 landings a year of the Falcon 9 first stage, either at Cape Canaveral or on a drone ship at sea.
Big plans for the Space Coast, but … The document signals clearly that SpaceX plans to do a lot of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches from Florida. But notably absent from the environment assessment is any discussion of SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket. This buttresses recent comments from company officials that the "Mars rocket" will probably be tested and likely flown from SpaceX's site in Brownsville, Texas. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Florida is planning for a launch boom. Alongside SpaceX's plans for increased activity, Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello sees a lot of activity from other companies, too. Recently, he outlined his vision for 100 rocket launches a year and thousands of high-tech jobs. "This is not farfetched, and it is near-term," DiBello told the National Space Club Florida Committee during a presentation in Cape Canaveral. "The growth of the industry is inevitable, and we can either let happen or we can manage it well."
Florida has a bright future … In the seven years since the end of the space shuttle program, Florida has positioned itself nicely for growth, especially at a time when many other locales have sought to develop competing spaceports. This progressive attitude from the Florida community toward the future of US spaceflight stands in contrast to other historically lead NASA centers, such as Johnson Space Center and the Houston region.
SpaceX begins posting job applications for the BFR. According to the devoted SpaceX fans at the company's subreddit, this is the first job SpaceX has posted for work specifically on the Big Falcon Rocket. The job seeks a "BFR Build Engineer," a position that will "Investigate, test, and develop new hardware, software, and automation efforts capable of supporting advanced metallic and composite joining methods for the BFR."
Qualifications … Applicants for the job should have a bachelor's degree in engineering and hands-on experience with complex mechanical systems. Also, under the "additional requirements section," applicants are advised that they "must be available to work long hours and weekends as needed." Which sounds about right if you're trying to build a titanic rocket to take 100 people to Mars at a time.
Aerojet hot fires next-generation RL10 engine thrust chamber. Aerojet Rocketdyne says its next-gen RL10 engine thrust chamber was built almost entirely using 3-D printing. "This marks another important milestone in our effort to fully qualify components built with additive manufacturing for use in many of our production engine systems," the company's CEO and President Eileen Drake said in a news release.
Important for future rockets … Both NASA's Space Launch System and United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rockets will rely on the RL10 engine to power their upper stages. To the extent that 3-D printing can lower the cost of RL10 engines, those large boosters will become slightly more competitive.
Next three launches
June 17: Soyuz 2.1b | Glonass M navigation satellite | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | 21:45 UTC
June 20: Long March 3B | Two Beidou satellites | Xichang Satellite Launch Center, China | TBD
June 20: Long March 2C | Pakistan Remote Sensing Satellite | Taiyuan, China | TBD