A regular update on the most important news stories in astronomy and space from the best United States and North American news sources. Breaking news, latest discoveries plus the weird and wonderful. Updated regularly


Morgan Stanley Says Spaceflight Industries is ‘Entirely’ Disrupting the Rocket Launch Market (Source: CNBC)
The rocket launch business is expensive and risky, and then there are the technical requirements: Launch providers have to ensure a customer’s delicate and expensive spacecraft survives the trip to orbit. But Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries is showing things can be done differently, according to Morgan Stanley analysts Adam Jonas and Armintas Sinkevicius. In a note to investors Friday, they said that the company “is disrupting this model entirely” by applying the ride sharing concept to satellites.

The company packed a record-breaking 64 satellites on a SpaceX rocket in December for a mission known as Spaceflight SSO-A. Morgan Stanley called it “a significant milestone for the company.” The practice of satellite “ridesharing” has become more commonplace, in part thanks to Spaceflight. As technological advancements have led to smaller satellites, that means more of them can be loaded onto rockets as secondary payloads – hitchhiking on launches like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 as they bring larger satellites to orbit. Click here. (2/1)

Guide to Commercial Human Spaceflight (Source: WIRED)
For most of the history of spaceflight, humans have left such exploits to governments. From the midcentury Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo days to the 30-year-long shuttle program, NASA has dominated the United States’ spacefaring pursuits. But today, companies run by powerful billionaires—who made their big bucks in other industries and are now using them to fulfill starry-eyed dreams—are taking the torch, or at least part of its fire. Click here. (1/31)

Belgian Court Asks European Court of Justice to Assess Legality of Inmarsat in-Flight-Connectivity Service (Source: Space Intel Report)
The legal battle of Viasat Inc., occasionally flanked by Eutelsat, against Inmarsat’s European in-flight-connectivity has been given new life by a Belgian court ruling that questions whether Inmarsat’s license is valid given that it was more than a year late in launching its satellite. (2/1)

Musk Blames SpaceX Layoffs on ‘Absolutely Insane’ Mars Rocket and Satellite Internet Projects (Source: CNBC)
During Wednesday’s investor call for his public car company, CEO Elon Musk took a rare moment to talk about his private rocket company. Musk explained that the recent layoffs at SpaceX were different than those at Tesla, the latter of which he said came from the need “to be relentless about costs” to keep the electric vehicles “affordable.”

Rather, Musk said the SpaceX layoffs were due to the company’s “two absolutely insane projects:” Starlink (a network of thousands of tiny satellites intended to bring global high-speed internet coverage) and Starship (the enormous rocket SpaceX is building to transport humans and cargo to-and-from Mars). (1/31)

Chinese Company Inks Deal to Launch 90 Commercial Smallsats (Source: SpaceFlight Now)
Satellogic’s recent agreement with a Chinese company to launch 90 commercial Earth observation satellites on five or six dedicated Long March rocket flights marks one of China’s biggest wins in the global launch market. Satellogic has launched eight satellites to date, and the company announced a new contract Jan. 15 with China Great Wall Industry Corp. to launch 90 more microsatellites aboard Chinese Long March rockets.

This is the largest single deal for Chinese launch industry on the international commercial market in more than 20 years. “We’re putting our next 90 satellites into orbit with them over the next 24 months,” said Emiliano Kargieman, founder and CEO of Satellogic. “This is really a milestone for us, for Satellogic.” Satellogic and China Great Wall — the state-owned company charged with marketing Long March launch services internationally — declined to release the monetary value of the launch contract. (1/30)

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Makes Unexpected Discovery on Mars Mountain(Source: C/Net)
NASA’s intrepid Martian explorer, Curiosity, is slowly crawling its way up the side of the three mile high Mount Sharp on the surface of the red planet. Navigating the Martian surface can be risky but the rover’s accelerometers and gyroscopes make the journey a little easier. And scientists have realized those instruments can be recalibrated to help Curiosity measure Mars’ gravity. NASA collaborators at research universities such as Johns Hopkins were able to take gravity measurements by repurposing data from Curiosity rovers exquisitely precise sensors.

Mount Sharp is unusual because it sits within a huge crater, known as Gale Crater, on Mars. How a mountain came to be inside a crater still perplexes scientists, with some believing it may have been filled in with sediment which was slowly blown away over millions of years. That activity would make the lower layers of Mount Sharp dense with compact sediment, and Curiosity would see increased gravitational measurements.

Curiously, the research team found that there was less additional gravity being exerted on Curiosity as it rolled further up Mount Sharp. Thus, the layers of rock that make up the mountain aren’t as dense as was once expected and the theory that Gale Crater was once filled with sediment is unlikely. (1/31)

ULA Wins Contract to Launch NASA’s Lucy Mission to Visit Unexplored Asteroids (Source: SpaceFlight Now)
NASA has selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket to dispatch the Lucy spacecraft on a mission from Cape Canaveral in October 2021 to fly by seven unexplored asteroids, including six objects locked in orbits leading and trailing Jupiter, where scientists expect swarms of miniature worlds could hold clues about the formation of the solar system.

The space agency announced the contract award to ULA on Thursday, extending the company’s history of launching prominent interplanetary missions, a list that includes still-operating probes such as the InSight and Curiosity landers to Mars, the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, New Horizons in the Kuiper Belt, and the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission. Built by Lockheed Martin, the Lucy spacecraft will lift off aboard an Atlas 5 rocket with a four-meter (13-foot) diameter payload shroud and no solid rocket boosters, a variant known as the “401” configuration. The launch will occur at ULA’s Complex 41 launch pad at Cape Canaveral. (1/31)

ArianeGroup Considers Shetland Island Spaceport (Source: Shetland News)
ArianeGroup will support a study of a proposed launch site in the Shetland Islands. ArianeGroup will assist in a three-month study by the Shetland Space Centre for a launch site on the island of Unst for small launch vehicles. Backers of the site hope to have a spaceport set up there by the end of 2020. Shetland Space Centre says it’s in talks with a number of unidentified small launch vehicle manufacturers who are interested in the site. (2/1)

Congressman Aims to Stop Border Wall Going Up Next to SpaceX Texas Site(Source: Rio Grande Guardian)
A Texas congressman says he will fight any efforts to establish a border fence in the vicinity of SpaceX’s South Texas launch site. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said he added language to a House border security funding proposal that would prevent the development of any physical barriers in several places near the Mexican border, including the site SpaceX is developing on the Gulf of Mexico coast near Brownsville. Cuellar is a member of a House-Senate homeland security conference committee working on a spending bill before a current continuing resolution funding part of the federal government expires in two weeks. (1/31)

Military-Run Chinese Ground Station in Argentina Draws Continued Suspicion (Source: Reuters)
A Chinese ground station in Argentina continues to draw suspicions about its activities. The station, with a 35-meter antenna, is intended for civil applications only, the Chinese government says, but is run by the Chinese military with little oversight by the Argentine government. The site is a “source of bewilderment and suspicion” among residents of a nearby town, who don’t have access to the site and rarely see its staff in town. The ground station does have a visitor’s center, but it is located behind a fence, with access by appointment only. (2/1)

In New Starship Details, Musk Reveals a More Practical Approach (Source: Ars Technica)
On Thursday night, SpaceX founder Elon Musk shared photos of Raptor rocket engines that recently left the company’s factory in Hawthorne, Calif., headed out to be tested at its facility near McGregor, Texas. “Preparing to fire the Starship Raptor engine,” he said by way of a caption on Twitter.

The photos were interesting, but Musk had additional comments about the engine that revealed much about how the company is proceeding with overall design of the vehicle it will power. SpaceX’s approach seems focused on keeping costs down and moving as quickly as possible towards a launch of the Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket in the early 2020s.

For example, Musk said, “Initially making one 200 metric ton thrust engine common across ship & booster to reach the Moon as fast as possible. Next versions will split to vacuum-optimized (380+ sec Isp) & sea-level thrust optimized (~250 ton).” Click here. (2/1)

A New Mission for DARPA’s RSGS Robotic Spacecraft: Satellite Bodyguard(Source: Space News)
On Jan. 30, Maxar Technologies bowed out of a cost-sharing partnership with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for developing and operating the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) mission. However, Maxar’s exit has a silver lining. During the next few months, DARPA will evaluate other options for RSGS and should seriously consider the use of RSGS spacecraft as bodyguards to defend our critical satellites. DARPA should also keep the current schedule of launching the first RSGS spacecraft in spring 2021.

If China or Russia can disable four SBIRS satellites in geosynchronous orbits, the U.S. would have a gap in early warning coverage. Such a gap would delay the military’s assessment whether a nuclear missile has been launched and which region it is expected to land. We need every second of warning to activate the threat warning and notification system for the targeted population and prepare for military responses to the nuclear attack.

DARPA could use RSGS spacecraft serving as bodyguards to block off, or wrestle with, the robotic attackers. Also, it is always desirable to make a bodyguard as cheap as possible. Since the first four SBIRS satellite costed about $1.7 billion each, there is a lot of room to make a bodyguard far cheaper. In order to keep the launch schedule of spring 2021, the first few bodyguard spacecraft can be identical to the RSGS robotic servicing spacecraft. (2/1)

Northrop Grumman Pleased with Progress Integrating Orbital ATK (Source: Space News)
Northrop Grumman executives said Jan. 31 that the integration of the former Orbital ATK into the company is largely going according to plan but warned there could be financial impacts to the company if there is another government shutdown. Northrop Grumman reported sales of $30 billion for the full year of 2018, up from $26 billion in 2017. The company had an operating income for 2018 of $3.78 billion, compared to $3.22 billion in 2017.

The 2018 figures included, for the first time, revenue and profits from Orbital ATK, whose acquisition by Northrop Grumman closed in June 2018 and now operates as the Innovation Systems (IS) division of Northrop. That division reported sales of $3.28 billion in 2018 and an operating income of $343 million for the year. (1/31)

SAIC Wins $655 Million Air Force Contract to Modernize Satellite Ground Systems (Source: Space News)
The Air Force announced on Thursday that it awarded Engility Corp. — now owned by SAIC — a $655 million contract for satellite ground systems’ engineering, development, integration and sustainment. The customer for this work is the Space and Missile Systems Center Advanced Systems and Development Directorate, Ground Systems and Space Operations Division at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

The decision comes just two weeks after SAIC, based in Reston, Virginia, completed a $2.5 billion acquisition of Engility, which greatly expanded the company’s space services portfolio. Both SAIC and Engility had submitted separate bids for the program known as EDIS (engineering, development, integration and sustainment) before the merger was announced in September. Lockheed Martin has been the prime contractor for EDIS and its contract expires in spring 2019. Also in contention for the EDIS award was Herndon, Virginia-based Peraton. (1/31)

Israel’s First Lunar Mission Is Ready to Make Moon History in February(Source: Inverse)
The moon’s next visitor is different. SpaceIL’s Beresheet — Hebrew for “In the Beginning” — will become the first privately funded mission to launch from Earth and land on the moon, and the first spacecraft to propel itself over the lunar surface after landing by “hopping” on its rocket engine to a second landing spot. The mission marks yet another milestone, not only in the history and technical arc of space exploration, but also in how humankind goes about space exploration.

SpaceIL was founded in 2011 to compete in the Google Lunar XPrize, a program that planned to award $30 million to the first privately funded team who could build a spacecraft and land it successfully on the moon. Beyond landing, the spacecraft, or a rover, had to travel a distance of 500 meters or more and beam high-definition imagery of the landing environment to Earth. The Google Lunar XPrize contest deadline ended in 2018 without a winner. Undaunted, SpaceIL forged ahead with the development and construction of the spacecraft, and is now ready to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The Beresheet lander is about the size and shape of a family dinner table, roughly 6 feet in diameter and 4 feet high, weighing (on Earth) about 350 pounds. This doesn’t include the nearly 1,000 pounds of fuel needed to land the spacecraft on the moon. Carrying instrumentation to measure the magnetic field of the moon, a laser-reflector provided by NASA and a time capsule of cultural and historical Israeli artifacts, the mission will ride into space as a secondary payload — like a rideshare passenger — aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. (1/31)

ABL Space Systems Increases Performance and Cuts Price of its Small Launch Vehicle (Source: Space News)
A small launch vehicle company is increasing its vehicle’s payload capacity and reducing its price as it seeks to find a niche in a crowded market. ABL Space Systems plans to announce Feb. 1 that it is offering an upgraded version of the RS1 rocket at a price of $12 million a launch, down from an earlier price of $17 million. The vehicle’s performance has been increased from 900 to 1,200 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

Company executives say the change in performance and cost comes after a year and a half of work to refine the design of the vehicle and better understand what it would take to produce the vehicle. The company hasn’t selected a launch site for the vehicle, but that it has “conceptual frameworks” for all major U.S. launch sites regarding how they would operate there. The RS1 doesn’t require any permanent launch infrastructure at any site, using modular, containerized systems that can be trucked in. (2/1)

SpaceHorizon Wants to be Canada’s First Orbital Launch Provider (Source: SpaceQ)
Canada has never launched an orbital rocket. SpaceHorizon wants to change that, and it knows it faces an uphill battle to make the dream a reality. Earlier this month, the company announced it was going to resell launch services from other companies while at the same time it moves forward with developing its own fleet of rockets. Having just completed the conceptual design stage, the company’s first launch vehicle, called Launch Vehicle 1 or LV1, is planned as a small satellite launcher with an estimated development cost of $50 million.

The company currently doesn’t have the resources to fully fund the development of the rocket and will be reaching out to investors mid-year. They eventually want to launch from Canada, but that they don’t necessarily want to build their own spaceport. They would rather be the user of a facility that someone else builds, such as Maritime Launch Services. (1/31)

Cumberland Island Homes Association Opposes Spaceport Camden Plan(Source: Parabolic Arc)
Cumberland and Little Cumberland Islands have just become the first communities in America to be directly downrange from a vertical launch spaceport awaiting license approval from the FAA. More than sixty private homes lie in the path of rockets that Camden County commissioners hope someday to launch.

In the history of U.S. space flight, neither NASA nor the FAA have permitted a vertical launch over private homes or people directly downrange. The risk to people and property from an exploding rocket is too great.

On January 29, the Camden County, Georgia, Board of Commissioners filed an application to launch commercial/non-federal rockets over the Cumberland Island National Seashore and Little Cumberland Island. Camden County’s proposal to launch vertical rockets over people and their homes is without precedent in the United States. (2/1)

U.S. Suspends Nuclear Arms Control Treaty with Russia. Could Start a New Arms Race (Source: New York Times)
The U.S. is suspending one of the last major nuclear arms control treaties with Russia after heated conversations between the two powers recently failed to resolve a long-running accusation that Moscow is violating the Reagan-era treaty. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the decision on Friday as the Trump administration maintained that the Russian government has been unwilling to admit that a missile it has deployed near European borders violates the terms of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Mr. Pompeo and his deputies have insisted that Moscow destroy the missile. Instead, the government of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia counteraccused the United States of violating the treaty’s terms because of the way in which it has deployed launchers for antiballistic missile systems in Europe. (2/1)

There’s a Big Hole in the World’s Most Important Glacier (Source: Grist)
Civilization’s most important glacier has revealed another worrying surprise to scientists. The Thwaites Glacier, the largest outflow channel of the vulnerable West Antarctic Ice Sheet, now has a gigantic subterranean hole.

The hollowed-out section is two-thirds the size of Manhattan and 1,000 feet tall — big enough to have contained 14 billion tons of ice, according to a new study in the journal Science Advances. The NASA scientists who discovered it think most of the hole formed in just the past three years. As huge as that sounds, it’s just a tiny fraction of the Florida-sized glacier, but it sends an ominous signal that the glacier’s collapse is proceeding faster than expected. (1/31)

China Plans First Seaborne Rocket Launch in Mid-2019 (Source: Space Daily)
China’s first seaborne rocket launch is scheduled for mid 2019 with a Long March-11 carrier rocket set to blast off in the Yellow Sea, said Jin Xin, deputy chief commander of the rocket. China has achieved a breakthrough in the key technologies for seaborne launches, Jin, of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, told a press conference by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation on Tuesday. The Long March-11, with a length of 20.8 meters and a takeoff weight of about 57.6 tonnes, is the only rocket using solid propellants among China’s new generation carrier rockets. It has a relatively simple structure and can be launched in a short time.

After leaving port, the rocket could be launched within a week, said Jin. The rocket can carry a payload of up to 350 kg to a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 700 km and 700 kg to a low-Earth orbit at 200 km. It is mainly used to carry small satellites, and can take multiple satellites into orbit at the same time. A seaborne launch has many advantages over a land launch, Jin said. For instance, the launch site is flexible, and falling rocket remains pose less danger.

Using civilian ships to launch rockets at sea would lower launch costs and give it a commercial edge, said Jin. It will also help lay the groundwork for developing reusable rockets and recovery technologies at sea. The seaborne launch technology will help China provide launch services for countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, he added. (1/31)

Observers Puzzled by Mysterious ‘Empty Trash Bag’ Orbiting Earth (Source: Sputnik)
A Hawaiian telescope, part of NASA’s Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), has spotted a satellite orbiting the Earth at an average distance of 262,000 kilometres. Sky watchers from Northolt Branch Observatories concluded that it might be a left-over from a rocket launch, but cannot put their finger on which one. Northolt Branch Observatories has posted a video that captured a so-called “empty trash bag object” orbiting Earth with an unusual, retrograde trajectory. What distinguishes this piece, named, A10bMLz from objects previously found is its distant orbit.

According to the observatory, the object was first spotted on 25 January by ATLAS-HKO – a telescope located in Hawaii (at Haleakala) as part of the NASA-funded early-warning asteroid alert system. The “empty trash bag object” is orbiting at an average distance of 262,000 km from Earth and has a highly elliptical orbit. The observers also point out that it has “an extremely high area-to-mass ratio” of 35 m2/kg. This is a sign that the object is extremely light and has a mass of less than 1 kg. Because of this, pressure from solar radiation changes its orbit erratically, so it is hard to forecast its future trajectory. However, the researchers predict that the “trash bag” could enter Earth’s atmosphere within a few months. (1/31)

US X-37B Space Plane Flies Past Mission’s 500-Day Mark (Source: Space Daily)
The US Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane recently passed its 500-day mark on its fifth flight as part of the mysterious Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) program. All previous OTV flights have established new records for the program, with OTV-4 staying in orbit for a whopping 718 days. The fourth installment of the program was launched in May 2015 and landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in May 2017. At that point in time, the OTV program marked 2,085 days in space.

The current mission, known as OTV-5, began on September 7, 2017, when the spacecraft was launched from the Florida space center’s Launch Complex 39A atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Although details of the program’s mission are scarce and locked down on a need-to-know-basis, Space.com did report that the plane was likely being used for intelligence-gathering purposes due to its ties to the Schriever Air Force Base, which known for space-based demonstrations and collecting intelligence on space objects. In partnership with the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the Colorado base’s 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron oversees all operations carried out by X-37B. (1/31)

China to Send Over 50 Spacecraft Into Space Via Over 30 Launches in 2019(Source: Space Daily)
China is going to send more than 50 spacecraft into space via over 30 launches this year, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) on Tuesday. The major missions include the third Long March-5 large carrier rocket to be launched in July, said Yang Baohua, vice president of the CASC, at a press conference.

The second Long March-5 rocket was launched from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the southern province of Hainan on July 2, 2017, but a malfunction happened less than six minutes after its liftoff. The cause of the failure has been found, Yang said. If the third flight is successful, the fourth Long March-5 carrier rocket will be tasked to send the Chang’e-5 lunar probe to the moon to bring lunar samples back to Earth at the end of 2019, he said. (1/31)

China to Launch 10 BeiDou Satellites in 2019 (Source: Space Daily)
China will send 10 satellites to join the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) through seven separate launches this year, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) announced Tuesday. The launches will help complete the BDS global network by 2020, said Shang Zhi, director of the Space Department of the CASC, at a press conference, where the Blue Book of China Aerospace Science and Technology Activities was released.

According to the blue book, a total of 18 BeiDou satellites were launched in 2018, marking the completion of the BDS-3 primary system. The navigation system has started to provide global service. As an important achievement during the past 40 years of reform and opening-up, the BDS has also been widely used to serve China’s economic development. (1/31)

Iran Still Adhering to Nuclear Deal: CIA Chief (Source: Space Daily)
Iran is still abiding by the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal despite the US pullout from the multinational agreement, Central Intelligence chief Gina Haspel said Tuesday. “At the moment technically they are in compliance” with they Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Haspel told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“I think the most recent information is the Iranians are considering taking steps that would lessen their adherence to JCPOA as they seek to pressure the European to come through with the investment and trade benefits that Iran hoped to gain from the deal,” she said. “They are making some preparations that would increase their ability to take a step back if they make that decision,” she noted. “But we do see them debating amongst themselves as they failed to realize the economic benefits that they hoped for from the deal.” (1/29)

Iran Denies Any Intention of Boosting Range of Missiles (Source: Space Daily)
Iran has “no intention of increasing the range” of its missiles, a senior defence official said Tuesday, amid threats of European as well as US sanctions over its ballistic program. Iran has voluntarily limited the range of its missiles to 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles), sufficient to reach Israel and Western bases in the Middle East. But Washington and its allies have accused Tehran of pursuing enhanced missile capabilities that also threaten Europe. “Iran has no technological or operational constraints to increasing the range of its military missiles,” the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, said. (1/29)

North Korea ‘Unlikely’ to Give Up All Nuclear Weapons: US Intel Chief(Source: Space Daily)
North Korea is not likely to give up all of its nuclear weapons even if President Donald Trump’s efforts to negotiate a deal with Pyongyang bear fruit, US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Tuesday. “We continue to assess that North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions,” Coats said in a report to Congress on threats to the United States.

“North Korea will continue its efforts to mitigate the effects of the US-led pressure campaign, most notably through diplomatic engagement, counterpressure against the sanctions regime, and direct sanctions evasion,” Coats said in the report.




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