The Electron launch vehicle is ready to soar.
Enlarge / The Electron launch vehicle is ready to soar.

Welcome to Edition 2.29 of the Rocket Report! This week saw SpaceX complete a critical in-flight abort test that clears a major hurdle for the company as it seeks to launch astronauts into orbit this year. We also have not one, but two stories about launch companies in New Zealand. Way to go, Kiwis!

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.

No one hurt in Firefly “anomaly” during test. On Wednesday evening, at Firefly Aerospace’s test site about an hour north of Austin in Central Texas, some sort of incident occurred, Ars reports. “During testing this evening we experienced a test anomaly resulting in a small fire on our test stand,” the company said in a statement. Firefly is working to complete a first-stage test-firing ahead of an anticipated April launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Normal rocket-testing stuff … Company chief executive Tom Markusic downplayed the incident. He told a local television reporter that it “resulted from fuel coming out of one of the engines that created a small fire. When a rocket starts up, it sounds like an explosion. It’s very powerful, there’s fire that comes out of the rocket engine, so there’s noise. It was not an explosion. It was just very normal rocket testing stuff.” There was no immediate word on whether the anomaly will set Firefly’s schedule back.

Stratolaunch focused on launch and hypersonics. The back-from-the-dead, Washington-based company has undergone a hiring spree in recent months, with its employee count growing from 13 to 87. It also has new owners and a new vision—according to SpaceNews, the company says it remains interested in providing launch services as well as now supporting hypersonic vehicles.

That’s pretty fast … “Stratolaunch is exploring the development of aerospace vehicles and technologies, including the need for reliable, routine access to space,” Stratolaunch spokesperson Art Pettigrue told the publication. “This exploration includes the need to significantly advance the nation’s ability to design and operate hypersonic vehicles.” Stratolaunch appears to be considering two hypersonic approaches: one, called Hyper-A, would be capable of reaching speeds of Mach 6; while the larger Hyper-Z vehicle would fly to Mach 10. Both vehicles would be rocket-powered and released from Stratolaunch’s aircraft. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)

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Boeing exits DARPA’s space plane program. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said Wednesday that Boeing is dropping out of its Experimental Spaceplane Program immediately. The decision grounds the XS-1 Phantom Express even though technical tests had shown the hypersonic space plane concept was feasible, GeekWire reports. The program was aimed at developing a launch system for military and commercial applications that have aircraft-like operability.

Not profitable? … “We will now redirect our investment from XSP to other Boeing programs that span the sea, air, and space domains,” Boeing said in a statement. DARPA initiated the space plane development program in 2013 and chose Boeing over Northrop Grumman and Masten Space Systems to become the lead contractor for Phases II and III in 2017. The public-private effort stood to receive as much as $146 million in support from DARPA. It seems plausible that Boeing realized development of the XS-1 may cost more than DARPA was willing to invest. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

An NRO mission is next up for Rocket Lab. The self-styled “global leader in small-satellite launch” announced today it will launch a dedicated mission for the US National Reconnaissance Office for its next mission. The launch window for what the company is calling “Birds of a Feather” will open on January 31 and will lift off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1. It will be the NRO’s first dedicated launch from foreign soil.

Big doings for smallsatAccording to the company, the NRO competitively awarded the contract under the Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket program, which allows the government spy agency to explore new launch opportunities that can provide a streamlined, commercial approach for getting small satellites into space. It’s a sign that smallsat-launch companies may play an increasingly important role in national security launches as governments move away from large, geostationary spacecraft. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

Another New Zealand launch company? Dawn Aerospace, based on New Zealand’s South Island, is talking up a concept that involves an uncrewed, rocket-propelled space plane, Radio New Zealand reports. The basic concept involves the space plane flying up to about 100km, before releasing a small, two-stage rocket to send a few hundred kilograms of payload into orbit.

A long ways to go … Last week, the company signed a memorandum with the Waitaki District Council that will allow the company to begin test launches from Oamaru Airport later in 2020. However, Dawn Aerospace general manager James Powell said it likely would be at least four years before the company could begin commercial service. We wish the company well but expect it will face some steep technology hurdles. (submitted by dbayly and Unrulycow)

SpaceX completes in-flight abort test. On Sunday, the Falcon 9 rocket launched its Crew Dragon spacecraft. Shortly after liftoff, the company shut down the main engines of its Falcon 9 rocket and fired off the system that’s meant to return the crewed capsule safely to Earth. The Dragon capsule then accelerated away from its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, oriented properly, deployed parachutes, and splashed down successfully, Ars reports.

All went well … NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine called the test “another amazing milestone.” Bridenstine went on to say that the abort was smoother than expected in terms of the forces registered, which gives NASA even more confidence in the hardware. Although a few hardware tests remain, including a few more tests of Dragon’s parachute systems, this flight brings SpaceX closer to a launch of Dragon with NASA astronauts later this spring or during the summer.

Solar Orbiter launch date at risk. United Launch Alliance moved its Atlas 5 rocket off a Florida launch pad Wednesday for inspections after a cooling duct unexpectedly disconnected. The problem came before a planned wet dress rehearsal to prepare for liftoff next month with the joint US-European Solar Orbiter mission, Spaceflight Now reports.

Maybe a weather issue … The roll back to the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral’s Complex 41 launch pad could delay Solar Orbiter’s liftoff, which was scheduled for February 5. Officials are not sure why the umbilical duct on the launch pad disconnected Wednesday, but brisk winds on Florida’s Space Coast could be the culprit. Tory Bruno, ULA’s CEO, said on Twitter that engineers want to be sure the problem was not caused by something else.

Ariane 5 kicks off 2020 with a successful launch. On January 16, the Ariane 5 rocket launched from Kourou, French Guiana, and successfully put two communications satellites with a combined mass of nearly eight tons into geostationary orbit.

A big year ahead … It was a good start to 2020, in which Arianespace seeks to launch a record number of Ariane, Soyuz, and Vega rockets from spaceports in South America and Russia. “As we enter the year of our 40th anniversary, Arianespace is targeting a record pace in 2020. It begins with this initial success of Ariane 5 at the service of two long-standing customers and partners,” Arianespace Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Israël said after declaring mission success.

Long March 5B to debut in first half of 2020. China’s human spaceflight agency said its version of the Long March 5 rocket optimized for delivering payloads to low Earth orbit will fly for the first time before July. The initial flight rocket has passed all of its tests before leaving the factory, Xinhua reports.

Next step, launching a space station … China has not revealed full technical details about the rocket but says it will be used to launch elements of its modular, low Earth orbit space station. The country aims to complete construction of the 66-ton facility as early as 2022.

NASA sole-source document reveals SLS details. NASA is presently negotiating with Boeing over the procurement of core stages number three through 12 for the Space Launch System rocket, and has reviewed a formal justification for the award that provides insight into the contract. For example, Boeing estimates it will take about three years to build a single core stage.

Three at a time … The sole-source justification document notes that there would typically be three units being processed at Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana, simultaneously, in different phases of production. Each core stage takes 16 months to procure and receive long-lead materials and another 36 months to manufacture, test, and deliver to the Kennedy Space Center.

Next three launches

Jan. 24: Soyuz 2.1a | Meridian M communications satellite | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | 11:00 UTC

Jan. 27: H2-A | Japanese optical satellite | Tanegashima, Japan | 01:00 UTC

Jan. 27: Falcon 9 | Starlink 3 mission | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 14:49 UTC