Rocket Report: Starlink flies, OneWeb has next mega-constellation launch

Enlarge / The mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket takes to the skies.Aurich Lawson/United Launch Alliance

Welcome to Edition 2.30 of the Rocket Report! We've reached the end of January, and the business of launch has really started to heat up for 2020. Plenty of news this week from the deepening of the low Earth orbit satellite Internet race to quirky stories involving tech journalists and rocket companies. All that, and more, in this week's report.

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.

Spaceport authority asks New Mexico for $57 million more. The New Mexico Spaceport Authority is seeking $57 million in capital outlay this year for infrastructure projects it considers critical, beginning with $25 million for a welcoming center and visitor access control installations. The preparations come as Virgin Galactic seeks to fly humans on suborbital spaceflights from New Mexico later this year.

That's a lot of money … "Those are tall orders for this year's legislative session, especially because the state has already invested $220 million to build the spaceport, plus $25 million in capital outlay in the past two years for other infrastructure projects," the Albuquerque Journal writes. But spaceport leaders and supporters say the new projects are critical as New Mexico moves to the forefront of the world's emerging commercial space industry. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Iran preparing for another Safir rocket launch. Iran is preparing for the launch of two small communications satellites, Zafar 1 and Zafar 2, from the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran, Ars reports. The country's communication's minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, confirmed the launch. The satellites will likely launch on the Safir-1 or Safir-2 rocket, which reportedly have capacities of 65kg and 350kg to low Earth orbit.

Peace or bombs? … Combined, the vehicles have a checkered history, with four known successes and four known failures during the last 12 years. The United States and Iran have clashed over the nation's rocket program. American officials contend the program is part of an effort to develop ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons to distant foreign targets. The Iranian government says its space program serves peaceful purposes.

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Vector selling off assets. On Friday, Vector announced a court-supervised sale of its Galactic Sky assets. Lockheed Martin agreed to buy the satellite assets for $4.25 million, but Vector will solicit higher bids. Galactic Sky was designed to provide a service to developers to quickly get their applications into orbit on an existing satellite or constellation.

Rocket parts for sale, too … As part of its bankruptcy proceedings, the company said it is also accepting bids for its "launch vehicle assets" provided that certain minimums are met. The continuing dissolution of Vector is a sad but inevitable part of the growing smallsat launch industry. They won't be the last. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Bob Cringely is starting a rocket company? There was a time, in the 1990s and early 2000s, that Robert X. Cringely was a big name in tech journalism. Since then he's dabbled in business, such as a Kickstarter-gone-bad to develop a custom Minecraft server. Now, Cringely says, he's starting a solid rocket company while inventing "nothing." Cringely said his company plans to charge $1 million for up to 12U into any orbit by air launching from a "proper angle."

Air launch and solid rockets … "We took 50-year-old ammonium perchlorate composite propellant and improved it using modern materials, processes, and some common sense. NO 3D printing! The result is a cheaper rocket that can sit on the shelf for years then be launched as-needed within hours," he wrote on his blog. "We've offered to launch on FOUR hours notice and then launch again every TWO hours after that until they tell us to stop." The history of modern aerospace is littered with ideas such as this, presented as simple solutions to complex problems. But good luck all the same. (submitted by Respice and GJDitchfield)

Black Brant rocket launches mission for NASA. A Black Brant IX sounding rocket carried a NASA science mission to an altitude of 161 miles on Jan. 27. The NASA Polar NOx mission aims to better understand the abundance of nitric oxide in the polar atmosphere, especially at the higher levels. Nitric oxide in the northern regions exists between 53 and 93 miles' altitude.

Making a week of it … Preliminary reports show that good science data was obtained. The launch took place from University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute's Poker Flat Research Range, which is located just south of the Arctic Circle. The local community held a "Space Week" to celebrate the launch, complete with presentations by NASA scientists. (submitted by Shlazzargh and ColdWetDog)

OneWeb confirms launch date. The second mega-constellation of LEO Internet satellites is coming. This week OneWeb confirmed that its first launch of 2020 will occur on February 6, with 34 satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket, from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. Arianespace will perform the launch, which will place the satellites into a near polar orbit at an initial altitude of 450 kilometers from where they will rise to their final orbit of 1,200km.

Service starting next year … According to the company, this marks the start of a regular launch campaign during 2020 that will rapidly grow OneWeb's first phase constellation of 648 satellites and represents one of the largest civilian satellite launch campaigns in history. OneWeb aims to provide full commercial global services for sectors such as maritime, aviation, government and enterprise in 2021.

Falcon 9 completes another Starlink mission. On Wednesday morning, SpaceX's launch of its fourth batch of 60 Starlink satellites proceeded smoothly. About 1 hour after launch, the stack of satellites deployed into low Earth orbit at an altitude of 290km. They will raise their orbits to an altitude of 550km over the next one to four weeks, Ars reports. The launch came as some astronomers are mobilizing to fight back against the growing constellation and plans for others.

Catching a falling fairing … Meanwhile, recovery operations also went well. The Falcon 9 rocket's thrice-used first stage landed on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship, and the Ms. Tree vessel caught one of the two payload fairing halves. Ms. Chief just missed the other one, the company said on its webcast. If you're keeping score, SpaceX has launched the Falcon 9 three times already in 2020.

James Webb telescope launch may be delayed. The large James Webb Space Telescope is likely to be one of the final payloads launched by the Ariane 5 rocket. But now the payload's scheduled March 2021 launch may be at risk, the US Government Accountability Office says in a new report.

Ariane 6, anyone? … Because the space agency and the telescope's prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, continue to tackle serious technical problems, the report estimates that there is only a 12-percent chance that the large space telescope will launch in March 2021. The new report estimates the launch date will likely slip to at least July 2021. It is not clear how long European space officials will wait, and we wonder when they might begin pushing to move the launch to the new Ariane 6 rocket.

SpaceX releases preliminary Crew Dragon data. Data from the Jan.19 in-flight launch escape demonstration of SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft indicates that the performance of the capsule's SuperDraco abort engines was "flawless," Spaceflight Now reports. For its final full-scale test before astronauts ride it into space, a Falcon 9 rocket carried the capsule aloft—just as it would on a crewed mission—for the first 85 seconds of the mission. The launch escape system was triggered when the Falcon 9 was traveling at a velocity of 536 meters per second, according to SpaceX.

Breathing fire … Eight SuperDraco thrusters immediately pressurized and ignited as the Falcon 9 rocket's first stage engines were commanded to shut down as parRead More – Source