Rocket Report: Spacecraft May Fly Again in May; Ariane 6 come together

Zoom in / Nine kerosene-fueled Rutherford engines power Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle from the launch pad on Wallops Island, Virginia, early Thursday.

Welcome to Rocket Report version 6.36! SpaceX wants to launch its next Starship test flight in early May, the company's president and chief operating officer said this week. Last week's third Starship test flight went so well that the Federal Aviation Administration — yes, the FAA, which has been the target of the frustration of many SpaceX fans — expects an investigation and a simpler launch authorization process than SpaceX went through before its previous Starship flights. However, it looks like we'll have to wait a little longer for Starship to start launching real satellites.

As always, we are Reader submissions are welcomeIf 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 missiles, as well as a quick look at the next three launches on the calendar.

Spacecraft could threaten small launch providers. Officials from several companies that operate or develop small satellite launch vehicles are concerned that SpaceX's giant Starship rocket could have a significant impact on their marketability. Space news reports. Starship's ability to transport more than 100 metric tons of payload mass to low Earth orbit will be attractive not only to customers with heavy satellites but also to those with smaller spacecraft. Assembling many small satellites on Starship would mean lower prices than dedicated small satellite launch companies could offer and could encourage customers to build larger satellites with cheaper parts, further eroding the business opportunities of small launch service providers.

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Well that's true …SpaceX's custom rideshare missions are already reshaping the small satellite launch market. The price per kilogram of payload on the Falcon 9 rocket launching the Transporter mission is lower than the unit price on a smaller rocket, such as Rocket Lab's Electron, Firefly's Alpha, or the European Vega. Companies operating solely in the small satellite launch market tout the benefits of their services, often citing their ability to deliver payloads to dedicated orbits, rather than dropping constellations of satellites into more standardized orbits. But the introduction of orbital transfer vehicles for last-mile delivery services has made SpaceX's transportation missions, and perhaps ride-sharing flights on the spacecraft, more attractive. “With Starship, OTVs can become the best choice for small satellites,” said Marino Fragnetto, Senior Vice President and Head of the Vega Business Unit at Arianespace. If the spacecraft can achieve its proposed ultra-low per-kilogram launch prices, “it's going to be difficult for small launch vehicles,” Fragnetto said.

Rocket Lab is launching again from Virginia. Rocket Lab's fourth launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, and the company's first there in nine months, lifted off early Thursday with a secret payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government's spy satellite agency. Space news reports. A two-stage Electron rocket placed the NRO payload into low Earth orbit, and officials declared it a successful mission. The NRO did not reveal any details about the payload, but in a post-launch statement, the agency indicated that the mission was conducting technology demonstrations of some kind. “The knowledge gained from this research will foster innovation and enable the development of important new technology,” said NRO Director Chris Scholes.

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Fixed customer of Rocket Lab …The National Reconnaissance Office has become a regular client of Rocket Lab. The NRO has historically launched larger spacecraft, such as massive bus-sized spy satellites, but like the Space Force, it has begun launching larger numbers of smaller satellites. This mission, designated by NRO as NROL-123, was the fifth and final mission under the Rapid Acquisition of 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 the Electron's flight last week from its home base in New Zealand. Overall, this was the 46th launch of an Electron Light-class rocket since its debut in 2017. Rocket Lab is building a launch pad for the next generation Neutron rocket at Wallops. (Submitted by EllPeaTea)

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Night flight of Astrobotic's Zodiac. The Xodiac rocket, a test bed for small ground take-off and vertical landing technology, made its first night flight. Astrobotic says in a statement. The liquid-fueled Xodiac is designed for vertical jumps and could host prototype sensors and other payloads, especially instruments under development to aid precision landings on other worlds. This was the Xodiac's first tethered night flight in Mojave, California, in preparation for an upcoming flight test with a NASA TechLeap Award. Precision landing challenge at night. These flights will begin in April, allowing NASA to test the sensors' ability to map a landing field designed to simulate the lunar surface in near-total darkness.

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Building on the Masten legacy … Xodiac has completed more than 160 successful flights, dating back to the vehicle's original owner, Masten Space Systems. Masten declared bankruptcy in 2022, and Astrobotic acquired the company two months later. Astrobotic's core business is developing and flying robotic lunar landers, so it has a keen interest in perfecting robotic landing and navigation technologies like the ones it's testing with NASA on Xodiac. David Masten, founder of Masten Space Systems, is now chief engineer of Astrobotic's propulsion and test division. “Teams will display their systems on the LSPG (Lunar Surface Proving Ground) at night to simulate landing on the Moon during the lunar night or in shaded craters.” (Submitted by Ken Penn)

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