Rocket Report: SpinLaunch spins up, Falcon Heavy to return big time in 2022

As the Crew-3 mission ascends, a Falcon 9 rocket with a Starlink payload awaits its turn on a nearby launch pad in Florida.
Enlarge / As the Crew-3 mission ascends, a Falcon 9 rocket with a Starlink payload awaits its turn on a nearby launch pad in Florida.


Welcome to Edition 4.23 of the Rocket Report! After a one-week hiatus, this report returns with a superfluity of news. There’s a lot to cover, from exciting news in the New Mexico desert to busy times for the Space Coast in Florida as SpaceX gets busy with crewed missions.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

SpinLaunch completes first test flight. The California-based startup uses kinetic energy to launch payloads, and its test projectile reached “tens of thousands” of feet during its first launch, CNBC reports. The company’s method uses a vacuum-sealed centrifuge to spin the rocket to a velocity several times the speed of sound before it is released. “It’s a radically different way to accelerate projectiles and launch vehicles to hypersonic speeds using a ground-based system,” SpinLaunch CEO Jonathan Yaney said.

Spinning and winning … The company completed its first major test, using a one-third scale version of its accelerator, on October 22 at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Even so, this version of the accelerator stands 165 feet tall. By using this approach, SpinLaunch aims to build smaller rockets that require less fuel to reach orbit. Its first orbital vehicle is intended to loft about 200 kg to low Earth orbit. SpinLaunch has raised $110 million to date from investors, including Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, Airbus Ventures, and others. (Submitted by Wickwick, Tfargo04, Biokleen, Rendgrish, JohnCarter17, and Ken the Bin.)

Amazon to launch first Kuiper satellites on ABL. The company intends to launch its first prototype broadband satellites in the fourth quarter of 2022 on ABL Space Systems’ RS1 rocket, Ars reports. Amazon’s prototype satellites will operate at an altitude of 590 km. Such a launch date would come nearly four years after SpaceX launched its first prototype Starlink satellites.

Impressed by ABL … The expected Q4 2022 launch of prototype satellites doesn’t change that timeline for production satellites, which might not be launched until a year or more after the test versions. While Amazon doesn’t have its own rockets like SpaceX does, Amazon said it is “impressed by ABL’s unique capabilities” and expects “a long-term relationship” with its newly announced launch partner. Some Project Kuiper satellites will also launch on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket.

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Virgin Orbit plans third mission of 2021. The launch company said preparations are well underway for the third LauncherOne mission of this calendar year. This “Above the Clouds” mission will carry both experimental satellites for the US Department of Defense as well as two nanosatellites for Polish company SatRevolution. The air-launched rocket will originate from Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Doubling down in 2022 … LauncherOne debuted in May 2020 with a failure shortly after engine ignition. However, in January, the rocket completed its first successful orbital flight and followed that up in June with a second mission. Completing three successful flights in a year is a great start and speaks well of the company’s logistics and operations planning. Virgin Orbit hopes to double its launch cadence in 2022, and, given the progress demonstrated this year, that seems possible. (Submitted by Ken the Bin and EllPeaTea.)

Virgin Orbit reaches agreement to launch from Japan. And it’s a good thing that LauncherOne is reaching an operational cadence, as the company has big plans for it. Earlier this month, Virgin Orbit announced an agreement with ANA Holdings to procure 20 flights of the rocket from Japan’s Oita Prefecture. ANA owns Japan’s largest airline.

More like LauncherTwenty, amirite? … Under terms of the agreement, ANA and several of its partners will fund the manufacturing of a new set of the mobile ground-support equipment used to prepare Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system for flight from a pre-existing runway. The hope is to make Oita a LauncherOne-ready spaceport by as soon as the end of 2022, pending appropriate regulatory approvals in the United States and Japan. (Submitted by Ken the Bin.)

Chinese company to buy reusable engines. Rocket Pi of China has signed a deal with Jiuzhou Yunjian to supply engines to power its Darwin-1 reusable launch vehicle, SpaceNews reports. Jiuzhou Yunjian makes liquid-fuel engines (specifically, methane/liquid-oxygen engines). The deal is for both main and upper stages. A single Lingyun-70 will power the first stage of the 2.25-meter-diameter Darwin-1 launcher with a Lingyun-10 engine on the second stage.

One of many contenders … Rocket Pi exited stealth mode in March, presenting plans to develop Darwin-1 and a larger medium-lift launcher. The Darwin-1 rocket is slated to take flight no earlier than the first quarter of 2023. Rocket Pi is just one of several Chinese private launch companies developing reusable launchers. (Submitted by Ken the Bin.)

Honda develops a prototype rocket engine. Japanese officials with the Honda Motor Company have revealed more details about their plans to potentially expand into the rocket-launch business, Ars reports, and they have completed several test firings of a prototype engine. Honda’s basic plan is to develop a small satellite launch vehicle with the capacity to put up to 1 metric ton into low Earth orbit. The goal for this initiative is not to become the next SpaceX but to give Honda engineers freedom to innovate.

Go or no-go decision forthcoming … As part of internal company discussions about future business opportunities a few years ago, a cohort of Honda’s younger engineers expressed an interest in rockets. And so, since late 2019, the company has devoted some of its research and development resources toward developing a rocket engine. Honda plans to support internal development work until about 2025 or 2026, after which point it will make a “go or no-go” decision on whether to proceed with a launch business and complete development of the rocket.

Epsilon 5 rocket lofts nine satellites. The Japanese space agency’s Epsilon-5 rocket successfully launched nine small satellites into low Earth orbit on Tuesday, the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation reports. Liftoff of the rocket was delayed by four minutes from the original schedule to avoid the Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying astronauts returning from the International Space Station.

A lower cost, but not exactly low … Five Epsilon rockets have been successfully launched since 2013 by JAXA, which developed the Epsilon series with the aim of putting small satellites into orbit at low cost. The cost of the solid-fueled rocket is less than $40 million, and it can put as much as 1.5 metric tons into low Earth orbit. (Submitted by Ken the Bin and tsunam.)

Georgia spaceport decision delayed again. A federal agency has yet again pushed back a final decision on whether to allow the construction of a launch pad for commercial rockets in coastal Georgia, the Associated Press reports. Rather than releasing a decision in early November, the Federal Aviation Administration now plans to do so by December 15. An agency statement cited a delay caused by “ongoing consultation efforts.” The final determination was originally expected at the end of July but now has been delayed at least three times.

Pushback from park advocates … Camden County is in the southeast corner of Georgia. It wants to build the nation’s 13th licensed commercial spaceport, and it has spent nearly 10 years and $10 million pursuing that goal. In June, the FAA issued an environmental impact study that concluded building the spaceport would be its “preferred alternative.” That drew pushback from the National Park Service and its parent agency, the US Department of the Interior. (Submitted by Ken the Bin.)

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