China selling reusable engines; can SpaceX still raise money? – Ars Technica

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches the Viasat-3 mission on April 30, 2023.
Enlarge / A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches the Viasat-3 mission on April 30, 2023.


Welcome to Edition 5.36 of the Rocket Report! A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the space media were given a May 4 launch date for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. Alas, May the 4th, in 2023, wasn’t meant to be. In this week’s report, I explain why.

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.

Electron to serve as a hypersonics test bed. Rocket Lab’s small booster will use essentially the same first and second stages for hypersonic test flights, but it will have a modified kick stage that will allow Electron to deploy payloads with a mass of up to 600 kg into trajectories five times greater than the speed of sound, Ars reports. The Army, Navy, and Air Force are all developing hypersonic missiles to provide a fast-moving, maneuverable capability for striking targets quickly from thousands of kilometers away. Among the research problems the military likely wants to test is managing the extreme heat that hypersonic missiles are exposed to by traveling at high speeds in the atmosphere for most of their flight.

Seeking a double-digit cadence … In an interview, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said the company was able to offer this service because of Electron’s reliability and increasing flight rate. “The whole purpose of this is a high-cadence flight capability,” he said. “We all know that China and Russia and others have been doing lots of flights and generating lots of data and really advancing the field in hypersonics. The key to advancing the field here in the United States is to do lots of flights.” Electron launched nine missions in 2022 and is targeting 15 for this year, Beck said.

Latitude goes on a hiring spree. The French launch company said this week it had initiated a “significant recruitment campaign” to support the development of its Zephyr smallsat rocket. The campaign aims to fill 100 new positions across various fields such as propulsion engineering, systems, avionics, systems integration, finance, sales, communications, HR, or project management.

A whole new latitude … Previously, Latitude announced a 10M euro Series A round of fundraising in the summer of 2022 and completed its first cycle of engine testing over the winter. It is now working toward more engine tests this year with the aim of making a debut launch attempt next year. The rocket will have a payload capacity of 100 kg to low-Earth orbit and may launch from SaxaVord, in the Shetland Islands, and Kourou, in French Guiana.

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China’s bustling commercial space industry. According to the China Space Monitor newsletter, the Asian country has approximately 10 commercial rocket startups that could conceivably launch a rocket within the next 12 to 18 months. While there is a reasonable debate to be had about the extent to which these “private” companies are truly operating independently of the Chinese government (see next item), there is no question there is an incredible amount of space activity happening.

Successes in space and funding … As the newsletter notes, one of China’s oldest private space companies, iSpace, just successfully returned to flight with its Hyperbola-1 rocket after four failures in a row. In April, Space Pioneer impressively put its debut rocket into orbit, with the Tianlong-2 vehicle. Also during April, Chinese launch startup CAS Space completed a 600M yen ($87M) C-round of funding, bringing the company’s total funds raised to more than 1.2 billion yen. (submitted by brianrhurley)

Chinese government selling reusable engines. China’s Academy of Aerospace Liquid Propulsion Technology is marketing reusable rocket engines to speed up the development of China’s commercial space sector, Space News reports. Three engines are being offered for sale, including the YF-102 kerosene-liquid oxygen gas generator engine, which uses 3D-printing techniques, and the vacuum-optimized YF-102V. The third one is the reusable YF-209 methane-liquid oxygen, 80-ton-thrust engine. The latter is still in development, with hot-fire testing being carried out in February.

Some achievements already … The YF-102 engines have already been used in flight. Three of them powered the first stage of the Tianlong-2 rocket developed by private company Space Pioneer. The first flight of the rocket, in April, was the first Chinese commercial liquid-fueled rocket to send a payload into orbit. The academy selling the engines is a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, a state-owned space and defense giant and the country’s main space contractor. (submitted by Ken the Bin and brianrhurley)

Up Aerospace comes quickly down. An Up Aerospace rocket loaded with NASA-financed payload experiments and the cremated ashes of late astronaut Philip K. Chapman failed immediately after launching Monday morning at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, the Albuquerque Journal reports. This was the first failure of the company’s SpaceLoft XL sounding rocket since 2006. There was an issue with the rocket motor shortly after liftoff.

What goes up must come down … “The motor didn’t burn as it should have … It all landed within the spaceport’s safety range, and we were able to recover the rocket and the payloads to return them to customers,” UP Aerospace Vice President of Operations Tracey Larson said. Previously the rocket has flown more than a dozen suborbital missions. The company expected to be flying again soon after diagnosing the failure. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Viasat moves launch off of Ariane 6 rocket. Shortly before a Falcon Heavy rocket launched one of its large Internet satellites to geostationary orbit this week, Viasat said it has moved the launch of an identical spacecraft off of Europe’s long-delayed Ariane 6 rocket and is considering bids from other rocket companies. This is the last of a three-satellite constellation that Viasat is deploying to provide global broadband connectivity from space, Spaceflight Now reports.

Ce n’est pas bon pour Arianespace … Viasat announced in 2018 it selected SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Arianespace to each launch one ViaSat 3 satellite, awarding launch contracts to three industry leaders. The second ViaSat 3 satellite remains booked to launch on ULA’s Atlas V rocket in late 2023 or early 2024. Because there are no more Atlas V rockets available, and Vulcan has yet to make its debut, the smart money is probably on the ViaSat 3 satellite being moved to another Falcon Heavy. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

Europe is studying reusable payload fairings. European Spaceflight digs into the quiet effort in Europe to develop reusable payload fairings for its launch vehicles. According to Rüdeger Albat, the European Space Agency’s head of the Ariane 5 program, a reusable fairing concept remains under study as part of the agency’s Space Transportation reusability road map. This road map also includes the Prometheus, Themis, and CALLISTO programs that are assessing various aspects of launch vehicle reuse.

No business case … To date, only SpaceX has succeeded in reusing fairings with its Falcon 9 rocket. At one time Switzerland-based RUAG Space, now known as Beyond Gravity and the industry leader in fairings, was working to develop reusable fairings for the Ariane 6 rocket. However, that project has been shelved. “There is yet no business case for reusable fairings, but overall new conditions could change the business case in favor of reusable fairings,” Beyond Gravity’s Paul Horstink said. Unfortunately, this fairing project seems similar to a lot of other European efforts to develop reusable launch—tentative and lacking a full commitment toward such technology. I do wish the continent would be more forward-looking.

Environmental groups sue FAA over Starship launch. Several environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Monday, saying that the agency had not sufficiently regulated the launch of SpaceX’s Starship rocket from South Texas, Ars reports. In the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, DC, the groups say that the FAA failed to account for the damage caused by testing and launching the Starship rocket. This results in “intense heat, noise, and light that adversely affects surrounding habitat areas and communities, which included designated critical habitat for federally protected species as well as National Wildlife Refuge and State Park lands,” the lawsuit states.

The FAA did not comment on the suit … At the heart of the suit is a claim that the FAA should not have permitted Starship launch activities without the far greater environmental scrutiny of a full Environmental Impact Statement. In June 2022, the FAA issued a “Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment” for the Starship and Super Heavy vehicles, stating a number of corrective actions SpaceX must undertake to mitigate the effect of its launch activities. However, by issuing this report, the FAA allowed its formal launch licensing process to proceed without necessitating a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement, which could have taken years. Separately, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the company was taking steps to prevent dust and concrete from breaking away from the launch pad during the rocket’s next launch. (submitted by brianrhurley and Ken the Bin)

May the 4th is not with Vulcan. Astrobotic confirmed Tuesday that its Peregrine mission would not launch on a Vulcan rocket on May 4, as previously announced. “While the Astrobotic team is looking forward to launch, we understand ULA is conducting an investigation following a test article anomaly. The ULA team is no longer targeting a May 4, 2023, launch date and will provide a new date once the investigation is complete,” the company said. Peregrine is a commercial lunar lander that is flying its first mission for NASA.

Late summer or fall … Anyone paying attention to Vulcan’s debut knew this was coming, but ULA had not made any schedule announcements beyond a few replies on Twitter by CEO Tory Bruno, who stated that June or July was now likely. (One source told Ars that June was definitely out.) Two outstanding issues remain: The company is continuing to investigate an “anomaly” during testing of its Centaur upper stage at the end of March, and it is unclear whether full qualification testing of the rocket’s BE-4 engines is complete. It now seems probable that Vulcan’s debut will not come until August or later in the fall.

Can SpaceX still raise money? This past weekend SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the company plans to spend about $2 billion, all in, on the Starship project in 2023. However, Musk added that he did not anticipate the need to raise additional capital at this time. Notably, Quartz reports that there has been some weakening in the secondary market for shares of the private company. “We’re starting to see softening in demand from SpaceX. Never seen that before—always more buyers than sellers,” said Greg Martin, a managing director at Rainmaker Securities. “The $137 billion valuation in the last round is causing people to take a little bit of a pause.”

Survey says probably yes … Musk’s ability to pull in huge amounts of capital for SpaceX has never been questioned before, but as more private firms face cost-cutting and lower valuations, can SpaceX continue to defy gravity? The article delves into what is known and unknown about the company’s private finances. Chris Quilty, of Quilty Analytics, points out that SpaceX’s dominant position in the space sector—particularly its current near-monopoly on US human spaceflight and flying national security missions for the US government—makes it difficult to bet against Musk pulling in new capital. I agree.

Next three launches

May 9: Falcon 9 | Starlink 5-9 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 05:08 UTC

May 10: Long March 7 | Tianzhou 6 | Wenchang Satellite Launch Center, China | 13:30 UTC

May 10: Falcon 9 | Starlink 2-9 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. | 21:44 UTC

2023-05-05 11:00:40