OneWeb faces bankruptcy, even as it is about to launch more satellites

According to reports today, OneWeb, one of two companies presently building a constellation of satellites for providing worldwide internet access, is facing a serious cash crunch and might have to file for bankruptcy.

The main investor, Softbank, apparently is short of cash due to bad investments, worsened further by the stock market crash due to the Wuhan virus panic this week. Furthermore, the panic has caused Arianespace, which is launching many of OneWeb’s satellites, to suspend all launches from its French Guiana spaceport.

OneWeb has already launched 74 satellites, with a Soyuz launch of 34 more from Russia tomorrow. While fewer than the 360 that its main competitor SpaceX has launched of its Starlink constellation, OneWeb doesn’t need as many based on constellation’s design to become operational. After tomorrow’s launch, OneWeb will have launched about 18% needed, compared to SpaceX’s 24%.

If OneWeb goes out of business, it will do great harm to both Russia’s launch industry as well as Europe’s Arianespace, both of which have contracts for launching most of OneWeb’s satellites. In fact, for Russia, OneWeb is pretty much the only commercial customer they have. If they lose that it will be a serious financial blow.

Similarly, Arianespace’s next generation rocket, Ariane 6, has had problems garnering contracts. Losing the OneWeb launches will also hurt their bottom line.

Russian officials decide to broadcast launches

The return of the Soviet Union! After experimenting with the online broadcast yesterday of the Soyuz manned launch, Russian officials announced today that they will continue these broadcasts on future launches.

The launch from Baikonur was for the first time broadcast via the Luch (Ray) satellite retransmission system. More than 1,000 people have watched the live broadcast.

The Luch system is designed to solve the problems of relaying information of monitoring and control of low-orbit spacecraft, manned space systems, including the Russian segment of the International Space Station, and to serve in controlling launch vehicle flights using an alternative technology. The Luch is a series of geosynchronous Russian relay satellites, used to transmit live TV images, communications and other telemetry from the Soviet/Russian space station Mir, the Russian Orbital Segment of the International Space Station and other orbital spacecraft to the Earth, in a manner similar to that of the US Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System. “One of the main spheres we intend to develop is our functions of mobile communications and data retransmission, including for the broadcast of launches as the most interesting events for the promotion of space exploration,” Komarov said. According to the Roscosmos chief, the Gonets company will be engaged in the development of this sphere. [emphasis mine]

Wow! A thousand people watched the launch! Isn’t that amazing!

In other words, either they didn’t make it easy for the public to find the broadcast online, or they didn’t make it public at all and the 1,000 viewers were merely government apparatchiks. It is clear from the article that they are still working to get their communication satellite network back into operation — which crumbled in the 1980s and 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union — but if they can broadcast to 1000 people they can broadcast to far more than that. Hopefully after this first effort they will broaden its access for future launches, though I wonder if that will happen. All of Russian aerospace is now government-controlled, and the natural inclination of government bureaucrats is to squelch information so that people don’t see bad things happen.

Commercial communications satellites for Mars?

The competition heats up? NASA is considering a different commercial approach for providing communications to and from its Mars probes.

The purpose of NASA’s request for information, or RFI, released July 23 “is to explore new business models for how NASA might sustain Mars relay infrastructure, consisting of orbiters capable of providing standardized telecommunication services for rovers and landers on the Martian surface, in the Martian atmosphere, or in Mars orbit,” according to a posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

According to the post, NASA will use information it receives from respondents to inform its future Mars exploration strategies, but the agency has not decided to pursue a commercial interplanetary telecom initiative. “We are looking to broaden participation in the exploration of Mars to include new models for government and commercial partnerships,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate, in a statement. “Depending on the outcome, the new model could be a vital component in future science missions and the path for humans to Mars.” [emphasis mine]

It is important to highlight the fact that NASA has not yet made a decision on this issue. The best thing the agency could do, in my opinion, would be to step back, design nothing, but let private companies bid on providing the service. The expertise at many of the private satellite companies providing communications efficiently and inexpensively to private customers worldwide would easily provide NASA better communications at Mars for less money.

In other words, like manned flight and cargo delivery to ISS, NASA should simply become a customer, and let private companies build and own the products that NASA buys.

Curiosity is out of safe mode and will be resuming full science operations by next week.

Curiosity is out of safe mode and will be resuming full science operations by next week.

It is imperative that the engineers clear up these computer problems now, as communications with the rover will be limited in April because the sun will be in the way.

Transmissions from Earth to the orbiters [Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter] will be suspended while Mars and the sun are two degrees or less apart in the sky, from April 9 to 26, with restricted commanding during additional days before and after. Both orbiters will continue science observations on a reduced basis compared to usual operations. Both will receive and record data from the rovers. Odyssey will continue transmissions Earthward throughout April, although engineers anticipate some data dropouts, and the recorded data will be retransmitted later.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will go into a record-only mode on April 4. “For the entire conjunction period, we’ll just be storing data on board,” said Deputy Mission Manager Reid Thomas of JPL. He anticipates that the orbiter could have about 40 gigabits of data from its own science instruments and about 12 gigabits of data from Curiosity accumulated for sending to Earth around May 1.

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is approaching its fifth solar conjunction. Its team will send no commands between April 9 and April 26. The rover will continue science activities using a long-term set of commands to be sent beforehand.

An update on the efforts to save Phobos-Grunt

An update on the efforts to save Phobos-Grunt.

“The first pass was successful in that the spacecraft’s radio downlink was commanded to switch on and telemetry was received,” said Wolfgang Hell, ESA’s Service Manager for Phobos–Grunt. Telemetry typically includes information on the status and health of a spacecraft’s systems. “The signals received from Phobos–Grunt were much stronger than those initially received on 22 November, in part due to having better knowledge of the spacecraft’s orbital position.”

The second pass was short, and so was used only to uplink commands – no receipt of signal was expected. However, the following three passes in the early morning of 24 November proved to be more difficult: no signal was received from Phobos–Grunt.