Kelly Latimer. Credit: Virgin Galactic
Kelly Latimer. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic has hired the company’s first female test pilot.

Kelly Latimer, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, also worked for Boeing and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center prior to joining Virgin Galactic.

Latimer joins a group of pilots training to fly Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle for what company officials say is a “busy and exciting year ahead.”

The company is working on a second SpaceShipTwo after the loss of the first in a crash just over a year ago, but has not announced a formal schedule for resuming test flights. []

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An Ariane 5 is scheduled to launch two communications satellites today. Liftoff of the Ariane 5 from Kourou, French Guiana, is scheduled for 4:34 p.m. Eastern time, at the beginning of a 43-minute launch window. The Ariane 5 is carrying the Arabsat-6B satellite for Arabsat and GSAT-15 for the Indian space agency ISRO. [Arianespace]

A company planning a constellation of synthetic aperture radar satellites has received a license from NOAA. XpressSAR said NOAA awarded the company a commercial remote sensing license for its planned system of four satellites that will collect radar images at resolutions of 30 meters to less than 1 meter. The company has not announced who will build and launch the satellites, which XpressSAR says will be deployed in 2022. [SpaceNews]

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Scientists showed off the latest results from the New Horizons mission Monday, despite some initial confusion in how they could be shared with the public. Members of the New Horizons team discussed their study of Pluto and its moons at a planetary science conference outside Washington, highlighting in particular the discovery of two mountains on Pluto that they believe could be ice volcanoes. The results are based on the 20 percent of the data the spacecraft collected during its July flyby that has been transmitted back to Earth so far. The initial conference sessions about Pluto were placed under an embargo that prevented attendees from sharing the information with the public until a press conference later in the day, a decision NASA officials later said was a miscommunication. [SpaceNews]

EchoStar’s satellite broadband service is making more money per subscriber despite suffering greater churn. The company said its HughesNet business is generating more revenue per subscriber as customers opt for higher-speed plans, but is losing nearly as many subscribers as it is signing up due to multiple, unspecified issues. Besides its HughesNet service in the U.S., EchoStar is investing in satellite broadband projects in Europe and Brazil, and the company is open to other approaches, including the use of balloons and high-altitude aircraft, to provide broadband services. [SpaceNews]


The director of the Arecibo radio observatory quit after a dispute about funding of the observatory. Richard Kerr said he resigned his post as operations director after SRI International, the contractor that runs the observatory, stripped him of his position as principal investigator. The observatory’s future has been in question as the National Science Foundation, which covers two-thirds of Arecibo’s annual budget of $12 million, seeks to divest some of its astronomical facilities to save money. Kerr said that NSF had threatened to cut funding for Arecibo if the observatory took money from a private venture, Breakthrough Initiatives, interested in using Arecibo for SETI searches, a claim NSF officials deny. [Nature]

Harris Corp.’s space division won $184 million in classified orders in its latest fiscal quarter. Much of that money will go to the company’s work in space situational awareness, although company officials declined to provide additional details given the classified nature of the work. Harris hopes to take advantage of White House plans to spend up to $8 billion on various space protection activities over the next five years. [SpaceNews]

A “twice-baked” model of the moon’s formation could explain its lack of volatile elements. The new model suggests that, after the collision of a large body with the proto-Earth, the moon started to form at the edge of the disk of material surrounding the Earth. Material that later accreted onto the moon from inner portions of the disk was too hot to include volatile elements, explaining the lack of those elements found in rocks on the lunar surface. Scientists said this new model is the most comprehensive yet to explain the moon’s formation. [BBC]

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...