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Elon Musk shows off SpaceX’s Starship Raptor engine firing

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Who knew seeing a rocket fire up close could be so pretty?

On Sunday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared photos and video of the company’s Starship Raptor engine firing in its first ground test.

A still shows a kaleidoscope of colours streaming from the engine, although that could be just the camera not quite keeping up with the fire’s intensity.

“Green tinge is either camera saturation or a tiny bit of copper from the chamber,” Musk added in a tweet.

First firing of Starship Raptor flight engine! So proud of great work by @SpaceX team!! pic.twitter.com/S6aT7Jih4S

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 4, 2019 Read more…

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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

“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.”

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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

Loverro: U.S. government needs to rethink how it works with private space ventures

The U.S. government should overhaul regulations for space operations in order to attract more investment from the private sector, a panel of experts said Monday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. (L to R) Todd Harrison, CSIS senior fellow; Doug Loverro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy; Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University; Dawn Harms, vice president, Boeing Satellite Systems International; Marcy Steinke, vice president, Digital Globe; and Richard Leshner, vice president, Planet Labs. Credit: C-SPAN

WASHINGTON — The next big change in space operations could be the paperwork.

The U.S. government needs to reform and rethink its policies about working with private companies, in order to make the opportunities more agile and enticing for businesses, a panel of military and civilian experts said Monday.

“How will we make sure regulation doesn’t disadvantage either our companies or our activities?” said Doug Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. “I think that’s a key question. I don’t believe anybody knows the answer to that question.”

The panel on military-commercial relations in space was hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a kick-off to the think tank’s new Aerospace Security Project to study air and space issues more closely.

The regulatory framework of the nation’s space business has lagged behind rapid developments in the field, Loverro said. Some areas, like remote sensing, are stuck with outdated rules that require “regulatory reform, regulatory relaxation,” while other activities such as space traffic management “don’t have any regulation to date.”

Richard Leshner, vice president at Planet, a satellite-imaging company, said the commercial space industry is now “a partner leg” in space operations “in a way that’s more than just being the industrial contractor base.”

“Industry’s doing things differently and quickly,” he said. “Government, military, civil, needs to find a way to do rapid demonstrations and get data and information about what capabilities can bring.”

The government needs to “find ways to engage with industry through demonstrations, experiments, data buys, and figuring it out in real time, and then integrating that into the planning now so that your future architectures are integrated as well,” Leshner said.

Planet holds a $20 million contract with the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to supply imagery from the constellation of small satellites the company is deploying.

While there’s been an effort to make regulations less cumbersome to businesses, some of the rules are still being enforced as if the U.S. government is the only operator in orbit, said Marcy Steinke, vice president at Digital Globe, a satellite-imaging company that received roughly half of its first quarter revenue from a long-standing NGA contract.

“Some of the things they’re looking at is the regulatory oversight, which probably — when it was set up 20-plus years ago — made sense when every satellite was a classified government satellite,” she said. “But now that the world is different, we need to look at what do they really need to oversee and what can we let go. I hope that 2017 is the year where the answer comes; there’s a lot that can be let go.”

Steinke said her company has heard from several clients who have described the U.S. licensing and regulatory process as “restrictive.”

“The concern with the slowness of it is that that slow and cumbersome process just pushes customers to international competitors,” she said.

The current constrained fiscal environment might force the government and military to take a second-look at partnerships with commercial space vendors, said Scott Pace, the director of George Washington University’s Space …read more

Orbital, Airbus team to build Eutelsat satellite to launch with Orbital satellite-servicing mission

eutelsat-5-west-b-orbital

PARIS — Satellite fleet operator Eutelsat on Oct. 11 said it had inaugurated its design-to-cost spending-reduction plan by ordering a direct-broadcast television satellite from Orbital ATK of the United States and Airbus Defence and Space of Europe.

In another cost-reduction measure, the satellite, Eutelsat 5 West B — benefiting from Orbital’s smaller platform size — will be launched in 2018 as a co-passenger aboard an International Launch Services Proton Breeze-M rocket.

Riding to geostationary transfer orbit with the Eutelsat satellite will be Orbital’s precedent-setting satellite in-orbit serving Mission Extension Vehicle, MEV-1, which uses the same GEOStar-based platform as Orbital’s telecommunications satellites.

Stacking the savings on a single Proton

Stacking two GEOStar-derived platforms on top of each other, without an adaptor between them, saves weight and will allow Eutelsat — and Orbital, for the MEV-1 — to save on launch costs.

Fleet operator Intelsat is Orbital’s inaugural customer for MEV-1, which will perform a test mission with Intelsat before moving on to its operational scenario of docking with a satellite, assuming control of its propulsion and attitude control, and providing fuel to extend its service life.

MEV-1 then undocks and is available to perform similar mission-extension missions on several satellites. Like the satellites themselves, MEV-1 has an estimated 15-year service life.

Satellite insurers are taking a cautiously optimistic view of MEV-1 and similar satellite in-orbit servicing initiatives. They have said MEV-1 customers likely will be forced to sign amended, higher-premium insurance policies, which usually provide for annual coverage of healthy satellites in orbit, to reflect the higher risk associated with servicing missions.

Eutelsat 5 West B will replace the Eutelsat 5 West A satellite at 5 degrees west longitude. It will carry the equivalent of 35 36-megahertz Ku-band transponders to deliver direct-to-home television to audiences located mainly in France, Italy and Algeria.

Eutelsat 5A, which also carries a C-band payload, was launched in mid-2002 and is nearing retirement.

Eutelsat’s revenue and profit warning in May had a chilling effect on the entire fixed satellite services industry. The company said the market reaction was overblown and that growth would return within three years.

Nonetheless, Eutelsat announced a broad cost-cutting program that included a 16 percent reduction — to 420 million euros ($470 million) per year for the coming three years from the earlier 500 million euros — in annual capital spending for three years.

The company said it would be pressuring its supply chain, notably satellite builders and launch-service providers, to minimize the effects of the lower spending on new capacity to be placed into orbit.

Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital’s GEOStar platform occupies the lighter end of the commercial geostationary-orbit satellite market. Airbus said the Eutelsat 5 West B would have a launch mass of about 3,000 kilograms and would generate 5 kilowatts of power to the payload at the end of its 15-year life.

Eutelsat Chief Technology Officer Yohann Leroy said the idea to marry an Airbus payload with an Orbital-built platform emerged as the natural consequence of Eutelsat’s bid request, whose power specifications were below what Airbus usually provides to customers.

Other companies besides …read more

Blue Origin to follow suborbital New Shepard with orbital New Glenn

Blue Origin founder tweeted out this infographic showing how its planned New Glenn rocket family stacks up against other rockets. Credit: Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos announced Sept. 12 via Twitter that Blue Origin plans to build a family of orbital rockets it’s calling New Glenn.

Both the two-stage and three-stage versions of the rocket would stand taller than the United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy and SpaceX Falcon Heavy, according to the infographic the Blue Origin and Amazon.com founder tweeted.

Blue Origin’s next step…meet New Glenn #NewGlenn #GradatimFerociter pic.twitter.com/p4gICKZRfi

— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) September 12, 2016

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