Main Engine Cut Off

Stratolaunch Reveals Hypersonic Testbed Concepts

Guy Norris, for Aviation Week:

Two baseline vehicles are under study, one a direct scale-up of the other. The smaller of the two, Hyper-A, is targeted at tests up to Mach 6 and is around 28 ft. long with a span of 11 ft, making it around twice the size of NASA’s pioneering X-43A hypersonic experimental craft. With an identical planform to its larger, follow-on derivative, the Hyper-Z, the reusable vehicle would be autonomous and capable of landing and taking off from a runway, as well as being air-dropped from the Stratolaunch aircraft.

A 3.5-ft.-long model has been tested in the 4 x 4-ft. subsonic wind tunnel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to provide initial data on characteristics for approach and landing. “We are setting up to do some high-speed tests at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s tri-sonic facility next month at speeds up to Mach 5,” Corda says.

Assuming studies are successful, Stratolaunch says the initial Hyper-A could make its first flight as early as 2020, with tests of the Hyper-Z following as little as five years later.

Still has the vibe of a solution in search of a problem, but I continually like the theory that Stratolaunch is the Glomar Explorer of aerospace.

Kepler and Phasor Test Flat Panel Antenna

Caleb Henry for SpaceNews:

Startups Kepler Communications and Phasor said Sept. 10 that they successfully demonstrated a link between Kepler’s cubesat and a Phasor flat panel antenna.

The test, according to the companies, “represents the first example of a wideband [low-Earth orbit] satellite to have been auto-acquired, auto-tracked, and communicated with, by a commercial flat panel, electronically-steerable antenna.”

Antennas that use electronics instead of mechanical systems to track satellites are considered important, if not critical, for low-Earth orbit broadband systems. Electronically steered antennas can link to two or more satellites simultaneously — a feat that single dish antennas cannot perform.

That’s a big step for a critically-important piece of technology. Phasor says it will be shipping its first antenna later this year or early next, so we’ll hear more on this front soon.

Eutelsat Signs Multiple-Launch Agreement with Arianespace

Another announcement of a long-awaited commercial launch contract:

The agreement covers five launches until 2027 and will provide Eutelsat with assured access to space with schedule flexibility at cost effective prices. With this agreement, Eutelsat is the first commercial customer to sign up to Ariane 6, Arianespace’s next-generation launch vehicle, expected to start service from 2020.

Signing a multiple-launch agreement covering a decade is less meaningful than a contract for a _specific_ Ariane 6 launch, but noteworthy nonetheless.

ULA Signs Viasat-3 Launch Contract

Big news from ULA and Viasat:

This is the first commercial contract ULA has directly signed since assuming responsibility for the marketing and sales of the Atlas V launch vehicle from Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services earlier this year. 

The Viasat mission will carry one of the ViaSat-3 series spacecraft and is scheduled to launch in the 2020 - 2022 timeframe from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This mission will launch aboard an Atlas V 551 configuration vehicle, the largest in the Atlas V fleet. The 551 configuration provides the performance to deliver a ViaSat-3 satellite into a high-energy geostationary transfer orbit where it can begin on-orbit operations faster than with other available launch vehicles.

Viasat has booked launches on Ariane 5 and Falcon Heavy for Viasat-3, and has an option for an additional Falcon Heavy launch. They’re taking the spread-the-work-around path for their deployment, rather than the all-in approach that Iridium took with Iridium-NEXT.

L3 Wins $9.2 Million for Agile Small-Satellite Experimental Telescope

L3 Technologies Space & Sensors SSG, Wilmington, Massachusetts, has been awarded a $9,238,925 cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for the Agile Small-Satellite Experimental Telescope. This contract provides for development of infrared telescopes with size, weight and low recurring cost suitable for use on small satellites and capability for rapidly steering the telescope instantaneous field-of-view over a large angular field-of-regard. Work will be performed in Wilmington, Massachusetts, and is expected to be completed by Aug. 24, 2020.

My first thought was that this could be early work on a constellation of infrared surveillance satellites.

Gateway Plans Shaping Up, SLS Plans Still Hopeful

Jason Davis for The Planetary Society with some great scoops on the Gateway:

The first piece of the Gateway is a power and propulsion module, scheduled to launch on a commercial rocket in 2022. The first crewed Orion mission, a lap around the Moon that will not stop in orbit, is scheduled a year later, in 2023. Then, in 2024, another Orion crew will fly to lunar orbit and visit the power and propulsion module, with two more pieces of the Gateway in tow.

“NASA plans to deliver two modules on the third integrated flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, targeted for 2024,” said Kathyrn Hambleton, a NASA public affairs officer, in an email.

She also confirmed the mission will mark the debut of a new SLS upper stage and launch from a second, yet-to-be-built mobile launch platform.

One of the two modules Orion will deliver in 2024 mission is ESPRIT, which stands for European System Providing Refueling Infrastructure and Telecommunications. As the name implies, ESA is the likely provider, though a formal agreement with NASA has not been announced.

That’s a hell of a lot of work—and money to spend—over the next few years, and that’s not even counting the Europa Clipper launch in 2023 that’s slated for an SLS launch.

It seems incredibly hopeful, but if SLS were able to fly with this sort of cadence, it would certainly make the conversation around it interesting again.

Thanks to August Patrons

Very special thanks to the 217 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of August. Your support keeps this blog and podcast going, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 36 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Tyler, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Barbara, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, and eight anonymous executive producers. I could not do this without your support, and I am extremely grateful for it.

There are some great perks for those supporting on Patreon, too. At $3 a month, you get access to the MECO Headlines podcast feed—every Friday, I run through the headlines of the week and discuss the stories that didn’t make it into the main show. And at $5 a month, you’ll get advance notice of guest appearances with the ability to contribute questions and topics to the show, and you get access to the Off-Nominal Discord—a place to hang out and discuss all things space.

We’re also getting pretty close to a goal I’ve had listen on Patreon for a while—at $1,000 a month, I’m planning on starting to stream shows and special events live!

If you want to get in on some of those perks, help us reach the streaming goal, or if you’re getting some value out of what I do here and just want to send a little value back to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and do it there.

There are other ways to help support, too: head over to the shop and buy yourself a shirt or a pair of Rocket Socks, tell a friend, or post a link to something I’m writing or talking about on Twitter or in your favorite subreddit. Spreading the word is an immense help to an independent creator like myself.

Clock is (Almost) Ticking for Opportunity

“The Sun is breaking through the haze over Perseverance Valley, and soon there will be enough sunlight present that Opportunity should be able to recharge its batteries,” said John Callas, Opportunity project manager at JPL. “When the tau level [a measure of the amount of particulate matter in the Martian sky] dips below 1.5, we will begin a period of actively attempting to communicate with the rover by sending it commands via the antennas of NASA's Deep Space Network. Assuming that we hear back from Opportunity, we will begin the process of discerning its status and bringing it back online.”

With skies clearing, mission managers are hopeful the rover will attempt to call home, but they are also prepared for an extended period of silence. “If we do not hear back after 45 days, the team will be forced to conclude that the Sun-blocking dust and the Martian cold have conspired to cause some type of fault from which the rover will more than likely not recover,” said Callas. “At that point our active phase of reaching out to Opportunity will be at an end. However, in the unlikely chance that there is a large amount of dust sitting on the solar arrays that is blocking the Sun's energy, we will continue passive listening efforts for several months.”

The last tau estimate was about two weeks ago and was 2.5. The last few updates have said the tau is decreasing, so we’re probably getting close to 1.5.

General Atomics Wins Hosted Payload Contract for NASA’s MAIA

NASA has awarded a contract to General Atomics of San Diego, California, for services required to host the agency’s Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) instrument on a commercial satellite in low-Earth orbit.

Work under this firm-fixed price contract begins Aug. 31 and continues through Aug. 30, 2027. The total value of this contract is approximately $38.5 million.

Specific contract services include: integration planning; contractor ground system design, integration, testing, and readiness; MAIA instrument-spacecraft integration, test, and pre-launch processing; spacecraft and launch vehicle; launch and MAIA in-orbit checkout; and on-orbit spacecraft operations to enable instrument operations.

Yet another hosted payload for NASA, and interesting win for General Atomics. We haven’t heard much from their satellite side since they bought Surrey’s factory last November.