Rocket Report: Alpha launches and then blows up, ULA to stop selling Atlas V

Enlarge / China may use a modified version of its Long March 5 rocket for lunar missions.

Welcome to Edition 4.14 of the Rocket Report! Lots of drama this week as Astra’s launch suffered an engine failure during its most recent spaceflight, Virgin Galactic nearly had to abort its high-profile mission in July, and Firefly got its first Alpha rocket off the launch pad.

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 makes first launch attempt. On Thursday, Firefly Aerospace launched its first Alpha rocket just before 7 pm local time from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, and the initial moments of the flight appeared to be nominal. But then there was a delay in reaching supersonic velocity, and at 2 minutes 31 seconds into flight Alpha exploded. “Alpha experienced an anomaly during first-stage ascent that resulted in the loss of the vehicle. As we gather more information, additional details will be provided,” the company said Thursday night.

First step: space … The inaugural Alpha launch was primarily a demonstration mission for the new small-launch vehicle, and before the mission the company said the primary goal was to collect as much data as possible, SpaceNews reports. “It’s a test flight,” Lauren Lyons, chief operating officer of Firefly, said during a tour of the company’s launch control center. “Our really big goal is to get Alpha to space. If we can get to orbit, even better. If we can open up that fairing and deploy those satellites, even better. Our goals are to collect as much data as we possibly can and take Alpha as far as it can go.” There was no immediate word on altitude. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Astra’s latest launch attempt goes sideways. Astra’s third attempt to reach orbit failed on Saturday when its Rocket 3.3 vehicle struggled to get off the launch pad because of an engine shutdown, SpaceNews reports. Instead of immediately ascending, the rocket tipped, moved sideways, and hovered just above the ground. It took nearly 20 seconds for the sideways motion to stop, at which point the rocket started to ascend.

At some point it needs to work … The range issued the command to terminate thrust from the engines 2.5 minutes into the flight because the vehicle was outside its licensed trajectory. The rocket was attempting to launch a test payload for the US Space Force. In an article by Tim Fernholz, Quartz asks the important question, “How long can a rocket maker survive without a rocket?” The publicly traded Astra has about $450 million on hand, so it won’t go out of business soon. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Virgin Galactic flight with Branson flew off course. During Sir Richard Branson’s historic spaceflight in July, near the end of the burn of the VSS Unity spacecraft’s engine, a red light appeared on a console, The New Yorker reports. This alerted the crew to an “entry glide-cone warning.” Pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci faced a split-second decision: kill the rocket motor or take immediate action to address their trajectory problem.

FAA is investigating … The pilots succeeded in addressing the issue, and Branson’s flight landed safely. However, in doing so, Unity flew outside of its designated airspace for 1 minute 42 seconds. That may not sound like much time, but it’s more than 10 percent of the flight after Unity was dropped from a carrier aircraft. On Thursday, the FAA grounded the Virgin Galactic spacecraft until the matter is resolved.

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India asks private companies to build PSLV rocket. As India continues to experiment with ways to expand its nascent commercial space industry, the country’s space agency will contract with private companies to build its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The Economic Times reports that three entities submitted bids by a July 30 deadline.

An experienced rocket … This would be the first time the PSLV launcher would not be built by the Indian space agency. The PSLV had its first flight in September 1993 and has completed more than 50 launch missions since then. India hopes to announce a winning bidder by year’s end, which could simultaneously stimulate private aerospace business in the country and allow for more frequent PSLV launches. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

A large fire damages Swedish spaceport. On Thursday, August 26, a large fire damaged the Esrange Space Center in Sweden, a Swedish television network reports. The fire occurred during a scheduled static fire test of a solid rocket motor and reportedly destroyed at least two buildings as it caused “extensive” damage. There were no injuries.

Polar launch site … As The New York Times recently reported in depth, the site in northern Sweden above the Arctic Circle is being considered by several small-launch companies as a site for polar launches. Already, Isar Aerospace and Rocket Factory Augsburg use the location for rocket-engine tests. Neither was involved in last week’s accident. (submitted by Dravond)

Korea targets October for Nuri launch. South Korea has set an October target for the first flight of the nation’s first fully domestically developed satellite-launch vehicle, the Korea Aerospace Research Institute announced. A second test will follow within a few months. KARI plans to conduct flight tests of the new Nuri booster from the Naro Space Center, Parabolic Arc reports.

Seeking its own road to space … KARI said the first rocket will carry a dummy satellite weighing 1,500 kg. The second booster will orbit a dummy satellite weighing 1,300 kg and a performance verification satellite weighing 200 kg. The goal of the flight tests is to place the satellites into a 700 km Sun-synchronous orbit. Nuri is designed to give South Korea its own domestic launch capability and to allow the nation to compete on the international market. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Virgin Orbit cleared to launch from Guam. The Federal Aviation Administration released its final environmental assessment last Friday, finding “no significant impact” for Virgin Orbit to conduct launches using its Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft and LauncherOne rocket from Andersen Air Force Base in the US territory of Guam. According to the FAA’s report, Virgin Orbit proposes to conduct a maximum of 25 launches from Guam over the next five years to place small satellites into a variety of low Earth orbits, SpaceNews reports.

One step closer … Completion of the environmental review process does not guarantee the FAA will issue a launch license to Virgin Orbit, the agency said. The company must also meet FAA safety, risk, and financial responsibility requirements. William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects at Virgin Orbit, said the favorable environmental review marks a “significant step towards achieving our launch license for orbital spaceflight from Guam. We’re very grateful to the team at the FAA for the constant dialogue as we have moved through the process.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

ULA has stopped selling the Atlas V rocket. United Launch Alliance won’t be selling any more of its workhorse Atlas V rockets, and it has stopped buying the launch vehicle’s Russian-made rocket engines for good, The Verge reports. ULA’s decision sets up the retirement of one of the US government’s most trusted launch vehicles and is expected to mark the end for Russia’s iconic—but controversial—RD-180 engine, an engineering marvel and a core source of revenue for Russia’s space program.

Spasiba, Russia … “We’re done. They’re all sold,” CEO Tory Bruno said of ULA’s Atlas V rockets in an interview. The Atlas V rocket has 29 missions left before it retires sometime in the mid-2020s and the company transitions launches to its upcoming Vulcan rocket. The remaining Atlas V missions include a mix of undisclosed commercial customers and some for the Space Force, NASA, and Amazon’s budding broadband satellite constellation, Project Kuiper. (submitted by Rendgrish and Ken the Bin)

First LOX, now liquid nitrogen causing launch delays. The launch of an Atlas V rocket and its Landsat 9 satellite from Vandenberg Space Force Base will have to wait at least a week due to liquid nitrogen delivery delays blamed on the COVID-19 public health crisis, Noozhawk reports. Trucks normally used to transport liquid nitrogen to Vandenberg were converted to LOX to meet higher demand from hospitals. Last week, SpaceX officials cited a shortage of LOX, needed by hospitals, as one cause of launch delays.

No laughing (gas) matter … Instead of launching September 16, the Landsat mission now will not occur any earlier than September 23, with the launch date under review by NASA and United Launch Alliance representatives. “Current pandemic demands for medical liquid oxygen have impacted the delivery of the needed liquid nitrogen supply to Vandenberg by the Defense Logistics Agency and its supplier Airgas,” NASA said. The agency does not expect further delays due to truck shortages.

SLS debut launch slips to 2022. Publicly, NASA is still holding on to the possibility of a 2021 launch date for the debut flight of its Space Launch System rocket. This week, an agency spokesperson told Ars that “NASA is working toward a launch for the Artemis I mission by the end of this year.” However, a source told Ars that the best-case scenario for launching the Artemis 1 mission is spring of next year, with summer being the more realistic target for a test flight of the heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft.

COVID a factor … The space agency is already running about two months behind internal targets for testing and integrating the rocket at Kennedy Space Center, and the critical preflight tests remain ahead. NASA’s Kathryn Hambleton acknowledged that the space agency has seen schedule slips. “The agency continues to monitor the rise of COVID cases in the Kennedy area, which, combined with other factors such as weather and first-time operations, is impacting our schedule of operations,” she said.

China may use Long March 5 for lunar missions. China appears to be accelerating its plans to land on the Moon by 2030 and would use a modified version of an existing rocket to do so. The chief designer of the Long March family of rockets, Long Lehao, said China could use two modified Long March 5 rockets to accomplish a lunar landing in less than a decade, Ars reports.

Adds fuel to the fire of a US-China space race … Lehao’s talk does not carry the official imprimatur of Chinese space policy—at least not yet. But he remains an influential figure in Chinese space policy, said Andrew Jones, a journalist who tracks China’s space program. “It’s a good indication of China working towards that plan to some degree,” he told Ars. “There will apparently be an announcement on this rocket at the Zhuhai Airshow in late September or early October.”

Next three launches

Sept. 3: Alpha | Firefly test flight | Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. | 01:00 UTC

Sept. 14: Soyuz | OneWeb 10 | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | TBD

Sept. 15: Falcon 9 | Inspiration 4 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | TBD