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WASHINGTON — A NASA study now underway to examine the prospects of flying a crew on the first Space Launch System launch will constrain its evaluation to missions that can be flown by the end of 2019, agency officials said Feb. 24.
In a media teleconference organized by NASA on only a few hours’ notice, officials said the study announced Feb. 15 regarding flying a crew on the Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) flight of the SLS and Orion will examine the pros and cons of such a proposal, but not make a formal recommendation.
“I want to stress to you this is a feasibility study, so when we get done with this we won’t come out with a hard recommendation, one way or the other,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said of the EM-1 study. “We’re going to talk about essentially the advantages and disadvantages of adding crew to EM-1.”
The study will look at what needs to be done to both SLS and Orion to allow a crew to fly on the EM-1 mission, using the spacecraft and launch vehicle already under development for a mission currently not designed to carry a crew. NASA chose that approach over the alternative of accelerating EM-2, which is currently planned to be the first crewed mission, launching in 2021.
“We kind of ruled out trying to accelerate EM-2 and focused our attention on the potential to adding crew to EM-1,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development. That, he said, was because of modifications to ground systems needed to accommodate the larger Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) that will be used on SLS missions starting with EM-2.
A “brief assessment” about one month ago on the feasibility of adding crew to EM-1 concluded it was in the “realm of possibility,” Hill said, which the new study will examine in greater detail.
The study, which Gerstenmaier said was directed by the team of Trump administration appointees assigned to NASA in conjunction with agency acting administrator Robert Lightfoot, does not have any specific schedule or budget restrictions on adding a crew to EM-1. However, he said he’s limiting scenarios to those where the mission, currently scheduled to launch in late 2018 without a crew, could launch with a crew no later than the end of 2019.
“I didn’t want to go much beyond 2019,” he said. “I felt that if we went much beyond 2019, then we might as well fly EM-2 and actually do the plan we’re on.” That constraint, he added, also forces a relatively rapid decision about whether or not to fly a crew on the mission.
The concept being examined for a crewed EM-1 mission would be to fly a two-person crew on Orion on a trajectory similar to what’s already being considered for EM-2. After spending a day in Earth orbit after launch, Orion would then fly a free-return trajectory around the moon, returning eight to nine days after launch.
That mission can be flown with the less powerful Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) upper stage that will be used on EM-1, rather than the EUS planned for EM-2 and later missions. “We don’t need the full capability of the EUS,” Gerstenmaier said.
However, the ICPS, derived from the Delta 4 upper stage, would need modifications that would allow it to fly a crewed Orion. “One of the tasks we’ve asked the team to go look at is what changes we need to make to this upper stage to do the mission we would like it to go do,” he said. That would include possibly adding micrometeoroid debris protection to the stage.
Gerstenmaier said the study will also examine the increased risk of flying a crew on EM-1. “We need to go look at what do we really gain by putting crew on this flight. Does this really advance significantly our overall ability to get to a capability to take humans, routinely as it can be, to the vicinity of the moon and operate safely?” he said. “We’ll actively trade this risk against the benefits.”
Gerstenmaier said preliminary results from the study should be ready in about a month. He added he believes the results will fit into budget discussions with the White House and Congress as it prepares a fiscal year 2018 budget request for NASA.
“We know it’s going to take a significant amount of money, and money that will be required fairly quickly to implement what we need to do,” said Hill of any plan to add crew to EM-1.
Both Gerstenmaier and Hill had no current preference whether or not to fly a crew on EM-1, saying they will let the study guide their thinking on the idea. They noted they expected benefits to the program regardless of the final decision whether or not to fly astronauts on EM-1.
“Even we don’t decide to go do this, we will now go back and we’ll look and say, ‘Hey, some of the things we found in this study we should probably implement on EM-1 anyway because it’s going to make a more robust program,’” said Gerstenmaier.
“If we can fly the EM-2 profile mission on EM-1,” said Hill, “that opens up EM-2 to do more.”
WASHINGTON — Before going public with their plans to merge, Canada’s MDA Corp. and DigitalGlobe were already working together on a next-generation imaging constellation called WorldView Legion they say will be able to revisit some locations on Earth up to 40 times in a day.
The new constellation is being designed to protect DigitalGlobe’s advantage in high-resolution, sub-meter imagery and fend off rising small-satellite operators such as Planet that offer faster revisit rates.
Chief executives from MDA and DigitalGlobe mentioned the future constellation during a Feb. 24 conference call detailing MDA’s just-announced agreement to acquire DigitalGlobe in a $3.6 billion deal that includes $2.4 billion in cash stock and the assumption of $1.2 billion in debt. The companies anticipate saving $50 million to $115 million annually by combining operations, including leveraging MDA’s satellite manufacturing capabilities to build future DigitalGlobe satellites.
“MDA is committed to supporting DigitalGlobe’s ability to execute on our future constellation strategy,” Jeffrey Tarr, president and CEO of Westminster, Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, said during the call. “This includes initial investment in 2017 in the long-lead time elements of our next-generation satellite system, which we are calling WorldView Legion, targeted for launch in 2020.”
Tarr said combining DigitalGlobe with MDA will enable the imagery provider to reduce capital expenditures on future satellites and other infrastructure. WorldView Legion will supercede WorldView-1 and 2, launched in 2007 and 2009 respectively.
“We’ve been working on WorldView Legion for quite some time,” Tarr told SpaceNews in a Feb. 24 interview, “and SSL has been very involved in that procurement process from the very early days.”
MDA purchased California-based satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral (SSL) in 2012, and has been steadily pursuing more U.S. business, particularly through the company’s “U.S. Access Plan” — a strategy that included putting a U.S. citizen, Howard Lance, in charge as president and CEO last year.
SSL gained considerable expertise in building small Earth-imaging satellites through a contract with Terra Bella to build 18 SkySats, each of which is about the size of a mini-fridge. Terra Bella, then known as Skybox Imaging, gave SSL certain intellectual property rights regarding its satellite design, enabling SSL to create more small satellite products.
Terra Bella was purchased this month from Google by Planet, which recently launched 88 imaging cubesats of its own.
MDA, through SSL, has been pursuing business with more small satellite operators, having obtained a contract to build a demonstration telecommunications satellite for Canadian fleet operator Telesat and another small satellite order from an undisclosed customer.
“We’ve seen a lot of innovation in the smallsat area both in communications as well as in Earth imaging,” Lance told SpaceNews. “We remain committed to being a merchant supplier to those customers that we are dealing with and prospects that we are looking at, but in addition to that, we think that together we will be able to get some great technology leverage between the two companies on the design of the next-generation Legion constellation.”
DigitalGlobe’s joint venture with Saudi Arabia’s Taqnia Space and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) is building at least six small satellites with sub-meter resolution imaging capabilities for launch in 2019. Tarr said that joint satellite constellation, recently named Scout, will assist in “revisiting the most rapidly changing places on Earth up to 40 times per day with unrivaled resolution accuracy.”
Lance and Tarr declined to say how many satellites will comprise WorldView Legion.
DigitalGlobe’s latest satellite, WorldView-4, entered service in early January and began serving Direct Access Program customers — prioritized defense and intelligence players that get first access to the satellite. Tarr said DigitalGlobe intends to let commercial customers use the Lockheed Martin-built satellite in the second half of this year.
Heather Hunter explains how radar works and what it's used for on Earth and beyond.
If an asteroid hits a major city, only 3 per cent of the casualties will be from the crater it forms – most will be from overheated air and high winds
Supersonic passenger airplanes are another step closer to reality as NASA and Lockheed Martin begin the first high-speed wind tunnel tests for the Quiet Supersonic Technology (QueSST) X-plane preliminary design at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
The facility will be used by the company to build high altitude balloons, initially for use as so-called “stratollites” that will fly in the stratosphere to carry imaging, communications or other payloads.
Some of those balloons will be launched from a pad immediately adjacent to the building, known as Spaceport Tucson.
The company has long-term plans to fly people on its balloons as well.
World View said their plans are not affected by a legal dispute between Pima County and an Arizona think tank that argued the incentive deal the county made with the company to build the $15 million facility violated state law and the state constitution. [Arizona Daily Star]
MDA Corp. announced this morning it plans to acquire commercial remote-sensing company DigitalGlobe. MDA said it will buy DigitalGlobe in a cash and stock deal valued at $2.4 billion, plus the assumption of $1.2 billion in DigitalGlobe debt. The companies’ boards of directors have already approved the deal, and MDA expects it to close in the second half of this year. DigitalGlobe will retain its name and Colorado headquarters. It will operate as a subsidiary of SSL MDA Holdings, a U.S.-based entity that MDA, headquartered in Canada, established to create an American presence to be eligible for U.S. government work. [SpaceNews]
A Russian Progress spacecraft docked with the ISS early this morning. The Progress MS-05 spacecraft docked with the station’s Pirs module at 3:30 a.m. Eastern, two days after launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The spacecraft is carrying nearly three tons of food, water and other cargo for the ISS. The Progress arrived less than 24 hours after a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft, launched Sunday, berthed with the station. [CBS]
A NASA safety panel warned the agency it needs a “compelling rationale” for putting a crew on the first SLS/Orion launch. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, meeting Thursday at the Kennedy Space Center, said that NASA should “carefully and cautiously weigh the value proposition for flying crew on EM-1,” a mission currently designed not to carry astronauts. NASA said last week that it would study the possibility of flying a crew on that mission, a study that will evaulate risk and cost issues, as well as effects putting a crew on the first mission would have on later missions. That study is due to be complete by late March or early April. [SpaceNews]
NASA’s study of putting a crew on EM-1 could affect Europe’s contribution to the program. ESA officials said this week that they will contribute to that study by looking at implications for the Orion service module that ESA is providing. ESA is developing the service module to cover its costs of participating in the ISS through 2020. A separate barter agreement is under discussion with NASA that would include two additional service modules and other technologies to cover ISS costs from 2021 through 2024. [SpaceNews]
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has approved a set of themes to name features on Pluto and its moons. The IAU, in a statement, said it has approved a nomenclature system for craters, mountains and other features discovered on the surface of Pluto and its five moons by the New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. For Pluto, those naming themes range from gods of the underworld to pioneering space missions. Scientists involved with the mission have already been using unofficial names for those features, many of which can now be submitted to the IAU for formal approval. [IAU]
A movie about the “unsung heroes” of Apollo will appear in theaters in April. The documentary Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, about the people who worked in mission control during the Apollo missions, has won a distribution deal that includes a limited run in select U.S. theaters starting April 14. The movie will also be available on video-on-demand services at that time. The documentary, which includes interviews with flight controllers and astronauts, will make its world premiere March 14at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. [collectSPACE]
NASA to Hold Media Teleconference Today on Study to Add Crew to First Orion, Space Launch System Mission
NASA will discuss plans for an ongoing study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, during a media teleconference at 1 p.m. EST today, Friday, Feb. 24. The call will stream live on NASA’s website.
LONDON and WASHINGTON — Satellite telecom startup OneWeb, emboldened by the oversubscribed $1.2 billion Softbank-led investment gained in December, is on the verge of adding another 2,000 satellites to its previously proposed constellation of several hundred satellites.
OneWeb made a big splash in June 2015 when it went public with an impressive roster of investors pledging some $500 million to deploy more than 600 small, low-orbiting satellites to blanket the Earth in Ku-band broadband connectivity.OneWeb announced a roster of strategic partners June 25, 2015 that includes Bharti Enterprises, Coca-Cola, Intelsat, Hughes, Totalplay Telecommunications, and Virgin Galactic. Credit: Airbus Space and Defence via Twitter
On Wednesday, Greg Wyler, OneWeb’s founder and executive chairman, told an audience at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London that the company has sold a considerable portion of the capacity of its initial planned constellation and is seriously considering quadrupling its size.
“We are adding 2,000 satellites at different altitudes in low Earth orbit,” Wyler told SpaceNews in London. “We have priority rights to another 2,000 satellites — 1,972 satellites, to be precise. With Softbank we have reinvigorated our activities and started talking about the strong possibility that we will be adding to the constellation using our priority rights.”
The expansion plans materialized after Japanese mogul Masyoshi Son, the CEO of SoftBank, jumped on board with a $1 billion investment. Previous investors committed to an additional $200 million, bringing OneWeb’s total capital raised to $1.7 billion.
“[Son] has really put the throttles full-forward when it comes to our mission of bridging the digital divide globally by 2027,” Wyler said in London.
“We are not talking about it yet, but we will start talking about it soon. You will hear about some great launch scale step function changes to our plans and improvements,” the 47-year-old entrepreneur continued. “We are really looking at many new things. You will see some more satellites in a few places that you wouldn’t expect.”
In addition to its official focus on connecting the world’s four billion unconnected citizens to the world wide web by the end of the next decade, OneWeb is eyeing the nascent Internet of Things sector, connected cars and in-flight connectivity.
Adding 1,972 satellites to OneWeb’s previously announced 648 puts the total constellation at 2,620. In a telephone interview with SpaceNews on Thursday evening, Wyler said OneWeb is very actively considering this level of expansion, but was less committal than at the London event.
“We always had this as a possibility,” he said. “What we are doing is really difficult. Our team has made tremendous progress. When looking at some of the accomplishments that have become real and validated over the past several months, we’ve been strongly encouraged that this next phase should be accelerated. Our shareholders are pushing us hard to accelerate because the interest in demand and in the need to accomplish our mission is quite pressing.”Artist’s rendering of the factory OneWeb Satellites is building in Exploration Park, Florida. Credit: OneWeb
The first 10 OneWeb spacecraft are scheduled to launch about a year from now on a Europeanized Soyuz rocket from Arianespace. Those, Wyler said, will provide service as part of the full constellation.
In London, Wyler also suggested that although the company hasn’t formally announced having sold any capacity — save perhaps Gogo’s March 2016 deal with Intelsat for combined geostationary and LEO capacity — that demand from the world’s telecommunications operators is strong. When asked how much capacity he expects to have sold by the time the initial constellation launches, he replied: “all of it.”
Speaking by phone Thursday night, Wyler said the decision on whether to quadruple the size of the OneWeb constellation will be made before the end of the year.
“I don’t want to say we are definitely doing it, but I can say that we are very strongly considering it, and based upon our priority rights, we have always had this as a possibility,” he said. “Our first system has 1.5 to 2 terabits of forward capacity, and we will be very substantially increasing that.”
SpaceNews staff writer Caleb Henry contributed from Washington.
WASHINGTON — MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates announced Feb. 24 that it will acquire commercial remote sensing company DigitalGlobe for $2.4 billion, the biggest deal to date in the ongoing consolidation in the Earth imaging market.
MDA said it is offering $17.50 in cash and nearly one third of an MDA share per share of DigitalGlobe, for a combined value of $35 per DigitalGlobe share. That deal values DigitalGlobe at $2.4 billion, plus the assumption of $1.2 billion in DigitalGlobe debt. The boards of both companies have approved the deal, which they expect to close in the second half of this year.
“Following a thorough review of strategic alternatives, we believe that joining forces with MDA will enable us to deliver more value to our customers, expand opportunities for our team members and maximize value for shareowners,” Jeffrey Tarr, president and chief executive of DigitalGlobe, said in a statement about the acquisition.
DigitalGlobe will retain its name and Colorado headquarters. It will operate as a subsidiary of SSL MDA Holdings, a U.S.-based operating company that MDA, based in Canada, established in 2016. That holding company, which includes satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral, is part of MDA’s “U.S. Access Plan” to create an American entity that makes it eligible for U.S. government work.
“The transaction is a major step forward in our previously announced U.S. Access Plan,” said Howard Lance, president and chief executive of MDA. “We are committed to serving the U.S. Government as a mission-critical partner with an expanded portfolio of end-to-end solutions.”
As part of the plan, MDA plans to file to trade its shares on the New York Stock Exchange, in addition to the Toronto Stock Exchange, where its shares are currently listed. A “further reorganization” of the company is planned by the end of 2019, according to the MDA statement announcing the deal, so that the parent company of DigitalGlobe is a U.S.-based entity.
DigitalGlobe was founded in 1992 as WorldView Imaging Corp., after the passage of the Land Remote Sensing Act that year allowed private companies to enter the commercial Earth imaging business. The company became EarthWatch in 1995 after a merger with Ball Aerospace’s commercial remote sensing business.
The company’s first two satellites failed. EarlyBird, launched in 1997, failed after just a few days in orbit because of a power system problem. QuickBird 1 failed to reach orbit in 2000 because of a launch vehicle failure. Its first functional satellite, known simply as QuickBird, launched in 2001 on a Delta 2.
The company, which changed its name to DigitalGlobe in 2001, moved ahead with the WorldView series of spacecraft after winning a NextView contract from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in 2004. WorldView-1 launched in 2007 and WorldView-2 launched in 2009.
DigitalGlobe merged with GeoEye, another commercial remote sensing company, in a stock and cash deal valued at $900 million in July 2012, months after turning down an unsolicited acquisition offer from GeoEye. That merger was spurred by NGA’s plans to reduce spending on imagery purchase programs that constituted a significant part of each company’s business. The deal closed in early 2013. Two additional WorldView satellites have since been launched, including WorldView-4 — originally built as GeoEye-2 — in November.
While DigitalGlobe specialized in high-resolution imagery, with resolutions as sharp as 30 centimeters, the company has faced competition in recent years from a wave of companies developing constellations of small imaging satellites. While those satellites do not provide the same spatial resolution as DigitalGlobe’s satellite, they offer medium-resolution imagery updated on a daily or even more frequent basis.
To counter that development, DigitalGlobe announced a partnership in February 2016 with Taqnia, a Saudi Arabian technology development company, and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) to develop a constellation of at least six imaging smallsats. KACST will build and launch the satellites and, with Taqnia, market half the imagery capacity of the satellites in the Middle East. DigitalGlobe will have rights to the other half of the imaging capacity in the region and all imagery in the rest of the world.
Those satellites, scheduled for launch in late 2018 or early 2019, will produce images with a resolution of 80 centimeters. That makes them comparable to the SkySat series of satellites operated by Terra Bella, the Google-owned imaging company that Planet, another imaging company, announced Feb. 3 it was acquiring. The SkySat series of spacecraft are built by SSL, owned by MDA.
WASHINGTON — A NASA independent safety committee wants NASA to provide a “compelling rationale” for putting astronauts on the first flight of the Space Launch System, a proposal NASA is currently studying.
In a statement at the beginning of the Feb. 23 meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), chairwoman Patricia Sanders said that if NASA decides to put a crew on the first SLS/Orion launch, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), it must demonstrate that there is a good reason to accept the higher risks associated with doing so.
“We strongly advise that NASA carefully and cautiously weigh the value proposition for flying crew on EM-1,” she said. “NASA should provide a compelling rationale in terms of benefits gained for accepting additional risk, and fully and transparently acknowledge the tradeoffs being made before deviating from the approach for certifying the Orion/SLS vehicle for manned spaceflight.”
“If the benefits warrant the assumption of additional risk,” she added, “we expect NASA to clearly and openly articulate their decision-making process and rationale.”
NASA announced Feb. 15 that it was beginning a study of the potential of adding a crew to EM-1. Under current plans, that mission, scheduled for launch in late 2018, would fly without a crew, with the first crewed flight, EM-2, planned for no earlier than 2021.
That study is in progress and is expected to be completed by late March or early April. “We’re going back and reevaluating the trades of why we decided what we did” regarding not flying a crew on EM-1, said Jason Crusan, director of advanced exploration systems at NASA Headquarters, during a Feb. 23 panel on human spaceflight held by the Royal Aeronautical Society at the British Embassy here. “There’s many reason why we decided to do that, a lot of the related to risk posture, and a lot of them related to budget realities.”
Under the current approach, NASA would fly a relatively demanding mission on EM-1 lasting more than 20 days, “really pushing the limits of where Orion and SLS can actually perform,” Crusan said. EM-2, with a crew, would be a more conservative mission to test the performance of the life support system. That approach, he said, would be reconsidered if a crew flies on EM-1.
“If you put crew on the first mission, you’re not going to go to distant retrograde orbit and push the limits of the vehicle on the very first flight,” he said. “So do you actually make less progress, or more progress? That’s the trade we have to go through.”
The study, Crusan said, would also look at the effects putting a crew on EM-1 would have on later missions, including plans to fly co-manifested payloads on EM-2 using additional capacity on the upgraded version of the SLS that will fly starting on EM-2. Accelerating the first crewed flight, he cautioned, may not avoid the gap that currently exists between EM-1 and EM-2 because of “uncompressible” elements of infrastructure that need to be developed.
Should NASA decide to put a crew on EM-1, he added, the launch date for the mission would slip from late 2018. The Orion capsule for that mission is already under construction without some of the life support systems that would be needed if the mission was crewed. “We’d actually have to undo what we’ve been manufacturing and modify the vehicle for the life support system that we require,” he said.
At the ASAP meeting, members noted that even if EM-1 remains an uncrewed mission, NASA is facing some issues that could create cost or schedule problems. Among them is damage suffered by Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where elements of Orion and the SLS core stage are built, from a Feb. 7 tornado.
“They still do estimate that the damage will cost us a couple of months in terms of the schedule,” said ASAP member Donald P. McErlean at the meeting, recounting a briefing given to the panel earlier in the week. He noted that no critical infrastructure, like a friction stir welding system used for making the core stages, suffered serious damage from the storm that would have resulted in longer delays.
McErlean said the program has also uncovered a problem with the solid rocket boosters. Engineers found an “anomaly” in the interaction between the propellant and a layer separating the propellant from the motor’s liner. “They found that, under certain heat conditions, there can be some outgassing of this layer, and it cause voids” in the propellant, he said.
He added it wasn’t clear if this problem would prevent the motors from being flown, but even if they cannot, a fix to avoid the problem has already been put in place for other motors being cast for the boosters. “There will be no delay in EM-1 because of this problem,” he said, since they can “pull forward” motors already being cast for EM-2 instead. “It could be a cost driver if they had to be recast.”
NANTES, France — A barter agreement the European Space Agency hopes to reach with NASA next year assumes the Trump administration won’t drastically change the deep space exploration plans set in motion by the Obama administration.
That assumption is now being put to the test as NASA studies putting astronauts on the first flight of the Space Launch System instead of waiting for the heavy-lift rocket’s second mission for Orion’s crewed debut. What’s more, a NASA authorization bill headed toward final passage next week calls for a 60-day look at what it would take to launch crew on Orion to the International Space Station using rockets other than SLS.Orion with European-built service module
The European Space Agency, to cover its financial commitment to the International Space Station program through 2020, is paying Airbus Defence and Space roughly $400 million to design and build the service module that will be bolted onto Orion to provide power and propulsion when the capsule launches atop SLS in 2018 on a currently uncrewed mission dubbed Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1.
ESA, which was the last of NASA’s space station partners to commit to sticking with the program through 2024, has proposed building two additional Orion service modules and develop a new service-module propulsion system and deep space habitat technology as part of a no-exchange-of-funds contribution for ISS use from 2021 to 2024. Such a contribution would give ESA a key role in NASA’s plans for sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since the 1972 conclusion of the Apollo moon program.
ESA’s thinking was that those two service modules would be used for Orion and SLS’s planned 2021 mission, dubbed EM-2, and the EM-3 mission that would follow a year or so later. On Feb. 16, a 200-million euro contract for the European service module for Orion’s EM-2 flight was signed in Bremen, Germany, by ESA and Airbus Defence and Space.
ESA’s director of human space flight and exploration, David Parker, told SpaceNews in a Feb. 3 interview that ESA’s offer to build two more service modules, develop a new service-module propulsion system and the deep space habitat technology “is contingent on confirmation from the NASA side of their overall policy in the context of the new administration.” He added that: “We hope to reach a conclusion, an agreement in 2018, so we can start work in 2019 for whatever it is we’re building.”
With NASA considering launching a crew on Orion’s EM-1 flight and Congress asking the agency to look at sending Orion to ISS, a rather long shadow has been cast across Parker’s expectations.
In a Feb. 22 email exchange with SpaceNews, Parker, and the agency’s head of transportation, Nico Dettman, said: “ESA has been fully informed regarding the NASA study to fly crew on EM-1. We are contributing to the study by analysing the schedule impact in case ESM1 shall become man-rated.” Parker and Dettman did not comment on the Orion ISS crew transport report called for in the NASA authorization bill, which still must be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives before it can be signed into law by Trump.
The re-evaluation of EM-1 and the Senate’s interest in using Orion for ISS transport come as the Trump administration is working toward a late April target for sending its 2018 budget request to Congress. Trump’s budget proposal is expected to provide the first indications of a change of direction for the U.S. human spaceflight program.
Parker said Feb. 3 that NASA’s current political holding pattern does not mean that negotiations with NASA cannot continue, just that “nothing can be concluded.”
Parker declined to put a dollar value on its proposed ISS contribution, calling it a “complicated mix of factors” that included use of NASA’s data-relay system, “upload and download” mass and additional European astronaut flights.
Meanwhile, in preparation for the potential ISS 2021-2024 contribution deal, European technical studies this year will assess avionics, habitation modules and life support systems for a cislunar habitat and new propulsion options for the Orion service module.
While ESA’s technical studies are ongoing, one possible European cislunar technology will go to the ISS this year. “[The] advanced crew life support system,” Parker explained, “has the potential to be one of the contributing technologies for deep space exploration”.
The study of new propulsion options for the service module is being done because the module uses the space shuttle’s orbital maneuvering system (OMS) engine and its supply is limited. “There are propulsion trade-offs for how to enhance [the propulsion system] for the long-term,” Parker said Feb. 3.
Parker expects the first three service modules to use the OMS, which uses the fuel monomethyl hydrazine and the oxidizer, nitrogen tetroxide and produces 6,000 pounds of thrust. ESA is considering four alternate engines, Dettman told SpaceNews in a Feb. 3 interview, but he declined to say which engines. One possible alternate hydrazine engine is the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ10-118k. It produces a 9,850-pound thrust at altitude and was used for the second stage of United Launch Alliance’s Delta 2 rocket.
Even as cislunar technology technical studies get underway, ESA’s prime contractor Airbus Defence and Space will still be working on the service module for Orion’s first flight, which was to have been delivered to NASA in January. Parker said Feb. 3 that the service module will be “delivered towards the end of this year.” That’s a further delay from the April estimate ESA gave last summer when it said it wouldn’t be able to make a January delivery.
Dettman said that the first service module’s delay will not add to its 390 million euro fixed-price contract cost. The new delay, Dettman explained Feb. 3, was due to the design review last October identifying changes to the first ESM’s flight model and suppliers delivering some subsystems for it late.
The review also found that the current service module design was too heavy for the second Orion flight, EM-2, which is planned to be a manned eight-day circumlunar mission.
Dettman said Feb. 3 there will be other subsystem changes to the service module for EM-2 and possibly more for the EM-3 mission, which is, “not yet fully defined”.
The test of the engine, lasting 380 seconds, is part of a broader effort to qualify the engines for use on the core stage of the SLS and to test design tweaks.
Separately, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced Wednesday that it set a new U.S. record for the highest chamber pressure in a liquid oxygen/kerosene main engine during tests of the staged combustion system of the company’s AR1 engine that is currently under development. [NASASpaceFlight.com / Aerojet Rocketdyne]
A SpaceX Dragon spacecraft arrived at the International Space Station this morning, one day later than planned. The station’s robotic arm grappled the Dragon spacecraft at 5:44 a.m. Eastern and will berth it to the station’s Harmony module today. The Dragon aborted an initial attempt to reach the station Wednesday because of a computer problem. The spacecraft, launched Sunday from the Kennedy Space Center, carries nearly 2,500 kilograms of cargo, including scientific investigations and sensors to be installed on the station’s exterior. [AP]
Scientists announced Wednesday the discovery of seven terrestrial planets orbiting a nearby star, three in its habitable zone. The planets orbit the star TRAPPIST-1, an “ultra-cool” dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. The planets range in mass from 0.4 to 1.4 times the mass of the Earth. Astronomers first detected two of the planets using ground-based telescopes as the planets transited the star; they found the other planets using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The discovery suggests that Earth-sized planets may be relatively common around stars. [Nature]
Aerojet Rocketdyne is acquiring Coleman Aerospace, a missile manufacturer. Aerojet said it will pay $15 million to purchase Coleman from its current owner, L3 Technologies, with the deal expected to close this month. Coleman makes a range of missiles, primarily as targets for missile defense tests for the Missile Defense Agency, as well as suborbital sounding rockets. [SpaceNews]
Inmarsat and a Singaporean company have developed an in-space data relay system for small satellites. The Inter-satellite Data Relay Service uses receivers built by Singapore’s Addvalue Innovation mounted in small satellites to communicate using Inmarsat’s Broadband Global Area Network. The service, which the companies had been working on in secrecy for more than a year, gives smallsat operators the ability to communicate with their satellites anywhere in the world without a large ground station network. The system is intended for those operating small numbers of smallsats, and not large constellations. [SpaceNews]
NASA’s Europa mission has cleared a major review. The agency said this week that its Europa multiple-flyby mission, also known as Europa Clipper, passed its Key Decision Point B review and will enter Phase B of development this month. The mission, scheduled for launch as soon as 2022, will go into orbit around Jupiter and make dozens of flybys of the icy moon, thought to harbor an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface that makes it potentially habitable. Europa Clipper will be followed by a lander mission still in the earliest phases of development. [SpaceNews]
A troubled military aircraft program overshadowed space at Airbus Defence and Space in 2016. The company said that a $2.3 billion charge it took on the A400M military transport aircraft program brought down the company’s revenues last year. The company’s space business, by contrast, is doing well, Airbus chief executive Tom Enders said at a Wednesday press conference, noting that the company took in more space-related orders in 2016 than it filled. [SpaceNews]
NASA announced several public-private partnerships Wednesday to advance launch vehicle and spacecraft programs. The partnerships, in the form of $17 million worth of fixed-price contracts with eight companies, include the development of engines, avionics and other subsystems for launch vehicles. Other partnerships include flight demonstrations of technologies on two small satellite missions. [NASA]
Blue Origin is looking to expand its headquarters near Seattle. The company has filed permits to build a 236,000-square-foot warehouse complex and a 102,900-square-foot office building southwest of its current headquarters and manufacturing facility in Kent, Washington. The permit applications are on hold for an environmental assessment, according to city officials. Blue Origin is currently building a 750,000-square-foot factory for its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. [GeekWire]
The space agencies of China and Italy have signed an agreement to cooperate on human spaceflight. The agreement between the China Manned Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency will include cooperation in research on human spaceflight issues, mutual use of technical facilities and the exchange of personnel. The efforts could aid China’s development of a permanent space station set to be operational by the early 2020s. [gbtimes]
The Apollo 11 command module is taking a road trip. The National Air and Space Museum announced Wednesday that the module will go on a national tour starting later this year and running through late 2019. The module, along with a number of other related artifacts, will appear in museums in Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Seattle before returning to Washington. The module will become the centerpiece of a new museum exhibit, “Destination Moon,” scheduled to open in 2021. [collectSPACE]
NASA is inviting media to attend a test of the Orion spacecraft’s parachutes on Wednesday, March 8, at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Orion is scheduled for its second airdrop test, in a series of eight, to qualify the parachute system for crewed flights.
A space image-processing enthusiast claims that he’s found signs of Saturn’s moon’s majestic plumes from 1980 – decades before they were discovered
NASA celebrates National Engineer Week and Girl's Day with a series of events.
WASHINGTON — A NASA mission to study a potentially habitable moon of Jupiter has passed a key review and will now enter a design phase, the agency announced Feb. 21.
NASA said the Europa multiple-flyby mission, often called Europa Clipper, passed a review called Key Decision Point B (KDP-B) Feb. 15. The review allows the mission to enter into a preliminary design phase called Phase B. That phase will formally begin Feb. 27 and run through September 2018.
“This is supremely great news,” said Curt Niebur, the program scientists for the mission at NASA Headquarters, in a Feb. 22 presentation at a meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) in Atlanta. “It was an extremely successful KDP-B.”
Niebur said that the review did highlight the need for the mission carefully watch its mass and power levels as it goes into a more detailed level of design work. “We’ve been generous in the allocations for these thus far,” he said. “But we’re now to the point where things are locking down, and we must very carefully manage and track those resources.”
The review also recommended that the project develop a “descope” plan to remove instruments or other capabilities should there be issues with the spacecraft’s mass and power, or its costs. “It is definitely NASA’s full intent to fly the Clipper mission as it currently exists, and with the payload we competitively selected,” he said. “But we’ve got to be ready to curb resource growth if and when it occurs.”
NASA has not yet specified a cost or schedule for the mission, which are typically formally defined at the next major review, Key Decision Point C. NASA’s release about the KDP-B review said the mission is planned for launch only “in the 2020s,” although report language in recent appropriations bills funding NASA have directed the agency to launch the mission by 2022.
That schedule has been set primarily by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and a staunch advocate for Europa exploration. He has allocated money the Europa mission at levels well above NASA’s requests, in the belief that Clipper or a later lander mission could discover evidence of life on the moon, which has an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy surface.
“There’s almost certain to be life in that ocean,” Culberson said in a Feb. 7 speech at a Space Transportation Association luncheon here. “I’m convinced that that mission will result in the discovery of life in that ocean.”
Another question is what launch vehicle will be used for Europa Clipper. The Space Launch System would send the spacecraft on a direct trajectory to Jupiter, allowing it to reach the planet less than three years after launch. “We’re keeping the options open right now,” Niebur said at the OPAG meeting, noting it is also compatible with the Delta 4 Heavy and possibly other vehicles through the use of gravity assists.
“In the big view of things, it doesn’t hurt us to keep launch vehicle options open,” he said. “But the time is coming when we need to narrow that range down.”
There is no similar choice for the proposed lander mission, which will be far heavier than Clipper given the propellant it has to carry to be able to enter orbit around and then land on the surface of Europa. “It’s about 13,000 kilograms wet,” he said. “As of now, SLS is the only vehicle with the performance to launch it.”
The lander mission could fly within just a couple years of Clipper, carrying a suite of instruments to search for direct and indirect evidence of life on Europa. A report by a science definition team for the proposed lander, released earlier this month, identified the science goals for the mission and proposed instruments for the lander that can fit within current mass and power requirements.
The lander is designed to operate for only about 20 days on the surface because of the strong radiation environment. That timeline, and mass and power constraints, are actually an improvement over earlier concepts. Two years ago, a proposed lander had only a 10-day lifetime and 25 kilograms of science payload, said Kevin Hand of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the leaders of the science definition team, at the OPAG meeting. “The engineering team worked very closely with the science definition team,” he said, “and essentially doubled and almost tripled our baseline mission concept.”
The cost of the lander mission is not yet known, given the mission’s early stage of development, but Niebur defended the approach to launch it on the heels of Clipper rather than waiting until after the end of the Clipper mission to start work on it. Following the traditional “stepwise exploration path,” he said, would delay the mission by at least a decade, if not longer.
“If we wait for the next mission to map it, like we’ve done at Mars, and find multiple landing sites and feed that data back to Earth, and then start designing a landing system, the timestep between our missions is going to be measured in decades,” he said. “If we follow that path for the outer solar system, none of us will ever see the surface.”
NASA is partnering with eight U.S. companies to advance small spacecraft and launch vehicle technologies that are on the verge of maturation and are likely to benefit both NASA and the commercial space market.
WASHINGTON — Aerojet Rockedtyne said Feb. 22 that it has agreed to buy Coleman Aerospace from L3 Technologies for $15 million in cash.
L3’s Orlando, Florida-based Coleman Aerospace division builds a mix of small-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile targets for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. Coleman also builds suborbital research rockets.
Aerojet Rocketyne expects the Coleman acquisition to close this month and bring in approximately $40 million in revenue this year.
“The addition of Coleman’s vehicle integration expertise supports our growth strategy for offering an expanded range of products and services to the defense and space markets,” Aerojet Rocketdyne President and CEO Eileen Drake said in a press release. “This deal represents a sound investment in both advanced technologies and new capabilities that build upon our decades of experience as the nation’s leading propulsion provider. We respect the long-standing reputation for quality and customer focus that Coleman has built in the aerospace industry and in the Orlando community, and we are thrilled to welcome them to our company.”
Aerojet Rocketdyne said Coleman will continue to operate from Orlando and will assume the lease of the Space Coast Integration & Test facility that officially opens Friday at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Scientists have found seven, Earth-size planets orbiting a star just 40 light years away. Three lie in the habitable zone and could have water on their surfaces.
The small, cool star TRAPPIST-1 is one of the best places to look for life in the Milky Way: its seven rocky planets might all have water and atmospheres