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Rocket report: Starship may be close to liftoff; China copycat booster designs

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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket is seen on the launch pad on January 9, 2023, ahead of its second OneWeb launch.
Extend / SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is seen on the launch pad on January 9, 2023, ahead of its second OneWeb launch.

Trevor Mahlmann

Welcome to Rocket Report Issue 5.23! It’s been a tough week for rocket aficionados, with the back-to-back failures of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne and ABL Space’s RS1 vehicles on Monday and Tuesday. I certainly hope that both companies can find and fix the technical issues and get into orbit soon.

As always, we welcome submissions from readers, and if you don’t want to miss any issues, please sign up 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 rockets, as well as a quick look at the next three launches on the calendar.

UK Virgin Orbit launch fails to reach orbit. After cosmic girl aircraft made a much-anticipated liftoff from Cornwall, England, on Monday night, Virgin Orbit’s mission ended in failure when the second stage failed to properly place its nine payloads into orbit. In a statement published on Thursday morning, Virgin Orbit provided a little more information about the failure: “At an altitude of approximately 180 km, the upper stage experienced an anomaly. This anomaly prematurely ended the first burn of the upper stage .”

Protecting these assets … This was the company’s first failure after an initial demonstration mission in 2020. Since then, LauncherOne has 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 says is struggling to raise funds. After Virgin ceased a fundraising effort in November, it turned to founder Richard Branson for an additional $20 million in December 2020. However, this convertible note came with restrictions – it granted Branson a guaranteed first-priority interest . Essentially, then, Virgin Orbit appears to have pledged all of its assets to Branson. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

ABL Space debut launch fails. The first flight of ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket failed to reach orbit on Tuesday, reports Space News. The company said the RS1 vehicle’s nine first-stage engines simultaneously shut down after takeoff, causing the vehicle to fall back onto the platform and explode. The company did not disclose when the shutdown occurred after takeoff or the altitude the rocket reached. The explosion damaged the launch facility, but no personnel were injured.

Next try soon … “This is not the result we expected today, but one 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 top stage, using kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. The vehicle is designed to launch from facilities with minimal infrastructure and lift up to 1.35 metric tons into low Earth orbit. ABL has raised several hundred million dollars from venture capital firms, with Lockheed Martin both a strategic investor and a major customer. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

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RFA will launch in Northern Scotland. German launch company Rocket Factory Augsburg announced on Wednesday that its debut launch would take place from SaxaVord Spaceport, located on the northern tip of the Shetland Islands in northern Scotland. The Scottish spaceport is ideally located for the RFA to launch high-rate payloads into sun-synchronized polar orbits, the company said. According to the press release, RFA will have exclusive access to the “Launch Pad Fredo” in the spaceport.

RFA One to fly this year? … From an attached image, it looks like a large steel launch support structure has already been built at the site. (RFA calls the structure a “launch stool,” but this familiar post will use an alternate term.) The company says the debut launch of its RFA One vehicle could take place by the end of 2023, and that stage tests should start in the middle of this year. We’ll have to see if that happens, but it looks like RFA’s first orbital launch isn’t that far in the future. (submitted by Brangdonj, EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Launch race in Europe remains open. With the failure of Virgin Orbit’s debut launch in the UK, the ability to claim itself as the first country and company to launch into orbit from Western Europe remains open. The RFA One release mentioned above is a competitor. Another is Isar Aerospace, which has an agreement to launch from Andøya Spaceport in Norway, reports NRK.

Sweden too … The German company’s Spectrum rocket can launch about 1 metric ton into low Earth orbit, and Isar is looking to make its first orbital attempt this year. But wait, there’s more. His Majesty the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, will be visiting the Esrange Spaceport in the northern part of 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 new US release date. After stalling in late 2022 due to weather issues, Rocket Lab has set a new launch date for the first Electron 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 23rd, with backup dates through early February. The daily launch opportunity runs from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM ET (11:00 PM to 1:00 PM 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 from Earth by the end of 2024. Electron’s US debut was delayed for more than a year as the company sought to obtain a launch license, and the December attempt was thwarted by headwinds from higher tier during the window. Of launching. (submitted by Ken the Bin)