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Are there any small rockets that will be in orbit this year?



After being released from Cosmic Girl, LauncherOne successfully activated the engine at the end of May.
Enlarge / After being released from Cosmic Girl, LauncherOne successfully activated the engine at the end of May.

VirginOrbit

In case you didn̵

7;t notice, we are approaching mid-August. As of Wednesday, there are only 142 days left in the year. So when the calendar changes year-end, now is a good time to ask whether any The new commercial rocket launching a small satellite will be in orbit this year.

Back in the upbeat, pre-pandemic 2020 start, we have high hopes for the launch of new rockets from the Astra, Firefly and Virgin Orbit. We also expect the maiden flight of a European Vega C missile, which has now been confirmed to fly in 2021.

Since then, a number of companies have made launch attempts and failed to reach orbit. Others have been slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is a list of companies that may still be in orbit during this calendar year.

Astra

Launch target: Late August

The Alameda, California-based company had a one-week launch for the Rocket 3.1 test flight in early August. However, due to technical problems with the rocket, many concerns about the weather. , and finally the ground system problem with the water and rocket propulsion systems did not work.

After the launch window closed, the company said it was targeting “later this month” for its next effort from Alaska’s Kodiak Island. It is noteworthy that Astra made its most recent launch attempt with just six people in Alaska and took only 10 days to set up the missile and prepare the ground system. This bodes well for future lean operations – necessarily reducing startup costs.

Chris Kemp, the company’s chief executive, described the mission as a test flight, with the primary goal being to demonstrate the full-time firing capabilities of the missile’s five main stage engines. Anything after that, including second stage ignition and trajectory insertion, will be the cherry on top. This duty will not carry a commercial payload.

Rocket 3.1 is the company’s second attempt at orbit. Its first booster set, Rocket 3.0, made the first time in March 2020 and was scrapped due to a sensor failure less than a minute before takeoff. It was later lost on the cushion in an accident.

firefly

Launch target: Early November

Of the companies on this list, only Firefly has yet to try it out. However, the company has been working steadily through the COVID-19 pandemic to perfect the development of the Alpha missile and launch it on launchers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

According to Eric Salwan, a spokesman for the company based in Austin, Texas, the first and second phases are in the process of integrating, and testing of those phases will begin within about two weeks. After those phases are completed for this acceptance test, they will be moved to separate Vandenberg for final integration. He said it could launch as early as November.

With a payload of about 1 ton to low Earth orbit, the Alpha missile is slightly larger than the Astra and Virgin Orbit’s boosters.

Virgin Orbit

Launch target: By the end of 2020

Virgin Orbit first attempted to put its LauncherOne rocket into orbit in late May, but the rocket failed seconds after being launched from a war plane. Last week, the company said it had identified the root cause of the incident: “A hole in the high-pressure line brought frozen liquid oxygen to our early-stage combustion chamber due to a component failure. Without a supply of oxidants, that engine would soon stop providing thrust, end our powered flight and eventually the test process. “

In an August 3 blog post outlining its future plans, Virgin Orbit said the aircraft hardware for its second mission is now in “final integrated” state and will be shipped soon. to Mojave, California, for testing. Notably, for the second mission, NASA agreed to launch 11 CubeSat for its CubeSat Initiative.

The company plans to launch this flight “later this year.” Assuming that a key customer – NASA – would put payload on this second flight, we can imagine that the company would test the missile’s power before launching it. This suggests that hitting a flight this year could be a long goal.

ExPace

Launch target: Unknown

Some questions are raised about how “commercial” ExPace is, as it is a state-owned company under the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation. Founded four years ago to commercialize military launch technology, ExPace attempted to launch the Kuaizhou-11 missile in July.

Solid fuel-powered rockets seem to be doing fine for about a minute before there are some problems. Chinese state media provided no further information about the incident other than saying an investigation would take place.

The Kuaizhou-11 boosters are relatively large for this class of missiles, with a advertised capacity of 1.5 tons to low-range Earth orbit. Other Chinese companies are also licensing military launch technology in an attempt to catch up with Western small launch companies.

It is not clear whether Kuaizhou-11 will make the next launch.


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