Tag Archives: competition

LightSail 2 released from cubesat; establishes contact

The Planetary Society’s LightSail-2 technology demonstration satellite was released from its carrier vehicle today and successfully established communications with the ground.

The CubeSat, about the size of a loaf of bread, was scheduled to leave Prox-1 precisely 7 days after both spacecraft successfully flew to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Following deployment from its spring-loaded enclosure known as a P-POD, LightSail 2 deployed its radio antenna and began transmitting health and status data, as well as a morse code beacon indicating its call sign. The mission team received LightSail 2’s first signals on 2 July at 01:34 PDT (08:34 UTC), as the spacecraft passed over Cal Poly.

…The team will spend about a week checking out LightSail 2’s systems, exercising the spacecraft’s momentum wheel, and taking camera test images before and after deployment of the CubeSat’s dual-sided solar panels. Following the successful completion of these tests, the team will deploy the 32-square-meter solar sail, about the size of a boxing ring. A time for the solar sail deployment attempt will be announced later.

If they successfully deploy the solar sail and use it to maneuver in space, it will the second time the Planetary Society has done it, having deployed LightSail-1 in 2015. That mission has some communications problems, but eventually succeeded in its main engineering mission by testing the sail deployment system.

LightSail-2 will also be the third time a light sail has been flown in space, with the first, Ikaros, deployed by the Japanese in 2010 and flown in solar orbit through 2012. That mission was successful in using sunlight to accelerate the sail.

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India hires Russia to train its astronauts

The new colonial movement: India’s space agency ISRO has hired the Russians to train its astronauts for its first home-built manned mission, Gaganyaan, presently scheduled to fly in 2022.

This decision makes a lot of sense. First, the space programs of Russia and India have cooperated a lot in the past, with Russia launch India’s first astronaut on a Soyuz in 1984. Second, Russia has a great deal of experience training new astronauts from other countries, including tourists. Third, neither of the other countries with manned programs, the U.S. and China, have established systems for this kind of training. China has never training any outsiders, and NASA’s systems for this are not designed for efficiency. Moreover, it has been eight years since the U.S. put anyone in space. If I was India I would prefer using someone with recent experience.

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SLS abort test for Orion successful

The second launch abort test of NASA’s SLS/Orion rocket/capsule was successfully completed today.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. The goal was to test the system that will safely separate the capsule from a failing rocket, which is why no parachutes released to gently bring the capsule back to Earth.

Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) intentionally runs that emergency abort sequence. Three motors in the LAS fired in that short sequence of a few seconds and then the test was essentially over before the three minutes was up while the hardware was airborne.

NASA and its Orion contractor team recorded test data from real-time telemetry and in onboard data recorders, but the major hardware for the test fell into the ocean. A set of a dozen data recorders were ejected from the Crew Module test article for recovery before it hit the water and sunk.

Why they couldn’t also test the parachutes the same time illustrates the wasteful manner in which SLS/Orion is managed. Moreover, this test was the second for this rocket/capsule, with the first occurring nine years ago, in May 2010. As I have noted,

We fought and won World War II in about a third of that amount of time. The Civil War took about half that time. In fact, it took SpaceX less time to conceive, design, and launch the Falcon Heavy.

Any project that takes this long to accomplish anything is a fraud. It indicates that the goal of SLS/Orion is not to build and fly a manned capsule, but to suck money from the taxpayer for as long as possible.

» Read more

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Comparing today’s modern rocket engines

For the geeks among us, below the fold is a really really good video describing the engineering designs and considerations that have gone into the launch industry’s most important rocket engines, both now and in the future, with the goal of understanding the design choices SpaceX made for its Raptor engine.

The video is almost 50 minutes long, but if you set the speed at 1.25 you can still understand it and save some time.

Hat tip reader Michael Nelson.
» Read more

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Exos suborbital reusable rocket aborts prematurely during third launch

Capitalism in space: The third flight of Exos Aerospace’s reusable suborbital rocket SARGE was cut short today shortly after launch when the rocket had attitude control problems.

A reusable suborbital rocket developed by Exos Aerospace suffered a loss of attitude control seconds after liftoff on a test flight June 29, but the rocket was still able to glide safely back to Earth.

Exos’ Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with GuidancE, or SARGE, rocket lifted off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at about 2 p.m. Eastern. In the company’s webcast, the rocket started gyrating seconds after liftoff before disappearing from view.

Controllers were able to reestablish some control of the rocket, aborting the flight. The rocket deployed a drogue parachute and parafoil while venting unused propellant. The rocket slowly descended under that parafoil, landing within view of the launch pad 14 minutes after liftoff.

That it appears they were able to safely recover the rocket and its payloads is significant, even though this failure is a setback for the company.

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The travels of China’s Yutu-2 rover on the Moon

Yutu-2 and Chang'e-4
Click for full image.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team today released images that track the travels of China’s lunar rover Yutu-2 from its landing on January 30, 2019 through June 3, covering the rover’s first six lunar days on the Moon.

The image to the right, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, shows the relative positions of both spacecraft as of June 3, 2019. In the release they also included a gif movie showing the progression of Yutu-2’s movements since landing.

Once a month, LRO passes over the Chang’e 4 landing site, allowing LROC to capture a new image. LROC has now imaged the site five times (since the landing) and observed Yutu-2 to have traveled a total of 186 meters (distance measured using the rover tracks). If you squint, portions of the rover tracks are visible as a dark path in the images from April, May, and possibly June.

table of Yutu-2's movements through June 2019

The LRO release also included a table showing the distance Yutu-2 has traveled with each lunar day, shown on the right. The table does not include the 23 meters (75 feet) the rover traveled on its sixth lunar day. My estimate yesterday that Yutu-2 was traveling an average of about a 100 feet per day, with the distances per day shrinking with time, seems largely correct. During the rover’s fourth and fifth lunar days it moved very little, either because they had found something very interesting they wanted to inspect more closely, or they were moving more cautiously as the rover’s life extended past its planned lifespan of three lunar days.

On the sixth day however they increased their travels again, suggesting that either they had finished the observations at the previous location, or they had gained more confidence in the rover’s staying power.

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SpaceX seeking more investment capital

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has begun its third round of private fund-raising this year, this time seeking more than $300 million.

The latest round, filed on Monday, seeks to raise $314.2 million at a price of $214 a share, according to a document seen by CNBC. The new equity would bring SpaceX’s total 2019 fundraising to $1.33 billion once completed.

The block of this new round appears to already be funded from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

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Vostochny contractor charged with embezzlement avoids jail

The new colonial movement: The contractor who embezzled almost $6.5 million from the Vostochny spaceport project in Russia has avoided jail time, getting merely a suspended sentence and and a $3,000 fine.

Viktor Grebnev, who headed the TMK contractor until it was declared bankrupt 2015, was accused of knowingly signing loss-making contracts and using company money to buy yachts and a mansion.

A district court in Far East Russia handed Grebnev a five-year suspended sentence and fined him 200,000 rubles ($3,000) for large-scale embezzlement, Interfax cited the court as saying.

It appears from this story that the corruption in Russia remains as strong as ever, which bodes poorly for its future in space. Space engineering is hard. If you allow any dishonesty to linger around it you are guaranteed to have something go wrong.

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Hayabusa-2 to attempt 2nd sample grab

The new colonial movement: The Hayabusa-2 science team has decided to attempt a second touch-and-go sample grab from the man-made crater they created on the surface of the rubble-pile asteroid Ryugu.

JAXA engineers confirmed that the probe’s camera and other equipment that were slightly damaged by the first landing are usable, and that there are no big rocks at the candidate site. They gave the go-ahead for a landing on July 11.

Hayabusa2 is scheduled to begin its descent from an altitude of 20,000 meters at around 10 a.m. on July 10 Japan time, and touch down on the asteroid’s surface about 25 hours later.

This is the first time I have heard of any damage to the spacecraft from the first touch-and-go landing. Regardless, they have decided they can risk another sample grab and still have the ability to return the samples to Earth.

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Europe finally admits it must build reusable rockets

The new colonial movement: Europe has finally admitted that its refusal with Ariane 6 to make it reusable was a mistake, and has begun a major engineering research project to design and fly two different types of reusable rockets.

This month, the European Commission revealed a new three-year project to develop technologies needed for two proposed reusable launch vehicles. The commission provided €3 million to the German space agency, DLR, and five companies to, in the words of a news release about the project, “tackle the shortcoming of know-how in reusable rockets in Europe.”

This new RETALT project’s goals are pretty explicit about copying the retro-propulsive engine firing technique used by SpaceX to land its Falcon 9 rocket first stages back on land and on autonomous drone ships. The Falcon 9 rocket’s ability to land and fly again is “currently dominating the global market,” the European project states. “We are convinced that it is absolutely necessary to investigate Retro Propulsion Assisted Landing Technologies to make re-usability state-of-the-art in Europe.”

What is interesting to me is what appears to be some internal politics within Europe surrounding this effort. France is generally the most dominate member of the European Space Agency. Yet, according to the press release for this announcement, France is not involved in these new reusable rocket projects. Instead, Germany dominates, with companies from Switzerland, Portugal, and Spain participating.

It could be that the failure of Ariane 6 to garner customers, due to its higher costs, has forced these ESA partners to push for their own reusable rocket projects.

Either way, the competition in rocket technology is heating up, more evidence that the 2020s will be the most exciting decade in space since the 1960s.

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SpaceIL decides Beresheet-2 will not be lunar mission

The new colonial movement: The Israeli nonprofit company SpaceIL has decided that its second Beresheet spacecraft will not go to the Moon.

The association’s board of directors decided to involve the public in the process of choosing the challenge that Beresheet 2 will lead, as was done in the national mission to the moon. At the same time, the association will continue to focus on establishing the values ​​of the “Beresheet effect” among the younger generation in Israel.

What I think is really going on is that they have realized that they cannot raise the necessary cash to fly another lunar lander, and are therefore setting their sights lower in order to find a mission they can fund.

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Hacker steals JPL data

A hacker last year was successfully able to hack into the computer system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and steal 500MB of data.

Who did the hacking is not revealed in the inspector general report [pdf], but the report lists six different hacks of JPL’s computers going back to 2009, two of which were linked to China. It is therefore reasonable to assume that China, which routinely steals new ground-breaking technology rather than develop it itself, was the likely culprit. In addition, the timing of these hacks, from 2009 to 2017, fits well with the steady growth of China’s lunar program. If you wanted to find out how to build an unmanned probe to go to the Moon, JPL would be the ideal facility to steal the technology from.

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Soyuz has problem during return to Earth

In returning three astronauts safely to Earth yesterday from ISS the Soyuz spacecraft experienced a technical problem immediately after its engines had fired, causing it to go to a backup system.

Moments after the completion of the braking maneuver, the emergency signal was heard inside the Descent Module and the communications between the crew and mission control discussed a failure of the first manifold in the integrated propulsion system of the Soyuz spacecraft and the switch to the second manifold. Kononenko first reported K1B (Manifold DPO-B) emergency at 05:02:54 Moscow Time and subsequently confirmed a switch to the second manifold. NASA later confirmed the problem, but did not provide any details.

There is no explanation what the “first manifold” is, though I suspect it is a direct translation from Russian for their term for a primary system. That the system automatically switched to its back-up is a good thing. That there was a failure of the primary system is not.

Once again, this raises more questions about the quality control throughout Russia’s aerospace industry. While so far none of the recent Soyuz problems, which have also included a launch abort and a still-unexplained drilled hole, have caused a loss of life. I fear that soon or later they will.

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China successfully launches GPS-type satellite

Using its Long March 3B rocket, China yesterday successfully placed into orbit another satellite for its GPS-type constellation.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

9 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

China has now narrowed the U.S. lead in the national rankings, 13 to 9.

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SpaceX catches a fairing

Capitalism in space: During last night’s Falcon Heavy launch SpaceX was for the first time able to catch one of the rocket’s fairings using its ship, GO Ms. Tree (formerly called Mr. Steven).

As noted at the link, SpaceX now has in its hands a fairing untouched by salt water that it can analyze for future reuse, something no other rocket company has been able to do. Moreover, that the ship was able to make the net catch at night bodes well for future fairing recoveries.

Hat tip commenter geoffc.

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Falcon Heavy launches successfully

Capitalism in space: The Falcon Heavy successfully launched tonight, and is presently deploying the 24 satellites on board.

They successfully landed the two first stage side boosters, but the core stage apparently just missed hitting the drone ship in the Atlantic. You could see it come down, but not on the pad. While SpaceX has now successfully recovered all six side boosters on all three Falcon Heavy launches, they have not yet succeeded in recovering the core stage.

The mission’s full success will not be known for several hours, as the satellite deployments unfold. So far the first two satellites have been deployed successfully.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

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

The U.S. has now widened its lead over China in the national rankings, 13 to 8.

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Falcon Heavy launch a go for 2:30 am (Eastern) tonight

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s third Falcon Heavy launch is now a go for launch at 2:30 am (Eastern) tonight.

You can watch it live at SpaceX’s website here or at the embedded video below the fold.

This launch should be especially spectacular, as it will be at night, and the sky is clear. Moreover, they will once again be trying to land all three first stage boosters, with the side boosters flying for the second time only two months after their first flight on the last Falcon Heavy launch.
» Read more

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Schedule for Dragon/Starliner manned flights revised

Capitalism in space: NASA has released a new updated planning schedule for the manned flights of both SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner manned capsules.

Boeing’s first unmanned demo flight of Starliner is now set for September 17, 2019. This will be followed by SpaceX’s first manned Dragon flight, scheduled for November 15, 2019. Boeing will then follow with its first manned Starliner flight on November 30, 2019.

These are considered target dates. I have great doubts that the Starliner schedule will proceed as described, while SpaceX’s schedule is more likely.

The article also had this interesting tidbit about the upcoming launch schedule of Sierra Nevada’s unmanned reusable cargo ship Dream Chaser:

According to the document, the first flight of Dream Chaser will take place in a planned September 2021 timeframe and will see the vehicle remain berthed to the International Space Station for up to 75 days before returning to Earth to land on a runway for reuse.

There are clearly issues with all these commercial projects. For example, the GAO today released a new report citing the numerous delays in this commercial manned program and calling for NASA to come up with a more complete back-up plan.

Nonetheless, the 2020s have the potential to be the most exciting decade in space exploration since the 1960s. If all goes even close to these plans, the U.S. will have three operating manned spacecraft (Dragon, Starliner, Orion), two reusable cargo spacecraft (Dragon, Dream Chaser), one non-reusable (Cygnus), and a plethora of launch companies putting up payloads of all kinds, from planetary missions to basic commercial satellites numbering in the thousands.

Much could happen to prevent all this. Keep your fingers crossed that nothing will.

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Blue Origin completes first test of lunar lander engine

Capitalism in space: This week Jeff Bezos revealed that Blue Origin had successfully completed the first static test firing of its BE-7 rocket engine, intended for use in its Blue Moon lunar lander.

Company founder Jeff Bezos tweeted June 19 that the test of the BE-7 engine took place the previous day at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The 35-second test went as expected, he said. “Data looks great and hardware is in perfect condition,” he wrote in the post, which included a video of the test.

Bezos is clearly lobbying here for the contracts to build NASA’s first manned lunar lander should its Artemis program get funded.

Meanwhile, there is been no update on the status of his company’s BE-4 engine since April 2018. I wonder why..

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Arianespace successfully launches two commercial satellites

Capitalism in space: Arianespace today successfully used its Ariane 5 rocket to launch two commercial satellites.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

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

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

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SpinLaunch gets first launch contract, from Defense Department

Capitalism in space: The smallsat launch company SpinLaunch has gotten its first launch contract from a division of the Defense Department.

In a statement today (June 19), SpinLaunch announced that it has received a “launch prototype contract” from the U.S. Department of Defense under a deal arranged by the Defense Innovation Unit. The Long Beach, California-based company aims to launch its first test flights in early 2020 from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

SpinLaunch is developing a “kinetic energy-based launch system” that accelerates a small payload-carrying booster to hypersonic speeds with a spinning system on the ground. A chemical rocket would kick in once the payload has been launched from the ground system.

The image provided by SpinLaunch at the link appears to show a 3D-printed lifting-body type spacecraft attached to the arm of a large centrifuge. This suggests that after this spacecraft reaches orbit and deploys its payload, it would then return to Earth to be reused.

SpinLaunch has raised $40 million in investment capital, so they are real. Whether they can make this happen by 2020 remains to be seen.

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Ireland’s government releases its space strategy goals through 2025

The new colonial movement: Ireland today released a national space strategy designed to encourage the growth of a commercial space sector by 2025.

You can download the actual report here [pdf].

They want to increase both public and private investment by 50% by 2025. Whether that means investment in private companies or simply a growth in a government bureaucracy is uncertain, based on my reading of the report. It appears their goal is to grow the private sector, but they will be using European Space Agency approaches for doing so, which tend to favor government growth and control rather than developing an independent commercial industry.

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Sri Lanka’s first satellite launched from ISS

The new colonial movement: Built by two Sri Lanka engineers, astronauts this week successfully deployed that country’s first satellite into orbit from ISS.

The satellite was designed and developed by two Sri Lankan engineers – Tharindu Dayaratne and Dulani Chamika – studying space engineering at Japan”s Kyushu Institute of Technology.

Raavana-1 was deployed to the 400-km of orbit at an inclination of 51.6 degrees using the JAXA (Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency) owned Kibo experiment module, the paper said.

…Raavana-1 is expected to fulfil five missions including the capturing of pictures of Sri Lanka and surrounding regions, active attitude stabilization which ensures that satellite’s attitude is stable under the influence of external talks. It will have a minimum lifespan of one and a half years but was expected to be active for up to five years.

More significant than its Sri Lankan roots is that this cubesat was built entirely by only two engineering students. While it is apparently a simple engineering test satellite, that it could be put together so easily by only two people illustrates the revolution that the satellite industry is presently undergoing. Very soon it will literally be true that major satellites will be assembled in someone’s garage.

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Boeing shifts space headquarters from DC area to Florida

Capitalism in space: Boeing today announced that it is moving the headquarters for its space operations from Arlington, Virginia, to Titusville, Florida, just outside Cape Canaveral.

From an operations point of view this move makes sense. The timing of this announcement suggests to me that they are trying to put a PR band-aid over yesterday’s damning GAO report about the endless cost overruns and schedule delays of their SLS rocket.

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SpaceX reschedules manned Dragon demo flight to November

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has now apparently rescheduled its first manned Dragon demo flight to ISS to no earlier than November 1, 2019.

The information comes from a SpaceX application with the FCC, listing the launch window as sometime between November 1, 2019 and April 30, 2020.

This now gives us the time frame when both NASA and SpaceX expect to complete their investigation into the Dragon test explosion in March as well as institute changes as a result. It also suggests they now have a much better idea what happened and what they need to do, thus allowing them to create this time frame.

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NASA releases draft commercial Gateway resupply plan

Capitalism in space? NASA today released a draft document outlining its plan for having commercial companies provide cargo to its Lunar Gateway station.

NASA is creating the Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) arena that will oversee supply delivery efforts to the lunar outpost. The draft Request For Proposals document, released by NASA last Friday, will form the basis for the formal Request For Proposals that companies will use later this summer to submit their bids for selection as part of the GLS program.

The draft document will be reviewed by commercial industry providers who will then submit feedback for NASA to consider as the agency formalizes the document.

While not official in its entirety, large portions of the document will remain unchanged or only undergo minor tweaks/clarifications at this point. Thus, the draft provides excellent insight into services, pricing, and timelines that commercial companies will have to meet if selected to participate in the GLS offerings. Of note, any company selected to fly GLS missions would receive a guarantee of two missions, minimum, and each awarded contract would not exceed $7 billion (USD). The total number of contracts NASA can award is not constrained via the language in the draft GLS solicitation document.

The reason I question above whether this will be capitalism in space is because of one new rule NASA wants to impose on its commercial vendors:

Unlike the [ISS cargo] contracts which did not carry a “one successful flight” requirement if changes to the launch vehicle were made after initial certification (both the Falcon 9 and the Antares underwent significant design changes after their [cargo] flights began – with some of those changes debuting on [later cargo] flights), the draft GLS language seems to indicate that NASA would seek to prohibit launch vehicle design changes debuting on GLS contract flights.

If the draft language becomes formal, the GLS contracts would require a launch vehicle that undergoes a design change to complete one successful flight of those changes before its next GLS mission is allowed to proceed.

I can see no reason for this rule other than to prevent private companies from making NASA’s own slow development process look bad. Or to put it another way, NASA wants to prevent the U.S. from getting things done fast in space, because that will prevent the agency from stretching out development endlessly, as it routinely does.

The GLS plan does propose one very good change in NASA policy. It proposes to break the SLS monopoly on launching Gateway components. For years NASA has said that only SLS could launch Gateway components, something that is patently absurd. The Trump administration has been pushing against that shortsighted position, and this plan accelerates that push. It will instead allow commercial companies to compete for those launches, which puts more pressure on SLS to deliver or die.

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Two more commercial Proton launches later this year

According to Russian officials, they will have two more commercial launches later this year using their workhorse Proton rocket.

They made this statement at the Paris Air Show yesterday. However, the story did not specific who the customers were, which I find puzzling.

They will use the Proton to launch Russia’s first space telescope in decades later this week. If successful, and if the two other launches occur, that would be the most Proton launches in a year since 2017.

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India to use PSLV 4th stage for orbital research and docking tests

The new colonial movement: India’s space agency ISRO now plans to conduct research, including docking tests, using the 4th stage of its PSLV rocket following normal commercial operations.

The PS4 is the last stage of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket, which until now used to go waste after putting the spacecraft into the desired orbit. ISRO, in the last two attempts tried to keep PS4 alive in space, and was successful. As the next step, it has now called for experiments from national and international institutions. The experiments will cover six areas, including space docking

“The PS4-Orbital Platform (PS4-OP) refers to a novel idea formulated by ISRO to use the spent PS4 stage (fourth stage of PSLV) to carry out in-orbit scientific experiments for an extended duration of one to six months. The advantage being the stage has standard interfaces & packages for power generation, telemetry, tele-command, stabilization, orbit keeping & orbit maneuvering,” Isro said on Saturday.

All of this is engineering research, finding ways to operate in space effectively. More important, they are doing what SpaceX does, letting their commercial operations pay for their research and development. Rather than fly separate missions to do these engineering experiments, they will let their commercial customers pay for it.

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Bridenstine: Artemis to cost $4-$6 billion per year

According to several reports this past weekend, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is now estimating the cost for the Trump administration’s Artemis lunar program at $20 to $30 billion, or $4 to $6 billion per year.

This has not been officially confirmed. Either way, I am not sure how Bridenstine will get this approved in the House, where the Democrats now have a policy to oppose any Trump proposal 100%. And if it doesn’t get approved, SLS will die after its second launch, as the bulk of this budget is to pay for its future flights to the Moon.

If a lower figure gets approved, that might force NASA to buy private rockets almost exclusively to get back to the Moon, rather than the mix of private and SLS as now proposed.

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Stratolaunch for sale?

A report today says that the Stratolaunch company, including its giant airplane Roc, are up for sale.

Sources say Vulcan Inc. is looking to sell Stratolaunch, the space venture founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, and one report says the asking price could be as high as $400 million.

That price tag was reported today by CNBC, quoting unnamed sources who were said to be familiar with the discussions.

Vulcan had nothing new to say about Stratolaunch’s fate, which has been the subject of rumors for months. “Stratolaunch remains operational,” Alex Moji, manager of corporate communications at Vulcan, told GeekWire in an emailed statement. “We will provide an update when there is news to share.”

Since the sources are all anonymous, it is wise to not take the story too seriously. At the same time, it seems to fit with events since the death of Paul Allen.

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