Welcome to version 5.23 of Rocket Report! It’s been a tough week for rocket lovers, with back-to-back failures of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne and ABL Space’s RS1 vehicles on Monday and Tuesday. I really hope both companies can find and fix the technical issues and get into orbit soon.
As always, we reader contributions welcome, 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 launch vehicles as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.
Virgin Orbit launch from UK fails to reach orbit. After Cosmic girl aircraft made a much-hyped takeoff from Cornwall, England, on Monday night, Virgin Orbit’s mission ended in failure when the second stage didn’t quite put its nine payloads into orbit. In a statement published on Thursday morning, Virgin Orbit provided some more information on the failure: “At an altitude of approximately 180 km, the upper stage experienced an anomaly. This anomaly prematurely terminated the first burn of the upper stage.”
Secure these assets … This was the company’s first failure after an initial demonstration mission, in 2020. Since then, LauncherOne had successfully reached orbit four times in a row, indicating that the launch system was fundamentally sound. The failure comes at an unfortunate time for Virgin Orbit, which, Ars reports, struggling to raise funds. After Virgin ended a fundraising effort in November, it approached founder Richard Branson for an additional $20 million in December 2020. However, this convertible note came with conditions – it gave Branson a priority secured interest. Essentially, then, Virgin Orbit appears to have pledged all of its assets to Branson. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
ABL Space’s debut launch fails. The first flight of ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket failed to reach orbit on Tuesday, Space News reports. The company said the nine engines on the RS1 vehicle’s first stage shut down simultaneously after liftoff, causing the vehicle to fall back to the ground and explode. The company did not disclose when after liftoff the shutdown took place or what height the rocket reached. The explosion damaged the launch facility, but no personnel were injured.
The next attempt will come … “This is not the result we were hoping for today, but one that we prepared for,” the company said. The two-stage vehicle has nine of its E2 engines in its first stage and a vacuum-optimized E2 engine in the upper stage, which uses kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. The vehicle is designed to launch from facilities with minimal infrastructure and lift up to 1.35 tons to low Earth orbit. ABL has raised several hundred million dollars from venture capital firms, with Lockheed Martin as both a strategic investor and a major customer. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)
RFA is launched from the north of Scotland. The German launch company Rocket Factory Augsburg announced on Wednesday that its debut launch would take place from SaxaVord Spaceport, located on the northernmost tip of the Shetland Islands in northern Scotland. The Scottish spaceport is ideally located for RFA to launch high-cadence payloads into polar sun-synchronous orbits, the company said. According to the press release, RFA will have exclusive access to “Launch Pad Fredo” at the spaceport.
RFA One to fly this year? … An accompanying image shows that a large steel launch support structure has already been built on site. (RFA calls the structure a “launch pad,” but this family-friendly publication will use an alternative term.) The company says the debut launch of its RFA One vehicle could happen in late 2023 and that stage tests should begin in the middle of this year. We’ll see if that happens, but it seems RFA’s first orbital launch isn’t that far off in the future. (submitted by Brangdonj, EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)
The European launch race is still wide open. With the failure of Virgin Orbit’s debut launch from the UK, the opportunity to proclaim itself as the first country and company to launch into orbit from Western Europe is open. The RFA One launch noted above is a contender. Another is Isar Aerospace, which has a contract for launch from Andøya Spaceport in Norway, This is reported by NRK.
Sweden too … The German company’s Spectrum rocket can launch about 1 ton into low Earth orbit, and Isar is trying to make its debut attempt in orbit this year. But wait, there’s more. His Majesty Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf will visit the Esrange spaceport in northern Sweden. on Friday to “cut the ribbon” on an orbital complex there. However, an orbital launch tenant at Esrange has yet to be announced. (submitted by audunru)
Electron gets a new US launch date. After stalling in late 2022 due to weather issues, Rocket Lab has set a new launch date for the Electron’s first flight from Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. The launch window for the “Virginia is for Launch Lovers” mission is scheduled to open on January 23, with backup dates for early February. The daily launch opportunity runs from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM ET (11:00 PM to 1:00 AM UTC).
Hoping for calmer winds in the new year … This mission will deploy three satellites for radio frequency geospatial analysis provider HawkEye 360. The mission is the first of three electron launches for HawkEye 360 in a contract that will see Rocket Lab deliver 15 satellites to low orbit if Earth in late 2024. Electron’s U.S. debut was delayed by more than a year while the company tried to obtain a launch license, and the December attempt was knocked off by unfavorable upper-level winds during the launch window. (submitted by Ken the Bin)
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