Tag Archives: competition

Lockheed Martin unveils standardized satellite lineup

Capitalism in space: In its new effort to upgrade its satellite business to compete in the new satellite business, Lockheed Martin today unveiled a new line-up of standardized satellite buses which customers could then build their specific satellites around.

The core elements of each bus will retain commonality with other buses for a wide range of components, including propulsion, reaction wheels, gimbals, power regulation, solar arrays, battery technology, thermal control and software and avionics. Such component commonality, Sears said, will enable the company to leverage its supply chain more effectively. Lockheed software systems will also make each bus rapidly reconfigurable, depending on the particular mission need or type of satellite.

The smallest member of the new lineup is the LM 50 series of flexible nanosat buses. Weighing 10 to 100 kilograms, the spacecraft are being develop with Terran Orbital, which, Sears said, offers advanced nanosat technology and operational experience that Lockheed lacks. Lockheed Martin Ventures announced in June an unspecified “strategic investment” in Terran Orbital, a nanosatellite manufacturer.

It is very clear that the company is anticipating a boom in smallsats, and is trying to market itself as the go-to place for having those satellites built.

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Stratolaunch tests engines on giant plane

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch announced today that it has successfully tested the six engines that will fly on the giant plane that it will use as a first stage.

This isn’t that big a deal, since the engines were built for the 747s that were scavenged by Stratolaunch to assemble their giant plane. If those engines didn’t work I would have been very surprised.

The most interesting part of this story is this:

Despite the plane’s giant size, Stratolaunch plans to initially use the aircraft as a platform for Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket, which is currently launched from a much smaller L-1011 airplane. The Stratolaunch plane will ultimately have the ability to carry three Pegasus rockets that could be launched one at a time on a single flight. An initial launch, the company said in May, could take place as early as 2019.

A recent deal could combine two of Stratolaunch’s partners. Scaled Composites, who developed the aircraft for Stratolaunch, is owned by Northrop Grumman, which announced Sept. 18 a deal to acquire Orbital ATK for $9.2 billion.

This might make Pegasus more affordable for smallsat launches, and provide those smallsat companies much greater launch flexibility. Moreover, the purchase of Orbital ATK by Northrop Grumman appears to work to the advantage of Stratolaunch.

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Mitsubishi wins launch contract from Inmarsat

Capitalism in space: Mitsubishi has been awarded a commercial launch contract from Inmarsat.

Recent Inmarsat satellites have launched on Proton, Falcon 9, and Ariane 5 rockets operated by International Launch Services, SpaceX and Arianespace. MHI [Mitsubishi Heavy Industries] has positioned the H-2A as a secondary player in the global launch market, and the Inmarsat 6 F1 contract gives the Japanese company its second commercial telecom launch deal after the Canadian-owned Telstar 12 Vantage satellite lifted off from Tanegashima in November 2015.

Japan has made noises about shifting control of its launch industry from its space agency JAXA to the private sector. This new contract between Mitsubishi and Inmarsat suggests that they are following through with that shift. However, though no specific price was mentioned in the article, the quote below indicates that Mitsubishi will have a big hill to climb to become competitive.

“The reason why we got the launch order from Inmarsat, I think, was not, of course, the cost-competitiveness of the H-2A launch vehicle, but I think our launch record is very good — 35 consecutive successes, high reliability — and another is on-time launch,” [Ko Ogasawara, Mitsubishi vice president] said in remarks last week at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris. “We keep our schedule, and I think they put a high value on that.”

Mitsubishi’s next generation rocket, the H3, is being targeted for a launch price of $50 million, half of what the H-2A charges and more competitive in today’s market.

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Federal bureaucracy prevents satellite launch

We’re here to help you! A suite of 8 private commercial cubesats that the Air Force had agreed to launch as secondary payloads on the August 26 launch of a Minotaur rocket were blocked from launch by FAA bureaucracy.

The “interagency partner” that appeared to raise objections was the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the launch license for the mission. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not approve Orbital ATK’s request for a license modification to include commercial cubesats on the upcoming ORS-5 launch mission,” Guthrie said. “As a result, Orbital ATK decided not to include commercial cubesats on the launch.”

Asked if the FAA placed any conditions or restrictions on the ORS-5 mission launched on the Minotaur 4, agency spokesman Hank Price said the FAA issued Orbital ATK a license Feb. 10 to launch government payloads on the Minotaur 4 from Cape Canaveral. The launch license contains any and all conditions on the license, Price said, and the FAA does not comment on the “existence or status of launch license applications or modifications until the FAA makes a final decision regarding those requests.”

Industry sources believe the FAA never formally rejected a proposed license modification for the cubesats because it did not go through the official process, but it was informally clear that the agency would have rejected such a modification had it been formally submitted.

Spire officials are trying to figure out why there was any issue at all about commercial cubesats on this launch. “If Spire chose this launch in the place of another commercial offering, I would understand the industry’s concern about fair competition,” Barna said. “But no existing U.S. launch company or new entrant was offering a similar launch. The fundamental intent of the policy is to keep competition fair, and competition just wasn’t a factor here.”

Spire’s problems here demonstrates the difficulties smallsat companies have getting their satellites in orbit, which explains the emergence of a new smallsat rocket industry. The company’s difficulties also illustrates why the launch industry should always be opposed to giving too much regulatory power to government. In this case it really appears that the launch license was denied merely because the bureaucrats involved with approving it at the FAA simply didn’t want to bother dealing with it.

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ArianeGroup’s transition to Ariane 6 rocket

Link here. It appears that this transition not only includes replacing Ariane 5 with Ariane 6, but also the phase out of Russian Soyuz rockets by 2022. This loss of business is going to hurt Russia, as the government there desperately needs cash with the drop in oil prices.

The article also noted that ArianeGroup will charge two prices for Ariane 6, depending on configuration and payload, $85 million and $130 million per launch. These prices seem high, but because they likely cover the launch of two satellites, customers will be charged half these amounts, $40 million and $65 million, which is competitive in today’s market.

Will these prices be competitive in 2020s? I have my doubts. I estimate, based on news reports, that SpaceX is charging about $40 million today for a launch with a reused first stage, and $62 million for a launch with an entirely new rocket. Give them another five years of development and I expect those prices to drop significantly, especially as they shift to entirely reused first stages for almost every launch and begin to demonstrate a routine launch cadence of more than one launch per month.

This quote below explains how ArianeGroup really intends to stay alive in the launch market:

The price targets assume that European governments — the European Space Agency, the European Commission, Eumetsat and individual EU nations — agree to guarantee the equivalent of five Ariane 62 missions per year, plus at least two missions for the light-lift Vega rocket.

In other words, ArianeGroup really doesn’t wish to compete for business. It wants to use government coercion to force European space agencies and businesses to buy its product. They might get that, but the long term result will be a weak European presence in space, as everyone else finds cheaper and more efficient ways to do things.

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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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China successfully completes third robotic docking

China’s Tianzhou-1 test cargo freighter successfully completed its third docking with the prototype test space station module Tiangong-2 today.

Commands for the rendezvous and docking were issued at 17:24 Beijing time, according to the China Manned Space Agency, with the new ‘fast’ process taking 6.5 hours to complete.

Previously the rendezvous and docking process took around two days, or 30 orbits. The breakthrough will be used to allow crewed Shenzhou craft to reach the future Chinese Space Station (CSS) much sooner after launch.

Tianzhou-1 will soon perform a third and final refuelling test with Tiangong-2, before the cargo spacecraft is carefully deorbited over the South Pacific.

No word yet on when China might resume launches however. Since the July launch failure of their largest rocket, Long March 5, the country has launched nothing. There have also been stories that suggest the planned December launch of their Chang’e 5 lunar mission will be delayed now until the spring.

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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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Building launch backlog in China

The two launch failures in June and July experienced by China has forced an extended pause in rocket launches, resulting in an increasing launch backlog.

The main contractor for the Chinese space programme, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), had announced plans for a national record of close to 30 launches this year, but recent failures have halted progress, putting pressure on an increasingly intense schedule.

There have been no launches since the high profile failure of the second flight of China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5, on July 2. Preceding that, a Long March 3B, used for launches to geosynchronous and medium Earth orbits, left the Zhongxing-9A telecommunications satellite in a much lower than intended orbit. This partial failure has apparently hit the schedule for launches of China’s Beidou navigation satellites, while two more launch vehicles – the Long March 2D and 4C – also suffered issues last time out.

The Chinese launch calendar typically sees the vast majority of its activity in the second half of the year, and this will need to be the case once again to prevent a large mission backlog. China was looking to launch 6-8 new satellites for its own version of the GPS constellation, starting in July, but it is unclear if the first pair, Beidou-3M3 and Beidou-3M4, will be ready for launch from Xichang in mountainous Sichuan Province.

Right now China has only completed 7 launches in 2017. The article also notes that further launches might be delayed for political reasons:

With the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, a major political event that will see a once-every-five-years reshuffle of the country’s leadership, set for October, it is likely that unnecessary risks – particularly regarding a space programme regarded as a source of national pride and prestige – will be avoided.

What this article indicates is that China is undergoing the same kind of launch pressures experienced by Russia and SpaceX. Rocket science is hard, but the benefits are so great that it forces those involved to solve the problems. I expect we shall see China resume launches, at a fast pace, sometime after October.

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Hollywood’s worst summer box office in 25 years

Link here. The numbers and details are truly horrifying:

Even before this catastrophic Labor Day weekend is factored in (more on this below), the domestic 2017 box office is in hideous shape. This year is –6.3% behind 2016 and continues to fall behind 2015, 2013, and 2012.

If you figure in inflation, those numbers are even worse. For example, in 2012 the average ticket cost $7.96. Today it is almost a full dollar more at $8.89. Yeah, things are that bad and will look even worse on Tuesday.

With no apparent faith in their own product, this is the first Labor Day in 25 years where a new title has not been released on more than 1,000 screens. Over this weekend last year, the box office hauled in nearly $130 million. This year will do about a third of that. Summer attendance is at a 25-year low. The summer box office is down a whopping –16% compared to 2016.

The author provides some cogent analysis, all of which suggests things are going to get far worse for Hollywood in the coming years. The essence of the problem comes back to the same intellectual bubble that the elitists in Washington remain trapped in: A refusal to cater to the interests of their customers.

Unfortunately, this is the times in which we live. The dominate intellectual culture today is intellectually dishonest. The public has been making choices it disagrees with, and it continues to show an utter unwillingness to honestly assess those choices and figure out why. Instead, that culture, almost entirely leftwing and liberal in make-up, has decided that such dissent can only be the work of evil racists, an absurd conclusion that only serves to alienate that bankrupt intellectual culture more from the general public that is rejecting it.

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