¶The varied landscape of rocket reuse. Just over four years ago, no first-stage orbital booster had ever been successfully reused. The Shuttle orbiter, which achieved substantial reuse, ultimately failed to realize its goal of reducing launch costs and tragically proved its unacceptably high risk of catastrophic failure. Last week, SpaceX (mostly) reached a milestone of high reliability while flying reused first-stage boosters, launching its 100th successful flight in a row. However, while the rest of the industry has yet to catch up, there have been many announcements of plans to follow suit. Here's the current lay of the land:
There are additional plans from additional companies and agencies, however, these are the ones we’re tracking with interest to see if they develop or dissipate. But, the very large elephant in the room is Starship, SpaceX’s potential realization of its long-term goal of a fully reusable launch system targeted at lowering launch costs by one to two orders of magnitude. The project has recently entered a quiet period with SN15 retired after its first successful landing. SN16 is now stacked and waiting in the wings, but it may be scrapped in favor of a full orbital test next using SN20 and Super Heavy BN2. Only time will tell whether others will be able to close the reuse gap, or whether Starship will successfully blow it wide open before others even join the party. However it all shakes out, we look forward to the prospects of a reusable future! ♻️ (Related: 20+ years before SpaceX reflew Booster 1021, McDonnell Douglas launched their DC-X testbed rocket 8 times, with its DC-XA successor setting the still-standing record of a 26-hr turnaround between two of its four flights.)
- Rocket Lab leads the pack, having twice soft-landed an orbital-class rocket in the ocean using supersonic parachutes. Their plans call for an eventual mid-air catch and full reuse, but the most recent flight already reused some hardware from the previous recovery. Their in-development Neutron rocket will also be designed for reuse. 🪂
- New Shepard has completed multiple reuses (7x for NS3). But, with an orbital-class rocket requiring somewhere north of 25x - 64x the energy of a suborbital launch, Blue Origin currently has a pathfinder, not a competitor, on its hands. However, their next-generation New Glenn rocket has also been built for reuse and will include a ship-based landing platform. New Glenn’s first launch is currently NET 2022Q4 but feels like it could slip to 2023.
- ULA’s Vulcan Centaur project has suggested plans for reuse of its Blue Origin manufactured BE-4 engines. But, few meaningful details have been shared on that front giving the plan whiffs of vaporware. Vulcan’s launch has slipped to late this year but could easily end up in early 2022.
- Chinese LinkSpace has demonstrated a reusable VTVL rocket flying to 300m. Their planned reusable New Line 1 orbital booster was most recently planned for launch in 2021, but given that its sub-orbital precursor has yet to launch, this seems to be a roughly 100% unlikely timeline. (Are we seeing a pattern?)
- Roscosmos has announced reuse plans in the form of the Falcon-esque Amur medium-lift rocket. Amur began preliminary development last year and is slated for its first launch around 2026.
- i-Space, the first commercial Chinese rocket company to reach orbit in 2019, has plans for its next rocket, the Hyperbola-2, to include first stage vertical landing and reuse. Launch was planned for 2021 as of last year, but it’s been crickets since then. 🦗
- ESA has been investing in reusability with its Themis program as well as the low-cost 3-5x reusable Prometheus engine. Themis is slated for a 2023 initial flight test and 2025 full-flight-envelope test, eventually supporting a reusable ESA fleet in the 2030s. Meanwhile, ESA just announced additional support for the study of reusing PLD Space’s Miura 5 rocket after successful drop tests of the 15m long rocket over the Atlantic from 5 km. Miura 5 won’t launch until 2024.
- Earlier this year, Relativity Space announced plans to develop Terran R, a roughly Falcon 9 sized 3D printed rocket with a reusable first and second stage. No timeline has been announced.
- China intends to make parts of the massive Long March 9 reusable. The super-heavy launch vehicle is planned for completion sometime around 2030. There are also plans to add partial reuse to the newly introduced Long March 8 as well as the established Long March 6.
- EXOS, who just announced opening a new $200M funding round, has reflown its SARGE-1 rocket four times. Their planned air-launched Jaguar orbital vehicle will also be reusable, and even plans for payload reentry and recovery. 🐆
| The DC-X was the first traditional VTVL rocket designed for reuse.|
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¶A cavalcade of rovers. After decades of quiet, lunar exploration is heating up. And, it’s not only the crewed Artemis missions, a slew of robotic rovers are headed moonward in the next few years to join China’s Chang’e 3 and 4 rovers. JAXA just announced plans for a tiny (the size of a baseball!) spherical rover to be delivered by ispace in 2022. It will split into two hemispheres that act as its wheels to move around the lunar surface as it proves out technologies for a large pressurized crew rover being designed by JAXA and Toyota. The ispace lander will also carry the Rashid rover from the UAE. Canada is assisting with Rashid and developing its own small rover, with a request for proposals coming soon. And of course, there’s India’s Chandrayaan-3, NASA’s VIPER (which we’ve covered previously), Iris—a CubeRover built by Astrobotic and CMU, and Spacebit’s spider bot. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin and General Motors just announced a partnership to build a semi-autonomous Moon buggy for crewed Artemis missions—a NASA RFP for crewed surface transport for the Artemis program is expected later this year. The more robotic explorers on the Moon, the merrier! 🤖🥳
| JAXA’s transformable lunar rover.|
| ¶News in brief. NASA announced that they are in the formulation phase of a new Earth System Observatory, a set of Earth-observation satellites focused on climate change, disaster mitigation, fighting forest fires, and improving real-time agricultural processes; SNC has now spun out Sierra Space to focus on the development of their space assets including Dream Chaser and LIFE habitats; NASA released their FY 2022 budget request to Congress which contains funding for the Starship Human Landing System (still possibly by 2024) and a 9% increase over last year for science programs; Ramon.space raised a $17.5M Series A for radiation tolerant, high-performance computing hardware; SpaceX launched 60 more Starlink sats, the last of their first orbital tranche—the launch made a visible shockwave as it went supersonic for their 100th consecutive successful launch; meanwhile, ViaSat has asked the FCC to halt SpaceX’s Starlink buildout until they complete an environmental review; Starlink’s most likely future competitor, OneWeb, launched 36 satellites of their own, bringing them to a total of 218 in orbit—but, Eutelsat may have to step away from its ESA work due to conflicts of interest created by their recent purchase of 24% of the company; Ingenuity suffered a software glitch during its 6th flight but landed safely; Astroscale will work with OneWeb to continue the development of ESLA-M for multi-target space debris removal—Astroscale recently launched ELSA-d (our coverage) to test many of the systems that ELSA-M would use for debris mitigation; and, tomorrow’s SpaceX ISS resupply mission will include baby squid and tardigrades. 🦑|
The first Earth-rise photo. Taken in 1966 by the Apollo-era Lunar Orbiter 1. “A lot of the images they’re taking today, our imagery from 1966 and ‘67 has sometimes greater resolution and greater dynamic range because of the way the pictures were taken.”