Rocket Report: SpaceX Sees Demand for Rideshare, Russia’s Strange Launch Agreement with Iran

India's Small Satellite Launch Vehicle flies on Sunday.
enlarge / India’s Small Satellite Launch Vehicle flies on Sunday.


Welcome to edition 5.06 of the Rocket Report! The big news this week is Northrop Grumman’s deal with both Firefly and SpaceX to ensure the Cygnus spacecraft can continue to fly to the International Space Station. This is a bold move that draws on the deep US commercial space industry to meet NASA’s needs in space. It’s great to see this kind of collaboration in the aviation community.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss out on an issue, subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-compatible versions of the site). Each report includes information on small, medium and heavy rockets, as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Astra turns to bigger rocket. Astra will move away from its previous mantra of being lean in terms of staff, moving at lightning speed and tolerating some launch vehicle failures, Ars reports. It will also get bigger in terms of its rocket size. “First, we increased the target payload for Launch System 2.0 from 300kg to 600kg,” said CEO Chris Kemp. “Secondly, we are working with all of our launch service customers to re-manifest Launch System 2.0. As such, we will not have additional flights in 2022. And third, we are increasing investment in testing and qualification.”

Starter rocket a non-starter … The company announced the change in strategy after five failures in seven attempts to launch its smaller starter booster, Rocket 3.3. Kemp said Astra plans to conduct test launches of its new, larger rocket next year, but it cannot commit to launch commercial service with the rocket in 2023. It’s unclear if Astra has the finances to survive one to two years of development work. Astra reported a net loss of $168 million in the first half of 2022, with sales of just $6.5 million. Meanwhile, the company has cash and marketable securities of approximately $200 million on hand. (submitted by Ken de Bin)

India’s SSLV Fails on Debut Launch. India’s space agency said Sunday that the inaugural demonstration flight of the country’s new Small Satellite Launch Vehicle failed to place two satellites in their intended low Earth orbit, Spaceflight Now reports. The first phases of the mission went according to plan, according to the Indian Space Research Organization. But the launch team could not confirm that the rocket’s final stage had completed its task of launching two small satellites into orbit.

Back to work soon … The problem seems to have been caused by a sensor problem in the fourth stage that caused a premature shutdown. As a result, the two small satellites were blasted into orbit at a perigee of only 76 km. ISRO developed the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle to join the fleet of Indian missiles including the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk.3, GSLV Mk.2 and the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. With a production cost of $4 million, the missile is intended to compete with western commercial smallsat launchers. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

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Rocket Lab Cadence Powered by Market Demand. The Electron vehicle has been in use for half a decade now, and the company can build a new vehicle every 18 days, said Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab. “We’ve invested a huge amount in all the systems and processes to do that,” Beck said in an interview with Ars. “All our production systems are really mature.” The company could build even more electrons if needed. But there’s no question or willingness from the customer at this point, Beck said.

A niche market … “The reality is we’ve built everything to be able to launch once a week,” Beck said. “Everything in the factory is designed to process and push through one missile per week. So from an infrastructure perspective we can do that. And from a systems perspective we can do that. It would just need more staff. But the reality is that it is the market that is the driving force. For us, our cadence today is 100 percent driven by market demand.”

NASA seeks new ride for TROPICS mission. Astra’s decision to retire the Rocket 3.3 vehicle has left four small NASA satellites stranded. While the first two TROPICS cubesats were lost after a launch failure on June 12 on a Rocket 3.3 vehicle, four additional TROPICS cubesats were to be launched on two Rocket 3.3 vehicles. Now that this rocket is no longer available, NASA is looking for alternative options to launch the remaining TROPICS cubesats, Space News reports.

Probably not Astra … “We’re still looking for a ride, and once the ride is found, we’ll launch it,” Sachidananda Babu, a program manager at NASA’s Earth Science division, said during a NASA city hall meeting at the Small Satellite Conference. Astra said it was working with NASA to launch the cubesats on its new, larger launch vehicle, but that rocket could be overpowered for the smallsats. (And it may not be ready until 2024). Agency sources said Astra’s announcement that the company was discontinuing the Rocket 3.3 surprised them. Switching vehicles poses cost and scheduling issues that NASA is still studying.

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