Tag Archives: competition

Iran says it will launch three orbital launches in 2019

The new colonial movement: Despite two launch failures already this year as well as U.S. opposition, Iranian officials earlier this week said that they still have plans to launch three more times in 2019.

I have no idea how seriously we should take this claim. Iranian officials have made a number of claims in recent years that proved nothing by bombast. This might be that, or not.

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Beresheet lowers orbit in preparation for lunar landing on April 11

The new colonial movement: The privately built lunar lander Beresheet has lowered its orbit in preparation for its planned lunar landing on April 11, now set for between 3 and 4 pm (Eastern).

It fired its engines on April 8 for 36 seconds, lowering its orbital low point to 131 miles.

The landing will be live streamed here.

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ULA to fly Vulcan components on Atlas 5 flights

Capitalism in space: In order to speed the development of its next generation commercial rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, ULA will fly Vulcan components as they are developed on its Atlas 5 rocket.

The first Vulcan technology to fly on Atlas 5 will be new payload fairings from Swiss supplier Ruag built using an “out-of-autoclave” production process that enables fairing halves to be produced as one piece, a process Ruag says lowers production time and costs. “The out-of-autoclave fairings, which are manufactured by Ruag, and now in the U.S. — they are in a factory next to ours in Decatur — that’s going to fly on Atlas 5 this year,” Louradour said.

Sometime in 2020 they will then fly an Atlas 5 launch using the solid rocket boosters Northrop Grumman is building for Vulcan.

This is not really news. When ULA announced their plans to build Vulcan in 2015, they said then that they intended to transition from Atlas 5 to Vulcan over time, slowly introducing components on Atlas 5 until it was entirely replaced.

Nonetheless, it shows that ULA is adopting some of the the same common sense development procedures used by SpaceX. By taking advantage of launches as they happen, they can speed development. And they need to do this in order to keep pace with SpaceX.

Isn’t competition wonderful?

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Chandrayaan-2 likely delayed to July

The new colonial movement: The launch of India’s first lunar lander/rover, Chandrayaan-2, will likely be delayed again, from May until July.

This further delay is not confirmed by ISRO, India’s space agency. Nor is any clear reason given in the article above to explain this additional delay.

It would not surprise me however. The head of ISRO, K. Sivan, is a trained engineer. He has shown himself to be very willing to impose delays if he has any doubts about the success of the mission.

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Rocket Lab now building smallsats also

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced this week that it is now offering satellite manufacture in addition to its launch services.

The “Photon” satellite platform was developed so that customers would not have to build their own satellite hardware. “Small satellite operators want to focus on providing data or services from space, but building satellite hardware is a significant barrier to achieving this,” said Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck, in a statement. “The time, resources and expertise required to build hardware can draw small satellite operators away from their core purpose, delaying their path to orbit and revenue. As the turn-key solution for complete small satellite missions, Rocket Lab brings space within easy reach. We enable our customers to focus on their payload and mission – we look after the rest.”

The satellites are designed for a range of Low Earth Orbit missions including technology demonstrations, risk reduction pathfinders, constellations, and hosted payloads, the company said in a statement.

This is not surprising. With their Electron rocket now operational, and about to begin monthly launches, they have the profits and margin to offer a complete launch package to smallsat customers.

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Falcon Heavy launch now set for tomorrow evening, April 10

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s second launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, the world’s most powerful, has now been rescheduled for 6:36 pm (eastern) on April 10.

This will definitely be worth watching. (I will post the SpaceX live stream link when it goes up.) If all goes well, the three first stage boosters will all land themselves after first stage separation, with two coming in simultaneously on neighboring landing pads in Florida, with the third landing very shortly thereafter on its landing barge in the Atlantic.

A success here will also give the Falcon Heavy two successful launches, two more than SLS (with none), and one more than China’s Long March 5, which is half as powerful but has not launched in almost two years after it failed on its second launch attempt.

The comparison with SLS is more pertinent. Tomorrow’s launch, if successful, will once again demonstrate the complete failure of NASA’s SLS rocket. This government boondoggle has been in development since 2004 in various iterations, for a cost that is likely to exceed $25 billion, fifty times more than it cost SpaceX to develop and make operational the Falcon Heavy. SLS’s first launch, originally scheduled for 2017, is now set to launch in June 2020, but is also more likely to be delayed months, if not more. Beyond that it will likely be more years before its second launch.

Falcon Heavy meanwhile is scheduled to do its third launch in mere months, should tomorrow go off without a hitch. It also has contracts for at least seven future launches. Nor would I be surprised if it completes most of these launches before SLS flies for the first time.

At some point the dimwits in Washington will I hope finally notice the contrast, and stop wasting money on SLS. Give it time, however. They are not very smart, and aren’t really interested in the needs of the American nation.

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SpaceX drops protest against NASA launch decision

SpaceX has decided to withdraw its protest against NASA’s decision to choose ULA as the launch vehicle for its Lucy asteroid mission.

The company did not provide any reason for the withdrawal. I suspect Musk decided that it was doing SpaceX harm both publicly and privately. Publicly it threatened the launch date of Lucy, which might cause a significant and fatal delay to the mission. That did not make SpaceX look good to the general public.

Privately, I suspect that the protest was hurting SpaceX with NASA officials. They almost certainly did not say so directly, but I am certain they were able to make this clear in any number of ways. This, combined with the agency’s new willingness to consider commercial rockets, like the Falcon Heavy, for its lunar plans, probably convinced SpaceX that it was doing itself more harm than good with the protest.

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Smallsat rocket company Relativity gets its first launch contract

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Relativity has signed its first launch contract, even though they have yet to complete even one test flight.

Their chief executive nails the importance of this on the head:

In an interview, Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity, said the contract is the first customer for the Terran 1 that the company has announced. He said Relativity previously signed a contract with another customer that has yet to be announced.

“What’s really notable about this and why it’s so important for Relativity and the industry is that this is the first time that Telesat, or any major global satellite operator, has selected a completely venture-based aerospace startup for launch services,” Ellis said, noting that the companies had been in extensive discussions prior to announcing this contract. “The credibility of aligning with Telesat we believe is huge for what Relativity is developing.” [emphasis mine]

Their rocket, Terran-1, is not scheduled for its first orbital flight until the end of 2020. Yet, Telesat has given this company a contract. I suspect that contract has a variety of exit clauses, but I also wonder if it gives Telesat some interest in the company in exchange for backing it at this early stage.

Either way, the demand for launch services created by these proposed new smallsat constellations is forcing the satellite companies to make deals that they might never have considered in a less booming market.

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Beresheet’s first pictures of the Moon

Beresheet looks at the Moon

The new colonial movement: The privately built Israeli planetary probe Beresheet, now in lunar orbit, has released its first pictures of the Moon.

The image on the right is one of those images, cropped to post here, and was taken from about 300 miles altitude. The link has a second image showing the Moon with the Earth in the distance. The resolution of both images is quite impressive.

The landing is scheduled for April 11. Stay tuned!

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Falcon Heavy dress rehearsal countdown and static fire today

Capitalism in space: SpaceX hopes to complete today its standard prelaunch dress rehearsal countdown for the second Falcon Heavy launch, now likely scheduled for April 9.

The launch had previously been set for April 7.

The article provides a nice overview of the Falcon Heavy. It also included this tidbit:

Unlike most past missions, the two side boosters are already booked for a second launch. They – in addition to the brand new center core B1057 – will help launch the Air Force’s STP-2 mission, currently No Earlier Than (NET) June.

That they have already scheduled reuse of the side boosters for the next Falcon Heavy launch indicates just how confident they have become about recovering those boosters.

UPDATE: Dress rehearsal countdown and static fire have been completed. According to an Elon Musk tweet, the data looks good, but he cautioned that as this will be the first Falcon Heavy launch using Block 5 boosters, the launch date might change as they review the data.

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Arianespace successfully launches four commercial communications satellites

Capitalism in space: Using a Russian-built Soyuz rocket Arianespace today successfully placed four O3b communications in orbit.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

4 China
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 SpaceX
3 Russia

The U.S. now leads China and Europe 6 to 4 in the national rankings.

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Telescope store sues Asian telescope manufacturers for fixing prices

A San Francisco store that sells telescopes to the public is suing two Asian telescope manufacturers — who make almost all recreational telescopes sold in the U.S. — for conspiring together to fix prices and create that monopoly.

Orion Telescopes and Binoculars, which is headquartered in Watsonville and has stores there and in Cupertino, is seeking more than $180 million in damages in a lawsuit. A federal court in Northern California said the complaint against telescope maker Ningbo Sunny, filed in 2016, can go to trial. A subsidiary of Ningbo Sunny, a Chinese company, bought Irvine telescope maker Meade Instruments in 2013.

In the complaint, Orion alleges that Ningbo Sunny and a Taiwanese telescope manufacturer, Synta Technology, shared confidential information that competitors normally would not share, including product pricing, order forecasts and credit arrangements.

My question is this: Why are no American telescope manufacturers competing in this market? Are our labor costs too high? Our government regulations too restrictive? A little bit of competition could easily end this collusion by these Asian manufacturers, assuming it is happening.

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Amazon to build its own giant satellite constellation

Capitalism in space: Amazon has officially joined the race to build own giant satellite constellations for providing internet access worldwide.

[They] plan to put 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit — including 784 satellites at an altitude of 367 miles (590 kilometers); 1,296 satellites at a height of 379 miles (610 kilometers); and 1,156 satellites in 391-mile (630-kilometer) orbits.

In response to GeekWire’s inquiries, Amazon confirmed that Kuiper Systems is actually one of its projects. “Project Kuiper is a new initiative to launch a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The competition now includes Amazon, SpaceX, OneWeb, and others, each of which will provide a lot of business for the launch industry. All told, more than 15,000 satellites will need to be launched by these companies before the middle of the next decade.

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Air Force confirms more Rocket Lab launches

Capitalism in space:: With the successful launch of a DARPA satellite by Rocket Lab last week, the Air Force yesterday confirmed the purchase of several more launches on the company’s Electron Rocket.

Three satellites will be launched to low Earth orbit later this month from Mahia, New Zealand, using Rocket Lab USA’s Electron rocket.

…The upcoming Rocket Lab launch is one of five planned in 2019. … Five small launches will send 21 experimental satellites to space by the end of December, said Lt. Col. Andrew Anderson, chief of the DoD Space Test Program Branch.

One of the five will be by Vox Space later this year. The company will use Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket that is air launched from a Boeing 747 mothership.

Anderson said there is possibly another vendor in the mix but only Rocket Lab and Vox Space so far can be identified.

I suspect that the unnamed vendor is Vector, but the Air Force is likely not going commit to this until Vector gets farther along in its test program.

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Chandrayaan-2’s new delay is due to damage during test

The new colonial movement: It appears the reason for the new delay in the launch of India’s Chandrayaan-2 lunar lander is that the spacecraft suffered minor damage during a landing test.

A source in the know, said: “The rover and orbiter are in good health and tests met all the parameters. However, after the ‘Lander Drop Test’, we found that Vikram (the lander) needed to be strengthened in its legs. Prima facie, it appears that not all parameters were set correctly before the test, it could also be that the additional mass—a result of the new configuration—caused the problem.”

They still seem determined to launch in May, though I suspect this is not realistic. It depends on exactly when this test occurred. The article does not say, and if it occurred several months ago then the May date might make sense. Otherwise, expect further delays.

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Starhopper completes first tethered hop

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s prototype vehicle for testing vertical takeoff and landing for its Starship spacecraft, now dubbed Starhopper, successfully completed its first tethered hop yesterday.

The company and Elon Musk have revealed few details, other than it was tethered, lasted only a very short time, and involved only one Raptor engine. More tests are certain to follow.

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Beresheet enters lunar orbit

The privately-built lunar lander Beresheet today successfully entered lunar orbit.

They achieved this by completing an engine burn that changed their Earth orbit to an elliptical lunar one.

At 5:18 p.m. Israel time on April 4, the spacecraft’s engine activated for six minutes and reduced its speed by 1,000 km/hour, from 8,500 km/hour to 7,500 km/hour, relative to the moon’s velocity. The maneuver was conducted with full communication between Beresheet’s control room in Israel and the spacecraft, and signals in real time match the correct course. In the coming week, with expected intense engineering activities, many more maneuvers will take Beresheet from an elliptical to a round orbit, at a height of 200 km. from the moon. The maneuvers will aim to reduce the spacecraft’s distance from the moon and reach the optimal point to conduct an autonomic landing in the Sea of Serenity in the evening Israel time, April 11.

You can see a video of their mission control at the completion of this burn here.

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Boeing confirms delay till August for first unmanned Starliner launch

No surprise here: Boeing today confirmed that it is delaying until August for first unmanned Starliner test launch.

A statement issued by Boeing on Tuesday confirmed previous reports that the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, designed and built under a $4.2 billion contract from NASA, would miss its previous target launch date for an unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station in April. NASA and industry sources have said for months that an April launch date was not feasible, but NASA and Boeing had not officially published a revised schedule since early February.

The first Starliner test flight with astronauts on-board was previously scheduled for August. In Boeing’s schedule update released Tuesday, the company only said it expects the Crew Flight Test to occur “later this year,” but sources said the Starliner could fly with astronauts in November, at the earliest.

It appears that the fuel leak during a thruster test in June of last year has been the main cause of the delay.

None of this should effect SpaceX, which is primed to fly its mission during the summer. It does however cause more problems for Boeing, which is now also faced with pressure to finish NASA’s SLS rocket, bogged by years of delays and cost overruns.

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Beresheet makes course adjustment just prior to entering lunar orbit

Earth as seen by Beresheet

The Israeli privately-funded lunar lander Beresheet yesterday completed a one-minute engine burn to adjust its course slightly in preparation for entering lunar orbit on April 4.

This morning’s 72-second-long burn helped make some “final adjustments” ahead of capture into lunar orbit, mission team members said in an update this morning. It’s unclear if any further such tweaks will be needed. “The teams are assessing the results to determine if another alignment will be required before Beresheet enters the lunar orbit this Thursday,” project team members said.

The image to the right was taken by Beresheet of the Earth during its last close approach on March 31. It appropriately shows the Middle East, with the Arabian peninsula visible just below center.

The landing is still scheduled for April 11.

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Vector delays next test launch until June

Capitalism in space: Vector Launch has now delayed its next suborbital test launch three months to June.

Previously they had hoped to get this suborbital test launched in March/April. The company has not set any firm date in June, and cautions that further delays should not be unexpected. Assuming this suborbital launch happens this summer, they then hope to get their first orbital rocket launched by the end of the year.

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NASA head says that Falcon Heavy remains a future option for Orion

At an agency meeting for employees NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reiterated that NASA is still seriously considering the use of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for future Orion lunar missions instead of SLS.

Bridenstine then laid out one scenario that has huge implications, not for a 2020 launch, but one later on. Until now, it was thought that only NASA’s Space Launch System could directly inject the Orion spacecraft into a lunar orbit, which made it the preferred option for getting astronauts to the Moon for any potential landing by 2024. However, Bridenstine said there was another option: a Falcon Heavy rocket with an Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage built by United Launch Alliance. “Talk about strange bedfellows,” he mused about the two rocket rivals.

This plan has the ability to put humans on the Moon by 2024, Bridenstine said. He then emphasized—twice—that NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, has yet to bless this approach due to a number of technical details. His reservations include the challenge of integrating the Falcon Heavy rocket in a horizontal position and then loading Orion with fuel in a vertical configuration on the launchpad. The Falcon Heavy would also require a larger payload fairing than it normally flies with. This would place uncertain stress on the rocket’s side-mounted boosters.

All the problems outlined in the second paragraph are the result of bad past management at NASA. Just as you design your rocket based the rocket engines you have — in order to save time and money — you design your capsule and manned vehicles based on the rockets that are available. NASA did not do this. It built Orion in a fantasy la-la land, without addressing the real world rocket options available. Now it has to either reconfigure, or get SpaceX to rethink the Falcon Heavy. Neither option will be cheap.

Regardless, Bridenstine’s statement is another shot across the bow to the porkmeisters in Congress. SLS is on shaky financial ground. It cannot compete in price with the commercial options. More significantly, it cannot come close to matching the launch rates of the private rockets. In the time NASA could put together one SLS launch, SpaceX could likely fly five to ten Falcon Heavies, and still do it for less money overall.

SLS is now tasked with a December 2020 deadline for launching that first unmanned test flight. Should it fail to meet that date, the political battle lines are now being laid for replacing it.

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India launches military satellite plus 28 smallsats

Capitalism in space: India today successfully used its PSLV rocket to launch one Indian military satellite plus 28 smallsats.

The rocket’s fourth stage demonstrated an additional capability.

Monday’s launch, the second of the year for India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), was tasked with a series of maneuvers for the rocket’s upper stage to insert twenty-nine deployable payloads into their pre-planned orbits over the first two hours of its flight.

Following separation of the last payload, the upper stage will maneuver to a final orbit where it will operate as a research platform, hosting three attached payloads to demonstrate this capability for future missions. The launch also tests out a new configuration for the PSLV, a further intermediate between the lightest and heaviest versions of the rocket.

UPDATE: Yesterday China also launched a communications satellite designed to facilitate in-space communications, using its Long March 3B rocket.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

4 China
3 SpaceX
3 Europe (Arianespace)
2 Russia
2 India

The U.S. continues to lead China in the national rankings 6 to 4.

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Beresheet to win $1 million if it succeeds in lunar landing

Capitalism in space: The X-Prize Foundation today announced that it will award the Israeli company SpaceIL a million dollar award should its privately-funded spacecraft Beresheet successfully soft land on the Moon on April 11.

The foundation also stated that it is considering offering other similar awards for similar private achievements. In that context, this article in Science today gives a nice summary of the private companies now working to buiild and launch private planetary probes.

Two companies, Moon Express and TeamIndus, appear ready to fly their lunar landers in 2020. Four others have announced plans, but their schedules and status are less firm. In all cases, these companies are establishing themselves as commercial alternatives to the expensive, government-built planetary probes of the past. Rather than build their own spacecraft, scientists in the future will hire these companies, and attach their instruments to their spacecrafts. And get things build faster and for less money.

Moreover, NASA itself has been encouraging this transition.

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Rocket Lab launch a success

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully placed a DARPA technology satellite in orbit using its smallsat Electron rocket.

Expect there to be an increase in the pace of launches from this company in the coming months.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race remain the same however:

3 SpaceX
3 China
3 Europe (Arianespace)
2 Russia

The U.S. however now leads in the national rankings, 6 to 3, over China and Europe. I list Rocket Lab as an American company because that’s what the company calls itself, even though it launches from New Zealand and right now builds the bulk of its rockets there.

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Live feed of today’s Rocket Lab Electron launch

The countdown to Rocket Lab’s first launch in 2019, to place a DARPA technology demo satellite in orbit, is proceeding without problems, with the four hour launch window beginning at 6:30 pm (Eastern) today. The launch itself is presently set for 7:27 pm (Eastern).

The link will include the company’s live stream of the launch, when it begins about fifteen minutes before launch.

Should this launch succeed, Rocket Lab has said it would begin more regular launches, aiming for monthly and even bi-monthly launches before the end of the year.

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Update on the upcoming second Falcon Heavy launch

Link here. The rocket’s three first stages will be Block 5 versions. A static fire dress rehearsal countdown is set for April 1, with the launch scheduled for April 7.

Though the article does not say so, it hints at a number of serious engineering issues discovered during the first Falcon Heavy launch, suggesting to me once again that the success of that launch was somewhat fortuitous. SpaceX has spent the last year correcting those issues in preparation for this launch. Based on the company’s track record, the odds are very high the April 7 launch will be successful.

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OneSpace orbital launch fails

Capitalism in space? The first orbital launch attempt by China’s smallsat company OneSpace failed today.

No information about the cause of the failure or what happened has been released as yet.

I’m going to say this again: While OneSpace is financed through private capital, like a private company, it is also supervised closely by the Chinese government. It is hardly a private company as we in the West would define it.

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Pence reiterates Trump administration’s willingness to abandon SLS

Turf war! At today’s National Space Council meeting, vice-president Mike Pence reiterated the Trump administration’s willingness to replace SLS with commercial rockets, if that is what it will take to get Americans back to the Moon by 2024.

Pence said the schedule for completing SLS must be accelerated, but also opened the door to using rockets built by a commercial spaceflight company for the lunar mission. “We’re not committed to any one contractor. If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will,” he said. “And if commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be.”

It is very clear now that the Trump administration is beginning the political war necessary for shutting down the SLS boondoggle, something that cannot happen easily considering how its large workforce is scattered in so many states and congressional districts. To make it happen, they need to publicly illustrate its failure, repeatedly, but do so in a manner that does not overly antagonize SLS’s supporters. This is why both Pence and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine have been careful to express support for SLS, even as they hint at its replacement.

The battle is joined, however, and that could be a very good thing for the American space industry, in the coming years.

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