Embattled planet hunter resigns — NASA buys 3 dedicated cubesat launches —SpaceShipTwo bounces back to rubber — Northrop reorg

NASA announced Wednesday it is awarding contracts to three companies for dedicated launches of cubesats. Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA and Virgin Galactic each received Venture Class Launch Services contracts for one launch each of a group of cubesats. The launches are scheduled for between late 2016 and April 2018, based on the development schedules of each company’s vehicle. NASA hopes these contracts, with a total value of $17.1 million, will provide better access to space for cubesats that traditionally fly as secondary payloads on other launches. [SpaceNews]

Virgin Galactic plans to switch back to a rubber-like fuel for the hybrid rocket motor used by SpaceShipTwo. The company has carried out a number of full-duration burns of the motor, which uses HTPB fuel, and has baselined that fuel for future powered test flights of the suborbital vehicle pending the outcome of qualification tests. Virgin originally planned to use HTPB in the vehicle’s motor, but last year announced it was switching to an alternative fuel similar to nylon that offered better performance. [SpaceNews]

Astronomer Geoff Marcy has resigned from the Univ. of California Berkeley after a sexual harassment scandal. Marcy submitted his resignation to the university Wednesday, which was immediately accepted. Marcy, one of the world’s leading discoverers of extrasolar planets, violated the university’s sexual harassment policies on several occasions, according to an internal investigation publicized last week. Most of his fellow members of Berkeley’s astronomy department signed a letter earlier this week calling for him to step down. [BuzzFeed]

The president of South Korea wants to cooperate with the U.S. on lunar exploration. Park Geun-hye visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Wednesday, where she said she hoped the two countries could cooperate more closely in space exploration. South Korea has plans for lunar missions of its own within the next decade. [Yonhap News]

NASA is considering a Mars lander mission in the mid-2020s that could test technologies for a future human expedition. The proposed mission, discussed at the International Astronautical Congress in Jerusalem this week, would involve sending a robotic mission to Mars as soon as 2026. That spacecraft would test on a subscale level advanced technologies needed for landers on later human missions. That mission could also test in situ resource utilization technologies, building upon an experiment planned for the Mars 2020 rover. [Aviation Week]

A Vegetarian Rocket

“We have a fundamental policy at Rocket Lab not to fly meat, so we’ll just leave that to Virgin.”

– Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab USA, discussing his company’s lack of interest in human spaceflight near the end of a NASA press conference Wednesday about the Venture Class Launch Services contracts. [YouTube]

Chinese officials want the country to be more “creative” regarding space exploration. At a recent conference in China, the director of the country’s lunar exploration program said that China should not simply repeat accomplishments made by other nations but “be more creative.” The conference discussed potential missions and technologies for both robotic and human exploration, including proposals for a robotic mission to land on the far side of the moon. [Xinhua]

The moon may offer a way to reduce the mass of a mission to Mars. MIT researchers concluded that by making use of water ice and other lunar resources, a human mission to Mars could reduce the amount of mass it needs to launch from the Earth by two thirds. The researchers acknowledged that their approach is “very unintuitive” but potentially far more affordable in the long run. [MIT]

Northrop Grumman is reorganizing its business units. The company announced late Wednesday that it merge its existing Electronic Systems, Information Systems and Technical Services business sectors into two new sectors, Mission Systems and Technology Services. The company’s space business is largely unaffected by the changes. Northrop also plans to appoint a chief operating officer, Gloria Flach, effective Jan. 1. [Northrop Grumman]

India’s space agency, ISRO, has released the first images from its new astronomy satellite. ISRO released an image of the Crab Nebula taken at x-ray wavelengths by its Astrosat spacecraft, launched last month. The Crab Nebula and its pulsar are often used to calibrate x-ray instruments on spacecraft. Astrosat, India’s first dedicated astronomy spacecraft, carries instruments to observe the sky at x-ray, visible and ultraviolet wavelengths. [domain-b]

Presidential candidate Jeb Bush was a fan of Newt Gingrich’s lunar settlement plans. Bush, speaking at a town hall Wednesday in New Hampshire, recalled people criticized Gingrich’s proposals during the 2012 campaign for human mission to the moon, but “I think it’s pretty cool.” Bush also criticized the Obama administration for cancelling the Constellation program and said the NASA needs to partner more with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. Bush, in his response, also struggled to remember the date of the shuttle Columbia accident, which took place while he was governor of Florida in early 2003. [CNN / C-SPAN]

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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...