Main Engine Cut Off

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1, the Rocket Engine Without a Rocket, Has Completed Assembly, and I Have a Proposal

Aerojet Rocketdyne says that they hope to get this test fired somewhere at Stennis, and because their $350 million contract was apparently not enough to cover that:

Congress in the 2021 defense bill allocated $15 million for the testing of large kerosene engines at Stennis. The funds are not specifically earmarked for the AR1. Maser said the company hopes the funds will be used to test its new engine.

I’m not sure how much more specifically earmarked they need to get, but sure.

I believe this engine should be put on display, and there’s only one rightful place for that: next to the A-3 test stand at Stennis.

A-3 was built to test the J-2X engine at altitude, but the quirk is that the construction continued even years after Constellation, the program A-3 was intended to support, was cancelled. It was completed in 2014 at a cost of—get this—$349 million.

Here’s an astoundingly poorly-aged take from Roger Wicker, the member of Congress we have to thank for A-3’s completion, from December, 2014, just days after Orion’s EFT-1 mission:

“Administrations come and go. I think it makes sense not to leave a partially constructed asset sitting there,” Wicker said this month, in an interview in a hall outside the Senate chamber. “I do believe, a decade from now, we’ll look back and see that it has been used in a very positive way.” He did not name a specific NASA program that he believed would use it.

I say let’s put these two $350 million monuments to dead-end plans together to make sure we remember just how little can be accomplished for so much money.

The ISS is Getting New Solar Arrays

In what seemed to be surprising news to almost everyone I’ve seen mention it (including me), new solar arrays will be headed up to the ISS starting this year. They will sit on top of the existing arrays so as to take advantage of existing capabilities like sun tracking and power distribution:

The new arrays will shade slightly over half of the length of the existing arrays and will be connected to the same power system to augment the existing supply. The eight current arrays are currently capable of generating up to 160 kilowatts of power during orbital daytime, about half of which is stored in the station’s batteries for use while the station is not in sunlight.

Each new solar array will produce more than 20 kilowatts of electricity, eventually totaling 120 kilowatts (120,000 watts) of augmented power during orbital daytime. In addition, the remaining uncovered solar array pair and partially uncovered original arrays will continue to generate approximately 95 kilowatts of power for a total of up to 215 kilowatts (215,000 watts) of power available to support station operations at completion.

The new arrays will fly in the trunk of Dragon cargo missions starting this year, and each will take 2 EVAs to install.

Space Development Agency Resolves Tranche 0 Protests in What Feels Like Record Time

was not optimistic about the speed we’d see here, so I’m pleasantly surprised that the SDA has confirmed their original decision to award SpaceX and L3Harris with contracts to build 4 satellites each for the Tracking Layer Tranche 0.

I wish we had more information on this situation. What were the protests over? How were they resolved so quickly? How can those lessons be passed to other agencies?

This makes me even more excited to see how this program progresses over the next 2–3 years as they make their way to the launch pad.

Lockheed Martin Gets $5 Billion Production Contract for Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared Satellites

Speaking of missile warning satellites, Lockheed Martin’s existing contract for the Next-Gen OPIR satellites got a huge modification, covering production and support:

Lockheed Martin Space, Sunnyvale, California, has been awarded a not-to-exceed $4,934,360,150 undefinitized modification (P00034) to contract FA8810-18-C-0005 which consists of all work associated with the manufacturing, assembly, integration, test, and delivery of three Next Generation Geosynchronous (NGG) Earth orbiting space vehicles (SV), and delivery of ground mission unique software and ground sensor processing software.  Additionally, this modification includes engineering support for launch vehicle integration and launch and early on-orbit checkout for all three NGG SVs.

This adds to the contract awarded in August, 2018 for $2.9 billion, covering early design and development work. That puts these three satellites somewhere in the $2–2.5 billion range each.

These satellites are no doubt powerful and quite capable, but they’re astonishingly expensive and made in small production runs, which is why the Space Development Agency and other organizations are interested in seeing what can be done with a constellation of sensors.

Not only would a constellation be more resilient to technical failures or nefarious actions, their overall cost is more manageable because you’re spreading the development cost and risk over many generations of satellites rather than banking on nothing going wrong during your short production run. See also, GOES-17.

It’ll be interesting to see both of these programs progress in parallel for the next few years. That might finally let us move on from merely debating constellations versus big, expensive satellites for these types of use cases.

SpaceX Awarded Two SDA Launches for $150 Million

Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX), Hawthorne, California, has been awarded a $150,450,000 firm-fixed-price contract for launch services from Vandenberg Air Force Base for the Space Development Agency's Tranche 0 Transport and Tracking Layer space vehicles. This award was made based on the Tranche 0 Launch request for proposal (HQ085021R0001) released Oct. 6, 2020, to which responses were due Nov. 9, 2020. SpaceX will provide standalone launch services via two launches, with the first launch occurring in September 2022, and the entire constellation on orbit no later than March 31, 2023.

I had been expecting this news since the request for proposal went up, so nothing shocking here. Now it’s up to the SDA to sort out the protests surrounding these satellites, which is a bigger and more difficult task.

Thank You to December Supporters!

Very special thanks to the 496 (almost 500!) of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off for the month of December. MECO is entirely listener- and reader-supported, and it’s your support keeps this blog and podcast going, growing, and improving, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 37 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Brandon, Matthew, Simon, Lauren, Melissa, Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Ryan, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, Grant, David, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Julian and Lars from Agile Space, Tommy, Matt, and seven anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, join the crew of supporters and producers! Don’t forget about Headlines, the extra weekly podcast episode that goes out to all supporters at the $3+ level. If you want to try out an episode to see what it’s all about before signing up, I recently put one of the shows into the main podcast feed.

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.

Commercial Space Operations Center Spins Off from AGI

Debra Werner, for SpaceNews:

AGI, an Exton, Pennsylvania-based company focused primarily on digital engineering, announced plans in October to become part of Ansys, a company that specializes in engineering simulation software.

As part of that deal, AGI spun off the Commercial Space Operations Center subsidiary it established in 2014, creating Comspoc Corp.

I took a ride out to AGI a year ago and got to see what was going on inside Comspoc. I like what they have going on there, and spinning off to their own entity will clean up the communications around what they offer and why it matters. I’m excited about this.

Chang’e-5 Orbiter Begins Extended Mission

Andrew Jones, for SpaceNews:

Hu Hao, a chief designer of the third (sample return) phase of the Chinese lunar exploration program, told China Central Television (Chinese) Dec. 20 that the orbiter is now on an extended mission to a Sun-Earth Lagrange point.

While unspecified, it is believed that the Chang’e-5 orbiter will enter orbit around L1, based on the reference to planned solar observations. The orbiter is equipped with optical imagers.

The team will decide on a further destination after tests and observations have been conducted, Hu said.

Chang’e-5 follows in the footsteps of Chang’e-2 and Chang’e-5 T1, which all went on to have interesting and sometimes unexpected extended missions. It feels a little like finishing a mission in Kerbal Space Program and realizing you brought along way too much fuel.

Launch Complex 48 Opens at Kennedy Space Center

A great rundown on LC-48 by Anthony Iemole for

The 10-acre complex is situated about one mile southeast of LC-39A, and one mile northwest of SLC-41, home of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Pad 48 is what’s known as a “clean pad” design, meaning it gives multiple users, all with different launch systems, the ability to launch from the complex. This is part of NASA’s ongoing effort of encouraging commercial spaceflight development.

I expect to see Astra and ABL flying from this location in the not-too-distant future.