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Rocket Report: Virgin goes Italian, SpaceXs giant net, a nuclear launcher

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Enlarge / We need your help to produce a new newsletter to chronicle the dynamic launch industry.Aurich Lawson/background image United Launch Alliance

Welcome to Edition 1.08 of the Rocket Report! This week there is no shortage of news about SpaceX, as well as the race to become the first nation (or company) to build the first super-booster since the Saturn V rocket. Also, a company plans to launch 300km north of the Arctic Circle.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below. Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Virgin Galactic signs deal to launch from Italy. Virgin Galactic and a pair of Italian companies have signed a framework agreement aimed at bringing Virgin Galactic's suborbital space tourism launcher to a future spaceport in Italy. The spaceplane would be based at Taranto-Grottaglie Airport, which Italian public-private partners aim to turn into a spaceport. The spaceport could become active as early as 2020, GeekWire reports.

Stop us if you've seen this before … There are a lot of companies signing a lot of agreements to fly into space from a lot of "spaceports" around the world. We're going to remain skeptical about most of them until we see actual rockets and spaceplanes taking off and flying into space. With that said, we wish Virgin and Italy "in bocca al lupo." (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Nammo on schedule for September suborbital launch. Norwegian aerospace company Nammo says that it has conducted a final successful ground test of its Nucleus rocket flight propulsion system and that the hybrid rocket technology is now ready to power the first launch of a Norwegian-built space rocket in September. The Nucleus is a sounding rocket, but the demonstration could lead to the development of a micro launcher, capable of placing small satellites up to 150kg into low-Earth orbit.

Easy storage of chilled propellants? … The sounding rocket will launch from a spaceport on the island of Andøya (we had to Google it), which is located 300km above the Arctic Circle. The rocket also employs a hybrid engine, with both solid and liquid fuel, which can be throttled during launch. This will be fun to watch for in a few months. (submitted by larsivi)

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Commercial Chinese companies set sights on methalox rockets. Beijing-based Landspace is developing the Zhuque-2 (ZQ-2) rocket with the goal of completing ground testing in 2019 ahead of debuting the launch vehicle the following year, SpaceNews reports. The company says it has developed a methane- and liquid-oxygen-powered rocket for satellites weighing up to 4 tons.

Big plans … The company claims the launch vehicle will also be economical, capable of being mass-produced, and reusable. Landspace also plans to follow up with much larger ZQ-2A, B, and C three-stage rockets in the future. Those make for a large number of promises, especially with an untested new engine and rocket. But these goals also suggest the Chinese commercial space sector is serious about competing on a global scale, and it does not lack for ambition. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Upcoming Pegasus launch relocated to Florida. According to Spaceflight Now, NASA and Northrop Grumman will now base the launch of an air-dropped Pegasus rocket from Cape Canaveral later this year, with an ICON science satellite as its passenger. The air-launched rocket was supposed to send the NASA satellite into orbit June 14 from a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but a problem with the launch system canceled that attempt "out of an abundance of caution."

Range too busy … Finding a new slot in the US Army Reagan Test Site, which controls the launch range at Kwajalein Atoll, has apparently proven difficult. It should be easier to slot into Florida. So, assuming Northrop Grumman engineers clear the fin actuator issue identified last month, the Pegasus XL rocket will be re-assembled, mounted again on its L-1011 carrier aircraft, and flown in September on a cross-country trip to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Will Webb be ready before the Ariane 5 rocket retires? The most recent slippage of the James Webb Space Telescope, which now will launch no earlier than March 2021, has raised questions about how it will get into space. Ars reports that, for now, NASA and the European Space Agency are not talking about moving the ultra-expensive telescope from the Ariane 5 rocket to the Ariane 6.

However, if it slips more … A European rocket official says: "We will have the Ariane 5 for at least until the end of 2022, but it's not clear cut. If we need to have another launch in 2023, we can extend it; it is just a matter of maintaining the team and maintaining the infrastructure. But our plan today is to start Ariane 6 in 2020 and stop Ariane 5 at the end of 2022." NASA will want to stay on the proven Ariane 5, but keeping that rocket flying beyond 2022 will cost the European Space Agency a significant amount of money.

SpaceX gets a bigger net for fairing recoveries. The California-based rocket company has come close to "catching" Falcon 9 payload fairings with the Mr. Steven platform vessel, but the company hasn't quite nailed it. So SpaceX will now use a bigger net. According to Teslarati, Mr. Steven's new net has an area as large as 3,600 square meters, easily more than quadruple the size of Mr. Stevens previous net.

They just do cool stuff … It is not clear whether SpaceX will attempt to catch one half of a Falcon 9 fairing or both halves with the new net structure. Watching these attempts to do new things in real time, like catch rocket pieces falling back from space, is one of the reasons why SpaceX receives such outsized attention and has such an adulatory fan base. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceIL plans to launch to the Moon in December. The Israeli nonprofit, which has a launch contract on a Falcon 9 rocket, was founded in 2011 by a group of engineers with a budget of about $90 million. After (hopefully) landing their 585kg spacecraft in February, SpaceIL aims to transmit pictures and videos back to Earth over two days. The lander is shaped like a round table with four carbon fiber legs, Reuters reports.

No prize money, alas … Such a landing by a private group would be unprecedented, and although no one will claim the Google Lunar XPrize, it's nice to see someone get to the launchpad with an attempt. (submitted by tpc3 and Norm)

SpaceX seeks to land rockets on the West Coast. A new regulatory filing sheds some light on SpaceX's plans to land Falcon 9 rockets at a new onshore recovery pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base. SpaceX has submitted an application to the Federal Communications Commission, which must approve the company's plans to use radio frequencies to communicate with the rocket after landing. According to Spaceflight Now, the application does not list a specific mission, but the document posted on the FCC's website covers a period from September 5 through March 5.

Closer to the launchpad … SpaceX's landing zones in Florida are several miles from the Falcon 9 rocket's launchpads, but the landing site at Vandenberg is only about 400m from the rocket's launchpad at Space Launch Complex 4-East. Land-based returns are less expensive for SpaceX and will allow for a quicker turnaround because there is no need to wait up to a week for the return of the drone ship to port. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Florida launch range will be busy next month. NASASpaceFlight.com takes a look at upcoming launches for SpaceX and United Launch Alliance from Florida, and the site notes just two days presently separate the planned Falcon 9 launch of the Telkom-4 satellite (NET August 2) and the Delta IV Heavy launch of NASA's Parker Solar Probe. Due to the scientific constraints and necessary trajectory for this key NASA mission, it must launch into an interplanetary launch window between Earth and Venus that is only open this year between July 31 and August 19.

A congested range … Although the Cape can support 24-hour turnarounds, should the Telkom mission on the Falcon 9 have to delay from its August 2 launch date, the Parker Solar Probe would have priority off the Eastern Range. The story has more interesting details about the proximity of launchpads and such. Range congestion will probably become a bigger story in coming years as SpaceX launches more frequently and Blue Origin joins the fray from Florida.

China releases some details on its monster rocket. During a lecture late last month, a chief rocket designer at the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology discussed the institute's plans for developing rockets over the next decade or so. In particular, he talked about the Long March 9 super booster, SpaceNews reports. According to the designer, Long Lehao, the 93m Long March 9 will be capable of lifting 140 metric tons to low Earth orbit, 50 tons to Earth-Moon transfer orbit, and 44 tons to Earth-Mars transfer orbit. A first test flight could come around 2030.

Super rocket race … This vehicle would be in the same class as the Block II version of NASA's Space Launch System, SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket, and (presumably) Blue Origin's New Armstrong booster. Your guess is as good as ours as to which of these ambitious rockets will ever get built, although arguably China (thanks to its authoritarian government) and Blue Origin (thanks to Jeff Bezos' wealth) have the cleanest paths toward actual development. We will watch this with great interest. (submitted by jpo234 and Ken the Bin)

SpaceX South Texas launch site shows signs of life. This week, a 95,000-gallon liquid oxygen tank was delivered to the Boca Chica site near Brownsville via a flatbed trailer, a local newspaper reports. The massive "LOX" tank, which can hold almost as much as 20 tanker trucks, will be fully installed later this year. "Delivery of a new liquid oxygen tank, which will be used to support propellant-loading operations during launch and vehicle tests, represents the latest major piece of launch hardware to arrive at the site for installation," a company spokesman said.

Everything's bigger in Texas … SpaceX publicly announced that it had chosen the Boca Chica site back in 2014 from among a handful of competitors, but the company has been slow to develop the property. SpaceX seems to have given up plans to launch the Falcon 9 rocket from Texas and now will focus on Big Falcon Rocket tests and launches from the site. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Raptor designer envisions a nuclear-powered booster. John Bucknell, an engineer who created some of the early designs for the Raptor engine that will power SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket, says he has designed a nuclear turbo rocket technology. According to Nextbigfuture, the air-breathing nuclear thermal rocket will possess a mass fraction to low Earth orbit seven times that of chemical rockets and will have six times the ISP of conventional boosters.

Eye-popping numbers … The single-stage-to-orbit rocket would, in theory, dramatically lower the costs of getting off Earth, to the Moon, or wherever. The bigger hurdle here seems to be overcoming the public perception of launching a nuclear-powered rocket from the surface of the Earth. (submitted by Biceps)

NASA is now planning at least three launches on the SLS Block 1. SpaceNews says that NASA schedules for the initial configuration of the Space Launch System rocket now show Exploration Mission-1 in 2019 or 2020, EM-2 (the first crewed mission) in 2021, and a "cargo" mission in 2022. That cargo mission would likely be used for the launch of the Europa Clipper spacecraft. (We are skeptical of all three of those dates, by the way).

No surprises here … The decision by Congress to fund a second mobile launcher, needed for the larger upper stage associated with the Block 1b of the SLS, allowed NASA to take this widely expected decision. What should concern SLS proponents is that the availability of the mobile launcher for multiple flights of the initial configuration decreases pressure to ever develop Block 1b. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

July 22: Falcon 9 | Telstar 19 VANTAGE satellite | Cape Canaveral, Florida | 05:50 UTC

July 25: Ariane 5 | Galileo satellites | Kourou, French Guiana | 11:25 UTC

July 25: Falcon 9 | Iridium NEXT satellites | Vandenberg AFB, California | 11:39 UTC

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