Main Engine Cut Off

Ball Aerospace Gets $255 Million for WSF-M 1

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colorado, has been awarded a $255,418,494 firm-fixed-price contract modification (P00008) to previously awarded contract FA8810-18-C-0002 for the Weather System Follow-on Microwave. This contract modification provides for the exercise of an option for development and fabrication of the Weather System Follow-on Microwave Space Vehicle 1. Work will be performed in Boulder, Colorado, and is expected to be completed by Jan. 15, 2023.

We knew Ball had won this last year, but this is confirmation of an option for the first of two spacecraft. From that original press release:

This new environmental satellite system leverages the Ball-built Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Microwave Imager (GMI) instrument, which is the on-orbit reference standard for calibrating precipitation measurements in NASA's GPM constellation.

GPM is amazing and was one of the best parts of my trip to Goddard.

DARPA Launch Challenge Sites and Teams

DARPA has shortlisted 8 launch sites—5 vertical and 3 horizontal—for the still-really-odd-to-me DARPA Launch Challenge. Nothing really surprising about the launch sites they picked, but this tidbit in Jeff Foust’s SpaceNews article is quite interesting:

DARPA also announced Nov. 6 that 18 teams had passed the first step in the competition, a pre-qualification phase. In that phase, DARPA confirmed that the teams had proposed “a viable solution for flexible and responsive launch,” according to its statement. DARPA didn’t list the teams that completed pre-qualification but plans to later identify the teams that complete the overall qualification phase.

That is a ton of teams—18!—competing for this. If it was DARPA’s intention to shake some stealth mode launch companies out of the shadows, it seems like maybe they’ve done that.

Midterms and Space

Jeff Foust wrote a great rundown of the space implications of the midterms that’s worth reading this morning.

Couple of notes:

  • Rep. Culberson lost his seat. That could—and probably will—have massive negative implications for the Europa missions he’s nearly-single-handedly been pushing so hard.
  • Senator Nelson lost his seat in Florida. That means we no longer have to hear his anecdote about looking back at his family homestead right before stepping onto the Space Shuttle in 1986. It also means the Senate lost a senior member of the space committee, who was a very vocal supporter of extending the ISS to 2030. Yet to be seen if that really matters, but it is notable.
  • It’s still close, but Rep. Rohrabacher looks to be on the way out, as well. Among other implications, we no longer have to hear bullshit like this.
  • The House flipped, which means that all the committees get new leadership. That shifts the leverage that members have, and with it, the committee priorities, which could impact space a bit.

Keep an eye out to see how the new members of Congress from Texas, Florida, California, and other space strongholds position themselves over the next few months.

Thanks to October Patrons

Very special thanks to the 224 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of October. Your support keeps this blog and podcast going, and most importantly, it keeps it independent.

And a huge thanks to the 34 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, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, 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.

Linkspace’s Forced Perspective

Andrew Jones, for gbtimes, on Linkspace’s Grasshopper:

The RLV-T5 technology demonstrator will attempt vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) and is designed to verify key technologies including variable thrust, multiple engine restarts and roll control with its flight and recovery tests, according to a press release (Chinese).

This follows development of smaller scale rockets such as the RLV-T3 for VTVL and hover tests performed early in 2018, similar to demonstrations by Masten Space Systems.

Earlier this month Linkspace held successful ignition tests with five RLV-T5 engines, creating the colourful shock diamonds or Mach rings seen in the exhaust plume.

Linkspace is interesting to follow along with, and I’m excited to see how they do with their bigger hardware. But check out the photo in the article—they consistently use forced perspective like this to make their hardware look enormous.

It’s certainly bigger than their last demonstrator, but they make it look huge by positioning a building way in the background, then a guy a good distance behind the RLV-T5, and even the transporter is parked on an angle, so that the rocket is closer to the camera than everything else.

They did the same thing with their tethered hopper flights at the beginning of the year. A clever PR strategy, but sometimes some real scale and context would be nice.

Maxar Looking to Sell SSL

Caleb Henry, SpaceNews:

“Our primary path remains to sell the business,” Lance said Oct. 31 during an earnings call. “We have multiple interested parties. We are in discussions and are still hopeful to have an answer that we can announce between now and the end of the year.”

Several satellites SSL has under construction will take weeks or months longer to complete thanks to defective components from a supplier Maxar declined to name. Lance said the component problem is driving up costs and exacerbating profit loss in space hardware.

Tough times for SSL, but it’ll be incredibly interesting to see who scoops them up.

First Vulcan Certification Flight Delayed to 2021

Jeff Foust, SpaceNews:

“We’re making good progress on the development” of Vulcan, he said. “Our first certification flight is targeted for April of ’21. We were really excited about the results of the Air Force’s LSA procurement. We’re off and marching.”

As recently as last month, though, ULA said the first Vulcan launch was scheduled for 2020, a date the company had bene holding for some time. In a Sept. 27 release about its selection of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for Vulcan’s first stage, the company said the vehicle “is on track for its initial flight in mid-2020.”

I said this at the time, but I expected this news alongside either the BE-4 or Air Force selection announcements. Burying bad news with good news is always a solid plan, and I can’t imagine something has changed drastically in the last few weeks on the Vulcan front.

Viasat Firms Up Falcon Heavy Option

Viasat chose the SpaceX Falcon Heavy for its ability to fly a near direct-injection mission, inserting a ViaSat-3 satellite extremely close to geostationary orbit—as a result, the spacecraft can begin in-orbit testing (IOT) quickly after launch, rather than spending weeks or months performing orbit raising maneuvers. This is expected to enable Viasat to turn on its ultra-high-speed broadband service much quicker after launch than is possible with other launch vehicles.

Just a few weeks back they announced the selection of ULA for a ViaSat-3 launch, and now they’ve firmed up what was an existing option for a Falcon Heavy launch in the 2020–2022 timeframe—the same timeframe as the ULA mission.

Falcon Heavy’s manifest continues to grow, even as we’re a few months out from the second flight. I wonder how many more customers we’ll see sign on for direct-to-GEO missions (or near-direct, like this flight) on Falcon Heavy.

C-Band Alliance Increases Offer to 200 MHz

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews:

The group, led by Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat — four of the world’s largest satellite operators — agreed to offer up 200 megahertz of C-band spectrum for use in 5G mobile networks, up from the 100 megahertz first proposed in February by Intelsat, Intel and SES.

Intelsat and SES have said the loss of spectrum, especially 200 megahertz or more, would require new satellites to make up for lost capacity already in orbit. Under their plan, now embraced by Eutelsat and Telesat, cellular operators would be responsible for the cost of replacement infrastructure.

Looks like this move is solidifying, and may have interesting implications for the geostationary satellite production and launch markets.

Gateway Logistics Services

This is big news from NASA, who is interested in information from US companies for cargo services to the Gateway:

NASA is interested in a logistics module capable of carrying pressurized and unpressurized cargo. The agency anticipates needing at least three cargo delivery missions, with the first mission potentially delivering a robotic arm provided by an international partner to the Gateway in 2024. The first two logistics modules will likely launch on commercial rockets, but after Gateway assembly, NASA’s Space Launch System will be available as well.

Once docked to the Gateway, the logistics module will be used for storage and trash. Additional requirements are outlined below, and in the information request online:

  • Must include guidance and navigation, power generation and propulsion to enable docking to the Gateway;
  • Must be built to the International Docking Standard; and
  • Must be capable of self-disposal within three years of space operations.

It is expected that the initial requirement will be for three missions, with a single mission expected to deliver up to 5 metric tons of pressurized cargo and 2.6 metric tons of unpressurized cargo. The first Logistics Module may be required to transport a Robotic Arm as unpressurized cargo.

It’s hard to overstate just how much cargo they want on a single mission. Dragon can take 6 metric tons to ISS in any mix of pressurized and unpressurized (though it becomes volume-limited for pressurized pretty quickly), and Cygnus can take 3.5 metric tons of pressurized cargo up.

NASA is asking about 7.6 metric tons of cargo to lunar orbit. That’s an ATV-class vehicle—a huge undertaking, requiring a big launch vehicle.

SpaceX and Blue Origin jump to mind immediately, but I wonder how much payload something like a cargo version of the NanoRacks-SSL-ULA-Altius outpost vehicle could take to lunar orbit.