Rocket Report: Starship could fly again in May; Ariane 6 coming together

Nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford engines power Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle off the pad at Wallops Island, Virginia, early Thursday.
Enlarge / Nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford engines power Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle off the pad at Wallops Island, Virginia, early Thursday.

Welcome to Edition 6.36 of the Rocket Report! SpaceX wants to launch the next Starship test flight as soon as early May, the company’s president and chief operating officer said this week. The third Starship test flight last week went well enough that the Federal Aviation Administration—yes, the FAA, the target of many SpaceX fans’ frustrations—anticipates a simpler investigation and launch licensing process than SpaceX went through before its previous Starship fights. However, it looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer for Starship to start launching real satellites.

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.

Starship could threaten small launch providers. Officials from several companies operating or developing small satellite launch vehicles are worried that SpaceX’s giant Starship rocket could have a big impact on their marketability, Space News reports. Starship’s ability to haul more than 100 metric tons of payload mass into low-Earth orbit will be attractive not just for customers with heavy satellites but also for those with smaller spacecraft. Aggregating numerous smallsats on Starship will mean lower prices than dedicated small satellite launch companies can offer and could encourage customers to build larger satellites with cheaper parts, further eroding business opportunities for small launch providers.

Well, yeah … SpaceX’s dedicated rideshare missions are already reshaping the small satellite launch market. The price per kilogram of payload on a Falcon 9 rocket launching a Transporter mission is less than the price per unit mass on a smaller rocket, like Rocket Lab’s Electron, Firefly’s Alpha, or Europe’s Vega. Companies operating only in the smallsat launch market tout the benefits of their services, often pointing to their ability to deliver payloads into bespoke orbits, rather than dropping off bunches of satellites into more standardized orbits. But the introduction of Orbital Transfer Vehicles for last-mile delivery services has made SpaceX’s Transporter missions, and potentially Starship rideshares, more attractive. “With Starship, OTVs can become the best option for smallsats,” said Marino Fragnito, senior vice president and head of the Vega business unit at Arianespace. If Starship is able to achieve the very low per-kilogram launch prices proposed for it, “then it will be difficult for small launch vehicles,” Fragnito said.

Rocket Lab launches again from Virginia. Rocket Lab’s fourth launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, and the company’s first there in nine months, took off early Thursday with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, the US government’s spy satellite agency, Space News reports. A two-stage Electron rocket placed the NRO’s payload into low-Earth orbit, and officials declared it a successful mission. The NRO did not disclose any details about the payload, but in a post-launch statement, the agency suggested the mission was conducting technology demonstrations of some kind. “The knowledge gained from this research will advance innovation and enable the development of critical new technology,” said Chris Scolose, director of the NRO.

A steady customer for Rocket Lab … The National Reconnaissance Office has become a regular customer of Rocket Lab. The NRO has historically launched larger spacecraft, such as massive bus-sized spy satellites, but like the Space Force, is beginning to launch larger numbers of small satellites. This mission, designated NROL-123 by the NRO, was the fifth and last mission under a Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract between NRO and Rocket Lab, dating back to 2020. It was also Rocket Lab’s second launch in nine days, following an Electron flight last week from its primary base in New Zealand. Overall, it was the 46th launch of a light-class Electron rocket since it debuted in 2017. Rocket Lab is building a launch pad for its next-generation Neutron rocket at Wallops. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

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Night flight for Astrobotic’s Xodiac. The Xodiac rocket, a small terrestrial vertical takeoff and vertical landing technology testbed, made its first night flight, Astrobotic says in a statement. The liquid-fueled Xodiac is designed for vertical hops and can host prototype sensors and other payloads, particularly instruments in development to assist in precision landings on other worlds. This first tethered night flight of Xodiac in Mojave, California, was in preparation for upcoming flight testing with the NASA TechLeap Prize’s Nighttime Precision Landing Challenge. These flights will begin in April, allowing NASA to test the ability of sensors to map a landing field designed to simulate the Moon’s surface in near-total darkness.

Building on the legacy of Masten … Xodiac has completed more than 160 successful flights, dating back to the vehicle’s original owner, Masten Space Systems. Masten filed for bankruptcy in 2022, and the company was acquired by Astrobotic a couple of months later. Astrobotic’s primary business area is in developing and flying robotic Moon landers, so it has a keen interest in mastering automated landing and navigation technologies like those it is testing with NASA on Xodiac. David Masten, founder of Masten Space Systems, is now chief engineer for Astrobotic’s propulsion and test department. “The teams will demonstrate their systems over the LSPG (Lunar Surface Proving Ground) at night to simulate landing on the Moon during the lunar night or in shadowed craters.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

US military taps Firefly to study cislunar missions. The military’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) has signed an agreement with Firefly Aerospace to conduct a “trade study” on its capabilities to launch Firefly’s Elytra space tugs and support missions beyond geosynchronous orbit, a region of space the military calls xGEO. The xGEO region of space includes the Moon and orbits around it. The military is interested in “responsive access” to cislunar space as NASA, commercial companies, and other countries launch more missions to explore the Moon. According to the DIU, access to this region of space is “absolutely necessary” for the US military to “foster safe and secure commercial and civil growth.” The DIU is managing the Sinequone program to examine commercial launch and orbital transfer systems that could deliver payloads to xGEO orbits or cislunar space.

Possible demonstrations … The DIU said it received 112 solution briefs from 94 companies in response to the Sinequone solicitation. Firefly’s Elytra transfer vehicle hasn’t flown in space yet, but the company plans to test it in orbit for the first time later this year following a launch on Firefly’s Alpha rocket. Firefly’s study for the DIU could lay the groundwork for up to two Firefly demonstration missions with three to six military-sponsored spacecraft that will advance responsive access to xGEO. Firefly is also building a robotic lunar lander to fly on a NASA-funded mission later this year. “Firefly’s robust vehicle lines and proven responsive space capabilities put us in a unique position to rapidly service the vast region of space from GEO to the Moon and beyond,” said Bill Weber, CEO of Firefly Aerospace. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SLC-40 is ready for astronauts. Upgrades at SpaceX’s most-used launch pad in Florida got a trial run Thursday with the liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket with a Dragon cargo ship heading for the International Space Station, Ars reports. This mission, known as CRS-30, is SpaceX’s 30th resupply mission to the space station since 2012. But what’s new this time is it was the first launch in four years of SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. In the last few months, SpaceX has erected a new tower at SLC-40 with an access arm to ready the launch pad for future Crew Dragon launches on Falcon 9 rockets. The Cargo Dragon is the same size and shape as Crew Dragon, so SpaceX used this resupply mission to test out the upgrades at SLC-40 before making it available for human spaceflight missions.

Relieving congestion … Launch congestion is becoming a thing, and having SLC-40 as an option for crew launches will relieve pressure on nearby Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A, which until now has been SpaceX’s only launch pad designed to accommodate Crew Dragon missions. LC-39A is also SpaceX’s only Falcon Heavy launch pad. There have been times, as recently as last month, when two missions that required launches from LC-39A were ready to fly at the same time, leading to tough choices by SpaceX. This is something that SpaceX can avoid in the future, now that SLC-40 is available for a wider range of launches.

Europe turns to SpaceX for more launches. The European Union has reached an agreement with the United States that will allow for the launch of four Galileo navigation satellites on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, Ars reports. According to Politico, the security agreement permits staff working for the EU and European Space Agency to have access to the launch pad at all times and, should there be a mishap with the mission, the first opportunity to retrieve debris. This will be the first time Galileo satellites, similar in function to the US military’s GPS satellites, have been exported outside European territory. With the agreement, final preparations can begin for two launches of two satellites each on the Falcon 9 rocket from Florida later this year. The satellites, which each weigh about 700 kilograms, will be launched into an orbit about 22,000 kilometers above the planet.

No rides available in Europe … The EU regards Galileo as a national security program. Like GPS, these satellites have dual use for civilian and military applications. European officials would prefer to launch these satellites on European rockets. In fact, at one time, these satellites were supposed to fly on Europe’s new Ariane 6 rocket. But the Ariane 6 still hasn’t flown, and a backup option, Russia’s Soyuz, is no longer available after Europe and Russia cut ties on joint launches following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This has led ESA to turn to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for several launches, including a flight with the Euclid space telescope last year and a flight with an ESA Earth science satellite coming up in May. Now, the EU and ESA, partners on the Galileo program, and buying two more Falcon 9 flights from SpaceX.

A rare countdown abort for Soyuz. On Thursday, a crew of three people was due to launch on a Soyuz rocket bound for the International Space Station. However, the launch scrubbed at about 20 seconds before the planned liftoff time, just before the sequence to ignite the rocket’s engines was initiated, due to unspecified issues, Ars reports. The three people inside the Soyuz spacecraft, on top of the rocket, were NASA astronaut Tracy Dyson, Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, and spaceflight participant Marina Vasilevskaya of Belarus. Assuming Russian engineers fix whatever problem caused Thursday’s countdown to abort, the next opportunity to launch the Soyuz MS-25 mission is no earlier than Saturday.

This doesn’t happen often … Such scrubs are rare. The Soyuz booster and its launch systems are typically robust, launching regardless of weather conditions—watching an orbital, liquid-fueled rocket launch during a snowstorm is quite a trip. And the Russians have plenty of experience with the booster. Since its debut in 1966, across several variants, the Soviet Union and Russia have launched more than 2,000 Soyuz rockets.

Chinese launch is a milestone for Moon program. The next phase of China’s Moon program began with the launch of a new data relay satellite Monday to link lunar landers and rovers on the far side of the Moon with ground controllers back on Earth, Ars reports. This launch, using China’s relatively new Long March 8 rocket, sent the Queqiao-2 relay spacecraft toward the Moon, where it will enter an elliptical orbit and position itself for the arrival of China’s next robotic lunar lander, Chang’e 6, later this year. Queqiao-2 will relay radio signals to and from Chang’e 6 as it scoops up rock samples from the far side of the Moon for return to Earth.

Further use … After Chang’e 6, at least two more Chinese lunar missions will also use relay services provided by Queqiao-2. The robotic Chang’e 7 and Chang’e 8 missions, scheduled for launch in 2026 and 2028, will target landing sites in the Moon’s south pole region, where observations from orbit show evidence of water ice locked inside the dark floors of polar craters. While NASA is ahead of China in the effort to return astronauts to the Moon, the launch of Queqiao-2, China’s second lunar relay satellite, makes China the leader in building out this type of infrastructure at the Moon. The US space agency is not developing any lunar data relay satellites on its own. Instead, NASA is relying on commercial companies and international partners to build and launch relay stations for future US landers going to the far side.

Ariane 6 is coming together in Kourou. The two stages for Ariane 6’s first flight are now assembled as one and ready for the next step on the road to launch, according to the European Space Agency. The upper stage and main stage were connected in the launcher assembly building at Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Once integration is completed, the two-stage core will roll out to the launch pad and be raised vertically. This week also marked another milestone in Kourou for the first flight of Ariane 6. ArianeGroup, the rocket’s prime contractor, completed manufacturing of the first of two strap-on solid rocket boosters for the inaugural Ariane 6 launch. This booster is now in storage awaiting transfer to the launch pad, where ground teams will attach it and an identical booster to each side of the Ariane 6 core stage once it arrives at the pad later this spring.

Payloads confirmed … The first flight of Ariane 6 remains scheduled for sometime between June 15 and July 31. Because it’s the first launch, Ariane 6 will not launch any large valuable payloads. Instead, commercial startups, space agencies, and university teams will take advantage of the flight opportunity to launch nine small satellite payloads and two small reentry capsules into low-Earth orbit. These include missions to test heat shield technology and reentry systems for ArianeGroup and The Exploration Company, along with CubeSats sponsored by ESA and NASA. (submitted by Ken the Bin, Jay500001, and EllPeaTea)

SpaceX eyes quick turnaround for next Starship flight. Starship reached near orbital velocity during its third test flight last week, largely validating its capability as an expendable rocket while SpaceX continues to try to nail down vehicle recovery, Payload reports. With a less cumbersome regulatory and hardware update period ahead, SpaceX expects an expedited turnaround time and is targeting the next Starship test flight in six weeks, according to Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer. Some improvements SpaceX will likely try to test on the fourth Starship test flight include better control of the Super Heavy booster on the descent, securing heat shield tiles, and eliminating roll issues on Starship during orbital operations and reentry.

FAA is onboard …“We didn’t see anything major. We don’t think there’s any critical systems for safety that were implicated,” Kelvin Coleman, head of the FAA’s space division, said Monday. “Usually if there’s not any critical systems for safety implicated, the mishap investigation can be pretty clean and it can move pretty quickly.” Based on the FAA’s decision, the Starship test flight last week technically resulted in a mishap because the vehicle did not reach Earth’s surface intact. This triggers a mishap investigation by SpaceX, which the FAA must review before issuing a launch license for the next Starship flight. However, Coleman said the issues SpaceX encountered with Starship last week didn’t reveal any safety concerns. Shotwell said the next Starship launch won’t carry any Starlink satellites, but SpaceX will instead use the test flight to demonstrate the ship’s ability to survive reentry into the atmosphere. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Jay500001)

Next three launches

March 22: Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-42 | Kennedy Space Center, Florida | 23:57 UTC

March 23: Soyuz 2.1a | Soyuz MS-25 | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 12:36 UTC

March 25: Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-46 | Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida | 21:00 UTC

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