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UK industry praises spaceflight bill, but calls 2020 launch goal unrealistic

Space News - 6 hours 12 min ago

WASHINGTON — The United Kingdom’s would-be launch service providers — a mix of British startups and international primes — told Parliament this week the country’s goal of seeing a first launch from within its borders by 2020 is at this point most likely wishful thinking.

That outlook stands in contrast to that of U.K. Space Agency Interim Chief Executive Katherine Courtney, who said late last month that she was “confident that 2020 will see the first launches from British soil.”

Officials from several aerospace companies testifying before Parliament March 27 did not share Courtney’s optimism, but they praised the government for creating policies that should make fertile ground for a British launch industry to emerge.

The U.K. launched its first rocket in 1971, orbiting the Prospero satellite on a Black Arrow rocket, but the mission took place from Australia, not Europe, and the U.K. government had already canceled the launch program by the time the mission occurred. Launch came back to the fore in 2009 when the U.K. set the goal of growing its space industry to comprise 10 percent of the global space industry by 2030.

Parliament released a draft spaceflight bill Feb. 21 detailing the country’s proposed regulatory framework for space launch. The draft bill is described as “part of a wider Government programme to stimulate the market for space activities (primarily small satellite launch) and sub-orbital spaceflight activities in the United Kingdom from 2020.”

In a March 27 parliamentary session in the U.K. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Stephen Metcalfe, committee chair, asked industry how feasible it would be to achieve a first launch in three years time.

“Hitting 2020 is going to be pretty nigh impossible,” Richard Peckham, business development director for Airbus Group, replied.

“[For] horizontal launch, if you are using an existing airport, I suppose there is less infrastructure [needed],” Peckham explained. “For vertical launch, if you are going to go through all of the planning process and environmental assessments and all the things you need to do, once you’ve chosen your site in parallel with all the legislation and so on that’s going, I would say 2020 is very optimistic.”

Other members of industry, though less bleak about the prospects of a near-term domestic launch, echoed a similar conviction.

“I’m not quite in the ‘pretty impossible’ count that Richard was in, but it’s certainly very challenging,” said Mark Thomas, managing director of Reaction Engines, a British engine developer with investments from the U.K. Space Agency, the European Space Agency and BAE Systems to build a hypersonic propulsion system for orbital and point to point spaceplane missions.

David Ashford, managing director of Bristol Spaceplanes, a company developing a suborbital spaceplane called Ascender for human spaceflight and microgravity experiments, said his company could have a demonstrator flying a science payload by 2021 at the earliest.

“We can’t honestly claim 2020,” he said.

Orbital Access, a Scotland-based startup designing an air-launch smallsat vehicle, does claim intent to have a first launch by 2020, but was not in attendance during the session.

Legislation in the fast lane

Despite the admissions that industry is unlikely to field a launcher from U.K. soil by 2020, Parliament received praise for the fast pace of regulatory developments to support a launch industry. The U.K. government created the draft bill in just six months and shared it with industry for feedback early in the development of the legislation.

Most of the U.K.’s launch ambition is centered around small satellites, which often piggyback on larger missions as secondary payloads. Two major small satellite developers, Airbus subsidiary Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and Clyde Space, and a network of smallsat component suppliers are all based in the U.K. The country is in the process of fostering the establishment of one or more domestic spaceports, though the process is taking longer than expected.

Industry representatives said the U.K.’s spaceflight regulatory regime needs to have rules specifically tailored for smallsat launches so as to not squelch the market with geostationary-sized taxes and fees. Peckham said licensing missions, for example, shouldn’t have costs that are per satellite if a rocket now has 100 satellites on board instead of one or two.

“We also need to change the insurance,” added Joanne Wheeler, a partner at the law firm Bird & Bird. “At the moment, it’s third party liability insurance per satellite at 16 million euros ($17.4 million), and that simply does not work for constellations. We need to look at different models there.”

Cubesats and other small satellites often cost only a few million dollars to manufacture, meaning such insurance costs per satellite could easily dwarf the entire cost of the spacecraft.

Overall, a thumbs up

Peckham said Airbus Safran Launchers, the Airbus-Safran joint venture that builds the Ariane 5 and future Ariane 6 rockets, views the draft bill as positive toward launch operations in the U.K. Paul Davey, Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ U.K. business development lead, said the bill also appears to be on good footing. “It seems to be going in the right direction at this stage,” he said.

Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp. opened a space technology office in Harwell, Oxfordshire, in 2014. Along with conducting commercial Atlas 5 launches in the U.S., Lockheed Martin has an investment in small satellite launcher Rocket Lab of the U.S. and New Zealand and is building a significant portion of Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser mini-shuttle.

“From my perspective, we just have to keep the pace on this,” said Thomas. “It is very encouraging that we see a [draft] bill within six months. To see another iteration of that in an equal period of time, that would be fantastic.”

Ashford said the bill appears flexible enough to cater to vertical and horizontal launch systems, despite the vast differences between the two.


NASA to Preview ‘Grand Finale’ of Cassini Saturn Mission

NASA Breaking News - 6 hours 14 min ago
NASA will hold a news conference at 3 p.m. EDT Tuesday, April 4, at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, to preview the beginning of Cassini's final mission segment, known as the Grand Finale, which begins in late April. The briefing will air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

Jeff Bezos shares ‘sneak peek’ of Blue Origin crew capsule

Space News - 7 hours 57 min ago

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos on Wednesday released a set of images depicting the capsule his company is developing to launch passengers on its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft.

“Our New Shepard flight test program is focused on demonstrating the performance and robustness of the system,” Bezos wrote in an email sent to followers Wednesday morning. “In parallel, we’ve been designing the capsule interior with an eye toward precision engineering, safety, and comfort.”


“Step inside…”


“Every seat’s a window seat.”


“The largest windows ever in space.”


“Gradatim Ferociter!”


ESA selects a second potential landing site for ExoMars 2020 rover

Space News - 8 hours 53 min ago

ESA has selected a second potential landing site for its ExoMars 2020 rover.

The agency said Tuesday it will consider Mawrth Vallis, an area that once likely had liquid water, along with Oxia Planum, a site scientists selected in 2015 when the mission was scheduled for a 2018 launch.

ESA doesn’t plan to select a final landing site until a year before launch. [BBC]

More News

The White House is seeking to trim NASA and NOAA’s budgets in any final fiscal year 2017 spending bill. The administration sent congressional appropriators a list of nearly $18 billion in non-defense discretionary spending cuts it’s seeking in 2017 appropriations bills. The cuts include $50 million distributed among NASA science programs and $90 million from NOAA weather satellite programs. The cuts are from 2016 spending levels, under which government agencies have been operating since the fiscal year began nearly six months ago under a continuing resolution. That CR expires April 28, giving Congress less than a month to pass new spending bills or extend the CR through the rest of the fiscal year. [SpaceNews]

Teledyne Technologies has completed a $789 million acquisition of British space electronics company e2v. Teledyne says the acquisition of e2v was “highly complementary” to its own electronics business. e2v, whose work has included providing cameras for ESA and NASA missions, generated $295 million in sales in the fiscal year ending last March. [SpaceNews]

NASA said Tuesday that a Cygnus cargo mission to the space station delayed by booster problems won’t fly until at least mid-April. In a presentation at a NASA Advisory Council committee meeting, Robyn Gatens attributed the delay to ongoing work to resolve a hydraulics problem with the Atlas 5 rocket Orbital ATK is using for this Cygnus mission instead of its own Antares rocket. The launch was scheduled for mid-March but postponed by earlier problems with both the rocket and ground support equipment. The delay will also postpone a spacewalk planned for next week because the Cygnus is carrying equipment to be installed outside the station during that EVA. [SpaceNews]

NASA also announced Tuesday new crew assignments for upcoming ISS missions. NASA said Joe Acaba will fly to the ISS this September in a seat NASA obtained from Boeing earlier this year. Shannon Walker will train as his backup, and Ricky Arnold will fly in a second extra seat to the station next spring. Russian media reported earlier this month that Acaba was expected to take that extra seat vacated by the Russians as they temporarily reduce their crew size from three to two. NASA also assigned Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Nick Hague to Soyuz missions scheduled for launch in late 2018. [NASA]

An executive with satellite operator SES is confident in SpaceX’s ability to fly a reused rocket. Martin Halliwell, chief technology office at SES, said his company had closely followed SpaceX’s refurbishment and testing of the Falcon 9 first stage, first flown on a Dragon cargo launch last April, that will be used to launch the SES-10 satellite this Thursday. “This booster is a really good booster, and we’re confident,” he said Tuesday. [Florida Today]

Experts say there’s no debate on the goals of national security launch policy, but also no agreement on how to achieve them. William LaPlante, who served as the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition during the Obama administration, said in a panel discussion last week that everyone would like to see launch become a “service” with at least two commercial, independent providers. Among the issues under debate to achieving that goal, he said, is how to end dependence on the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine, with some cautioning that legislating the end of the RD-180 prematurely could jeopardize the future of ULA. [SpaceNews]

An instrument that forced a delay in the launch of NASA’s Insight Mars lander has passed a major milestone. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said Tuesday that the seismic instrument being developed by the French space agency CNES had successfully completed testing. Problems with the instrument’s ability to hold a vacuum forced a redesign that postponed Insight’s launch from March 2016 to May 2018. [Spaceflight Now]

Russia’s next-generation crew spacecraft will have advanced displays. A designer with Russian company Energia said that the Federation spacecraft will include touch-screen displays similar to those being planned for U.S. spacecraft, replacing the manual controls on the Soyuz spacecraft. Future cosmonauts, though, may better appreciate another feature: a “full-size toilet cabin, well isolated from the other compartments” on the spacecraft. [TASS]

Orbital ATK is donating two used shuttle-era solid rocket boosters to a California museum. The boosters, featuring segments that flew on shuttle missions from 1982 to 2011, will be incorporated into a display of the shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. The display, which will also include an external tank, mated to the shuttle and SRBs and mounted vertically, is scheduled to be ready in 2019. [Spaceflight Now]


Cygnus mission delayed to mid-April

Space News - 13 hours 29 min ago

WASHINGTON — A Cygnus cargo mission to the International Space Station delayed because of booster problems will not fly until at least the middle of April, a NASA official said March 28.

In a presentation to the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee here, Robyn Gatens, deputy director of the ISS division at NASA Headquarters, said the delay will also push back a spacewalk planned to take place on the station next week.

The Orbital ATK Cygnus, on a mission designated OA-7, was scheduled to launch in mid-March on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5, but was delayed several days, first by a hydraulics issue with the rocket’s first stage and later by a problem with ground support equipment.

ULA announced March 22 that the launch would be postponed again, this time because of “a different issue with a booster hydraulic line,” according to a company statement. No new launch date was announced.

Gatens said NASA was now expecting the Cygnus to launch to the station no earlier than the middle of April. “The Orbital launch, the next launch, has slipped due to an investigation of a hydraulic leak in the booster engine compartment that’s in work,” she said. “There are some components being replaced. The investigation is going on and we’re currently targeting no earlier than, probably, a mid-April launch.”

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said March 28 that a new launch date has not been set yet for the mission. “Additional information will be provided once testing to resolve the booster hydraulic issue is complete,” she said.

Among the cargo on the Cygnus is an avionics box that astronauts Thomas Pesquet and Peggy Whitson planned to install on the exterior of the ISS during a spacewalk scheduled for April 6. That spacewalk, Gatens said, will be postponed until after the Cygnus arrives as the ISS, adding that it is not critical to station operations or research. “We don’t have a new date for that,” she said of the spacewalk. “A team is currently assessing when that can be planned.”

The delayed Cygnus mission comes during a busy time for space station operations. A Soyuz carrying NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko is scheduled to leave the station and return to Earth April 10. A new Soyuz, with NASA astronaut Jack Fischer and Roscosmos cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin on board, will launch to the ISS April 20.

A SpaceX Dragon mission, designed SpX-11 by NASA, is scheduled to launch to the station in May, Gatens said. She did not give a specific launch date, but Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said during a presentation at the National Academies’ Space Science Week here March 28 that the launch is currently scheduled for May 14. Among the payloads on that mission is an astronomical instrument, the Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (NICER), which will be installed on the station’s exterior.

“Everything’s on track for this mission,” Gatens said of the SpX-11 mission. She also confirmed that this mission will be the first to use a previously-flown Dragon capsule.


White House seeks near-term cuts to NASA and NOAA programs

Space News - March 28, 2017 - 7:31pm

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is asking Congressional appropriators to cut $90 million from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather satellite programs and $50 million from NASA science programs in any fiscal year 2017 spending bills they approve in the next month.

The requested cuts are part of a broader package of nearly $18 billion of cuts in non-defense discretionary spending the White House is seeking in spending bills that Congress must pass by April 28 or risk a government shutdown. News of the proposed cuts was first reported March 28 by Politico.

The 13-page list of requested cuts, dated March 23 and provided by the White House to House and Senate appropriators, proposes $17.935 billion in cuts compared to fiscal year 2016 spending levels. The federal government has been operating at those spending levels since the 2017 fiscal year started Oct. 1 under a continuing resolution that lasts until April 28.

The document requests a $50 million cut in NASA’s science programs, about a 1 percent reduction from 2016 levels. The administration offers few details about the cut, other than they would be distributed among science programs, “including cuts to unused reserves and missions that are cancelled in the 2018 Budget.”

The fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint, issued March 16, proposed cancelling four Earth science missions: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 3 instruments for the International Space Station, and the Earth imaging instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

PACE, CLARREO Pathfinder and OCO-3 are all in development, while DSCOVR launched in 2015. NASA, in its fiscal year 2017 budget request in February 2016, requested a combined $47.3 million for CLARREO Pathfinder, DSCOVR and OCO-3 for fiscal year 2017, while PACE was still in its pre-formulation phase at the time of its budget request.

The document suggested other programs beyond Earth science could also be affected by the proposed cut. “It is possible missions would be delayed and/or grants reduced,” it stated, without providing additional details.

The administration’s request also seeks to cut NOAA weather satellite programs by $90 million from 2016 levels. However, the administration’s 2017 budget request had already included a similar decrease, reflecting progress made on next-generation satellite programs, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R (GOES-R) and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

“This level reflects the planned ramp-downs of JPSS and GOES weather satellites, and the ramp-up of the PFO program,” the document stated, referencing the Polar Follow-On program for the third and fourth JPSS satellites. The administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint suggested it would seek savings from the Polar Follow-On program “by better reflecting the actual risk of a gap in polar satellite coverage.”

The administration also seeks to cut funding for Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW) mission, which would fly a microwave sounder as a gapfiller should there be a problem with a similar instrument on the first JPSS satellite. NOAA requested $10 million for EON-MW, although the project had mixed support in Congress.

NASA officials had no initial comment on the administration’s proposed cuts. Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, was asked about the cut during a presentation at a meeting of the Committee of Astronomy and Astrophysics of the National Academies here March 28. He said he was not aware of the proposal.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, also did not directly address the proposed cut during a planetary presentation at the National Academies’ Space Science Week meeting March 28. He did mention the ongoing continuing resolution funding NASA program until April 28. “At which point, something is happening,” he said. “Either a budget comes out or we go forward” with another CR.


Teledyne completes $789 million takeover of Britain’s e2v

Space News - March 28, 2017 - 6:14pm

WASHINGTON — Fresh off of winning a $10 million contract to supply infrared detectors for Europe’s Jupiter-bound Juice spacecraft, Teledyne Technologies has absorbed a British firm that builds space cameras.

Thousand Oaks, California-based Teledyne announced March 28 the completion of its $789 million acquisition of e2v, a Chelmsford, U.K. company that builds space-qualified imagers and arrays, semiconductors, and other products. Cameras on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet mission, the Peruvian government’s PerúSAT-1 and NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter were build by e2v.

Outside of space, e2v supplies imaging sensors and custom camera solutions for the machine vision market, and RF components and subsystems for healthcare, industrial and defense applications. The company reported $295 million in sales for the year ended March 31, 2016.

“Every business within e2v is highly complementary to Teledyne and will contribute to our balanced portfolio of highly engineered products,” said Teledyne chief executive Robert Mehrabian. “From industrial machine vision to space-based imaging, microwave devices spanning radar to radiotherapy, and specialty semiconductors through micro electro-mechanical systems, our respective capabilities and engineering-centric cultures are truly a great fit.”

The acquisition gives Teledyne Technologies a stronger presence in the U.K., where it was already present, and greater reach into Europe.

Its Teledyne Defence business, based in the U.K., is supplying repeater equipment for OneWeb’s first 900 satellites, which are being built by the Airbus and OneWeb joint venture OneWeb Satellites. 

Teledyne Scientific & Imaging, also in Thousand Oaks, California, received the contract March 20 from the French space agency CNES worth $9.98 million to supply infrared detectors and electronics for the ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, or Juice, mission.


NASA Announces Upcoming International Space Station Crew Assignments

NASA Breaking News - March 28, 2017 - 4:13pm
Five NASA astronauts have been assigned to upcoming spaceflights. Joe Acaba, Ricky Arnold, Nick Hague, Serena Auñón-Chancellor and Shannon Walker all have begun training for missions launching later this year and throughout 2018.

NASA Launches App for Amazon Fire TV

NASA Breaking News - March 28, 2017 - 2:37pm
NASA has released its popular app for a new platform, Amazon Fire TV. This version joins previous releases of the app for iOS, Android and Apple TV devices

NASA Unveils New Searchable Video, Audio and Imagery Library for the Public

NASA Breaking News - March 28, 2017 - 1:15pm
NASA officially has launched a new resource to help the public search and download out-of-this-world images, videos and audio files by keyword and metadata searches from NASA.gov.

Agreement on goals, but no easy answer for future of national security space launch, experts say

Space News - March 28, 2017 - 11:32am


WASHINGTON -— While there’s wide agreement on the end goals for U.S. national security space launch, it’s getting there that’s the problem.

“Everybody agrees on the long term,” said William LaPlante, who served as the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition during the Obama administration. “Everybody wants something like launch [as a] service, leveraging commercial, two independent – at least – ways to get into space and do it with domestic U.S. technology.”

But getting to those goals is the hard part, and LaPlante warned that people might need to temper their expectations. Everyone has different immediate focuses, and the disparate parts don’t necessarily always align.

“We want competition, we want off the Russian [RD-180] engines, and we want an ability to tap into the commercial market. In the next five years, probably you’re not going to get any of those, and that’s a very, very hard fact to realize,” he said March 23 at “Space Security: Issues for the New U.S. Administration,” a one-day conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Prague Security Studies Institute here. “You can’t get two of those three and I’m worried you can’t get one of those three.”

The Defense Department is moving away from a block-buy model where all launch contracts were given to United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture established in 2006 at the Pentagon’s behest after it became clear the two launch service providers couldn’t survive as independent competitors.

But DoD is still trying to sort out what exactly it wants to see from a competitive market, LaPlante said, adding that he believes the Pentagon will likely pick on cost for the near future.

“Because [both ULA and SpaceX are] certified, the source-selection criteria ends up coming down largely to a few risk items that are specific to that launch and something called price,” LaPlante said. “The price points are going to be the discriminator the next three years.”

However, there are still areas where the Pentagon can broaden its scope of criteria for launches, said LaPlante, who left the Air Force in late 2015 to become the vice president for intelligence at the National Security Engineering Center, a federally funded R&D center operated by Mitre Corp.

“The next thing, which we have not done, is you could say, ‘Well what is the risk to the schedule?’ Particularly for the national security launches,” LaPlante said. He pointed to NROL-79, ULA’s recent Atlas 5 launch for the National Reconnaissance Office, noting that the early March timing was “very critical” on when the satellite reached orbit.

In addition to a focus on reducing launch costs, there has also been a focus in the launch sector of ending ULA’s Atlas 5 dependance on a Russian-made rocket engine, the RD-180. Both Aerojet Rocketdyne and Blue Origin are competing to be the replacement engine for ULA’s next space vehicle, the Vulcan.

John Schumacher, vice president of Aerojet’s Washington operations, said the company is on pace to produce their AR-1 engine by 2019. Brett Alexander, director of business development and strategy for Blue Origin, likewise said the company is preparing testing firings for its BE-4 engine.

But Alexander also cautioned that the space community must be careful that ending use of the RD-180 doesn’t do more harm than good.

“If ULA is going to be legislated out of using one of their engines and forced to compete, then there’s an obligation, I think, from the national security perspective to maintain an environment where that secret sauce is not lost,” Alexander said. “[ULA] could go away easily and we would lose something. We would be back to a monopoly for the time being, but also we’d lose that heritage we’ve had for 50 years.

The concern over debates and launch is “deja vu all over again,”  added Alexander, who worked for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under the President George W. Bush Administration.

“Every five years we go through this existential crisis on space launch and something fundamentally changes,” he said. “We went through it in the early 70s when we got rid of the Saturn 5 and went to the space shuttle. We went through it in the 80s when the Space Shuttle Challenger accident happened and we took national security payloads off a dedicated shuttle; and then it happened again in the early 90s when we did the [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] program creation and space launch modernization program.

“It is a precipitous time for national security launch, but it always is and the question is: we went from fully commercial to fully government — where is the happy medium going forward?” he added.

Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS, said that as the market is maturing and developing very rapidly, people need to stop thinking about launch as just rockets and view it as more of a service.

“That’s a different kind of acquisition strategy than the strategy that says I’m trying to build and fly a rocket,” he said, adding that it involves considering “what kind of risks is the government developing in its acquisition strategy, is the government willing to take, and how does it manage that?”

As long as the Defense Department has two major providers for launch services, Hunter said he could foresee the agency taking an approach similar to how the U.S. Navy purchases ships, an approach he called “allocated competition.”

“They know they want to have two shipyards to build destroyers and they compete between them, but they compete in a pretty low-key way because everyone in the system understands that neither one is going to be allowed to go out of business,” he said. “So they’re kind of competing for market share more than they’re competing for existence or competing in a true head-to-head, winner-take-all fashion.”


Static firing of SpaceX reused Falcon Monday clears way for launch Thursday

Space News - March 28, 2017 - 9:46am

SpaceX performed a static fire of a reused Falcon first stage Monday, clearing the way for a launch attempt Thursday.

The first stage fired its nine main engines briefly while on the pad at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A, part of standard pre-launch preparations for Falcon 9 missions.

The test, previously scheduled for Sunday, allows plans to proceed for a launch attempt Thursday at 6 p.m.Eastern of the SES-10 satellite.

The launch will be the first to use a previously flown first stage, in this case a stage that launched a Dragon cargo spacecraft last April. [Spaceflight Now]

More News

Satellite connectivity provider Global Eagle Entertainment is facing a mid-May deadline to provide financial results or have its stock delisted. The Nasdaq exchange warned the company earlier this month it has until May 19 to provide 2016 financial results or submit a compliance plan. The company delayed the release of its financial results after the abrupt departures in February of its CEO and CFO. The company’s shares are trading about 60 percent below its 52-week high. [SpaceNews]

A member of the new administration’s “beachhead” team at NASA has taken a permanent position at the agency. NASA announced Monday that Jen Rae Wang will be the new associate administrator for the office of communications, directing internal and external communications for the agency. Wang was part of the so-called “beachhead” team of advisers assigned to NASA by the Trump administration after inauguration. She previously worked as deputy chief of staff for Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) [NASA]

NASA’s Juno spacecraft completed its fifth close approach to Jupiter Monday. The spacecraft made its closest approach to the planet in its elliptical orbit shortly before 5 a.m. Eastern Monday, and project officials confirmed later in the day that the spacecraft was working well and collected data during the close approach. The spacecraft arrived at Jupiter last July and has remained in its initial 53-day orbit after mission managers concluded last month that problems with the spacecraft’s propulsion system precluded lowering the spacecraft into a 14-day orbit as originally intended. [NASA/JPL]

An Earth observation spacecraft NASA is decommissioning this week will remain in orbit through the middle of the century. NASA announced earlier this month that it was shutting down the Earth Observing 1 (EO-1) spacecraft on Thursday, more than 16 years after launch and far longer than its planned one-year mission. A decision made in 2007 to use the spacecraft’s remaining propellant to maintain its orbit, rather than lower it, means that the spacecraft will remain in orbit until 2056, longer than the 25-year post-mission lifetime required by orbital debris mitigation guidelines. At the time of the decision, uncertainties in the solar activity models indicated that the spacecraft could remain in orbit more than 25 years even if its altitude was lowered with its remaining propellant. [SpaceNews]

An terrestrial-based in-flight connectivity network under development could compete with satellite based systems. SmartSky Networks raised $66 million earlier this year and expects to complete its network in the continental U.S. by the end of the year. SmartSky says its network will provide airline passengers with connection speeds similar to 4G networks. SmartSky, though, played down concerns that it could pose a threat to satellite-based systems. [SpaceNews]

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Ivanka Trump will hold an event today at the National Air and Space Museum. DeVos and Trump, appearing with museum officials and NASA astronaut Kay Hire, will discuss science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education opportunities for visiting students, and introduce a screening of the movie Hidden Figures. The purpose of the event, according to the Education Department, is to “highlight the importance of education in STEM fields and related opportunities for young women.” [Dept. of Education]

Scientists are charged up about unusual sand patterns seen on Saturn’s moon Titan. A new study suggests that static electricity could explain the formation of a set of dunes seen on the moon’s surface that formed in the direction opposite the prevailing winds. Lab tests showed that hydrocarbon molecules can maintain an electric charge for extended periods, allowing them to clump together and form dunes. [New Scientist]


Your hypothetical questions, answered: SpaceX prepares to refly rocket booster

Planetary Resources - March 28, 2017 - 7:00am
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster recovered by a drone ship last year will be reflown later this week, marking what could be a new milestone in the quest for affordable spaceflight.

Decommissioned Earth science satellite to remain in orbit for decades

Space News - March 28, 2017 - 6:45am

WASHINGTON — A NASA Earth science satellite whose mission is ending this week will remain in orbit through the middle of the century, far longer than the limit set by orbital debris mitigation guidelines.

NASA announced earlier this month that it was shutting down the Earth Observing 1 (EO-1) spacecraft on March 30. NASA launched the spacecraft in November 2000 as part of its New Millennium technology demonstration program, originally for a one-year mission.

NASA, in cooperation with several other agencies, extended the life of EO-1 several times, with a final decision in the 2015 senior review of extended NASA Earth science missions to terminate the mission. That decision was made in part on the precession of the spacecraft’s orbit that made its data less useful.

As part of the decommissioning process, the spacecraft will drain its energy sources to avoid exploding, one of the standard practices adopted by U.S. government agencies to mitigate the creation of orbital debris.

EO-1, however, will not comply with another standard practice that calls for spacecraft in low Earth orbit to reenter within 25 years of the end of its mission. NASA, in a statement earlier this month about the decommissioning of EO-1, estimates the spacecraft will reenter in 2056, 39 years from now.

That extended post-mission lifetime in orbit stems from a decision made in 2007 to extend EO-1’s mission. The project sought and received from NASA a waiver to those orbital debris mitigation guidelines, allowing it to use its remaining fuel to maintain its orbit at an altitude of about 700 kilometers rather than lower its orbit to reduce its orbital lifetime.

The project argued that the data EO-1 provided was worth extending its mission. “EO-1 is currently producing good science supporting NASA’s Earth Science Objectives and the national Earth Observing system,” project officials stated in an October 2007 document requesting the waiver. An extended mission, they argued, would also support what was then known as the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, later named Landsat 8 and launched in 2013.

The analyses of the spacecraft’s orbit included in the waiver request noted that the extension would keep the spacecraft in orbit far longer that mandated by orbital debris mitigation guidelines. The orbital lifetimes varied significantly, though, based on the model of solar activity used: a more active sun expands the upper atmosphere and increases drag on orbiting spacecraft, accelerating their decay.

Models used in the 2007 analysis projected far lower levels of solar activity than those in a similar study five years earlier. That meant that, even in cases where the spacecraft used its remaining propellant available at the time to lower its orbital perigee to about 600 kilometers, it could remain in orbit until mid-century, which would remain in violation of the debris mitigation standards.

The project, in its waiver request, concluded that extending the mission would give the spacecraft a post-mission orbital lifetime of 32 years. The reentry of the spacecraft itself, it added, did not pose a risk to people or property on the ground, with almost all spacecraft components expected to burn up in the atmosphere. NASA approved the waiver within two weeks of its submission.

Both the observations of the Earth provided by EO-1, as well as technologies demonstrated for use on other spacecraft, were worth the extended mission. “EO-1 has changed the way spectral Earth measurements are being made and used by the science community,” said Betsy Middleton, EO-1 project scientist at NASA Goddard, in a statement.

However, EO-1 mission had been criticized in some senior reviews for limited scientific benefit from the data provided by its instruments. The 2015 report noted that the senior review panel “was disappointed that the EO-1 team continued to emphasize EO-1’s ability to acquire rapid imagery and potential to test future instruments rather than provide evidence of the scientific use and specific users for EO-1 data as requested.”

“The mission continues to operate as a technology demonstration project but desires to be funded and considered as supporting science, yet limited contribution to the NASA Earth science mission was provided,” the same report later stated, complaining that EO-1 project members were “unresponsive” to criticisms from prior senior reviews about the documentation and distribution of data products from the mission.


Global Eagle receives Nasdaq warning after missing SEC deadline

Space News - March 27, 2017 - 4:24pm

WASHINGTON — Satellite connectivity provider Global Eagle Entertainment has been given until May 19 to release its 2016 financial results to avoid the risk of being dropped from the Nasdaq stock exchange.

In February, Global Eagle’s stock tumbled when it disclosed the abrupt departures of its chief executive and chief financial officer and warned the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission it was going to miss its March 16 deadline for filing a 10-K detailing the company’s 2016 financial results.

Last week, Nasdaq gave Global Eagle 60 days to either file the overdue 10-K or submit a plan for regaining compliance with Nasdaq’s listing rules. In a March 24 press release disclosing the violation, Global Eagle noted that submitting a compliance plan that satisfies Nasdaq could give the company until as late as Sept. 12 to report its 2016 earnings.

“If NASDAQ does not accept the Company’s plan, the Company will have the opportunity to appeal that decision to a NASDAQ Hearings Panel before any delisting occurs,” Global Eagle said.

Global Eagle’s stock has been trading about 60 percent below its 52-week high of $9.73 a share. It closed at $3.13 a share March 27, up 7 percent over the previous week’s close. 

At least six law firms have launched class-action lawsuits on behalf investors who bought Global Eagle shares between mid-2016 and the Feb. 20 departure of the company’s CEO and CFO.


Will SmartSky’s ground game erode satellite’s in-flight connectivity high ground?

Space News - March 27, 2017 - 4:06pm

A six-year-old company headquartered near Charlotte, North Carolina’s busy international airport raised $66 million this February as it nears completion of an air-to-ground network of 250 cellular towers. When finished, those towers will point close to 20,000 beams at passenger planes crossing the continental United States.

Before the end of 2017, SmartSky Networks expects to activate what would be only the second terrestrial network for in-flight connectivity in North America (Gogo’s debuted in 2008) and possibly the world (Inmarsat’s European air-to-ground network is also nearing completion).

Today, the North American in-flight connectivity (IFC) market is dominated by five companies — Gogo, Panasonic Avionics, Global Eagle Entertainment, Inmarsat and ViaSat — all vying to wring more dollars out of the most saturated, and most lucrative, skies in the world.

“On busy routes such as New York to San Francisco or New York to Los Angeles, approximately 80 percent of the flights provide IFC services,” says Euroconsult’s Capucine Fargier. “This is partly due to the fact that North America is currently the only region with an operating [air-to-ground] network. North America is currently the biggest market in terms of aircraft fleet, traffic and aircraft equipped with IFC systems.”

SmartSky is stepping directly onto turf held only by Gogo, whose network of roughly the same number of towers catalysed the IFC market in North America using 3 megahertz of licensed spectrum. Gogo started building its business on the ground a decade ago and has since gone higher, buying large quantities of capacity from satellite operators such as Intelsat and SES.

Gogo outlasted AT&T in the air-to-ground, or ATG segment, and inspired Inmarsat (in part) to build their own hybrid ATG and satellite IFC network over Europe. Chicago-based Gogo continues to upgrade its ATG network to use more spectrum while also preparing for new high-throughput capacity from OneWeb’s forthcoming low-Earth orbit constellation.

Will SmartSky, likewise, be both competitor and customer for the satellite industry? Not clear. While Gogo has highlighted satellite as the future, SmartSky brags on its website that the success of its network will be thanks to beamforming technology, 60MHz of spectrum, and the use of a “platform of cell towers rather than satellites.”

Friend or foe?

“I would start out by saying that’s not what we concluded,” said Ryan Stone, president of SmartSky, when asked what convinced him an air-to-ground system was the best way to provide connectivity to aircraft. “What we did was we said, ‘there is a problem in high-density areas over land that air-to-ground can solve. That’s a fancy way of saying air-to-ground doesn’t compete with satellite; they complement each other, just like business aviation and commercial aviation complement each other. Airlines don’t compete with business jets, or the other way around. They serve two different purposes.”

Stone, a former U.S. Navy submarine officer who still serves as chairman of a private air charter firm he co-founded in 2004, said SmartSky determined its network needed to be affordable, have good forward speed, good return speed and low latency. It also needed to be a cost-effective investment. SmartSky advertises a 4G passenger connectivity experience that feels like being at home, without the latency that comes with satellite connectivity.

“At that point there is only one option, and that’s an air to ground network,” he said.

The secret weapon

At the core of the SmartSky network is the use of 60 MHz of unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4 GHz band. Prior to the Federal Communications Commission approving its plans last September, SmartSky had kept quiet about where it had found the spectrum to power a 4G-level service. The FCC certified a SmartSky radio system that, though it relies on spectrum others use for terrestrial applications, only employs it high above terra firma. Stone said getting that certification was challenging from both a physics and a regulatory perspective. SmartSky had to make sure frequency reuse won’t cause loads of interference for an already heavily used band, and then convince the FCC that the radio would work as promised. SmartSky accumulated roughly two dozen patents for its ATG radio to protect the technology developed for this feat.

“We weren’t the first people in the world to say, ‘wouldn’t 2.4GHz be an interesting place to go,’ it’s just everyone else in the industry decided it would be much easier to take a licensed approach,” Stone said. “We felt that with 2.4GHz being a mostly universal frequency around the world, it would be fantastic if we could come up with a system that can do this.”

Room for satellite

Stone downplays the concern that SmartSky’s confidence in its terrestrial connectivity solution means satellite companies have a new competitor to fear. “A lot of our early-bird customers have satellite systems, and they also want air to ground. They want hybrid for redundancy, they want it for the difference in capabilities, and also it provides economic benefits,” he said.

An obvious use is aircraft that fly beyond the continental United States (they will need satellite if they want to stay connected for their entire journey) but that’s not the only scenario. Stone said SmartSky customers who want to use satellite and ATG are often seeking least-cost routing, meaning they can choose the lowest-priced means of sending and receiving data depending on what is available.

“Bizjet operators have told us that even after installing our equipment, they think they could save $100,000 a year by doing least-cost routing, bouncing between the two systems,” he said.

Another use case Stone listed is balancing satellite’s generally asymmetric bandwidth, where speedy downloads typically go hand in hand with sluggish uploads. Stone said aircraft can receive forward-link services where data is sent to the aircraft, like streaming video, via satellites very effectively, but return links get trickier. Satellite return links are often only a fraction of the throughput of forward links, and new aero-applications such as aircraft health monitoring require getting data off of planes in greater quantities. Stone said SmartSky’s ATG network will have forward link speeds akin to Ka- and Ku-band high-throughput satellites, but with a return link nearly just as fast.

John Apostolides, the senior vice president at Macquarie Capital who leads many of the firm’s satellite, IFC and maritime broadband advisory and capital-raising efforts, said he sees a move away from airlines signing exclusively to one connectivity provider for their entire fleet.

“Historically, as an example, if you flew American or Delta, you knew exactly who the connectivity provider was,” Apostolides said. “Now it’s not that clear. When you look at American, they are using Gogo, Panasonic and ViaSat and may be looking to use some other providers for certain routes or types of planes. Southwest recently made an announcement where it has Global Eagle and Panasonic providing service to its whole fleet. There are likely other airlines that will be doing the same thing over time.”

Chasing different markets? 

Euroconsult’s Fargier estimates 75 percent of commercial connected aircraft are in North America, with about 60 percent of them using Gogo’s ATG. Some commercial airlines might be OK with investing in multiple connectivity systems, but given the maturity of this market, SmartSky’s foothold in aviation may have to come through greenfield opportunities in business aviation.

“[Seeing how] it requires significant investment and takes time to equip a fleet with connectivity, the impact of SmartSky on the commercial aviation market might take some time, depending on the investment cycles of each airline,” she said. “The decisions of the largest airlines might be decisive for the success of one or another service provider. First impacts from SmartSky are expected on the business aviation market, where the untapped market is larger and where decision-makers can make faster decisions.”

Many of SmartSky’s prominent business partners — Bombardier, Jet Aviation, Duncan Aviation — are in business aviation, as is the company’s first “early bird” customer, Davinci Jets (the air charter company SmarSky’s CEO co-founded). Apostolides agrees that SmartSky’s behavior suggests it is trying to carve a different niche in IFC.

“It seems that SmartSky is trying to do something different both in terms of its business model and spectrum. They are probably not, at least at first, going to try and tackle American, Delta or United, or even JetBlue and Southwest. They are probably not also going for certain larger government or corporate jets. It’s more likely going to be smaller, like six-seater corporate jets, or having a different sales channel through aircraft distributors,” he said.

Will SmartSky’s pursuit of business aviation, and aviation in general, involve the satellite industry? Time will tell. Stone said he couldn’t talk about satellite operators that have reached out to partner, citing non-disclosure agreements. What’s for sure is that the satellite industry knows it has a new neighbor, and SmartSky says it wants to be friends.

“I think I could generically say that the industry recognizes what we’ve been saying for a while, which is the two are very complementary technologies and as such there are benefits to working together,” Stone said.


NASA Astronaut Jack Fischer Available for Interviews Before Space Station Mission

NASA Breaking News - March 27, 2017 - 3:06pm
NASA astronaut Jack Fischer, who is making final preparations for an April 20 launch to the International Space Station, will be available for live satellite interviews from 8 to 9 a.m. EDT Tuesday, April 4.

New treasures from Juno: Jupiter dazzles during fourth close approach

Planetary Resources - March 27, 2017 - 3:00pm
Image processor Björn Jónsson shares some of his latest stunning images of Jupiter, created using data from NASA's Juno spacecraft.

Wang Appointed to Head NASA’s Office of Communications

NASA Breaking News - March 27, 2017 - 12:42pm
Jen Rae Wang has been selected by Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot as NASA's Associate Administrator for the Office of Communications. Wang joins NASA with more than a decade of experience at the highest levels of state and federal government in public, legislative, and media affairs both domestically and internationally, strategic communicati

A short history of lunar space tourism

Space News - March 27, 2017 - 11:23am

When Elon Musk announced plans last month that SpaceX wants to send two people on a commercial mission around the moon as soon as late 2018, it was a surprise, but also hardly unique.

Musk, in a conference call with reporters Feb. 27, said that SpaceX had been approached by two individuals interested flying around the moon. SpaceX has proposed flying them on a version of its Dragon 2 spacecraft under development, launched on a Falcon Heavy. The mission would launch in the fourth quarter of 2018, pending the development schedules of both the rocket and the spacecraft.

“This is, I think, a really exciting thing that’s happened, that we’ve been approached to do a crewed mission beyond the moon,” Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said. He declined to identify the customers, but said they had already paid a “significant” deposit on a ticket price comparable or slightly more expensive than a trip to the International Space Station. “They’re very serious about it.”

As proposed, the Falcon Heavy would launch the Dragon 2 spacecraft onto a “free return” trajectory, making a close flyby of the moon before looping back, returning about a week after launch. The mission, Musk said, would require few changes to the Dragon 2 under development beyond an improved communications system for deep space operations.

SpaceX, though, is not the first company to propose using vehicles either already in operation or under development to fly people around the moon. More than a decade ago, Space Adventures, the space tourism company that has arranged flights to the ISS by several private citizens, announced plans to send people to the moon as well.

The Space Adventures concept involved launching a Soyuz with an upgraded heat shield first to the International Space Station. After a 10-day stay, the Soyuz would depart the ISS and dock with a habitation module and departure stage launched on another rocket, such as a Proton. The vehicle would then fly a six-day free-return trajectory around the moon.

Space Adventures originally offered two seats at $100 million a ticket — the Soyuz’s third seat was reserved for the professional cosmonaut who would command the mission — and later increased that price to $150 million. The company said in 2012 that it had sold one ticket and was in the process of selling the second.

“Because we’ve sold the first seat, and the second seat is very close to being sold, we plan to have it launch before the 50th anniversary of the start of the Apollo program,” or February 2017, Eric Anderson, chairman of Space Adventures, said in a February 2012 video.

Anderson said at the time that he saw the circumlunar mission as a key milestone of commercial human spaceflight in general. “If two people are ready to pay $150 million each to go around the moon, that has broad and very positive implications for the overall marketplace,” he said. “That is a fantastic validation of the marketplace for private spaceflight.”

That estimated launch date for the mission has now passed, with little sign of progress by Space Adventures towards carrying out the mission, including identifying the customers it has signed up. The company remains tightlipped about who its customers are and when, or if, they might fly.

“It is not our practice to comment on any particular Space Adventures’ client’s prospective or planned mission before the client has announced it personally, regardless of vehicle, destination or mission timeframe,” company spokeswoman Stacey Tearne said Feb. 28.

Russian company RSC Energia, which has worked with Space Adventures in the past on space tourist flights to the ISS, has shown signs of developing its own lunar tourism plans. The company suggested in recent years it was in talks with a number of potential customers for a flight.

Vladimir Solntsev, head of Energia, told the Russian news service Sputnik Feb. 22 that such a mission was in development, but not until the early 2020s. “I think that RSC Energia will be ready to be the first to offer this service on the international market by 2021–2022,” he said.

Even before Space Adventures, one other company considered adapting Soyuz spacecraft for a circumlunar flight. In 2004, Constellation Services International (CSI), a startup company involved in early concepts for commercial servicing of the ISS, proposed a mission concept called Lunar Express that also involved an upgraded Soyuz flying around the moon with a habitat module and upper stage.

At the time, CSI considered seeking a national space agency as one potential customer for the mission, along with private citizens. “Would someone be willing to pay for a premier space adventure: first an initial week-long stay at ISS, and then a week-long trip around the moon like Apollo 8 or 10?” said Charles Miller, chief executive of CSI, when the concept was unveiled at a July 2004 conference. “Would another nation be willing to pay for the second seat, and send their first citizen ever around the moon?”

CSI did not make progress on the Lunar Express concept, and the company later disbanded. Miller went on to becoming a senior adviser for commercial space at NASA and briefly returned to the agency after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election to serve on the transition team.

While most previous efforts for commercial human lunar missions have focused on lunar flybys, one company attempted to develop a commercial human landing system. In December 2012, Golden Spike Company unveiled its plans to send humans to the surface of the moon and back.

“By adopting what we call a maximally pragmatic strategy, we found a way, a suite of lunar exploration architectures, that can enable our company to do its first lunar mission for a cost of between seven and eight billion dollars,” Alan Stern, the president and chief executive of Golden Spike and who is perhaps best known as the principal investigator for the New Horizons Pluto mission, said at the Washington press conference announcing its plans.

That strategy relied on using existing vehicles — including SpaceX’s Dragon — for getting to the moon, focusing its development on a two-person lunar lander and other unique systems. Stern’s cost covered development and the first mission, with subsequent missions slated to cost $1.5 billion each.

Golden Spike planned to focus its business on national space agencies, but didn’t rule out also flying tourists. “One individual who could be in a position to arrange such a mission has approached us, very seriously,” he said at the press conference, declining to name that person.

The company, Stern said at the announcement, was going to use a financing model similar to that used by Airbus and Boeing for new airliners, which relies on advance sales. Those sales, though, never publicly materialized, and the company faded away after a couple of years. Today, its website consists solely of its logo and the words “Under Construction.”

SpaceX arguably is in a better position than others to attempt such a mission. It has both all the key hardware under development and the financial resources to prepare them for such a mission, which previous efforts have lacked. Staying on schedule, though, is another matter: both Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 have suffered significant delays, and even the announcement of the mission last month was a half-hour late.

Space Adventures’ Tearne said the company was supportive of SpaceX’s plans, even if they are competitive with its own. “Our goal is to bring the experience of spaceflight to private citizens around the world, and so we would like to congratulate SpaceX and see this news as an exciting development for the industry,” she said.

And, despite the poor track record of previous companies unable to fly even one mission to the moon, Musk suggested the flight might not be a one-off mission for SpaceX. “I think it could be a significant driver of revenue,” he said, suggesting circumlunar flights could later account for 10 to 20 percent of company revenues. “I think there’s likely a market for at least one or two of these per year.”



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