Cygnus arrival at ISS
The International Space Station's robotic arm prepares to grapple the Cygnus cargo spacecraft as it arrives at the station Dec. 9, in this image taken by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly. Credit: NASA

The next commercial cargo mission to the International Space Station is being delayed by mold.

NASA said it detected mold contamination on two cargo bags being prepared for a Cygnus mission to the station.

The agency decided to disinfect every bag as a precaution, including those that had already been stowed inside the Cygnus.

That work will push back the mission, previously set for launch on an Atlas 5 for March 10, to March 22. The source of the mold wasn’t clear. [Florida Today]

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A key senator is asking the Air Force to justify its continued purchases of RD-180 engines. In a letter to Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Pentagon acquisition head Frank Kendall, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked why it was legal to acquire RD-180 engines from Russian company NPO Energomash given current sanctions against Russia. He also raised questions about the Air Force’s launch support contract to United Launch Alliance. McCain has been one of the most vociferous critics in Congress of reliance on the RD-180 engine. The letter came the same day James defended the Air Force’s use of the RD-180 at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, while pressing for the development of a “total launch capability” and not just an engine to replace the RD-180. [Reuters / Breaking Defense]

The White House budget proposal seeks to move up the launch of the next Landsat mission by two years. Bugets for both NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey provide additional funding for Landsat 9 to allow for a launch of the spacecraft in 2021 instead of 2023. An earlier launch of Landsat 9 would ensure continuity of observations given the age of Landsat 7, launched in 1999 and running low on fuel, and the limited lifetime of the thermal infrared sensor on Landsat 8. The USGS budget also included $2.2 million to cover costs associated with obtaining, storing and distributing Landsat-like data it will be getting from Europe’s Sentinel-2 spacecraft. [SpaceNews]

Polar satellite programs at NOAA would get more money despite an overall decline in NOAA’s satellite budget for 2017. The proposal requests $393 million for future polar-orbiting satellites, up from $370 million appropriated for 2016. The additional funding would support work on the third and fourth Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft. NOAA’s overall satellite program, the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, would get $2.3 billion in 2017, down $49 million from 2016. The request also includes additional funding for the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft launched last year because the spacecraft “has experienced more frequent anomalies than anticipated.” [SpaceNews]

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The National Reconnaissance Office declared yesterday’s launch of a classified payload a success. The mission, designated NROL-45, lifted off early Wednesday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on a Delta 4. The NRO didn’t disclose details about the satellite, but independent observers believe it is a radar imaging satellite. [SpaceNews]

LightSquared, a communications company whose plans have raised GPS interference concerns, is rebranding itself as Ligado Networks. The company, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization last year, is proceeding with plans to provide broadband communications using spectrum near that used by GPS. Those plans have generated concerns in recent years by GPS users about potential interference, but Ligado says it is working with companies that make GPS receivers on proposals to alleviate any interference. The company also operates the SkyTerra-1 L-band communications satellite, serving North America. [Ligado Networks]

Three small government offices involved in commercial space could get big budget increases in 2017. The FAA’s budget includes a $2 million, or 11 percent, increase for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which licenses commercial launches and spaceports. NOAA’s proposal doubles the budget for its Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office, which licenses remote sensing satellites, to about $2 million. NOAA’s Office of Space Commerce would see its budget more than triple, also to $2 million, to handle work on commercial weather data. [SpaceNews]

Virgin Galactic is planning to move dozens of employees to New Mexico in the coming years. A company official said Wednesday that its office in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which supports future launches from Spaceport America and currently has 20 employees, will grow by 100 to 120 as the company begins operations at the spaceport. Virgin Galactic is unveiling a second SpaceShipTwo next week and expects to begin commercial flights from the spaceport by 2018. [Albuquerque Business First]


NASA is pressing ahead with its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) despite continued skepticism about its long-term future. The 2017 budget proposal includes more than $200 million for various ARM-related programs, such as $66.7 million for work on a robotic spacecraft that would fetch a boulder from a near Earth asteroid and return it to cislunar space. NASA officials said at the budget rollout Tuesday that mission could launch as late as 2023, but they were still hoping a crewed mission to the recovered boulder could fly in 2025. A lack of enthusiasm about ARM, particularly in Congress, suggests it may not survive the change of administrations next year. [Ars Technica]

A Seattle company has added smallsat launch services to a government contract schedule. Spaceflight Inc. announced Wednesday the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has included its launch services, ranging from cubesats to 300-kilogram smallsats, to a fixed-price contract schedule that government agencies can order from. Spaceflight brokers launches of smallsats as secondary payloads and purchased a dedicated Falcon 9 launch last year. Most government smallsats today, though, are developed by NASA and the Defense Department, who typically arrange for launches on their own missions. [SpaceNews]

NASA’s Version of a Super Bowl Party

“Each year, Glenn officials treat the budget announcement like it’s their Super Bowl. All top employees make sure they clear their calendars to watch the presentation. Staff members then plan a soirée of sorts, inviting VIPs and guests. Snacks, beverages and gifts, in the form of NASA-themed gear, are even provided at no cost to all in attendance.”

– From a Sandusky Register article about an event NASA’s Glenn Research Center held Tuesday at its Plum Brook Station in northern Ohio to celebrate the release of NASA’s fiscal year 2017 budget proposal.

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...