A Delta IV Heavy heads for space at last while New Horizons' fumes OK for 'future missions'

Also: Is that an aerospike in your pocket or are bells more your thing?

Roundup An expendable Delta IV Heavy finally took off at the weekend while reusability darlings SpaceX and Blue Origin both continued to suffer slippages. Meanwhile, New Horizons still has plenty of gas in the tank.

Delta IV Heavy (finally) gets off the ground

United Launch Alliance (ULA) was celebrating on 19 January, having finally managed to get its monster rocket off the pad at Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex-6 at 19:10 UTC.

The rocket had remained stubbornly attached to the Earth after a number of failed attempts, including a particularly memorable last-second abort, which left the boosters looking a tad singed.

The booster was tasked with flinging a payload from the US National Reconnaisance Office (NRO) in the form of NROL-71 into orbit. Little is known about the satellite itself other than it must be a hefty bird. The "Heavy" variant of the Delta IV is, after all, capable of dumping 28,370kg into Low Earth Orbit, or 14,210kg into a Geostationary Transfer Orbit.

The launch marked the 11th time ULA has lit the fuse on the three Common Booster Cores (CBC) of the Delta IV Heavy since its debut in 2004. All bar the first flight, where performance problems caused headaches for flight controllers, have been successful.

ULA currently trumpets the Delta IV Heavy as "the nation's proven heavy lift launch vehicle" – competitors such as Arianespace do not launch their own monster machines from US soil.

It may, however, not be able to claim that title for much longer as SpaceX prepares to launch more than an old Tesla on its reusable Falcon Heavy, the second launch of which is due in the first half of 2019.

A crewed Dragon? Sometime? Maybe? Who knows?

SpaceX's own orbital ambitions continued their relentless march to the right as the launch of the Demo-1 mission of its crew-capable Dragon capsule suffered more delays.

The hugely delayed launch, which will be a major step on the path to the US regaining crewed access to space, had been pencilled in for January but, as the days slip by, now looks set for 9 February.


It all hinges on whether the company can manage a static firing of the Falcon 9's engines on 23 January. Problems there would see a launch slip deeper into February regardless of the US government shutdown. It would also severely erode the lead Musk's rocketeers have over arch-rivals Boeing, whose CST-100 Starliner capsule is due to take its own uncrewed flight atop an Atlas V in March.

The return of the Aerospike

While Musk and co fret over 9 February, another upstart rocket outfit is planning a somewhat smaller scale launch two days before, also from Cape Canaveral.

Or rather, from a boat, quite some way out to sea, according to an announcement last week.

RocketStar is the latest to promise reduced launch costs with the aid of an aerospike engine. Yes, the thing that was supposed to power NASA's doomed X-33 Advanced Technology Demonstrator before financial and technical realities brought the project to a halt back in 2001.

The company uses 3D-printed components to keep costs down and reckons that the aerospike approach (sending propellant down the sides of a spike rather than out of a traditional engine bell) will result in more thrust on the pad, less weight needed and (whisper it) a single stage to orbit (SSO) rocket.

Should the launch go well (and the company has set itself the goal of reaching 50 miles in altitude) it plans to scale up to launching small satellites, something it thought could happen "as early as the first quarter of 2018".

Hopefully Q1 2019 will see the potential of aerospike technology realised at last.

New Shepard dusts off its launching shoes

RocketStar's 50-mile target has, of course, already been surpassed by billionaire Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocketry outfit. The company had planned to send its New Shepard launcher skywards last year, but called off the launch due to a "ground infrastructure issue".

The issue was resolved last week and the company set 21 January as the new launch date.

Alas, things have not proceeded to plan, and NS10 will remain on the ground for at least another 24 hours due to winds and what engineers are calling "one vehicle open issue". Presumably strapping Bezos' enemies into it and firing it into the sun.

Sadly, such super-villain capers are not possible with the New Shepard, which is only good for sub-orbital lobs. Blue Origin has a far more powerful successor waiting in the wings, in the form of the New Glenn, which will loft payloads large enough to compete with ULA's Delta IV Heavy and SpaceX's Falcon Heavy.

Should the winds cooperate and the remaining issue be closed, this will be the 10th flight of a New Shepard booster, which has already sent Blue Origin's crew capsule well into space, at over 73 miles.

Both booster and capsule are reusable, with the booster landing on its end in a fashion familiar to SpaceX fans. The capsule descends by parachute, firing retro-rockets just before touchdown, meaning that it can return to land, unlike SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which requires a water landing.

How do you sneak in a deep space mission extension? Brim the tank, of course

Fans of the New Horizons mission were thrown a bone last week by Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator behind the audacious journey to Pluto and on to Ultima Thule.

While the probe continues downloading the data captured during the flyby of the snowman-shaped body (just 1 per cent has made it back to Earth so far) the team has begun plotting additional targets for the ageing spacecraft.

In March the gang plans to point the probe's sensors at another Kuiper Belt Object named 2014 PN70 which, while it will appear as little more than a dot, should yield data that will be useful as a comparison with Ultima Thule.

Stern also said that should an extended mission (starting in 2021) be confirmed, the team had managed to "pocket some extra fuel" that had been originally reserved for the Ultima Thule flyby. The extra gas would bode well for "future missions".

Yes, Alan, we spotted that plural. ®

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