Final Iridium Next launch scheduled for Dec. 30 Falcon 9 mission

Iridium-7 launch photo SpaceX Falcon 9

WASHINGTON — The last mission needed to complete Iridium Communications’ second-generation satellite constellation is scheduled for Dec. 30, Iridium CEO Matt Desch said today.

In a tweet announcing the launch date, Desch said the launch is set for 8:38 a.m. Pacific Standard Time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch will also use a previously flown first-stage booster, marking the third time Iridium switched from a new rocket.

The December launch will enable Iridium to get the entire $3 billion Iridium Next constellation in orbit by year’s end, though the satellites will take until early 2019 to reach their orbital slots.

Iridium currently has 65 Iridium Next satellites in low-Earth orbit, replacing a first generation constellation from Lockheed Martin that launched in the late 1990s. The final launch will add 10 satellites, completing the system of 66 operational satellites and nine orbiting spares.

Iridium also has six spare satellites it is keeping on the ground.

Iridium initially hoped to complete the Iridium Next constellation in 2017, but manufacturing and launch delays pushed that target into this year.

Desch told SpaceNews Oct. 18 that this final mission was pushed back mainly “due to a delay in a specific part that Thales Alenia [Space] couldn’t get to finish the final 10 satellites.” Correcting that issue required Iridium to reposition itself in SpaceX’s and Vandenberg’s launch schedule behind a mid-November launch, he said.

“We can’t start processing satellites there until that launch is cleared,” he said. “So several issues caused the delay, but they are all cleared now.”

Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for all 81 Iridium Next satellites. Partner Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is handling assembly, integration and testing at its Gilbert, Arizona, facility.

Desch said the last 10 satellites consist of six operational satellites and four spares.

SpaceX has launched the entire Iridium Next constellation on Falcon 9 rockets from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The first Iridium Next launch took place Jan. 14, 2017.

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Swedish firm buys Falcon Heavy launch

Falcon Heavy climbs to orbit during its Feb. 6 debut. Credit: Craig Vander Galien for SpaceNews

WASHINGTON —  A Swedish company with plans for a geostationary communications satellite announced Oct. 16 a contract with SpaceX for a Falcon Heavy launch no earlier than the fourth quarter of 2020.

Ovzon of Solna, Sweden, has not yet purchased the satellite, but paid Eutelsat $1.6 million earlier this year to move one of its satellites to an unspecified Ovzon orbital slot to preserve spectrum rights at that location.

In a statement, Ovzon CEO Per Wahlberg said procurement of the company’s first satellite is “in the final stage,” and that production of an advanced onboard processor started earlier this month.

“Contracting the launch supplier of our first Ovzon satellite is an important and exciting step for our company. SpaceX offered a very competitive solution with the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle which will gain us access to space in a timely and reliable manner,” he said.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer said the company is  “honored that Ovzon has chosen SpaceX to launch the first of its satellites.”

“We look forward to working closely on the execution of this important direct-to-GEO mission,” she said in the statement.

Ovzon cautioned that the Falcon Heavy contract is “subject to certain contingencies and mutual termination clauses.”

A launch in late 2020 will require a geostationary satellite to be built in roughly two years, an achievable but tight deadline for most of the world’s top manufacturers.

Wahlberg co-founded Swe-Dish, a satellite communications terminal manufacturer, in 1994. DataPath purchased Swe-Dish in 2007 for $56 million, and then Rockwell Collins purchased DataPath in 2009 for $130 million. In 2014, Rockwell Collins divested from DataPath selling the company for just $10 million.

SpaceX launched the first Falcon Heavy in February 2018 with a red Tesla Roadster as a practice payload. The company’s growing queue of Falcon Heavy customers include the U.S. Air Force and fleet operators Arabsat, Intelsat and Inmarsat.

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Safety panel fears Soyuz failure could exacerbate commercial crew safety concerns

Starliner and Crew Dragon

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Members of an independent NASA safety panel said they were worried that the Oct. 11 Soyuz launch failure could make safety concerns with the agency’s commercial crew program even worse.

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), in a previously scheduled meeting at the Johnson Space Center Oct. 11 only hours after the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft suffered a launch vehicle failure and had to make an emergency landing, said the incident only deepened concerns about the ability of Boeing and SpaceX to adhere to their schedules without jeopardizing safety.

“We have not seen the program make decisions detrimental to safety,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of ASAP, in her opening remarks. “But current projected schedules for uncrewed and crewed test flights for both providers have considerable risk and do not appear achievable.”

“The panel believes that an overconstrained schedule, driven by any real or perceived gap in astronaut transport to the International Space Station and possibly exacerbated by this morning’s events, poses a danger that sound engineering design solutions could be superseded, critical program content could be delayed or deleted, and decisions of ‘good enough to proceed’ could be made on insufficient data,” she argued.

Sanders and other ASAP members said they were skeptical that either Boeing or SpaceX could maintain its current schedules for fielding their commercial crew systems, let alone accelerate them to address a potential gap in ISS access created by the Soyuz failure.

ASAP member Don McErlean outlined several issues that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft needs to overcome, including a lack of a final resolution on the root cause of the failure of a composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) that led to the pad explosion of a Falcon 9 more than two years ago. That is linked, he added, to the use of “load-and-go” fueling of the rocket that would take place, on commercial crew missions, after astronauts have boarded the spacecraft.

“Ultimately, there has to be the acceptance and certification of a configuration which is judged by both parties to be free of the demonstrated characteristics that caused the failure in question,” he said. “This remains an open technical item that the panel believes has to be firmly resolved before we can certainly proceed to crewed launches.”

He also raised concerns about issues with the Dragon’s parachute system, citing anomalies during testing of the Crew Dragon spacecraft and unspecified problems with cargo versions of the Dragon. “Clearly, one cannot risk crew without there being a complete confidence in the parachute design,” he said.

McErlean pushed back against criticism that it was paperwork, and not technical issues, that was delaying test flights of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. That certification “paperwork,” he argued, is actually in the form of critical technical reviews by NASA of the data provided by the vehicle developers.

“While this may indeed be described as paperwork, it is not bureaucratic, it is not paperwork and, point in fact, it is the essence of the technical certification of the design by NASA, and that does have to be completed before crew flies on these systems,” he said. “It is essentially extremely important and should not be thought of as some sort of bureaucratic time delay.”

Boeing has problems of its own to overcome, ASAP member Christopher Saindon noted, including investigating a problem with the propulsion system in the CST-100 Starliner’s service module first reported in July. That issue, he said, appeared to be a “harmonic resonance across the system” that caused a “waterhammer” effect, prematurely shutting down the engine during a static-fire test. Boeing, he said, is still working to identify the root cause of that failure and the exact source of that resonance.

Saindon said that Boeing was also working on parachute issues of its own discovered during testing in New Mexico. “They’re still working to discover the exact root cause,” he said. “The test is on hold until they do that, and then they have to re-initiate the test program, and it’s not an easy test program.”

A third issue he discussed with “unexpected failures” of pyros used to separate the Starliner’s crew module from its service module prior to reentry. “They’re still working to understand why that occurred,” he said. He added that, despite the pyro problems, the overall separation system appeared to work as desired.

He, too, was skeptical Boeing could resolve its issues and complete its testing on its current schedule. “They do have a pretty significant ‘burn-down curve’ for their validation and verification,” he said, with 40 percent of that work complete. “There’s certainly some concern with maintain a good schedule profile with those considerations.”

Boeing's John Mulholland (left) and SpaceX's Benji Reed discuss their commercial crew development programs Oct. 11 at the ISPCS conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust
Boeing’s John Mulholland (left) and SpaceX’s Benji Reed discuss their commercial crew development programs Oct. 11 at the ISPCS conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Commercial crew providers respond

During a panel session later in the day at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here, managers of Boeing’s and SpaceX’s commercial crew programs said they were still confident that they could meet their current schedules for testing their vehicles, but would not sacrifice safety for schedule.

The latest schedule, released by NASA Oct. 4, calls for an uncrewed test flight by SpaceX in January, followed by a crewed one in June. Boeing would perform an uncrewed test flight in March and a crewed one in August. That schedule, though, represented a delay of two months for SpaceX, and a roughly similar time frame for Boeing, since the previous schedule released in August.

“You lay out a plan you believe you can achieve,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs at Boeing’s space exploration unit. He noted the company was 85 percent of the way through the overall test program, but added that still meant a chance of discovery of new issues during that final 15 percent. “If there’s discovery that we have, we’ll address it correctly, and fly as soon as we’re ready.”

“You put together a plan, you expect to follow it, and you do your best to get there,” said Benji Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX. “While we’re all pushing hard to get flying, you also want to want to provide it safely.”

Both Mulholland and Reed said they were making progress addressing some of the technical issues raised by ASAP in its meeting. “We discovered an inherent design susceptibility in the launch abort engine,” Mulholland said of the service module hotfire test problem, one that he said only showed up when the entire system was tested. A “really subtle design change” should resolve the problem, he said.

Reed didn’t go into details about parachute anomalies alluded to at the ASAP meeting. “We’re constantly learning and going through that data and applying that, ensuring that the ultimate parachute system that will fly for crew, as well as for cargo missions, will be safe,” he said.

Neither Mulholland nor Reed suggested that development of their commercial crew vehicle could be accelerated much from their current schedules in response to the Soyuz MS-10 failure, adding they would not cut testing needed to ensure their vehicles’ safety.

“We look at it in terms of, ‘Could I work extra shifts or put extra people on it?’” Mulholland said. “It never crossed our mind to think what could you not do, what scope can you reduce.”

“You have to do the same work. You have to do the right work,” Reed said. “The question is whether there’s a way you can compress that schedule. You don’t look at in terms of cutting out work.”

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Price swings expected during launch industry shakeout

Falcon 9 Block 5

MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — The next two to three years will be a time of adjustment in the space launch industry, according to panelists at Satellite Innovation 2018 here.

“People are making a lot of bets on new companies and concepts,” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit president and chief executive. “Some will take. Some will shakeout.”

One result will be swings in launch prices during the next two to three years, Hart said. After that, he anticipates more price stability and company profitability.

It is an interesting time in the launch business. Demand for geostationary launches is down while demand for small satellite launches particularly for low Earth orbit constellations is way up, said Steve Kaufman, partner at Hogan Lovells, an international law firm based in Washington and London.

At the same time, dozens of companies around the world are developing and testing new launch vehicles.

“We believe that the small satellites and the low Earth orbit constellations are definitely where the demand is going,” said Stella Guillen, Arianespace sales and marketing vice president.

Arianespace will serve that market with both its Vega small satellite launch vehicle and Ariane 6, a large rocket with dispensers capable of sending small satellites into various orbits, Guillen said. “In terms of pricing we have to see how this demand is going to work out. As long as we increase the frequency of launches, we can all continue to work on lowering our prices,” she added.

SpaceX also is seeking to reduce prices. “The key to lowering launch cost and increasing our cadence is being able to reuse our vehicles,” said Stephanie Bednarek, SpaceX commercial sales director. SpaceX will be able to reuse its new Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket “ten times, possibly even more,” Bednarek said. “That enables the cadence and manifest availability customers are demanding.”

Similarly, Blue Origin sees reusability as the key to reducing launch costs. “In the long term, we are aiming to reduce prices sufficiently to see an increase in demand, not just traditional satellites, but other payloads,” said Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin director for New Glenn commercial sales Americas.

Spire is one of the customers seeking both dedicated rides on small satellites and shared rides on large rockets. “Anyone offering rideshare is coming to our office,” said Jenny Barna, Spire launch director. “There is way more supply than demand today. So I think the price will go down a little bit.”

Companies developing small rockets are offering customers discounts to book rides on new vehicles. Barna said she expects that practice to end once the new launch vehicles prove themselves.

One vehicles seeking to prove itself is Rocket Lab’s Electron. Electron customers focus on price but are also concerned with cadence, schedule surety and the launch process. “Some customers will pay a lot of money if it is as simple as possible,” said Indra Heed Hornsby, Rocket Lab corporate development executive vice president. “It’s not just price. If you provide good customer service, odds are they will become repeat customers.”

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WATCH | SpaceX lands rocket back at California base

Elon Musk’s rocket company launched a commercial satellite for Argentina on Sunday evening, marking SpaceX’s 17th mission of 2018 in the type of steady success that so far has eluded his electric-car maker Tesla. Original Link

SpaceX launches Argentine satellite, posts first ground-landing on West Coast

Falcon 9 Saocom-1A CONAE

WASHINGTON — SpaceX conducted its seventeenth launch of the year Oct. 7, sending an Argentine radar satellite into low-Earth orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket.

The mission was also SpaceX’s first to include a successful land recovery of the rocket’s booster stage at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. All previous recoveries in California used a drone ship to land boosters out at sea.

The Falcon 9 Block 5 lifted off at 10:21 p.m. Eastern during an instantaneous launch window. The satellite, Saocom-1A, separated from the launcher’s upper stage about 13 minutes later.

SpaceX landed the rocket’s first stage at a newly built landing pad called LZ-4 that is located near Vandenberg’s SLC-4E launch pad where the rocket took off. The company views ground-based rocket landings as better for expediting reuse, since drone ship landings require time to return to port. 

SpaceX used the same first stage for the Saocom-1A mission that launched 10 satellites for Iridium about 10-and-a-half weeks ago, also from Vandenberg.

Saocom-1A is a 3,000-kilogram synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite for the Argentine space agency CONAE that was contracted in 2009 for a launch in 2012. By that year the launch had slipped to 2014, and would continue to slip further as Falcon 9 explosions in 2015 and 2016 compounded earlier delays.  

CONAE was one of the company’s first customers, signing up for two Falcon 9 launches back when SpaceX had only flown the smaller Falcon 1 vehicle. At the time, the launch was scheduled to occur from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean where SpaceX launched the now retired Falcon 1.

Argentina’s domestic satellite manufacturer INVAP built the satellite with assistance from other agencies and domestic companies. NASA and the space agencies of Europe, Italy and Canada also provided technical support.

Saocom-1A has an L-band payload designed to study soil moisture for agriculture, disaster monitoring and scientific research. CONAE will operate the satellite as part of the Argentine-Italian System of Satellites with the Italian Space Agency, coordinating observations with Italy’s four Cosmo-Skymed X-band SAR satellites.

The Saocom-1A launch places SpaceX one mission away from tying its record of 18 launches in one year, set in 2017. SpaceX has several other missions planned for this year, including the Falcon 9 launches of another 10 Iridium Next satellites, Es’hailSat’s Es’hail-2, and the U.S. Air Force’s first GPS-3 satellite.

SpaceX has a second CONAE satellite, Saocom-1B, that it is also tasked with launching. That nearly identical satellite will launch in “the near future,” also on a Falcon 9, according to the mission narrator for the Saocom-1A webcast.

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NASA confirms new delays in commercial crew test flight schedule

Starliner and Crew Dragon

Updated 10 a.m. Eastern Oct. 5.

BREMEN, Germany — A day after a SpaceX executive expressed doubts that his company would be able to carry out its first commercial crew test flight before the end of the year, NASA issued an updated schedule that delayed that mission to 2019.

In an Oct. 4 statement, NASA said the revised date for the uncrewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft was now January 2019. The vehicle could be ready for launch in December, the agency added, but scheduled it for January “to accommodate docking opportunities at the orbiting laboratory.”

The announcement came a day after Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability for SpaceX, said in a speech at the 69th International Astronautical Congress here that he had doubts that the mission, previously scheduled for November, would launch before the end of the year.

“We’re working hard to get this done this year,” he said. “The hardware might be ready, but we might still have to do some paperwork on the certification side of it. It’s going to be a close call whether we fly this year or not.”

The new schedule also rescheduled the crewed flight test, carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, for June 2019. That launch was scheduled for April in the previous schedule released in August, although SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, in a Sept. 17 presentation, said he expected the mission to fly “hopefully in the second quarter of next year.”

“Having completed a number of additional milestones including substantial training and numerous integrated mission simulations, end-to-end Dragon checkouts at the Cape, complete Falcon 9 vehicle integration review, and installation of the crew access arm at LC-39A, SpaceX is on track for launch readiness in December,” said SpaceX spokesperson Eva Behrend in a statement to SpaceNews. “We look forward to launching our first demonstration flight of Crew Dragon-one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built-as part of the Commercial Crew program and working with NASA to identify the specific launch target date soon.”

NASA also revised the schedule for Boeing’s two test flights of its CST-100 Starliner. An uncrewed test flight, originally scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019, is now planned for March 2019. The crewed test flight previously scheduled for mid-2019 is now scheduled for August 2019.

That crewed test flight will carry NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Aunapu Mann along with Chris Ferguson, a Boeing test pilot and former NASA astronaut. In an Oct. 2 briefing here, Ferguson, who is also crew and mission operations director for the Starliner program at Boeing, said that earlier schedule is “exactly where we are” but deferred questions on when more precise launch dates would be released.

If the companies maintain the new schedule and successfully carry out their test flights, NASA said it expects to be ready to carry the first operational commercial crew mission in August 2019, with the second to follow in December 2019.

NASA, in its statement about the new schedule, said it would provide more frequent updates on launch schedules as the two companies inch closer to their test flights. Future updates will be released approximately monthly.

“As we get closer to launching human spacecraft from the U.S., we can be more precise in our schedules,” said Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters, in the statement. “This allows our technical teams to work efficiently toward the most up-to-date schedules, while allowing us to provide regular updates publicly on the progress of our commercial crew partners.”

He acknowledged that those updates could include additional delays. “These are new spacecraft, and the engineering teams have a lot of work to do before the systems will be ready to fly.”

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First SpaceX commercial crew test flight could slip to 2019

Crew Dragon docking

BREMEN, Germany — A SpaceX executive said Oct. 3 that the company’s first commercial crew test flight could be delayed until early 2019 because of paperwork issues.

In a speech at the 69th International Astronautical Congress here, Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability for SpaceX, said launching an uncrewed test flight before the end of the year will be a “close call” even though the hardware itself should be ready.

“We’re working hard to get this done this year,” he said. “The hardware might be ready, but we might still have to do some paperwork on the certification side of it. It’s going to be a close call whether we fly this year or not.”

When NASA announced revised commercial crew test flight schedules in early August, SpaceX planned to launch an uncrewed flight of its Crew Dragon vehicle in November, followed by a crewed test flight in April 2019. Those dates represented the latest in a series of delays experienced by both SpaceX and Boeing, the other company with a NASA commercial crew contract, in recent years.

However, during a Sept. 17 presentation about SpaceX’s plans to fly its much larger Big Falcon Rocket on a trip around the moon, company founder and chief executive Elon Musk suggested that the schedule has already slipped again.

“We’re hoping to do a test flight of Dragon 2 in December, and then a crewed flight next year, hopefully in the second quarter of next year,” he said. Company officials declined to comment at the time on that schedule, other than to say that SpaceX is “working closely with NASA to find the right dates.”

The revised Boeing schedule announced in early August called for an uncrewed flight of its CST-100 Starliner late this year or early next year followed by a crewed test flight in the middle of 2019. “That’s exactly where we are,” said Chris Ferguson, crew and mission operations director for the Starliner program at Boeing, during an Oct. 2 briefing here.

He declined, though, to say when Boeing would provide more specific dates for those missions, noting he has been in flight training. NASA announced Aug. 3 that Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut, would be on the crewed Starliner test flight, along with NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Aunapu Mann.

That training, he said later, has included both that related to flying the Starliner spacecraft as well as training related to the International Space Station. The latter is needed should NASA decide to extend the crewed flight test from its original duration of about two weeks to as long as six months, as a contingency in the event further commercial crew delays jeopardize access to the ISS, as NASA’s use of Soyuz seats will end in early 2020.

“The lion’s share of what we’re doing right now is preparing some of the non-perishable training, putting some of that under our belts,” he said. That includes medical and “light ISS systems work” as well as, for Boe and Mann, spacewalk training.

Ferguson said he expects NASA to make a decision on extending the Starliner crewed test flight by next spring. “We’re certainly on track to fly mid-next year if called upon,” he said. “I think NASA would like to make a short-/long-term decision sometime around March of next year on how long we will actually end up staying.”

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Japanese company ispace selects SpaceX for lunar missions

ispace lander

WASHINGTON — A Japanese company that has roots in the former Google Lunar X Prize competition announced Sept. 26 that it has selected SpaceX to launch a pair of missions to the moon in 2020 and 2021.

Under the agreement, ispace will fly two HAKUTO-R missions, an orbiter and a lander, as secondary payloads on SpaceX Falcon 9 launches. The orbiter is scheduled to launch in a window that opens in mid-2020 and the lander in mid-2021. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

In an interview, ispace Chief Executive Takeshi Hakamada said that the company selected SpaceX over other, unnamed launch providers in part because of price but also because of SpaceX’s high flight rate gives the company a number of opportunities to launch its missions.

“Because we are aiming to provide a frequent lunar transportation service, starting relations with SpaceX is very important,” he said. “SpaceX offers a huge amount of launch opportunities, and this partnership can promote future collaboration with SpaceX.”

The first HAKUTO-R mission will place a spacecraft with a total mass, fully fueled, of 550 kilograms into orbit around the moon. The second mission will be a lander, weighing 1,400 kilograms, including a small rover. Both are intended to demonstrate ispace’s capabilities in delivering payloads to the moon for future commercial customers.

“The first two missions are technology demonstration missions,” he said. “The purpose is to validate that our technology is capable of working at the moon. Then, right after that, we want to plan a series of lunar commercial transportation service missions by our lander.” There’s no specific schedule for those follow-on missions, he said, which will depend on the timing and success of the first two.

Those initial two missions, though, could carry some commercial payloads. Hakamada said he could not discuss specific opportunities for those missions. “We have had several discussions already,” he said.

The two spacecraft are currently in development, having recently completed a preliminary design review. Hakamada said ispace brought in a number of external reviewers, including from the Japanese space agency JAXA as well as from Europe and the United States, who concluded the company is on the right track. The next milestone, critical design review, is planned for early 2019.

Work on the HAKUTO-R missions is funded by the $90 million ispace raised in a Series A funding round last December. “For further missions we’ll need to raise more money to provide a sustainable commercial transportation service,” he said, which ispace will seek to raise once the initial missions are successful. The company also anticipates revenue from flying commercial payloads as well as from sponsorships.

The company currently has more than 60 employees, primarily at its Tokyo headquarters where the spacecraft will be built, as well as an office in Luxembourg that does some business development and research work. The company also has a small office in the United States, currently staffed by a single employee, Hakamada said.

The use of the HAKUTO-R name for the first missions harkens back to the X Prize competition, when the company, competing as Team Hakuto, sought to fly rovers to the moon. As the contest was winding down, it reached an agreement to fly a rover on a lander mission developed by India’s Team Indus, but that lander was not ready for launch before the prize expired in March.

While Team Indus is continuing work on its lunar lander, Hakamada said there are no plans to fly an ispace rover on that mission, but wouldn’t rule out future collaboration. “The contract with Team Indus was only for the Lunar X Prize competition,” he said. “If Team Indus can offer something to us, we are very open to any kind of partnership in the future.”

Hakamada noted the “R” in HAKUTO-R stands for “reboot.” “The Hakuto mission has not failed. It’s still waiting for success,” he said. “We rebooted all the activities after the Lunar X Prize competition, and we will have success this time.”

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Commercial crew providers believe they now meet NASA safety requirements

Starliner and Crew Dragon

ORLANDO — Boeing and SpaceX, who have been struggling to meet safety thresholds established by NASA for commercial crew vehicles, now believe their vehicles can meet those requirements as they prepare for test flights scheduled in the next several months.

A key issue in the development of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has been their ability to meet a “loss-of-crew” requirement — a measure of the probability of death or permanent disability of one or more people on a spacecraft during a mission — of 1 in 270. The companies have faced problems meeting that requirement, significantly more stringent than that of the space shuttle.

“The number one safety-related concern for the program is the current situation with respect to the estimate of loss of crew,” Donald McErlean, a member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said at a meeting of the panel last year. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has also warned in reports that the companies were having problems meeting that loss-of-crew requirement.

However, during a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum here Sept. 18, executives of the two companies said they now believed their vehicles met that and related safety requirements.

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the commercial crew program at Boeing, said the company was assessing three separate requirements, including the overall loss of crew as well as ascent and entry risks and loss of mission. “Our teams have been working that for a number of years,” he said, noting those analyses have driven changes to the vehicle design, such as increased micrometeoroid and orbital debris protection.

“Where we are now is that our analysis shows we can exceed the NASA requirements for all three of those criteria,” he said.

Benjamin Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, said his company was in a similar situation. “We’re looking right now to be meeting the requirements,” he said.

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, didn’t confirm that the companies have, in fact, met those safety requirements. “We’re learning from a NASA perspective about how to understand the assessments that we’re getting from each of the contractors and how to apply it,” she said. “We at the NASA team are assessing the modeling that each of the providers has done.”

She cautioned, though, about using the loss-of-crew figure as the sole figure of merit of the safety of either vehicle. “I sometimes struggle when people say that the loss-of-crew number is the safety number,” she said. “I don’t believe that that’s true.”

Test flight preparations

Those assessments come as test flights for both companies’ vehicles are approaching. Updated schedules released by NASA in early August said that SpaceX planned to perform an uncrewed test flight in November, followed by a crewed flight in April 2019. Boeing would perform its uncrewed test flight late this year or early next year, with a crewed flight in mid-2019.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, though, hinted at a slight delay in his company’s schedule during the Sept. 17 announcement of the company’s plans to fly a Japanese billionaire and a group of artists around the moon on the company’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) under development.

“We’re hoping to do a test flight of Dragon 2 in December, and then a crewed flight next year, hopefully in the second quarter of next year,” he said, calling commercial crew the “top priority” for the company.

Reed declined to comment on any potential slip in that schedule. “We’re working closely with NASA to find the right dates,” he said after the panel. He said during the panel that the Dragon that will fly that initial uncrewed test is in Florida for final integration work, while the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 that will launch it were being tested at the company’s McGregor, Texas, test site. Final certification reviews for that mission, he said, have been scheduled with NASA.

Mulholland said Boeing has three Starliner vehicles in various stages of development, one each for the uncrewed and crewed test flights and a third that will be used for a pad abort test that will take place early next year between the two flights. Construction of the two Atlas 5 rockets by United Launch Alliance for those test flights are also almost complete. The schedule announced in August for the Starliner test flights is unchanged, he said after the panel.

Reusing crew vehicles

The panel discussion also addressed plans by both companies to reuse their crew vehicles. That issue gained attention last month when, at an Aug. 27 meeting of the human exploration and operations committee of the NASA Advisory Council, Lueders said SpaceX would use a new vehicle for each of its crewed flights. “Right now, what they proposed was a new vehicle every time for us,” she said then.

At the AIAA panel, Reed said SpaceX still had plans to reuse its Crew Dragon vehicles, as it does now with the cargo version of the spacecraft. “Crew Dragon, just like Cargo Dragon, was designed from the beginning to be a fully reusable vehicle, and it’s certainly still our intent” to reuse them. That includes the vehicle flying the first, uncrewed demo mission, which will be quickly turned around for use on an in-flight abort test that will take place before the crewed flight test.

For the operational commercial crew missions, Reed said SpaceX plans to use new vehicles for each mission initially as it builds up a “stable” of vehicles. The company would then work with NASA on how to certify those vehicles for reuse.

That approach, he said, is similar to the cargo version of Dragon, where SpaceX initially used new vehicles for all its flights but, after discussions with NASA, won approval for reuse of vehicles, which now account for all recent Dragon cargo missions. “That was a very successful approach,” he said. “We’re following the same basic plan.”

Boeing plans to reuse its Starliner crew capsules from the beginning. Mulholland said the company has defined what inspections, tests and vehicle refurbishments will be needed for the capsule between flights, a process he said should take about four months.

That desire to reuse the capsule drove Boeing’s decision to land the spacecraft on land, at one of five selected locations in the western United States, rather than splashing down at sea. “For us, in our baseline, we need to land on land to support capsule reuse,” he said. Starliner does have the ability to splash down in an emergency, but “if we end up aborting and ditching into the ocean, then we wouldn’t reuse that capsule.”

Reed said that, given SpaceX’s experience with cargo Dragons, landing in water was not a major obstacle to reusability. “It is different, for sure,” he said of water landings. “I don’t know if it’s much more difficult, though.”

Non-NASA markets

A key foundation of the commercial crew program is that NASA would not be the only customer for these vehicles, with the companies free to use them for other customers and thus spreading out costs. Both Boeing and SpaceX said they’re optimistic about the non-NASA demand for those vehicles.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there,” Reed said, including commercial missions to the ISS and to other destinations in low Earth orbit that have been proposed but yet to be developed. “We see a lot of opportunity out there. We’re working on a number of interesting opportunities with various commercial partners,” he said, not identifying any specific opportunities.

Mulholland said a Boeing marketing team has been “actively engaged” with other countries and entities about potential commercial Starliner flights. However, he said the company is holding off on deals until the Starliners are flying for NASA. “I’ve been hesitant to sign anything, or for the company to sign up, until we actually go fly,” he said.

Original Link

Musk names Japanese billionaire for ‘dangerous mission’ to moon

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will hitch the first SpaceX ride around the moon and plans to invite as many as eight artists to join him – with the rocket Elon Musk possibly signing up for the space flight. Original Link

SpaceX signs up Japanese billionaire for circumlunar BFR flight

SpaceX BFR moon

ORLANDO — SpaceX announced Sept. 17 that a Japanese billionaire will be paying an undisclosed but significant sum to buy a flight of the company’s next-generation rocket for a flight around the moon carrying a group of artists.

In an announcement at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk announced the first private customer for its Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) system will be Yusaku Maezawa, a 42-year-old former musician who founded Zozotown, a Japanese online fashion retail site.

In the proposed mission, scheduled for 2023, a BFR will launch and fly around the moon before returning to Earth, a flight lasting four to five days. On board the vehicle will be Maezawa as well as six to eight artists he will select through a process yet to be determined.

“I did not want to have such a fantastic experience by myself,” he said. “I choose to go to the moon with artists. I choose to invite artists from around the world on my journey.”

The artists that fly on the “#dearMoon” mission will be asked to create works of art after the mission inspired by the flight. “I wish to create amazing works of art for humankind, for children of the next generation,” he said. Maezawa has been active in the art community for some time, including establishing the Contemporary Art Foundation in 2012 to support young artists.

Yusaku Maezawa
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa speaks at the Sept. 17 SpaceX event about his plans to fly artists around the moon on a BFR mission. Credit: SpaceX webcast

Neither Maezawa nor Musk would disclose the price of the flight, but Musk said that Maezawa — who had been one of the two customers for SpaceX’s earlier plans for a circumlunar flight on a Dragon announced nearly 18 months ago, but since shelved — had already made a down payment.

“It will have a material effect on paying for the cost of the development of BFR,” Musk said of the mission’s price. “It’s a non-trivial amount. It has a material impact on the BFR program. It makes a difference.”

Maezawa has an estimated net worth of $2.9 billion, according to Forbes. Musk said the estimated cost of the overall BFR development was about $5 billion. “I don’t think it’s more than 10 [billion dollars], and I don’t think it’s less than two” billion dollars, he said.

Musk also used the announcement to announce some changes to the BFR design, focused on the upper stage, or spaceship, portion. The interior cabin volume has been increased to at least 1,000 cubic meters, and up to 1,100. The vehicle also features three larger fins in the aft section, with landing legs integrated into them, and a pair of forward fins than can move.

Besides the changed fins, with improve the aerodynamic control of the vehicle when entering an atmosphere, the updated spaceship now has seven Raptor engines identical to the ones on the booster stage. “In order to minimize the development risk and cost, we decided to ‘commonize’ the engine between the booster and ship,” Musk said, adding that Raptor engines that are optimized for vacuum conditions could be added back in later.

Musk indicated the changes announced at this event should be among the last major changes in a design that has evolved significantly since being unveiled at the International Astronautical Congress nearly two years ago. “I feel like this is the final iteration in terms of broad architectural decisions” for BFR, he said, noting the changes compared to the previous version make this approach “slightly riskier” technically but the “right decision overall.”

BFR spaceship
An illustration of some of the changes to the BFR design Musk discussed at the Sept. 17 event. Credit: SpaceX webcast

An initial series of “hopper” test flights of the BFR spaceship are still planned to take place next year at SpaceX’s South Texas launch site under development. That would be followed by high-altitude, high-velocity flights in 2020, along with tests of the booster stage. “If things go well, we could be doing the first orbital flights in about two to three years,” he said, with “many” such test flights planned with crews before humans fly on the vehicle.

He offered a cautionary note about that schedule, though. “We’re definitely not sure” about the 2023 schedule for the circumlunar mission, he said. “You have to set some kind of date that’s the things-go-right date. Of course, we have reality, and things do not go right in reality.”

“It’s not 100 percent certain that we succeed in getting this to flight,” he said of BFR. “But we’re going to do everything humanly possible to bring it to flight as fast as we can and as safely as we can.”

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SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell: ‘We would launch a weapon to defend the U.S.’


NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell speaks to audiences around the world and gets lots of questions.

During an appearance on Monday at the Air Force Association’s annual symposium, Shotwell was thrown a question she said she had never heard before: “Would SpaceX launch military weapons?”

“I’ve never been asked that question,” Shotwell said somewhat surprised. Her response: “If it’s for the defense of this country, yes, I think we would.”

The room packed with Air Force service members and military contractors burst into applause. They seemed impressed that SpaceX is one of the world’s coolest companies and also a staunch patriot.

Before the Q&A session, Shotwell delivered a 20-minute presentation that mostly featured promotional videos of SpaceX’s spectacular Falcon Heavy mission in February. The videos also drew cheers from the crowd.

Shotwell didn’t have much to say about the military launch business other than that SpaceX spent “a lot of time building our relationship with the Air Force. And we’re now in a good position. We’re competing. We’re wining some, and losing some.”

When asked how bad is the Air Force acquisition system, Shotwell said the Air Force has not cornered the market on red tape. The “most challenging” government customer for SpaceX has been NASA, she said. The company is preparing to launch its Crew Dragon capsule with astronauts onboard, a mission where failure is not an option, she said. The Air Force has asked SpaceX to make its rockets more reliable for national security satellites, but that still does not compare to the pressure of taking humans to space safely.

Shotwell defended SpaceX’s culture of risk taking and aggressive innovation. “Failure is bad. But failure while you’re trying and you’re testing is not terrible. You’re learning from it.”

The next big challenge for SpaceX is the Big Falcon Rocket, with a second stage called Big Falcon Spaceship that the company believes can reach Mars. Shotwell noted that both stages are fully reusable

“I hope to be doing hot tests next year with the second stage, the spaceship, and make an orbital flight in 2020,” she said. “We would like to put large cargo on the surface of the moon by 2022. And we have our eyes on the prize to send people to Mars in 2024.”

Shotwell admitted that those pronouncements might “sound crazy, but everything we’ve ever done has sounded crazy to people.”

The huge second stage spaceship will travel half way around the world in under 30 minutes, she said. “Imagine what we could do for the defense of the United States.”

Asked if she worries about national security space threats from China or Russia, Shotwell replied: “As the president of SpaceX, I am concerned about the competition coming from China and Russia because they’re backed heavily by their governments. As an American citizen I worry more about China than Russia.”

SpaceX last year flew 18 missions, beating any other company or country besides the United States. This year, SpaceX has completed 16 missions and is on track to complete 22 to 24 launches, while China attempts to carry out 40 (as of Sept. 9, it had already completed 24, surpassing its previous national record of 22 set in 2016).

“I was hoping to beat the Chinese this year,” she said. “It does concern me that China is flying 40 times this year. And it’s not for commercial customers. They have very few commercial customers. So what in the world are they doing?” she added. “The fact that I’m not beating them is a shame. The fact that they’re launching 40 times is something we should all be worried about.”

Shotwell echoed concerns voiced by Pentagon officials about China’s pursuit of space capabilities. “They innovate in a different way, they go after ideas, they stick to a plan, and their pace is much faster.”

Original Link

SpaceX to announce new lunar mission plans

SpaceX BFR moon

PARIS — SpaceX plans to announce the identity of the first person it intends to send around the moon next week as its on-again, off-again lunar ambitions appear to be back on.

In a pair of tweets late Sept. 13, the company said it has signed up a person to fly around the moon on the company’s next-generation launch system, formally known as Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), and that it would announce the identity of that person in an event Sept. 17 at 9 p.m. Eastern.

“SpaceX has signed the world’s first private passenger to fly around the Moon aboard our BFR launch vehicle — an important step toward enabling access for everyday people who dream of traveling to space,” the company tweeted. “Find out who’s flying and why on Monday, September 17.”

SpaceX announced plans to fly humans around the moon in February 2017. At the time, the company said it would fly two people around the moon on a Crew Dragon spacecraft, launched on its Falcon Heavy rocket then under development, as soon as late 2018. The company said it had signed up two people for the mission, but did not disclose their identities.

“I think this should be a really exciting mission that gets the world really excited about sending people into deep space again,” said SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk during a call with reporters. “I think it should be super inspirational.”

SpaceX, though, made no subsequent announcements about the proposed mission, and did not reveal the identities of the customers. Asked about the lunar mission during a conference in Luxembourg last November, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell offered no updates on the development of the mission.

There was, though, interest in such missions, she added. “The most surprising thing about that is that there are as many people as there are who want to go do that, and can seemingly afford to do that.”

During briefings for the first launch of the Falcon Heavy in February, nearly a year after SpaceX’s original announcement, Musk indicated that the company wasn’t planning to pursue those original plans, as it would not human-rate the Falcon Heavy rocket.

“It looks like BFR development is moving quickly, and it will not be necessary to qualify Falcon Heavy for crewed spaceflight,” Musk said during a pre-launch call with reporters. “We kind of tabled the Crew Dragon on Falcon Heavy in favor of focusing our energy on BFR.”

The BFR concept features two reusable stages, a booster and a spaceship capable of carrying dozens of people on missions to the moon or Mars. Musk has said that initial work has focused on the spaceship element, which could be ready for small suborbital “hops” next year from a launch site the company is developing in South Texas.

While Musk said earlier this year those tests could begin in the first half of 2019, Shotwell suggested recently that date had slipped. “I think we’ll be hopping that second stage next year, late next year,” she said during a panel at DARPA’s D60 conference Sept. 6 near Washington.

Shotwell, speaking at the World Satellite Business Week conference here Sept. 11, didn’t discuss lunar missions but did emphasize the importance of human spaceflight to the company’s long-term ambitions. “I do think ultimately — and I’m not going to talk about timelines — but I do think that will probably be the majority of our business in the future, flying people,” she said.

An illustration posted with the tweet about the lunar mission announcement appeared to show minor changes to the BFR spaceship design since Musk’s last major speech about it last September at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Australia. Those changes include larger tail fins and seven engines in its base, versus six. Musk, ased on Twitter if the illustration represented the current design of the BFR, responded simply with “Yes.”

Musk introduced the BFR concept at the 2016 IAC in Mexico as a key part of the company’s plans to send humans to Mars and establish a permanent settlement there. In the Australia speech last year, he also showed that the BFR could land on the moon. Musk is not currently scheduled to speak at the next IAC, taking place in early October in Bremen, Germany.

Original Link

Amid GEO downturn, launch operators look for new markets

Bruno WSBW panel

PARIS — With orders for geostationary orbit satellites declining, potentially permanently, commercial launch service providers are looking to government and other markets to make up for lost business.

Commercial GEO satellites, ordered in recent years at a rate of roughly two dozen per year, have long been the mainstay of the commercial launch industry. However, those orders have recently plummeted, with no signs of a revival in the near term.

That has not had an immediate impact on launch activity given the gap of two to three years between a GEO satellite order and its launch. “There’s been a flying out of backlog that’s led some folks to think there’s been an explosion in this marketplace,” said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of United Launch Alliance, during a panel at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week Sept. 11. Instead, he said the market “is certainly flat and soft, especially in the GEO segment.”

Other launch company executives on the panel agreed the GEO market is weak, but disagreed about how long the downturn would last. “The market is very soft. It was last year, this year, and I don’t know that it’s going to change dramatically next year, either,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. “I think we’re in a permanent low level of GTO satellites.”

“If we just stayed focused on GEO missions, we’d be hurting,” said Kirk Pysher, president of International Launch Services, which markets the Proton and Angara rockets. “It’s going to come back at some point. I don’t know if it will ever come back to the 20 to 25 [satellites per year] that we had hoped for.”

Bruno said the “pause” in the GEO market is linked to the uncertainty among GEO satellite operators about the effects proposed low Earth orbit constellations will have on their business. “I also think that will eventually lead to a sort of reset in the GEO marketplace,” he said, with those constellations taking some, but not all, business away from GEO systems.

“But GEO’s not going away. It’s not going anywhere,” he added. “It’s going to reset to a slightly different level. We’ll see the LEO constellations appear, and we’ll see, I think, some resurgence in the outyears in the marketplace in total.”

Arianespace Chief Executive Stéphane Israël agreed that the GEO market has been “quite soft,” which can have a significant effect on his company because of its traditionally heavy reliance on commercial GEO business. He’s turning to government customers to make up for that diminished demand. “It is clear that in this kind of situation, if we want to make it, we absolutely need institutional missions,” he said.

Shotwell also said government business, particularly growing work with the Defense Department, is mitigating any commercial GEO downturn. “I think the decrease in the GTO level, whether it resets or wherever it ends up, is not going to impact us dramatically because there are other market areas that are growing for us,” she said. “The DOD business is growing for us dramatically.”

Another potential growth opportunity is commercial human spaceflight, she said. “Candidly, I think one of the potential growth areas, the largest growth area if you put aside constellations, will be once we fly crew,” she said, a reference to the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft it is developing for NASA and other potential commercial applications. “I do think ultimately — and I’m not going to talk about timelines — but I do think that will probably be the majority of our business in the future, flying people.”

Another factor complicating the shift in markets is a shift in launch vehicles. Nearly all the companies represented on the launch panel, including Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and China Great Wall Industry Corporation, are in the process of developing and fielding new generations of vehicles. All said they expected to have transition periods of several years where both existing and new vehicles will be in operation simultaneously before retiring the older generation of vehicles.

The exception on the panel was Blue Origin, which currently working on its first orbital launch vehicle, New Glenn. “We will be happy to transition people off of our competitors’ rockets onto New Glenn,” said Blue Origin Chief Executive Bob Smith.

Original Link

Falcon 9 launches Telstar 18 Vantage satellite

Falcon 9 Telstar 18V

PARIS — SpaceX ended a rare extended gap in launch activity Sept. 10 with the successful launch of a communications satellite for Telesat, the second payload for that satellite operator in less than two months.

The Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:45 a.m. Eastern, 77 minutes into a four-hour launch window because of thunderstorms in the vicinity of the launch site that delayed fueling of the rocket.

The Falcon 9’s payload, the Telstar 18 Vantage satellite for Telesat, separated from the upper stage 32 minutes after liftoff, entering its planned geostationary transfer orbit. The first stage made a successful landing on the company’s “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship in the Atlantic Ocean.

The satellite, built by Space Systems Loral, weighed about 7,000 kilograms at liftoff. The high-throughput satellite (HTS) is the second Telesat spacecraft launched by SpaceX this summer, after the July 22 launch of Telstar 19 Vantage on another Falcon 9 Block 5 from the same launch pad.

The satellite will operate from 138 degrees east in GEO, replacing the existing Telstar 18. The spacecraft will provide C-band capacity over the Asia Pacific region. It will also provide Ku-band HTS spots over Indonesia and Malaysia as well as five additional Ku-band beams.

The biggest customer for Telstar 18 Vantage will be another satellite operator, APT Satellite of Hong Kong. That company paid $118.8 million for 57.5 percent of the satellite’s capacity. APT Satellite will rebrand that capacity as Apstar-5C, using it to replace the existing Apstar-5 satellite.

The launch was the 16th of the year for SpaceX, but also the first for the company in more than a month, since the Aug. 7 launch of the Merah Putih satellite for Telkom Indonesia. That gap between launches was the longest since late 2017, when a month and a half passed between Falcon 9 launches of Koreasat 5A and a Dragon cargo resupply mission.

SpaceX’s launch schedule for the rest of the year is backloaded, with only one launch scheduled through the beginning of November. However, several missions are currently planned for the final two months of the year, including the final launch of 10 Iridium Next satellites, an uncrewed demonstration of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and the first GPS 3 satellite. The Falcon Heavy could also make its second launch before the end of the year, either carrying the Arabsat-6A communications satellite or the Space Test Program 2 payload for the U.S. Air Force.

Original Link

Elon Musk smokes marijuana in podcast interview

Elon Musk sipped whiskey and smoked marijuana during a two-and-a-half-hour podcast with California comedian Joe Rogan that touched upon everything from flame throwers to artificial intelligence. Original Link

NASA keeps open option of extended commercial crew demo flights

CST-100 Starliner in orbit

WASHINGTON — NASA is continuing to study using commercial crew test flights as space station crew rotation missions, but won’t make a final decision regarding that until next summer.

At a meeting of the human exploration and operations committee of the NASA Advisory Council Aug. 27 at NASA’s Ames Research Center, agency officials said they were keeping the option open of using the crewed test flights of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to maintain a U.S. presence on the International Space Station, while expressing confidence either or both vehicles will be certified for crew rotation missions by the end of next year.

“If we can bring commercial crew online this year and next year, then we have sufficient margin to overlap with the Soyuz capability,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

NASA’s access to Soyuz seats runs out in January 2020, a few months later than previously planned after NASA and the other ISS partners agreed to stretch out the schedule of Soyuz flights. SpaceX is currently scheduled to perform a crewed flight test in April 2019, followed by Boeing in mid-2019, according to updated schedules announced by NASA in early August.

Those dates have slipped significantly from original plans, raising concerns that the vehicles may not be certified — a milestone that takes place after a successful crewed fight test — until after access to Soyuz seats runs out. NASA announced earlier this year a modification of its contract with Boeing to study turning that flight test into a long-duration mission that could stay at the ISS for up to six months, carrying three astronauts rather than the previously planned two.

When NASA announced assignments for the initial commercial crew flights Aug. 3, it placed three people on the Boeing crewed demonstration flight: NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Mann and Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut. That assignment of three people, versus two for the SpaceX crewed flight test, appeared to protect the option of using the Boeing flight as a longer duration mission.

Kathy Lueders, NASA commercial crew program manager, said later at the committee meeting that the crew for that mission, including Ferguson, had started training on ISS systems to prepare for the possibility his mission there would be extended. However, she said no decision would be made on it until next summer.

“We’re working with station and we’ll see the progress on where the crewed flight tests are, and then we have the flexibility to be able to make that a longer duration mission if we need to,” she said.

She added that NASA will continue to fly three people on that mission even if it remains a short-duration test flight. That prompted discussion among committee members, who questioned whether the benefit of a third crewmember was worth the risk. “What’s the justification for adding the human risk of a third person on that flight?” one committee member asked. “You don’t need three crewmembers for a short flight.”

Lueders noted that the vehicle would carry four people on later post-certification missions, and that both Boeing and SpaceX worked to address the risks of a crewed flight test by performing uncrewed flight tests first. “The government’s original concept, or minimal requirements, were for our first mission to be a crewed flight test,” she said. “Both providers are flying uncrewed flight tests to mitigate that activity.”

Gerstenmaier said that NASA was also considering a similar contract modification with SpaceX for using its crewed test flight as a long-duration ISS mission. “There’s potentially a contract change also with SpaceX,” he said, but didn’t state if that would involve adding a third person to that mission, after crews had already been assigned.

Original Link

How Musk’s plan to take Tesla private withered

Elon Musk’s stunning tweet that he wanted to take Tesla private and had funding secured was a classic Musk moonshot – given credibility only by the sense that if anyone could possibly pull such a brazen feat, he was the guy. Original Link

NASA approves “load-and-go” fueling for SpaceX commercial crew launches

Crew Dragon docking

WASHINGTON — NASA announced Aug. 17 that it will allow SpaceX to use a fueling approach for its commercial crew missions that attracted prior scrutiny, pending a final series of tests.

In a statement published late Aug. 17, the agency said that it was allowing SpaceX to move ahead with plans to use what’s colloquially known as “load-and-go,” where the Falcon 9 launch vehicle is filled with liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants after astronauts board the Crew Dragon spacecraft on top of the rocket.

“To make this decision, our teams conducted an extensive review of the SpaceX ground operations, launch vehicle design, escape systems and operational history,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said in the statement. “Safety for our personnel was the driver for this analysis, and the team’s assessment was that this plan presents the least risk.”

SpaceX uses load-and-go for its satellite and cargo Dragon missions currently, starting the fueling process just 35 minutes before liftoff. The company has adopted that approach because it uses “supercooled” propellants that are denser, improving the vehicle’s performance.

That approach, though, attracted scrutiny after the September 2016 explosion of a Falcon 9 on the pad at Cape Canaveral during preparations for a static-fire test prior to the planned launch of the Amos-6 spacecraft. That accident, which destroyed the launch vehicle and satellite, was blamed on the failure of a composite overwrapped pressure vessel in an upper stage propellant tank.

Thomas Stafford, the former astronaut who chairs NASA’s International Space Station Advisory Committee, criticized plans to use load-and-go for crewed missions shortly after that accident. He noted that it was contrary to past NASA human spaceflight programs, where the launch vehicle was fueled first.

Stafford had questioned the approach prior to the pad explosion. “There is a unanimous, and strong, feeling by the committee that scheduling the crew to be on board the Dragon spacecraft prior to loading oxidizer into the rocket is contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years, both in this country and internationally,” he wrote in a December 2015 letter. That letter got renewed attention after the accident, when Stafford said at an October 2016 meeting of the committee that he had yet to receive a response.

NASA noted at the time that it was the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) that was the primary advisor for commercial crew safety, and Stafford’s committee no longer pursued the issue. ASAP, at a May 2018 meeting, concluded after reviewing engineering reports by NASA that load-and-go was a “viable” approach for commercial crew missions.

“It appears that, if all the appropriate steps are taken and it addresses the potential hazards, the risk of launching crew in the load-and-go configuration could be acceptable,” said Patricia Saunders, chair of the panel, during ASAP’s May 17 meeting.

Those comments came a week after SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said he was not worried about NASA rejecting SpaceX’s load-and-go approach. “I think that issue has been somewhat overblown,” he said, noting that SpaceX could, if needed, fuel the Falcon 9 before boarding astronauts. “But I don’t think it’s going to be necessary, any more than passengers on an aircraft need to wait until the aircraft is full of fuel before boarding.”

NASA noted in its statement, though, that formal certification of load-and-go is pending “additional verification and demonstration activities.” That will include five “crew loading demonstrations” to test the crew loading procedures. Those tests will be carried out prior to the first crewed flight of the vehicle, a demonstration mission carrying two NASA astronauts currently scheduled for April 2019.

Original Link

Tearful Musk explains tweet that set off a storm

Elon Musk said no one saw or reviewed his tweet about the plan to take Tesla private before he posted it, The New York Times reported, citing an interview in which the billionaire frequently teared up. Original Link

Foust Forward | As the launch industry grows, it finds it needs to share

SpaceX Falcon 9 SES-12

“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the July 30, 2018 issue.

The commercial spaceflight industry has been enjoying success both on and off the launch pad this year.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has licensed 20 commercial orbital and suborbital launches through late July, from test flights by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to a steady stream of SpaceX Falcon 9 missions. The White House has backed calls for regulatory reform, including language in Space Policy Directive 2 to streamline the licensing process. A Senate bill introduced July 25 contains similar provisions.

Thanks to those successes, though, the commercial launch sector is facing a new threat from a far larger and more influential industry: the airlines.

In recent months, the airline industry, which previously paid little public attention to launch, has raised its profile and expressed its concern about how the growing number of launches could affect its operations. And it’s getting noticed by both the FAA and Congress.

“As the U.S. airline industry works to meet future passenger and shipper demands, while spaceflight operations also increase, the aerospace industry must jointly create policies, regulations and procedures to share resources efficiently and, most of all, safely,” said Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, at a House aviation subcommittee hearing June 26 on commercial space transportation regulatory reform.

A concern for Canoll is the impact that launches have on the national airspace system, with large areas often restricted for up to hours at a time. He cited an FAA study of a 2013 launch from Cape Canaveral that caused flights in the busy East Coast corridor to be rerouted, creating delays of up to 23 minutes.

“Given the interest in increasing the number and scale of spaceflight launches, it’s easy to extrapolate the tremendous effect commercial space operations could have on the U.S. airline industry, as well as on its passengers, cargo shippers and workers, if integration isn’t managed correctly,” he said.

The airline industry is also taking a more visible role on an advisory committee. When the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) met in June for the first time in more than 18 months, its new members included several people from aviation industry organizations, like Airlines for America and Airports Council International, alongside representatives from space companies.

At the COMSTAC meeting, there was discussion about ways to improve integration of aviation and space activities. “The increasing frequency and complexity of commercial launch and re-entry operations have caused the FAA to review how it protects aircraft and passengers,” said Dan Murray of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

There are efforts underway to address the issue, including work to refine how much airspace is closed and for how long. “As a mission unfolds, we can compute in real time the airspace protected by the mission,” he said. “When airspace is no longer needed by a mission, it can be released immediately.” Developing those approaches, though, may take several years, and it’s unclear how much it will cost and who will pay.

There’s also a more fundamental difference between aviation and spaceflight when it comes to safety. The FAA has a standard of no more than one catastrophic accident per 1 billion air traffic control operations, but in commercial space the threshold is one casualty per 1 million launch or re-entry operations.

“They don’t match up,” Murray said. “We could impose one industry’s standards on the other, but this could have some pretty drastic, negative consequences.”

A failure to work together could also have some negative consequences for the launch industry, given the far greater influence of the airlines. Success, like what the launch industry has seen recently, can have its price as well.



Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.

Original Link

Elon Musk in $82-billion gambit to silence Tesla critics

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Elon Musk mulls taking Tesla private

Elon Musk said he’s considering taking Tesla private in a radical step that would ease pressure on the money-losing car maker. Original Link

NASA assigns astronauts to first commercial crew missions

Commercial crew astros

BALTIMORE — NASA announced Aug. 3 the assignment of eight agency astronauts, a mix of veterans and rookies, as well as one company astronaut to fly on the first set of commercial crew missions by Boeing and SpaceX.

In a ceremony at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA announced who would fly on the crewed test flights planned for next year of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, as well as the first post-certification, or operational, missions by each vehicle.

“For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the event attended by several members of Congress and other NASA and industry officials.

The SpaceX crewed test flight, currently scheduled for April 2019, will be flown by NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. Each astronaut flew on two shuttle missions, including Hurley on the final shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011. They were two of the four astronauts selected by NASA in July 2015 to be trained to fly commercial crew missions.

The Boeing crewed test flight, planned for mid-2019, will carry three people, including former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, commander of STS-135 and, for the last several years, a Boeing employee working on the Starliner program. He will be joined by Eric Boe, who flew on two shuttle missions and was another astronaut selected for commercial crew training in 2015, and Nicole Aunapu Mann, a member of the astronaut class of 2013 who will be making her first flight.

NASA officials didn’t state why a three-person crew would be flying on the Starliner test flight, but the agency announced an agreement earlier this year with Boeing to study turning that crewed test flight into an operational mission in the event of further commercial crew delays. That would include adding a third astronaut to the mission and extending its stay on the station from two weeks to up to six months.

The first Starliner post-certification mission, yet to be formally scheduled, will fly NASA astronauts Josh Cassada and Sunita Williams. Cassada is a rookie astronaut selected in 2013, while Williams, the fourth astronaut selected for commercial crew training, has spent 322 days in space on two long-duration station missions. The first Crew Dragon post-certification mission will be flown by Victor Glover, another rookie astronaut selected in 2013, and Mike Hopkins, who spent 166 days on one station mission.

Both Crew Dragon and Starliner are designed to carry four astronauts. In a statement, the agency said that additional crew members for those first post-certification missions “will be assigned by NASA’s international partners at a later date.” That will include Canada, Europe and Japan, who have traditionally relied on NASA for ISS transportation. It may also include Russia, as NASA officials have discussed in the past flying Russian cosmonauts on commercial crew vehicles, possibly in exchange for seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

The crew assignments came a day after NASA issued new schedules for the uncrewed and crewed test flights, pushing back the flights by several months from earlier schedules. However, at the announcement companies sounded more confident in those revised schedules.

“Predicting launch dates can make a liar out of every one of us,” acknowledged Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “We had our quarterly [review] this week, and for the first time in years, it felt real. It’s real. It’s right here.”

After announcing the crews, Bridenstine engaged in a largely lighthearted question-and-answer session with the selected astronauts, who expressed their delight in being selected and anticipation in flying on these next-generation vehicles.

“It is absolutely like flying the iPhone,” said Behnken in response to a question from Bridenstine. “I look forward, sir, to getting you down there at some point out in Hawthorne [SpaceX’s California headquarters] and maybe you can sit next to us in the cockpit and go through flying the iPhone to dock to space station.”

“So, just to be clear, Bob, I’ve already done that, and I nailed it,” responded Bridenstine, a former naval aviator.

“I think I probably did it better,” Behnken said.

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NASA confirms delays in Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew flights

Starliner and Crew Dragon

WASHINGTON — NASA released an updated schedule of commercial crew test flights Aug. 2 that confirms Boeing’s revised plans as well as delays for SpaceX’s two demonstration missions.

The agency released the revised schedule with little fanfare ahead of a planned Aug. 3 announcement at the Johnson Space Center of the astronauts that will fly the two companies’ crewed demonstration missions, as well as on the first post-certification, or operational, missions by each company.

Under the new schedule, SpaceX will fly an uncrewed demonstration mission in November 2018, three months later than the previous schedule released by NASA early this year. The crewed demonstration flight, with two astronauts on board, will follow in April 2019, four months later than previously announced.

The revised schedule also confirmed dates provided by Boeing in a call with selected media Aug. 1. That schedule calls for an uncrewed test flight in late 2018 or early 2019, followed by a crewed test flight in mid-2019.

Boeing said it revised its schedule in part because of a problem during a static-fire test of the abort engines for its CST-100 Starliner vehicle in June, when several valves failed to close properly at the end of a 1.5-second test. The company said it has identified the root cause of that incident and will make both operational and technical changes to ensure the valves close properly in the future.

Boeing has also rearranged its test program, pushing back a pad abort test that was scheduled for this summer, before both the uncrewed and crewed test flights, to spring 2019, after the uncrewed flight. That modification is intended to “optimize the program flow,” said John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and commercial crew program manager, noting that the abort system is not needed for the uncrewed flight test.

SpaceX carried out a pad abort test of its Crew Dragon vehicle in May 2015. The spacecraft that will fly the uncrewed flight test arrived in Florida last month after completing thermal vacuum and acoustics tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio.

The NASA statement did not disclose reasons for either company’s delays, and SpaceX did not respond to questions about its revised schedule.

The revised schedule is not surprising given that the space community had widely expected delays of at least several months by both companies. A July 11 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that NASA’s internal projections offered a “zero percent chance” the companies would be certified for routine ISS missions in early 2019, as official schedules at the time expected.

NASA estimates have predicted even greater delays than what the agency formally announced Aug. 2. In its report, the GAO said NASA’s projected “average” certification date for Boeing was December 2019, and January 2020 for SpaceX, with the potential for both companies to slip well into 2020.

Additional delays would jeopardize NASA’s ability to access the ISS, as its access to seats on Soyuz flights runs out by early 2020. “If NASA does not develop options for ensuring access to the ISS in the event of further Commercial Crew delays, it will not be able to ensure that the U.S. policy goal and objective for the ISS will be met,” the report argued.

Among the options being considered by NASA is to use the crewed flight test as a crew rotation flight by adding a third astronaut to the mission and extending its stay from two weeks to as long as six months. NASA and Boeing announced earlier this year they were studying it, but Mulholland said Aug. 1 no decision would be made about using the test flight in that fashion until next year.

“The mission profile will be determined by NASA,” he said of the crewed test flight. “The decision on the mission timeline will be determined by NASA most probably some time in 2019.”

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Safety panel warns schedule for commercial crew test flights still uncertain

Technical problems could delay the beginning of regular flights by SpaceX's Crew Dragon (left) and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner until at least late 2018. Credit: SpaceX artist's concept and Boeing

WASHINGTON — As NASA prepares to announce the astronauts who will fly the first commercial crew missions, an independent safety board is cautioning that it is still too soon to set dates for those flights.

NASA said in a statement last week that it will name the astronauts who will fly the crewed demo flights by Boeing and SpaceX during an event Aug. 3 at the Johnson Space Center. The event will also announce the crews for the first post-certification missions by each company, which will mark the start of routine transportation of astronauts to and from the station by Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

The NASA statement did not explicitly state if the agency will also update the schedule for those flights. The latest public schedules, released by NASA early this year, call for uncrewed test flights by both companies in August, followed by crewed test flights by Boeing in November and SpaceX in December. However, delays of at least several months are widely expected for both companies’ test flights.

Members of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) appeared to caution against flying at least the crewed demonstration flights in the near future. “We see both continued progress and a large volume of work ahead” for the commercial crew program, said Patricia Sanders, chair of ASAP, at a July 26 meeting at NASA Headquarters. “It should be possible to project a realistic timeframe for at least the uncrewed test flights.”

However, she said that did not extend to the later crewed flights. “Depending on the results of the uncrewed flights as well as the resolution of some outstanding technical issues, firm dates for the crewed flight tests are still uncertain,” she said.

One of the outstanding technical issues is what Boeing called an “anomaly” during a recent hot-fire test of the abort engine system that will be used by Starliner. That anomaly, announced by the company earlier this month, is expected to delay a pad abort test of the vehicle as well as its upcoming demonstration flights, but the company has not said by how much.

“There was an anomaly on that test that we need to better understand in terms of its potential impact on the design and the operations and the schedule,” said ASAP member George Nield at the meeting. “Boeing has asked for some additional time to step back and understand that a little bit better, so we can expect some uncertainty in the near-term schedules.”

SpaceX and NASA are still working two issues with its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch vehicle. One is the redesign of composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) used to store helium in the propellant tanks on the Falcon 9. SpaceX has redesigned the COPV following an accident nearly two years ago that destroyed a Falcon 9 and its satellite payload prior to a static-fire test.

“There’s still a lot of work to do. They jury’s still out on this,” said ASAP member David West on the COPV redesign. “We look forward to seeing what the result of all this work will mean in terms of a final characterization of the risk and whether or not that risk will be acceptable.” If that risk is not acceptable, he added, further risk mitigation measures, which he didn’t specify, may be needed.

SpaceX has also been addressing an issue with the Falcon 9’s Merlin 1D engine. Examination of some of the first engines found anomalies that were “potentially dangerous, and certainly not desirable,” said ASAP member Donald McErlean. SpaceX and NASA have worked on a test plan to address the problem.

SpaceX and NASA, he said, have come up “two principal courses of action in the short term” to correct the problem and two others that would require more modifications to the engine. “The risk is low enough with the two short-term modifications to use those for powering the uncrewed test,” he said, “and the decision for powering the crewed test would come later.” He didn’t elaborate on those courses of action, but said that the panel was “optimistic those courses of action will result in a satisfactory conclusion.”

Despite the technical issues that could delay those test flights, ASAP members said they saw no evidence of safety being jeopardized. “The ASAP has not seen any evidence of negative safety impacts based on schedule pressure,” Nield said. “I think people are looking for that. They’re aware of the danger there.”

ASAP members praised SpaceX in particular for its attention to safety issues, such as development of software tools for tracking development and production issues. “Their tool set, if used comprehensively and broadly across their culture, are actually very encouraging to us as something that could evolve into an admirable advantage,” ASAP member Susan Helms said. “It looks like things are on a good path.”

“We’re at the point where, after many years of those demo flights being distantly in the future, we’re reaching the point where the program is rapidly approaching the launch of those demos,” said ASAP member Sandy Magnus. “There’s a lot yet to accomplish.”

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SpaceX launches penultimate Iridium Next mission

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched 10 Iridium Next telecom satellites July 25 on a Falcon 9 rocket, bringing Iridium’s constellation one launch away from completion.

The Block 5 Falcon 9 lifted off from a fog-enshrouded Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 7:39 a.m. Eastern. The rocket’s upper stage deployed the 860-kilogram Iridium Next satellites into low Earth orbit about an hour later.

SpaceX successfully recovered the rocket’s first stage on the drone ship “Just Read the Instructions,” but was unable to catch the payload fairings, citing high wind shears. The crew on SpaceX’s fairing recovery boat “Mr Steven,” which was recently upgraded with a quadrupled-in-size catcher’s net, was in visual range of the fairings as they fell in the Pacific Ocean, according to SpaceX’s launch narrator.

SpaceX has made four attempts with “Mr Steven” and has added parachutes to payload fairings to slow their descent, but no captures have succeeded to date. SpaceX said it will continue attempting to recover the fairings, which cost around $6 million to make, according to the company.

McLean, Virginia-based Iridium now has 65 second-generation Iridium Next satellites in orbit. A final launch, also of 10 satellites on a Falcon 9, will complete the constellation, replacing the first-generation system that has been operating since the late 1990s.

The $3 billion Iridium Next constellation carries more powerful L-band payloads capable of providing up to 1.4 Mbps of connectivity to boats, planes and various satellite-connected devices. The cross-linked network also carries three sets of hosted payloads for other operators: aircraft tracking sensors for Aireon, ship-tracking sensors for exactEarth and space weather sensors for the U.S. Defense Department.

Once finished, Iridium Next will consist of 66 operational satellites, nine orbiting spares and six ground spares. European satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for the satellites, working with Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems to integrate the satellites in Gilbert, Arizona.

The final Iridium Next launch is expected “later this year” at Vandenberg, according to SpaceX’s launch narrator.

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SpaceX launches penultimate Iridium Next mission

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched 10 Iridium Next telecom satellites July 25 on a Falcon 9 rocket, bringing Iridium’s constellation one launch away from completion.

The Block 5 Falcon 9 lifted off from a fog-enshrouded Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 7:39 a.m. Eastern. The rocket’s upper stage deployed the 860-kilogram Iridium Next satellites into low Earth orbit about an hour later.

SpaceX successfully recovered the rocket’s first stage on the drone ship “Just Read the Instructions,” but was unable to catch the payload fairings, citing high wind shears. The crew on SpaceX’s fairing recovery boat “Mr Steven,” which was recently upgraded with a quadrupled-in-size catcher’s net, was in visual range of the fairings as they fell in the Pacific Ocean, according to SpaceX’s launch narrator.

SpaceX has made four attempts with “Mr Steven” and has added parachutes to payload fairings to slow their descent, but no captures have succeeded to date. SpaceX said it will continue attempting to recover the fairings, which cost around $6 million to make, according to the company.

McLean, Virginia-based Iridium now has 65 second-generation Iridium Next satellites in orbit. A final launch, also of 10 satellites on a Falcon 9, will complete the constellation, replacing the first-generation system that has been operating since the late 1990s.

The $3 billion Iridium Next constellation carries more powerful L-band payloads capable of providing up to 1.4 Mbps of connectivity to boats, planes and various satellite-connected devices. The cross-linked network also carries three sets of hosted payloads for other operators: aircraft tracking sensors for Aireon, ship-tracking sensors for exactEarth and space weather sensors for the U.S. Defense Department.

Once finished, Iridium Next will consist of 66 operational satellites, nine orbiting spares and six ground spares. European satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for the satellites, working with Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems to integrate the satellites in Gilbert, Arizona.

The final Iridium Next launch is expected “later this year” at Vandenberg, according to SpaceX’s launch narrator.

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SpaceX launches Telstar 19 Vantage for Telesat

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched the first of two missions planned for this week on Sunday, July 22, lofting the Telstar 19 Vantage telecom satellite for Telesat using a Falcon 9 rocket.

The Block 5 Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida at 1:50 a.m. Eastern, and deployed Telstar 19 Vantage into a geostationary transfer orbit almost 33 minutes later.

The rocket’s first stage landed on the sea-faring droneship  “Of Course I Still Love You” approximately eight and a half minutes later.

Telstar-19 Vantage is the first of two SSL-built satellites SpaceX is launching for Canadian fleet operator Telesat this year. The satellite has a mix of traditional Ku-band wide beams and Ku- and Ka-band spot beams for connectivity services including internet for consumers, stores, offices and mobile platforms like boats and airplanes.

Telesat is positioning Telesat-19 Vantage at 63 degrees West, the same orbital slot as its seven-year-old Ku-band Telstar-14R satellite.

Two anchor customers, Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Maryland, and Bell Canada of Québec, Canada signed 15-year capacity leases prior to launch, affirming Telesat’s business plan for Telstar-19 Vantage, which is a growth satellite, not a replacement. Hughes secured all of the satellite’s Ka-band capacity over Latin America, rebranding it as “Hughes 63 West,” and customers including Bell Canada are leasing the entire Canadian Ka-band payload.

Along with operating geostationary satellites, Telesat is preparing a constellation of 117 low-Earth-orbit spacecraft for high-speed broadband in 2022. The company has one prototype satellite in orbit from Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. Partners OmniAccess, a maritime connectivity company, Australian fleet operator Optus Satellite and Global Eagle Entertainment, an aeronautical, maritime and remote connectivity provider, are all testing the service.

SpaceX’s next mission is a Falcon 9 with 10 Iridium Next satellites scheduled for launch July 25 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Telesat’s next satellite, the Telstar-18/Apstar-5C satellite shared with APT Satellite of Hong Kong, is scheduled for a Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral no earlier than August.

Original Link

SpaceX launches Telstar 19 Vantage for Telesat

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched the first of two missions planned for this week on Sunday, July 22, lofting the Telstar 19 Vantage telecom satellite for Telesat using a Falcon 9 rocket.

The Block 5 Falcon 9 lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida at 1:50 a.m. Eastern, and deployed Telstar 19 Vantage into a geostationary transfer orbit almost 33 minutes later.

The rocket’s first stage landed on the sea-faring droneship  “Of Course I Still Love You” approximately eight and a half minutes later.

Telstar-19 Vantage is the first of two SSL-built satellites SpaceX is launching for Canadian fleet operator Telesat this year. The satellite has a mix of traditional Ku-band wide beams and Ku- and Ka-band spot beams for connectivity services including internet for consumers, stores, offices and mobile platforms like boats and airplanes.

Telesat is positioning Telesat-19 Vantage at 63 degrees West, the same orbital slot as its seven-year-old Ku-band Telstar-14R satellite.

Two anchor customers, Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Maryland, and Bell Canada of Québec, Canada signed 15-year capacity leases prior to launch, affirming Telesat’s business plan for Telstar-19 Vantage, which is a growth satellite, not a replacement. Hughes secured all of the satellite’s Ka-band capacity over Latin America, rebranding it as “Hughes 63 West,” and customers including Bell Canada are leasing the entire Canadian Ka-band payload.

Along with operating geostationary satellites, Telesat is preparing a constellation of 117 low-Earth-orbit spacecraft for high-speed broadband in 2022. The company has one prototype satellite in orbit from Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. Partners OmniAccess, a maritime connectivity company, Australian fleet operator Optus Satellite and Global Eagle Entertainment, an aeronautical, maritime and remote connectivity provider, are all testing the service.

SpaceX’s next mission is a Falcon 9 with 10 Iridium Next satellites scheduled for launch July 25 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Telesat’s next satellite, the Telstar-18/Apstar-5C satellite shared with APT Satellite of Hong Kong, is scheduled for a Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral no earlier than August.

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Crew Dragon completes thermal vacuum tests ahead of first test flight

SpaceX has completed tests of its Crew Dragon spacecraft at NASA’s Plum Brook Station, which the company previously said was the last step before shipping the spacecraft to Florida for launch preparations. Credit: SpaceX

CINCINNATI — The first SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft has completed a series of tests at a NASA center that may put the spacecraft one step closer to an uncrewed test flight later this year.

In a speech at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Propulsion and Energy Forum here July 9, Janet Kavandi, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said the spacecraft recently left the center’s Plum Brook Station after a series of thermal vacuum and acoustics tests.

“They just left yesterday or today,” she said in her remarks at the conference. “They’ve been out there twice, at least, at Plum Brook Station.” She didn’t disclose the outcome of the tests, and SpaceX did not respond to an email requesting comment on the status of the test.

The company previously indicated that the testing at Plum Brook was the last milestone before the spacecraft was shipped to Florida for final testing and integration with its Falcon 9 rocket. “Once complete, Crew Dragon will travel to Kennedy Space Center in Florida ahead of its first flight,” the company said in a June 20 Instagram post about the tests that were ongoing at Plum Brook.

Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, also said the Plum Brook tests were the last before the spacecraft is shipped to Florida for launch. “Once it leaves Plum Brook, it’s going to come down to Cape Canaveral for final launch processing,” she said at a June 28 briefing at the Kennedy Space Center about the launch of a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.

That launch will be the first of two test flights of the Crew Dragon vehicle, this one without a crew. NASA schedules released earlier this year, representing the most recent public updates for commercial crew test flights, said that the uncrewed Dragon test flight would take place in August, followed by a crewed test flight in December. SpaceX officials have stuck to that schedule in recent comments.

However, at that same KSC briefing last month, NASA acknowledged some changes in those schedules were likely because of development delays as well as finding slots in the overall visiting vehicle schedule for the ISS.

“We’re evaluating exactly when opportunities might be and when they’ll be ready, but we’re not ready to set an official date at this point in time,” Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, said at that June 28 briefing when asked about revised schedules for both Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew test flights. He added that updates would be coming “very soon.”

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SpaceX launches Dragon cargo spacecraft on final Block 4 mission

A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off from SLC-40 June 29 carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft bound for the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV

RENTON, Wash. — A SpaceX Falcon 9 successfully launched a Dragon cargo spacecraft early June 29 on the final flight of a Block 4 version of the rocket.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on schedule at 5:42 a.m. Eastern. SpaceX reported no problems during the countdown, and a technical issue with a thermal panel on the Dragon spacecraft, reported by the company at a pre-launch press conference June 28, was resolved prior to liftoff.

The launch is the last mission to use an older Block 4 version of the rocket. The first stage for this launch first flew April 18, carrying NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite spacecraft. SpaceX did not attempt to perform a landing of the first stage on this launch, similar to other recent launches that has used previously-flown Block 4 first stages.

SpaceX will now use the upgraded Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 for all future launches. That version made its debut, and only flight to date, with the May 11 launch of the Bangabandhu-1 communications satellite for Bangladesh. The Block 5 includes a number of performance improvements and changes to allow for greater reuse of the first stage, with a goal of at least 10 launches for each booster.

The Dragon spacecraft is also reused, having previously flown the ninth mission in the company’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA in 2016. “For the remainder of the CRS-1 contract, which is through CRS-20, the plan is to use refurbished Dragons,” said Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, at the June 28 briefing.

When SpaceX shifts to its follow-on CRS-2 cargo delivery contract, the company will transition to the Dragon 2 vehicle, also known as Crew Dragon, that it is developing under its commercial crew contract. “What we’ll basically be doing is changing out seats and consoles for cargo accommodations,” she said.

On this mission, designated CRS-15, Dragon is carrying nearly 2,700 kilograms of cargo to the station. As is typical for such missions, the Dragon’s payload is a mix of crew supplies, space station hardware and experiments.

Among the payloads on the Dragon is one by Made In Space, a company that has developed a “pilot factory” for producing high-quality optical fibers using a material called ZBLAN. The company is analyzing fiber produced on the first two flights of the experiment while planning hardware for future missions to produce additional fiber, company president and chief executive Andrew Rush said during a panel discussion June 28 at the NewSpace 2018 conference here.

The Dragon’s trunk section carries two items of external cargo, an Earth science instrument called ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) to study how plans respond to changes in water availability, and a new latching end effector, or “hand,” for the station’s robotic arm.

The payload on the Dragon that has received the most attention is one called Crew Interactive Mobile companion, or CIMON, a spherical computer with artificial intelligence algorithms. Researchers plan to see how CIMON can support crews on the station with an eye towards potential use on future long-duration exploration missions.

“Having AI, and having that knowledge base and the ability to tap into it in a way that’s useful for the task you’re doing is really critical for having humans further and further away from the planet,” said Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, at the June 28 briefing. “We’ll have to have autonomy, we’ll have to have tools like this to have the species successfully live far away from Earth.”

The Dragon is scheduled to arrive at the ISS on the morning of July 2, berthing with the station’s Harmony module. The spacecraft will spend a month at the station before returning to Earth.

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NASA planning revisions to commercial crew test flight schedule

NASA plans to update the schedule for commercial crew test flights taking into account the status of the vehicles as well as other activity at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX artist’s concept and Boeing

RENTON, Wash. — With official dates for commercial crew test flights looming, NASA officials have indicated a revised schedule, taking into account the status of vehicle development as well as International Space Station activities, will soon be released.

At a June 28 briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center regarding the scheduled June 29 launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft, Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, said the agency was “close” to setting new date for uncrewed and crewed test flights by Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“We’re evaluating exactly when opportunities might be and when they’ll be ready, but we’re not ready to set an official date at this point in time,” he said, referring to continuing discussions involving the space station program, the commercial crew program and the two companies. “We’re working to that. I think it’s close to when we’ll be able to do it.”

Official schedules, published early this year, call for both Boeing and SpaceX to do uncrewed test flights in August. Boeing is scheduled to perform a crewed test flight in November and SpaceX in December.

A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for thermal vacuum tests at NASA's Plum Brook Station. Credit: SpaceXA SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for thermal vacuum tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station. Credit: SpaceX

While NASA continues to state that these dates remain the official schedule, there is widespread skepticism in the space industry that the companies will be able to meet those dates, with an expectation that both companies will see slips of up to several months.

Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said at the briefing that SpaceX was continuing to work to the August and December dates for the company’s two test flights. The Crew Dragon vehicle that will go on the uncrewed test flight is currently at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio for thermal vacuum tests. “Once it leaves Plum Brook, it’s going to come down to Cape Canaveral for final launch processing,” she said.

At a June 26 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee on commercial launch regulatory reform, Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel at SpaceX, offered a similar schedule, saying that the uncrewed test was planned for “later this summer,” followed by a crewed test flight in December.

However, Kelly Gareheime, associate general counsel for United Launch Alliance who also testified at the hearing, declined to state when the company would launch Boeing’s Starliner test flights. “We do have a timeframe that is not public at this time,” she said.

ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno has already indicated that the August launch will be delayed. Asked on Twitter when the next Atlas launch would take place, Bruno responded June 16, “AEHF in October from the Cape.” That suggested the Starliner test flight, which also uses an Atlas, will take place after that military satellite launch, a delay of at least two months.

Shireman said one factor for revising those dates is that the commercial crew test flights have to be worked into the schedule of other visiting vehicles for the station, including Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecraft and Japan’s HTV cargo spacecraft, as well as activities like spacewalks. “It has to fit in amongst all those things,” he said. “We just have to sit down all together, agree when the vehicles are going to be ready, when the certifications are ready and when it fits into the program plan. That’s the work still in front of us.”

Others at NASA, including the agency’s leader, have also been vague about when the commercial crew test flights will take place. “As far as the timelines go, I’m not going to change any timelines right here,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said June 27 at a Washington event held by Politico. “These are commercial providers who set their own timelines, and I’m not going to announce anything on their behalf.”

Bridenstine added he was “confident” in Boeing and SpaceX’s ability to safely fly astronauts, “and we are anxiously anticipating a rapid return of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”

“Our partners, Boeing and SpaceX, are doing really, really good work,” said Phil McAlister, director of the commercial spaceflight division at NASA Headquarters, in a June 26 speech at the NewSpace 2018 conference here. He, too, shied away from giving specific dates for upcoming test flights.

“Very soon, within a few number of months, we’re going to have uncrewed test flights for both Boeing and SpaceX to the International Space Station,” he said, adding that flights with astronauts on board would happen soon. “We’re talking about months, and we’re not talking about years.”

At the June 28 press conference, Shireman acknowledged that NASA needed to better explain the process for scheduling commercial crew test flights. “Perhaps the thing we have not done as well about is really explaining all that’s involved in flying a flight to the space station,” he said. “We’re still in negotiations about what those dates will be. They’ll be forthcoming very soon.”

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Boeing constellation stalled, SpaceX constellation progressing

Hisdesat’s Paz satellite seen separating from the Falcon 9 rocket’s upper stage. SpaceX’s demo broadband satellites Tintin A and B are visible on the left and right. Credit: SpaceX video still.

SINGAPORE — Boeing is not actively building any satellites for the constellation it proposed to U.S. regulators two years ago, an industry executive said June 25.

“We have a filing but we haven’t really started developing it yet, so I would call that not really moving forward,” Dawn Harms, vice president of global sales and marketing at Boeing Satellite Systems International, said at the CASBAA Satellite Industry Forum here.

Boeing has applied to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for a constellation numbering between 1,396 and 2,956 satellites in low Earth orbit for global internet access. Since that application, which has yet to be approved, the company has revealed little about progress with the constellation.

Boeing has emphasized partnerships on the constellation, leading to speculation that the company’s main goal is to do the regulatory heavy lifting to increase customer interest in buying a large constellation. Harms did not answer an audience question about whether Boeing would sell the constellation rather than operate it.

“We are open to doing what makes sense in the future,” she said.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is further refining its constellation after launching two prototype satellites in February.

Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX’s vice president of commercial sales, said development of the planned constellation of some 4,425 satellites is in its “very early days.”

“We’re still in the tech-development phase of it, understanding not only how to get the technology right but also make it low-cost enough to be effective,” he said.

Per FCC rules, SpaceX has six years from the date of authorization (March 29) to launch a minimum of half of its constellation and nine years to launch the full number. SpaceX anticipates starting service with around 800 satellites in 2020 or 2021.

“We’re looking to continue the program,” Hofeller said.

In May, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted that the two demo-satellites, TinTin A and B, were successfully closing links with the ground, delivering “high bandwidth” at 25 milliseconds of latency. Musk said SpaceX will “do another [revision] before final design.”

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Hearing raises questions about pace of commercial launch regulatory overhaul

Regulatory reform could streamling the licensing process for vehicle like Blue Origin’s New Glenn (above), but some in Congress and elsewhere are raising questions about the fast pace of that reform effort. Credit: Blue Origin

RENTON, Wash. — As the commercial launch industry seeks regulatory reforms to streamline the licensing process, other are raising concerns about a schedule that calls for those changes to be completed next year.

Space Policy Directive (SPD) 2, signed by President Trump May 24, directs the Department of Transportation, through the Federal Aviation Administration, to develop revised regulations for licensing of commercial launches and reentries. It specifically calls for a single license for all launches of a specific vehicle and replacing prescriptive requirements with performance-based criteria. The policy requires that work to be complete by Feb. 1, 2019.

At a hearing June 26 of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, industry representatives said such changes were needed to deal with regulations that don’t reflect the technologies used in vehicles today or the growing pace of launch activity.

“FAA launch licensing regulations, designed decades ago, are outdated and unnecessarily onerous,” said Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel at SpaceX. “They are not reflective of new technologies, such as reusable rockets and autonomous flight safety systems.” She said the company supported the reform process set into place by SPD-2.

Audrey Powers, deputy general counsel of Blue Origin, agreed. She noted that FAA’s licensing approach for expendable launch vehicle followed a prescriptive approach, while its licensing of reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) used performance-based criteria, giving companies the flexibility to choose its preferred technical approach for meeting those criteria. The company is able to take advantage of the latter for its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle, whose first stage is designed to be reused.

However, she said that since New Glenn will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, it must also comply with Air Force requirements, which follow the prescriptive approach the FAA uses for expendable vehicles regardless of whether the vehicle is expendable or reusable. “This means that reusable launch vehicle operators lose the benefit of FAA’s performance-based approach to regulating RLVs because we must also meet the Air Force’s prescriptive requirements,” she said.

SpaceX runs into other licensing issues, Schenewerk said, if it moves Falcon 9 launches between Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, a short distance apart but under different jurisdictions. “If we change sites prior to the mission, we have to undertake a license modification process,” she said. “That is not a practical situation.”

Some members of the subcommittee, though, worried about the pace of the reforms. “We’ve heard from some stakeholders that FAA’s regulations were adopted 25 years ago and are, in fact, in desperate need for a rewrite,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), ranking member of the subcommittee. “But we’ve also heard from folks who caution that safety might be compromised if the FAA is forced to ‘streamline’ its regulatory framework in just 12 months.”

“Safety is always paramount, and we’re never in favor of any time restriction or deadline that would impact safety,” said Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, who testified on the integration of space operations into the national airspace system, which is dominated by commercial aircraft.

He reiterated that later in the hearing. “The FAA needs time to do their safety data analysis so they propose rules that they’re comfortable meet the safety standard,” he said. “If the safest course means we’re not going to make the 12-month deadline, then we’re just not going to make the 12-month deadline.”

His later comments came in response to questions from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who was skeptical revised regulations could be completed in such a short period of time. “I’ve been on this committee for a long time, but I’ve never seen regulations done within one year,” she said.

Even some in the space industry raised questions about the pace of regulatory reform. “We have concerns the timeline is so aggressive,” said Kelly Gareheime, associate general counsel at United Launch Alliance.

Her issue was that the timeline would not allow for further collaboration with industry, thorugh mechanisms like aviation rulemaking committees before the new regulations are completed. “Our concern at ULA is that regulations don’t necessarily address the input we provided,” she said.

Advocates for the expedited regulatory review, though, noted that the deadline of Feb. 1 of next year is only for a notice of proposed rulemaking, not the final regulations themselves. “There is the potential for a lengthy comment period and reviews” after the publication of the proposed regulations, said Powers. “It’s left to be determined how long the actual process will take in its entirety.”

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SpaceX wins $130 million military launch contract for Falcon Heavy

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy on Launch Complex 39A as seen from the KSC Press Site Feb. 5. Credit: SpaceNews / Jeff Foust

Falcon Heavy’s military contract win is for AFSPC-52, a classified mission projected to launch in late Fiscal Year 2020.

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has won its first  big-ticket classified military launch contract for the Falcon Heavy rocket. The Air Force awarded SpaceX a $130 million contract for the launch of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-52 satellite.

The Falcon Heavy beat United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 in a competition under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. The launch will take place at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles announced the contract award on Thursday. SMC Commander Lt. Gen. John Thompson said this was “another opportunity to foster competition on the EELV program in an effort to reduce launch costs while maintaining assured access to space.”

This is the fifth competitive procurement under the current Phase 1A of the EELV program since SpaceX entered the market to challenge ULA. The $130 million award for the Falcon Heavy launch is considerably lower than the average $350 million price tag for Delta 4 launches.

AFSPC-52 is a classified mission projected to launch in late Fiscal Year 2020.

SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement that the company is “honored by the Air Force’s selection of Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively-awarded AFSPC-52 mission.” She said the contract award indicates the military’s “trust and confidence” in the company.

Falcon Heavy also in on track to launch the U.S. Air Force’s STP-2 technology demonstration mission, currently scheduled for October.

The Air Force released the solicitation of the AFSPC-52 mission September 28 and proposals were due October 30.

During a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch Jr., the military deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, said he was confident that the cost of military launches will continue on a downward path.

“You have to watch what we’ve done. We’ve saved money over time,” Bunch said. “That’s driven some by what we’re doing with competition and also by the commercial demand signal. The two are coupled together.”

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SpaceX proposing expansion of Florida launch processing facilities

An illustration of a hangar that would be used for refurbishing and storing boosters and payload fairings at a new SpaceX facility proposed for development at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — SpaceX plans to significantly expand its footprint at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, a sign that its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets will play a key role for the company for years to come even as it develops a more powerful vehicle.

A draft environmental assessment by NASA, dated April 11 but only recently released, discusses a proposal by SpaceX to develop facilities that would include a booster processing hangar and launch control center on 67 acres of KSC property. News of the plan was first reported by Florida Today.

The facility, located just off State Road 3, the main north-south road at the center, southwest of Launch Complex (LC) 39, would support a much higher launch rate of Falcon rockets, including processing of landed booster stages and recovered payload fairings for reuse.

“This action is needed in order to increase the effective and cost efficient operation of space flight by providing Space X [sic] with facilities to support staff in planning, processing, and operating launches as part of their current returnable, re-usable space vehicles program (Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy),” the environmental assessment document states.

“The Proposed Action is necessary to support the growing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch manifest at LC-39A and LC-40,” the two launch pads SpaceX currently uses at Cape Canaveral, according to the document. That includes up to 10 launches a year of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which made its first and, to date, only launch in February. The document doesn’t mention how many Falcon 9 launches are expected, but the document anticipates up to 54 landings a year of the Falcon 9 first stage, either at Cape Canaveral or on a drone ship at sea.

The centerpiece of the facility would be a new control center. “The launch control center is envisioned to be world-class, architecturally distinctive, and equipped for satellite, cargo, and crew missions,” it states. Illustrations of the center include a tower up to 90 meters tall, along with other facilities to handle launch and landing operations and related activities.

The facility would also include a processing and storage facility for landed boosters and recovered payload fairings. That facility would cover more than 12,000 square meters, with about two-thirds of it for booster processing and the rest for fairing processing.

Other aspects of the site mentioned in the document include a “rocket garden” of Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecraft on display, a security office and a utilities yard. Much of the property would be set aside for future, unspecified use.

The document doesn’t include schedules for building the facilities, or their estimated cost. The assessment concluded that building the facilities “would not likely cause any significant cumulative impacts” to the environment in and around the center.

Notably absent from the environment assessment is any discussion of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), the giant two-stage fully reusable launch vehicle the company is developing. The document’s discussion of SpaceX launch plans from Cape Canaveral, and the facilities planned to support them, is limited to the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

During a teleconference with reporters in May prior to the first launch of the Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said he estimated that the new version of the Falcon 9, designed for repeated reuse, would fly at least 300 times before being retired in favor of the BFR. SpaceX plans to build between 30 and 50 Block 5 first stages to support those launches.

While SpaceX illustrations of the BFR have shown it launching from LC-39A at KSC, Musk said in that call that the BFR would fly, at least initially, out of the company’s launch site under development near Brownsville, Texas. The company broke ground on the Texas site in September 2014, with initial plans to use it for additional Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

“Our South Texas launch site will be dedicated to BFR because we can get enough capacity with two launch complexes at Cape Canaveral and one at Vandenberg [Air Force Base in California] to handle all of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy missions,” he said in the call.

The planned expansion of SpaceX facilities was warmly received by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) In a statement June 8, he credited language in the 2017 NASA authorization act that extended a provision in federal law allowing the agency to lease property. That provision was set to expire at the end of 2017 prior to the bill’s enactment in March 2017.

“Thanks to the NASA bill we passed last year to allow commercial space companies to expand their activities on NASA properties, SpaceX is now building a major new facility at KSC that will bring more jobs and provide yet another boost to the local economy,” Nelson said.

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SpaceX launches SES-12 on “hybrid” Falcon 9

A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off June 4 with the SES-12 telecom satellite. Credit: SpaceX webcast

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched the all-electric SES-12 telecom satellite June 4 on a Falcon 9 rocket that combined two generations of the rocket.

Featuring a pre-flown Block 4 first stage and the new Block 5 upper stage, the Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base at 12:45 a.m. Eastern.

The 5.4 metric-ton SES-12 satellite separated from the rocket’s upper stage 32 minutes later.

Described by manufacturer Airbus Defence and Space as “the largest and most powerful all-electric satellite ever produced,” SES-12 carries six wide-beam and 72 high-throughput spot-beam transponders for television and connectivity services across the Asia Pacific and the Middle East.

The satellite should have enough fuel to last 22 years in orbit — seven longer than the design life of most geostationary spacecraft — thanks to the effectiveness of the Block 5 upper stage, according to SES Chief Technology Officer Martin Halliwell as quoted in Florida Today.

The Ku- and Ka-band satellite has a digital processor to flexibly allocate capacity according to customer demand — a feature satellite operators are increasingly demanding to prevent geostationary spacecraft from losing their efficacy as markets change over time.

The first-stage booster used today first launched Sept. 7 with the Air Force’s secretive Orbital Test Vehicle 5 spaceplane. SpaceX did not seek to recover the booster or the payload fairings.

SES-12 was originally to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from European launch provider Arianespace, but SES switched the satellite with one of its SpaceX missions in August. Luxembourg-based SES used that Ariane 5 to instead launch SES-14, a satellite needed on an expedited schedule to replace the malfunctioning NSS-806.

An Arianespace Ariane 5 anomaly eliminated the weeks of schedule saving that SES hoped to obtain by switching missions. A trajectory deviation with Ariane 5 sent SES-14 into the wrong orbit, requiring an estimated four weeks of additional maneuvering with onboard propellant to reach its geostationary slot.

SpaceX’s SES-12 mission was supposed to occur by the end of March but was delayed until June.

SES-12 is a replacement for the 15-and-a-half-year-old NSS-6 satellite. SES plans to co-locate SES-12 with SES-8 at 95 degrees east.

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Arabsat Falcon Heavy mission slated for December-January timeframe

SpaceX’s inaugural Falcon Heavy lifts off Feb. 6. carrying a Tesla roadster. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s first Falcon Heavy launch with a commercial satellite is scheduled to occur around the end of the year, according to customer Arabsat.

The Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based satellite operator told SpaceNews by email that the launch window for Arabsat 6A is between December and January.

SpaceX has one Falcon Heavy launch scheduled ahead of Arabsat-6A — the U.S. Air Force’s STP-2 technology demonstration mission.

An Air Force Space Command spokesperson told SpaceNews the STP-2 mission is currently scheduled for October. STP-2 was previously up for launch this month, but slipped “due to ongoing SpaceX qualification testing and engineering review by both SpaceX and the Air Force,” the spokesperson said.

Following STP-2 and Arabsat-6A, it is unclear when the next Falcon Heavy mission will occur. SpaceX still counts fleet operators Intelsat, Viasat and Inmarsat as Falcon Heavy customers, but none have assigned spacecraft to the rocket.

Viasat’s ViaSat-2 and Inmarsat’s European Aviation Network satellite — both originally slated for 2016 Falcon Heavy launches — launched on Arianespace Ariane 5 rockets last June. The operators switched launch providers as Falcon Heavy delays mounted.

Inmarsat spokesperson Jonathan Sinnatt said the London-based satellite operator still has an option for a Falcon Heavy launch.

Intelsat, SpaceX’s earliest Falcon Heavy customer, also has a launch option dating back to 2012, but no concrete details such as payload or date.

“We still have the Falcon Heavy agreement but no satellite has been assigned to the vehicle,” Intelsat spokesperson Jason Bates said.

Carlsbad, California-based Viasat, in response to SpaceNews inquiries, gave no firm commitment of a Falcon Heavy launch, though the company is still listed on the SpaceX manifest.

“Viasat had a launch contract on the Falcon Heavy for the ViaSat-2 satellite launch,” Viasat said in a statement. “We continue to talk with SpaceX as well as other launch providers for our future launches. As deals are solidified with our launch providers – we’ll update the market.”

SpaceX launched its first Falcon Heavy in February on a demonstration mission carrying a red Tesla roadster.

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Musk should go ahead and build his ‘Pravda’

Elon Musk. Image c/o Nasa

Elon Musk’s idea of creating a credibility rating site for journalists and media outlets seems wacky on the face of it. For one, the proposed name, Pravda, is cringe-making for a Soviet-born journalist like me. But not all Musk’s ideas are far-fetched. It can actually be a useful service.

Musk hates reading about his company (Tesla, not SpaceX) in the media. The ruthless discussion of production snafus and Musk’s iffy promises and forecasts, the focused coverage of deadly accidents, the less-than-perfect reviews of Tesla’s great hope, the Model 3 — none of this is nice, if you’re Musk.

Musk’s tweets from Wednesday indicate that he believes journalists sensationalise Tesla’s problems because they’re after clicks and under pressure from big advertisers, which include Tesla competitors. I won’t bother trying to prove that this is wrongheaded. But it’s true that audience size isn’t great at reflecting the quality of journalistic work. So Musk wants the audience to rate the “core truth” of every article, contributing to the writer’s and news outlet’s credibility rating.

Musk proposes somehow to make his new service “botproof” and capable of unmasking people who run bot armies, presumably in the same way the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab has worked to reveal the activity of Russian bots and trolls. Facebook recently partnered with the lab to help stop election interference.

Of course, services for which user reviews are important haven’t quite conquered the fakes. Yelp, Amazon, and others may use special algorithms to spot them, but it’s an arms race: artificial intelligence can now create fake reviews that are extremely hard to tell from real ones. It’s 100% certain that bots and paid trolls will romp on Musk’s new Pravda. With that name, it’ll be a badge of honour for Russian ones to subvert it; and given Musk’s motivation and his love for publications that fawn on him, I doubt he’ll do much to restrain Tesla fanboys. But if other review-based services generally serve their purpose, why not this one?

Any well-developed social credit system depends on algorithms to process the data it constantly yields about people. I could imagine the organisers of big events that attract a lot of media attention using software to deny accreditation to entire publications or specific reporters and bloggers with a low Pravda rating. One could also imagine time-challenged readers using an app that would only aggregate work from journalists and outlets with the highest credibility ratings. It’s as good a selection principle as any other for people struggling to sort through the current flood of information.

‘Social credit’

If there is something creepy about the idea, it may be the sense that Musk’s creation would be another brick in the increasingly imposing edifice of a rating-based society, a truly all-embracing social credit system like the one being implemented in China. In such a system, society rates all our interactions the way an Uber driver and their ride rate each other. If you’re an unnecessarily aggressive client in stores or, say, a bully on social networks, your rating goes down and businesses may refuse to deal with you. By this logic journalists’ “social credit” should also be tracked.

Isn’t that a sort of mob rule? In pure form, it’s a totalitarian nightmare, but it’ll never be quite pure. Individuals in our societies still like to form their own views. Think of Rotten Tomatoes, the movie and TV show rating site, which aggregates the opinions of both ordinary viewers and professional critics. The two scores often diverge widely, and both contribute to a decision whether or not to see a movie. It’s the same with restaurants: both previous customers’ experience and professional reviews and ratings are valuable inputs.

Journalists today don’t have a meaningful customer rating system. Even if they write on websites where their work can be commented upon or approved, the ratings aren’t portable or universally recognised. Musk’s name on the Pravda project could help it gain that kind of recognition.

The professional community, of course, would be free to ignore the ratings or to push back against them — by hiring journalists who do important but unpopular work, by handing out professional prizes to mavericks and contrarians, by promoting journalism that doesn’t meet with public approval in unhealthy or repressive societies. In fact, it would be ideal if, like Rotten Tomatoes, Musk’s Pravda also allowed professional journalists to rate each others’ work. Sometimes a discrepancy between the ratings might prompt readers to look at a story they otherwise wouldn’t have considered.

The more inputs there are to inform our choices, the more likely we are to satisfy ourselves by making the right ones, even if these inputs can be abused or botched by badly built tech. It’s always up to humans to adjust for bias or fix systems that don’t do a good job. Musk’s motivations might be less than noble; but he’s stumbled on a good idea.  — (c) 2018 Bloomberg LP

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NBN preps business broadband offer with underused Sky Muster capacity

NBN originally planned to keep Sky Muster 2 as an in-orbit backup, but decided in late 2016 to use the satellite to support broadband users across Australia. Credit: SSL

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Australia’s NBN is preparing to offer underutilized satellite capacity on its twin Sky Muster satellites for businesses. An NBN executive estimated the business service will use 15 percent of the capacity on the Ka-band satellite system. NBN’s Sky Muster satellites are mainly for residential broadband in rural and remote areas deemed too expensive to reach with terrestrial infrastructure. Since the business service uses spare capacity, it is unlikely to be available on Australia’s eastern seaboard where NBN’s satellites are already heavily relied upon. Along with capacity, the business service will also use NBN ground infrastructure like the state-owned company’s nine ground stations. [ZDNet]

NigComSat has yet to complete the purchase of two satellites from China Great Wall Industry Corp. Chief George Moghalu, NigComSat’s board chairman, said NigComSat views the two satellites as necessary to provide backup for the operator’s sole spacecraft: NigComSat-1R. The lack of backup spacecraft has made prospective customers leery of using its telecom services, he said. [Daily Trust]

Russia is planning a communications satellite constellation. Russian Space Systems Company, part of the state space corporation Roscosmos, is developing a system of 288 satellites called Efir to provide global communications. The company plans to deploy the satellites into 870-kilometer orbits by 2025, but did not disclose the data rates or other technical details of the system. [TASS]


SpaceX won’t seek government subsidies for its Starlink satellite broadband constellation. The company notified the FCC this month it won’t seek a share of the $2 billion in rural broadband subsidies available under the Connect America Fund II program, arguing that it was more effective for the company “to leverage advanced technology and smart private sector infrastructure investment.” SpaceX had previously lobbied the FCC to ensure that non-geostationary satellite systems would be eligible for the fund. [SpaceNews]

Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) bid to build Spacecom’s Amos-8 satellite had a price of $200 million and a project timeline of four years. That is almost twice as much time and money as the bid Spacecom ultimately selected from Space Systems Loral. The Israeli government, seeking to maintain a domestic telecom-satellite manufacturing capability, has signaled intent to buy and operate its own satellite from IAI. Mossi Raz, an Israeli parliamentarian, sent a letter to Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit earlier this month requesting an investigation into the decision to have the IAI build a new state-operated communication satellite amid allegations of backroom political dealings. [DefenseNews]

Kratos has received contracts for satellite command & control, signal monitoring and other products and services worth $55 million. The ground infrastructure and related services are for U.S. defense satellites and commercial satellites that support national security missions. Kratos said most of the work under the contracts will be performed over the next 12 months. [Kratos]

A Falcon 9 successfully launched Earth science and communications satellites Tuesday. The Falcon 9 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 3:48 p.m. Eastern and placed the two GRACE-FO satellites into low Earth orbit about 11 minutes later. After a coast phase of nearly an hour, the upper stage deployed five Iridium Next satellites. The first stage, previously flown in January, did not attempt a landing, and the company wasn’t able to catch a fairing section on a boat equipped with a large net. The launch was the 10th SpaceX mission of the year. [SpaceNews]

Iridium has won approval from a maritime organization to provide emergency communications services. Iridium said Monday that the International Maritime Organization certified the company to provide Global Maritime Distress Safety System services, which only Inmarsat provides today by satellite. Iridium spent five years winning that approval, facing opposition from Inmarsat. The International Maritime Organization also certified Inmarsat’s new Fleet Safety service, which provides the mandatory maritime safety service and broadband data services through a single terminal. A third system, China’s Beidou Navigation Satellite System, is seeking certification as well. [SpaceNews]

Orbcomm’s Chief Financial Officer Robert Costantini resigned last week, the company disclosed May 22. In a filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Orbcomm said his decision to leave was not a result of bad blood with the company. While Orbcomm looks for a new chief financial officer, another executive will take his place on a temporary basis. Constantine “Dean” Milcos, Orbcomm’s chief accounting officer since 2013, will serve as interim chief financial officer effective immediately. Milcos will handle the responsibilities of both jobs until a new chief financial officer is hired. [Orbcomm]

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SpaceX achievements generate growing interest in reusable launchers

A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base May 22. The first stage previously launched the classified Zuma mission in January. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

PASADENA, Calif. — As SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 with a previously-flown first stage May 22, both the company and its competitors are seeing a growing acceptance of reusable vehicles in the overall market.

The Falcon 9 that launched five Iridium Next satellites and two GRACE-FO Earth science satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base used a first stage that first flew in January, carrying the classified Zuma payload. That booster was the 12th first stage to be reflown, counting the two used as side boosters in the inaugural Falcon Heavy launch in February.

Most of those Falcon 9 missions with reflown boosters have been for commercial customers, enticed at least in part by the modest discounts SpaceX has offered for using previously-flown stages. NASA has flown two Dragon cargo missions to the International Space Station on reflown boosters, but the agency says it evaluates the use of such vehicles on a case-by-case basis.

“I think government customers are taking a very careful approach, which you would expect them to do” about accepting reused vehicles, said Josh Brost, senior director for government business development at SpaceX, during a panel discussion at the Space Tech Expo conference here shortly before the Falcon 9 launch.

Brost said he expects that attitude to change as SpaceX brings into the service the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9, which made its first flight May 11. That vehicle incorporates lessons learned from earlier versions of the Falcon 9 intended to make to improve the vehicle’s reusability, with a goal of performing at least 10 flights of the first stage without requiring significant maintenance.

“There’s lots of little things that we learned from each flight about how to make our rocket more reliable and more rapidly reusable,” he said of the changes that went into the Block 5. Those lessons ranged from improvements to the heat shield on the bottom of the stage to how to more efficiently guide the stage back to landing.

He predicted that, once the Block 5 achieves that ten-flight goal, government and other customers will be more willing to fly on it. “We see a future where the most risk-averse customers are likely to prefer to fly on the second flight of a booster rather than the first flight,” he said. “Once you demonstrate you can fly it many times, you can see that first flight as essentially a check flight.”

Brost said that SpaceX was working with “other government entities” about the use of previously-flown boosters. That’s likely to include the U.S. Air Force, which has not yet certified reflown Falcon 9 vehicles for its missions.

Col. Jon Strizzi, chief engineer of the Launch Directorate of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, didn’t directly address reusability in his comments on another conference panel, but did note that the service was figuring out how to incorporate innovative approaches to launch services.

“As we move into the future, with new ways to build things, produce things and operate them in different commercial landscapes and different military landscapes, keeping the secret recipe, the ‘secret sauce’ for our success is going to be an interesting opportunity, and we have to work closely with our providers to do that,” he said.

Other companies are also pursuing reusability because of its cost and operational benefits. Blue Origin has demonstrated reusability with its New Shepard suborbital vehicle and plans to land and reuse the first stage of its New Glenn rocket.

Ariane Cornell, New Glenn commercial sales director in the Americas for Blue Origin, noted that the company’s vision is for millions of people to be living and working in space. “The only way that you can do that is by bringing down the cost of access to space, so obviously reusability has been central to our design and our philosophy from the very beginning.”

European agencies and companies, once skeptical of the benefits of reusability, are now growing more interested in the development of reusable launchers.

“The question of reusability is whether it’s really a cost breakthrough for such relative small numbers of launches,” said Andreas Rittweger, director of the Institute of Space Systems at the German space agency DLR. “We came, in our investigations, to the conclusion that 10 launches per year indeed makes it sensible for reusability.”

Studies of reusable technologies by DLR and the French space agency CNES are still in their early stages, he said, including work the Prometheus engine and concepts to demonstrate both vertical landing of stages, as done by SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as winged flyback boosters.

“We are investigating different architectures,” he said, including the different landing modes as well as propellant combinations. The goal is to show a cost reduction of at least 30 percent with 10 launches per year.

SpaceX’s goals are more ambitious in terms of cost reductions and flight rates. “Our end goal is to make humanity interplanetary,” Brost said. “That only happens if getting to space is much less expensive than it’s ever been before. And the reason getting to space has been so expensive is because every time you went to space you threw your vehicle away.”

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SpaceX won’t seek U.S. rural broadband subsidies for Starlink constellation

SpaceX doesn’t plan to participate in the Connect America Fund II program, despite originally complaining that the FCC’s rules precluded its participation. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX says it will not go after any of the $2 billion in rural broadband subsidies the U.S. Federal Communications Commission will begin doling out this summer under its Connect America Fund II program.

The FCC invited telecommunications providers — including satellite operators — to bid July 24 for Connect America subsidies meant to make it financially worthwhile for companies to build out broadband networks to rural and remote areas otherwise too expensive to cover. The subsidies will be paid over 10 years using Universal Service Fund fees U.S. telcos routinely collect from customers.

SpaceX complained last fall that its planned Starlink broadband satellite constellation would not have a fair chance at the subsidies because the FCC’s Connect America rules penalized all satellites as “high latency” even though non-geostationary satellite systems like Starlink won’t suffer the same signal lag as satellites in much higher orbits.

SpaceX says its Starlink satellites, which will orbit between 1,100 to 1,300 kilometers, will need just 25 to 35 milliseconds to bounce signals to the ground and back, meeting the FCC’s 100-milliseconds-or-less threshold for being classified as “low latency” under the Connect America rules. In contrast, geostationary satellite links can take 500 milliseconds or longer to complete their 36,000-kilometer round trip.

While SpaceX ultimately convinced the FCC not to lump Starlink and other non-geostationary orbit satellite systems with higher latency orbits, the company formally notified the FCC earlier this month that it still won’t be seeking Connect America funding for Starlink.

“SpaceX believes that it is more effective to leverage advanced technology and smart private sector infrastructure investment to reach America’s unserved and underserved population, rather than seek Government subsidization for this effort,” SpaceX’s Vice President of Satellite Government Affairs, Patricia Cooper, wrote in a May 8 letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Cooper thanked the FCC for revising the Connect America auction rules, but said systems like Starlink won’t need government funding to connect rural and other remote areas.

“Innovation in space and ground technology will drive the cost of connectivity downward, ultimately reducing the need for taxpayer involvement in ongoing broadband expansion,” she wrote.

SpaceX launched two prototype Starlink satellites in February on a Falcon 9 mission that first deployed the Paz radar satellite for Spanish operator Hisdesat. In March, the FCC authorized SpaceX to provide broadband in the United States.

SpaceX is not alone in snubbing the Connect America program. OneWeb founder Greg Wyler criticized subsidies last fall when he testified alongside Cooper at a congressional hearing on satellite broadband constellations.

“All this talk of subsidies is confusing for me as an entrepreneur … I think we are taking the subsidy as a given as opposed to saying ‘maybe we should have technologies that don’t need it’ and focus on that,” he said.

OneWeb is building a low-Earth-orbit constellation of hundreds — and possibly thousands — of satellites to bring global internet access. The FCC has authorized OneWeb for 720 satellites. OneWeb has asked for that number to be expanded to 1,980. The company’s first 10 satellites launch late this year on an Arianespace Soyuz rocket.

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SpaceX launches five Iridium satellites and twin science spacecraft

A Block 4 Falcon 9 lifts off on a low-Earth orbit mission carrying seven satellites. Credit: SpaceX webcast.

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX Falcon 9 still sporting soot from its last mission successfully launched May 22 with five Iridium Next satellites and two science satellites for NASA and the German Research Center for Geosciences.

The rocket, reusing a first stage booster that successfully launched Northrop Grumman’s failed Zuma mission in January, took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 3:48 p.m. Eastern.

The twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow On (GRACE-FO) satellites separated from the rocket’s upper stage approximately 11 minutes later. Iridium’s five spacecraft separated one by one around 65 minutes into the mission.

SpaceX did not attempt to recover the Falcon 9’s first stage. The rocket was a Block 4 version, designed for two to three reflights of the same first stage. SpaceX’s Block 5 Falcon 9, which had its first flight 11 days ago carrying the Bangabandhu-1 telecom satellite, is designed for 10 reflights with the same booster and no refurbishment.

The company did try to recover the payload fairings, used to protect the satellites as the rocket exited the atmosphere, but was unsuccessful.

The fairings landing in the Pacific Ocean after deploying parachutes to slow their descent. SpaceX’s launch narrator said a recovery vessel named Mr. Steven “came very close” to catching them using a giant upward facing net. Mr. Steven is so far 0 for 3 trying to catch the fairings.

Iridium and the GRACE-FO team originally planned to launch today’s satellites on separate Dnepr missions, but had to find another ride when Russia halted missions on the converted intercontinental ballistic missile. Iridium’s Dnepr launch of two satellites was supposed to occur in 2015; GRACE-FO was to launch in 2017.

Without access to Dnepr, Iridium and the German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ) joined forces to book a single Falcon 9, splitting the cost between them.

Iridium used the extra lift capacity to launch three more Iridium Next satellites than it would have using the Dnepr vehicle. The May 22 launch grows the constellation to 55 Iridium Next satellites in orbit.

Iridium anticipates completing the Iridium Next constellation by this fall. The full constellation is to consist of 66 operational satellites, nine in-orbit spares and six ground spares. Iridium spent around $3 billion on Iridium Next, purchasing the satellites from Thales Alenia Space in Europe. Orbital ATK integrated the satellites at its Gilbert, Arizona, factory.

The GRACE-FO mission is a joint effort of NASA and GFZ. It is a successor to the original GRACE mission, also a U.S.-German partnership, that operated from 2002 until late last year.

The twin GRACE-FO spacecraft will fly in the same orbit, separated by 220 kilometers. A microwave ranging system will measure minute changes in that distance created by variations in the Earth’s gravitational field. Scientists will use those variations, which change over time, to measure the movement of masses of water created by effects like the loss of ice in Antarctica and Greenland.

“GRACE was really a revolutionary mission for us understanding the water cycle and how the climate behaves,” said Frank Webb, GRACE-FO project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, during a pre-launch briefing May 21. “This is the science that we will be continuing with GRACE Follow On.”

In addition to the microwave ranging system also used by the original GRACE satellite, the GRACE-FO satellites will use a laser rangefinder to measure their separation. That promises at least an order of magnitude accuracy improvement, said Frank Flechtner, GRACE-FO project manager at GFZ.

The GRACE-FO spacecraft are equipped with laser retroreflectors that allow ground stations to accurately measure their orbits, further improving the accuracy of the data. Sensors on the spacecraft will be able to collect GPS radio occultation data for atmospheric sounding, similar to that provided by the U.S.-Taiwan COSMIC constellation and commercial satellites operated by Spire.

NASA’s share of the GRACE-FO mission cost is $430 million. GFZ spent about $91 million on its contribution to the mission.

Today’s launch was the tenth SpaceX mission conducted this year.

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Big GPS upgrade delayed as US studies SpaceX rocket

The US Air Force has delayed the launch of its first Global Positioning System III satellite from this month to October at the earliest as it reviews the upgraded rocket that Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to use to boost it into orbit.

The satellite, valued at about US$528m, would be launched on the latest version of the Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX. The Block 5 rocket has more powerful engines, a stronger heat shield for the return trip through Earth’s atmosphere and new retractable landing legs.

The GPS III satellites being built by Lockheed Martin promise increased accuracy for navigation, a signal compatible with similar European satellites and improved security against cyberattacks. But the satellites meant to upgrade the Global Positioning System, which is widely used for military and civilian applications, are already years behind schedule.

The planned GPS III launch “has slipped due to ongoing SpaceX qualification testing and final engineering reviews by both SpaceX and the Air Force of Falcon 9 design changes,” the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said in a statement. The service is “working closely” with SpaceX to complete the reviews and issue a “Flight Worthiness Certification just prior to launch”, it said.

Musk, the chief executive of SpaceX as well as car maker Tesla, told reporters on a 10 May conference call that he wants the Block 5 “to be the most reliable rocket ever built”. The new rocket had its first successful launch on 11 May, when it carried Bangladesh’s first geostationary communications satellite toward orbit.

SpaceX also plans to use the Block 5 to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, a plan that awaits certification and approval by Nasa. Before allowing the company to fly a human crew, the agency wants to see that Block 5 can launch repeatedly with no issues. Critics have questioned the safety of SpaceX’s use of super-cooled rocket fuel that needs to be loaded right before takeoff — after astronauts are already on board.

More thrust

The Block 5 is “a significant upgrade for the Falcon 9, with more thrust, all new fairings and a new composite overwrap pressure vessel, among other changes,” Cristina Chaplain, space systems director for the Government Accountability Office, said in an e-mail. “It is reasonable for the Air Force to take time to verify and validate the changes before flying a GPS III satellite on it.

Chaplain said a successful 11 May test launch “is good news for GPS III, but more detailed assessments of that flight and subsequent flights will need to be made to assure the Air Force that the vehicle is ready to fly satellites crucial to national security”.

SpaceX, and an earlier model of the Falcon, were certified in May 2015 for military missions, and it won the Air Force’s first competitive launch a year later when the United Launch Alliance of Boeing and Lockheed, which long held exclusive rights to military missions, declined to bid on the GPS III launches.

“Falcon 9 is certified,” SpaceX spokesman James Gleeson said in an e-mail. What remains is “mission-unique and risk-reduction work that includes government-sponsored independent verification and validation as well as SpaceX’s corresponding design and testing work for Block 5”, he said.  — Reported by Tony Capaccio, with assistance from Dana Hull, (c) 2018 Bloomberg LP

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Safety panel considers SpaceX “load-and-go” fueling approach viable

The first SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A May 11. A NASA safety panel said they felt the company’s “load-and-go” fueling approach could be used on future commercial crew launches. Credit: Craig Vander Galien for SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — Members of a NASA safety panel said May 17 they believed that a SpaceX approach for fueling its Falcon 9 rockets known as “load-and-go” could be used for future commercial crew missions.

At the meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) at the Kennedy Space Center, panel member Brent Jett said he expected NASA’s commercial crew program would soon make a decision on the sequence of loading propellants and crew for SpaceX commercial crew missions.

That sequence has been a topic of controversy because of SpaceX’s preference to use an approach called “load-and-go” where astronauts would first board the Crew Dragon spacecraft before the rocket is loaded with RP-1 and liquid oxygen propellants. SpaceX has preferred that approach because of its use of dense supercooled propellants, which need to be loaded on the vehicle shortly before launch.

That approach, though, is contrary to previous practices in NASA human spaceflight, where rockets are fueled prior to allowing astronauts to board the vehicle. Thomas Stafford, a former astronaut who chairs the agency’s International Space Station Advisory Committee, sharply criticized the SpaceX plan after a Falcon 9 exploded on its launch pad during preparations for a static-fire test in September 2016.

“There is a unanimous, and strong, feeling by the committee that scheduling the crew to be on board the Dragon spacecraft prior to loading oxidizer into the rocket is contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years, both in this country and internationally,” Stafford wrote in a December 2015 letter to NASA released after the pad explosion.

Jett said that ASAP received a report recently from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center than examined the issues with load-and-go, including some “hazard causes” not previously identified. That report “proved very valuable to the commercial crew program,” he said.

“My sense is that, assuming there are adequate, verifiable controls identified and implemented for the credible hazard causes, and those which could potentially result in an emergency situation, or worse, loss of crew and vehicle, it appears that load-and-go is a viable option for the program to consider,” he said.

Other ASAP members offered similar opinions. “It appears that, if all the appropriate steps are taken and it addresses the potential hazards, the risk of launching crew in the load-and-go configuration could be acceptable,” said Patricia Saunders, chair of the panel.

George Nield, another ASAP member and former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, recommended NASA look at overall safety, not just of crews on the spacecraft. “Not only crew safety, but also ground crew safety, is an important factor,” he said. “Where are the risks, and how can they be mitigated, and what is the best overall sequence for safety of the whole?”

In a conference call with reporters May 10, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk downplayed any concerns about load-and-go, saying that he felt that SpaceX could fuel the Falcon 9 either before or after loading crew.

“I think that issue has been somewhat overblown,” he said. “We certainly could load the propellants and then have the astronauts board Dragon. That is certainly something we could do. But I don’t think it’s going to be necessary, any more than passengers on an aircraft need to wait until the aircraft is full of fuel before boarding.”

The load-and-go issue is separate from another issue involving a redesign of the composite-overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) used to store helium to pressurize the Falcon 9’s propellant tanks. The 2016 Falcon 9 pad explosion was blamed on a flaw in a COPV that allowed solid oxygen to form between the composite overwrap and liner, which triggered an explosion.

“Whether you load the crew first and then propellant, or propellant and then crew, either way the COPV issue has to be resolved,” Jett said. “While some people like to link those two issues, I think really you have to get comfortable with the COPV, then look at the hazards associated with the transient of having the crew on board during fueling.”

“If you can adequately control those hazards,” he added, “there are some very positive aspects to loading the crew first.”

Jett noted that NASA and SpaceX are “laser focused” on developing a safer COPV. “The panel has consistently maintained that understanding the behavior of the COPV in the densified cryo environment and identifying all the potential ignition scenarios is critical to controlling that potential hazard.”

Musk, in the May 10 call, said that SpaceX has a fallback plan if the COPV redesign effort fails, replacing them with Inconel spheres. However, he said that he expected the redesigned COPVs to be approved for use on crewed Falcon 9 flights after considerable effort by the company’s engineers.

“This is by far the most advanced pressure vessel ever developed by humanity. It’s nuts,” he said. “The top engineering minds at SpaceX have agonized over this. We’ve tested the living daylights out of it. We’ve been in deep, deep discussions with NASA about this, and I think we’re in a good situation.”

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Iridium to complete next-generation satellite deployment by this fall

Iridium expects to have its constellation consist entirely of Iridium Next satellites shortly after the final launch, expected by the end of the third quarter of this year. Credit: Iridium

WASHINGTON — Iridium expects to have its next-generation satellite constellation deployed and in service by this fall as it looks to win approvals for new maritime and aviation applications.

In a conference call with reporters May 14, Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said the remaining three launches of Iridium Next satellites should be completed by the third quarter of this year, with the satellites in the final positions shortly thereafter.

“All of the satellites are going to be in place within probably about 30 days of our final launch,” he said. The Iridium operations team has become more efficient in maneuvering new satellites into their planned orbital slots and putting them into service. “It will be very shortly after our final launch that we will have 100 percent Iridium Next satellites.”

Iridium has launched 50 Iridium Next satellites to date on five SpaceX Falcon 9 launches dating back to January 2017. Of those satellites, Desch said 47 are in service while the other three are drifting to their planned orbital planes.

The next launch of Iridium satellites is now scheduled for May 21, two days later than previously announced, again on a Falcon 9 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. Desch said that “pretty minor processing issues and preparation of one of the components of the rocket” caused the slip, and that he didn’t expect further delays.

Unlike the previous Iridium launches, which were dedicated flights of 10 satellites each, this mission will carry five Iridium Next satellites. The launch will be shared with GRACE-FO, an Earth science mission jointly developed by NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences.

On that launch, the Falcon 9 upper stage will deploy the two GRACE-FO satellites into one orbit, then relight to maneuver to a different orbit for the Iridium satellite deployment. Those satellites will be deployed into orbits not quite the same as those from earlier launches, but won’t pose a major issue, Desch said.

“It might take just a few more maneuvers of our satellites to get to where they have to get to than they’re typically used to,” he said. “But it’s going to be very close to the orbit we want to be in.

With that launch, three of the six orbital planes will consist entirely of next-generation satellites. The others will be filled out by the final two launches, with the company returning to dedicated launches of 10 satellites each. One launch is scheduled for July, Desch said, with the other before the end of the third quarter.

Those final two launches will use new Block 5 versions of the Falcon 9, which made its debut with a successful launch of a Bangladeshi communications satellite May 11. Next week’s launch will use a Falcon 9 with a previously-flown first stage, as was the case with the prior two Iridium launches.

Desch said he had no problems using previously-flown Falcon 9 rockets, and that the switch to the Block 5 for the final two launches is due to a lack of availability of older reused boosters. “We were an early adopter and believe that launching on flight-proven rockets is as safe, if not safer, than launching on new rockets,” he said.

In a May 10 call with reporters, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk revealed that that SpaceX was offering a discounted price for Falcon 9 launches with previously-flown boosters: $50 million, versus a list price of $62 million. Desch confirmed that Iridium received a “modest discount” for using reused boosters, but that was not a major factor for the company.

“It’s been more about the schedule certainty of being able to use flight-proven [boosters], knowing that we could keep our 18-month to 24-month launch schedule,” he said. “That was the biggest reason.”

“SpaceX is by far the lowest-cost launch provider today,” he added. “I am not demanding much more of a reduction than what we have today, because I believe I’m getting a product — I’m getting a service, really — of high value, higher than I can get from any other supplier.”

Seeking new business

Desch also used the call to provide an update on the company’s efforts to win new business for the Iridium satellite system. While the company now has more than one million subscribers, with year-over-year growth of nearly 12 percent in the first quarter, the company is seeking to enter new business areas, including maritime communications and aircraft tracking.

Matt Desch CEO, Iridium Communications. Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson.Matt Desch, CEO, Iridium Communications. Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson.

The company is currently seeking certification from the International Maritime Organization to provide Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) services from its satellites. If approved, Iridium would be the second satellite communications company, after Inmarsat, to have GMDSS certification.

“We expect to continue make progress in what has been a several-years-old approval process,” he said. “The addition of Iridium as a GMDSS provider will bring choice and competition, ending a decades-long monopoly and bring truly global coverage and greater capabilities in a cost-effective way.”

Progress on winning that certification is going well, and he expected to win approval and start offering the service by early 2020. “This is really a matter of when, not if,” he said.

Another area he cited was efforts by Aireon, whose aircraft-tracking payloads are included on the Iridium Next satellites, to win business. Aireon plans to make an announcement May 16 in cooperation with NATS, the public-private partnership that provides air traffic management services in the United Kingdom. Desch declined to details of any agreement between Aireon and NATS, citing the upcoming announcement.

Aireon is also undergoing an assessment by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Desch was optimistic that the FAA ultimately would become a customer and expected that evaluation process within the FAA to wrap up later this year.


As Iridium completes the deployment of its next-generation satellite constellation, it’s deorbiting the older satellites. Desch said that 25 of its “Block 1” satellites have undergone a deorbiting process where the satellites are moved into lower graveyard orbits. Fifteen of those satellites have reentered and, shortly after the briefing, the company announced the reentry of two more of the older satellites.

Desch used that to raise concerns about orbital debris risks posed by the growing number of cubesats and “megaconstellations” of satellites. “When companies plan to launch hundreds, if not thousands, of small satellites, we’re concerned that these new operators may be incentivized to cut corners and take risks to speed up their deployment and lower their costs,” he said.

Of particular worry to him was the complete failure of individual satellites, which would prevent them from being deorbited or from maneuvering in the event of a potential collision with another satellite or debris. “If a significant number of their satellites fail, their satellites could be dangerously spaced for hundreds of years, becoming targets for other debris,” he said.

Iridium has first-hand experience of this threat from the 2009 collision of the Iridium 33 satellite with the defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 2251. The company has changed its operations since that event, working more closely with the U.S. Air Force to get updated information about satellites that could pose a collision risk, making a judgement about a day out from a potential collision on whether to maneuver. Desch said that the company is averaging about one collision avoidance maneuver a week among its entire satellite constellation.

With the Iridium Next satellites in place late this year, Desch said it’s “very possible” that all of its remaining Block 1 satellites could be maneuvered to graveyard orbits by the end of the year. Most of those would reenter in about a year, although as many as four to six could take 20–25 years to reenter.

For each of the deorbited Block 1 satellites, Desch said that the company holds a ceremony. “We try to honor them in their retirement,” he said. “We try to picture them feeding birds on a park bench or doing something else for their retirement.”

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