SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of Superheavy

SpaceX today successful completed a 13-second static fire test of its Superheavy first stage booster at Boca Chica, Texas.

I have embedded the video of the test below, cued to just before ignition. The test fired eleven of the booster’s 33 engines, and appeared to go very smoothly.

The company is still moving steadily towards an orbital launch of Superheavy and Starship before the end of the year.

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Virgin Orbit’s cash problems continue

Because of endless delays getting a regulatory approval of a launch in the United Kingdom, Virgin Orbit has been unable to complete the 4 to 6 launches in 2022 that it had planned, and is thus experiencing serious cash shortages that has now caused it to cancel plans to sell “additional securities.”

Virgin Orbit reported third quarter revenues of $30.9 million, which exceeded the zero revenues reported in Q3 2021. The company’s net loss was $43.6 million, which was higher than the $38.6 million loss in Q3 2021.

While costs and losses have mounted, Virgin Orbit has experienced delays in increasing its launch rate. The company had planned to conduct four to six launches this year. Today, the total stands at only two with just over a month left in 2022.

Virgin Orbit’s third launch was originally scheduled to take place in last August from Spaceport Cornwall in England. The company is still awaiting a license from the UK government that would allow the launch to take place. It is the first time the government has licensed both an orbital launch and a spaceport, so the process it taking longer than anticipated.

The company had not only ramped up production of its LauncherOne rocket in anticipation of an increased launch rate, it also purchased two more 747s to act as the rocket’s first stage carrier. Those actions however were based on the ability to increase the launch rate, which has been stymied since the summer by Great Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, which can’t seem to issue permission for Virgin Orbit to launch from a runway in Cornwall.

The canceled sale of securities appears part of the entire investment deal near the end of 2021. The cash shortages and this deal also appear connected to the decision by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group to invest $25 million in Virgin Orbit earlier this month.

Virgin Orbit officials say they intend to double their launch rate in 2023. I suspect that they have to. It is now sink or swim.

Dragon freighter docks with ISS

ISS as of November 28, 2022

Capitalism in space: An unmanned Dragon freighter successfully docked with ISS yesterday, bring with it 7,700 pounds of cargo, including two new solar arrays for the station.

Two International Space Station Roll-Out Solar Arrays, or iROSAs, launched aboard SpaceX’s 22nd commercial resupply mission for the agency and were installed in 2021. These solar panels, which roll out using stored kinetic energy, expand the energy-production capabilities of the space station. The second set launching in the Dragon’s trunk once installed, will be a part of the overall plan to provide a 20% to 30% increase in power for space station research and operations.

These arrays, the second of three packages, will complete the upgrade of half the station’s power channels.

The graphic to the right shows the station as of today, with six different spacecraft docked to six different ports. No wonder there is a significant limit to the number of private missions that can fly to ISS. The needs of the station, as dictated by the international partnership of governments that run it, too often fill those ports.

This limitation will begin changing when Axiom launches its first module for ISS in about two years, followed soon thereafter by the launch of a number of other private independent stations by different American companies.

Rocket startup Agnikul Cosmos opens first commercial launchpad in India

Capitalism in space: The Indian rocket startup Agnikul Cosmos has completed construction on the first privately owned launchpad in India, with the first suborbital launch planned before the end of this year.

Agnikul’s infrastructure comprises a launchpad and a Mission Control center 4 kilometres away, both within ISRO’s facilities on the island located off the coast of Chennai. The space pad was designed by Agnikul, constructed over two months, and is a part of the MoU signed between ISRO and Agnikul (among other space startups) under the new regulatory authority IN-SPACe’s first batch of support projects for private companies from ISRO.

Currently, it is capable of launching Agnikul’s rocket, the Agnibaan. [emphasis mine]

The first test launch is apparently not going to be orbital, but a technology test of the launch pad, its fueling facilities, and the 3D-printed engine Agnikul has built for Agnibaan.

The highlighted words once again note the effort by the Indian government to emulate the U.S. policy in the past decade to transition from a government-run space program to a privately-run competing and chaotic space industry. This MoU (memorandum of understanding) probably resembles the first space act agreements NASA issued to SpaceX and Orbital ATK. The agreements gave private companies aid and assistance, but the companies retained full ownership of what they build, and were left free to design things as they saw fit, not as the government dictated.

That two different Indian companies, Agnikul and Skyroot, are on the verge of their first orbital launches signals that this policy is succeeding. Agnikul has tested its engines and built its launchpad. Skyroot has completed its first suborbital launch.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 successfully launches Dragon freighter to ISS

SpaceX today successfully used its Falcon 9 rocket to launch a Dragon freighter to ISS.

The first stage landed successfully on a drone ship in the Atlantic, completing its first flight, only the third time this year out of 54 total launches that SpaceX had to use a new first stage. All other launches were with reused boosters.

The Dragon freighter is scheduled to dock with ISS at 7:30 am (Eastern) tomorrow.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

54 SpaceX
52 China
19 Russia
9 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 78 to 52 in the national rankings, but trails the rest of the world combined 81 to 78.

Smallsat rocket startup Phantom Space gets NASA launch contract

The smallsat rocket startup Phantom Space has been awarded a NASA launch contract designed to encourage new companies.

Phantom Space Corp. announced today it has been awarded four new NASA task orders to launch CubeSat satellites into space as part of the new VADR contract. NASA’s VADR missions (for Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare) missions intend to meet the agency’s needs for NASA payloads while also fostering the development of new launch vehicles from both emerging and established launch providers. VADR increases access to space by significantly reducing costs using less NASA oversight to achieve lower launch costs with payloads that can accept a higher risk tolerance.

…The company plans to stage the first space flights in 2024, and the NASA CubeSats will be among the first payloads. Two will be onboard the second Phantom flight, and the other two will be on the fourth flight. The CubeSat launches for NASA will occur at the Vandenberg Space Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 8.

The Tucson-based company’s Daytona rocket will use ten Hadley engines being built by the rocket engine startup Ursa Major.

One of Phantom’s founders, Jim Cantrell, gave me a tour of their facility in May. Cantrell had been head of the rocket startup Vector, and when that failed because its own engines were underpowered, formed Phantom. Phantom however does not build its own engines but gets them from Ursa Major, a company founded by former SpaceX engineeers.

ESA commits more than $100 million to encouraging private space companies

Capitalism in space: The governmental officials representing all of the partners in the European Space Agency this week decided to commit $122 million to a program designed to encourage private independent and competing space companies.

This budget represented a 17% increase.

The ScaleUp programme, which has two elements, supports a company along its entire life cycle. First, it assists in the development of the enterprise with business incubation, business acceleration, intellectual property and technology transfer services (ScaleUp Innovate), and then, it facilitates the scaling up of their products on new markets (ScaleUp Invest).

ScaleUp is business-focused and not technology or sector specific and applies within all ESA programmes. This programme targets start-up companies, applied research and innovation centres, and more mature companies such as SMEs, Mid-Caps and large system integrators.

While encouraging news, the language of the press release and the size of the budget indicates that these European governments are being dragged kicking and screaming into this new capitalist aerospace world. It is clear that ESA has been losing out by sticking with its government-run and government-owned Arianespace operation. At the same time, it is also clear that ESA officials and their governments are showing the same reluctance Congress showed in the last decade when NASA wanted to transition from its government-run and -owned system. At that time, Congress consistently resisted budgeting the commercial space line in NASA’s budget, thus delaying the launch of both Dragon and Starliner significantly.

In the end the effectiveness of competition, private property, and freedom however won out in the U.S. I expect it will do the same in Europe, though it might take another decade or so before Europe’s governments realize it.

Launch of Ispace’s Hakuto-R lunar lander delayed two days

Ispace yesterday announced that the launch of its Hakuto-R lunar lander, carrying a number of private and government payloads including the UAE’s Rashid rover, has been delayed two days to November 30, 2022 due to weather and scheduling issues.

The spacecraft will be launched from Cape Canaveral on a Falcon 9 rocket. The weather and the Thanksgiving holiday forced NASA and SpaceX to push back the launch of a cargo Dragon to ISS to November 26th. This in turn impacted Hakuto-R’s launch date.

Rocket Lab wins launch contract abandoned by Astra

NASA yesterday awarded Rocket Lab the contract to put its constellation of TROPICS satellites into orbit, on two different launches.

This contract replaces Astra as the launch provider, which has abandoned launches while it develops a new rocket.

Astra’s contract, valued at $7.95 million, was for three launches on its Rocket 3.3 vehicle – a rocket that Astra later announced would be discontinued, in favor of a larger and more powerful Rocket 4.

But Rocket 4 is still under development – and may not be ready to launch until 2024. NASA decided not to wait that long, and said in September that it would modify the TROPICS launch contract with Astra for “comparable scientific payloads” on the new rocket.

Moreover, the launches will occur at Wallops Island, strengthening Rocket Lab’s presence there. The company will attempt its first launch there in early December, a launch delayed for two years because of holdups created by NASA’s bureaucracy. With this new contract, NASA’s management will now have an incentive to speed use of Wallops by Rocket Lab, not slow it down.

Hungary to pay $100 million to Axiom for astronaut mission to ISS

Hungary has budgeted $100 million to fly a Hungarian astronaut on a 30 day mission to ISS, arranged as a private mission though the American space company Axiom.

“This is a program which is being carried out with the cooperation of the American company Axiom Space and its extent is $100 million,” said [Péter Szijjártó, Hungarian foreign minister,] of the initiative. “This will end up in a 30-day-long research mission of a Hungarian astronaut with three other astronauts at the end of 2024 or beginning of 2025, depending on what time NASA confirms access to the International Space Station.”

NASA has yet to award missions to Axiom Space beyond its Ax-2 mission scheduled for the spring of 2023, but is evaluating proposals for two private astronaut missions that could include an Axiom Space flight in that timeframe.

It is clear that negotiations for arranging this mission between Axiom, NASA, and Hungary are on-going. Based on Szijjártó’s description, it is possible that the Hungarian astronaut could fly on a dedicated private Axiom mission to ISS, with two other paying passengers and an Axiom commander, or fly as an extra passenger on a normal ISS crew rotation flight. Furthermore, the ’24 or ’25 launch date suggests the vehicle might not be a Dragon capsule. By that time Boeing’s Starliner should be operational, thus giving Axiom and NASA an alternative. That time frame also corresponds to about when Axiom hopes to launch and dock its own module to ISS.

Nor is Hungary the only foreign country that has signed a deal with Axiom for a manned flight. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia have agreements as well.

All told, the biggest obstacle right now to this new market is the number of ports on ISS. It seems Axiom has a strong incentive to get its own module launched and attached to ISS as soon as possible, if only to increase the docking ports available for these flights.

First commercial passenger spacewalk on Dragon will involve depressurizing entire spacecraft

According to an interview to by the four crew members on next year’s private manned Dragon flight financed by Jared Isaacman, the spacewalk, the first involving commercial passengers, will include all four passengers, since Dragon will not have an airlock and will be depressurized entirely when the hatch opens.

“We’ve collectively taken the position that we’re all going for an EVA,” Isaacman said, adding that the spacecraft cabin is to be depressurized in a hard vacuum. “Whether you’re sticking your head outside, you are doing an EVA. We are contemplating two people on the outside of the vehicle,” Isaacman said, “and two would be inside making sure that everything is going correct.”

To accommodate the spacewalk, this Crew Dragon will not be outfitted with a transparent dome, as was the case for the Inspiration4 mission.

The mission is presenting targeting March ’23 for launch.

France, Germany, and Italy agree on allowing competition from European rocket startups

Capitalism in space: France, Germany, and Italy yesterday signed an agreement [pdf] whereby they agreed to push European policy-makers to allow competition from independent European rocket startups for launch contracts.

At least, this is what I think they have agreed to. I have read the article and the agreement several times, and remain somewhat unsure of their intent. The agreement is couched in the typical bureaucratic language specifically designed to obscure meaning. The article does little to clarify things.

It appears this is the key language in the agreement:

The proposed acknowledgement of operational European NewSpace micro and mini launch systems for ESA satellite launch service procurements, upon its adoption by Council, would effectively represent a first step towards an evolution of the launch service procurement policy for ESA missions as referred to in the ESA Council Resolution adopted in 2005.

What I gather is that these three countries no longer want European launch contract awards limited to the Arianespace rockets Ariane-6 and Vega-C. They want bidding opened to all European rocket startups, and they want the elimination of rules that require all contracts distributed by quota to European countries.

Germany already has three commercial rocket startups on the verge of their first launch, and apparently wants the European Space Agency to stop favoring Arianespace in launch contracts. That France and Italy are going along with this is significant, since Ariane-6 is dominated by French developers and Vega-C is dominated by Italian developers.

SpaceX successfully launches communications satellite for Eutelsat

SpaceX tonight successfully launched a geosynchronous communications satellite for Eutelsat. This was the third launch that SpaceX has done for this European company, which previously had traditionally been launched by Arianespace. Because of the delays and higher cost to use Arianespace’s new Ariane 6 rocket, the company chose to go with SpaceX instead.

The first stage, which had flown ten times previously, successfully completed its eleventh flight, but was not recovered because all of its fuel was needed to get the satellite to its proper orbit.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

53 SpaceX
52 China
19 Russia
9 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 77 to 52 in the national rankings, but trails the rest of the world combined 80 to 77.

Six of the ten cubesats launched toward the Moon by SLS still working

The Moon as seen by ArgoMoon
Click for full image.

Of the ten cubesats launched toward the Moon by SLS last week, six are still working while four have problems that are likely killing their missions.

The photo to the right, cropped, reduced, and sharpened to post here, was taken by ArgoMoon, an Italian cubesat that is working perfectly. The large impact basin visible is Orientale Basin, located just on the edge of the visible face of the Moon but partly hidden on the far side.

A summary of the status of all ten can be found here. Of the other five still functioning properly, all have been able to maintain proper communications.

Possibly the biggest disappointment however is the failure of Japan’s Omotenashi lander, which was going to attempt a lunar soft landing. Shortly after launch it began tumbling, and engineers were never able to regain full control or communications. The landing attempt has now been abandoned.

Side note: Orion itself also captured some images as it zipped past the Moon yesterday, but they do not appear as high quality as ArgoMoon’s pictures.

CAPSTONE enters its planned lunar orbit

After experiencing serious tumbling shortly after launch, engineers have successfully put the technology test smallsat CAPSTONE into its planned lunar orbit (the same to be used by NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station), where it will spend at least six months gathering data.

In addition to studying this unique orbit, CAPSTONE’s mission also includes two technology demonstrations that could be used by future spacecraft. The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System, or CAPS, is a navigational software developed by Advanced Space that would allow spacecraft operating near the Moon to determine their position in space without relying exclusively on tracking from Earth. CAPSTONE will demonstrate this technology by communicating directly with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in orbit around the Moon since 2009. CAPSTONE will also demonstrate one-way ranging using a chip-scale atomic clock, which could allow spacecraft to determine their position in space without the need for a dedicated downlink to ground stations.

CAPSTONE is also demonstrating a third technology as well as the use of capitalism in space. The third technology is demonstrating the viability of using a tiny inexpensive smallsat for these kinds of interplanetary missions. The capitalism is that CAPSTONE was built by a private company, Terran Orbital, not NASA, and is being operated by another private company, Advanced Space, not NASA. It was also launched by a private company, Rocket Lab, not NASA. All three have proved or are proving that it is faster and cheaper for the government to merely act as the customer to private enterprise, rather than being the builder/operator and boss.

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.

LightSail-2 completes three-plus year mission, burning up in atmosphere

LightSail-2 sail deployed
LightSail-2, shortly after deployment in 2019.

LightSail-2, an experimental solar sail built by the Planetary Society, finally ended its mission this week, with the test sail burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.

LightSail 2 was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in June 2019, settling into an initial orbit at an altitude of around 720 km (450 miles). At that height, the Earth’s atmosphere is still thick enough to create drag, which would threaten to eventually pull the spacecraft down.

But that’s where the plucky little satellite’s special ability came in. Although it’s only the size of a shoebox, LightSail 2 unfurled a big reflective sheet, called a solar sail, about the size of a boxing ring. The idea is that photons from sunlight strike this sail and generate tiny amounts of thrust, allowing the craft to change its orbit.

And LightSail 2 demonstrated this concept beautifully. In three and a half years, the spacecraft completed around 18,000 orbits and traveled 8 million km (5 million miles), adjusting its orbit continuously to keep itself aloft. But all good things must come to an end, and sometime on November 17, drag finally won the tug-of-war and pulled the spacecraft back to Earth.

LightSail-2 was the third time a light sail had been flown in space, with the first, Ikaros, deployed by the Japanese in 2010 and flown in solar orbit through 2012. That mission was successful in using sunlight to accelerate the sail. This was followed by LightSail-1 in 2015. That mission has some communications problems, but eventually succeeded in its main engineering mission by testing the sail deployment system.

Boeing announces major reorganization

Boeing yesterday announced that it is doing a major reorganization of its defense, space, and security divisions.

The action will replace numerous executives while reducing eight different divisions into four.

Such action was long overdue, considering Boeing’s many recent engineering failures, from space (Starliner) to aviation (737-Max), all of which demanded such a reorganization and consolidation, simply to pay the bills if not to fix serious management shortcomings. The bad economy has only made this more urgent.

1st suborbital launch by Indian private company

Skyroot, a commercial rocket startup in Indian, yesterday became the first Indian company to complete a rocket launch, sending its Vikram-S suborbital rocket on a short flight.

I have embedded the launch below, cued to just before lift-off. The launch itself, which lasted only about six minutes, reached a elevation of just under 56 miles, tested of the rocket’s first stage, as well as a number of other systems.
» Read more

SpaceX cancels launch after reviewing static fire test data

After a review of the test data produced during its standard dress rehearsal countdown and static fire prior to launch, SpaceX decided to cancel a Falcon 9 launch yesterday, carrying 52 Starlink satellites.

The first stage booster had previously launched 10 times, though it is not clear if this is the cause of the delay.

It’s not the first time SpaceX has delayed a launch indefinitely after a static fire test, but it is the first time in years. SpaceX semi-regularly stands down from launch attempts to conduct inspections or complete minor repairs or component replacements when data is amiss or contradictory, but those plans tend to mention the next launch target. This time, even SpaceX’s website has been scrubbed to say that “a new target launch date [will be announced] once confirmed.”

The last time a prelaunch static fire was explicitly blamed for a launch delay was in August 2019, when SpaceX fired up a Falcon 9 rocket ahead of its Amos-17 launch, didn’t like what it saw, decided to replace a valve on the booster, and then conducted a second static fire test to clear the rocket to launch. It’s possible that Starlink 2-4’s sequence of events will end up being similar.

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.

Ispace announces new launch date and landing site on Moon for Hakuto-R lander

Lunar map showing Hakuto-R's landing spot

Ispace today announced that its commercial lunar lander, Hakuto-R, will now launch on a Falcon 9 rocket on November 28, 2022 and will arrive on the Moon in 54-mile-wide Atlas Crater in April 2023.

The white dot on the map to the right shows this landing spot, in the crater’s northern quadrant. Atlas is distinct in that its crater floor has many large fissures with the crater’s interior rim terraced, but this area is relatively smooth.

The spacecraft will carry seven commercial payloads, including the UAE rover Rashid, which is about the size of a small Radio Flyer wagon and will operate on the surface for about two weeks (one lunar day). It has cameras, whose primary research function will be to photograph the variety of different materials attached to the rover’s wheels to see how each interacts with the Moon’s very harsh and abrasive dust.

Rocket Factory Augsburg signs deal to use German engine test facility

Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA), one of three German rocket startups pushing to begin test launches next year, has signed a contract with Germany’s aerospace agency DLR to use of its engine test facility for static fire tests of its Helix engine.

RFA announced the deal at the Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen, Germany, Nov. 16, which will allow RFA to use the P2.4 test site in Lampoldshausen. DLR provides the basic infrastructure while RFA brings its own test stand and supporting infrastructure.

Test stands in Lampoldshausen have so far only been used by DLR, the European Space Agency and ArianeGroup.

The new test stand will add to RFA engine testing capacity already established in Esrange in northern Sweden, where the company has been conducting testing on the Helix engine for the RFA One launcher. Testing will continue in Sweden but the new development simplifies logistics and bureaucracy related to import and export rules. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sentence is the news. The German government has decided to break the monopoly held by government related operations of these facilities, and open up their use to private independent commercial companies.

RFA says it already has a dozen customers, and hopes to begin commercial launches by ’24.

Canadian rocket startup with balloon for 1st stage wins launch contract

SpaceRyde, a Canadian smallsat rocket startup company that intends to use a stratospheric balloon to act as its first stage before releasing its orbital rocket, has won a contract for four launches from ISILaunch, a Netherlands satellite company.

Customers will pay $250,000 to launch 25-kilogram payloads on SpaceRyde’s Ryder rocket and Flying Spider balloon. The flights are scheduled to begin in 2024. For the SpaceRyde flights, ISILaunch will offer customization including scheduling weeks prior to launch, access to custom orbits and various fairing configurations.

…Stratospheric balloons will serve as the first stage, lifting Ryder rockets through Earth’s atmosphere before rocket engines fire. Ryder’s upper stage, called Black Bay, is designed to remain in orbit, maneuvering and refueling as needed to provide in-orbit servicing and in-space transportation.

The first test flights are scheduled in ’23, with commercial flights starting in ’24. The company apparently is targeting the smallest smallsat market, aiming to win customers with very very low launch prices.

UK awards launch license to Cornwall airport

After several months delay, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the United Kingdom yesterday issued a license to a Cornwall airport, dubbed Spaceport Cornwall, allowing Virgin Orbit to begin final preparations for the first orbital launch from within the British Isles.

The red tape however is not done.

The licence means that Virgin Orbit, which is behind the launch (named Start Me Up after the Rolling Stones song), is clear to begin to carry out mission-readiness tasks. But further licences are needed relating to this specific mission before blast-off can happen.

Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “To be the first spaceport in the UK with a licence to operate is a historic moment. Cornwall is now ready to open up the use of space for good.” She added: “The CAA continues to work on several licence applications, including being in very advanced stages with Virgin Orbit on its applications for launch and range licences, as well as the satellite operators, ahead of a proposed first UK launch.

I am reminded of the meme showing a crowd of officials surrounding one ditch digger, with the only one doing any real work that digger. It appears right now that the bureaucrats in the CAA might outnumber the staffing at both Virgin Orbit and Cornwall, and all they have to do is issue a piece of paper.

NASA awards Starship a second manned lunar landing contract

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday modified its manned lunar lander contract with SpaceX to award Starship a second manned lunar landing for $1.15 billion.

Known as Option B, the modification follows an award to SpaceX in July 2021 under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2) Appendix H Option A contract. NASA previously announced plans to pursue this Option B with SpaceX. The contract modification has a value of about $1.15 billion.

…The aim of this new work under Option B is to develop and demonstrate a Starship lunar lander that meets NASA’s sustaining requirements for missions beyond Artemis III, including docking with Gateway, accommodating four crew members, and delivering more mass to the surface.

NASA is also accepting bids for a competitive second manned lunar lander, but has awarded nothing as yet.

Combined with earlier investments and contracts, SpaceX now had garnered about $13 billion for developing Starship and Starlink, about $9 billion from private investment capital and about $4 billion from NASA, with most of the cash used for Starship. In addition, the company plans another investment funding round that will raise its valuation to $150 billion.

SLS might have flown once, but it appears both NASA and the investment community is increasingly putting its eggs in the Starship basket.

Superheavy prototype #7 undergoes 14 engine static fire test

SpaceX’s seventh prototype of its Superheavy first stage booster — intended to launch its Starship orbital craft on the first orbital flight — successfully completed a 10-second static fire test of 14 of its 33 engines yesterday.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. It shows the burn repeatedly from different angles. It appears the engine test went exactly as planned, with no subsequent fires near the launch pad.

According to the article at the link, this test fire, even with only 14 engines, made this Superheavy booster the most powerful rocket on Earth, at least until tonight when NASA’s SLS launches. Once this booster fires all of its 33 Raptor-2 engines however it will then exceed SLS in power. That it hasn’t launched however makes this claim a little overstated.

Regardless, SpaceX continues to move quite smoothly towards that first orbital launch of Starship, which the company hopes to do before the end of the year.
» Read more

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.

Several major rocket companies to the FCC: stay out!

In response to the proposal by managers at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it regulate satellite operations despite having no actual legal authority to do so, a cohort of major rocket companies as well as others have responded in firm opposition.

Major space companies, including SpaceX and Relativity, are urging the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to stick to its purview — spectrum usage — as it looks to potentially update its rules for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) missions.

There is plenty that the FCC could — and should do — to support ISAM missions that sit squarely within its regulatory bounds, the companies said. SpaceX and others, as well as startups like Orbit Fab, which wants to build refueling depots in space, and Starfish Space, which is developing a satellite servicing vehicle, submitted recommendations related to spectrum and ISAM. The commission also heard from Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, United Launch Alliance and other space companies and industry groups.

…Relativity Space and the industry association Commercial Spaceflight Federation separately argued that the FCC’s involvement in issues outside of those related to spectrum could result in duplicative approvals processes. These could be especially challenging for smaller startups and newer space entrants to navigate.

It is likely that if the FCC tries to impose regulations outside of its legal authority, one or more of these companies are going to sue to nullify those regulations, and will likely win. In the process nothing will be gained, and much lost. Thus, this advice from the industry makes great sense, and the FCC and the Biden administration should stop playing empire-building games and focus on what it is legally supposed to do.

CAPSTONE successfully enters lunar orbit

CAPSTONE successfully entered orbit around the Moon today, putting it into the planned Lunar Gateway halo orbit to test operations in that location.

CAPSTONE is now in a near-rectilinear halo orbit, or NRHO. This particular NRHO is the same orbit that will be used by Gateway, the Moon-orbiting space station that will support NASA’s Artemis missions. CAPSTONE is the first spacecraft to fly an NRHO, and the first CubeSat to operate at the Moon.

Mission engineers plan two more engine burns over the next five days to refine the orbit more precisely.

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