Tag Archives: competition

Problems with Russia force private company to deemphasize ISS cameras

UrtheCast has been forced to write off almost $8 million because it has not been able fully use its two cameras installed on the Russian half of ISS.

The Vancouver-based company said its was writing off some of the cameras’ value because of strained relations with their Russian hosts, who recently approached UrtheCast with a request to renegotiate their deal. Russian cosmonauts installed two UrtheCast cameras on the exterior of space station in 2014. The medium-resolution camera, called Theia, captures 50-kilometer swaths of multispectral imagery sharp enough to discern features 5-meters across. The high-resolution camera, called Iris, records ultra-high-def-quality, full-color video of the Earth and still images at a resolution of one meter per pixel. Iris entered service only last year due to technical issues.

Wade Larson, UrtheCast’s co-founder and chief executive, told investors during a Nov. 10 conference call that tensions between Russia and the U.S. and its allies are spilling over into UrtheCast’s agreement with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and Russia’s lead space station contractor RSC Energia. “There’s been some geopolitical challenges that have influenced this relationship and candidly … that has impacted our ability to task these cameras operationally,” Larson said.

In the long run, this is very bad for the Russians. It shows them to be an unreliable business partner, which will increasingly limit their ability to attract business from outside Russia.

Luxembourg establishes its own legal framework for asteroid mining

The competition heats up: Luxembourg on November 11 announced that it is establishing its own legal framework to protect the profits of any private asteroid mining effort.

Because the UN Outer Space Treaty forbids them from claiming any territory in space, this new law essentially says that Luxembourg law will instead be applied specifically to the resources mined. Or to put it in more colloquial terms, “Finders, Keepers,” though it comes with a lot of complex further regulation required to satisfy that treaty.

The draft law also lays down the regulations for the authorization and the supervision of space resources utilization missions, including both the exploration and use of such resources. Whoever intends to undertake a space resources utilization mission will be required to obtain an authorization to do so, for each specific and determined mission. The text sets forth the necessity for a book of obligations for any mission, such as activities to be carried in or out of Luxembourg, to allow government supervision of the activities of operators and regulating their rights and obligations. The legislation is expected to enter into effect in early 2017.

This complexity will cost money unnecessarily, and also require an unnecessary bureaucracy with a great deal of power over the actions of space companies. It illustrates again how really bad the Outer Space Treaty is, and how it will oppress future spacefarers. The sooner the treaty is dumped the better. If we don’t do it here on Earth, I guarantee that the people of space will do it, as soon as they become self-sufficient enough to thumb their noses at the ground-pounders on the mother planet.

First images from Pathfinder-1 test smallsat released

The competition heats up: Spaceflight Industries today released the first images taken from its Pathfinder-1 test smallsat.

As I noted when Pathfinder-1 was successfully launched, the success of this private mission is significant. They are demonstrating that a very tiny and inexpensive satellite can do things that in the past required big and expensive satellites.

Chinese astronauts to return to Earth this week

The competition heats up: After spending a month in orbit in their country’s second orbiting space station module, two Chinese astronauts are expected to return to Earth this week.

The article provides a lot of details about China’s upcoming space station plans. For example, this will likely be the last manned mission to the Tiangong-2 module. It will be used next year to test the docking of an unmanned freighter, but the next manned mission will be to the core unit of their full-sized space station, now set to launch in 2018 on a Long March 5 rocket, which successfully completed its first test launch two weeks ago.

NASA considers alternatives to Orion

The competition heats up: Faced with long delays and an ungodly budget, NASA is now considering alternatives to replace the Orion capsule.

NASA has initiated a process that raises questions about the future of its Orion spacecraft. So far, this procedural effort has flown largely under the radar, because it came in the form of a subtle Request for Information (RFI) that nominally seeks to extend NASA’s contract to acquire future Orion vehicles after Exploration Mission-2, which likely will fly sometime between 2021 and 2023.

Nevertheless, three sources familiar with the RFI, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told Ars there is more to the request than a simple extension for Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin. Perhaps most radically, the RFI may even open the way for a competitor, such as Boeing or SpaceX, to substitute its own upgraded capsule for Orion in the mid-2020s.

The article also has this juicy quote:

The new RFI states that Lockheed will continue with development of Orion through a second uncrewed flight set for late 2018 and Exploration Mission-2, the first crewed mission, as early as 2021. However, once this “base vehicle” configuration is established, the RFI signals NASA’s intent to find a less expensive path forward. “This RFI serves as an examination of the market, which is an initial step in pursuing any of the available acquisition strategies, including the exercising of existing options,” the document states.

The end of SLS and Orion is beginning.

Europe and Airbus Safran ink deal to build Ariane 6

The competition heats up: The European Space Agency and the joint partnership of Airbus and Safran have signed their deal for the development of Europe’s next rocket, Ariane 6, that will replace Ariane 5 and is aimed at competing more effectively against SpaceX in the world’s launch market.

Using the X-37B as a space ambulance?

Researchers have proposed using the Air Force’s X-37B as an ambulance in space.

Halberg said that an effective astronaut taxi should, among other things, be able to stay at the ISS for two years or more at a stretch; be capable of getting people back to Earth rapidly, within three hours or so; impose minimal G-loads on occupants; have the ability to land close to a hospital; and allow patients to lie in a supine position. These requirements all point to a space plane rather than a capsule, Halberg said — meaning SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, which are scheduled to start flying NASA astronauts to and from the ISS within the next year or two, wouldn’t make the grade as ambulances.

Another private crew-carrying vehicle that’s currently in development, Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser space plane, is an intriguing option that bears further investigation, Robinson and Halberg said. But their initial concept study focused on the robotic X-37B, chiefly because the 29-foot-long (8.8 meters) military space plane has already racked up millions of miles in orbit, while Dream Chaser has yet to launch.

Makes sense, though once Dream Chaser is flying it will have the potential to provide the same service with far greater capabilities.

Musk predicts mid-December return to flight

In a cable news interview today, Elon Musk reiterated recent reports that SpaceX expects to resume launches by the middle of December.

That the head of Inmarsat, one of SpaceX’s satellite customers, has confirmed this plan and appears to have no problem with it, suggests to me that SpaceX is on solid ground and that they have pinpointed a solution to the launchpad explosion that will not require any major re-engineering.

Vector teams up with private company for low-cost launch tracking capability

The competition heats up: The new smallsat rocket company Vector Space Systems has signed a deal with Atlas Space Operations, a private company focused on providing low-cost launch and satellite tracking capabilities.

As early as 2018, Vector Space Systems will be able to provide a space-to-ground communication network from the Galactic Sky division to its customers through ATLAS LINKS™ – the world’s first mobile, rapidly deployable, and electronically steered array RF ground system that is revolutionizing the space industry. Designed for communications with both low-earth orbit and deep space missions, and capable of rapid deployment anywhere on the globe – ATLAS LINKS™ arrays will enable Vector Space Systems to simultaneously track signals over multiple frequencies, effectively eliminating high civil engineering costs associated with the installation of other systems that require expensive antennae and pedestals. Satellite ground architecture and data services will support Vector Space Systems’ launch operations from the ground and in-orbit, transforming satellite telemetry tracking and command systems (TT&C) and ground operations for space startups.

In other words, Atlas is in direct competition with the antenna network of NASA’s Deep Space Network, and is designed to be cheaper and more flexible.

Luxembourg invests $28 million into asteroid mining company

The competition heats up: In its continuing effort to make money from space, the government of Luxembourg has invested $28 million in the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources.

As part of the deal, Planetary Resources is establishing a European headquarters in Luxembourg that will conduct research and development activities. Georges Schmit, a member of the Space Resources advisory board to the Government of Luxembourg, wil join Planetary’s board. “We plan to launch the first commercial asteroid prospecting mission by 2020 and look forward to collaborating with our European partner in this pivotal new industry,” said Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources chief executive.

As with Luxembourg’s other deals, the investment has required the company to shift many of its operations from the U.S. to Luxembourg.

Midland spaceport approved as Dream Chaser landing site

The spaceport in Midland, Texas has been approved as a potential landing site for Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser reusable mini-shuttle.

Midland is pushing to have Sierra Nevada make it the company’s main landing site for the spacecraft. So far, that decision however has not been made.

Atlas 5 to launch Cygnus in March

NASA has ordered Orbital ATK to use ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket for its next Cygnus cargo run to ISS in order to maximize the cargo that the capsule can deliver.

A Cygnus reached the station last month with over 5,000 pounds of supplies after launching atop Orbital ATK’s own Antares rocket. It was the first such flight for the booster in two years, a lull instigated by the 2014 explosion of an Antares and Orbital ATK’s decision to replace the main engines with a different design. But the more-powerful Atlas 5 rocket can launch over 7,700 pounds of provisions inside a Cygnus, and the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday night that NASA has pushed Orbital ATK to buy another Atlas 5 for its greater lift capacity and reliability record.

Sources told Spaceflight Now that the Atlas 5 would launch the OA-7 mission in March and that Orbital ATK was working with Kennedy Space Center to book facility time to process the Cygnus.
It was not immediately clear if NASA or Orbital ATK would pay for the extra costs associated with the Atlas 5 rocket.

This decision by NASA to favor Atlas 5 here over Antares illustrates some of the commercial weaknesses of Antares. Orbital ATK’s decision to launch the rocket from Wallops Island in Virginia had some political advantages, putting their launch facilities in the state and congressional district of legislators whose approval they were soliciting. The decision, however, limited the cargo capacity of the rocket because of the site’s higher latitude. This might also help explain why Orbital ATK has as yet failed to find any other customers for Antares, besides NASA.

I also wonder whether some political pressure from other legislators who favor ULA also helped influence this decision. The political game is brutal these days in Washington and almost nothing connected to the federal government is done anymore without some crony and corrupt political maneuvers in the background.

SpaceX may lose a customer payload

Because of the launch delays at SpaceX, Inmarsat is considering finding another rocket company to launch its fourth Global Xpress satellite.

Inmarsat is worried that even after SpaceX resumes launches with the Falcon booster, it may not be able to make up lost time to assure its satellite is placed on orbit as scheduled. Alternatives the London-based company is considering include flying the spacecraft on the European Ariane 5 rocket, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Atlas V, or the Russian Proton booster. Mr. Pearce said Inmarsat could stick with SpaceX if it can get an earlier launch slot.

This is all part of the competitive game. Inmarsat needs to get its satellite in orbit in order to better compete in the communications market, and the delays at SpaceX because of the September 1 launchpad explosion are not helping. This announcement puts pressure on SpaceX to move them to the front of the line or else lose the launch. It also increases their chances of finding an alternative should SpaceX not be able to do that.

Virgin Galactic releases Unity test flight program

In a change from the company’s past policy, which made many promises but never revealed their upcoming schedule in any detail, Virgin Galactic today released their planned test schedule for their new Unity spacecraft.

This test will be the first of a sequence of glide test flights. These flights will cumulatively allow us to test and prove the performance of the vehicle in a variety of conditions: both heavy (e.g. simulating the full weight of a load of fuel, oxidizer, and people) and light (with empty tanks) and in between, at a variety of flight path angles and airspeeds, and so forth. This testing of the “corners of the box” is designed to demonstrate how VSS Unity will perform as it returns from space, after the feather system is retracted and the vehicle becomes a glider and lands on the runway like an airplane. In addition, this phase of flight will also demonstrate and test our abort modes – which culminate in a safe glide back to the runway.

Our team of flight test experts has developed a set of requirements for each planned test flight as well as detailing exactly what we need to test in order to be ready to proceed to the next phase of rocket powered flights. We will fly as many flights as we need to in order to achieve all these objectives.

The schedule, quite properly, does not include any dates. In the past the company and Richard Branson, would make many grand promises about when their test program would be completed without providing any details of what they planned to do during that test program. This time, Branson is quiet, they have announced no schedule dates, but have provided good information about the test program itself. This is a very good change.

Atlas 5 Vandenberg launch delayed again

The ULA Atlas 5 launch of a commercial satellite at Vandenberg that has been delayed repeatedly for numerous reasons, some (wildfires) completely unrelated to the rocket, has been delayed again for five days because of “booster issues”.

The news reports do not say what these issues are.

China’s smallsat rocket scheduled for first launch in December

The competition heats up: Even as they prepare for the first launch of their largest rocket tomorrow, China today also announced that the first test launch of its low cost smallsat rocket, Kuaizhou-1, as now been scheduled for December.

Kuaizhou (speedy vessel) is a low-cost solid-fuelled carrier rocket with high reliability and short preparation period. It was designed to launch low-orbit satellites weighing under 300 kg. The rocket is launched via a mobile launch vehicle and will primarily launch satellites to monitor natural disasters and provide disaster-relief information.

Though this is obviously being touted as a competitor in the new smallsat launch industry, the military advantages of this kind of ballistic missile cannot be ignored. Essentially what China has here is an ICBM that can be launched from a moving vehicle, which means tracking it will be very difficult.

China’s new big rocket set for launch Thursday

The competition heats up: The first launch of China’s new big rocket, Long March 5, is now scheduled for Thursday morning at 10 universal time, 5:30 am Eastern.

The Long March 5 is comparable to the most powerful active rockets in the world such as the Delta-IV Heavy, Atlas V and Ariane 5, and will launch the technology experiment satellite Shijian-17 high into to geosynchronous. At more than 800 tonnes, 53 metres in height and with a 5 metre diameter core, the Long March 5 has been designed to launch the 20-tonne modules of China’s planned space station into low Earth orbit, starting with the core module in 2018.

The countdown and fueling have begun.

China company to launch suborbital tourists by 2020

The competition heats up: A Chinese company has announced that it is building a reusable suborbital spaceship to fly suborbital tourists by 2020.

Han Qingping, president of ChinaRocket Co Ltd in Beijing, said the company first will develop a 10-metric-ton reusable spacecraft and use it to ferry three to five travelers to a height of 80 km for a new perspective on the mother planet and experience weightlessness. That is the upper part of the mesosphere, higher than jets and balloons can travel, but just below the height where satellites fly.

No prices were given. “By 2025, a 100-ton reusable spacecraft will be produced to send up to 20 passengers to an orbit as high as 140 km above the ground,” he said. That’s into the thermosphere, and is high enough to be considered space. “Furthermore, we will begin to use the 100-ton vehicle to perform intercontinental scheduled flight and long commercial spaceflight around 2030.”

The proposal is audacious, especially its promised launch date of the suborbital craft in 2020 and an orbital craft in 2025. Nonetheless, the announcement illustrates the direction that rocketry appears to be heading, reusable vehicles capable of frequent reuse at less cost.

Virgin Galactic to begin glide tests of Unity

Virgin Galactic will begin the first glide tests of its new SpaceShipTwo, Unity, this week.

Virgin Galactic test pilot CJ Sturckow, speaking at a “Space Stories” event at The Explorers Club here Oct. 29, said the company has scheduled the first glide flight of the vehicle, named VSS Unity, on Nov. 1. That flight would come after a single “captive carry” test flight of the vehicle in September, when the vehicle remained attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft for its entire flight. “It’s ready to fly, and I’m really looking forward to seeing that,” he said of SpaceShipTwo’s upcoming glide flight.

That glide flight will be the first time VSS Unity has flown on its own, and will be the first in a series of glide flights before Virgin Galactic installs a hybrid rocket motor for powered flight tests.

According to the article, the new rocket motor has successfully completed several long duration test firings.

Virgin Galactic is running out of time. Their competition, Blue Origin, appears much closer to flying passengers.

Commercial space industry meets to set its own safety standards

Because of legal restrictions that prevent the FAA from imposing its own safety regulations on the commercial space industry, the industry itself is forming its own committee to work out its own standards.

At a meeting here Oct. 24, ASTM International, an organization founded in 1898 that develops voluntary consensus standards for a wide range of industries, agreed to move ahead with the creation of a committee that will work on creating such standards for commercial launch vehicles, spacecraft and spaceports. “It will allow industry to use a 110-year-old process to produce consensus standards,” said Oscar Garcia, chairman of the standards working group of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), during a meeting of that working group here Oct. 25. The new committee, he said, “will develop standards and related roadmaps to address activities such as human spaceflight occupant safety standards, spaceports and space traffic management.”

A total of 53 people representing 29 companies and organizations attended that kickoff meeting, said Christine DeJong, director of business development for ASTM International, at the COMSTAC working group meeting. The committee won’t be formally created until after the completion an internal ASTM review process.

This is excellent news. It is far better that the industry voluntarily puts together and imposes its own safety standards than if the federal government imposes those rules. The government can’t possibly know the situation as well as the industry. This will guarantee that those rules will be not only work, but they will be cost effective and will not act to squelch innovation and experimentation.

Want to see an Ariane 5 launch in French Guiana? You can!

Arianespace and Airbus Safran are holding a contest where the winning prize is an all-expenses paid trip to French Guiana to see an Ariane 5 launch in 2017.

This is part of Airbus Safran’s public relations effort to promote their new rocket, Ariane 6, that will replace Ariane 5.

SpaceX update on Sept 1Falcon 9 launchpad explosion

SpaceX today released an update on its investigation of the September 1 Falcon 9 launchpad explosion.

Previously, we announced the investigation was focusing on a breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank. The root cause of the breach has not yet been confirmed, but attention has continued to narrow to one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the LOX tank. Through extensive testing in Texas, SpaceX has shown that it can re-create a COPV failure entirely through helium loading conditions. These conditions are mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded.

SpaceX’s efforts are now focused on two areas – finding the exact root cause, and developing improved helium loading conditions that allow SpaceX to reliably load Falcon 9. With the advanced state of the investigation, we also plan to resume stage testing in Texas in the coming days, while continuing to focus on completion of the investigation.

The report suggests that they are starting to pin down the very specific temperature and pressure conditions during loading of the helium tank that cause the problem, which also suggests they will soon also be able to adjust their procedures to avoid those conditions. This also suggests that they repeated assurances that they will be able to fly before the end of the year are not unreasonable.

SES financial report

In releasing its year-to-date and third quarter financial report (which showed significant growth), the satellite company SES also revealed that the launch of its SES-10 satellite will use a recovered Falcon 9 first stage, and that right now it is expected to occur in the first quarter of 2017.

Russia to test components of nuclear engine on ISS

The competition heats up: Roscosmos is planning this week to award a research grant for test flying components on ISS of a nuclear rocket engine Russia has been developing since 2009.

The small amount of money, about $4 million, likely means this will not be a full scale model. Moreover, that this research grant is only being awarded now, seven years after the program began, suggests to me that work is going very slowly. While the delays might be technical, I suspect it is more likely because of the underlying corruption that percolates throughout the government-run Russian system. The project is being slow-walked, so that the funds will be available to the one Russian company that is doing the work for as long as possible.

Designing a propulsion system for cubesats

The competition heats up: Just like the Chinese tests of a smallsat propulsion system noted in my previous post, this U.S. company is designing a propulsion system for cubesats.

McDevitt’s propulsion system is deceptively simple. It combines rocket-fuel-grade hydrogen peroxide with a patented proprietary catalyst to create a chemical reaction that results in thrust channeled through tiny square nozzles incorporated into the small satellite. The system allows the satellites to be steered or stopped. The only byproduct of McDevitt’s tiny rocket motors is water vapor.

Except for this quote the article doesn’t provide much information about the design, probably because the builders didn’t reveal the details for proprietary reasons. They hope to launch a test satellite by 2018.

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