China's design features a blunt cone shape, similar to Boeing's CST-100 and NASA/Lockheed's Orion capsule.

China is developing a next-generation human spacecraft that looks strikingly similar to American designs.

The unnamed vehicle, which could launch as soon as 2020, would abandon the Soyuz-like design of the Shenzhou spacecraft in place of a conical crew module above a cylindrical service module, similar to the Orion and CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, as well as the earlier Apollo spacecraft.

The Chinese vehicle would be able to hold up to six people, and splash down in the ocean. [SinoDefence]

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NASA received a significant budget increase in an omnibus spending bill released early Wednesday. The bill provides NASA with nearly $19.3 billion, more than $750 million above the administration’s request. The bill funds many key NASA programs at or above the original request, including Orion and SLS, planetary and Earth sciences, and commercial crew. Congress is expected to pass another continuing resolution today to fund the government into next week, giving it several additional days to pass the omnibus bill. [SpaceNews]

The omnibus bill also effectively lifts restrictions on the use of RD-180 engines. A provision of the bill allows the Air Force to award EELV launch contracts to any certified company “regardless of the country of origin of the rocket engine that will be used on its launch vehicle.” That appears to circumvent earlier restrictions on the number of RD-180 engines available for competed launches put into place by defense authorization bills. [SpaceNews]

An Indian rocket successfully launched six satellites for Singapore Wednesday morning. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) lifted off on schedule at 7:30 a.m. Eastern and deployed the satellites into low Earth orbit about 20 minutes later. The primary payload of the mission was TeLEOS-1, a 400-kilogram commercial remote sensing satellite. The rocket also carried five smaller satellites built by two Singapore universities. [The Straits Times]

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A Soyuz docked manually with the International Space Station Tuesday after aborting an automated approach. The Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft docked with the Rassvet module at 12:33 p.m. Eastern, six and a half hours after liftoff from Baikonur. Cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko guided the spacecraft in manually after a problem forced spacecraft controllers to abort the usual automated docking approach. Russian officials later said that a thruster problem aborted the automated docking. The Soyuz brought to the station Malenchenko, American astronaut Tim Kopra and British astronaut Tim Peake. [CBS /TASS]

A static fire test today will determine launch plans for a “significantly improved” version of the Falcon 9. A successful test of the first stage engines on the pad at Cape Canaveral would allow a launch Saturday between 8 and 9 p.m. Eastern. The launch will be the first for the Falcon 9 since a June failure and the first of a an upgraded Falcon 9 that SpaceX CEO described Tuesday as a “significantly improved” version of the vehicle. SpaceX has not confirmed reports of plans to attempt a landing of the vehicle’s first stage back at Cape Canaveral. [SpaceNews]

ESA and Thales Alenia Space signed a contract Tuesday for two more Sentinel Earth observation satellites. The contract, valued at 402 million euros ($441 million), covers the construction of the Sentinel-1C and Sentinel-1D radar observation satellites. The satellites, scheduled for launch no earlier than 2021, would serve as replacements for Sentinel-1A, launched in 2014, and Sentinel-1B, scheduled for launch in April. The new satellites will include the ability, at the end of the satellites’ missions, to separate the radar antenna from the spacecraft prior to reentry to decrease the risk of debris reaching the Earth’s surface. [SpaceNews]

Choose You Must, Charlie

“I think that NASA is a part of the Empire, but there’s a piece of us that’s the Rebels, that says, ‘Okay, nobody is thinking about this stuff, and if we continue to go in the direction that the Empire is going, we’re not going to exist very long, and we’re going to be overwhelmed or overcome by somebody.’”

– NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, playing both sides when asked in a video interview whether NASA was part of the Empire or the Rebellion from Star Wars. Bolden also said in the interview that while he is a Star Wars fan, “it doesn’t quite bring out the real world things we’re doing right now in our Journey to Mars, whereas Star Trek talks a lot more about — it’s much more closely associated with what’s going on on the International Space Station today.” [Politico]

The U.S. Air Force has awarded three additional study contracts for rocket engine technologies. The contracts, valued at between $728,000 and $935,000, went to Tanner Research, Johns Hopkins University and Moog Inc. The announcement did not disclose what technologies related to development of a new rocket engine the winning organizations will work on. The Air Force previously said it would award six to eight contracts with a combined value of $35 million to study development of lower-cost propulsion components; the new awards bring the total number of those contracts issued to four. [SpaceNews]

An advisory group has recommended to the FAA that it work with ESA to ensure companies can participate in ESA’s “Moon Village” concept. The Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee unanimously approved a recommendation to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation that the office discuss with ESA ways that American companies can participate. The Moon Village concept, still in its earliest phases of development and lacking a schedule and budget, would involve the creation of an international lunar base. [SpaceNews]

A new control tower at Houston’s Ellington Airport will support the airport’s plans to become a commercial spaceport. The Houston Airport System, which operates the airport, received a $3.1 million state grant to help pay for construction of the new control tower, which will replace one built in the 1950s and damaged by a hurricane several years ago. Ellington is licensed as a commercial spaceport by the FAA, and the airport’s operator hopes to attract commercial launch companies to operate from the facility. [Houston Business Journal]

Meet Poltergeist, Dimidium and Orbitar, new official names of some of the first extrasolar planets discovered by astronomers. The International Astronomical Union announced the names Tuesday at the end of a contest that involved submissions from astronomy clubs and a public vote. The names primarily came from Latin and various mythologies, although Orbitar is, according to the IAU, “a contrived word paying homage to the space launch and orbital operations of NASA.” It’s unclear whether astronomers will make use of these names, versus the designations previously applied to these worlds. [New Scientist]


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...