Tag Archives: commercial

Dragon successfully launched on its first unmanned test flight to ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully launched its manned Dragon capsule on its first unmanned test flight to ISS.

They also successfully landed the first stage. I have embedded below the fold the video of the launch. Dragon will dock with ISS in about a day.

The leaders in the 2019:

3 SpaceX
2 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. now leads China and Europe 4 to 2 in national rankings.
» Read more

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Pegasus problems continue

Capitalism in space: The much-delayed launch of a NASA science satellite by Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket continues to slip, with the unstated technical issues that caused several earlier launch dates to be cancelled lingering.

NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission was scheduled to launch in late 2017 on a Pegasus XL rocket based out of Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. That launch was delayed to June 2018 because of an issue with the rocket’s separation system, then delayed again when engineers detected “off-nominal” data from the rocket during a ferry flight from California ahead of the June launch attempt.

That problem was linked to a faulty sensor that was replaced, with the launch eventually rescheduled for Nov. 7, this time flying out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. However, after the rocket’s L-1011 aircraft took off for the Nov. 7 launch attempt, engineers again detected off-nominal data from the rocket and scrubbed the launch.

Neither NASA nor Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, which builds the Pegasus, have provided additional details about the problem, but at a December meeting of an advisory committee, Nicky Fox, director of NASA’s heliophysics division, said engineers were examining the control system of the rocket’s fins.

Fox, speaking at a Feb. 25 meeting of a National Academies committee here, said the launch was now scheduled for no earlier than the second quarter. “Northrop Grumman is still working extremely hard to analyze what is causing these anomalies during the ferry flight,” she said. “They’re working extremely hard to try and get ICON up as soon as possible.”

The article notes that Pegasus has only had three launches in the past decade. It was originally designed to provide a low cost option for smaller satellites, but over the decades did not fulfill that goal. It is now much more expensive than the many smallsat rockets coming on line. With these unexplained issues preventing this launch as well, its future appears dim at best

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Canada commits to NASA’s Lunar Gateway boondoggle

Canada’s leftwing government has agreed to be NASA’s first official international partner in the agency’s Lunar Gateway project, designed to go nowhere and cost billions.

Canada has become the first nation to formally commit to NASA’s lunar Gateway project with a financial contribution to cover a 24-year period and the development of a new generation robotic Canadarm.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement Wednesday that Canada would be partnering with NASA and spending 2 billion Canadian dollars ($1.4 billion) over 24 years on the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway program, a human-tended facility in orbit around the moon, as well as other space programs. The announcement included funding of 150 million Canadian dollars over five years for a new Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program to help small and medium-sized businesses develop new technologies to be used and tested in lunar orbit and on the moon’s surface in fields that include artificial intelligence, robotics and health.

Canada will develop and contribute a smart robotic system – Canadarm3 – that will repair and maintain the Gateway, Trudeau announced.

I wonder if this Canadian program will survive a new rightwing administration. Such boondoggles often don’t, or get reshaped into something completely different.

Of course, this question assumes a truly rightwing government might someday retake power in Canada.

We are now entering a new cold war. This time the battle lines are not between the capitalist west and a communist Soviet bloc, but between the socialist big governments across the globe and the capitalist free citizenry struggling to survive independently under the thumb of those increasingly oppressive governments.

We can see this clearly in space. While big government space agencies in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and Canada are teaming up to get coerced government funding for Gateway (even as they work to simultaneously squelch any competing space exploration visions), private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the new smallsat companies strive to launch their own private endeavors, using profits and any available investment capital they can convince others to freely provide them.

The big government space programs will spend a lot of money taken involuntarily, wield power to maintain their dominance, and likely accomplish relatively little for all that power and money. The small private efforts, if allowed to do what they want to do, will spend comparatively little capital (voluntarily committed to them), work very efficiently, and likely get a lot more done. The key is whether the former will allow the latter the freedom to operate.

Sadly, the track records of powerful government throughout the history of the world leaves me very pessimistic about this coming cold war. Those governments will quite likely use its growing unchecked power to squelch any competition, especially competition that makes them look foolish.

We have already seen this happen somewhat at NASA with its commercial crew program. Unless the public starts voting for politicians that favor them over the government — something that public simply hasn’t done for more than a century — I can only see this government dominance grow and worsen.

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Arianespace successfully launches first set of six OneWeb satellites

Capitalism in space: Using a Russian-built Soyuz rocket, Arianespace today successfully launched the first set of six OneWeb communications satellites.

This is the first of 21 Soyuz launches to put the entire OneWeb constellation into orbit. OneWeb also has launch contracts with Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne.

The 2019 launch standings:

2 SpaceX
2 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)
1 ULA
1 Japan
1 India
1 Russia

It could be argued that this Soyuz launch should be placed under Russia. I place it under Europe because they are the one’s who signed the contract.

The U.S. now leads China and Europe 3-2 in the national rankings.

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Europe to build reusable first stage

Capitalism in space: Even as Europe works to develop Ariane 6, their non-reusable next generation rocket, Ariane Group and the French are now considering replacing it with a different rocket with a reusable first stage.

Late last week, the European rocket maker Ariane Group and the French space agency CNES announced the creation of an “acceleration platform” to speed development of future launch vehicles. The initiative, called ArianeWorks, would be a place where “teams work together in a highly flexible environment, open to new players and internationally.”

“In this era of NewSpace and in the context of fierce competition, ArianeWorks will accelerate innovation at grassroots level, in favor of mid-tier firms and start-ups, with commitment to reducing costs a major priority,” a news release sent to Ars states.

As part of the announcement, the organizations released a promotional video for the group’s first step—a so-called Themis demonstrator. The goal of this project is to build a multiple-engine first-stage rocket that launches vertically and lands near the launch site. The rocket will be powered by Europe’s Prometheus engine, a reusable liquid oxygen and methane engine that may cost as little as $1 million to build.

Essentially they are copying SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, except for the fuel. And they admit it. Moreover, this action tells us that the problems Ariane 6 has had getting European contracts has become serious enough that they have finally recognized that it simply cannot compete with the new wave of reusable rockets expected in the next decade. Building a new rocket that does not have a reusable capability is not viable in the coming market.

They should have recognized this four years ago, but better late then never.

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Beresheet’s second engine burn stopped by computer reset

It appears that the second engine burn to raise the orbit of Israel’s privately built lunar lander, Beresheet, did not happen as planned because of an unexpected computer reboot.

In a statement Tuesday morning, SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) engineers said they were investigating the malfunction, but said that other than a known problem with the navigation system’s star tracker, the Beresheet’s systems were all functioning properly.

The maneuver was scheduled to take place Monday night, as the spacecraft passed near the Earth in an area where the Ramat Gan-based SpaceIL ground crew would not be in direct communication with the craft.

During the pre-maneuver phase, the spacecraft computer reset unexpectedly, and the maneuver was automatically cancelled.

The question that immediately comes to mind: Did they purchase a space-hardened computer? Cosmic rays can wreck havoc on computer memory, causing just this type of unexpected reset, so computers in space need to be much better shielded than on Earth.

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SpaceX first stage for launch abort returns to port

Capitalism in space: The first stage that SpaceX used (for the third time) last week to put three payloads into orbit, including Israel’s privately built lunar lander Beresheet, has returned to port and begun its preparation for its fourth launch, the launch abort test required before the company can fly humans on its Dragon manned capsule.

Musk tweeted that the launch escape test could occur in April. Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX vice president of build and flight reliability, said Friday that teams are looking at whether the in-flight abort could be moved forward from June.

SpaceX plans to reuse the Crew Dragon spacecraft slated to fly to the space station this weekend for the in-flight abort. Assuming a March 2 launch, the capsule is scheduled to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean on March 8, where teams will retrieve the spacecraft and bring it back to Cape Canaveral for the abort test.

The timing of the in-flight abort test “depends on when Crew Dragon comes back,” Musk tweeted. “That’s scheduled for launch next Saturday, but (there’s a) lot of new hardware, so time error bars are big.”

Officials do not expect the Falcon 9 booster to survive the abort test, likely ending its lifetime at four launches, and three intact landings. “High probability of this particular rocket getting destroyed by Dragon supersonic abort test,” Musk tweeted. [emphasis mine]

Unless something significant goes wrong during next week’s unmanned Dragon test flight, the only thing that I see preventing a June or earlier launch abort test would be the paperwork NASA demands SpaceX fill out in order for the agency to rubberstamp the flight.

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Beresheet successfully completes first in-space engine burn

Capitalism in space: The privately-funded Israeli Beresheet lunar lander has successfully completed its first orbital maneuver.

The 30-second engine burn raised its orbit’s low point by 600 kilometers. They will next do a series of similar maneuvers to steadily raise the orbit’s high point until it carries the spacecraft into the Moon’s sphere of gravitational influence. The actually landing is presently scheduled for April 11.

SpaceIL was set up as a non-profit, with this its only planned mission. However, the subcontractors who built Beresheet’s lander and batteries are now looking into commercializing their capabilities.

Israel Aerospace Industries, which built the lander, has shown an interest in commercializing the platform. In January it announced a partnership with German company OHB to make it available for potential future missions by the European Space Agency or other national space agencies.

Around the time the Falcon 9 carrying Beresheet lifted off, Japanese company ispace also announced milestones in the development of its lunar lander systems. The company announced an agreement with Japanese firm NGK Spark Plug to test its solid-state battery technology on its Hakuto-R lunar lander mission, scheduled for 2021.

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Exos to test the reusability of their suborbital rocket

Capitalism in space: The smallsate rocket company Exos Aerospace has announced that they have scheduled its first fully reusable test flight of its SARGE suborbital rocket for March 2nd.

Exos completed the Pathfinder Launch on August 25, 2018 from Spaceport America. It was the first step in validating the SARGE SRLV that was flown and recovered for reuse. Exos gathered critical flight data that enabled advancing the design and setting them up for continued reuse of their SARGE vehicle.

,,,The “Mission 1” test flight of the SARGE reusable system will carry the commercial payloads flown under the programs listed below. A successful launch will further solidify the company’s plan to use this technology as the design basis of their Jaguar orbital launch vehicle with reusable first stage capable of carrying 100kg to Low Earth Orbit (200-400km).

The link provides the list of payloads. For their orbital rocket their plan seems straightforward and brilliant. Build a simple suborbital rocket that lands by parachute gently enough so that it can be reused. While using that commercially also use it as the testbed for building an orbital rocket whose first stage would also land by parachute.

This approach puts them in direct competition with Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic for the suborbital business, and likely at a much cheaper price than either. And if the plan works to orbit, it also positions them to be a strong competitor in the smallsat orbital rocket business, being the first with a reusable vertically launched rocket.

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Firefly to build and launch from Florida

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Firefly Aerospace announced yesterday that it will build its rocket manufacturing facility at Cape Canaveral, as well as launch from there.

Texas-based launch startup Firefly Aerospace finally revealed its plan to build a manufacturing facility near Kennedy Space Center and outfit the Air Force’s Space Launch Complex 20 in Cape Canaveral for its two core launch vehicles — one of the first manufacturing facilities of its kind in the Sunshine State.

Firefly was shrouded under the codename “Maricopa” for months as Space Florida, the state’s space development agency, trickled out details of a deal that includes an 18-acre chunk of Exploration Park and 28 acres at LC20. The value of the deal is $52 million, and Firefly vows to put 200 of its 300 employees in the Cape.

Firefly’s first rocket, Alpha, will cost $15 million per launch, which means it will either launch a larger bunch of smallsats or they will be serving the larger smallsats in this new industry.

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Israeli lunar lander deploys legs

Capitalism in space: The Israeli lunar lander Beresheet, now beginning its circuitous journey to the Moon, has established communications with the Earth while deploying its landing legs.

There does appear to be an issue with the spacecraft’s star trackers, but it is not clear how critical this is.

Beresheet, by the way, means “In the beginning” in Hebrew.

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Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft completes 2nd test flight above 50 miles

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic’s Unity suborbital spacecraft today successfully completed its seconnd test flight above 50 miles, carrying a test passenger for the first time.

The vessel was ferried up attached to a larger plan called WhiteKnightTwo, dropped into the sky, and then taken up by rocket-powered engine to more than 50 miles above the Earth’s surface just before 9 a.m. local time. It landed safely 15 minutes later. The company said VSS Unity hit Mach 3.04 and traveled to an altitude of 55.87 miles or 295,007 feet, faster and higher than any test flight yet for the vessel.

In addition to the two pilots, Unity carried a test passenger, Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor. Besides gathering data, she also unstrapped to experience weightlessness.

The link makes the false claim that this was the first time weightlessness was experienced in a commercial vehicle, even though numerous people have flown weightless on private “vomit comet” airplane flights.

It does appear that Virgin Galactic is finally, after fourteen years, getting close to that first ticketed tourist flight. It also looks possible that they will never quite reach 62 miles, the more commonly accepted definition for the beginnings of space.

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NASA okays March 2, 2019 Dragon test flight

NASA has finally approved SpaceX’s unmanned test flight on March 2nd of its Dragon capsule.

They completed the last flight readiness review today, and the press conference revealing this decision is going on right now, at the link. They have noted one issue that came from the review today, relating to questions by the Russians about the software used by Dragon as it docks at ISS. It apparently they did not consider this a reason to delay the launch. They must think they can get it dealt with before the docking. (The manned Dragon docks itself directly with the station, rather than being berthed to the station by the robot arm, as is done with the unmanned cargo Dragon capsule.)

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SpaceX successfully launches three satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight used its Falcon 9 rocket, including a first stage that had already flown twice before, to launch an Indonesian communications satellite, an Air Force smallsat, and most importantly, the Israeli-built Beresheet lunar lander, the first planetary mission entirely funded from private sources.

You can get some details about Beresheet here. If all goes as planned, it will land on the Moon on April 11 and operate for two Earth days on the surface.

SpaceX was also able to successfully land that first stage, which I think is the first time they have successfully used and recovered a first stage three times. Look for this first stage to fly a fourth time.

The 2019 launch race:

2 China
2 SpaceX
1 ULA
1 Japan
1 India
1 Europe
1 Russia

The U.S. now leads China in the national rankings, 3-2.

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NASA selects experiments it wants to put on commercial lunar spacecraft

Capitalism in space: NASA has selected a dozen experiments/instruments it wants to put on private commercial lunar spacecraft, either landers or rovers.

According to the press release, some of these could fly as early as before the end of this year. If so, I suspect they will go on one of the finalists for the Google Lunar X-prize, some of whom are planning to fly this year.

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Even as NASA announces schedule for SpaceX Dragon test flight, anti-American forces at NASA work to block that flight

There were two stories today impacting the future of American manned spaceflight. The first is positive, the second is downright hostile to that effort, and could literally be called treasonous by some.

The first story outlines in detail NASA’s press coverage and schedule leading up to and including the March 2nd SpaceX unmanned Dragon test flight. The key event will be the flight readiness review on February 22nd. NASA will televise a post review press conference no earlier that 6 pm (Eastern) that night. That review will determine whether the flight goes on March 2nd.

That NASA has made this announcement indicates that the agency is slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into allowing the test flight to finally happen, after years of bureaucratic delay.

The second story illustrates some of the ongoing kicking and screaming that is still going on inside NASA. It is also more disturbing. As far as I can tell from the story, some of the anti-American forces within NASA’s bureaucracy teamed up with Reuters today to publish this hit piece on the manned capsules of both SpaceX and Boeing.

Two people with direct knowledge of the program told Reuters that the space agency’s concerns go beyond the four items listed, and include a risk ledger that as of early February contained 30 to 35 lingering technical concerns each for SpaceX and Boeing. Reuters could not verify what all of the nearly three dozen items are. But the sources familiar with the matter said the companies must address “most” of those concerns before flying astronauts and, eventually, tourists to space. [emphasis mine]

Note that these are anonymous sources. Note that their attack, a bunch of unsubstantiated leaks, is directly aimed at discrediting the efforts of both companies. Note also that if they succeed the ultimate and only benefactor will be Russia, since NASA will then be forced to buy more Soyuz flights from them, on a rocket that has recently had a launch failure and in a capsule that someone in Russia actually sabotaged during assembly.

The last highlighted phrase, suggesting that NASA is going to use its power to block the ability of these free American companies from privately selling tourist flights on their capsules, is even more egregious. Once again, the only benefactors of this action would be the Russians, who will then be able to grab that tourist business.

It is for these reasons I call these sources, with the help of Reuters, anti-American.

Moreover, the issues that are outlined in this article are very dubious, to put it mildly. Suddenly, after years of reviews that never mentioned any issues with SpaceX’s parachutes as well as seventeen successful parachute test flights, NASA has suddenly deemed that the parachute design has “some design discrepancies.”

As for Boeing, the article mentions the valve leak failures during a engine test last year. In response Boeing has had the valves redesigned and reordered, but they still need further testing. While this is a legitimate issue, I suspect it is being used here as a sledge hammer against this American company, not as an issue that requires intelligent review.

Where is our “America-First” president in all this? Political forces in Washington and within NASA are actively working to block our country’s effort to fly in space, for the benefit of a foreign power. Why isn’t Trump doing something about this?

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Bezos comparing New Shepard to SpaceShipTwo: “No asterisks.”

Capitalism in space: During an event yesterday, Blue Origin’s owner Jeff Bezos made it a point to note the superior launch capabilities of Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spacecraft over Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

Bezos, in the interview, pointed out the altitude difference between the two vehicles. New Shepard has typically exceeded 100 kilometers, an altitude known as the Karman Line, on its test flights. SpaceShipTwo reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers on its most recent test flight Dec. 13, its first above the 50-mile boundary used by U.S. government agencies to award astronaut wings. “One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet,” Bezos said. “I think one of the things they will have to figure out how to get above the Karman Line.”

“We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” he continued. “That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion.”

For those who fly on New Shepard, he said, there’ll be “no asterisks.”

Bezos also indicated that he is increasingly hopeful that the first manned test flights of New Shepard will occur this year.

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Air Force awards launch contracts (3 each) to ULA and SpaceX

Capitalism in space: The Air Force yesterday announced the awarding of launch contracts to both SpaceX and ULA, giving each company three launches.

ULA will receive $441.76 million under a fixed-price contract to launch SBIRS GEO-5, SBIRS GEO-6 and Silent Barker, a classified space situational awareness mission.

SpaceX will receive $297 million to launch AFSPC-44, NROL-85, and NROL-87.

Note the difference in price. While the specific missions might have requirements that make the ULA launches more expensive, I suspect that most of the difference has to do with SpaceX’s ability to simply do it cheaper. The Air Force however did not give all the contracts to SpaceX because it has strategic reasons to have two independent launch companies. It also faces political pressure to support both companies, regardless of cost, as illustrated by recent stories about the political gamesmanship between SpaceX and ULA.

This story does illustrate however how the competition from SpaceX has forced ULA to lower its prices. For these three launches they are charging an average of about $147 million. Before SpaceX’s competition, their price per launch generally averaged more than $225 million. Isn’t competition wonderful?

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Russia signs contract for two more tourists to ISS

Capitalism in space: Russia has signed a new contract with the American company Space Adventures to send two more tourist flights to ISS, this time at the same time on one Soyuz capsule near the end of 2021.

The article says that the contract is funding the construction of the rocket and capsule.

This deal suggests to me that NASA’s slow-walking of the American private manned effort has resulted in those private companies losing business to the Russians. Had both SpaceX and Boeing been able to launch their capsules by now, as I think they should have, it is quite likely that one of them might have gotten this deal. Instead, they can only look from the sidelines while Russia garners income using our space station.

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Branson seeks new capital for Virgin Galactic/Orbit

Capitalism in space: Apparently short of cash because of his cancellation of a $1 billion investment space deal with Saudi Arabia, Richard Branson has hired a finance firm to find him new capital for his two space companies Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit.

Sources said this weekend that Sir Richard was seeking funding that would value Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, which launches satellites for commercial customers, at a combined sum of well over $2bn (£1.55bn).

The precise amount that he is looking to raise has yet to be determined, but people close to the process suggested it would be at least $250m (£193m), representing a minority stake.

The structure of a deal could see new shareholders injecting money into either, or both, Virgin-branded space companies.

I will not be surprised if Branson gets the investment capital for Virgin Orbit. I will also not be surprised if he has trouble finding anyone willing to invest a lot in Virgin Galactic. In fact, this shortage in capital might spell the end of this fourteen year effort at building a reusable spacecraft designed to provide suborbital tourism.

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Harpoon concept for removing space junk tested in orbit

A harpoon, the second of three engineering experiments for capturing space junk, was successfully fired last week.

A British satellite released from the International Space Station last year has successfully demonstrated a harpoon that could be used on future missions to clean up space debris, officials announced Friday.

The harpoon fired out of the RemoveDebris spacecraft Feb. 8, striking a target plate extended from the satellite on a 4.9-foot (1.5-meter) boom. The experiment was one of the main objectives of the $17 million (15.2-million-euro) RemoveDebris mission, conceived as a testbed for technologies engineers hope will allow future satellites to tidy up busy orbital traffic lanes by collecting dead satellites and rockets and driving them back into Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.

In a dramatic video released by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., the harpoon is seen catapulting out of the RemoveDebris spacecraft at a velocity of about 45 mph — 20 meters per second — and spearing its target. A cable attached to the harpoon kept the device from flying off and becoming its own piece of space junk.

The first experiment was a test of a net, tested successfully in September. The last of the three experiments, scheduled in a month, will test a sail designed to slow the satellite’s speed so that it gets de-orbited quickly.

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

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Sergei Rachmaninoff – Variation 18 on a theme by Paganini

An evening pause: One of the greatest and most beautiful melodies ever written, as part of a larger work. The pianist is Valentina Lisitsa, supported by the London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Francis conducting. Her playing style is the most fluid and relaxed I have ever seen.

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