On November 17th, a Vega rocket lifted off from French Guiana with its payload of two Earth observation satellites. The booster, coincidentally the 17th Vega to fly, performed perfectly: the solid-propellant rocket engines that make up its first three stages burned in succession. But soon after the fourth stage of the Vega ignited its liquid-fueled RD-843 engine, it became clear that something was very wrong. While telemetry showed the engine was operating as expected, the vehicle’s trajectory and acceleration started to deviate from the expected values.
There was no dramatic moment that would have indicated to the casual observer that the booster had failed. But by the time the mission clock had hit twelve minutes, there was no denying that the vehicle wasn’t going to make its intended orbit. While the live stream hosts continued extolling the virtues of the Vega rocket and the scientific payloads it carried, the screens behind them showed that the mission was doomed.
Unfortunately, there’s little room for error when it comes to spaceflight. Despite reaching a peak altitude of roughly 250 kilometers (155 miles), the Vega’s Attitude Vernier Upper Module (AVUM) failed to maintain the velocity and heading necessary to achieve orbit. Eventually the AVUM and the two satellites it carried came crashing back down to Earth, reportedly impacting an uninhabited area not far from where the third stage was expected to fall.
Although we’ve gotten a lot better at it, getting to space remains exceptionally difficult. It’s an inescapable reality that rockets will occasionally fail and their payloads will be lost. Yet the fact that Vega has had two failures in as many years is somewhat troubling, especially since the booster has only flown 17 missions so far. A success rate of 88% isn’t terrible, but it’s certainly on the lower end of the spectrum. For comparison, boosters such as the Soyuz, Falcon 9, and Atlas have success rates of 95% or higher.
Further failures could erode customer trust in the relatively new rocket, which has only been flying since 2012 and is facing stiff competition from commercial launch providers. If Vega is to become the European workhorse that operator Arianespace hopes, figuring out what went wrong on this launch and making sure it never happens again is of the utmost importance.
With the notable exception of the Space Shuttle, rockets and spacecraft have always been considered disposable. It’s a slow and expensive way to travel, akin to building a new airliner for every flight, but it was the easiest option. These vehicles have always represented the pinnacle of engineering and material science of their time, and just surviving the trip to space once was an incredible accomplishment. To have another go around would have been asking too much of the technology. Even looking back on the Space Shuttle program, there’s plenty of debate about whether or not the reusable design really paid off in the end.
So SpaceX’s ability to land, refurbish, and refly the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster is no small accomplishment. After demonstrating the idea was possible in 2017, the company made numerous changes to the latest iteration of the rocket with reusability in mind. Known as Block 5, this version of the Falcon 9 is designed to be more survivable and require minimal servicing between flights. The company says its cheaper and faster to reuse the Block 5 than it would be to build a new one for each flight, allowing the company to approach spaceflight more like commercial aviation.
With a fleet of Block 5 boosters now in rotation, SpaceX has given them serial numbers not unlike an airplane’s tail number. It might not be the kind of thing the general public would normally be aware of, but these serial numbers have allowed a dedicated community of space aficionados to keep track of the missions each booster has flown.
Unfortunately the story of one of these rockets, officially referred to as “Cores” in SpaceX parlance, was recently cut short. Core B1056, returning from the Starlink 4 mission on February 17th, failed to land on the autonomous spaceport drone ship (ASDS) Of Course I Still LoveYou and splashed down in the ocean. It’s still unclear what condition the booster was in after its soft landing in the water, but when the recovery ships returned to port empty handed, there was no question as to the fate of B1056.
From a purely business standpoint, the failure of any of SpaceX’s boosters means lost time and revenue. But in some ways B1056 had established itself as the vanguard of the fleet, managing to either set or break a number of records in its relatively short life. The destruction of the most thoroughly flight proven Block 5 booster is a stark reminder that there’s very little about spaceflight that could be called routine.
Solid rockets are a fun way to get started in rocketry. Brewing up a batch of rocket candy is something achievable even in the home lab, and anyone can give it a go with the right materials. Building a flight-capable liquid-fuelled rocket engine is another thing entirely, but the Purdue Space Program is up to the task.
The result of their hard work is Boomie Zoomie, a rocket which stands 15ft tall and weighs 130lbs. With peak thrust of 800 lbs, it’s got plenty of grunt to help get things off the ground. It’s fuelled by liquid methane, a first for a university-built rocket. The craft is constructed out of 6″ aluminium pipe sections, which were a best-case trade-off between weight, cost, and machinability. Special care was taken during the design process to make things modular, to both allow for future design revisions and ease of field prep. This allows different parts of the team to work independently, streamlining the process of preparing the rocket for launch.
Aiming to compete in the FAR MARS liquid rocket competition, the rocket has undergone two successful hotfires. The team estimates that the first launch should happen in the next few months. Preparations are continuing on the launch trailer and ancilliary support equipment to get things up and running. The aim is to reach a lofty altitude of 45,000 feet.
Putting payloads into model rockets can be more complex than simply shoving stuff into an open spot, so [concretedog] put some work into making a modular payload tube for his current rocket. The nose cone for his rocket is quite large, so he opted to give it a secure payload area that doesn’t compromise or interfere with any of the structural or operational bits such as the parachute.
The payload container is a hollow tube with a 3D printed threaded adaptor attached to one end. Payload goes into the tube, and the tube inserts into a hole in the bulkhead, screwing down securely. The result is an easy way to send up something like a GPS tracker, possibly with a LoRa module attached to it. That combination is a popular one with high-altitude balloons, which, like rockets, also require people to retrieve them after not-entirely-predictable landings. LoRa wireless communications have very long range, but that doesn’t help if there’s an obstruction like a hill between you and the transmitter. In those cases, a simple LoRa repeater attached to a kite, long pole, or drone can save the day.
We’ve seen [concretedog]’s work before, when he designed stackable PCBs intended to easily fit inside model rocket bodies, allowing for easy integration of microcontroller-driven functions like delayed ignitions or altimeter triggers. Better development tools, hardware, and 3D printing has really helped make smarter rocketry more accessible to hobbyists.
As the prospects for Germany during the Second World War began to look increasingly grim, the Nazi war machine largely pinned their hopes on a number of high-tech “superweapons” they had in development. Ranging from upgraded versions of their already devastatingly effective U-Boats to tanks large enough to rival small ships, the projects ran the gamut from practical to fanciful. After the fall of Berlin there was a mad scramble by the Allied forces to get into what was left of Germany’s secretive development facilities, with each country hoping to recover as much of this revolutionary technology for themselves as possible.
One of the most coveted prizes was the Aggregat 4 (A4) rocket. Better known to the Allies as the V-2, it was the world’s first liquid fueled guided ballistic missile and the first man-made object to reach space. Most of this technology, and a large number of the engineers who designed it, ended up in the hands of the United States as part of Operation Paperclip. This influx of practical rocketry experience helped kick start the US space program, and its influence could be seen all the way up to the Apollo program. The Soviet Union also captured V-2 hardware and production facilities, which subsequently influenced the design of their early rocket designs as well. In many ways, the V-2 rocket was the spark that started the Space Race between the two countries.
With the United States and Soviet Union taking the majority of V-2 hardware and personnel, little was left for the British. Accordingly their program, known as Operation Backfire, ended up being much smaller in scope. Rather than trying to bring V-2 hardware back to Britain, they decided to learn as much as they could about it in Germany from the men who used it in combat. This study of the rocket and the soldiers who operated it remains the most detailed account of how the weapon functioned, and provides a fascinating look at the incredible effort Germany was willing to expend for just one of their “superweapons”.
In addition to a five volume written report on the V-2 rocket, the British Army Kinematograph Service produced “The German A.4 Rocket”, a 40 minute film which shows how a V-2 was assembled, transported, and ultimately launched. Though they are operating under the direction of the British government, the German soldiers appear in the film wearing their own uniforms, which gives the documentary a surreal feeling. It could easily be mistaken for actual wartime footage, but these rockets weren’t aimed at London. They were being fired to serve as a historical record of the birth of modern rocketry.
While the jury is still out on 3D printing for the consumer market, there’s little question that it’s becoming a major part of next generation manufacturing. While we often think of 3D printing as a way to create highly customized one-off objects, that’s a conclusion largely based on how we as individuals use the technology. When you’re building something as complex as a rocket engine, the true advantage of 3D printing is the ability to not only rapidly iterate your design, but to produce objects with internal geometries that would be difficult if not impossible to create with traditional tooling.
So it’s no wonder that key “New Space” players like SpaceX and Blue Origin make use of 3D printed components in their vehicles. Even NASA has been dipping their proverbial toe in the additive manufacturing waters, testing printed parts for the Space Launch System’s RS-25 engine. It would be safe to say that from this point forward, most of our exploits off of the planet’s surface will involve additive manufacturing in some capacity.
But one of the latest players to enter the commercial spaceflight industry, Relativity Space, thinks we can take the concept even farther. Not content to just 3D print rocket components, founders Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone believe the entire rocket can be printed. Minus electrical components and a few parts which operate in extremely high stress environments such as inside the pump turbines, Relativity Space claims up to 95% of their rocket could eventually be produced with additive manufacturing.
If you think 3D printing a rocket sounds implausible, you aren’t alone. It’s a bold claim, so far the aerospace industry has only managed to print relatively small rocket engines; so printing an entire vehicle would be an exceptionally large leap in capability. But with talent pulled from major aerospace players, a recently inked deal for a 20 year lease on a test site at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, and access to the world’s largest metal 3D printer, they’re certainly going all in on the idea. Let’s take a look at what they’ve got planned.
Ever since the Pan Am “Space Clipper” first slid into frame in 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the world has been waiting for the day that privately funded spaceflight would become as routine as air travel. Unfortunately, it’s a dream that’s taken a bit longer to become reality than many would have hoped. The loss of Challenger and Columbia were heartbreaking reminders that travel amongst the stars is not for the faint of heart or the ill-equipped, and pushed commercial investment in space back by decades.
Although Pan Am has since folded, we now have a number of companies working hard towards making the dream of commercial spaceflight a reality. SpaceX and Rocket Lab have shown private companies developing and operating their own orbital class vehicles is a concept no longer limited to science fiction. Now that private industry has a foot in the door, more companies are coming forward with their own plans for putting their hardware into orbit. In many ways we’re seeing the dawn of a second Space Race.
If all goes according to plan, a new challenger should be entering the ring in the very near future. Scheduled to perform their first test launch before the end of the year, Virgin Orbit (a spin-off of the passenger carrying Virgin Galactic) promises to deliver small payloads to Earth orbit faster and cheaper than their competitors. But while most other commercial space companies are using fairly traditional booster rockets to do their heavy lifting, Virgin Orbit is opting for a the less common air launched approach. Before Virgin joins the ranks of commercial companies exploring the final frontier, lets take a look at their plan for getting into space and the advantages it offers compared to the competition.