Tag Archives: commercial

China announces international experiments to fly on its space station

The new colonial movement: China and the UN today jointly announced the nine international experiments that China will fly on its own space station, set to be completed by 2022.

The nine projects involve 23 entities from 17 countries in the fields of aerospace medicine, space life sciences and biotechnology, microgravity physics and combustion science, astronomy and other emerging technologies.

It seems to me that the competition in space is definitely heating up. Both China and Indian now plan their own space stations. And the Trump administration’s announcement that it will allow private commercial and competitive operations on ISS, is certainly going to lead eventually to more than one private station in orbit, plus ISS.

The result is going to be many different stations, all offering different capabilities and all in competition to lower the cost to get there and to do research or to sightsee. All are also going to be contributing aggressively in learning how to build vessels that humans can live on for long periods, which in turn will teach us how to build interplanetary spaceships. In fact, every one of these stations will be prototypes for those interplanetary spaceships.

Isn’t competition wonderful? After almost thirty years of boring international cooperation on ISS, with little new achievement or innovation, the space station competition coming in the next decade will revitalize space exploration in ways we as yet cannot imagine.

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Bigelow announces four tourist bookings to ISS using Dragon

Capitalism in space: The private space station company Bigelow Aerospace announced yesterday that it has booked four tourists to spend from one to two months on ISS.

The bookings will fly to ISS using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. Though the company did not say how much these tourists have agreed to pay, it said that it intends to charge $52 million per ticket.

This announcement follows directly from NASA’s announcement last week that it will allow commercial tourist flights to ISS. Previously Bigelow had said it would fly tourists to its own space station using Boeing’s Starliner capsule. Now it is going to take advantage of NASA’s new policy to send the tourists to ISS, and it will use Dragon, probably because Dragon is closer to becoming operational.

I also suspect that Bigelow’s long term plans are to add its own hotel modules to ISS for these flights, and then later follow-up by building its own independent space station.

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SpaceX successfully launches three Canadian radar satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today has successfully launched three Canadian radar satellites.

The first stage, already flown once before, successfully landed at a very fog-shrouded Vandenberg.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

8 China
7 SpaceX
5 Russia
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

The U.S. leads China in the national rankings 12 to 8.

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Relativity leases manufacturing space from NASA

Capitalism in space: The smallsat company Relativity has leased a large manufacturing space at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi where it plans to build its Terran 1 rocket, set for first launch in 2020.

The Stennis center will eventually employ 200 engineers, nearly double the company’s current workforce of 90. The state of Mississippi offered a “significant” incentive package, the company said in a statement. “We’re reducing the human labor component significantly,” said Ellis, a veteran from Jeff Bezos’ space firm Blue Origin, referring to Relativity’s two-story-tall 3D printer arms named Stargate.

Stargate will enable the production of an entire rocket in under 60 days, said Ellis, who is looking to launch nearly two dozen a year in the next five years to prove the company’s production method.

Terran 1’s debut launch is expected in 2020, costing satellite makers $10 million per flight and carrying around 2,755 pounds (1,250 KG) to low earth orbit. That lands the company between U.S.-New Zealand competitor Rocket Lab, whose Electron rocket aims to send nearly 500 pounds to space for $5.7 million, and Cedar Park, Texas-based Firefly Aerospace Inc’s Alpha rocket, which is expected to loft 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg) into low-Earth orbit at a cost of $15 million per flight.

The company has three launch contracts, but they won’t be real until they start launching. If their 3D printing approach works it will cut their costs significantly. Whether it will work or not remains an open question. The 3D printing work I’ve seen with other rockets raises questions about exactly how much of a rocket engine you can make in such a way.

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White House to allow ISS commercialization, including tourists

Capitalism in space: The White House today released an interim proposal [pdf] that would allow private enterprise on ISS, including allowing American private companies to fly tourists to the station.

A new interim directive from NASA allows private companies to buy time and space on the ISS for producing, marketing, or testing their products. It also allows those companies to use resources on the ISS for commercial purposes, even making use of NASA astronauts’ time and expertise (but not their likeness). If companies want, they can even send their own astronauts to the ISS, starting as early as 2020, but all of these activities come with a hefty price tag.

This fits with the Trump administration’s overall push to shift the American space effort from a NASA “program” to an independent and profitable American space industry.

Will this work? I cannot see how it can’t. At a minimum, it will tell us if there really is a viable market for space tourism and industry on the space station.

For the Russians this is another disaster. They had planned to sell the available seats on their Soyuz, no longer used by NASA astronauts, to tourists. It is very likely that business will shift to the U.S. manned capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing.

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Virgin Orbit sues OneWeb over canceled launches

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit this week filed a lawsuit against the satellite company OneWeb for its cancellation of 35 of 39 launches.

According to a complaint Virgin Orbit filed June 4 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, OneWeb quietly canceled 35 of a planned 39 launches last June, triggering a $70 million termination fee spelled out in the contract. Virgin Orbit says OneWeb still owes $46.32 million. The lawsuit was first reported by Law360.com.

The real significance of this story is the decision of OneWeb to back out of its deal with Virgin Orbit. Richard Branson is an investor in both, which is why I think Virgin Orbit got the contract originally, when they were nowhere close to flying.

The timing of OneWeb’s cancellation in June 2018 is interesting. In July 2018 Virgin Orbit announced that it had received a launch license from the FAA for a flight it hoped to do before the end of the summer. That flight never happened.

So, did OneWeb’s cancellation cause the Virgin Orbit flight schedule to stall, or did OneWeb realize in June 2018 that the schedule was unrealistic, and that it was time to get out?

Either way, the lose of this income is a serious blow for this Branson company, and probably does explain the lack of flights in the past year.

If I was to rank the American smallsat orbital rocket companies at this point, Rocket Lab leads, with Vector and Firefly tied for a distance second. I would also consider EXOS Aerospace up there among the leaders, even though they are not yet building an orbital rocket. Instead, they are flying their reusable SARGE suborbital rocket on commercial flights (the next is scheduled for June 30), and using it as a guide for developing the orbital rocket to follow. Virgin Orbit should be among these leaders, but the lose of this contract and their failure to fly as scheduled makes me want to lower them in the rankings.

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Worldview balloon completes 16-day flight

Worldview Stratollite flight

Capitalism in space: Worldview has successfully completed a sixteen day flight of its Stratollite high altitude balloon.

The map on the right is from their press release [pdf]. From the first link above:

During the 16-day flight, World View was able to spend up to eight days total in an area about 75 miles wide. It also demonstrated more precise station-keeping, says Hartman, by spending 55 straight hours in a region 62 miles wide and also 6.5 hours in an area a little less than 6 miles wide.

Staying within such a small area is crucial for the Stratollite system, as that capability could be useful for a number of different applications for customers, according to Hartman. He notes that such a system above Earth could be used by the military to aid certain missions operations, or the Stratollite could help monitor natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes, and help with disaster relief. “There’s just all kinds of very important use cases when we can provide a station keeping capability in an area as small as a [6-mile] diameter area,” says Hartman.

Throughout this flight, the Stratollite covered a distance of 3,000 miles, making its way to the Grand Canyon, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah. Once the World View team decided to bring the Stratollite back down to Earth, the company was able to land it within 400 feet of a targeted area in the Nevada desert where the vehicle was then recovered. World View even hopes to fly some of the components from this flight on an upcoming mission.

The company’s goal these days is not space tourism, but ground observations, and this flight is certainly a solid proof that they are getting close to achieving that goal.

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New study calls for government to center its space policy around private enterprise

Link here. The study is detailed, thoughtful, and strongly reiterates the same policy recommendations I put forth in Capitalism in Space.

The paper outlines what the authors think the government should do over the next decade-plus to encourage the take-over of the American space effort by private enterprise. While much of this makes sense, when they get into outlining the specific projects that they want to happen in the 2020s it comes the stuff of fantasy, what the authors wish would happen.

If the government transitions away from a “space program” and instead creates a chaotic and free space industry, it will then be impossible to lay out a specific step-by-step “program” of achievement. Instead, the engine of freedom will take over, and what it will generate can never be predicted, except that it will be vigorous, surprising, and successful, doing things quickly and with exuberance.

That should be the fundamental goal of our government.

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New Zimmerman op-ed at The Federalist

In the piece, Trump’s Promising New Space Plan Won’t Work Without Cutting The Pork, I take a close look at Trump’s Moon plan and actually come away somewhat encouraged.

For one, it is pretty clear that Gateway has been dumped, or at least deemphasized significantly. Second, the plan shifts the focus from NASA being the builder of the program to NASA being a customer of the private sector.

Read it all. There’s a lot more.

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Astronomers call for regulations to stop commercial satellite constellations

The astronomical community is now calling for new regulations to restrict the number of satellites that can be launched as part of the coming wave of new commercial constellations due to a fear these satellites will interfere with their observations.

Not surprising to me, it is the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that is taking the lead here.

The IAU statement urges satellite designers and policymakers to take a closer look at the potential impacts of satellite constellations on astronomy and how to mitigate them.

“We also urge appropriate agencies to devise a regulatory framework to mitigate or eliminate the detrimental impacts on scientific exploration as soon as practical,” the statement says. “We strongly recommend that all stakeholders in this new and largely unregulated frontier of space utilisation work collaboratively to their mutual advantage.”

When it comes to naming objects in space, the IAU likes to tell everyone else what to do. That top-down approach is now reflected in its demand that these commercial enterprises, with the potential to increase the wealth and knowledge of every human on Earth, be shut down.

The astronomy community has a solution, one that it has been avoiding since they launched Hubble in 1990, and that is to build more space-telescopes. Such telescopes would not only leap-frog the commercial constellations, it would routinely get them better results, far better than anything they get on Earth.

But no, they’d rather squelch the efforts of everyone else so they can maintain the status quo. They should be ashamed.

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Dragon cargo capsule successfully returns to Earth

Capitalism in space: After a month docked to ISS SpaceX’s seventeenth Dragon cargo freighter successfully splashed down yesterday.

I think that makes eighteen successful splashdowns. While NASA keeps demanding SpaceX do more tests of its manned Dragon parachute system, which has been made even more robust than the cargo capsule in that it includes four chutes, not three, for greater redundancy, the company keeps demonstrating that they already know how to do this.

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Stratolaunch shutting down?

According to a Reuters story today based upon anonymous sources within the company, Stratolaunch is about to cease operations.

The key quote from the article:

As of April 1, Stratolaunch had only 21 employees, compared with 77 last December, one of the four sources said. Most of the remaining employees were focused on completing the carrier plane’s test flight.

The decision to set an exit strategy was made late last year by Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, chair of Vulcan Inc and trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust, one of the four people and the fifth industry source said. Jody Allen decided to let the carrier aircraft fly to honor her brother’s wishes and also to prove the vehicle and concept worked, one of the four people said.

If true, this is hardly a surprise. The company was never able to find a viable path to orbit. It had built a spectacular plane, but could not find a rocket for that plane to launch.

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NASA selects three companies to provide lunar landers for its science instruments

Captalism in space: NASA today announced the selection of three new companies to provide the agency lunar landers on which to fly its science instruments to the Moon.

The companies chosen:

  • Astrobotic of Pittsburgh has been awarded $79.5 million and has proposed to fly as many as 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon, by July 2021.
  • Intuitive Machines of Houston has been awarded $77 million. The company has proposed to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a scientifically intriguing dark spot on the Moon, by July 2021.
  • Orbit Beyond of Edison, New Jersey, has been awarded $97 million and has proposed to fly as many as four payloads to Mare Imbrium, a lava plain in one of the Moon’s craters, by September 2020.

If successful as awarded, the cost for these spacecraft will be minuscule compared to what NASA normally spends for its own planetary probes.

These contract awards are puzzling however in one way. All three companies are relatively unknown. None competed in the Google Lunar X-Prize, as did the American company Moon Express, which at one time was thought to be very close to launching. That Moon Express is not one of the winners here is mysterious. The only explanation I can come up with is the lawsuit that Intuitive Machines won from Moon Express in January 2018. Maybe that suit killed Moon Express, and made Intuitive Machines the winner today.

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Anomaly during static fire test of Northrop Grumman OmegaA rocket motor

Capitalism in space: During a static fire test of the first stage solid rocket motor for Northrop Grumman’s OmegaA rocket, the rocket’s nozzle suddenly broke apart two minutes into the firing.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. The anomaly occurs about 2:11 into the video.

OmegA is being developed as part of a contract awarded to Northrop Grumman by the Air Force:

After the end of the Ares 1 and Liberty launch vehicle projects, Orbital ATK developed a next generation launch vehicle concept to compete for future US Air Force and NASA launches, and won a rocket propulsion system (RPS) contract in January 2016 as part of the Air Force’s effort to end its dependence on Russian RD-180 engine imports, due to increased geopolitical tensions between the West and Russia.

The contract enabled Orbital ATK to keep working on the next generation launch system, which was later named OmegA, with the first and last letters capitalized to incorporate the company’s initials.

In June 2018 Orbital ATK was acquired by Northrop Grumman to become Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NGIS), and in October of that year the US Air Force awarded NGIS a launch service agreement (LSA) contract initially worth $181 million for the first 18 months, and ultimately worth $792 million, to develop, build, and test the OmegA rocket, culminating in four test flights of two configurations starting in 2021.

» Read more

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Russian Proton rocket launches Russian communications satellite

In its first launch in 2019, a Russian Proton rocket today successfully placed a French-built Russian communications satellite into orbit.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

7 China
6 SpaceX
5 Russia
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

The U.S. continues to lead China 11 to 7 in the national rankings.

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SpaceX investigation into test explosion ongoing

A NASA update yesterday into SpaceX’s investigation into the test explosion that destroyed a manned Dragon capsule revealed that while the company is still working to launch humans by the end of the year, this schedule remains tentative until the investigation is completed.

The update included two important details. First, SpaceX is going to use for its launch abort test the Dragon capsule it had previously planned to fly on its first manned demo mission, and for that mission will use the capsule intended for the first operational manned flight. That first operational flight will then use a new capsule from their assembly line.

Second, the update confirmed that the anomaly that caused the explosion occurred as they were activating the SuperDraco thruster system, but prior to the firing of the thrusters. While this suggests once again that the failure might have not have involved the capsule but the test procedures, we will not know for sure until they release their investigation conclusions.

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