Bankruptcy Sale Scatters Virgin Orbit To The Winds

When Virgin Orbit filed for bankruptcy in April, it was clear the commercial launch provider was in serious trouble. Despite successfully putting four payloads into low Earth orbit, the spin-off of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism company had struggled to achieve a high enough launch cadence to become profitable, and had recently suffered a highly-publicized failure when their first launch from the UK from the newly-completed Spaceport Cornwall ended in a complete loss of the vehicle.

There was some hope that a buyer would swoop in and save them at the last minute, but now that the bankruptcy auction has spread out the company’s assets among several other players in the commercial launch industry, Virgin Orbital is officially no more. With future launches now off the table, the company’s remaining employees are set to be let go as operations wind down over the coming weeks.

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Virgin Orbit Pauses Operations, Seeks Funding

It looks as though things may have gone from bad to worse at Virgin Orbit, the satellite carrying spin-off of Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic. After a disappointing launch failure earlier in the year, CNBC is now reporting the company will halt operations and furlough most employees for at least a week as it seeks new funding.

It’s no secret that company has struggled to find its footing since it was formed in 2017. On paper, it was an obvious venture — Virgin Galactic already had the White Knight Two carrier aircraft and put plenty of R&D into air-launched rockets, it would simply be a matter of swapping the crewed SpaceShipTwo vehicle for the LauncherOne orbital booster. But upgrades to the rocket eventually made it too large for the existing carrier aircraft, so the company instead purchased a Boeing 747 and modified it to lift their two-stage rocket out of the thick lower atmosphere. Continue reading “Virgin Orbit Pauses Operations, Seeks Funding”

Blue Origin Loses Rocket, Gains Abort System Test

Even if you’re just making a brief hop over the Kármán line to gain a few minutes of weightlessness, getting to space is hard. Just in case any of their engineers were getting complacent, Blue Origin just got a big reminder of that fact this afternoon with the destruction of their New Shepard 3 (NS3) rocket during a suborbital research flight.

But while the rocket itself was lost, the New Shepard’s automated abort systems were able to push the capsule H. G. Wells away from the fireball, saving the dozens of scientific experiments which had been loaded onto the un-crewed vehicle. While there’s been no public word yet on the condition of these experiments, it’s reasonable to assume that at least some portion of them can be re-flown in the future — a fact that will likely come as a great relief to the researchers who designed them. It will be interesting to see who picks up the tab for the do-over flight; while launch insurance is a must-have for billion dollar satellites, it seems unlikely these small suborbital experiments would have been covered under a similar policy.

A spurt of flame can be seen in the otherwise invisible exhaust moments before engine failure.

We’re also still in the dark about what caused the in-flight breakup of NS3, other than the fact that the engine was clearly sputtering in the seconds before it blew apart. This could be a sign that the engine’s nominal fuel-to-oxidizer ratio was faltering, or perhaps even indicative of foreign debris becoming dislodged and burning in the combustion chamber. But really, without official word from Blue Origin, it’s impossible to say what happened.

This is especially true when you consider that we’re talking about a vehicle that’s pushing the envelope to begin with. Remember, the New Shepard is a reusable booster, and NS3 is specifically a veteran of eight flights — with all but one of them taking the booster above the 100 kilometer altitude, which is generally accepted to be the boundary of space.

For those worried that celebrities and assorted millionaires will no longer have access to space, fear not. Blue Origin’s crewed flights have flown exclusively on the newer NS4 and its associated capsule First Step. This does however mean that Blue Origin no longer has a spare booster on which to fly commercial payloads, potentially putting into jeopardy any semblance of scientific value the program may have had.

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SpinLaunch And The History Of Hurling Stuff Into Space

It’s fair to say that there’s really no phase of spaceflight that could be considered easy. But the case could be made that the most difficult part of a spacecraft’s journey is right at the very beginning, within the first few minutes of flight. At this point the vehicle’s booster rocket will be fighting with all its might against its own immense propellant-laden mass, a battle that it’s been engineered to win by the smallest of margins. Assuming the balance was struck properly and the vehicle makes its way off of the launch pad, it will still need to contend with the thick sea-level atmosphere as it accelerates, a building dynamic pressure that culminates with a point known as “Max q” — the moment where the air density imposes the maximum structural load on the rocket before quickly dropping off as the vehicle continues to ascend and the atmosphere thins.

Air-launched rockets avoid flying through dense sea level air.

While the vast majority of rocket launches have to contend with the realities of flying through the lower atmosphere, there are some exceptions. By launching a rocket from an aircraft, it can avoid having to power itself up from sea level. This allows the rocket to be smaller and lighter, as it doesn’t require as much propellant nor do its engines need to be as powerful.

The downside of this approach however is that even a relatively small rocket needs a very large aircraft to carry it. For example, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket must be carried to launch altitude by a Boeing 747-400 airliner in order to place a 500 kg (1,100 lb) payload into orbit.

But what if there was another way? What if you could get all the benefits of starting your rocket from a higher altitude, without the cost and logistical issues involved in carrying it with a massive airplane? It might sound impossible, but the answer is actually quite simple…all you have to do it throw it hard enough.

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Axiom’s Private ISS Mission Was No Space Vacation

In an era where anyone with deep enough pockets can hitch a ride to the edge of space and back, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Axiom’s Ax-1 mission to the International Space Station was little more than a pleasure cruise for the four crew members. Granted it’s a higher and faster flight than the suborbital hops that the likes of William Shatner and Jeff Bezos have been embarking on, but surely it must still be little more than a publicity stunt organized by folks with more money than they know what to do with?

Thankfully, there’s a bit more to it than that. While the mission was privately funded, the Ax-1 crew weren’t just orbital sightseers. For one thing, there was plenty of real-world experience packed into the SpaceX Dragon: the mission was commanded by Michael López-Alegría, a veteran NASA astronaut, and crew members Larry Connor and Eytan Stibbe are both accomplished pilots, with the latter clocking in thousands of hours on various fighter jets during his time with the Israeli Air Force.

But more importantly, they had work to do. Each member of the crew was assigned a list of experiments they were to conduct, ranging from medical observations to the testing of new hardware. Of course there was some downtime — after all, if you spent $50 million on a ticket to space, you’d expect to have at least a little fun — but this wasn’t just a photo op: Axiom was looking for results. There was no hiding from the boss either, as López-Alegría is not just the Mission Commander, he’s also Axiom’s Vice President of Business Development.

Which makes sense when you consider the company’s ultimate goal is to use the ISS as a springboard to accelerate the development of their own commercial space station. The data collected during Ax-1 is going to be critical to Axiom’s path forward, and with their first module already under construction and expected to launch by 2025, there’s no time to waste.

So what did the crew members of the this privately funded mission to the International Space Station accomplish? Let’s take a look at a few of the more interesting entries from the docket.

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Astra’s Frugal Design Leads To Latest Unusual Failure

We’ve all heard it said, and it bears repeating: getting to space is hard. But it actually gets even harder the smaller your booster is. That’s because the structure, engines, avionics, and useful payload of a rocket only make up a tiny portion of its liftoff mass, while the rest is dedicated to the propellant it must expend to reach orbital velocity. That’s why a Falcon 9 tipping the scales at 549,054 kilograms (1,207,920 pounds) can only loft a payload of 22,800 kg (50,265 lb) — roughly 4% of its takeoff weight.

As you might imagine, there’s a lower limit where there simply isn’t enough mass in the equation for the hardware necessary to build a fully functional rocket. But where is that limit? That’s precisely what aerospace newcomer Astra is trying to find out. Their Rocket 3 is among the smallest orbital boosters to ever fly, closer in size and mass to the German V2 of World War II than the towering vehicles being built by SpaceX or Blue Origin. Even the Rocket Lab Electron, itself an exceptionally svelte rocket, is considerably larger.

The reason they’re trying to build such a small rocket is of course very simple: smaller means cheaper. Assuming you’ve got a payload light and compact enough to fit on their launcher, Astra says they can put it into orbit for roughly $2.5 million USD; less than half the cost of a dedicated flight aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron, and competitive with SpaceX’s “rideshare” program. Such a low ticket price would have been unfathomable a decade ago, and promises to shake up an already highly competitive commercial launch market. But naturally, Astra has to get the thing flying reliably before we can celebrate this new spaceflight milestone.

Their latest mission ended in a total loss of the vehicle and payload when the upper stage tumbled out of control roughly three minutes after an otherwise perfect liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Such issues aren’t uncommon for a new orbital booster, and few rockets in history have entered regular service without a lost payload or two on the books. But this failure, broadcast live over the Internet, was something quite unusual: because of the unconventional design of Astra’s diminutive rocket, the upper stage appeared to get stuck inside the booster after the payload fairing failed to open fully.

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So How Does A Rocket Fly Sideways, Anyway?

It’s often said that getting into orbit is less about going up, and more about going sideways very fast. So in that sense, the recent launch conducted by aerospace startup Astra could be seen as the vehicle simply getting the order of operations wrong. Instead of going up and then burning towards the horizon, it made an exceptionally unusual sideways flight before finally moving skyward.

As you might expect, the booster didn’t make it to orbit. But not for lack of trying. In fact, that the 11.6 meter (38 feet) vehicle was able to navigate through its unprecedented lateral maneuver and largely correct its flight-path is a testament to the engineering prowess of the team at the Alameda, California based company. It’s worth noting that it was the ground controller’s decision to cut the rocket’s engines once it had flown high and far enough away to not endanger anyone on the ground that ultimately ended the flight; the booster itself was still fighting to reach space until the very last moment.

Astra’s rocket on the launch pad.

There’s a certain irony to the fact that this flight, the third Astra has attempted since their founding in 2016, was the first to be live streamed to YouTube. Had the company not pulled back their usual veil of secrecy, we likely wouldn’t have such glorious high-resolution footage of what will forever be remembered as one of the most bizarre rocket mishaps in history. The surreal image of the rocket smoothly sliding out of frame as if it was trying to avoid the camera’s gaze has already become a meme online, arguably reaching a larger and more diverse audience than would have resulted from a successful launch. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad press.

Naturally, the viral clip has spurred some questions. You don’t have to be a space expert to know that the pointy end of the rocket is usually supposed to go up, but considering how smooth the maneuver looks, some have even wondered if it wasn’t somehow intentional. With so much attention on this unusual event, it seems like the perfect time to take a close look at how Astra’s latest rocket launch went, quite literally, sideways.

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