Tag Archives: competition

Unmanned test Soyuz aborts docking to ISS

Astronauts on ISS were forced to abort the docking of an unmanned upgraded Soyuz capsule today when it appeared to have problems locking onto its docking port.

According to NASA, Soyuz MS-14 entered an orbit above and behind the ISS, which would bring the spacecraft back into the vicinity of the outpost 24 hours later. However within an hour after the failed docking, the mission control in Korolev told the ISS crew that the next docking attempt would not be made until at least August 26 after a series of tests. Head of flight operations in Korolev Vladimir Soloviev informed the cosmonauts that ground specialists had narrowed down a potential root cause of the failure during docking to a “bad signal amplifier” in the Kurs-P avionics system aboard the station. Soloviev instructed the crew to swap the suspected amplifier for a new one and then conduct a test of the Kurs-P system. Provided the ongoing analysis confirmed the initial failure scenario and the in-orbit tests went successfully, another rendezvous attempt could be made in around 48 hours, between 08:00 and 09:00 Moscow Time on August 26. Soloviev asked the crew members whether they knew where the components in question had been located to which the cosmonauts said that they had remembered it approximately but asked for reference photos to be sent to them.

Assuming this is the same docking port the Russians have used for previous Soyuz and Progress dockings, the amplifier would have had to fail since the last docking.

UPDATE: It appears that they are instead going to use a different Russian docking port on ISS for the second docking attempt, thereby bypassing the suspect docking system.

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Japan’s plan for returning Hayabusa-2’s Ryugu samples to Earth

Japan’s today provided an update on what it has done to prepare the location where Hayabusa-2’s samples from the asteroid Ryugu will land on Earth.

The landing site is in the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA) in the outback of southern Australia. Japan has already signed an agreement with that country for the recovery, as well as done preliminary surface work

The recovery site is an Australian Government prohibited area and is not accessible to the public. As part of the preparatory work, a field survey of the proposed recovery site in the WPA was conducted with permission from the Australian Government. This preparatory work confirmed the suitability of both the proposed recovery site and the candidate site for the antenna station that will search for the capsule.

The landing of the recovery capsule is now scheduled for late in 2020.

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Sierra Nevada unveils full scale Gateway habitat module prototype

Capitalism in space: Sierra Nevada yesterday unveiled a full scale prototype of a habitable module that it developed under a NASA contract for the agency’s proposed Lunar Gateway space station.

[The module] measures more than 8 meters long, and with a diameter of 8 meters has an internal volume of 300 cubic meters, which is about one-third the size of the International Space Station.

Sierra Nevada developed this full-scale prototype under a NASA program that funded several companies to develop habitats that could be used for a space station in orbit around the Moon, as well as potentially serving as living quarters for a long-duration transit to and from Mars. As part of the program, NASA astronauts have, or will, spend three days living in and evaluating the prototypes built by Sierra Nevada, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Bigelow Aerospace.

The selling point for Sierra Nevada’s habitat is its size, which is possible because the multi-layered fabric material can be compressed for launch, then expanded and outfitted as a habitat once in space. It can fit within a standard payload fairing used for launch vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan booster, or NASA’s Space Launch System. It is light enough for any of those rockets to launch to the Moon.

What we are seeing here is the unfolding of the Washington lobbying game to guarantee Gateway gets funded and built. NASA is spreading its available Gateway cash around to multiple companies, who will now have a vested interest in lobbying Congress to get this lunar space station funded and built.

The one very good component of this lobbying process is that NASA is not doing the building or the designing. It is hiring private companies, which means the project will act to stimulate the American aerospace industry. Moreover, it is leaving the ownership of the spacecraft and the decision on what launch vehicle to use to the companies, which means this cannot be used as a lever to fund the SLS boondoggle. Under this arrangement more will get done faster for less.

Even so, Lunar Gateway will mostly act to slow the United States’ effort to colonize the solar system. We will be spending our government space dollars on an orbiting lunar space station, thus generally trapping us in orbit, as we watch China, India, Russia and others land and explore the surface.

There is only one way Gateway could possibly be beneficial to the United States. NASA gets it built fast and cheaply, so that it then can be used as a jumping off point for further exploration. This would give the U.S. capabilities in space that far exceed other countries.

My fear is that NASA has a terrible track record in the past half century of doing anything fast or cheaply. Instead, NASA projects like Gateway end up taking forever and costing many times their initial proposed budget. SLS is a perfect poster child for this. Its goal is not so much to launch as to provide Congress endless pork.

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China successfully tests navigation in space using pulsars

Using the X-ray space telescope Insight it launched in 2017, China has successfully tested an autonomous navigation system using pulsars.

The time interval of two adjacent pulses emitted by the pulsar is constant. If a spacecraft moves toward the pulsar, the received pulse interval will be shortened, and vise versa. Thus the observed pulse profile will change as the spacecraft moves in space. The relative arrival times of pulses also indicate the relative position of the spacecraft with respect to the pulsar. Therefore, by analyzing the characteristics of the pulsar signals received by the spacecraft, the three-dimensional position and velocity of the spacecraft can be determined, Zheng explained.

From Aug. 31 to Sept. 5, 2017, Insight observed the Crab pulsar for about five days to test the feasibility of pulsar navigation. The research team had also proposed an algorithm for X-ray pulsar navigation, according to Zhang Shuangnan, lead scientist of the Insight space telescope.

The research team further improved the algorithm and applied it in the processing of the observation data of the three detectors onboard Insight. The satellite’s orbit was determined successfully, with the positioning accuracy within 10 km, comparable to that of a similar experiment conducted on the International Space Station, Zhang said.

This is not the first such test. U.S. scientists did something similar using an X-ray telescope on ISS in 2017.

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ISRO releases Chandrayaan-2’s first Moon image from lunar orbit

The Moon as seen by Chandrayaan-2

India’s space agency ISRO has released the first image taken by Chandrayaan-2 after entering orbit around the Moon.

That image is to the right, reduced to post here. It was taken from about 1,600 miles elevation, and shows mostly the far side of the Moon. The dark mare in the upper right is the Sea of Moscow, which is the only large mare on the far side.

This image once again proves the camera and the spacecraft’s ability to point it accurately are both functioning.

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Russia and ULA successfully complete rocket launches

Russia and ULA both successfully placed spacecraft into Earth orbit today.

Russia sent an unmanned upgrded Soyuz capsule to ISS, filled with cargo, in a test flight that also tested a new upgraded version of the Soyuz rocket.

According to Navias, this Soyuz launch is a critical shakedown flight to test the performance of the upgraded Soyuz capsule and the Soyuz 2.1a booster before the first crewed flight on the rocket in March 2020.

“The Soyuz 2.1a booster, equipped with a new digital flight control system and upgraded engines, is replacing the Soyuz FG booster that has been used for decades to launch crews into space,” NASA officials wrote in a statement. “The Soyuz spacecraft will have an upgraded motion control and navigation system, as well as a revamped descent control system,” they added.

The mission will also help Roscosmos develop a cargo version of the Soyuz capsule capable uncrewed reentry to return experiments and other gear to Earth, Navias said. Russia’s Progress cargo ships can currently only deliver supplies, and are filled with trash and discarded at the end of their missions.

ULA in turn launched an Air Force GPS satellite in the last launch of the Delta-4 Medium version of its Delta rocket family.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

13 China
13 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India
4 Rocket Lab
4 ULA

The U.S. leads Russia and China 19 to 13 in the national standings.

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2018 Hot Rod Wild Rides

An evening pause: A breath-taking collection of crashes and failures during the 2018 National Hot Rod Association race season One could call this a collection of engineering failures, but I don’t see it that way. For one, absolutely no one was seriously hurt, proving the design of their safety features. For another, the engine failures show how they are pushing the engineering to the max to win.

Hat tip Cotour.

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SpaceX’s Tesla has completed its first solar orbit

Capitalism in space: The first privately launched car, a Tesla placed in solar orbit on SpaceX’s first launch of its Falcon Heavy, has now completed its first orbit around the sun.

Its future?

Car and driver will probably make many more laps around our star. Last year, an orbit-modeling study calculated that the Roadster will eventually slam into either Venus or Earth, likely within the next few tens of millions of years. But there’s just a 6 percent chance of an Earth impact, and a 2.5 percent chance of a Venus impact, within the next million years, the study’s authors found.

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ULA wins private lunar launch contract

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic, the private company building a lunar lander for NASA, has chosen ULA’s Vulcan rocket for its launch vehicle.

Astrobotic announced today that it selected United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket in a competitive commercial procurement to launch its Peregrine lunar lander to the Moon in 2021.

“We are so excited to sign with ULA and fly Peregrine on Vulcan Centaur. This contract with ULA was the result of a highly competitive commercial process, and we are grateful to everyone involved in helping us make low-cost lunar transportation possible. When we launch the first lunar lander from American soil since Apollo, onboard the first Vulcan Centaur rocket, it will be a historic day for the country and commercial enterprise,” said Astrobotic CEO, John Thornton.

This is the second contract announcement for ULA’s Vulcan rocket, with the first being Sierra Nevada’s announcement that it would use Vulcan for Dream Chaser’s first six flights.

Isn’t competition wonderful? It appears to me that ULA must be offering very cut-rate deals to get these contracts, since the rocket has not yet flown while SpaceX’s already operational Falcon Heavy (with three successful launches) could easily do the job and is a very inexpensive rocket to fly. These lower prices, instigated by competition and freedom, will mean that funding missions to the Moon will continue to become more likely, even if NASA and the federal government fail to get their act together.

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Chandrayaan-2 successfully enters lunar orbit

The head of ISRO today announced that, after completed a 29 minute engine burn, India’s Chandrayaan-2 orbiter/lander/rover has successfully entered the correct orbit around the Moon.

In his briefing, Dr. Sivan announced that “The LOI maneuver was performed successfully today morning using the onboard propulsion system for a firing duration of about 29 minutes. This maneuver precisely injected Chandrayaan-2 into an orbit around the Moon.” He emphasised the unique requirement of 90 degree orbital inclination of Chandrayaan-2 and said that it was achieved by the precise execution of both the Trans Lunar Injection (performed on August 14, 2019) and today’s LOI maneuver.

“The satellite is currently located in a lunar orbit with a distance of about 114 km at perilune (nearest point to the Moon) and 18,072 km at apolune (farthest point to the Moon)”, he added.

Over the next four lunar orbits they will execute four more engine burns to lower the spacecraft to the orbit needed to send the lander/rover to the surface on September 7 in the south polar region of the Moon between the craters Manzinus C and Simpelius N at about 71 degrees latitude.

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Rocket Lab & China launch satellites

Both Rocket Lab and China today launched rockets to put satellites into orbit, though it is as yet still unclear whether the Chinese launch was successful.

Rocket Lab successfully placed four smallsats into orbit. It was the company’s eightth consecutive successful launch, continuing its perfect launch record.

More important, the company now has completed four launches in 2019. Their goal, announced early this year, was to achieve a monthly pace by summer, then ramp up to twice a month by the end of the year. So far they are not quite meeting that goal, averaging one launch every 1.5 months (March, May, June, August). Still, this record is quite impressive, considering they are a very new and very small private company that it now is beginning to match or exceed the launch pace of other nations (India) as well as well-established companies (ULA).

China’s Long March 3B launched a civilian communications satellite, but according to the story at the link, “the usual announcement of a successful separation has yet to published by Chinese State media.” For the purposes of the launch standings, I will assume at the moment that this was a successful launch, but will revise this post should we learn the satellite did not reach orbit. Update: It appears the launch was successful, but the satellite is having problems. This would mean the launch counts below.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

13 China
12 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)
4 India
4 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 18 to 13 in the national rankings.

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Northrop Grumman leases part of VAB for assembling Omega rocket

Northrop Grumman has become the first private company to lease a bay of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, where it will its new OmegA rocket.

Northrop Grumman will assemble and test its new OmegA rocket inside the massive facility’s High Bay 2, one of four high bays in the building. … The company also is modifying mobile launcher platform-3 (MLP-3) to serve as the launch vehicle’s assembly and launch platform. Both the VAB and MLP-3 were originally built for the Apollo Program and went on to enable the three-decade Space Shuttle Program.

OmegA’s development is being funded by an $800 million contract with the Air Force.

In many ways, I could ask the exact same question here as I just did in the post below about the Chinese government’s pseudo private launch industry: From an American private enterprise perspective, this Air Force attempt to create a commercial launch industry using government funds but tight government supervision and control is very puzzling. OmegA will be competing directly with other American launch companies that are privately funded, owned, and run by private corporations (though also getting significant government contracts for their already operational products). How the federal government prevents its government agencies (NASA, the Air Force) from putting their thumbs on the scale to favor one over the other I do not understand.

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China launches three satellites on new rocket

China today successfully completed the first orbital launch of its privately-funded but government-built smallsat Smart Dragon rocket, putting three smallsats into orbit.

From the Chinese state press:

The rocket, developed by the China Rocket Co. Ltd. affiliated to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALVT), blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China at 12:11 p.m. (Beijing Time).

The three satellites, respectively developed by three Beijing-based companies, will be used for remote sensing services, communication and Internet of Things.

Different from the carrier rockets of the Long March family, the new Dragon series is developed in a commercial mode to meet the market demand of launching small commercial satellites, said Wang Xiaojun, head of CALVT.

What they mean by “a commercial mode” is that the funding comes from private Chinese investors who hope to make money from the rocket’s launches. However, this is not a private operation by any means, since the rocket is owned and built by a government entity and uses military solid motors.

From an American perspective, this Chinese attempt to create a commercial launch industry using private funds but tight government supervision and control is very puzzling. This government company is now competing directly with other Chinese launch companies that are, at least superficially, owned and run by private corporations (though also supervised closely by the government). How the Chinese government prevents its government agencies from putting their thumbs on the scale to favor one over the other I do not understand.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

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

The U.S leads 17 to 12 over Russia and China in the national rankings.

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Protest filed against NASA contract awards for unmanned lunar landers

Deep Space Systems, one of the private companies that bid for a NASA contract to build a private lunar lander to carry NASA instruments to the moon, and did not get the contract, has filed a protest against that decision.

I found out about this through my industry sources. I have no further information about the protest itself.

The timeline however is intriguing. The contracts were awarded to three different companies on May 31, 2019. Deep Space Systems’ protest was filed on June 24, 2019.

On July 30, 2019 one of contract winners, Orbit Beyond, backed out of the deal. Whether the protest or Orbit Beyond’s exit are related is at present unknown, though I wonder if they might be connected.

Either way, the question now arises: Who will replace Orbit Beyond? I also wonder if this protest gives Deep Space Systems an advantage for getting that replacement contract. This last thought is pure speculation and very unlikely. There are several other companies that are more well known and might be better qualified, and it would be inappropriate for NASA to allow its decision-making process to be pressured because of this protest.

Regardless, stay tuned for more information. This story is going to get more interesting.

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A review of Glenn Reynolds’ The Social Media Upheaval:
A Modern Call for Freedom

We have a free speech problem in America, and it isn’t because our government is trying to restrict our speech.

The problem exists because almost all our speech today is fed through a tiny handful of giant social media outlets, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and Twitter, all of whom seem dominated by leftists and partisan Democratic Party ideaology.

Only last week we saw a perfect example of this problem. A mob of protesters had gathered outside the private home of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) because he refused to acquiesce meekly to draconian new gun control laws.

Several protesters shouted threatening obscenities against McConnell and his wife, with the leader of the local Kentucky chapter of Black Lives Matter, Chanelle Helm, screaming for someone to “just stab the mother-%#$&!&/!”

McConnell’s campaign office then followed the next day with the following tweet:

Last night, an angry left-wing mob of Amy McGrath supporters stormed Senator McConnell’s Louisville home screaming obscenities and hoping someone would “just stab the mother****** in the heart.”

The tweet then linked to a video showing this mob’s violent chants and death threats.

Twitter’s response? It suspended McConnell’s account, even though he threatened no one and merely wanted to highlight the vicious ugliness of his opponents. Meanwhile the tech giant continued to allow direct statements of violence against the right by many leftists, including one thread dubbed “#MassacreMitch,” with no consequences.

Only after the Republican Party threatened to pull all of its advertising from Twitter did that social media giant finally back down and reinstate the McConnell account, though it added a warning tag to the video.

Twitter, like Google and Facebook, has decided to take sides in the political battles that this country is now undergoing. And with their almost godlike total power over internet access, these tech giants are in a position to very effectively censor any opposition to their political goals.

So what do we do? In an effort to make an intelligent stab at this issue, Glenn Reynolds, law professor at the University of Tennessee and the manager of the internet site Instapundit, has recently written a book on the subject, The Social Media Upheaval (Encounter Books 2019). As the book’s Amazon page notes,
» Read more

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Whistleblower of Google anti-right bias goes public after being threatened by Google

Reason #3,427,934 for not using Google: The whistleblower who has given more than 900 Google documents to both Project Veritas and the Justice Department demonstrating the tech giant’s anti-right bias and its attempt to influence future elections has gone public after being threatened by Google.

Project Veritas has released hundreds of internal Google documents leaked by Vorhies. Among those documents is a file called “news black list site for google now.” The document, according to Vorhies, is a “black list,” which restricts certain websites from appearing on news feeds for an Android Google product. The list includes conservative and progressive websites, such as newsbusters.org and mediamatters.org. The document says that some sites are listed with or because of a “high user block rate.”

One document shows how Google is ranking various established news sites, routinely favoring left-leaning news sites — including the Russian government’s RT news site — over more conservative media.

Meanwhile, once Google found out what the whistleblower was doing it called the police on him, claiming he was “unwell.”

After having been identified by an anonymous account (which Vorhies believes belongs to a Google employee,) on social media as a “leaker,” Vorhies was approached by law enforcement at his residence in California. According to Vorhies, San Francisco police received a call from Google which prompted a “wellness check.”

Vorhies described the incident to Project Veritas: “They got inside the gate, the police, and they started banging on my door… And so the police decided that they were going to call in additional forces. They called in the FBI, they called in the SWAT team. And they called in a bomb squad. … T]his is a large way in which [Google tries to] intimidate their employees that go rogue on the company…”

There are other search engines, such as DuckDuckGo and Yippy. Use them. There are other email services. Get off of gmail. The more the market supports Google competitors the more likely the company will reform its ways. At a minimum its power will be reduced.

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SpaceX gets 2nd boat to catch rocket fairings

Capitalism in space: It appears, from a Elon Musk tweet, that SpaceX has obtained a second boat to catch its rocket fairings for reuse.

Based on previous comments by Musk, the company is now on the verge of recovering and reusing about 70% of its Falcon 9 rockets during each launch. I’d say that’s pretty good, especially considering industry rocket experts have been saying for half a century that none of this was even possible or practical.

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Chandrayaan-2 successfully puts itself in route to the Moon

Chandrayaan-2 today successfully completed its last Earth perigee burn, raising its orbital apogee so that it will enter the Moon’s gravitational sphere of influence on August 20th.

Chandrayaan-2 will approach Moon on August 20, 2019 and the spacecraft’s liquid engine will be fired again to insert the spacecraft into a lunar orbit. Following this, there will be further four orbit maneuvers to make the spacecraft enter into its final orbit passing over the lunar poles at a distance of about 100 km from the Moon’s surface.

…Subsequently, Vikram lander will separate from the orbiter on September 02, 2019. Two orbit maneuvers will be performed on the lander before the initiation of powered descent to make a soft landing on the lunar surface on September 07, 2019.

Vikram will be doing the hardest part, the landing.

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NASA extends life of private BEAM module

Capitalism in space: Having found that Bigelow’s privately built ISS module BEAM has exceeded its design capabilities, NASA has now decided to leave it docked to ISS for at least five more years, using it as a storage bin.

BEAM cost NASA a whopping $17 million, considerably less than it has traditionally spent (a billion-plus) for its previous ISS modules, designed and built under full NASA supervision.

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Linkspace completes vertical take-off and landing test

China’s semi-private company Linkspace on August 9 successfully completed its highest vertical take-off and landing test flight yet, flying to a height of 300 meters.

The 8.1-meter-tall, 0.65-meter-diameter, 1.5-metric-ton rocket reached an altitude of 300.2 meters during its 50-second flight before making a powered descent and vertical landing with an accuracy of 0.07 meters, Linkspace CEO Hu Zhenyu stated on Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like service. The launch follows two tests reaching 20 and 40 meters in March and April respectively.

The latest test was carried out at a new facility in the Lenghu region of Qinghai province in the northwest of the country. Chinese magazine Future Aerospace states that the RLV-T5 is powered by five variable-thrust rocket engines which use ethanol and liquid oxygen, a propellant combination used by the German V2 rockets.

Unlike the other new semi-private Chinese commercial companies, Linkspace appears to be using liquid fueled rockets, rather than depending on military solid rocket technology. This suggests to me that this company, aggressively supervised by the Chinese government, will eventually be going for both the small and big orbital business, not just smallsats.

I also give credit to the Chinese, both their government and this company, for quickly facing reality posed by SpaceX’s capabilities and working to develop their own rocket reusability as fast as possible. In contrast, Europe, Russia, and the old American big rocket companies have mostly sat twiddling their thumbs, making believe that this capability is either irrelevant, or still impossible, even as SpaceX has taken all of their business because it can undercut their prices significantly as it repeatedly re-uses its Falcon 9 first stages.

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Blue Origin protests Air Force launch procurement process

Blue Origin has submitted a protest to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) yesterday about the Air Force plan to pick two launch providers now for all its satellite launches after 2026.

According to a copy of the protest obtained by FLORIDA TODAY, the ordering period for the launches would run from 2020 to 2024 and ultimately select two contractors for flights beginning in 2026.

“The most recent market research, however, indicates the total global addressable space launch market, including NSSL launches, could support three or even four U.S. launch companies,” the protest reads. “Even the Agency’s own LSP source selection support contractor – the Aerospace Corporation – predicts that the space launch market has significant potential to suffer from a launch capacity shortfall because U.S. and foreign government launches will require most of the available launch capacity.”

I couldn’t agree with Blue Origin more. The Air Force wants to limit competition in the 2020s to only two companies, which will almost certainly be ULA and SpaceX since they are the only two presently flying, when by the 2020s there might be several more companies available providing competition that can lower the price.

There is no reason for the Air Force to make this decision now. None. When they need to order these launches in the early 2020s they should open that bidding process to all comers, and pick appropriately, then. Everything about this Pentagon plan stinks, reeking of the corruption that permeates Washington. I even wonder if some people have gotten pay-offs in connection with the decision to favor only two companies. It wouldn’t surprise me. (I myself have been offered money to let military lobbying companies ghostwrite op-eds using my name, supporting this Air Force plan, offers that I very bluntly turned down.)

Also, even if Blue Origin’s protest now fails, expect whoever doesn’t get picked by the Air Force now to file lawsuits in the 2020s when they are denied the right to bid on those future launches. And expect the Air Force to then back down, as it was forced to do when SpaceX was denied the right to bid on Air Force contracts early in this decade.

One more thought: This protest suggests Blue Origin already expects to not get picked. This expectation might also explain why Jeff Bezos decided to sell more Amazon stock last week, raising almost $3 billion in capital. He might be anticipating that Blue Origin will be cut out of those Air Force contracts, and so needs more of his own money to develop its New Glenn rocket.

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Reports of another ExoMars parachute failure during test

Following a failure of ExoMars’ parachutes during a May test, there are now reports that a second failure occurred on August 5.

A fresh test of the parachute system for the Russian-European mission ExoMars-2020 have failed again as a structural mockup of the Russian-built lander crashed during the simulated landing, a source familiar with the test results told Sputnik.

The test with the use of a high-altitude balloon was carried out on August 5 at a Swedish Space Corporation’s test site in northern Sweden.

“Tests of the parachute system at the Esrange test site in Sweden failed. A full-size mockup of the landing module of the ExoMars-2020 Martian station crashed during the landing,” the source said.

I have seen this report in two other sites, but it has not yet been confirmed by the European Space Agency.

If these reports are true, the chances of ExoMars launching in July 2020 is likely almost nil. They haven’t even begun assembling the spacecraft, and have had two parachute failures in tests, with the second destroying the prototype used for those tests.

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Vector changes CEO, might have money issues

Capitalism in space: Jim Cantrell, who had been the CEO of smallsat rocket company Vector Launch since inception, has apparently left the company.

Vector, a micro-launch company founded in 2016 to build small rockets for payloads of up to 60kg, may be in financial trouble, multiple industry sources told Ars on Friday. A spokeswoman for Vector did not comment on that. However, she did confirm the company has parted ways with its chief executive: “Jim Cantrell is no longer with Vector effective today. John Garvey has assumed the role of CEO.”

I wish this story wasn’t so, though I also admit my instincts were telling me things were going sour with the continuing delays in their test launch schedule.

Jim Cantrell was an unusual CEO, always available and open. He generously took me on personal tours of Vector facilities, twice, first in March 2017 and again in January 2019. I wish him well in whatever future endeavors he undetakes.

As for Vector, they need to get off the ground. They had had a substantial head start over many of the other new smallsat rocket companies, but that lead has now evaporated.

More information here. It appears one of their major investors might have pulled out. It also appears they have temporarily suspended operations, shuttering their offices.

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OneWeb: LauncherOne too expensive

In asking that Virgin Orbit’s lawsuit against internet satellite manufacturer OneWeb be dismissed, OneWeb has claimed that their contract allowed for the cancellation of launches without cause, and that they have a cause anyway, which is that LauncherOne is too pricey.

In its court filing, OneWeb said the $6 million price tag for a LauncherOne mission is two to three times current market prices.

…The original contract, OneWeb claims, allowed for termination without cause, and for prior payments to apply to the termination fee. Those contract termination rules, and the fact that Virgin Orbit has yet to conduct any LauncherOne missions, invalidate Virgin Orbit’s revenue expectations, according to OneWeb. [emphasis mine]

Based on my estimate of the launch market, LauncherOne’s price is higher than others, but not by very much. I think the highlighted text is more significant. LauncherOne had announced plans to fly its first mission last summer. More than a year later that inaugural flight has still not taken place.

In the meantime, this decision by OneWeb is a boon to Russia’s space industry, especially its Soyuz rocket, as it will now get the contracts for launching the majority of OneWeb’s 648-satellite constellation.

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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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Video of Long March 2C grid fins used in July

China Central Television has released a very short video showing the grid fins used during the July 26 launch of China’s Long March 2C rocket in order to better control the descent of that rocket’s expendable first stage.

I have embedded the video below the fold. It shows the four grid fins unfolding, but not much else. It also reveals that the Chinese very clearly were inspired by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 grid fin design.

The video also gives me the impression that the Long March 2C first stage does not have any thrusters, which were SpaceX’s primary mode for controlling its first stages, the grid fins added later when they understood better the engineering required. Thus I suspect that the fins were not very successful in controlling that stage’s flight.

Nonetheless, the Chinese are doing these tests during operations, which means they are only a first step on a path to success.
» Read more

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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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Yutu-2 and Chang’e-4 go to sleep again

Yutu-2's travels

Both Yutu-2 and Chang’e-4 have been put in dormant mode after completing their eighth lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

The article at the link provides a lot of new details about what both spacecraft have learned and done since they landed, including a nice detailed map showing Yutu-2’s exact path during those eight lunar days. The image to the right, reduced to post here, was taken by Yutu-2, and shows the rover’s tracks during what appears to be its seventh lunar day. It appears that the rover periodically stopped and did a pirouette, probably to obtain a 360 degree mosaic of the surrounding terrain.

Yutu-2’s travels have tended west from Chang’e-4, and on its eighth lunar day it continues that route, traveling 271 meters. After a period of short traveling days, they have now upped the distance traversed by a considerable amount. Since the planned nominal mission for both spacecraft had been three lunar days, both are demonstrating that the Chinese have figured out how to do this, and are now pushing Yutu-2 hard as a result.

The article vaguely describes some of the science obtained so far, but in general the Chinese remain tight-lipped about most of their discoveries.

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