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Rocket Report: SpaceX’s Super Heavy is lit, court strikes down Georgia spaceport

NASA conducts an RS-25 hot fire test on the Fred Haise Test Stand at Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi on Feb. 8, 2023
Enlarge / NASA conducts an RS-25 hot fire test on the Fred Haise Test Stand at Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi on Feb. 8, 2023


Welcome to Edition 5.25 of the Rocket Report! On Thursday afternoon much of the space world was tuned into South Texas, where SpaceX conducted what appeared to be a successful static-fire test of its Super Heavy rocket. This was a critical step on the pathway to a much-anticipated orbital flight test of Starship this spring. It looks like this is really happening.

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.

Georgia spaceport effort appears doomed. The Supreme Court of Georgia ruled Tuesday that Camden County must abide by a March 2022 referendum in which nearly three-quarters of local voters cast ballots against a proposed vertical launch spaceport, the Georgia Recorder reports. Since 2015 the Camden County Board of Commissioners has spent more than $11 million trying to get the project going, which has been opposed by some residents and environmental groups.

Not quite dead yet … Even after a decisive referendum a year ago against the effort, however, county officials persisted with their plans to build a commercial spaceport. Now, after Tuesday’s ruling, the commissioners are evaluating their options, a spokeswoman said. “The future of Spaceport Camden remains a decision of the Camden County Board of Commissioners and as such will be discussed at a future meeting,” board spokeswoman Claire Feazel said. The people have spoken. The courts have spoken. Will the commissioners listen? (submitted by zapman987, EllPeaTea, and Ken the Bin)

Is a small launch ‘bloodletting’ nigh? While demand for small satellite launch is higher than ever, industry officials warned that price pressures and lack of access to capital could cause many companies to go out of business in the near future, Space News reports. Executives with several launch companies said during a panel at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California, Tuesday that they are seeing strong demand for launch services but are struggling to make money, as competition, particularly from SpaceX, drives down prices.

Super saver prices … SpaceX currently charges $275,000 to launch a 50-kilogram smallsat to Sun-synchronous orbit on its “Transporter” rideshare missions, which take place three or four times a year. This is far less than list prices for many dedicated smallsat launch vehicles. Adam Spice, chief financial officer of Rocket Lab, said: “I think the fact is they’ve suppressed prices in the market. I think the fact is they’ve taken a lot of volume off of the market,” he said of Transporter missions. “That’s a reset that really wasn’t there in the model even only a few years ago.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

Firefly targets May for next launch attempt. The Alpha rocket is due to make its next launch in May 2023 for the US Space Force, Firefly chief executive Bill Weber said Tuesday. The flight from Vandenberg Space Force Base will loft the Tactically Responsive Space-3 satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit, Space News reports. The mission aims to demonstrate a rapid turnaround between a launch order and payload deployment.

This will be Alpha’s third launch … The 1-ton launcher made its first launch attempt in September 2021 but failed to reach orbit as one of the first-stage engines failed during ascent. A second test flight in October 2022 successfully reached orbit, although the satellites were deployed in significantly lower orbits than originally planned. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Launches up, airline travel up. Which will give? Space companies are launching more rockets than ever, and this is increasingly clashing with air space as travelers return to flying in droves, CNBC reports. In the middle stands the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA managed US airspace for a record-breaking 92 space missions in 2022, up 33 percent from the year prior, and it expects to top that this year. That number includes both rocket launches and capsule re-entries and has been steadily climbing.

Turkey Day tug-of-war … CNBC crunched the data and found that Florida poses the most challenges. Most of last year’s missions launched from Florida, and at the same time the Sunshine State has drawn more and more travelers in recent years and faces frequent thunderstorms several months a year. Airlines operated 722,180 flights to, from, and within Florida last year, marking a faster recovery to pre-pandemic flying levels in the state than the national average. This led to clashes, such as when the FAA had to talk NASA out of Artemis I launch attempts around the Thanksgiving holiday.

Virgin closing in on LauncherOne failure. Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart said it was still premature to formally declare the root cause of the failed flight of the company’s LauncherOne rocket last month from Spaceport Cornwall in England. However, speaking on a panel at the SmallSat Symposium this week, he said while that investigation continues, evidence was pointing to a component in the rocket’s second stage engine, Space News reports.

An inexpensive part … “Everything points to, right now, a filter that was clearly there when we assembled the rocket but was not there as the second stage engine started, meaning it was dislodged and caused mischief downstream,” Hart said. Roughly, he added, the part cost about $100. Hart did not discuss the financial status of the company amid concerns about available cash as it seeks to return to flight. (submitted by Ildatch, Ken the Bin, and DanNeely)

Going deeper in Stoke Space. For those more interested in Stoke Space’s innovative approach to reusable launch, Everyday Astronaut has a new, hour-long video that goes pretty deep into the technology. Tim Dodd brings his usual enthusiasm to the video and nerds out about the technology with Stoke Space co-founder Andy Lapsa.

About that heat shield … Dodd tours viewers around Stoke’s headquarters in Washington, asking about the company’s actively regeneratively cooled heat shield and its unique offset geometry for precision reentry and landing. As Ars wrote last October, Stoke is working toward “hop” tests of its second stage later this spring. (submitted by terkans)

After manufacturing delay, Ovzon 3 moves off Ariane 5. The Swedish broadband provider Ovzon said this week that manufacturing delays will preclude its 1.5-metric ton Ovzon 3 satellite from launching on an Ariane 5 rocket. The smaller satellite had been intended to piggyback on one of Arianespace’s last few Ariane 5 launches between December and February. But that was not possible due to delays by satellite-maker Maxar, Space News reports.

Au revoir Ariane … With Ariane 5 near retirement, Ovzon turned to the Falcon 9 rocket for a ride to geostationary orbit. Shifting to a SpaceX Falcon 9 means Ovzon 3 is now looking at a launch between July and September this year from Cape Canaveral, Florida. “While we are clearly disappointed in the continued delays in production of the satellite, we remain perfectly confident with the market demand of Ovzon 3,” Ovzon CEO Per Norén said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX conducts successful static-fire test. At around 3:15 pm local time in South Texas, SpaceX ignited its Super Heavy rocket for a “full duration” test of its Raptor engines. According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the launch team turned off one engine just prior to ignition, and another stopped itself. Still, he said 31 of 33 engines would have provided enough thrust to reach orbit. This is a huge milestone for SpaceX that potentially puts the company on track for an orbital test flight during the second half of March, or possibly early April.

A great day for space … As Ars reports, this is the most engines ignited on a rocket, ever. The thrust output of these engines, too, was likely nearly double that of NASA’s Saturn 5 rocket or Space Launch System. The good news for SpaceX is that, at least from early views, the launch infrastructure in South Texas looked mostly unscathed. Overall this was a great day for SpaceX, and for NASA as well, as the space agency is counting on Super Heavy and Starship to help land humans on the Moon later this decade. (submitted by EllPeaTea)

Assessing when the Vulcan rocket might launch. United Launch Alliance’s large Vulcan rocket, which has received dozens of launch orders from the US Department of Defense and Amazon for its Project Kuiper megaconstellation, is due to make its debut at some point this year. But when? There is no official date, but Ars reports that the company is likely working toward a no-earlier-than-May launch date. There are two main drivers for the mission, which is known as Cert-1 (this stands for “certification flight-1).

It’s always the engines, isn’t it? … The payload itself is not yet ready, because its primary engines are still undergoing testing at White Sands, New Mexico. Currently, Astrobotic plans to integrate the engines onto the Peregrine lunar lander at the rocket’s launch site in Florida. And Vulcan itself must still be put through a series of flight readiness verification tests, including multiple tanking tests and a wet dress rehearsal, culminating in an engine flight readiness firing. After that, a launch date will be set.

NASA tests redesigned shuttle main engine. The space agency conducted its first hot fire test of the year of a modified RS-25 rocket engine on Wednesday at the Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. This was part of a “certification” program to determine that the design of the engine is ready to proceed into production, NASA said. The test featured a range of new components and lasted for 500 seconds, the full duration of a firing needed to get the Space Launch System rocket to orbit.

Reuse no longer needed … Four of these main engines will power the SLS rocket. For the first four Artemis missions, the SLS will use left-over engines from the space shuttle program. The engine tested this week is a slightly simplified design of the old shuttle engine, which features new manufacturing technologies but is no longer reusable, as the space shuttle main engines were. Certification testing of the new RS-25 engine is on track to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2023, with new production engines slated to begin in 2024. (submitted by BH, Ken the Bin, EllPeaTea, and Tfargo04)

Next three launches

Feb. 12: Falcon 9 | Starlink 5-4 | Cape Canaveral, Fla. | 04:42 UTC

Feb. 15: H3 | Debut test flight | Tanegashima, Japan | 01:37 UTC

Feb. 15: Falcon 9 | Starlink 2-5 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. | 16:32 UTC

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