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WASHINGTON — An independent assessment of rocket engine development delivered to a House committee last week has concluded that Blue Origin remains well ahead of Aerojet Rocketdyne despite a recent testing setback.
That assessment, provided in a closed-door meeting organized by the House Armed Services Committee June 23, comes as the full committee is scheduled to mark up a fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on June 28 that would limit the Air Force’s ability to support launch vehicle development.
The “chairman’s mark” version of the bill, released by the committee June 26, includes a section restricting Air Force funding of vehicle development under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. Under that provision, the Air Force would be limited to funding new engines, integration of those engines with vehicles, and related capabilities to support national security launches.
The section includes a specific prohibition against funding “the development of new launch vehicles under such program.” It also specifically defines a “rocket propulsion system” that can be funded as a first-stage rocket engine or motor. “The term does not include a launch vehicle, an upper stage, a strap-on motor, or related infrastructure,” it states.
Such language would allow the Air Force to continue funding development of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine. However, it could restrict funding to United Launch Alliance to support development of its Vulcan rocket, as that work goes beyond development of a first-stage engine.
“The Chairman continues to view assured access to space as a national security priority,” the committee said in a statement June 26 announcing the release of the legislation by committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).
“This includes a continued focus on the development of a new American rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180, ensuring we do not lose existing and highly-capable launch vehicles, and prioritizing national security-specific requirements over new launch vehicles to protect assured access to space and end reliance on Russian engines,” the statement added.
The Defense Department opposes that language in the bill. In a document submitted to the committee and obtained by SpaceNews, it warned that the language would force it to abandon some ongoing vehicle development efforts and rely primarily on ULA’s Delta 4 and SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
“Section 1615 appears to force the Department to end the more than $300 [million] investment in the industry-developed systems and instead use a modernized Delta IV launch vehicle and/or the Falcon 9,” it stated, referring to the section of the NDAA that contains the funding restriction. The Falcon 9, it noted, cannot handle many national security missions, while the Delta 4 is significantly more expensive than alternative existing vehicles.
The DOD estimated, based on the increased use of the Delta 4 and an expectation that Falcon 9 launch prices would increase without competition, that its launch costs would increase by up to $1.8 billion through 2027 as compared to its ongoing approach.An illustration of the Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 engine under development as an alternative to the BE-4 for United Launch Alliance. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne
BE-4 retains its schedule lead
AR1 is one engine under consideration by ULA for Vulcan. However, the company has repeatedly stated that its first choice is Blue Origin’s BE-4, citing better economics of the engine and the fact that it was well ahead of development. In an April interview, ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno said he estimated AR1 was 18 to 24 months behind BE-4 because its development started later.
That lead has been in question, though, since an incident May 13 at Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas. The company said it lost “a set of powerpack hardware,” a key component of the engine, for the BE-4 during preparations for full-scale testing of the engine. The company said at the time that a “hardware-rich” approach to testing would allow the company to quickly recover and resume testing soon.
Blue Origin has not provided a public update on the status of BE-4 testing since the mishap. Spokesperson Caitlin Dietrich said June 26 the company had no additional comments about BE-4 testing at this time.
The incident took place days after Aerojet Rocketdyne announced that the AR1 had completed a critical design review, clearing the way for full-scale development and keeping the program on schedule. “This important milestone keeps AR1 squarely on track for flight readiness in 2019,” company president Eileen Drake said in a May 8 statement announcing completion of the review. The company had said for some time it believed the engine could be completed and ready for use on a launch vehicle by 2019.
However, at a briefing of staff members organized by the House Armed Services Committee June 23, an independent assessment prepared by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center reportedly confirmed that BE-4 maintained a major schedule advantage over the AR1 despite the testing setback.
“They are two years behind Blue Origin,” one meeting attendee, not authorized to speak on the record, said of the assessment’s conclusion about AR1. Another year would be needed to integrate the engine with a launch vehicle.
The BE-4 powerpack testing mishap raised a number of questions by those at the briefing, the source said, but the NASA assessment concluded it would not have a major effect on the overall testing program for the engine. “They should be on track to restart testing in late summer and still stay on schedule,” the attendee recalled.
That confidence is based on the hardware-rich testing approach the company has promoted. The briefing attendee noted the NASA assessment’s concerns about the AR1 were focused on its schedule and cost, rather than its technical development.
NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs confirmed June 26 that agency representatives conducted that briefing, but that it could not disclose its contents. “It included proprietary data and we are not in a position to share any additional information regarding discussions with Hill representatives,” he said.
NASA has not otherwise discussed the independent assessment, but Bruno alluded to it in an April interview, noting it was chartered by Congress and separate from the company’s own independent non-advocate review.
“We also have another team that Congress stood up staffed with NASA personnel from Marshall Space Flight Center,” Bruno said. “I was actually happy to hear that they did that. And we’ve made all of our suppliers and facilities available to them, too.”Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (left) and Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson mark the company’s decision to build a BE-4 factory in Huntsville at an event there June 26. Credit: Blue Origin
Blue Origin selects Huntsville
Initial, low-rate production of the BE-4, both for Blue Origin and ULA, will take place at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Washington. However, the company had previously stated it planned to develop a separate facility for higher-volume engine production, particularly to meet ULA’s requirements.
Blue Origin announced June 26 that it has decided to build that engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama. The company said it will make a $200 million investment to develop the facility, capable of producing up to 30 BE-4 engines per year. It anticipates hiring as many as 342 people to work at the factory.
“The area’s skilled workforce and leading role in rocket propulsion development make Huntsville the ideal location for our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility,” Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said in a statement announcing the company’s decision to build the factory in Huntsville.
Aiding that decision is an estimated $50 million in incentives offered by the state to locate the factory there. Alabama beat out offers from several other states, including Florida, where Blue Origin is building a factory for its New Glenn rocket, and Washington state.
Blue Origin’s decision will make it neighbors with its competitor in the ULA engine competition. Aerojet Rocketdyne announced in January that it would build the AR1 in Huntsville, creating 100 jobs.
The move could also ultimately help remove political obstacles for Blue Origin and ULA. Blue Origin’s decision was hailed by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a leading member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I am pleased to see Blue Origin investing in Alabama, and I look forward to working with them and other businesses to continue boosting economic development opportunities,” he said in the statement.
The deal is contingent on both approvals by local officials, expected in July, as well as a formal decision by ULA to select the BE-4 for Vulcan. Neither Blue Origin nor ULA have announced a timetable for doing so, which ULA has previously indicated will be contingent on progress in engine testing by Blue Origin.
“This is a big decision and if you don’t get it right, it’s very hard to come back from that. So I’m going to take my time and listen to all these experts and stakeholders and then do it,” Bruno said in April. “I expect to do that this year.”
NASA will mark the worldwide observance of International Asteroid Day at noon EDT Friday, June 30, with a special television program featuring the agency’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and other projects working to find and study near-Earth objects (NEOs). The program will air on NASA Television and the agency’s website.
WASHINGTON — SpaceX intends to launch a final upgrade to the Falcon 9 rocket, known as the Block 5, later this year, and has three Falcon Heavy launches planned for the next 18 months.
Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, confirmed in a June 22 appearance on “The Space Show” online radio show that the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 will be the “final design spin,” following just a few months after an “incremental” Block 4 version that will be more of a transition model.
“We are flying Block 3s right now,” Shotwell said. “Block 4s start flying shortly, and then Block 5 at the end of this year. We definitely have gotten better [at] more smooth introducing of change. You don’t see the big impacts to production we’ve had before when we’ve changed vehicle designs.”
SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk had previously stated in an online question-and-answer session in October 2016 that Block 5 would be the final upgrade to the Falcon 9 design. The Falcon 9 Block 5 is expected to be far more reusable than the Block 3. Shotwell said a Block 5 booster could relaunch “ a dozen or so times.” The Block 3, by comparison, has an estimated life of two or three missions.
Shotwell said the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 won’t need refurbishing, but will mainly undergo inspections prior to launch, streamlining the process compared to the first reused boosters.
“We’ve worked a lot on this particular vehicle. A lot of the active components, the valves, have been redesigned and requalified for much higher levels and much longer duration,” she said.
Despite describing the Block 5 as the final version of the Falcon 9, Shotwell hinted at the possibility of a future version of the rocket that could use the Raptor engines designed for transportation to Mars. Shotwell said Raptor, a liquid methane and oxygen engine for SpaceX’s interplanetary spaceship, has undergone “many dozens of tests” and is progressing well.
“The original idea for those engines were to serve as a propulsion system for the big Mars system, but we are looking at the utility of it on the Falcon program,” she said.
Enter: Falcon Heavy
Shotwell said Arabsat will be the first customer for the Falcon Heavy when it begins commercial service in 2018, following a demonstration mission later this year.
“We’ll be flying Arabsat to [geostationary transfer orbit] on the second Falcon Heavy flight, and then we’ll be flying STP-2, an Air Force mission,” she said.
Saudi Arabia-based Arabsat purchased a Falcon Heavy launch for Arabsat-6A, a Ku- and Ka-band satellite from Lockheed Martin, in 2015. The Air Force contracted the Space Test Program-2 launch in 2012. Shotwell described both those missions as happening “early next year.”
Delays with the Falcon Heavy cost SpaceX two of the rocket’s customers: ViaSat and Inmarsat. ViaSat’s ViaSat-2 and Inmarsat’s S-band European Aviation Network (EAN) satellite both shifted to Ariane 5 rockets from European launch provider Arianespace. ViaSat-2 launched June 1, and Inmarsat’s EAN satellite launches June 28.
SpaceX still needs Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to finish repairs before the Falcon Heavy can launch. That infrastructure, often referred to as Pad 40, took damage last September when a Falcon 9 exploded during a fueling procedure prior to a static-fire test.
Shotwell said Pad 40 remains on track for completion later this summer. Once reactivated, SpaceX plans to return Falcon 9 launches there and use Launch Complex 39A for Falcon Heavy.
SpaceX does not intend to fly any customers on the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy. Shotwell said the mission will demonstrate some capabilities needed for national security launches, such as an extended coasting of the second stage.
The first Falcon Heavy launch will use two previously-flown Falcon 9 first stage boosters attached to a new center core optimized to support the triple-booster configuration.
Making reuse regular
To date, SpaceX has launched two Falcon 9s with “flight proven” first stage boosters, flying SES-10 in March and BulgariaSat-1 June 23. Shotwell said three to four more customers are interested in using flight-proven launchers this year. If SpaceX launches a minimum of three additional pre-flown boosters this year, along with two pre-flown boosters on Falcon Heavy, that would amount to seven reused rockets for 2017. Shotwell said SpaceX was originally shooting for six reused boosters this year.
Shotwell said in March that SpaceX would seek to use pre-flown boosters as a means of easing the strain on Falcon 9 production. Production was slowed by the September 2016 anomaly, but has increased significantly since then, she said.
“Three years ago or so we were producing six rockets a year,” she said. “This year we are going to produce more than 20.”
Shotwell said SpaceX desires to eventually fly pre-flown boosters “far more regularly” than new models. She said some customers are waiting for SpaceX to certify pre-flown boosters for national security space missions and for crewed missions before agreeing to use them.
NASA has achieved a significant milestone in its effort to make supersonic passenger jet travel over land a real possibility by completing the preliminary design review (PDR) of its Quiet Supersonic Transport or QueSST aircraft design.
On 23 and 25 June, SpaceX launched two Falcon 9 rockets using boosters that had already been to space, the second and third time SpaceX has flown used boosters
WASHINGTON — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the prime contractor for Japan’s next-generation launch vehicle, the H3, says it is on schedule for a first launch in 2020, and will soon learn if the cost-cutting efforts pursued over the past three years will meet the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s goal of halving launch prices compared to the H-2A.
Ko Ogasawara, MHI’s vice president and general manager for launch, told SpaceNews the critical design review, or CDR, for the H3 is scheduled for this autumn and will give an indication of how effective the company has been at reducing costs.
“The government said to cut the cost per kilogram in half, so after getting such a requirement, we are working very hard to find solutions,” said Ogasawara. “By CDR we will find our target costs. So far it is going well, but it is very tough.”
JAXA awarded MHI a contract to build the new launcher in 2014, and included in the rocket’s procurement a requirement that the price per kilogram drop by 50 percent. The H3 is intended to replace Japan’s workhorse H-2A rocket, used for satellite launches, and the H-2B, used mainly for resupply missions to the International Space Station. JAXA and MHI are also seeking to double the average number of annual launches, from three to four with the H-2A and H-2B today to around eight with the H3.
“So far our schedule is still the same,” said Ogasawara. “After the CDR we will start manufacturing of qualification test articles, including those for the first stage BFT, Battleship Firing Test [a ground test firing of engines]. This test is to be conducted using a flight-like propulsion system, engine support structure and LE-9 engines.”
Ogasawara said the biggest difference between the H-2A and the H3 is in the first stage engine. H3 will use the LE-9 engine, which is derived from the H-2A’s second stage engine, the LE-5B. Ogasawara described the LE-9 as “much simpler and more reliable” than the LE-7A engine used for the H-2A, because the number of components is “drastically reduced.”
MHI produced the first LE-9 engine in March, he said, and hot-firing tests began this spring.
JAXA has given MHI a greater level of influence on the H3 than it did with the H-2A. Ogasawara said whereas the total launch vehicle design for the H-2A was JAXA’s responsibility, MHI’s role as prime contractor and vehicle integrator gives the company more creative freedom. He stressed, however, that JAXA is still directly involved in the design and development for certain key components.
“Therefore, we work together, JAXA and MHI, very closely,” he said.
Ogasawara said one example of a major change between the H-2A and the H3 is swapping gimballed nozzles on the solid rocket boosters in favor of fixed nozzles.
“Why did we decide to eliminate such a function? In the case of H3, we have two or three first-stage engines, therefore such engines are able to do the same function, especially for vehicle roll control. This is one example. Not only for the system design side, but for the manufacturing and the operational phases, we are trying to find how to decrease the cost,” he explained.
The H3 is designed to use three LE-9 engines when configured without strap-on solid rocket boosters, and two LE-9 engines when configured with them. The rocket is designed to launch with zero, two or four strap-on boosters, allowing it to deliver between two and seven metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit. IHI Aerospace, manufacturer of Japan’s Epsilon small launcher, is MHI’s supplier for the strap-on boosters for the H-2A and future H3. Kawasaki Heavy Industries provides the payload fairings.
Japan’s demand for domestic government launches has climbed over the past 10 years thanks largely to new programs such as the nation’s Information Gathering Satellites, X-band defense communications satellites, and the Quasi-Zenith Satellite System navigation satellites. The H3’s increased launch cadence, though, is geared principally toward the commercial sector.
Ogasawara said the MHI is seeking three to four commercial missions per year with the H3, and has already begun expanding its rocket and engine assembly facilities in Nagoya, Japan, to accommodate the increased number of launches. Furthermore, he said MHI is already having “long term project planning” discussions with satellite operators about using the H3.
MHI performed its first commercial satellite launch, Telstar 12 Vantage for Telesat, in November 2015 using the H-2A rocket. Two more commercial missions, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre’s Khalifasat and the Emirates Mars Mission, are slated for 2018 and 2020, respectively. Ogasawara said MHI has a commercial H-2A launch slot in 2019, and possibly another in 2020. He said MHI will likely retire the H-2B in 2019 and the H-2A in 2023, giving the H3 about three years of overlap.
Updated 6:05 p.m. Eastern.
WASHINGTON — SpaceX completed a “doubleheader” of launches June 25 with the launch of a second set of next-generation Iridium satellites from California, two days after another Falcon 9 from the East Coast.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off in foggy conditions from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 4:25 p.m. Eastern. The initial phases of the launch went as planned, with the second stage entering low Earth orbit for a coast phase prior to a second burn and then spacecraft separation. All 10 satellites separated as planned during a 15-minute period that concluded one hour and 12 minutes after liftoff.
The rocket’s first stage made a landing on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean, touching down as planned despite concerns that conditions were “marginal” for the landing because of winds. This was the ninth consecutive flight with a successful landing, on a drone ship or on land, for launches where the company attempted a landing.
The launch is the second in a little more than 48 hours for SpaceX. On June 23, a Falcon 9 launched the BulgariaSat-1 satellite from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, using a first stage that previously launched the first batch of Iridium Next satellites in January. That stage made a hard, but successful, landing on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean.The Falcon 9 first stage on the deck of the drone ship “Just Read The Instructions” after landing June 25. The landing was the first to use larger grid fins on the first stage to guide the rocket to the landing site. Credit: SpaceX webcast
The launch is the first to feature the use of new grid fins on the rocket’s first stage, which steer the stage towards its landing site. Previous rockets used aluminum fins, while this vehicle has larger fins made of titanium.
“Flying with larger & significantly upgraded hypersonic grid fins,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted June 24. “Can take reentry heat with no shielding.”
The aluminum fins suffered wear and tear during the reentries, which Musk said will no longer be an issue with the titanium ones. The new fins, he said, are “slightly heavier than shielded aluminum, but [have] more control authority and can be reused indefinitely with no touch ups.”
The larger fins, he added, are better suited for the company’s larger Falcon Heavy rocket, whose first flight is planned for later this year, and also allows the first stage to land in stronger winds.
The rocket placed into orbit the second set of 10 Iridium Next satellites for Iridium. Six more launches are scheduled over the next 12 months to place the remaining Iridium Next satellites into orbit.
“Right now, it’s two down with six more launches to go,” Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said in a post-launch statement. “Our operations team is eagerly awaiting this new batch of satellites and is ready to begin the testing and validation process.” Those satellites will be “slot swapped” into the operational constellation, replacing existing spacecraft, after several weeks of on-orbit tests and maneuvers.
While this launch used a new Falcon 9 first stage, Desch said in a call with reporters June 19 that he would be open to launching some of the later missions on previously-flown Falcon 9 first stages, if the use of that hardware could accelerate his launch schedule.
NASA has awarded the Kennedy Space Center Institutional Support Services IV (KISS IV) contract to Apache-Logical Joint Venture of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully launched a Bulgarian communications satellite June 23, a mission that marked the second time the company reused the rocket’s first stage.
The Falcon 9 carrying BulgariaSat-1 lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 3:10 p.m. Eastern, one hour into a two-hour launch window. SpaceX said additional pre-launch ground tests prompted the delay. The spacecraft separated from the Falcon 9’s second stage 35 minutes after liftoff.
The first stage landed on a SpaceX drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean after what SpaceX cautioned would be a “super challenging” landing attempt due to the high reentry loads for this particular flight profile. Video from the drone ship cut out shortly before the landing, but was restored several seconds later, showing the stage upright, but leaning slightly, having landed slightly off-center.
“Rocket is extra toasty and hit the deck hard (used almost all of the emergency crush core), but otherwise good,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted shortly after the landing. He had tweeted prior to the launch that, because of the high reentry loads, there was a “good chance [the] rocket booster doesn’t make it back.”
This launch marked the second time that SpaceX has reflown a Falcon 9 first stage, after the March launch of the SES-10 satellite. The first stage for this launch first flew in January on a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying 10 Iridium Next satellites into orbit before landing on a ship offshore.
BulgariaSat selected SSL to build BulgariaSat-1 in September 2014, a deal that also included the SpaceX launch. The satellite, with an estimated mass of 4,000 kilograms, carries a total of 32 Ku-band transponders to provide fixed and broadcast satellite services and has a planned 15-year lifetime.
BulgariaSat said in May that 46 percent of the satellite’s capacity will be used by Bulsatcom, a Bulgarian telecommunications provider, in Bulgaria and Serbia. The spacecraft will operate from 1.9 degrees east in geostationary orbit, with a coverage area that includes much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
This launch was the first in a “doubleheader” planned by SpaceX. The company is planning a launch of ten Iridium satellites on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 4:25 p.m. Eastern June 25. That launch will use a new Falcon 9 first stage, although Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said he would be open to using previously-flown first stages for future launches if it can save time.
LAUREL, Md. — Despite the ongoing development of a fleet of small launch vehicles, both launch providers and customers continue to see demand for flying small satellites as secondary payloads on larger rockets.
The latest example of rideshare launch services took place early June 23, with the launch of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). That rocket, in addition to its primary payload of a Cartosat-2 imaging satellite, carried 30 small satellites from 15 countries as secondary payloads.
PSLV has emerged as a leading provider of rideshare services for smallsats, but it is not the only player. During a panel discussion at the annual Small Payload Rideshare Symposium at the Applied Physics Laboratory here June 14, representatives of several launch providers discussed ongoing plans to provide accommodations for secondary payloads.
Vsevolod Kryukovskiy, launch program director at Glavkosmos, said his company was planning to fly up to 120 smallsats on three Soyuz launches this year, including 72 on a Soyuz launch in July. He said in a later interview Glavkosmos will provide rideshares on three Soyuz missions in 2018, and in future years as well.
Arianespace is also looking at providing additional rideshare opportunities, said Stella Guillén, vice president of sales and marketing in the company’s Washington office. That includes the Small Satellites Mission Service (SSMS), dedicated launches of its Vega launch vehicle each carrying a cluster of small satellites. “If you’re a cubesat, we’ll work with you and our partners to put you on this mission,” she said.
The first SSMS mission is planned for late 2018 or early 2019, followed by one on the first launch of the upgraded Vega-C launch in late 2019. “We’re trying to repeat this mission every year, and hopefully twice a year in the future,” she said.
Arianespace is also offering secondary payload opportunities on a Europeanized Soyuz launch into a dawn-dusk sun-synchronous orbit planned for around the same time as the first SSMS mission, she said, as well as an Ariane 5 mission to geostationary transfer orbit in the second half of 2019.
The large number of rideshare opportunities, primarily on non-U.S. launch vehicles, has been critical to the growth of the smallsat market and companies like Spire. The company has relied on rideshare services to deploy its constellation of cubesats that provide weather data and ship tracking services, including eight on the latest PSLV launch.
Jenny Barna, launch manager at Spire, said at the symposium that despite the large number of commercial launches by U.S. and other vehicles, very few are going to low Earth orbits other than those sending spacecraft to the International Space Station. “There’s just not a huge market,” she said.
Spire has relied in particular on PSLV for deploying its constellation. “There’s no other reason, beyond opportunity, that we’re seeking foreign rideshares. It’s really just about opportunity, and it doesn’t exist in the U.S.,” she said. “Our entire product is reliant on foreign launch.”
There are efforts to increase the number of rideshare missions on U.S. launch vehicles. Spaceflight, which has brokered secondary payloads on PSLV and other foreign launch vehicles, has purchased a SpaceX Falcon 9 for a dedicated rideshare mission to sun-synchronous orbit, which company officials at the symposium is now planned for early 2018.
“We’re trying to provide more domestic launch capability for secondaries,” said Scott Schoneman of Spaceflight, noting that about one-third the value of that dedicated Falcon 9 launch is for U.S. government satellites that could not launch on foreign vehicles.
Into this market comes a new fleet of small launch vehicles under development. They include Electron, the vehicle developed by U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Lab that made an initial test flight in May. The rocket failed to reach orbit, but the company still hailed the progress it made.
“During this maiden flight, everything worked nominally and really well off the pad and into [main engine cut off]. The second stage performed well in vacuum,” said Brad Schneider, executive vice president and general manager of U.S. operations for Rocket Lab, in a presentation at the symposium. He did not provide new details on the issues with the second stage that prevented the rocket from reaching orbit.
Schneider was optimistic about the company’s prospects, including carrying out launches at high rates. He said its launch range in New Zealand could support up to 120 launches a year, more than the number of orbital launches worldwide today. “The first flight that we had was a great indicator, at least at first blush, that we have a good opportunity for a long-term run,” he said.
Those offering rideshare services don’t appear concerned about any competition smaller vehicles will pose. “More competition, especially with the aggressive price points new entrants are pushing for, is probably good for the market from a commercial standpoint,” said Schoneman. “It will keep prices down, or at least in check.”
Barna noted that Spire’s strategy of launching four to eight cubesat-class spacecraft at a time means that the company will continue to be a rideshare customer, even on small launch vehicles. “Our lives won’t actually change that much, other than hopefully there will be a couple more opportunities next year, and maybe several more the following year,” she said. “Life will go on as a secondary.”
The off-kilter tumbling of the magnetic bubble around Uranus may regularly let a barrage of charged particles from the solar wind flow in
Starshade is a proposed flower-shaped spacecraft that can create an artificial eclipse, allowing space telescopes to spot planets orbiting distant stars.
Media accreditation is open for the launch of NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS)-M. Liftoff on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida is targeted for 9:02 a.m. EDT Aug. 3, at the opening of a 40-minute launch window.
The companies signed the contract Thursday with the European Space Agency, which procures the satellites on behalf of the EU.
The companies won the contract despite Brexit-related complications for U.K.-based SSTL, which will require some kind of agreement to allow the company to continue working on classified parts of the Galileo payload after the country exits the EU. [BBC]
The leadership of the Air Force and key members of the House Armed Services Committee are at odds over establishing a “Space Corps.” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, pushed back against criticism of his Space Corps proposal by the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff. At a markup of a defense authorization bill Thursday, Rogers responded to Air Force comments that a Space Corps was not needed. “I have to say I’ve been shocked by the response by the Air Force leadership,” he said, saying he would press ahead with language in the bill that would create a Space Corps within the Air Force. [SpaceNews]
OneWeb has won FCC approval for its broadband satellite constellation. The FCC said Thursday it approved plans by OneWeb to provide broadband services in the United States, a key milestone in the company’s development of its satellite system. The FCC added it is examining several other applications for satellite constellations to provide similar services in the U.S. [Washington Post]
India launched a PSLV carrying 31 satellites overnight. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle lifted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Center at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Thursday night. The rocket placed into a sun-synchronous orbit a Cartosat-2 Earth imaging satellite as well as 30 smallsat secondary payloads, including eight satellites for Spire and three for Sky and Space Global. [The Hindu]
Layoffs have hit Space Systems Loral because of a downturn in commercial satellite orders. The company confirmed Thursday it laid off employees at its California manufacturing facility, citing an “extended slowdown” in orders for commercial GEO satellites. The company declined to say how many people were laid off, but a source familiar with the layoffs said eight percent of the company’s more than 2,000 employees were affected. Other satellite manufacturers have also reported weak demand for GEO satellites, not expecting the market to rebound until 2018 or 2019. [SpaceNews]
The CEO of BulgariaSat said the launch of his venture’s first satellite would not be possible without SpaceX. Maxim Zayakov said the reduced launch costs offered by SpaceX made the satellite project feasible. The SSL-built satellite is scheduled for launch this afternoon on a Falcon 9 from Florida. [Spaceflight Now]
ESA has started funding a new reusable engine. The agency has provided a first tranche of funding for Prometheus, an engine being developed by ArianeGroup that uses liquid oxygen and methane propellants and promises to cost one-tenth the price of the Vulcain 2 engine used on the Ariane 5. Prometheus is on track to begin test firings in 2020, although ESA does not contemplate using it in future launch vehicles until 2030. [SpaceNews]
SpaceX is looking to lease more property at Port Canaveral for storing recovered rocket boosters. The company is seeking to lease 2.2 acres of property at the port, where it would construct a 67,000-square-foot hangar. SpaceX is already leasing a 50,000-square-foot building at the port to store and refurbish Falcon 9 first stages. [Orlando Sentinel]
NASA has kicked off an independent review of its next flagship astronomy mission, WFIRST. The agency announced Thursday the membership of the review panel, which will examine any cost and schedule issues with the spacecraft. That review will postpone plans to move the mission into Phase B of development, previously scheduled for this fall. A report last year warned of potential cost increases for WFIRST that could adversely affect other NASA astrophysics programs. [SpaceNews]
ESA is seeking to privatize its Space Rider uncrewed spaceplane under development. Space Rider is being developed by Thales Alenia Space and Lockheed Martin, with a first test flight scheduled for 2020 on a Vega-C rocket. Five more test flights would follow as Arianespace, who would operate the spaceplane commercially, decides how many reusable vehicles to build for commercial flights. ESA foresees using Space Rider to fly microgravity research and other payloads for an estimated $9,200 per kilogram. [SpaceNews]
An ESA initiative with industry will look for roles satellites can play in 5G networks. The Satellite for 5G initiative, planned for 2018 through 2020, would examine the roles satellites, both in low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit, can play in supporting 5G networks. The upcoming demonstrations as part of the initiative will focus on various 5G applications such as connected transport solutions, public safety and entertainment. [SpaceNews]
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted June 22 to make OneWeb the first of what will likely be several new non-geosynchronous orbit (NGSO) satellite constellations granted regulatory approval to operate in the United States.
In an open commission meeting June 22, the FCC approved OneWeb’s request, filed more than a year ago, to provide broadband internet service to the United States with a constellation of 720 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites using Ku- and Ka-band spectrum.
OneWeb’s FCC application, submitted under the name WorldVu, triggered a flood of 11 other applicants that all surfaced during the company’s processing round. Other contenders include SpaceX, which is proposing a system of more than 4,000 LEO satellites; Boeing, with up to 3,000 satellites; and ViaSat and Telesat, among others.
Tom Sullivan, chief of the FCC’s International Bureau, said the additional applications range from “as little as two satellites to as many as 4,000.” The other proposals are still under review by his bureau’s satellite division, he said.
“We hope to approve many more constellations because we know that the more companies compete, the more consumers win,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “The order lays the foundation for the deployment of future low-Earth orbit satellites while establishing carefully measured standards to ensure that these NGSO constellations won’t interfere with their terrestrial or geostationary counterparts, and the order provides that OneWeb will need to accommodate inline interference avoidance and spectrum sharing with other NGSOs in the future.”
OneWeb’s plans to launch its first satellites next year on Europeanized Soyuz rockets through Arianespace, and intends to begin operations in 2019. The company said earlier this month that its progress on developing the system was not impeded by the collapse of a planned merger with geostationary fleet operator Intelsat.
FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly cautioned that the topics of interference and prevention of orbital debris “will need to be considered further,” regardless of OneWeb’s approval. He also said that the increased demand for spectrum between both satellite and terrestrial communications, as evidenced by the heated spectrum debates surrounding the 2015 World Radiocommunications Conference, remains a challenge in need of resolution.
“This item is more of a first step, rather than a middle or final one,” he said. “Going forward there should be more holistic conversation and appropriate consideration of the complete picture of spectrum needs for both NGSOs and terrestrial use. As I’ve stated before, the satellite and wireless industries continue on a collision course both here and internationally as they seek spectrum for future systems. Generally I remain concerned that we may be foregoing opportunities for the clearing and sharing of spectrum by permitting additional uses on a piecemeal basis.”
O’Rielly said OneWeb’s authorization is conditioned on the outcome of a larger NGSO rulemaking proceeding by the FCC that has yet to conclude. In the FCC’s Order and Declaratory Ruling issued June 1, the agency said OneWeb “will not receive any special exemptions to the rulemaking based solely on this grant.”
OneWeb revealed Alaska Communications would be the company’s first reseller in Alaska, the largest state by land area in the country. The U.S. market has been the most active for residential satellite broadband, and has driven large high throughput satellites mainly from Hughes and ViaSat.
WASHINGTON — NASA announced June 22 the selection of an independent review committee that will examine cost and schedule issues with its next flagship astronomy mission, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).
NASA said earlier this year it would establish the review committee, a recommendation of a study last year by a National Academies panel examining the progress made on implementing the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey. That panel was concerned about growing cost estimates for WFIRST and its implications for other NASA astrophysics programs.
The committee is co-chaired by Peter Michelson, the chair of the physics department at Stanford University who has worked on high-energy astrophysics missions such as Fermi; and Orlando Figueroa, a retired NASA official whose career included serving as deputy director of the Goddard Space Flight Center and director of NASA’s Mars exploration program. The other members include a mix of scientists, engineers and program managers.
“We are confident this review will provide the insight and confidence among key stakeholders necessary to move toward what promises to be an exciting science investigation bound to reshape our understanding of the universe,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said in a statement announcing the membership of the review panel.
WFIRST, the top-ranked large, or flagship, mission in the 2010 decadal, is still in its early phases of development. The mission was scheduled to enter Phase B in October, but agency officials previously said they would delay that until the completion of the independent review and implementation of any recommendations from that report.
“We have paused the progress towards the systems requirements review for WFIRST,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said in a presentation June 22 to the Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee. That independent review committee has already started its work, he said, including meetings with the project.
Hertz said he expected a final report from the panel in the fall. “Once we have a report in hand, then NASA will incorporate the report’s recommendations into our planning, possibly even impacting our design for WFIRST but certainly our plans for WFIRST,” he said. That will delay the project by several months, he added.
WFIRST, an infrared telescope that will use a 2.4-meter mirror assembly provided to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office in 2012, is currently scheduled for launch in the mid-2020s. Hertz said that schedule will depend in large part on funding the mission receives.
“The earlier we can make money available, the faster they go and the earlier they launch,” he said. “Unfortunately, unless my budget goes up, we can’t accelerate WFIRST and maintain a balanced program at the same time, so we will not be accelerating WFIRST unless we get additional funds.”
Finding that balance is already a struggle for NASA’s astrophysics program. NASA requested $90 million for WFIRST in its fiscal year 2017 budget request, but the final appropriations bill passed by Congress in early May provides $105 million for the mission. Hubble and SOFIA also received slight increases, as did a mirror technology program not in the agency’s request.
However, the overall astrophysics program received $31 million less than the original request. Taking into account those increases specified for WFIRST and other programs, the rest of the astrophysics division is facing a cut of $47.4 million, or about 11 percent.
Hertz said NASA has submitted an operating plan to Congress that addresses those cuts, but since the plan has yet to be approved he could not discuss its details. Complicating matters, he said, is the fact there is now only a little more than three months left in the fiscal year to incorporate those changes.
“The places where we would like to accommodate this reduction we have slowed down our spending on, so that if Congress approves our operating plan, we can actually execute the operating plan we submitted,” he said. “If they tell us that it’s unacceptable to slow down on the things that we identified, and they tell us to slow down on something else, then it’s going to be challenging.”
WASHINGTON — Citing a long-term drought in satellite orders, Space Systems Loral has laid off a number of employees at its California satellite manufacturing facility, the company confirmed June 22.
In a statement to SpaceNews, SSL President John Celli said an “extended slowdown” in orders for geostationary orbit communications satellites led the company to this round of layoffs.
“We have seen an extended slowdown in orders for GEO satellites across the industry,” he said. “With fewer satellites coming into the factory we have to make reductions to remain competitive.”
Company spokesperson Wendy Lewis said SSL was not disclosing the number of people laid off. A source familiar with the layoffs said about eight percent of the company’s workforce was affected, which would be on the order of 200 employees.
“We continue to have a team of more than 2,000 in Palo Alto, and have carefully planned in order to meet all our customer commitments and to be prepared for new contract awards,” Celli said in his statement.
SSL has not announced an order for a commercial geostationary communications satellite since July 2016, when it said it would build two satellites for SiriusXM to replace existing spacecraft providing satellite radio services for North America.
Other satellite manufacturers have also reported weak demand for commercial GEO satellites. “Last year, there were 14 new geosynchronous satellites purchased,” Dave Thompson, president and chief executive of Orbital ATK, said in a May 11 earnings call about the company’s quarterly financial results. “And at this point, my crystal ball for 2017 is somewhere in the 12 to 14 satellites, so not better than last year.” He added he hoped for a rebound in orders in 2018 or 2019.
Boeing offered a similar assessment in March, forecasting between 13 and 17 commercial GEO satellite orders in 2017. “We hoped it would have picked up by now, but we are not seeing it,” Dawn Harms, Boeing Satellite Systems International vice president for global sales and marketing, said at a media briefing during the Satellite 2017 conference.
SSL, which in the past has relied almost exclusively on commercial GEO satellite business, has diversified in the last year, seeking more government business. The company won awards from NASA and DARPA for two separate satellite servicing programs, Restore-L and Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS), respectively. SSL is also the prime contractor for NASA’s Psyche asteroid mission, selected as part of the agency’s latest Discovery program competition in January.
Even some of this government business is in jeopardy, however. As part of NASA’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, the agency announced it would restructure the Restore-L program. Restore-L, which received $130 million in the final 2017 appropriations bill, would receive no funding in 2018, with that work transitioned to a satellite servicing technology development program funded at $45 million in the request.
WASHINGTON – In the past three months alone, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein have found themselves before the Senate Appropriations Committee, House Armed Services Committee, and Senate Armed Services Committee.
It’s an unusually busy congressional appearance schedule that reflects budget season in the nation’s capital: no one wants to markup the Air Force budget without talking to the leaders of the Air Force. And Wilson and Goldfein have used every opportunity to reiterate their belief that space operations should stay squarely within the purview of the Air Force.
But Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee may have taken on new urgency for the service leaders.
The day before, the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, led by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), unveiled a legislative provision to separate space from other Air Force operations by setting up a “Space Corps” similar to the relationship the Marine Corps has in the Navy.
Rogers and Cooper want it to happen fast. If the provision makes it into law, the Air Force would be required to set up the new corps by Jan. 1, 2019. The commanding general would get a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the Pentagon’s military leadership — and report directly to Wilson.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, the service secretary and top general reiterated their belief that now is not the time to focus on a Space Corps.
“If you’re saying the word ‘separate’ and ‘space’ in the same sentence, I would offer you’re moving us in the wrong direction,” Goldfein said. “Every mission that we perform in the United States military is dependent on space. Now’s not the time to build seems and segregate and separate, now’s the time to further integrate.”
Wilson agreed, arguing that at a time of sequestration and budget cuts, a reorganization is going to do more harm than good.
“The Pentagon is complicated enough,” she said. “We’re trying to simplify. This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart, and cost more money… I don’t need another chief of staff and another six deputy chiefs of staff. We need to simplify, not make it more complicated.”U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) Credit: CSPAN video capture
“As we say in Alabama, I’m pissed.”
The idea of a “Space Corps” within the Air Force, or a completely separate “Space Force,” has been floating around for a while. Advocates say it’s a way to focus proper attention on space operations, and protect the space budget from repeated cuts that have seen money transferred into air operations — often warfighting missions in the Middle East. Critics argue separation will be detrimental, and that in an era where space is becoming increasingly more integrated into everyday life, now’s not the time to stick it into its own silo.
But the idea of a Space Corps received renewed attention in April during the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when Rogers, chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, said he would push for setting up a completely new military branch focused on space.“I have to say I’ve been shocked by the response by the Air Force leadership. Did they miss where the Chinese and the Russians have already reorganized their space operations?” said Rep. Mike Rogers
Thursday morning the subcommittee met to markup its portion of the National Defense Authorization Act, and Rogers opened with a statement saying he “had no illusions [Air Force leaders] were going to embrace our reforms.”
“This is an issue the subcommittee has studied for months and I can’t even tell you how many meetings with space experts and leaders Jim [Cooper] and I have had on this subject,” he said. “We both have come to the same conclusion – that the Department can’t fix itself on this; Congress has to step in.”
Rogers then sharply criticized Wilson’s and Golfein’s response to the proposal.
“When I see arguments that we are actually going to set back efforts to respond to adversary space threats, well, as we say in Alabama, I’m pissed,” Rogers said. “We’re not easily provoked. But, since we’ve rolled out our mark with these reforms to the national security space enterprise, I have to say I’ve been shocked by the response by the Air Force leadership. Did they miss where the Chinese and the Russians have already reorganized their space operations? The Chinese literally have a space force today.”Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein prepare to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee June 6 in Washington. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash
Other members of the House Armed Services Committee have also expressed support for major changes as well.
Rep. Doug Lamborn — a Republican whose Colorado district includes the headquarters of Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base — said other committee members share Rogers’ “sense of urgency to do anything but business as usual.”
“The Air Force doesn’t have enough space personnel, and the space personnel they do have, unfortunately, have the lowest promotion rates in the Air Force. Not enough people, who don’t get promoted enough, and who are also way under-represented in Air Force leadership,” Lamborn said, speaking at a June 16 event on the space budget hosted by Jacques & Associates’ FiscalTrak and the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Lamborn applauded the Air Force’s request for a $1.45 billion increase in funding for space over 2017’s levels, but questioned its adequacy.
“Stepping back and looking at the bigger budget picture, you have to ask, ‘Is this good enough?’” he said. “Let’s face it: they have so many other things to buy, including new fighters, new tankers, new bombers, and of course new nuclear weapons, all of which are things we absolutely need to buy, but all of which are expensive.”
“We are simply not well organized to maintain our leadership and competitive advantage in space,” Lamborn continued. “Gaining consensus on the solution, however, is obviously a lot more complicated. I think part of the lack of consensus stems from various opinions regarding how urgent the problem is. From there come the various opinions about how much reform is needed. All I know is we can’t afford to rearrange the deck chairs, or simply do another study.”
Rogers and Cooper’s proposal has a long way to go. It won expected approval by the subcommittee Thursday, and now must clear the full House Armed Services Committee before going to the floor of the full House sometime after the Fourth of July holiday. After all that, the Senate would need to agree as well.
The Senate is so far remaining mum on whether it would consider a similar proposal. The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), isn’t scheduled to hold its own markup until June 28.
A committee staffer told SpaceNews that the committee is declining to comment on the Space Corps proposal until after the markup.
Despite bipartisan agreement on increasing funding for the military, many members of Congress have called President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal dead on arrival, setting up a potentially long and contentious budget season as both legislative chambers and the White House try to reach some sort of agreement.
A continuing resolution — which funds the government at the current year’s budget levels — would potentially hurt Rogers and Cooper’s proposal since it wouldn’t include the additional money that would very likely be needed to establish a new Space Corps.U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) Credit: Michael Moser/SpaceNews
For its part, the Air Force is doing its own rearranging on space. The service is setting up a new deputy chief of staff for space operations on the Air Staff. Wilson officially announced the new three-star position — formally known as the A-11 — on June 16, designed to act as an advocate for space within the Pentagon and aid in organizing and equipping space forces. The move “integrates, elevates, and normalizes space operations,” Wilson said.
The Pentagon’s 2018 budget proposal also seeks a 20-percent increase in funding for space operations. Speaking to reporters June 21, Wilson said that’s the direction the service wants to go.
“I think a most important question is how do we fund what we need [and] change to a warfighting ethos,” she said, adding that shuffling “org chart boxes” for a Space Corps is not the right solution at this time.“To get us anchored into a discussion about the organizational chart while we’re right now trying to move towards improving lethality and warfighting going forward, quite frankly would slow us down,” Gen. David Goldfein said.
Goldfein said moving space out of the Air Force would cause too much disruption at a time when the service is trying to refocus on space as a warfighting domain, not a benign environment.
“I really do appreciate Congress’ interest in space because we’re passionate about it,” the general said. “But right now, as we’re making this transition, to get us anchored into a discussion about the organizational chart while we’re right now trying to move towards improving lethality and warfighting going forward, quite frankly would slow us down. I’ve got real concerns about getting in that kind of a dialogue right now.”
But on Thursday, Rogers delivered what he described as a “friendly warning,” noting that the Rumsfeld Commission in 2001, the Allard Commission in 2008, and “a dozen other reports and studies over the past 15 years” have all concluded that “the current organization isn’t working.”
“The Air Force leadership would have us trust them again to get it right. They just need a few more years to rearrange the deck chairs,” Rogers said. “This is the same Air Force that got us into the situation where the Russians and the Chinese are near-peers to us in space. We will not allow the status quo to continue.”
The chairman said we would rather work with Wilson and Goldfein to reform the space enterprise, but that “at the end of the day, whether or not they’re in the room when decisions are made is their choice.”
“They better shape up or they’ll figure out who is in charge here,” he said. “I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s the branch of our government that controls the purse strings.”
NASA has awarded a contract to the University of Oklahoma in Norman for a first-of-its-kind Earth science mission that will extend our nation’s lead in measuring key carbon-based greenhouse gases and vegetation health from space to advance our understanding of Earth’s natural exchanges of carbon between the land, atmosphere and ocean.
WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency began funding a reusable rocket engine anticipated to be ready for a test-fire demonstration in 2020, the same year as the first launch of the future Ariane 6 rocket.
ESA and Airbus Safran Launchers, the 50-50 joint venture between Airbus and Safran that is rebranding as ArianeGroup, signed a contract to develop Prometheus, a liquid- oxygen-and-methane-fueled engine that would cost 1 million euros ($1.1 million) per copy, or a tenth of what Ariane 5’s Vulcain 2 first-stage engine costs to produce. ArianeGroup is working on Prometheus in parallel with development of Ariane 6, which will initially rely on the expendable Vulcain 2.1 engine.
Prometheus, which started out as a small, joint research initiative between the French space agency CNES and Airbus Safran Launchers, was adopted by ESA in December. ESA foresees the engine entering service around 2030 on future European launch vehicles, not necessarily Ariane 6.
“This signing underlines our determination to prepare now for the future of Europe’s launchers beyond 2030, while pulling out all the stops to ensure an Ariane 6 first flight in 2020,” Alain Charmeau, CEO of ArianeGroup, said in a June 22 statement. “Those two approaches based on continuous competitiveness and innovations are perfectly complementary.”
ESA allocated more than 80 million euros to Prometheus at its December 2016 ministerial conference. The agency did not disclose how much of that money it released with the signing of today’s contract.
Now that it’s an ESA program, Prometheus will see additional industrial partners join ArianeGroup in developing the engine. New partners include Italy-based Avio, manufacturer of the Vega rocket; GKN, a Swedish supplier for Ariane 5 and Ariane 6 components; and Safran’ Belgian subsidiary Safran AeroBooster. The companies intend to leverage new manufacturing methods such as 3D printing, predictive maintenance and digital control, and to test the engine at the German space agency DLR’s Lampoldhausen engine test facility.