ABL preparing for second launch attempt of its RS1 rocket

ABL's redesigned rocket launch mount
ABL’s redesigned rocket launch mount

Since its first test launch of its RS1 rocket failed in January 2023, ABL has spent the last ten months doing major revisions of the rocket’s launch mount as well as preparing an upgraded new rocket for a second test launch attempt, expected in the coming months.

This information comes from a long update posted by the company’s CEO, Harry O’Hanley on October 25, 2023.

It appears failure occurred because of a fire at the base of the rocket after liftoff, which in turn was caused by the small size of the rocket’s launch mount.

By analyzing video and data, we formulated a leading theory behind the source of the fire. Our hypothesis centered around the Launch Mount, which is the GS0 assembly that raises and lowers the vehicle. It was designed to fit fully assembled inside a shipping container. While this made transport simple, it resulted in the rocket being held close to the ground.

We believe the compact Launch Mount and proximity of RS1 to the ground restricted the flow of engine exhaust gas. This caused plume recirculation and drove pressures and temperatures beneath the rocket to exceed the RS1 base heat shield design capability. The hot combustion gases breached the aft heat shield and initiated the engine compartment fire. We corroborated this theory with a variety of tests and analyses, including multi-species CFD performed both in-house and by an independent partner.

The graphic to the right, rearranged and annotated to post here, shows the new larger mount. Because of the time it has taken to make that launch mount upgrade, the company also decided to fly its next version of RS1 on this second test launch, rather than the backup rocket from the first launch. This upgraded RS1 has 20% more thrust with a detachable engine section that makes access to it much easier.

O’Hanley made no mention of a specific target launch date from the Kodiak spaceport in Alaska, but his post implies the launch is coming very soon.

Lockheed Martin opens factory to build smallsats on an assembly-line basis

Capitalism in space: As part of fulfilling a contract won from the Space Force, Lockheed Martin has now opened a new factory in Colorado expressly designed to build smallsats on an assembly-line basis.

Lockheed Martin’s 20,000-square-foot factory is located at the company’s Waterton campus near Denver, Colorado. It has six parallel assembly lines and capacity to manufacture 180 small satellites per year, Kevin Huttenhoff, Lockheed Martin’s senior manager for space data transport, told SpaceNews. The first satellites to be made at the facility are for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency. SDA plans to build a mesh network of hundreds of data transport and missile-detection sensor satellites in low Earth orbit.

Lockheed Martin in February 2022 won a $700 million contract to produce 42 communications satellites for SDA’s Transport Layer Tranche 1. The company in November 2020 also won a $187.5 million contract to manufacture 10 Transport Layer Tranche 0 satellites that are scheduled to launch later this month. The Transport Layer Tranche 1 satellites — projected to launch in late 2024 — will be made at the new factory. The Tranche 0 satellites were assembled at a different facility where Lockheed Martin manufactures Global Positioning System (GPS) spacecraft.

The multiple assembly lines allows the company to configure each for a different customer and satellite, with one for example producing smallsats for a military contract while another produces smallsats for a commercial customer.

Of all the big space companies, Lockheed Martin has made the most moves quickly adapting to the new space market of new rockets and small satellites. Not only has it built this facility, it has been an major investor in several new smallsat rocket companies, including Rocket Lab and ABL. It also opened its first assembly-line smallsat factory in 2017.

Shetland Spaceport now faces same regulatory hurdles that destroyed Virgin Orbit

The new Shetland spaceport, Saxaford, is right now attempting to get launch approvals from United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the same agency that dithered for six months approving a Virgin Orbit launch, thus causing the bankruptcy of that company.

According to Saxaford’s CEO, the spaceport has two launches aiming to launch before the end of this year, assuming the CAA can get its act together and give its approval. This quote however is worrisom:

The Saxavord spaceport says it is “still on track” to receive its necessary licences from the sector’s regulator before the summer. This relates to applications to the Civil Aviation Authority for range and spaceport licences.

Meanwhile SaxaVord CEO Frank Strang said the company is also on track for two rocket launches this year – “albeit they have moved slightly to the right”. [emphasis mine]

The delays could be coming from the rocket companies themselves. One of those companies is the German startup, Rocket Factory Augsburg, which has leased exclusive use of one launchsite. The other is the American startup ABL, which has had one launch attempt from the U.S. that failed.

Based on the CAA’s track record however the delays are just as likely coming from it. The CAA began this licensing process in November 2022, and is not done yet six months later.

ABL completes investigation of January 10th launch failure

ABL yesterday released the results of its investigation into the January 10th launch failure of its RS1 rocket.

Just over ten seconds after launch the rocket suffered “a complete loss of power,” its engines shut down, and it came crashing back to Earth about 60 feet to the east of the launch pad. The resulting explosion and fire damaged and destroyed significant equipment, including a nearby “fabric hanger.” The report then goes on to describe the cause:
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ABL’s first launch attempt fails

The first launch of ABL’s RS1 rocket failed yesterday when the first stage engines shut down right after liftoff so that the rocket fell back onto the launchpad and exploded.

The company said in subsequent updates that the nine engines in its first stage shut down simultaneously after liftoff, causing the vehicle to fall back to the pad and explode. The company did not disclose when after liftoff the shutdown took place or the altitude the rocket reached. The explosion damaged the launch facility but no personnel were injured.

This rocket startup has raises several hundred million dollars, with its chief investor Lockheed Martin, which has also signed a contract for as many as 58 RS1 launches.

ABL’s RS1 rocket has another abort at launch

In making its third attempt to launch its first RS1 rocket, ABL engineers experienced their second abort at T-0, with the rocket shutting down just as its engines ignited.

The first attempt on Monday, Nov. 14, was scrubbed due to off-nominal data on the first stage during propellant loading. A second attempt on Thursday, Nov. 17, was aborted due to turbopump oxygen inlet conditions at engine ignition. The most recent attempt on Monday, Nov. 21, was aborted during engine ignition at T-1.75 seconds.

The company is now targeting December 7th for their fourth launch attempt. The rocket carries two customer cubesats, but its main mission is to demonstrate its ability to reach orbit.

ABL’s RS1 rocket aborts at ignition

The first test launch of ABL’s RS1 rocket aborted at T-0 yesterday, just as the rocket ignited its engines.

From a company tweet:

RS1 aborted terminal count during ignition. The vehicle is healthy, and the team is setting up to offload propellant for today. More information to come on our next opportunity.

Though it appears all is well with the rocket, the company has not yet announced a new launch date. The present launch window closes November 21, 2022.

ABL scrubs first launch attempt

The rocket startup ABL yesterday scrubbed its first attempt to launch its new RS1 smallsat rocket from Alaska, due to “off-nominal data on the first stage during propellant loading.”

This test launch carries two cubesats for a customer, but its prime mission is to demonstrate the rocket’s ability to put those smallsats into orbit.

The company is trying again today, but is providing no live stream of the countdown or launch. We can only wait for updates.

ABL completes dress rehearsal countdown for its first RS1 rocket launch

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company ABL successfully completed a full dress rehearsal countdown for its first RS1 rocket this past week, and is presently negotiating with the FAA the launch date for that rocket’s first test launch.

Though ABL is its own independent company, one of its biggest investors has been Lockheed Martin. In fact, in almost all ways, ABL is a Lockheed Martin division, and appears to be part of the older and bigger company’s strategy for entering the smallsat market.

ABL completes static fire test of first stage of its new RS1 rocket

Capitalism in space: The new smallsat rocket startup ABL has successfully completed a full static fire test of the first stage of its new RS1 rocket from its launchpad in Kodiak, Alaska.

Company executives said that they performed the static-fire test of the first stage of its RS1 rocket July 9 at the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska on Kodiak Island, the site where the company plans to conduct its first launch.

“The operation verified our startup sequence and stage level engine performance,” Harry O’Hanley, chief executive of ABL, said in a statement to SpaceNews. “A testament to our team’s intense preparation, we completed the test on the first attempt.”

The static-fire test also verified the performance of the ground systems, including a portable launch stool that can be packed into a shipping container. That system, O’Hanley said, enables launching from a flat pad like at Kodiak.

The company is presently completing testing of the rocket’s upper stage, with its next task to mate the two and complete a full dress rehearsal countdown. Though no launch date has been set, the company has been targeting a launch before the end of this year.

ABL completes and ships new upper stage only 4 months after test explosion

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket startup ABL has successfully completed construction and testing of a new upper stage for the first launch of its RS1 rocket, shipping it to the launch site in Alaska only four months after an explosion during testing destroyed an earlier stage.

Before the January accident, the company had planned a first launch of the RS1 rocket, capable of placing up to 1,350 kilograms into low Earth orbit for a list price of $12 million, early in the year. Shortly after the accident, the company estimated a three-month delay in its plans. Piemont said after the recent acceptance tests that the company was now targeting “early summer” for its first launch, pending completion of acceptance tests of the first stage.

Though the company’s goal had been to lose only three months and the actual delay was four months, the overall speed in which it recovered is impressive. Right now ABL is one of four smallsat rocket companies (ABL, Firefly, Aevum, and Relativity) attempting to complete its first launch this year. This success suggests ABL has a good chance of succeeding.

Below is a video of a successful static fire test of this new stage, released by the company. It is a pleasant change from most such PR videos, in that the company simply shows us the test, with some minor editing, but includes no dramatic but fake background music. Life isn’t a movie.
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Astra signs deal to launch from SaxaVord Spaceport in Shetland

Capitalism in space: Astra today announced an agreement with the SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands to begin launches from that United Kingdom location, beginning in 2023.

These launches will be the first by Astra outside the U.S. It is the second American company to sign on with SaxaVord, with Lockheed Martin’s ABL rocket company smallsat startup planning its own first launch there later this year. SavaVord also has a launch deal with a French company, Venture Orbital Systems, which hopes to launch later this decade.

None of these however could be the first launch from the United Kingdom since the 1960s. Virgin Orbit has a deal to launch from a runway from a Cornwall airport later this year. Furthermore, the rocket company Orbex is planning to launch its Prime rocket from a differenct spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland.

Shetland spaceport construction to begin in March

Capitalism in space: Construction of the United Kingdom’s first spaceport in more than a half century is now set to begin this month in the Shetland Islands, with the first launch expected before the end of the year.

The Lamba Ness peninsular in Unst will be home to the £43 million spaceport, with builders set to start work in late March, after Shetland Islands Council gave the project planning permission.

Three launchpads will be built at the SaxaVord spaceport, allowing for the launch of small satellites into either polar or sun-synchronous low-Earth orbits.

The company is aiming to launch 30 rockets a year, and has set the target of seeing its first orbital launch from UK soil after the third quarter of this year.

It appears now that the United Kingdom is going to have two different competing spaceports, one on the Shetland Islands and the second in Sutherland, Scotland. It appears the UK rocket startup Skyrora as well as a partnership between Lockhead Martin and the smallsat rocket startup ABL will launch from Shetland, while the UK company Orbex will use Sutherland.

Upper stage of ABL rocket explodes during ground test

Capitalism in space: During a ground test of the upper stage of ABL Space Systems RS1 rocket an “anomaly” occurred that caused an explosion, apparently destroying the stage.

No one was hurt, but the company has released few details about what happened. We do not know if the explosion occurred during an engine static fire test, or during a pressure test of the stage’s tanks.

The company’s first launch was in October supposed to happen in December, then was shifted to January. This incident will certainly delay it further.

Amazon picks rocket startup ABL to launch 1st two prototype Kuiper satellites

Capitalism in space: Amazon has chosen the smallsat startup rocket company ABL to launch its first two prototype Kuiper satellites, with that launch targeted for ’22.

KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 will reach orbit via the RS1, a new rocket developed by California-based ABL Space Systems. Amazon also announced today that it has signed a multi-launch deal with ABL to provide these early Project Kuiper launches.

The 88-foot-tall (27 meters) RS1 is capable of launching 2,975 pounds (1,350 kilograms) of payload to LEO, according to its ABL specifications page. ABL is charging $12 million for each launch of the two-stage rocket. The RS1 has not flown yet, but ABL has said that it aims to conduct a debut launch from Alaska’s Pacific Spaceport Complex before the end of 2021.

Earlier this year, Amazon announced that it had signed a deal with United Launch Alliance (ULA), whose Atlas V rocket will loft operational Project Kuiper craft on nine different launches.

Does anyone notice what rocket company has not won these contracts, even though its owner is also Amazon’s founder and biggest shareholder? That’s right, as far as I can tell, Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket has apparently not won any contracts to launch Amazon’s Kuiper satellites. Notice also that the deal with ULA uses its Atlas-5 rocket, not its new Vulcan rocket, even though ULA wants Vulcan to replace the Atlas-5 beginning in ’22.

Since both New Glenn and Vulcan depend on Blue Origin’s troubled BE-4 rocket engine, these contracts strongly suggest that the engine’s technical problems have not yet been solved, and that neither rocket will be flying in ’22 as both companies have promised.

ABL leases space at Port of Los Angeles

Capitalism in space: The rocket startup ABL has now leased space at the Port of Los Angeles for “spacecraft processing” and cargo shipment.

Included in the five-year lease is a 25,000-square-foot integration and payload processing facility, 20,000-square-foot warehouse space, and a 13,000-square-foot office space. The location, previously occupied by rocket launching ship company Sea Launch, will be used by ABL for a range of operations including vehicle processing, payload integration, and maritime operations supporting the company’s launch facilities around the world.

This deal comes on top of ABL’s announcement earlier this week that it has raised an addition $200 million in investment capital, and is planning its first launch in mid-December.

Smallsat rocket startup ABL raises $200 million in anticipation of 1st launch

Capitalism in space: With its first test launch of its rocket scheduled for mid-December, the smallsat rocket startup ABL has raised $200 million in investment capital, in addition to the $170 million it had raised in March.

Dan Piemont, president and co-founder of ABL, told SpaceNews that the company still has most of the $170 million it raised in March, describing the new round as “somewhat opportunistic and driven by insider interest.” Much of the additional funding, though, will go to scale up production of its RS1 vehicle that is nearing its first launch. “We have received large orders for RS1 and will need to scale faster than we previously planned to meet the demand,” he said, with more than 75 launches under contract. “Our investors have seen the incredible demand for RS1 and want to make sure we have all the resources we need to serve it. We updated our operating plan accordingly, and you’ll see that in the form of more launch sites, more facilities, more machines and larger production crews next year.”

ABL is one of seven rocket companies — the others are Virgin Orbit, Astra, Firefly, Relativity, Aevum, and Blue Origin — that had planned a first test launch in ’21. Of those, Virgin Orbit has had two successful orbital launches, while Astra and Firefly have attempted orbital launches but failed. Blue Origin’s first launch of its New Glenn rocket has been delayed to next year, but it is questionable it will occur then. The launch dates for Relativity and Aevum remain unannounced.

Space Force adds three more rocket startups to its rapid launch program

Capitalism in space: The Space Force announced today that it has added the three smallsat rocket companies ABL, Astra, and Relativity to its program, dubbed OSP-4, to develop rockets that can be launched quickly at a moment’s notice.

OSP-4 is an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract for rapid acquisition of launch services. Vendors compete for individual orders, and have to be able to launch payloads larger than 400 pounds to any orbit within 12 to 24 months from contract award.

The OSP-4 contract vehicle was created in October 2019 and eight companies were selected then: Aevum, Firefly, Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX., United Launch Alliance, VOX Space [Virgin Orbit], and X-Bow Launch.

There are now 11 vendors in the program that will compete for 20 missions over the next nine years. OSP-4 is authorized up to $986 million for launch contracts over that period.

Of these eleven companies, five have operational rockets (Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX, Virgin Orbit, and ULA) and five have announced plans to do their first orbital launch this year (Aevum, ABL, Astra, Relativity, and Firefly), with Astra’s first orbital flight scheduled for later this month. The schedule of the remaining X-Bow remains unknown.