European Space Agency launches planet-hunting Cheops while Rocket Lab starts on a third launchpad

Meanwhile, in the UK: Rocket engine testing? Here? We'd really rather not...

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Roundup While the travails of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner may have captured space fans' attention, there was plenty of other fun and games happening in the world of rockets as 2019 came to a close.

Cheops, Cheops and away!

ESA's exoplanet mission, Cheops (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite), finally left Arianespace's Kourou spaceport in French Guiana atop a Soyuz-Fregat booster. The launch occurred at 09:54 CET on 18 December, and signals from the spacecraft were received just under three hours later, at 12:43 CET, via the wonderfully named "Troll" ground tracking station.

The 280kg Cheops spacecraft, operating in a 700km Sun-synchronous orbit, is designed to study bright, nearby stars that are already known to host exoplanets, making high precision observations of the size of the planet as it passes in front of its star. Cheops will also be focusing on planets in the super-Earth to Neptune size range.

By improving the accuracy of exoplanet size measurement, and combining that data with existing information on their masses, boffins hope to be better able to work out the structure and composition of planets. A hit list can then be drawn up for future missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, to focus on.

After a relatively rapid journey of only five years from project start to launch, Cheops is expected to spend the next 3.5 years performing its mission, with the potential for a 1.5 year extension if things are still going well (and pockets are deep enough.)

Sharing the Soyuz was Italian space agency ASI's Cosmo-SkyMed Second Generation satellite as well as three CubeSats (including ESA's free-for-use OPS-SAT in-orbit testbed.)

What's better than two launchpads? Three launchpads, of course!

Smallsat upstart rocketeers, Rocket Lab, has started work on yet another launchpad, having only just cut the ribbon on Launch Complex 2 in Virginia, USA. The new pad is destined for New Zealand and will be located at Launch Complex 1.

The pad will be given the imaginative moniker "Launch Complex 1 Pad B".

The company has a licence to launch 120 missions per year from the complex, but thus far has got nowhere near that figure. In theory, Rocket Lab could manage a launch every two weeks from the existing LC-1, but has struggled to achieve that kind of cadence.

The theory is that by having a second launchpad the company will be able to absorb delays. A spokesperson told The Register "This year we experienced several occasions where the vehicle and team were ready to launch, but the customer needed more time." Being able to process in parallel will avoid a cascade of delays on the manifest.

It doesn't take long to build an Electron launchpad, and construction is due to be completed in late 2020, replicating the layout and systems of the existing New Zealand pad. The company hopes that concurrent launches could occur within the next 12 months.

Not in my backyard – Brit rocketeers Skyrora get some Scottish pushback

While Rocket Lab cracks on with building a new launchpad in New Zealand, Edinburgh-based small sat launch outfit Skyrora has suffered a setback in its engine testing ambitions with an apparent rejection of its plans to make use of the former Cockenzie Power Station Site to test its powerplants.

Reported by Edinburgh Live, locals were not impressed with the five-year plan to conduct test firings of the engine, with councillors voting to reject the application despite a recommendation to grant consent.

In an attempt to gain approval, Skyrora had reduced the number of proposed tests from a possible 70 per month to just five (and no more than one per day) and promised to restrict the firing to just 30 seconds.

Unfortunately, this wasn't enough to appease objectors. Out of 168 written representations regarding the proposal, 165 were out-and-out objections. Only one was in support. Concerns ranged from worries over noise pollution, through concerns over the storage of the likes of hydrogen peroxide and kerosene on-site and the lack of long-term jobs being created.

It's all a bit unfortunate, since Skyrora is proud of its environmental credentials, using green hydrogen peroxide oxidiser and kerosene to keep exhaust emissions low.

The thrust of each of the nine engines destined to power the first stage of its Skyrora XL is also only 70 kN at sea level. Not something to be sniffed at (and higher than the Rutherford engine that powers Rocket Lab's Electron) but less than a tenth of what SpaceX's Merlin generates.

The Register spoke to Skyrora earlier this year, and were impressed with the company's ambition. We asked it what it made of this apparent setback, and were told: "We would like to thank the staff at East Lothian Council who worked hard with Skyrora on the application. Naturally, we are disappointed with the outcome and have decided not to appeal." ®

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