Rocket Report: Starliner launch preparations; Indian human-classified rocket engine

Zoom in / The first stage of United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket was lifted to the launch pad this week in preparation for launch in April with two NASA astronauts on Boeing's Starliner Crew flight test.

United Launch Alliance

Welcome to Rocket Report version 6.32! I'm reporting again this week while Eric Berger is in Washington, D.C., receiving a well-deserved honor, the Commercial Spaceflight Association's 2024 Excellence in Commercial Space Journalism Award. Cape Canaveral is the world's busiest spaceport, and three leading American launch companies were active there this week. SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 rocket, and a few miles away, Blue Origin hoisted the New Glenn rocket onto its launch pad for a long-awaited ground test. Nearby, United Launch Alliance has begun assembly of an Atlas V rocket for the first crew launch of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft in April. 2024 looks like it's going to be a really exciting year for the spaceflight community.

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.

Astroscale inspection satellite launched by Rocket Lab. Astroscale, a well-capitalized Japanese startup, has launched a small satellite to do something that has never been done before in space, Ars reports. Delivered into orbit on February 18 by Rocket Lab, this new spacecraft will approach the defunct upper stage of the Japanese H-IIA rocket that has been orbiting Earth for more than 15 years. Over the next few months, the satellite will attempt to move within arm's length of the rocket, taking images and performing complex maneuvers to move around the bus-sized H-IIA upper stage as it moves around the planet at roughly 5 miles per second (7.6 km/s).

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This is the first time … Astroscale's ADRAS-J mission is the first satellite designed to approach and examine a piece of space junk in orbit. This is a public-private partnership between Astroscale and the Japanese Aerospace Agency. Of course, space agencies and commercial companies have demonstrated in-orbit rendezvous for decades. The difference here is that the H-IIA rocket is uncontrollable, likely rotates and moves slowly, and was never designed to accommodate any visitors. Japan left it in orbit in January 2009 after launching a climate monitoring satellite and has not looked back. ADRAS-J is a technology demonstration that could pave the way for a follow-up mission to actually attach to and deorbit the H-IIA rocket. Astroscale eventually wants to use these technologies for satellite servicing, refueling, and other debris removal missions. (Submitted by Ken the Ben and Jay500001)

A software bug has been blamed for a Firefly launch malfunction. Aerospace firefly An update was issued on Tuesday regarding an investigation into a defect in the upper stage of the company's Alpha rocket in December. The investigative team, made up of members from Firefly, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, Lockheed Martin, NASA and the US Space Force, identified a software error in the missile's guidance, navigation and control software algorithm that ultimately led to the software error. An Alpha rocket launches its payload into a lower orbit than planned after launching from California.

Higher level problems…The software error prevented the rocket from sending “necessary pulse commands” to control the upper stage's thrusters before its main engine reignited. This second burn in the upper stage was supposed to rotate the rocket's orbit, but that did not happen as planned. However, the Alpha rocket safely launched its commercial space payload for Lockheed Martin. Although the lower orbit caused the satellite to re-enter the atmosphere earlier this month, Lockheed Martin said it was able to achieve several goals of the technology demonstration mission, which focused on testing an electronically directed antenna. This was the fourth launch of an Alpha rocket, two of which suffered upper stage malfunctions during attempts to restart the engine. Firefly says it is preparing the next Alpha rocket for flight “in the coming months.” (Submitted by Ken Penn)

Good fundraising tour for Gilmour Space. Australian startup Gilmour Space Technologies has raised A$55 million (US$36 million) in a Series D funding round announced on Monday. Space news reports. The funding supports the small launch vehicle startup's drive to manufacture, test and begin launching rockets and satellites from Bowen Spaceport in North Queensland. Gilmour Space, founded in 2012, is developing a three-stage rocket called Eris. Eris's first test flight is expected “in the coming months, pending launch approvals from the Australian Space Agency,” according to a Gilmour Space press release.

Starting from the bottom…Gilmour Space aims to launch the first Australian-made rocket into orbit later this year. The Iris rocket is powered by hybrid engines, and Gilmore says it is capable of delivering about 670 pounds (305 kilograms) of payload mass to a sun-synchronous orbit. The $36 million fundraising round announced this week follows a $46 million fundraising round in 2021. According to the Australian Broadcasting CorporationGilmour Space aims to launch the first flight of Eris in April, and the latest fundraising should give the company enough money to conduct four test flights. (Submitted by Ken Penn)

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