A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket takes off July 28 from Launch Complex 41 at KSC Credit: screen capture of ULA launch coverage

An Atlas 5 scheduled to launch later today may place ship-tracking satellites into orbit.

The Atlas 5 401 is scheduled to launch at 12:50 p.m. Eastern today from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with good weather forecast for the launch.

The mission carries a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, who has not provided details about it but which may be an “Intruder” mission of two satellites designed to track ships at sea. [AmericaSpace]

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A conditional agreement to merge Intelsat with OneWeb depends on winning support from Intelsat’s bondholders. The agreement, announced Tuesday, includes SoftBank investing $1.7 billion into Intelsat, but that depends on convincing enough of Intelsat’s bondholders to agree to a debt swap that reduces Intelsat’s current $15 billion debt by at least $3.6 billion. SoftBank has the right to terminate the agreement in 90 days if Intelsat can’t reach that debt swap goal. Should the deal go through, Intelsat expects the merger to close in the third quarter of 2017. In a conference call, company executives emphasized that Intelsat’s GEO satellites would complement the broadband LEO constellation OneWeb is developing. [SpaceNews]

President Trump made a passing reference to space in his speech before a joint session of Congress Tuesday night. Trump said that “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream” by 2026, the 250th anniversary of American independence, but did not elaborate. Many in the space community anticipated a more concrete statement about the administration’s space goals, based on reports circulating earlier in the day. Trump’s comment comes as the administration is preparing a fiscal year 2018 budget request that will cut overall non-defense discretionary spending, which includes NASA, by about 10 percent. [SpaceNews]

The nominee to be the Director of National Intelligence said he was surprised by India’s launch last month of more than 100 satellites. In a confirmation hearing Tuesday, Dan Coats said he was “shocked” to hear that India placed 104 satellites into orbit on a mid-February launch. All but three of the satellites were cubesats, including 96 from two American companies, Planet and Spire. Coats said that the U.S. cannot be seen as lagging behind other countries when it comes to rapidly developing and deploying satellites. [India TV]

NASA will use a nuclear power plant in Ontario to help produce plutonium-238. According to a Canadian news report, NASA is working with Ontario Power Generation and its venture arm, Canadian Nuclear Partners, to use a nuclear reactor east of Toronto to help produce the isotope, used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators for spacecraft missions where solar power is not feasible. Reactor rods produced by Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in the U.S. would be shipped to the reactor to produce the isotope. Production of Pu-238 has long been an issue hindering NASA plans for missions to the outer solar system or other destinations where solar power can’t be used. [CTV]

A Siberian factory is gearing up to start production of Angara rockets. Polyot will build Angara vehicles at its factory in the Omsk Region starting later this year. The first launch of the long-delayed Angara rocket took place in 2014, but the vehicle has been slow to enter wider use as Russia continues to rely on existing vehicles. [TASS]

United Launch Alliance will receive an incentive payment for keeping jobs at a Texas plant. The company will get a $150,000 payment from the Harlingen Economic Development Corp. for meeting employment goals at a plant in the South Texas city. The company had to meet a “status quo” goal of 120 jobs there, and had 148 positions as of the end of 2016. That satisfied a requirement from a 2015 agreement for the incentive payment. ULA could be eligible for additional payments for creating high-paying jobs that meet specific criteria set by the economic development board. [Brownsville (Texas) Herald]

LEGO will create a set devoted to the women of NASA. The company said Tuesday it had picked a fan-created “Women of NASA” set that will go into production in late 2017 or early 2018 at a price to be determined. The set features minifigures representing a number of historical women at NASA, including Sally Ride and Katherine Johnson, as well as accessories. It is the latest space-themed set that LEGO has selected for production from its crowd-sourced “LEGO Ideas” program, after having produced sets for the Japanese Hayabusa asteroid mission and Mars Curiosity rover. [collectSPACE]

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...