Rocket Lab to attempt 1st stage recovery by helicopter, beginning early next year

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced today that based on the data obtained during its previous launch in November, the company will attempt a helicopter recovery in the air of its Electron rocket’s first stage, starting with its first launches in 2022.

With the success of this latest mission, Rocket Lab will now move to aerial capture attempts with a helicopter for future recovery missions in the first half of 2022. Rocket Lab’s recovery helicopter will include auxiliary fuel tanks for extended flight time during the capture attempt. While Rocket Lab’s engineers and recovery vessel will also be stationed at sea, Rocket Lab’s primary objective will be to return Electron’s booster to the mainland while attached to the helicopter. Improvements to the launch vehicle for this next recovery attempt will include a thermal protection system applied to the entire stage and its nine Rutherford engines to help it endure heat of up to 2,400 degrees Celsius during re-entry, and modifications to the parachute system including an engagement line for the recovery helicopter to capture and secure the booster.

The company has a launch scheduled for the end of November, but apparently it is not going to attempt a first stage recovery by helicopter during that mission.

If successful, Rocket Lab will have become the second company able to reuse its first stage, and thus cut the price it charges for launches significantly.

Rocket Lab successfully launches two satellites; recovers 1st stage in ocean

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab tonight successfully launched two Blacksky satellites, a launch that had been delayed for several months because of the New Zealand COVID lockdowns.

The company also recovered the first stage after it splashdowned in the ocean. A helicopter stood by to observe the stage as it came down by parachute, getting data in preparation for a later recovery attempt where the helicopter will snatch the stage in the air by its parachutes and then transport it back to land.

This was Rocket Lab’s fourth launch in 2021, which brings it back into a tie with Northrop Grumman and ULA. All three however do not make the leader board. The leaders in the 2021 launch race remain unchanged:

41 China
25 SpaceX
18 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)

China now leads the U.S. 41 to 39 in the national rankings.

Rocket Lab to attempt another recovery of 1st stage on next launch

Capitalism in space: In its next launch in mid-November, Rocket Lab will attempt another recovery of the first stage of its Electron rocket.

Rocket Lab USA, Inc (“Rocket Lab” or the “Company”) (Nasdaq: RKLB) has today revealed it will attempt a controlled ocean splashdown and recovery of the first stage of an Electron rocket during the company’s next launch in November. The mission will be Rocket Lab’s third ocean recovery of an Electron stage; however, it will be the first time a helicopter will be stationed in the recovery zone around 200 nautical miles offshore to track and visually observe a descending stage in preparation for future aerial capture attempts. The helicopter will not attempt a mid-air capture for this mission but will test communications and tracking to refine the concept of operations (CONOPS) for future Electron aerial capture.

The eventual goal is for the helicopter to snatch the stage by its parachutes as it descends, and then bring it back to deposit it gently on land. This next launch will likely provide the company the data it needs to make that maneuver more safely and with a greater chance of success on a future launch.

The November splashdown recovery will follow two previous successful such recoveries. In addition, the company has also done a test whereby one helicopter dropped a dummy first stage, its parachutes opened, and a second helicopter successfully grabbed it. With the addition of the helicopter on this launch it will likely be poised to attempt a full recovery out of the air.

Rocket Lab reschedules next launches

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has now announced that it has delayed its next two launches from mid-October to mid-November.

A two-week window is planned for the first launch — from Nov. 11 to Nov. 24 —when its Electron rocket will deploy two satellites into low-Earth orbit. The company aims to deploy two more satellites in the second launch for the mission after Nov. 27.

Both launches are scheduled to take place at the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula.

The announcement does not provide an explanation for this delay. However, Rocket Lab had originally scheduled these launches for August/September, but lockdown restrictions in New Zealand due to its panic over COVID-19 had forced it to trim its launches there by half for the rest of the year. Rather than do five as planned, the company is only going to do two, and it appears those two are the launches now set for November.

Rocket Lab wins contract to launch space junk removal satellite

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced this week that it has won a launch contract from the Japanese-based company Astroscale to launch its first attempt to rendezvous with a piece of space junk — an abandoned upper stage from a Japanese launch — in order to grab and de-orbit it.

Rocket Lab announced Sept. 21 that it won a contract from Astroscale for the launch of its Active Debris Removal by Astroscale-Japan (ADRAS-J) spacecraft. A Rocket Lab Electron will launch ADRAS-J from its Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand in 2023.

ADRAS-J will rendezvous with and inspect an upper stage left in orbit by a Japanese launch. The Japanese space agency JAXA awarded Tokyo-based Astroscale a contract in 2020 for the mission as part of its two-phase Commercial Removal of Debris Demonstration project.

The first phase of this demonstration project involved Astroscale’s current test satellite, which is presently testing capture techniques of space junk using magnets.

It appears Rocket Lab got the contract because it can place this smallsat in the precise orbit it needs, and can do it for far less than any other launch company in operation at present.

Rocket Lab to launch three times in one month, beginning in late August

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab yesterday announced that it is aiming to complete three launches of its Electron rocket in less than a month, with the first scheduled for late August.

Scheduled to lift-off from Launch Complex 1 on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula in late August, the ‘Love At First Insight’ mission will be Rocket Lab’s 22nd Electron launch overall and fifth mission of 2021. ‘Love At First Insight’ is the first in a rapid succession of scheduled Electron launches between late August through September that represent the company’s fastest launch turnarounds to date.

All three launches are for the company BlackSky, which is putting into orbit a constellation of Earth-imaging small satellites.

Since 2018 Rocket Lab has repeatedly promised that it will soon ramp up its launch rate to monthly, and then weekly. For a variety of reasons, mostly relating to two launch failures in the past year, that promise has not been kept. If the company succeeds in putting these six Black Sky satellites into orbit on three quick launches, it will finally come close to demonstrating that pace.

Rocket Lab will reinforce that promise if it also completes its manifest of 2021 launches, which calls for three more launches for a total of nine launches in ’21, six of which will have occurred in the year’s last four months.

Rocket Lab returns to flight, launching an American military test satellite

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab tonight (July 29th in New Zealand) successfully launched its Electron rocket to place an American military technology test satellite into orbit.

This was the company’s first launch since a launch failure in May. Though the company has previously fished two first stage boosters out of the ocean as they test the engineering to allow the recover and reuse of those first stages, on this flight they made no such attempt.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

23 China
20 SpaceX
12 Russia
3 Northrop Grumman
3 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 30 to 23 in the national ranks. Last year the U.S. launched 40 times total. With the year seven months old, the U.S. has already reached three quarters of that number, suggesting that there is an outside chance that this year it could break its record of launches in a year, 70 in 1966. At the least the U.S. looks like it will achieve comparable launch numbers that were typical in the mid-1960s, at the dawn of the space age when NASA and the military were launching a lot to figure out the best way to do things.

Now the launches are privately owned, and exist because everyone is making money doing it. Assuming the world doesn’t get hit with a real disaster (instead of last year’s fake Wuhan flu panic), expect these numbers to continue to rise in the coming years.

Rocket Lab identifies cause of May launch failure; ready to launch again

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced yesterday that it has identified and corrected the cause of a May 15 launch failure and is now ready to resume launches, as early as before the end of July.

Rocket Lab said an investigation by the company traced the root cause to the rocket’s second stage engine igniter system. A problem with the igniter corrupted signals in the computer on the stage, which in turn caused the thrust vector control system to “deviate outside nominal parameters.” The engine computer then shut down the Rutherford engine.

The igniter problem, the company said, resulted from “a previously undetectable failure mode within the ignition system that occurs under a unique set of environmental pressures and conditions” not noticed in previous testing of the engine or on previous Electron launches. Engineers have replicated the problem in the lab and created what Rocket Lab called “redundancies” in the ignition system, including changes to the design of the igniter and how it is manufactured, to prevent the problem from happening again.

Rocket Lab has had two launch failures in the past year, so getting back flying as quickly as possible is critical for them, especially because a lot of new smallsat launch companies are coming up from behind. Virgin Orbit initiated commercial launches this year, having already completed two, and Astra and Firefly both seem ready, based on recent announcements, to make their first orbital launches before the end of this year.

FAA grants Rocket Lab permission to resume launches following launch failure

Capitalism in space: According to a press release from Rocket Lab yesterday, the FAA has granted it permission to resume launches following its May 15th launch failure when a problem with the rocket’s upper stage prevented it from reaching orbit.

Apparently the FAA is satisfied with the thoroughness of Rocket Lab’s investigation into the launch failure, and is thus willing to let launches resume, when the company itself decides it is ready. Rocket Lab’s investigation into the failure however is not complete. According to the press release:

The review team is working through an extensive fault tree analysis to exhaust all potential causes for the anomaly and the full review is expected to be complete in the coming weeks, following which Rocket Lab anticipates a swift return to flight.

Though that review continues, the company has not yet revealed what it thinks caused the upper stage to send the rocket and payload in the wrong direction upon ignition.

Rocket Lab launch fails

Rocket Lab’s launch yesterday of its Electron rocket failed when the upper stage began tumbling right after stage separation and engine start.

This was the second Electron failure in twenty launches. The last, in July 2020, was also caused by a problem in the upper stage, though far less dramatic. In that case an electric failure caused the upper stage engine to shut down prematurely before it had reached orbit.

Though the launch was a failure, the recovery of the first stage as part of Rocket Lab’s effort to make it reusable appears to be proceeding as planned. According to the company’s statement:

Electron’s first stage safely completed a successful splashdown under parachute and Rocket Lab’s recovery team is working to retrieve the stage from the ocean as planned.

I have embedded below the fold the Rocket Lab live feed, cued to just before the failure. You can see that as soon as the upper stage fires it begins to tumble.
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Rocket Lab launch on May 15 will attempt a second ocean recovery of 1st stage

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab’s next planned launch on May 15th will attempt a repeat of the ocean recovery of their Electron rocket’s 1st stage, as they did after a November 2020 launch.

The goal of such work is to help transition the two-stage Electron from an expendable vehicle, as it was originally designed, to a rocket with a reusable first stage. And inspection of the recovered booster from “Return to Sender” suggests that this vision is no pipe dream. “We are more kind of bullish on this than ever before,” Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said during a teleconference with reporters on Tuesday (May 11). “We reentered on a very aggressive corridor, we had no upgraded heat shield, and we still got [the booster] back in remarkable condition.”

Indeed, some parts of that rocket will fly again; the propellant pressurization system from the “Return to Sender” first stage has been incorporated into the “Running Out of Toes” Electron [launching May 15th], Beck said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words are quite remarkable. As far as I know, SpaceX never reused any part of a Falcon 9 first stage that was recovered in the ocean.

Rocket Lab also hopes to reduce any damage further by using new equipment on their ship for getting the stage out of the water. In addition, they have added heat shielding to the stage that should also reduce damage during its fall back to Earth.

Finally, on the next flight or so they will test something they are calling a “decelerator,” designed to slow the stage down during that fall. They are not saying what this decelerator is, which suggests it is some form of new engineering.

If all goes right, they hope to make the first snatch by helicopter of a first stage before it hits the ocean sometime next year.

Rocket Lab to recover 1st stage on next flight

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab yesterday announced that in its continuing program to make the first stage of its Electron rocket reusable, it will attempt to recover the stage after splashdown in the ocean during its next launch in May.

While Electron’s second stage delivers the satellites to orbit, Electron’s first stage will undertake a series of complex maneuvers designed to enable the stage to survive the extreme heat and forces of atmospheric re-entry on the way back to Earth.

As the rocket reaches speeds of around eight times the speed of sound on its descent, the air around Electron heats up to 2,400 °C generating an extremely hot plasma that creates a red-orange glow around the re-entering stage. Because Electron will enter the atmosphere engines first, the nine 3D printed Rutherford engines on the first stage will bear the brunt of this extreme heating. To withstand the immense temperatures, this Electron features an evolved heat shield designed to protect the engines and direct the force of the plasma away from the rocket. After entering the atmosphere, Electron will deploy a drogue parachute to help begin the process of slowing the rocket down and stabilizing its descent. Once Electron is at subsonic speeds, a circular parachute is deployed to help further slow the rocket in preparation for a gentle ocean splashdown. A Rocket Lab vessel will then rendezvous with the stage in the splashdown zone, approximately 650 km from Launch Complex 1, and retrieve it for transport back to Rocket Lab’s Production Complex for inspection.

They did the same thing on the previous launch. This second test will be to validate what was learned then.

If all goes as planned, they hope the next recovery attempt will be an in-air snatch by a helicopter, before the stage hits the water. If that is successful that stage will then be capable of re-use.

Rocket Lab about to go public

Capitalism in space: According to news reports today, the smallsat rocket company Rocket Lab is about to sign a deal that will make it a publicly traded stock in a merger with a venture capital company.

The Wall Street Journal reported today talks between the company and Vector Acquisitions Corp were nearing completion and could be finalised with 24 hours, and was expected to see Rocket Lab raise another $650 million in cash from other private investors.

Vector is a special-purpose acquisition company, a vehicle that recruits investors and lists before pursuing a business to buy. Vector, backed by tech private equity firm Vector Capital, raised $400m on launch in September.

Rocket Lab is one of a cluster of spaceflight operators jostling for global market share in the smaller-launch market, where the focus is on achieving reliable delivery of small cargoes to lower earth orbits. Any listing would catapult Rocket Lab – whose Mahia spaceport has delivered nearly 100 satellites into orbit – into the top rank of New Zealand companies, and represents a huge blow for the local NZX. With a valuation of $5.7b, it would have ranked as one the 10 largest companies on the national exchange.

According to Rocket Lab, it is not a New Zealand company but based in the U.S., despite the bulk of its operations being in New Zealand.

I will not be surprised it Rocket Lab’s stock price quickly rises once available for purchase. Unlike Virgin Galactic, this is a real company with a real product producing real profits. It is also very well placed to garner a healthy share in the emerging launch market of smallsats that is now arriving on the scene. The company is about to initiate launches from its second launchpad at Wallops Island in the U.S., which will also allow it to finally accelerate its launch pace to the promised twice a month pace it has been promising for the last two years.

SpaceX and Rocket Lab complete launches

Capitalism in space: Two successfully launches this morning.

First Rocket Lab used its Electron rocket to launch a German cubesat thought to be a prototype for a Chinese communications constellation, though no information has been publicly released. No recovery attempts were made on the rocket’s first stage.

Then SpaceX successfully completed its 17th Starlink launch and second launch in 2021. This puts about 950 Starlink satellites in orbit. The booster for this flight landed on the drone ship, completing its record eighth flight.

The 2021 launch race:

2 SpaceX
1 Virgin Orbit
1 China
1 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 4 to 1 in the national rankings.

Rocket Lab successfully launches Japanese radar satellite

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab early today successfully launched an Japanese radar satellite using its Electron rocket.

This was the company’s sixth successful launch in 2020, matching the count it had predicted at the start of the year it would reach. And this despite one launch failure. The rocket also sported a new and larger faring, giving Rocket Lab the ability to launch larger payloards or more satellites with each launch.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

33 China
24 SpaceX
14 Russia
6 ULA
6 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 39 to 33 in the national rankings.

Rocket Lab provides detailed update on successful recovery of first stage after splashdown

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has now provided a detailed update on the company’s first successful recovery of the first stage of their Electron rocket from the ocean on November 19, 2020.

Much of the press release reiterates what the company CEO Peter Beck said on November 24th, but in much better engineering detail. Key finding:

The stage held up remarkably well – not bad after experiencing the trip to space and back in just 13 minutes. The carbon composite structure was completely intact. As expected, the heatshield on the base of the stage suffered some heat damage during re-entry. It was never designed for this load case, but before we strengthen the heat shield we wanted to see just how much heat it could take unchanged. With a wealth of data on this now, our team has already started working on upgrades for future recovery missions.

They also intend to re-fly some components from that stage. I have embedded below the fold their footage taken during from the inside of the first stage during its splashdown.

The next recovery attempt in early ’21 will also splash down in the ocean. Before they attempt a helicopter snatch from the air they want gather more data.
» Read more

Rocket Lab declares first attempt at recovering a 1st stage a success

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has announced that the company’s first effort to recover a 1st stage of its Electron rocket during a November 19th launch was a complete success.

On Rocket Lab’s latest launch Nov. 19, the rocket’s first stage made a controlled reentry after stage separation, then released a drogue and a main parachute before splashing down about 400 kilometers downrange from its New Zealand launch site, where it was recovered by a boat.

The recovery itself went as planned. “The test was a complete success,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in a call with reporters Nov. 23. “The stage splashed down completely intact. What it proved to us is that this is a feasible approach, and we’re really confident that we can make Electron a reusable launch vehicle from here.”

Eventually they plan to snatch the stage out of the air using a helicopter prior to hitting the water, but are presently focusing instead on developing the proper thermal protection and attitude control systems for the flight back to Earth. They are presently taking that first stage apart and analyzing what worked and didn’t work in protecting it during that flight.

According to Beck, they will do another splashdown recovery early in ’21 to refine things. They also hope to reuse some of the recovered components from both splashdown tests on later flights.

Successful Rocket Lab launch and descent of 1st stage

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully used its Electron rocket to 30 smallsats into orbit from its launchpad in New Zealand.

They also did their first launch test of their planned method for recovering the first stage for reuse. In their case the first stage will use parachutes to slow its descent, and will then be grabbed by a helicopter to be brought back to land. On this launch they were only testing the parachute portion of this plan, and allowed the stage to land in the water, where they then recovered it.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

30 China
20 SpaceX
12 Russia
5 ULA
5 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 33 to 30 in the national rankings.

Rocket Lab will try to recover 1st stage on next launch

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced today that it will attempt to recover the 1st stage of its Electron rocket on its next launch, using parachutes to slow its descent into the ocean and then fishing from the sea.

On its next mission set for liftoff later this month, Rocket Lab will try to recover the first stage of its Electron small satellite launcher after parachuting into the Pacific Ocean downrange from the company’s privately-run spaceport in New Zealand, officials announced Thursday.

The attempt to retrieve the Electron rocket’s first stage moves Rocket Lab closer to eventually capturing falling boosters in mid-air with a helicopter, then reusing the hardware. The reuse initiative is aimed at increasing Rocket Lab’s flight rate, and could result in cost savings, according to Peter Beck, the company’s founder and CEO.

The flight is presently scheduled for November 15 from New Zealand. It appears the goal with this recovery is not to reuse the 1st stage, but to recover it so they can determine how it fared during re-entry. For re-use they will capture the first stage using a helicopter, before splashdown and is exposed to saltwater.

When they attempt the helicopter capture on an actual launch remains unclear.

Rocket Lab successfully launches 10 smallsats

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully placed ten smallsats into orbit using its Electron rocket, launched from New Zealand.

This was their second successful launch for the company since their launch failure on July 4th. Their next launch should be their first from the U.S., from Wallops Island, Virginia.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

27 China
18 SpaceX
12 Russia
4 ULA
4 Europe (Arianespace)
4 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 29 to 27 in the national rankings.

Rocket Lab completes first full launch dress rehearsal at Wallops

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced yesterday that it had successfully completed its first full dress rehearsal of an Electron rocket launch from its new launchpad on Wallops Island, Virginia.

This clears the way for that first launch, though the actual launch date is not yet set.

Before a launch window can be set, NASA is conducting the final development and certification of its Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) software for the mission. This flight will be the first time an AFTS has been has flown from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport and represents a valuable new capability for the spaceport.

The company has said it wishes to launch before the end of September, so expect an announcement momentarily. Once achieved Rocket Lab will have two launch sites, in New Zealand and the U.S., and will be able to double its launch rate.

Rocket Lab reveals it also launched its own satellite on August 30th

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today revealed that along with placing a customer’s commercial radar satellite into orbit on August 30th, it also launched the prototype of its own satellite during the Electron rocket launch.

The company calls its satellites Photons, but rather than number them it will give each their own name. This particular satellite has been dubbed “First Light.”

The satellite is primarily a technology demonstrator, a way to test Photon’s systems in orbit and show customers what the spacecraft is capable of. First Light will stay up for the next five or six years, if all goes according to plan, Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said during a teleconference with reporters today (Sept. 3).

Photon should be attractive to a variety of customers, allowing them to focus on their sensors and other instruments without having to worry about building and operating an entire spacecraft, Rocket Lab representatives have said.

The goal is to offer this smallsat as a platform to those who wish to launch an instrument into space but don’t want to spend the money building the satellite itself. The company also intends to use a Photon satellite for a science mission to Venus in 2023.

FAA issues Wallops Island launch license to Rocket Lab

Capitalism in space: The FAA has now issued a five year launch license to the smallsat rocket company Rocket Lab, allowing them to launch their Electron rocket from the company’s launch site on Wallops Island, Virginia.

The Launch Operator License allows for multiple launches of the Electron launch vehicle from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2, eliminating the need to obtain individual, launch-specific licenses for every mission and helping to streamline the path to orbit and enable responsive space access from U.S. soil.

The company hopes to do its first launch from the U.S. before the year is out. It will then have two spaceports, allowing it to double its launch rate.

Rocket Lab successfully launches a commercial radar satellite

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab tonight successfully resumed launches after its launch failure last month by placing a a commercial radar satellite into orbit.

This was Rocket Lab’s third successful launch in 2020, so they don’t make the leader board. The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

20 China
14 SpaceX
9 Russia
4 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 23 to 20 in the national rankings.

Five American launches in two days!

Capitalism in space: Though the first launches in the string of four American launches that was initially scheduled to begin two days ago and continue through the weekend was delayed because of weather and then technical issues, all these delays have done is pack those scheduled launches into a shorter time period, with the addition of a fifth launch!

If all goes as scheduled (hardly guaranteed), we will see five launches from three spaceports and four private companies in less than two days. The schedule, as of this moment:

August 29th at 2:04 am (Eastern): ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy to launch a military reconnaissance satellite from Cape Canaveral. The company’s webcast of the launch can be seen here.

August 29th at 11:05 pm (Eastern): Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket will launch a commercial radar satellite from New Zealand. The launch can be watched at the company’s live stream channel.

August 30th at 10:08 am (Eastern): SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will launch more of its Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral. All SpaceX launches are live streamed from SpaceX’s website, though the links are not yet up.

August 30th at 7:19 pm (Eastern): SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will launch an Argentinian Earth observation satellite from Cape Canaveral. All SpaceX launches are live streamed from SpaceX’s website, though the links are not yet up.

August 30th at 10:00 pm (Eastern): Astra will attempt the first orbital test launch of its privately built rocket from Kodiak, Alaska. They will not be live streaming their launch, but will provide updates at their Twitter feed.

All times and dates list only the beginning of the launch windows, which means they might launch, but not exactly at the times listed.

Also, SpaceX is aiming to do its second Starship test hop this weekend, the first for its sixth prototype.

Delta 4 Heavy launch scrubbed

Tonight’s launch of ULA’s Delta 4 Heavy was scrubbed due to a variety of technical problems. They have not set a new launch time, though they say they are aiming for the early morning hours of August 28.

This was to have been the first of four American launches in the next four days. The next, a Falcon 9 launch of an Argentinian radar Earth observation satellite, was scheduled for tomorrow, August 27th, at 7:19 pm (Eastern). No word on whether it is going forward as planned, though it might be since the ULA launch has shifted after it, to August 28th.

The third, by Rocket Lab, is presently scheduled also for August 28rd at 11:05 pm (Eastern), launching out of New Zealand.

The fourth, another SpaceX launch of more Starlink satellites, had been scheduled for 10:30 am (Eastern) on August 29th. Once again, this schedule could change due to tonight’s ULA scrub.

Stay tuned. I suspect all three companies are going to aggressively work to get all four launches off as fast as possible, even if not exactly as presently scheduled.

Four American launches in the four days

UPDATE: Rocket Lab’s launch has been delayed to 11:05 pm (Eastern) August 28 due of weather.

Beginning tomorrow, the next four days will be very busy for the American space rocket industry, with three companies attempting to complete four different launches.

First comes Rocket Lab, which will attempt its first launch of its Electron rocket since its first operational launch failure on July 4. Launch is scheduled for 11:05 pm (Eastern) on August 26th.

Next ULA is scheduled to use its most powerful rocket, the Delta 4 Heavy, to put a National Reconnaissance Office surveillance satellite into orbit. Launch is set for 2:12 am (Eastern) on August 27th. This very expensive rocket (which costs three to four times that of a Falcon Heavy) has only four launches left before being permanently retired.

Then SpaceX will attempt two launches in quick succession. The first will launch at 7:19 pm (Eastern) on August 27th, putting up an Argentinian Earth observation radar satellite. On this launch the first stage is a new one, and will attempt the first landing at Cape Canaveral since March 2020.

SpaceX will then follow with its third Starlink launch this month and twelfth overall, scheduled for 10:30 am (Eastern) on August 29th out of its facility at Cape Canaveral, assuming the other launches at Kennedy go as planned.

Moreover, the startup smallsat rocket company Astra is also aiming to attempt its first test launch before the end of August. The date is not yet set.

Busy times for sure, but note that this is only the beginning. I expect by the end of the 2020s the launch schedule will get increasingly packed. Soon having three three launches per week will seem routine.

Rocket Lab planning private Venus mission

Capitalism in space: According to its founder and CEO Peter Beck, the smallsat rocket company Rocket Lab is now planning a private Venus mission to be launched in 2023.

The 2023 mission will employ Rocket Lab’s two-stage Electron booster and Photon satellite bus. The 57-foot-tall (17 meters) Electron is a viable option for interplanetary missions now, thanks to recent advances in battery technology that boost the performance of the rocket’s Rutherford engines. With that improvement, Electron is now capable of lofting up to 660 lbs. (300 kilograms) of payload to low-Earth orbit instead of 500 lbs. (225 kg), Rocket Lab representatives have said.

“It opens the window for Venus, and it opens the window for recovery,” Beck said. (The company is working to recover and reuse the Electron’s first stage. Returning boosters will make guided re-entries to Earth’s atmosphere, which will require more fuel, which in turn will require more powerful engines to get the added weight off the ground.)

Photon, which has yet to make its spaceflight debut, won’t descend into Venus’ sulfurous skies on the coming mission. The current plan calls for the spacecraft to deploy one or more smaller probes into the planet’s atmosphere, Beck wrote in a Twitter post on Aug. 4.

There is a certain irony here, if Beck launches a private interplanetary science mission ahead of Elon Musk. Musk created the rocket company SpaceX expressly because he wanted to do a private science mission to Mars and needed an affordable rocket to do it. Since then he has been so focused on making that rocket company succeed he has not devoted any effort to that initial science mission concept. Beck, who came much later, now appears set to beat Musk to this first milestone.

Electrical disconnect caused Rocket Lab’s July 4th launch failure

Capitalism in space: According to Rocket Lab’s investigation into the July 4th launch failure, an electric connection detached and cut off power to the upper stage, causing it to cease firing prematurely.

Once the electrical system disconnected in flight, it cut power from the rocket’s battery to the electric turbopumps on the Electron’s second stage Rutherford engine. That caused the engine to switch off prematurely around five-and-a-half minutes after the rocket took off from Rocket Lab’s launch base in New Zealand.

The early engine shutdown prevented the rocket from reaching the velocity necessary to enter a stable orbit around Earth, according to Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, a small satellite launch company headquartered in Long Beach, California.

But telemetry continued streaming from the launch vehicle back to Rocket Lab’s control center in Auckland, New Zealand, allowing engineers to analyze data and determine the cause of the failure. The kerosene-fueled second stage engine shut down in a controlled manner, and the rocket coasted to an altitude of around 121 miles (195 kilometers) before re-entering the atmosphere and burning up.

Now that the company understands what caused the detachment, it will institute testing to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The fix however will not require any redesign of the rocket, and so they are targeting late August for their next launch, followed in September with the first launch from Wallops Island, Virginia. They also still expect to complete one launch per month through the end of the year.

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