Space: Sight kill on the myriad of small launcher designs

Posted on January 2, 2023, 3:20 PM

In the 2022 table, SpaceX shows 61/61/0: 61 launches, 61 successes and 0 failures for its Falcon 9 rocket. Flawless, the American launcher broke all records last year. Enough to encourage all of Elon Musk’s disciples, who raised hundreds of millions of dollars over five to seven years to create their own rockets and take part in the crazy adventure of space. Liquid, solid, hybrid propulsion, use of 3D printers to design more efficient engines, research of new materials, the race for small cheap rockets has become one of the favorite fields of startups in the space sector. Some mention 200 rocket projects worldwide, including about thirty in Europe and four in France.

However, the game is not easy, as evidenced by the explosion on December 20 of the European rocket Vega-C in Guyana. Small consolation for the European space sector, this was not the first failure of 2022. Not only are most of the new launchers in preparation late on the announced schedule, but many hopefuls of orbital flight have also missed their stage entrance. In total, a dozen failures occurred in 2022.

Missed arrivals and departures

The company Astra, which raised 500 million dollars after a spectacular IPO (SPAC), promised to carry out daily launches in low earth orbit (LEO). After two failed launches of its Rocket 3.3 rocket in February and June, Astra was disenchanted, as were its shareholders. The company’s stock price has dropped to around 50 cents, stock market authorities are threatening to shut the company down, and Astra has decided to drop the Rocket 3 in order to rework the design and launch a new version of the Rocket 4.

Astra is not alone in difficulties. Last September, the American company Firefly declared victory after taking off its mini rocket Alpha from the Vandenberg spaceport. But five days later, the satellites put into orbit again fell into the sea, for lack of being placed in the right orbit. The company, which positioned itself as the Clio of space launches, however, achieved its first launch a month later and maintains the support of the American armed forces.

Across the Atlantic, Scottish start-up Skyrora has failed in its first attempt to send its Skylark L rocket into space. The rocket went well, but less than expected: it fell into the sea 500 meters from the coast of Norway. Fortunately without causing an accident. A new test is planned for the second quarter of 2023. In October, a Japanese startup was no more lucky, its Epsilon rocket was destroyed in flight.

Potentially Dangerous Faults

In China, the private company iSpace also failed to lift off its Hyperbola 1 launch vehicle, while LandSpace launched its Zhuque-2 liquid propellant rocket but failed to reach the desired orbit. The first stage performed well, but the second stage was unable to maintain power and the satellites it was carrying fell into the ocean.

All of these flaws raise another, increasingly serious issue: that of space debris. Often, operators trigger the destruction of rockets, as soon as they notice that they deviate from their trajectory, to prevent objects that will not be usable and will fall into the category of debris spinning indefinitely in space.

But today nobody knows what happened in China during the launch of the Long March 6A on November 11th. This new model of rocket successfully launched the Yunhai-3 satellite, but the upper stage that put the satellite into orbit disintegrated in a shower of orbital debris after launch. From 50 pieces at the beginning, they fragmented into 350 objects that threaten space orbit and the international community awaits an explanation.

A 6.7% failure rate

Around 61 SpaceX launches in 2022 (not 59 more) 78 launches for the United States against 61 launches for China and still only 5 launches for Europe. A dozen accidents recorded in 178 global launches last year isn’t much, about 6.7%. According to the Gunter Space website, the United States regained the first position last year ahead of China, followed by Russia (22 shots), New Zealand (9 shots for the small Electron rocket of the American company Rocket Lab), with the remainder divided between Europe, India, Japan and South Korea. Accidents mainly concern new models. With the proliferation of projects, the number of failures will certainly increase.

Space remains a difficult environment, as the heads of SpaceX and Rocket Lab empathetically recalled on December 20th, when they learned of the Vega-C accident. “It’s a sobering reminder of how difficult orbital spaceflight is,” commented Elon Musk, when Peter Beck said, “A small launch is a lot harder than most people realize. In Europe, experts count on a maximum of five new launchers by 2025, out of about thirty ongoing projects.

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