Atlas launch this morning; Mars orbiter could support sample return; new SLS manager picked; new job title for Air Force Secretary

An Atlas 5 is poised to launch a classified payload this morning. The Atlas 5 is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, at 8:49 a.m. Eastern time on a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office designated NROL-55. Some observers speculate that the primary payload is a pair of naval ocean reconnaissance satellites. The Atlas is also carrying 13 cubesats as secondary payloads. [Florida Today]

A defense authorization bill awaiting the President’s signature — or veto — puts conditions on funds for a weather satellite program. The National Defense Authorization Act includes $40 million of a requested $89 million for the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP), but restricts access to the funds until the Defense Department demonstrates that launching a final DMSP satellite is the best and most affordable option. The Senate passed the authorization bill Wednesday, but Obama Administration officials have said the President may veto the bill because of budget issues. [SpaceNews / POLITICO]

A Mars orbiter mission NASA is studying for the early 2020s could play a role in a broader sample return effort. The orbiter, planned for launch as soon as 2022, would serve primarily as a telecommunications relay and carry some science instruments. The orbiter could also carry mechanisms to capture samples lofted from the Martian surface by an ascent vehicle, preparing them for transport to Earth. There is no budget yet for that orbiter, and NASA requested no funds for it in its 2016 budget proposal. [SpaceNews]

The Secretary of the Air Force is now formally the Defense Department’s principal advisor for space. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work named Deborah Lee James to the newly-created position, formerly known as the executive agent for space, in a memo this week. The revised position gives James greater oversight of Defense Department space activities. The announcement was not unexpected, as a draft memo announcing the appointment circulated last month. [U.S. Air Force]

NASA selected John Honeycutt to be the next manager of the Space Launch System program Wednesday. Honeycutt had been deputy manager of the SLS program since November 2013, and previously worked on other aspects of the program. He succeeds Todd May, who was named deputy director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in August. [NASA]

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Orbital ATK took advantage of a delayed weather satellite mission to book its second Atlas launch of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft. That launch, scheduled for March, uses a launch slot originally assigned to the GOES-R weather satellite, whose launch has been delayed to late 2016. Orbital plans to resume launches of its Antares rocket for Cygnus missions in May. [Spaceflight Now]

A missile warning satellite will be included in upcoming EELV-class launch competitions. Most of the missions being set aside for competition between United Launch Alliance and SpaceX are for GPS satellites, but one mission will be for a Space Based Infrared System mission warning satellite, and another for payload identified only as Air Force Space Command 9. Proposals for the first of those missions, a GPS 3 satellite, are due next month. [SpaceNews]

NASA will announce next week the winners of launch contracts awarded last week. NASA said Wednesday that it will hold a press conference Oct. 14 to discuss the contracts it awarded for Venture Class Launch Services, covering the dedicated launch of cubesats. According to procurement documents, NASA awarded contracts Sept. 30 to Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic, with a total value of about $17 million. [NASA / FedBizOpps]

A Colorado airport plans to submit its application for an FAA spaceport license this month. The director of Front Range Airport, near Denver, said the airport expects to have its application completed and submitted to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation this month, starting a 180-day review period. The airport hopes to attract spaceplane operators, but acknowledges potential challenges in operations given that Denver International Airport is only several kilometers away. [Flightglobal]


No Interest in a Family Discount
“I’m not remotely against people going into space, but I don’t want to go there. Nope. I’m quite happy down here. Being in an aeroplane is challenging enough.”

– Actress Kate Winslet in an interview in Esquire magazine. Winslet is married to Ned Rocknroll, nephew of Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson.

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...