SpaceX Falcon 9, Atlas V and Ariane 5 soar while Vector returns to Earth with a bump

And it's goodbye from Jim as smallsat launcher takes a 'pause' from operations


Roundup Last week saw four launches, one catch, and the ejection of one exec in a busy few days for rocket fans.

Florida storms fail to keep SpaceX and ULA on the ground

SpaceX successfully launched the AMOS-17 satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's SLC-40 pad on 6 August at 23:23 UTC, 30 minutes into the launch window.

Having waited for iffy weather to improve. Elon Musk's rocketeers were rewarded for their patience with a launch that was quite different to the last time the company had an AMOS satellite sat on top of a Falcon 9.

The booster, undertaking its third and final flight since the requirements of the mission meant landing it wasn't going to be an option, performed nominally and the satellite was deployed approximately 31 minutes after launch.

However, fans that might have been disappointed by the dumping of the booster were buoyed by a new SpaceX party trick. The recovery of half of the rocket fairing.

One half of the payload shroud was caught in a net strung across the top of the Ms Tree recovery vessel. The other half landed in the ocean.

The capture marked the second time SpaceX had netted a fairing half. The next step will be to catch both (using different ships) for easier reuse. After all, the company does re-use those first stage Falcon 9 boosters.

Not to be outdone by SpaceX's antics, ULA maintained its successful run with the launch of an Atlas V from neighbouring pad 41 at the Cape Canaveral complex. The launch marks the 80th of an Atlas V, with this particular incarnation being one of the beefiest of the single Common Boost Core (CBC) variant.

The launch was delayed by nearly half an hour as engineers dealt with a number of glitches prior to hitting the go button at 1013 UTC on 8 August.

Unlike SpaceX, however, no part of the Atlas V was recovered, as the five strap-on boosters were dumped into the ocean before the core and Centaur upper stage deposited the military satellite into the required orbit.

The next launch of an Atlas V should, if all goes well, see an uncrewed Starliner CST-100 capsule delivered to the International Space Station (ISS).

ISS sends Cygnus on its way

Northrop Grumman's Cygnus freighter was released from the ISS last week to spend a few months loitering on orbit.

The spacecraft was unberthed from the International Space Station and released from the outpost's robotic arm, having been outfitted with a SlingShot Deployer, which will eject a series of nanosatellites once the uncrewed spacecraft has reached a safe distance from the ISS.

More interestingly, the Cygnus will remain in orbit until mid-December. This will be the first extended duration flight and will overlap with the next Cygnus launch in October. The plan is to use the dual missions to demonstrate the capability of flying two of the things at the same time.

Handy, since NASA is eying up the technology as the basis of a habitation module in its rush to get boots on the Moon by 2024.

Arianespace recovers from Vega anomaly

After the failure of its Vega rocket, Arianespace returned to flight last week with two satellites launched aboard its workhorse Ariane 5 booster.

The 1930 UTC launch took place on 6 August from the company's French Guiana spaceport and marked the third flight of the booster for 2019.

The 10,661 kg payload consisted of Intelsat 39 and EDRS-C for an Airbus-ESA partnership.

The former is a telecommunications satellite built by Maxar in Palo Alto, California to replace the Intelsat 902 spacecraft, launched by Arianespace in 2001. The latter is the second node in the "SpaceDataHighway" system, a laser communications network aimed at sending information from Earth observation satellites back to Earth in near real-time.

The observation satellites would normally only be able to transmit data when in sight of their ground stations, meaning delays of up to 90 minutes. Using the geostationary EDRS satellites (EDRS-A was launched in 2016), near constant (99.6 per cent uptime) communication with Earth should be possible, with data flowing at a satisfying 1.8 Gbit/s.

Jim Cantrell ejected from Vector Launch

While smallsat darling Rocket Lab showed off plans to recover and re-use its Electron booster, things turned a little darker at would-be competitor, Vector.

The departure of CEO Jim Cantrell, who can be seen in this video from last month celebrating the Apollo 11 mission, was announced in a terse tweet from the company, which was followed with news to make a rocket botherer's heart sink.

Citing a "significant change in financing", the company is pausing operations while a core team ponders how the Vector-R rocket might be completed in light of the recent ASLON-45 award.

The Vector-R, which has yet to make its first orbital flight, has a claimed payload of 60kg. Two suborbital test launches in 2017 were successful, but getting the two stage rocket into orbit has proven to be a challenge despite $70m of Series B funding secured in 2018.

Former Blue Origin director Stephanie Koster was appointed chief financial officer in June.

Vector's apparent woes may signify a coming shake-up in the small satellite market – perhaps there is not quite the demand for the things as the dozens of upstart lightweight rocketeers believe.

Certainly, Vector has found the path to orbit not quite as smooth as it thought. ®

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