NASA may privatize one of its great observatories

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NASA is open to handing over operations of its Spitzer Space Telescope to a private organization.

At a meeting last week, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said NASA would “welcome” proposals to take over operations of the space telescope once NASA funding for it ends in 2019.

Spitzer launched in 2003 as the last of NASA’s four “Great Observatories” and, while aging and drifting farther from Earth, may still be able of doing worthwhile science after NASA funding for it ends. [Spaceflight Now]


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NASA has postponed the launch of a communications satellite to replace an antenna damaged during launch preparations. NASA announced late Friday that it was working with launch provider ULA and satellite manufacturer Boeing to determine a new launch date later in August for the TDRS-M satellite, which was scheduled to launch on an Atlas 5 Aug. 3. An omnidirectional S-band antenna on the spacecraft will be replaced after an incident earlier in the month as the spacecraft was being prepared for launch. [SpaceNews]

Commercial crew test flights are still on track to begin within a year, according to both NASA and the two companies developing those spacecraft. NASA released schedules late last week that included two test flights for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon next February and June, and for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner in June and August. Both vehicles are well behind the original schedules announced when they won NASA contracts in 2014, but executives with the two companies said they’re confident they can maintain their current schedules. [SpaceNews]

A long-delayed German military communications satellite is now set for launch in 2021. The German space agency DLR signed a $362 million contract with OHB for the Heinrich Hertz satellite, which will test a number of advanced technologies while also carrying a military communications payload. OHB received a study contract for the satellite in 2011, at which time the spacecraft was planned for launch in 2016. The satellite is now expected to launch in 2021. [SpaceNews]

DLR plans to fly microgravity experiments on Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle. A DLR official said at the ISS Research and Development Conference last week that the agency had two experiments it expected to go on a New Shepard suborbital test flight later this year. DLR currently uses sounding rockets for suborbital research payloads, but those opportunities are expensive and infrequent. New Shepard test flights are expected to resume this year as Blue Origin prepares to being commercial service as soon as 2018. [SpaceNews]

U.R. Rao, former chairman of the Indian space agency ISRO, died Monday at the age of 85. Rao, a space scientist who led the development of India’s first satellite in the 1970s, was ISRO chairman from 1984 to 1994, backing the development of the country’s PSLV and GSLV rockets. He remained active in spaceflight and science after leaving ISRO, and was inducted into the International Astronautical Federation’s Hall of Fame last year. [PTI]

Lockheed Martin will build a prototype of deep space habitation module using shuttle-era hardware. The company said last week it will refurbish the Donatello logistics module into a prototype of a cislunar hab module under the company’s NextSTEP contract with NASA awarded last year. Donatello was one of three cargo modules built by the Italian Space Agency for NASA to ferry cargo to the station on shuttle missions, but Donatello itself never flew. [collectSPACE]

An Australian agency is considering providing financial backing for a launch site for a little-known company. The NT Industry Development Fund, in Australia’s Northern Territory, is considering using some of its initial fund of $160 million to back a proposal by Equatorial Launch Australia for a launch site in the territory. The spaceport would support suborbital and orbital launches, but it was not clear which vehicles would use the facility if built. The proposal is said to be in the top 25 percent of 20 proposals under consideration by the fund. [NT News]

A proposed Canadian launch site is getting mixed opinions from local officials and residents. Maritime Launch Services announced plans earlier this year to invest up to $225 million to develop a launch site near Canso, Nova Scotia, for launches of the Ukrainian-built Cyclone 4 rocket. While the site has the support of local governments, some are concerned about the environmental impacts of the launch site. [Halifax Chronicle-Herald)

Moon Express has signed a technology development contract for a lunar south pole observatory. The contract, with the International Lunar Observatory Association, covers advanced landing technologies needed for Moon Express’ lander. Moon Express said it plans to land a small observatory, called International Lunar Observatory 1, in an area near the south pole of the moon that is in near-constant sunlight. That mission is scheduled for launch in 2019, and will be the second mission for the company, after its initial lunar lander mission that seeks to win the Google Lunar X Prize. [Moon Express]