December 10, 2015

SpaceX Aims for December 19 Return to Flight (Source: SpaceX)
Elon Musk said SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 rocket late next week on its first mission since a June launch failure. Musk, in a tweet early Thursday, said a static fire test of the Falcon 9 is scheduled for Dec. 16 and, if successful, launch would take place "about three days later." The launch, when it does occur, will place 11 Orbcomm satellites into orbit on the first flight of the upgraded "full thrust" Falcon 9.

Editor's Note: According to a Florida Today tweet, the SES mission previously scheduled for December is now being moved to January. (12/9)

SES Mission Shifts to January, But ORBCOMM Would Put Cape at 17 for 2015 (Source: SPACErePORT)
If SpaceX succeeds in getting its ORBCOMM mission off the launch pad before Dec. 31, the Cape Canaveral Spaceport will have achieved 17 launches in 2015. That's compared to a manifest of up to 24 launches that were forecast at the beginning of 2015. We'll have had eight ULA Atlas-5, two ULA Delta-2, and seven SpaceX Falcon-9 launches.

Despite falling short of its 24-launch target, the 17-launch total is part of a steady trend, with 16 in 2014 and 10 in 2013, 2012 and 2011. One published manifest for 2016 currently includes 19 launches, seven Atlas-5, three Delta-4, eight Falcon-9, and one Falcon-Heavy. That is a partial-year manifest, likely to grow if SpaceX finds its groove and dramatically increases its tempo.

I count 17 launches for 2015 from Kazakhstan's Baikonur spaceport (Proton, Soyuz, Zenit) and 11 for 2015 from French Guiana's Kourou spaceport (Ariane, Vega, Soyuz). So if SpaceX launches ORBCOMM before January, the Cape Canaveral Spaceport will have tied for for busiest spaceport of 2015. (12/10)

O3b Raises $460M to Expand Satellite Fleet (Source: O3b)
O3b Networks announced Thursday it has closed $460 million in additional financing to expand its satellite fleet. The company said the "incremental financing" will allow it to purchase eight satellites to join the 12 currently in orbit. Thales Alenia Space will build those satellites, which will join the existing constellation starting in early 2018. O3b said it needs "substantially more capacity" to support its customers for broadband communications services. (12/9)

Second Atlas-Launched Cygnus Planned for March from Florida Spaceport (Source: Space News)
As one Atlas-launched Cygnus arrives at the ISS, Orbital ATK is preparing to fly another. Orbital officials said they don't expect any many changes to the processing flow for a second Cygnus that will launch on an Atlas in early March. The company said it is also making good progress on replacing the first stage engines on its Antares rocket, allowing it to resume Cygnus missions as soon as late May. (12/9)

Europe Kicks Off Jupiter Probe Development (Source: BBC)
ESA and Airbus Defence and Space signed a contract Wednesday to build a spacecraft bound for Jupiter. Airbus will build the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer, or Juice, spacecraft under a 350 million euro contract. Juice will launch in 2022 and go into orbit around Jupiter, making multiple flybys of the planet's largest moons, seven and a half years later. (12/9)

Will Mining Celestial Bodies Ruin Space? (Source: WBUR)
Perhaps enough asteroids exist to keep companies from various countries out of each other’s way if they can’t share. But the situation could get tricky, especially because the asteroids themselves would remain sovereign territory, as dictated by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The new law makes clear its consistency with this Treaty: “the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.”

So no one would own the asteroids, but people would own the spoils. Would other countries recognize that? Would we recognize it if a Chinese or Russian company found a stockpile of platinum on an asteroid? Would asteroid mining become a first-come, first-served proposition? The Asteroid Resources Property Act also paves the way for resource exploitation on planets, such as Mars. (12/10)

India Plans Singapore Satellite Launch (Source: IANS)
India is preparing to launch a group of satellites for Singapore next week. The PSLV rocket will launch the six satellites Dec. 16, officials with India's space agency ISRO said early Thursday. The primary payload is an Earth observation satellite known as TeLEOS, weighing about 400 kilograms. The launch will also carry five smaller satellites. (12/9)

High School Student Helps Discover New Planet (Source:
High school senior Dominick Rowan of Armonk, New York, is making discoveries about other worlds. Working with University of Texas at Austin astronomer Stefano Meschiari, Rowan has helped to find a Jupiter-like planet and has calculated that this type of planet is relatively rare, occurring in three percent of stars overall. Their research is has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal. (12/10)

No Extraterrestrial Laser Pulses Detected from KIC 8462852 (Source: Space Daily)
The anomalous star KIC 8462852 has baffled astronomers with its erratic dimming, causing some to speculate that it's orbited by a massive structure built by an extraterrestrial civilization. To help evaluate that possibility, scientists searched for brief laser pulses from the distant star, but found none. (12/10)

Pentagon Mulls Option for More Sole-source Launch Contracts (Source: Space News)
The U.S. Defense Department, which is just now introducing competition into the national security launch market, is simultaneously studying whether to award some contracts on a sole-source basis, presumably to incumbent United Launch Alliance, to ensure that it has at least two rocket families at its disposal for the foreseeable future, a Pentagon spokesman said Oct. 8.

“If it is deemed necessary in order to maintain two viable sources of launch services, sole source allocation of some launches will be one of the options examined,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Courtney Hillson said. Retired Gen. Larry Welch, a former Air Force chief of staff, recommended as much earlier this year and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James did not rule out the sole-sourcing of some launch contracts. (12/10)

Defense Bill Curbs ULA Use of Russian Engines but Draws Veto Threat (Source: Space News)
U.S. House and Senate negotiators completed work Sept. 29 on a defense authorization bill for 2016 that gives government launch services provider United Launch Alliance access to far fewer Russian-made engines than the company says it needs to stay viable in its core national security market as it develops a new rocket featuring a domestic propulsion system.

However, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama on Sept. 30 reiterated its threat to veto the legislation over its proposed use of an emergency wartime spending account to fund military activities that are not related to contingency operations. (12/10)

McCain Blasts Space Launch Giant For 'Specious' Excuses (Source: Fortune)
In declining to bid on a U.S. Air Force space launch contract last month, ULA  blamed a Congressional ban on the import of Russian-made rocket engines. Sen. John McCain—one of the chief proponents of that ban—isn’t buying it. Sen. McCain sent Defense Secretary Ash Carter a characteristically tersely-worded letter that accused the joint venture of manufacturing reasons for why it couldn’t compete for the launch. He described it as an effort to compel Congress to lift the ban on Russian engines.

McCain asked the Defense Department to halt regular subsidy payments made to the company to offset maintenance and infrastructure costs pending a review of its cost accounting systems. He also wants officials to evaluate the various assertions made by ULA, which until recently owned a monopoly on all Pentagon space launches.

"These assertions have major implications for both the DoD and the Congress, especially the clearly-established legislative priority to eliminate the DoD’s reliance on Russian-made rocket engines and whether the DoD should continue paying ULA a nearly $1 billion annual subsidy whether it actually launches satellites under the program or even chooses to compete for those launches,” McCain writes in the letter. (12/10)

How Blue Origin Is Disrupting the Aerospace Industry (Source: Fortune)
When Congress restricted the import of Russian RD-180 rocket engines following Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year, United Launch Alliance found itself in a bind. ULA now had a dwindling supply of cores to power its Atlas V rocket. Without it, the U.S. Air Force would have no way to launch the Pentagon’s most sensitive satellites.

So ULA and the Air Force went looking for an American replacement. Aerojet Rocketdyne, a venerable propulsion expert that played a key role in the 1950s space race, proposed to build ULA a new rocket engine, the AR-1. But the Alliance instead chose Blue Origin, a space company that until Nov. 23 hadn’t launched anything into space.

In late 2014 ULA and Blue Origin agreed to co-develop the Blue Engine 4 (BE-4) to replace the RD-180, declaring Aerojet’s AR-1 a backup. Cost played a decisive role: Developing the AR-1 would require $1 billion, much of it from taxpayers, while the BE-4 is privately funded by Blue Origin. (12/10)

Fong Explains How Space Harms Your Body (Source: BBC)
On 15 December, Tim Peake will launch into space to become Britain's first astronaut on board the International Space Station. He’ll be carrying out lots of experiments, many of them on his own body – it’s essential to monitor the impact of space travel before attempting longer journeys, perhaps to Mars. Some of the issues are well known and others are only recently becoming apparent, as medic and space health expert Kevin Fong explains. Click here. (12/10)

Politics In Hawaii Threatens To End Astronomy As We Know It (Source: Forbes)
Throughout the history of modern astronomy and astrophysics, if you wanted to learn more about the Universe, you only needed three things: A) A large-aperture telescope, for tremendous light-gathering power; B) A clear, dark sky, with low atmospheric turbulence, low incidence of cloud cover, and a great separation from any and all sources of light pollution; and C)A good way to record and interpret your data.

There are only a few places on Earth that have that combination: the Andes mountain range in Chile; the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain; and the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Mauna Kea is perhaps the most legendary site of all in astronomy, and is home to a great number of world-class telescopes, including the Subaru telescope, the twin Keck telescopes, the Gemini North telescope (all of which are in the 8-10 meter class), as well as nine other telescopes (including a 25 meter radio telescope), funded and operated by a total of eleven countries.

It was also the chosen site for one of the most ambitious projects of the next generation of astronomy: the Thirty-Meter-Telescope (TMT). But there’s something else to consider: something that hasn’t been properly considered for, honestly, the entire history of the world. How do the native inhabitants of the land that the telescope is proposed to be built on feel about it? It’s a question that most of us never stop to ask, particularly here in the United States, where we’re a nation of immigrants with a very short history. (12/10)

SpaceX Return to Flight on Dec. 19? (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
December is ticking away, and things are happening, so a launch appears imminent. On Nov. 30, Sierra Nevada Corp. delivered the payload to Cape Canaveral for SpaceX's next mission: 11 ORBCOMM OG2 satellites. Today a journalist with, Stephen Clark, reported that ORBCOMM has said it expects to launch Saturday, Dec. 19. (12/9)

United Nations Adopts Russia's Move to Restrict Space Weapons (Source: Sputnik)
The United Nations adopted a Russian-led resolution calling for a restriction against placing the first weapons in outer space, thereby preventing an arms race that could have catastrophic consequences. The so-called "no first placement initiative" passed with 129 nations voting in favor. The United States, along with Ukraine and Georgia, voted against the measure, while European Union states abstained.

Washington has long opposed the resolution, arguing that it does not go far enough. "It is noteworthy that the only government objecting to the substance of our initiative is the United States, which for many years has stood in almost complete isolation trying to block successive efforts of the international community to prevent an arms race in outer space," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. (12/10)

McCain Warns Shelby Off On RD-180; Writes SecDef (Source: Breaking Defense)
Sen. John McCain has fired another salvo at the United Launch Alliance over its use of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines, telling Defense Secretary Ash Carter he wants an audit of ULA’s “business systems” and he restricts the usehe wants that and more information by Dec. 21.

This latest kerfuffle arose after ULA’s decided to refrain from bidding for the Air Force’s launch contract for six GPS III launches. ULA said it couldn’t provide auditable cost data required for the new contract. The company also said it wouldn’t have the RD-180 engines it needed to make the launch. That’s because Congress limited the number of Russian engines the company could use. Or is it?

McCain says in the letter that “ULA’s use of these tactics is unacceptable.” Ha says “there was no compelling reason to re-purpose DoD engines other than to attempt to compel Congress to award the Russian military-industrial base by easing sanctions targeted at Vladimir Putin and his cronies.” That is a phrase McCain uses consistently when discussing the RD-180 — Putin and his cronies. (12/9)

McCain Will Consider Wider Russian Engine Ban (Source: Space News)
Sen. John McCain said he would consider an “unrestricted prohibition” on the Russian rocket engine that powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket following the company’s decision not to bid on the Defense Department’s first competitive launch contract in a decade.

In a Dec. 8 letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, also requested an audit of ULA’s accounting systems and a report on whether the company tried to “subvert” Congress by assigning non-military missions to its controversial Atlas 5 rocket, which is powered by the Russian-built RD-180 engine.

Both requests relate to ULA’s explanation of why it did not bid to launch a GPS 3 satellite in 2018, effectively ceding the contract to rival SpaceX of Hawthorne, California. McCain said he was “troubled” by ULA’s explanation, which cited the congressionally imposed ban on future use of Russian engines for military launches and issues related to the structure of the procurement. (12/9)

This Is NASA's Very First Idea for a Space Station (Source: Popular Mechanics)
Few people remember today, but before President Kennedy made his famous call in 1961 to land on the Moon by the end of the decade, the lunar surface wasn't NASA's intended destination. Instead, NASA had envisioned an Earth-orbiting space station as its first big goal. And while space station ideas can be traced back all the way to the 19th century, NASA's Atlas Orbital System design of the late 1950s was probably the first technically sound idea based primarily on available technology.

Think back to 1958. The newly created US space agency began work on the one-seat Mercury spacecraft as a response to the Soviet Sputnik's sudden success the previous year. The hastily launched program aimed to put a man in space before the USSR did (they failed). However, NASA strategists understood that once Mercury accomplished its political goal of putting an astronaut into orbit, any long-term human spaceflight program would need a destination. Click here. (12/9)

China Launches New Communication Satellite (Source: Xinhua)
China on Thursday morning put a new communication satellite into orbit from the southwestern Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The "ChinaSat 1C" satellite was launched at 0:46 a.m. and carried by the Long March-3B carrier rocket. It will provide high-quality voice, data and radio and TV transmission services. The satellite was developed by the China Academy of Space Technology and is owned by China Satellite Communications Co., Ltd. (12/10)

The Most Likely Spots for Life in the Milky Way (Source: Science)
Our home galaxy isn’t as hospitable to life as you might think. Cosmic radiation, supernova explosions, and collisions with small galaxies make much of the Milky Way too hellish for biology. But a detailed new simulation locates quiet and fertile neighborhoods, including a surprising locale: wispy streams of stars flung far beyond the main body of the Milky Way.

To support life as we know it, planets must have liquid water and orbit in the right place in their solar systems, not too close and not too far from their star. Similarly, life will not emerge or survive for long near the centers of galaxies. Here, the high density of stars means that at any given time several could be exploding, frying off a planet’s ozone layer and exposing any surface life to deadly ultraviolet rays. Click here. (12/9)

Astrotech Extends Repurchase of Up to $5 Million of the Company's Stock (Source: Astrotech)
Astrotech Corporation (ASTC) announced its Board of Directors extended the share repurchase plan that was originally announced on December 16, 2014, for another 12 months to December 31, 2016.

“Our strong balance sheet supports our commitment to return capital to shareholders while we simultaneously invest in emerging, disruptive technologies,” said Thomas B. Pickens III, Chairman and CEO. “Extending our share repurchase program highlights our confidence in our financial strength and our ability to increase shareholder value, particularly as we extract the unrecognized value of each of our businesses.” (12/9)

Black Holes Have a Size Limit – of 50 Billion Suns (Source: New Scientist)
Even gluttons can’t eat forever. When black holes at the hearts of galaxies swell to 50 billion times the mass of the sun, they may lose the discs of gas they use as cosmic feedlots. Theoretically, a black hole could grow so big that it swallows up the stable part of the disc and destroys it.

However, no one thought that black holes would grow so big that they could do this. “It didn’t occur to us to worry about it, because the mass required was so large,” says Andrew King of the University of Leicester, UK.

But that’s changed in recent years. The heaviest black holes we’ve now seen have a mass up to 40 billion times that of our sun. That fact prompted King to calculate how big a black hole would have to be for its outer edge to keep a disc from forming. He came up with the figure of 50 billion solar masses. (12/9)

Source Says Russia Lost Military Satellite Over Design Faults (Source: Tass)
The Russian military satellite Kanopus-ST that burnt in the atmosphere several days after its launch into orbit had no back-up system of unlocking from the Volga upper stage, a source in the Russian rocket and space industry said. "The developers of the technical documentation didn’t envisage an emergency algorithm in the event that the charge-driven piston mechanism would not unlock." (12/9)

Could NASA Turn an Asteroid Into a Satellite? Should We? Why Not? (Source: Inverse)
It’s one of those scientific endeavors that has a clear goal, yet an unclear purpose. The goal of the mission is to send a robotic probe off to a near-Earth asteroid, find a small boulder somewhere between one and two dozen feet in diameter sitting on the surface of the asteroid, pick it up, and transfer it to the moon where it can be placed in a stable lunar orbit. In effect, it turns the asteroid into a kind of natural satellite.

Why, exactly, does NASA want to do something like this? No one is completely sure. ARM is meant to be part of a slew of missions to test out the capabilities of the Orion spacecraft and NASA’s new Space Launch System. Together, both systems will help NASA conduct more and more crewed operations into the farther reaches of space, eventually culminating in successfully getting astronauts to Mars before 2040. (12/8)

‘Manned’ Spaceflight Is So Last Century (Source: The Atlantic)
In the summer of 1962, the House Committee on Science and Astronautics held a hearing to debate the role of women in the nation’s space program. The three astronauts who testified, all men, warned members of Congress that if NASA trained women in the space mission, “we would have to slow down on our national goal of landing a man on the moon in this decade.”

“I couldn’t care less who’s over there [in the next seat] as long as it’s the most qualified person,” the astronaut John Glenn said. Which sounds reasonable, if a little terse, until Glenn continued with this apparent contradiction: “I wouldn’t oppose a women’s astronaut training program; I just see no requirement for it.”

Glenn’s message, as he went on, seemed to be that, sure, a qualified woman could be an astronaut—except a woman like that probably didn’t exist. “As an analogy,” Glenn said, “My mother could probably pass the preseason physical examination given [by] the Washington Redskins, but I don't think she could play many games.” (12/8)

Private Lunar Race Set for 2017 (Source: Quartz)
It took five years of deadline extensions and an extra $10 million in prize money, but two private organizations have paid for launches in 2017 that they hope will make them the first private groups to land a robot on the moon. Should they succeed, they’ll be awarded the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize and a place in the record books. (12/8)

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