Tag Archives: commercial

FCC: SpaceX’s Starlink satellites can kill

The sky is falling! The FCC has calculated that fragments from SpaceX’s planned Starlink constellation of almost 12,000 satellites pose a risk of landing on humans on Earth.

SpaceX estimates that several kilograms of each 386-kilogram Starlink could reach the Earth’s surface with sufficient energy to harm or kill someone. NASA has fixed this figure at 15 joules—about the same wallop as a baseball traveling at 51 kilometers per hour. Depending on the satellite’s configuration, iron thruster components, stainless steel reaction wheels, or silicon carbide mirrors could survive the journey from orbit to your head.

…In March and June 2017, the FCC calculated the aggregate risk to humans from the entire constellation. Assuming the 11,927 satellites are launched on a regular basis, they will fail in the same way. Starting around six years from the first launch, an average of five satellites a day will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere, each with a tiny chance of failing to completely burn up, resulting in a part that could hit someone.

But with more than a thousand satellites falling a year, those tiny risks add up. The FCC figured out that, over their lifetime, satellites in the LEO shells posed a 1 in 5 risk of hurting or killing someone, and the VLEO satellites carried a 1 in 4 risk. IEEE Spectrum’s calculations using SpaceX’s most up-to-date information suggests that the overall risk of debris from the constellation causing an injury or death will be 45 percent.

Rather than demanding that we restrict or change what SpaceX does, I see this as an opportunity for someone designing robot satellites designed to clean up space junk. Offer your services to SpaceX. They get their problem solved easily, and you make some money.

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Three launches scrubbed

Capitalism in space: Both SpaceX and Blue Origin scrubbed planned launches today due to what appear to be minor technical issues.

SpaceX was launching a GPS satellite for the military, while Blue Origin was going to fly its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft on its third flight. SpaceX will try again tomorrow, while Blue Origin has not yet announced a new launch date.

Meanwhile, ULA’s attempt to launch a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite tonight with its most powerful rocket, the Delta 4 Heavy, faces bad weather, with only a 20% chance of launch.

UPDATE: I missed a third launch scrub today, Arianespace’s attempt to launch a trio of French military satellites using a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana. They will try again tomorrow.

This means there will be three launch attempts tomorrow, since India plans a launch of its GSLV rocket as well.

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Rocket Lab completes its third successful launch in 2018

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today (Sunday) successfully launched thirteen cubesats using its Electron rocket.

With this third launch, Rocket Lab now has more launches than Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK), a launch operation that has been around since the 1980s.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race remain unchanged:

35 China
20 SpaceX
13 Russia
10 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

China still leads the U.S. 35 to 33 in the national rankings.

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NASA’s warped measure of safety

In posting an invitation to social media users to attend the launch of the first unmanned test flight of SpaceX’s man-rated Dragon capsule on January 17, 2019, NASA’s public relations department added the following warning:

NASA has a series of reviews before the uncrewed test flight, and the outcome of these reviews, including the Flight Readiness Review, will ultimately determine the Demo-1 launch date.

For months I have reported numerous examples of NASA’s safety panel acting to create fake problems that will force a delay in this launch. First it was the fueling method. Then it was the insulation on the helium tanks. Then there was the need for SpaceX to fill out all the paperwork. Now it is the parachute system and worries about the safety culture at SpaceX.

I might take these concerns seriously, except that NASA’s safety panel seems to be so sanguine about far more serious safety issues with NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion capsule. This double standard is starkly illustrated once again in this NASASpaceflight.com article about NASA’s plans for the very first manned Orion/SLS mission.

On that manned mission, NASA will fly a host of new equipment for the first time. For example, the capsule’s “Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), crew displays, and other crew systems will be making their debut in Orion.” Anything else that has flown previously will essentially have done so only once, during the first unmanned test flight of SLS/Orion.

It gets worse. While NASA has demanded SpaceX fly the final manned version of its Falcon 9 rocket seven times before it will allow its astronauts on board, the agency plans to launch humans on SLS on only its second launch. More astonishing, that second launch will include a mission taking those astronauts on a loop around the Moon.

During the Apollo missions in the 1960s, NASA had a policy that no mission would head to the Moon without carrying a lunar module (LM). The logic was that the LM would act as a lifeboat should something go wrong with the Apollo capsule, a logic that was actually proven during Apollo 13.

NASA did send Apollo 8 to the Moon without the LM, but it did so in the context of a Cold War space race and an end-of-the-decade commitment by an assassinated president. The agency then knew the risks were high, but it decided the situation justified those risks.

NASA is not faced with a Cold War space race today. Instead, it has a grossly over-budget and long delayed boondoggle called SLS/Orion, increasingly embarrassed by the quick and efficient achievements of private space companies. In a desperate effort to keep that boondoggle alive, the agency is apparently pushing it to fly it too soon and with inadequate development. In fact, it appears to me that the safety culture at NASA that caused both shuttle accidents (a desire to favor frequent launches while ignoring safety analysis) has returned at NASA, and it has done so with a vengeance.

Meanwhile, the contrast with how the agency’s safety panel treats SpaceX versus SLS/Orion demonstrates how corrupt and unreliable that safety panel has become. They no longer really work to reduce risk. Their goal appears to promote government-built rocket systems over those manufactured by the private sector.

Hat tip to Kirk Hilliard for pointing out the language in the NASA pr invite to the SpaceX launch.

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Why ULA picked Blue Origin’s engine over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In an interview of ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno by Eric Berger of Ars Technica, he subtly revealed why his company in the end favored Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine over Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 in the design of the Vulcan rocket.

Unlike many of the new entrants that you talk about coming in today, we’re not a startup company living off investor capital; we’re a mature business. We have to close a business case on Vulcan itself. So where our strategic partners [Editor’s note: This is a reference to Blue Origin] brought investment as well as schedule, that was a pretty important factor. It became pretty obvious what the right choice was, and we arrived at it with our stakeholders.

In other words, Blue Origin’s willingness to invest its own capital in engine development was a major factor. Aerojet Rocketdyne was using the old model of big space, whereby all development money came from the government. It had been unwilling to commit any of its own funds to engine development. This reluctance implied it wasn’t really committed to the project. If Air Force funding disappeared, they’d back out, leaving ULA in the lurch.

This tidbit from Bruno also suggests that he and the management at ULA are sincerely working to reshape ULA from an old big space company, totally reliant on the subsidies given by the government, into a modern competitive company focused instead on building an affordable product that customers will want to buy.

This story also tells us a lot about Aerojet Rocketdyne’s future, or lack thereof. The rocket industry is changing, and if that company doesn’t change also, it will soon die.

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Virgin Galactic finally reaches space, by one definition

Capitalism in space: By one of the definitions of where space begins, Virgin Galactic’s second SpaceShipTwo Unity finally reached space for the first time during a test flight today.

During a flight test today, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo burned its engine for 60 seconds and reached an altitude of 271,268 (51.37 miles/82.7 km), which put the vehicle into space for the first time according to one definition of the boundary.

Pilots C.J. Sturkow and Mark Stucky deployed the spacecraft’s feather system — twin tail booms that re-configure the ship for re-entry — after reaching a top speed of Mach 2.9. They glided the vehicle back to a safe landing on Runway 12-30 at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California’s High Desert.

The U.S military initially defined space as beginning at 50 miles altitude. Later the international definition defining space as beginning at 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) became more accepted. In recent years there has been a push to accept the U.S. military’s older definition (partly I think generated by Virgin Galactic itself). Truth is, the U.S. military’s definition actually makes more sense, since it is possible to orbit a satellite at 50 miles, for short periods.

The pressure to change however does suggest that Unity might not be capable of reaching 62 miles.

Regardless, this flight culminates fourteen years of effort at Richard Branson s company to produce a reusable suborbital spaceship that can fly in space. It appears they have finally done it. Whether it will be reliable enough to fly repeatedly, with commercial passengers, remains to be seen. Moreover, the commercial landscape has changed considerably during those fourteen years. Had they flown a decade ago, as Branson repeatedly predicted, they would have been the only game in town. That is no longer the case. They now have a competitor, Blue Origin with its suborbital New Shepard spaceship, and affordable commercial orbital flights are just around the corner.

Still, Virgin Galactic’s achievement here is significant. They have built a spaceship that has taken humans to space (and can do it again), and they have done it with private funds.

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First test flight of Dragon manned capsule delayed ten days

In order to avoid a conflict at ISS with the Dragon cargo freighter that just docked there, SpaceX has now delayed the unmanned test launch of its first Dragon manned capsule by ten days, to no earlier than January 17, 2019.

The article at the link is mostly focused on describing the experiments and cargo that the cargo freighter just brought to ISS, but it includes these scheduling details involving the unmanned test flight:

The cargo Dragon is the only vehicle currently capable of returning experiments from the International Space Station and is in relatively high demand. Thus, the worms will either return aboard this CRS-16 Dragon or wait until spring when the CRS-17 Dragon departs the orbital outpost. Regardless, once the newly delivered science experiments and cargo are removed from Dragon, the International Space Station crew will pack the craft full of return cargo before closing Dragon’s hatch and releasing it from the Station in mid-January 2019 for return to Earth.

Presently, CRS-16’s unberth and landing date is set for 13 January 2019, which at the time of the mission’s launch set up a potential overlap between CRS-16 and SpaceX’s Demonstration Mission -1 (DM-1) for the Commercial Crew Program.

At the time of CRS-16’s launch, the uncrewed DM-1 test flight had been targeting a No Earlier Than (NET) launch date of 7 January 2019 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, with a docking to the International Space Station to follow on 10 January. That NET 7 January launch date officially slipped on Friday to NET 17 January.

I once again want to emphasize that the only thing that I see that might delay this launch is NASA’s effort to slow it down.

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Delta Heavy launch aborts at T-7.5 seconds

A ULA Delta Heavy aborted its launch of a secret National Security Administration surveillance satellite last night at T-7.5 seconds.

It was not immediately clear whether any of the rocket’s three Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A main engines started their ignition sequences, but a statement later released by ULA said the computer-controlled countdown sequencer ordered an abort at T-minus 7.5 seconds.

In the statement, ULA said the abort was “due to an unexpected condition during terminal count at approximately 7.5 seconds before liftoff. “The team is currently reviewing all data and will determine the path forward. A new launch date will be provided when available,” ULA said.

Obviously, there is no word yet on a new launch date.

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Boeing cancels satellite deal involving hidden China funding

Boeing has canceled its sale of a communications satellite to a company that appears largely funded in secret by Chinese sources.

Boeing says it has canceled a controversial satellite order from a U.S.-based startup, which had received the bulk of its funding from a Chinese-government owned financial company. The deal, which critics warned could give China access to sensitive technology, comes amid a period of especially acrimonious relations between Washington and Beijing over a host of issues, including industrial espionage and intellectual property theft.

The Chicago-headquartered aerospace company announced its decision, which it said was only because of non-payment on the part of the customer, to nix the deal, worth more than $200 million, on Dec. 6, 2018. Two days earlier, the Wall Street Journal had published an expose detailing the links between the official buyer, Global IP, and a string of Chinese government operated entities and individuals with significant connections to China’s Communist Party and military establishment.

If carried out, the satellite sale would have provided the Chinese detailed information about the satellite’s technical design.

This story highlights the Chinese way of developing new technology: They generally steal it. Though their engineering upgrades are often brilliant, they have shown little innovation or originality in their work. Their entire manned program is an upgrade of the Russians Soviet-era space station program. Their decisions recently to build smallsat rockets as well as vertically landing reusable first stages only occurred after private commercial companies in the U.S. proved that both will work and can make money.

Boeing almost certainly backed out when it realized that the Chinese involvment was substantial, and exposed it to criminal penalties.

Hat tip Kirk Hilliard.

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SpaceX sees no schedule impact from first stage landing failure

Capitalism in space: SpaceX officials expect the first stage landing failure during yesterday’s launch to have little impact on the schedule of upcoming launches.

They also indicated that the cause of the landing failure had something to do with a malfunction in the stage’s grid fins. More important however was this tidbit about the second stage:

Koenigsmann also revealed at the briefing that the rocket’s upper stage, which successfully placed the Dragon cargo spacecraft in orbit, used redesigned composite-overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) used to store helium to pressurize the stage’s propellant tanks. SpaceX redesigned those COPVs after a September 2016 pad explosion in order to meet NASA safety requirements for future commercial crew missions.

NASA requires SpaceX to perform at least seven launches with the redesigned COPVs before the agency will allow its astronauts to fly on the vehicle. Koenigsmann said he believed this was the second launch to use the redesigned COPVs, after the launch of the Es’hail-2 communications satellite Nov. 15.

SpaceX appears very unconcerned about getting those remaining five flights, which illustrates their expectation that 2019 will have a substantial number of launches in the first half of the year, prior to the tentative June launch date for the first manned Dragon mission.

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Falcon 9 launches Dragon; 1st stage return fails

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket today successfully launched a Dragon cargo capsule to ISS.

Unfortunately, a problem with the first stage had it fail to land on its target landing pad, instead landing in the ocean. This failure is the first in quite some time for a SpaceX first stage. It was the first failure however of their Block 5 first stages, which might impact the manned Dragon launch schedule set for this coming year.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

33 China
20 SpaceX
13 Russia
10 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

This SpaceX launch was the 100th successful rocket launch for 2018, the first time the global rocket industry has reached the century figure since 1991, before the fall of the Soviet Union. As SpaceX’s 20th launch this year it sets a new record for launches by a private company. In fact, this total exceeds the average number of launches for the entire U.S. from 2001 to 2016, and clearly demonstrates how SpaceX has not only become the world’s dominate launch company, its effort to foster competition into the launch industry has served to energize it, for everyone.

In the national rankings, China continues to lead the U.S. 33 to 32.

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Ariane 5 launches two satellites

Arianespace yesterday successfully placed a South Korean weather satellite and an Indian communications satellite into orbit using its Ariane 5 rocket.

The Indian satellite was initially supposed to launch in the spring, but ISRO pulled it back to India just after its arrival in French Guiana to do more checks on it because of the failure of another satellite using similar components.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

33 China
19 SpaceX
13 Russia
10 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

Arianespace had predicted it would do 14 launches this year. As this launch is described as its last 2018 launch, it appears they have fallen short of that prediction.

These standings will be updated later today, assuming SpaceX’s Dragon launch to ISS goes off as scheduled.

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SpaceX recovers fairings from ocean

Capitalism in space: In its launch on December 3, SpaceX was unable to catch either half of the Falcon 9’s fairings as they floated down by parachute. However, both halves were recovered, and the company plans to try to dry them out and reuse them.

The recovery ship, Mr. Steven, failed to catch either in its giant net. Since both fairings however landed gently in the ocean, and were quickly recovered, the article notes that SpaceX is now considering a change in its method of recover. The method of landing appears to have the fairing halves almost act like small boats, thus protecting the delicate equipment on their interiors. It appears they have increased their waterproofing, and may now only need to get them out of the water quickly to make then reusable.

Posted from the West Bank city of Modi’in Ilit.

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Falcon 9 first stage successfully flies for the third time

Capitalism in space: During a successful launch today of 64 smallsats, SpaceX successfully landed for the third time the rocket’s first stage.

This first stage flew twice before, in May and August. With this flight it is primed for a fourth flight, I will bet sometime in the next two months.

SpaceX was also going to try to recover half of the fairing, but as I write this there is no word yet on that effort. Also, the deployment of the 64 smallsats will start momentarily and take more than an hour. During the live stream, which you can watch as a replay at the link, it was very clear that one of SpaceX’s commercial goals with this launch was to promote the Falcon 9 as an affordable and viable vehicle for launching smallsats. SpaceX is anticipating the growth of that business, and wants to encourage smallsat manufacturers to buy their services. As I like to say, the competition is heating up.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race:

33 China
19 SpaceX
13 Russia
9 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

China remains ahead of the U.S. in the national rankings, 33 to 31.

Update: What I neglected to mention, partly because I was writing this post while traveling, is that with SpaceX launch the company set a new annual record for the most launches in a year, which is also the record for the most launches in a year by any private company, ever.

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Moon rocks sell at auction for $855K

At a Sotheby auction of space memorabilia yesterday three Moon rocks brought back by a Soviet-era robot ship sold for $855K.

This was the second time these rocks have sold at auction, with their sale price more than doubling with yesterday’s sale. Though their value has apparently gone up a lot, I think the seller here made a very wise decision. Right now, practically all the rocks are controlled by NASA and are not for sale, thus creating a shortage and forcing the value of the available rocks to rise. Their value will drop however once private companies start hauling them back to Earth.

A number of other interesting space items sold during auction, including several unused spacesuits and several paintings by Chesley Bonestell, Alan Bean, and Norman Rockwell.

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NASA commits $2.6 billion for commercial lunar exploration

NASA today announced that it has committed $2.6 billion over the next ten years to buy delivery services to the Moon for its unmanned scientific missions, provided from nine different private companies.

The companies selected — Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express, Orbit Beyond — cover a range of companies from the well established to new companies not yet proven. This announcement essentially permits them all to bid on providing NASA delivery services to the moon for small unmanned probes. The press release states that:

These companies will be able to bid on delivering science and technology payloads for NASA, including payload integration and operations, launching from Earth and landing on the surface of the Moon. NASA expects to be one of many customers that will use these commercial landing services.

More information here. UPDATE: Doug Messier has published the press releases from most of the above companies, describing their individual projects, and I have added links to each.

The program appears modeled after NASA commercial cargo and crew programs, whereby the companies will own and control the orbiters, landers, and rovers they build, allowing them to market them to others for profit. It also appears designed to keep costs low, as did commercial cargo program. NASA is merely the customer.

This is good news. It suggests that the American space industry is continuing to transition away from big government programs, controlling everything, to a robust private industry that is in charge with the government merely one out of many customers.

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Blue Origin reveals more details about New Glenn

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin’s release of a payload user guide has provided space geeks a wealth of new information about the design of its New Glenn orbital rocket.

Numerous other items of interest are mentioned on the Guide, with launch vehicle specific elements such as a large common bulkhead being employed on the second stage and common tooling on the second stage and that is also aluminum orthogrid material in its construction. The rocket will use autogenous pressurization for both stages.

The large 7 meter fairing has the ability to launch very large payloads such as space telescopes, but also dual payloads – not unlike Ariane 5 regularly conducts.

The Guide refines some performance numbers, with 1060 kN (240,000 lb) total thrust cited for the second stage, which is slightly down from the 125,000 lb per BE-3U – the second stage engine-performance previously stated by Blue Origin’s online resources.

The article at the link also provides some updates on the status of the construction of the rocket’s launchpad, landing barge, and manufacturing facility.

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Successful launch tonight for India’s PSLV rocket

The new colonial movement: India’s PSLV rocket successfully placed 31 satellites into orbit, including an Indian Landsat-type satellite plus 30 commercial smallsats.

This ties India with Japan at six launches for the year. With one more launch scheduled for this year, they should end up ahead of Japan.

The leaders in the 2018 launch race remain unchanged.

33 China
18 SpaceX
11 Russia
9 Europe (Arianespace)
8 ULA

At 95 total successful launches so far this year, 2018 now matches the total from 1993, the last time the global aerospace industry accomplished that many. That year, China and Japan had one launch each, Europe seven, with the rest by Russia and the U.S. Now the wealth is much more widely spread, and has a strong potential to grow significantly in the next few years.

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Weather delays SpaceX launch

Capitalism in space: Weather has delayed a SpaceX launch from Vandenberg.

This launch is significant because once launched the first stage will become the first to have flown three times. It also will be the first to have launched from all three of SpaceX’s operating launchpads and to have landed on both of the company’s drone ships. And it will have done all this in less than seven months.

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