HPSCI Urges Development Of Space Transition Strategy

Worried about a gap between current and next-generation space systems, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) added funding to its version of the 2008 Intelligence Authorization Act for the development of a transition strategy.

The report accompanying H.R. 2082, which passed the House May 11, said the bill “compels the administration to address critical overhead architecture issues that have been festering for some time and have been made worse by a series of acquisition failures.”

The committee also expressed frustration that it is not receiving timely notification about problems with intelligence development programs. It directed the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to work with the committee to develop by Dec. 1 criteria that would trigger mandatory notification to Congress of problems on a program. The criteria are to include a percentage of cost growth that would trigger notification.

Such notification criteria would be similar to the Nunn-McCurdy legislation that requires the Pentagon to send a report to Congress when a program has exceeded its projected cost by 15 percent, and to conduct a review of alternatives to the program if it exceeds its budget by at least 25 percent.

Lampson Requests Plan For Replacing QuickScat

U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) has asked NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to explain their contingency plans should a research satellite useful to hurricane forecasters suddenly shut down.

NASA’s QuickScat satellite, which tracks ocean surface wind data, is two years beyond its five-year design lifetime. Lampson is concerned that neither NASA nor NOAA have a near-term plan to replace the spacecraft’s capability to forecast severe weather.

Bills Would Allow Tax-Free Bonds for Spaceports

Legislation that would allow U.S. spaceports to use tax-free bonds to fund infrastructure improvements was introduced in both houses of Congress May 10.

The Spaceport Equality Act of 2007 was introduced by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) in the Senate and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) in the House.

“This will give the space transportation industry the same financial incentives currently granted to airports, seaports and rail, spurring private investment and modernizing our launch facilities,” Martinez said in a prepared statement. “With global interest in space technology on the rise, spaceports are a vital component of the infrastructure needed to maintain the U.S.’s competitive edge in the international space arena.”

Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) are co-sponsors.

Weldon has introduced such legislation before, only to see it stall in the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over bills requiring changes to the U.S. tax code.

With Revenue Up, Eutelsat Forecasts Higher Profit

Satellite-fleet operator Eutelsat Communications said May 10 that rising demand for television services in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia and Africa helped boost its quarterly revenue by 12.6 percent and will lead to increased gross-profit margins for the full year.

The Paris-based company, which is the world’s third-largest commercial satellite operator as measured by sales, said revenue for the three months ending March 31 totaled 205.7 million euros ($279.7 million), an increase of 5.4 percent compared to the same period a year earlier.

Eutelsat’s core business of providing video distribution, which accounts for nearly three-quarters of its activity, was up by 12.6 percent, to 148.8 million euros, during the period.

Broadband Subscriptions At HNS Increase 19 Percent

Hughes Network Systems (HNS) added 13,700 subscribers per month to its satellite consumer-broadband service in the United States during the first three months of 2007 , the Germantown, Md.-based company said. After accounting for subscribers who quit the service — 2.2 percent per month on average — the company said its consumer-broadband customer base totaled 346,100 as of March 31, a 19 percent increase over a year ago.

In a May 10 conference call with investors and in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Hughes officials said they see no slowing in the rate of growth of the company’s two-way satellite broadband business.

But Hughes also said its head-to-head competition with WildBlue Communications Inc. of Denver continues to put pressure on both companies. In the latest example, Hughes said May 7 that new subscribers would get a $100 rebate on the cost of buying and installing user hardware, which typically includes a rooftop-mounted satellite dish tethered to an indoor electronics unit that is connected to customers’ computers.

Consumer broadband service in the United States is Hughes’ fastest growing business. It generated $81 million in revenues for the first three months of this year, up 16 percent from the same period a year ago.

Hughes’ large Spaceway 3 broadband satellite is slated to launch in August aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket. Adding Spaceway 3, which will operate in Ka-band — not in the Ku-band used to serve existing Hughes subscribers — will give the company substantial new capacity. Once operational in early 2008, Spaceway 3 also will permit Hughes to place new subscribers onto that satellite, gradually reducing its leasing costs for Ku-band transponder capacity.

HNS’s corporate parent, Hughes Communications Inc., reported May 10 that its total revenue for the first three months of 2007 was $222.7 million, a 13.2 percent was increase over the same period a year earlier. The company reported that new orders during the period totaled $277 million, a record.

Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, or EBITDA, was $23.4 million for the quarter, the company said. HNS accounts for the vast majority of business at Hughes.

While the consumer broadband business and work for mobile satellite services companies are HNS’s most dynamic divisions, its main revenue base continues to be sales of corporate satellite-communications networks linking headquarters and field offices.

Hughes Chief Executive Pradman P. Kaul said the company will not rush to convert its existing broadband subscribers to Spaceway in 2008 because of the cost involved in changing subscriber equipment .

But all new subscribers will be placed on the Ka-band Spaceway system. “We think we’re going to have our hands full” with the new subscribers, Kaul said in the conference call. As for converting existing subscribers to Spaceway, “we’ll feel our way through it.”

For the past year, Hughes has been selling consumer-broadband antennas capable of operating in both Ku- and Ka-band. To use Spaceway, subscribers equipped with these antennas will still need to change their indoor electronics units.

2 Firms on Raytheon Team Bidding for Ares Avionics

Raytheon Missile Systems intends to submit a bid this summer for a contract worth roughly $400 million to help NASA develop the avionics suite for the Ares 1 rocket, a spokesman for the Tucson, Ariz.-based company said May 9.

Raytheon spokesman Everett Tackett said the company will be supported in its bid for the avionics work by two Huntsville, Ala.-based firms: geospatial software provider Intergraph Corp. and Dynetics, a small systems engineering services firm that supports U.S. Army missile programs.

NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, also in Huntsville, is leading the Ares program.

NASA released a draft solicitation for the so-called instrument unit contract in April. The final solicitation for is due out in early June with the contract award expected in November.

BAE Systems, Ball Aerospace, Boeing and Honeywell all previously have announced their intent to go after the avionics work.

Discovers Planet 1,500 Light Years Away

The French-led Corot space telescope mission has found its first planet, a hot gas giant circling a yellow-dwarf star similar to the sun, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced in a May 3 press release.

The planet, which has been dubbed Corot-exo-1b, has nearly twice the radius and 1.3 times the mass of Jupiter. It is located approximately 1,500 light years away in the Unicorn, or Monoceros, constellation.

The Corot mission was developed by the French space agency, or CNES, in cooperation with ESA and Brazil. Its goal is to search for planets outside of the solar system and analyze the interior of stars other than the sun.

The spacecraft was launched in late December, and ESA touted the quality and accuracy of the data it has collected to date. “It shows that the on board systems are working better than expected in some cases — up to 10 times the expectations before launch,” Malcolm Fridlund, Corot project scientist for ESA, said in a prepared statement. “This will have an enormous impact on the results of the mission.”

Based on the accuracy of the recent observations, ESA scientists now believe Corot will be capable of finding planets the size of Earth, which is about one and one-third the size of the smallest planets the spacecraft was expected to be able to detect, according to the press release. Corot might even be capable of detecting the chemical composition of some planets through variations in the starlight they reflect.

The telescope observes planets indirectly based on the fluctuations they cause in the light from the stars around which they orbit. The variations provide data about the orbiting planet’s structure as well as the seismology of the star.

Layoffs, Launch Delay Extend Spacehab

Spacehab lost $1.2 million on revenues of $12.4 million for the quarter that ended March 31, the Houston-based space services company reported May 8.

Spacehab attributed the loss to $450,000 in severance costs associated with laying off roughly 36 employees in January and a delay in payload processing work at the company’s Titusville, Fla.-based Astrotech subsidiary. A mission Astrotech had been scheduled to process in March was pushed off to October following a Jan. 30 rocket failure that damaged Sea Launch’s floating Odyssey launch facility.

The third-quarter results extended Spacehab’s losses for the year to $3.1 million on revenues of $39.9 million.

“Although the staff reductions completed in January are expected to contribute to significant savings for the Company in the long term, severance costs incurred for the restructuring, in the amount of approximately $450,000, were booked during the third quarter,” Spacehab Chief Financial Officer Brian Harrington said in a prepared statement.

Poland Becomes Fourth ESA Cooperating State

Poland is expected to select a series of European Space Agency (ESA) programs in which it will participate, with corresponding financial contributions, within 12 months now that it has become the fourth ESA Cooperating State, ESA announced May 4.

The decision by Poland’s Ministry of Economy to sign the cooperation accord will broaden Poland’s ability to participate in most ESA programs, ESA said. The agency already has granted fellowships to Polish students to study at ESA centers, and Polish scientists have long participated as Principal Investigators in ESA science and Earth observation missions. The Polish decision follows similar agreements ESA has struck with Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania.

Orbital Unit Lands Two Fleet-Management Deals

Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Transportation Management Systems Division landed contracts worth a combined $26 million to provide fleet management solutions for public transportation authorities in Philadelphia and Nashville, Tenn., the Dulles, Va.-based company announced in separate press releases.

Under a $17.8 million contract with Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, Orbital will outfit vehicles that provide specialized services to elderly and disabled residents of the Philadelphia area with its OrbStar GPS-based data terminals, the company announced May 7. The terminals have color screens to provide turn-by-turn navigation maps for drivers. Tracking data and routes are transmitted back and forth between the vehicles and a central hub via terrestrial communications networks. This gives managers the ability to adjust routes as new transportation requests come in.

Under a separate contract with the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority, valued at $7.3 million and announced May 8, Orbital will provide its computer-aided dispatch and automated vehicle location systems to improve the effectiveness of the authority’s fix-route bus and AccessRide special-need transit services. The AccessRide vehicles also will be equipped with OrbStar terminals, which in addition to providing navigation information also will update drivers’ manifests as passenger pick-up and drop-off times change, the company said.

5 ECA Rocket Lofts Pair of
Telecom Satellites

An Ariane 5 ECA rocket on May 4 successfully launched Intelsat‘s Galaxy 17 and SES Global’s Astra 1L telecommunications satellites from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana in the second Ariane 5 liftoff of 2007.

Galaxy 17, carrying 24 C-band and 24 Ku-band transponders, will be placed first at Intelsat’s 74 degrees west orbital slot to serve government and commercial customers with video and broadband services. Ultimately it will be moved to 91 degrees west longitude to provide video transmissions to cable television head-ends. Galaxy 17 was built by Thales Alenia Space of Cannes, France, and weighed 4,100 kilograms at launch. It is expected to operate for up to 17 years.

Astra 1L will be operated by SES Global’s SES Astra subsidiary to provide the European direct-broadcast satellite television provider with additional capacity at its 19.2 degrees east location. Built by Lockheed Martin Commercial Space Systems of Newtown, Pa., Astra 1L carries 29 Ku-band transponders and two Ka-band transponders for interactive services.

Astra 1L weighed about 4,500 kilograms at launch and is scheduled to operate for 15 years.

Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said the company’s next Ariane 5 launch, scheduled for August, will carry Hughes Communications’ Spaceway 3 Ka-band broadband satellite and the B-Sat 3A telecommunications satellite for B-Sat Corp. of Japan.

Spitzer Space Telescope Studies Super-Hot Planet

A planet discovered two years ago via ground observations absorbs so much light from its parent star that it has a surface temperature of 2,038 degrees Celsius and would appear almost totally black if it could be seen by the naked eye, according to scientists who have studied the planet with NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope.

“If you were looking at a lump of coal, that coal would be more reflective than this planet. That’s what’s surprising from this,” said Joseph Harrington, a physics professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Harrington is lead author of a new paper, “The Hottest Planet,” to be published May 9 in the online edition of the journal Nature.

The planet, called HD 149026b, is too far away to be imaged directly by telescopes, including Spitzer, so scientists study it by looking at fluctuations in the combined light of the planet and its star, or by photographing its silhouette as it crosses in front of the star.

Using Spitzer’s Infrared Array Camera, Harrington’s team measured the dimming of the total infrared signal when the planet circled behind the star. The scientists calculated that a planet the size of HD 149026b, whose diameter is estimated to be similar to Saturn’s, would have to absorb nearly all the light reaching it to have such a strong infrared signal.

Harrington said the discovery is the “weirdest” of his career. Previous observations show that the planet must be made of 60 percent to 80 percent heavy elements. “That’s more heavy elements than in our entire solar system, outside of our sun,” Harrington said.

The planet “may be a transitional object from a gas giant, like Jupiter and Saturn, to something else,” he said.

Personnel Tracking Device Relies on GPS and Inmarsat

Satamatics of Tewkesbury, U.K., announced May 9 that it had launched a product that uses satellites to help track personnel in dangerous and remote locations .

The Personnel Tracker uses the GPS navigation signal, relayed by Inmarsat communications satellites, to keep tabs on people operating in areas without reliable mobile phone or other radio coverage, according to a company news release dated May 9.

The Personnel Tracker, which can be carried in a backpack or mounted on a vehicle, also allows its user to trigger a panic alarm in the event of emergency , according to the news release.