SPACE

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China’s lunar probe makes history by successfully soft-landing on the far side of the moon

It’s not Lunar New Year yet, but there is something new on the moon. In a major milestone for space exploration, China announced that its lunar program has successfully soft-landed a probe on the far side of the moon, making it the first one to do so. The historic landing was reported by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, earlier today.

According to the China National Space Administration, the probe, consisting of a lander and rover, touched down at about 10:26AM Beijing time. This is the first ever soft-landing (meaning a landing without damage or destruction to the space vehicle) on the far side of the moon, which is never visible from Earth. Named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e-4 launched on Dec. 8 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province.

China’s Chang’e-4 probe softlands on Moon’s far side pic.twitter.com/Z1R6tbpBMI

— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) January 3, 2019

The South China Morning Post reported earlier this week that the Chang’e-4 will be used for “astronomical observation using low-frequency radio, surveying the terrain and landforms, detecting the mineral composition and shallow lunar surface structure, and measuring neutron radiation and neutral atoms.” The successful soft-landing is important for space exploration because there is relatively little information about the far side of the moon compared to the side visible from Earth, which has been explored and surveyed by previous missions.

Photographs taken by earlier spacecraft, including the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 and Zond 3 (launched in 1959 and 1965, respectively) and NASA’s Lunar Orbiter program (launched in 1966), found significant differences between the far side’s terrain and the surface of the moon visible from Earth. In 1962, NASA’s Ranger 4 probe became the first spacecraft to impact on the moon, but was unable to send back data after landing.

Since direct communication between Chang’e-4 and Earth is blocked because of the probe’s position, China also launched a relay satellite called Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, that is currently 400,000 km above Earth, positioned between it and the moon.

Chang’e-4’s successful landing concludes the second phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). The first phase was the launch of Yutu, the lunar rover of Chang’e-3, which landed on the moon in December 2013, but stopped moving after 40 days due to a mechanical problem (it is still able to transmit data and photos, including true color high-definition photos). The successful landing of Chang’e-3 was another a significant milestone for China’s space program, making it only the third country after the U.S. and Soviet Union to soft-land on the moon. After Chang’e-4, the third and final phase of CLEP will be a returnable spacecraft called Chang’e-5. Set to launch by 2020, Chang’e-5 will be used to collect samples.

SpaceX lands its first rocket on West Coast ground

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SpaceX has just successfully landed its first rocket on the U.S. West Coast.

After launching a satellite from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base on Sunday evening with the Falcon 9 rocket, the spaceflight company brought its first stage booster back to Earth just under eight minutes after liftoff.

While SpaceX has launched a rocket from Vandenberg AFB in July, its landing took place on a drone ship in the Pacific Ocean.

This time around, the Falcon 9’s booster returned to SpaceX’s ground-based Landing Zone 4 (LZ-4), located right next to the launch pad at Vandenberg AFB. It’s a former launch pad for NASA’s Titan family of rockets, which were retired in 2005.  Read more…

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NASA study says setting off bombs over Mars isn’t the best idea

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Remember when Elon Musk said he wanted to nuke Mars

As he later clarified, the idea was to create two “pulsing suns” over the poles with fusion bombs, which would release trapped carbon dioxide to thicken the atmosphere and warm the planet. Next, people would pack up their belongings, board a spaceship, and touch down on a much more habitable Mars. 

This is called terraforming — altering a planet to make it more like Earth. (Yes, like in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.)

Welp, it looks like that plan has a fatal flaw, according to a NASA-sponsored study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy. There just isn’t enough carbon dioxide trapped on Mars to make it work.  Read more…

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Propelling deep space flight with a new fuel source, Momentus prepares for liftoff

Mikhail Kokorich, the founder of Momentus, a new Y Combinator-backed propulsion technology developer for space flight, hadn’t always dreamed of going to the moon.

A physicist who graduated from Russia’s top-ranked Novosibirsk University, Kokorich was a serial entrepreneur in who grew up in Siberia and made his name and his first fortunes in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The heart of Momentus’ technology is a new propulsion system that uses water as a propellant instead of chemicals.

Image courtesy Momentus

Using water has several benefits, Kokorich says. One, it’s a fuel source that’s abundant in outer space, and it’s ultimately better and more efficient fuel for flight beyond low earth orbit. “If you move something with a chemical booster stage to the moon. Chemical propulsion is good when you need to have a very high thrust,” according to Kokorich. Once a ship gets beyond gravity’s pull, water simply works better, he says.

Some companies are trying to guide micro-satellites with technologies like Phase 4 which use ionized gases like Xenon, but according to Kokorich those are more expensive and slower. “When ionized propulsion is used for geostationary satellites to orbit, it takes months,” says Kokorich, using water can half the time.

“We can carry ten tons to geostationary orbit and it’s much faster,” says Kokorich.

The company has already signed an agreement with ECM Space, a European launch services provider, which will provide the initial trip for the company’s first test of its propulsion system on a micro-satellite — slated for early 2019.

That first product, “Zeal,” has specific impulses of 150 to 180 seconds and power up to 30 watts.

Kokorich started his first business, Dauria, in the mid-90s amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, selling explosives and engineering services to mining companies in Siberia. Kokorich sold that business and went into retail, eventually building a network of stores that sold home goods and housewares across Russia.

That raked in more millions for Kokorich, who then said he diversified into electronics by buying Russia’s BestBuy chain out bankruptcy. But space was never far from his mind, and, eventually he returned to it.

“In 2011 I hit my middle-aged crisis,” Korkorich says. “So I founded the first private Russian aerospace company.”

That company, Dauria Aerospace, was initially feted by the government, garnering the entrepreneur a place in Skolkovo, and its inaugural cohort of space companies. In an announcement of the successes the space program had achieved in 2014 Kokorich co-authored a piece with the Russian cosmonaut Sergey Zhukov, who remains the executive director of the networking and aerospace programs at the multi-billion-dollar boondoggle startup incubator.

Utilis detects water leaks underground using satellite imagery.

A few months later Kokorich would be in the U.S. working to back the first of what’s now a triumvirate of startups focused on space.

“With all the problems with Russia in the Western world, I moved to the U.S.,” says Kokorich. Dauria had quickly raised $30 million for its work, but as this Moscow Times article notes, stiff competition from U.S. firms and the sanctions leveled against Russia in the wake of its invasion and annexation of Crimea were taking their toll on the entrepreneur’s business. “It was a purely political immigration,” Korkorich says. “I don’t have purely business opportunities, because you have to work with the government [and] because the government would not like me.”

For all of his protestations, Kokorich has maintained several economic ties with partners in Russia. It’s through an investment firm called Oden Holdings Ltd. that Kokorich took an investment stake in the Canadian company Helios Wire, which was one of his first forays into space entrepreneurship outside of Russia. That company makes cryptographically secured applications for the transmission and reception of data from internet-enabled devices.

The second space company that the co-founder has built since moving to the U.S. is the satellite company Astra Digital, which processes data from satellites to make that information more accessible.

Now, with Momentus, Kokorich is turning to the problem of propulsion. “When transportation costs decrease, many business models emerge” Kokorich says. And Kokorich sees Momentus’ propulsion technology driving down the costs of traveling further into space — opening up opportunities for new businesses like asteroid mining and lunar transit.

The Momentus team is already thinking well beyond the initial launch. The company’s eyes are on a prize well beyond geostationary orbit.

Indeed, with water as a power source, the company says it will lay the groundwork for future cislunar and interplanetary rides. The company envisions a future where it will power water prospecting and delivery throughout the solar system, solar power stations, in-space manufacturing and space tourism.

Neptune looks extremely sharp and very blue in these new images

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Several billion miles from Earth, Neptune’s looking particularly sharp in a set of new images captured by one of the most powerful telescopes in the world.

Located in Chile, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) used what’s known as laser tomography to capture test images of the planet and surrounding star clusters.

The telescope’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument works with what’s called the GALACSI adaptive optics module. This allows the telescope to correct for turbulence at different altitudes in the atmosphere, resulting in some incredibly clear, sharp images captured from Earth. Read more…

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NASA’s newest planet-hunting satellite takes a stellar first test image

TESS, the satellite launched by NASA last month that will search thousands of stars for Earth-like exoplanets, has just sent back its first test image. It’s just a quick one, not “science-quality,” but it does give you an idea of the scale of the mission: the area TESS will eventually document is 400 times the area covered by this shot.

What you see above is the star field around the constellation Centaurus; this 2-second exposure captured more than 200,000 stars. That’s just in one image from one of the four cameras on board; the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will employ all four during its mission, watching individual regions of space for 27 days straight over the course of two orbits.

Here’s a crop from the center:

Repeated high-resolution imagery of these star fields will let the team on the ground watch for any that dim briefly, indicating that a planet may be passing in between the star and our solar system. This will let it watch far, far more stars than the otherwise similar Kepler mission, which even by looking at only dim stars with a relatively narrow field of view, found evidence of thousands of exoplanets for scientists to pore over.

TESS just yesterday received a gravity assist from the moon, putting it near its final orbit. A last engine burn on May 30 will complete that maneuver and the satellite will enter into the highly eccentric, as yet untried orbit designed by its creators.

Once that orbit is attained and all systems are go, new imagery will come in about every two weeks when TESS is at its closest point to Earth. “First light,” or the first actual fully calibrated, usable image from the satellite, is expected some time in June.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard skims space in successful 8th test launch

Blue Origin conducted the 8th launch of its New Shepard sub-orbital rocket and crew capsule today out in Texas, and things couldn’t have gone better for the growing space tourism company. The rocket ascended into a cloudless sky, reaching a max velocity of about 2,200 MPH, and delivered its capsule to the edge of space, where its occupant, “Mannquin Skywalker,” will have had a lovely view of the Earth.

New Shepard isn’t meant to deliver things into orbit, of course; Blue Origin has a different purpose and technology from the likes of SpaceX, focusing on giving people a quick, safe lift into space followed by a period of weightlessness and a pleasant descent.

That’s what was demonstrated today, and you can watch the whole thing live in the video below — the pre-launch coverage starts about half an hour in, and liftoff is at the 1h10m mark.

Everything went smoothly from liftoff to touchdown. I love watching the altitude graph filling in slowly at first, then blasting upward as the rocket gradually accelerates. After main-engine cutoff, which occurs just after crossing the Karmann Line, which indicates you’ve entered space, and anyone inside would experience weightlessness for about a minute and a half as the capsule slows down. Apogee for this flight was 347,000 feet, or about 106,000 meters.

While Mannequin Skywalker was enjoying microgravity, the booster was returning to Earth at high speed — over 2,600 MPH. The drag brake deploys around 100,000 feet up, reducing speed to a more manageable 370 MPH before the booster re-ignites at 2,500 feet and brings itself down to a hover landing.

This is one of the most obvious differences to a viewer between New Shepard’s booster and the Falcon 9s; New Shepard has more control over its thrust, allowing for a highly controlled landing where it could even float for a bit if necessary. The larger Falcon 9 has to land using much more powerful thrust, meaning if they aren’t careful, they might just take off again. It’s kind of like the difference between having to let up on the gas to ease into a parking spot, and having to pull the e-brake at precisely the right moment.

Meanwhile the capsule, with its higher apogee and greater drag, has been falling down this whole time, waiting for the right time to deploy its parachutes. It didn’t happen until below the 7,000-foot mark, making me sweat a bit. It wouldn’t be a good look to have your crew capsule impact at 240 MPH.

The commentator describes the capsule touchdown a minute or two later as a “beautiful soft landing,” though honestly it looks like it would give anyone inside something of a jolt. Let’s hope the seats are comfortable in that thing.

Here’s what the March For Our Lives in D.C. looked like from space

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Hundreds of thousands of people showed up in Washington, D.C. to attend Saturday’s March For Our Lives. As you might expect, that kind of turnout makes for some pretty impressive photos — even from space.

 New images from DigitalGlobe’s Worldview-2 satellite show the sea of people — and their signs — gathered to march and rally for common-sense gun reform. They’re an astounding reminder of the sheer size of this movement. Isn’t that right, NRA?

See for yourself.

Satellite images.

Image: satellite image ©2018 DigitalGlobe

Satellite images.

Image: satellite image ©2018 DigitalGlobe Read more…

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Elon Musk announces an early February launch plan for Falcon Heavy

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Elon Musk’s “week or so” until the Falcon Heavy launch is now looking like it’ll be closer to two weeks.

The SpaceX founder confirmed on Twitter that he’s “aiming” to have a Feb. 6 launch for the private aerospace company’s largest rocket to date. It will lift off from the Apollo launchpad 39A at Cape Kennedy, Musk tweeted.

“Easy viewing from the public causeway.”

Aiming for first flight of Falcon Heavy on Feb 6 from Apollo launchpad 39A at Cape Kennedy. Easy viewing from the public causeway.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 27, 2018 Read more…

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SpaceX caps a record year with 18th successful launch of 2017

 SpaceX has completed its 18th launch in 2017, marking a record year for the private space company. It’s the most rockets SpaceX has launched in a single year, beating its previous best by ten missions. The launch today was for client Iridium, delivering 10 satellites to low Earth orbit for its Iridium NEXT communications constellation. This is the fourth such mission that SpaceX has… Read More

Trump's nominee for NASA administrator is really into the moon

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James Bridenstine is ready to take America back to the moon. 

With Donald Trump’s Friday announcement that he intends to nominate the Oklahoma representative as administrator of NASA, Bridenstine is one step closer to his moon dreams.

Rep. Bridenstine is already on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and has been gunning for the head boss role at NASA. The position has been open since Trump’s inauguration with acting administrator Robert Lightfoot Jr. serving in the role. 

The long wait on a nomination for NASA administrator could end as soon as Tuesdayhttps://t.co/jhnYEA7ccP

— Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) September 1, 2017 Read more…

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How the Voyager Golden Record happened (and no, The Beatles actually weren't on the wishlist)

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 2, the first of the two spacecraft that carried the Golden Record on a grand tour of the solar system and into the mysteries of interstellar space. Science journalist Timothy Ferris produced this enchanting phonograph record that tells a story of our planet expressed in sounds, images, and science for any extraterrestrial intelligence that may encounter it. Tim wrote a beautiful essay telling the story behind the Voyager record for the Voyager Golden Record vinyl box set that I co-produced. And today you can read an adaptation of it over at The New Yorker. Happy anniversary to Voyager 2 and the Golden Record! From the New Yorker:

I’m often asked whether we quarreled over the selections. We didn’t, really; it was all quite civil. With a world full of music to choose from, there was little reason to protest if one wonderful track was replaced by another wonderful track. I recall championing Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night,” which, if memory serves, everyone liked from the outset. Ann stumped for Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” a somewhat harder sell, in that Carl, at first listening, called it “awful.” But Carl soon came around on that one, going so far as to politely remind Lomax, who derided Berry’s music as “adolescent,” that Earth is home to many adolescents. Rumors to the contrary, we did not strive to include the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” only to be disappointed when we couldn’t clear the rights. It’s not the Beatles’ strongest work, and the witticism of the title, if charming in the short run, seemed unlikely to remain funny for a billion years.

Ann’s sequence of natural sounds was organized chronologically, as an audio history of our planet, and compressed logarithmically so that the human story wouldn’t be limited to a little beep at the end. We mixed it on a thirty-two-track analog tape recorder the size of a steamer trunk, a process so involved that Jimmy (Iovine) jokingly accused me of being “one of those guys who has to use every piece of equipment in the studio.” With computerized boards still in the offing, the sequence’s dozens of tracks had to be mixed manually. Four of us huddled over the board like battlefield surgeons, struggling to keep our arms from getting tangled as we rode the faders by hand and got it done on the fly.

How the Voyager Golden Record Was Made” by Timothy Ferris (The New Yorker)

Pre-order the Voyager Golden Record on vinyl or CD (Ozma Records)

Listen to excerpts from the Voyager Golden Record sourced from the original master tapes:

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Today is the anniversary of the first woman in space

On June 16, 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. She orbited the Earth 48 times over a period of three days. Inspired by Yuri Gagarin who in 1961 became the first person in space, Tereshkova applied to the Russian space program and was accepted based on her extensive background as a skydiver. It wasn’t until 40 years later that Tereshkova’s nearly tragic experience in orbit was made public.

An error in the spacecraft’s automatic navigation software caused the ship to move away from Earth. Tereshkova noticed this and Soviet scientists quickly developed a new landing algorithm. Tereshkova landed safely but received a bruise on her face.

She landed in the Altay region near today’s Kazakhstan-Mongolia-China border. Villagers helped Tereshkova out of her spacesuit and asked her to join them for dinner. She accepted, and was later reprimanded for violating the rules and not undergoing medical tests first.

Valentina Tereshkova: First Woman in Space (Space.com)

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Commission your own traffic and construction studies without ever leaving bed using SpaceKnow

 The number of things that can be done from the comfort of one’s own bed has increased in recent years — shopping, banking and now geospatial analytics. Ok, it doesn’t sound sexy but it might give you a leg up the next time your friend starts an arcane argument with you over whose neighborhood historically has more vehicles on the road. With SpaceKnow’s online… Read More

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Jeff Bezos wants Blue Origin to be the Amazon of the Moon

Fourth successful launch of the same New Shepard vehicle during test flights / Image courtesy of Blue Origin Not one to be left out, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is also making plans to go to the Moon, just like fellow space magnate Elon Musk. Bezos’ plan, uncovered by The Washington Post via a draft proposal presented to NASA and Trump’s administration, outlines Blue Origin’s plan to create a cargo spacecraft destined for the Moon that would help it ferry supplies… Read More

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Virgin’s newest company is Virgin Orbit, a small satellite specialist

n3-20150918-c Virgin’s business in space just got a little busier – the company founded by Richard Branson just launched a new operation called Virgin Orbit, which becomes its own subsidiary company alongside Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company in Virgin’s space roster. Virgin Orbit will focus on dedicated launches of small satellites (smallsats), and will be headed up by Dan Hart,… Read More

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NASA released a ton of software for free and here’s some you should try

software-2017-slider NASA has just published its 2017-2018 software catalog, which lists the many apps, code libraries, and tools that pretty much anyone can download and use. Of course, most of it is pretty closely tied to… you know, launching spacecraft and stuff, which most people don’t do. But here are a few items that might prove useful to tinkers and curious lay people alike. Read More

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NASA released a ton of software for free and here’s some you should try

software-2017-slider NASA has just published its 2017-2018 software catalog, which lists the many apps, code libraries, and tools that pretty much anyone can download and use. Of course, most of it is pretty closely tied to… you know, launching spacecraft and stuff, which most people don’t do. But here are a few items that might prove useful to tinkers and curious lay people alike. Read More

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SpaceX’s CRS-10 ISS resupply mission rocket launch scrubbed, next window is Feb 19

32945170225_e5b87acce0_k Update: SpaceX aborted the launch with 13 seconds to go, citing the issue with the positioning of an engine nozzle that’s responsible for steering the rocket in the second stage as the cause. The company said it was exercising “an abundance of caution” in postponing the launch, but wanted to be absolutely sure. The next launch window is at 9:38 AM ET on Sunday morning. At… Read More

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NASA’s concept Europa lander belongs on the cover of a sci-fi pulp

pia21048_figb Long before any mission to another planet is undertaken, NASA and other space agencies commission reports on why and how we might want to go about it. The latest such report was issued this week regarding Jupiter’s moon Europa, one of the most interesting and mysterious bodies in the solar system — and among the most likely to show traces of life. Read More

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SpaceX targets February 18 for Dragon resupply mission to ISS

spacex-iridium-1 SpaceX has a new date for its next launch – February 18, when it’s hoping to make its first launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at pad LC-39A. The first launch from the Florida facility was originally set for January 29, and was set to be a mission to deliver a commercial EchoStar satellite into orbit,  but that was pushed back to a target of the end of February when… Read More

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New space pics show off the greatest kitten toe beans in all the universe

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As if you had any doubt that cats are the original space cadets. 

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) proves once and for all that cats and space belong together, releasing a new image that showcases some glorious cat toe beans in space. 

The Cat’s Paw Nebula (as it’s legit called) was first viewed by UK scientist John Herschel in 1837, according to the ESO. Might he could only make out the brightest “toepad.” Since then, the full extent of the space paw has become visible and impressed humans with its “God’s kitten about to swipe some cosmic crap off the universe’s coffee table” likeness.  Read more…

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Boeing's new spacesuit is far out

Boeing revealed its new sleek and chic spacesuit designed for astronauts aboard the Boeing/Bigelow CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Launched on Atlas V rockets the Starliner capsule will shuttle commercial crew members to and from the International Space Station and other low-Earth orbit locales. From Boeing:

The Starliner spacesuit provides greater pressurized mobility and is about 40 percent lighter than previous suits. Its innovative layers will keep astronauts cooler as well. The touchscreen-friendly gloves allow astronauts to interact with the capsule’s tablets while the boots are breathable and slip resistant. Zippers in the torso area will make it easier for astronauts to comfortably transition from sitting to standing. In addition to protecting astronauts during launch and the return to Earth, the suit also helps connect astronauts to ground and space crews through the communications headset within the helmet. The suit’s hood-like soft helmet sports a wide polycarbonate visor to give Starliner passengers better peripheral vision throughout their ride to and from space.

Video from Boeing:

Photo from Boeing:

Photo from NASA/Cory Huston:

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2016 is the new hottest year on record – how NASA takes the planet’s temperature

IDL TIFF file NASA announced on Wednesday that in 2016, Earth experienced the hottest surface temperatures in modern history. Separate, independent analysis at NOAA provided the same conclusion. This makes the third year in a row that Earth experienced record high temperatures. These record years are part of a concerning long-term trend of increasing global temperatures. In fact, 16 of the 17 warmest years… Read More

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Gene Cernan, the last astronaut to walk on the moon, has died at 82

s71-51308 On December 7, 1972, NASA’s Apollo 17 mission took off under the command of Gene Cernan. Four days later, the crew touched down on the lunar surface. It was Cernan’s third and final trip to space — and, as it would turn out, the final time to date that NASA would send a team to walk on the moon. For all the seemingly buttoned-down operations of a government organization… Read More

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Astronaut Eugene Cernan, last man to walk on the moon, has died at 82

“We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” These were the last words Eugene Cernan said upon leaving the surface of our moon, at the end of Apollo 17.

Cernan (shown below at the beginning of EVA 3) was the last man to walk on the moon. He died Monday, Jan. 16, surrounded by his family.

(more…)

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That's no moon…

NASA claims this image taken by the Cassini probe depicts Saturn’s moon Mimas with the distinctive Herschel Crater, but we know better. From NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute:

Named after the icy moon’s discoverer, astronomer William Herschel, the crater stretches 86 miles (139 kilometers) wide — almost one-third of the diameter of Mimas (246 miles or 396 kilometers) itself…

This view looks toward the anti-Saturn hemisphere of Mimas. North on Mimas is up and rotated 21 degrees to the left. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Oct. 22, 2016 using a combination of spectral filters which preferentially admits wavelengths of ultraviolet light centered at 338 nanometers.

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Why 'Hidden Figures' —and its unsung heroes — is the ultimate NASA story

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NASA, and its stunning achievements, is much more than just the famous astronauts whose names you know — it was built on the behind-the-scenes work of its unsung heroes. 

From the early days of the United States’ space agency up through today, NASA has been run by  engineers, mathematicians and technicians at the tops of their fields.

But you rarely hear their stories or know their names. 

Behind every John Glenn or Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin there are tens or even hundreds of people working behind the scenes to keep them alive and healthy in space. That’s NASA’s true nature — a nexus of unseen teamwork and ingenuity that allows the exploration of new frontiers. Read more…

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Eutelsat, freed by Paris court ruling, pays Russia’s RSCC long-due $424 million

eutelsat-36c-larger

PARIS — Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat has paid its Russian counterpart, Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RCSS) a long-overdue bill of more than 400 million euros ($424 million) despite an ongoing legal battle between the Russian government and the shareholders of the former Yukos oil company.

The payment followed a ruling by the Paris Court of Appeal concluding that RSCC should not be considered an arm of the Russian government and thus liable for the government’s debts.

Moscow-based RSCC and Eutelsat confirmed on Nov. 24 confirmed that the payment had been made, ending an uncomfortable chapter in the the fleet operators’ dealings. The Eutelsat and RSCC satellite fleets have overlapping coverage and the two companies have used each other’s capacity on occasion.

The former Yukos shareholders are continuing to battle in French courts for the right to seize payments by French companies to Russian government entities following an international arbitration body’s 2014 decision saying the Russian government illegally appropriated the Yukos assets and dissolved the company.

Among the Yukos shareholders left holding worthless Yukos equity were Hulley Enterprises Ltd. of Cyprus, which has devoted considerable energy to use French law to claw back some of the funds.

Still unresolved: Arianespace’s debt to Roscosmos for Soyuz rockets

The Nov. 23 Paris Appeals Court ruling has no effect on a parallel appeal dealing with around 300 million euros that launch service provider Arianespace, of Evry, France, owes to the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

Roscosmos is Arianespace’s counterparty to the contract under which Russian companies provide medium-lift Russian Soyuz rockets for use by Arianespace from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana.

The Russian government on Oct. 21 sent formal warning to the French government that it wanted a resolution of the Roscosmos payment by March 2017 or it would take France to court for violation of a 1989 bilateral treaty. The warning included references to unspecified other Euro-Russian space projects, suggesting that these might suffer if the legal stalemate continued past March.

The letter, sent to the French prime minister’s office, said Europe’s Galileo positioning, navigation and timing network, now being assembled in space thanks to the Europeanized Soyuz vehicle, is an example of Russia’s assistance to Europe.

Hulley Enterprises had grouped together more than a dozen Russian entities, including RSCC and Roscosmos, arguing that for all intents and purposes they are part of the Russian government. As such they are legitimate targets for collection of Russian government debt.

RSCC countered that it operates its business as a private-sector company and does not distribute its cash to the government or seek government aid to pay the company’s debts.

An earlier Paris court had agreed with the RSCC argument but its judgment had come with an order that no money be disbursed until a further court ruling. The Nov. 23 decision by the Paris Court of Appeal included no such payment-suspension order, and Eutelsat apparently transferred the money the same day.

“The positive ruling was achieved thanks to professional efforts of RSCC specialists and French lawyers acting on behalf of RSCC,” RSCC said in a …read more

Bolden praises continued cooperation with Russia on ISS

Bolden

WASHINGTON — As he prepares to leave office, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that the agency’s relationship with its Russian counterpart remains strong despite continued, broader geopolitical tensions.

Speaking at a press conference in Russia Nov. 19 after the successful docking of a Soyuz spacecraft carrying three new crew members for the International Space Station, Bolden and Igor Komarov, head of the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos, said they had discussed continued cooperation, including crew exchanges once NASA starts flying commercial crew vehicles designed to end its reliance on Soyuz vehicles for access to the station.

“We should each have a crew member on whatever vehicle is flying. The details for that still remain to be worked out,” Bolden said about continuing to fly NASA astronauts on Soyuz vehicles as Russian cosmonauts fly on commercial crew vehicles. “I do not expect that you’ll find an all-American vehicle or an all-Russian vehicle ever again.”

“I believe that it is very important for all participations of the program to have alternative transportation means to the station,” Komarov said, speaking through an interpreter. That meant, he said, flying Russian cosmonauts on U.S. commercial vehicles, with some NASA astronauts continuing to fly on Soyuz vehicles.

While NASA has been developing commercial crew vehicles for several years to end reliance on the Russian Soyuz for access to the station, NASA officials had previously discussed the possibility that astronauts would continue to use Soyuz while Russian cosmonauts flew on commercial vehicles. How those exchanges would take place, and whether any exchange of funds would be required, is not clear.

Bolden, in an interview after the press conference broadcast on NASA TV, said that the space station program has demonstrated the ability of the United States and Russia, along with other international partners, to cooperate on a complex project. “We on the International Space Station are a model for the rest of the world to follow,” he said.

That has continued despite, he acknowledged, problems on Earth. “The political and diplomatic changes and trauma that goes on down here on Earth, I think we can survive that,” he said. “As we have demonstrated, looking at incursions by one of our partners into other countries, that has not deterred or slowed work we have done on the International Space Station.”

While not explicitly stating it, Bolden was referring to the crisis between Russia and Ukraine triggered in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Although sanctions limited other space-related cooperation between the United States and Russia, operations of the International Space Station remained normal.

Bolden is nearing the end of his tenure as NASA administrator, and is expected to step down by the end of the Obama administration in January. In his NASA TV interview, he made clear he believed he was leaving on a high note. “The state of NASA today is strong,” he said. “It’s stronger than it’s ever been, I believe.”

At the press conference, which also features representatives of the European Space Agency and the French space agency CNES, Komarov mentioned an ongoing …read more

Thuraya joins Internet of Things industry group

Dubai John Karwoski Cityscape

WASHINGTON — Mobile satellite services operator Thuraya announced Nov. 21 that it is joining an industry group that develops standards for the “Internet of Things” (IoT), a market that has the potential to generate significant demand for satellite services in the coming years.

The Dubai-based company has become the second satellite operator to join the LoRa Alliance, a nonprofit that creates IoT standards. It follows Inmarsat, which became a member in February this year, helping the organization factor in the capabilities of satellite technology when creating new standards.

IoT is a somewhat misunderstood term used to describe networks of connected sensors and devices. As a market, IoT devices have become a frequently cited new opportunity for both terrestrial and space-based telecommunications providers. Tellingly, communications company Ericsson reported in June that it now expects IoT devices to eclipse mobile phones as the largest category of connected devices in 2018. Satellite operators, many of which provide backhaul services for cellular data, are eyeing IoT as a potentially lucrative new source of revenue, though many are not yet sure how to enter this market.

The LoRa Alliance believes satellite telecommunications companies can provide backhaul services for IoT devices using the organization’s LoRaWAN standard for connecting low power wide area (LPWA) networks. These networks are frequently used in rural or isolated areas often outside the reach of mobile network operators, thus creating an opportunity for satellite operators to fill the connectivity gap.

Users of the LoRaWAN specification can now connect their devices over Thuraya’s network. “Standardization generates volume, and the methodology and approach of the LoRa Alliance will help us develop long-term opportunities on a significant scale,” said Thuraya product manager Marwan Joudeh in a Nov. 21 statement.

Thuraya’s decision to join the organization comes as it is planning its next-generation satellite system, known as Futura. Thuraya is currently raising capital for the geostationary orbit system and expects IoT demand to shape its development.

Since forming in March 2015, the LoRa Alliance has grown its ranks to more than 400 members. Aside from Thuraya and Inmarsat, other notable members that provide satellite services and technology include Swisscom, du, and Globalsat Worldcom Group.

The LoRa Alliance’s LoRaWAN is one of many standards competing for dominance in the IoT market. Others include random phase multiple access (RPMA), ultra narrow band (UNB), and Sigfox, who is a customer of Eutelsat. Sigfox, based in Labege, France, closed a 150 million euro ($160 million) Series E funding round on Nov. 18 to fast-track the expansion of its network to soon reach global coverage.

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ViaSat and O3b, now distant neighbors, eye confrontation in medium-Earth orbit

o3b_inclined_largest

PARIS — ViaSat Inc and SES-owned O3b Ltd., two satellite fleet operators providing commercial Ka-band broadband from different orbital vantage points, look to become direct competitors based on new satellite constellations both are proposing to U.S. regulators.

ViaSat wants augment its planned global network of three ViaSat-3 satellites in geostationary orbit, each with an advertised 1 terabit per second of throughput, with a constellation of 24 medium-Earth-orbit satellites operating in three orbital plans inclined at 87 degrees relative to the equator.

According to Carlsbad, California-based ViaSat’s Nov. 15 proposal to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the ViaSat constellation would be placed in circular orbit at 8,200 kilometers in altitude.

The system, which is registered in The Netherlands, would use both Ka- and the higher V-band frequency. ViaSat said it would seek a waiver of current FCC restrictions on the use of V-band spectrum by guaranteeing that it would not interfere with terrestrial wireless operators in the same frequency.

ViaSat also said it will not interfere with O3b’s network of medium-Earth-orbit satellites, operating in an unusual equatorial orbit but at the same 8,200-kilometer altitude as the ViaSat system.

ViaSat did not provide a cost estimate in its proposal but the FCC has said any system would need to be in service within six years of receipt of its U.S. license.

ViaSat is already building two of the planned three ViaSat-3 satellites, with launches planned for the end of this decade. Whether the company’s shareholders will accept the large investment in a constellation at the same time is unclear. ViaSat said that, once in orbit, its satellites would operate for 20 years.

The same day that ViaSat submitted its proposal, O3b asked the U.S. regulatory for a license to operate a network that adds new frequencies and a new orbit to the existing 12-satellite O3b network.

O3b wants three separate constellations

O3b, owned by Luxembourg-based SES, which has a 50-satellite fleet in geostationary orbit, is asking the FCC for three separate approvals. The first is an amendment to a previous modification to its network to permit the addition of eight new satellites into the same equatorial, 8,200-kilometer orbit. O3b now wants to add additional frequencies on four of those eight satellites.

The eight spacecraft are under construction at Thales Alenia Space of France Italy and are scheduled for launches, four at a time, on two Europeanized Russian Soyuz rockets operated by Europe’s Arianespace launch-service provider in 2017 and 2018.

A second request is that O3b be allowed to operate a constellation of up to 24 satellites, called O3bN, also in circular equatorial orbit, but using a wider range of Ka-band radio frequencies.

O3b’s third request is for a license to operate up to 16 satellites in inclined orbit and flying at an altitude of 8,062 kilometers and inclined 70 degrees relative to the equator. The constellation, called O3bI, would be deployed in two orbital planes of eight satellites each and would also use Ka-band.

O3b said that from its equatorial orbit its service is assured from between 63 degrees north and 63 degrees south …read more

Next-generation weather satellite launches to begin forecasting “revolution”

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches the advanced new GOES-R weather satellite into orbit from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016.
Credit: United Launch Alliance
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launches the advanced new GOES-R weather satellite into orbit from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016.
Credit: United Launch Alliance

A powerful new satellite that will give forecasters their best-ever looks at storms and other severe weather has taken to the skies.

The GOES-R weather satellite lifted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Nov. 19 at 6:42 p.m. EST (2342 GMT), riding a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket to orbit. The spectacular launch, which lit up the Florida evening sky, occurred about one hour later than planned due to issues with the rocket and launch range that were swiftly resolved.

GOES-R is the first of four new advanced weather satellites that are, somewhat confusingly, collectively known as GOES-R. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which manages the GOES-R program, is expecting big things from all four of these spacecraft.

“Without a doubt, GOES-R will revolutionize weather forecasting as we know it,” Stephen Volz, assistant administrator for NOAA’s Satellite and Information Services division, said during a pre-launch news conference on Thursday (Nov. 17).

“For weather forecasters, GOES-R will be similar to going from a black-and-white TV to super-high-definition TV,” Volz added. “For the American public, that will mean faster, more accurate weather forecasts and warnings. That also will mean more lives saved and better environmental intelligence for state and local officials and all decision makers.”

Famed NBC Today Show weather man Al Roker, one of many TV meteorologists who attended the GOES satellite launch, agreed with Volz.

“What’s so exciting is that we’re going to be getting more data, more often, with much more detail and higher resolution,” Roker told NASA’s Stephanie Martin during live launch commentary today. The new GOES satellite will help improve not only weather forecasts but hurricane and tornado predictions as well, Roker added.

“If we can give people another 10, 15 or 20 minutes, we’re talking about lives being saved,” Roker said.

GOES-R is the 16th GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) craft to make it to space — and the satellite will be renamed GOES-16 when it reaches its final orbit, about two weeks from now. GOES satellites have been studying weather patterns from above for more than four decades; GOES-1 launched way back in October 1975. Two GOES craft, known as GOES-East and GOES-West based on their orbital positions, are doing this work now; a third GOES spacecraft is also aloft and serves as an on-orbit spare.

The GOES satellites operate from geostationary orbit, about 22,300 miles (35,890 kilometers) above Earth’s surface along the equator. At this altitude, their orbital speeds match the rotational speed of Earth, so the spacecraft can keep continuous tabs on the same stretch of land. In this case, that means the United States and much of the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

NOAA officials said that GOES-R’s six-instrument suite represents a …read more

Kilmer: Congress should collaborate with space industry on regulatory issues

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.). Credit: Port of Tacoma

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee and co-sponsor of space resources legislation that passed last year, said Nov. 17 he wants the government to do a better job collaborating with the space industry on making new regulations that affect the industry’s growth.

Speaking at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon, Kilmer emphasized the need for policymakers to take advantage of the fact that it is dealing with an industry that doesn’t automatically shun regulation.

“You’re very unique,” Kilmer said. “It’s very rare where I sit down with folks from an industry who say we want to plus-up the regulatory bodies who regulate us.”

Kilmer said it is important for government agencies, namely the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Department of Commerce, to get adequate funding to make regulations well suited for the industry. Earlier this year he, along with Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), secured a $1 million increase for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) in a House appropriations bill.

Kilmer said he wanted to continue a cooperative, rather than adversarial, approach to industry regulation. “I think when it comes to our regulatory agencies, there’s an opportunity to have an approach that’s done more with the industry rather than to the industry,” Kilmer said. “My hope is that there is a greater focus on that going forward.”

Kilmer’s interest in the industry is linked to a number of space companies based in his home state, including Blue Origin, Planetary Resources and Vulcan Aerospace. Kilmer co-sponsored legislation, incorporated into the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act signed into law one year ago, which gives U.S. companies rights to resources they obtain from asteroids or other celestial bodies.

In his speech, Kilmer listed several space policy priorities for Congress, including creating a civil authority for space situational awareness (SSA) data. He argued that it doesn’t make sense for the Department of Defense, which currently provides conjunction assessments and other SSA data through the Joint Space Operations Center, to “play space mediator.” He called for having FAA/AST handle this responsibility instead, a position that office itself has been advocating for several months.

Kilmer said he has heard from several companies that export control remains a challenge for them, despite reforms that removed many commercial satellites and related components from the control of International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) in 2014.

“We should reconsider regulatory environments, including U.S. export controls, which really affect this industry and the profitability of this industry,” he said.

Kilmer had mixed perceptions of the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. He said it is a positive that Trump’s administration has so far offered a consistent agenda around trying to empower the commercial sector. “When it comes to those rules, there may be an opportunity for being on the same page,” he said.

However, Kilmer voiced concern about Trump’s desire to cut government spending, and what that could mean for the country’s presence in space.

“Probably the biggest threat when it comes to funding …read more

“Standards and norms” needed in space, Pentagon experts say

Winston Beauchamp, the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space, talks with SpaceNews about the issues the Defense Department is studying this summer as part of the Space Portfolio Review, what the Pentagon has learned from a new joint space operations center with the intelligence community and the role of hosted payloads. Credit: SpaceNews video still

WASHINGTON — The international community needs to establish expected patterns of behavior in space, despite ongoing worldwide political tension, top Pentagon space experts said.

“There is an erosion of some of the commonly accepted standards and norms, and there’s concern about that as folks around the world have tried to find advantage, find seams,” said Winston Beauchamp, the deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space. “That’s part of the reason why we want to codify our norms and behavior in space because it is such an important domain, not just for us but for humanity.”

Speaking at a Nov. 17 summit hosted by the Defense One website, Beauchamp said that the danger of collision and debris in orbit means that nations must work together to avoid those risks, even if they have somewhat tense relations – such as between the U.S. and Russia or U.S. and China.

“We need to be able to operate in space both to advance our state of technology and eventually get the human race off this planet onto another planet,” he said. “We can’t do that if we have to try to fly through a shell of debris.”

Rear Adm. Brian Brown, head of the Navy Space Cadre, said that norms often develop overtime, and that the U.S. is leading on developing them.

“Much like the maritime laws that we have, they established over time by safe and responsible behaviors and patterns of life,” he said. “That is something we are pushing for in a lot of different areas, so we don’t have miscalculations in space.”

Because of the long-lasting effects that could come from destroyed satellites and the resulting debris, the U.S. military is taking a defensive mindset, said Brown, the deputy commander for the Joint Functional Component Command for Space at U.S. Strategic Command.

“Everything is about not having a war extend to space,” he said.

Even in peacetime, to avoid collisions the U.S. is warning satellite companies and other nations when there’s a risk of collision, Brown said.

“There are norms and behaviors that are already out there that the U.S. is leading on,” he said. “If you look at basic safety of flight things that we do today, there are specific standards for low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit where we provide conjunction warnings if two satellites ,or a satellite and a piece of debris, come within proximity.”

Were another nation to attack U.S. assets in space, Beauchamp said the Pentagon wouldn’t automatically respond in kind.

“It’s important to note that if something were to happen in space, our response wouldn’t necessarily be in space,” he said. “If someone were to do something, we would respond in a time and place of our choosing, primarily because we wouldn’t expect something to happen in space in isolation. It would be an extension of some conflict that would be occurring terrestrially.”

SpaceNews.com

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“Standards and norms” needed in space, Pentagon experts say

Winston Beauchamp, the deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space, talks with SpaceNews about the issues the Defense Department is studying this summer as part of the Space Portfolio Review, what the Pentagon has learned from a new joint space operations center with the intelligence community and the role of hosted payloads. Credit: SpaceNews video still

WASHINGTON — The international community needs to establish expected patterns of behavior in space, despite ongoing worldwide political tension, top Pentagon space experts said.

“There is an erosion of some of the commonly accepted standards and norms, and there’s concern about that as folks around the world have tried to find advantage, find seams,” said Winston Beauchamp, the deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space. “That’s part of the reason why we want to codify our norms and behavior in space because it is such an important domain, not just for us but for humanity.”

Speaking at a Nov. 17 summit hosted by the Defense One website, Beauchamp said that the danger of collision and debris in orbit means that nations must work together to avoid those risks, even if they have somewhat tense relations – such as between the U.S. and Russia or U.S. and China.

“We need to be able to operate in space both to advance our state of technology and eventually get the human race off this planet onto another planet,” he said. “We can’t do that if we have to try to fly through a shell of debris.”

Rear Adm. Brian Brown, head of the Navy Space Cadre, said that norms often develop overtime, and that the U.S. is leading on developing them.

“Much like the maritime laws that we have, they established over time by safe and responsible behaviors and patterns of life,” he said. “That is something we are pushing for in a lot of different areas, so we don’t have miscalculations in space.”

Because of the long-lasting effects that could come from destroyed satellites and the resulting debris, the U.S. military is taking a defensive mindset, said Brown, the deputy commander for the Joint Functional Component Command for Space at U.S. Strategic Command.

“Everything is about not having a war extend to space,” he said.

Even in peacetime, to avoid collisions the U.S. is warning satellite companies and other nations when there’s a risk of collision, Brown said.

“There are norms and behaviors that are already out there that the U.S. is leading on,” he said. “If you look at basic safety of flight things that we do today, there are specific standards for low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit where we provide conjunction warnings if two satellites ,or a satellite and a piece of debris, come within proximity.”

Were another nation to attack U.S. assets in space, Beauchamp said the Pentagon wouldn’t automatically respond in kind.

“It’s important to note that if something were to happen in space, our response wouldn’t necessarily be in space,” he said. “If someone were to do something, we would respond in a time and place of our choosing, primarily because we wouldn’t expect something to happen in space in isolation. It would be an extension of some conflict that would be occurring terrestrially.”

SpaceNews.com

…read more

Vector Space raises additional funds to support 2017 first launch

Vector-R rocket

WASHINGTON — Vector Space Systems said Nov. 18 that it has raised $1.25 million in funding to support development of its small launch vehicle, with a goal of a first launch by the end of next year.

The seed investment into the Tucson, Arizona-based company is led by Space Angels Network, a group of individual angel investors that make early-stage investments in space companies. While Space Angels Network has invested in a number of space startups, including Astrobotic Technology, Planetary Resources, and World View Enterprises, this is its first investment in a launch company.

“We see endless opportunity in Vector’s vision to build affordable and reliable launch vehicles for microsatellites and are committed to working with them to make that vision a reality,” Chad Anderson, chief executive of Space Angels Network, said in a statement.

The new round brings the total raised by the company to $2.25 million. The company also has Small Business Innovation Research contracts from NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency valued at an additional $2.5 million to work on vehicle technologies.

“We are honored by the continued support of our existing angel investors and by this new infusion of capital from Space Angels Network,” Jim Cantrell, chief executive and co-founder of Vector Space, said in a statement. “This investment, by experienced space industry investors, helps to further validate the market and demand for a dedicated micro satellite launch vehicle.”

Cantrell said Vector Space plans to follow up this seed investment with a larger Series A round it expects to close in early 2017. The company declined to say how large the Series A round would be, but a company spokesperson said it would be enough to fund the company through the first launch of its Vector-R rocket, planned before the end of 2017.

The Vector-R is designed to place payloads weighing up to 60 kilograms into low Earth orbit. It’s one of a number of vehicles under development to serve a growing small satellite market that currently relies primarily on launches as secondary payloads on larger vehicles.

“Rideshare works. It’s helped the industry grow, so it’s not a bad thing,” Cantrell said during a panel Nov. 16 at the Spacecom conference in Houston. “But what we’re starting to see as the numbers of small satellites proliferate is a demand for tailored services.”

SpaceNews.com

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Bigelow calls on Trump to sharply increase NASA spending

Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, apparently had second thoughts about his first tweet. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

HOUSTON — Space entrepreneur Robert Bigelow said Nov. 17 that he believes that the Trump administration should as much as double NASA’s budget in the coming years and make plans for a human return to the moon.

Bigelow, the founder of commercial space habitat developer Bigelow Aerospace, argued in a speech at the Spacecom conference here Nov. 17 that such a dramatic, and arguably long-shot, increase in NASA funding was essential to the future of both the agency’s exploration efforts and business plans of commercial ventures, as well as affordable to the nation.

“I propose that NASA should have, beginning in fiscal year 2019, an annual budget equal to at least one percent of total yearly federal spending,” Bigelow said. The Obama administration, in its fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, requested $19 billion for NASA, less than half a percent of the overall request of more than $4 trillion.

Part of the reason for the additional funding, he said, is to deal with inefficiencies with some of NASA’s programs. “It is no surprise that NASA needs a greater allowance just to offset the politics, much less what’s needed to really get going,” he said.

The increase would also be used to support more ambitious space exploration efforts by NASA, such as lunar exploration. “The new White House needs to make a real commitment to this nation’s space future,” he said, specifically citing lunar bases and industrial activity. “The reason I’m focusing on the moon is because the business case for the moon is potentially substantial compared to the business case for Mars, and the financial requirements are of no comparison.”

Bigelow said he believed the nation could afford that jump in NASA’s budget because he expects economic growth in the country overall to increase significantly after Trump takes office, although he did not elaborate on how he reached that conclusion. “With this increase, the United States can easily afford NASA’s one percent, and even more,” he said.

In comments after his talk, he said he hadn’t been in direct discussions with anyone on the Trump transition team about his proposal. He was also optimistic that the next administration could increase NASA’s budget despite dealing with competing priorities, such as infrastructure redevelopment. “If you have a growing economy, it lifts all boats,” he said.

Bigelow’s support of Trump — he called Trump’s election an early Christmas present for the country and for NASA — is not surprising. In January, Bigelow joined the social network Twitter and immediately expressed his support for Trump. “What this country needs is an inspirational space program. I’ll bet @realDonaldTrump could do it,” he tweeted.

Bigelow was not the only person at the conference to support significantly increasing NASA’s budget. “NASA receives a pittance of the federal budget,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House space subcommittee, in remarks delivered by video at the conference Nov. 15.

Babin, though, was not optimistic about a doubling or any other large increase for the agency. “As much as I would be thrilled to see NASA’s budget …read more

Commercial space industry seeks regulatory reforms in the Trump administration

An Orbital ATK Mission Extension Vehicle (left) approaches a commercial communications satellite. Credit: Orbital ATK illustration.

HOUSTON — The commercial space industry hopes the administration of President-elect Donald Trump pursues regulatory reforms and continues existing efforts to support its growth.

A panel at the Spacecom conference here Nov. 16 offered a wish list of issues they hope the next administration addresses in the next two years, largely following ongoing discussion on topics such as regulatory oversight of new commercial space activities and space traffic management.

George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, said a major issue for him was shifting space traffic management work from the U.S. Air Force to a civil agency such as his. “That would focus on enhancing the safety of space operations and preserving the space environment,” he said.

A recent report prepared by the Department of Transportation at the request of Congress concluded that it would be feasible to hand over safety-related space situational awareness work for non-military satellites to the FAA. The agency also held an industry day in October to discuss how that transition might take place, provided both the administration and Congress approved that shift.

Another current issue the industry hopes the new administration will take up is oversight of so-called “non-traditional” commercial space activities, such as lunar landers, satellite servicing and commercial space stations. The Outer Space Treaty requires the U.S. government to provide “authorization and continuing supervision” of space activities, but no agency has clear authority today to handle those non-traditional missions.

Jim Muncy of PoliSpace suggested the new administration take a light-touch approach to such oversight except in cases where those missions might interfere with other activities. “People who are launching satellite refurbishment or other things that are going to be in the busier areas of low Earth orbit or geosynchronous orbit should have a slightly more muscular” regulation, he said. “But if you’re going beyond Earth orbit, it could be just a registry.”

Others hope that regulatory reform, one overall policy there from the Trump campaign, is also applied to commercial space. “It is time to modernize and upgrade regulations” in areas like commercial remote sensing, said Courtney Stadd, who dealt with space policy at the White House and several agencies and now works for TIP Technologies.

Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel and director of government affairs at SpaceX, agreed, saying that any effort to update regulations is a long-term process that should start sooner rather than later. “If we don’t start that process today, every day we don’t start it is a day longer that companies are trying to fit square pegs into round holes,” he said.

A related issue, she said, was ensuring FAA’s commercial space transportation office, whose budget is less than $20 million a year, has sufficient resources to oversee the industry without delaying launches and related activities. “I plan on spending some my time explaining to people in D.C. why Dr. Nield’s team needs increased resources to undertake these activities,” she said.

While some seek reforms and new initiatives, others want the new administration to maintain current efforts in other areas, such as …read more

Telesat prepares shareholder payday, outlines 117-satellite constellation

telesat_leo_3

PARIS — Canadian satellite fleet operator Telesat expects to raise more than $3 billion in several transactions in the coming weeks to payoff existing debt and to make a $400 million cash distribution to shareholders still at loggerheads over a Telesat IPO.

Ottawa-based Telesat said it expects to close on Nov. 17 an offering of $500 million in notes due in 2024 and carrying an interest rate of 8.875 percent.

The company also announced a new credit facility including a term loan of $2.43 billion, and a revolving credit line of $200 million. These funds are to be used to redeem $900 million in debt due in May of next year, and to fund the distribution to shareholders.

Telesat is one of the world’s top five commercial satellite operators when measured by revenue, with a fleet of 15 satellites, plus two more on order. The company is also launching in 2017 two small low-orbiting spacecraft to secure frequencies, and retire technical risks, associated with a global Ka-band constellation of satellites for internet connectivity.

A low-orbit constellation of at least 117 Ka-band satellites

Telesat is one of several companies planning internet constellations. How such a constellation, likely to cost several billion dollars, would be financed is unclear as the company’s two owners appear to disagree on a strategy.

Telesat’s low-Earth-orbit constellation was disclosed on Nov. 15 in a filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In the filing, Telesat said its system would be comprised of at least 117 satellites in two orbits. A polar orbit, inclined at 99.5 degrees relative to the equator, would use at least 12 satellites in each of six orbital planes would operate at 1,000 kilometers in altitude.

The second, inclined orbit, 37.4 degrees relative to the equator at 1,248 kilometers in altitude, would include 45 satellites spread over five orbital planes.

In its FCC filing, Telesat stresses that it designed its combined polar-/inclined-orbit system, for which a patent is pending, with U.S. military users in mind. The orbital architecture also appears to be in line with the Canadian government’s proposed — but still not funded — Enhanced Satellite Constellation Project – Polar. This system requires continuous narrowband connectivity at 65-90 degrees north latitude, and wideband connectivity between 55 and 90 degrees north.

Shareholder stalemate continues

Telesat is owned by Loral Space and Communications of New York and Canada’s PSP Investments pension fund. Loral has a 62.7 percent economic ownership of Telesat but just 32.7 percent of the voting rights.

Loral and PSP several years ago agreed in principle to sell Telesat but their price floor was viewed as too high by the interested buyers.

Since then, Loral has sought an initial public offering of stock and in July 2015 exercised its rights under the Telesat shareholder agreement, calling for an IPO of a maximum of 25 million shares.

As part of the IPO process, Loral sought PSP agreement to terminate their existing shareholder agreement to permit Loral to transform its non-voting shares into voting shares. In this Loral-backed scenario, a post-IPO Telesat would find Loral with …read more

OHB, still growing, focused on German, European government hardware programs

160823_kuenstlerische_darstellung_des_heinrich-hertz-satelliten

PARIS — Satellite and rocket hardware builder OHB of Germany on Nov. 16 said delays in its supply chain had put pressure on its revenue in recent months but that the company’s full-year profitability would be unaffected.

Bremen-based OHB said that after several years of hesitation on the part of its German government customer, the company expects to receive the full development contract for Germany’s Heinrich Hertz telecommunications demonstration satellite by next spring.

Heinrich Hertz will use OHB’s SmallGeo satellite platform to test numerous telecommunications technologies for civil and military applications.

Heinrich Hertz satellite development contract early 2017

In a conference call with investors, OHB said it expected the Heinrich Hertz contract to be valued at around 300 million euros ($330 million). The company has already won a small contract to oversee development of the satellite’s diverse payload instruments.

The recent signing of a contract for full development of Europe’s future Ariane 6 heavy-lift rocket between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus Safran Launchers is expected to yield a 300-million-euro contract to MT Aerospace of Augsburg, Germany, which is 70 percent owned by OHB.

MT Aerospace has already been awarded a 23-million-euro contract with the French space agency, CNES, to provide Ariane 6 launch pad components. CNES is managing the Ariane 6 launch installation under a separate contract with ESA.

The recent agreement between Italy and Germany to divide production of the Ariane 6 solid-fueled strap-on boosters, which also serve as the first stage of the Italian-led Vega small satellite launcher, will mean more work for MT Aerospace and more revenue from OHB. The subject was not brought up during the conference call, however.

OHB and Galileo: 14 down (assuming Nov. 17 launch), eight to go

OHB’s biggest ongoing contract is for the provision of 22 Galileo positioning, navigation and timing contracts to the European Commission, which is the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union.

After early delivery delays, Galileo satellite production at OHB is now on schedule.

Four OHB-built Galileo satellites are scheduled for launch Nov. 17 aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket. Once these are in operation, OHB will have eight more spacecraft to deliver under its contract. Five of these have already been sent to ESA’s Estec test facility in Noordwijk, Netherlands, and three others are in OHB’s final integration facility.

OHB is one of several companies bidding to win a third batch of Galileo spacecraft. Bids were submitted in July. ESA and the European Commission are expected to make a selection in the coming months.

OHB is prime contractor for the second generation of German radar reconnaissance satellites, called SARah, and has encountered no delays there, the company said.

Multiple issues at Dec. 1-2 ESA ministerial conference

OHB is awaiting several decisions by ESA governments expected during a Dec. 1-2 conference of European government ministers in Lucerne, Switzerland.

OHB Chief Executive Marco R. Fuchs said during the conference call that the company’s focus for the ESA conference will be on the Earth observation, science and telecommunications missions that ESA will decide, and well as on the final budget needed …read more

Babin backs Pence-led National Space Council

Pence

HOUSTON — The chairman of the House space subcommittee said Nov. 15 that he believes Vice President-elect Mike Pence would do a good job running a reconstituted National Space Council, a key element of the Trump campaign’s proposed space policy.

In a video address given at the Space Commerce Conference and Exposition, or Spacecom, here, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) also endorsed other elements of the Trump space policy, including a greater focus on human spaceflight versus Earth science research.

Babin, whose Houston-area district includes NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said he met Pence during a campaign stop Oct. 31 in Cocoa, Florida. “I was very impressed with him, and I’m very pleased that he’s going to chair a newly-resurrected National Space Council,” he said of Pence. “This should give space the attention and focus that has been missing for far too many years.”

One element of the space policy outlined by the Trump campaign in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election was to recreate the National Space Council, which last operated during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. That council has been formally chaired by the vice president in the past.

Pence, in that Oct. 31 speech, outlined the elements of the campaign’s space policy, including restoring the National Space Council as well as a greater focus on human space exploration and increased use of public-private partnerships. “Our space program needs new leadership, and a new vision,” he said, adding he would work with people in Congress like Babin to implement those plans.

Pence, who spent 12 years in the House before being elected governor of Indiana in 2012, was not active on space issues during his time in Congress. From 2005 to 2007 he was chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative members that offered proposals for reducing federal spending. Those proposals included, at the time Pence led the committee, cutting funding for human missions to the moon and Mars under President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration.

Babin, in his address at Spacecom, said he did not expect the next administration to provide major increases in funding to NASA. “As much as I would be thrilled to see NASA’s budget doubled, we have to be realistic, and ensure that the tax dollars we currently receive are focused on the right missions,” he said.

Babin said those “right missions” include work to achieve a long-term goal of human missions to Mars, “with a focus on the moon or cislunar [space] as an important step in that direction.” He also supported more partnerships with the private sector along those lines.

The Trump policy also calls for an emphasis on human space exploration at NASA in favor of research on climate change, a position aligned with Babin’s views. “The agency has gotten a bit distracted over the years with significant funding being siphoned off to support climate change research efforts,” he argued, noting that other agencies could handle that work instead. “NASA is the only federal agency that does human spaceflight, and …read more

UrtheCast takes $7.8M impairment charge on ISS-mounted cameras

UrtheCast Iris Camera ISS

WASHINGTON — UrtheCast said Nov. 10 it expects to record a $7.8 million impairment charge on two Earth-observing cameras attached to the Russian side of the International Space Station.

The Vancouver-based company said its was writing off some of the cameras’ value because of strained relations with their Russian hosts, who recently approached UrtheCast with a request to renegotiate their deal.

Russian cosmonauts installed two UrtheCast cameras on the exterior of space station in 2014. The medium-resolution camera, called Theia, captures 50-kilometer swaths of multispectral imagery sharp enough to discern features 5-meters across. The high-resolution camera, called Iris, records ultra-high-def-quality, full-color video of the Earth and still images at a resolution of one meter per pixel. Iris entered service only last year due to technical issues.

Wade Larson, UrtheCast’s co-founder and chief executive, told investors during a Nov. 10 conference call that tensions between Russia and the U.S. and its allies are spilling over into UrtheCast’s agreement with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and Russia’s lead space station contractor RSC Energia.

“There’s been some geopolitical challenges that have influenced this relationship and candidly … that has impacted our ability to task these cameras operationally,” Larson said.

Larson said UrtheCast’s Russian partners sent a letter indicating intent to renegotiate their agreement come 2017. That letter prompted the non-cash impairment on the cameras, though Larson admitted it was not much of a surprise.

“I think we all know that we’ve seen this coming in some way, shape or form,” he said.

While UrtheCast might have expected Russia to seek to reopen negotiations, the company doesn’t pretend to know what to expect when it sits down at the bargaining table. Larson said negotiations “could involve basically anything.” Among the potential outcomes Larson laid out for investors: an ongoing partnership, new licensing, a joint venture, or even selling off infrastructure on the station.

Russia’s relationship with Western countries has been shaky in recent years, and Larson said it is entirely unclear if Donald Trump becoming U.S. president in January will change that.

At one point UrtheCast’s business was more closely tied to these cameras, but Larson said now that the company has the Deimos-1 and 2 satellites it obtained through the purchase of Deimos Imaging from Elecnor in 2015, the station cameras now constitute a smaller amount of overall business.

Imagery from the Iris and Theia cameras are still in UrtheCast’s product offering, Larson said. He added that the cameras both still work, and that the company has sold some Iris video in recent months despite operational challenges.

Jeff Rath, UrtheCast’s executive vice president of corporate finance and strategy, said the cameras are still generating revenue. Given that UrtheCast now has multiple assets in space, he downplayed the significance of gaining Earth observation data from any one specific source.

“Increasingly, we are actually seeing that we are winning proposals on multiple levels, but with multiple sensors, so to the customer, it’s increasingly not significant which sensor. It’s really about us delivering a unique offering,” he …read more

Commercial space’s era of transition at the heart of SpaceCom

spacecom-presentation

WASHINGTON — It’s a time for transition for the commercial space industry, and not just because of a change of presidential administrations.

The second annual Space Commerce Conference and Exposition, or SpaceCom, convenes in Houston Nov. 15 for three days of discussions about future directions for companies and markets as new capabilities, from small satellites to commercial crew vehicles, get closer to entering service or find wider acceptance in the market.

The conference’s first day will take a broad look at the overall commercial space industry and prospects for growth. Panelists from the space industry as well as other industries that make use of space technologies will discuss the state of the commercial space and how close it may be to a “tipping point” that could greatly increase demand for, and investment in, space companies and technologies.

The conference’s second day Nov. 16 will examine in greater detail some of those emerging markets and applications. Parallel sessions will discuss the growth in “big data” applications in Earth observation, use of the International Space Station in general and microgravity research there in particular, other commercial applications of low Earth orbit, and even space resource utilization on the moon or asteroids.

As the inaugural SpaceCom did last year, other sessions Nov. 16 will examine the interplay between the space industry and other markets that can either make use of space capabilities, or offer technologies for use in space. Those sessions include discussions of space in materials science, climate research, natural resources and remote medicine.

Other panels that day will examine more underlying issues, like the use of commercial spaceports to support space ventures. Another timely panel will discuss public policy issues as the Trump administration — whose policy statements have indicated at least continued, if not enhanced, support for commercialization — prepares to take office.

The conference’s final day Nov. 17 looks at both markets and investment opportunities. Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, will discuss his company’s plans to develop commercial habitats in low Earth orbit, either as standalone space stations or attached to the ISS. Boeing Vice President John Elbon will also give a keynote, looking ahead to the human exploration of Mars, a topic discussed in other panels earlier in the conference.

SpaceCom will not be focused entirely on the near term. On Nov. 16, Dan Collins, chief operating officer of United Launch Alliance, will discuss his company’s “Cislunar 1000” 30-year plan to commercialization of cislunar space between the Earth and moon.

Collins will speak immediately after Pete Worden, the former director NASA’s Ames Research Center and current chairman of the Breakthough Prize Foundation, which is funding efforts like the Breakthrough Listen project to search for signals for alien civilizations. Worden will speak about his work promoting the space resources initiative in Luxembourg as well as new models for funding “high-risk” space initiatives.

SpaceNews.com

…read more

NASA awaits transition and budget details

fancyARRM

WASHINGTON — Nearly a week after Donald Trump was elected president, his campaign has yet to send a team to NASA to prepare for the upcoming transition in administrations, an agency official said Nov. 14.

Speaking at a meeting of a NASA advisory committee, Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for policy and plans in the human exploration and operations mission directorate, said the agency had not yet been informed by the Trump campaign’s transition team who the individuals are that will deal with NASA.

“The new administration has not yet named its transition team members that interface with NASA, so we don’t yet know who we’ll be talking to,” Williams told the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee, meeting at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We are prepared to talk with them when they arrive.”

Sources said immediately after the Nov. 8 election that Mark Albrecht, the former executive secretary of the National Space Council during the administration of George H.W. Bush and, later, president of International Launch Services, would lead up the NASA transition efforts. However, there has been no formal announcement from the campaign about that selection, nor other names to work with him on NASA transition issues.

The Trump campaign has been slow to ramp up its transition efforts, in large part because of limited planning prior to the election. Much larger agencies have yet to meet transition teams that are typically in place within a few days after an election. At a Nov. 14 forum organized by The Atlantic magazine, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said he had not yet heard from the Trump transition team for the Defense Department, but expected them to arrive at the Pentagon this week.

Despite the uncertainty about what a Trump administration will do in space, Williams said at the advisory committee meeting that he hoped the next administration and next Congress would maintain the agency’s current exploration plans, collectively known as Journey to Mars. “We hope to be building on the consensus we’ve achieved on the phases of exploration, the progression of human exploration from the ISS all the way to the surface of Mars,” he said.

He added that NASA expects to know more in the next week about its budget for fiscal year 2017. The agency, along with the rest of the federal government, is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that funds programs at 2016 levels through Dec. 9. Congress reconvenes this week for a lame duck session whose top priority will be passing some kind of appropriations bill.

Williams said he did not know if Congress would be able to pass a full-fledged appropriations bill, perhaps in the form of an “omnibus” or “minibus” that combines several appropriations bills into a single package. If not, Congress could instead pass another short-term CR and allow the new Congress in January to take up appropriations bills. Another, but less likely, option is for Congress to pass a CR for all of fiscal year 2017.

At a Nov. 14 webinar on science policy …read more

WorldView-4 launches successfully after two-month fire delay

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket stands ready for launch early Friday morning, carrying DigitalGlobe's WorldView-4 advanced imaging satellite. Credit: ULA

WASHINGTON — After nearly two months of delay due to wildfires, United Launch Alliance successfully launched an Atlas 5 rocket Nov. 11 carrying an important imaging satellite for DigitalGlobe.

The Atlas 5 lifted off at 1:30 p.m. Eastern from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, carrying the Worldview-4 satellite. DigitalGlobe later confirmed that it received signals from the spacecraft 45 minutes after launch, confirming it was in good health after separation from the rocket’s upper stage.

“This morning’s Atlas 5 launch delivered the WorldView-4 satellite into near sun-synchronous orbit during a flawless flight,” Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president of human and commercial services, said in a press release. “ULA is proud to have launched the entire constellation of DigitalGobe’s satellites and served in an essential role to get this revolutionary capability to orbit.”

The WorldView-4 launch had been scheduled for Sept. 18. Indeed, the countdown was already underway when it was halted due to a wildfire in the vicinity of the launch pad at Vandenberg.

It took weeks for firefighters to put out the blaze and then repair any damage that had been done. Although the rocket and payload itself were not damaged, ULA and DigitalGlobe delayed the launch to confirm that all systems were unaffected. DigitalGlobe said it used some of its satellites already in orbit to image the wildfire and share that information with firefighters.

“The 30th Mission Support Group, Operations Group, Launch Group, and many other units across the base have been working hard since the fire to get their systems back to a launch configuration,” said Capt. Sean Kelly, the Fourth Space Launch Squadron system infrastructure and facilities engineering chief at Vandenberg.

“Power lines had to be washed by the 30th [Civil Engineer Squadron], fiber paths had to be repaired or replaced by the 30th Space Communications Squadron, and we, the 30th [Launch Group, assessed the launch facilities and associated launch infrastructure, ensuring a safe and stable power and environmental condition for satellites and the Atlas 5 booster,” he added.

WorldView-4 is an advanced imaging satellite built by Lockheed Martin. According to DigitalGlobe, it can capture details with a resolution of 30 centimeters. It will operate in conjunction with WorldView-3, which has been in orbit for nearly three years.

In addition to WorldView-4, the Centaur upper-stage rocket carried 10 experimental cubesats from the National Reconnaissance Office, collectively named “Enterprise.” They include satellites to aid in climate change prediction, test out new forms of satellite propulsion, and determine the survivability of low-cost spacecraft.

SpaceNews.com

…read more

Trump’s defense priorities should give military space a boost — provided Congress goes along

Donald Trump delivers his victory speech on Election Night 2016. Credit: CSPAN

WASHINGTON — U.S. defense stocks rode Donald Trump’s unexpected victory to solid gains, a sign Wall Street thinks the president-elect will make good on his campaign promise to boost defense spending. Analysts say some of that increase, presumably, would find its way into military space programs.

While Trump did not say much about space on the campaign trail, his space policy advisers have flagged Chinese and Russian “military-focused space initiatives” as cause for concern.

Writing in SpaceNews, former U.S. congressman Robert Walker and Peter Navarro, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, promised Trump would increase military space spending to “reduce our current vulnerabilities and assure that our military commands have the space tools they need.”

Trump in 2013 endorsed mandatory across-the-board spending cuts that took effect that year as a way to rein in government spending. The cuts, known as sequestration, remain in effect until 2021 unless repealed by Congress.

Trump has since said the defense cuts have gone too far and — supported by Republican hawks in Congress — is looking to pour renewed resources into the Pentagon.

In a September campaign speech in Philadelphia, Trump blamed President Barack Obama for “oversee[ing] deep cuts in our military, which only invite more aggression” from U.S. adversaries.

Trump hasn’t given many specifics, but has indicated he wants to put military spending back on a growth path.

So what does that mean for military space?

A lot will depend on who Trump appoints as his defense secretary and national security adviser, said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Among the names making the rounds for these posts are U.S. Sens. Jeff Session (R-Ala.) and Jim Talent (R-Mont.), former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn. Trump’s transition team for defense agencies is being led in part by Mira Ricardel, a former senior Defense Department official, who has spent the better part of the last 10 years working for Boeing’s Network and Space Systems and Strategic Missile and Defense Systems units.

Harrison said while Trump might want to undo sequestration, it won’t be easy.

“I think it is important to remember that the [Budget Control Act] budget caps are existing law,” Harrison said. “To increase spending for defense or non-defense, Congress has to pass a law altering the budget caps or reclassify funding as being war-related. Either way, these measures are going to have a hard time getting through the Senate and House with such narrow Republican majorities, especially given the number of fiscal hawks in the Republican caucus.”

That could “effectively limit whatever space ambitions the Trump administration will have for both civil and military space,” Harrison continued.

Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force captain specializing in space surveillance, technical adviser at the Secure World Foundation, a Boulder, Colorado-based think tank, said Trump hasn’t outlined his space policy thinking in much detail.

“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty on that question, just like everything else,” he said. “As far as …read more