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Rocket Report: Vega-C is a sight to see; will Europe push SpaceX aside?


Europe's Vega-C rocket takes off from a spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana on Wednesday.
Enlarge / Europe’s Vega-C rocket takes off from a spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana on Wednesday.

European Space Agency

Welcome to Edition 5.03 of the Rocket Report!  It was a big week for small launch news, with a successful debut for Europe’s Vega-C rocket, a responsive launch by Rocket Lab’s Electron vehicle, and a big static fire test by ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket. Congratulations to all involved in those projects.

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.

Europe’s Vega-C rocket makes successful debut. Europe’s new Vega-C rocket made its debut flight on Wednesday, carrying an Italian physics satellite and six cubesats, Space News reports. The four-stage rocket launched from Kourou, French Guiana, at the end of a two-hour launch window. Technical issues had twice halted the countdown sequence. The successful mission means that Europe can now start to use the Vega-C rocket for operational launches, starting in November with the Pléiades Neo 5 and 6 Earth-imaging satellites. Arianespace says it has already sold seven Vega-C launches.

Bigger and brawnier … Vega C has more powerful rocket motors and a larger payload volume than the original Vega rocket, which is retiring after first launching a decade ago. The upgraded rocket can carry about 2.3 metric tons to a 700-kilometer altitude polar orbit, compared with 1.5 metric tons for its predecessor. Vega-C’s first stage is powered by a solid-fueled P120 engine that will also be used by Europe’s upcoming Ariane 6 launcher, which has two variants for replacing Europe’s heavy-lift Ariane 5 and the medium-lift Soyuz rocket that was sourced from Russia. Wednesday’s success gave the institutional European launch industry a much-needed win. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

ABL Space completes first stage test. The California-based company said this week that it has successfully completed a static fire test of the first stage of its RS1 rocket. “The operation verified our startup sequence and stage level engine performance,” said Harry O’Hanley, in a statement emailed to Ars. “It was also a key demonstration of our GS0 Launch Stool, which packs into a container and enables launch from a flat pad. A testament to our team’s intense preparation, we completed the test on the first attempt.”

A fall launch for RS1? … The company has now completed testing of both the first and second stages of the RS1 rocket. Next up for ABL is preparing to mate the two stages and perform final checkouts on the fully stacked vehicle before a wet dress rehearsal test. After that, the hardware should be ready for launch. The company will not set a date until it has verified the readiness of the hardware, and it will take at least six additional weeks to obtain regulatory approval and complete launch paperwork. (submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea)

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

A year has passed since Virgin Galactic’s last flight. More than 12 months have now passed since Sir Richard Branson briefly departed this world, only to make a feathery return back to Earth, landing on a hot, dusty runway in rural New Mexico. However, the VSS Unity spacecraft has yet to fly again, Ars reports, and may not do so until at least this winter. In a feature, the publication explores why the spacecraft has not taken to the skies again and what this means for Virgin Galactic’s future as competitor Blue Origin increases its New Shepard flight cadence.

How many flights needed for profitability? … Virgin Galactic is losing nearly $100 million a quarter, and since it won’t start flying again soon the losses will continue to mount. To reach profitability, given its ongoing expenses, it’s likely that Virgin Galactic needs to fly at least 150 or 200 revenue flights per year, consisting of a mix of passenger and research payload missions. But that number may be even higher. The chief executive of Virgin Galactic, Michael Colglazier, said last week that the company is working to build a fleet of spacecraft and carrier aircraft to support 400 flights per year from its base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. That would require a huge leap in operational efficiency.

Rocket Lab launches first of two NRO missions. The company said it successfully launched the first of two responsive space missions for the US National Reconnaissance Office on Wednesday from New Zealand. This NROL-162 mission is the first of a pair of back-to-back flights commissioned by the NRO for dedicated launch on Electron. NROL-199 is scheduled to launch from Pad B at Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on July 22.

A step forward … “No other small launch provider has ever before prepared a dedicated launch for a small national security payload in such a rapid turnaround, and our sights are set on delivering the next NRO mission to space in record-time,” said Rocket Lab chief executive Peter Beck in a news release. If Rocket Lab succeeds in this flight, it would represent an impressive step up in cadence for the company. When you add in the recent CAPSTONE launch to the Moon, Rocket Lab is having a pretty great year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

A clue to New Shepard’s seat price? Beyond disclosing the auction winner of a seat on the first New Shepard flight alongside Jeff Bezos—$28 million—Blue Origin has not stated the per-seat price it is charging for New Shepard tourism spaceflights. Sources have said that early seats on the first handful of missions cost well north of $1 million, but it was expected that as the company flew more, the price would come down. Well, not yet, apparently.

The market sets the price … In April, Blue Origin said that a crypto firm named Moon DAO had purchased seats on a future New Shepard flight. Based on an analysis of crypto transfers, it appears that Moon DAO transferred $2.575 million to Blue Origin in early April and set aside fees that probably value the cost of a New Shepard seat in 2022 at $1.25 million. When you’re the only company flying, perhaps it does make financial sense to charge whatever the market will bear. This is especially true as I’ve heard that Bezos wants the New Shepard program to become self-sufficient soon.





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