Main Engine Cut Off

NSF to Decommission Arecibo Observatory’s Radio Telescope

The National Science Foundation posted this announcement after an assessment of the situation with two failed cables:

The decision comes after NSF evaluated multiple assessments by independent engineering companies that found the telescope structure is in danger of a catastrophic failure and its cables may no longer be capable of carrying the loads they were designed to support. Furthermore, several assessments stated that any attempts at repairs could put workers in potentially life-threatening danger. Even in the event of repairs going forward, engineers found that the structure would likely present long-term stability issues.

A major bummer, but not much of a surprise, honestly. NSF had dropped funding levels for Arecibo significantly in past years, and it had effectively been saved by a consortium led by the University of Central Florida. That transition wasn’t even complete, either, per the timeline stated when management was transitioned in February, 2018:

NSF now spends $8 million a year to run Arecibo, with NASA pitching in another $3.6 million. Under the agreement signed today, by 1 October 2022, NSF’s contribution will shrink to $2 million per year, with the UCF consortium making up the difference.

Maxar posted updated satellite images of the facility, and they are worth a look.

I’m interested to see what the decommissioning plan will be. Mostly to see if it will involve explosives and an awesome video, or if it will be a slower-and-less-exciting-looking deconstruction.

Voyager Space Holdings’ Third Acquisition: The Launch Company

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

The Launch Company designs mobile launch sites that could be used by multiple small launchers. “We can help customers get to space faster and more affordably by streamlining the launch process in part through automation,” said CEO and founder Ben Kellie.

Kellie said The Launch Company has no plans to build rockets. “We want to support the companies that are building rockets by transforming the way they launch. We also build hardware such as ground support equipment for these companies as well as quick disconnect fueling fittings for rockets and spacecraft,” he said.

I had not heard of The Launch Company previously, but I probably should have. Their site lists Relativity, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit among their customers.

The comment about quick disconnects piqued my interest, as Altius Space Machines—Voyager Space Holdings’ first acquisition—has been working on CryoCouplers for a while:

Altius is developing a family of cryogenic propellant couplings, which can serve as a ground T-0 quick disconnect umbilical, while also being easy to robotically reconnect on-orbit, allowing it to become the standard interface for future in-space propellant transfer.

Long March 5 Rolled Out for Chang’e-5, China’s Lunar Sample Return Mission

Andrew Jones, for SpaceNews, with a great article on the preparation for and timeline of the mission to Oceanus Procellarum:

Launch of the 8.2-metric-ton Chang’e-5 spacecraft from the coastal Wenchang Satellite Launch Center is now expected Nov. 24 local time. State media reports have so far only confirmed the launch will take place in late November.

Sunrise over Mons Rümker will occur November 27, ahead of the landing attempt. The mission seeks to collect around 2 kilograms of samples by both drilling to a depth of up to two meters and scooping up surface material.

Chang’e-5 culminates with the samples returned to Earth sometime around December 16–17. I’ll be happily surprised if we get official coverage of the mission, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Either way, make sure you follow Andrew on Twitter, as he is the best source for Chinese space coverage. Don’t take my word for it: check out this thread on the mission timeline.

Thank You to October Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 463 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off for the month of October. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, and it’s your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 38 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Lauren, Melissa, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Ryan, Nadim, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and seven anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, join the crew of supporters and producers! Don’t forget about Headlines, the extra weekly podcast episode that goes out to all supporters at the $3+ level.

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

Ariane 6 Slips to 2022, Needs Another €230 Million

Big slip for Ariane 6, and 5% growth of development cost—bringing the total development cost to €3.8 billion. Disappointing yet unsurprising news.

This news has dredged up another round of Ariane 6 takes that misunderstand the program entirely, though. As Arianespace competes for commercial launches with SpaceX, there’s always a Ariane 6 vs. Falcon 9 war to be fought.1

In this case, it’s that Ariane 6 is so expensive and can never compete in the long run with Falcon 9. That is certainly true on the surface, but Arianespace is not a commercial company like SpaceX.

Europe has a political and security interest in maintaining a homegrown launch capability. They aren’t developing Ariane 6 specifically to sell commercial launches. Selling commercial launches is a way to subsidize maintaining a homegrown launch capability.

SpaceX developed Falcon 9 with the goal of making launch more affordable across the board. The US government has a political and security interest in making sure they and other launch providers stick around.

The relationship between national and commercial interests are completely reversed for each program, and that is important to understand if you want to come to peace with Ariane 6’s gargantuan development cost.

Ariane 6 is much more akin, politically, to SLS than Falcon 9. What a world it would be if SLS could compete for commercial launches.

  1. Just as there is always a SpaceX vs. {insert topic here} war to be fought. ↩︎

My son has arrived! Signing off for a few weeks.

Exciting news! My son was born a few days ago, and we’re all home and healthy.

I’ll be going offline for a few weeks to spend some time with him and settle into life as a parent. Feels like a good breakpoint in 2020, anyway, after the big NSSL Phase 2 awardstons of small launch newsMars launch mayhem, SpaceX DM-2, and so much else it’s hard to remember. The most recent episode of Off-Nominal with our friend Loren Grush was the perfect way to wrap things up before my break for the baby, as we talk about all those stories with some classic Off-Nominal fun infused.

During my break, I’ll be pausing the Patreon charges for September, as there will be no new podcasts or Headlines hitting your feeds. If you join during that time (which still has an upfront charge), you still get access to the Off-Nominal Discord, the back catalogue of content like Headlines, discussions as we rewatch the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind, or you could visit The Before Times with our IAC day-by-day recaps, I suppose.

I can’t promise I won’t be hanging out in Discord, tweeting, or blogging late at night, but I also won’t promise I will be, either! I’ll update you in a few weeks, and expect podcasting to resume shortly after that. Thanks for being so supportive of this single-person operation!

Thank You to July Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 437 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off for the month of July. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, and it’s your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 39 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Lauren, Melissa, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and seven anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, join the crew of supporters and producers! Don’t forget about Headlines, the extra weekly podcast episode that goes out to all supporters at the $3+ level.

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

Starship SN5 Flew, So Let’s Check In on Some Predictions

Yesterday evening, Starship SN5 took a glorious flight up to 150 meters and down to its landing pad. It was a joy to watch, and other than a small engine fire that probably isn’t much to worry about, looked like a wonderfully successful test, complete with off-axis thrust, attitude control, and great sound.

It’s been almost a year since Starhopper’s flight to a similar altitude, which simultaneously feels recent and ancient. That’s a good reminder of the hectic-yet-steady, fast-yet-slower-than-hoped pace of Starship work.

On that note, back on February 28—mere days before life in the US got turned upside down—I had Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, join me for a Starship discussion on episode T+149 of the podcast. Right around the 43 minute mark, Tim posed four predictions for each of us to make.

I figured now is as good a time as any to check in on those (and I also kind of just wanted to put them in writing somewhere for easy reference). Below are the four scenarios Tim posed and a paraphrased answer from each of us.


1. Will there be a flight of one of these Serial Number 1, 2, 3, etc vehicles before the 20 kilometer attempt?

Anthony: 100% yes. Higher than Starhopper, but not that high.

Tim: Yes, very short hovers, maybe only to 20 meters.


2. When will the 20-ish kilometer flight happen?

Anthony: February 28, 2021 (a year + leap day from recording), and it will be with something like SN6 or SN7.

Tim: They will proceed immediately to the 20 kilometer hop after the short hop. End of May, 2020.


3. How many high-altitude, non-orbital flights will there be?

Anthony: They will do a 6-month-long, 1-flight-per-month-ish test campaign between the 20 kilometer flight and the first orbital attempt.

Tim: 3 non-explosive high-altitude hops before the first orbital attempt.


4. When will the first orbital attempt be?

Anthony: December, 2021

Tim: February, 2021