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Launch Roundup: Another Rocket Engine Explodes on a Test Stand

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
July 18, 2023
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Launch Roundup: Another Rocket Engine Explodes on a Test Stand
LVM-III rocket launches India’s Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander.
Image Credit: Rocket Lab webcast

Welcome to the week’s Launch Roundup. We’re introducing a new feature where we’ll take a look at important developments that have taken place off the launch pad before we discuss recent and future launches. We’ll start by examining rocket engines that are exploding on test stands.

Vulcan's BE-4 engines during a test firing.
Vulcan’s BE-4 engines during a test firing. Image credit: ULA.

Off the Pad

  • United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced last week that the maiden flight of the Vulcan rocket will be delayed until the end of this year due to the need to reinforce part of the Centaur upper stage. A Centaur burst on the test stand due to a hydrogen leak at the end of March.
  • A Blue Origin BE-4 engine intended for use on the second Vulcan flight exploded during its second acceptance test last month. ULA CEO Tory Bruno downplayed the failure, saying the cause of the failure was not found on the two engines designated for the maiden launch and that ULA has confidence in the BE-4 design.
  • A second stage motor for JAXA’s Epsilon S small-satellite rocket exploded on the test stand last week. The space agency said combustion pressure began to deviate from the predicted pressure around 20 seconds after the motor was ignited, with the motor exploding 57 seconds into the test. The vacuum combustion test building and adjacent structures suffered damage. Epsilon S is an upgraded version of the Epsilon launcher, which has a record of five successes and one failure. 
  • ISRO is seeking bids from the private companies to build and operate the agency-developed Small Satellite Launch Vehicle. The rocket flew successfully for the first time in February after failing on its maiden flight last year.
Electron launches from New Zealand on July 17, 2023
Electron launch on July 17, 2023. Image credit: Rocket Lab.

Recent Launches

LandSpace made history on July 12 when the Chinese company conducted the first successful launch of a rocket powered by methane. It was the second launch for the methane and liquid oxygen powered Zhuque-2 launch vehicle, which failed on its maiden flight in December 2022. The booster can launch 6,000 kg (13,228 lb) into a 200 km (124 mile) high low Earth orbit, or 4,000 kg (8,818 lb) into a 500 km (311 mile) high sun-synchronous orbit.

Recent Launches

DateLauncher – OrganizationPayloads – OrganizationPurpose(s)Launch Site
July 12Zhuque-2 – LandSpaceNoneFlight testJiuquan
July 14LVM-III – ISROChandrayaan-3 – ISROLunar landerSatish Dhawan
July 16Falcon 9 – SpaceX54 Starlink – SpaceXCommunicationsCape Canaveral
July 18Electron – Rocket LabTelesat LEO 3 – TelesatTech demoMahia
2 Lemur-2 – Spire Global Earth observation
4 Starling – NASATech demo
Source: Wikipedia

An Indian LVM-III rocket launched the Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander on July 14. The vehicle is headed for an Aug. 23 landing on the Moon, where it will deploy a small rover. The lander and rover are expected to operate for one lunar day, which is 14 Earth days. Chandrayaan-3 is India’s second attempt to land on the Moon. Chandrayaan-2’s lander crashed while descending to the surface in 2019.

Falcon 9 launched the last batch of Starlink Gen1 satellites on July 16. The company has already begun launching the larger, more capable Starlink V2 Mini satellites in groups of 22 at a time. Thirty-four dedicated Falcon 9 flights have launched 1,722 Starlink satellites this year.

Starlink Launches

+ Does not include two secondary payloads for other companies.
* Does not include 16 secondary payloads from other companies.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket launched four satellites for NASA, two for Spire Global and one for Telesat on Tuesday. The booster’s first stage was recovered from the Pacific Ocean as part of an effort to reuse it. Rocket Lab has launched six Electron rockets and one HASTE suborbital rocket this year.

Falcon Heavy launch in January 2023
Falcon Heavy launches in January 2023. Image credit: SpaceX.

Upcoming Launches

SpaceX’s third Falcon Heavy launch of the year will carry the heaviest geostationary communications satellite ever built on July 24. Hughes’ Jupiter 3 Ultra High Density Satellite (UHDS) satellite weighs in at just over nine metric tons.

Jupiter 3, which was built by Maxar Technologies, will support Internet connectivity across North and South America, in-flight Wi-Fi, community Wi-Fi services, maritime connections,  enterprise networks, and backhaul for mobile network operators.

Upcoming Launches

DateLauncher – OrganizationPayloads – OrganizationPurpose(s)Launch Site
July 19Falcon 9 – SpaceX15 Starlink – SpaceXCommunicationsVandenberg
July 19Kuaizhou 1A – ExPaceTBATBAJiuquan
July 22Falcon 9 – SpaceX22 Starlink – SpaceXCommunicationsCape Canaveral
July 24Falcon Heavy – SpaceXJupiter 3 (EchoStar 24) – EchoStarCommunicationsKennedy
July 26PSLV – ISRODS-SAR – DSTA*Earth observationSatish Dhawan
ARCADE – NTU+Ionospheric research
Galassia-2 – NUS^Tech demo
NuLIon – NuSpaceInternet of Things
ORB-12 STRIDER – OrbAstroTech demo
SCOOB-II – NTU+Tech demo
Velox-AM – NTU+Tech demo
* Defence Science and Technology Agency
+ Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)
^ National University of Singapore
Source: Wikipedia

SpaceX plans to perform dual drone ship landings of the Falcon Heavy’s two side boosters for the first time.

SpaceX also plans to launch 37 Starlink V2 Mini satellites on two launches. ISRO will launch its sixth mission of the year on July 26.

Falcon 9 Transporter-7 rideshare mission lifts off
Falcon 9 lifts off on the Transporter-7 mission on April 15, 2023. Image credit: Rocket Lab.

Launches by Nation

The United States continues to lead the world behind SpaceX’s 48 launches. Rocket Lab has successfully launched six times and United Launch Alliance once.

Orbital Launches by Nation

United States5445854.7%
South Korea1010.94%
North Korea0110.94%

China is in second place with 27 launches or 25.5 percent of the global total. Russia and India round out the top four, with Europe and Japan trailing behind with two launches apiece.

SpaceX Starlink satellites awaiting deployment
SpaceX Starlink satellites awaiting deployment. Image credit: SpaceX.

Launches by Company/Agency

SpaceX has launched 1,543 payloads on 47 successful launches. The company’s only failure occurred on the maiden flight of the Starship/Super Heavy rocket in April.

Launches by Company/Agency

SpaceX (USA)471481,5430
China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation20020870
Roscosmos (Russia)707490
Rocket Lab (USA)606180
Indian Space Research Organisation505430
Strategic Rocket Forces (Russia)20220
Arianespace (Europe)20230
ExPace (China)2025
CAS Space (China)101260
Galactic Energy (China)10150
Korea Aerospace Research Institute (South Korea)10071
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (Japan)10110
Ministry of Defence (Israel)10110
Space Pioneer (China)10110
United Launch Alliance (USA)10110
i-space (China)10100
LandSpace (China)10100
Virgin Orbit+ (USA)01109
ABL Space Systems (USA)01102
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency01101
National Aerospace Development Administration (North Korea)01101
Relativity Space (USA)01100
+ Company defunct

SpaceX has launched 1,340 satellites on 24 dedicated Starlink launches and three Transporter rideshare flights.

Falcon 9 has launched 45 times. China has launched its Long March 2C and Long March 2D rockets a combined nine times. Rocket Lab is in third place with six Electron launches.

Launches by Booster

Launch VehicleCompany/AgencySuccessesFailuresTotal
Falcon 9SpaceX45045
Long March 2C, 2DChina Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.909
ElectronRocket Lab606
Soyuz-2.1a, 2.1bRoscosmos, Russia Strategic Rocket Forces505
Long March 3B/EChina Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.303
Falcon Heavy SpaceX202
Kuaizhou 1AExPace202
Long March 4CChina Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.202
Long March 7, 7AChina Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.202
Ariane 5Arianespace202
LVM IIIIndian Space Research Organisation202
Ceres-1Galactic Energy101
Delta IV HeavyUnited Launch Alliance101
GSLV Mk IIIndian Space Research Organisation101
H-IIAMitsubishi Heavy Industries101
Hyperbola 1i-space101
Long March 2FChina Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.101
Long March 4BChina Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.101
Long March 6China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.101
Long March 11China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.101
NuriKorea Aerospace Research Institute101
PSLVIndian Space Research Organisation101
Shavit 2Israel Defense Forces101
SSLVIndian Space Research Organisation101
Soyuz-2.1vRussia Strategic Rocket Forces101
Tianlong-2^Space Pioneer101
Chollima-1^National Aerospace Development Administration011
H3^Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency011
LauncherOne*Virgin Orbit+011
RS1^ABL Space Systems011
Starship/Super Heavy^SpaceX011
Terran 1*^Relativity Space011
^ Maiden flight
* Launch vehicle retired
+ Company defunct

Launches by Spaceport

A total of 35 of 106 launches have taken place on the east coast of Florida. Vandenberg Space Force Base in California has hosted 14 launches.

Launches by Spaceport

Cape CanaveralUSA27128
Mahia PeninsulaNew Zealand404
Mid-Atlantic Regional SpaceportUSA202
Pacific Spaceport Complex – AlaskaUSA011
Satish DhawanIndia505
Guiana Space CentreFrench Guiana202
NaroSouth Korea101
SohaeNorth Korea011

The Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center is the world’s second busiest spaceport with 16 flights. China’s three other spaceports have combined for 11 launches.

India’s Satish Dhawan Space Centre has hosted as many launches — five — as the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where thousands of Soviet and Russian launches have originated since the start of the Space Age in 1957.

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