Pegasus Booster Lofts NASA’s AIM Spacecraft

NASA’s Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) satellite shot into space April 25 atop an air-launched rocket, kicking off a two-year mission to study odd clouds high above Earth that shine brightest at night.

The spacecraft rode an Orbital Sciences-built Pegasus XL booster into orbit , in a mission originating from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The 195-kilogram AIM satellite also was built by Orbital.

The $140 million AIM mission is designed to seek out and study noctilucent — or ‘night shining’ — clouds, odd collections of ice crystals that form near the edge of space some 80 kilometers above Earth’s polar regions. The clouds form so high above Earth that they reflect sunlight after the sun has dipped below Earth’s horizon.

AIM is the latest addition to NASA’s Heliospherical Observatory, a constellation now consisting of 16 different spacecraft studying the Sun’s influence and interactions with Earth and the rest of the solar system.

Key Webb Technologies Ready for Development

An independent panel of experts called in by NASA in January to review the readiness of 10 new technologies deemed critical to the success of the $4.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope mission found all 10 to be sufficiently mature to warrant moving ahead with the building of flight hardware.

The so-called non-advocate review, which wrapped up one year ahead of schedule in March, was led by Jean Olivier, a former NASA engineer who held top management positions on the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory programs.

John Decker, NASA deputy associate director for the Webb Telescope, said April 25 that the review team’s final report confirmed that all 10 key technologies had earned the rating of Technology Readiness Level-6 — the level of maturity NASA expects by the time a mission undergoes its preliminary design review.

“These are what we call the enabling technologies. They are needed for the mission and they didn’t previously exist,” Decker said. “The agency requires all programs to show that their ‘inventions’ have reached maturity by the time of confirmation.”

Webb’s confirmation review — which includes an independent scrub of the project’s cost and schedule and determines whether it continues to push toward launch — is slated for March 2008. Decker said that following NASA’s late 2005 decision to drop some capabilities from Webb and delay its launch to 2013, it was decided to keep the non-advocate technology review on track for early 2007.

The 10 enabling technologies, being developed by Webb prime contractor Northrop Grumman Space Technology and its subcontractors, are: sunshield membrane material; a near-infrared detector; a mid-infrared detector; a lightweight cryogenic mirror; a microshutter array; a cryogenic detector readout application-specific integrated circuit; a cryogenic heat switch; a wavefront sensing and control system; a large precision cryogenic structure; and a mid-infrared instrument cryocooler.

Has Backup Plan For Consumer Broadband

Satellite-fleet operator Eutelsat has issued a request for bids from manufacturers for a Ka-band consumer-broadband spacecraft to be delivered in 2010 in the event Eutelsat does not provide a similar service aboard a European government research satellite, according to industry officials.

Eutelsat is bidding to provide a Ka-band broadband payload aboard the AlphaSat satellite co-financed with the European and French space agencies. Inmarsat of London wants to use the same inaugural AlphaSat bus to offer an L-band mobile communications service.

A decision on AlphaSat, to be launched by 2011, is expected in May.

But Paris-based Eutelsat appears to believe that the early success of satellite consumer broadband in the United States and Canada could be reproduced in Europe. In February, Eutelsat contracted with ViaSat Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., to provide that company’s Surfbeam Docsis technology for two-way consumer broadband satellite terminals — the same technology used by WildBlue Communications of the United States.

The Eutelsat-ViaSat teaming arrangement will begin offering service in June, using the four Ka-band transponders on Eutelsat’s Hot Bird 6 satellite at 13 degrees east longitude.

Eutelsat spokeswoman Vanessa O’Connor declined to comment, but industry officials said Eutelsat’s request for proposals for a dedicated Ka-band satellite is a way of keeping its options open in the event the AlphaSat bid fails. “The four Ka-band transponders on Hot Bird 6 are obviously not enough to service a full roll-out in Europe, and of course you will need backup capacity as the business develops,” one industry official said.

Pat Brant Picked To Run Texas Telecom Company

Former Loral Skynet chief Patrick K. Brant will take the reins at SkyPort Global Communications Inc. May 1 as president and chief executive officer . In an April 26 interview, Brant said he has been given a mandate to double the satellite-services firm’s revenue in each of the next five years.

Since leaving Skynet last year after it merged with Telesat Canada, Brant has been an advisor to SkyPort’s board of directors. Brant is replacing the retiring Roger Klotz, SkyPort’s president for the past four years.

“Though we are sorry to lose Roger, Patrick Brant will be a tremendous asset to SkyPort owing to his experience in senior management, mergers, acquisitions, finance, sales and operations,” said Robert Kubbernus, chairman of SkyPort’s board of directors.

SkyPort had 2006 revenues of about $10 million and Brant and Kubbernus both said the plan is to keep doubling revenue through acquisitions and increased sales.

Army Exercises Option on Raytheon Patriot Contract

The U.S. Army awarded Raytheon a $144 million contract modification for continued engineering support for the Patriot interceptor system, the company said in an April 26 news release.

The award is the third of four annual options to a contract originally awarded in 2004 with a base value of $134 million. The latest option brings the total contract value to $791 million, according to Guy Shields, a Raytheon spokesman.

Pete Franklin, vice president for national and theater security programs at Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, said in the news release that the work covers improvements to the Patriot system to stay ahead of emerging threats and reduce life-cycle costs.

Sea-Based System Hits Two Targets at Once

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) simultaneously intercepted a short-range ballistic missile and a drone aircraft with its Aegis sea-based interceptor system in a test April 26, according to an MDA news release.

The target missile was launched from the Hawaiian island of Kauai while the drone, designed to resemble a hostile, high-performance aircraft, was launched from a U.S. Navy aircraft. The Navy cruiser Lake Erie tracked both targets and engaged them with different variants of the Standard Missile that were fired at the same time, the MDA said.

The Standard Missile 3 interceptor hit the target missile about 160 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean near Kauai. The drone aircraft was hit with a Standard Missile 2 in what the MDA said was a demonstration of the Aegis missile defense system’s ability to defend itself while conducting its primary mission.

The test marked the eighth intercept for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Program in 10 flight tests, according to the news release.

Lockheed Martin Maritime Systems and Sensors is the prime contractor for the Aegis missile defense system. Raytheon Missile Systems builds the interceptors.

U.S. Air Force Transfers SBSS Work to Boeing Co.

The U.S. Air Force awarded Northrop Grumman Mission Systems $20.5 million to transfer work it was performing for the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) system to Boeing Co., which is building the satellite, according to an April 23 Pentagon contract announcement.

The move is part of an SBSS restructuring, the contract announcement said. The work being transferred includes “external interface support, program protection support, on orbit support and certification and accreditation,” the announcement said. “The modification also adds additional systems testing requirements to the contract.”

Tonya Racasner, a spokeswoman for Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, was not able to provide answers to questions about the contract modification by press time.

The SBSS program currently consists of a single Boeing-built spacecraft designed to monitor objects in orbit starting in 2009. Northrop Grumman has served as the Air Force’s Mission Area Prime Integration Contractor for counterspace programs, an arrangement that gave the company SBSS program oversight and contractor-selection responsibilities. That arrangement has been abandoned, but SBSS funds are still being channeled through Northrop Grumman to program contractors, according to an industry source.

George Seffers, a Northrop Grumman spokesman, deferred comment on the matter to the Air Force. Erik Simonsen, a Boeing spokesman, did not return phone calls seeking comment by press time.

NASA Releases Mosaic to Mark Hubble’s Birthday

NASA marked the 17th anniversary of the Hubble space telescope by releasing what the agency said is one of the largest panoramic photographs ever taken by the orbiting observatory — a mosaic image of the turbulent central region of the Carina Nebula spanning a distance of 50 light years.

The nebula, which is about 7,500 light years away, houses more than a dozen stars estimated to be some 50 to 100 times larger than the sun, NASA said in an April 24 press release.

The photograph offers a glimpse of new stars replacing older ones — a process that has been occurring for 3 million years. This same process is thought to have spawned the Earth’s solar system 4.6 billion years ago, according to the release.

The 48-frame photographic collage was taken with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and compiled over two months by the Space Telescope Science Institute imaging team of Zoltan Levay and Lisa Frattare.

Hubble was deployed April 24, 1990, with high hopes but a main mirror that was virtually unusable. Since the problem was corrected in 1993, Hubble has become perhaps NASA’s most successful scientific mission, making 800,000 observations and generating nearly 7,000 scientific papers.

L-3 Communications Buys Geneva Aerospace, GCS

L-3 Communications acquired Geneva Aerospace Inc. and reached an agreement to buy Global Communications Solutions Inc. (GCS) in a pair of deals that New York-based L3 said will substantially boost its 2007 revenues.

Terms of both acquisitions were not disclosed, L-3 said in an April 23 press release.

Dallas-based Geneva Aerospace, which designs technology for unmanned aerial vehicles, is now called L-3 Communications Geneva Aerospace and is expected to generate around $12 million in sales in 2007. It was acquired Jan. 31, L-3 spokeswoman Jennifer Barton said in an April 26 phone interview

GCS, a satellite communications systems provider based in Victor, N.Y., is expected to generate about $90 million this year. It is expected to be acquired by the end of June, Barton said .

“This is an important and growing market, as real-time intelligence gathering and sharing have become a high priority for military operations, special operations forces and homeland security first responders,” Michael T. Strianese, president and chief executive of L-3 Communications, said in a prepared statement.

Boeing Delivers Radios for Locating Separated Troops

Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis has delivered the first full-rate production order of satellite-compatible radios designed to help find troops who have become lost or separated from their units , the company announced April 23.

The delivery of 5,053 Combat Survivor Evader Locator (CSEL) radios and supporting equipment to the military services fulfills a $43.6 million order, Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said in an April 24 e-mail .

CSEL, a U.S. Air Force-led joint services program, uses military communications satellites and GPS to locate isolated personnel. The hand-held radios use encryption to prevent signal interception and decoding, Boeing said in its press release.

to Acquire GlobalSat Technology Corp.

Satellite solutions provider Globecomm Systems Inc. has agreed to acquire GlobalSat Technology Corp, a division of Lyman Bros. Inc., for $18.4 million, Globecomm of Hauppauge, N.Y., said in an April 23 press release.

Globalsat of Savage, Md., integrates and installs modular network communications solutions for the U.S. government, according to the release.

The acquisition is consistent with Globecomm’s ” continuing strategy of increasing our business with government agencies,” David Hershberg, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, said in a prepared statement.

GlobalSat’s nearly $21 million in unaudited revenue for 2006 would have boosted Globecomm’s data communications services sales by 68 percent, according to the release.

Completion of the cash transaction, which is expected by June 30, depends on Globecomm being approved for a $16 million loan from Citibank N.A. The deal was not subject to regulatory approval, said Matthew Byron, corporate vice president for Globecomm, in an April 26 telephone interview.

Formally Abandons Orbview-3 Recovery Effort

Imaging satellite operator GeoEye declared its stricken OrbView-3 satellite to be a total loss in an April 23 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) .

Dulles, Va.-based GeoEye is now working with insurance underwriters to submit a claim for the loss , the SEC report said. During a conference call with financial analysts March 19, Henry Dubois, GeoEye’s executive vice president and chief financial officer, said the company expected to collect $40 million — just $500,000 less than the satellite’s book value as of Dec. 31. The claim is expected to be filed in the next several weeks, the report said.

Though GeoEye still has control of OrbView-3, which was launched in 2003, the satellite has been returning only blank white images since March 4.

Dubois said the cash impact of OrbView-3’s loss is expected to be minimal given the company’s ability to fulfill its contractual obligations for imagery with other satellite assets — Ikonos and GeoEye’s next satellite, the more capable GeoEye-1 — and the anticipated insurance payment.

Intelsat Shifts Beam To Thwart Signal Pirates

Satellite-fleet operator Intelsat has reconfigured a beam on the Intelsat 12 satellite at 45 degrees east longitude so that it no longer covers Sri Lanka and is no longer of interest to signal pirates that had been using it.

An Intelsat spokesman said the company shifted legitimate customers on the beam in question to other Intelsat capacity and reconfigured the pirated beam late in the week of April 16.

I ntelsat had been informed in March by the Sri Lankan government that programming backing the Tamil Tigers separatist movement — a group that the U.S. State Department has labeled a terrorist organization — had been beaming television programming to Sri Lanka using the Intelsat satellite.

Intelsat said it had not leased capacity to the group and that it would act immediately to end the signal piracy.

It remains unclear exactly when the piracy started, and where the signal pirates had stationed their satellite Earth station.

Star One C1 is on Track Despite Testing Glitch

The Brazilian Star One C1 satellite under construction at Thales Alenia Space, which is already more than a year behind its original schedule, is expected to be ready for launch late this summer despite delays caused by a glitch that occurred during the satellite’s testing, Thales Alenia Space said.

Industry officials said that during tests of the satellite’s communications system, a defect in the test facility released an unusually high level of vibration into the test chamber. Thales Alenia Space was obliged to verify with its equipment suppliers that their hardware had been qualified to receive such high acoustic levels, a process that took several months.

Thales Alenia Space said it now has confirmed that none of the satellite’s components will need to be replaced as a result of the glitch. The company said it had determined that the cause of the problem was a defective component and not a result of an error by test operators.

In response to Space News inquiries, Thales Alenia Space, which also is building the Star One C2 satellite scheduled for launch later this year or in 2008, issued a statement April 24 saying: “Due to acoustics levels locally higher than foreseen, complementary analysis on Star One C1 spacecraft was made necessary, which consequently delayed the delivery to Star One. The analysis showed no consequences to the spacecraft, so the program is today back on track… It should be ready to be launched in the summer 2007 and discussions are running with Arianespace to find an appropriate launch slot.”

Queen of England To Visit NASA Goddard

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth plans to stop by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center when she visits the United States in May to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown, Va.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) intends to be on hand May 8 when the Queen of England and her husband, Prince Philip, visit the Greenbelt, Md.-based NASA field center to tour the facility and make a phone call to the astronauts aboard the international space station.

“I am so proud to welcome the Queen of England and the Duke of Edinburgh to Maryland’s world-class space facility, and to show Her Majesty and His Royal Highness the truly extraordinary contributions that Goddard makes to science, exploration and discovery,” Mikulski said in an April 24 statement announcing the visit.

The announcement of Queen Elizabeth’s visit comes on the heels of an agreement signed April 19 in Washington between NASA and the British National Space Center to study how the two agencies will work together on space exploration.

Steve Atkins, an official at the British Embassy, said April 24 that the queen’s Goddard visit is coincidental to the timing of the agreement and was added to the itinerary primarily as a way to honor the spirit of exploration that marked the settlement at Jamestown. “The NASA visit is about modernity and looking forward to the next generation of explorers,” he said.

Mark Hess, Goddard’s public affairs chief, said NASA is planning a short program in the center’s main auditorium to welcome the queen and the duke before taking them over to the communications center to call the space station.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and Goddard Director Ed Weiler will escort the guests during the roughly 90 minute visit, which Hess said also would include a stop at Goddard’s visitors center to meet with students.

Hess said the queen and duke would be the highest-ranking dignitaries to visit Goddard since Ronald Reagan paid a presidential visit in the 1980s.

Alenia Space Picked To Build Thor 6 Satellite

Norway’s Telenor Satellite Broadcasting has selected Thales Alenia Space to build the Thor 6 direct-broadcast television satellite, which is to be launched in mid 2009 into Telenor’s 1 degree west orbital slot, Telenor and Thales Alenia Space announced April 24.

Thales Alenia bested bids made by four other European and U.S. satellite manufacturers, including Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., which is building the Thor 5 satellite scheduled for launch in late 2007.

Oslo-based Telenor said it is investing 1.3 billion Norwegian kroner ($218.5 million) to build, launch and insure Thor 6, a Thales Alenia Space Spacebus 4000B2 platform that will carry 36 Ku-band transponders. A launch vehicle selection has yet to be announced.

The company is investing slightly less, 1.2 billion kroner, to build, launch and insure Thor 5, which will carry 24 Ku-band transponders. Thor 5, an Orbital Sciences Star platform expected to weigh 2,450 kilograms, is scheduled for launch aboard an International Launch Services Proton-M rocket in late 2007 or early 2008.

Thor 6 will replace the smaller Thor 3 satellite, which is scheduled to be retired in 2010. The addition of Thor 6 will give Telenor a total of 71 transponders for its growing Nordic and Eastern European customer base starting in mid 2009. The company owns half the capacity on the Intelsat 10-02 satellite, also stationed at the 1 degree west slot.

Sixteen of Thor 6’s transponders will be pointed toward the Nordic region, with the remaining 20 transponders directed to Central and Eastern Europe.

“Telenor has developed 1 degree west into a prime broadcasting position for the Nordic region and aims to make it the leading platform choice within Central and Eastern Europe,” said Cato Halsaa, Telenor Satellite Broadcasting managing director .

Minotaur Rocket Launches Experimental MDA Craft

A U.S. Air Force Minotaur 1 rocket successfully launched an experimental satellite for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) April 24 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va.

The Near-Field Infrared Experiment satellite, built by General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems of Gilbert, Ariz., will gather data to help MDA scientists devise technologies and methods to differentiate between a missile and its exhaust plume. The satellite will track two target missiles to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., later this year, General Dynamics said in a press release.

The four-stage Minotaur rocket is based in part on excess missile motors and is assembled by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. In a press release, Orbital said it was the seventh flight of the Minotaur space launch vehicle, and the second in four months from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops.

“We are now focused on the three upcoming Minotaur launches in the second half of this year, including two Minotaur 2 long-range target vehicles scheduled for MDA flights this summer from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and another Minotaur 1 mission scheduled to be launched from Wallops late in the year carrying the Air Force’s TacSat-3 spacecraft,” Ron Grabe, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s Launch Systems Group, said in a prepared statement.

War Bill Facing Veto Threat Includes Funds for NASA

Additional money for NASA was included in a $124.2 billion emergency spending bill for 2007 that U.S. President George W. Bush has vowed to veto because it sets an April 2008 deadline for withdrawing American combat troops from Iraq.

The bill, approved April 26 by the U.S. Congress , includes $35 million for NASA to reinforce structures at its hurricane-prone Gulf Coast facilities. The measure also would allow NASA to use $48 million previously appropriated for hurricane relief to repay the space shuttle and space station programs the money the agency took from their budgets to repair damage at its Gulf Coast facilities immediately following Hurricane Katrina.

But Bush said April 24 that he would veto the bill over the troop withdrawal measure if Congress sends it to his desk.

“I’m disappointed that the Democratic leadership has chosen this course,” Bush said. “The bill they announced yesterday includes some of the worst parts of the measures they had earlier passed with narrow majorities in the House and the Senate. They know I’m going to veto a bill containing these provisions, and they know that my veto will be sustained.”

Democrats would need a two-thirds majority vote to override a presidential veto.

PSLV Successfully Lofts Italian Astronomy Satellite

Italy’s Agile gamma-ray astronomy satellite was successfully placed into low Earth orbit April 23 by an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) in the first commercial launch by an Indian rocket, the Italian and Indian space agencies said.

The 352-kilogram Agile, built by Carlo Gavazzi Space of Milan, Italy, for the Italian Space Agency (ASI), was placed into a 550-kilometer orbit inclined at 2.5 degrees relative to the equator. Agile is the first of what ASI officials say will be a series of small satellites for astronomical, Earth science and telecommunications research.

Agile was designed, built and launched for less than 60 million euros ($81.6 million), according to ASI officials.

Operating from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, the PSLV also carried the 185-kilogram Advanced Avionics Module to test advanced launch vehicle avionics systems for future Indian rocket designs. It was the 11th PSLV launch since 1994.

The Indian Space Research Organi sation (ISRO) said the launch is the first commercially procured vehicle since India began offering its PSLV rocket on the global market. ISRO said the launch was procured through Cosmos International of Germany, which is owned by OHB Technology, a Bremen, Germany-based satellite builder that also owns Carlo Gavazzi Space.

Review of MDA Report Finds Pluses, Minuses

A congressionally mandated 2006 report from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) outlining the feasibility and costs associated with its boost- and ascent-phase interceptor programs contained useful information but also had a number of limitations and flaws, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded.

The MDA’s report used problematic modeling assumptions and cost analyses, and lacked the necessary collaboration with key members of the defense community, the GAO found. The GAO’s report, “Missile Defense: Actions Needed to Improve Information for Sup porting Future Key Decisions for Boost and Ascent Phase Elements,” was released April 17.

The GAO criticized the MDA for not clearly explaining underlying assumptions for missile intercept scenarios and often using numbers from best-case scenarios. “Thus the results represent the best expected outcome,” the GAO report said.

The GAO also found that the MDA’s cost analysis omitted factors such as the cost to establish overseas operating bases for systems, nor did it contain sensitivity analyses to determine key cost drivers. Further, cost estimates were not independently verified, according to the report.

The MDA’s boost- and ascent-phase interceptor programs include the Airborne Laser, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor and the U.S. Navy sea-based interceptor.

Lawmakers Write Bush to Request More for NASA

Senior members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have written U.S. President George W. Bush urging him to increase NASA spending.

The April 20 House letter, signed by several members including Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), chairman of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, and Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the full committee, expressed concern about the “mismatch” between NASA’s mandate and resources. The letter says basic research and small- to medium-sized missions at NASA “have suffered significant cutbacks in recent years.”

The letter also restates concerns about the gap between the space shuttle’s 2010 retirement and the fielding of a replacement system, now scheduled for 2015.

The April 18 Senate letter, whose signatories include Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the appropriations subcommittee with NASA oversight, calls for a space summit “to discuss the future of our space program and the strategic challenges we face as a nation in space.” The letter cites China’s emergence and Iran’s aspirations in space, and says a re-evaluation of NASA’s needs is in order “to ensure that we do not lose our global leadership in space exploration and science.”

Unseen China Test Debris May Pose Biggest Threat

The greatest danger posed by debris from China’s anti-satellite test in January may come from pieces that cannot be detected by U.S. space surveillance systems, according to a senior U.S. Air Force official.

Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee April 19 that even a tiny object like a bolt could destroy a satellite upon collision. Chilton, a former astronaut, noted that collisions with tiny flecks of paint have caused NASA to replace windows on the space shuttle.

While the debris created by the Chinese test is in low Earth orbit, satellites destined for the much-higher geostationary orbit may be exposed to danger as they make their way to their operating location, Chilton said.