Tag Archives: competition

Blue Origin reveals redesigned New Glenn rocket

Capitalism in space: In a video animation Blue Origin last week revealed a new redesigned version of its orbital New Glenn rocket.

There are a few notable differences between the rocket depicted in the new video and the New Glenn we saw in a similar 2017 animation. For example, the older version featured a payload fairing — the protective nose cone that surrounds spacecraft during launch — that was bullet-shaped and 18 feet (5.4 meters) wide. The current incarnation boasts a 23-foot-wide (7 m) fairing with a traditional snub-nosed look. (A previously envisioned three-stage New Glenn featured this bigger fairing, but this booster variant is no longer part of Blue Origin’s plans.)

And the first stage’s six landing legs will apparently now deploy a bit differently — by unfolding outward from the bottom, much as Falcon 9 legs do, rather than sort of sliding downward.

These changes are almost certainly are the result of the company’s Air Force contract that gave it $500 million in development money in exchange for having a say in how the rocket is built.

For example, I am not surprised that New Glenn now more closely resembles the Falcon 9. The modern American military is not known for its daring or innovation. It had to be sued to finally agree to award contracts to SpaceX. Now that the Falcon 9 is well proven, however, the military bean-counters are probably demanding that New Glenn copy it, rather than introduce innovations of its own.

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Arianespace slashes launch price for Ariane 5

Capitalism in space: Arianespace has announced that it is once again dropping the launch price for an Ariane 5 launch, in order to increase the chances it will win several contracts this year.

Arianespace is competing for two major launch contracts in the Asia-Pacific region that should be awarded this year and expects there could be tenders for another three, said [Arianespace Managing Director and Head of Sales for Asia-Pacific Vivian Quenet].

The article does not mention the actual price, but Arianespace had been charging about $100 million per launch satellite, while SpaceX had been charging $62 million (for a new Falcon 9) and about $50 million (for a reused one).

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Rocket Lab gets DARPA launch contract

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today announced a new launch contract with DARPA, dedicating the company’s first launch in 2019 to that government military research agency.

DARPA’s Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration (R3D2) mission is scheduled for launch in late February and intends to space-qualify a prototype reflect array antenna to improve radio communications in small spacecraft. The antenna, made of a tissue-thin Kapton membrane, packs tightly inside the small satellite for stowage during launch, before deploying to its full size of 2.25 meters in diameter once it reaches low Earth orbit. This high compaction ratio enables larger antennas in smaller satellites, enabling satellite owners to take advantage of volume-limited launch opportunities while still providing significant capability. The mission could help validate emerging concepts for a resilient sensor and data transport layer in low Earth orbit – a capability that does not exist today, but one which could revolutionize global communications by laying the groundwork for a space-based internet.

…The mission, the first of monthly Electron launches this year, will lift-off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula of New Zealand. To ensure precise insertion and responsible orbital deployment, the R3D2 payload will be deployed via the Electron Kick Stage to a circular orbit. Using this unique launch method, Electron’s second stage is left in a highly elliptical orbit where the stage is subject to significant atmospheric drag, causing it to de-orbit and burn up to nothing in a reduced time frame. The Kick Stage is then used to deploy the satellite payload to a precise orbit, following which the Kick Stage can perform a de-orbit burn to speed up its re-entry, leaving no orbital debris behind in space. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sections in the quote above indicate the schedule. Rocket Lab had suggested last year that once it successfully completed its November and December 2018 launches it would in 2019 launch monthly. They are still clearly pushing for that schedule, but it is also clear now that they will not launch in January and their February launch will be late in the month, suggesting the next launch will likely not be in March.

These delays at this point are not significant, though if they do not ramp up to that monthly schedule by the end of 2019 it will be.

This late announcement of a payload for the first 2019 launch also suggests that DARPA was willing to pay a premium to leapfrog over Rocket Lab’s already signed customers. My industry sources also suggest that the U.S. military has in the past few months become very very interested in these new smallsat rockets, and has been approaching them all to arrange future flights.

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New Shepard makes another successful test flight

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spacecraft made another successful test flight today, reaching approximately 350,000 feet elevation, about 66 miles.

This was the fourth flight for this second New Shepard craft, and the tenth overall of their test program.

I have embedded the video of the launch below the fold.
» Read more

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UAE’s Mars mission on schedule for 2020 launch

The new colonial movement: According to one of the chief engineers for the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) unmanned mission to Mars, dubbed Hope, the spacecraft is on schedule for its 2020 launch by a Japanese rocket.

If all goes right, Hope will go into Martian orbit in 2021.

The quotes in the article from that chief engineer reveal somewhat the overall shallowness of UAE’s space effort at this point.

Omar Hussain, Lead Mission Design and Navigation Engineer for the Emirates Mars Mission, speaking at the Science Event 2019 held at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, said the team have had to overcome a number of challenges along the way.

“It is too early to talk about a specific date just yet but everything is on track and there have been no delays,” said the 29-year-old Emirati. “Speaking for myself, it has been challenging because I had to switch from planning for Earth-based projects to interplanetary missions.

“It took a lot of education to get to that point as I had never done a mission that goes beyond the Earth’s lower orbits. I had to study how I would get the spacecraft from Earth to Mars.”

The goal with their space program is to help diversify UAE’s economy. It might eventually do this, but for now, they I think are very dependent on the help they are getting from others. Japan is providing the rocket, and India the engineering expertise for the spacecraft.

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Problem found with Angara’s most powerful version

The new colonial movement: Engineers of the most powerful variant of Russia’s next generation Angara family of rockets, the Angara A5, have found a serious design issue in the engines that they appear to be having problems solving.

The issue with the Angara A5 was brought to attention by scientists at rocket engine manufacturer Energomash in a paper ahead of a space conference later this month.

The paper, reported by RIA news agency on Friday and published online, said the engines of the Angara A5 could produce low frequency oscillations that could ultimately destroy the rocket.

A special valve had been fitted to mitigate the issue, but in some cases the oscillations continued, it said. Energomash did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

This sounds to me like “pogo,” a somewhat common issue with rockets. A resonance builds up within the engines during launch, and the vibration can grow strong enough to cause serious damage. The Saturn 5 had this issue during its second test launch, requiring a redesign of the upper stage engine hydrogen fuel lines.

With this history in mind, I would still not make that much of a big deal about this issue. The Angara A5 is a new rocket. It simply needs testing in flight followed by engineering revisions to work out these kinks.

The problem will be Russia’s government. Putin wants this rocket flying, for his own political purposes, and the question remains whether he will allow its proper engineering development to proceed at the correct pace. This does not mean development should be slow, but that failure is accepted and allowed for while you maintain a fast pace.

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Kickstarter campaign starts to finance launch of garage-built cubesat

Capitalism in space: PocketQube has initiated a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to fund the launch of its first home-made plastic cubesat.

I have written about this project previously, because it epitomizes the old-fashioned vision of a single guy or gal working in his or her basement or garage to build a new invention. It now appears they are getting close to being ready to launch.

Make sure you watch their video at the first link above. It not only explains what they’ve accomplished so far as well as what they hope to do, it is quite amusing at how it pokes fun at the kind of fake-epic videos we see from NASA, promising big but delivering little. In the case of this project, they are instead promising little, but if they succeed they should deliver big.

This quote from the Kickstarter page though I think reveals once again where the real barriers to commercial space lie:

The biggest risk to the project is licensing. The FCC has placed additional burdens on small satellite operators after an incident earlier this year that resulted in four unlicensed satellites being placed into orbit. Possible delays in our applications could result in Mini-Cubes missing the flight. We do have a backup flight should that happen but it will not launch until 2020 at the earliest.

The quote refers to Swarm’s unlicensed launch of four cubesats in March 2018, and the FCC’s subsequent response, imposing fines and strict reporting requirements on Swarm. It now appears some of those strict reporting requirements have been applied across the board to all cubesat companies, increasing costs and paperwork, and even threatening their viability.

No matter the justification, it is once again the government that stands in the way of the ability of free humans to follow their dreams. I have seen this pattern repeat itself for the last half century, resulting in little space exploration since the Apollo landings. It now stands in the way of a new revolution in commercial space.

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First unmanned test flight of manned Dragon now set for Feb 9

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s first unmanned test launch of its manned Dragon capsule, delayed repeated in recent months, has now been scheduled for no early than Feb 9, with its dress rehearsal countdown static fire test set for January 23.

It appears that this scheduled date is more firm than the previous ones, as it was announced as part of the upcoming schedule of the Eastern Range’s planning schedule.

The article provides some interesting details about the effect (or non-effect) the government shutdown on this launch. Bottom line: It should not prevent it, in the slightest. It must be repeatedly noted that the launch will use a SpaceX launch team on a SpaceX run launchpad, and will only require NASA participation during docking procedures, procedures that require NASA employees who have been deemed essential and thus are working (even if unpaid at the moment).

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Ariane 6 might be in trouble

Capitalism in space: Arianespace today announced that they will not be able to begin full production of their next generation rocket, Ariane 6, unless they get four more contracts from the partners in the European Space Agency.

With the maiden flight of the Ariane 6 now 18 months away (in July 2020), Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said the company had anticipated signing a manufacturing contract with ArianeGroup in the second part of last year to begin production beyond the first rocket.

So far, European public entities have purchased three Ariane 6 missions — two from the European Commission for launching Galileo navigation satellites, and one from France for the CSO-3 military imaging satellite — but have not committed to the number envisioned at the start of the Ariane 6 program in 2014.

“We are confident it will happen,” Israël said of the remaining government missions. “But it is not done yet. We are working in this direction. It is now quite urgent because industry has anticipated the manufacturing of these first launchers, but now we need these institutional contracts to fully contractualize the first Ariane 6s.”

I wonder if the fact that the cost for an Ariane 6 launch is expected to be remain higher than a comparable SpaceX launch is the reason they are having trouble getting a commitment from their European partners. Why buy this rocket, when you can get the same service for less?

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Stratolaunch ends plan to build rockets for its giant Roc aircraft

Capitalism in space: Stratolaunch has decided to cease work on the family of second stage rockets plus engine, announced in August and September 2018, that would have launched from the bottom of its giant Roc airplane.

Instead, they will only launch Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rockets from Roc.

This does not look good for the company. Roc is vastly oversized for Pegasus, which really doesn’t need it. It also suggests that the death of Paul Allen has had a bad effect on the company.

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ULA successfully launches U.S. spy satellite

Capitalism in space: Using its Delta-4 Heavy rocket, the most powerful in its rocket family, ULA today successfully placed a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite into orbit.

It was also revealed in this article that ULA plans a total of seven launches in 2019, including today’s launch, the fewest in a year since ULA was formed in 2007 from a partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The standings in the 2019 launch race:

1 China
1 SpaceX
1 Japan
1 ULA

The U.S. leads in the national standings 2 to 1 over China.

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Smallsat rocket company Relativity Space gets Air Force okay to launch from Florida

Capitalism in space: The smallsat startup company Relativity Space has gotten Air Force approval to launch its 3D printed Terran rocket from Cape Canaveral.

They are now in negotiations to obtain a twenty year lease on one of the launchpads there.

Relativity hopes to sign a 20-year agreement granting it exclusive use of Launch Complex 16, a former Titan and Pershing missile site also used by NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. It was deactivated in 1988.

The company plans to spend more than $10 million to renovate the pad, build payload processing and integration hangars and install fuel and lightning protection systems.

It’s not yet known how many jobs will be based in Florida. The company has grown from 14 to 60 people over the past year, adding experience with a dozen former senior executives of existing Cape launchers SpaceX, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance

The company has raised significant investment capital, $45 million, but there is no indication from the article when they plan their first test launches.

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Japan’s Epsilon rocket launches seven engineering test satellites

The new colonial movement: Japan today used its Epsilon rocket, designed to cost less, to successfully launch seven engineering test satellites.

This was Epsilon’s fourth launch, and the first to launch one than one satellite in orbit.

The standings 2019 launch race:

1 China
1 SpaceX
1 Japan

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Making smallsat rockets at Vector

Payload structure for Vector's Vector-R rocket

In the coming year we should see the spectacular first launches from two smallsat rocket companies, Vector and Virgin Orbit, joining Rocket Lab (which has already launched successfully three times) to form an entirely new industry of small rockets designed specifically for launching cubesat and nanosat satellites, what I call smallsats.

The image on the right shows the payload adapter fitting for Vector’s Vector-R rocket. The red and silver rectangular objects are dummy cubesat payloads. Overall, this structure, only about three feet high, will allow Vector to place as many as eight smallsats into orbit on one launch.

The picture was taken yesterday during a tour of Vector’s facilities given to me personally by Vector’s CEO, Jim Cantrell. During my previous tour of Vector back in March 2017, Cantrell had described the company’s planned test launch schedule as follows:

The company is presently in the testing phase leading up to their first orbital launches, which they hope to start in 2018. Right now they are building a series of full scale versions of their Vector-R rocket with a dummy second stage. The idea is to do a string of suborbital test flights, the first of which will fly in about a week from Mohave in California, with the second flying from the Georgia spaceport in Camden County.

The first two launches occurred as promised, first in Mojave on May 3, 2017 and then in Georgia on August 3, 2017. An announcement in October 2017 set the launch of the third test first for January 2018 but that launch did not happen. In March 2018 Vector announced it planned to launch two cubesats into orbit from Alaska by the end of 2018, but this did not happen either.

Because of the delays, with no explanation, I was beginning to harbor doubts about the company’s status. Last week Cantrell gave a talk at Tucson’s Space Business Roundtable, and I went to that talk to find out what the issues were as well as attempt to find out when they did plan to launch.

Cantrell not only filled me in on the details, but generously offered to give me another personal tour of Vector’s facilities, which had grown significantly since my 2017 tour. Then, Vector employed only thirty people and was based in a small warehouse. Now it employs more than 150, and has two much larger facilities in Tucson as well as one in California (where its mission control is based).

First let me outline the company’s launch status.
» Read more

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SpaceX shifts some Starship/Super Heavy construction to Texas

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has decided to shift some of the construction of its new Starship/Super Heavy rocket from Los Angeles to its Boca Chica facility in Texas.

In tweets later Jan. 16, Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said that development of the vehicle itself, including the Raptor engines that power it, would continue in Hawthorne, while at least the prototype versions of Starship are built in Texas. “We are building the Starship prototypes locally at our launch site in Texas, as their size makes them very difficult to transport,” he said.

A shift to South Texas, industry sources said, could be a way to reduce expenses, given the lower cost of living there versus the Los Angeles area. However, that region of Texas has a much smaller workforce, particularly in aerospace, compared to Southern California.

Meanwhile, I keep hearing from my sources in the industry that SpaceX is facing more serious problems because of the coming decline in the manufacture of large geosynchronous satellites. The smallsat revolution appears to be the cause, and SpaceX’s larger rockets are not ideal for launching these tiny satellites. I am not entirely convinced of this pessimistic conclusion, but if SpaceX is in trouble it will likely be a tragedy for manned spaceflight. The smallsat rockets cannot put people in space. Neither can the gigantic government rockets like SLS. Without innovative companies like SpaceX building and launching large rockets for profit, the development of the large inexpensive rockets needed for human travel will be significantly hampered.

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Argentinian smallsat company signs 90 satellite deal with China

An Argentinian smallsat company, Satellogic, has signed a 90 satellite launch deal with China.

Satellogic’s constellation seems likely to compete with the remote-imaging satellite constellations operated by San Francisco-based Planet and Seattle-based BlackSky. The company promises to remap Earth at 1-meter pixel resolution every week and dramatically reduce the cost of high-frequency geospatial analytics.

The deal is officially signed with a so-called private launch company in China dubbed China Great Wall Industry, but that company merely acts as an agent for a Chinese government space operation, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp.

What this means however is that China’s launch rate is going to go even higher in the next few years.

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A detailed look at the layoffs at SpaceX

Capitalism in space: Link here. Because of California’s complex employee protection laws, SpaceX has provided the government there a detailed list describing the 577 layoffs taking place in California.

Technicians — a critical role at any rocket company — make up the lion’s share of laid-off employees, with 174 positions eliminated (30.2% of all layoffs in Hawthorne). Engineers come next with 97 jobs let go, or nearly 17% of the locally terminated workforce.

Managers and supervisors together make up about 7% of the layoffs in Hawthorne. Positions listed under “Other” include baristas, dishwashers, drivers, recruiters, writers, and an investigator.

The article really doesn’t tell us much, other than the large majority of the 10% reduction are occurring in California, which makes me wonder if SpaceX is acting to reduce its presence in that high-tax, high-regulation state.

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Arianespace plans at least 12 launches in 2019

Capitalism in space: The head of Arianespace today announced that it plans at least 12 launches in 2019.

Stéphane Israël, CEO of Evry, France-based Arianespace, said the company has four launches of the light-lift Vega rocket planned for this year, plus the maiden flight of the next-generation Vega C.

Arianespace’s first mission of the year is an Ariane 5 launch on Feb. 5. The rocket will carry two satellites — Arabsat’s Saudi GeoSat-1/Hellas Sat-4 and the Indian space agency ISRO’s GSAT-31 — to geostationary transfer orbit. All five Ariane 5 missions planned for this year will carry two satellites, as is customary, Israël said in an interview.

Israël said Arianespace has three firm Soyuz launches on its 2019 manifest, starting mid-February with the launch of 10 small telecom satellites for internet megaconstellation startup OneWeb.

Israël actually lists thirteen launches here, so I am not sure why the article sets the number at twelve. This number is only two more than my initial estimate based on scheduled launches listed here.

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More updates from SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site

Link here. The article reviews what has been done for the past few months, as well as what has been done most recently. All of this new work appears focused on preparing for test flights of Starship and Super Heavy.

I should note however that I am beginning to sense a little bit of Barnum in this work. The steel-clad Starship Hopper that SpaceX has assembled here is clearly not even close to doing any hopper tests, as it doesn’t appear to have fuel tanks and its engines appear to be mere “placeholders for fit checks.” It looks really really cool, however, and is impossible to hide to the public, so it thus has garnered the company a lot of attention.

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Seeds sprout on Chang’e-4

The new colonial movement: The cotten seeds in a plant experiment on Chang’e-4 have now sprouted, becoming the first biological life to grow on the Moon.

On Tuesday, Chinese state media said the cotton seeds had now grown buds. The ruling Communist Party’s official mouthpiece the People’s Daily tweeted an image of the sprouted seed, saying it marked “the completion of humankind’s first biological experiment on the Moon”.

Fred Watson, Australian Astronomical Observatory’s astronomer-at-large, told the BBC the development was “good news”. “It suggests that there might not be insurmountable problems for astronauts in future trying to grow their own crops on the moon in a controlled environment. …I think there’s certainly a great deal of interest in using the Moon as staging post, particularly for flights to Mars, because it’s relatively near the Earth,” Mr Watson said.

Prof Xie Gengxin, the experiment’s chief designer, was quoted as saying in the South China Morning Post: “We have given consideration to future survival in space. Learning about these plants’ growth in a low-gravity environment would allow us to lay the foundation for our future establishment of space base.” He said cotton could eventually be used for clothing while the potatoes could be a food source for astronauts and the rapeseed for oil.

This experiment is actually a very big deal, as it is the first biological experiment, ever, to take place in a low gravity environment. All previous plant experiments in space have taken place in zero gravity, and thus failed to tell us anything about growth in a partial Earth gravity environment.

That the seeds have sprouted only tells us that they can. What we don’t know yet is if the low lunar gravity distorts their growth.

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Iran rocket fails to place satellite in orbit

The new colonial movement: According to their government sources, Iran today tried and failed to place a Earth imaging satellite into orbit with their Simorgh rocket.

The rocket carrying the Payam satellite failed to reach the “necessary speed” in the third stage of its launch, Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said.

Jahromi said the rocket had successfully passed its first and second stages before developing problems in the third. He didn’t elaborate on what caused the rocket failure but promised that Iranian scientists would continue their work.

I wonder how much of a failure this launch is. If they were testing an ICBM capability, then the successful operation of the first and second stages would likely rank this as a success. And even if their main goal wasn’t ICBM testing, in the end they have done so, as they can apply what they learn here to all military missile technology.

Update: You can see video of the launch at this Iranian press story, along with other details about Iran’s space effort. I found the comments there most educational however. Here’s one sample: “Iran needs to use its space technology to fire invincible hyper-sonic missiles from space at the Jews in Israel.” The comments are all not like this, but there are enough to give you a sense of Iran’s social culture.

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College students launch rocket to 6,000 feet, with goal to reach orbit in three years

Students at Long Beach State University in California have successfully launched their first test rocket to an altitude of over 6000 feet.

Beach Launch Team, a group of Long Beach State University students united by their objective to fire a rocket into outer space, advanced toward that goal by launching a new student-developed liquid propellant rocket to an estimated altitude of some 6,000 feet.

The rocket, Beach 1, launched Jan. 5 from the Friends of Amateur Rocketry Site near Randsburg, in the desert area of eastern Kern County, Calif. “The students and mentors have worked tirelessly over the past two years to perfect their design,” College of Engineering Dean Forouzan Golshani said. “The goal is to actually put a rocket into space within three years. This is a very good step toward that.”

Beach 1 features several key components – skin, fins, nose cone and communication software –developed by students attending the Long Beach campus. A mixture of liquid oxygen and methane fueled the rocket.

I guarantee that every student in this group is quite aware of the revolution in smallsat rocketry, and they are doing this to get in on that revolution.

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The man who challenged the government’s postal monopoly

Link here. The story is interesting indeed, and is especially relevant in the context of what SpaceX and Elon Musk have done to force prices down in rocketry. This quote, about the government’s eventual response to the challenge to its postal monopoly, struck a nerve with me.

Constitutional or not, the government defended its monopoly. Six days after Spooner’s company began, Congress introduced a resolution to investigate the establishment of private post offices. Meanwhile, Spooner’s company was booming. As the US postal revenue went down, the government threatened those who were caught serving private mail carriers. In his book, Spooner noted that by March 30, he and his agents were arrested while using a railroad in Maryland to transport letters. Spooner, busy with multiple legal challenges, was released on bail by mid-June ( “Mr. Spooner’s Case.” Newport Mercury, June 15, 1844.)

People had become accustomed to inexpensive mail, and Congress reluctantly acknowledged the need to lower postal rates. Still, officials stressed that “it was not by competition, but by penal enactment, that the private competition was to be put down” (The Congressional Globe, 14. Washington: The Globe Office, 1845, page 206). In March 1845, Congress fixed the rate of postage at five cents within a radius of 500 miles. The post office adopted tactics that private carriers used to increase efficiency, such as requiring prepayment via stamps. These changes turned the post office’s budgetary deficit into a surplus within three years.

It seems that as much as things change, they remain the same.

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SpaceX to trim workforce by 10%

Capitalism in space: SpaceX announced yesterday that it plans to trim its workforce by 10% in an effort to reduce costs.

It might seem strange for the company to be doing this at this moment, when they are embarking on the construction of the very ambitious Super Heavy and Starship rockets. One would think they would need to expand (not shrink) their workforce to make that happen.

What I see is that they have recognized a need to reconfigure their workforce. This article today about their growing fleet of Falcon 9 first stage boosters, provides the clue.

SpaceX’s reusable Falcon fleet could feature as many as 12-15 boosters capable of something like 5-10 additional launches each by the second half of fourth quarter of 2019. At that point, SpaceX might have enough experience with Block 5 and enough flight-proven boosters to plausibly begin a revolutionary shift in how commercial launches are done. With far more boosters available than SpaceX has payloads to launch, multiple flight-ready Block 5 rockets will inevitably stack up at or around the company’s three launch pads and surrounding integration and refurbishment facilities.

In other words, they no longer need as many people employed building expendable first stages. Moreover, they might have found that many of the employees used to build new Falcon 9 first stages are not the kind they need to design and build the new rocket. This trimming allows them to cut some fat with the opportunity to add muscle later. It would not surprise me if their workforce once again starts to grow, but with new employees with new skills.

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China completes first launch of 2019, followed by SpaceX

The new colonial movement: China yesterday successfully completed the first launch of 2019, sending a military communications satellite into orbit with its Long March 3B rocket.

It is my impression, from various sources, that China might not launch quite as many rockets in 2019 as it did in 2018. Like SpaceX in the past two years, it was clearing out a backlog of launches caused by the failed launch of their biggest rocket, Long March 5, in 2017.

Still, I expect an active year from China. It is going to be very interesting to watch the 2019 launch race unfold. SpaceX for example has just successfully launched ten Iridium satellites into orbit, the first launch from Vandenberg this year, successfully landing the first stage on a barge.

Right now the U.S. and China are tied in the 2019 launch race, 1-1.

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SpaceX reveals picture of fully assembled suborbital Starship hopper

Starship Hopper

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has released pictures of the fully assembled suborbital Starship hopper, planned for its first test flights in the coming months. The image on the right is not a simulation, but the real thing.

In tweets by Elon Musk, he also revealed that they hope to have an orbital prototype of Starship built by June, with the Super Heavy booster beginning construction in the spring. More information here.

This is unquestionably an ambitious schedule, but the contrast with the development of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule, slowed absurdly by the government shutdown and NASA’s bureaucracy, highlights clearly the fundamental reason why SpaceX refused government money for the development of Super Heavy/Starship. By using private funds, SpaceX is free to proceed at its own pace, which is fast, rather than waiting for permission from the bean-counters sitting in NASA offices who have no real idea how to build anything.

It is likely they will not meet this schedule. It is also likely that they will also get this done in a time frame far faster than anyone expects.

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Chandrayaan-2 launch now scheduled for mid-April

The new colonial movement: India’s Chandrayaan-2 lander/rover mission to the south pole region of the Moon has now been re-scheduled for mid-April.

The launch date had to be pushed from the initially scheduled January-February window, as a few related tests could not be completed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). Isro chairman K Sivan told the media on Friday that the next available slot is during March-April, and the launch could take place by mid-April. However, if this window is passed, the prestigious mission will have to be pushed again to June.

The article also suggests that they have made some changes to the mission’s flight plan.

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Want to see a panorama of Chang’e-4 landing site? You can!

If you want a really good look at the Chang’e-4 landing site on the far side of the Moon — with Yutu-2 about thirty feet away — photographer Andrew Bodrov has produced a spectacular 360 degree panorama from images sent down by the lander.

This panorama reveals two things. First, the lander landed close to two small craters, which it thankfully missed. Second, there are some hills in the distance which I suspect are central peaks of Von Kármán crater. They are probably beyond Yutu-2’s range, but would make a worthwhile exploratory target.

Meanwhile, the rover and lander have come back to life after a brief hibernation to protect them from the heat of the lunar mid-day.

Finally, China has released a video showing Chang’e-4’s descent and landing, which I have embedded below the fold. In it, you can see the spacecraft computer maneuver to land between those two craters shown in the panorama.
» Read more

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