In case you hadn't noticed, we're approaching mid-August. As of Wednesday, there are a mere 142 days left in the year. So as the calendar churns toward the end of the year, this is a good time to ask whether any new commercial rockets that launch small satellites will make it to orbit this year.
Back at the optimistic, pre-pandemic beginning of 2020, we had high hopes for the debut of new rockets from Astra, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit. We also expected to see the first flight of Europe's Vega C rocket, which is now confirmed to slip into 2021.
Since then, a few companies have made launch attempts and failed to reach orbit. Others have been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's a rundown of the companies that could still make orbit this calendar year.
Launch target: Late August
The Alameda, California-based company had a week-long launch window for its Rocket 3.1 test flight in early August. However, due to technical issues with the rocket, multiple weather concerns, and ultimately a ground systems issue with the water suppression system, the booster did not take flight.
After the launch window closed, the company said it is targeting "later this month" for its next attempt from Alaska’s Kodiak Island. It's notable that Astra made its most recent launch attempt with just six people onsite in Alaska and required just 10 days to set up the rocket and prepare ground systems. This bodes well for lean operations in the future—necessarily to keep launch costs down.
Chris Kemp, the company's chief executive, described this mission as a test flight, with the primary goal of demonstrating a full duration firing of the rocket's five main stage engines. Anything after that, including second stage ignition and orbital insertion, would be the cherry on top. This mission will carry no commercial payloads.
Rocket 3.1 is the company's second attempt to reach orbit. Its first booster, Rocket 3.0, made its first attempt in March 2020 and was scrubbed due to a sensor issue less than one minute before liftoff. Later, this booster was lost on the pad during an accident.
Launch target: Early November
Of the companies on this list, only Firefly has yet to attempt a launch. However, the company has been working steadily through the COVID-19 pandemic to finalize development of its Alpha rocket and bring it to a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
According to Eric Salwan, a spokesman for the Austin, Texas-based company, the first and second stages are in integration, and testing of those stages should begin within about two weeks. After those stages complete this acceptance testing process, they will be shipped to Vandenberg separately for final integration. A launch is possible as soon as early November, he said.
With a payload capacity of about 1 ton to low-Earth orbit, the Alpha rocket is quite a bit larger than both Astra and Virgin Orbit's boosters.
Launch target: Late 2020
Virgin Orbit first attempted to send its LauncherOne rocket into orbit in late May, but the rocket failed a few seconds after being released from its carrier aircraft. Last week, the company said it had determined the root cause of this failure: "A breach in the high-pressure line carrying cryogenic liquid oxygen to our first stage combustion chamber due to a component failure. Without a supply of oxidizer, that engine soon stopped providing thrust, ending our powered flight and ultimately the test itself."
In an August 3 blog post outlining its future plans, Virgin Orbit said flight hardware for its second mission is in "final integration" now and will soon be shipped to Mojave, California, for tests. Notably, for the second mission, NASA has agreed to launch 11 CubeSats for its CubeSat Launch Initiative.
The company plans to conduct this flight "toward the end of this year." Given that an important customer—NASA—will be putting payloads on this second flight, we can imagine that the company will test the heck out of this rocket before launching it. This suggests that reaching for a flight this year may be a stretch goal.
Launch target: Unknown
There is some question as to how "commercial" ExPace is, as it is a state-owned corporation of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation. Founded four years ago to commercialize military launch technology, ExPace attempted to debut the Kuaizhou-11 rocket in July.
The solid-fueled rocket appeared to perform well for about one minute before there was some sort of issue. Chinese state media provided no additional information about the failure other than saying that an investigation would now take place.
The Kuaizhou-11 booster is relatively large for this class of rockets, with an advertised capacity of 1.5 tons to low-Earth orbit. Other Chinese companies are also licensing military launch technology in an attempt to catch up to western small launch companies.
It is not clear when the Kuaizhou-11 will make its next launch attempt.