NASA Marks Ares Progress, Could Delay Orion Review

Even as it faced the possibility of delaying by two months, to November, the critical design review of its Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, NASA reached two milestones on its Ares launcher program: the completion of an initial round of tests of the J-2X upper-stage engine and the selection of a contractor to build the mobile launch platform.

The Orion project has been analyzing system design requirements since an initial architecture was established in November 2007, NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said May 9. “NASA believes it may be of value to give the design team additional time to further mature this analysis and prepare the required products for Orion’s preliminary design review,” she said.

Meanwhile, NASA announced in a May 8 press release it had selected Hensel Phelps of Orlando, Fla., to construct the mobile launch platform for Ares 1, which will launch Orion, as well as the larger Ares 5. The contract includes an option for a second mobile platform, for a total potential value of $263.7 million, the press release said. The mobile platform will transport Ares to its launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla., and provide ground support functions. Its tower will stand at about 118 meters, the press release said.

In a separate press release May 8, NASA announced it had completed a series of tests that began in December on the J-2X, the upper stage engine for the Ares launchers. The J-2X, being built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., is based on the Apollo-era J-2 engine with additional components designed for NASA’s X-33 rocket plane, a 1990s program that was abandoned in mid-development.

The tests, completed May 8, focused on the so-called powerpack that pumps liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the engine’s main combustion chamber to produce thrust. The test results will help engineers determine how to refine the design of the new engine, the press release said. The J-2X is designed to produce 294,000 pounds of thrust, compared with the 230,000 pounds of thrust produced by J-2, the press release said.

Sea Launch Needs Data Before Lofting Galaxy 18

Sea Launch Co. is moving forward with plans to loft Intelsat‘s Galaxy 18 satellite the week of May 19 but will not proceed with the launch aboard a Zenit 3SL rocket until it reviews credible data on the performance of the vehicle’s Land Launch variant during its inaugural flight April 28. That performance remains unclear, Sea Launch President Rob Peckham said May 8.

The Land Launch flight carried the Amos-3 telecommunications satellite, owned by Spacecom of Israel, into geostationary orbit in what was described immediately after the launch as a glitch-free flight. But in recent days, industry officials have said the rocket’s Block-DM upper stage placed the satellite into a lower-than-planned orbit, which will require Amos-3 to use more of its fuel than expected to reach its final operating position. This could reduce the satellite’s operating life.

Land Launch basically uses the same rocket as that used by Long Beach, Calif.-based Sea Launch, and Sea Launch is taking over Land Launch commercial operations. But for the April 28 flight, Sea Launch was not involved. The contract was between Spacecom, Amos-3 manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Space International Services Ltd. of Moscow, a company owned by the rocket’s Russian and Ukrainian manufacturers.

Peckham said he has received no solid data on the Land Launch performance, but will not start the Galaxy 18 countdown until Sea Launch engineers have reviewed that information.

“We are not going to launch until we get all the facts on the performance of Land Launch,” Peckham said. “Right now we don’t have that as we were not party to the April 28 launch and we do not have a license to get the information. But we have made a formal request from our partner, RSC Energia, for a full report on what the orbital parameters were. Until we get the information we need to exonerate the Zenit 3SL, we are not launching.”

RSC Energia of Korolev, Russia, is the builder of the Block-DM upper stage for the Zenit 3SL. The Sea Launch Odyssey platform carrying the Galaxy 18 satellite left Sea Launch’s Long Beach home port May 6 on its way to the mid-Pacific Ocean launch site. The Sea Launch Commander control ship departed May 9.

Peckham said he would need to have solid data on the Land Launch performance within around 10 days to be able to keep to the current Sea Launch schedule without interruption.

An official with Spacecom said May 7 that Amos-3 is on its way to an in-orbit-test location before being stationed at its operating location of 4 degrees west longitude. This official referred questions to IAI, which is responsible for the satellite’s early orbital maneuvers. IAI officials could not be reached for comment because of holidays in Israel.

Proposed Supplemental Includes Money for NASA

U.S. lawmakers have added $200 million for NASA to an emergency spending measure largely geared toward funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the Senate Appropriations Committee due to vote on the $195 billion emergency supplemental May 15, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) announced that the bill includes more than $1 billion for priorities important to the commerce, justice, science subcommittee she chairs.

In addition to money for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Census Bureau, the Senate version of the spending bill includes $200 million to help pay NASA back some of the expenses it incurred following the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident.

“NASA was hit with a terrible tragedy with the loss of Columbia. The agency was never fully reimbursed and was forced to make dramatic cuts to other programs,” Mikulski said in a May 8 statement announcing the additional money. “I am committed to restoring this agency’s budget to ensure the continued safety of our astronauts, and to [keep] supporting the critical programs that are the hallmarks of their success.”

The National Science Foundation also would see its 2008 budget increased $200 million if the additions Mikulski announced are approved by the full Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, who got the ball rolling on the supplemental by requesting $178 million to keep the Iraq and Afghanistan military operations funded into 2009.

Following U.S. Approval, Com Dev Buys L-3 Unit

Com Dev USA closed its purchase of L-3 Communications Corp.’s passive microwave devices business May 9 following approval by the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, which regulates the purchase of U.S. firms by overseas buyers.

Com Dev USA of El Segundo, Calif., a subsidiary of Com Dev International of Ontario, Canada, paid $12.2 million for the L-3 unit, which produces circuit components and related products used on commercial and government satellites and for ground applications.

Bigelow’s Genesis-1 Craft Completes 10,000th Orbit

Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace announced in a May 8 press release that its unmanned module Genesis 1 completed its 10,000th orbit around Earth after 660 days in space. Genesis 1 is a one-third scale model of the company’s planned Sundancer commercial space habitation module. Since Genesis 1 was launched July 12, 2006, it has traveled the equivalent of 432 million kilometers, and its onboard camera has taken about 14,000 images, the press release said.

NASA Selects Proposals For Instrument Incubator

NASA has selected for further development 21 out of 71 proposed technologies that could enable new Earth observation measurements or reduce the risk, cost and time associated with building remote sensing instruments.

NASA’s Instrument Incubator Program at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., will pay a total of about $64 million over three years to the contract winners, according to a NASA announcement. NASA received the proposals in response to a 2007 research announcement.

Hughes Transition to Spaceway 3 Rolls West

Hughes Network Systems has loaded about 1,500 consumer users onto its new all-Ka-band Spaceway 3 broadband satellite in a campaign that started on the U.S. East Coast and is gradually moving west, with plans to have the entire U.S. territory covered by late May. Some 7,500 customers will be using the satellite by then, Hughes officials said May 7.

In a conference call with investors, Germantown, Md.-based Hughes said new business customers will be placed onto Spaceway 3 starting this fall. Toward the end of the year, all new Hughes broadband customers, both consumer and enterprise, will be put onto Spaceway 3.

Hughes Chief Executive Pradman P. Kaul said the company, which is one of the biggest customers in North America for Ku-band satellite capacity, will start migrating its business from other companies’ satellites onto Spaceway 3. “We see Spaceway as our primary growth engine going forward,” Kaul said. The satellite was launched in August 2007. Commercial service began in April.

Kaul said 2008 would be a transition year as the company incurs the cost of manufacturing Spaceway 3-compatible user equipment, which initially will be more expensive than the Ku-band gear now sold for Hughes’ HughesNet service, without yet reaping the benefit of having to lease less capacity aboard other companies’ satellites.

Kaul said Hughes had 401,000 consumer subscribers as of March 31, a 16 percent increase over the subscriber count a year earlier.

Hughes officials have said in the past that the growth of their Ka-band service on Spaceway 3 will require a second Ka-band satellite. The company either could negotiate the purchase of one of two orbiting Spaceway satellites used for television services by Hughes’ former owner, DirecTV Group of Los Angeles, or buy a new all-Ka-band spacecraft.

Kaul said no decision was imminent.

Hughes reported revenue of $237.2 million for the three months ending March 31, a 6 percent increase over the same period in 2007. Average revenue per month from its consumer service rose to $65 from $60 during the previous year as subscribers elected to sign up for the higher-speed service.

RRSat Global Communications Feels Pinch of Dollar’s Decline

RRSat Global Communications reported a sharp drop in its gross profit margin, saying the decline in the U.S. dollar against the euro and the New Israeli shekel had affected margins and likely would continue to do so, if to a lesser extent, for the rest of the year.

In a May 5 conference call, the Omer, Israel-based provider of satellite and fiber capacity to television and radio programmers said it is nonetheless sticking with earlier forecasts that its 2008 revenue would be around $75.5 million.

The news on the drop in gross margins sent RRSat’s stock tumbling by about 20 percent on the U.S. Nasdaq exchange.

RRSat Chief Financial Officer Gil Efron said the company’s long-term contracts, which form the core of RRSat’s business, are not affected by the near-term fluctuations in the dollar’s value. But RRSat seeks short-term contracts as well in hopes of converting these customers to longer-term agreements, and these contracts in the three months ending March 31 were less profitable for the company because of the dollar’s decline against the euro and the shekel, Efron said.

RRSat leases capacity on numerous satellites and resells it to broadcasters, often taking charge of broadcast post-production services including translation or technical format conversion.

The company said its contract backlog reached a record $158.8 million March 31. Efron said the average contract on RRSat’s books at that date had 28 months left before expiration.

RRSat purchased a large teleport in Hawley, Pa., from Loral Skynet, now part of Telesat Canada, and RRSat Chief Executive David Rivel said this acquisition is the start of a planned broader presence in North America.

RRSat revenue for the three months ending March 31 totaled $17.8 million, an increase of 34 percent over the same period a year earlier. Gross profit, at $5.47 million, was just under 31 percent of revenue, compared to 36 percent a year earlier.

Norsat Reports Decline in Revenue and Profit Margins

Military satellite communications terminal manufacturer Norsat International reported a 23.7 percent drop in revenue and a decline in gross profit margins for the three months ending March 31, blaming in part the expiration of a U.S. military contract vehicle that likely will be renewed later this year.

The Vancouver, British Columbia-based company said its operating expenses were up following the addition of new staff in 2007.

In a May 7 statement, Norsat Chief Executive Amiee Chan conceded that the period was “a challenging quarter from a financial results perspective, [but] we expect sales to regain momentum in the latter half of the year.”

An indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracting vehicle for satellite terminals with the U.S. Defense Department, which took effect in September, expired early this year and was not immediately renewed. Norsat said it expected renewal by mid-year. “We are well positioned to win additional, sizable orders from the U.S. military,” Chan said.

For the three months ending March 31, Norsat reported revenue of $2.9 million, compared to $3.8 million in the same period a year ago. Gross profit margin, at 51 percent, was down from 53 percent.

NASA Removes ‘Acting’ From Weiler’s Job Title

Ed Weiler, the 30-year NASA veteran who agreed in March to temporarily lead the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, will permanently fill that position, NASA announced in a May 7 press release.

Weiler returned on an acting basis to the position he had held from 1998-2004 following the abrupt March 25 resignation of Alan Stern after one year on the job. At the time of Stern’s resignation, Weiler was director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

“I’m very pleased to have Ed officially accept a more long-term position as science chief. His leadership style and 26 years of headquarters experience will be vital to the success of upcoming science activities and missions,” NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said in a prepared statement.

Orbital Nabs Contract To Support Suborbital Effort

Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., has been awarded a contract worth as much as $100 million over 10 years from the U.S. Defense Department to provide suborbital launch vehicle engineering services, according to a May 6 Orbital press release.

The indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract, part of the Theoretical Studies and Engineering Services program, is for five years with a five-year option. Orbital will support U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force research and development programs managed by White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Orbital is also a member of the team led by Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. that is working on the program at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Lockheed Martin Protests U.S. Navy BAMS Contract

Lockheed Martin is protesting the U.S. Navy’s selection of Northrop Grumman for a contract potentially worth more than $3 billion to develop and build an unmanned aerial vehicle for maritime surveillance on grounds that it beat the winner on price.

The Navy awarded a $1.16 billion contract April 22 to Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman to design and build two unmanned aircraft, mission control systems and an integration laboratory for the service’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program. The Navy eventually plans to buy 68 of the aircraft at $55 million each for full-time maritime coverage from five locations around the world.

Northrop Grumman beat out Boeing Co. of Chicago and Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin for the contract. Lockheed filed a formal protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) May 5, said company spokeswoman Tierney Helmers.

“Lockheed Martin protests contract awards infrequently, and only when we believe that the benefits of our offerings were not fully considered during the evaluation process,” Helmers said in a prepared statement. “With regard to the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance competition, information provided to us during our debrief indicated that we offered a technically compliant and awardable solution at significantly lower cost, leading us to request a Government Accountability Office review.”

Helmers did not provide Lockheed Martin’s price per aircraft.

Boeing, meanwhile, will not protest the Navy’s decision but “will watch with interest the GAO proceedings,” Boeing spokesman Charles Ramey said in a prepared statement.

European Goce Satellite Set for September Launch

Europe’s Goce satellite to measure Earth’s gravity field will be launched in early September following a Russian commission’s decision to permit an immediate return to flight of the small Rockot launch vehicle despite Rockot’s use of the same upper-stage motor that failed on the heavy-lift Proton rocket in March, the head of Rockot’s commercial arm said May 8.

Matthias Oehm, chief executive of the German-Russian Eurockot Launch Services GmbH company of Bremen, Germany, said the Goce launch requires a continuous burn of some 600 seconds, which is considered within the safety margin set after the March 15 failure of the Proton-M launch vehicle. One European government official said any burn of less than 1,000 seconds is considered safe for the Breeze-M upper-stage engine.

The Rockot and Proton vehicles both are built by the Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Moscow and use similar Breeze-M upper-stage engines.

Proton missions require especially long burns of the Breeze-M to place heavy telecommunications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Proton Breeze-M that failed March 15 stopped functioning some 32 minutes into what was supposed to have been a burn lasting 34 minutes and 26 seconds.

A Russian government inquiry has concluded that the failure was caused by a pipe that broke open in part due to the long exposure to high temperatures during the ignition.

Foundation Sponsoring More Weightless Flights

The Northrop Grumman Foundation is seeking applications for its 2008 Weightless Flights of Discovery program for educators, according to a May 5 Northrop Grumman press release.

The program places middle-school math and science teachers aboard Las Vegas-based Zero Gravity Corp.’s G-Force One aircraft, which flies a pattern of parabolas to provide brief periods of reduced gravity. The teachers will attend a full-day orientation program several weeks before their flights and then work with their students to develop experiments to be conducted in environments simulating lunar gravity, martian gravity and weightlessness, the press release said.

Following the two- to three-hour flight, each teacher will share his or her experience with students. Flights will occur Sept. 18 in San Jose, Calif., Sept. 30 at Cape Canaveral, Fla., Oct. 7 in Atlanta and Oct. 21 in Chicago. Up to 60 teachers in each location will be selected to participate. For more information, visit

Skyport Global To Provide Capacity for Oil, Gas Rigs

SkyPort Global Communications of Houston has signed a one-year agreement to provide satellite bandwidth to Sabine Rig Communications’ oil and gas drilling clients, according to a May 7 SkyPort press release.

Sabine, based in Carthage, Texas, provides telephone and Internet service via satellite to crews at remote oil and gas drilling rigs, and SkyPort will use its teleport and network operations center to deliver satellite bandwidth to Sabine customers in Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, the press release said.

Frank Willis, president of Sabine, said in the press release that he selected SkyPort after becoming frustrated with slow technical support from other providers.

“A drilling rig has to have telephone service 24 hours a day,” Willis said. “We got into situations before where if the phones went down on a Friday afternoon, they wouldn’t be working until sometime Monday. Our customers demand better service.”

Teague Takes Over as SBIRS Program Manager

U.S. Air Force Col. Roger Teague took over as program manager for the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellite program May 1, according to an Air Force news release.

Teague previously headed the SBIRS Space Group, where his responsibilities included overseeing the launch and operational testing of the final Defense Support Program spacecraft and the developmental testing and on-orbit checkout of the first SBIRS payload, which is hosted by a classified spacecraft in a highly elliptical orbit.

Teague replaces Col. John Amrine, who is retiring.

ISRO Picks e2v To Supply Earth Observing Sensors

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has awarded a contract to e2v of Essex, England, to supply key component sensors for imaging instruments for ISRO’s planned Resourcesat 3 and Cartosat 3 Earth observing satellites, according to a May 6 e2v press release.

The charge coupled device sensor components will help monitor the environment, urban development and agriculture as well as aid in disaster relief, the press release said. Resourcesat 3 will use the Linear Imaging Self Scanner 4 (LISS 4) and LISS 3 cameras providing 2.5- and 5-meter resolution, in addition to a multispectral camera, while Cartosat 3 will use a single multispectral camera, the press release said.

At ISRO’s request, e2v would not disclose the contract value, e2v spokeswoman Jessica Broom said in a May 8 e-mail to Space News.

Isle of Man Government Offering ISU Scholarships

The Isle of Man government will pay a portion of fees and tuition for local executives to attend the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, France, according to an April 29 Isle of Man government press release.

Isle of Man executives who wish to attend the ISU’s professional development or executive training programs, including a five-day executive space course and a program called “Niche Opportunities in Space Exploration,” will receive financial assistance from the government, the press release said.

The Isle of Man, a self-governing nation of 80,000 in the British Isles that is dependent upon the United Kingdom for external relations and defense, already has the largest ISU alumni community in the world, Tim Craine, director of space commerce for the Isle of Man treasury, said in a written statement.