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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has provided SpaceX with an additional $40.7 million to support continued development of the company’s Raptor engine.
A Defense Department contract announcement Oct. 19 stated that the Air Force was modifying an existing agreement with SpaceX, originally awarded in January 2016, by providing the company with $40.766 million “for the development of the Raptor rocket propulsion system prototype for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.”
The statement didn’t include additional information about the nature of the work other than that it would be completed by the end of April 2018. The work, according to the announcement, would be carried out at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, which hosts engine testing for the Raptor, as well as SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California and Los Angeles Air Force Base, home to the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.
The Air Force issued SpaceX one of several cost-sharing awards, known as Other Transaction Agreements (OTAs), in January 2016 to support development of engines and related technologies for use on future launch systems, ending reliance on the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine that powers the Atlas 5. Other companies receiving such OTAs include Aerojet Rocketdyne, Orbital ATK and ULA.
The original OTA to SpaceX was valued at $33.6 million, with SpaceX agreeing to contribute double that amount, $67.3 million. At the time, the total government value of the agreement, including options, was stated as $61.4 million.
According to government procurement documents, the Air Force modified that agreement June 9, adding nearly $16.9 million to the award, not specifying what the funding would be used for beyond it was a “supplement agreement for work within scope.” At that time, the total value of the OTA, with all options, was listed as $95 million.
Raptor is a liquid oxygen and methane engine that SpaceX is developing for its BFR launch system. The updated design of the BFR, unveiled by Chief Executive Elon Musk at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Australia Sept. 29, uses 31 Raptor engines in a reusable booster stage and seven engines in the upper “spaceship” capable of placing 150 metric tons into low Earth orbit or carrying out missions to the moon and Mars.
SpaceX has been testing the Raptor for more than a year, announcing the first, subscale test shortly before Musk spoke at the 2016 IAC in Mexico. “We already have now 1,200 seconds of firing across 42 main engine tests,” he said in last month’s IAC speech. “We’ve fired it for 100 seconds. It could fire for much longer than 100 seconds. That’s just the size of the test tanks.”
Musk described Raptor as an “extremely efficient” engine, a key requirement for the success of the overall BFR system. Raptor, he said, will be the “highest thrust-to-weight engine, we believe, of any engine of any kind ever made.”
However, he also disclosed that the Raptor had been downsized from its original design. Originally intended to produce more than 680,000 pounds-force of thrust, Musk said in his IAC presentation that the engine will now generate about 380,000 pounds-force of thrust.
“The engine thrust dropped roughly in proportion to the vehicle mass reduction from the first IAC talk,” Musk said in an Oct. 14 “Ask Me Anything” question-and-answer session on Reddit. He added that he felt it would be “very simple” to scale up the development versions of Raptor to the new, lower thrust level. “The flight engine design is much lighter and tighter, and is extremely focused on reliability.”
While the Raptor has been touted as the engine for the BFR, another SpaceX executive suggested earlier this year that the company is considering its use on its existing Falcon vehicles, replacing its Merlin engines. “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,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said of Raptor in a June interview.
The Air Force procurement announcement coincided with the first test of another large engine. Blue Origin announced Oct. 19 that it carried out the first test of its BE-4 engine, which also uses liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas propellants. The company did not disclose technical details about the test, including its duration or thrust level.
BE-4, able to generate up to 550,000 pounds-force of thrust, will be used by Blue Origin on its New Glenn rocket, with seven engines in the first stage and one in the second stage. ULA is also considering using the BE-4 on the first stage of its Vulcan rocket. Most of the funding the Air Force provided in its 2016 agreement with ULA was intended to support work on the BE-4 for Vulcan.
Three years ago, on October 19, 2014, comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring passed within 138,000 kilometers of Mars. At the 2017 meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, we heard a progress report on Mars orbiter imaging of the comet's nucleus.
WASHINGTON — The head of NASA’s science directorate has requested modifications to the design of its next flagship astrophysics mission based on the recommendations of an independent review.
The proposed changes to the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission are intended to reduce the spacecraft’s projected cost by at least $400 million and address issues about the technical maturity and risk of some elements of the space observatory while the mission is still in its earliest phases of development.
In an Oct. 19 memo to Chris Scolese, director of the Goddard Space Flight Center, which hosts the WFIRST program, NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said he was acting to make changes to the WFIRST program based on recommendations from the WFIRST Independent External Technical/Management/Cost Review, or WIETR. NASA carried out that review this summer based on a recommendation from a 2016 report by the National Academies, which worried that potential cost growth in WFIRST could affect the balance of other astrophysics missions funded by the agency.
“This report is as thorough and thoughtful as we hoped,” Zurbuchen said in a statement. “We are taking the report’s findings and recommendations very seriously as we think about the future of this exciting mission.”
In the memo, Zurbuchen directed Scolese to make a number of changes to the design of WFIRST, including cost reductions to both its main “widefield” instrument as well as a separate coronagraph instrument. Those reductions are intended to bring the mission’s estimated total cost down from its latest estimate of $3.6 billion to an earlier target of $3.2 billion.
“I am directing the Goddard Space Flight Center to study modifying the current WFIRST design, the design that was reviewed by the WIETR, to reduce cost and complexity sufficient to have a cost estimate consistent with the $3.2B cost target set at the beginning of Phase A,” Zurbuchen wrote in the memo.
In addition to seeking cost reductions from the two instruments, Zurbuchen said that the coronagraph instrument should be treated as a “technology demonstration” instrument. Zurbuchen noted in the memo that the WIETR report concluded incorporating that advanced instrument, designed to block light from individual stars to detect planets and debris disks orbiting them, “has been one of the mission system design and programmatic drivers” that “is certain to present risks to the primary mission” as development continues.
The independent review also raised questions about the risk classification of the mission. WFIRST is considered a “Class B” risk mission by NASA, which means it is high priority but only medium to high cost and with a medium mission lifetime. That is less stringent than the Class A assignments usually given to “strategically important missions with comparable levels of investment and risks,” Zurbuchen wrote.
The review, the memo noted, suggested NASA add more engineering development and spare hardware, as well as additional analysis, “to provide a more robust program” than its existing Class B risk classification. It also called for a “top-to-bottom cost-benefit assessment to balance scope, complexity, and the available resources” for WFIRST.
Zurbuchen, in his memo, requested that the review be completed in time for a system requirements review and mission design review scheduled for February 2018, which will support a review known as Key Decision Point B in March or April 2018. An independent cost review will also be carried out by this review to confirm that the revised WFIRST design fits into the $3.2 billion cost estimate.
That revised design will continue to make use of a 2.4-meter telescope, one of two obtained by NASA from the National Reconnaissance Office in 2012. That telescope, much larger than the 1.3-meter telescope originally proposed for WFIRST when astronomers identified the mission as its top priority flagship mission in the 2010 decadal survey, was intended to reduce costs while improving the scientific performance of the mission.
Zurbuchen, though, left open the possibility of revisiting that decision should this latest redesign fall short. “If the result of this study is the conclusion that WIFRST cannot be developed using the current 2.4m telescope architecture within the $3.2B cost target,” he wrote, “I will direct a follow-on study of a WFIRST mission consistent with the architecture described by the Decadal Survey.”
NASA, while releasing the Zurbuchen memo responding to the WIETR report, did not release the report itself. Zurbuchen and the two co-chairs of the WIETR panel, Orlando Figueroa and Peter Michelson, are scheduled to discuss the report at an Oct. 25 meeting of the Space Studies Board’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics in Irvine, California.
NASA astronaut and Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik will spend one full orbit photographing Earth from the International Space Station on Monday, Oct. 23, and he is inviting people around the globe to share images from their Earth-side vantage point on social media.
WASHINGTON — Telesat is some three to five months ahead of OneWeb in launching low-Earth orbit telecommunications satellites, and barring a surprise launch from SpaceX, will likely be the first new mega-constellation to put hardware into operation.
Two prototype satellites ordered in April 2016 are awaiting launch before year’s end — one on a Russian Soyuz and another on an an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle — paving the way for a larger constellation of over 100 small satellites.
Telesat LEO is the biggest satellite project the company has undertaken in its 50-year history. A conservative company even by satellite industry standards, Telesat holds its cards close ahead of most major moves. But that doesn’t mean it’s afraid to make them. A contract to build Telesat LEO is in the works, with a recipient expected next year.
“We’re working with several leading satellite manufacturers and now have a constellation architecture that will allow us to meet our performance and cost targets with the scale and capacity to establish a compelling global business,” Erwin Hudson, vice president of Telesat LEO, told SpaceNews.
Hudson said Telesat has already thought through how to avoid stranding capacity over areas void of customers, has a system that will support both mechanical and electronically steered antennas, and argues that Telesat LEO will offer a lower-cost service than geostationary satellites.
Telesat LEO has its sites aimed at virtually every internet connectivity market: mobility (airplanes, boats, and vehicles moving on rails or wheels) governments, corporate networks, and rural and remote broadband connectivity, including backhaul for cellular and internet service providers. With global priority Ka-band rights from the International Telecommunication Union for around 4 GHz of spectrum, Hudson said Telesat LEO will offer multiple terabits of total throughput once completed.
Hudson, by email, answered questons from SpaceNews about Telesat LEO.
Telesat has announced plans to launch two Phase 1 LEO satellites for testing and demonstration. What do you hope to accomplish in this part of your program?
Our two Phase 1 LEO satellites will be launching later this year. One is being built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. based in the U.K., a company within the Airbus Defence and Space group. It will be placed into LEO orbit using an ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). The second is being built by Space Systems Loral, partnering with the Space Flight Laboratory at the University of Toronto, and will be delivered to orbit on a Soyuz launcher.Erwin Hudson, vice president of Telesat LEO, joined the company in April, having previously worked for ViaSat, WildBlue, TRW Space & Electronics, and Space Systems Loral. Credit: Telesat.
Phase 1 testing will focus on making sure the satellites and customer terminals are capable of tracking LEO satellite motion, compensating for the Doppler effects of a moving satellite, operating at the required elevation angles and delivering the high-quality, low-latency broadband experience that MEO and GEO satellites cannot achieve.
We’ve already put ground infrastructure in place at our teleport in Allan Park in Canada so that we can start testing key performance parameters as soon as the satellite manufacturers complete their in-orbit check-out. In addition, many of our existing Telesat customers are really excited about the promise of Telesat LEO and will be participating in a range of tests on the Phase 1 satellites during 2018.
Telesat LEO will have to compete with other terabit-capable satellite systems in geostationary, medium and low-Earth orbit. What’s Telesat’s advantage?
Telesat LEO will deliver a broadband experience comparable to what users receive on high-performing fiber networks in their home or office. Not only will this be the most capable satellite constellation, but the cost per Mbps will be dramatically lower than current pricing.
With high-capacity optical links between satellites, Telesat LEO will be a global mesh network capable of delivering fast broadband to both fixed and mobile customers, regardless of location. Advanced payload technology will allow our satellites to concentrate significantly more capacity over areas of high demand compared to other high throughput systems. As a result, Telesat LEO will be able to satisfy customer needs others cannot and efficiently serve, for example, dozens of aircraft near a busy airport, multiple cruise ships in port, or a military theater of operations.
In addition, low latency is critical to high-speed Internet delivery and is another key Telesat advantage. Our LEO constellation will have approximately 0.03 to 0.05 seconds of round-trip latency, more than 10-times better than GEO satellites with typically 0.6 to 0.7 seconds of latency, including processing delays. MEO satellite systems are somewhat better than GEO but still have approximately seven-times higher latency than Telesat LEO. With faster and faster broadband speeds required to deliver today’s media-rich internet, and with a larger and larger fraction of encrypted traffic, low latency is becoming even more important to maximizing speed and delivering a superior web-based experience for end users. And with more and more services moving to the cloud, and the increase in latency-sensitive applications, providing low-latency, high-throughput broadband is critical.
What will the constellation look like?
Telesat’s initial LEO constellation will consist of around 120 high-technology satellites in two orbits — polar and inclined — and we are evaluating options to expand our system beyond the initial deployment. These satellites, combined with an advanced ground network, will enable full global coverage, with the ability to dynamically allocate capacity where it’s needed on a global basis. This advantage is central to our patent pending design. Telesat LEO will have far greater efficiency and flexibility than any other satellite system. The highly efficient nature of our constellation will result in our investment per Gbps of sellable capacity to be as low, or lower than, any existing or announced satellite system, whether in LEO, MEO or GEO.
Individual links will have speeds in excess of 1 Gbps and the constellation will deliver multiple Tbps of total system capacity.
Some industry officials have expressed concern that LEO-HTS could cannibalize GEO-FSS and possibly even GEO-HTS business. Where does Telesat net out on this?
Telesat’s focus is the same as it’s always been: providing our customers with the best performing space-based systems to meet their changing communications requirements. The overall service quality, reliability and cost of Telesat’s LEO system will be unmatched by any GEO, MEO or other LEO system, filling a key gap in the global connectivity market. That’s why we are developing our LEO constellation. Other commercial considerations are really secondary.
How will you prevent your constellation from stranding capacity over useless areas, like empty ocean and desert?
Telesat’s patent-pending combination of polar and inclined orbits and inter-satellite links will be highly efficient in delivering multiple terabits of sellable capacity to our customers. We will also be able to dynamically allocate capacity where it’s needed on a global basis using advanced beam forming technology. We are confident that these capabilities along with other system features will provide outstanding service quality while meeting business case objectives.
Some in our industry are concerned that user terminals will be the biggest weakness of LEO constellations. What is Telesat’s response to this?
Telesat knows that our industry needs advances in ground terminals to fully take advantage of the capabilities of Telesat’s LEO constellation. We’re addressing this need in two ways.
First, our LEO constellation will support both electronically steered and mechanically tracked antennas for serving fixed sites, air, maritime, ground vehicles and other platforms, both military and commercial. So our success is not dependent on a big leap in ground terminal performance and capabilities.
Second, Telesat is in discussions with several companies, both well-established suppliers and new entrants that are developing next-generation electronically steered antennas. We are following their developments with the expectation that they will have high-performance, cost-effective products on the market in a few years. Telesat is confident that at least one, and more likely several, satellite antenna suppliers will achieve the improvements in cost and performance that the LEO satellite market requires.
How will Telesat LEO manage to use mechanical antennas? A number of industry observers say the success of LEO systems hinges on electronically steered antennas. Won’t mechanical systems drive up prices? Will they be able to track multiple satellites at once, or just one? How long will a satellite be visible before passing over the horizon?
Telesat is working with industry players to have a wide variety of terminals available for customers to access the Telesat LEO Constellation at the right performance and price targets, including electronically steered antennas (ESAs) and mechanically tracking antennas. Based on current industry developments, we expect our target customer base can be served initially by mechanically tracked antennas. The exact number of satellites in view of each customer will depend on multiple factors including geographic location, time and demand in neighboring areas. On average about three to seven satellites will be in line of sight within effective elevation angles.
Where does Telesat stand in the satellite procurement process for its LEO system?
Telesat is taking a rigorous requirements-based approach to the project, jointly developing a system architecture and a detailed business plan to be certain we clearly understand our costs, risks, schedule, capacity and revenues. We have both constellation performance models and global demand models that together allow us to evaluate the system’s capability to deliver high-quality service, when and where required, across the market segments we will serve. We are working closely with a number of engineering and manufacturing teams who continue to refine the system design. We expect to down-select to two competing teams and, after a technology evaluation and validation phase, we plan to commit to a single team in 2018. We plan to launch Phase 2 satellites beginning in 2020, and commence commercial service in 2021.
How much will this all cost? What are Telesat’s funding plans at this stage?
Given where we are in the procurement process, I cannot provide details on system costs but building and launching hundreds of satellites and associated ground infrastructure is certainly a big undertaking — bigger than procuring a couple of high throughput GEO satellites such as Telstar 18 Vantage and Telstar 19 Vantage that Telesat will launch next year. But while the capital costs are significant, keep in mind that Telesat has considerable financial resources and strong backing from our investors. We are also in discussions with potential partners — both strategic and financial — who are excited by our design, our Ka-band spectrum rights and our track record of successfully bringing major satellite innovations to market. So stay tuned — more details on Telesat LEO will be announced in the months ahead.
WASHINGTON — With Congress still months away from agreeing on military funding levels for fiscal year 2018, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry continues to press the case that the prolonged political morass is having real national security impact.
In his latest “defense drumbeat” Oct. 20, Thornberry cautioned the budget impasse will keep the Air Force from acquiring additional Space-Based Infrared Warning System satellites, known as SBIRS. The delay is of concern, he noted, as North Korea keeps threatening to launch missile strikes on the United States and its allies.
This constellation is a “pillar of our nation’s ability to gather intelligence on, identify, and track missile launches around the globe,” the statement said. “The fact that North Korea has launched over 20 missiles this year, in addition to the increasingly sophisticated Iranian missile program, highlights how important these satellites are to our overall missile defense system.”
SBIRS includes satellites in geosynchronous earth orbit, sensors hosted on satellites in highly elliptical orbit and ground-based data processing and control. GEO satellites detect and track missile launches worldwide. The Air Force plans to field a constellation of four GEO satellites and a two hosted payload constellation in highly elliptical orbit, with a centralized ground station. Although the system is up and running, the Air Force has yet to procure all of the planned satellites to complete the constellation.
Under the temporary funding measure that Congress passed last month to keep government agencies in operation until an appropriations bill is signed, the SBIRS program is under-funded by nearly a billion dollars, Thornberry’s statement said. “And we risk a delay in the acquisition of the next two satellites.”
Each satellite costs about $900 million. A portion of the program to modernize the ground systems has yet to be funded, so it can’t get underway until a 2018 budget is signed into law.
The Air Force requested $1.4 billion in 2018 for SBIRS, a $862 million increase compared to the 2017 budget. The service also is seeking funds for “advance procurement” of satellites 7 and 8. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act adds $75 million above the president’s budget request for SBIRS, to pay for cybersecurity software and for antenna upgrades that were included in the Air Force’s unfunded priorities list.
The Senate passed a budget resolution Oct. 19 intended mostly to expedite tax reform legislation. It provides $549 billion for defense, $54 billion less than what the Pentagon requested and $86 billion less than what the Senate approved in its version of the NDAA. Defense hawks like Thornberry and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain said they worry that the Pentagon cannot start new programs under a continuing resolution and still has no clarity on what the 2018 top line will be.
The SBIRS satellites are built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Company spokesman Chip Eschenfelder said the company is under contract for GEO satellites 5 and 6, but the Air Force has yet to decide how to move forward with 7 and 8.
The GEO 3 satellite is scheduled to be delivered from storage for launch as early as November 2017, the Air Force said. SBIRS Flight 4 and the GEO 4 satellite was launched in January as SBIRS Flight 3. The GEO 5 and GEO 6 satellites are scheduled to reach orbit in 2021 and 2022 as replacements for GEO 1 and GEO 2 as their service lives are projected to run out.
The remote sensing systems directorate at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base, California, oversees SBIRS development. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor, with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems as the payload integrator. The 460th Space Wing at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado, operates the system.
Something strange is happening on dwarf planets Eris and Makemake. They’re tiny and cold, but they still show surprising signs of geologic activity, like real planets
We saw gravitational waves and light at the same moment from a neutron star merger, which means Einstein was right and some alternative theories are dead
LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is drafting a comprehensive plan for grappling with the aerospace industry’s rapid adoption of additive manufacturing.
“Three to four years ago, none of my peers believed we would see additive manufacturing of safety-critical parts,” Michael Gorelik, Federal Aviation Administration chief scientific and technical adviser for fatigue and damage tolerance, said Oct. 19 at the Additive Aerospace conference here. “We don’t have them yet, but based on the leading indicators I see it’s coming and it’s coming fairly fast.”
In late September, an FAA team submitted a draft Additive Manufacturing Strategic Roadmap to managers at the agency’s headquarters for review. The document recommends steps the agency will need to take in the next seven to eight years to address additive manufacturing from a regulatory standpoint, including certification policies, manufacturing policies and maintenance policies. The plan also addresses the need for additional research and development as well as workforce education and training.
The agency underwent a similar process when it established guidance for composites materials. Additive manufacturing is particularly complex, however, because companies are using a wide range of materials and processes, which continue to evolve.
“One could try to group them by source of raw material, for example powder versus wire, and by the source of energy used to melt the material, laser versus electron beam versus plasma arc,” Gorelik said. “This variety of processes is great from the technology and business standpoint because it gives industry a great deal of flexibility.”
From a regulatory standpoint, the range of materials and processes presents significant challenges, he added.
The FAA is working with other government agencies and industry groups to tackle the problem because “we realize we may not currently have enough internal knowledge and expertise,” Gorelik said.
The FAA shared its draft roadmap with NASA, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army and the Aerospace Industries Association’s Additive Manufacturing Working Group.
“This is a huge technical problem scope,” Gorelik said. “It would be impractical for any single entity to try to address it single handedly. In my mind, collaboration is the key to ensure the safe introduction of this exciting new technology in commercial as well as military aerospace.”
WASHINGTON — XCOR Aerospace, a company forced to lay off its staff earlier this year when it ran into financial problems, has only weeks left to find an investor willing to rebuild the company or else face liquidation, the company’s chief executive says.
In an Oct. 19 interview, Michael Blum, a member of the board of directors of XCOR who took over as chief executive at the end of June, said the company has been in discussions with potential strategic partners and other investors interested in its propulsion technology and Lynx suborbital spaceplane, but those negotiations have taken longer than expected to finalize.
“Our time is slowly running out,” Blum said. The XCOR board and its major shareholders have been providing a “minimum amount of capital” over the last several months to keep the company going and pay its bills, but said their patience is running out. “Once that happens, the future gets very bleak.”
XCOR has been in discussions with a number of potential partners and investors, Blum said. One approach has involved discussions with strategic partners, including an unidentified large aerospace and defense company primarily interested in XCOR’s propulsion technology and related intellectual property.
XCOR has also been in talks with investor groups. One such group, he said, is particularly interested in XCOR’s Lynx suborbital spaceplane as a means to quickly get into the space tourism market. XCOR has been working on the Lynx for several years, and the prototype vehicle is about two-thirds complete. A second group, Blum said, is in the industrial and manufacturing sector that is already familiar with XCOR.
Those discussions with potential investors started months ago, Blum said, but have been going slowly, particularly over the summer. He said the company likely has only a few weeks to finalize a deal or else will have to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation.
“By early November, either one of these deals pulls the trigger and saves XCOR, or we file for Chapter 7,” he said.
XCOR’s current predicament began at the end of June, when the company said “adverse financial conditions” forced it to terminate all its remaining employees. That came shortly after the previous chief executive, Jay Gibson, was nominated by the White House to become the Deputy Chief Management Officer at the Department of Defense.
Gibson, asked about XCOR’s situation at a July 18 Senate confirmation hearing, blamed it on the sudden termination of subcontract from a larger company. “With less than 30 days notice, we were told that funding was terminated,” Gibson said. He didn’t name the company, but XCOR had previously been working with United Launch Alliance on a liquid-oxygen, liquid-hydrogen engine program that had been the focus of the company since an earlier round of layoffs in 2016.
Blum said XCOR had hired about half a dozen former employees as contractors to work part-time since the layoffs, including both technical and administrative staff. Many former XCOR employees have found jobs at other companies since the layoffs. “We do keep in touch with them,” Blum said. “Some might be able to come back if there’s a viable long-term plan.”
He said an agreement to save the company might not come until the last minute, as potential investors seek leverage to get the best possible deal. “They all know the clock is slowly running out on XCOR,” he said.
“These things often do go down to the wire,” Blum added. “I’m cautiously optimistic about this, but these things are also very nerve-wracking.”
ATLANTA — Blue Origin announced Oct. 19 that it conducted the first successful test of its BE-4 engine, a major milestone for both the company’s launch vehicle plans as well as for United Launch Alliance.
Blue Origin, in a tweet, said its first hotfire test of the BE-4 engine was a success. The company included a six-second video, taken from several angles, of the engine firing on a test stand, but provided no other information, including the date, duration or thrust level of the test. A Blue Origin spokesperson said the company was not releasing additional information about the test at this time.
“First hotfire of our BE-4 engine is a success,” tweeted company founder Jeff Bezos. “Huge kudos to the whole @BlueOrigin team for this important step!”
The BE-4 is an engine that uses liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas propellants and is capable of generating 550,000 pounds-force of thrust. The engine was developed in-house at Blue Origin primarily with its own funding, with some support from ULA.
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) October 19, 2017
Blue Origin plans to use the BE-4 on its New Glenn vehicle that the company announced last year. The first stage of the rocket will use seven BE-4 engines, with the second stage using a single BE-4. That rocket will be able to place up to 45 tons into low Earth orbit and 13 tons into geostationary transfer orbit.
The BE-4 is also under consideration by ULA for its next-generation Vulcan rocket. ULA is considering both the BE-4 and the AR1, a liquid oxygen and kerosene engine under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne, but has indicated that its preference is for the BE-4.
In an April interview, ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno said that it was waiting for the outcome of an initial series of hotfire tests before formally selecting the BE-4. “The economic factors are largely in place now and the thing that is outstanding is the technical risk,” he said then. “That’s why we keep talking about the engine firing.”
ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye said the company congratulated Blue Origin on the successful test, but gave no indication of when ULA might make a decision on the engine for Vulcan.
“Congratulations to the entire Blue Origin team on the successful hotfire of a full-scale BE-4 engine,” she said in an Oct. 19 email. “This is a tremendous accomplishment in the development of a new engine.”
At the time of the April interview, Blue Origin was expected to begin BE-4 engine tests in the coming weeks. However, in May the company reported it lost a set of powerpack hardware, a key component of the engine, during a test. At the time the company said it would be back in testing “soon” but offered few updates prior to the announcement of this test.
An independent assessment, conducted by NASA personnel and briefed to congressional staffers in June, concluded that the BE-4 retained a development lead of as much as two years over the AR1 despite the mishap. That briefing took place around the same time Blue Origin announced it will construct a factory in Huntsville, Alabama, to build BE-4 engines for both its own vehicles and for ULA, if it does select the BE-4 for Vulcan.
WASHINGTON — For all the hype and promise around artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies in military applications, it always comes down to what specifically can be done with it.
The industry keeps rolling out new gee-whiz artificial intelligence tools but the defense and intelligence communities still are trying to figure out how to use them and whether they really work as promised.
According to a new study, there is one area where deep machine learning algorithms can definitely help the government, and that is to analyze satellite imagery.
Officials from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency have called on the private sector to bring forth machine learning tools to automate repetitive and time-consuming image analysis tasks. They want to free up skilled analysts to spend more time on hard intelligence problems that can’t be turned over to a computer.
Researchers from the Center for Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Missouri used a deep learning neural network to assist human analysts in visual searches for surface-to-air missile sites over a large area in southeastern China. The results showed that the computer performed an average search time of only 42 minutes for an area of approximately 90,000 square kilometers. By comparison, North Korea is about 120,000 square kilometers.
“This was more than 80 times more efficient than a traditional human visual search,” the center’s director and University of Missouri electrical engineering and computer science professor Curt Davis told SpaceNews.
The software achieved the same overall statistical accuracy as human analysts — 90 percent — for correctly locating the missile sites.
“I’ve been doing this research for almost 20 years, and I do believe the application of deep machine learning technology to satellite imagery reconnaissance is revolutionary,” he said. “I never expected this type of performance that we’ve been able to see both in the lab and the study. The metrics we’re seeing, the applications to larger-scale data sets to me is revolutionary.”
Historically, machine learning algorithms haven’t performed well when they have been applied to large satellite imagery data sets, he said. The breakthroughs came in the last couple of years. The computer used in the study searched the 90,000 square kilometer area in less than an hour.
U.S. defense and intelligence agencies are drowning in high-resolution imagery they need to analyze every day to monitor events unfolding around the world. “There is simply not enough manpower to effectively analyze all the image data collected today, and the problem is only getting worse,” Davis said.
And the technology is only going to get better, he said. “The ultimate goal is to recognize dozens and hundreds of different types of objects very quickly,” said Davis. “I believe that goal is achievable in the near future.” Researchers will be training networks to search for things military analysts typically look for, including bunkers, aircraft shelters, radar sites, antennas, satellite dishes, launch pads and tank formations.
The study used commercially available remote sensing satellite imagery of one-meter resolution. With new generations of satellites soon to be launched by commercial firms, including some with sub-meter resolution, the data deluge will continue. “It has taken a while for the remote sensing community to evaluate these deep machine learning methods,” said Davis. “Most of the studies I’ve seen were only experiments against limited data sets,” he continued. “Now we’ve been able to apply deep learning models to a large data set.”
The research was published in the SPIE Journal of Applied Remote Sensing in a special issue on deep learning in remote sensing applications. Readers can search for Chinese surface-to-air missile sites on a demonstration website that uses the same high-resolution satellite imagery and deep learning algorithms used in the study.
If and when these tools start replacing human analysts remains to be seen. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo said recently he wants to automate 75 percent of the repetitive tasks analysts perform so they can focus on the “25 percent that require the most attention.”
Deep learning methods can help do that, said Davis. The tough threat posed by North Korea is a case in point. The computer can find most of the fixed-site missiles but it takes human skills to track Pyongyang’s notoriously elusive mobile ballistic missile launchers. “That’s a harder problem. They can be hiding in a cave, pop out and launch a test missile.”
The Pentagon years ago identified machine learning and artificial intelligence as central elements to the military’s modernization strategy for weapons and information systems. Clearly the industry is progressing quickly, but the Defense Department has not moved as fast in applying the technology.
“One of the challenges DoD faces in this area is that we are too often in this position where we discuss something in an abstract or theoretical way,” said Shawn Steene, senior force planner for emerging technologies at the Defense Department. He spoke Oct. 19 at a CNA panel discussion on artificial intelligence.
In recognition of the growing role of these technologies in defense, CNA, a federally funded nonprofit think tank in Arlington, Va., announced the opening of a “Center for Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy.”
“To some degree we’re limited by our creativity in the application of these capabilities,” Steene said.
He recalled when the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation put out an open-source challenge offering a prize to whoever would come up with the best algorithms to take overhead imagery and identify the buildings in the picture. “The point was to remove from the analysts the first cut layer,” he said. “Just having that program to do that, having the machine doing the first layer, I can pass that to an analyst. And instead of spending time doing basic tasks, now they can do the ‘value added’ work.”
Using artificial intelligence for data mining also could help prioritize information so networks are not clogged by data that may not be valuable, said Steene. “Instead of needing a giant pipe, if I have some screening at the front end, I can constrain the data flow,” he said. This technology offers infinite applications but the Defense Department needs to define the problems it is trying to address and “we need to use more creativity.”
NASA has selected Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for the Sentinel-6A mission. Launch is currently targeted for November 2020, on a SpaceX Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
WASHINGTON — Mobile satellite services provider Iridium will use previously flown Falcon 9 first stages for its next two launches in order not to miss its mid-2018 goal for completing the Iridium Next constellation.
The first Iridium mission with a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage will take place Dec. 22 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, according to an Iridium statement. That launch, its fourth with SpaceX overall, will be followed by the second pre-flown mission early next year.
That will leave just three launches for Iridium and SpaceX to complete by the middle of next year.
In an Oct. 19 tweet, Iridium chief executive Matt Desch said using previously flown boosters brings “more schedule certainty to complete 5 more launches over next 8 months.”
Previously, Desch said he was open to using pre-flown Falcon 9s if that would accelerate Iridium’s already delayed launch schedule. Now the goal is to avoid further schedule slippage.
In a statement, Iridium said the revised launch plan allows the company “to maintain its planned cadence of completing all launches by mid-2018, even with SpaceX’s busy launch manifest.”
Iridium had hoped to complete the Iridium Next constellation in 2017, but a combination of manufacturing setbacks with Thales Alenia Space, Russian red tape with the Kosmotras Dnepr rocket and two Falcon 9 explosions — one in 2015 and one in 2016 — pushed that schedule out to 2018. Those delays forced Iridium to get an extension on a $1.8 billion loan from French export-credit agency Coface for the satellites.
Iridium will save some money by switching to previously flown boosters for two of its five remaining Falcon 9 launches, but the company did not quantify the savings. “Cost is better, but not [the] driver,” Desch tweeted.
Iridium has launched three times this year with new Falcon 9 rockets each carrying 10 satellites. The next four Falcon 9 missions will also carry 10 satellites at a time, followed by a fifth Falcon 9 mission split between five Iridium Next satellites and two satellites for a joint NASA-Germany science mission.
“I believe that reusability is the future for satellite launches, and I think SpaceX has intelligently built their Falcon 9 program around this strategy,” Desch said in Iridium’s Oct. 19 statement. “With three successful flight-proven Falcon 9 launches already this year, we’re excited to show leadership towards the sustainable access to space, while also making sure we maintain our cadence to complete the five remaining Iridium NEXT launches by the middle of next year.”
Iridium said insurers are not hiking up premiums for the used booster launches, a vote of confidence “that the risk profile is unchanged.”
Iridium is launching 75 of the 81 next-generation satellites it has on order. Sixty-six will be used for the active constellation with nine launched as in-orbit spares. The remaining six will be kept on the ground unless needed.
NASA has selected United Launch Services LLC (ULS) of Centennial, Colorado, to provide launch services for the Landsat 9 mission. The mission is currently targeted for a contract launch date of June 2021, while protecting for the ability to launch as early as December 2020, on an Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex 3E at Vandenberg Air For
WASHINGTON — Earth-observation data shows that one in three C-band satellite dishes registered with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission either don’t exist or aren’t in use, a spectrum official at Google said last week.
The number of unregistered C-band dishes dwarfs that of registered dishes, according to fleet operator Intelsat, but the paucity of hard data on how heavily C-band is truly used is a recognized irritation to the FCC and other telecom regulatory agencies.
Presenting information that could factor heavily into the commission’s decision-making on how to expand the use of C-band, Andrew Clegg, spectrum engineering lead at Google, said Oct. 13 that the company found numerous dishes were absent at database-listed coordinates, either having been removed or having never existed in the first place.
“We looked at all 4,700 registered earth stations using Google Earth imagery and found in 29 percent of the cases, the registered dishes aren’t even there,” Clegg said at the Americas Spectrum Management Conference here. “If we looked at historical imagery, we could see that in some cases those dishes used to be there and were taken out, with the registration never taken off the books. In some cases we saw that the dishes never existed at all, but they are still on the books.”
When factoring in the 29 percent missing “plus probably a greater percentage that aren’t operating anymore, roughly a third of the registrations are not active,” he said, based on Google research. “We think the database really needs to be cleaned up.”
Speaking on the same panel, Hazem Moakkit, Intelsat’s vice president of corporate and spectrum strategy, said recent discussions with a small broadcaster revealed that that customer had more than half as many unregistered C-band dishes for their customers alone than the FCC has in all of the agency’s records.
“Only one of our customers told us that they have 3,000 earth stations that are not registered,” he said. “They are one of the smaller broadcasters and they don’t deal with registration. We have to factor that into the equation.”
By that metric, Intelsat customers alone have multiple times what the FCC has documented in C-band dishes. Competitor SES also has a large C-band customer base in the United States, and other operators have a smaller but not inconsequential presence.
Moakkit said the onus remains on customers and not satellite operators to register terminals and keep that information fresh. Thousands of receive-only satellite dishes stay unregistered because the FCC allows it, he said. Nevertheless, that Intelsat-customer discussion meant to better gauge how many dishes are in use provided a vague proxy as to the decisively larger fraction of unregistered dishes.
Unreliable data on how many C-band terminals are active has been a sticking point with regulators in the U.S. and internationally as they try to gauge how heavily the satellite industry truly relies on spectrum. In an Oct. 13 speech at the conference, FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he wants the agency to ensure “updated and complete information about incumbent operations is in the FCC databases.”
“At a minimum, the commission needs a better understanding of the current number of C-band earth stations in existence. This is the only means the commission has to truly evaluate current use and protection mechanisms to the extent that they are necessary,” he said.
Satellite operators say their customers — particularly broadcasters with receive-only C-band dishes — often don’t register their dishes, and that enforcing registrations is beyond operators’ control. Without those numbers, the satellite industry has argued that its use of C-band is substantially greater than what’s accounted for by regulators, but hasn’t been able to back those claims with numbers.
Space-based imagery could, ironically, force satellite operators to address the dearth of information more seriously.
The FCC is evaluating ways to let mobile communications companies use C-band, especially for 5G, the fifth generation of mobile networks. Moakkit said each new technology generation — be it 3G, 4G or now 5G — has grown into a “crescendo of repeated attempts to repurpose C-band.”
Sensing the crescendo growing louder than before, Intelsat teamed up with Intel to submit a proposal that would have satellite operators clear C-band in part or in full around metropolitan areas in exchange for financial compensation from mobile users. Several other satellite operators have either deferred opinions or publicly spoken against the idea.
Google is also a critic of Intelsat and Intel’s proposal. Clegg said Google doubts Intelsat’s timeline — that industry-led spectrum clearing could open up C-band in one to three years — and would rather support an approach that first uses the band for fixed broadband access. Mobile user access would come later, he said.
Moakkit said Google’s plan would only muddy the situation by introducing a second incumbent ahead of mobile operators that would then both demand protection.
“For us in the satellite industry, particularly for Intelsat as the largest holder of C-band rights for satellite around the globe, the most important objective is to ensure that we can protect our customers and protect the services that we provide,” he said.
Students at New Prospect Elementary School in Alpharetta, Georgia, will speak with the NASA astronauts living, working and doing research aboard the International Space Station at 10:50 a.m. EDT on Monday, Oct. 23.
In the grand club of galaxies, the Milky Way is increasingly looking like an outlier. This is a looming challenge for cosmology, says Geraint Lewis
Updated Oct. 19 3:40 p.m. with additional NASA comment.
WASHINGTON — Problems with infrared detectors provided by NASA will delay the delivery of an instrument for a European Space Agency astronomy mission by a year or more, a NASA official said Oct. 18.
Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said engineers found problems during recent testing of infrared detectors being provided by NASA for ESA’s Euclid space telescope, which had been planned for launch in 2020 on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana.
“The detector systems that we had been developing for delivery for ESA has been failing in their characterization testing before delivery,” he said at a meeting of the Astrophysics Advisory Committee.
The problem, he said, is with an electronics package that malfunctions at the cold temperatures it will operate at on the mission. That problem did not appear in earlier qualification tests of the system.
“We are having to go back and redesign the electronics package,” followed by requalification of the unit, he said. Work on other elements of the instrument package are unaffected, he added, but overall integration will have to wait until the electronics are requalified.
That will delay the completion of the instrument. “This is going to cause a delay of at least 12 months, which will have impacts on the ESA mission,” he said. The instruments, he said, are on the critical path for the overall development of the spacecraft, although he did not indicate the length of the delay for Euclid itself.
NASA spokesperson Felicia Chou said Oct. 19 that NASA is looking into two possible solutions to the technical issues found during testing, both which involve redesigns that may take 12 to 18 months. “NASA will convene a review of both options in December 2017 by an independent panel,” she said.
Euclid is a two-ton space telescope selected by ESA in 2011 as a medium-class mission in its Cosmic Vision program of space science missions. The spacecraft features a 1.2-meter telescope with visible and near-infrared instruments to study dark energy and dark matter, which combined account for about 95 percent of the universe. Euclid will operate at the Earth-sun L-2 Lagrange point, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, that is used by other infrared astronomy missions.
NASA agreed in 2013, as its contribution to Euclid, to provide components for the near-infrared instrument and establish a science center to support the mission. The agency spent $22.3 million on the mission in fiscal year 2016, the last year spending figures were available, and requested $6.9 million in 2018, stating that the decrease was linked to the completion of hardware.
ESA’s decision to involve NASA in the instrument, known as the Near-Infrared Spectrometer and Photometer (NISP), was based on the lack of similar detector technology in Europe. “The NISP detectors were procured in the USA because such advanced devices were not available in Europe at the time,” ESA noted in an April 2017 press release about the delivery of detectors for the instrument.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology agreed this month to scrap plans for a second set of next-generation GPS radio occultation weather satellites after determining the joint project faced an unwinnable battle to secure funding.
In a joint memorandum obtained by SpaceNews, the two agencies concluded that they would not pursue development of a second set of six Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC) 2 satellites, known as COSMIC-2B, citing challenges to secure support in both countries.
COSMIC-2, also known as FORMOSAT-7, was originally planned to feature two sets of six satellites to collect GPS radio occultation data used in weather forecasting. An initial set of six satellites, known as COSMIC-2A, has been built and is scheduled for launch as part of the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program 2 mission, launching on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy in early 2018.
The COSMIC-2A satellites, operating in low-inclination orbits, were to be complemented by six satellites collectively known as COSMIC-2B that would operate in highly-inclined orbits. COSMIC-2B would be a replacement for the original COSMIC satellites, launched into high-inclination orbits in 2006.
The satellites measure signals from GPS and other navigation satellites as they skim through the atmosphere, using them as a probe of temperature and humidity conditions that fed into weather forecast models. Studies have concluded that GPS radio occultation data is among the best sources of data for improving the accuracy of forecasts.
However, the memo, prepared by a joint Executive Steering Committee of U.S. and Taiwanese officials, found that both countries were finding problems financing the payloads, satellites and launch of the COSMIC-2B system.
“At the senior-level meetings on June 19-20, 2017, NOAA and NSPO both acknowledged the difficulty in finding a viable path forward in exercising the option for COSMIC-2B,” the memo stated. NSPO is Taiwan’s space agency, the National Space Organization.
NOAA, responsible for the COSMIC-2 payloads, did not receive any funding for the COSMIC-2B payloads in the fiscal year 2017 omnibus appropriations bill enacted in May. The agency’s fiscal year 2018 request, released several weeks later, also requested no funding for COSMIC-2B payloads.
Uncertainty about funding for those payloads, in turn, created problems for NSPO, responsible for the satellites. “NSPO has had difficulty to secure the 2nd set of FORMOSAT-7 from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) budget since 2014 because the funding of the second set of mission payloads remains uncertain,” the memo stated.
Launch options for the COSMIC-2B mission were also an issue. NASA had proposed flying four the satellites as secondary payloads on the launch of the agency’s Surface Water Ocean Tomography mission, scheduled for April 2021 on a SpaceX Falcon 9. However, NSPO “would face technical, schedule and resource challenges” in getting the satellites ready in time for that launch. The memo didn’t state what plans, if any, existed for the other two COSMIC-2B satellites.
NSPO added that its ministry had given direction “not to pursue FORMOSAT-7 Launch #2 given new priorities,” which were not stated in the memo.
That memo concluded that the Executive Steering Committee “decided not to exercise the option for COSMIC-2B/FORMOSAT-7.” The joint program would proceed with the six COSMIC-2A satellites but “will not pursue additional FORMOSAT-7/COSMIC-2 satellites” beyond them. The memo was signed by NOAA officials Oct. 6 and by their Taiwanese counterparts Oct. 16.
COSMIC-2 had become controversial in the U.S. because of perceptions by companies developing their own GPS radio occultation (RO) systems that the government was competing with them. NOAA, under pressure from Congress, started a pilot program in 2016 to purchase commercial GPS radio occultation data, awarding contracts to GeoOptics and Spire that concluded earlier this year.
In report language accompanying the 2017 omnibus appropriations bill, Congress indicated that it wanted to NOAA to consider commercial sources of that data alongside development of the COSMIC-2B satellites.
“Within 90 days of enactment of this Act, NOAA shall submit an analysis of options for acquiring polar RO data that includes a cost analysis of all alternatives and demonstrates that NOAA has thoroughly reviewed potential commercial RO sources,” the act stated in the section discussing the lack of funding for COSMIC-2B.
“If the plan proposes moving forward with additional COSMIC-2 satellites,” it continued, “the plan shall include the total cost to the U.S. government of developing, procuring, launching, and operating COSMIC-2 polar orbiting satellites, including how they would be launched and what Federal agency would incur that cost.”
NOAA has not disclosed the outcome of analysis of data collected in the initial phase of the pilot program, where only Spire was able to provide GPS RO data. The memo, though, stated that NOAA didn’t yet believe commercial data was ready for routine use.
“While the commercial sector is not at present a viable source for [GPS radio occultation] data for operational use, NOAA will continue to evaluate it as a potential source for the future,” the memo stated.
The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, signed into law in April, authorized continued development of a government-funded satellite system to collect GPS radio occultation data. The bill calls on NOAA to “complete and operationalize” the COSMIC-2 mission, placing satellites into both equatorial and polar orbits.
NOAA spokesman John Leslie did not immediately respond to an Oct. 17 email requesting comment on the status of COSMIC-2B.
Brian Berger contributed to this article.