Main Engine Cut Off

T+138: Peter Beck, Founder of Rocket Lab

Peter Beck, Founder, CEO, and CTO of Rocket Lab, joins me to talk about what they’ve been up to with Electron and Photon, as well as some of their new offerings like ground station support through KSAT and Photon missions to the Moon.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—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, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, Sam, and six anonymous—and 296 other supporters.

T+137: Artemis Politics, United Lander Alliance

Artemis and international politics were on display on the first day of IAC 2019, followed by strange-yet-politically-minded partnerships on the second day.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 38 executive producers—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, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Adam, Sam, and six anonymous—and 295 other supporters.

Starlink Demos at 610 Mbps

Gwynne Shotwell held a media roundtable last week, and the best piece of info is this, thanks to Sandra Erwin of SpaceNews:

Shotwell said many of the Starlink features are being tested by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory under a program called Global Lightning. SpaceX in December 2018 received a $28 million contract to test over the next three years different ways in which the military might use Starlink broadband services. So far, SpaceX has demonstrated data throughput of 610 megabits per second in flight to the cockpit of a U.S. military C-12 twin-engine turboprop aircraft.

That’s some serious speed.

Some More Details on the Firefly-Aerojet Rocketdyne Partnership

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews, with some enlightening details on the Firefly-Aerojet Rocketdyne partnership from an interview with Mark Watt, acting CFO at Firefly:

Watt said Beta has been redesigned from a triple-core rocket, akin to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, to a single core in order to increase how much it can lift. That rocket, featuring a reusable first stage, will be able to lift 8,000 kilograms to LEO, he said.

In a statement, Firefly CEO Tom Markusic praised the AR1 as an engine well suited for Beta, but stopped short of saying the engine’s selection is a done deal.

I still think that as a launch services company, it’s a bad idea to put yourself in a situation where you’re beholden to someone else’s business for your core engines.

But the confirmation of moving to a single-core, reusable first stage, along with a doubling of Beta’s previous payload is at least the best case scenario here.

I’m curious to find out what their reusability plan would be for a first stage design like that.

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.

T+136: Starship to GTO, SSO from Florida

A few bits of follow-up on Starship to GTO, the Bridenstine-Musk show at SpaceX HQ, and flying to polar orbits from Florida.

Meetup alert! Sunday, October 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. Hang out with me, Jake, and a ton of amazing people of space the night before IAC 2019 kicks off. Details at events.offnominal.space.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 39 executive producers—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—and 284 other supporters.

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.