Rocket Report: Lack of transparency on Ariane 6, Drastic cuts Down Under

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center carrying the Jupiter-3 mission.
Enlarge / SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center carrying the Jupiter-3 mission.


Welcome to Edition 6.05 of the Rocket Report! This week’s newsletter has the distinction of including not one, but two items of news from Australia. Unfortunately, one of the items suggests rough waters lie ahead for the country’s young commercial space industry.

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.

Australian industry faces cuts. In June the Australian government cut a $1.2 billion Earth science program, and the cut has been reverberating through the country’s nascent commercial space industry since then, the Australian Broadcast Corporation reports. “This is an industry-wide hit,” Bec Shrimpton, the director of Defense Strategy and National Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the publication. “The confidence has gone out of the sector, which means that across the board companies are not attracting investment. The ability to attract major money here is gone for a number of companies.”

Small launch left in limbo … Gilmour Space is one of the most prominent Australian space startups, and its founder, Adam Gilmour, noted that space industries in other countries relied on government support to get off the ground. He called on the government in Australia to do the same. “If you look around the rest of the world, the government is always, in a successful space economy, an early customer,” he said. “They’ll give the space industry the first deals, they’ll kind of lead the way… and then the industry can springboard on top of that.” (submitted by Marzipan)

iRocket to work with Air Force. Innovative Rocket Technologies, known as iRocket, has signed an agreement with the Air Force Research Laboratory to jointly develop and test rocket propulsion hardware, Space News reports. The New York-based startup, founded in 2018, develops rocket engines and plans to build a small launch vehicle. iRocket has now signed a four-year cooperative research and development agreement with the Air Force’s Rocket Propulsion Division.

Lots of thrust … iRocket said in June that it won a US Space Force contract to demonstrate a reusable rocket engine for small launch vehicles. Under the new agreement, the company plans to conduct propulsion, stage, and potentially grasshopper testing at Test Site 1-56 at the High Thrust Research Facility, located at Edwards Air Force Base, California. This facility is one of only four stands in the United States capable of withstanding 10 million pounds of thrust. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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Virgin Galactic sees limited revenues. Even as Virgin Galactic enters regular commercial operations of its suborbital spaceplane, it said those flights will generate only modest revenues for the near future, Space News reports. On Tuesday the company reported revenue of $2 million in the second quarter of 2023, saying it came from its first commercial SpaceShipTwo mission, “Galactic 01,” on June 29, as well as membership fees from its private astronaut customers. The vehicle’s next mission, Galactic 02, is scheduled for August 10 from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Profits remain in the future … While the company played up the significance of Galactic 02, it is downplaying the revenue that and future flights will generate for Virgin Galactic. The company is forecasting just $1 million in revenue in each of the next two quarters. Part of the reason for that, chief executive Michael Colglazier said, is that about three-fourths of the 800 tickets sold so far were at prices of between $200,000 and $250,000 each. The company later raised prices to $450,000 each. In addition, while Unity’s cabin can accommodate four people, the company plans to fly only three paying customers on each flight initially, using the fourth seat for an astronaut trainer.

Latest Antares reaches the end of the line. A commercial Antares rocket owned by the US aerospace and defense contractor Northrop Grumman launched from Wallops Island, Virginia, on Tuesday, hauling an automated Cygnus supply ship into orbit on a mission to the International Space Station. The Antares rocket was powered by two Russian-made engines affixed to the bottom of a first-stage booster built in Ukraine. This was the final launch of the Antares 230+ rocket, Ars reports.

New rocket in two years, maybe…  About a year ago, months after the Russian-Ukrainian conflict erupted into a hot war, Northrop Grumman announced it would design and develop an all-American Antares rocket with Firefly that could be ready to fly by the end of 2024. The company calls the version of the Antares rocket retired with this week’s launch the Antares 230+, while the new variant with Firefly’s booster stage will be named the Antares 330. Kurt Eberly, Northrop Grumman’s director of space launch programs, said Sunday that the Antares 330 rocket is now expected to launch no sooner than mid-2025. Until then, Northrop has purchased three Falcon 9 launches with SpaceX to continue flying Cygnus cargo ships to the space station at a rate of about twice per year.

Ariane 6 rocket development continues in the shadows. Last month, a full-scale model of Europe’s Ariane 6 was put to the test on its launch pad in the jungles of French Guiana, Ars reports. For the first time, the launch team at the tropical spaceport loaded cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the Ariane 6 over the course of a marathon 26-hour test campaign. But it took a week for the European Space Agency, which is funding the 3.8 billion euro ($4.1 billion) development of Ariane 6, to release an update on the test, which was not entirely successful.

Transparency for the taxpayer? … The space agency is working toward a longer Vulcain 2.1 engine firing that could last up to 500 seconds, approximating the duration of a main engine burn during launch. A space agency spokesperson said ESA is not planning to provide live video of the long-duration Ariane 6 test-firing in French Guiana. That’s disappointing and would be a missed opportunity for ESA to engage with the taxpayers footing the bill for this new rocket. ESA’s decision not to broadcast live video of the Ariane 6 hold-down test-firing contrasts with NASA, which provided live coverage of two hot-fire tests for its Space Launch System rocket in 2021. Like the Ariane 6, NASA’s SLS Moon rocket is a publicly funded venture.

Where is the Amur rocket Russia promised? It has been nearly three years since Roscosmos unveiled plans to develop the “Amur” rocket, which had the goal of flying a fully reusable first stage. The methane-fueled rocket, as Ars reported at the time, looked quite a bit like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, complete with grid fins and landing legs. Back then, in the year 2020, Roscosmos said the country aspired to start flying Amur in 2026. In response to the article, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said, “It’s a step in the right direction, but they should really aim for full reusability by 2026. Larger rocket would also make sense for literal economies of scale. Goal should be to minimize cost per useful ton to orbit or it will at best serve a niche market.”

A year-for-year slip … So after nearly three years, where are we now? “We are currently looking at 2028-2030,” said Deputy General Director Daniil Subbotin of RCC Progress, a Roscosmos company, in response to a question about the Amur vehicle recently. He was quoted by the Russian news agency TASS, in a report translated for Ars by Rob Mitchell. Subbotin said that right now the technical planning for the vehicle is ongoing, to be followed by development and flight testing. The chances of Amur flying in my lifetime, I would say, are probably less than 10 percent.

Sierra Space working on upper stage engine. The company previously known as Sierra Nevada Corporation has won an Air Force contract to continue development of an engine that could be used in the upper stage of future launch vehicles, Space News reports. The $22.6 million contract from the Air Force Test Center will be used to mature the design of its VR35K-A engine.

Who will use it? … The engine, using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants, is designed to produce 35,000 pounds-force of thrust. “Compared with other upper-stage engines currently on the market, the VR35K-A provides more thrust and higher performance in a smaller package,” said Rusty Thomas, Sierra Space’s chief technology officer. Sierra Space has not disclosed any customers for the VR35K-A engine. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Australia confirms object as Indian rocket. In July, a large object that appeared to be part of a rocket washed up on a beach near Jurien Bay in Western Australia. The origins of the object were uncertain until the Australian Space Agency confirmed this week that it is an expended third stage of a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, a medium-lift vehicle operated by the Indian space agency, ISRO.

From up above to Down Under … After identifying the object, the space agency added, “The Australian Space Agency is committed to the long-term sustainability of outer space activities, including debris mitigation, and continues to highlight this on the international stage.” The debris remains in storage, and the Australian Space Agency is working with ISRO to determine next steps. (submitted by Marzipan)

Aerojet sale to L3Harris is finalized. Aerojet Rocketdyne is now officially a subsidiary of L3Harris, marking the end to one of the more dramatic defense acquisition stories of the last decade, Breaking Defense reports. Previously, Lockheed Martin had sought to buy Aerojet. But after federal regulators sued to block the deal, the aerospace giant abandoned it last year.

A solid deal for the solids maker … The scuttling of that deal set off internal shockwaves at Aerojet, which saw an unusually public spat among its board. When the dust finally cleared, L3Harris was in prime position to make a move, announcing in December that it would acquire the rocket motor company for $4.7 billion. Aerojet makes solid rocket motors for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket and for NASA’s Space Launch System. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Falcon Heavy flies again. The heaviest commercial communications satellite ever built lifted off on top of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on Friday night from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This Jupiter-3 satellite, owned by EchoStar and built by Maxar, tipped the scales at about 9.2 metric tons. The Falcon Heavy propelled the spacecraft on its way toward an operating position in geostationary orbit nearly 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

Third of five … SpaceX scrubbed the launch attempt Wednesday night with about a minute left in the countdown due to a stuck valve on one of the Falcon Heavy’s first-stage boosters. Teams in Florida swapped out the valve but decided to forego a launch opportunity Thursday night and target Friday night for the next launch attempt. This was SpaceX’s seventh Falcon Heavy launch and the third of five planned this year. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

August 6: Electron | We Love the Nightlife | Māhia Peninsula, New Zealand | 05:00 UTC

August 7: Falcon 9 | Starlink 6-8 | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 00:22 UTC

August 7: Soyuz 2.1 | Glonass-K2 | Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russia | 14:10 UTC