Main Engine Cut Off

Virgin Orbit, Who Has Been Saying Their First Launch is This Year for Nearly Three Years, Deemed an Essential Service

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

“In conversations with our representatives, we have learned that our work of developing and operating our flexible, responsive space launch system for our customers, including those at NASA and in the U.S. Department of Defense, has been deemed as one such essential service, and that therefore we have been exempted from many of the “Safer At Home” shelter in place restrictions,” Virgin Orbit Kendall Russell said in a statement.

To prevent the spread of the virus, Virgin Orbit will be sending all employees home for the next week except a “small crew necessary to assure the safety and security of the facility,” said Russell. “Those employees who can do their work remotely will do so; and those who cannot work remotely will still be paid in full.”

With all due respect to anyone reading this who works at Virgin Orbit, this is quite frankly bullshit. I’m fine with designating high-visibility, time-sensitive launch campaigns like Mars 2020 (Perseverance), Commercial Crew, or even AEHF-6 as essential services. But a company still in the development and testing phase of a launch vehicle that has been delayed for several years now with the only government flight being a Space Test Program launch?

If there’s something the Department of Defense needs up in space so urgently, I would suggest driving 20 minutes north to Hawthorne and having a conversation with SpaceX.

For context, I have plenty of my own questions about the economic impact of a worldwide shutdown in response to the ongoing pandemic, sure. But this situation isn’t a mythical, low-probability threat to me as it is to most people out there.

My wife is a physician here in Philadelphia. She and many of our closest friends, here and elsewhere in the country, wake up every morning and head into a hospital where they face first-hand the problems the rest of us only read about. I can’t honestly justify why Virgin Orbit should be designated an essential service while also seeing the situation from as close as you can get to it without being there.

I’m open to hearing why I’m wrong, and I’d love to hear how many people are going into the Virgin Orbit facility each day, so reach out if you’ve got something to say about either item.

First Long March 7A Fails, with Some Evidence Pointing to Second Stage Failure

Andrew Jones, far and away my favorite source (and podcast guest!) for Chinese space news, has a great rundown on SpaceNews on Long March 7A and the impacts its failure could have:

The RP-1/liquid oxygen side boosters and core stage share commonalities with the Long March 5, including YF-100 engines. An issue with these engines could potentially impact planned Long March 5 missions, including China’s first independent interplanetary mission—to Mars—in July. It could also have knock-on effects for China’s space station plans.

If the issue was with the second stage YF-115 engines, the impact of the failure could be limited to the Long March 6 and 7 series rockets. A new variant of the Long March 6 developed by the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology is expected later in 2020.

Later on Twitter, he posted some amateur videos from the launch that an explosion just after MECO, separation, and second stage ignition. That evidence coupled with the fact that nothing was registered in orbit after launch seem to indicate that the failure was in the second stage, which—if true—would be great news for China’s Mars, Space Station, and lunar sample return plans.

Episode T+150: SpaceX Signs Crew Flight Agreements with Axiom, Space Adventures

SpaceX recently signed two agreements: one with Axiom Space to fly a private mission up to the ISS, and one with Space Adventures for a free-flying tourist flight up to 1,000 kilometers. I discuss these two missions and why agreements like this are key to SpaceX’s long-term strategy.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—Brandon, Matthew, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and six anonymous—and 347 other supporters.


The Show

DARPA Selects Northrop Grumman for RSGS

Hot on the heels of MEV-1 successfully docking with its first target, the good news continues for Northrop Grumman’s Space Logistics business:

Under the agreement, DARPA will provide the robotics payload for the Space Logistics Mission Robotic Vehicle. This payload, developed and integrated by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, consists of two dexterous robotic manipulator arms, along with several tools and sensors. SpaceLogistics will provide its Mission Robotic Vehicle bus leveraging technologies developed for the industry’s first- ever satellite servicing vehicle, the Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV).

The Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program has had a tumultuous path from the original award to SSL, through an unsuccessful protest by Orbital ATK (now Northrop Grumman), and ending with SSL dropping out for financial reasons. When SSL dropped out in January 2019, I wrote:

The telling sign here will be whether DARPA pursues a continuation of RSGS with Northrop Grumman, who lost out on the original round of agreements. Northrop Grumman may feel confident enough in their Mission Extension Vehicles and Pods that they don’t need the additional complexity of RSGS, or they may feel like the robotic arm would be a valuable boost to their work.

Turns out Northrop Grumman sees the collaboration (and the first sale of a Mission Robotic Vehicle flight) as a valuable path for their work.

With the first MEV mission in progress, a second one sold and awaiting launch, and now some activity on the Mission Robotic Vehicle front, the Space Logistics business seems to be working out so far.

ESA Data Puts 2019 Amazon Fires In Context, and It’s Good News

Pleasantly surprising data from ESA:

Attention on fires last year sparked an international demand for up-to-date information on active fires – particularly in Brazil. However, these numbers were never compared to the number of fires over a longer period of time.

Detailed in a recent paper published in Remote Sensing, scientists using data from ESA’s Fire CCI project, analysed burned areas in South America in both 2018 and 2019 – and compared the data to the 2001-18 yearly average.

According to the report, the total burned area in South America was around 70% more in 2019 compared to the same period of 2018, however only slightly more than the yearly average over the past 17 years.

There are some nice graphics in the ESA post, but this one really tells the story:

ESA Data on Amazon Fires, 2001–2019

Credit: ESA

Turns out 2018 was a good year, and 2019 was pretty close to the norm over the last two decades. Context helps.

NASA Awards Psyche Launch to SpaceX, Who Now Has Its First Mars Launch on the Books

Meant to link to this last week, but this is big news:

NASA has selected SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for the agency’s Psyche mission. The Psyche mission currently is targeted to launch in July 2022 on a Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The total cost for NASA to launch Psyche and the secondary payloads is approximately $117 million, which includes the launch service and other mission related costs.

The launch of Psyche will include two secondary payloads (pending review and final selection): Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE), which will study the Martian atmosphere, and Janus, which will study binary asteroids.

At $117 million, Falcon Heavy is a hell of a deal for NASA. It’s no surprise, then, that SpaceX has been winning a lot of NASA science missions lately. Just within the last year, they’ve been selected to launch DARTPACEIXPE, and now Psyche.

The bit of info that doesn’t seem to be getting the pomp that it deserves is that, after launching in July 2022, Psyche (and obviously EscaPADE) will be doing a Mars flyby in 2023.

SpaceX officially has its first Mars launch on the books.

Huge Thanks to February Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 385 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of February. 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 37 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Matthew, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, 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.

Episode T+149: Let’s Talk About Starship with Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut

Tim Dodd, the Everyday Astronaut, joins me to talk all about SpaceX’s Starship, its history thus far, it’s nearly-impossible-to-keep-up-with development in the open, and what we may see in the coming months. We make some timeline predictions, talk about the predicament of Boca Chica, and both randomly stumble into completely unsupported theories.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 37 executive producers—Brandon, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, and six anonymous—and 345 other supporters.


The Show

First Look at Falcon 9 and Heavy Updates for NSSL

An FAA environmental assessment shed some light on changes that would come to SpaceX’s Falcon family if and when they’re selected as a Phase 2 launch provider: the new service tower that would be built at Pad 39A to support vertical integration of payloads, and the longer fairing that would be required for certain payloads.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy NSSL Rendering

The rendering looks a lot like the longest fairing that RUAG provides for Atlas V (and soon, Vulcan), so maybe this was done back when SpaceX was trying to work with RUAG on that. I’m not sure we know where that stands now, but in any event, the fairing will probably look similar.

Aside from an increased launch cadence, one of the main reasons for the new environmental assessment is because SpaceX is on the verge of flying polar flights from Cape Canaveral (SAOCOM-1B is scheduled for the end of March using this new trajectory).

The combination of all these updates—vertical integration at Pad 39A, longer fairings on Falcon 9 and Heavy, and the opening of the polar trajectory from Cape Canaveral—indicates my hunch was correct and Vandenberg will be used less and less by SpaceX, if at all. It sure seems like Falcon Heavy will never get a launch pad at Vandenberg.

The only kinds of launches that would likely require Vandenberg are the occasional retrograde launch carried out for NRO satellites. Otherwise, SpaceX should have the lift capacity from the east coast for anything that can fit under their new fairing and is headed for sun-synchronous orbit.