by Jennifer Hurst
June 18, 2018

SpaceX launches SES-12 on “hybrid” Falcon 9

SpaceX launched the all-electric SES-12 telecom satellite June 4 on a Falcon 9 rocket that combined two generations of the rocket.

Featuring a pre-flown Block 4 first stage and the new Block 5 upper stage, the Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base at 12:45 a.m. Eastern.

The 5.4 metric-ton SES-12 satellite separated from the rocket’s upper stage 32 minutes later.

Described by manufacturer Airbus Defence and Space as “the largest and most powerful all-electric satellite ever produced,” SES-12 carries six wide-beam and 72 high-throughput spot-beam transponders for television and connectivity services across the Asia Pacific and the Middle East. — Space News


Here’s everything Elon Musk told reporters about the reusable rocket that will fly twice within 24 hours

SpaceX founder Elon Musk took questions before the company launches the new version of its Falcon 9 rocket known as Block 5.

Musk dove into a plethora of new information and technical data, detailing the goals and upgrades for the workhorse orbital-class rocket, which has become the company’s backbone.

“The key to Block 5 is that it’s designed to do 10 or more flights with no refurbishment between each flight — or at least not scheduled refurbishment between each flight. The only thing that needs to change is you reload propellant and fly again.”

“We believe that the Block 5 boosters are capable of on the order of at least 100 flights before being retired. Maybe more.”

“Our goal, just to give you a sense of how reusable we think the design can be, we intend to demonstrate two orbital launches of the same Block 5 vehicle within 24 hours, no later than next year.”

“Toward the end of next year we’ll see the first Block 5 seeing [its] 10th flight. And like I said, next year is when we intend to demonstrate re-flight of the same primary rocket booster within — basically, same day re-flight of the same rocket. I think that’s really a key milestone.” — CNBC

Getty Images | Diego Donamaria



Virgin Galactic Gets Closer to Offering Space Tours

It’s been nearly four years since Virgin Galactic — on the cusp of creating a space tourism business — suffered a fatal setback. An experimental SpaceShipTwo (SS2) air-launched passenger rocket crashed just two minutes after detaching from its WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) mother ship, costing the life of one of the SS2’s two pilots.

That crash also arguably cost Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), which had built SS2 for Virgin Galactic, its relationship with the space tourism company.

Within less than two years, however, Virgin Galactic was up and running again. It revealed a new, improved passenger rocket dubbed Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity), built by The Spaceship Company, another Virgin company. Virgin Galactic promised to take a methodical, step-by-step approach in returning to space, featuring “lots and lots of testing” before resuming any powered flights.

Two more years later, that testing has borne fruit — and Virgin Galactic is airborne again.

“We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic sending people into space and Virgin Orbit placing satellites around the Earth,” Branson said in an interview with CNBC. And as further evidence that the company believes it’s finally got the kinks worked out of Unity, Virgin Galactic says it is building two other spaceships of the same model, to better accommodate the more than 700 passengers who have already put down deposits on their tickets.

But first, Branson still wants to conduct “two or three” more test flights, with rocket burns as long as 63 seconds to ultimately boost Unity to a suborbital altitude of 264,000 feet. That should suffice to get Unity 50 miles above Earth’s surface, or within spitting distance of the generally accepted definition of where “space” begins — 62 miles up. — The Motley Fool



SpaceX’s Ultimate Ace in the Hole is its Starlink Satellite Internet Business

In a 2018 report on the current state of the satellite industry, the rationale behind SpaceX’s decision to expand its business into the construction and operation of a large satellite network – known as Starlink – was brought into sharp contrast, demonstrating just how tiny the market for orbital launches is compared with the markets those same launches create.

If a sought-after good is somehow sold for less, one would expect that more people would be able and willing to buy it. The launch market is similar, but also very different in the sense that simply reaching orbit has almost no inherent value on its own – what makes it valuable are the payloads. For there to be more demand for cheaper launches, the cost of the satellites that predominately fuel the launch market also needs to decrease.

Enter Starlink, SpaceX’s internal effort to develop – nearly from scratch – its own highly reliable, cheap, and mass-producible satellite bus, as well as the vast majority of all the hardware and software required to build and operate a vast, orbiting broadband network. Add in comparable companies like OneWeb and an exploding landscape of companies focused on creating a new generation of miniaturized satellites, and the stage has truly begun to be set for a future where the cost of orbital payloads themselves wind up dropping just as dramatically as the cost of launching them. — Teslatrati


Asteroid Rush Sending 21st-Century Prospectors Into Space 

In an industrial park in San Jose, California, Grant Bonin is holding what looks like the end of a metal water bottle. It is the casing, he jokes, of his company’s “flying steam kettle”: a propulsion system for small spacecraft that uses super-hot water vapor, heated to 1,000C (1,832F), to produce thrust. The company has sold about 40 to date. “It comes right out of the hole,” explains Bonin, who is the chief technology officer of Deep Space Industries (DSI).

It is literally rocket science, but the ultimate aim of Bonin’s startup is even more audacious: mining asteroids. No private company has even got close to one. One of the main reasons asteroids will be mined in the future, so the thinking goes, is for the water locked in their clay deposits – and one of the chief uses of that water is likely to be as propellant for spacecraft.

Probes and other spacecraft will be able to refuel in space either directly with water, or the hydrogen and oxygen that can be created from it, enabling them to zip around merrily anywhere they want with no end to their useful life. But before the idea of a solar system dotted with gas stations is realized, what is needed are more spacecraft that can actually run on water, which is where selling flying steam kettles comes in. — Guardian

Photograph: Jaxa


NASA continues Mars sample return mission studies

NASA doesn’t expect to make decisions on how it will carry out a Mars sample return effort until late next year despite recent discoveries that have offered additional evidence that the planet was once, and may still be, habitable.

In results published in the journal Science last week, scientists working on data from the Curiosity Mars rover announced the discovery of organic molecules in ancient Martian rocks, as well as seasonal variations of methane concentrations in the Martian atmosphere.

“Certainly, Mars sample return is something that we are committed to as an agency,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a June 6 briefing with reporters. “That’s a civilization-level changing capability, and we want to do it.” — Space News

NASA is continuing to study concepts for Mars sample return, including roles by international and commercial partners, with no firm decisions expected until late next year. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


SpaceX’s President Is Thinking Even Bigger Than Elon Musk

GWYNNE SHOTWELL HAS a difficult job. Her boss, Elon Musk, is known for wild, impossible ambitions on wild, impossible timelines. There’s even a term for his rosy view of what’s achievable and when: “Elon time.” As president and COO of Musk’s space exploration company, SpaceX, Shotwell must convey Musk’s crazy expectations to a workforce of thousands, without discouraging them with impossible-to-achieve goals.

In the process of striking that balance, Shotwell has learned to mimic some of Musk’s audacious thinking, she said on stage Wednesday at the TED conference in Vancouver. Shotwell believes SpaceX’s stated goal of taking humans to Mars is just the first step in moving to other solar systems and galaxies. “Mars is fine, but it’s a fixer-upper planet,” she said, echoing a line that Musk has used.

Shotwell projected that SpaceX’s rockets will begin taking people to Mars in the next decade. The mission has been framed as a way to sustain human life in case the Earth is destroyed. “It’s risk reduction for the human species,” she said. Of course, SpaceX also has a well-earned reputation for missing many of Musk’s timing projections. — Wired

Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX.PATRICK T. FALLON/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES


Spacewalking Astronauts Prep Space Station for SpaceX, Boeing Spaceships

Two NASA astronauts took a spacewalk today (June 14) to continue preparations for the arrival of the first commercial crew vehicles that will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year.

Expedition 56 Cmdr. Drew Feustel and flight engineer Ricky Arnold departed the ISS through the Quest airlock after switching their spacesuits over to battery power at 8:06 a.m. EDT (1206 GMT). They spent 6 hours and 49 minutes working in the vacuum of space.

Some technical difficulties put them off to a rough start, but the two spacewalkers aced all of their assigned tasks for the day and even had some time left over for a few get-ahead tasks. They spent some time wrestling with a jammed panel to a micrometeoroid shield, which was stuck open and needed to be closed. —

NASA astronaut Drew Feustel works outside the Japanese Kibo module during a spacewalk on June 14, 2018.
Credit: NASA


Bridenstine: Commercial Space is Key to NASA

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that commercial space policy changes are important to NASA. Speaking earlier this week, Bridenstine said that provisions in Space Policy Directive 2, signed in May, that streamline launch licensing processes are vital to NASA as a customer of launch services. He also said developing an oversight regime for “non-traditional” commercial space activities, like lunar landers, is critical, but declined to say whether that responsibility should be with the Commerce Department or Transportation Department. Bridenstine said that space traffic management, the likely subject of the next space policy directive, will need to balance safety of space operations with the desire to minimize the regulatory environment. — Space News


NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that space policy developments that affect commercial space activities are important to NASA given the agency’s increasing reliance on commercial capabilities.
Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA


Presidential Visions for Space Exploration: From Ike to Trump

President Dwight Eisenhower was president when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957. This seminal event shocked the United States, started the Cold War space race between the two superpowers and helped lead to the creation of NASA in 1958.

President John F. Kennedy effectively charted NASA’s course for the rest of the 1960s with his famous speech before Congress on May 25, 1961.

All of NASA’s manned moon landings occurred during President Richard Nixon‘s presidency. However, the wheels of the Apollo program had been set in motion during the Kennedy and Johnson years. So Nixon’s most lasting mark on American space activities is probably the space shuttle program.

President Ronald Reagan offered strong support for NASA’s space shuttle program. After the shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, he delivered a moving speech to the nation, insisting that the tragedy wouldn’t halt America’s drive to explore space. “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave,” he said.

Consistent with his belief in the power of the free market, Reagan wanted to increase and streamline private-sector involvement in space. He issued a policy statement to that effect in 1982. And two years later, his administration set up the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which to this day regulates commercial launch and re-entry operations.

Reagan also believed strongly in ramping up the nation’s space-defense capabilities. In 1983, he proposed the ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which would have used a network of missiles and lasers in space and on the ground to protect the United States against nuclear ballistic missile attacks.

President George W. Bush issued his own space policy statement in 2006, which further encouraged private enterprise in space. It also asserted national self-defense rights more aggressively than previous administrations had, claiming that the United States can deny any hostile party access to space if it so chooses.

President Donald Trump has directed NASA to return astronauts to the moon in preparation for future crewed missions to Mars and other locations across our solar system. The directive, which has no set timetable of funding, was unveiled Dec. 11, 2017 when Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1. —


In-orbit services poised to become big business

Satellite refueling and other in-orbit services market could reach $3 billion over the next decade.

A transition is happening in the satellite business. Fast-moving technology and evolving customer demands are driving operators to rethink major investments in new satellites and consider other options such as squeezing a few more years of service out of their current platforms.

Which makes this an opportune moment for the arrival of in-orbit servicing.

Sometime in early 2019, the first commercial servicing spacecraft is scheduled to launch. The Mission Extension Vehicle built by Orbital ATK on behalf of subsidiary SpaceLogistics, will the first of several such robotic craft that are poised to compete for a share of about $3 billion worth of in-orbit services that satellite operators and government agencies are projected to buy over the coming decade.

Servicing satellites in geosynchronous orbit is a “nascent industry” with significant future potential, said Carolyn Belle, senior analyst at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, research firm Northern Sky Research. Companies are weighing “service-or-replace trade-offs.” In an uncertain business climate, satellite manufacturers and operators are looking for new ways to manage their fleets, and might find life-extension services a compelling option. — Space News

An Orbital ATK Mission Extension Vehicle docks with a satellite to take over pointing and station keeping. Credit: Orbital ATK


NASA’s Predator Drone Flew Solo in Commercial Airspace

NASA says its unmanned aircraft, which it uses to support Earth science missions and aeronautical technology development, has edged drones one step closer to flying in the same airspace as commercial and private planes. The space agency said its remotely piloted Ikhana aircraft was able today to complete its first-ever mission without an accompanying chase plane. The technology it carried could open the door to a sky where large unmanned systems safely mingle with other air traffic in order to monitor and fight forest fires or conduct emergency search and rescue operations, NASA says. — Fast Company


How Blockchain Technology Can Track Humanity’s Lunar Heritage Sites

One challenge for future human lunar exploration is keeping track of past exploration sites in order to preserve their heritage. Roy Balleste and Michelle L.D. Hanlon describe how the blockchain can be used to help create a database of those sites to aid in efforts to protect them. — Space Review

As companies plan missions to the Moon, including some that may visit past landing sites, maintaining a comprehensive, authoritative list of lunar heritage sites becomes critical. (credit: PTScientists)


Want to Take a 10-Day Trip to the Space Station? It’ll Cost You $55 Million

You can now sign up for a 10-day mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS) — if you’ve got $55 million to spare. That’s the price just announced by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that’s organizing expeditions to the ISS and working to build the first commercial space station. The $55 million covers the orbital stay, transportation to and from the ISS, and a 15-week astronaut-training program.

Axiom Space aims to launch its first customers in 2020, company representatives said. Axiom Space is also developing its own station, the modules of which will launch toward, and link up with, the ISS. The Axiom station will be ready to accommodate paying passengers by 2022 if all goes according to plan, company representatives have said.

The commercial outpost will still be attached to the ISS at that point. When the huge, $100 billion orbital outpost is ready to be deorbited, the Axiom station will detach and begin flying freely. (Exactly when this will happen is unclear; the ISS is currently funded through 2024, but it’s possible that operations could be extended beyond that date.) —