Rockets of Today

MIURA — Spain

Spain showed up in the New Space chat with the hype around Bloostar, which now seems to be going nowhere.. but there’s another Spanish company in the game now too, called PLD Space, and they have actually launched a suborbital rocket. This 2.5 ton single stage device was originally going to be called Arion 1, but has now been renamed as Miura 1. Their orbital followup will be named Arion 2 Miura 5. They’ve got a kerosene/lox engine working. It was called “Neton 1”, then “Teprel-1B”, but now it’s called “Teprel-B”. The Miura 5 will graduate to a “Teprel C”, and add one (or optionally two) more stages, with five engines at the bottom, to create a rather conventional small-satellite lifter roughly the size of the Electron. The B engine is pressure-fed but they plan to go gas-generator for the C.

The orbital launch pad is to be built in the Canary Islands, or it might be launched from the ESA spaceport in French Guiana. (The initial suborbital launch was from the mainland.) They also hope to recover the booster by parachute, and this is something they hope to perfect with the initial Miura 1 suborbital rocket, so as to have reusability built in from the beginning. They are telling customers that they will retrieve and return their suborbital payload. (They also claim they will work on propulsive landing in the future.) This venture is getting some support from the European Space Agency, as well as backing from private investors.

There are a lot of companies entering the competition to launch small satellites cheaply, but few of them are counting on reusability, which is the one thing that would allow them to separate from the pack and avoid the coming shakeout as the less successful companies fail. This simple addition of parachutes to the Miura (and the Bloostar) is the nearest we’ve seen to a reuse plan from most of these startups, at least before 2021 or so. Zero 2 Infinity also say that one reason they’re using methane is that the absence of soot would make it easier to clean up and reuse a stage, should they manage to recover it. But PLD is using kerosene despite the soot buildup it causes.

The one company that was seriously working on a highly reusable small launcher was not any disruptive new startup, but Boeing, with the Phantom Express spaceplane they were building for the Pentagon. Unfortunately, they abandoned the project.

ULA plans to recover Vulcan engines by snagging the parachute out of the air with a helicopter. It occured to me that when the rocket is small enough, the same technique could work for the entire booster. That simple approach, involving no new technology, could be what lets someone disrupt the small launch market in the same way that SpaceX disrupted the large one. It could finally bring prices down to a level well below those of solid-fuel missiles. But it wouldn’t produce any semi-monopolies, as the barriers are much lower than with propulsive landings. If the technique works, it could be applied to other little rockets — and indeed, Rocket Lab later said they would try it with their Electron.

PLD Space is going for a slightly cruder approach with the Miura boosters: they plan to let them hit the ocean, and just add reinforcement and waterproofing so they can survive the splashdown. (Their initial Miura 1 splashdown did not survive.) And indeed, Rocket Lab eventually ended up coming around to the same decision. In the Miura, the chute would be on the back end so the nozzles don’t absorb the impact. That’s a better plan for reusability than most of their competition has.

Tronador, VLS, and MUFS

Speaking of people who speak Spanish, the government of Argentina is also working on a kerosene-burning launcher, with a three engine booster and a hypergolic second stage. They call it Tronador (Thunderer) II. This is larger, like 67 tons, though still with only a half ton target capacity — a less ambitious figure than many solid rockets in that size range.

They hope to do better than Brazil, which after decades of effort (with some Ukrainian help) built a big solid-fueled satellite launcher called VLS, but never managed to reach space with it. They suspended the program after the rocket blew up in 2003, killing 21 workers and destroying their launch complex... but recently they said they plan to resume the effort, and also work on a smaller rocket called VLM. The VLS had four solid rockets as the first stage while the VLM will use just one. The project is controversial because it involves pushing a large group of poor rural people off their land — not a great look for a wannabe dictatorship already in trouble for utterly failing to manage covid. Then they started backing down and considered just hiring Virgin Orbit... but that didn’t work out.

Another hopeful country, which doesn’t fit anywhere else, is Turkey. Their UFS national program is developing a liquid-fueled engine for a small launcher with side boosters, known during development as Mikro Uydu Firlatma Sistemi... or maybe the new engine is for MUFS’ successor. They’ve previously built a solid-fueled sounding rocket.

Miura 5: mass 32 t, diam 1.8 m, thrust 950 kN, imp 3.4 km/s, gas generator (methane), payload 0.9 t (2.8%), cost unknown.