Main Engine Cut Off

Firefly Wins MECO’s 2019 Bad Decision of the Year Award

Talk about burying news. Firefly and Aerojet Rocketdyne announced a partnership late Friday afternoon on the weekend before IAC 2019, and all the way at the end of the generic press release is this:

Dr. Markusic added, “Firefly is committed to flying Beta, our medium class launch vehicle. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine, which incorporates the latest advances in propulsion technology, materials science and manufacturing techniques, is incredibly well suited to power Beta given its cost-effective, high performance capabilities. By cooperating on this development, we are accelerating our time to market and providing our customers with high confidence in Beta’s schedule, performance and reliability.”

I’ve been genuinely excited to see what Firefly can do in the launch market.

And I still am excited to see Alpha, but for Beta, this is a major violation of the rocket equivalent of Alan Kay’s theorem: people who are really serious about launch services should make their own engines.

Not only are they violating that rule, but they’re violating it and partnering with a slow-moving company that has a long history of expensive engines.

It’s possible that Firefly realized that the 3-core Beta vehicle would be overly complex, and needed to simplify down to a bigger (hopefully reusable) single-core that could still lift Beta-level payloads. If that’s the case, I’m curious why they’d go with AR1 instead of a cluster of their own engines.

I hope we find out.

I’m Heading to IAC 2019

Big week coming up: I‘ll be heading down to DC for IAC 2019. It’s sure to be packed with announcements and interesting information, so keep your eyes peeled here on the blog, over on Twitter, and become a supporter to get access to any and all bonus content I produce throughout the week. I will likely be doing some ad hoc recording (maybe even interviews?), so it’s a great time to hop in and support!

If you’ll be in the DC area this Sunday, October 20, Jake Robins of WeMartians and I will be doing a couple of wonderful meetups! Early in the day at the Udvar-Hazy wing of the Air and Space Museum, and in the evening just about 10 minutes away from the convention center. Details over at events.offnominal.space(and we’ll post any day-of updates there, as well!).

If you’re heading to IAC, as well, I’d love to talk about what you’re working on, so join us at the meetups on Sunday or let’s connect during the week!

SpaceX Submits 20 Filings to ITU for 30,000 More Satellites

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews:

Filings trigger a seven-year deadline whereby the satellite operator, in this case SpaceX, must launch at least one satellite with its requested frequencies and operate it for 90 days. Once spectrum rights have been assigned through this “bring into use” procedure, other ventures must design their systems to avoid interference with the newly minted incumbent operator.

Tim Farrar, a telecom analyst critical of SpaceX, tweeted that he was doubtful the ITU will be able to review such big filings in a timely manner. He sees the 20 separate filings as a SpaceX effort to “drown the ITU in studies” while proceeding with its constellation.

I follow Farrar and often appreciate his perspective, but I would definitely say he ranges from cranky to cynical. He wrote a piece back in May that I reread and found it particular prescient given this recent ITU filing dust-up. In it he predicts the same aforementioned flood-the-ITU-and-fly-satellites strategy, as well as the big funding round that SpaceX raised following the first Starlink flight:

While other systems like Theia are required to receive ITU approval “prior to the initiation of service”, SpaceX has now been given permission to provide service over the Starlink system unless and until a final ITU finding is published. This appears to reflect the FCC’s view of SpaceX as a potential winner in the NGSO race and a desire to enable operations to begin as soon as possible. In addition, SpaceX appears to be receiving strong backing from other agencies within the US government for the capabilities that Starlink is expected to make available.

It appears that the launch will be accompanied by a publicity blitz to set the scene for a major fundraising effort immediately thereafter, with one feature of this PR campaign being SpaceX’s production line in Redmond, described to me as “more impressive” than OneWeb’s factory in Florida.

I’m not completely sure what to make of this new set of filings yet. The cynical end of the spectrum is Farrar’s opinion, and the optimistic end of the spectrum is SpaceX preparing for massive growth in Starlink services over the next decade.

I prefer being an optimist.

Orbital Services Program-4 Launch Providers Selected

Sandra Erwin, SpaceNews

SpaceX, Xbow Launch Systems, Northrop Grumman, Firefly Aerospace, United Launch Alliance, Aevum, Vox Space and Rocket Lab have been selected to provide launch services in the Orbital Services Program-4 — a $986 million procurement of launch services over nine years. The Air Force announced the winners Oct. 10.

The RFP was released back in August, and as we heard then, the program contains up to 20 missions that will be competed as they are ready. The selected launch providers are a nice mix of those who are flying today, those who are coming up on their first flight, and those who are still early on in their work.

Eight providers were selected, but nine proposals were received. I would love to know who missed the cut here, and what they had in their proposal to blame for that.

I’m particularly curious how SpaceX will bid for these 20 missions, and how that interacts with their SmallSat Rideshare Program.

SpaceX to Fly to Polar Orbit from Florida

Huge news breaking in the last day or two. Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

The Eastern Range could in the future launch missions to polar orbits, which typically are done from Vandenberg, he said. “SpaceX is working a mission to do a polar launch from the Eastern Range, and we are supporting that. I think that gives us more flexibility if something happened at Vandenberg.”

I’ve been harping on the limited polar-capable launch sites here in the US for a while now, and have been curious about flights out of Florida since talk of this resurfaced in January 2018.

SpaceX has scheduled SAOCOM-1B for a flight to Sun-synchronous orbit from Florida. Flying polar out of Florida imposes a performance hit, because you have to fly a pretty aggressive dogleg, but with SAOCOM-1B being so light, Falcon 9 has sufficient payload margin to do it.

This will be a great pathfinder flight profile for vehicles with sufficient margin to make use of it effectively.

And there are currently a few major launch vehicles in operation or development that have large payload figures but don’t have a west coast launch site—notable Falcon Heavy, New Glenn, and Starship.

Space Logistics’ MEV-1 Launches

The industry’s first commercial satellite servicing mission has launched, with much less fanfare than I would have liked to see.

There were some short interviews, like this one with Stephen Clark of Spaceflight Now, and a video showing MEV-1’s flight profile, but that’s about it.

Regardless, MEV-1 is a mission I’ll be following closely, as its operation and any contract announcements that follow it will be good indicators of where the satellite servicing market is at today.

Thanks to September Patrons

Very special thanks to the 315 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of September. 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: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Tommy, Adam, Sam, and six anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and join the crew of supporters and producers!

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.

Relativity Secures Funding to First Launch, Widens Fairing

Jeff Foust, SpaceNews, on Relativity landing $140 million in funding:

“That round will carry us past first flight of Terran 1,” said Jordan Noone, co-founder and chief technology officer of Relativity, in an interview. “This round is all the capital required to get to first flight, build out more of the Mississippi test site, Launch Complex 16 in Florida and expand our L.A. headquarters and manufacturing.”

Their first flight is now slated for February 2021, and will feature a 3-meter hammerhead fairing, which can be seen on their site.

Relativity’s focus on additive manufacturing is a double-edged sword. It’s one of their most unique assets which attracts attention and investor interest, but it’s also their biggest risk—technically and culturally.

Are they a company that provides launch services, and they get there by way of advanced additive manufacturing? Or are they a company that focuses on advanced additive manufacturing, and they happen to be selling launch services first?

I’m anxiously waiting to see the first fully-integrated stage produced by Stargate. And I’m even more anxious to see that fired at their test site.

Juno Executes Long Burn to Avoid Fatal Eclipse

From the JPL blog:

Juno began the maneuver yesterday, on Sept. 30, at 7:46 p.m. EDT (4:46 p.m. PDT) and completed it early on Oct. 1. Using the spacecraft's reaction-control thrusters, the propulsive maneuver lasted five times longer than any previous use of that system. It changed Juno's orbital velocity by 126 mph (203 kph) and consumed about 160 pounds (73 kilograms) of fuel. Without this maneuver, Juno would have spent 12 hours in transit across Jupiter's shadow - more than enough time to drain the spacecraft's batteries. Without power, and with spacecraft temperatures plummeting, Juno would likely succumb to the cold and be unable to awaken upon exit.

Sounds like the team didn’t predict such a long eclipse before launch. I wonder how much that’s tied to the fact that Juno is in a 53-day orbit rather than the intended 14-day orbit, due to the propulsion failure earlier in the mission.

Nice flying by the Juno team.