This Week In Spaceflight: SpaceX’s Raptor breaks records, NASA announces second Artemis Lander

Reviewing the week in spaceflight and upcoming events, it’s been another busy period, including NASA announcing a second lunar lander for Artemis, SpaceX’s Raptor breaking records, and Stratolaunch drop testing Talon-A.

Stratolaunch Drops Talon

Stratolaunch has finally conducted a drop test of their Talon-A vehicle.

Stratolaunch has been working on developing its reusable hypersonic testbed, Talon-A. The little rocketplane would be used for companies or agencies that would like to test certain capabilities in a real-world hypersonic environment. 

To test these capabilities, Talon-A would be carried under Startolaunch’s Roc plane — the largest airplane by wingspan. Roc would then carry Talon-A to a high altitude to be dropped. 

After the drop, Talon-A would ignite its single Hadley engine provided by Ursa Major and power through the speed of sound up to hypersonic speeds. After the tests are completed, Talon-A would then glide back to a runway landing to be reused on a later flight.

In preparation for actual powered flights, Stratolaunch has been preparing both Roc, Talon-A, and the structures connecting both by flying them multiple times. On the May 13th flight test, Roc was flying for an eleventh time, and Talon-A was flying on its fourth captive flight.

For this drop test, the Talon-A vehicle was not planned to be recovered, and it glided into the ocean intentionally. 

Stratolaunch has plans for another expendable Talon-A vehicle to fly in the late summer of this year, but this time it would be performing a powered flight.

Second Artemis Lunar Lander Announced

NASA has finally announced the second lander it’ll use for the Artemis program.

SpaceX’s Starship was selected in 2021 to be the lunar lander for the agency’s first mission to the surface of the moon since Apollo 17. This mission will be Artemis III, and back in 2021 the agency was targeting late 2024 for that landing. However, this date has now slipped to late 2025, and it is likely to slip further. 

Last year, NASA extended this contract to include a second lunar landing for Starship, which would come on Artemis IV.

This second landing would feature an enhanced Starship lunar lander with the capability of longer stays on the surface of the Moon. This is part of NASA’s goal to have longer stays there during later Artemis missions, so the extension was needed since these extra requirements were not in the original contract for Artemis III.

At the same time it extended Starship’s contract, NASA also opened another competition for a second lunar lander to be on-ramped to complement SpaceX’s Starship. This lunar lander would fly on Artemis V and would be capable of meeting those requirements for longer stays on the Moon, among other things.

The contenders for this new contract were Blue Origin-led National Team and Dynetics. 

In the time since both lost to SpaceX for the contract for NASA’s Human Landing System, the companies had to upgrade their lander designs to comply with new requirements.

After months of reviewing the two proposals from Dynetics and Blue Origin, the agency finally selected Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander as the second Artemis lunar lander.

For this contract, Blue Origin teamed up with Lockheed Martin, Draper, Honeybee Robotics, Astrobotic, and Boeing. The lander will be launched on Blue’s New Glenn rocket, fully fueled, and then, it will head to the Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit where NASA’s Gateway station will be awaiting its arrival. 

In that orbit, NRHO, the lander will wait to be refueled by a space tug developed by Lockheed Martin. The tug will also be launched by New Glenn and refueled in LEO via one or more New Glenn launches before departing for NRHO.

Once in lunar orbit, the tug will refuel Blue Moon, and the lunar lander will then be able to proceed with docking to Gateway, landing on the moon, as well as ascent back to NRHO. Once it’s done its job, the lander will then be able to refuel again in lunar orbit for a future lunar landing mission.

The lander is 7 meters wide and 16 meters tall and will come in at about 45 tonnes fully loaded and 16 tonnes dry mass.

Although not as big as SpaceX’s Starship, it’s still massive in its own right and certainly much larger than the Lunar Module used during the Apollo program.

This contract awards Blue Origin 3.4 billion US dollars to spend on Blue Moon — far cheaper than their previous bid for the Artemis 3 lander. This time, Blue’s reaching into their own pockets, with over 50% of the cost of the lander coming from their wallet, rather than NASA’s.

Blue Origin says it’s also sending at least two uncrewed landing missions of a more simpler lander design — dubbed Mark 1 — as precursor missions, followed by an uncrewed landing of the full design a year before Artemis 5.

This Week In Launches

SpaceX: Starlink Group 5-9

Starting off the week was the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket on May 14 at 05:03 UTC from Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida. 

The mission, Starlink Group 5-9, carried 56 Starlink v1.5 satellites into Starlink’s second-generation constellation.

The booster, B1067, was flying for an eleventh time and landed successfully on SpaceX’s droneship Just Read The Instructions.

About an hour after launch, the satellites were released from Falcon 9 successfully and inserted into their deployment orbit.

China: Long March 3B/E Beidou-3 G4

Over on the other side of the world, China launched a Long March 3B/E with the Beidou-3 G4 satellite headed to geostationary transfer orbit.

The launch occurred on May 17 at 02:49 UTC from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in China and successfully put the satellite into the intended orbit. 

The Beidou constellation is China’s own global navigation system of satellites, with the latest, third generation of Beidou satellites being denominated Beidou-3. This satellite was being launched as a spare satellite for this constellation.

SpaceX: Starlink Group 6-3

Wrapping up the week was the launch of the Starlink Group 6-3 mission with 22 Starlink v2 Mini satellites flying to orbit onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The launch occurred on May 19 at 06:19 UTC from Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida. This happened about five days after the previous mission, Starlink Group 5-9, setting a new record for pad turnaround by a few hours.

The booster for this mission, B1076, was flying for a fifth time and successfully landed on SpaceX’s droneship A Shortfall Of Gravitas.

About an hour after launch, all 22 satellites were successfully released from Falcon 9 and inserted into their deployment orbit.

This brings the total of Starlinks launched to 4469. Of those, 4149 remain in orbit, and 3443 are in their operational orbit.

Raptor V3 Revealed, Performs Record-Breaking Test

SpaceX’s Raptor engine broke new records, confirmed by Elon Musk earlier this week, noting SpaceX had tested a Raptor 3 engine that had reached 350 bar pressure on its main combustion chamber. 

Noting 350 bars of main chamber pressure, this places the engine’s performance 20 bars higher than their past record for highest chamber pressure and thrust.

Musk later explained that SpaceX didn’t expect the engine to survive this test, which provides an additional positive benchmark.

Musk also confirmed NSF captured the test in question via the McGregor 24/7 livestream camerasSee below for Jack Beyer’s deep dive into the news and comparing this test to one of a Raptor 2 engine. 

Upcoming Events

May 20, 13:15 UTC – Launch of Iridium-9/OneWeb-19

After a scrub on May 19, SpaceX will try again on May 20 to launch the Iridium-9/OneWeb-19 mission from Vandenberg.

The launch will carry 21 spare satellites for Iridium and OneWeb. 

This mission is also going to be the second time SpaceX flies a Falcon 9 MVac engine with the short nozzle extension.

May 21, 21:37 UTC – Launch and Docking of Axiom-2

Crew Dragon Freedom — atop a Falcon 9 rocket — will be carrying four private astronauts to the ISS, with docking scheduled for May 22 at 13:24 UTC. The crew will spend eight days on the station, after which they’ll return for a splashdown off the coast of Florida. 

May 22, 05:30-06:40 UTC – Launch of TROPICS 5 & 6

Rocket Lab is Coming To A Storm Near You with an Electron rocket flying the last two TROPICS satellites for NASA. 

The launch is set to occur from Launch Complex 1B at Rocket Lab’s own spaceport in New Zealand. 

May 24, 03:20-06:14 UTC – Launch of Arabsat 7B/Badr 8

Another Falcon 9 is set for launch next week from Florida, carrying the Arabsat 7B satellite — also known as Badr 8 — into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

May 24, 09:24 UTC – Launch of NEXSat-2 and Rideshares

A KSLV-2 rocket is set for launch from South Korea carrying NEXTSat-2 and seven smaller satellites as a rideshare.

This will be the third launch of this rocket and the first launch since its successful flight in June of last year.

May 24, 12:56 UTC – Launch and Docking of Progress MS-23

The train of launches will continue with a Soyuz 2.1a rocket launching the Progress MS-23 cargo craft to the ISS. 

Progress is scheduled to dock to the ISS Poisk module about three and a half hours later at 16:20 UTC.

May 25, Window unknown – Launch of Unity 25

Virgin Galactic is set to perform its Unity 25 flight on SpaceShip Two no earlier than May 25. This is set to be the final test ahead of commercial missions.

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