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Rocket Report: SpaceX launches Korea to the Moon, Georgia’s litigious spaceport

Enlarge / An Atlas V rocket launches a Space Based Infrared System satellite on Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral Space Force Base.
Trevor Mahlmann

Welcome to Edition 5.05 of the Rocket Report! Don’t look now, but we could be fewer than four weeks away from the launch of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. I have covered this booster for a dozen years and I’m so ready for this to finally happen. I’ve got plenty of coverage planned in the weeks ahead.

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 sues to force land sale. First Camden County citizens voted overwhelmingly against a proposed spaceport in southeastern Georgia. Then, the owner of 4,000 acres sought by the spaceport proponents said it would end an agreement to sell the land to backers of the Spaceport Camden project. Even so, Camden County commissioners refuse to give up the dream of building a spaceport that local residents don’t want, and for which the land owner doesn’t want to sell. So they’ve taken the land owner, Union Carbide Corporation, to court, News4Jax reports.

Ignoring the voters … Last month, in a statement, Union Carbide said, “As a result (of the election), there is no longer an Option Agreement in existence between the County and UCC, and UCC does not intend to convey the property to the County pursuant to the prior Option Agreement.” In filing the lawsuit, Steve Howard, Camden County’s government administrator, wrote, “Union Carbide most certainly has a contract with Camden. The County has indicated that it is ready, willing, and able to close. We expect Union Carbide to honor its contractual commitments.” At some point you have to wonder why local officials are so hellbent on building this spaceport. (submitted by zapman987 and Ken the Bin)

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Solid rocket debut a success. Chinese launch services provider CAS Space successfully placed six small satellites in orbit early Wednesday with the first launch of the Lijian-1 solid rocket, Space News reports. Lijian-1 is now the largest operational Chinese solid launcher, and CAS Space is also developing larger rockets. The 30-meter-tall Lijian-1 rocket can carry 1,500 kilograms of payload into a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit.

Derivative designs … CAS Space is a quasi-commercial spinoff from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The parent, CAS, develops a range of spacecraft, including Beidou satellites, and has previously launched sounding rockets. Although Wednesday’s orbital launch marks a big step forward, solid rockets appear to be only the start of CAS Space’s ambitions. The company is also working on reusable liquid engines with the goal of developing recoverable launchers. A new website unveiled by the company recently shows launch vehicle renders similar to Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and New Shepard launchers. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

US companies complete August 4 launch-a-palooza. Thursday was quite a day for US launch providers. Starting at 05:00 UTC, Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle launched the NROL-199 mission into low Earth orbit for the US National Reconnaissance Office. Then, at 10:29 UTC on Thursday, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket sent a Space Based Infrared System satellite into orbit for the US Space Force. Finally, at 1337 UTC, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket launched the NS-22 suborbital space tourism mission.

Next up, SpaceX … Thursday evening the focus turned toward SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket, which was due to launch the Korea Aerospace Research Institute’s Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter spacecraft to the Moon. The rocket launched at 23:09 UTC from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and was successful. I cannot recall a time when four different US rockets launched during the same calendar day, but this probably won’t be the last time, given all the development of new US boosters, large and small. We truly are entering an era of launch abundance. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Russia launches satellite to spysat. A Russian Soyuz rocket launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome on Monday around midnight local time. The military mission’s payload was classified but has been designated Kosmos 2558 for tracking purposes. The Russian satellite has since been placed in a nearly circular, 435 km×452 km orbit, with an inclination of 97.25 degrees. This is notable, Ars reports, because it will allow the Kosmos 2558 satellite to come very close to a recently launched US spy satellite, which was designated NROL-87.

Close encounter of the satellite kind … This US national security payload was designed and built for the National Reconnaissance Agency and launched on February 2 into orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The Russian satellite launched into the same orbital plane as NROL-87, and this set up a close encounter between the two satellites on Thursday, August 4, when they will pass within just 75 km of one another.

Falcon 9 fairing recovery going well. SpaceX continues to tinker with how it recovers Falcon 9 payload fairing halves, reports. Most notably, the company appears to be testing a new system of a crane and rigs, with inflatables, to pluck fairing halves from the ocean after they fall to Earth. The new rig appears to have been designed with inflatables to avoid damaging the fairing if the two were ever to make contact. This video of a recent test is quite interesting.

Seven time’s the charm? … More than a year ago SpaceX abandoned its plan of attempting to “catch” the falling fairing halves with boats equipped with large nets, determining that it was less work to refurbish fairing halves that briefly touch the sea compared to the effort of trying to catch them. It now appears that the company has flown some of these fairing halves as many as seven times, and due to the success of its recovery effort has a factory full of them ready to fly again. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

OneWeb needs five more launches to complete network. OneWeb and Eutelsat announced plans in late July to merge, bringing together OneWeb’s network of Internet satellites in low Earth orbit with Eutelsat’s fleet of larger video, data relay, and broadband platforms in geostationary orbit, Spaceflight Now reports. OneWeb’s chairman also said the company is on track to resume deploying its remaining Internet satellites as soon as September, with three SpaceX flights and two Indian launches on tap to replace Russian Soyuz rockets no longer available after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Awarding contracts for second-gen constellation … While OneWeb still has about 220 satellites to launch before completing its first-generation network, the company is already planning an even larger constellation called Gen 2. OneWeb announced an agreement with Relativity Space last month for multiple Gen 2 satellite launches beginning as soon as 2025 on the launch company’s next-generation reusable Terran R rocket.

Book your Russian launch online. Roskosmos’ commercial arm to sell Russian launch services abroad, Glavkosmos, has opened a booking page for its launch vehicles, Anatoly Zak reports. The webpage invites users to order a “target launch” on one of four launch vehicles: Angara-1.2, Angara-A5, Soyuz-2.1, and a Proton-M. While the webpage includes basic information about each vehicle, the Russian website does not list prices.

Customers must be OK with genocidal war … Zak probably said it best about the new booking website: “If you have a 4-24-ton satellite built without any Western components and you are OK with Russian genocidal war in Ukraine, you are welcome to book your ride here.” I have to agree. Tangentially, if you’re wondering what Glavkosmos CEO Dmitry Loskutov thinks of the Rocket Report, it’s safe to say he does not have a flattering opinion of my efforts. Udachi with your sales, Dmitry!

SLS launch remains on track for late this month. It hardly seems real, but we very well could be within just a few weeks of the debut launch of the Space Launch System rocket. SLS managers and agency leaders said this week that the work to prepare the SLS and the Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center was “on plan” to support a rollout to the pad August 18 and a launch 11 days later, Space News reports. “We are in the final stretch,” Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Artemis 1 launch director at KSC, said at a briefing to preview the mission.

Need to complete flight termination system work … A rollout on August 18 would allow a launch on August 29. Since NASA announced the targeted launch date last month, crews have been working on SLS and Orion, ranging from completing repairs to the rocket to installing payloads inside the Orion capsule. Technicians also powered on Orion for the final time before launch last weekend. One remaining item to complete is testing the rocket’s flight termination system in the “intertank” portion of the core stage. That testing will begin next week, Blackwell-Thompson said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Long March 5B makes uncontrolled reentry. Wreckage from a Chinese Long March 5B rocket first stage made a fiery reentry into Earth’s atmosphere over Southeast Asia Saturday, six days after launching a space station module into orbit, Space News reports. The Long March 5B is a variant of China’s largest rocket and consists of a core stage and four side boosters. The core stage also acts as the upper stage, inserting the payload into orbit, but because its engines cannot restart, the location of the core stage’s return from low Earth orbit cannot be predetermined.

Where it stops nobody knows … While much of the empty rocket stage is expected to have burned up on reentry, roughly 20 to 40 percent of a stage typically survives reentry, according to experts, such as engine components designed to withstand high temperatures. Much of this fell into the Sulu Sea, but there were reports of debris found in Borneo and Malaysia, although no one was hurt. Following the Long March 5 B’s return, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called on China’s space program to share better trajectory information as part of established norms. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

NASA awards contracts for future SLS missions. NASA is preparing to award a contract to a Boeing-Northrop Grumman joint venture for Space Launch System missions that could run through the middle of the next decade, Space News reports. The agency’s pre-solicitation notice would shift procurement of SLS launches to a services contract. Under the contract, NASA would procure launch services, rather than the vehicles themselves, for missions starting with Artemis 5 in the late 2020s. NASA envisions this approach as a means of saving money as well as opening the door to other uses of the heavy-lift rocket.

Keeping the trough filled … The baseline contract would cover missions Artemis 5 through 9, with an option for missions Artemis 10 through 14 and another option for up to 10 non-Artemis launches. If the options are exercised, the contract will run through the Artemis 14 mission that NASA projects flying in 2036. NASA expects to award the contract to a new joint venture called Deep Space Transport LLC. That joint venture consists of Boeing, the prime contractor for the SLS core stage and the Exploration Upper Stage that will be used on SLS missions starting with Artemis 4, and Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the SLS solid rocket boosters. The contract would effectively be sole-sourced to Deep Space Transport.

Next three launches

August 6: Small Satellite Launch Vehicle | Satish Dhawan Space Center, India | 15:48 UTC

August 9: Falcon 9 | Starlink 4-26 | Kennedy Space Center, Fla. | 23:00 UTC

August 12: Falcon 9 | Starlink 3-3 | Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif. | 21:30 UTC

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