Tag Archives: capitalism

Inmarsat bought out and delisted from stock exchange

Capitalism in space: The long established communications satellite company Inmarsat has been bought out by a consortium called Connect Bidco and delisted from stock exchange.

Nor is Inmarsat alone:

Inmarsat is the third satellite operator to delist from public markets this year, following Hong Kong-based AsiaSat and London-based Avanti in September.

Inmarsat reported a loss of $89.1 million on $1.06 billion in revenue for the first nine months of the year. The company claimed $36.1 million in profits on $327.3 million in revenue for the months of July, August and September — it’s last public quarter before the buyout.

This story and the quote above explain what is happening. Established satellite companies, that traditionally have built big geosynchronous satellites, are having increased trouble making money as the industry shifts to smaller satellite and constellations in low Earth orbit.

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Successful Russia and Rocket Lab launches

Two launches successfully took place in the early morning hours today. First Rocket Lab launched seven small satellites into orbit, including one that will release an artificial meteor shower. During that launch they also obtained telemetry of their first stage as it fell to Earth.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck just tweeted that the Electron’s first stage performed well during today’s re-entry experiment. “Electron made it through wall! Solid telemetry all the way to sea level with a healthy stage. A massive step for recovery!!” Beck tweeted.

Russia in turn launched a Progress cargo capsule to ISS.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

27 China
19 Russia
12 SpaceX
7 Europe (Arianespace)
6 Rocket Lab

China now leads the U.S. 27 to 25 in the national rankings.

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Lloyd’s introduces new insurance policy for smallsats

Capitalism in space: The insurance company Lloyd’s today introduced a new insurance policy expressly designed for the emerging smallsat launch industry.

The solution – called “Llift Space” – is only available in the Lloyd’s market and allows customers to cover their assets from the pre-launch phase, including transit and placement on the launch vehicle, through to the launch phase and in-orbit operation. It is designed for satellites that weigh less than 300 kilograms (661.4 pounds).

The policy is modular so customers can choose the elements within each phase that are most relevant to their coverage needs.

The product is backed by a consortium of 18 syndicates, led by Brit and Hiscox MGA, with $25 million capacity per risk, and is targeted at the NewSpace sector.

NewSpace is characterized by lower cost, easier routes to space, opening up the sector to private enterprise, wealthy entrepreneurs and innovative start-ups. This is increasing the need for space insurance.

This action is a strong endorsement by the investment business in the future of the new smallsat launch industry.

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SpaceX successfully launches cargo Dragon to ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today has successfully launched a reused cargo Dragon to ISS.

This is the third flight of this Dragon capsule. They also successfully landed the first stage on their drone ship.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

27 China
18 Russia
12 SpaceX
7 Europe (Arianespace)

China leads the U.S. in the national rankings 27 to 24.

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SpaceX targets December for launch abort test, early 2020 for 1st manned Dragon mission

According to SpaceX officials, the company is aiming to perform its Dragon launch abort test before the end of this month, and then follow-up with the first manned Dragon mission to ISS in early 2020.

“We’re targeting December,” said [Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon Mission Management at SpaceX] today (Dec. 3) during a news conference discussing tomorrow’s (Dec. 4) planned launch of a robotic Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS). “We’ll see if we can get there.”

SpaceX holds a multibillion-dollar NASA contract to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS using Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9. The capsule has already visited the orbiting lab once, on the landmark uncrewed Demo-1 mission this past March. If everything goes well with the [launch abort test], the company will be cleared for the first crewed mission — a test flight known as Demo-2 that will carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

Demo-2 is targeted for early 2020, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said. Contracted, operational ISS flights would follow shortly thereafter.

NASA officials have repeatedly said that early 2020 is too soon because of the paperwork that SpaceX has to complete prior to launch. It could be that Musk is gently applying pressure on them here to speed up this make-work so that the real business of spaceflight can proceed.

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SpaceX to test upper stage endurance as part of Dragon launch

Capitalism in space: SpaceX plans to perform a six hour orbital coast test of its Falcon 9 upper stage following the release of the Dragon cargo capsule tomorrow (scrubbed today due to high winds).

This is why the first stage will land on a drone ship rather than at Kennedy.

According to SpaceX the test is at the request of “other customers”, unnamed. The article adds this speculation:

Jensen says that the coast test will be performed for unspecified “other” customers, presumably referring to the US Air Force (USAF) and other commercial customers interested in direct-to-geostationary (GEO) launch services. Direct GEO launches require rocket upper stages to perform extremely long coasts in orbit, all while fighting the hostile vacuum environment’s temperature swings and radiation belts and attempting to prevent cryogenic propellant from boiling off or freezing solid. In simple terms, it’s incredibly difficult to build a reliable, high-performance upper stage capable of remaining fully functional after 6-12+ hours in orbit.

Although SpaceX said that the test was for “other” customers, that may well have been a cryptic way to avoid indicating that one such customer might be NASA itself. NASA is in the midst of a political battle for the Europa Clipper spacecraft’s launch contract, which is currently legally obligated to launch on NASA’s SLS rocket. Said rocket will likely cost on the order of >$2 billion per launch, meaning that simply using Falcon Heavy or Delta IV Heavy could save no less than ~$1.5 billion. Incredibly, that means that simply using a commercial launch vehicle could save NASA enough money to fund an entire Curiosity-sized Mars rover or even a majority of the cost of building a dedicated Europa lander. Such a launch would demand every ounce of Falcon Heavy’s performance, including a very long orbital coast.

These speculations could all be true. SpaceX might merely be doing what it always does, testing new engineering upgrades during operational missions. It will then be able to sell its rocket’s enhanced capability to all these customers.

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A home-made plane

An evening pause: Another example of someone who decides he wants to do something, and then goes out and does it. This STOL (short take-off and landing) home-built plane, dubbed Draco, was apparently a big hit in the small plane community. Sadly, in September the plane was totaled (no injuries) during a take-off with strong cross winds (video here).

Hat tip Cotour.

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India successfully launches Earth observation satellite plus 12 cubesats

India today successfully used its PSLV rocket to launch its own Cartosat-3 Earth observation satellite plus 12 cubesats for the commercial company Planet.

This was India’s fifth launch in 2019.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race remain unchanged:

26 China
18 Russia
11 SpaceX
7 Europe (Arianespace)

China leads the U.S. 26 to 23 in the national rankings.

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SpaceX ‘s decision to slash prices/provide reliable launch schedule upends smallsat industry

Capitalism in space: Apparently SpaceX’s decision in August to further slash its launch prices for smallsats while also establishing a regular launch schedule is causing major shifts in that industry.

From the first link::

The revamped smallsat rideshare program, the company announced late Aug. 28, will provide launch opportunities at least once per month starting in March 2020, at a cost of $1 million for a 200-kilogram smallsat.

From the second link:

With the new SpaceX price list, the cost of reaching low Earth orbit falls so dramatically “you should select the cheapest launcher even if it does not go exactly where you need it and then use propulsion to go where you need to be,” Henri said. “From a total system cost standpoint, that will make the most sense.”

This situation is comparable to the shifts that occurred in the ship business when its technology changed from sails to engines. Sailing ships generally did not sail on a schedule. Instead, they sat at port until they filled their cargo holds, then waited for favorable weather before sailing. Customers could only wait.

Once ships were powered this all changed. Ship companies established firm schedules so customers knew exactly when their cargo would ship. This also led to a reduction in the price of shipping.

SpaceX’s ability to reuse its first stage often and quickly is now allowing them to treat the Falcon 9 rocket more like a powered ship rather than a sailing ship. Rather than only launching when they’ve filled their cargo capacity, they can afford to launch on a regular and reliable schedule, allowing customers to jump on board at their own convenience.

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Explosion during Starship tank tests

During tests today of SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 test prototype there was a sudden explosion, damaging the spacecraft. Below is a clip from today’s live stream showing the explosion.

They had been doing a variety of tank and venting tests for the past day. (The link includes a video showing the first pressurization test yesterday.)

The Mk1 (Mark 1) was being built with an initial hoped-for schedule targeting the first orbital flights by next year. No one took that seriously, and today’s incident reinforces that skepticism. At the same time, SpaceX has routinely recovered very quickly from its engineering test failures, treating them as opportunities for improving their designs. It is for this reason that most knowledgeable observers of the company also expected any delays to that target schedule to never be very extended.

Moreover, earlier this week SpaceX revealed that it had already decided not to fly this version and proceed to their next version. A Mk2 version is being built in Florida, so in Boca Chica they will proceed to the Mk3, with the goal to get to build toward the final operational version, what Musk labeled the Mk5. Based on past SpaceX policy, however, expect them to begin commercial flights with the earlier versions as they upgrade to the Mk5.

UPDATE: It appears the explosion occurred during a maximum pressurization test, which means they now have data telling them the limits of their tank design.

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Sierra Nevada updates Dream Chaser status, names its cargo module

Capitalism in space: In providing a detailed update in the construction of its reusable Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, Sierra Nevada yesterday revealed that it has named the small expendable cargo module that it will be attached to its Dream Chaser “Shooting Star.”

As part of Dream Chaser’s overall design, the vehicle itself does not contain the berthing port or solar arrays needed for it to perform its mission. Instead, those elements are mounted on what had been, before today, referred to as the cargo module – an element of Dream Chaser that now has a dedicated name: Shooting Star.

The name is a nod to the fact that it is the only part of Dream Chaser that is disposable and will burn up in the atmosphere as a streaking ball of fire – just like a shooting star.

The module itself, while containing the solar arrays and main propulsion elements for orbital maneuvering, will also be capable of transporting a large amount of internal cargo to the Station. It is also the part of Dream Chaser on which external cargo can be mounted for delivery and disposal of external elements that are no longer needed for the orbital outpost.

The article provides many details about the status of Dream Chaser that are worth reading, including noting its other potential uses beyond supplying ISS with cargo.

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Blue Origin wins protest against Air Force

Capitalism in space: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has sustained Blue Origin’s protest against the Air Force’s launch procurement rules that would have limited bidding on all launch contracts for the first half of the 2020s to only two companies.

In a “pre-award” protest, Blue Origin challenged the terms of a request for proposals (RFP) issued by the Air Force earlier this year for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which aims to award two contracts next year expected to cover 30 or more medium- and heavy-lift satellite launches the Air Force plans to conduct between 2022 and 2026.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is one of four companies that submitted bids for the contracts by the Air Force’s Aug. 1 proposal deadline. The other three companies bidding for the contracts are Northrop Grumman and incumbents United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

After submitting its bid, Blue Origin filed a formal protest with the GAO arguing that several terms of the RFP unduly restrict competition, are ambiguous, or are inconsistent with customary commercial practice.

The GAO agreed.“GAO sustained the protest, finding that the RFP’s basis for award is inconsistent with applicable procurement law and regulation, and otherwise unreasonable,” Patton said in the statement.

The Air Force’s plan here never made any sense at all. Why put a limit now on the companies that can bid on launches as far in the future as 2026? Why not instead allow all the launch companies, already certified by the Air Force, to bid when the time comes, thus increasing competition while providing the Air Force the most options?

This is good news for the entire American launch industry. It means they will all have the Air Force as a potential customer. It is also good news for the taxpayer, as the competition for business will certainly drive innovation and the lowering of launch prices.

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NASA expands list of companies certified to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts

Capitalism in space: NASA today announced that it is expanding the list of companies eligible to bid on lunar launch/payload contracts from 9 to 14.

From the NASA press release:

NASA has added five American companies to the pool of vendors that will be eligible to bid on proposals to provide deliveries to the surface of the Moon through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

The additions, which increase the list of CLPS participants on contract to 14, expand NASA’s work with U.S. industry to build a strong marketplace to deliver payloads between Earth and the Moon and broaden the network of partnerships that will enable the first woman and next man to set foot on the Moon by 2024 as part of the agency’s Artemis program.

…These five companies, together with nine companies selected in November 2018, now are eligible to bid on launch and delivery services to the lunar surface. [emphasis mine]

The added companies are SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada, Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

I have highlighted the most important word in this press release, which is most interestingly buried to make it as little noticed as possible. The addition of SpaceX to this list and the mention that the program has now added the ability to for the companies to bid on launch contracts means that NASA’s goal here is to create a situation where it can replace SLS with a bidded contract to private industry that will costs far less and can launch frequently and on time, features that SLS is completely incapable of, and SpaceX can provide easily and reliably. This analysis by me is further reinforced in that Boeing, the builder of SLS, was not included in this list, even though only last week that company offered SLS to NASA in a wider array of launch configurations, for exactly this purpose.

If NASA had made this fact too obvious it might upset certain people in Congress (I’m talking to you Richard Shelby R-Alabama) who are wedded to SLS and its wasteful pork spending in their home states and districts.

The fact remains however that eventually SLS is going to go away. The Trump administration appears very wedded to its Artemis program to get back to the Moon by 2024, and it is apparently discovering that to make that landing happen the administration needs better alternatives.

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Structural failure destroyed suborbital SARGE rocket

Capitalism in space: Exos Aerospace yesterday released its investigation into the October 26 failure of its suborbital reusable SARGE rocket, citing a structural failure of the rocket shortly after launch.

The company says it intends to build a new SARGE rocket by 2020, but we shall see.

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Homemade model StarHopper & Starship launch & landings

An evening pause: The youtube website only states that this was “constructed out of paint cans and an American football,” but I see some drone computer technology hidden in these models as well. Regardless, quite cool and quite breath-taking.

Hat tip Martin Kaselis.

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Inspector general slams NASA’s management for bonus payments to Boeing

In a report [pdf] issued yesterday, NASA’s inspector general blasted the agency’s manned commercial space management for issuing a $287 million bonus payment to Boeing to help it avoid delays in developing its Starliner capsule — which would have caused gaps in future American flights to ISS — even though the cost to use Russian Soyuz capsules would have been far less.

Worse, the agency never even allowed SpaceX to make its own competitive offer.

NASA agreed to pay Boeing Co (BA.N) a $287 million premium for “additional flexibilities” to accelerate production of the company’s Starliner crew vehicle and avoid an 18-month gap in flights to the International Space Station. NASA’s inspector general called it an “unreasonable” boost to Boeing’s fixed-priced $4.2 billion dollar contract.

Instead, the inspector general said the space agency could have saved $144 million by making “simple changes” to Starliner’s planned launch schedule, including buying additional seats from Russia’s space agency, which the United States has been reliant on since the 2011 retirement of its space shuttle program.

…NASA justified the additional funds to avoid a gap in space station operations. But SpaceX, the other provider, “was not provided an opportunity to propose a solution, even though the company previously offered shorter production lead times than Boeing,” the report said. [emphasis mine]

I’ve read the report, and from it the impression is clear that when NASA management discovered that Boeing was facing delays in Starliner and needed extra cash, it decided to funnel that cash to it, irrespective of cost. While it is likely that the agency did so because it did not wish to buy more Russian Soyuz seats, it makes no sense that it didn’t ask SpaceX for its own competitive bid. By not doing so the management’s foolish bias towards Boeing is starkly illustrated

Eric Berger at Ars Technica also notes that the report makes clear how Boeing’s prices for Starliner are 60% higher than SpaceX’s Crew Dragon prices, further illustrating how the agency favors Boeing over SpaceX.

Boeing’s per-seat price already seemed like it would cost more than SpaceX. The company has received a total of $4.82 billion from NASA over the lifetime of the commercial crew program, compared to $3.14 billion for SpaceX. However, for the first time the government has published a per-seat price: $90 million for Starliner and $55 million for Dragon. Each capsule is expected to carry four astronauts to the space station during a nominal mission.

What is notable about Boeing’s price is that it is also higher than what NASA has paid the Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, for Soyuz spacecraft seats to fly US and partner-nation astronauts to the space station. Overall, NASA paid Russia an average cost per seat of $55.4 million for the 70 completed and planned missions from 2006 through 2020. Since 2017, NASA has paid an average of $79.7 million.

I don’t have a problem with NASA favoring Boeing over Russia, considering the national priorities. I can also understand the agency’s willingness to keep buying some Starliner seats in order to guarantee an American launch redundancy. However, giving Boeing even more money to keep its schedule going, when SpaceX is available to fill the gaps, demonstrates the corruption in the agency’s management. They haven’t the slightest understanding of how private enterprise and competition works.

The report is also filled with the same tiresome complaints about the on-going delays to the manned commercial program, focusing greatly on past technical issues (now mostly solved) while hiding in obscure language how it is NASA’s paperwork that is likely to cause all further delays.

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Upcoming big satellite constellations vex and worry astronomers

Astronomers are expressing increasing distress over the possible negative consequences to their Earth-based telescope observations from the several new giant satellite constellations being launched by SpaceX and others.

[M]any astronomers worry that such ‘megaconstellations’ — which are also planned by other companies that could launch tens of thousands of satellites in the coming years — might interfere with crucial observations of the Universe. They fear that megaconstellations could disrupt radio frequencies used for astronomical observation, create bright streaks in the night sky and increase congestion in orbit, raising the risk of collisions.

The Nature article then details the issues faced by some specific telescopes. Hidden within the article however was this interesting tidbit that admitted the problem for many telescopes is really not significant.

Within the next year or so, SpaceX plans to launch an initial set of 1,584 Starlink satellites into 550-kilometre-high orbits. At a site like Cerro Tololo, Chile, which hosts several major telescopes, six to nine of these satellites would be visible for about an hour before dark and after dawn each night, Seitzer has calculated.

Most telescopes can deal with that, says Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Garching, Germany. Even if more companies launch megaconstellations, many astronomers might still be okay, he says. Hainaut has calculated that if 27,000 new satellites are launched, then ESO’s telescopes in Chile would lose about 0.8% of their long-exposure observing time near dusk and dawn. “Normally, we don’t do long exposures during twilight,” he says. “We are pretty sure it won’t be a problem for us.” [emphasis mine]

The article then proceeds with its Chicken-Little spin as if the astronomical world is about to end if something is not done to stop or more tightly control these new satellite constellations.

As indicated by the quote above, it appears however that the threat is overstated. The constellations might reduce observing time slightly on LSST, scheduled for completion in 2022 and designed to take full sky images once every three nights. Also, the satellite radio signals might impact some radio astronomy. In both cases, however, the fears seem exaggerated. Radio frequencies are well regulated, and LSST’s data should easily be able to separate out the satellite tracks from the real astronomical data.

Rather than demand some limits or controls on this new satellite technology, the astronomical community should rise to the occasion and find ways to overcome this new challenge. The most obvious solution is to shift the construction of new telescopes from ground-based to space-based. In fact, this same new satellite technology should make it possible for them to do so, at much less cost and relatively quickly.

But then, astronomers are part of our modern academic community, whose culture is routinely leftist and therefore fascist in philosophy (even though they usually don’t realize it). To them too often the knee-jerk response to any competition is to try to control and squelch it.

We shall see if the astronomers succeed in this case.

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SpaceX completes Crew Dragon static fire tests

SpaceX yesterday successfully completed a static fire engine test of its Crew Dragon capsule, demonstrating that it has fixed the issues that caused the April 20th explosion during an earlier test that destroyed a capsule.

Wednesday’s test occurred just 207 days after the April anomaly, a quick turnaround time given the complexity of the systems at hand. The incident earlier this year occurred just milliseconds before the engines were to have ignited, and was eventually traced to valves leaking propellant into high-pressure helium lines.

SpaceX made numerous changes to Crew Dragon as a result of the anomaly, including the replacement of the valves with burst-discs. The company has also been performing several smaller-scale tests of the redesigned system at their test facility in McGregor, Texas. Last month, SpaceX Tweeted a video of one such test.

Wednesday’s test was the first full-scale firing of all eight of Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco’s at once since the April incident.

This success clears the way for the launch abort test using this same capsule, now tentatively scheduled for mid-December.

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SpaceX completes 1st round of Starship’s Mars landing site images

All locations photographed of the candidate landing region for SpaceX's planned Mars missions

On August 28, 2019 I broke the story that SpaceX is beginning to obtain images of candidate Starship landing sites from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

It now appears that SpaceX has completed its first round of Starship requests from MRO. In the image releases from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) since September, only three new Starship locations were taken, and all three were the unreleased candidate sites I noted in my September 16, 2019 update.

Below is the full list of all of the Starship images, their locations indicated on the map above by the numbered white boxes:

With the release of these last photographs, the initial list of proposed images of candidate Starship landing sites on Mars has apparently been completed. No additional images at any other locations appear to have been suggested. The MRO science team has taken stereo images of each one of the nine locations, eight of which were in Amazonis Planitia, and one in Phlega Montes.

This however is not the first round of pictures requested by SpaceX of the Arcadia Planitia region in connection with the company’s desire to land spacecraft on Mars.
» Read more

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Virgin Galactic reports first loss since stock went public

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic today released its first quarterly report since the company’s stock went public in October, reporting a net loss of $51.5 million during the third quarter of 2019.

The stock initially opened in October at $12.93. It quickly dropped 25% in value, and has generally been trading at about $10 a share since. With today’s release the stock immediately dropped below $10, but it appears to have settled at around $9.75, for the moment.

According to this story, they presently have reservations from 600 people for suborbital flights, and have received 3,557 inquiries about flight reservations as of the end of September.”

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No manned New Shepard flights in 2019

In an interview with CNBC, Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, revealed that the first manned flights of New Shepard will not take place in 2019, as previously predicted.

Smith: We were planning on this year; unfortunately, it’s very unlikely we’re going to get in this year. We need a few more flights to make sure that we’re all comfortable with the verification. We hold ourselves to very, very high standards here, we’re never going to fly until we’re absolutely ready. I think we have a very, very good amount of confidence around the system itself, I think it is working very, very well. But we have to go look at all the analysis, and then convince ourselves that we’re ready to go. … So it probably will be next year.

This statement confirms what Smith said in late September. However, though he says they need to do a few more unmanned test flights, they have not done one since May, suggesting there was some issue during that last flight that they aren’t telling us about.

The interview overall contains little concrete information, and in fact suggests that the company’s orbital rocket, New Glenn, is likely not going to meet its 2021 launch target. When asked when he expects their rocket factory in Huntsville to begin building 40 engines a year, he said, “when we are at-rate and flying, so in ’22 and ’23. We are opening the factory there this coming first quarter.”

That 2021 date was a delay of a year from the original goal of 2020. That they won’t be opening their rocket factory until 2020, and won’t be operational until 2022 or 2023, suggests this entire schedule is out the window. I will not be surprised if there are no New Glenn flights before 2023.

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SpaceX successfully launches 60 Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched 60 more satellites in its Starlink internet satellites, while also reusing for the first time a Falcon first stage for a fourth time, reusing a fairing for the first time. The first stage successfully completed a barge landing. No word on whether they were able to recover the fairings.

I have embedded the replay of the live stream below the fold. They now have proved the capability of recovering and reusing 70% of their rocket.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

22 China
17 Russia
11 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. now leads China 23 to 22 in the national rankings.
» Read more

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More detail on pad abort test parachute issue

At a press telecon yesterday Boeing outlined in more detail the cause of the failure of one main parachute to deploy during its November 4 Starliner pad abort test.

In a call with reporters, John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial crew at Boeing, said an investigation after the Nov. 4 test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico led the company to conclude that a “lack of secure connection” between a pilot parachute and the main parachute prevented that main parachute, one of three, from deploying.

The pilot parachute is designed to deploy first, and pull out the main parachute. However, Mulholland said that hardware inspections and photographs taken during “closeout” of the vehicle prior to the test showed that a pin that links the pilot and main parachutes was not inserted properly.

“It’s very difficult, when you’re connecting that, to verify visually that it’s secured properly,” he said, in part because that portion of the parachute system is enclosed in a “protective sheath” intended to limit abrasion but which also makes it difficult to visually confirm the pin is in place. “In this particular case that pin wasn’t through the loop, but it wasn’t discovered in initial visual inspections because of that protective sheath.”

Mulholland said Boeing is modifying assembly procedures through what he called “fairly easy steps,” such as pull tests, to ensure those pins are properly installed. Technicians have already confirmed that the same parachute linkages are properly installed on the three parachutes on the Starliner that will launch in December on an orbital flight test to the International Space Station. [emphasis mine]

That a hardware inspection and photos taken before launch revealed this issue and resulted in nothing being done should rise serious questions at Boeing about its quality control processes. Based on the press telecon, however, it does not appear that Boeing is asking those questions. From a different report:

[John Mulholland, Boeing’s Starliner program manager] praised the rigging team, saying “even before we got eyes on the hardware, that team on their own initiative (was) reviewing the close-out photos and the processes, and they identified the potential issue that was subsequently validated by hardware inspection.”

“Most importantly, they raised their hand and and let us know what they believe the problem was,” he said. “It’s really a testament to the transparency of that team. The speak-up culture that we have, that is what we need on this program.”

While it is good that the rigging team was willing to speak up afterward, it is very bad that their procedures allowed the launch to go forward. The company says it has now changed its rigging procedures, but I don’t sense any effort on Boeing’s part to find out why its so-called “speak-up culture” failed to have these engineers speak-up, before launch.

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New video of Starliner pad abort test

Boeing has released a new video of the Starliner pad abort test on November 4th, showing the full flight.

I have embedded the footage below the fold. The one aspect of this test that I have as yet not seen any explanation for is the red cloud to the left of the capsule’s touch down spot. It surely looks like the kind of smoke one sees from the release of certain toxic fuels. It was also something that the live stream video focused on, suggesting the possibility that its existence was important and needed to be recorded for engineering reasons.

Regardless, the fact that any onboard astronauts would have been safely returned to Earth, based on this test, should mean Boeing’s abort system is functioning properly. They note that they have pinpointed the reason one parachute did not deploy (“attributed to the lack of a secure connection between the pilot chute and one of the main chutes”), a problem that is probably quite simple to fix. Hopefully that one failure will not cause any significant delays in their future flights, including the first manned flight next year.
» Read more

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Virgin Orbit gets $9.5 million from UK space agency

The space agency of the United Kingdom yesterday awarded $9.5 million to the smallsat rocket company Virgin Orbit

ccording to the statement, the funds will be used “to develop launch operations support systems and manufacture them in the U.K.” in addition to conducting “mission planning, and to further ready the facility for satellite launches from Cornwall”.

This award is part of a larger funding package of $26 million (£20 million) from Cornwall Council and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, while Virgin Orbit have also said they will contribute about $3.2 million (£2.5 million) to the Spaceport Cornwall project. The hope is that Cornwall could become a hub for European launches to space in the future.

Essentially this is an effort by the UK to bring Virgin Orbit’s launches to Cornwall spaceport. Why Virgin Orbit has got this money is puzzling however. Launched from a 747 which can take off from almost all airports, Virgin Orbit doesn’t necessarily need to launch from a spaceport. That fact is probably why the company got this “pay-off”, using somewhat more blunt words.

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Boeing & NASA declare pad abort test a success

According to the NASA press release for yesterday pad abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, the test was a success even though one of three main parachutes did not deploy successfully.

A pitcharound maneuver rotated the spacecraft into position for landing as it neared its peak altitude of approximately 4,500 feet. Two of three Starliner’s main parachutes deployed just under half a minute into the test, and the service module separated from the crew module a few seconds later. Although designed with three parachutes, two opening successfully is acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety. After one minute, the heat shield was released and airbags inflated, and the Starliner eased to the ground beneath its parachutes.

All reports say that this parachute issue will not effect the December 17 planned launch of the first unmanned orbital flight to ISS.

I find NASA’s reaction to this anomaly fascinating. Previously the agency repeatedly made a very big deal about the slightest anomaly by both Boeing and SpaceX on any test or procedure. While the agency’s response to these problems could have been reasonably justified, the caution it sometimes exhibited, often causing significant delays that might have been avoidable, was somewhat disturbing, especially when contrasted with the agency’s willingness to accept far more serious issues in connection with SLS and Orion.

Now however, the agency has no problem with the failure of one parachute to deploy during this test. While I actually agree with this response, the contrast is interesting and suggests to me that politics and deadlines (with the Russian Soyuz contract running out) are finally exerting some influence over NASA’s safety people. I suspect it has been made clear to them that unless something really seriously goes wrong, as long as the tests would have resulted in living astronauts, the safety bureaucrats had better not stand in the way of progress.

If so, this is very good news. It means that, assuming nothing really goes wrong with the remaining tests, the first manned missions are finally going to occur next year, relatively early in the year.

Posted at the Hayabusa-2/OSIRIS-REx asteroid conference in Tucson this week.

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SpaceX successfully completes 13 parachute drop tests of Crew Dragon

Capitalism in space: SpaceX in two weeks has apparently completed a strong of thirteen successful parachute drop tests of its Crew Dragon capsule.

SpaceX says it successfully completed thirteen consecutive tests of Crew Dragon’s new Mk3 parachutes, all of which were completed in less than two weeks. This essentially blows Bridenstine’s expectations out of the water, as SpaceX has surpassed his predicted 10 tests and done so barely three weeks into the tentative 12-week window he set. SpaceX now has plenty of time to either continue testing Crew Dragon’s parachutes or refocus its efforts on other equally important qualification challenges.

Prior to those thirteen consecutive successes, SpaceX suffered two failures during single-parachute Mk3 testing. The first two development tests of the Mk 3 design used loads much higher than the parachutes would ever see in operation in an effort to better understand overall design margins and system performance. After a period of rapid iteration with parachute provider Airborne Systems, the faults responsible for those two stress-test failures were resolved and subsequent drop tests confirmed that Mk3’s suspension lines – the numerous lines connecting the parachute to Crew Dragon – are far stronger than those on Mk2.

Bridenstine had mentioned in a tweet that SpaceX was planning ten drop tests, so the company has now exceeded those plans.

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Boeing completes Starliner pad abort test

Embedded below the fold is the video of today’s Starliner pad abort test, cued up to just before launch. While the capsule landed safely, it appears that one of it’s parachutes deploy improperly. If so, this probably means Boeing will not be able to launch the unmanned demo flight to ISS on December 17.

No one during the podcast mentioned this fact, so it could mean that they considered the landing a success regardless. It is even possible that they planned it with only two chutes. Or it could be the corporate culture at Boeing, similar to the culture in the Soviet Union, to avoid mentioning non-obvious problems to the public in order to make believe all is well. We will have to wait and see.

UPDATE: More information here on the failure of one chute:

Video of the test appeared to show all three chutes deploy, but only two remained attached to Starliner – a significant issue that will have to be investigated and evaluated.

Hat tip to reader Col. Beausabre for the link to the video.
» Read more

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How to watch Boeing’s Starliner pad abort

Link here.

It is presently scheduled for 9 am (Eastern) on November 4, with a three hour window. The live stream on NASA television will go up about ten minutes before. Anyone watching should be prepared for long waits of nothing happening, followed by a very quick event over in mere minutes.

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