Tag Archives: competition

SpaceX successfully launches commercial satellite

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully launched a commercial satellite using a previously flown first stage.

They did not attempt to recover the used first stage as it was one of their older stages, which they are clearing out as they move to the final Block 5 version of the Falcon 9.

The top leaders in the 2018 launch race:

16 China
11 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 ULA

In the national standings the U.S. has moved back ahead of China, 17-16.

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Stratolaunch still lacks a launch vehicle

In a news interview today about their plans for the next year or so, the CEO of Stratolaunch danced around the lack of a committed and appropriate rocket to act as a second stage for the giant airplane.

At the first flight event, we are going to talk a little bit about what is our suite of product offerings in terms of launch vehicles. We haven’t really talked much about that up until this point, but once we get the plane flying, we want to reveal to everyone exactly what we’re talking about. We have talked about the Pegasus system [from Orbital ATK] and we are going to launch the Pegasus on our first launch. It’s a very small rocket, but it’s a very good rocket, very reliable, which is one of the reasons we want to launch that first.

But it’s a 50,000 pound rocket. This plane can carry 550,000 pounds, so it’s an undersized rocket for the capabilities we’re talking about.

They hope this first launch will occur by summer of this year.

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Reuseability lowers SpaceX launch price to $50 million

Capitalism in space: Reuseability lowers SpaceX launch price to $50 million.

The article is mostly about tonight’s commercial launch of an SES communications satellite. In it however it notes this comment by Musk:

SpaceX is in the process of flying and discarding older, less advanced Block 4 first stages to clear inventory – the company will likely fly just one more before moving its entire manifest to the Block 5 iteration, which CEO Elon Musk says can fly up to 10 times with minimal refurbishment between missions. Beyond that, the boosters could launch up to 100 times with moderate inspections and changes.

The next-generation vehicles feature improved reusability, upgraded thrust, retractable black landing legs that can reduce time between launches, a new black interstage and a slightly larger payload fairing, to name a few. It will also help SpaceX reduce costs from $60 million to about $50 million per launch, Musk said in May. [emphasis mine]

This price is about a third less than what both Arianespace and ULA have estimated they will charge for their new rockets, Ariane 6 and Vulcan respectively. This is also about half the price that the Russians had been charging for their Proton, which used to be the lowest price in town.

I’ll make a prediction: The drop in prices has only just begun.

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The upcoming Falcon Heavy schedule

Link here. After the estimated October launch of an Air Force technology demonstration satellite, the next launch is a communications satellite for Saudi Arabia set for the December/January time frame.

After that there are no scheduled Falcon Heavy launches, though three companies, Intelsat, Viasat, and Inmarsat, have options for launches.

In related SpaceX news, the company came within 200 feet of catching one half of the fairing from last week’s launch. The picture of the fairing coming down by parachute is very cool, and indicates that SpaceX is very close to recovering them.

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The surface properties of 122 asteroids revealed

Using archive data produced by the Wide-field Infrared Explorer telescope (WISE, renamed NEOWISE) astronomers have been able to estimate the surface properties of 122 small asteroids located in the asteroid belt.

“Using archived data from the NEOWISE mission and our previously derived shape models, we were able to create highly detailed thermophysical models of 122 main belt asteroids,” said Hanuš, lead author of the paper. “We now have a better idea of the properties of the surface regolith and show that small asteroids, as well as fast rotating asteroids, have little, if any, dust covering their surfaces.” (Regolith is the term for the broken rocks and dust on the surface.)

It could be difficult for fast-rotating asteroids to retain very fine regolith grains because their low gravity and high spin rates tend to fling small particles off their surfaces and into space. Also, it could be that fast-rotating asteroids do not experience large temperature changes because the sun’s rays are more rapidly distributed across their surfaces. That would reduce or prevent the thermal cracking of an asteroid’s surface material that could cause the generation of fine grains of regolith. [emphasis mine]

If this conclusion holds, it means that mining these asteroids might be much easier. Dust can be a big problem, as it can clog up equipment and interfere with operations. It also acts to hide the underlying material, making it harder to find the good stuff.

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Proposed new FCC regulations would shut out student cubesats

We’re here to help you! Proposed new FCC regulations on the licensing of smallsats would raise the licensing cost for student-built cubesats so much that universities would likely have to shut down the programs.

In a move that threatens U.S. education in science, technology, engineering and math, and could have repercussions throughout the country’s aerospace industry, the FCC is proposing regulations that may license some educational satellite programs as commercial enterprises. That could force schools to pay a US$135,350 annual fee – plus a $30,000 application fee for the first year – to get the federal license required for a U.S. organization to operate satellite communications.

It would be a dramatic increase in costs. The most common type of small satellite used in education is the U.S.-developed CubeSat. Each is about 10 inches on a side and weighs 2 or 3 pounds. A working CubeSat that can take pictures of the Earth can be developed for only $5,000 in parts. They’re assembled by volunteer students and launched by NASA at no charge to the school or college. Currently, most missions pay under $100 to the FCC for an experimental license, as well as several hundred dollars to the International Telecommunications Union, which coordinates satellite positions and frequencies. [emphasis mine]

If these new and very high licensing fees are correct I find them shocking. As noted in the quote, building a cubesat costs practically nothing, only about $5,000. The new fees thus add gigantic costs to the satellite’s development, and could literally wipe the market out entirely. They certainly will end most university programs that have students build cubesats as a first step towards learning how to build satellites.

These new regulations appear to be part of the Trump administration’s effort to streamline and update the regulatory process for commercial space. It also appears that the FCC has fumbled badly here in its part of this process.

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China offers its space station to the UN

The United Nations and China have signed an agreement whereby UN member nations can apply to run experiments on China’s space station, due to become operational in the 2020s.

The UN press release states that it is especially interested in applications from developing nations.

This isn’t a surprise. China is following the approach of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev during the 1970s and 1980s, using its space station program to generate positive international propaganda. This will also give them an opportunity to obtain technology ideas from other nations.

At the same time, this will force China to become more open with other nations, a side effect of Brezhnev’s space station program that was not expected or even wanted by the Russians at the time.

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More budget cuts expected for Roscosmos

According to one story in the Russian press today, the Russian space industry, run by Roscosmos, is expected to experience more budget cuts due to a shortage of funds.

The Russian federal space program might face cuts as the Roscosmos state corporation is likely to suffer funding shortages amounting to 150 billion rubles (almost $2.4 billion) in the next three years, a source in the industry told Sputnik.

“The shortages of budgetary funds planned for allocation to Roscosmos from the previous parameters for the next three years is about 150 billion rubles … the lack of funds has already become a reason of delays in the development of interplanetary projects, slowing down construction of the second stage of the Vostochny Cosmodrome and the development of new rocket and space equipment,” the source said.

The shortfall almost certainly comes from a lack of international launch customers, most of whom have shifted their business to SpaceX because of the quality control concerns in the Russian aerospace industry. Whether Russia can regain any of this business in the coming years will depend wholly on whether they can demonstrate some reliability in their launch cadence, something they have failed to do for the past five years.

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China’s lunar communications satellite eases into position

China’s lunar communications satellite Queqiao Chang’e-4 successfully fired its engines during a lunar fly-by yesterday.

The maneuver sends the spacecraft into position in one of the Lagrange points beyond the Moon, where it can relay data from the yet-to-be launched Chang’e-4 lander.

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White House issues new policy statement to reduce space regulation

Don’t get too excited: President Trump yesterday signed a new policy statement that basically follows the recommendations of his National Space Council aimed at reducing regulation of space commerce.

One section of the policy addresses launch licensing, requiring the Secretary of Transportation, who oversees the Federal Aviation Administration, to “release a new regulatory system for managing launch and re-entry activity, targeting an industry that is undergoing incredible transformation with regulations that have failed to keep up,” according to a White House fact sheet.

A second section deals with commercial remote sensing regulatory reform. “The current regulatory system is woefully out of date and needs significant reform to ensure the United States remains the chosen jurisdiction for these high tech companies,” the fact sheet states.

A related section calls on the Secretary of Commerce to provide a plan to create a “one-stop shop” within his department “for administering and regulating commercial space flight activities.” The Commerce Department had previously announced plans to combine the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office with the Office of Space Commerce, giving the latter office that regulatory role for issues other than launch and communications.

The policy directs several agencies, including Commerce, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Federal Communications Commission, to develop a plan for “improving global competitiveness” of policies, regulation and other activities dealing with the use of radiofrequency spectrum for space activities.

A final section of the policy directs the National Space Council to review export control regulations regarding commercial spaceflight activities and provide recommendations within 180 days.

The policy closely follows the recommendations from the February meeting of the National Space Council. However, White House officials, speaking on background, said they don’t expect immediate changes as a result of the policy since many of the changes, like changes to regulations, will take months to implement through standard rulemaking processes. Some changes, the officials acknowledge, will require legislation to enact, such as authority to license “non-traditional” commercial space activities. [emphasi mine]

The highlighted text illustrates this is really just public relations and lobbying to get new legislation through Congress. Without that, little will change.

This directive however does carry one certain action we should all celebrate. The changes at Commerce eliminate the Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs Office, where bureaucrats earlier this year claimed they had the power to license all photography of any kind from space, a power that allowed them to block SpaceX from using cameras on their rocket when those cameras showed the Earth in the background.

At the time I said that “If Trump is serious about cutting back regulation, he should step it now to shut this down.” Apparently, he has done so.

As for the other proposed regulatory changes, there are bills weaving their way through the labyrinth of Congress to address these changes. The House bill repeats most of the recommended changes of this policy directive. We have not yet seen a Senate version.

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Russia cancels new lightweight Proton

Russia has announced that it is canceling the development of a new lightweight Proton rocket, conceived as a way to attract new international commercial customers.

Russia’s Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center has decided not to go ahead with its project to develop the Proton-L (Proton Medium) two-stage launch vehicle (LV), a source at the center told Interfax.

“The project to create the Proton-L launch vehicle will not be pursued for financial reasons,” the source said.

Let me translate. They have not gotten sufficient international commercial orders for this two-stage version of Proton, and thus it will be unprofitable to build it. The lack of orders is likely linked to Russia’s ongoing quality control problems, along with rampant corruption, within its aerospace industry.

Unfortunately, the Putin government’s solution to the quality control problems and corruption has been to consolidate the industry into one corporation under government control, thus eliminating any competition inside Russia. Such an approach however has been found historically to routinely produce more corruption and quality control problems, as it has no built-in incentives to encourage improvement.

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Rocket Lab announces new launch date

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has announced a new launch window for the first operational launch of its Electron rocket, beginning on June 23 for fourteen days.

Those dates are based on New Zealand time. If they launch at the very beginning of this window it will occur on June 22 in U.S.

The two month delay was caused by a problem with a “motor control unit.” This has been replaced. In the interim they have also added two more commercial payloads to the rocket.

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China launches two test cubesats to the Moon

The launch this week of a Chinese communications relay satellite to be used for its Chang’e-4 lunar lander also included the launch of two test cubesats designed to test such satellites in interplanetary space.

One of the two Longjiang (‘dragon river’) microsatellites that launched with Queqiao but set to operate together in lunar orbit, carries an optical microcamera (Arabic) developed by the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) of Saudi Arabia.

The instrument weighs around 630 g and is capable providing images of the Moon with a resolution of 38 m per pixel at a perilune of 300 km and 88 m per pixel at the expected apolune of 9, 000 km away the lunar surface.

The Longjiang-1 and -2 satellites, developed by Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) in Northeast China, will test low-frequency astronomy and space-based interferometry in lunar orbit. However, they also carry amateur radio payloads, meaning amateurs can send commands to take and download an image of the Moon using the KACST camera.

It seems that China is trying to compete with the U.S. in the development of interplanetary cubesats. The inclusion of an instrument developed in Saudi Arabia is also another indication that the new colonial movement in space continues to pick up steam.

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Rogozin takes over Roscosmos

Former Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has now officially been named the head of Roscosmos.

It appears Rogozin will continue the Putin government’s policy of consolidating the entire aerospace industry into Roscosmos.

Along with the new appointment, the Russian press reported on Rogozin’s plans to initiate yet another reorganization of Roskosmos to absorb Tactical Rocket Armaments company, specialized in battlefield missiles, and, possibly, the Almaz-Antei enterprise, developing anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems.

This policy also suggests that Russia’s continuing fade as a major player in the international launch market will continue. They will focus on internal needs, but will no longer be able or willing to compete for business outside of Russia. Without any internal competition, and with corruption rife within these industries, Roscosmos under Rogozin will stumble along issuing press releases about future great projects, few of which will really happen, while it acts instead as a pork barrel jobs program for friends of Putin.

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A close look at SpaceX’s new domination in the commercial launch industry

Link here. This is a surprisingly accurate and detailed article outlining the present state of the worldwide launch industry and how SpaceX has come to dominate it. It includes a graph that illustrates what I noted in my own summary in January: SpaceX has served to rejuvenate the American rocket industry.

From the Pentagon to financial analysts, many are heralding SpaceX as responsible for bringing the rocket industry back to the United States. For decades, rockets built by United Launch Alliance flew U.S. Air Force and NASA missions on Russian engines or other systems bought overseas. “They’re an all U.S. launcher. For a long time our military and intelligence capability was not launched using all U.S. capability,” Carissa Christensen, CEO of consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology, told CNBC.

The Air Force continues to award SpaceX hundreds of millions of dollars in launch contracts, with Secretary Heather Wilson telling Congress in March that the decreasing cost to launch is “enabling business plans to close in space that never were possible before.”

“For a decade and a half, launch costs were ballooning until SpaceX came in and said, ‘We can do it cheaper,'” Sam Korus, ARK Invest analyst, told CNBC.

SpaceX senior vice president Tim Hughes told Congress in a July testimony that “the U.S. had effectively ceded” the commercial rocket launch market “to France and to Russia.” Hughes showed how, before 2013, the U.S. lacked a foothold in this market. SpaceX helped the United States reclaim not just a portion but a majority in the global launch market in 2017 and represented more than 60 percent of U.S. launches while doing so.

The lower costs introduced by SpaceX has not merely allowed the U.S. to retake market share from the Russians and Europeans. It is also causing a re-awakening of the entire space industry. Satellites are being built and launched now that could not have been financed in the past, solely because the cost to put them in orbit has dropped. As a result the total number of launches is rising, providing more business for everyone.

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SpaceX successfully launches seven satellites, including two NASA science satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched seven satellites, including two NASA science satellites and five Iridium communications satellites.

They did not attempt to recover the first stage, and though they tried to recover the rocket’s fairing it missed the ship and landed in the Pacific.

Intriguingly, all of these satellites were originally going to launch on a Russian/Ukrainian rocket.

Tuesday’s launch came about as a result of Russia’s Dnepr rocket becoming unavailable, in part due to the ongoing political situation in Ukraine. Grace Follow-On had been booked to fly aboard Dnepr, while Iridium had contracted for launches of the Russian vehicle to carry pairs of its spacecraft into orbit for testing, and later replenishment of its constellation. Early last year, Iridium and the GFZ – who are responsible for arranging GRACE’s ride to orbit – agreed to share a launch on SpaceX’s more powerful Falcon 9 rocket, splitting the costs while allowing the GRACE mission to continue and Iridium to get further satellites into orbit.

In other words, SpaceX has taken this business directly away from Russia.

The leaders in the 2018 launch standings:

15 China
10 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 ULA

In the national rankings, the U.S. is now in the lead with 16 total launches (including Orbital ATK’s Antares launch on Monday).

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ArianeGroup chief admits they can’t compete

In a newspaper interview the chief of ArianeGroup, the private joint partnership of Europe’s main rocket contractors Airbus and Safran, can’t seem to understand why competition and lowering prices is a good thing.

Rather than give you one or two quotes, it is better that you click on the link and read the whole. thing. Essentially, the heart of the problem is that ArianeGroup is building their new Ariane 6 rocket as an expendable, not reuseable, and thus they it will not be able to compete in the launch market expected in the 2020s. They made this decision based on the political needs of the European Space Agency rather then financial needs of the launch market. As such, the launch market is abandoning them.

What is amazing is this CEO’s complete lack of understanding of these basic economic facts. It suggests some very deep rot in both ArianeGroup and much of Europe’s commercial aerospace sector. If the person in charge does not understand market forces, who else at the company will?

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ARCA’s CEO arrested by Homeland Security

We’re here to help you! Despite having all charges against him dropped, Homeland Security has arrested the CEO of the smallsat rocket company ARCA.

It’s not over yet. [Dumitru Popescu] was taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security this morning, without warning.

When Dumitru was arrested in October of last year, The DHS cancelled his business visa, and provided him with a temporary visa, allowing him to stay until his case ended. Despite all charges against Dumitru being dismissed and Dumitru’s immediate efforts to restore his legal status in the US, he was taken into custody before he had a chance to do so.

This is absurd. The guy is very clearly not trying to get into the U.S. illegally. His company has actually won grants from NASA as well as other private companies. When the charges were dropped his business visa should have be reinstated instantly.

The result I think will be to kill his company, and its attempt to launch and test the first aerospike engine. This is a loss for both them and the United States.

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Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket successfully launches Cygnus capsule

Capitalism in space: Orbital ATK successfully launched an Cygnus cargo freighter to ISS with its Antares rocket in the early morning hours today.

Because this was Orbital’s first launch in 2018, there is no change in the launch leader list for 2018:

14 China
9 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 ULA

However, this launch puts the U.S. above China, 15 to 14, in the national rankings.

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Former Obama Education Secretary calls for school boycott over guns

I actually agree with him! The former Secretary of Education from the Obama administration, Arne Duncan, is calling for parents to pull their kids from public schools until the “gun laws are changed to make them safe.”

Personally, if I had children I would have never allowed them to attend any of today’s public schools, not because of gun safety but because they do a worse than horrible job of teaching kids anything.

Moreover, educating your kids either in a private school or at home gives you a much better chance of protecting them. At home you can be armed. Private schools have more flexibility, and will more likely include armed teachers if that’s what the parents want.

Public schools, and the unions that run them, not so much. I really do hope Duncan’s boycott catches on. It will give us a chance to shut down the failing public schools and replace them with competing organizations that actually get the job done.

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UAE astronaut to fly to ISS on Soyuz?

According to a story in the Russian press a tourist on a flight planned for 2019 could be replaced by an astronaut from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Russians and the UAE have signed a cooperative agreement, so this is possible. It could also be that the UAE has offered more money and thus moved up the queue. It could also be that this is premature. There have been many such stories in the past decade, but the Russians have not flown a tourist to ISS since 2009.

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All charges dropped against ARCA CEO

After a grand jury refused to issue an indictment, all charges have been dropped against Dumitru Popescu, the CEO of the smallsat rocket company ARCA.

I am reminded of the Emily Latila character from the early days of Saturday night life.

Even though he has been entirely cleared, the prosecution served to seriously delay the company’s plans.

At the time the charges were filed last fall, ARCA had been about two weeks from launching a test rocket from Spaceport America, according to Popescu. The criminal case stalled progress. Now, the company plans to carry out the rocket test in Europe. After that, it’s likely the company will launch a test of a second rocket system from NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

It is also possible the company will now exit either New Mexico or the U.S., since it appears the state government here is hostile to it.

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“Private” Chinese company successfully completes 1st suborbital launch

A Chinese company has successfully completed its 1st suborbital launch of a test rocket aimed at the smallsat market.

The news reports from China tout this company as private and commercial, and that might be so, but then there’s this:

China opened its space sector to private capital around 2015 and encouraged technology sharing through a civil-military integration reform policy, and the impacts are now becoming apparent.

OneSpace itself has received support from the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence (SASTIND), and has raised 500 million yuan (US$77.6m) through finance rounds, according to Tencent Technology.

The company might be called private, but it is also under the thumb of the Chinese government, which at any time can take it over or shut it down. At the moment the government is supporting its development, probably in the hope that China can grab some of the market of the smallsat boom expected in the next decade.

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NASA inspector general weighs in on ISS’s future

The inspector general for NASA, Paul Martin, is testifying today before Congress on ISS. His prepared statement [pdf] includes several blunt assessements concerning the station’s future.

First and most important, he has doubts that transitioning the station to private ownership will work.
» Read more

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Block 5 Falcon 9 first stage returns to port

SpaceX’s first Block 5 first stage for its Falcon 9 rocket, designed to fly a minimum of ten times, has returned to port after its first flight last week.

This is the most interesting detail revealed:

While not visible, the most significant improvements are likely to be found at the base of the first stage’s octaweb – now assembled with bolts instead of welds – in the form of a dramatically improved heat shield around its nine Merlin 1D engines (also upgraded, of course). One of the Falcon recovery technicians showed some exceptional interest in the shield and Merlins, likely documenting their condition in extreme detail to inform engineering reviews of the pathfinder rocket after its first flight test.

The pictures show those bolts quite clearly.

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