2010: The Year in Review

by and

The successful maiden launch and recovery Dec. 8 of the Dragon cargo delivery capsule built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) was a fitting closing act to a yearlong drama that opened when U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled plans to rely on commercially operated vehicles to transport supplies and astronaut crews to and from the international space station.

SpaceX, which has become the face of the highly controversial plan, has now given it a strong dose of credibility, particularly as it relates to delivering cargo to the orbital outpost. However, it remains to be seen how far NASA will go in terms of reliance on the private sector for low Earth orbit transportation services: Congress has mandated that NASA continue developing its own astronaut-launching vehicle while nurturing parallel efforts by the private sector.

The U.S. human spaceflight debate captured most of the attention during 2010, but the rest of the global space sector was not standing still. China’s satellite launching rate served notice of its emergence as a top-tier space power; Japan achieved the first-ever recovery of samples taken from the surface of an asteroid; and the European Commission awarded the prime contract for Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system.

The commercial sector remained vibrant in 2010, as satellite operators continued their fleet replenishment programs, in some cases with plans to introduce new services. The year also saw global rivals Intelsat and SES engage in unprecedented technical cooperation to prevent a wayward Intelsat craft from interfering with an SES craft in its drift path.

What follows is a sampling of the significant developments that helped shape the space sector during 2010.

 

JANUARY 2010

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel cautions against halting work on the agency’s Ares 1 rocket in favor of funding unproven commercial alternatives as the White House prepares to propose just that in its 2011 budget request to Congress.

The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) contracts with three companies for imagery from Canada’s Radarsat, Germany’s TerraSAR-X and Italy’s Cosmo-Skymed radar Earth observation satellite systems.

SES of Luxembourg announces a 12-year, $750 million bank loan backed by guarantees from France’s Coface export-credit agency for the construction of four satellites by Astrium of Europe. The deal illustrates the broadening appeal of export-credit financing for even profitable, well-established satellite operators.

The European Commission selects OHB System of Germany over a team including Astrium and Thales Alenia Space to build 14 Galileo positioning and timing satellites. Industry officials say the decision to select OHB over the larger consortium is a sign that space procurement decisions in Europe are changing as the European Union assumes authority once reserved for the European Space Agency.

French authorities ask the International Telecommunication Union to pressure Iran to stop jamming signals from the BBC World Service’s Persian-language news broadcasts into Iran.

Barrett Xplore Inc. of Canada, a provider of consumer broadband services, invests $250 million to secure capacity onboard two large Ka-band broadband satellites to be launched in 2011 and 2012 owned by ViaSat and Hughes, respectively.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system fails in an intercept test attempt when the sea-based X-band cuing radar malfunctions.

U.S. President Barack Obama directs his administration to review a possible overhaul of U.S. export regulations, which some argue hinder U.S. companies’ competitiveness on world markets without a corresponding benefit to national security.

Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington, teamed with several other large satellite companies, wins a contract, worth up to $542.7 million over five years, to provide the U.S. Navy with satellite bandwidth under the Commercial Broadband Satellite Program.

The 18-nation European Space Agency decides to freeze its spending in 2010 and 2011 at 2009 levels to ease the strain on member governments, some of which are facing severe budget pressure. ESA says the freeze will not result in any programs being canceled.

FEBURARY 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama unveils a budget proposal for 2011 that scraps NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program in its entirety and bets a chunk of the savings on the ability of commercial firms to ferry crews to and from the international space station.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser system destroys two of three target missiles during its first intercept tests.

Germany and France, at a bilateral summit, agree to joint construction of a satellite to monitor atmospheric methane, a principal contributor to the greenhouse effect linked to global warming.

NASA selects five companies to split a combined $50 million in economic stimulus funding to mature technologies in support of Obama’s commercial crew transportation initiatives.

Industry advocates, including members of Utah’s congressional delegation, voice concern with the president’s decision to cancel Constellation and the threat it could pose to America’s aerospace work force and strategic missile arsenals. Meanwhile, two dozen members of the U.S. House warn NASA Administrator Charles Bolden not to shut down any part of the Constellation program in 2010.

The White House announces it will dismantle the joint military-civilian National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite system and instead pursue two separate weather satellite constellations for civil and military users.

The U.S. Air Force in its 2011 budget request significantly scales back its Third Generation Infrared Surveillance missile warning development program.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency requests 2011 funding to begin work on the Precision Tracking Space System and Airborne Infrared programs that are expected to play key roles in the revised plan for a European missile shield.

Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems wins an $886 million contract to develop the next-generation ground control system for the Air Force’s GPS fleet.

 

MARCH 2010

The British government announces it will create a U.K. Space Agency to centralize demand for space procurement. The decision is an acknowledgement that British companies have lost out to French, German, Italian and other competitors because of the decentralized structure of the British National Space Centre.

The Canadian government announces it will remove foreign-ownership limitations on telecommunications carriers including satellite operator Telesat, a decision that frees Telesat to look toward either an entry onto the U.S. stock market or an acquisition by non-Canadian investors.

European Union authorities order Chinese search-and-rescue payloads removed from two Galileo navigation and timing test satellites in final launch preparations, saying the program should not have active payloads made outside of Europe. A similar motivation caused Galileo program managers to refuse a Galileo contract to Com Dev of Canada.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announces plans to reform the U.S. export control system that governs the sale of sensitive technologies overseas, including commercial communications satellites and components.

Aerospace industry veteran A. Thomas Young tells U.S. lawmakers that relying on commercial crew taxis for operations in low Earth orbit is “a risk too high.”

SkyTerra, a struggling L-band mobile satellite communications operator, agrees to be purchased by its major shareholder, hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners of New York, in advance of a liquidity crisis at SkyTerra. The company later changes its name to LightSquared.

Commercial Earth imagery supplier GeoEye Inc. takes on Cerebrus Capital Management as a major shareholder to provide a cash-backed letter of credit on behalf of GeoEye’s bid for the U.S. government’s EnhancedView contract. The government subsequently drops the credit requirement, but too late to stop the Cerebrus deal.

The British Defence Ministry, apparently satisfied with its multiyear contract with Paradigm Secure Communications to provide satellite bandwidth, adds two years and $600 million to the contract, which now will stretch to 2022. The extension prompts Paradigm to order a fourth Skynet 5 military communications satellite.

Satmex owners reject an acquisition offer from EchoStar but do not announce an alternative strategy for the struggling operator. EchoStar then contracts with SES of Luxembourg to market capacity on three SES satellites covering Mexico.

U.S. hedge fund Harbinger, now owner of a company called LightSquared that is planning a satellite-terrestrial wireless broadband network in the United States, promises U.S. regulators, in writing, that the multibillion-dollar network will reach 260 million Americans by early 2016.

Lockheed Martin and Alliant Techsystems reintroduce the dormant Athena line of small rockets for potential U.S. space launch and long-range strike missions.

 

APRIL 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama resurrects the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle for use as a lifeboat on the international space station. He also vows to settle by 2015 on a heavy-lift launcher design for astronaut missions to deep space.

Satellite fleet operator Intelsat loses control of its C-band Galaxy 15 satellite, which begins an uncontrolled drift along the geostationary arc with its payload still active. The apparently unprecedented event causes Intelsat and SES, whose satellite is the first in Galaxy 15’s path, to craft a complicated series of maneuvers to avoid interference from the wayward craft. It works, and variations are adapted to prevent interference to other satellites in Galaxy 15’s path.

Wang Wenbao, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office, shares details of an ambitious agenda that includes on-orbit rendezvous and docking experiments and development of a heavy-lift rocket in preparation for assembling a 30-ton space station on orbit by 2022.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is tapped by the U.S. Navy to build an ocean altimetry satellite planned for launch in 2015.

Canada agrees to finance search-and-rescue payloads on 20 to 30 U.S. GPS 3 positioning and timing satellites after Canada’s Com Dev manufacturer was barred from work on Europe’s Galileo system. The Canadian offer is under evaluation by GPS managers.

NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) begin test flights of a Global Hawk unmanned aircraft adapted for environmental monitoring.

NASA contracts with Russia to purchase, for $55.8 million per mission, six astronaut seats aboard Russian Soyuz capsules for round trips to the international space station between 2013 and 2014.

India’s Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle fails when its domestically developed cryogenic upper stage, making its debut, malfunctions soon after launch. The cryogenic technology has been a major technology investment by the Indian government.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative singles out China, India and Mexico as nations that are not meeting international commitments to open their satellite telecommunications services markets.

Australia and the United States agree to share narrowband satellite communications bandwidth in the Pacific and Indian ocean regions. The deal gives Australian forces access to a U.S. Mobile User Objective System UHF satellite, while U.S. forces will use an Australian UHF payload aboard Intelsat’s future IS-22 satellite.

The U.S. Air Force launches the experimental X-37B orbital test vehicle for a 220-day orbital mission.

The U.S. Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom program breaches its baseline budget by more than 25 percent, triggering a Nunn-McCurdy review that requires congressional recertification.

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office contracts with Boeing Phantom Works to deliver as many as 50 triple-unit cubesats for science and technology demonstrations.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and government of Taiwan complete an initial set of requirements for the joint Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate satellites planned for launch around 2014.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency unveils its acquisition strategy for the Precision Tracking Space System missile tracking satellites, for which it plans to launch a prototype in 2015 in advance of as many as a dozen operational satellites.

 

MAY 2010

Harris Corp. agrees to purchase satellite network services provider CapRock Communications for $525 million as part of a strategy to bolster its portfolio for U.S. government customers and broaden its reach into commercial markets.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) urges the White House to stop NASA from forcing contractors to slow or halt work on the agency’s Moon-bound Constellation program in order to preserve enough money to cover the cost of shutting down the project.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair resigns following a U.S. Senate committee report faulting the intelligence community for failing to warn of an airline bombing attempt.

NASA solicits ideas from U.S. industry for a heavy-lift rocket with a first-stage engine that burns a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene to produce at least 1 million pounds of thrust. Hours later, a revised solicitation is posted that eliminates all references to any specific liquid propellant.

The U.S. Air Force launches the first of 12 Boeing-built GPS 2F navigation and timing satellites.

NASA says its James Webb Space Telescope will need to undergo testing beyond what was previously planned, resulting in a roughly four-month delay to the mission’s launch that officials say could get worse due to an unrelated cash shortfall.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) informs NASA there will be an eight-month wait between the first and second COTS test flights of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule while SpaceX focuses more resources on the medium-class rocket’s maiden launch.

Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, is reassigned.

NASA’s Landsat Data Continuity Mission passes a critical design review, clearing the way for construction of the medium-resolution satellite.

A U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency hypersonic demonstrator making its first flight self-destructs nine minutes into the planned half-hour flight.

NASA successfully tests the Launch Abort System (LAS) developed for the Orion crew capsule, even as the agency prepares to restructure Orion for a role that does not involve launching astronauts into orbit. Meanwhile, work on key elements of the LAS slows, and in some cases stops altogether, following a warning by lead contractor Orbital Sciences Corp. that money for the effort is to cease flowing.

JUNE 2010

SpaceX’s medium-lift Falcon 9 rocket reaches orbit in its debut, lofting an engineering qualification unit of the Dragon capsule from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

U.S. President Barack Obama issues a new U.S. National Space Policy that emphasizes international cooperation and utilization of commercial space services.

Israel launches its Ofeq-9 optical reconnaissance satellite, the latest in the Ofeq series placed into orbit by Israel’s Shavit rocket.

The U.S. Defense Department sends Congress an interim report saying the nation’s manufacturing infrastructure for large solid-rocket motors must shrink.

Iridium selects Thales Alenia Space of France to build the Iridium Next constellation of low-orbiting mobile communications satellites in a $2.1 billion contract that includes guarantees from France’s Coface export-credit agency.

Loral Space and Communications offers to sell up to 19.9 percent of its Space Systems/Loral satellite manufacturer in a test of whether the public equity markets are ready to support a pure-play commercial satellite builder.

Concerned that NASA is taking too long and spending too much to build its James Webb Space Telescope, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) demands an independent review of the program.

Mobile satellite services operator Inmarsat of London introduces its first hand-held telephone in an attempt to stop competitors Globalstar, Iridium and Thuraya from making inroads in a market Inmarsat once had to itself.

Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium orders 10 Russian Soyuz rockets to be operated from Europe’s spaceport. The maiden flight of the Europeanized Soyuz is delayed to the spring of 2011.

Lockheed Martin Corp. announces plans to sell off two of its advisory services divisions in the wake of U.S. legislation that tightens restrictions on industrial conflicts of interest.

Japan’s Hayabusa asteroid sample-return mission returns to Earth after seven years. Japanese officials later say the return capsule succeeded in capturing asteroid particles.

The U.S. Defense Department presents to Congress an initial plan for a new constellation of weather satellites following the White House’s February decision to dismantle the joint military-civilian NPOESS satellite program.

The U.S. Army and Missile Defense Agency successfully conduct a test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, which destroys a target missile at its lowest altitude of any intercept test.

JULY 2010

A unit of Russian space hardware manufacturer Energia emerges as the principal owner of commercial launch company Sea Launch during Sea Launch’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. With the Energia cash injection, Sea Launch hopes to return to flight in 2011.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s twin Space Tracking and Surveillance System satellites track three missiles in initial testing.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems selects Goodrich ISR Systems to build the main optical telescopes for a new generation of classified U.S. spy satellites.

The Space Data Center, a new facility backed by several commercial satellite operators to improve satellite owners’ awareness of where other satellites are and what frequencies they are using, launches initial operations. The center is based in the Isle of Man and uses software developed by Analytical Graphics Inc.

Millennium Engineering and Integration Co. is chosen to be the lead integrator for the U.S. Operationally Responsive Space Office’s Rapid Response Space Works facility.

NASA’s penultimate space shuttle mission, STS-133, slips from September to November, bumping the final planned shuttle mission, STS-134, to February 2011.

India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle launches the country’s Cartosat-2B advanced remote sensing satellite.

NASA’s New Horizons probe remains on course for its July 2015 encounter with Pluto following a brief course correction burn.

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee approves legislation that would slow the White House plan to utilize privately developed vehicles for transportation in low Earth orbit while accelerating work on a crew capsule and heavy-lift launcher that utilizes space shuttle and Ares technologies to support manned missions to deep space.

In a move meant to ensure uninterrupted satellite monitoring of a key global warming culprit through the decade ahead, NASA announces plans to order an extra flight instrument as it sets out to build a replacement for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory lost last year to a launch mishap.

AUGUST 2010

The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) awards EnhancedView contracts worth a combined $7.3 billion to GeoEye and DigitalGlobe for 10 years of optical Earth imagery and services. The EnhancedView contracts, which took months to craft and negotiate, feature a series of different requirements the two companies must meet to receive full funding.

U.S. President Barack Obama announces U.S. export-control reforms that include combining the nation’s two export control lists and establishing two organizations to oversee export controls.

Inmarsat of London contracts with Boeing to build three Ka-band satellites to cover the world’s oceans and surrounding regions as part of a $1.2 billion investment in Inmarsat’s Global Xpress system. Boeing agrees to invest in the system and to become, through a new subsidiary, an Inmarsat services provider to the U.S. government.

The U.S. National Research Council’s astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey  designates the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) the top priority for large NASA missions  for the decade ahead.

Alliant Techsystems test fires the Ares 1 rocket’s first stage.

Pan-African satellite operator Rascom successfully launches its Rascom-QAF 1R satellite, which arrives in orbit in time to replace the defective Rascom-QAF 1 satellite launched in December 2007.

The Canadian government announces it will invest $374 million in the Radar Constellation Mission to succeed the Radarsat 2 Earth observation satellite, with a first satellite launch as early as 2014.

The U.S. Senate confirms James Clapper as the new U.S. director of national intelligence.

Letitia Long takes over the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, becoming the first woman to direct a major U.S. intelligence agency.

The U.S. Air Force contracts with Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems to build a seventh Wideband Global Satcom satellite.

The U.S. Air Force launches the first Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellite, but a propulsion system failure prompts the service to execute a contingency plan for raising the satellite from low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit.

Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Air Force complete a critical design review for the first batch of GPS 3 spacecraft.

SEPTEMBER 2010

The U.S. House of Representatives gives final passage to the Senate’s version of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. The bill authorizes $19 billion for NASA in 2011 and requires the agency to add a shuttle flight to its manifest and begin work on a heavy-lift rocket.

A test of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser platform fails when a glitch causes its high-power laser to shut down before it can destroy a boosting ballistic missile.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is reprimanded for seeking Marathon Oil Corp.’s assessment of a NASA-funded biofuels project.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission  orders Globalstar to stop using its satellite spectrum for ground-based services with its partner, Open Range Communications, saying Globalstar must wait until it has a functioning second-generation satellite service in place, an event unlikely before late 2011.

A NASA team tasked with fleshing out President Barack Obama’s overhaul of the nation’s human spaceflight program briefs the agency’s top two officials on a deep-space exploration architecture that rejects some key assumptions of the president’s strategy, but aligns with a version of the NASA authorization bill approved by the full Senate in August.

U.S. Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, is nominated to lead U.S. Strategic Command; Air Force Lt. Gen. William Shelton is tapped to replace Kehler.

Khrunichev of Russia, which builds Russia’s Proton launcher, says its commercial launch revenue has tripled since 2005, reaching $600 million in 2009. A Russian government-ordered consolidation of rocket part suppliers has increased Khrunichev’s share of the rocket to 65 percent from 30 percent during the period.

NASA announces plans to begin preliminary work in the fall on a dark energy-mapping observatory recommended in the National Research Council’s latest 10-year plan for space- and ground-based astronomy, though full-scale development of the new flagship-class mission must wait until the agency launches the James Webb Space Telescope.

Private equity investor Permira Advisors purchases Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) of Hong Kong, a fast-growing commercial operator. ABS subsequently contracts with Space Systems/Loral for a large satellite called ABS-2.

The U.S. Air Force launches its first Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) satellite atop a Minotaur 4 rocket, which launches a payload into orbit for the first time. Meanwhile, the service delays until 2011 a competition to build the follow-on to the first SBSS satellite.

 

OCTOBER 2010

The Eutelsat W3B satellite is declared a total loss just hours after launch because of a leak in its propulsion system. The leak’s cause is not immediately identified.

U.S. President Barack Obama signs the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, a three-year, $58 billion measure that sets a new path for the agency’s post-shuttle future.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden visits China amid protests from House Republicans.

China, in the midst of its busiest space launch year, lofts the Chang’e 2 probe into lunar orbit, its second lunar mission in three years. Chang’e 2 will map the lunar surface from an altitude of about 100 kilometers.

Mobile satellite services operator TerreStar Networks, whose large S-band satellite is healthy and in orbit, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. EchoStar Corp. indicates an interest in taking control of the company.

The first six of a planned 24 Globalstar second-generation satellites are launched aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, an event that mobile satellite services operator Globalstar hopes to follow with three more launches in 2011.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Airborne Laser platform fails in its second consecutive attempt to shoot down a boosting ballistic missile with its high-power laser.

Germany begins a three-year mission to map the Earth’s entire land mass in stereo with its TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X satellites in low Earth orbit, now operating several hundred meters’ distant from each other.

Telesat, which had gambled that placing an unpurchased X-band payload on its Anik G1 satellite over the Pacific Ocean region would pay off, contracts with Paradigm Secure Communications of Britain, which is purchasing the X-band capacity for the satellite’s full 15-year life. The capacity will extend Paradigm’s X-band coverage beyond the current Skynet 5 satellites.

 

NOVEMBER 2010

An independent panel concludes NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will cost $6.5 billion —— $1.5 billion more than earlier forecast —— and not be ready to launch before 2015. NASA undertakes its own review to verify the new estimates.

Promising to roll back federal spending, Republicans win control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

NATO agrees to make missile defense one of its primary missions, with the United States expected to contribute a network of sensors and interceptor missiles to protect European territories beginning in 2011.

A Delta 4 rocket launches NROL-32, a classified spy satellite U.S. National Reconnaissance Office Director Bruce Carlson has characterized as one of the largest ever launched.

Start-up satellite broadband wholesaler O3b Networks secures nearly $1.2 billion in financing from banks and investors, assuring that its eight-satellite constellation, to operate in an unusual equatorial medium Earth orbit, will be launched. The company plans two launches, each carrying four satellites, aboard Europeanized Soyuz rockets in 2013.

Britain and France, at a bilateral summit, agree to take a fresh look at combining their future military satellite communications systems to save money. France is weighing whether to outsource its military satellite communications requirements to the private sector, as Britain has done.

GeoEye Inc. estimates that its GeoEye-2 satellite, being built by Lockheed Martin, will cost up to $850 million, including the launch and investment in its dedicated ground network. GeoEye officials say inflation in the aerospace and satellite industry in recent years is to blame.

The European Space Agency signs initial contracts for the six-satellite Meteosat Third Generation system after months of controversy following German protests that its industry, and not France’s, should be named as program prime contractor.

The European Commission withholds its endorsement of a European Space Agency policy guaranteeing “free and open” access to Earth observation imagery pending further talks with industry on the effects of such a policy on the nascent commercial Earth observation sector.

The United States and Australia sign a pact to cooperate on space situational awareness activities, with Australia potentially hosting a radar site for the United States’ planned next-generation Space Fence tracking network.

NASA awards $7.5 million worth of heavy-lift study contracts to 13 U.S. companies.

The U.S. Air Force launches its STP-S26 experimental satellite mission, which includes 16 experiments on seven satellites.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grants Space Exploration Technologies  a re-entry license for its reusable Dragon space capsule.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems says it is negotiating with United Launch Alliance to buy a Delta 4 Heavy launch for an unmanned test flight of the Orion crew capsule in 2013, even though NASA has not committed to funding the demonstration.

The U.S. Operationally Responsive Space Office taps Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada to build the satellite platform and radar imaging payload, respectively, for an experimental satellite planned for launch in 2015.

Former NASA Chief of Staff Courtney Stadd is sentenced to 41 months in federal prison on a conspiracy charge related to a $600,000 remote sensing study contract he steered toward Mississippi State University.

DECEMBER 2010

Space Exploration Technologies (Space X) conducts the first demo flight of its Dragon cargo carrier. Dragon makes two Earth orbits before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean in a major step toward commercializing space station logistics.

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B unmanned space plane concludes its seven-month classified mission with a runway landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Air Force says the mission “completed all the on-orbit objectives.”

NASA postpones the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery’s final mission until February, the latest in a long string of delays that have kept the spacecraft grounded for more than a month. STS-134, the final scheduled shuttle mission, slips from February to April as a result. A congressionally mandated third mission, STS-135, remains tentatively planned for no sooner than June.

A Russian Proton rocket carrying three Glonass navigation satellites fails. An investigation quickly identifies an error during fueling of the rocket’s upper stage as the cause.

Japan’s $300 million Akatsuki spacecraft fails to enter orbit around Venus, prompting mission planners to set their sights on a second opportunity in 2016.

France orders two high-resolution optical reconnaissance satellites from Astrium and Thales Alenia Space in a $1.1 billion contract. French government officials remain hopeful that other nations will join the Optical Space Component program as part of a European collaboration that merges the satellite ground networks of future optical and radar reconnaissance satellites.