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ULA, SpaceX and Rocket Lab See Big Launch Year Ahead

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
March 17, 2023
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ULA, SpaceX and Rocket Lab See Big Launch Year Ahead
Starship and Super Heavy fueled for the first time. (Credit: SpaceX)

WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) CEO reaffirmed a May 2023 flight date for the maiden flight of the company’s new rocket; SpaceX and Rocket Lab officials laid out plans for record launch years; and a Blue Origin executive said Jeff Bezos’ company might never reveal what caused one of its rockets to explode last year.

Those were the highlights of the launch provider panel at the Satellite 2023 Conference this week. Executives from the four companies were joined by Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno said the company is on track to launch its new Vulcan Centaur rocket on May 4. The rocket will carry the Peregrine lunar lander for Astrobotic Technology and two test satellites for Amazon’s 3,236 spacecraft Kuiper broadband constellation.

Bruno said ULA is a little more than halfway through qualification testing of the Blue Origin-supplied BE-4 engines that power Vulcan Centaur’s first stage. The testing was delayed when engineers discovered that one of the two test engines was about 5 percent more powerful than the other one.

Engineers removed the more powerful engine from the test stand and disassembled it to determine whether the performance difference indicated a more serious problem than regular variation. Bruno said that engineers understand the reason for the variation, so testing resumed with a different engine.

Launch windows for the moon-bound Peregrine lander only occur four or five days every month. Bruno said ULA might have been able to launch in early April, but delayed a month so as to not rush the maiden flight of a new launch vehicle.

Down at Cape Canaveral, ULA is preparing Vulcan Centaur for its maiden flight. The rocket will be rolled out to the pad, fueled up, and a practice countdown conducted. After a brief hot fire of the two first-stage BE-4 engines, the booster will be rolled back into the assembly building where the three satellites will be installed.

Vulcan Centaur is designed to replace the Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V launch vehicles that ULA currently flies. The new booster will be cheaper than Delta IV Heavy. Atlas V is being phased out because it uses Russian engines, which the U.S. government does not want to be dependent upon for national security payloads.

SpaceX Senior Vice President for Commercial Business Tom Ochinero said the company is on track to launch 100 times in 2023. The company’s 61 launches last year tied a 42-year-old record set by the Soviet Union in 1980.

The highlight of SpaceX’s year will be the launch of the massive Starship/Super Heavy rocket. Ochinero said the company is waiting on a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In a subsequent tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said obtaining the license is not the only task that needs to be accomplished before the launch. He predicted Starship/Super Heavy was likely to fly in the second half of April.

Ochinero said SpaceX is looking to expand reuse of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy first-stage boosters. The original goal was 10 flights, but they are now certified for 15 launches. That number could be extended to 20 or 25 flights, he said.

Richard French, Rocket Lab’s senior director for business development and strategy, said the company has 15 launches lined up for 2023, an increase from the record of nine launches conducted last year.

French said that hardware and software development of the company’s larger Neutron rocket is coming along well. The rocket could fly for the first time next year. French noted that in addition to launches, the company has had success in diversifying into supplying satellite components.

Blue Origin Vice President Ariane Cornell provided no update on what had caused a suborbital New Shepard booster to explode during a flight last September. She said the company might not release the results of the ongoing investigation, which is being coordinated with the FAA. Blue Origin plans to have New Shepard flying again by the end of the year.

Cornell noted that the automated escape system pulled the New Shepard capsule filled with microgravity research safely away from the failing rocket as it was designed to do. She said the company was declining requests from potential customers for flights on which the escape system would be purposely activated.

Cornell said Blue Origin is making “fantastic progress” on development the company’s New Glenn orbital rocket, although she gave no timeline for the first launch. The company has moved into production of the booster’s second stage, and several pairs of 7-meter payload shrouds are being manufactured, she added. Blue Origin’s goal is to be able to launch each New Glenn booster 25 times.

Cornell pointed to NASA decision to award Blue Origin a contract to launch the Escape and Plasma Acquisition and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE) mission to Mars as evidence of the space agency’s confidence in New Glenn. EscaPADE is a dual-spacecraft mission to study ion and sputtered escape from Mars.

Like ULA, Arianespace is in transition between launch vehicles. Israel said the company has two more Ariane 5 rockets left, with the final launch scheduled for June 21. The replacement Ariane 6 rocket will not be ready for launch until late this year.

Meanwhile, Arianespace is dealing with the failure of a Vega-C rocket in December. An investigation found that a throat insert designed to regulate the flow of exhaust from the second stage engine eroded due to flaws in the carbon composite material. Yuzhnoye, a Ukrainian company that supplied the component, has disputed the finding.

Bruno said the bottom had dropped out for small launch providers. Constellations with hundreds to thousands of satellites are being launched in large numbers by large rockets like Falcon 9 and India’s SLV. Other smaller satellites are being launched on rideshare flights like SpaceX’s Transporter missions.

As a result, Bruno said expected a major shakeout of small launch providers over the next 24 months that could leave only one or two companies standing. He said that Rocket Lab could be one of those that survive.

By the time Bruno made these remarks, cash-strapped Virgin Orbit had already announced internally that it was furloughing nearly all employees and halting all work for a week while it searched for investors.