Tag Archives: Falcon 9

Capsule and booster for SpaceX launch abort test arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 first booster for SpaceX’s launch abort test have both arrived in Florida and are being readied for flight.

SpaceX’s launch license suggests this test will occur no earlier than November 1, so it looks like the company is getting close. However, don’t hold your breath about the manned launch. It appears that NASA is still hassling SpaceX “with certification and safety reviews,” which in plain language is mostly paperwork and filling out forms that NASA’s safety panel can then rubber stamp.

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SpaceX wins launch contract for NASA privately-built lunar lander

Intuitive Machines, one of the three companies awarded NASA contracts to build unmanned lunar landers, has awarded SpaceX the launch contract for its planned 2021 mission.

The Houston-based company’s first robotic Nova-C lander will carry up to 220 pounds, or 100 kilograms, of payloads to the moon’s surface. Launch and landing are scheduled for July 2021, according to Trent Martin, vice president of aerospace systems at Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines previously stated plans to launch the first Nova-C mission on a SpaceX rocket, but Martin said in an interview Wednesday that the company held a “fully open competition” among multiple launch service providers before signing a contract for a Falcon 9 launch.

In a statement, Intuitive Machines said it “ultimately selected SpaceX for its proven record of reliability and outstanding value.” The company said the Nova-C mission will take off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. [emphasis mine]

That “outstanding value” almost certainly was the lowest price by far offered by any rocket company, a reality that continues to bring SpaceX business while taking market share from everyone else.

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Starlink satellite launches to dominate SpaceX’s 2020 launch schedule

According to statements made by an SpaceX official on September 10, in 2020 the bulk of all the company’s launches will be to launch satellites in its Starlink internet constellation.

SpaceX plans as many as 24 launches next year to build out the company’s Starlink network to provide broadband Internet service from space, following up to four more Starlink missions before the end of this year, according to SpaceX’s chief operating officer.

The rapid-fire launch cadence for SpaceX’s Starlink fleet will take up the majority of the company’s launch manifest next year with a series of missions taking off from Florida’s Space Coast, adding new nodes to a network that could eventually contain nearly 12,000 small satellites.

If they complete this schedule, then SpaceX could complete as many as 40 launches in 2020, when all its other backlogged launches are included.

At the same time, this schedule indicates the slowdown in the launch of geosynchronous satellites, as predicted by many in the launch business. The communications industry appears to be shifting to lower orbit constellations and smaller satellites, as illustrated by Starlink itself.

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SpaceX wins launch contract for seven SES satellites

Capitalism in space: SES yesterday announced that it has awarded SpaceX’s Falcon 9 the launch contract for the next seven satellites in its next generation communications constellation.

This is a big win for SpaceX, made even more clear by a briefing held yesterday with reporters by Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israel. In that briefing Israel outlined that company’s upcoming launch contracts, where he also claimed that this launch manifest is so full he had to turn down SES’s launch offer.

Because of its full manifest, Arianespace was unable to offer SES launch capacity in 2021 for its next generation of medium Earth orbit satellites, mPOWER. SES announced plans Sept. 9 to fly mPOWER satellites on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets from Florida’s Cape Canaveral. Arianespace launched the 20 satellites in the SES O3B constellation.

It was important to SES to launch in 2021, Israel said. Given Arianespace’s full manifest, it was difficult “to offer the guarantee they were asking for,” he added.

If you believe that I have a bridge I want to sell you. Arianespace has been struggling to get launch contracts for its new Ariane 6 rocket. They have begun production on the first fourteen, but according Israel’s press briefing yesterday, Ariane 6 presently only has eight missions on its manifest. That means that six of the rockets they are building have no launch customers. I am sure they wanted to put those SES satellites on at least some of those rockets, and couldn’t strike a deal because the expendable Ariane 6 simply costs more than the reusable Falcon 9.

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SpaceX gets 2nd boat to catch rocket fairings

Capitalism in space: It appears, from a Elon Musk tweet, that SpaceX has obtained a second boat to catch its rocket fairings for reuse.

Based on previous comments by Musk, the company is now on the verge of recovering and reusing about 70% of its Falcon 9 rockets during each launch. I’d say that’s pretty good, especially considering industry rocket experts have been saying for half a century that none of this was even possible or practical.

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SpaceX and Arianespace complete successful launches

Today, as I was giving my lecture in Denver, both Arianespace and SpaceX successfully completed launches.

SpaceX put a commercial communications satellite in orbit. The first stage was not recovered, but this was intended. The company however was successful in catching one half fairing in the giant net of its recovery ship Mrs. Tree., the second time they have done so.

Arianespace used its Ariane 5 rocket to launch a commercial communications satellite and a European Space Agency data relay satellite.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

12 Russia
11 China
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India

The U.S. now leads Russia 16 to 12 in the national rankings.

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SpaceX offers new cut-rate prices for smallsats

Capitalism in space: SpaceX yesterday announced that the company is now offering new cut-rate prices to launch smallsats on its rockets.

The company is offering rideshare opportunities for satellites weighing up to 150kg at the price of $2.25 million. The rideshare-only missions, flying aboard the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, will launch at regularly scheduled intervals. “SpaceX is committed to serving the commercial market as it grows and changes,” a spokesperson for the company said. “And we believe we can address the needs of small satellite operators by offering reliable, cost-effective access to orbit through regularly scheduled, dedicated rideshare missions.”

The company has previously flown rideshare missions using its Falcon 9 rocket, but those flights were organized and integrated by a third-party provider, Spaceflight Industries. Now SpaceX will do all of that work directly for customers

This move makes SpaceX’s smallsat prices very competitive. It also makes it easier for smallsat companies to bypass China’s semi-private commercial companies, thus avoiding the risk of China stealing their technology.

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SpaceX launches used Dragon to ISS with used Falcon 9

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully used a Falcon 9 rocket to launch a Dragon freighter to ISS.

The Dragon is making its third flight to ISS. The first stage, which landed successfully, was making its second flight, and will likely be used on the next Dragon cargo mission.

Video of the launch and 1st stage landing is below the fold. The launch is at about 15 minutes. The first stage landing is one of the most spectacular yet.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

10 China
9 Russia
9 SpaceX
5 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India

The U.S. now leads China 15-10 in the national rankings.
» Read more

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Reused Falcon 9 wins NASA launch contract instead of Pegasus

Captalism in space: NASA has awarded SpaceX a Falcon 9 launch contract using a reused first stage for its next X-ray telescope, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE)..

SpaceX will charge NASA just over $50 million, its normal price for a reused Falcon 9 and significantly less than NASA has previously paid for this kind of launch. More important, the telescope had been designed with the expectation that it would be launched using Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket. It appears NASA had instead decided to bypass Pegasus, partly because it probably costs more, and partly because there is some issue with Pegasus that has delayed the launch of NASA’s ICON since 2017.

In fact, that ICON launch is the only contract that Pegasus presently has, and it is charging NASA $56 million for that launch, with NASA also having to bear the additional costs associated with the delays caused by Pegasus. All these issues, plus the loss of the IXPE launch, strongly suggests that Pegasus is in big trouble. It does not appear that, as it is presently being marketed, it is able to garner any business.

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Schedule for Dragon/Starliner manned flights revised

Capitalism in space: NASA has released a new updated planning schedule for the manned flights of both SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner manned capsules.

Boeing’s first unmanned demo flight of Starliner is now set for September 17, 2019. This will be followed by SpaceX’s first manned Dragon flight, scheduled for November 15, 2019. Boeing will then follow with its first manned Starliner flight on November 30, 2019.

These are considered target dates. I have great doubts that the Starliner schedule will proceed as described, while SpaceX’s schedule is more likely.

The article also had this interesting tidbit about the upcoming launch schedule of Sierra Nevada’s unmanned reusable cargo ship Dream Chaser:

According to the document, the first flight of Dream Chaser will take place in a planned September 2021 timeframe and will see the vehicle remain berthed to the International Space Station for up to 75 days before returning to Earth to land on a runway for reuse.

There are clearly issues with all these commercial projects. For example, the GAO today released a new report citing the numerous delays in this commercial manned program and calling for NASA to come up with a more complete back-up plan.

Nonetheless, the 2020s have the potential to be the most exciting decade in space exploration since the 1960s. If all goes even close to these plans, the U.S. will have three operating manned spacecraft (Dragon, Starliner, Orion), two reusable cargo spacecraft (Dragon, Dream Chaser), one non-reusable (Cygnus), and a plethora of launch companies putting up payloads of all kinds, from planetary missions to basic commercial satellites numbering in the thousands.

Much could happen to prevent all this. Keep your fingers crossed that nothing will.

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SpaceX reschedules manned Dragon demo flight to November

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has now apparently rescheduled its first manned Dragon demo flight to ISS to no earlier than November 1, 2019.

The information comes from a SpaceX application with the FCC, listing the launch window as sometime between November 1, 2019 and April 30, 2020.

This now gives us the time frame when both NASA and SpaceX expect to complete their investigation into the Dragon test explosion in March as well as institute changes as a result. It also suggests they now have a much better idea what happened and what they need to do, thus allowing them to create this time frame.

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Bigelow announces four tourist bookings to ISS using Dragon

Capitalism in space: The private space station company Bigelow Aerospace announced yesterday that it has booked four tourists to spend from one to two months on ISS.

The bookings will fly to ISS using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. Though the company did not say how much these tourists have agreed to pay, it said that it intends to charge $52 million per ticket.

This announcement follows directly from NASA’s announcement last week that it will allow commercial tourist flights to ISS. Previously Bigelow had said it would fly tourists to its own space station using Boeing’s Starliner capsule. Now it is going to take advantage of NASA’s new policy to send the tourists to ISS, and it will use Dragon, probably because Dragon is closer to becoming operational.

I also suspect that Bigelow’s long term plans are to add its own hotel modules to ISS for these flights, and then later follow-up by building its own independent space station.

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SpaceX successfully launches three Canadian radar satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today has successfully launched three Canadian radar satellites.

The first stage, already flown once before, successfully landed at a very fog-shrouded Vandenberg.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

8 China
7 SpaceX
5 Russia
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

The U.S. leads China in the national rankings 12 to 8.

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SpaceX successfully launches 60 prototype Starlink satellites

Capitalsm in space: SpaceX this morning successfully launched 60 prototype Starlink satellites as the first part of their planned constellation of thousands of satellites designed to provide worldwide internet access.

The first stage, already used twice before, landing successfully on their drone ship. You can watch the launch here.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

7 China
6 SpaceX
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia
3 India

The U.S. now leads China 11 to 7 in the national rankiings.

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Justice charges man with falsifying inspection reports for rocket parts

The Justice Department has charged an employee of a company now out of business for falsifying inspection reports of rocket parts intended for use on both the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket.

The complaint states that in January 2018, an internal audit by SQA Services, Inc. (SQA), at the direction of SpaceX, revealed multiple falsified source inspection reports and non-destructive testing (NDT) certifications from PMI Industries, LLC, for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy flight critical parts. SpaceX notified PMI of the anomalies. Source inspections and NDT are key tools used in the aerospace industry to ensure manufactured parts comply with quality and safety standards. Specifically, the signed source inspection report had a forged signature of the SQA inspector. SpaceX and SQA officials believed the signature of the inspector was photocopied and cut and pasted onto the source inspection report with a computer.

On February 16, 2018, the NASA Launch Services Program alerted the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG), and Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Resident Agency, regarding the falsified source inspection reports and false NDT certifications created by PMI. Some of the false source inspection reports and false NDT certifications were related to space launch vehicle components that, at the time of discovery, were to be used for the upcoming Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, which launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 18, 2018.

Based on this report, it appears that SpaceX identified the problem before launch and that none of the questionable parts ever flew.

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April parachute test for manned Dragon had problems

In testimony yesterday before Congress NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, revealed that during a test of the parachute system SpaceX will use on its manned Dragon capsule there was a problem.

The test appears to have occurred last month at Delamar Dry Lake in Nevada, where SpaceX was conducting one of dozens of drop tests it intends to perform to demonstrate the safety of its Crew Dragon spacecraft. This was a “single-out” test in which one of Dragon’s four parachutes intentionally failed before the test. “The three remaining chutes did not operate properly,” Gerstenmaier said.

…The test sled, Gerstenmaier confirmed, was “damaged upon impact with the ground.”

The cause of the failure, which might have been parachute design or a failure in the test equipment (such as the release from the airplane) is still being investigated.

This news, combined with the failure during Dragon thruster tests, also in April, likely guarantees that SpaceX will not launch in 2019. If it were up to SpaceX, I think they could get these issues dealt with and fly, but their customer is NASA, and NASA is notoriously slow at investigating and fixing engineering test problems like these.

My next post above underlines this conclusion.

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New Falcon 9 successfully launches used Dragon cargo ship

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully launched a used Dragon cargo ship to ISS using a new Falcon 9 rocket.

They also successfully landed the first stage, the 39th time they have done so. Dragon will arrive at ISS in two days.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

6 China
5 SpaceX
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

The U.S. has extended its lead over China 9-6 in the national rankings.

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ISS power repaired, SpaceX launch early tomorrow

Using the station’s robot arm astronauts on ISS have replaced a failed electrical component, restoring the station to full power and allowing a Dragon cargo launch to go forward early tomorrow morning.

The failure had reduced the station’s power by 25%. It also shut down some redundancy in the system that ran the robot arm that will grab and berth Dragon. NASA did not want to do that berthing without that redundancy, which they once again have.

The SpaceX launch is set for 3:11 am (eastern) tonight, or just past midnight on the west coast.

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Partial power outage on ISS today delays Dragon cargo mission

A partial power failure on the International Space Station has forced NASA to delay for at least two days the Dragon cargo mission that had been scheduled to launch early tomorrow morning.

The delay will allow time for NASA flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to continue troubleshooting an issue with a distribution box in the space station’s electrical power system. Engineers detected an issue with the Main Bus Switching Unit on Monday morning, and ground teams plan to replace the component later this week, ahead of the SpaceX cargo launch. “Teams are working on a plan to robotically replace the failed unit and restore full power to the station system,” NASA said in a statement Tuesday. “The earliest possible launch opportunity is no earlier than Friday, May 3.”

The Main Bus Distribution Unit is one of several that routes power from the space station’s U.S. solar arrays to the research outpost’s electrical channels. The suspect unit distributes power to two of the eight electrical channels on the station, including a power supply for the space station’s robotic arm, which the station astronauts will use to capture the Dragon cargo craft as it approaches the complex.

While the robotic arm remains powered through a separate channel, NASA flight rules require redundant power supplies for the arm during critical operations, such as the grapple of a free-flying spacecraft.

Since the cargo Dragon freighter is berthed to the station using the robot arm, they want to get this fixed before launching Dragon. Right now the new launch date will occur no earlier than the wee hours of Friday, May 3.

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SpaceX gets NASA launch contract

Capitalism in space: One week after dropping its protest for losing the bidding competition for the Lucy asteroid mission, SpaceX has been awarded by NASA the launch contract for its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, set for launch in June 2021.

The $61 million launch price is significantly lower than past NASA contracts for Falcon 9 launches. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract for the Sentinel-6A satellite in October 2017 for a November 2020 launch on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg at a total cost of $97 million. The Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite will launch on a Falcon 9 in April 2021 under a contract awarded in November 2016 at a value of $112 million.

This low cost technology test mission, costing a total of $9 million, was initially going to be launch as a secondary payload. That NASA is now going to pay SpaceX for a full launch is most intriguing. It seems to me that there might be a bit of quid pro quo here. NASA wanted that protest dropped, and offered this launch to convince SpaceX to do that, as long as the launch cost was kept low. $60 million is really SpaceX’s standard price for Falcon 9 launch, using new boosters, but for NASA that is the least they’ve paid. How much more this is than what NASA would have paid to launch DART as a secondary payload is the real question.

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Russia cuts Proton price to match SpaceX

Capitalism in space: Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, yesterday said that Russia will cut costs so that the price they charge for a Proton launch will match SpaceX.

Russia is struggling to regain its Proton customer base after the launch failures of the past few years. I don’t think matching SpaceX’s prices will do it. Right now satellite companies view them as offering a less reliable product, and until they can prove this impression false they need to offer their rocket for even less that SpaceX.

This is in fact what SpaceX did at the beginning. Its rockets were untested and thus risky to use. To compensate they offered a cheaper way to space. Now Russia has to do the same, or the business will continue to go to others. I wonder if Rogozin understands this.

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Boeing delays unmanned test flight of manned capsule

According to this story today, Boeing has delayed from April to August its first unmanned test flight of its Starliner manned capsule. It has also delayed the first manned flight from August to November.

NASA refused to comment other to say it would announce new schedules next week. The article also stated this:

The initial April launch was ahead of a United Launch Alliance mission for the Department of Defense in June from the Cape Canaveral launch pad in Florida, so Boeing would have needed to clear the launch pad by the first week in May, one of the sources said, describing the pressure not just on technical issues but also launch schedules at Cape Canaveral.

I suspect the technical issues are related to Boeing’s need to do more tests of the attitude thrusters on Starliner following the leak that occurred in a test last summer.

I also hope that next week’s announcement will reveal a firming up of SpaceX’s schedule. By now they should have a good idea of when they can do their launch abort test reusing the Dragon capsule used during their successful first unmanned test flight in March. That will in turn allow them to firm up the launch date for the first manned flight.

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Dragon successfully splashes down in Atlantic

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule has successfully returned to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic this morning.

There is a short video at the link showing the splashdown.

As far as I can tell, this test mission went 100% right. They now have the capsule they will use for the launch abort flight, which they hope to do by June, if not sooner. Assuming that goes well, they will be ready to do the manned flight by July, as planned.

The only thing I can see preventing this would be elements in NASA’s bureaucracy, Congress, and the federal government that are hostile to SpaceX and the concept of independent free Americans doing great things. These elements prefer giving power and control to their big bloated government, even if it can’t accomplish anything and that failure gives aide and comfort to hostile foreign powers.

We shall see if those elements move to block this mission in the coming months.

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Air Force awards ULA and SpaceX three launch contracts each

Capitalism in space: The Air Force this week released more details about the new launch contracts for both ULA and SpaceX worth just under three quarters of a billion dollars.

The contracts announced in February by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center were split between ULA and SpaceX, rivals in the U.S. launch industry. ULA won deals for up to three launches worth $441.76 million, and the Air Force awarded SpaceX contracts worth $297 million, also for three missions.

I had reported this back in February when it was first announced, but it was not then revealed that one of the SpaceX launches would be with the Falcon Heavy, the second such Air Force launch planned. That the Air Force awarded this contract prior to its first launch, now scheduled for no earlier than June 2019, is somewhat surprising. I would have expected them to wait to first see if that launch, only the second Falcon Heavy launch, was successful.

The article also notes a minor change by the Air Force in its launch program.

The Air Force has also given a new name to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, a multibillion initiative begun in the 1990s to fund and oversee the development and operations of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets now owned by ULA.

The Space and Missile Systems Center announced March 1 that the EELV program’s new name is the National Security Space Launch program, in response to language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

They really needed to eliminate “Expendable” from the name, since the first stage of SpaceX’s rockets are not expendable, and it is expected that future rockets will be reusable as well. Moreover, EELV was created in the 1990s to create a launch monopoly for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which then merged to create ULA. That monopoly no longer exists, and the military is now aiming to widen the competition, opening it up to more companies.

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Dragon successfully docks with ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, designed to carry humans to space, has successfully docked for the first time at ISS.

The flight really has only one major task left, which it to return safely to Earth, which presently is scheduled for 8:45 am (eastern) on March 7. I expect that to go smoothly as well.

NASA and SpaceX will of course need to review all the test data from this unmanned test flight before okaying a manned flight. SpaceX also needs to first do a launch abort test, using this capsule. However, I do not expect either to result in any issues that should prevent a manned launch in July, as SpaceX presently plans.

NASA however might think differently. There have been strong factions within its management and bureaucracy that are hostile to this effort, and have been working to stall or stop it.

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Dragon successfully launched on its first unmanned test flight to ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully launched its manned Dragon capsule on its first unmanned test flight to ISS.

They also successfully landed the first stage. I have embedded below the fold the video of the launch. Dragon will dock with ISS in about a day.

The leaders in the 2019:

3 SpaceX
2 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. now leads China and Europe 4 to 2 in national rankings.
» Read more

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Europe to build reusable first stage

Capitalism in space: Even as Europe works to develop Ariane 6, their non-reusable next generation rocket, Ariane Group and the French are now considering replacing it with a different rocket with a reusable first stage.

Late last week, the European rocket maker Ariane Group and the French space agency CNES announced the creation of an “acceleration platform” to speed development of future launch vehicles. The initiative, called ArianeWorks, would be a place where “teams work together in a highly flexible environment, open to new players and internationally.”

“In this era of NewSpace and in the context of fierce competition, ArianeWorks will accelerate innovation at grassroots level, in favor of mid-tier firms and start-ups, with commitment to reducing costs a major priority,” a news release sent to Ars states.

As part of the announcement, the organizations released a promotional video for the group’s first step—a so-called Themis demonstrator. The goal of this project is to build a multiple-engine first-stage rocket that launches vertically and lands near the launch site. The rocket will be powered by Europe’s Prometheus engine, a reusable liquid oxygen and methane engine that may cost as little as $1 million to build.

Essentially they are copying SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, except for the fuel. And they admit it. Moreover, this action tells us that the problems Ariane 6 has had getting European contracts has become serious enough that they have finally recognized that it simply cannot compete with the new wave of reusable rockets expected in the next decade. Building a new rocket that does not have a reusable capability is not viable in the coming market.

They should have recognized this four years ago, but better late then never.

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SpaceX first stage for launch abort returns to port

Capitalism in space: The first stage that SpaceX used (for the third time) last week to put three payloads into orbit, including Israel’s privately built lunar lander Beresheet, has returned to port and begun its preparation for its fourth launch, the launch abort test required before the company can fly humans on its Dragon manned capsule.

Musk tweeted that the launch escape test could occur in April. Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of build and flight reliability, said Friday that teams are looking at whether the in-flight abort could be moved forward from June.

SpaceX plans to reuse the Crew Dragon spacecraft slated to fly to the space station this weekend for the in-flight abort. Assuming a March 2 launch, the capsule is scheduled to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean on March 8, where teams will retrieve the spacecraft and bring it back to Cape Canaveral for the abort test.

The timing of the in-flight abort test “depends on when Crew Dragon comes back,” Musk tweeted. “That’s scheduled for launch next Saturday, but (there’s a) lot of new hardware, so time error bars are big.”

Officials do not expect the Falcon 9 booster to survive the abort test, likely ending its lifetime at four launches, and three intact landings. “High probability of this particular rocket getting destroyed by Dragon supersonic abort test,” Musk tweeted. [emphasis mine]

Unless something significant goes wrong during next week’s unmanned Dragon test flight, the only thing that I see preventing a June or earlier launch abort test would be the paperwork NASA demands SpaceX fill out in order for the agency to rubberstamp the flight.

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