Investing in Space

Investing in Space: Why Blue Origin's engine explosion matters

The Vulcan rocket for the Cert-1 mission stands at SLC-41 during testing in Cape Canaveral, Florida, May 12, 2023.
United Launch Alliance

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Overview: Gaining acceptance

There's a reason the saying "that's why we test" exists. I've seen it a lot in my mentions the past few days. Unfortunately, and crucially, it ignores that tests happen for different reasons.

Let's get into that, especially in light of the recently unveiled explosion of a BE-4 rocket engine during Blue Origin's testing in Texas. The engine was bound for the second launch of its customer United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket.

It's worth understanding the three main phases of rocket engine testing: Development, qualification and acceptance. An industry specialist with over a decade of experience in this type of testing posted a helpful rundown about how these phases differ. Here's a tl;dr version: 

  1. Development: Prototypes and smaller scale versions of the engine. You're pushing them hard, accepting failures as part of the process to find the limits and flaws.
  2. Qualification: An essentially finished design. You're now verifying the margins of the engine's ability. Destroying an engine may happen, but it shouldn't be common.
  3. Acceptance: A production engine that's being checked for a launch. You might push it slightly past what is necessary for a launch, but it's not rough-and-tumble anymore, as you're making sure it's good to go.

I don't report on every rocket engine that blows up. Most of the ones I hear about are in the first two phases. But more importantly, BE-4 is years behind schedule (the first flight engines were originally contracted for delivery in 2017), and this was the third production engine. Of course it's better to lose an engine in testing than during a launch, especially on a rocket that can't lose an engine to succeed, but that's an overly dismissive way to view the loss of expensive production hardware – let alone another setback.

The downstream effects are especially why this matters. The first pair of BE-4 engines recently passed a critical test on Vulcan for the first launch. ULA CEO Tory Bruno is adamant that it's "very unlikely" the incident will set back the timeline for Cert-1, currently scheduled for the fourth quarter. (Bruno will be sitting down with reporters Thursday for a roundtable, which was on the schedule before word got out about the BE-4 incident. I'll be listening in – so stay tuned for any more potential details on Vulcan's situation.)

But ULA doesn't need just Cert-1 to fly: The company needs Vulcan to complete two launches successfully before the U.S. Space Force will sign off on it flying valuable national security missions. SpaceX is dominating the launch market and many in the industry, both competitors and customers, fear a monopoly. All six of ULA's recently assigned Space Force missions are set to fly on Vulcan, since the company's currently operational rockets are retiring.

So maybe this doesn't affect Cert-1, but what about Cert-2? Bruno believes the BE-4's failure in acceptance testing does not affect the previous qualification tests that Blue Origin has done. Even if they don't need to re-qualify the engine, they still need to close the investigation – in which Blue Origin says it's already found a likely cause of the explosion – check future production engines for the same flaw or flaws, and test the replacement.

As one propulsion engineer wrote on social media: "You learn a lot in development testing. You learn a little bit in qualification testing. Blessed be they who continue to learn in acceptance testing."

Which brings us to another refrain I've seen in my mentions these past few days: "Space is hard." It's sounding a little too much like "thoughts and prayers" these days.

What's up

  • Astranis signs deal for the Philippines' first dedicated internet satellite: The company will provide capacity to a local Filipino internet service provider HTechCorp through a long-term deal with Orbits Corp. Astranis expects to launch the satellite as a part of a batch of five next year, and estimates the service will help connect up to two million people. – CNBC
  • China's Landspace first to orbit with a methane-fueled rocket: The "private" venture launched its Zhuque-2 rocket and announced it successfully reached orbit, an achievement verified by U.S. Space Force tracking data. – SpaceNews
  • Saudi and Chinese representatives meet to discuss space cooperation: The chairman of the Saudi Space Agency hosted meetings with the top Chinese space officials in Riyadh, as part of an effort to boost political and economic ties between the nations. – Arab News
  • Maxar rolls out new satellite imagery platform, in an effort to broaden access to the company's Earth observation capabilities. The "Maxar Geospatial Platform" (MGP) includes imagery, 3D-models, change detection, and more. – Via Satellite
  • Virgin Galactic announces schedule target for second commercial mission, with a window opening Aug. 10 for "Galactic 02," carrying three private passengers. – Virgin Galactic
  • NASA cancels Janus small satellite asteroid mission, which would have flown on the delayed Psyche asteroid mission. The agency plans to put the spacecraft into long-term storage. – SpaceNews
  • Astra carves out spacecraft business, establishing Astra Spacecraft Engines as a subsidiary. The move reportedly will allow Astra greater flexibility in hiring and financing for the unit. – TechCrunch
  • Redwire to build microgravity payload development facility in Indiana, with construction of the 30,000 square foot facility to begin in the fourth quarter. – Redwire
  • U.K. rocket builder Orbex announces expansion: The company is further building out its facilities in Scotland and Denmark, to increase its rocket production and propulsion manufacturing capacity. – Orbex

Industry maneuvers

  • Dish and EchoStar reportedly analyzing a potential merger, a move that would see Charlie Ergen re-combine the companies after the latter was spun out 15 years ago. – Semafor
  • Private equity and defense firms in the mix to buy Ball Aerospace, which CNBC previously reported is up for sale from parent company Ball. According to a report, firms Blackstone and Veritas Capital are competing against defense companies BAE Systems, General Dynamics, and Textron to acquire Ball Aerospace. – Reuters
  • Satellite intelligence venture HawkEye 360 raises $58 million from BlackRock, as well as Manhattan Venture Partners, Insight Partners, NightDragon, Strategic Development Fund (SDF), Razor's Edge, Alumni Ventures, and Adage Capital. The company plans to use the funds to develop new systems and its expand its analytics capabilities, especially to "support high-value defense missions." The company currently has 21 satellites in orbit. – HawkEye 360
  • Satellite propulsion startup Benchmark Space Systems raises $33 million, in from unnamed investors. CEO Ryan McDevitt said the raise was "not directly related" to layoffs the Vermont-based company made recently. – SpaceNews
  • Axiom and Collins each given $5 million NASA spacesuit contracts that come under previously awarded deals from the agency. The new awards are intended to fund Axiom's development of a spacesuit for use in low Earth orbit, and Collins' development of a spacesuit for use on the surface of the moon. – NASA
  • HawkEye 360 awarded Australian contract to monitor fishing, for an undisclosed amount. The contract is part of Australia's pilot program to improve maritime awareness around the country and surrounding islands. – HawkEye 360

Market movers

  • Viasat stock heads toward worst trading day ever after disclosing a malfunction with deployment of the large reflector on its recently-launched ViaSat-3 Americas satellite. The company said it's working with the reflector's manufacturer to try to resolve the problem, but said the issue "may materially impact" performance of the satellite. Northrop Grumman appears to be the manufacturer. Viasat's stock on Thursday headed toward its worst drop for a single trading day since the company's IPO in December 1996. – CNBC
  • Astra board approves 1-to-15 reverse stock split, with the company having previously outlined the move as part of its plan to avoid delisting by the Nasdaq exchange. Astra also seeks to raise up to $65 million through an "at the market" offering of common stock through Roth Capital, and ended a prior agreement with B. Riley to sell up to $100 million in common stock that the company signed in August. – CNBC

Boldly going

  • Garrett Reisman joins Vast as a human spaceflight advisor: The retired astronaut and former SpaceX director comes to Vast as the company looks to build out its human spaceflight and space habitat capabilities. – Vast
  • Mike Kerrigan hired as Chief Commercial Officer of Myriota, an Australian satellite IoT company. Kerrigan previously was VP of strategy for Palo Alto Networks. – Myriota

On the horizon

  • July 14: India's LVM-3 launches the Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission from Sriharikota.
  • July 14: Rocket Lab's Electron launches satellites from New Zealand, carrying Telesat's LEO 3, two Spire satellites, and NASA's four Starling satellites.
  • July 14: SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from Florida.
  • July 18: SpaceX's Falcon 9 launches Starlink satellites from California.