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Rocket Report: Tough times for Astra and Virgin; SpaceX upgrading launch pad

The crew access arm was installed this week on a new tower SpaceX has built at Space Launch Complex-40.
Enlarge / The crew access arm was installed this week on a new tower SpaceX has built at Space Launch Complex-40.

Welcome to Edition 6.19 of the Rocket Report! While we wait for SpaceX to launch the second full-scale test flight of Starship, a lot of the news this week involved companies with much smaller rockets. Astra is struggling to find enough funding to remain in business, and Virgin Galactic says it will fly its suborbital Unity spaceplane for the last time next year to focus on construction of new Delta-class ships that should be easier to turn around between flights. It’s a tough time to raise money, and more space companies will face difficult decisions to stay alive in the months 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.

Virgin Galactic plans “pause” in flight operations. Virgin Galactic will reduce the frequency of flights of its current suborbital vehicle and stop them entirely by mid-2024 as it concentrates resources on the next generation of vehicles, Space News reports. This was unexpected news for anyone outside of the company. As Ars has previously reported, Virgin Galactic has ramped up the flight rate for its VSS Unity suborbital spaceplane to about one mission per month, a rather impressive cadence, especially when Blue Origin, the other player in the suborbital human spaceflight market, has not flown any people to space in more than a year.

Changing priorities and layoffs … Although Virgin’s Unity suborbital vehicle has been a technical success, the company reported just $1.7 million in revenue in the third quarter of this year and a net loss of $105 million over the same period. Each Unity flight has carried three paying customers, along with three Virgin Galactic crew members. Virgin Galactic needs a new spacecraft design to ferry more people to the edge of space at an even more rapid cadence, so the company will only fly Unity two or three more times before grounding the spaceplane and moving workers from Unity‘s home base in New Mexico to work on new Delta-class suborbital ships under construction near Phoenix. The new Delta-class vehicles will begin test flights in 2025 and can fly twice per week, with six customers, instead of the three or four passengers Unity is able to carry. Virgin Galactic also announced this week it has laid off 185 employees, or 18 percent of its workforce. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Astra may go private. The founders of struggling space company Astra have offered to take the company private at a value of about $30 million, CNBC reports. Chris Kemp, chairman and CEO, and Adam London, chief technology officer, delivered a proposal to the Astra board of directors Wednesday to acquire all the company’s outstanding stock at $1.50 a share. This development caps a rocky week for Astra, which defaulted on a loan as its cash reserve dropped below $10.5 million. On Monday, Astra raised financing from a pair of investors to pay off that outstanding debt.

Astra’s $2.6 billion valuation seems like ancient history … It was less than three years ago that Astra, which operated as a privately held company for the first few years of its existence, went public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). At that time, Astra had a valuation of $2.6 billion, with plans to develop a small satellite launcher that could fly cheaper and faster than pretty much any other rocket ever built. That didn’t happen, and Astra abandoned its Rocket 3 launch vehicle after a series of failures. This year, Astra hoped to move forward with a new rocket called Rocket 4, but the company’s dwindling cash reserve forced officials to lay off 25 percent of its workforce and shift focus on producing electric thrusters for small satellites, a business that has real customers. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

Avio and Arianespace will go their separate ways. Earlier this week, European governments agreed to a proposal from Avio, the Italian company that builds the Vega rocket, to start selling launch services on its own. Since the rocket’s inception more than a decade ago, the French launch services company, Arianespace, has been responsible for selling Vega launches on the commercial market. Now, Avio and Arianespace need to work out how to go through with the divorce, European Spaceflight reports. One of the topics up for negotiation is how to handle the 17 Vega flights currently in Arianespace’s backlog.

Securing the future of Vega … Avio expects to reach an agreement to manage all 17 flights in the Vega backlog. Avio’s request to take over the responsibility for Vega sales was backed by the Italian government, which is eager to carve out a larger role for the country’s space companies in the broader landscape of the European space industry. Italy’s government is providing more than 300 million euros for Avio to develop a new methane-fueled engine and a test vehicle for a partially reusable rocket. Avio is also working on a new version of the Vega rocket, called the Vega-E, with a methane-fueled upper stage engine to replace the Ukrainian engine currently flown on Vega. A recent agreement will allow Avio to launch the Vega-E from the old Ariane 5 launch pad in French Guiana. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Rocket Lab reveals likely cause of launch failure. Rocket Lab announced Wednesday that engineers have determined the failure of the company’s most recent Electron rocket flight in September was likely caused by an unexpected electrical arc occurring within the upper stage’s power supply system. This arc shorted the battery packs that provided power to the upper stage, which could not fire its engine and deploy a radar imaging satellite for Capella Space. This was the fourth Electron launch failure in 41 flights. Rocket Lab is scheduled to resume Electron launches no earlier than November 28 with a small Japanese Earth observation satellite.

A “highly complex set of conditions” … In Wednesday’s update, Rocket Lab detailed how the electrical arc was only possible through the “rare interaction of multiple conditions” encountered on the September launch. “These factors combined, including electricity in the presence of both helium and nitrogen, while under a partial pressure environment, unrestrained by a fault in the high voltage loom, and exacerbated by an alternating current, aligned at a point on the Paschen curve that allows an electrical arc to form and travel,” Rocket Lab said. Engineers went through exhaustive tests to determine the “evasive” cause of the launch failure, said Peter Beck, Rocket Lab’s founder and CEO. The company is implementing two corrective measures to improve testing on the ground and eliminate the possibility of similar electrical arcs occurring in flight. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Rocket Factory Augsburg gets a public funding boost. The UK Space Agency is providing more than 4 million euros in funding to the German launch company Rocket Factory Augsburg, officials announced this week. This money will help Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) develop and operate launch infrastructure at the SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands of northern Scotland. This funding comes from the European Space Agency’s Boost! program. RFA plans to launch its RFA One rocket from Scotland next year, bringing about 90 skilled jobs to the Shetland Islands when the spaceport reaches full operational capability.

OK, but when will it be ready to fly? … 4 million euros is a relatively small sum for a rocket company, but RFA is primarily backed by private investment. This also isn’t the only funding RFA has received from ESA and other space agencies. An orbital transfer vehicle being developed by RFA is getting a boost with more than 3.5 million euros from ESA. RFA won a micro-launcher competition managed by DLR, the German space agency, last year, receiving 11 million euros in a contract that allows Germany to place a payload on one of the first two flights of the RFA One rocket. The French space agency CNES has also agreed to allow RFA to launch its rocket from a disused launch pad at the Guiana Space Center in South America. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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