Falcon 9 Iridium-1 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off Jan. 14 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, carrying ten Iridium Next satellites. Credit: U.S. Air Force

SpaceX has shuffled the schedule of upcoming Falcon 9 launches from Launch Complex 39A in Florida.

The company said Sunday that the first launch from that pad, formerly used by the space shuttle, will now be a Dragon cargo mission to the space station set to fly in mid-February.

The company had previously planned to first launch the EchoStar 23 satellite from the pad in early February, but delays in completing modifications to the site, and NASA’s desire to launch the Dragon mission in February, led SpaceX to swap the order of the missions. [CBS]

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A Soyuz rocket successfully launched the first SmallGEO satellite Friday night. The Soyuz lifted off from French Guiana at 8:03 p.m. Eastern and placed the Hispasat 36W-1 spacecraft into orbit. The spacecraft is the first in a new line of smaller, geostationary-orbit communications satellites developed by German manufacturer OHB-System. The launch was the first Soyuz GEO mission launched from French Guiana, and the first Soyuz flight since the failed Dec. 1 launch of a Progress cargo spacecraft. [SpaceNews]

Russia’s Proton rocket has been grounded until the middle of May to replace suspect engines on several vehicles. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Saturday that second- and third-stage engines on three Proton rockets will be replaced, with a return to flight planned for three and a half months. Rogozin made the comments after a meeting at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, which makes upper-stage engines for both the Proton and Soyuz. The head of the plant resigned earlier this month. [SpaceNews]

A bill introduced in Congress last week would require NASA to develop a strategic plan for human space exploration. The Mapping a New and Innovative Focus on our Exploration Strategy (MANIFEST) for Human Spaceflight Act, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), specifies NASA develop an interim report analyzing various aspects of its human spaceflight plans within 90 days of enactment, with a final report, reviewed by the National Academies, delivered within a year. The bill also explicitly makes human missions to Mars a goal of NASA’s human space exploration efforts. [SpaceNews]

An advanced upper stage for NASA’s Space Launch System has passed an initial review. The agency said Friday that the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) passed its preliminary design review, allowing NASA to proceed with initial development of some components of the upper stage. The EUS, powered by four RL10 engines, will increase the payload capacity of the SLS to 105 metric tons. NASA plans to use the EUS on the first crewed SLS mission in the early 2020s, replacing an interim upper stage that will fly on the first SLS mission next year. [NASA]

More technical problems could lead to further delays in NASA’s commercial crew program. Unnamed sources claimed that both Boeing and SpaceX are unlikely to meet current schedules, which call for crewed test flights of their vehicles by the middle of 2018, as they grapple with spacecraft and launch vehicle issues. Delays until 2019 could require NASA to purchase additional Soyuz seats, likely through an offer Boeing made to NASA recently. [Ars Technica]

A Japanese cargo spacecraft departed from the ISS Friday, but its mission is not yet over. The HTV-6 cargo spacecraft, launched to the station in December, was unberthed from the station Friday and started moving to a lower orbit. Prior to a planned destructive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere Feb. 6, the HTV will deploy an electric wire 700 meters long as a test of a technology that could be used to help remove orbital debris. [Kyodo]

British plans to establish commercial spaceports have been delayed by Brexit. The British government planned to introduce legislation that would establish regulations for such spaceports, but has been delayed because the Parliament has been busy dealing with issues associated with plans to exit the European Union. Spaceport proponents believe the legislation will still be introduced in time to allow spaceports to be licensed and begin operations by 2020. [BBC]

A multimillion-dollar donation will help grow the University of Colorado’s aerospace program. The $15 million gift, announced last week, will support a graduate student scholars program in the university’s aerospace engineering department and endow a chair for space technology. Bobby Braun, the new dean of the university’s College of Engineering and Applied Science and a former NASA chief technologist, described the gift as “transformational” for the department as it seeks to enhance its links to the state’s large aerospace industry. [SpaceNews]

China’s Mars mission could be chasing dreams or posing questions for heaven. China has released the eight finalist names for its 2020 Mars mission, based on more than 35,900 proposals submitted from the public. The names include “Tianwen” (questions for heaven), “Zhuimeng” (chasing dreams) and “Fengxiang” (flying phoenix). The winning name will be announced in April. [Xinhua]

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...