SpaceX completes third launch in less than two days

SpaceX successfully launched another 54 Starlink satellites today, completing the company’s third launch in less than two days.

The Falcon 9 first stage completed its 15th flight, a record, landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

60 China
59 SpaceX
21 Russia
9 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 83 to 60 in the national rankings, but trails the entire world combined 92 to 83.

SpaceX launches two communications satellites

SpaceX today successfully launched two communications satellites for the satellite company SES, beginning SpaceX’s contract to launch more satellites in its constellation of medium-Earth orbit satellites, replacing the Russians.

The first stage successfully flew its eighth flight, and landed successfully on a drone ship in the Atlantic.

This was also the company’s second launch today, with another launch scheduled for tomorrow.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

60 China
58 SpaceX
21 Russia
9 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 82 to 60 in the national rankings, but trails the entire world combined 92 to 82.

SpaceX launches oceanography satellite

SpaceX early this morning used its Falcon 9 rocket to successfully launch an oceanography satellite, dubbed SWOT, for both NASA and France’s space agency CNES.

The satellite it designed to measure the height of water on 90% of the Earth’s surface.

The first stage was making its sixth flight, and successfully returned to Earth, touching down on its landing pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

59 China
57 SpaceX
21 Russia
9 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 81 to 59 in the national rankings, but trails the entire world combined 91 to 81.

These numbers however should change again later today, as SpaceX has another launch scheduled.

Rwanda and Nigeria to sign Artemis Accords

Rwanda and Nigeria have become the first two African nations to sign te Artemis Accords, bringing the number of signatories to this American-led alliance to 23.

Neither Nigerian nor Rwandan officials described in detail any plans to participate in Artemis at the signing ceremony, but at the Secure World Foundation event, a State Department official said that is not a condition for signing the Accords.

“We continue to encourage all responsible spacefaring nations to sign the Accords, and we also encourage countries that are just developing their space sector to also consider signing,” said Kristina Leszczak of the State Department’s Office of Space Affairs. “We stress that interested countries do not need to come to the table with existing space capabilities or even near-term plans to contribute to Artemis. We find this opens the conversation up to a much more diverse group.”

The full list of signatories so far: Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Columbia, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, the Ukraine, and the United States.

The accords, bi-lateral agreements between each nation and the U.S., were designed during the Trump administration to emphasize the rights of private investors in space and thus do an end-around of the Outer Space Treaty. Under the Biden administration it is no longer clear if that remains the goal. The existence of a signed alliance led by the U.S. and the capitalistic west however gives the U.S. the political force to protect those rights, assuming the American government is interested in the future in doing so.

Hakuto-R sends first image back to Earth

Hakuto-R's first released images
Go here and here for original images.

The private Hakuto-R lunar lander, owned and built by the Japanese-based company Ispace, is operating as planned and has sent back its first images from two different cameras.

The larger image to the right was taken by a camera on one of Canada’s payloads. It shows the Earth two minutes after launch, with the rocket’s upper stage acting as a frame. The inset, reduced to insert here, was taken 19 hours after launch by the lander’s main camera, and shows the Earth at night. Both images demonstrate that the spacecraft is stable and functioning perfectly.

The goals of the mission remain mostly engineering. Its focus is demonstrating first that Ispace’s lander can do what it says so that future customers will be confident buying payload space. Similarly, the payloads, such as the UAE’s Rashid rover, are doing the same thing.

Ariane 5 successfully launches three satellites

Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket successfully launched two communications satellites plus a weather satellite today, leaving that rocket only two more launches left before it is permanently retired.

As this was only the fifth successful launch this year by Arianespace (representing Europe), the leader board in the 2022 launch race remains unchanged:

58 China
56 SpaceX
21 Russia
9 Rocket Lab

The U.S. still leads China 80 to 58 in the national rankings, but now trails the entire world combined 90 to 80.

Another space station company, ThinkOrbital, enters the competition

Though it failed to win a NASA contract to build its manned space station concept, the company ThinkOrbital has instead won small two research grants from the Space Force.

Earlier this year ThinkOrbital — with partners Redwire, KMI and Arizona State University — won two research contracts worth $260,000 under the U.S. Space Force Orbital Prime program for in-space servicing, assembly and manufacturing. Rosen said the plan is to refine the design concept for a space structure that could be used for debris removal and recycling.

“We’re working on a hub and spoke concept where smaller satellites would go out and gather the debris, bring it back to a central location, process it and we could either turn them into fuel or deorbit them,” said Rosen. “We could process debris at that hub, for example, and turn aluminum into aluminum powder that could be used for spacecraft fuel.”

ThinkOrbital is hoping to be selected for the next phase of Orbital Prime which could be worth up to $1.5 million.

This new concept would not be manned, but would instead be used by unmanned robots as service depot.

Bezos and Blue Origin to star in animated kids show

If you can’t build anything, than draw it! Jeff Bezos and his space company Blue Origin are now set to star in a kids animated show called “Blue Origins Space Rangers”.

The children’s series will feature the voices of Bezos, who founded his space tourism business Blue Origin in 2000, as well as “Good Morning America” co-host Michael Strahan, who was a passenger in December 2021 on Blue Origin NS-19 on a 10-minute spaceflight. Bezos took his supersonic joy ride to space in July 2021.

Nor is this the only show that Blue Origin is part of. A feature film set to release in 2023 will feature Blue Origin’s proposed (but not yet built) Orbital Reef space station.

All of this is fun and good, but it once again raises a question of focus. Is Bezos and Blue Origin really focused on building rockets and space stations, or it is mostly a pr operation for Bezos to sell himself? The overall lack of progress on its real rockets and space stations suggests the latter.

New bill imposes new and odious regulation on private space stations and satellites

Congress and the FCC to private space: Nice business you got here.
Congress and the FCC to private space: “Nice business you
got here. Shame if something happened to it.”

On December 8, 2022, two bills, sponsored by both a Democrat and a Republican, were introduced in the House to give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the power to regulate and even block the launch of commercial private space stations, while also giving that agency the power to require companies to meet its arbitrary regulations on de-orbiting defunct satellites and stations.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and the ranking member, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), said their legislation is needed to modernize the FCC for the rapidly changing space industry. Their two bills — the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act and Secure Space Act — seek to update regulations covering foreign ownership, space sustainability, license processing timelines, and satellite spectrum sharing.

The key language in the first bill [pdf] is this:
» Read more

SpaceX successfully launches Ispace’s Hakuto-R private mission to Moon

Lunar map showing Hakuto-R's landing spot
Hakuto-R’s planned landing site is in Atlas Crater.

Using its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX tonight successfully launched Ispace’s Hakuto-R lunar lander, the first private mission attempting to softly land on the Moon.

The Falcon 9 first stage completed its fifth flight, landing successfully at Cape Canaveral.

Hakuto-R, which is actually the first of two missions, carries seven payloads, including two small rovers, Rashid, which is the United Arab Emirates first lunar mission, and a smaller rover built by Ispace. Both will operate for about a week, one lunar day. Hakuto-R will land on the Moon in April, 2023.

A second payload is a cubesat from JPL, called Lunar Flashlight. It will go into lunar orbit, testing new fuel technologies while also attempting to identify water in the permanently shadowed craters at the lunar south pole.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

57 China
56 SpaceX
21 Russia
9 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 80 to 57 in the national rankings, but trails the entire world combined 87 to 80.

NASA extends Boeing’s contract to produce more SLS rockets

NASA yesterday announced that it will pay Boeing $3.2 billion for two more SLS rockets.

NASA has finalized its contract with Boeing of Huntsville, Alabama, for approximately $3.2 billion to continue manufacturing core and upper stages for future Space Launch System (SLS) rockets for Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond.

Under the SLS Stages Production and Evolution Contract action, Boeing will produce SLS core stages for Artemis III and IV, procure critical and long-lead material for the core stages for Artemis V and VI, provide the exploration upper stages (EUS) for Artemis V and VI, as well as tooling and related support and engineering services.

All this really means is that NASA is going depend on SLS and Orion to fly its astronauts to and from the Moon, and because of that its pace of flight will be — at best — slow and long-drawn out. For example, this new order extends the contract out to 2028. It will thus leave plenty of time for SpaceX and other nations to get there first.

I predict that the private Starship missions paid for by Yusaku Maezawa and Jared Isaacman will both fly before these two new Artemis missions. You heard it here first.

NASA awards Collins contract to build spacesuits for space station spacewalks

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded Collins Aerospace a $97.2 million contract to build spacesuits for the agency’s future space station spacewalks.

In June NASA had picked Collins and Axiom as the vendors who would build spacesuits for the agency. In September it purchased its its first Artemis Moon spacesuits from Axiom. This new contract has NASA buying its first new space station suits from Collins.

In both cases, the companies own their designs, and can thus sell them to the other private space stations presently under construction.

This contract award follows NASA abandonment of its own failed spacesuit effort, which spent fourteen years and a billion dollars and produced nothing.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander passes launch tests

Astrobotic’s first demonstration lunar lander, dubbed Peregrine, has passed its vibration and acoustic tests, demonstrating it can survive launch on ULA’s Vulcan rocket, presently scheduled for the first quarter of ’23.

The lander is now undergoing electromagnetic interference testing, which will be followed by thermal vacuum tests. Once those tests are complete, the company said, it will ship the lander to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to be integrated with the Vulcan Centaur for a launch currently scheduled in the first quarter of 2023. That launch will be the inaugural flight of the Vulcan Centaur.

A great deal will be riding on that first Vulcan launch, both for Astrobotic and ULA.

Billionaire Maezawa chooses his passengers for Starship lunar flight

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa yesterday announced the eight passengers he will take with him on his private Starship flight around the Moon, its launch date still not set.

The full list of ten (including the two back-up passengers) is a wide mixture of individuals with a wide range of disciplines coming from a wide range of countries. For those interested in space, the one name that stood out and was very familiar was Tim Dodd, created of Everyday Astronaut. He created a video describing his selection as well as Maezawa’s entire project, which I have embedded below:
» Read more

Last 747 rolls off assembly line

Boeing earlier this week completed assembly of its very last 747 airplane, the 1,574th such plane built in the past half century.

Still in its iridescent green protective coating, the giant aircraft was towed out of the widebody aircraft factory in a low-key exercise without any fanfare. Once the 747 has been cleared, it will be flown to another Boeing facility where it will be painted in the Atlas Air livery in anticipation of final delivery to the customer next year.

The 747 was born out of a failed bid by Boeing to market a large jet transporter to the US military in the 1960s. That contract for what became the C-5A Galaxy eventually went to Lockheed, but Boeing was convinced that its basic design, with its high-bypass turbofan engine, could be reworked for the civilian market, which was booming at the time.

On January 9, 1969, the first 747 prototype took to the skies over Washington state. It was a staggering 225 feet (68.5 m) long, had a wing area larger than a basketball court, and the tail was as high as a six-story building.

Without question the 747 was one of the safest and well designed airplanes ever built. It was years after that first flight before one was involved in an accident, and that was not due to a failure of the plane itself. It also flew like a dream, its large size making it look like it was lumbering slowly in the air. Its retirement is almost entirely related to fuel cost-savings, since the 747 has four engines and thus more fuel than more modern planes.

SpaceX successfully launches 40 OneWeb satellites

SpaceX today used its Falcon 9 rocket to successfully launch 40 OneWeb satellites, joining with India to replace the launch services of Russia.

This was the first SpaceX launch for OneWeb. The first stage completed its fourth flight, landing back at SpaceX’s launchpad at Cape Canaveral. The fairings completed their fifth and sixth flights.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

55 China
55 SpaceX
21 Russia
9 Rocket Lab

The U.S. nowl leads China 79 to 55 in the national rankings, though it still trails the entire world combined 86 to 79.

Sweden upgrading suborbital launchsite for orbital business

A Swedish launchsite that the European Space Agency (ESA) has used on and off for decades for suborbital test launches is now being upgraded to make it attractive to smallsat rocket companies.

Founded by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 1966 to study the atmosphere and Northern Lights phenomenon, the Esrange space center has invested heavily in its facilities in recent years to be able to send satellites into space.

At a huge new hangar big enough to house two 30-meter rockets currently under assembly elsewhere, Philip Pahlsson, head of the “New Esrange” project, pulls up a heavy blue door. Under the rosy twilight of this early afternoon, construction machines nearby can be seen busily completing work on three new launch pads. “Satellite launches will start to take place from here next year,” Pahlsson says.

In Europe, Esrange is competing with a new Norway spaceport for the first orbital rocket launch. It is also competing with two spaceports in Scotland. And the one that makes launches easy for the new smallsat rocket companies is going to garner the most business.

UK regulators block Virgin Orbit launch

We’re here to help you: Bureaucrats at the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) have refused to issue Virgin Orbit a launch permit in time for its proposed December 14, 2022 launch date, and have thus forced the company to stand down.

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit chief executive, said the Civil Aviation Authority’s refusal to give the company an operating licence meant the launch would be delayed again. Britain’s first ever space mission was scheduled to take place on the night of December 14, Virgin Orbit announced yesterday.

But Virgin Orbit was forced to row back on its plans within hours. The company will now “retarget launch for the coming weeks”.

The refusal does not mean that the launch will never happen, only that the CAA is not going to hurry its approval for Richard Branson. This delay is thus crushing this company, as it has been unable to launch other customers while this launch is pending, and therefore has been unable to earn any additional revenue.

That the CAA has been working on this permit for more than half a year and still cannot issue, however, does not bode well for future UK rocket launches. Virgin Orbit launches from a runway, using a 747, and has done so successfully four times already. If the CAA cannot figure out how to okay it to launch after doing six months of paperwork, how is it going to okay launches for regular rockets from the two Scotland launchpads now under construction? Based on this situation, it will take forever to get launches off, and thus the CAA is likely going to force satellite customers top migrate to other spaceports outside the UK.

Blue Origin-led team bids for NASA manned lunar lander contract

Capitalism in space: Though few details have been released, Blue Origin has teamed up with Boeing and Lockheed Martin to bid for a NASA contract to build a second manned lunar lander, after SpaceX’s Starship.

Blue Origin revealed its team’s submission to that second NASA program in a brief statement posted on its website on Tuesday, saying “in partnership with NASA, this team will achieve sustained presence on the Moon.”

The deadline for proposals was Tuesday. NASA is expected to make an award decision in June 2023.

Blue Origin’s team also includes spacecraft software firm Draper, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Astrobotic and Honeybee Robotics, a manufacturer of military and civil robotic systems that was acquired by Blue Origin in January.

It will be interesting to see if this proposed lander is significantly different than the previous proposal, which NASA considered overpriced and not as capable as Starship.

Virgin Orbit schedules launch from the UK, despite no permit

Virgin Orbit has now scheduled its first launch from a Cornwall airport for December 14, 2022, even though the company has not been issued its launch permit from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of the United Kingdom, even after almost six months of delays.

Spaceport Cornwall was awarded an operators licence by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) last month, meaning the site is licensed for launch operations.

However, Virgin Orbit as the operator needs both launch and range licences from the CAA before the historic launch can happen. Spaceport Cornwall told MailOnline that December 14 is when the window opens for the first launch attempt – although this is ‘by no means a guaranteed flight date’.

According to a BBC report, that license has still not been issued. I suspect Virgin Orbit has set this date to pressure the CAA to finally get its act together and issue the permit.

NOAA gives Maxar permission to photograph things in space

We’re here to help you! According to a Maxar press release today, it has obtained permission from the federal agency NOAA (initially created to study the weather) to use the company’s satellites to not only photograph things on Earth but things in space as well.

Maxar Technologies (NYSE:MAXR) (TSX:MAXR), provider of comprehensive space solutions and secure, precise, geospatial intelligence, today announced that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has modified Maxar’s remote sensing license to enable the non-Earth imaging (NEI) capability for its current constellation on orbit as well as its next-generation WorldView Legion satellites.

Through this new license authority, Maxar can collect and distribute images of space objects across the Low Earth Orbit (LEO)—the area ranging from 200 kilometers up to 1,000 kilometers in altitude—to both government and commercial customers. Maxar’s constellation is capable of imaging objects at less than 6 inch resolution at these altitudes, and it can also support tracking of objects across a much wider volume of space.

This new permit apparently will allow Maxar’s satellites to not only look down at the Earth, but look around and image other orbiting objects, for both the military and commercial customers.

My question however is this: By what legal authority does NOAA claim the right to regulate such activity? I can see none at all, yet like other regulatory agencies (such as the FCC) during this Biden administration, NOAA is grasping this illegal power, and companies like Maxar have decided it is better to go along to get along.

During the Trump administration NOAA tried to claim, without any legal authority, that it had the right to regulate all photography in space, and thus actually forced SpaceX during one Falcon 9 launch to cease public release of the imagery from its rocket.

Within three weeks Trump’s Commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, stepped in bluntly to block NOAA’s power grab. As he said publicly, “This is silly and it will stop,”

Trump is gone however and the Biden administration is all in with letting government agencies expand their power. Though NOAA might have a some regulatory responsibility related to remote sensing in space, under no conditions can I see that responsibility giving it the right to tell any private American citizen or company what they can or cannot photograph.

I am of course assuming the first amendment to the Constitution is still in force. In today’s America it might not be.

Ukrainian rocket startup targets ’23 for first launch

The new colonial movement: A Ukrainian rocket startup, Promin Aerospace, now expects to complete the first suborbital launch of a test rocket in 2023, despite the Russian invasion and its regular bombing the city of Dnipro, where the company is based.

On Feb. 22, two days before the Russian invasion, Rudominski sent the first batch of emails seeking seed investment. When the war started, Promin executives realized their investment plans would need to be put on hold while their focus shifted to the safety of employees, families and friends, plus support for Ukrainian defense and humanitarian relief efforts.

By early April, most employees were back working full time.

The company does not reveal its location out of fear of further Russian bombing.

As for its planned rocket launch, though it wishes to do the test from the Ukraine, it also has a deal with one of the new spaceports in Scotland and could launch from there if necessary.

Fieldsports Britain – Rat removal using dogs

An evening pause: Best to play this with the captions on, considering the thick accents. As noted on the youtube webpage:

Andy Crow is clearing the barn of straw which has become home to lots and lots of rats – and he wants them off the farmyard. As a final effort to get rid of as many as possible Andy has enrolled the help of a couple of terriers, a lurcher and a lab/springer cross. As he moves the bales the dogs and sticks start flying.

Hat tip Diane Zimmerman.

SpaceX postpones launch of Ispace’s Hakuto-R lunar lander

SpaceX tonight canceled the Falcon 9 launch of the private Hakuto-R lunar lander, built by the Japanese company Ispace and carrying the UAE’s Rashid rover.

After further inspections of the launch vehicle and data review, SpaceX is standing down from Falcon 9’s launch of ispace’s HAKUTO-R Mission 1 from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. A new target launch date will be shared once confirmed.

The first stage had flown four times previously. Apparently during their standard dress rehearsal countdown and fueling before launch they detected something that cannot be immediately resolved.

NASA awards construction company $57 million development contract for lunar construction

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded a $57 million development contract to ICON, a Texas-based company that specializes in building 3D-printed homes on Earth, to begin work on designing habitats for the Moon.

As noted in this report:

The newly announced NASA contract, granted via the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research program, will help the company mature its tech and procedures. ICON plans to use the money to learn how lunar soil, or regolith, behaves in lunar gravity using simulated samples and real ones brought back by the Apollo missions, company representatives said.

The company will also test its hardware and software on a space mission that simulates lunar gravity. And there will be an even more ambitious trial, if all goes according to plan. “The final deliverable of this contract will be humanity’s first construction on another world, and that is going to be a pretty special achievement,” [CEO Jason] Ballard said in the statement.

ICON has already built a prototype 3D-printed Mars habitat that NASA plans to use to train astronauts for long missions.

SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of Superheavy

SpaceX today successful completed a 13-second static fire test of its Superheavy first stage booster at Boca Chica, Texas.

I have embedded the video of the test below, cued to just before ignition. The test fired eleven of the booster’s 33 engines, and appeared to go very smoothly.

The company is still moving steadily towards an orbital launch of Superheavy and Starship before the end of the year.

» Read more

Virgin Orbit’s cash problems continue

Because of endless delays getting a regulatory approval of a launch in the United Kingdom, Virgin Orbit has been unable to complete the 4 to 6 launches in 2022 that it had planned, and is thus experiencing serious cash shortages that has now caused it to cancel plans to sell “additional securities.”

Virgin Orbit reported third quarter revenues of $30.9 million, which exceeded the zero revenues reported in Q3 2021. The company’s net loss was $43.6 million, which was higher than the $38.6 million loss in Q3 2021.

While costs and losses have mounted, Virgin Orbit has experienced delays in increasing its launch rate. The company had planned to conduct four to six launches this year. Today, the total stands at only two with just over a month left in 2022.

Virgin Orbit’s third launch was originally scheduled to take place in last August from Spaceport Cornwall in England. The company is still awaiting a license from the UK government that would allow the launch to take place. It is the first time the government has licensed both an orbital launch and a spaceport, so the process it taking longer than anticipated.

The company had not only ramped up production of its LauncherOne rocket in anticipation of an increased launch rate, it also purchased two more 747s to act as the rocket’s first stage carrier. Those actions however were based on the ability to increase the launch rate, which has been stymied since the summer by Great Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, which can’t seem to issue permission for Virgin Orbit to launch from a runway in Cornwall.

The canceled sale of securities appears part of the entire investment deal near the end of 2021. The cash shortages and this deal also appear connected to the decision by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group to invest $25 million in Virgin Orbit earlier this month.

Virgin Orbit officials say they intend to double their launch rate in 2023. I suspect that they have to. It is now sink or swim.

Dragon freighter docks with ISS

ISS as of November 28, 2022

Capitalism in space: An unmanned Dragon freighter successfully docked with ISS yesterday, bring with it 7,700 pounds of cargo, including two new solar arrays for the station.

Two International Space Station Roll-Out Solar Arrays, or iROSAs, launched aboard SpaceX’s 22nd commercial resupply mission for the agency and were installed in 2021. These solar panels, which roll out using stored kinetic energy, expand the energy-production capabilities of the space station. The second set launching in the Dragon’s trunk once installed, will be a part of the overall plan to provide a 20% to 30% increase in power for space station research and operations.

These arrays, the second of three packages, will complete the upgrade of half the station’s power channels.

The graphic to the right shows the station as of today, with six different spacecraft docked to six different ports. No wonder there is a significant limit to the number of private missions that can fly to ISS. The needs of the station, as dictated by the international partnership of governments that run it, too often fill those ports.

This limitation will begin changing when Axiom launches its first module for ISS in about two years, followed soon thereafter by the launch of a number of other private independent stations by different American companies.

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