Stratolaunch’s Plans Up in the Air
The president of Vulcan Aerospace, Chuck Beames, said the project is being reassessed based on shifts in the market towards smaller satellites, which don’t require a large rocket and large aircraft that the company is building in California.
Vulcan closed out an earlier contract with Orbital ATK to develop the rocket, and this summer said it planned to make a decision on a new rocket, or rockets, this fall.
In September, Gary Wentz stepped down as president and CEO of Stratolaunch Systems to join United Launch Alliance to lead human launch services for the Denver-based company.
In a Nov. 18 statement, Vulcan Aerospace said it has not given up on low-cost, responsive launch:
Vulcan Aerospace remains steadfast in its mission to transform space transportation to low-Earth orbit by dramatically changing the current model of space launch. It is unfortunate that the recent, inaccurate, report by the Wall Street Journal implies, via unnamed sources, that this mission has wavered and is based on nothing more than rumors and speculation, not facts.
Today, space launch continues to be hampered by long delays and high costs, especially for the burgeoning class of space entrepreneurs. To best serve the variety of space operators with more convenient and less expensive options, we envision affording the satellite operator multiple launch vehicle options with varying payload capabilities. An effort of this scope and ambition is a massive undertaking and takes time to develop. We are unwavering in our commitment to its success and expect to achieve additional milestones in 2016, as we continue to advance against our original timeline of being fully in service by the end of the decade.
[Wall Street Journal/SpaceNews]
Russia is making significant use of military satellites to support its operations in Syria. Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov said Tuesday that 10 imagery and “electronic warfare” reconnaissance satellites are being used to collect data to support Russian operations there. Spacecraft controllers have adjusted the orbits of those satellites in some cases to improve their coverage of Syria. [TASS]
A key member of Congress has reiterated his support for adding a lander to NASA’s planned Europa mission. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, visited JPL earlier this month to get an update on concepts being studied there for including a lander to the mission. The 230-kilogram lander would carry instruments to look for biosignatures in the moon’s ice. “I told them to do whatever it takes,” Culberson said after his meeting, adding that he was “very optimistic” the $140 million he provided in the House version of a spending bill for the mission would make it into the final bill. [Ars Technica]
The European Space Agency has signed a contract with Airbus to support development of a next-generation communications satellite. The contract, valued at $117 million, covers development of the Eurostar Neo platform, designed to incorporate all-electric propulsion, advanced thermal control and platform modularity and flexibility. ESA and the French space agency CNES are funding this project, and a similar one with Thales Alenia Space, to keep the two major European satellite manufacturers competitive on the global market. [SpaceNews]
A key White House space policy official is taking a new position. Chirag Parikh, director of space policy at the White House National Security Council, said Monday he will soon be leaving the White House to lead the Source Strategy Office at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. That office directs the use of data from various sources to meet the agency’s needs. Parikh is credited with helping win support for a new space protection initiative valued at $5.5 billion over five years. [SpaceNews]
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Yahsat and Hughes Network Systems will join forces to provide satellite broadband services to Africa. Hughes will provide ground equipment to work with Yahsat’s Al Yah 3 Ka-band satellite under development. That satellite, scheduled for launch in late 2016, will provide broadband service to 18 African nations, and is one of several efforts to provide satellite Internet access in Africa. [SpaceNews]
NASA has received a clean financial audit for the fifth consecutive year. The agency said Tuesday it received an “unmodified audit opinion,” the highest audit opinion, from its external auditor for fiscal year 2015.That auditor, CliftonLarsonAllen LLP, did identify issues with accounting and reporting of asbestos cleanup costs, and with agency information technology configuration management. [NASA]
Planet Labs deals with launch failures by making it up in volume of satellites. The company is planning to launch up to 250 satellites in 2016, far more than what it needs for an operational system. The extra satellites, company executives said, give them flexibility to deal with launch failures. Planet Labs has already lost 34 satellites in two launch failures, but is willing to deal with lower launch success rates if vehicles offered lower prices and fewer delays. [SpaceNews]
The upcoming Cygnus launch will have a 30-minute launch window thanks to the performance of the Atlas 5. Most space station launches have very short, or even instantaneous, launch windows, but the Atlas 5 has “so much available energy,” in the words of one Orbital ATK executive, that it opens up a much larger window. The mission, scheduled for launch Dec. 3, will target the opening of the window at 5:55 p.m. Eastern, with five other opportunities, spaced 7.5 minutes apart, through the rest of the window. [Spaceflight Now]
An Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of another star likely is not habitable after all, astronomers report. Studies of the red dwarf star that Kepler-438b orbits show it is prone to “superflares” 10 times more powerful than any flares generated by our sun, as well as solar storms known as coronal mass ejections. That activity would likely strip away any atmosphere the planet might have, making it uninhabitable. [Discovery.com]
Virtual Reality, Real Exercise
“If you’re an astronaut, and you’re heading off to Mars, wouldn’t it be great to jog around your neighborhood or cycle with virtual images of people you know?”
– Michael Doyle, who is developing with his nine-year-old daughter an application for Microsoft’s HoloLens virtual reality device that will fly to the space station on an upcoming cargo mission. The program would help keep astronauts entertained while working out on the station. [NBCNews.com]