Atlas launches Mexico’s Morelos-3; Garver speaks; Lockheed dropped from CRS-2?; Moon Express contracts for Electron launches

An Atlas 5 lifted off from Cape Canaveral this morning carrying a Mexican communications satellite. The rocket lifted off at 6:28 a.m. Eastern time, delayed to the end of its 20-minute launch window when a boat strayed into restricted waters off the coast. The Atlas, flying a rare commercial mission, is scheduled to deploy the Boeing-built Morelos-3 satellite for Mexico’s Ministry of Communications and Transportation at about 9:20 a.m. Eastern this morning. The launch is the 100th for United Launch Alliance since the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture started operations in late 2006. []

A Progress cargo spacecraft arrived at the space station six hours after launch Thursday. The Progress M-29M spacecraft docked with the station’s Zvezda module at 6:52 p.m. Eastern time, a little more than six hours after it launched on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The spacecraft brought to the station nearly 2,900 kilograms of propellant, water and other supplies. [CBS]

The Air Force awarded a contract to a company that provides commercial space situational awareness services. The $8.4 million contract with AGI covers a subscription service to the company’s Commercial Space Operations Center, or ComSpOC, which the company created to provide an alternative for space situation awareness data to the Air Force’s own Joint Space Operations Center. The contract makes the Air Force the first government customer for ComSpOC. [SpaceNews]

A company competing for the Google Lunar X Prize has signed a launch contract for its mission. Moon Express said it has a contract for three launches of Electron, a small launch vehicle under development by Rocket Lab, with two of the launches scheduled for 2017. Moon Express says it’s been able to miniaturize its MX-1 lander to allow Electron to send it to the Moon. The contract should allow the X Prize Foundation to exercise an option to extend the competition’s deadline by two years, to the end of 2017. [SpaceNews]
A former NASA official is skeptical the agency can sustain its long-term Mars exploration plans. Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, speaking at a technology conference in Seattle Thursday, said plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, using technologies that, in some cases, dated back to the 1970s, was not the best way to go to Mars. “What we need is the capability to do it in a time frame and at a cost that is achievable – and I think that’s within 10 years,” she said. As for how it could be done, Garver, who advised Hillary Clinton on space policy in the 2008 campaign, said, “I think the next president will have a lot to say about that.” [GeekWire]

Lockheed Martin has reportedly been dropped from consideration for a NASA space station cargo contract. Lockheed Martin had proposed a system involving a reusable spacecraft called Jupiter and expendable cargo carrier called Exoliner to transport cargo to the station, making it one of five major bidders for the Commercial Resupply Services 2 competition. The company was reportedly removed from consideration due to cost. Neither the company nor NASA confirmed the report, based on rumors widely circulating in the industry over the last several weeks. [Wall Street Journal]

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India has postponed the launch of a reusable launch vehicle technology demonstrator until at least the end of this year. The demonstrator, a scale model of a spaceplane that would fly a suborbital trajectory, was scheduled to launch on a GSLV rocket in October. That launch is now scheduled for late December or January, giving engineers more time to complete tests on the vehicle. [Express News Service]

An asteroid might have had some help killing off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Scientists said the impact of the giant asteroid or comet, in the modern-day Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, may have shook the Earth so hard it exacerbated an ongoing volcanic eruption halfway around the world in India’s Deccan Traps. The combination of the two might have done in the dinosaurs, according to research published in the journal Science. [Washington Post]

It’s the ultimate gift for fans of the movie The Martian: a potato. Producers of the movie have teamed with a company called Mail A Spud (yes, there’s such a company) offering to ship a potato, with a customized stamp, anywhere in the U.S. for free for the first 1,000 people who sign up. Potatoes play a key role in how the movie’s main character, astronaut Mark Watney, survives on Mars. [collectSPACE]

Pluto’s Battered Moon


The weekly release of images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft Thursday focused this time on Pluto’s largest moon, Charon [pronounced SHAR-on by many scientists]. The images show a “surprisingly complex and violent history” of the world, including a canyon four times longer, and in some places two times deeper, than the Grand Canyon. Smooth regions on other parts of the moon’s surface could be caused by cryovolcanism, or water-based lavas. Even sharper images of Charon are expected over the next year as the spacecraft slowly transmits the data it collected during the July flyby. [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...