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Rocket Report: Beyond Gravity to study fairing reuse; North Korea launches satellite

Thirty-three engines fired to power the Super Heavy booster and Starship rocket into the sky.
Enlarge / Thirty-three engines fired to power the Super Heavy booster and Starship rocket into the sky.

Stephen Clark / Ars Technica

Welcome to Edition 6.20 of the Rocket Report! We apologize for missing last week, but both Stephen and I were in transit to South Texas for the Starship launch. To make up for it this week’s report is extra long, and a day early due to the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. But that doesn’t mean the spaceflight action stops, with an eagerly awaited hot fire test of the Ariane 6 rocket expected Thursday. See below for details on how to watch live.

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.

North Korea launches spy satellite. North Korea’s launch of a small, solid-fueled Chŏllima-1 rocket, which has a capacity of about 300 kg to low-Earth orbit, appears to have been successful, Reuters reports. Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the US Space Force data had cataloged two new objects in an orbital plane consistent with the launch from North Korea at the time stated by Pyongyang.

Did Russia help? … “I conclude the objects are the spy satellite and the rocket upper stage,” McDowell told the news service. What remains unconfirmed, however, is whether its payload, the reconnaissance satellite Malligyong-1, is operating and whether the North received any outside help. South Korea’s spy agency has said North Korea may have overcome technical hurdles with the help of Russia, which in September publicly pledged to help Pyongyang build satellites. (submitted by EllPeaTea, Ken the Bin, and tsunam)

Firefly raises significant funding. It’s certainly not the best of times for a space company to raise money, but Firefly seems to be having success regardless. The company recently announced that it has raised about $300 million since February 2023, valuing the company at $1.5 billion. “We have been successful at raising funds at an increased valuation in this challenging capital markets environment due to our focus on production and mission execution,” said Bill Weber, CEO of Firefly Aerospace.

Lots of lines of business … Along with Firefly’s recent responsive launch success with the VICTUS NOX mission, the company said it has been awarded contracts for multiple Alpha rocket missions, including a NASA flight, and launch agreements with Lockheed Martin and L3Harris. The company also won multiple US government and commercial contracts, including three NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services task orders, with its Blue Ghost lander. Firefly is also developing a medium-lift rocket with Northrop Grumman. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Rocket Lab targets November return to flight. Rocket Lab expects to resume Electron launches in late November after concluding that a “largely improbable” combination of events caused the vehicle’s previous launch to fail, Space News reports. The company is targeting a return to flight of Electron no earlier than November 28 from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. The rocket will carry a radar imaging satellite for the Japanese company iQPS on a dedicated mission.

An unexpected electrical arc … Electron has been grounded since a September 19 launch failure, when the second-stage engine appeared to shut down moments after ignition. The company has already received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to resume launches. In an earnings call to discuss the company’s third-quarter financial results, Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said the failure happened quickly, with only 1.6 seconds of data from the first indication of a problem with the vehicle to the loss of telemetry. “This was always going to be a highly complex issue to figure out,” he said. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Ursa Major to target solid rocket motor market. CEO Joe Laurienti said the company sees an opportunity to use 3D printing to disrupt an industry constrained by outdated processes, Space News reports. The production of solid rocket motors in the United States is “plagued by a broken supply chain and an overextended industrial base,” Laurienti said. “Most folks weren’t really paying attention to the industrial base around this until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Surging demand for missiles in Ukraine … While large solid rocket motors are employed by big launch vehicles such as NASA’s Space Launch System and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan, they are most widely used in military weapon systems like missiles and rockets. Northrop Grumman and L3Harris’ Aerojet Rocketdyne are the nation’s primary suppliers of solid rocket motors. The conflict in Ukraine has exposed cracks in the US industrial base, which has struggled to meet surging demand for critical munitions like the Javelin and Stinger missile systems that depend on solid rocket motors. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SaxaVord owes contractors money. A spaceport being built on the Shetland Islands north of the Scottish mainland is having financial difficulties, European Spaceflight reports. Shetland Space Centre Limited owes approximately 1 million pounds to Shetland-based DITT Construction for the development of the spaceport. The company currently does not have the funds to pay the amount after a £139 million debt facility promised by CEO Frank Strang in May failed to materialize. The construction of SaxaVord Spaceport began in late March 2022. At its peak, more than 60 people were working on site to build out key infrastructure that would enable the facility to support launches of small rockets from Scottish shores.

One launch company still going, another pulls out … In January 2023, Germany’s Rocket Factory Augsburg announced that it had secured exclusive rights to the only launch pad that had been completed. With testing of the RFA ONE core stage expected to begin at the site in early 2024, this appears to be one of the elements of SaxaVord that has been completed on schedule. In possibly related news, another German launch startup, HyImpulse Technologies, said it would make the debut flight of its suborbital SR75 launch vehicle from the Southern Launch Koonibba Test Range in Australia instead of the previously announced SaxaVord. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

Spanish startup makes progress on methalox engine. Barcelona-based Pangea Aerospace recently announced a successful test of the combustion chamber for its ARCOS aerospike engine. “We were also able to validate the advanced manufacturing techniques and materials used, which represent breakthrough technologies for the aerospace industry,” the company stated. Pangea says this is the first aerospike engine developed using liquid methane as a propellant.

A step toward full reuse … The ARCOS engine is designed to have a thrust of 300 kN, or about one-third that of a Merlin 1D rocket engine. It is intended to fly on both the first stage and upper stage of a reusable launch vehicle. The company’s technology is not at the maturity level of Stoke Space, but it does appear to be the first Europe-based startup attempting to build a fully reusable rocket. (submitted by Leika)

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