The MK-II 'Aurora' spaceplane reaches a major milestone with rocket flight

Dawn Aerospace, a New Zealand-based space company, has achieved a major milestone by flying its MK-II "Aurora" spaceplane under rocket power.
Christopher McFadden
The MK-II "Aurora" successfully flys under rocket power.

Dawn Aerospace 

Today, Dawn Aerospace, which has offices in New Zealand, the Netherlands, and the US, announced the completion of its Mk-II "Aurora" spaceplane's first rocket-powered flight campaign. The flights occurred between the 29th and 31st of March 2023 from the Glentanner Aerodrome.

In case you have not heard of them, Dawn Aerospace is one of the fastest-growing private space companies in the world, with clients from Europe, Asia, and the United States. They call themselves a "green" in-space propulsion supplier, and they also, to date, have around 11 operational satellites currently in orbit.

Before these recent tests, the Mk-II "Aurora" was tested with surrogate jet engines. Last week's tests were the first to be completed with the company's proprietary rocket engines. According to the company, all tests went off without a hitch.

The Mk-II "Aurora" is a remotely piloted spacecraft that has the potential to make numerous daily journeys into suborbital space and take off and land on runways similar to a conventional jet. The Mk-II will serve as a proof of concept for a later model—the Mk-III "Aurora"—that could launch 550 pounds (250 kilograms) of satellites into orbit with a second-stage rocket, host research projects, and gather scientific data while testing continues.

In the future, numerous flights per day of a scaled-up suborbital vehicle could be made, carrying payloads to low Earth orbit.

Dawn Aerospace CEO, Stefan Powell, said, "To have demonstrated rapid reusability in the first tests is proof of our core philosophy and confirmation that rocket-powered vehicles can be operated just like commercial jet aircraft. This fact allows us to test now rapidly, but in the future, it will completely revolutionize the economics of space access."

“These flights were a monumental achievement for Dawn Aerospace, resulting from years of hard work from the team. After conducting three tests in three days, we believe the Mk-II is the most rapidly reusable rocket-powered aircraft in operation," he said.

Instead of aiming for the highest possible speed or height, the flights aimed to validate essential systems and capabilities, such as the rocket engine. Future tests will take a "build-up" strategy, gradually increasing speed and altitude. The Mk-II Aurora will reach an altitude of 62 miles (100 km) during commercial operations and aims to be the first vehicle capable of making two of these flights in a single day, laying the groundwork for a completely and quickly reusable first-stage booster.

Initial flights attained an altitude and speed of around 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) and 170 knots ( 195 miles per hour or 314 kilometers per hour), comparable to those shown in earlier test flights with jet propulsion. After completing the Mk-II Aurora program, Dawn Aerospace plans to make the Mk-III a two-stage orbital vehicle with a disposable second stage that can carry more than 1 tonne on a suborbital flight or send a 551 lbs (250 kg) satellite to low-Earth orbit.

“The vast majority of our industry’s carbon footprint is created in the manufacturing of rockets, not the fuel efficiency. Our orbital vehicle, Mk-III, is designed to be 96% reusable. This is key to delivering on our vision of a sustainable and future-proof space industry,” said Powell.

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