U.S. Air Force Lifts Boeing Suspension With Conditions

The Boeing Co. will spend $1.9 million over the next three years on an outside ethics monitor as a condition for having its ban from the U.S. Air Force launch market lifted, according to Peter B. Teets, acting Air Force secretary.

The interim agreement means Boeing will be able to compete against rival Lockheed Martin for 18-24 Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contracts to be awarded in early 2006, Teets said March 4 at a Pentagon press conference. There will be no additional EELV contracts awarded between now and then, he said.

Boeing also is now eligible to receive $135 million-$140 million in launch infrastructure sustainment funding allocated by Congress in 2004 and 2005, Teets said. Air Force Maj. Gen. Craig Cooning, the Pentagon’s director of space acquisition, said the upcoming round of EELV launch contracts will cover the infrastructure sustainment costs.

The Air Force imposed the suspension in July 2003 after Boeing admitted to having obtained proprietary Lockheed Martin information during the heat of the competition for the first round of EELV launch contracts, which were awarded in late 1998. Boeing won 19 of the 28 initial contracts, but was stripped of seven of those when the ban was imposed.

A U.S. Justice Department investigation into the matter is still ongoing, and the suspension could be reinstated if that probe turns up incriminating new revelations about Boeing’s activities or leads to any indictments of company officials, Teets said. Boeing also faces a civil suit filed by Lockheed Martin, and Teets said any costs incurred as a result of that litigation cannot be passed on to the Air Force.

Teets said the Air Force was waiting for the closure of two criminal trials related to a Boeing hiring scandal to lift the suspension. That milestone passed Feb. 18 when Michael Sears, Boeing’s former chief financial officer, was sentenced to four months in prison for negotiating an employment deal with Darleen Druyun while she was still the Air Force’s No. 2 procurement official. Druyun was sentenced in October.

The lifting of the suspension brought a sigh of relief from Boeing, whose launch business has languished under the ban. “We have worked hard over the past 20 months to restore the trust and confidence of our customer, and we are grateful that we have reached this point,” Boeing spokesman Dan Beck said in a prepared statement. “The company is committed to maintaining the highest standards of ethical business conduct at every level of the organization.”

Retired Air Force George Babbitt, a former commander of Air Force Materiel Command, will be Boeing’s outside ethics compliance officer. He will be supported by a staff from the consulting firm Bearing Point Inc., which is based in McLean, Va.

United States, Japan Sign Weather Satellite Backup Deal

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Japan Meteorological Agency signed an agreement Feb. 23 to provide mutual backup services for their respective geostationary-orbiting weather satellites, according to a NOAA news release.

If either nation suffers a geostationary weather satellite failure with no available back up, the other would move one of its own spacecraft to provide coverage for up to one year free of charge.

“This cooperative agreement is critical to helping forecasters in the [United States] and Japan provide life-saving weather warnings in the event a national satellite is unable to operate,” NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher said in the news release.

Since 2003, a NOAA Geostationary-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite that previously was in a storage orbit has been providing weather coverage to Japan due to problems with the latter’s Geostationary Meteorological Satellite-5. That arrangement laid the groundwork for the new agreement.

Formal RFP Goes Out for Crew Exploration Vehicle

NASA is requesting bids from companies interested in building the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), the spacecraft that will carry astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and to the Moon by 2020.

The formal request for proposal (RFP) was issued March 1 and responses are due in May. Although NASA has been paying nearly a dozen teams since 2004 to work on CEV concepts, industry analysts said the competition is a two-way race between a Northrop Grumman-Boeing team and a team led by Lockheed Martin.

NASA expects to make its selections and have the two teams under contract by September. The teams will then spend three years working on competing CEV designs and preparing for a 2008 fly-off demonstration intended to help NASA select one of the concepts for full-scale development.

Industry analysts following the competition said the three-year contracts are expected to be worth about $1 billion each and the contract to build the actual vehicle worth many times that.

NASA wants to be able to launch humans aboard the CEV by 2014 and use the vehicle as the basis of a lunar transport system by 2020.

Colorado Firm Buys Civil Unit from Space Imaging

Space Imaging of Thornton, Colo., has sold its Federal Civil and Commercial Solutions business unit to Sanborn, a geographic information services provider based in Colorado Springs, Colo., the companies announced March 1.

The terms of the deal, effective the day of the announcement, were not disclosed, Space Imaging spokesman Mark Brender said. The deal affects 45 employees in four U.S. cities: Ann Arbor, Mich.; Ft. Collins, Colo.; Portland, Ore.; and Sacramento, Calif.

The Federal Civil and Commercial Solutions unit specializes in imagery-based products and analysis software for civilian applications. Its core operation is the former Pacific Meridian company of Emeryville, Calif., which Space Imaging acquired in 2000.

Space Imaging’s future has been uncertain since September of last year, when the company failed to win a Pentagon imagery contract that was to help finance its next-generation imaging satellite. One possibility is a sale of the company, currently owned by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, at auction.

The sale of the civil and commercial solutions business unit leaves Space Imaging with about 190 employees, Brender said.

DRS Wins $21.3 Million Army Tracking Contract

The U.S. Army awarded DRS Technologies Inc. of Parsippany, N.J., a $21.3 million contract to build rugged computers for the service’s Force 21 Battle Command, Brigade and Below (FBCB2) program, according to a Feb. 28 DRS news release.

The FBCB2 system is used by the U.S. military to track the positions of friendly forces on the battlefield. Northrop Grumman Missions Systems, Reston, Va., is the prime contractor for the FBCB2 program.

The computers will be used on the Army’s M1A2 Abrams tanks and M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the news release.

Northrop Grumman Gets $142 Million MDA Contract

Northrop Grumman Information Technology of McLean, Va., won a $142 million follow-on contract from the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) for systems engineering, planning and logistics support for the Airborne Laser program.

The Airborne Laser is a modified Boeing 747 aircraft that would carry a high-energy laser designed to destroy ballistic missiles in their boost phase. Boeing Integrated Defense Systems of St. Louis is the prime contractor on the program; Northrop Grumman Space Technology of Redondo Beach, Calif., is responsible for the laser system.

Northrop Grumman’s support contract will run through 2009, and is focused on the laser hardware. The follow-on contract brings the total value of the company’s systems engineering, planning and logistics work on the Airborne Laser to approximately $200 million.

Satellite Suggests Hiatus For Arctic Ozone Hole

Data from Sweden’s Odin astronomy and atmospheric-observation satellite indicate there will be no hole in the Arctic ozone layer this winter despite worries that the harsh winter has been favorable to ozone destruction, according to the Swedish Space Corp. and a researcher managing Odin’s atmospheric observations.

Low temperatures in the Arctic stratosphere in winter can create chlorine compounds that attack the protective ozone layer when sunlight returns to the region each February. Increasing temperatures, on the other hand, trigger the release of nitrogen compounds whose interaction with the chlorine neutralizes the ozone-destructive effects.

While Arctic winter weather has been cold, Odin measurements recently have found that temperatures are increasing in the stratosphere.

The data were analyzed by Donal Murtagh, professor of global environmental measurement at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, who is manager of Odin atmospheric research.

Murtagh said in a March 2 statement that it remains possible, although unlikely, that stratospheric temperatures will drop in March and create conditions favorable to ozone depletion.

Odin, built by Swedish Space Corp., was launched by a Russian Start-1 rocket in February 2001. Canada, France and Finland contributed hardware to the project.

Odin operates in a 600-kilometer high, sun-synchronous polar orbit. Its backers recently agreed to extend operations to April 2006. Odin originally was designed to operate for two years.

ILS Cleared for Its First GPS Launch Aboard Atlas 5

The U.S. Air Force has given International Launch Services (ILS) the go-ahead to begin preparations to launch a GPS navigation satellite aboard a Lockheed Martin-built Atlas 5 rocket.

The launch of the GPS 2F-series satellite is slated for early 2007 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. The launch was awarded to Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the Atlas 5 rockets marketed by ILS, in 1998 under the first round of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle contracts, ILS of McLean, Va., said in a press release.

This will be the first GPS launch aboard an Atlas 5, ILS spokeswoman Fran Slimmer said. Since 1989, GPS satellites have been launched aboard smaller Delta 2 rockets built by Boeing. There are seven Delta 2 GPS launches remaining through 2006. Boeing is slated to begin launching GPS satellites aboard its Delta 4 rocket in 2007.

Docking Communication System for ATV Launched To International Space Station

A communication system that will enable an unmanned space tug to dock with the international space station was launched Feb. 28 aboard a Progress resupply mission, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced.

The proximity communication equipment will guide the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) from a distance of up to 30 kilometers as it approaches the space station, giving way to laser instruments and a videometer for the last 500 meters. Electrical test of the proximity communications equipment, which consists of redundant S-band communications systems, were completed at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in early February.

The system, developed by EADS Astrium in Toulouse, France, will be installed in the station’s Zvezda module; on-orbit checkout is planned for April. This is the first component of the ATV system that will be placed in orbit, and will pave the way for the first launch of an ATV, possibly in early 2006.

The ATV, designed to deliver supplies and raise the station’s orbit, is being developed by EADS Space. The prototype unit is due to be shipped to the launch site at Kourou, French Guiana in November.

Space Systems/Loral Finishes DirecTV 8 Early

Space Systems/Loral has completed the pre-shipment readiness review for the DirecTV 8 satellite, finishing the satellite two months ahead of schedule, the company announced Feb. 23.

The DirecTV Group of El Segundo, Calif., plans to place DirecTV 8 in orbit before the end of 2005 using a Russian-built Proton rocket provided by International Launch Services of McLean, Va. The satellite will remain at Space Systems/Loral’s Palo Alto, Calif., facility until it is shipped for launch.

The Ku-/Ka-band hybrid satellite will be placed at 101 degrees west longitude and is designed to operate for 15 years. It will carry 32 transponders for direct-to-home satellite services, including high-definition television.

Eating Habits Affect Growth Of Massive Black Holes

The largest black holes in the universe may have reached the upper limits of their potential growth because they consumed too much surrounding matter in the early stages of development, according to data collected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Super massive black holes, ones at least 100 million times the mass of the sun, fed off nearby dust and stars at such a rapid rate they had little else to consume as they grew older, effectively limiting their size, NASA said. Black holes that showed more restraint, ones that are only about 10 to 100 times the mass of the sun, can still grow because there is still a reservoir of dust and stars to feed them, NASA said.

“Our data show some super massive black holes seem to binge, while others prefer to graze,” Amy Barger, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the University of Hawaii, said in a statement. “We understand better than ever how super massive black holes grow.”

The study used the Chandra Deep Fields North and South, the deepest survey of the universe ever made in the X-ray spectrum, as well as a wider-area survey of an area of space called the Lockman Hole. The X-ray survey was needed to study smaller black holes because they are obscured by the large amounts of gas and dust surrounding them and could not be detected by visible light telescopes. The largest black holes, however, are not obscured, because powerful winds generated by their initial feeding frenzy may have cleared out the remaining dust and gas, NASA said.

NASA, ESA Satellites See Cosmic Explosion

Orbiting and ground-based telescopes detected one of the brightest explosions ever imaged when they captured the flash of a neutron star Dec. 27.

The explosion, which lasted one-tenth of a second, was so bright that it bounced off the Moon and lit the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The apparent magnitude of the explosion, measured in the gamma-ray energy range, was brighter than a full moon and all previously recorded star explosions.

Among the observatories that tracked the event were NASA’s Swift satellite and High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager, the National Science Foundation-funded Very Large Array, and radio telescopes in Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, India and the United States.

The flash was created by neutron star SGR 1806-20, a magnetar about 50,000 light years from Earth. Magnetars are about 15 miles in diameter. Only about 12 magnetars have been detected. The flare released by SGR 1806-20 released more energy than the sun emits in 150,000 years, NASA said.

“This might be a once-in-a-lifetime event for astronomers, as well as for the neutron star,” David Palmer of Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M. “We know of only two other giant flares in the past 35 years, and the December event was 100 times more powerful.”

Had SGR 1806-20 been within 10 light years of Earth, the flare would have damaged Earth’s atmosphere, NASA said.

Cassini Radar Discovers Massive Crater on Titan

The radar instrument aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured new details of a massive impact crater on Saturn’s moon Titan that had initially been spotted during a previous flyby.

The Feb. 16 pass within 1,577 kilometers of Titan was Cassini’s third pass by the giant moon, but the first time that the radar and imaging camera were able to study the same areas. The overlap in coverage should be able to provide more information about the 440-kilometer-wide crater and other surface features than either instrument can by itself, NASA said.

One of the radar images revealed features dubbed “cat scratches” within the crater. The parallel lines may be formed by winds, like sand dunes, or by other geological processes, NASA said.

NASA Institute Will Award Four Student Fellowships

NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts will award up to four fellowships in May to students who can provide ideas for advancing the agency’s vision for space exploration.

NASA announced Feb. 23 that the Student Fellows Prize program will award $9,000 fellowships to college students who can develop advanced concepts in aeronautics, space and science that are based on sound scientific principles.

The Institute for Advanced Concepts “encourages potential student fellows to focus their thoughts and stretch their imagination decades into the future,” Diana Jennings, the institute associate director, said in a statement. “It encourages an aggressive pursuit of concepts that will leap-frog the evolution of today’s systems and that can be the framework for future NASA missions and programs.”

Students submitting proposals are required to team with an experienced mentor in an aerospace-related field. The deadline for submissions is April 15.

MSV Wins Patent for Repeater Technology

Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV) of Reston, Va., has been awarded a fourth patent for techniques used for frequency sharing in communication between satellites and their ground segment, the company announced Feb. 23.

The patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office covers MSV’s hybrid satellite- ancillary terrestrial component (ATC) architectures.

MSV uses its two satellites and ground network to prove wireless data, voice, fax and dispatch radio services to customers from North America down to northern South America and adjoining coastal waters, including Hawaii.

The patent award came less than two weeks after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission gave final approval to a policy that will allow MSV to install high-powered ground repeaters to augment their coverage in urban areas and other places without clear satellite reception. MSV is planning a second-generation system for providing voice and high-speed data communications that will use the repeaters.

Lockheed Martin Wins $25.8 Million ICBM Deal

The U.S. Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a contract to upgrade the warhead deployment system for the Minuteman 2 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile fleet, the Air Force announced Feb. 25.

Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space Co., King of Prussia, Pa., will replace the MK21 Re-entry vehicle currently used in the Minuteman 2 with the MK21 vehicle used by the Peacekeeper missile. Work under the $25.8 million Safety Enhanced Re-entry Vehicle Support Equipment program is scheduled to be completed by August 2007.