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Rocket Report: Russia developing a space plane, Europe frets about SpaceX



Enlarge / Hot fire test of integrated second stage for ABL Space System’s RS1 rocket in the fall of 2020.

ABL Space Systems

Welcome to Edition 3.38 of the Rocket Report! This week, we have launch news from around the world, including several snippets from across the pond, where Europe is grappling with the rise of SpaceX as well as how best to foster its nascent commercial launch industry. As ever there is much to track.

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.

Relativity proving that 3D-printing rockets works. There remain very real questions about whether or not this additive-manufacturing approach is ultimately feasible. The acid test will come when Relativity attempts to reach orbit. Nevertheless, the company’s 3D-printing technology does seem to be working. Two recent milestones in the development of the company’s Terran 1 rocket, in fact, suggest the tech is working really well, Ars reports.

A new kind of printing press … Relativity CEO Tim Ellis said the company recently printed the second stage that will be used on the inaugural flight of the Terran 1 rocket, which is presently scheduled to take place before the end of 2021. The stage was printed at a rate of about 1 linear foot per day, so in printer time it took about three weeks in total to produce the 20-feet-tall second stage. The company was also able to quickly replace and test a copper alloy for its Aeon engine combustion chamber and nozzle thanks to additive manufacturing.

Rocket Lab nabs multimission launch contract. Rocket Lab announced Thursday that it will launch multiple missions to low Earth orbit for BlackSky, a provider of real-time geospatial intelligence and global-monitoring services. Nine BlackSky satellites will launch across five Electron missions in 2021.

Some positive news for Electron … The deal represents the largest number of satellites BlackSky has committed to a single launch provider to date, and it includes the successful launch of BlackSky’s latest spacecraft on Rocket Lab’s “They Go Up So Fast” ride-share mission earlier this week. The BlackSky satellites each weigh 130 kg. Needless to say this contract is a validation of Electron’s performance to date and a promise for the future. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

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ESA boosts two more small launch companies. As part of its effort to support emerging small launch companies, the European Space Agency said it has awarded two more “Boost!” contracts. These awards went to British companies. Orbex received an award of 7.45 euros, and Skyrora received 3 million euros. ESA is co-funding the avionics, software and guidance, navigation and control activities for Orbex’s Prime launch vehicle. It’s also co-funding the qualification of the main rocket engine intended for the Skyrora XL first and second stages.

One small step for new space … “There is a growing impetus in European privately led space transportation initiatives, like the ones from Orbex and Skyrora. This emerging dynamism is crucial in the long-term success of the European space sector,” said Lucía Linares, head of strategy and institutional launches in the ESA Directorate for Space Transportation. Previously, the Boost! program gave awards to three Germany-based launch companies. This is a small but noticeable step toward the support of a more purely commercial launch industry in Europe. (submitted by EllPeaTea and Ken the Bin)

Arianespace signs deal for 10 Vega-C launches. The European-based launch company said this agreement will allow Vega manufacturer Avio to procure long-lead items for the production of Vega-C rockets, with the first delivery expected in 2023. The new small-satellite launch vehicle, an upgrade over the current Vega rocket, is due to make its debut later this year or early in 2022.

Greater competitiveness? … The announcement follows a commitment by several European countries to launch their payloads on the new rocket. “A number of European Earth observation and science programs, most notably Copernicus, will fully benefit from the greater competitiveness of Vega C,” said Stéphane Israël, chief executive officer of Arianespace. The big question in my mind is whether Vega-C is able to win any commercial launch contracts or whether it is only able to attract institutional missions. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

ABL Space raises $170 million in new funding. The California-based rocket company announced Thursday that it has closed a Series B investment round that values ABL Space at $1.3 billion. The funding round was led by T. Rowe Price Associates and stands out at a time when a lot of other competitors have raised money through special-purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs.

Ship and shoot … The company confirmed that it is on track to launch its RS1 rocket later this year, which is designed to be capable of lifting 1 metric ton to low Earth orbit. One interesting feature of the RS1 rocket is that ABL says it can be transported in shipping containers and launched from any suitable location in the world. Already, ABL says it has contracts with 10 distinct customers: five commercial customers, four US Department of Defense customers, and one national space agency customer. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Europe is starting to freak about SpaceX. There now appears to be increasing concern in Europe that the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets will not be competitive in the launch market of the near future. Economic ministers in France and Italy have concluded that the launch market has changed dramatically since 2014, when the Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets were first designed. According to a report in Le Figaro, the ministers believe the ability of these new European rockets to compete for commercial launch contracts has significantly deteriorated since then.

The primary cause? SpaceX … Thanks to its reusable, low-cost Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has been able to slash prices for large commercial satellites that could be lofted by the Ariane 6, Ars reports. The company’s small-satellite ride-share program similarly threatens the Vega-C rocket. Because of this, the French and Italian ministers are calling for Europe to offer a significant “technological and industrial” response to the rise of SpaceX. It is not clear what form this would take or how quickly the European nations could move in response.

GK Launch Services completes first all-commercial mission. A Soyuz rocket launched 38 satellites from 18 countries on Monday in the first all-commercial ride-share mission GK Launch Services has arranged without a Russian government satellite onboard, SpaceNews reports. The stylish rocket was painted blue and white to commemorate the upcoming 60th anniversary of the first human spaceflight.

Selling the Soyuz … South Korea’s CAS500-1 remote-sensing satellite was the primary payload, but the mission included small satellites from 18 other countries. A subsidiary of Roscosmos, GK Launch Services operates commercial Soyuz-2 launches from Russian spaceports. With the decline of the Proton rocket, the Soyuz is now clearly Russia’s most commercially competitive rocket. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Starlink launch marks a big SpaceX anniversary. A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched another set of Starlink satellites March 24. This was the ninth Falcon 9 mission of 2021 and the fourth this month, SpaceNews reports. Seven of those nine launches, including all four in March, have been dedicated to Starlink, increasing the size of the constellation to more than 1,300 satellites.

From Kwaj with love … This launch, by coincidence, took place exactly 15 years after SpaceX conducted the first launch of its Falcon 1 rocket from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. That March 24, 2006, launch was unsuccessful, as the first stage’s single engine failed about 30 seconds after liftoff. By the way, there’s a good book about the Falcon 1 which was recently published. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Russian company developing a spaceplane. A couple of years ago, Russian weapons maker Kalashnikov acquired NPO Molniya, which built the Buran spacecraft decades ago and now works on reusable space systems. Now, Reuters reports that Molniya is developing a reusable spaceplane. It is not clear how much of the funding is being provided by the Russian government.

Is the project really real? … A full-size model of the plane was presented at a closed pavilion during a Russian military forum last year, and the project is now under development, said the general director of the Molniya research-to-production facility. “The goal has now been set and the development of a multi-use civilian complex with an orbital plane is in full swing,” the official, Olga Sokolova, said. As always, it is difficult to know how much of this is talk and how much is real hardware. (submitted by Imbrium)

SpaceX to conduct second SN11 hot-fire test. SpaceX completed an initial static-fire test of its SN11 Starship prototype on Monday, March 22. While the test appeared to proceed nominally, the data must have shown some problem. Reporter Michael Baylor said the company had to remove one of the three Raptor engines on the vehicle and will now target no earlier than Friday for a second static fire test of the vehicle.

Stick the landing this time? … Although there is some talk about trying to fly on Friday after the static-fire test, more likely this means SN11 will not make its test flight until next week. SpaceX is seeking to successfully land (and save) the full-scale Starship prototype for the first time after a high-altitude flight.

NASA continues work on second SLS vehicle. Technicians at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, completed a weld to join the two major parts of the launch vehicle stage adapter for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, the space agency said.

Getting a head start … The adapter—a cone-shaped piece of hardware that connects the rocket’s upper and lower stages—will fly on Artemis II, the first crewed mission of NASA’s Artemis program. The completed stage adapter is approximately three stories tall and 30 feet in diameter. This hardware is unlikely to fly into space before late 2023 or 2024. (submitted by Something witty)

Next three launches

March 25: Soyuz | OneWeb-5 mission | Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia | 02:47 UTC

March 28: GSLV | The GISAT 1 geoimaging satellite | Satish Dhawan Space Center, India | TBD

April 9: Soyuz | Soyuz MS-18 crew mission | Baikonur, Kazakhstan | 07:42 UTC

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Early omicron data finds vaccine protection stumbles—but recovers with boosters



Enlarge / Pedestrians walk in front of a COVID-19 vaccination site in Brooklyn, New York, on Nov. 19, 2021.

The first batch of preliminary laboratory data on the omicron coronavirus variant has come out, and the results are largely what health experts have anticipated: protective antibodies from two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are considerably less effective at thwarting the new variant than older versions of the virus. However, antibody potency appears to rebound to fight omicron after a booster dose.

The results suggest that people who have only two doses of the mRNA vaccine may not be protected from infection but would likely remain protected from severe disease. The findings also suggest that maintaining high levels of protection against omicron will require a booster dose of the current vaccines—or even an omicron-specific shot in the future.

The top-line findings and conclusions come from three separate sets of laboratory experiments—all of which are extremely preliminary, involve small sample numbers, and have not been peer-reviewed or published in scientific journals.

Pfizer and BioNTech data

The freshest data comes from preliminary results reported online Wednesday morning by Pfizer and BioNTech. The companies conducted laboratory experiments that pitted antibodies from the blood serum of vaccinated people against a pseudovirus engineered to mimic the omicron variant. The experiments specifically measured the activity of neutralizing antibodies, which are a subset of antibodies that can bind to SARS-CoV-2 virus particles in such a way that the virus is prevented from entering human cells. Neutralizing antibodies are the most potent at preventing infection, but the immune system also produces a diverse array of other antibodies that can help fight an infection. Additionally, the immune system has protective cell-based responses that are not captured in these types of laboratory experiments.

In experiments using the blood sera of people fully vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (two doses), neutralizing antibody levels fell 25-fold against the omicron-mimicking pseudovirus compared with levels seen against a pseudovirus mimicking an older version of the virus. But when the companies looked at blood sera from fully vaccinated people one month after they received a vaccine booster shot (three doses), neutralizing antibody levels rebounded 25-fold against omicron, making them comparable to neutralizing antibody levels seen against older versions of the virus.

“Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement. “Ensuring as many people as possible are fully vaccinated with the first two-dose series and a booster remains the best course of action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The companies also reported that they are still working on an omicron-specific vaccine dose in case it is needed. The timeline for the first batches to be available is still within 100 days from now, the companies said.

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Some “true believers” in space settlement are starting to make it happen



Enlarge / Dylan Taylor listens as former astronaut Nicole Stott speaks during a Space For Humanity event in early 2020. The organization’s executive director, Rachel Lyons, is in the background.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series of profiles of people helping to lead the commercial space industry, which NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy has called “the envy of the world.” Everyone knows who Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are. But there are many other people working to usher in a future in which spaceflight is sustainable and economic activity in space is profitable. These are some of their stories.

Dylan Taylor seemed almost in shock when we spoke by telephone in late October.

“This,” he said, his voice breaking, “has been a dream of mine for almost my entire life.”

Taylor had called to say the crew lineup for the third human flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard flight had been finalized, and he was among four paying passengers. The flight, launching on Saturday from West Texas, will include higher-profile crew members. Notably, Good Morning America co-anchor Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, the eldest daughter of Alan Shepard, are both flying as guests alongside Taylor, Evan Dick, Lane Bess, and Cameron Bess.

But for commercial space, Taylor is one of the most consequential space entrepreneurs yet to go to space, perhaps second only to Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson, who both flew earlier this summer.

Flying on New Shepard this week is an important step in Taylor’s personal journey, and he hopes to share the experience with others. In 2017, he founded Space For Humanity, which is buying seats on New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft to create opportunities for “citizen astronauts.” The goal is to sponsor people from all over the world to go to space, experience the overview effect, and return to Earth to share it with their communities.

But his impact goes far beyond simply spreading awareness of spaceflight. In recent years, Taylor has had an increasingly important, if quiet, influence on the development of commercial space. He is chairman and founder of Voyager Space Holdings, which has built a portfolio of new space companies. One small Voyager company, Nanoracks, recently won a $160 million contract from NASA to begin developing a commercial space station in low Earth orbit.

For Taylor, this marked a hugely validating moment. He counts himself as one of “Gerry’s kids,” a cohort of idealistic space cadets who believe humans should settle space and that the best place to do so is in massive O’Neill cylinders—first theorized by physicist Gerry O’Neill—orbiting Earth and the Moon. Privately developed space stations represent a concrete first step toward this goal.

“I’m a true believer,” Taylor, 51, said. “If the end state is O’Neillian, the way my brain works is—what are the obstacles and what are the constraints, and how do we overcome them?”

There are already plenty of companies building rockets, he believes. So the biggest constraint now is the development of economic activity in space, giving humans a purpose to go there.

His answer ultimately has come in the form of Voyager, which he describes as a “sustainable and benevolent” operating company. It seeks to acquire promising small space companies focusing on in-space activities, such as habitats, mitigating orbital debris, and satellite servicing. Taylor looks at the new space industry and sees a lot of companies struggling, even though they have good ideas. Maybe they have capital constraints or can’t scale easily.

Through Voyager, Taylor wants space entrepreneurs to do what they do best: innovate. So Voyager acquires their companies, provides the funding they need to scale, and helps with the business side of things. In this way, Taylor might best be seen as someone who helps promising new space companies survive the “valley of death” most startups go through.

Getting into business

Taylor grew up in Idaho and is the son of a metallurgical engineering professor at the University of Idaho. He was an avid baseball player and enjoyed the social side of school more than academics. Still, he got good enough grades to go to almost any school in the country, eventually choosing the University of Arizona because he liked the sunshine. Taylor followed in his father’s footsteps and studied engineering, but he knew he wanted to eventually become a lawyer or businessman.

After graduating from college in 1993, Taylor took a job with a Switzerland-based electronics company, Saia-Burgess, in Chicago. He got in at the right time as just one of a handful of employees in North America. Seven years later, Taylor was a general manager at a company with a few thousand people in the United States. By the turn of the century, he was not yet 30 years old, and he was already a sharp young engineer who had earned an MBA and understood the fundamentals of global business.

At the time, Saia-Burgess moved its North American operations to Troy, Michigan, to be closer to its automotive customers. Taylor disliked the new location and moved back to Chicago to be with his friends and a girlfriend who became his wife. He took a job with LaSalle Partners, which offered investment banking and real estate services. Taylor received several promotions and eventually hired on with Colliers International, a private equity firm in Toronto, in 2009.

Again, he caught a company on the upswing. Over the next six years, Colliers’ annual revenue increased from $400 million to about $3 billion. Taylor also rose to become CEO of the Americas. In 2015, the company went public, and Taylor owned “a significant part” of it. “That was a pretty life-changing event for me,” he said.

But then, in 2019, Colliers fired Taylor for “insider trading.” He was working as CEO of its real estate services division. This could have been another life-changing event, albeit not in a good way. A subsequent investigation, however, found there had been no improper dealings. “Long story short, I had decided to leave,” Taylor said. “And then as I was leaving, there was a disagreement that was completely resolved.” Taylor and Colliers issued a joint statement, amicably settling the matter.

Taylor had wanted to leave Colliers after about a quarter-century in the business world because he was increasingly interested and passionate about spaceflight. He had first started to engage in space as far back as 2007, when he met Space Adventurers co-founder Eric Anderson at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

By then, Taylor was already financially set for life. “I’m sitting at the World Economic Forum, and supposedly you’re king of the world,” he said. “You have more money than you need. Yet, you’re not feeling fulfilled. I started to think about my purpose.” Taylor soon realized that his purpose was to help humanity extend its reach into space to become a spacefaring species. Taylor ended up investing in Anderson’s ventures, and the aerospace engineer began introducing Taylor to his network.

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Anime convention of 53K is first US case study for omicron spread, CDC says



Enlarge / Costumed attendees take a break during Anime NYC at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City on November 20, 2021. Anime NYC is an annual three-day anime convention held in New York City.

An anime convention held in New York City last month may inadvertently offer the US its first case study on the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fifty-three thousand anime fans from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 27 other countries traveled to New York City for the Anime NYC convention, which ran from November 19 and 21 in the city’s Javits Center. Organizers reported afterward that they were overwhelmed by the large attendance and struggled with packed rooms and crowding—conditions ideal for coronavirus transmission.

Last week, officials in Minnesota reported that a resident tested positive for the omicron variant after attending the convention. At the time, it was only the second omicron case detected in the US. But since then, officials have identified cases in at least 18 other US states, as well as over 50 countries worldwide.

The discovery of omicron at a large, tightly packed event with far-flung travelers is concerning. The variant is thought to be ultratransmissible. Preliminary reports from South Africa suggest omicron may spread more than twice as quickly as the already hypertransmissible delta variant. In such a crowded convention, omicron could swiftly spread among attendees and be carried back to home states and countries for further spread.

Spotting spread

Omicron is, in all likelihood, rapidly escalating in the US. Despite this, health officials have been relatively slow in detecting the variant. Genomic surveillance of variants is patchy and limited across states, though it has improved since the pandemic began. Another factor working against the country is the still extremely high levels of delta transmission. Any relatively small rise in omicron cases could easily be washed out by the massive delta wave.

But the anime convention provides a specific source of transmission that health investigators can use to get a clearer look at how omicron is spreading. The CDC has teamed up with the Minnesota and New York City health departments to retrace omicron’s steps through the massive event.

In a press briefing Tuesday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said that the CDC has reached out to all states, territories, and countries with residents who attended the convention and hopes to reach all of the reported 53,000 attendees. So far, health officials have contacted more than 35,000 of them.

“Data from this investigation will likely provide some of the earliest looks in this country on the transmissibility of the variant,” Walensky said during the briefing.

Contact tracers will likely have their work cut out for them. On December 4, Connecticut announced that it had detected its first omicron case in a man in his 60s. The man had a family member who had tested positive for COVID-19 days earlier after returning from the anime convention in New York.

In a New York Times article published December 5, the Minnesota man first found to have an omicron infection after the convention said that roughly half of the 30 vaccinated people he recalls socializing with have tested positive. He told the paper that he had spent his time in New York attending discussion panels at the convention, chatting with strangers, and singing karaoke.

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