Tag Archives: spaceflight

Sputnik full scale test model sells for $850K

A full scale engineering test model of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite sold at auction yesterday for $850K.

Bonhams auctioned the “beeping” replica of the now-iconic satellite, with its polished metal sphere and four protruding antennas, for $847,500 (including the premium charged to the buyer) at its New York gallery. The winning bid, placed by an unidentified buyer on the telephone, far surpassed the pre-auction estimate and the amount paid for a similar Sputnik replica sold by Bonhams for $269,000 in 2016.


Arianespace issues contract to build 10 more Vega rockets

Capitalism in space: Arianespace has awarded the Italian manufacturer a new contract to build ten more Vega rockets.

Of these ten rockets, three already have launch contracts for ESA satellites. I suspect Arianespace already knows of at least seven more government payloads are mandated to use its rockets to get into space, which would explain this rocket order now.


One last image from Rosetta

Rosetta's last image

Engineers reviewing the last bits of telemetry that was transmitted back to Earth by Rosetta just before it crashed on Comet 67P/C-G have discovered one last image of the comet’s surface.

That image is on the right. It is slightly blurred because of the limitations of Rosetta’s camera at this short range, and the incompleteness of the data received.

The image covers an area about a meter across, with a resolution of about two millimeters per pixel.

I imagine this surface is relatively soft, since the gravity holding the comet together is so slight. If you wanted to dig down, you would find it easy digging.


NASA and Roscomos sign agreement to work together to build lunar orbiting station

Extending the pork: NASA and Roscosmos have signed an agreement agreeing to work together in the construction of what NASA calls a deep space gateway, a space station orbiting the Moon.

The goal here is to garner political support for getting funding to fly a third SLS/Orion mission, which would be its second manned flight. It is also to establish some long term justification for SLS/Orion, which presently has no mission and will disappear after its first manned test flight, presently scheduled for 2022. That single test flight will have taken 18 years and more than 40 billion dollars to build, an absurd timeframe and cost for a single mission that does not bode well for future SLS/Orion missions.

The Russian perspective can be found here. They claim that the station would be finished by 2024-2026, an absurd prediction based on the expected SLS launch rate of one launch every one to two years. For Russia, the hope is that they can use this project to get U.S. money, just like the big American space companies like Lockheed Martin (Orion) and Boeing (SLS).


Parts 2 and 3 of “A Niche in Time”

The second and third parts of Doug Messier’s series on the history of aviation and space are now available:

Part 2 describes how the Hindenberg crash ended the lighter-than-air airship industry, while Part 3 describes how the Columbia accident led to the end of the space shuttle. He then compares them both, noting their similarities.

Not surprising to me, the main common thread that sustained both of these failed concepts was the desire of a government to build and fly them, regardless of their cost and practicality. Messier’s comparison between airships and airplanes highlights this well. Airplanes were cost effective and could easily be made profitable. Airships were neither. They existed because Hitler wanted them.

The same can be said for the space shuttles, and for Constellation and SLS/Orion today.

Anyway, read both articles above. They are nicely written, very informative, and provide important lessons about history that we would be wise to educate ourselves about before we attempt to make our own history in the future.


UN announces proposed Dream Chaser international mission

Capitalism in space: The Outer Space office of the United Nations has announced an opportunity for member nations to express their interest in doing a science mission using Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser reusable spaceship.

The UN announcement states that

The purpose of this Call for Interest (CFI) is to provide a summary of the proposed mission and to solicit information from Member States interested in providing experiments, payloads, or satellites that could be flown on this mission. The CFI also has the objective of gathering information on the interested countries so that UNOOSA may better understand the demand for this type of mission.

The actual call [pdf] roughly describes a mission lasting 2 to 3 weeks and carrying about 20 experiments. This call is designed to give them a better idea of what those experiments might be, what nations wish to participate, and where the funding for the mission might come from. The actual announcement to submit experiment proposals won’t come until March 2018.

Being a UN mission, it is not surprising that it wants to focus on a variety of leftwing “Sustainable Development Goals”:
» Read more


First meeting of National Space Council announced

A Potemkin Village: The White House has announced the date of the first public meeting of the National Space Council, set for October 5 at the Air & Space Museum.

Today, Vice President Mike Pence announced the first meeting of the National Space Council is scheduled for October 5, 2017 at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The meeting, titled “Leading the Next Frontier: An Event with the National Space Council,” will include testimonials from expert witnesses who represent the sectors of the space industry: Civil Space, Commercial Space, and National Security Space.

What this announcement tells me is that this council isn’t there to discuss and set space policy, but to sell that policy to the public. And right now, I am expecting that sales job will be trying to convince us that we must use SLS/Orion mission to build a new space station orbiting the Moon by 2023. They will use the council to pitch the idea, and then Trump will make the traditional Kennedy-like speech, with lots of astronauts standing behind him, committing this nation to putting a space station around the Moon by such-and-such a date. Whoopie!

Forgive me if I sound a bit cynical. I’ve seen this show many times before. For some reason, the opening act is great, but then it fades always away into nothingness before the second act begins.


Rocket Lab preps for 2nd flight of Electron

Capitalism in space: Smallsat rocket company Rocket Lab is preparing for the second test flight of its rocket Electron, now set for October.

The test flight will also carry four commercial nanosats.

Both Planet and Spire — two companies that operate small satellites in orbit — will have payloads on the Electron’s second test flight, dubbed “Still Testing.” The rocket will carry two of Planet’s Dove satellites, designed to image Earth, as well as two of Spire’s Lemur-2 satellites that track weather and ship traffic.

The company also states that if this second flight is successful, they might forego a third test flight and move directly to commercial operations.


Long March 5 failure to delay Chinese lunar probes and space station

The July launch failure of China’s largest rocket, Long March 5, is going to cause delays to both its lunar and space station programs.

They have not yet finished their investigation into the failure, and are now admitting that the launch of Chang’e-5, a lunar sample return mission, will not occur this year as planned, and that the launch of their space station core module will be delayed into 2019.


Blue Origin inks deal with satellite company to use New Glenn

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has signed a deal with the satellite company mu Space to use its as yet unbuilt New Glenn rocket to launch a satellite sometime in the next decade.

This isn’t really a contract, since I am sure that mu Space will have the option to switch to a different rocket. Nonetheless, it signals faith in Blue Origin. It also indicates that, though no price was mentioned, Blue Origin is probably providing the satellite company with a significant price break to encourage them to make the deal, thus demonstrating the growing competitiveness of today’s launch industry. This is also the third contract deal for New Glenn.


Mangalyaan passes three years in Mars orbit

India’s Mangalyaan orbiter has passed its third anniversary operating in Mars orbit.

The spacecraft could last as long as five more years before running out of fuel. Though it has five instruments and has taken more than 700 images, its importance so far is not in the science it has done but in what it has taught Indian engineers for running future more sophisticated missions.


Sputnik for sale!

Capitalism in space: Sputnik’s engineering test replica is going up for auction, and you can buy it!

Like the Sputnik-1 that flew into orbit on October 4, 1957, the test replica is a polished aluminum sphere 23 in (58 cm) in diameter with four spring-mounted external whip antennas. It consists of an outer shell to protect the satellite against heat and an inner pressurized shell to protect the pre-solid state electronics made up of a simple radio transmitter and a 12-V battery. The replica includes a 57-in (1,448 mm) manganese brass stand and an anti-static o-ring. All together, satellite and stand weigh about 100 lb (45 kg) and stand 78 in (1,981 mm) tall.

The Sputnik was previously part of the collection of Heinz Miller of Austria and was originally built for electromagnetic compatibility and electromagnetic interference testing. Only three of the original Sputniks remain in private hands. Of the other two, one is outside Moscow at the Energia Corporate Museum, while the other is at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

The asking price for the Sputnik is US$100,000 to US$150,000.


Behemoths of the Sky

Link here. This article by Doug Messier, about the German attempt to create an industry around rigid lighter-than-air airships, is the first of a five part history series that he will use to illustrate some fundamentals about new industries.

Despite the differences in time periods and technologies, there are some fundamental things that are required for all major advances in flight regardless of when they are made: imagination, daring, physical courage and financial backing. And luck. No small amount of luck.

Today, Parabolic Arc begins a five-part series looking at three different periods in powered human flight. We will compare and contrast them to see what essential lessons can be drawn from them. If the first two installments appear to have little to do with spaceflight, please be patient. All will be revealed.


ULA successfully launches surveillance satellite

Capitalism in space: It appears that ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket has successfully launched a National Reconnaissance Office surveillance satellite into orbit.

The reason I am qualifying the success of the launch at this moment is that, because of the national security nature of the payload, they will only release details about the success of the final orbital maneuvers long after they have been completed. Right now these details are blacked out. Update: the launch was successful.

ULA has another launch of an NRO satellite scheduled for October, a date not yet determined. Right now, the U.S. has had 20 launches in 2017, far more than any other nation, with SpaceX’s 13 launches comprising the bulk.


First manned SLS/Orion flight officially delayed to 2022

Government in action! The first manned flight of SLS/Orion has now been officially delayed one year until 2022, and that date remains questionable.

In addition, the first unmanned test flight of SLS/Orion has now also been delayed until December 2019, something that had been under consideration but is now official. Even with this delay, there are doubts whether that flight can take place then, which is why the 2022 launch of the first manned flight is questionable.

The article outlines in detail the Byzantine scheduling issues that NASA must fulfill to meet these launch dates, including a long timeline of deliveries that seems absurd when compared to how private companies operate.

Assuming that these new dates occur as announced (something I sincerely doubt), the first unmanned launch of SLS/Orion will occur almost 16 years after President Bush first proposed it, with the first manned flight occurring more than 18 years after his proposal. In that time NASA will have spent about $43 billion for this one manned mission. Let me repeat: $43 billion and almost two decades to fly one manned mission. Quite absurd.

The article also details NASA’s proposal for a third SLS/Orion mission, the second manned, to occur in 2023, which would begin assembly of a space station in lunar orbit. I suspect that this mission is going to be announced in what will be President Trump’s version of the typical Kennedy-like speech that Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama have all given, announcing big plans in space by such-and-such deadline.

Whether Congress funds it remains to me an open question. Right now I would predict they would, since they love the pork that SLS/Orion provides. In two years, when Falcon Heavy has flown several times and is likely becoming operational, and New Glenn is getting close to its first test launch, I am not so sure. Both will be flying before SLS’s first flight and both will have been developed for a tenth the cost with equal if not greater capabilities. And both will be able to fly more frequently for practically nothing, when compared to SLS.


Aerospike engine ready for ground tests

Capitalism in space: A demonstrator aerospike rocket engine being developed by ARCA Space is now ready [pdf] for ground tests.

The system will perform a series of ground tests that will ultimately qualify the engine for flight. After the ground tests, the same engine will be integrated into the Demonstrator 3 rocket that will perform a suborbital space flight up to an altitude of 120 km above the New Mexico desert. It will be the first ever flight of a linear aerospike engine and the first ever space flight of an aerospike engine.

Based on the results from these tests the company then intends to build a single-stage-to-orbit small rocket that they hope to fly by 2018.

Go to the company’s news website here to see some good images of the engine and the aerospike nozzle. It does not look like any typical rocket engine. If this effort is successful it will as significant a technological improvement to rocketry as SpaceX’s recovery and reuse of its Falcon 9 first stage.


Private company makes first phonecall using smartphone and nanosats

Capitalism in space: The private smallsat company Sky and Space Global has successfully used its three test nanosats to transmit a phonecall and text messages sent to these satellites using an ordinary smart phone.

During the testing, Sky and Space Global engineers also sent text messages, images and voice recordings via the company’s three nanosatellites, dubbed the 3 Diamonds. The satellites, launched on June 23, circle the Earth in a sun-synchronous orbit at the altitude of 500 kilometers (310 miles).

Eventually, Sky and Space Global envisions building a constellation of 200 nanosatellites that would provide seamless communication services to people living in tropical regions where no communication capabilities currently exist.

They also plan to test the streaming of data through these nanosats from an airplane’s black box. If all goes well, their satellite constellation will be operational by 2020.


Scientists finally image SMART-1 lunar impact site

SMART-1 impact site

Eleven years after the European SMART-1 probe was sent crashing onto the Moon’s surface, scientists have finally identified in a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image that crash site.

The image is shown on the right, reduced and cropped to post here.

The images show a linear gouge in the surface, about four metres wide and 20 metres long, cutting across a small pre-existing crater. At the far end, a faint fan of ejecta sprays out to the south. Foing said: “The high resolution LRO images show white ejecta, about seven metres across, from the first contact. A north-south channel has then been carved out by the SMART-1 spacecraft body, before its bouncing ricochet. We can make out three faint but distinct ejecta streams from the impact, about 40 metres long and separated by 20-degree angles.”

Stooke said: “Orbit tracking and the impact flash gave a good estimate of the impact location, and very close to that point was a very unusual small feature. It now seems that impacts of orbiting spacecraft, seen here from SMART-1, and also in the cases from GRAIL and LADEE, will form elongated craters, most of whose rather faint ejecta extends downrange”.


UAE announces its second student space competition

The United Arab Emirates space center in charge of its Mars mission has announced its second student competition for designing future missions to Mars.

Explore Mars Competition targets university undergraduate students in science or engineering disciplines. The students will need to propose an innovative mission design to Mars and highlight a novel approach in either engineering design or in the science mission. The competition is geared towards identifying and solving a scientific or engineering challenge in planetary exploration.

The competition is divided into two categories, the first is focused on introducing a scientific project, and the second focuses on developing an idea to design a mission to Mars. Students who are interested in the first category about Mars Science can suggest a topic related to the Martian atmosphere or Mars geology. Furthermore, in Mars mission category, topics can address unique concepts and designs for space missions to Mars, new designs for scientific instruments for Mars science, or innovative spacecraft.

This is the second year in the row they have run such a contest. The winners for the first contest are supposed to be revealed at a science conference in late September.


Soyuz launches Russian GPS satellite

A Russian Soyuz-2 rocket today successfully placed one of that country’s GPS satellites in orbit.

Russia now has the lead over SpaceX in the 2017 launch race, having completed 14 launches, one more than SpaceX. It however trails the U.S.’s total (19) by 5. That U.S. total did not rise yesterday because a scheduled Atlas 5 launch by ULA was delayed because of a battery problem. Its new launch date is tomorrow.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Cassini’s last image of Iapetus


The image on the right is a cropped and scaled up version of one of Cassini’s last images of Saturn’s moon, Iapetus.

The moon is unique in that its east and west hemispheres have completely opposite albedos, with one being very dark and the other very bright. It also has a very distinctive large crater, seen in this image. Scientists do not quite understand what causes the dichotomy, though they have models that partly explain it, partly from material being deposited on the moon’s leading hemisphere combined with the temperature differences at different latitudes.

The cause of the extreme brightness dichotomy on Iapetus is likely to be thermal segregation of water ice on a global scale. Thermal effects are usually expected to act latitudinally. That is, polar areas are colder than equatorial terrain in most cases due to the more oblique angle of the solar irradiation. Therefore, an additional process is required to explain the longitudinal difference as well. In one model, dark, reddish dust coming in from space and preferentially deposited on the leading side forms a small, but crucial difference between the leading and trailing hemispheres, which is sufficient to allow the thermal effect to evaporate the water ice on the leading side completely, but only marginally on the trailing side.

It was this moon’s strange dichotomy that had Arthur Clarke use it in 2001: A Space Odyssey. While Cassini’s images clearly prove that the brightness difference was not created by an alien civilization, as imagined by Clarke, those images have not really provided us a full explanation for its cause. The uncertainty of science marches on!


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.


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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