Lots of contracts —

“Customer demand has been extremely strong.”


A streak of flame cuts through the clouds and into a gorgeous blue sky.

Enlarge / The Transporter-1 mission launches from Florida on January 24, 2021.

Welcome to Edition 3.33 of the Rocket Report! Plenty of news this week about NASA awarding contracts to launch companies and also some new details about a pair of German rocket startups seeking to develop orbital boosters.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Firefly wins lunar lander contract. NASA has awarded Texas-based Firefly $93.3 million to deliver a suite of 10 NASA-sponsored science and technology demonstration payloads to Mare Crisium in the Moon’s Crisium Basin. Firefly’s “Blue Ghost” lunar lander will deliver the payloads to the lunar surface in 2023 in fulfillment of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services task order, the company said.

How will it fly to the Moon? … “This award is further validation of Firefly, its team and its mission to become a versatile provider of a broad range of space-related services,” said Max Polyakov, founder of Noosphere Ventures, the largest investor in Firefly. What’s not clear is how the sizable lander will get to the Moon, as the mission is too large to launch on the company’s Alpha booster. A company spokesman said a launcher has yet to be determined. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Iran tests new solid rocket named Zoljanah. Iran has test-launched a new rocket with its “most powerful” solid-fuel engine to date, Iranian state television reported, according to Israel Hayom. Ahmad Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian Defense Ministry’s space division, said, “This three-stage carrier can compete with the world’s current carriers, and has two stages of solid propulsion and a single liquid one.” Hosseini added that the rocket had been launched for “research purposes.”

Launch from anywhere? … Hosseini said that the Zoljanah rocket was capable of putting a payload with a mass of up to 220kg into a 500km orbit. The Zoljanah can be launched from a mobile platform, Hosseini said. Last April, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps launched the country’s first military satellite, the Nour, into orbit after a similar launch had failed two months earlier. (submitted by arstechmfw)

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ABL chosen to launch from the United Kingdom. Lockheed Martin says it has selected California-based ABL Space Systems to launch the first orbital rocket from the United Kingdom—a mission that is expected to launch from Scotland in 2022. No rockets have ever launched into orbit from UK soil, Ars reports.

RS1 to debut this spring? … The launch is part of an agreement between the British government and Lockheed to foster a commercial small-satellite launch industry in the country. In choosing ABL Space, Lockheed has chosen a company that has not yet launched a rocket, although its RS1 vehicle is expected to make its debut during the second quarter of this year.

Rocket Factory Augsburg to seek 25 million euros. The German launch startup said in a news release that it will seek the new round of funding to boost its growth. “We want to build the best and cheapest rockets and microlaunchers,” said Hans Steininger, deputy chairman of the supervisory board and founding investor of Rocket Factory. “With freight costs of €3 million per launch, we will be able to offer by far the cheapest launch service in the world.”

Would be a great value … The company is one of the most promising new space ventures in Germany, and it nominally has plans to launch a rocket capable of lifting about 1 ton to low-Earth orbit from the Norwegian island of Andøya in 2022. If it really can delivery that level of performance for less than $4 million, it would be a tremendous price. But first, the company has to do it.

Rocket Lab set to deploy 100th satellite. The company said its 19th Electron launch is now scheduled for mid-March, and this flight will bring the total number of satellites launched by Electron to 104. This “They Go Up So Fast” mission will carry seven satellites as part of its manifest.

Stepping stone to the Moon … Most intriguingly, the mission will launch Rocket Lab’s Photon Pathstone spacecraft, which was designed and built in-house. The vehicle will operate on orbit as a risk-reduction demonstration ahead of Rocket Lab’s mission to the Moon for NASA later this year. In space, Photon Pathstone will demonstrate power management, thermal control, and attitude control subsystems, among other features. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

HyImpulse will launch from Scotland. Germany-based HyImpulse Technologies plans to begin engine testing and launching sub-orbital sounding rockets in Shetland this year, with a view toward its first orbital flight in 2023, Parabolic Arc reports. The decision is a hopeful sign for efforts to develop a spaceport at the Shetland Space Centre on the British island of Unst.

From Germany to Scotland … HyImpulse Co-CEO Christian Schmierer said, “We have signed letters of intent with several potential customers to take their payloads into orbit. It was therefore very important for us to secure a launch pad and site ahead of time and to start with our mission planning. Shetland Space Centre allows us to offer frequent, reliable access to space with a great variety of efficient flight routes.” The company is developing a sounding rocket, SR75, and an SL1 orbital rocket. (submitted by platykurtic)

Are launch investors headed toward “venture fratricide?” In a roundup from the 2021 SmallSat Symposium this week, SpaceNews covers the varying opinions on the glut of launch companies seeking to develop rockets for small satellites. While some observers saw a surge of launch vehicle development efforts as a sign of an “overheated” market, others see those efforts as a sign of shifting demand.

Unsure of value of nimble launch services … Perhaps the most colorful comment came from Steve Jurvetson, a SpaceX board member skeptical that small launch vehicles can compete against the prices offered by Falcon 9 ride-share missions. Commenting on investors in those companies, he said, “That’s astounding: billions of dollars going to fundamentally the exact same market segment. I’ve never seen anything like it,” calling all of the investment going into those companies “venture fratricide.” (submitted by platykurtic)

SpaceX sees strong demand for ride-share. During a separate panel discussion at the 2021 SmallSat Symposium this week, a SpaceX official said the company has two more dedicated ride-share missions scheduled this year after its Falcon 9 Transporter-1 launch in January, SpaceNews reports. “Customer demand has been extremely strong. Demand is growing, so we’re certainly going to have some very full rockets coming up,” said Jarrod McLachlan, senior manager of ride-share sales at SpaceX.

“Enabling people to be creative” … Notably, the company says it is seeing the satellite market react to a lower price point of $5,000 per kilogram and the size and mass of SpaceX’s offering. “We’re seeing some people who are optimizing their spacecraft and their constellation design around that volume, as well as some of the integrator/broker partners out there who are doing multiple spacecraft in a single port,” Jarrod McLachlan said. “Being so public with our pricing and our requirements is really enabling people to be creative. (submitted by Ken the Bin and platykurtic)

NASA selects Falcon 9 to launch SPHEREx mission. The space agency said it will use a Falcon 9 rocket to launch the Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization, and Ices Explorer, or SPHEREx mission, as early as June 2024. The total cost for NASA to launch SPHEREx is approximately $98.8 million, which includes the launch service and other mission-related costs.

Answering cosmic questions … The mission will take place from Launch Complex-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The astrophysics mission will survey the sky in the near-infrared light to answer cosmic questions involving the birth of the universe and the subsequent development of galaxies. It also will search for water and organic molecules. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA selects Falcon Heavy to launch Lunar Gateway. On Tuesday, the space agency said it plans to launch the power and propulsion element combined with the habitat module on a Falcon Heavy. The mission is set for no earlier than May 2024, and once in its orbit around the Moon, the Gateway will serve as a waypoint for astronauts traveling down to the lunar surface.

Good money if you can get it … SpaceX will receive $331.8 million, including the launch service and other mission-related costs, for the flight. This is considerably more than the advertised price of a Falcon Heavy. However, by 2024 the only other rocket capable of launching the Gateway, NASA’s Space Launch System, would likely cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion for a comparable mission. And NASA is not expected to have a spare SLS rocket anyway, due to the long time needed to manufacture an SLS rocket core. (submitted by Tfargo04, platykurtic. and Ken the Bin)

SLS proponent won’t run for reelection. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has used his seniority in the US Senate to wield enormous power over NASA’s human spaceflight program for the better part of a decade. He championed funding for the Space Launch System rocket and sought to reduce funding for Commercial Crew. But now, he is in the minority after Democrats took control of the Senate. And this week, Shelby announced that he would not run for reelection in 2022.

So what happens now?As Ars reports, it seems probable that Shelby’s departure would make it easier for the Biden White House to cancel the SLS rocket program should it continue to face technical difficulties, such as the incomplete hot-fire test of the core stage. It will also make the program’s end all the more inevitable should SpaceX succeed in launching Starship into orbit on its Super Heavy rocket. Without a potent backstop like Shelby, the reality of a heavy-lift rocket that costs significantly less than SLS, has a greater lift capacity, and is capable of multiple reuses should be impossible to ignore.

NASA confirms it won’t launch Clipper on SLS. It’s finally official. NASA is no longer considering launching the Europa Clipper mission on the Space Launch System, deciding instead to launch the spacecraft on a commercial rocket it will procure in the next year, SpaceNews reports. During a February 10 presentation at a meeting of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group, leaders of the Europa Clipper project said the agency recently decided to consider only commercial launch vehicles.

End of a long battle … “We now have clarity on the launch vehicle path and launch date,” Robert Pappalardo, project scientist for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said. That clarity came in the form of a January 25 memo from NASA’s Planetary Missions Program Office to “immediately cease efforts to maintain SLS compatibility” and move forward with a commercial launch vehicle. Thus ends a long political battle fought by Sen. Richard Shelby (see item above) to keep Clipper on the SLS. (submitted by BH)

Next three launches

Feb. 12: Falcon 9 | Starlink-19 | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 05:25 UTC

Feb. 15: Soyuz | Progress 77P | Baikonur Cosmodrome | 04:45 UTC

Feb. 20: Antares | Northrop Grumman-15 mission to ISS | Wallops Island, Va. | 17:36 UTC

Original Source