Tag Archives: capitalism

Decline continues in 2018 in geosynchronous satellite industry

Capitalism in space: According to this article from Space News, 2018 saw a continuing decline in orders for the construction of new large geosynchronous communications satellites.

Last year’s poor harvest of five commercial orders for large geostationary communications satellites proved even worse than 2017’s surprise low of just seven orders. Manufacturers continue to vie for fewer such contracts as satellite operators hold off buying new spacecraft while they wait for breakthrough advances in high-throughput technology and assess the potential of small-satellite constellations. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted text provides the explanation. The decline isn’t because the use of space for communications is going away, but because the technology is shifting from a handful of large geosynchronous satellites to many tiny low orbit constellations. What this means for the launch industry is that the smallsat rocket companies (Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Vector) are in the driver’s seat, while the big rocket companies (SpaceX, Arianespace, ULA, etc) might be left holding the bag. These big rockets won’t go away either, but will become much more dependent on government contracts, either for the military or for civilian manned space.

The article provides a very detailed overview of 2018 and is definitely worth a full read.

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SpaceX test fires next generation rocket engine

Capitalism in space: This week Elon Musk tweeted pictures of the first static test firing of the first flight Raptor engine, to be used on SpaceX’s next generation rocket, the Super Heavy first stage and the Starship upper stage.

The billionaire entrepreneur also tweeted out several videos of the 3-second test, which took place at the company’s development facility in McGregor, Texas.

Starship is the 100-passenger stainless-steel vehicle SpaceX is building to take people and cargo to Mars and other distant destinations. Starship will launch atop a giant rocket SpaceX calls Super Heavy. Both of these vehicles will be reusable and Raptor-powered. Starship will sport seven of the new engines, and Super Heavy will use 31 Raptors to get off the ground.

A “hopper” prototype that SpaceX will use to test the Starship design on short flights within Earth’s atmosphere will have three Raptor engines. This hopper will debut soon, Musk has said — perhaps within the next month or so, if everything goes according to plan.

This engine appears to be the first built with the intention to actually fly, and is likely going to be used in that “hopper” prototype.

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Unmanned test flight of manned Dragon delayed again?

SpaceX has applied for a new launch license from the FAA for its unmanned test flight of its manned Dragion capsule that sets the launch date as no earlier than March 2nd.

This does not necessarily mean the launch is delayed until then. As noted by commenter Kirk Hilliard here at Behind the Black, “their previous license was valid through 1 March, so they may just be covering their bases here while still planning on launching under the authority of their previous license.”

Regardless, I have seen nothing to change my opinion about the cause of these delays: the NASA bureaucracy. SpaceX has been ready to do this launch since December. It has already done two successful launch rehearsals, one in which they did a successful static fire test, as is standard for the company. Both illustrate their readiness. The launch would use their leased launchpad using their launch crew. There has been no indication of any technical reason for the delays, other than a demand that SpaceX complete paperwork for NASA and the government shutdown (which has not prevented other launches from government facilities).

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Russian engineers fix microhole in Soyuz upper stage

Russian engineers have successfully fixed the microhole that had been discovered in the fuel line of the Freget upper stage of a Soyuz rocket being prepped for an Arianespace commercial launch in French Guiana.

This quick repair suggests that the launch will not be delayed as much as first believed.

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ULA gets launch contract for Lucy asteroid mission

Capitalism in space: NASA has awarded ULA a $145 million contract to launch the Lucy asteroid mission on its Atlas 5 rocket.

The price is high for such a launch in today’s market, and is even higher than the cost of some recent military launches, which routinely tack on extra requirements that cause the price to rise. I wonder why. Is it because NASA doesn’t care how much it spends? Or is there a political component here, providing a contract to a company that is having trouble winning contracts in the private sector because their price is too high?

It could be that the mission requires things from the launch that add to the cost. The press release mentions that it “includes the launch service and other mission related costs” but does not specify what they are.

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We are one step closer to the first replicator

Scientists have developed and tested a 3D printing technique that quickly creates entire objects as a unit, rather than building them by layers.

Here’s how it works. First, the researchers use a computer-controlled digital light projector to cast a series of 2D images through a rotating vial containing a photosensitive gel. As the vial rotates, photons entering from different angles meet at selected spots in the gel. Where they meet, their combined energy solidifies the gel. Where that meetup doesn’t occur, the photons simply pass through without altering the photosensitive material.

The approach is fast, able to create complex objects, such as a centimeter-size copy of Rodin’s famous sculpture of The Thinker in just minutes, the researchers report today in Science. It can also make 3D plastic parts around existing objects, such as a plastic handle around a metallic screwdriver shaft. The approach could also be useful for encapsulating sensitive electronics, the authors write.

If you go to the supplementary material for their paper, you can watch several videos showing this process at work, creating both the Thinker as well as a ball in a cage.

I think I have reported on this process previously, but this new paper shows a significant advance. Nonetheless, this engineering here is still very preliminary.

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Local downrange homeowners have announced their opposition to Georgia spaceport

Capitalism in space: A local homeowners association today announced its opposition to the proposed commercial spaceport in Camden County, Georgia.

Cumberland and Little Cumberland Islands have just become the first communities in America to be directly downrange from a vertical launch spaceport awaiting license approval from the FAA. More than sixty private homes lie in the path of rockets that Camden County commissioners hope someday to launch.

In the history of U.S. space flight, neither NASA nor the FAA have permitted a vertical launch over private homes or people directly downrange. The risk to people and property from an exploding rocket is too great.

If they are truly downrange from the launchpads, I would say their objection is 100% valid, and the spaceport application should be denied. And I suspect this is true, since the county had an analysis done on this subject but has refused to release it.

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Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket gets another launch contract

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has signed a multi-launch contract with Telesat to use its still unbuilt New Glenn rocket.

This is good news for Blue Origin, but I also guarantee that Telesat has the option to switch launch providers should New Glenn be delayed or suffer any serious issues during development.

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Maxar cancels its DARPA satellite servicing mission

Capitalsm in space: Maxar today announced it is canceling its DARPA mission to develop and fly a robotic mission aimed at servicing geosynchronous satellites.

Maxar Technologies’ Space Systems Loral division terminated an agreement to build DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites spacecraft Jan. 30, leading to a potential recompete of the program. Maxar said it also canceled a contract with Space Infrastructure Services, a company it created that would have commercialized the RSGS servicer after a DARPA demonstration, starting with an in-orbit refueling mission for fleet operator SES. Both were awarded in 2017.

…The cancellations come amid an ongoing divestment of SSL’s geostationary satellite manufacturing business, which has weighed down Maxar’s financial performance due to a protracted slump in commercial orders.

More background information can be found here.

It seems that the industry’s increasing shift from a few large geosynchronous satellites to small smallsats in low Earth orbit is the real cause of this decision. Maxar has realized that there won’t be that many satellites in the future to service, since the smallsat design doesn’t require it. Smallsats aren’t designed for long life. Instead, you send them them up in large numbers, frequently. Their small size and the arrival of smallsat rockets to do this makes this model far cheaper than launching expensive big geosynchronous satellites that are expected to last ten to fifteen years and would be worth repairing.

Thus, the business model for commercial robotic servicing has apparently vanished, from Maxar’s perspective. Other servicing projects however continue. From the second link:

Northrop Grumman said it plans to launch its first Mission Extension Vehicle to dock with Intelsat-901 and take over orbital station-keeping duties, extending the satellite’s service life by several more years.

Another up and coming player, Effective Space, is developing a satellite servicing vehicle called Space Drone, to provide satellite life extension services.

And SSL [a Maxar subdivision] is under contract to NASA to build the Restore-L satellite servicing spacecraft, slated to launch in 2020. Restore-L will be owned by NASA, however, and will operate in low Earth orbit, not the geosynchronous arc as was the plan for RSGS.

The last mission is intriguing because it could lay the groundwork for a robotic servicing mission to Hubble. It is being led by the same NASA division that ran all of the shuttle servicing missions to Hubble, and is using many of the engineering designs that division proposed when it was trying to sell a Hubble robot servicing mission back in 2004.

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Camden submits spaceport application to FAA

Capitalism in space: Camden County in Georgia has submitted its application to the FAA to create a spaceport in that county.

It took them three years “to comply with the detailed regulatory requirements necessary.” Whether they get approval or attract customers remains to be seen. We do know that at least one smallsat rocket company, Vector, has shown a willingness to launch from their site.

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Lockheed Martin’s space profits to decline in 2019 because of ULA

Capitalism in space: Lockheed Martin is projecting a decline in its space profits in 2019 because of a decline in income coming from its ULA partnership with Boeing.

In the previous quarterly earnings call in October, Bruce Tanner, Lockheed Martin’s chief financial officer, warned those earnings could be down as much as $150 million in 2019 compared to 2018. Tanner said then that both the number of [ULA] launches and the mix of vehicles contributed to that decline.

“We have more, for instance, Delta 4 launches in 2018 than we expect to have in 2019,” he said in the prior call. “Those are obviously the most profitable launch vehicles in all of ULA’s portfolio.”

In the latest earnings call, Tanner said the decline would not be as large as previously projected, estimating it to be closer $100 million. Part of the change has to do with improved performance at ULA, he said, but a bigger factor was a delay of a Delta 4 Heavy launch from late 2018 to earlier this month, shifting the profit realized from it to 2019. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted language illustrates why they are losing sales. The Delta family of rockets might bring ULA the most income, but that is because it is also its most expensive rocket to build and launch, and is also the one for which it charges the most.

Back in 2016 ULA announced that it planned to retire Delta, but it has not yet done so, probably because the company earns so much with each launch. Whether they eventually retire it or not doesn’t really matter, however, because its high cost will have it with time go the way of the horse regardless. Other cheaper rockets, such as the Falcon Heavy, are getting the business instead.

In fact, this competitive process probably explains entirely the drop in earnings expected in 2019.

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China aims for at least 30 launches in 2019

The new colonial movement: The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), China’s main government agency supervising its space program, has revealed that they have at least 30 launches planned for 2019.

This number brings the known predicted launches for 2019 to about 125, which I think would be the most ever in a single year, since Sputnik. It definitely would be the most since the 1980s.

The article also has the following information about the problems and delays that have prevented a third Long March 5 rocket launch since its second launch failed in 2017.

A redesign has been carried out to the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen YF-77 engines, two of which power the Long March 5 first stage, to correct the turbopump issue reported to be behind the 2017 failure. The return-to-flight mission will carry the Shijian-20 communications satellite, or “Practice-20” in Chinese, based on a new, large DFH-5 satellite platform which supports satellites from 6,500 to 9,000 kilograms.

A successful launch would mean the fourth Long March 5 would then be used to launch the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return toward the moon in late 2019. The mission will aim to collect up to 2 kilograms of rocks and regolith from a site near Mons Rümker in Oceanus Procellarum on the lunar near side and bring the samples to Earth.

A nominal return-to-flight would also clear the way for the test launch of the Long March 5B, a variant of the Long March 5 designed specifically for lofting the 20-metric ton modules of the planned Chinese Space Station (CSS) into low Earth orbit. CASC official Shang Zhi told China’s state-run Xinhua news agency that joint tests and exercises involving a test model of the rocket and the CSS core module will be carried out at Wenchang at the end of 2019 in preparation for the maiden flight of the Long March 5B. Launch of the first CSS module is currently slated for 2020.

I wonder if we will ever see the Long March 5 version ever launch again after the 5B launches successfully. I suspect not, as it appears to me that the new variant is really a cover for the significant redesign required after the 2017 launch failure.

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New report predicts the boom in smallsats will continue in 2019

Capitalism in space: A new analysis of the state of the smallsat industry predicts that the boom in smallsats will continue in 2019.

Coming off an excellent performance in 2018, SpaceWorks analysts project between 294 – 393 nano/microsatellites (1 – 50 kg) will launch globally in 2019, an 18% increase over last year. Of the 262 spacecraft SpaceWorks predicted to launch in 2018, 253 actually launched. “SpaceWorks showed unprecedented accuracy in last year’s forecast, with our prediction coming within 5% of actual nano/microsatellites launched.” stated Caleb Williams, Lead Economic Analyst at SpaceWorks, “Changes to our forecasting methodology, in combination with greater launch consistency and better execution on the part of small satellite operators contributed to our ability to accurately forecast market growth.”

2019 projections remain strong and have been updated to reflect the advancements of dedicated small satellite launch vehicles, changing attitudes of civil and military operators, and the rapid progress of commercial satellite IoT ventures. SpaceWorks analysts continue to gain confidence in the small satellite market as operators begin promising less and delivering more. “The rapid progress of operators focusing on IoT applications is expected to continue and communications applications are expected to quadruple their market share over the next 5 years” says Stephanie DelPozzo, SpaceWorks Economic Analyst, “overall, the maturing capabilities of small satellites are expected to open additional opportunities for growth and keep investors interested in the market during the near-term.” [emphasis mine]

The phrase I’ve highlighted is significant. It appears big government and commercial investors have finally jumped on the smallsat bandwagon after years of resistance.

The report also notes that the number of smallsat launches in the past five years has grown by 150%.

Everything in the full report confirms my sense that we are seeing a bifurcation in the aerospace industry, with the the unmanned branch producing smaller components while the manned space branch learning how to affordably build larger.

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New technique could make nickel as strong as titanium

A new technique that allows metals to mimic the internal structure of wood could make nickel, and other metals, far far strong.

Led by James Pikul, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics at Penn Engineering, the new study looked at new ways to take metal and give it the porous structure that gives wood its strength. In the past, this has been done by finding ways to turn molten metal into foam, or using 3D printing with hundred-nanometer precision to build up wood-like metal bit by bit. The problem is that metal foam is crude by modern engineering standards, while the 3D printing process is slow and very hard to scale up from lab-bench scales.

“The reason we call it metallic wood is not just its density, which is about that of wood, but its cellular nature,” Pikul says. “Cellular materials are porous; if you look at wood grain, that’s what you’re seeing  –  parts that are thick and dense and made to hold the structure, and parts that are porous and made to support biological functions, like transport to and from cells. Our structure is similar. We have areas that are thick and dense with strong metal struts, and areas that are porous with air gaps. We’re just operating at the length scales where the strength of struts approaches the theoretical maximum.”

According to the researchers, the key was to go to much smaller scales to produce much greater increases in strength. They manage this by suspending plastic spheres a few hundred nanometers wide in water, which is allowed to evaporate. As the water disappears, the spheres drop into a neat geometrical, crystalline pattern. This is then electroplated with a thin layer of chrome and the spaces between the spheres are filled with nickel. The plastic is then dissolved, and what’s left behind is an open network of metallic struts with 70 percent empty space – making it light enough to float in water.

The process is however very expensive, and so far has only produced some very small samples.

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ArianeGroup successfully test fires new solid rocket motor

Capitalism in space: ArianeGroup, the private consortium building Europe’s next generation of rockets, has successfully test fired the new solid rocket motor it will use for both its Ariane 6 and Vega-C rockets.

The P120C is designed and built by a European consortium involving a joint venture known as Europropulsion, a venture between ArianeGroup and Avio, as well as CNES, the Italian ASI space agency, and Airbus Safran. This multinational venture uses the Avio facilities in Colleferro, Italy to manufacture the carbon fiber composite casing, a facility in France to build the ArianeGroup composite steerable nozzle, and the propellant casting and integration facilities in French Guiana to build up and prepare these boosters for flight.

The P120C, through its common use across launch vehicle lines and use of existing facilities, is designed to reduce costs as a competitive response to newer companies like SpaceX that have dramatically lowered launch costs and captured an increasing share of the worldwide launch market, dethroning the ArianeGroup from the dominating position it had held until very recently.

Without doubt they are going to save money using this solid rocket motor on both rockets. I remain somewhat skeptical, however, about whether they will achieve enough cost savings to compete with SpaceX. The seeming lack of interest by their primary European customers for Ariane 6 suggests this. It appears that its price might still be too high.

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Virgin Galactic lays off 40 workers

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic earlier in January laid off 40 workers, saying it was in preparation for moving their launch operations to New Mexico where they will be doing their commercial flights.

This is about 5% of their payroll, so at first glance it does not appear to be a significant number. Yet, if they were about to move to commercial operations I would think their payroll would grow, not shrink.

The article itself buys into the company’s tediously overworn sales pitch (that they have been pushing for more than a decade) that they are about to start commercial operations, flying paying tourists, but this is just not credible. For example, as part of this sales pitch they made a big deal about hiring Under Armour to make the flight suits for their flights. Yet, no designs have been released, even though Virgin Galactic has been working on doing commercial tourist flights for more than fourteen years. Only now they realize they need flight suits?

In 2017 I predicted that Virgin Orbit would fly a commercial flight before Virgin Galactic, even though Orbit only started to seriously build its rocket in 2015, about a dozen years after Galactic got started. I stand by that prediction, which I expect will prove true this year.

At the time I also predicted that Virgin Galactic’s Unity spaceship will never make orbital space, defined by practically everyone since around 1970 to be 67 miles elevation, or 100 kilometers. I also stand by that prediction, because only just before Unity’s flight to barely 50 miles did the issue of the definition of space reappear after almost a half century. Virgin Galactic has been pushing to get the definition changed because their spacecraft probably cannot get to 67 miles.

I just wish reporters would stop buying into Branson’s sales pitch. Show some skepticism, damn it. Your job isn’t to be a public relations agent for him.

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A detailed update on China’s numerous smallsat rocket companies

Link here. Based on this report, we should expect the first orbital launches from several of these Chinese smallsat rocket companies in 2019.

These numerous companies are ostensibly independent private companies who have raised Chinese investment capital. This is partly true. It is not the entire story however.

While the companies emerging in China’s nascent commercial launch sector are being backed by private funds, the firms are also apparently receiving significant support from the State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (SASTIND), a government body overseeing the country’s space activities.

A national military-civilian integration strategy is also crucial to the progress made, facilitating the transfer of required and sensitive technologies to the startups, as well as opportunities to share facilities and expertise. [emphasis mine]

Unlike Russia, China’s government might have decided here to embrace competition to encourage innovation, but we mustn’t forget that these companies only exist because the Chinese government allows them to exist. Everything that happens in China’s space industry is done with the approval of the government, for the government’s purposes. Once these companies succeed, the government will co-op them. I guarantee it.

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High Russian officials lambast Roscosmos and its head

At a meeting earlier this week several high Russian officials sharply criticized both Roscosmos and its head, Dmitry Rogozin, for repeatedly predicting grand future successes even as the state of the Russian space program worsens.

On Wednesday, the prime minister of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, expressed his displeasure with the situation. During a meeting in Moscow with senior Roscosmos officials, Medvedev made sharply critical remarks that were reported by several Russian news organizations, including Gazeta.RU and RIA Novosti. (Translations were provided to Ars by Robinson Mitchell).

“This is a blunt and direct assertion: We need to quit projecting future plans, stop talking about where our missions will land in 2030, get to work, talk less, and do more,” Medvedev said. “We need to be more active in commercializing our space industry and increase Russia’s international market share of commercial launches.” [emphasis mine]

Medvedev as well as Russia’s deputy prime minister Yuri Borisov were blunt in noting that Roscosmos has done a bad job of competing in the commercial launch market, even as it made empty “grandiose projections” of its future deep space exploration plans.

Whether these criticisms will have any significant effect remains to be seen. Russia has structured its entire space industry into a single government-run corporation. Within Russia there is no competition, and everything is run from the top down. Such a set-up discourages innovation and risk-taking, the very things Russia needs for it to successfully compete on the world stage.

Imagine you are a young Russian guy with a clever idea for building smallsats in your basement. Or you are a young rocket engineer who has an idea about building rockets better. In Russian neither of these guys would be free to do anything, as all space projects must be supervised by Roscosmos. Roscosmos however is a government bureaucracy, and such bureaucracies are routinely loath to take risks and give power and opportunity to new people outside its power structure. Your project would either be squashed, or co-oped by the powers-in-charge so that it would not fly, as intended.

We see this in NASA today, with its decades-long resistance to new space companies like SpaceX. Fortunately, the U.S. aerospace industry has not been consolidated into a single government entity, run by NASA. Nor can it be, at least for now. The Constitution prevents government from doing this, while the political system allows for competition, even among politicians. The result has been that political appointees in both the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have over the past dozen years pushed the idea of reducing NASA’s control over space, and have thus made possible the arrival of a viable commercial and very competitive space industry.

In Russia, under Putin, they did exactly the opposite in 2015, ending competition and consolidating their industry under full government control. The results since have not been pretty. In 2015 Russia led the world in launches with 34. In 2018 they only launched fifteen times, the lowest total for that country since the 1960s.

Nor do I expect this trend to change in the near future, notwithstanding the blunt talk above by Russia’s leaders. At least for the next decade, I expect Russia to be a very minor player in space.

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Upper half of Starship hopper blown over by winds

High winds at Boca Chica have toppled the upper half of SpaceX’s Starship Hopper prototype, causing damage that will take “a few weeks to repair,” according to Elon Musk.

The video at the link taken by a driver going past the facility shows the top half lying on the ground.

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Blue Origin reveals redesigned New Glenn rocket

Capitalism in space: In a video animation Blue Origin last week revealed a new redesigned version of its orbital New Glenn rocket.

There are a few notable differences between the rocket depicted in the new video and the New Glenn we saw in a similar 2017 animation. For example, the older version featured a payload fairing — the protective nose cone that surrounds spacecraft during launch — that was bullet-shaped and 18 feet (5.4 meters) wide. The current incarnation boasts a 23-foot-wide (7 m) fairing with a traditional snub-nosed look. (A previously envisioned three-stage New Glenn featured this bigger fairing, but this booster variant is no longer part of Blue Origin’s plans.)

And the first stage’s six landing legs will apparently now deploy a bit differently — by unfolding outward from the bottom, much as Falcon 9 legs do, rather than sort of sliding downward.

These changes are almost certainly are the result of the company’s Air Force contract that gave it $500 million in development money in exchange for having a say in how the rocket is built.

For example, I am not surprised that New Glenn now more closely resembles the Falcon 9. The modern American military is not known for its daring or innovation. It had to be sued to finally agree to award contracts to SpaceX. Now that the Falcon 9 is well proven, however, the military bean-counters are probably demanding that New Glenn copy it, rather than introduce innovations of its own.

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Arianespace slashes launch price for Ariane 5

Capitalism in space: Arianespace has announced that it is once again dropping the launch price for an Ariane 5 launch, in order to increase the chances it will win several contracts this year.

Arianespace is competing for two major launch contracts in the Asia-Pacific region that should be awarded this year and expects there could be tenders for another three, said [Arianespace Managing Director and Head of Sales for Asia-Pacific Vivian Quenet].

The article does not mention the actual price, but Arianespace had been charging about $100 million per launch satellite, while SpaceX had been charging $62 million (for a new Falcon 9) and about $50 million (for a reused one).

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Rocket Lab gets DARPA launch contract

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today announced a new launch contract with DARPA, dedicating the company’s first launch in 2019 to that government military research agency.

DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) mission is scheduled for launch in late February and intends to space-qualify a prototype reflect array antenna to improve radio communications in small spacecraft. The antenna, made of a tissue-thin Kapton membrane, packs tightly inside the small satellite for stowage during launch, before deploying to its full size of 2.25 meters in diameter once it reaches low Earth orbit. This high compaction ratio enables larger antennas in smaller satellites, enabling satellite owners to take advantage of volume-limited launch opportunities while still providing significant capability. The mission could help validate emerging concepts for a resilient sensor and data transport layer in low Earth orbit – a capability that does not exist today, but one which could revolutionize global communications by laying the groundwork for a space-based internet.

…The mission, the first of monthly Electron launches this year, will lift-off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula of New Zealand. To ensure precise insertion and responsible orbital deployment, the R3D2 payload will be deployed via the Electron Kick Stage to a circular orbit. Using this unique launch method, Electron’s second stage is left in a highly elliptical orbit where the stage is subject to significant atmospheric drag, causing it to de-orbit and burn up to nothing in a reduced time frame. The Kick Stage is then used to deploy the satellite payload to a precise orbit, following which the Kick Stage can perform a de-orbit burn to speed up its re-entry, leaving no orbital debris behind in space. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sections in the quote above indicate the schedule. Rocket Lab had suggested last year that once it successfully completed its November and December 2018 launches it would in 2019 launch monthly. They are still clearly pushing for that schedule, but it is also clear now that they will not launch in January and their February launch will be late in the month, suggesting the next launch will likely not be in March.

These delays at this point are not significant, though if they do not ramp up to that monthly schedule by the end of 2019 it will be.

This late announcement of a payload for the first 2019 launch also suggests that DARPA was willing to pay a premium to leapfrog over Rocket Lab’s already signed customers. My industry sources also suggest that the U.S. military has in the past few months become very very interested in these new smallsat rockets, and has been approaching them all to arrange future flights.

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New Shepard makes another successful test flight

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spacecraft made another successful test flight today, reaching approximately 350,000 feet elevation, about 66 miles.

This was the fourth flight for this second New Shepard craft, and the tenth overall of their test program.

I have embedded the video of the launch below the fold.
» Read more

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Kickstarter campaign starts to finance launch of garage-built cubesat

Capitalism in space: PocketQube has initiated a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to fund the launch of its first home-made plastic cubesat.

I have written about this project previously, because it epitomizes the old-fashioned vision of a single guy or gal working in his or her basement or garage to build a new invention. It now appears they are getting close to being ready to launch.

Make sure you watch their video at the first link above. It not only explains what they’ve accomplished so far as well as what they hope to do, it is quite amusing at how it pokes fun at the kind of fake-epic videos we see from NASA, promising big but delivering little. In the case of this project, they are instead promising little, but if they succeed they should deliver big.

This quote from the Kickstarter page though I think reveals once again where the real barriers to commercial space lie:

The biggest risk to the project is licensing. The FCC has placed additional burdens on small satellite operators after an incident earlier this year that resulted in four unlicensed satellites being placed into orbit. Possible delays in our applications could result in Mini-Cubes missing the flight. We do have a backup flight should that happen but it will not launch until 2020 at the earliest.

The quote refers to Swarm’s unlicensed launch of four cubesats in March 2018, and the FCC’s subsequent response, imposing fines and strict reporting requirements on Swarm. It now appears some of those strict reporting requirements have been applied across the board to all cubesat companies, increasing costs and paperwork, and even threatening their viability.

No matter the justification, it is once again the government that stands in the way of the ability of free humans to follow their dreams. I have seen this pattern repeat itself for the last half century, resulting in little space exploration since the Apollo landings. It now stands in the way of a new revolution in commercial space.

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First unmanned test flight of manned Dragon now set for Feb 9

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first unmanned test launch of its manned Dragon capsule, delayed repeated in recent months, has now been scheduled for no early than Feb 9, with its dress rehearsal countdown static fire test set for January 23.

It appears that this scheduled date is more firm than the previous ones, as it was announced as part of the upcoming schedule of the Eastern Range’s planning schedule.

The article provides some interesting details about the effect (or non-effect) the government shutdown on this launch. Bottom line: It should not prevent it, in the slightest. It must be repeatedly noted that the launch will use a SpaceX launch team on a SpaceX run launchpad, and will only require NASA participation during docking procedures, procedures that require NASA employees who have been deemed essential and thus are working (even if unpaid at the moment).

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Ariane 6 might be in trouble

Capitalism in space: Arianespace today announced that they will not be able to begin full production of their next generation rocket, Ariane 6, unless they get four more contracts from the partners in the European Space Agency.

With the maiden flight of the Ariane 6 now 18 months away (in July 2020), Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said the company had anticipated signing a manufacturing contract with ArianeGroup in the second part of last year to begin production beyond the first rocket.

So far, European public entities have purchased three Ariane 6 missions — two from the European Commission for launching Galileo navigation satellites, and one from France for the CSO-3 military imaging satellite — but have not committed to the number envisioned at the start of the Ariane 6 program in 2014.

“We are confident it will happen,” Israël said of the remaining government missions. “But it is not done yet. We are working in this direction. It is now quite urgent because industry has anticipated the manufacturing of these first launchers, but now we need these institutional contracts to fully contractualize the first Ariane 6s.”

I wonder if the fact that the cost for an Ariane 6 launch is expected to be remain higher than a comparable SpaceX launch is the reason they are having trouble getting a commitment from their European partners. Why buy this rocket, when you can get the same service for less?

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Stratolaunch ends plan to build rockets for its giant Roc aircraft

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch has decided to cease work on the family of second stage rockets plus engine, announced in August and September 2018, that would have launched from the bottom of its giant Roc airplane.

Instead, they will only launch Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rockets from Roc.

This does not look good for the company. Roc is vastly oversized for Pegasus, which really doesn’t need it. It also suggests that the death of Paul Allen has had a bad effect on the company.

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ULA successfully launches U.S. spy satellite

Capitalism in space: Using its Delta-4 Heavy rocket, the most powerful in its rocket family, ULA today successfully placed a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite into orbit.

It was also revealed in this article that ULA plans a total of seven launches in 2019, including today’s launch, the fewest in a year since ULA was formed in 2007 from a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The standings in the 2019 launch race:

1 China
1 SpaceX
1 Japan
1 ULA

The U.S. leads in the national standings 2 to 1 over China.

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Smallsat rocket company Relativity Space gets Air Force okay to launch from Florida

Capitalism in space: The smallsat startup company Relativity Space has gotten Air Force approval to launch its 3D printed Terran rocket from Cape Canaveral.

They are now in negotiations to obtain a twenty year lease on one of the launchpads there.

Relativity hopes to sign a 20-year agreement granting it exclusive use of Launch Complex 16, a former Titan and Pershing missile site also used by NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. It was deactivated in 1988.

The company plans to spend more than $10 million to renovate the pad, build payload processing and integration hangars and install fuel and lightning protection systems.

It’s not yet known how many jobs will be based in Florida. The company has grown from 14 to 60 people over the past year, adding experience with a dozen former senior executives of existing Cape launchers SpaceX, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance

The company has raised significant investment capital, $45 million, but there is no indication from the article when they plan their first test launches.

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