The company installed the stage on the pad at Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, the same pad where it lifted off from last month prior to its historic landing.
SpaceX previously said it planned to install the stage on the refurbished pad at Launch Complex 39A for tests there, and gave no explanation for the change. [Florida Today]
The U.S. Air Force awarded contracts Wednesday to Orbital ATK and SpaceX to develop rocket propulsion technologies. Orbital ATK will receive at least $46.9 million, and up to $180 million, for work on new strap-on solid booster motors, a Common Booster Segment solid rocket motor, and an extendable nozzle for Blue Origin’s BE-3U upper stage engine. SpaceX will receive at least $33.6 million, and up to $61 million, for work on its Raptor methane-fuel engine. The Defense Department contract announcement said the Orbital ATK awards are for technologies “intended for use on an Orbital ATK next generation launch vehicle,” but neither the Air Force nor the company offered more details. The Air Force said in a statement that it may award additional contracts over the next few months. [SpaceNews]
An independent safety panel warned Wednesday of an “accretion of risk” in NASA’s human spaceflight programs. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, in its annual report, said that a flat funding profile and schedule pressures risked “an apparent erosion of safety” in work on the Space Launch System and Orion. The panel specifically cited NASA efforts to keep the first crewed SLS/Orion mission on schedule for 2021 even after a review concluded it would likely slip to as late as 2023. The panel noted improvements in the management of NASA’s commercial crew program, but argued it was likely test flights scheduled for 2017 would be delayed. [SpaceNews]
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The first GPS 3 satellite has passed a key development test. A Lockheed Martin executive tweeted a photo Wednesday of the spacecraft undergoing a thermal vacuum test, saying that the spacecraft had passed that test. A company spokesman said the test was “the most comprehensive and perceptive test performed at the spacecraft level” yet for the next-generation GPS spacecraft. Lockheed Martin has a contract to build the first ten GPS 3 satellites, with the first expected to launch as soon as next year. [SpaceNews]
Russia plans to develop its own methane-fuel rocket engine. The ten-year plan for the state corporation Roscosmos includes funding to develop such an engine, although it has not identified a launch vehicle that will use it. In the U.S., both Blue Origin and SpaceX are developing engines that use methane fuel in place of kerosene or liquid hydrogen. Russian sources said the engine project is part of an effort that could potentially lead to development of a reusable launch vehicle. [Sputnik International]
Mars Monkey Protest
British animal rights activists held a protest Wednesday opposing a Russian mission to send monkeys to Mars — a mission that might not actually exist. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) UK staged the protest outside the Russian Embassy in London, opposing what they claimed was a Russian plan to send four macaque monkeys to Mars in 2017. Most of the protesters were bundled up for the cold weather, but one protestor, actress Samantha Bentley, was “bodypainted as a monkey and wearing a space helmet,” according to a PETA statement. “PETA is calling on the Russian Federal Space Agency to put a stop to this ill-advised suicide mission and be a true pioneer in modern-day space exploration,” said the organization’s science policy adviser, Dr. Julia Baines. Roscosmos, whose Mars exploration efforts in the near term are focused on cooperation with Europe on the 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, has not confirmed plans for such a mission. Moreover, no feasible launch window to Mars is available in 2017. [PETA UK]
A Georgia legislator has introduced a bill to support development of a spaceport in the state. The Georgia Space Flight Act, introduced by Rep. Jason Spencer, would indemnify launch providers from most lawsuits in the event of an accident, similar to laws in several other states. It would also prevent local governments from enacting noise ordinances that would prohibit launches. Local officials in Camden County, on the state’s Atlantic coast, are seeking to develop a spaceport there, although no company has publicly committed to launching from that facility if built. [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]
Space debris that burned up over Sri Lanka in November was likely from a NASA moon mission. Researchers said the object, designated WT1190F, was probably part of the rocket motor that sent NASA’s Lunar Prospector spacecraft to the moon in 1998. Spectra of the fireball created by the object as it reentered showed traces of titanium oxide and hydrogen, which would be consistent with it being from the Lunar Prospector mission. [Nature]
NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno mission has set a record for solar-powered spacecraft. Juno is now the most distant spacecraft from the sun to use solar power, operating at a distance of 793 million kilometers. Juno beat the record set by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, which flew out as far as 792 million kilometers from the sun en route to its cometary destination. Spacecraft traveling to Juno and beyond have traditionally used nuclear power, but advances in solar cell technology, coupled with careful design of the mission, allowed Juno to use solar panels instead. Juno enters orbit around Jupiter in July. [NASA/JPL]
President Obama mentioned space, and The Martian, during a speech Wednesday. Obama, speaking in Omaha, revisited a theme from his State of the Union address where he invoked the response to Sputnik as an example of American innovation. “I think my favorite movie last year was The Martian. I like space, but there was one line that Matt Damon delivered where he said, ‘I’m just going to science the heck out of this,’” Obama said, adding that Damon’s character in the movie, an astronaut stranded on Mars, used a stronger word that “heck” in the film. “But that’s the American spirit, right? Let’s solve the problem.” [C-SPAN]
A couple who won millions in a British lottery plan to spend some of their windfall on a spaceflight. David and Carol Martin won £33 million ($47.5 million) in a National Lottery drawing Saturday. David Martin said he plans to buy a Virgin Galactic ticket, currently priced at $250,000, to fulfill a long-running interest in space. “Look at Tim Peake up there. I would love to do something like that,” he said, referring to the British astronaut currently on the International Space Station. “Now I have the opportunity. It’s the Final Frontier.” [The Mirror]