Welcome to Edition 5.29 of the Rocket Report! It was a big week for new rockets, with the failure of Japan’s new H3 booster and then the near-launch of Relativity Space’s Terran 1. Speaking of the H3, I guess I didn’t quite realize that Japan put a satellite valued at more than a quarter of a billion dollars on the debut flight of the rocket. That was, umm, bold.
Please note: There will no newsletter next week because I’ll be enjoying a Spring Break respite with my family
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.
Root cause of most recent Vega failure identified. An independent inquiry commission investigating the loss of the Vega C mission in December 2022 found that a flaw in the carbon-carbon material utilized for the throat insert of the Zefiro 40 second-stage nozzle was the root cause of the failure, European Spaceflight reports. The commission recommended that Avio implement an alternative solution for the Zefiro 40’s nozzle with another carbon-carbon material.
Standing down Vega C for a while … This alternative material is already manufactured by ArianeGroup and has been utilized aboard Vega’s flight-proven Zefiro 23 and Zefiro 9 nozzles. This change will, however, take time, with the vehicle expected to return to flight by the end of 2023. In order to negate as much disruption to the vehicle’s launch manifest as possible, Arianespace has made the decision to reassign a Vega C mission to one of its two remaining older Vega launchers. This mission is expected to be launched before the end of the summer. (submitted by Buddy, Ken the Bin, and EllPeaTea)
Relativity scrubs first Terran 1 launch attempt. Relativity Space got to within 70 seconds of launching the Terran 1 rocket Wednesday before it halted the countdown due to an “out of bounds” temperature reading for methane in the upper stage, Ars reports. Although the company recycled the countdown for a second attempt during the three-hour launch window, it was called off with time to spare. “Thanks for playing,” launch director Clay Walker told his team. The launch attempt has been reset to 1 pm ET (18:00 UTC) on Saturday.
Set your expectations accordingly … No private company has ever launched its first independently developed, liquid-fueled rocket and had it reach orbit on the first try. And Relativity is pushing a lot of boundaries with its methane-fueled booster. Probably the biggest test here is whether the 3D-printed structure of Terran 1 can withstand the dynamic pressure of ascent through the lower atmosphere. (submitted by EllPeaTea)
Space Force allocates Cape launch pads. Wednesday was a big day for small launch companies as the US Space Force implemented what it called a “Launch Pad Allocation Strategy,” Payload reports. This means it opened up access to launch pads to several companies. ABL Space will get to fly from Space Launch Complex-15, Stoke Space will have SLC-14, and Phantom Space and Vaya Space will split SLC-13.
Finding a home … Receiving permission to launch from the country’s oldest and most important spaceport is an important milestone for new small launch companies. “We are over the Moon excited by this opportunity,” said Julia Black, director of range operations at Stoke Space. “To be trusted with the reactivation of the historic Launch Complex 14 is an honor, and we look forward to adding to its well distinguished accomplishments for America’s space program.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)
A new book dives deep into small launch. Ashlee Vance’s When the Heavens Went on Sale will be published in about two months, and for those interested in the commercial launch industry, it is a ripping read, Ars concludes. He profiled four companies: Planet, Rocket Lab, Astra, and Firefly. And when I say “profiled,” I mean he spent weeks—and in some cases months—living and visiting with the founders and their employees, with unparalleled access to their operations.
A lot of meat on the bone … I can highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in space, especially if you want to know how space startups work behind the public promises and marketing. The book provides real insight into these companies and the people who toil in them. The view into Astra, where Vance had essentially unfettered access for years, is pretty incredible. Similarly, Vance spent weeks with Firefly investor Max Polyakov and Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck. The result is a book rich in detail about the industry, good, bad, and ugly. There’s plenty of ugly.
Vector Launch partners with Ursa Major. Vector Launch—yes, the same company that went bankrupt in 2019—is apparently back with plans to build its Vector-R rocket. For a revamped version of the rocket, Vector is purchasing Hadley engines built by Ursa Major, Payload reports. Vector’s first launch is coming “soon,” the company says. Hey, maybe it is. We’ll see.
A constellation of engines … Ursa Major is a promising propulsion company that is building the 5,000-pounds-per-thrust Hadley engine and has a larger one in development. In addition to Vector, the company is supplying Hadley engines to Phantom Space, Stratolaunch, and a handful of other commercial and government customers. And that’s interesting because Jim Cantrell, who led Vector into bankruptcy, is now running Phantom Space. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Japan’s H3 rocket fails in debut. The launch of Japan’s H3 rocket on Tuesday morning, local time in Tanegashima, failed after the vehicle’s second-stage engine did not ignite, Ars reports. In a terse statement on the failure, Japanese space agency JAXA said, “A destruct command has been transmitted to H3 around 10:52 am (Japan Standard Time), because there was no possibility of achieving the mission. We are confirming the situation.” JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries had spent about $1.5 billion developing the new rocket.
Betting big on the debut … This really was not a test flight. Lost during the mission was the country’s new Advanced Land Observing Satellite-3, which cost more than a quarter of a billion dollars to build. It was a sign of JAXA’s confidence in the new rocket and also made the loss more painful. Japan’s minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology Science, Keiko Nagaoka, said the launch failure was “extremely regrettable.” She added that a task force would work with JAXA to “promptly and thoroughly” determine what caused the failure. (submitted by EllPeaTea, tsunam, and Ken the Bin)
Arianespace chief plans on rapid Ariane 6 ramp-up. In a paywalled op-ed published in the French publication Les Echos, Arianespace President Stéphane Israël defended the European launch company after an “unprecedented series of crises” in 2022, including the sudden loss of cooperation with Russia for the Soyuz vehicle, a Vega C launch failure, and further delays in readying the Ariane 6 rocket for launch. But, Israël argued, it would be wrong to criticize Arianespace or the decisions made by the European Space Agency.
That’s a lot to ask … Rather, he argues that better times are coming for the European launch industry, noting in particular that the Ariane 6 vehicle had won a “historic” contract for 18 of Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite launches. To meet this demand, he says, Arianespace plans to be launching a dozen Ariane 6 rockets a year by 2025. This ramp-up is “essential” Israël said. It may indeed be essential, but launching an Ariane 6 rocket a month in 2025, with the booster unlikely to make its debut before early 2024, seems almost like magical thinking.
Why you should care about something called NSSL Phase 3. The US military recently released a rather mundane-sounding document titled “National Security Space Launch Phase 3 DRAFT Request for Proposals #1.” That may be a mouthful of jargon, but it’s still a rather consequential document. Effectively, its release is the starting gun for the next round of launch contracts for US spy satellites, secure communications satellites, and more, Ars reports.
There is a pile of money at stake … Up for grabs are launch contracts worth billions of dollars—substantially more than $10 billion—as the military seeks to secure launch deals for the late 2020s and early 2030s. The most notable change in Phase 3 of this funding is that the US military plans to lean more heavily on innovative commercial space systems that bring new capabilities. That would seem to be a boon for companies like SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Blue Origin, and others planning to develop fully reusable launch systems and in-space capabilities. Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck, for example, said he was “very happy” with the outcome. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Boeing interested in Phase 3, too? As part of the next round of national security launch contracts discussed above, I expect SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin to bid their large rockets for the most demanding military missions. But according to Aviation Week’s Irene Klotz, Boeing is also interested in offering commercial Space Launch System flight services under the National Security Space Launch Phase 3 program.
No, wait, they’re serious … “We believe the proven SLS capabilities can be an asset for the … [NSSL] Phase 3 contract,” the company told Klotz. While I applaud Boeing’s ambition, it is difficult to see the SLS rocket being seriously considered in an open competition. Its price (probably above $2 billion) will easily be five times, or even 10 times that of the rockets it is competing against, and, with a low flight rate, it is unlikely to answer the military’s priorities for schedule and reliability.
China shows off massive tank. China has produced a 10-meter-wide propellant tank as it works toward building a super heavy-lift launch vehicle, Space.com reports. The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology announced earlier this month that it had manufactured the huge tank, demonstrating that it had made the breakthroughs required to produce a propellant storage tank strong yet also thin and light enough for use in rocket launches.
A prototype tank … The new tank was built to specifications for an old design for an expendable version of China’s planned Long March 9 rocket. China has since stated it is switching to a new, reusable design with a diameter of 10.6 meters, but the demonstration of techniques such as stir friction welding and materials will be applicable to the new plan. Don’t expect the massive rocket to fly any time soon. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
Next three launches
March 11: Terran 1 | Good Luck, Have Fun | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 18:00 UTC
March 11: Electron | “Stronger Together” | Wallops Flight Facility, Va. | 23:00 UTC
March 12: Proton | Olymp-K 2 | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 22:12 UTC