An ESA artist's concept of a Rockot launcher carrying the Sentinel-5P Earth-observation satellite to orbit. Credit: ESA

A Russian rocket launched a European Earth sciences satellite early this morning.

The Rockot lifted off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia at 5:27 a.m. Eastern carrying the Sentinel-5P satellite.

The spacecraft is designed to demonstrate the ability to monitor air quality for use on later Sentinel-5 satellites. The satellite is the latest in the overall Copernicus program of Earth-observation spacecraft by the European Space Agency and the European Union. [BBC]

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Russia has rescheduled a Progress cargo spacecraft launch for Saturday. The launch was originally planned for Thursday, but scrubbed in the final moments before liftoff because of an unspecified problem that engineers are continuing to investigate. A launch early Saturday will allow the Progress to arrive at the International Space Station on Monday, instead of the three-hour trip planned if it had launched as scheduled Thursday. [Interfax]

Weather forecasts are mixed for this weekend’s rescheduled Atlas launch. Forecasts issued Thursday predicted a 40 percent chance for acceptable weather for a launch Saturday at 3:31 a.m. Eastern, improving to 60 percent on Sunday. The launch, on a National Reconnaissance Office mission designated NROL-52, was scrubbed twice last week by weather and delayed a third time because of a technical problem with the rocket. [Florida Today]

International Launch Services hopes to compete directly with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 using the new Proton Medium rocket. The company expects the Proton Medium, which lacks the third stage of the existing Proton and can place 5 to 5.7 metric tons into geostationary transfer orbit, to be price-competitive with the Falcon 9. ILS hopes that Proton Medium can serve the “sweet spot” of the commercial launch market, and help it win business. ILS has only one commercial Proton launch on its manifest for 2018. [SpaceNews]

That largest commercial satellite to rely exclusively on electric propulsion has made it to its final orbit in record time. Eutelsat-172b, built by Airbus Defence and Space for Eutelsat, arrived at its location in geostationary orbit this week, only about four months after its launch on an Ariane 5. The satellite weighed three and a half tons at launch, and used electric propulsion exclusively to go from its transfer orbit to geostationary orbit. Airbus says that if the spacecraft used conventional chemical propulsion it could have arrived in geostationary orbit in a week, but would have weighed nearly two tons more. [SpaceNews]

The president of Virgin Galactic says the company expects to begin powered flight tests of SpaceShipTwo by the end of this year. Speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in New Mexico Thursday, Mike Moses said that “we hope to be in space by the end of this year” with powered test flights of the vehicle. The second SpaceShipTwo has been performing a series of glide flights leading up to the start of powered flights. Company founder Richard Branson recently said the company was “hopefully about three months” from reaching space, and “maybe six months” before Branson himself could fly. [Las Cruces (N.M.) Sun-News]

One company thinks it has the solution to launching smallsats: a railgun. General Atomics, the company best known for building the Predator drone, is getting into the smallsat market through its acquisition of Huntsville-based Miltec last February. General Atomics is working on cubesats but hopes to scale up to larger smallsats, principally for defense customers. General Atomics is also looking at electromagnetic railgun technologies for launching smallsats, which could be far less expensive than rockets, but the company acknowledges there are many hurdles to developing such a system. [SpaceNews]

A new report predicts SpaceX could become a $50 billion company. The report by a team of Morgan Stanley analysts said that the growth in the company’s value would come through the development of a satellite broadband system that could generate far more cash than its launch business. A recent funding round valued SpaceX at $21 billion. SpaceX has no plans for an initial public offering of stock, but the Morgan Stanley report concluded it is “reasonable” to consider the company doing so in the future to raise money for future projects. [CNBC]

A small asteroid made a close flyby of Earth Thursday, providing a test for telescopes designed to track such objects. Asteroid 2012 TC4 passed 42,000 kilometers from the Earth early Thursday. The asteroid, estimated to be 10 to 15 meters across, posed no impact threat to the Earth. The flyby, though, offered a test of various telescope systems used for tracking near Earth asteroids. []

The Apollo 11 command module is going on display in Houston. The module will be the centerpiece of the “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission” traveling exhibition, which opens at Space Center Houston Saturday and runs through March 2018. The capsule will later go on display in three other cities before returning to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington where a new gallery devoted to lunar exploration is scheduled to open in 2021. [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...