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Rocket Report: Super Heavy rolls to launch site, Funk will get to fly


A shockingly large rocket prepares to launch next to the coast.
Enlarge / A Super Heavy booster rolled out of SpaceX’s production facilities in South Texas on Thursday.

Welcome to Edition 4.05 of the Rocket Report! We have a really big week in small launch: Virgin Orbit confirmed the viability of its LauncherOne vehicle with a second consecutive successful flight. Congratulations to the engineers and technicians who strove to make that rocket a reality.

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.

Virgin Orbit does it again. Virgin Orbit demonstrated Wednesday morning that its first spaceflight in January was no fluke. The company’s Cosmic Girl aircraft took off from Mojave Air & Space Port about an hour after sunrise Wednesday and flew about 200 km off the California coast. The 747 carrier aircraft then dropped the LauncherOne rocket, which proceeded to ignite, reorient itself upward, and blast into orbit. Eventually, the rocket deployed seven small satellites into an orbit about 500 km above the planet.

So what comes next? … Virgin Orbit is hardware rich and had already begun building five new rockets in its Long Beach factory, Ars reports. But this preparedness has come at a cost. Founder Richard Branson has acknowledged that he and others have invested about $1 billion in Virgin Orbit to date, a very large sum for a relatively small rocket. LauncherOne has the capacity to send about one-half of a metric ton into low Earth orbit. The company says it has a variety of strategies underway to bring a return on that investment.

Relativity Space will move into a gigantic factory. The California-based launch company announced plans on Wednesday morning to move into a new factory—its third new facility in three years—as the startup company continues to scale up its ambitious launch plans. The new factory, formerly a 93-acre Boeing facility that manufactured the C-17 aircraft in Long Beach, California, has 1 million square feet of work space, Ars reports.

New rocket, new factory … Ellis said the new 3D-printing factory is needed to support the production of the proposed Terran R rocket, a fully reusable booster intended to compete with SpaceX’s highly successful Falcon 9 rocket. Relativity is also rapidly growing, he said, and the company now has a total of 400 employees. Relativity plans to add 200 more people by the end of 2021 and then likely double the total by the end of next year. The new factory will accommodate about 2,000 employees.

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

Blue Origin adds Wally Funk to first New Shepard flight. This is a pleasant surprise. On Thursday, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos invited Wally Funk, a member of the privately funded “Mercury 13” program that sought to fly women into space in the 1960s, to join him as a guest on the July 20 launch of New Shepard. Although they underwent tests similar to male astronauts, none of the Mercury 13 women ever went to space.

Oldest person to go to space … “No one has waited longer,” Bezos said of Funk, who will be 82 years old when the mission launches. For the 10-minute flight above 100 km, Funk will join Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, and the winner of an auction who paid $28 million to join the flight. The company has yet to disclose the name of the auction winner. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

But wait—Branson will attempt to beat Bezos. As noted above, Jeff Bezos is going to space on July 20. But later on Thursday, Virgin Galactic said its founder, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, will attempt to go to space on July 11. Dubbed the “Unity 22” mission, this flight on the VSS Unity spacecraft will carry two pilots (Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci) and four mission specialists, including Branson, Ars reports.

Battle of the billionaires … Branson is clearly keen to the first to space, and Virgin Galactic has changed its flight plans to accommodate his trip. Originally, the company’s plan next called for a test flight with four employees in the passenger cabin. That test was supposed to have been followed by Branson’s mission. Questions will be asked about whether Branson and Virgin Galactic are rushing things by putting him in space. For example, responding to the news Thursday afternoon, former flight director and space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale tweeted, “Talk about schedule pressure! Hope nobody cuts any corners.”

Gilmour Space announces significant funding. The most prominent Australian launch company, Gilmour Space, said Wednesday it has secured $47 million in Series C funding to support development of its launch technology. This pyramid of cash suggests the company has a real shot at developing an orbital-class rocket.

Growing the team … Company CEO and co-founder Adam Gilmour said the company remains on track to attempt the first orbital launch of its Eris rocket in 2022. The funding will allow the company to expand from 70 to 120 employees as it scales up to meet these ambitions. Founded in 2016, Gilmour is developing a hybrid rocket to launch small satellites. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

bluShift announces launch deal. The Maine-based small launch company bluShift has signed its first commercial deal, and Virginia STEM company MaxIQ Space is its dance partner. “This is a good omen of what’s to come for bluShift,” Sascha Deri, bluShift’s CEO and founder, said during a virtual investor call last week, MaineBiz reports. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, so it’s not clear how much, if any, money has changed hands.

Starting small … bluShift uses a biofuel-based propellant for its rocket design, and the company recently launched a prototype rocket to an altitude of about 1 km. Future plans call for suborbital flights. Frankly, it’s difficult to take the company too seriously, because bluShift’s crowdfunding has so far raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it ultimately will need a lot more than that to reach space. (submitted by Telemark154 and Ken the Bin)

Roscosmos explores crew flights from French Guiana. The Russian space corporation is looking into the possibility of launching spacecraft from the Guiana Space Center in South America, Parabolic Arc reports. Those launches would carry cosmonauts to the new Chinese space station.

Need a better inclination … The Russian Soyuz vehicle currently launches from Kazakhstan, which is an ideal location to reach the International Space Station. But reaching the Chinese space station at an orbital inclination of 42.8 degrees would be strenuous. Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said he discussed the possibility of crewed launches from French Guiana during a recent video conference with Philippe Batista, the president of the French space agency, CNES. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

A Falcon 9 flies eight times a year. SpaceX launched its 20th Falcon 9 rocket of the year on Wednesday, and the booster lofting the Transporter-2 mission completed yet another successful flight to orbit. This rocket core, named B1060 (booster number 1060), had previously flown into space seven times. Its first launch was a GPS III satellite mission for the US Space Force on June 30, 2020. With Wednesday’s flight, the rocket has now flown eight missions in a calendar year, Ars reports.

Before and after photos are something … That is a rate of one mission every 1.5 months. However, since early January, this same rocket has flown five missions, so B1060 is approaching a rapid cadence of one launch per month. This is unprecedented for the Falcon 9 rocket or any other orbital spacecraft in history. The rapid reuse of the Falcon 9 rocket also makes for some stellar visuals, and Ars photographer Trevor Mahlmann was able to get excellent images of both the launch and landing.

Super Heavy rocket rolling to launch site in South Texas. On Thursday, engineers and technicians at SpaceX’s production facilities in Boca Chica rolled a large Super Heavy booster out of the high bay. This titanic rocket is bound for a test stand at the nearby launch site for ground tests. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said this rocket, which was built in just six weeks, will not fly.

Next rocket will fly … According to Musk, the current plan involves testing this booster and launching the next one, which itself is currently being built. This next Super Heavy rocket will be mated with a Starship for an orbital launch. SpaceX sources have told Ars they are reasonably confident this flight will occur in July or August, but the company has yet to obtain regulatory approval for such a flight nlauching from the “Starbase” site in South Texas.

China will use superheavy rocket for solar power satellites. China plans to use a new superheavy-lift rocket currently under development to construct a massive space-based solar power station in geostationary orbit. Numerous launches of the upcoming Long March 9 rocket would be used to construct space-based solar power facilities 35,786 kilometers above the Earth, according to Long Lehao, chief designer of China’s Long March rocket series, SpaceNews reports.

Commercial power by midcentury … The project, according to Long, would begin with a small-scale electricity generation test in 2022, leading to a megawatt-level power-generation facility around 2030. Commercial, gigawatt-level power generation would be realized by 2050. This would require more than 100 Long March 9 launches and around 10,000 tons of infrastructure, assembled in orbit. This seems like an aspirational plan, but it reveals the scope of China’s space ambitions. (submitted by pv and Ken the Bin)

SpaceX defends South Texas activities. In a letter to the Cameron County District Attorney, Starship Operations senior director Shyamal Patel responded to criticism of SpaceX’s closure of two county roads near its Boca Chica rocket build site. (Discussed here, two weeks ago, in the Rocket Report). Last month, the DA said, SpaceX security barred access to public roads Remedios Avenue and Joanna Street, which are located just off of the main thoroughfare through the region, State Highway 4.

Will conduct more training … Patel’s response, first reported by Courthouse News, affirms that SpaceX does not seek to bar access to these public roads. The company is also providing “comprehensive training” to its security personnel to ensure hat guards will not prevent members of the public from entering or remaining on these roads. “SpaceX continues to be committed to improving and bringing positive opportunities to the community,” Patel wrote on June 17. (submitted by DanNeely)

Next three launches

July 3: Long March 2D | Jilin-1 satellite | Taiyuan, China | 02:50 UTC

July 4: Long March 4C | Fengyun-3E satellite | Taiyuan, China | 23:15

July 30: Atlas V | Starliner OFT-2 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 18:53 UTC

Listing image by Elon Musk





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