Tag Archives: engineering

Lockheed Martin screwup delays delivery of Air Force GPS satellites

Our government in action! Incompetence by a Lockheed Martin subcontractor will delay the delivery of 32 new Air Force GPS satellites and will likely cost the government millions.

Lockheed has a contract to build the first 10 of the satellites designed to provide a more accurate version of the Global Positioning System used for everything from the military’s targeting of terrorists to turn-by-turn directions for civilians’ smartphones. The program’s latest setback may affect a pending Air Force decision on whether to open the final 22 satellites to competition from Lockheed rivals Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. “This was an avoidable situation and raised significant concerns with Lockheed Martin subcontractor management/oversight and Harris program management,” Teague said in a Dec. 21 message to congressional staff obtained by Bloomberg News.

The parts in question are ceramic capacitors that have bedeviled the satellite project. They take higher-voltage power from the satellite’s power system and reduce it to a voltage required for a particular subsystem. Last year, the Air Force and contractors discovered that Harris hadn’t conducted tests on the components, including how long they would operate without failing, that should have been completed in 2010.

Now, the Air Force says it found that Harris spent June to October of last year doing follow-up testing on the wrong parts instead of samples of the suspect capacitors installed on the first three satellites. Harris “immediately notified Lockheed and the government” after a post-test inspection, Teague said in his message.

So, the subcontractor first failed to do the required tests, then it did the tests on the wrong parts. Sounds like the kind of quality control problems we have seen recently in Russia and Japan.

The worst part? The contract is a cost-plus contract, which means the government has to absorb the additional costs for fixing the screw-up, not Lockheed Martin or its subcontractor.

Iran tests short range missile

Does this make you feel safer? Iran today launched a short range Mersad surface-to-air missile on a 35 mile test flight.

The launch took place on the same launchpad where earlier in the week they had placed and then removed an orbital Safir rocket, designed to put satellites into orbit. Why they removed it and launched the short range missile instead remains unknown

Orbital ATK sues DARPA over its satellite repair program

Orbital ATK has filed a lawsuit against the Defense Department’s DARPA division over its satellite repair program that is apparently going to award a contract to a Canadian company to develop a system for using robots to repair orbiting satellites.

Orbital argues that the federal program, called the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, would unfairly compete with its own privately funded effort, a system called the Mission Extension Vehicle 1, backed by at least $200 million from investors. The company has set up at a production facility in Northern Virginia, with a launch planned for next year.

DARPA wants to build out a government-funded program of its own, and is close to awarding a contract to a company that Orbital views as a competitor. In a contract announcement briefly posted on the agency’s website, DARPA said it is awarding a $15 million contract to Space Systems/Loral (SSL), a U.S. subsidiary of Canadian aerospace firm MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. DARPA spokesman Jared B. Adams said the contract award was posted in error and elements of the deal are still being worked on.

In its lawsuit, Orbital alleges that the contract violates federal policy against creating government space programs that compete with existing commercial ones. “The U.S. National Space Policy explicitly directs government agencies to avoid funding activities that are already in development in the commercial marketplace,” the company said in a statement. “Orbital ATK will continue to pursue all available options to oppose DARPA from moving forward with this illegal and wasteful use of U.S. taxpayer dollars.”

DARPA normally pushes projects that no one is doing, either because the work is too experimental or can’t yet make a profit. In this case however it appears that this is not the case. Worse (from a political perspective), they are awarding the contract to a non-American company. I would not be surprised if Congress soon steps in and shuts this particular DARPA project down.

Democrats in Pima County vote to appeal World View court decision

The Pima County Board of Supervisors in Arizona has voted 3-2 on a party-line vote to appeal a judge’s decision that canceled the county’s deal with the space tourism balloon company World View because it violated state law.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to appeal a Superior Court decision which concluded the county violated state law when it signed an agreement and lease with World View, a space exploration company located near the Tucson International Airport.

The vote was along party lines, with the three Democrats voting for the appeal and the two Republicans voting against it.

The court ruled the county did not comply with a law which requires the county to appraise the property, hold a public auction, and negotiate a fair rental price before it agreed to build a $15 million complex for the company.

It seems to me that — rather than fight this in court — the smart thing to do here is to work out a new agreement that does not violate the law, something that the county was able to do with its lease agreements with Vector Space Systems. This apparently was what the Republicans on the board were proposing. Instead, the Democrats have chosen to fight, even though that will delay things further and is likely to fail in court anyway.

An orbital change extends the life of India’s Mars orbiter

An orbital maneuver has allowed India’s Mars Orbiter Mission avoid an eight hour period with no sunlight — thus draining its batteries — so that the mission can be extended until 2020.

The on-board battery which was to take over had a life of just about 1.4 hours, while the eclipse was to last for 8 hours. The spacecraft’s future was bleak.

The scientists thought of a solution. On the night of January 17, a team of eight engineers at Indian Space Research Organisation’s Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network, Bengaluru, sent a time-delayed command to the Mars probe. The command set in motion firing of eight on-board thruster rockets. Each of them were fired for 431 seconds, pushing the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) space probe to a new orbit that completely avoids an eclipse up to September 2017. The shadowing in September is of a smaller duration, which the satellite’s batteries can handle. “Because of the crucial orbital change, the MOM now gets three additional years’ life. We are expecting it to transmit data till 2020,” Isro chairman A S Kiran Kumar told DH.

The mission’s science data is not as important as the experience it is giving Indian engineers in operating a planetary probe remotely from Earth. This success speaks well for the future of India’s space effort.

NASA SLS/Orion facility in Louisiana sustains tornado damage

A tornado has damaged the building NASA uses at its Michoud facility near New Orleans for building SLS and Orion.

[One official] says a 43-acre building where they build rockets suffered significant damage on one end. A number of areas in the facility have lost parts of the roof or walls. He says the hardware and tooling used in the Orion and Space Launch System were not damaged. But they’ll have to do a “significant effort” to cover everything up and make sure any subsequent bad weather doesn’t affect it while the roof and walls are repaired.

Based on this report, this damage should not effect the SLS/Orion launch schedule. At least, if this was a private company it would not. We shall see how NASA responses.

NanoRacks and Boeing to build private airlock on ISS

The competition heats up: NASA has signed an agreement with NanoRacks and Boeing to build private commercial airlock to attach to ISS in 2019 and be used for commercial operations.

Commercial opportunities through Airlock begin with cubesat and small satellite deployment from station and include a full range of additional services to meet customer needs from NASA and the growing commercial sector. Currently, cubesats and small satellites are deployed through the government-operated Japanese Kibo Airlock. Additionally, the crew on board may now assemble payloads typically flown in soft-stowage ISS Cargo Transfer Bags into larger items that currently cannot be handled by the existing Kibo Airlock. “We are very pleased to have Boeing joining with us to develop the Airlock Module,” says NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber. “This is a huge step for NASA and the U.S. space program, to leverage the commercial marketplace for low-Earth orbit, on Space Station and beyond, and NanoRacks is proud to be taking the lead in this prestigious venture.”

Beyond station, the Airlock could at some future time, be detached and placed onto another on-orbit platform.

This is part of the overall transition at NASA from government-built and -run to privately-built and -run.

New Curiosity data leaves scientists baffled about past evidence of water

The uncertainty of science: Despite substantial evidence by Curiosity that Gale Crater once had running water and even lakes, the rover has also found no evidence that the atmosphere ever had enough carbon dioxide in its atmosphere to warm the climate enough to allow that water to flow as a liquid.

Mars scientists are wrestling with a problem. Ample evidence says ancient Mars was sometimes wet, with water flowing and pooling on the planet’s surface. Yet, the ancient sun was about one-third less warm and climate modelers struggle to produce scenarios that get the surface of Mars warm enough for keeping water unfrozen.

A leading theory is to have a thicker carbon-dioxide atmosphere forming a greenhouse-gas blanket, helping to warm the surface of ancient Mars. However, according to a new analysis of data from NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, Mars had far too little carbon dioxide about 3.5 billion years ago to provide enough greenhouse-effect warming to thaw water ice.

The same Martian bedrock in which Curiosity found sediments from an ancient lake where microbes could have thrived is the source of the evidence adding to the quandary about how such a lake could have existed. Curiosity detected no carbonate minerals in the samples of the bedrock it analyzed. The new analysis concludes that the dearth of carbonates in that bedrock means Mars’ atmosphere when the lake existed — about 3.5 billion years ago — could not have held much carbon dioxide.

Does anyone but me see the faulty scientific reasoning here? Basically, these scientists appear to be assuming that the only global warming atmospheric molecule that exists is carbon dioxide. And because Mars has little carbonates in its surface, meaning it had little past CO2 in its atmosphere, there thus no way Mars’ atmosphere could have been warmed enough to allow water to flow as a liquid.

Balderdash! On Earth, the most important global warming component in the atmosphere is water, not carbon dioxide. Moreover, there are other atmospheric components, such as methane, that are also more important than CO2 in warming the climate. In fact, carbon dioxide as a trace gas in the atmosphere plays only a tiny global warming role. On Mars it is just as likely that other atmospheric components, such as water and methane, provided the necessary warming. To assume it has to be carbon dioxide suggests to me that these scientists have become so caught up with the human-caused global warming scare here on Earth that they have lost the ability to consider other possibilities on Mars.

Nonetheless, this remains the fundamental scientific mystery of Mars. We have found enormous evidence on Mars that water once flowed on its surface. We have also found no explanation so far that would explain how that was possible.

At Jupiter reality imitates art

Jupiter's south pole, fourth flyby

NASA this week released images taken by Juno during its fourth close fly-by of Jupiter on February 2. The image highlighted by that press release focused on a wide lightly processed view of the south pole, different from the image above. As the release states,

Prior to the Feb. 2 flyby, the public was invited to vote for their favorite points of interest in the Jovian atmosphere for JunoCam to image. The point of interest captured here was titled “Jovian Antarctica” by a member of the public, in reference to Earth’s Antarctica.

The image above, cropped and reduced here, was more heavily processed by another member of the public, and shows more clearly the mad, chaotic storms at the south pole.

What instantly struck me when I saw this however was how much it reminded me of this piece of art, painted in 1889 in France by a man who was slowly going insane.

The Starry Night

Vincent Van Gogh never saw the storms on Jupiter, but his imagination conceived their existence in paint. Juno has now imaged them in reality.

ULA to trim workforce again

The competition heats up: In another effort to cut costs, ULA is planning to trim its workforce again in 2017.

In 2016 they cut 350 jobs. They haven’t specified a number this time, as they hope to initially eliminate jobs through voluntary buyouts and layoffs. Regardless, this is a good sign, as it indicates that the company remains serious about being competitive in the launch market.

Judge strikes down Tucson/Worldview spaceport deal

A deal between Pima County in Tucson Arizona and the space tourism balloon company World View has been struck down.

The Tucson judge sided with the libertarian Goldwater group, which argued Pima County ran afoul of state rules governing subsidies and incentives to businesses. “Judge Woods’ ruling protects Pima County taxpayers from having to foot the bill for World View’s untested business model,” said Jim Manley, senior attorney at the Goldwater Institute. “Instead of relying on a sweetheart deal from taxpayers, World View will need to pay market rates to lease its building, just like every other business in Pima County.”

Goldwater attorneys didn’t like that Pima County approved the deal without a popular ballot measure and that the deal was done without an appraisal. Goldwater also argued the lease deal was for less than market rates for a custom building. “The county is free to renegotiate the lease,” said Manley, “but only after they appraise the building, hold a public auction, and lease the building to the highest bidder. All of that will protect taxpayers from illegally subsidizing a private business.”

As much as I want this business to thrive, I think the Goldwater Institute was right. Pima County violated numerous laws and even some parts of the state constitution putting together this deal. Even if there was no corruption here, it opened the door to future backroom corruption if the deal was allowed. Now, I expect World View and the county will have to renegotiate.

Congressional report worries over Falcon 9 engine cracks

A forthcoming congressional report, reported by the Wall Street Journal, reveals that NASA is concerned about cracks that occur in the turbopumps of SpaceX’s Merlin engines.

The newspaper says the report has found a “pattern of problems” with the turbine blades within the turbopumps, which deliver rocket fuel into the combustion chamber of the Merlin rocket engine. Some of the components used in the turbopumps are prone to cracks, the government investigators say, and may require a redesign before NASA allows the Falcon 9 booster to be used for crewed flights. NASA has been briefed on the report’s findings, and the agency’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, told the newspaper that he thinks “we know how to fix them.”

A spokesman for SpaceX, John Taylor, said the company already has a plan in place to fix the potential cracking issue. “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks,” Taylor said. “However, we are modifying the design to avoid them altogether. This will be part of the final design iteration on Falcon 9.” This final variant of the Falcon 9 booster, named Block 5, is being designed for optimal safety and easier return for potential reuse. According to company founder Elon Musk, it could fly by the end of this year.

Here’s the real scoop: SpaceX initially built the engines to fly once, just as every single rocket company has done in the entire history of space, excluding the space shuttle. Under these conditions, the cracks could be considered an acceptable issue, which is what they mean when they say “We have qualified our engines to be robust to turbine wheel cracks.” My guess is that they tested the engines, found that the cracks were not a significant problem for a single flight, especially because the Falcon 9 rocket uses nine Merlin engines on the first stage and thus has some redundancy should one fail. And based on SpaceX’s flight record — no launch failures due to failed engines — that conclusion seems reasonable.

SpaceX is now redesigning to eliminate the cracks, however, because such cracks are not acceptable for engines that will fly multiple times on reused first stages.

Thus, this story, as leaked, appears to me to be a hit job by powers in Congress who dislike the competition that SpaceX poses to big government rockets like SLS. SLS will use salvaged shuttle engines, designed initially for many reuses, and thus are superior in this manner to SpaceX’s Merlin engines. The shuttle engines however were also built by the government, which didn’t care very much about the cost of development, or making any profits. The comparison thus is somewhat bogus. Moreover, I suspect these cracks were only discovered after SpaceX successfully landed and recovered some first stages. To put them on trial in the press now for doing good engineering research and redevelopment seems somewhat inappropriate.

The report itself has not yet been released, though it does also note lingering issues with the parachutes being developed for Boeing’s Starliner capsule.

Overall, both companies are struggling to start their operational flights by 2019. For Congress or NASA to try to put more roadblocks up in that development seems most counterproductive.

More new robots from Boston Dynamics

The video at the link shows off SpotMini, of video of which I posted previously. However, the first robot shown is one they have named Handle and is something they admit could be “nightmare-inducing.” It walks upright on two legs, but instead of feetpods it has wheels, giving it the ability to move very fast. And for some reason, they put its arms on backwards so that the elbows bend inward instead of outward.

Watch the video. The robot design work here is truly breath-taking.

The vanishing volcanoes of Ceres

New research based on Dawn data suggests that volcanoes on Ceres flatten and disappear over time.

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft discovered Ceres’s 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) tall Ahuna Mons cryovolcano in 2015. Other icy worlds in our solar system, like Pluto, Europa, Triton, Charon and Titan, may also have cryovolcanoes, but Ahuna Mons is conspicuously alone on Ceres. The dwarf planet, with an orbit between Mars and Jupiter, also lies far closer to the sun than other planetary bodies where cryovolcanoes have been found.

Now, scientists show there may have been cryovolcanoes other than Ahuna Mons on Ceres millions or billions of years ago, but these cryovolcanoes may have flattened out over time and become indistinguishable from the planet’s surface. They report their findings in a new paper accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. “We think we have a very good case that there have been lots of cryovolcanoes on Ceres but they have deformed,” said Michael Sori of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and lead author of the new paper.

The cause of the flattening?

Viscous relaxation is the idea that just about any solid will flow, given enough time. For example, a cold block of honey appears to be solid. But if given enough time, the block will flatten out until there is no sign left of the original block structure. On Earth, viscous relaxation is what makes glaciers flow, Sori explained. The process doesn’t affect volcanoes on Earth because they are made of rock, but Ceres’s volcanoes contain ice – making viscous relaxation possible.

UAE considers initiating its own manned space program

The competition heats up: At a space conference this week in Abu Dhabi, a UAE official said that his country might begin work on a manned space program.

He also said that they plan a follow-up to their Hope Mars mission, which now has a July 2020 launch date.

The UAE’s prime goal right now with their space effort is to promote the development of a new aerospace industry. Thus, I do not expect them to accomplish much in the near future. Even their Mars mission is I think mostly being built and launched by others (India is helping with the spacecraft and Japan is launching it). In the long term, however, this effort is wise, and will eventually produce for them a real industry.

Juno’s next Jupiter fly-by today

Juno is set to make its fourth close fly-by of Jupiter today, dipping to within 2,670 miles of the gas giants cloud tops.

The Juno science team continues to analyze returns from previous flybys. Revelations include that Jupiter’s magnetic fields and aurora are bigger and more powerful than originally thought and that the belts and zones that give the gas giant’s cloud top its distinctive look extend deep into the planet’s interior. Peer-reviewed papers with more in-depth science results from Juno’s first three flybys are expected to be published within the next few months. Also, JunoCam, the first interplanetary outreach camera, is now being guided with the assistance from the public — people can participate by voting for what features on Jupiter should be imaged during each flyby.

Curiosity’s drill remains out of commission

Ireson Hill

In a science update on Curiosity’s research in Gale Crater, this Science journal article today gives a good overall update on Curiosity’s technical condition.

Since early December 2016, Curiosity hasn’t been able to drill. The problem, likely a stuck brake on the mechanism for extending the drill bit, is serious. “There is apprehension,” says Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity’s project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. But the drill still responds intermittently. “We’re not in a situation where it’s completely dead.”

Still, the clock is ticking for the aging rover, and some outside scientists regret not having used a wet chemistry cup. Rocks have punctured its wheels, and the output of its decaying radioactive power source has dropped by 15%. Jack Mustard, a planetary scientist at Brown University, says he understands the team’s hesitancy. But he wished the “mission had moved more quickly with the wet chemistry experiments,” he says. “I am eager to see what we can learn.”

The wet chemistry cup, designed to look for organic life, is an experiment that requires use of the drill but the science team has held off doing. Now it might be too late.

At the moment Curiosity is approaching [see Sol 1598-1599] the small hill that had been to its southwest in my January 18, 2017 update and shown in the image above. I had thought they might make a side trip there on their way up Mount Sharp, and they have, with their actual route taking them around the backside of the hill.

Russia proposes increased space cooperation with the U.S.

They need the money: At a science conference on Tuesday the Russian ambassador to the United States stated that his country would welcome increased space cooperation between the two countries.

“I think it would be premature for me to speculate as to whether this zone of overlapping interests will increase or decrease,” Kislyak said. “We haven’t heard a new policy yet from the United States.” He suggested, though, there may be opportunities for the countries to cooperate on NASA’s long-term plans for human Mars exploration. “That is moon exploration, which is very much on our agenda. It’s space medicine and many, many other issues,” he said. “Our programs are not identical, but there’s always been a lot of overlap that provides room for serious and significant cooperation.”

“If the U.S. government chooses programs that would be extending that kind of cooperation,” he added, “they will find us to be willing to work with you.”

As I said, they need the cash. They want to keep their space industry alive, but low oil prices combined with the corruption that has shut down their launch industry has left them very cash poor. A combined Russian/SLS/Orion project to the Moon would be very helpful for them.

ESA commits $91 million to reusable rocket engine development

The competition heats up? Despite a general lack of interest in reusability, the ESA has now committed $91 million to develop a new low cost prototype reusable rocket engine.

In an interview with SpaceNews, Airbus Safran Launchers CEO Alain Charmeau said FLPP is allocating 85 million euros ($91 million) to Prometheus to fund research and development leading to a 2020 test firing. Now that Prometheus is an ESA program, Charmeau expects more countries will get involved. “ESA will pay the contract to Airbus Safran Launchers and then Airbus Safran Launchers will cooperate with European industry, of course France and Germany, but we will have also contributions from Italy, Belgium, Sweden and probably a couple of others to a smaller extent,” Charmeau said.

This project reminds me of many NASA development projects. The agency spends the money to do a test firing, but the prototype is never used and gets abandoned as soon as the test is completed.

Things might change, however, come the 2020s. By then I think American companies will be quite successful in their effort to create reusable rockets, and that will leave Europe in the lurch competitively. Their solution at this time for combating that future competition however is not getting more competitive. Instead, as noted in the article at the link, Airbus Safran, the company building Ariane 6, wants the ESA to compel its members to use their rocket, regardless of cost.

Russian prosecutors indict four rocket engineers for Proton failure

This won’t solve Russia’s problems: Russian prosecutors have recommended criminal charges against four rocket engineers for failing to properly calculate the right amount of fuel, resulting in a Proton launch failure.

According to the spokesman, Energiya department head Balakin, section head Martynov and his deputy Lomtev responsible for asdeveloping operational documentation failed to ensure that their subordinate, engineer Bolshigin, should timely adjust the calculation formula for resetting the fuel control system. “The document on the need for such adjustment was submitted to the organization’s relevant department but was written off by the engineer as fulfilled. As a result, the calculation formula remained unadjusted,” the spokesman said. “Subsequently, Balakin, Martynov, Lomtev and Bolshigin who knew for sure that the formula for the calculation of the fueling level contained incorrect data that could not be used during a rocket launch agreed operational documentation without pointing to a mistake in calculations,” the spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

Putting these guys in prison is probably the worst thing the Russians can do. It will strike fear throughout their entire aerospace industry, causing all other engineers to take as few risks as possible, or leave the industry entirely. What the Russians should do is simply fire them, and reward those that noted the problem with promotions and increased pay.

In a truly competitive free market such a response will work, because even if the companies don’t reform themselves new companies will step forward to replace them. Russia however does not have a truly competitive free market, and so their only recourse is top-down bullying and threats. “Do it right or we will jail you!”

I should add that the company involved, Energia, has nothing to do with the recent corruption discovered in the construction of the upper stage engines for both Proton and Soyuz. That involved a different Russian company entirely.

New Horizons adjusts its course

New Horizons successfully completed today a short 44 second engine burn to refine its course towards its January 1, 2019 flyby of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69.

The spacecraft had also been making observations this past week of six other Kuiper Belt Objects, the data of which will be sent home over the coming weeks.

The private weather industry moves forward

Link here. Key quote:

Early next month, aerospace start-up Spire Global of Glasgow, UK, will send a mini-satellite into space aboard an Indian government rocket. This ‘cubesat’ will join 16 others that are beaming a new type of atmospheric data back to Earth — and some scientists worry that such efforts are siphoning funding away from efforts to push forward the science of weather forecasting. Spire will begin providing observations to the US government on 30 April.

The probes track delays in radio signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites as they pass through the atmosphere — a technique known as radio occultation. Researchers can use the data to create precise temperature profiles of the atmosphere to feed into weather-forecasting models — and eventually, perhaps, climate models.

Spire and its competitor GeoOptics of Pasadena, California, are participating in a pilot project announced in September by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is under pressure from the US Congress to determine whether it can cut costs by using commercial weather data. But scientists worry that such efforts are hampering the development of radio occultation. For years, they have sought federal funding for a project to advance the technique, but Spire and its competitors say they can offer high-quality data for a fraction of the price. [emphasis mine]

The quotes I have highlighted illustrate the hidebound leftist scientific opposition to introducing private enterprise into weather research. The article, published in the journal Nature, never once articulates in any way how these private efforts will hurt scientific research. What it does show is that the private effort will cost a tenth of the government effort while getting launched much faster. The money, however, will go to these private companies, and not the scientific factions that up until now have lived on the government money train.

The complaints here are the same as those I saw in NASA back about a decade ago when NASA first considered hiring private companies to provide it cargo to ISS. This is a turf war. NOAA is now being pressured by Congress to do the same: stop building big expensive weather satellites and buy the service for much less from the private sector. The scientific community sees this as a threat to its funding and is trying to stop it.

With Republicans controlling all three branches of the federal government I think this opposition will be fruitless, and we shall see the shift to private enterprise in weather data-gathering to accelerate.

SpaceX gets an eighth Iridium launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX has won a new launch contract, this time by launching both Iridium’s five satellites as well as the NASA/German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission.

Both NASA and Iridium will save money by sharing the ride, while SpaceX gets more business.

Government-owned Alaska Aerospace considers second spaceport

The competition heats up: State-owned Alaska Aerospace is considering opening a second spaceport outside the state and closer to the equator.

Alaska Aerospace operates the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska. The Kodiak Island complex is capable of polar, sun-synchronous and high-inclination orbits, but does not support the equatorial launches that make up most of the industry demand. With the new launch facility, Campbell said having equatorial launches will give the corporation a competitive advantage and also bring more customers to Kodiak.

The state no longer funds the corporation, which has never made money. Still, it now has contracts with Rocket Lab and Vector Space Systems and this new move is an obvious effort to make itself more viable.

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage prepped for launch

The competition heats up: SpaceX on Tuesday revealed that last week it has completed the standard static fire testing of the recovered Falcon 9 first stage that it plans to relaunch in March.

A March launch would mean an 11-month turnaround, which is far from optimal, but understandable for the first time. SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, Elon Musk, has acknowledged the company must do better in the future if resuable flight is to become economically viable. He says the next—and likely final—iteration of the Falcon 9 rocket will be optimized for reuse. “Block 5 is the final upgrade of the Falcon architecture,” he tweeted earlier this year. “Significantly improves performance & ease of reusability. Flies end of year.”

It now seems likely that SpaceX will fly the landed boosters it currently has, at most once or twice, before retiring them, instead of multiple times. Although the company hasn’t elaborated on the problems with the engines, booster structure, or composite materials that have shown wear and tear after their orbital launches and returns, Musk is confident that changes to the Block 5 version of the rocket will solve the problem. “I think the F9 boosters could be used almost indefinitely, so long as there is scheduled maintenance and careful inspections,” he has said.

In other words, SpaceX has had — for the first time in history — the opportunity to inspect a number of used first stage rockets, and that precious knowledge is making it possible for them to upgrade the stage design to make future stages more hardy. In fact, those future stages won’t be stages, but reusable vessels that SpaceX could even name if it wished.

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