Musk blasts possible RD-180 waiver; Atlas launches NRO mission; McCarthy drops out; Chris Hadfield’s space shanties

An Atlas 5 placed a classified payload and a group of cubesats into orbit Thursday. The Atlas 5 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on schedule at 8:49 a.m. Eastern on a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office designated NROL-55. Besides the classified primary payload, the Atlas deployed 13 cubesats, nine sponsored by the NRO and four by NASA. It was the second Atlas 5 launch in less than a week. [SpaceNews]

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a staunch advocate for commercial space, unexpectedly dropped out of the race to be the next Speaker of the House Thursday. McCarthy said in an interview that he did not believe he was the person who could unite the Republican caucus in the House. McCarthy, whose California district includes the Mojave Air and Space Port, has been an advocate for the commercial space industry, including sponsoring a sweeping commercial space bill the House passed in May. McCarthy will retain his current post of majority leader. [SpaceNews / POLITICO]

A top NASA official said the agency is on track to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said this week that while NASA has not laid out a specific plans to getting humans to the surface of Mars, it has the resources and capabilities to do so. Lightfoot said NASA will accomplish this “for about one-tenth of the budget” of Apollo, which the agency later said referred to NASA’s share of the overall federal budget. Lightfoot’s comments come as NASA released a report Thursday offering some more details about its overall plan, but not a specific technical approach. [SpaceNews / NASA]

SpaceX opposes a proposal to grant a waiver to United Launch Alliance regarding RD-180 engines. In a letter to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that claims that ULA would not compete for the launch of a GPS satellite without being granted access to additional RD-180 engines was “nothing less than deceptive brinkmanship for the sole purpose of thwarting the will of Congress.” The Pentagon is considering a waiver to current limits on the number of RD-180 engines ULA can use for national security launches. [Reuters]

Canadian satellite component company COM DEV is considering a sale. The company confirmed this week that it is in discussions with unidentified parties to sell the company. The company’s stock price soared on the news, although company officials said they would not comment further unless and until there was a deal to announce. [Bloomberg]

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A pair of Air Force space surveillance satellites are now operational. The Air Force said Thursday that the two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program spacecraft, launched last year, have achieved initial operational capability. The spacecraft, designed to monitor other satellites in geostationary orbit, had already been used for observations of some objects there and worked well. [SpaceNews]

Sierra Nevada Corp. plans to start a new series of Dream Chaser test flights early next year. The Dream Chaser engineering test article, an uncrewed vehicle designed for unpowered flight tests, will start a series of test flights at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California in the first quarter of 2016, company vice president Mark Sirangelo said Wednesday. The vehicle made one glide test there in 2013, which NASA and the company declared a success although the vehicle skidded off the runway when part of its landing gear failed to deploy. Sirangelo said he is still expecting a decision on a NASA commercial cargo contract in early November. [SpaceNews]

The Air Force will seek funding in its 2017 budget request for another experiment in purchasing commercial satellite bandwidth. The “pathfinder” effort would have the Air Force pay for building and launching a commercial satellite, in exchange for having proportional access to that company’s entire fleet of satellites. The project, which would be the third in a series of pathfinder efforts to reform the military’s acqusition of commercial satellite services, could cost up to $300 million over several years. [SpaceNews]

New evidence confirms that the crater NASA’s Curiosity rover landed in once had lakes. Scientists said that data collected by the rover shows that Gale Crater once hosted a series of freshwater lakes that lasted for hundreds or thousands of years at a time, and the region likely had groundwater reserves for millions of years. The finding boosts the chances that the region was habitable for long enough to support microbial life. []

For your weekend listening pleasure: a new album by former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. The album, “Space Sessions: Songs From A Tin Can,” is available today and features 12 tracks he recorded while on the space station in 2013, including a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that became a YouTube hit. “Some of these songs are the first shanties of space travel,” he said in a recent interview. [Vancouver Sun / iTunes]


Blue Skys, Red Ice

Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere has a blue glow, scientists said Thursday. A color image from the New Horizons spacecraft showed the haze particles in the atmosphere, thought to be soot-like particles called tholins, scatter blue light, creating the blue glow seen in the image. “Who would have expected a blue sky in the Kuiper Belt? It’s gorgeous,” said the mission’s principal investigator, Alan Stern. Scientists also said they had detected exposed regions of water ice on the planet’s surface, which appear to be linked to areas that are bright red. How the two are related isn’t clear yet. [JHUAPL]

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...