Tag Archives: commercial

FCC streamlines and cuts fees for smallsat licensing

Capitalism in space: In an effort to ease its bureaucratic obstacles to private enterprise, the FCC has streamlined its licensing process for new smallsats, while cutting its licensing fees by more than 90%.

Under the optional licensing regime, which stands to take effect this year, smallsat operators with spacecraft that meet certain criteria will be able to obtain a spectrum license about twice as fast and pay only $30,000 instead of nearly $500,000. A maximum of 10 satellites at a time can be licensed under the streamline process.

…Operators will be able to use the streamlined licensing for satellites that weigh 180 kilograms or less, operate below 600 kilometers (or have propulsion) and will deorbit within six years, among other criteria.

One component of these new regulations is that they require new smallsats to never be smaller than 10 centimeters on their smallest dimension, thus essentially forbidding the launch of nanosats smaller than that.

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Vector gets Air Force launch contract

Capitalism in space: Vector has signed its first Air Force launch contract for an orbital cubesat launch in 2021.

The Air Force must know something about Vector’s rocket development that we don’t. The company had planned a suborbital test launch for March/April, delayed it until June, and has still not flown it. These delays put the company behind its original launch schedule by a considerable amount, which originally had called for its first orbital launch in 2018.

Hopefully we shall soon see some actually progress from Vector. At the moment however their lack of launches has allowed a number of other smallsat rocket companies to gain on them from behind.

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ULA’s Atlas 5 launches military communications satellite

Early this morning ULA used its Atlas 5 rocket to successfully launch an Air Force military communications satellite.

This was the third ULA launch this year, which means they remain off the leader board below. This number of launches is also below the pace set the last two years, where they completed eight launches per year.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

12 Russia
11 China
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India

The U.S. now leads in the national rankings 17 to 12.

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Movimiento 7 – Song of Sea Exile

An evening pause: I really have no idea who is performing this, as the Vimeo link provided no information. Web searches also came up dry. I couldn’t even find the lyrics.

Nonetheless, it is beautiful, and worth more than one listen.

UPDATE: I have finally located a description of this work of art. It is called The Wound in the Water,
music by Kim André Arneson (2016); libretto by Euan Tait (August 2015). This is from part 2, “The cry of the exile” and is called “Song of the Sea Exile.” The lyrics:

I, the exile,
my heart burning,
my lost life
a terrible fire,
songs of loved ones
crying all around me.
Oh endless,
endless home, the sea.
Oh my missing,
I am listening,
yet your silence
cannot answer me.
There, we left
our singing unfinished,
and our lives now
fall into the endless sea.
This the broken
gift of love:
the exile calls,
remembered names.
What you were
scorched on me,
your wounded names
sung to the endless sea.
Waves like voices
roar around you:
we’re not silenced,
but cry out like the
sea.
Your anger,fiery, living
is like love
that bleeds
like the endless sea.
Oh our exile,
torn by love,
singing words
you can no longer sing,
where’s the shores,
the harbour, the horizon,
wanderer,
calling to the endless sea
calling to the endless sea?

Hat tip Edward Thelen.

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Smallsat rocket company Orbex signs two launch deals

Capitalism in space: The new smallsat rocket company Orbex today announced the signing of two different launch deals, one with In-Space and the other with Innovative Space Logistics both with companies focused on procuring launch services for smallsat companies.

Both are for its as yet untested Prime rocket, which they hope to launch by 2021 from the United Kingdom’s new spaceport in Scotland.

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Cygnus undocks from ISS, will remain in orbit for five more months

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo capsule has undocked from ISS, but will remain in orbit until December.

First, the capsule, dubbed the S.S. Roger Chaffee, will deploy a bunch of cubesats and nanosats. Then,

Northrop Grumman plans several months of long-duration spaceflight experiments using the Cygnus spacecraft after release of the CubeSats. Four miniaturized control moment gyroscopes are flying on the cargo freighter for the first time, and engineers will assess their performance in controlling the spacecraft’s pointing without consuming rocket fuel.

Ground teams also want to evaluate how the Cygnus spacecraft’s avionics function on a long-duration mission, and Northrop Grumman plans to demonstrate dual Cygnus operations for the first time after the launch of the company’s next resupply mission — NG-12 — in October.

Northrop Grumman has gotten a NASA contract to use Cygnus as the basis for the habitable module of NASA’s Lunar Gateway project, and this extended flight is a way to test the engineering for that module now during operations.

Though I continue to have many doubts about Gateway, I laud Northrop Grumman for this approach. It speeds things up and saves money.

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Rocket Lab to attempt recovery and reuse of Electron 1st stage

Capitalism in space: Faced with stiff competition from both other smallsat rocket companies as well as the big players like SpaceX, Rocket Lab has announced that they are going to try to recover the first stages of their Electron rocket for later reuse.

Their plan is to use the atmosphere and parachutes to slow the stage down as it returns to Earth, and then have a helicopter snag it and land it on a ship.

They had looked into the idea of vertically landing it, like SpaceX does with its Falcon 9, but found it would make their rocket to big and expensive.

This plan is not as radical as it sounds. The Air Force did something similar for almost a decade in the 1960s to recover film from its surveillance satellites.

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SpaceX and Arianespace complete successful launches

Today, as I was giving my lecture in Denver, both Arianespace and SpaceX successfully completed launches.

SpaceX put a commercial communications satellite in orbit. The first stage was not recovered, but this was intended. The company however was successful in catching one half fairing in the giant net of its recovery ship Mrs. Tree., the second time they have done so.

Arianespace used its Ariane 5 rocket to launch a commercial communications satellite and a European Space Agency data relay satellite.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

12 Russia
11 China
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India

The U.S. now leads Russia 16 to 12 in the national rankings.

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Bezos sells an additional billion dollars in Amazon stock

Jeff Bezos this week sold an additional billion dollars in Amazon stock, bringing his total cash-in in 2019 now to $2.8 billion, and his total cash sales of stock to about $5 billion since he said several years ago that he would sell about $1 billion per year to finance his space company Blue Origin.

He still owns 12% of Amazon.

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SpaceX offers new cut-rate prices for smallsats

Capitalism in space: SpaceX yesterday announced that the company is now offering new cut-rate prices to launch smallsats on its rockets.

The company is offering rideshare opportunities for satellites weighing up to 150kg at the price of $2.25 million. The rideshare-only missions, flying aboard the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, will launch at regularly scheduled intervals. “SpaceX is committed to serving the commercial market as it grows and changes,” a spokesperson for the company said. “And we believe we can address the needs of small satellite operators by offering reliable, cost-effective access to orbit through regularly scheduled, dedicated rideshare missions.”

The company has previously flown rideshare missions using its Falcon 9 rocket, but those flights were organized and integrated by a third-party provider, Spaceflight Industries. Now SpaceX will do all of that work directly for customers

This move makes SpaceX’s smallsat prices very competitive. It also makes it easier for smallsat companies to bypass China’s semi-private commercial companies, thus avoiding the risk of China stealing their technology.

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SpaceX to launch Super Heavy/Starship from Florida

Capitalism in space: According to a SpaceX environmental report submitted to NASA, the company now plans to launch Super Heavy/Starship missions from Florida, and only Florida.

The report details the work they want to do at launch complex 39A, where they presently launch both Falcon 9s and Falcon Heavies.

The facilities will be able to support up to 24 Starship/Super Heavy launches a year, the company said in the report, with a corresponding decline in Falcon launches from the complex. “Due to the higher lift capability, Starship/Super Heavy could launch more payloads and reduce the overall launch cadence when compared to Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy,” the report states.

SpaceX ruled out performing Starship/Super Heavy launches from its other two existing launch sites, Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The company ruled out the sites because they would require more modifications and because the Vandenberg site didn’t support trajectories for the “vast majority” of missions.

Falcon Heavy launches especially will vanish once this new rocket is operational, as it will be cheaper to use and have greater capabilities, should it succeed in being everything SpaceX hopes it to be.

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Bezos provides 1st BE-4 engine update in more than a year

Yesterday Jeff Bezos posted the first status update since last spring on the development of the BE-4 rocket engine by Blue Origin, posting one image and stating that the engine testing continues.

According to his post, the engine had just completed a full power test, and has been accumulating test time.

This update is very reassuring, especially following such a long period of silence, beginning in April 2018. Before that Blue Origin had provided somewhat regularly updates.

In reviewing my past posts, it appears that the updates more or less ceased once ULA announced its decision to use the BE-4 in its Vulcan rocket. I now suspect the earlier updates were aimed more at ULA than the public, and once the decision was made Blue Origin returned to its more traditional tight-lipped approach.

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Landowners in Scotland sign lease for spaceport

The new colonial movement: The landowners for a planned commercial spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland, have now signed a 75-year lease with the spaceport developers.

Construction of the project is anticipated to begin next year with the UK Space Agency (UKSA) providing a grant of £2.5million to HIE, as well as funding two launch companies who will use the facility once it is operational.

I highlight the word “UK”, which stands for the United Kingdom, because that word indicates another very big unstated obstacle to this spaceport. The UK as a whole has voted to leave the European Union. The population of Scotland however voted against that exit, and its leaders have indicated that they will not go along with the plans of the new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, to exit, deal or no deal. In fact, they have indicated that they would instead want to leave the United Kingdom in that case.

Should that happen, the future of this spaceport will be threatened. The deals that have made it possible have come from the UK space agency, a entity that Scotland would no longer belong should it leave the United Kingdom.

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Bezos sells another $1.8 billion in Amazon stock

Capitalism in space? Jeff Bezos last night sold just under a million shares of his Amazon stock, earning in cash an estimated $1.8 billion.

Unlike a similar sale of stock by Bezos last April, there is no statement from Bezos about what he intends to use the money for. Then Bezos made it clear that he intended to periodically sell his stock to raise money for Blue Origin and its various space ventures. Today’s sale was the third since he said this, with total earnings from all three sales totaling about $4 billion, and all are likely aimed at funding that space company.

I might have increasing concerns about Blue Origin because of what appears to be a stalled rollout of New Shepard and New Glenn, but with deep pockets such as this, it would be surprising if the company fails to achieve its goals.

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New NASA development contracts include refueling work by SpaceX

Capitalism in space: Yesterday NASA announced a bunch of partnership agreements with thirteen companies, where those companies will get NASA assistance at no cost to help them develop new engineering that would aid future solar system exploration.

The partnerships covered everything from helping small companies develop new space electronics, heat shields, and new types of thrusters to helping Blue Origin develop the technology for for landing on the Moon.

An article at Ars Technica today about this NASA announcement focused specifically on the SpaceX deal, mainly for its important political implications.

The partnership will have two different NASA agencies helping SpaceX develop the refueling technology it needs for Starship to reach Mars. The key is that this deal has NASA openly supporting technologies that are in direct competition with its own SLS rocket. When such research work was proposed back in 2010, it was opposed quite strongly by past agency officials as well as powerful politicians in Congress, for exactly that reason.

It was a contentious time in space policy, as the White House was pushing for more funding for new space companies—and new space ideas such as fuel-storage depots—while Congress wanted to keep NASA in the rocket-building business.

Eventually, Congress got the upper hand, putting NASA on track to build the large SLS rocket at a development cost of more than $2 billion a year. The rocket program mostly benefited the Alabama space center and was championed by Alabama State Senator Richard Shelby. The potential of in-space fuel storage and transfer threatened the SLS rocket because it would allow NASA to do some exploration missions with smaller and cheaper rockets. As one source explained at the time, “Senator Shelby called NASA and said if he hears one more word about propellant depots he’s going to cancel the Space Technology program.”

The line from other NASA officials was that as a technology, propellant depots were not ready for prime time. In 2011, former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and current Executive Secretary of the National Space Council Scott Pace—both SLS advocates—wrote a withering criticism of the technology for Space News.

Now however the Trump administration is helping SpaceX develop refueling for Starship, which if successful will help make SLS irrelevant. This is more evidence that the Trump administration is laying the political groundwork that will allow it to shut SLS down, actions that were impossible in the political culture of Washington only two years ago.

This quote in the article is probably the most startling of all:

“Administrator Bridenstine is clearly executing on President’s Trump’s guidance to increase commercial public-private-partnerships at NASA,” Miller, now chief executive of UbiquitiLink, told Ars. “The game-changing technology that NASA has discovered is capitalism. This program proves NASA leadership has figured out the future is reusability mixed with commercial public-private-partnerships.” [emphasis mine]

Imagine that. An American government agency has learned that capitalism is the way to go. Will wonders never cease?

Update: See this related Ars Technica article: The SLS rocket may have curbed development of on-orbit refueling for a decade (Hat tip reader Calvin Dodge.)

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Suborbital rocket company has launch failure

Capitalism in space: Gilmour Space Technologies, one of the numerous new rocket companies aimed at capturing the emerging smallsat market, experienced a launch failure on July 29 just prior to lift-off of its suborbital rocket.

At T-7 seconds to launch, the test rocket suffered an anomaly that resulted in the premature end of the mission. Initial investigations show that a pressure regulator in the oxidiser tank had failed to maintain the required pressure, and this caused the upper half of the rocket to be ejected as helium escaped.

On the positive side, there were no explosions due to the safe nature of hybrid rocket engines, and no observable damage to the engine. (The white plume seen here is steam.) Moreover, despite failure to launch, the team did successfully test Gilmour Space’s mobile launch platform and mission control centre, which had journeyed over 1,800 km to the test site.

It appears the failure was from a piece of equipment provided by an outside contractor.

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LightSail-2 successfully raises its orbit using sunlight

Capitalism in space: By raising its orbit by the use of sunlight only, LightSail-2 has confirmed what an earlier Japanese solar sail Ikaros had demonstrated, that it is possible to use solar sails to travel in space.

Since unfurling the spacecraft’s silver solar sail last week, mission managers have been optimizing the way the spacecraft orients itself during solar sailing. After a few tweaks, LightSail 2 began raising its orbit around the Earth. In the past 4 days, the spacecraft has raised its orbital high point, or apogee, by about 2 kilometers. The perigee, or low point of its orbit, has dropped by a similar amount, which is consistent with pre-flight expectations for the effects of atmospheric drag on the spacecraft. The mission team has confirmed the apogee increase can only be attributed to solar sailing, meaning LightSail 2 has successfully completed its primary goal of demonstrating flight by light for CubeSats. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted text notes a secondary but possibly more important engineering achievement here. LightSail-2 was launched as a cubesat. It has now proven that such a cubesat can include a solar sail and use it for purposes of transportation.

Moreover, that this engineering test was funded entirely by private funds proves again that the government is not necessary for great things to be achieved.

They will continue to raise the spacecraft’s apogee for the next month, until the lowering of the perigee causes the spacecraft to get pulled out of orbit by the drag from the atmosphere. That second process will still take about a year.

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iSpace plans eight launches in 2020

After its first successful orbital mission last week, China’s semi-private rocket company iSpace announced today that it hopes to complete eight launches in 2020.

Clients from Singapore, Italy, Spain, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka, as well as mainland customers, have already either signed up for a spot on iSpace’s rockets or expressed interest.

iSpace is open to both private and government clients. “It’s the same for us whether it’s a private or a state-owned company,” Vice President for Marketing and Communications Yao Bowen said.

The price tag to launch a rocket is 4.5 million euros ($5 million), Yao added.

This launch price is just under what Rocket Lab has been charging, $6 million, and is clearly designed to take business from them. It is however higher than what Vector says it will charge, $4 million, should that company ever get its rocket off the ground.

The article also notes the investment capital raised by iSpace, totaling just over $100 million. This does make this company appear a private company, but don’t believe it. Its existence is very much tied to and supervised by the Chinese government.

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Want to get off gmail? A possible Behind the Black option

On July 3rd I put out a feeler to see if there was sufficient interest among my readers for providing a private email service through Behind the Black. As I wrote then:

I am exploring the possibility of offering email services through my server for those who want to get off of gmail and google. However, before such a service can be offered, we need to know the amount of interest there might be. The demand will effect the cost, which means I can’t even give you an idea of what we might charge.

Regardless, if you are interested in having “your.name@behindtheblack.com” as your email address, please say so in the comments. There will be no obligations, by you or me or my server, but the response however will help us decide if we can do it.

And if we can do it, and many people sign on, we will then be taking the proper free enterprise approach for combating the corrupt business practices of giants like Google. Our federal government might still act to break Google up, but I think it would be far better if the free market did the job instead.

About a dozen people expressed interest at that time. In discussing this with my server, we both agreed that this is too small a number for us to begin this service. However, we are also both quite willing to do this, if the initial number of subscribers was higher.

I am therefore posting this feeler out again. If you expressed a desire to sign up as a comment in the previous post, then there is no need to comment again. However, if you did not comment previously, and think this service will be what you want, then post a comment here saying so.

It would also help me to get an idea what you would be willing to pay per month for this service. For this information I request everyone comment, including those who commented earlier.

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Europe completes 1st rollout of Ariane 6 mobile launch gantry

The mobile launch gantry that Europe will use for its new Ariane 6 rocket successfully completed its first rollout tests last week.

This gantry is the equivalent of NASA’s VAB building. Within this gantry they will assemble Ariane 6 vertically, then roll the gantry back for launch.

Assembling a rocket vertically I think is more costly, but it also makes it possible for the rocket to launch payloads that must be installed in this manner. Thus, Ariane 6 will have this selling point over rockets like the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which are assembled horizontally.

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Private lunar landing company backs out of NASA contract

Capitalism in space: The commercial lunar landing company, OrbitBeyond, has told NASA that it cannot fulfill its $97 million contract, only two months after that contract was announced.

NASA announced July 29 that OrbitBeyond informed the agency that “internal corporate challenges” will prevent it from carrying out a task order that NASA awarded the company May 31 as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. The company asked to be released from that contract, and NASA agreed.

NASA didn’t elaborate on what specific issues caused OrbitBeyond to scrap its contract with NASA, and the company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. At the May 31 event where NASA announced the contracts, Siba Padhi, chief executive of OrbitBeyond, said the company was still in the process of closing a round of funding. The company has not subsequently announced a funding round.

Considering its receipt of a $97 million NASA contract, it would be very puzzlingly for the company to be unable to obtain further investment capital. If anything, that contract should have encouraged funding. If the lack of funding is the cause of this termination then it also suggests the company had other problems.

This leaves NASA with two private lunar lander companies. I expect NASA will look to award the contract to a third company. The company Firefly and its team of Israeli Beresheet engineers comes immediately to mind.

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Russia launches communications satellite

Using its Soyuz rocket the Russians today launched a satellite aimed at providing communications to Russia itself.

The satellite, while apparently providing civilian communications services, was a Russian government project. It is not commercial as we would define it in the west.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

11 China
10 Russia
9 SpaceX
5 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India

The U.S. continues to lead China 15 to 11 in the national rankings. At the moment it also looks like Russia has a chance to top 20 launches in 2019, which would make this its best launch year since 2015. This suggests that they have finally begun to recover from the discovery in 2017 that an engine contractor was using substandard welding materials to pocket some extra cash, thus causing many launch failures.

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