Main Engine Cut Off

Chang’e-5 Orbiter Begins Extended Mission

Andrew Jones, for SpaceNews:

Hu Hao, a chief designer of the third (sample return) phase of the Chinese lunar exploration program, told China Central Television (Chinese) Dec. 20 that the orbiter is now on an extended mission to a Sun-Earth Lagrange point.

While unspecified, it is believed that the Chang’e-5 orbiter will enter orbit around L1, based on the reference to planned solar observations. The orbiter is equipped with optical imagers.

The team will decide on a further destination after tests and observations have been conducted, Hu said.

Chang’e-5 follows in the footsteps of Chang’e-2 and Chang’e-5 T1, which all went on to have interesting and sometimes unexpected extended missions. It feels a little like finishing a mission in Kerbal Space Program and realizing you brought along way too much fuel.

Launch Complex 48 Opens at Kennedy Space Center

A great rundown on LC-48 by Anthony Iemole for

The 10-acre complex is situated about one mile southeast of LC-39A, and one mile northwest of SLC-41, home of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Pad 48 is what’s known as a “clean pad” design, meaning it gives multiple users, all with different launch systems, the ability to launch from the complex. This is part of NASA’s ongoing effort of encouraging commercial spaceflight development.

I expect to see Astra and ABL flying from this location in the not-too-distant future.

Lockheed Martin to Acquire Aerojet Rocketdyne for $4.4 Billion

That’s a pretty small amount of money for the company, and it’s interesting to put it in context: Aerojet Rocketdyne tried to buy ULA for $2 billion back in 2015.

Aerojet Rocketdyne acquiring ULA would have been much more healthy for the aerospace industry than this acquisition, which is no doubt bolstered by Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of Orbital ATK raising few-to-no eyebrows. Big prime contractors acquiring propulsion partners is all the rage these days.

These kinds of acquisitions seem to me to come with two truths: they’re always way less about space than we like to think, and they always change less than we like to imagine.

Artemis I Orion PDU Will Not Be Replaced

After an initial estimate of 4 to 12 months of delays due to a loss of redundancy within one of Orion’s PDUs, NASA has decided to fly Orion as-is:

During their troubleshooting, engineers evaluated the option to “use as is” with the high-degree of available redundancy or remove and replace the box. They determined that due to the limited accessibility to this particular box, the degree of intrusiveness to the overall spacecraft systems, and other factors, the risk of collateral damage outweighed the risk associated with the loss of one leg of redundancy in a highly redundant system.  Therefore, NASA has made the decision to proceed with vehicle processing.

I like the wording used, “degree of intrusiveness to the overall spacecraft systems,” which roughly translates into taking the entire spacecraft apart, reassembling it, and testing everything again.

All in all this seems like the right call. At a certain point, the risk of bigger delays coming from the process of fixing this issue is more than the risk on this particular flight. We have yet to see political support of Orion and SLS be eroded in any meaningful way, but every increasing delay has to catch up at some point.

Right? Maybe?

NASA On Ramps New Glenn to NLS II, While Vulcan Slips to Late 2021

Blue Origin can now bid for NASA launches, though until they have a few successful flights, they’ll be limited on which payloads they can win.

That news came along right as Tory Bruno had some comments on Vulcan’s first flight being delayed. Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

Bruno told reporters in a conference call that ULA is confident that both the launch vehicle and its first customer — Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander —  will be on the launch pad “by the end of next year.”

The timeline for Vulcan’s maiden flight has slipped over the past two years because ULA does not yet have flight-qualified BE-4 main engines for Vulcan’s first stage. Engine manufacturer Blue Origin this year delivered two “pathfinder” engines to be used for ground tests but the actual flight engines won’t arrive at ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama, until summer 2021.

We’ve known BE-4 has been behind schedule for a while now, but with the first flight engines shipping to ULA this upcoming summer, that’s quite a bit further behind than I thought they’d be at this point.

I mentioned some of this in a recent podcast episode, but considering how long it will take to get BE-4 production up to the point of supporting multiple Vulcan flights alongside the first New Glenn flights, and considering that we have heard little to nothing on the BE-3U front in quite a while, it sure seems like we’re still at least 2 years out from New Glenn’s first flight.

Episode T+177: NASA VCLS 2, Relativity, Astra, and Firefly

NASA awarded Venture Class Launch Services contracts to Astra, Firefly, and Relativity. Astra almost made orbit with its most recent test flight of Rocket 3.2. And something is up at Firefly, but I don’t know what yet.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 35 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Lauren, Melissa, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Ryan, Donald, Lee, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, and six anonymous—and 447 other supporters.


The Show

Episode T+176: The Flight of Starship SN8

Starship SN8 took flight last week on a mostly-successful mission to test its final descent phase. I share some thoughts on the test, the state of Starship development, and what that all means for the near future of Starship.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 36 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Lauren, Melissa, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Ryan, 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, and seven anonymous—and 438 other supporters.


The Show

Changguang Satellite’s Enormous Funding Round for Jilin-1

Andrew Jones, for SpaceNews, on Changguang Satellite’s enormous $375 million funding round:

The funding will mainly go towards the development of the 138-satellite Jilin-1 constellation of “high performance optical remote sensing satellites.” The initial phase will consist of 60 satellites to offer a 30-minute revisit for any point on the globe, CGST states. The firm aims to complete the full, 138-satellite, 10-minute revisit constellation around 2030.

As Andrew points out in the article, this single round surpasses the totality of Planet’s funding.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of Chinese private space companies these days, but news like this makes the recent revisions to US commercial remote sensing regulations make so much sense:

The revised regulations, finalized after months of interagency review, would subject systems to only the “bare minimum of conditions” if they offer capabilities no better than what is available by foreign competitors, with somewhat more stringent conditions if they offer better capabilities or novel services not otherwise available.

Virgin Galactic Aborts Flight Immediately After Engine Start, Lands Safely at Spaceport America

Virgin Galactic on Twitter:

After being released from its mothership, SpaceShipTwo Unity’s onboard computer that monitors the rocket motor lost connection. As designed, this triggered a fail-safe scenario that intentionally halted ignition of the rocket motor.

Glad that everyone made it to the ground safely, but this is rough timing for Virgin Galactic. All the pomp around them having relocated VSS Unity to Spaceport America, talking up the fact that they’ll be starting commercial flights next year, and then this kind of thing comes up.

It’s been 22 months since the last powered flight of VSS Unity, and I have no idea how long we’ll wait until the next one. Their competitor Blue Origin is not pushing a much faster cadence, either, but I have a little bit of hope that the New Shepard cadence will change in 2021.

Another thing that really annoys me about Virgin Galactic is the lack of a stream or any coverage other than some live tweeting. Couple that with the seeming unwillingness to post a full, end-to-end video of any flight of SpaceShipTwo, and…well, that’s a weird feeling I can’t shake. Are they purely overly cautious given the history here? Do they lack confidence in the flight and vehicle? Both?

Luckily for us, Jack Beyer and the NASASpaceflight crew sleuthed out the flight, had a stream going, and posted excellent photos of the flight.