Tag Archives: capitalism

Northrop Grumman to buy Orbital ATK

Capitalism in space: Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman has made a deal to acquire Orbital ATK for $9.2 billion.

This deal essentially allows Northrop Grumman to return as a player in the space industry. In recent years the company has not been visible in any major way in space. Orbital ATK gives it that.

At the same time, the flexibility and risk-taking seen at Orbital ATK that allowed them to build Antares and Cygnus for crew cargo will likely be more difficult as part of a giant corporation.

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Dragon successfully returns from ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s last new Dragon capsule today returned successfully from ISS, splashing down in the Pacific.

I had originally described this Dragon capsule as the first reused capsule. It is not. That capsule returned to Earth in July. Thank you to SCooper, one of my readers, for noting my mistake. It is now corrected.

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India hopes to resume launches before December

Despite an August 31 launch failure, India is still planning to resume launches before December.

On Friday, Mr Kiran Kumar [head of ISRO] was optimistic that the workhorse rocket would resume flights within a couple of months. “We have identified what the problem is, and we are going through simulations to make sure what we are concluding, is what has exactly happened (during the unsuccessful flight on August 31). The committee, which has been set up to go through the report is having detailed discussions and the report will come out very soon. After the committee gives its final report, we will resume the launches by November-December,” he said, on the sidelines of silver jubilee celebrations of Antrix Corporation Ltd, the corporate arm of ISRO.

They might not meet this goal, but that they are trying to resume launches in less than four months indicates that they are emulating the private sector and not most typical government agencies like NASA in this matter. Both NASA and ISRO have in the past sometimes taken years to recover from a launch failure. After SpaceX’s launchpad explosion in September 2016 they vowed to launch in less than four months, and managed to do it in five months. That ISRO is now trying to do the same indicates that the competition has forced them to up their game.

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Orbital ATK begins assembly of first orbital repair satellite

Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK has begun the assembly of Mission Extension Vehicle 1, (MEV-1), designed to attach itself to commercial satellites and extend their life.

Controlled by the company’s satellite operations team, the MEV 1 uses a reliable, low-risk docking system that attaches to existing features on a customer’s satellite. The MEV-1 provides life-extending services by taking over the orbit maintenance and attitude control functions of the client’s spacecraft. The vehicle has a 15 year design life with the ability to perform numerous dockings and repositionings during its life span.

They hope to launch before the end of 2018. Meanwhile, the legal battle between Orbital ATK’s effort to build this satellite repair mission and DARPA’s effort to subsidize SSL’s own satellite repair mission continues in Congress with the introduction of two amendments favoring Orbital ATK.

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ESA buys the first Ariane 6 launches

The European Space Agency (ESA) has purchased the first two Ariane 6 launches to place four of its Galileo GPS satellites in orbit in the 2020-21 timeframe.

This is not a big surprise, since ESA is mandated to use Arianespace’s rockets, and the space agency is the obvious candidate for making the first commitment to this new rocket’s use.

The press release does not mention the price that Arianespace is charging for these launches, but I suspect it isn’t anywhere near as cheap as they will have to charge to truly private and commercial customers. Essentially, I am willing to bet that this contract award is a bit of crony capitalism, designed to pass some extra cash from ESA to Arianespace.

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How not to land a rocket

The SpaceX blooper reel! It shows some crash footage that had not been released earlier. Also, the captions almost certainly were written by Musk himself, and if not, reek of his sense of humor, and also reveal the humbleness that he and his company bring to this effort. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you will make it hard to spot the moment when you are making a major error.

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Virgin Orbit wins launch contract

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit today announced it has signed a contract with Cloud Constellation to launch the first dozen satellites in their SpaceBelt constellation.

The initial deployment of the SpaceBelt network will be powered by a dozen ~400 kilogram satellites placed into low inclination orbits. Taking full advantage of LauncherOne as a dedicated launch service for small satellites and as a uniquely flexible service enabled by air-launch, the SpaceBelt constellation will be deployed using single-manifested launches occurring in rapid sequence. The initial launch is expected to occur as early as 2019.

This definitely puts pressure on Virgin Orbit to produce its first launches as promised.

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Space hype versus reality

Three stories today illustrate the importance of maintaining some skepticism when reading the claims of rocket companies.

I could probably also include the story earlier today about the model rocket test launch that was hyped absurdly by the company and the British newspapers that reported it.

The first story reports the comments of a local politician claiming that SpaceX will be launching from its Boca Chica Texas spaceport by the end of 2018. Interesting, but I’d rather go by what the company itself says, and what SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell says today is “Our Texas site still doing landscaping, could be avail in ~ 2 yrs; no rush given our capacity at two Fla pads.”

In other words, the local official’s prediction was a bit overstated, and therefore should not be taken too seriously.

The second story however can be taken a bit more seriously, since it is a report from an actual company official, Clay Mowry, Blue Origin’s vice president of sales, marketing and customer experience. He explains that they hope to resume New Shepard suborbital test flights before the end of the year, with manned test flights occurring in 2018. However, he says little about why there was such a long gap in New Shepard launches after they completed their last test flight in October 2016. At that time they said they would be doing more test flights in early 2017, but by the spring of 2017 had back tracked.

The claim that they might be flying again before the end of the year, however, still carries weight, in that it matches earlier statements. In other words, Blue Origin has been very careful not to make promises it cannot meet. In rocket science this care cannot always be met, but they clearly have tried hard. This is why I take Mowry’s statement that they hope to fly humans on New Shepard in 2018 with some trust.

The third story is a perfect example of how a company loses trust. Virgin Orbit is part of the Virgin set of companies run by Richard Branson, and used to be part of Virgin Galactic. Branson and Virgin Galactic have been making promises now for more than a decade, none of which have born fruit. This unreliability has made me very skeptical about anything they say, which is also why I do not report their claims much anymore. When they actually fly something I will write about it.

For awhile I thought Virgin Orbit was a different bird, as the executives there have been more careful, only making cautious promises and then more or less fulfilling them. The story above however gives me pause. Even as they admit they have had to delay their test program their president still insists that they will be able to ramp up to two launches per month by 2020. Considering the fact that no single private company has yet managed to do such a thing, in the more than half century since the beginnings of the space age, I think it is a little dangerous for this guy to make this claim, even before the company has even launched its first rocket. Virgin Orbit might do it, but such wild claims make me very suspicious of them.

And then there was today’s earlier story about Starchaser Industries. They launch a model rocket 4000 feet in the air, and from this they claim that they will be putting humans on a suborbital rocket in only two years. If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can sell you, cheap.

The bottom line here is to use some common sense and thoughtful judgment in reading stories about future space achievements. The first three stories above are actually all well written, well researched, and very careful in how they report their stories. It however is not necessarily their job to tell you whether the claims are trustworthy, especially if the claims seem reasonable based upon the available information. The last however is an example of bad journalism, rewriting a press release without doing any research at all.

In all cases, it is important to distinguish between stories about what is going to happen versus what is happening. I always prefer the latter, since a real achievement will always trump a mere prediction. And when it comes to the space industry and rocket science, predictions surely must take a back seat to reality.

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Arianespace announces new launch contracts

Capitalism in space: Arianespace today announced it has won a new launch contract for two different satellites, bringing its launch manifest to 53.

The press release contains a lot of interesting tidbits:

  • They plan to complete 11 launches in 2017, which is slightly above their yearly average in the past six years.
  • In 2018 they presently have only 7 launches planned, the lowest number since 2013.
  • Of the 53 launches, Ariane 5 will do 17, Soyuz 27, and Vega 9, suggesting a shift away from Ariane 5, which has been the company’s mainstay.
  • The private joint partnership of Airbus and Safran, now called ArianeGroup, has taken control of the business, and has begun streamlining it.
  • Arianespace has now been relegated to only handling “customer relations” and launch operations.

Overall, it looks like this European private/government partnership is doing reasonably well in the new very competitive launch market. I still expect their business to shrink in the coming years, but I think they will be around for awhile.

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Private rocket does short test flight

Capitalism in space: A private British rocket company, Starchaser Industries, successfully launched a small rocket from the back of a truck yesterday and sent it about 4,000 feet in the air.

All the articles covering this event appeared to essentially be rewrites of the company’s press release, and provide little usable information about the flight. The test launch had the rocket split into three sections at 4,000 feet and return to Earth by parachute. This apparently was the intended test goal, though one parachute did not release.

Based on what I read, I must admit I am not impressed. The head of the company made a lot of claims about flying humans on a bigger rocket soon to come, but based on this launch I think that is almost all hogwash. Essentially this launch looked like a big model rocket, with little capabilities beyond that. Previous stories about this company and its head have been equally dubious. In one, he made ridiculous claims. In another, it was reported that his bookkeeper had embezzled 200K pounds over six years from the company.

All in all, I think my real issue here is with the press. I read five different stories about this launch from so-called major British news sources like the Times of London and the Daily Telegraph, and not one had the slightest skepticism, or did the slightest research. Each journalist also appeared completely ignorant of space engineering and the history of space exploration, and seemed more interested in touting the wonders to come from this British entrepreneur. As a journalist myself I found this incredibly embarrassing.

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Russia’s Proton rocket today successfully launched a commercial satellite

The competition heats up: Russia today successfully placed a Spanish communications satellite into orbit using its Proton rocket.

Russia remains one launch behind SpaceX, 13 to 12, for 2017, but they have three more launches scheduled for September, while SpaceX has nothing planned. Overall I think it is going to be a neck and neck race between the American private company and Russia, the former perennial leader in launches, for the final 2017 lead.

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Successful test of Austrialian 3D printed rocket engine

Capitalism in space: A privately-funded 3D printed rocket engine, built at Australian university, has successfully undergone its first test firing.

The engine also tested an aerospike nozzle, which is theorized to significantly increase engine efficiency but to date has never been flow.

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ULA delays California launch because of Florida hurricane

Because some of its employees needed for a California launch in next week live in Florida, ULA has decided to delay that launch so that those employees can focus on preparing for and recovering from Hurricane Irma in Florida.

What I find interesting about this story is that it reveals that ULA, unlike SpaceX, apparently does not have more than one launch team, even though their staffing has historically been much higher. This limits their ability to do frequent launches, as well as launches from both coasts.

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Arianespace pins down source of launch abort

Arianespace has identified an issue in the electrical system in one of the Ariane 5’s solid rocket boosters as the source of the launch abort yesterday.

This is a preliminary report. They still need to find out exactly what happened and why. However, they also announced that their objective is to launch before the end of September. Moreover, they are not going to change the schedule of any of their other launches because of this.

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How the “internet of things” robs us of our rights

Link here. Key quote:

One key reason we don’t control our devices is that the companies that make them seem to think – and definitely act like – they still own them, even after we’ve bought them. A person may purchase a nice-looking box full of electronics that can function as a smartphone, the corporate argument goes, but they buy a license only to use the software inside. The companies say they still own the software, and because they own it, they can control it. It’s as if a car dealer sold a car, but claimed ownership of the motor.

This sort of arrangement is destroying the concept of basic property ownership. John Deere has already told farmers that they don’t really own their tractors but just license the software – so they can’t fix their own farm equipment or even take it to an independent repair shop. The farmers are objecting, but maybe some people are willing to let things slide when it comes to smartphones, which are often bought on a payment installment plan and traded in as soon as possible.

How long will it be before we realize they’re trying to apply the same rules to our smart homes, smart televisions in our living rooms and bedrooms, smart toilets and internet-enabled cars?

This is once again why, when I buy something, I try to find the stupidest version I can. It is why I don’t use a smart phone, since all the companies that work with them do not respect my privacy. It is why I avoid Google and Facebook, for the same reasons. In every case, there is an immoral component to the actions of these companies, and it is the personal responsibility of each individual to not participate in or endorse such behavior.

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New Generation looks to establish private spaceport

Capitalism in space The new private partnership led by Canon, dubbed New Generation Small Rocket Development Planning, is now searching for a location to build its own private spaceport in order to bypass restrictions placed on launches at Japan’s two government launch sites.

While JAXA can launch at any time during the year, the deal with the local fishing council limits the number of launches per year to 17, and requires JAXA to coordinate its launches for the year with that council. For New Generation, which wants to compete in the smallsat rocket business and will thus likely need to launch dozens, if not hundreds, of times per year, this arrangement won’t work.

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A look at UAE’s space program, its overall goals and its Mars probe Hope

Link here. Much of what this article discusses, the use of space to help diversify the UAE’s economy, have already been noted previously by this same site and linked to by me in an earlier post. However, the article also provides some details about the scientific mission of their Mars Hope probe, set to launch in 2020.

[Hope, or the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM)] will be the first probe to study Martian climate through the daily and seasonal cycles. It will explore the connection between the upper and lower atmosphere, study the events in the lower atmosphere such as changes in temperature and dust storms, and how they affect the upper atmosphere in the following days or weeks.

It will also seek to answer some of the key questions that we have about Mars such as why the planet is losing its atmosphere to space, by tracking the behaviour of hydrogen and oxygen, which are the building blocks of water. With the discovery of periodical water on the surface of the Red Planet, Hope will be able to answer if the source of the Martian water is from the atmosphere. This research will create the first global image of weather on Mars during the days, weeks, months, and years, adding a new dimension to human knowledge on how the Red Planet’s atmosphere really works.

Overall, it appears that the primary goal so far has been to train engineers in the building of satellites. This is a good thing, and you have to start somewhere, but the UAE nonetheless has a big hill to climb before it can compete in the global satellite market.

Note too that it appears that all the investment capital for this effort is coming from the Emirates’ leadership. If one of those newly trained engineers wanted to form their own company, would he or she be allowed to obtain capital elsewhere, thus becoming a truly independent and competing operation? I suspect not, which means that this will limit the long term diversification of this industry, despite that being the UAE’s number one goal.

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SpaceX completes static fire tests of Falcon Heavy first stages

Capitalism in space: SpaceX announced today that they have completed static fire testing of the three first stages that will be used on the first Falcon Heavy test flight, tentatively scheduled for sometime in November.

That November launch remains very tentative. The launchpad still needs to be prepped, and these stages still have to be shipped to Florida, assembled, and then undergo at least one static fire test, as a unit. Despite these caveats, it is clear that that SpaceX is getting closer to that first Falcon Heavy launch.

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Dream Chaser test vehicle completes captive carry flight

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada’s engineering test vehicle for testing the glide abilities of its planned Dream Chaser shuttle craft successfully completed a captive carry test flight today.

After a long delay following the award of their cargo contract, it appears they are finally moving forward.

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Problems with 6 of 72 cubesats launched by Soyuz

Of the 72 cubesats launched by a Russian Soyuz rocket on July 14, 6 have unexpected problems.

Four of the 72 miniature satellites sent into orbit July 14 on a Russian Soyuz 2.1a rocket alongside the primary customer, the Kanopus-V-IK Russian Earth-imaging satellite, are not responding to commands from their operators and two additional cubesats are not in their intended orbits.

It appears that a variety of causes are behind the problems, not all of which are related to the Soyuz.

Posted from Torrey, Utah, just outside Capitol Reef.

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SES flips satellites between SpaceX and Arianespace launches

Capitalism in space: In order to accelerate the launch of a needed satellite, SES
to flip the satellites between contracted SpaceX and Arianespace launches.

Their ability to do this now demonstrates the wisdom of SES’s policy in the past decade of aggressively supporting SpaceX. The result is that the company now has a much greater flexibility in how it gets its satellites into orbit.

Posted as we drove through Bynum, Montana.

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Dream Chaser engineering vehicle completes tow tests

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada’s engineering test vehicle for testing its Dream Chaser design has completed tow tests at Edward Air Force Base in California and is now being prepared for flight tests.

Posted on the back roads of Montana during our drive from Glacier to Capital Reef.

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Firefly emerges from bankruptcy

Capitalism in space: Firefly Aerospace, the company that was forced into bankruptcy when it lost a Virgin Galactic lawsuit for stealing their proprietary engineering, has emerged from bankruptcy.

The full article is behind a paywall, but it appears that the company includes its same management staff under a new owner.

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Private Japanese company to test fly again by December

Capitalism in space: Interstellar Technologies, the private Japanese rocket company attempting to enter the launch market with a low cost suborbital rocket, will attempt a second test flight before the end of the year.

Their first test flight failed to reach space when they had a communications problem and had to terminate the mission early.

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SpaceX’s flight suit for manned trips to ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX this week unveiled the flight suit that passengers will wear during their Dragon flights to and from ISS.

This is not strictly a spacesuit. It has limited capabilities, and can essentially only be used during the ferry flights. Nonetheless, I guarantee it as well as Boeing’s were developed for far less and much quicker than anything NASA could have come up with.

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SpaceX launches commercial satellite, lands 1st stage

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched Taiwan’s first homemade commercial satellite.

They also landed the first stage successfully on their barge.d

After a short hike this morning Diane and I decided to relax the rest of the day. Time to catch up on other stuff.

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