ULA Launches Its First Atlas 5

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket launched a clutch of six military research satellites into orbit March 8. The successful launch marked the first Atlas mission the company has conducted for the U.S. Air Force since ULA was established in December by the merger of the government launch services operations of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

The multiple payloads included two Orbital Express spacecraft designed to demonstrate the feasibility of autonomously servicing a satellite in space and four experimental microsatellites. All six payloads are for the Air Force’s Space Test Program-1 (STP-1) mission.

“This is a proud moment in our company’s history and a significant step forward in providing our nation assured access to space using the most cost-effective means possible,” Michael Gass, ULA president and chief executive officer , said in a post-launch statement.

Built for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency , the $300 million Orbital Express vehicles include the 952-kilogram Astro servicing satellite and its 226-kilogram target, NextSat.

The successful lift off also marks the first launch of a Defense Department STP mission designed to fly space experiments on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter .

The ULA Atlas 5 rocket also orbited four other small spacecraft:

   The MidStar-1 microsatellite: a 116-kilogram built by midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. Its experiments include a pair of space computer payloads, the Eclipse experiment to examine electrochemical membranes in space for NASA and Eclipse Energy Systems, and a prototype microdosimeter sponsored by the National Space Biological Research Institute.

   STPsat-1: A 156-kilogram satellite built by AeroAstro Inc. of Ashburn, Va., carrying two experiments to collect atmospheric data and demonstrate spacecraft technologies.

   The Cibola Flight Experiment : A 159-kilogram satellite built for the Los Alamos National Laboratory to test a series of new technologies, including inflatable boom antennas, a new power supply and a prototype supercomputer designed to process data on board rather than sending raw information directly to Earth.

   FalconSat-3: Built by cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy, the small, 54-kilogram satellite carries five experiments to study the near-Earth space plasma environment, test new hardware and demonstrate a micropropulsion attitude control system.

OrbView-3 Unable To Produce Usable Imagery

The OrbView-3 (OV-3) satellite owned by GeoEye Inc. has been unable to produce usable imagery since encountering technical problems March 4, the Dulles-Va.-based satellite imaging company reported in a March 8 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

The problem, which is still under investigation with help from the satellite’s manufacturer, Orbital Sciences, and the sensor provider, Northrop Grumman, is believed to involve the electronics in the spacecraft’s camera. “Currently the technical issues are being isolated within the camera electronics of the satellite. But we’re still continuing to analyze the telemetry and other data,” Mark Brender, GeoEye’s vice president of communications and marketing, said in a March 9 telephone interview.

Alhough the spacecraft is able to provide imaging data, the product quality is insufficient to meet customer needs, Brender said.

OV-3 is still responding to communication and control, Brender said. GeoEye plans to update this problem at its next investor call, scheduled March 20, according to the SEC report.

Figuring out the problem is likely to take a matter of weeks rather than days, Brender said.

In the meantime, GeoEye’s Ikonos satellite, which it gained with the acquisition of Space Imaging in Jan. 2006, will supply OV-3 customers, primarily the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, with the imaging data they require until the problem is resolved, Brender said. “We can meet many of their requirements with more aggressive collection from Ikonos.”

OV-3, which was launched in 2003 and is designed to last until at least next year, does not have backup camera electronics, according to the SEC report.

GeoEye’s next satellite, GeoEye-1, is intended to solve that problem with redundant imaging systems designed by ITT Industries of Rochester, N.Y. General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems of Gilbert, Ariz., is currently integrating the imaging system into its 1,890 kilogram bus.

“While we may have a problem with one of our older satellites, a new one and a far more capable one will be launched later this year.”

Designed to be the world’s top commercial high-resolution satellite, Brender was adamant that the current problems with the OV-3 will not affect the upcoming GeoEye-1 satellite launch, slated for the second half 2007.

NASA Outlines Options for Tracking Near Earth Objects

NASA cannot afford to spend any more than the $4.1 million a year it currently devotes to detecting and tracking asteroids and other such hazardous objects that might impact Earth, the U.S. space agency wrote in a report delivered to Congress March 8.

The report, requested by Congress in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, details what the agency would have to do to detect 90 percent of all Near-Earth Objects (NEO) greater than 1 kilometer in diameter by 2020. A robust detection and characterization program ideally would include a dedicated space-based infrared system and multiple shared optical ground-based observatories, according to the report.

While no cost estimates were included in the 28-page report, scientists attending the Planetary Defense Conference in Washington March 5-8 said such an undertaking would cost around $1 billion. A cheaper approach, making use of telescopes and spacecraft built for other purposes, could survey perhaps 83 percent of threatening NEOs by 2020, according to the report.

The report also assessed different ways of deflecting or destroying a n NEO on a collision course with Earth, concluding that “nuclear standoff explosions” would be 10-100 times more effective than non-nuclear alternatives, such as kinetic impactors, lasers and asteroid tugs.

System To Have 16-18 Satellites by 2008

Russia’s Glonass satellite navigation system, which degraded from neglect in the 1990s but recently has won fresh financial support from the Russian government, currently has 10 operational satellites and three new spacecraft that are in their final in-orbit checkout phase, according to Sergey G. Revnivykh, deputy head of Russia’s mission control center at the Central Institute of Machine-Building.

Revnivykh said two Proton rockets, each carrying three Glonass spacecraft, are scheduled to launch this year. After taking into account satellites expected to be retired by then, the Glonass constellation should total 16-18 fully operational satellites by January, he said.

Russian authorities have ordered the nation’s space agency, Rosk osmos, to accelerate Glonass replenishment so that at least 18 satellites are in operation by late 2008. That is the number needed to provide continuous coverage over Russia.

The same plan foresees a full constellation of 24 operational satellites by late 2009.

In addition to renewing the constellation, Russian authorities, through different presidential decrees and other regulatory pronouncements, are seeking to position Glonass as a dual-use system with a real commercial impact.

Revnivykh said that as part of this effort, Russia has rescinded regulations that made it difficult to operate navigation systems inside Russian territory without special permission.

Satellite-positioning companies have long told of trucks being stopped at the Russian border and told they could not operate their dashboard-mounted navigation aids.

As of this year, that is no longer true, Revnivykh said, adding that while the government is insisting that Russian government agencies be equipped with dual GPS/Glonass receivers, and not GPS-only units, non-government users may use their GPS-only hardware.

“Private users can use GPS-only receivers anywhere except in close vicinity of certain military installations,” Revnivykh said.

Russian authorities continue to debate how to render Glonass more easily compatible with GPS despite the fact that Glonass employs a wholly different technology — called Frequency Division Multiple Access — to differentiate between satellite signals.

Revnivykh said a Glonass signal development policy is expected to be set this year to find ways of encouraging development of dual-mode receivers in Russia.

st QZSS Craft to Launch Well Ahead of the Others

Designers of Japan’s Quazi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS), which is intended to provide navigation services in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia, expect to wait several years between the launch of their first satellite and the launch of the two others, according to Koji Terada, system project manager at the Japanese space agency, JAXA.

Once envisioned as a public-private partnership, QZSS is now solely government funded following the inability of an industrial consortium to find a way to profitably develop it for navigation, mobile communications and broadcasting.

QZSS will consist of three satellites in highly elliptical orbit aligned so that at least one satellite will have a high-elevation angle over Japan at all times. The first satellite, expected to weigh about 4,100 kilograms at launch, is in development. Its launch is scheduled for late 2009 aboard a Japanese H-2A rocket.

Only one satellite will be built and launched at the outset to give program managers time to verify the design and performance of their satellite and ground network, Terada said.

The satellite will carry two rubidium atomic clocks and is designed to operate for 10 years. JAXA is hoping that the satellites will provide a 1-meter positioning and location accuracy. The program is being developed for full compatibility and interoperability with the U.S. GPS constellation in medium-Earth orbit.

Trimble in No Rush to Invest in Galileo Gear

Trimble Navigation, one of the largest U.S. builders of satellite navigation receivers, is not prepared to invest in Galileo-compatible gear until questions about Galileo’s development status are resolved, Trimble Chief Technology Officer Dennis L. Workman said.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Trimble has been following Galileo development closely and some of its engineers have informally tested signals from the Giove-A Galileo demonstration satellite, launched in December 2005.

But Workman said Trimble ranks investments on a scale that runs from “a sure thing to a flyer, and right now for us Galileo is more of a flyer than a sure thing. It would be really difficult to invest money faced with the uncertainties.”

Galileo’s timetable remains uncertain and its ownership — a mix of private-sector and government interests — raises questions about how the system will be managed once it enters service sometime in the next decade, Workman said.

“When Galileo starts meeting some of its target dates, the pendulum will swing the other way,” Workman said. “Right now the undertaking does not have a great deal of credibility in the United States.”

First Advanced EHF Core Delivered to Sunnyvale

Lockheed Martin Space Systems has shipped the core structure for the U.S. Air Force’s first Advanced Extremely High Frequency ( EHF) secure communications satellite from NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi to the company’s Sunnyvale manufacturing facility , according to an Air Force news release dated March 6.

The core structure, consisting of the satellite’s frame and propulsion system, will now be integrated with the payload and will undergo testing in preparation for a planned launch in April 2008, according to the news release.

Wins Contract for THAAD Production Motors

Aerojet of Sacramento, Calif., signed a contract with Lockheed Martin Corp. to build motors for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor production program , according to a March 5 Aerojet news release .

Aerojet built the booster motors for the THAAD interceptors used to date in flight tests. The production deal with Lockheed Martin will run through 2009, according to the news release.

Kristin Conner, a spokeswoman for Aerojet, said the agreement with THAAD prime contractor Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., brings the total value of Aerojet’s work on the program to $150 million.

Audit Finds Issues With NASA Leasing Program

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has recommended that NASA be denied enhanced-use leasing (EUL) authority until it institutes agency-wide oversight and greater transparency for the program .

The EUL program enables government organizations to rent out excess building space that needs renovation to private companies. In 2003, NASA used the EUL program to lease space at Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., and at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA garnered approximately $1.3 million from the program.

Congress, however, denied NASA’s EUL extension request in 2005, and called on the GAO to investigate NASA’s past use of the program and determine whether it should be reinstated.

In a report dated March 1, the GAO concluded that NASA lacks a reliable system for determining whether the EUL program provides the government with a better value than alternatives . The report also said there is a lack of transparency in NASA’s accounting for non-monetary compensation, such as services or construction, through the EUL program.

Trading building use for non-monetary services does not have to be shown in the budget and such transactions are often hidden from government oversight, the GAO said.

“If the EUL program is to be expanded, NASA needs to develop an agency wide policy that ensures accountability, protects the government, and provides transparency regarding the agency’s EUL activities,” the report said.

RRSat Eyes Acquisitions Amid Boost in Revenue

RRSat Global Communications Network Ltd., which distributes television and radio content worldwide through leased satellite capacity and fiber-optic lines, reported sharply higher revenues and gross earnings in 2006 compared to 2005, and said it is hunting for acquisition targets in the United States and Britain.

Omer, Israel-based RRSat, which completed a successful initial stock offering on the U.S. Nasdaq market in November, said revenues in 2006 increased b y 38 percent, to $43.3 million, with adjusted EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, up 39 percent, to about 30 percent of revenues.

RRSat said it ended 2006 with a backlog of $114 million, more than 90 percent of it in the form of long-term contracts with broadcasters — a 25 percent increase over a year earlier. On the strength of these orders and expected new business, the company said it is forecasting a 27 percent increase in revenue for 2007. The current backlog has a weighted average length of 38 months, RRSat Chief Financial Officer Gil Efron said in a Feb. 20 conference call.

RRSat Chief Execuive David Rivel said the company began plotting an acquisition strategy immediately after the November stock-market listing.

“Many companies are looking at us and are referring deals to us,” Rivel said during the conference call. He declined to detail the profile of potential takeover targets RRSat is evaluating. He said the stock offering raised the company’s profile. “They look at us a little differently than before,” Rivel said of potential acquisition targets.

NASA Supercomputers To Support Outside Projects

NASA has awarded 4.75 million hours of supercomputing time to four major research projects this year through its National Leadership Computing System program, the space agency announced March 2 .

The National Leadership Computing System program provides resources to research projects of national interest that involve complex computations. This year’s selected projects, which involve air-flow dynamics, ship hydrodynamics, flame dynamics and emission chemistry and geophysical turbulence, will be conducted on the Columbia system, a supercomputer at the Advanced Supercomputing facility at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

“These significant allocations of time on Columbia will help top scientists make high-impact advances in several important fields, leading to improved aerospace vehicles and naval ships, a cleaner environment, and more accurate predictions of future climate change,” Bryan Biegel, NASA Advanced Supercomputing deputy division chief, said.

Boeing Unit Completes
FAB-T Design Review

Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis completed design review of its Family of Advanced Beyond line-of-sight Terminals (FAB-T), an important step that will help clear the way for production of the U.S. Air Force satellite radios to begin in December, the company said in a March 1 news release.

The review, held Feb. 13-16 at Boeing facilities in Anaheim, Calif., in the presence of senior Air Force officials, validated the company’s approach to meeting the program’s requirements, according to the news release.

“We’ve established that our design solution, management approach and staffing levels are sufficient to successfully execute this contract,” said Jim Dodd, Boeing’s FAB-T program manager.

The FAB-T system includes radios, antennas and other equipment designed to connect troops in aircraft and on the ground with Milstar and Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications systems , as well as an extremely high frequency payload on the UHF-Follow-on satellites.

TCS Awarded $4 Million By Unnamed Customer

TeleCommunication Systems Inc. (TCS) of Annapolis, Md., has been awarded a 33-month contract extension worth more than $4 million by an unidentified U.S. government customer, TCS announced in a March 5 press release .

TCS, a wireless data communications technology provider, will supply a number of U.S. government organizations with a suite of satellite-enabled communications devices, including Very Small Aperture Terminals.

The specific names of the organizations could not be disclosed, TCS spokeswoma n Rita Thompson said March 5 in an e-mail.

Industry Coalition Prods White House on Exports

Having failed to convince Congress to pass laws making it easier to export military and dual-use technologies, U.S. manufacturers now are asking U.S. President George W. Bush to reform export controls through administrative action.

Eight industry associations announced March 6 they have formed the Coalition for Security and Competitiveness and written to Bush requesting a meeting to press for a “more efficient, predictable and transparent export control system.”

Headed by the Aerospace Industries Association, the group will press for reforms to make it easier to sell defense goods and high-technology items to “allies and trusted partners.”

They are seeking reforms at the State Department, which controls military exports, and the Commerce Department, which controls the export of dual-use items that have both military and civilian uses.

In part, the industry lobbyists want “process” improvements, such as:

   More State Department workers to process license applications.

   Licenses that will cover multiple sales of the same item to the same customer.

   Assurances that arms export regulations will be interpreted consistently.

   Improved electronic export application systems.

But the coalition, which includes such major business advocates as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, also wants restrictions to be eased on some types of exports.

For example, export control regulations should be adjusted to “recognize what’s available in the international marketplace” and to “control what’s controllable,” said Bill Primosch of the National Association of Manufacturers.

NASA Flight Surgeon To Join Underwater Exercise

An upcoming undersea test of NASA space medicine and lunar operating procedures will be the first such exercise to include an agency flight surgeon , according to a Feb. 27 NASA press release .

The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations 12 (NEEMO 12) exercise will help refine robotic telesurgery — an operation performed via remotely controlled robots — techniques for future manned Mars missions. The agency hopes that improving upon the procedures demonstrated in the test will help surgeons overcome obstacles caused by the communications delay from Earth to Mars, the press release said .

NASA Flight Surgeon Josef Schmid will accompany two astronauts and a University of Cincinnati physician to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aquarius Underwater Laboratory, which is operated off the Florida coast by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The NEEMO 12 mission will run May 7-18 .

“Schmid’s unique experience in space medicine will benefit the mission itself as well as the future development of crew care techniques for long-duration human spaceflight missions,” Bill Todd, NEEMO project manager, said in a prepared statement.

NEEMO crew members also will practice procedures planned to be used during upcoming lunar missions, including Moon-walking and geological sampling, and will construct an undersea structure with a remotely controlled vehicle.

AsiaSat Sales Are Flat; Profit and Usage Are Up

Satellite-fleet operator AsiaSat of Hong Kong reported flat revenues but increased transponder utilization in 2006 compared to 2005 and announced it is weighing a new satellite order in case of problems with the launch of the AsiaSat 5 satellite, AsiaSat said March 5.

AsiaSat, which operates three telecommunications satellites, reported revenues of 880 million Hong Kong dollars ($113 million) for 2006, the same as 2005 after a one-time gain from a contract cancellation is removed.

But profit, at 409 million Hong Kong dollars after removing one-time contributions, was up 12 percent. The satellite fleet was reported to be 57 percent filled as of Dec. 31, compared to 54 percent a year earlier.

AsiaSat’s ownership is being modified as SES Global’s 34 percent stake is taken over by GE Capital in a transaction involving other SES Global assets that is pending approval by U.S. tax and regulatory authorities.

Once the GE-SES Global deal is concluded, GE Capital and Citic Group of China, which together will own 68 percent of AsiaSat, will remove the satellite company from the U.S. and Hong Kong stock markets to save money and provide increased flexibility the two owners say can be achieved by privatization.

The AsiaSat 2 satellite at 105.5 degrees east longitude is scheduled for retirement in 2010 and will be replaced by AsiaSat 5, now under construction at Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif.

AsiaSat 5’s launch aboard a Sea Launch Co. Land Launch rocket has been delayed from late 2008 to sometime in 2009. That should still provide more than enough time to begin operations before AsiaSat 2 is retired — unless further delays or a launch failure occurs.

To protect itself against that possibility, AsiaSat said March 5 it is reviewing “a number of options to ensure continuity” in case of an AsiaSat 5 problem. AsiaSat Chief Executive Peter Jackson said in a March 6 interview that the company could decide to order an AsiaSat 6 satellite or perhaps just long-lead items for such a spacecraft.

“Apparently [the Land Launch launch] date can still move,” Jackson said of the current 2009 launch schedule.

The Land Launch system is the same basic Zenit 3 SL vehicle used for Sea Launch’s mid-ocean launch operation, but Land Launch is operated from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and is designed to launch smaller satellites. Land Launch’s inaugural flight was expected to occur this summer, but has been delayed following the Jan. 30 on-pad Sea Launch vehicle failure.

AsiaSat’s 2006 results were helped by the performance of companies in which AsiaSat holds an interest. These include SpeedCast Holdings Ltd., which provides two-way broadband services ; and Beijing Asia, a Chinese supplier of VSATs, or very small aperture satellite terminals. AsiaSat is a 47 and 49 percent shareholder of these companies, respectively.

AsiaSat Chairman Mi Zen Xin said the company’s overall results in 2006 are acceptable given the ongoing oversupply of satellite capacity in the Asia-Pacific region — a situation he said shows no signs of abating.

“[T]his is keeping rates under pressure at the bottom end and holding back growth in the premium sector, which is disappointing,” Mi Zen Xin said in a statement accompanying AsiaSat’s financial results. “Nevertheless, it is encouraging that AsiaSat’s blue-chip customers are committed … and that an increasing number of customers are signing contracts with AsiaSat.”

White House to Hand Over Report on NASA Auditor

The White House agreed March 6 to send Congress a copy of an independent investigation into the activities of NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb in about four weeks. The agreement between the White House Office of Management and Budget and the House Science Committee was reached about 24 hours before the committee was scheduled to hold an open hearing and issue subpoenas for the report.

“The agreement is they will deliver the report by April 2,” a congressional aide said March 6 after the House Science investigations and oversight subcommittee cancel ed the March 7 meeting at which it would have considered issuing the subpoena.

The negotiations that led to the agreement were conducted by Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), the subcommittee chairman, and Clay Johnson, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Johnson is chairman of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which oversees investigations into the conduct of agency inspector generals.

Cobb has been under investigation for about a year. The council assigned the investigation to the Inspector General’s Office at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which submitted its report to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin Feb. 15.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D- Tenn.), chairman of the House Science Committee, approved the agreement, the congressional aide said.

NASA had declined earlier requests to turn the report over to Congress, with Griffin telling Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) during a Feb. 28 budget hearing that he would expedite handling of the report and get it to the president’s council by March 15. The council would have had 30 days to review the report after that.

House Science Committee members were concerned that the investigation has hamstrung the ability of the NASA Inspector General’s Office to pursue its own cases. The agreement to hand over the report was reached, the congressional aide said, because “nobody wants to be subpoenaed and members don’t want to issue subpoenas.”

Raytheon Gets $18 Million For Kuwaiti Patriot Support

The U.S. Army awarded a four-year follow-on contract worth $18 million to Raytheon Co. for operations and maintenance support of Patriot missile interceptors used by the Kuwaiti military, according to a Raytheon March 1 news release .

Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems has provided technical assistance and support to the Kuwait Air Defense Forces for Patriot missile systems since 1996, according to the news release.

The work in Kuwait will be handled by Raytheon Southeast Asia Systems Co., which is headquartered in Andover, Mass .

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NASA, Lockheed Sign off on Orion System Requirements

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(0.000,0,” “,94.500,0,” “,)> NASA and Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver completed the systems requirements review for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle March 1, clearing the way for detailed design on the space shuttle replacement work to begin.

“This is a significant step in the development of a space transportation system that will expand our horizons to include other worlds,” said Skip Hatfield, Orion Project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in a March 7 statement.

The Orion systems requirements review follows a broader review completed in November of requirements for the entire Constellation system, which includes not only Orion but its Ares 1 crew launch vehicle.