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.