SpaceShipTwo glide flight
VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic's second SpaceShipTwo, glides during a Dec. 22 flight test. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic says its suborbital spaceflights are booked until 2021.

Stephen Attenborough, commercial director of Virgin Galactic, said that anyone buying a ticket today for a SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceflight is unlikely to fly until 2021 because of the backlog of about 650 customers already holding tickets.

Attenborough said that estimate was based on starting commercial flights in 2018.

The company has been reticent to set schedules for beginning commercial service, although founder Sir Richard Branson said earlier this year he would be disappointed if regular suborbital flights were not underway by the end of next year. [The Australian]

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An SES communications satellite is in orbit after a successful launch Thursday. The Boeing-built SES-15 satellite separated from its Fregat upper stage more than five hours after launch Thursday morning on a Soyuz from French Guiana. The spacecraft is SES’ first all-electric satellite, decreasing the spacecraft’s mass to permit a launch on a Soyuz. The satellite has a mix of traditional and high-throughput Ku-band beams and a Wide Area Augmentation System payload for the FAA. [SpaceNews]

Chinese satellite operator China Satcom plans to support the country’s “Belt and Road” trade initiative with new services. The initiative seeks to enhance trade with improved infrastructure on routes linking China with Africa, Asia and Europe. China Satcom plans to increase its maritime and aviation communications services in support of that effort, citing as examples services it provides to Indonesia’s navy and police. [SpaceNews]

The cost of two test stands build for NASA’s SLS nearly doubled as the agency sought to accelerate their construction. A report this week by NASA’s Office of Inspector General found that the stands, designed for load testing of the rocket’s liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen tanks, cost 87 percent more than originally planned. NASA paid a premium to build the stands in an effort to keep them on track to support a first SLS launch by the end of 2017. Ultimately, that accelerated schedule was not needed as the first SLS launch has now slipped to 2019. Design changes to the stands also caused their cost to increase. [SpaceNews]

DARPA may finally be close to awarding a contract for the XS-1 spaceplane program. A recent report indicated that DARPA is in the final stages of selecting a contractor for Phase 2 of the Experimental Spaceplane 1 program, which seeks to develop a reusable first stage for low-cost launches of medium-sized payloads. That award was expected near the end of last year but postponed for unspecified reasons. Boeing, Masten Space Systems and Northrop Grumman each had Phase 1 contracts, but DARPA said that other companies were also eligible for the Phase 2 contract. []

The Satellite Industry Association backs an effort by the FCC that would end “net neutrality.” SIA said it supported a decision by the FCC Thursday to advance a proposed rule that would no longer treat internet service providers as utilities. In a statement, SIA President Tom Stroup said the planned move will restore a “nurturing innovative environment” for satellite and other broadband providers. The decision has been criticized in other quarters for potentially making the internet less open. [SIA]

The Pentagon has named a new head of space policy. The Defense Department announced Thursdaythat Secretary of Defense James Mattis had selected Stephen L. Kitay to be deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. Kitay, a former U.S. Air Force officer, was previously on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee, serving as its national security space expert. [Defense Dept.]

Astronomers have discovered a moon orbiting a dwarf planet in the distant reaches of our solar system. The dwarf planet, 2007 OR10 and informally known as “Snow White,” is 1,530 kilometers in diameter and is in an elliptical orbit in the Kuiper Belt. Hubble observations of the dwarf planet revealed that it has a moon circling it, although astronomers said they aren’t able yet to calculate its orbit or determine the size of the moon. []

An unnamed astronaut left NASA last year after admitting to faking taxi receipts. The NASA Office of the Inspector General found that the astronaut submitted more than $1,600 in fraudulent taxi receipts for rides that were in fact provided by friends. The matter was referred to a U.S. district attorney, who declined to prosecute because of the low dollar amount. The astronaut resigned from NASA in December, but the documents did not disclose the identify of the astronaut. [Gizmodo]

Saturn 5 engines salvaged from the ocean floor will go on display this weekend at a Seattle museum. The F-1 engine components from two Apollo missions were recovered in a 2013 expedition funded by Jeff Bezos and later restored. The Museum of Flight will display the recovered hardware along with an an intact model of the giant engine used on the Saturn 5’s first stage. The engines will be in a new exhibit with other Apollo-era artifacts. [GeekWire]

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...