NASA Eliminates Ramp To Mitigate Foam Problem

In an attempt to eliminate a potential launch debris hazard that cropped up during July’s launch of the Discovery orbiter, NASA is eliminating a foam-covered protective ramp from the next shuttle’s external fuel tank, a top agency official said Dec. 15.

The decision to eliminate the ramp from the second flight since the 2003 Columbia accident — could push the mission past a May 2006 launch window depending on the extent of modifications required, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, said in a teleconference with reporters.

Engineers have been discussing whether to remove a protective protuberance air load (PAL) ramp from shuttle fuel tanks since July, when a one-pound chunk of foam insulation popped free from the ramp during Discovery’s STS-114 launch. A similar foam-shedding event doomed the S pace Shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew in 2003 when it damaged the orbiter’s heat shield.

Recent computer modeling has shown that the pressurization lines and cable trays the PAL ramp was designed to protect are strong enough to withstand the aerodynamic forces of launch. NASA intends to verify the computer modeling results with wind tunnel tests planned for February.

“We think that’s the best thing to do, just take it off,” Gerstenmaier said, adding that meeting a May 2006 launch window comes second to solving the PAL ramp issues. “I think we ought not to think about May right now.”

After the May 3-23 launch window, another three-week launch window opens July 1.

In November, NASA shuttle officials said investigators had discovered a series of fine cracks along the PAL ramp of External Tank 120 , which has been filled twice with supercold liquid fuel during tests and is one of several external tanks under scrutiny.

Asteroid Probe’s Return Delayed for Three Years

Japanese ground controllers are optimistic they will be able to regain contact with the Hayabusa asteroid probe in the coming days, but an onboard fuel problem will delay the satellite’s return to Earth by three years, to 2010, the Japanese space agency, JAXA , announced Dec. 14.

Hayabusa, which may or may not have collected asteroid samples in a landing attempt Nov. 26, has been incommunicado since Dec. 9. It suffered a fuel leak Nov. 26-27 and its diminishing supply of chemical fuel has raised concerns that it would not be able to maintain itself stably in orbit, or power itself on a 30-month return trip that was to start this month.

JAXA said that once communication with Hayabusa has been restored, the satellite will be placed into a safe mode for several months, and perhaps for a year. Current estimates are that the probe’s electric thrusters , powered by xenon gas, are sufficient to bring it back to Earth — a journey of some 290 million kilometers.

Russian, Indonesian Firms Study Joint Satellite System

The biggest satellite-fleet operators in Russia and Indonesia have agreed to study development of a joint multimedia satellite system to cover their territories and the broader Asia-Pacific region, the Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) announced.

Moscow-based RSCC said its agreement with PT Telkom of Jakarta was reached Dec. 13 in Kuala Lumpur during a summit between Russia and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. RSCC said the orbital location of the joint satellite and details on its capacity have not been decided.

German Firm To Work on New European Launch Pad

MT Aerospace of Augsberg, Germany, will deliver steel structures, mechanical doors and cranes for a new launch complex that is being built at Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana under a contract with the French space agency, CNES, the company announced.

Valued at 9.5 million euros ($11.2 million), the contract calls for MT Aerospace to deliver the hardware for several buildings to be constructed for the future Russian Soyuz rocket launch installation. European governments led by France have agreed to operate Soyuz commercially from the Guiana site, located to the north of the existing Ariane 5 rocket launch base.

Vinci Construction is leading the Soyuz launch base effort under a separate contract valued at 135 million euros. Soyuz is scheduled to make its first launch from the site in late 2008.

Gen. Lord Retiring; Departs Space Command in April

U.S. Air Force Gen. Lance Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, will retire in April, according to a Dec. 15 U.S. Air Force press release. No successor has been chosen yet for Lord, who has served in the top spot at the command since April 2002.

ESA Insists on Backup for Launch of Herschel, Planck

The European Space Agency (ESA) will launch its Herschel and Planck science satellites aboard a single Ariane 5 ECA rocket in early 2008 under a contract that includes an undefined launch-backup guarantee.

The Dec. 13 launch contract is the first since ESA decided that all its future launch procurements will include a backup option. But in Herschel and Planck’s case, a backup will not be easy to find.

Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said Russia’s Soyuz rocket could not meet the mission requirements of Herschel and Planck, both of which are designed to operate from the Lagrangian Point-2, or L2, location 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the opposite direction of the sun. Le Gall said that in the unlikely event that an Ariane 5 rocket were unavailable, it would take two Sea Launch rockets to launch the two satellites.

ESA Science Director David Southwood said Herschel and Planck were designed specifically for Ariane 5. Finding a replacement launcher, he said, will not be easy and may add costs in satellite-design modification. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Southwood said.

Industry Touts Hyperspectral For Next Landsat Satellite

As pressure grows on the U.S. government to fund a new Landsat satellite, remote sensing industry officials are not shy about the kinds of capabilities they would love to see on the new spacecraft that is needed to replace the two ailing Landsat satellites still in operation.

Boeing’s Scott McFarland said Landsat would be more likely to flourish commercially if it included at least a 128-band hyperspectral sensor.

James Frelk, deputy associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation at NASA, said there are opportunities for profit in the sale of value-added products in the hyperspectral arena, particularly in the markets for data to aid the mining exploration, agricultural and defense industries.

Speaking at “Public Private Partnerships in Space-Based Remote Sensing,” an event sponsored by the Space Enterprise Council and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Robert Brumley, chief executive officer of Terrestar Networks, Inc. of Reston, Va., said the U.S. government needs to decide whether it is best suited to act as an operator, as a controller or as a customer in the remote sensing field.

Liam Weston, senior program manager for business development for Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colo., said private-public partnerships in remote sensing have hit snags in the past because of government insistence on costly capabilities. There are limits the benefits of long-term government partnerships, particularly with a government that wants control and benefits without taking the necessary risks, he said.

SpaceX Sets Dec. 19 for First Falcon 1 Launch

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) will try again Dec. 19 to conduct the maiden launch of the Falcon 1 rocket. A Nov. 26 launch attempt was scrubbed due to a fueling glitch that the company has since resolved. The Falcon 1 launch is scheduled to occur at 2 P.M. EST from SpaceX’s Pacific Ocean launch site at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

The rocket’s payload is Falcon 2, an experimental satellite built by U.S. Air Force Academy students.

Group Successfully Tests Prototype Reusable Rocket

Researchers and students from the Garvey Spacecraft Corp. of Long Beach, Calif., and the California State University at Long Beach successfully launched, recovered, refurbished and relaunched a prototype reusable launch vehicle within a 3.5-hour period, the university announced Dec. 9.

The project, conducted under the California Launch Vehicle Education Initiative, demonstrated quick-turnaround operations with the Prospector 7 liquid-propellant rocket. Vehicles based on the Prospector 7 concept would provide a responsive low-cost alternative to other launch vehicles for payloads weighing 10 kilograms or less, the university said in a press release.

The testing was funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory through a Phase 1 Small Business Innovation Research contract.

Future testing will focus on expanding flight times with the long-term goal of reaching orbit, according to the press release.

Messenger Mercury Probe Headed For Flyby of Venus

NASA’s Messenger Mercury orbiter has successfully fired its largest thruster to put the solar-powered craft on course for an Oct. 24, 2006, flyby of Venus en route to its final destination , the space agency announced Dec. 12.

The 524-second burn of the bipropellant thruster increased Messenger’s velocity by almost 316 meters per second, putting the probe on track to perform a Venus flyby at a distance of 3,140 kilometers. This deep space maneuver was the first firing of the spacecraft’s largest thruster.

“That bi-prop engine is the last major component of the spacecraft that we haven’t used in space and one we’ll need at least five more times to orbit Mercury,” Mark Holdridge, manager of the Messenger mission at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., said in a prepared statement. “The successful performance of this main engine proves that the spacecraft is up to the task.”

Messenger is scheduled to perform two flybys of Venus in October 2006 and again in June 2007. The craft will then perform flybys of Mercury in January 2008, October 2008 and September 2009 before entering Mercury orbit in March 2011 for planetary study.

Iridium Satellite Signs Up Service Provider in China

Iridium Satellite LLC of Bethesda, Md., will provide its telecommunications services throughout China for domestic and international use under an agreement with China Mobile Telecommunications Co. Ltd. (China Spacecom), Iridium announced Dec. 12.

China Spacecom of Beijing will establish and manage the Iridium services , as well as develop packages for voice, data and maritime applications.

“We expect to see large potential for Iridium short-burst data services in water resources management, hydrological monitoring, weather data collection, fishing vessel tracking … and other industries, as well as substantial demand for voice and data communications for ships and aircraft,” Tong Shirong, president of China Spacecom, said in a prepared statement.

SpaceDev Service Includes Microsatellites, Launches

SpaceDev of Poway, Calif., has introduced a commercial space-mission service in which it will provide microsatellite platforms plus launches within 20 months for less than $20 million, the company announced Dec. 12.

SpaceDev’s Mission Xcelerator Solution Program is made possible by an arrangement with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of El Segundo, Calif., maker of the Falcon 1 small rocket. SpaceDev recently announced a contract for a Falcon 1 launch of multiple small satellites in May 2008, with options for additional launches.

“Our new Mission Xcelerator Solution Program combines the Modular Microsatellite Bus-100 and a rocket launch vehicle with payload integration services, launch management services and one year of mission support services at a price never before been offered — less than $20 million …,” Jim Benson, chairman and chief executive officer of SpaceDev, said in a prepared statement.

Integral 4th Quarter Sales Shatter Company Record

Integral Systems Inc. of Lanham, Md., posted $27.1 million in revenues for the fourth quarter of 2005, a company record and an 8-percent increase over the same period last year, the satellite-control software provider announced Dec. 12.

Excluding a one-time non-cash compensation charge of about $1.2 million related to stock options, operating income for the quarter decreased slightly, from $3.6 million in the 2004 fourth quarter to $3.5 million. Net income was flat at $2.4 million for the three-month period ending Sept. 30 .

For the full year , Integral posted revenues of $97.7 million compared to $90.3 million last year. Net income for the year remained flat at $6.7 million.

“Although our fourth-quarter profits were down slightly from last year’s fourth quarter, I am pleased that we were able to post our best year ever financially, and that we were able to beat investor guidance published early last fiscal year,” Steven Chamberlain, chairman and chief executive officer of Integral, said in a prepared statement.

The company anticipates revenues and earnings to increase by up to 30 percent in 2006 .

Swift Observations Suggest Black Hole Ate Neutron Star

Scientists using NASA’s Swift satellite have found evidence that a black hole swallowed a neutron star to create a gamma-ray burst that lasted for several milliseconds, NASA announced Dec. 14.

Based on observations of the lingering afterglow of the July 24 event, researchers believe the black hole may have stretched the dense neutron star into a crescent and broke off pieces in the process. They theorize that the black hole swallowed the star and then collected those broken-off pieces in the minutes and hours that followed. Such an event would cause the black hole to grow more massive.

“For billions of years this black hole and neutron star orbited each other in a gravitational tug-of-war. The neutron star lost,” Scott Barthelmy of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a prepared statement. Barthelmy was lead author on an article on the event that appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of the journal Nature.

The July burst is one of the most thoroughly studied gammy-ray bursts to date, according to NASA.

DirecTV Pays Large Fine For Marketing Violation

DirecTV, the largest U.S. satellite television provider, will pay a $5.3 million fine to settle Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that the company’s telemarketing practices violated federal consumer-protection rules.

The FTC charged that since October 2003, DirecTV and companies it hired to promote its services violated the national Do Not Call registry, according to a Dec. 13 press release from the FTC. This is the largest penalty the FTC has announced in a case regarding consumer protection law, the release said.

“This multimillion-dollar penalty drives home a simple point: Sellers are on the hook for calls placed on their behalf,” FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said in the release.

DirecTV released a statement Dec. 13 saying it supports the U.S. Do Not Call registry, which shields households from telemarketing calls, and that the majority of FTC complaints related to offenses committed by former retailers hired by DirecTV who ignored company policy.

Canadian Ice Service To Continue Using Radarsat-1

The Canadian Ice Service has signed a one-year agreement with the Geospatial Services division of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) to use the company’s Radarsat-1 satellite data to detect and monitor ice conditions in northern waters , MDA announced Dec. 14.

The Canadian Ice Service has been using Radarsat-1 since 1996 to provide data for maritime navigation and other activities. MDA provides the service with as many as 10 Radarsat-1 images a day, which are used to generate ice charts that are sent electronically to marine vessels for route planning and course corrections.

Comments: Warren Ferster,