Main Engine Cut Off

SpaceX, Arianespace Smallsat Rideshare Flights

A pair of interesting smallsat rideshare announcements this morning: Arianespace announced their first (of many?) direct-to-GEO flight opportunities, and SpaceX began advertising—with pricing—the first 3 annual flights to a 600 kilometer sun-synchronous orbit.

The Arianespace flight is interesting because the small geostationary satellite trend is ramping up, but there haven’t been many flights booked just yet. Seems like Arianespace is betting on a few of those being ready to fly by 2022, and that sounds reasonable to me.

On the SpaceX side, the pricing is fantastic, and the no-delays-plus-rebooking policy is, too:

Dedicated rideshare missions will not be delayed by co-passenger readiness. Passengers who run into delays that prevent them from launching can apply 100% of monies paid towards the cost of rebooking on a subsequent mission. Depending on timing of change rebooking fees may apply.

There’s a lot of talk about how Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and the like must be bummed to see these types of announcements—big launchers coming into the smallsat territory—but I don’t think that’s true. Dedicated launch will remain uniquely useful, regardless of satellite size.

Spaceflight, on the other hand, might feel differently. After watching SpaceX handle all of the payloads for STP-2 by themselves, they had to start getting nervous.

But on the other hand, after how much of an ordeal SSO-A was earlier this year, I’m not sure Spaceflight is really looking to fly more missions like that in the future, anyway.

Thanks to July Patrons

Very special thanks to the 292 of you out there supporting Main Engine Cut Off on Patreon for the month of July. 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 40 executive producers of Main Engine Cut Off: Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd (the Everyday Astronaut!), Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Tommy, Adam, Sam, and six anonymous executive producers.

If you’re getting some value out of what I do here and want to help support Main Engine Cut Off, head over to Patreon and join the crew of supporters and producers!

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.

IEEE Spectrum’s Project Moon Base

IEEE Spectrum published a fantastic collection of stories and features on the current trend of Moon missions. I’ve had a hard copy in my office that I’ve been reading over the past week or so, and it’s a great read for you, the super enthusiast, or your non-space-obsessed friends.

Perfect reading for the weekend, and it’s all available online, so check it out.

NASA Partners on Blue Moon and Starship, and Shuffles CLPS Providers

There’s been a flurry of news on the lunar landing front in the last few days.

It started off with the termination of OrbitBeyond’s CLPS task order. Their quasi-or-maybe-actual-shell corporation setup always seemed odd, and ultimately was their downfall here.

We’ll see if they win another task order, but in the meantime, NASA is starting the process of on-ramping new CLPS providers. Most interesting to me in the new call for providers is the extension of the landing ability date from December 2021 to 2024, which NASA explained in the related Q&A document:

The rationale for this change is that commercial entities seek to develop very capable lander systems that may be ready after 2021 and it may be preferable that such organizations be included now in the CLPS catalog versus later after a future on-ramp process. NASA has stated that the CLPS Indefinite Delivery / Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract is designed to last a decade but be immediately useful to NASA to understand payload accommodations, pricing, and schedule of providers. Extending the landing ability date to 2024 is more in keeping with the IDIQ’s procurement strategy and allows NASA to prepare for the mid to large payloads that will need not only more time for development but more discussions on interfaces with providers.

That already sounded a lot like an attempt to get bigger landers like Blue Moon and Starship into the CLPS program, and then there was even more news.

NASA is partnering with 13 companies on technology for the Moon and Mars. Among a whole host of other interesting technologies, they’re working with Blue Origin on navigation and guidance systems, fuel cells, and “high-temperature materials for liquid rocket engine nozzles,” all presumably for Blue Moon.

And most excitingly, NASA is partnering with SpaceX on two things: “to advance their technology to vertically land large rockets on the Moon” (and specifically “to assess engine plume interaction with lunar regolith”), and “to advance technology needed to transfer propellant in orbit” specifically for Starship, which was called out by name by NASA for the first time.

These partnerships are fantastic news for NASA, Blue Origin, and SpaceX, and the one regarding propellant transfer is particularly interesting as it has been a politically fraught area of research.

Just three days ago on the podcast I said that given the momentum we’re seeing, soon enough people would start asking why NASA wasn’t involved with Blue Moon and Starship. Now they don’t have to ask.

Lockheed Martin Ventures Invests in ABL Space Systems

Back in February, in what I thought was a fantastic announcement, ABL upped their payload, dropped their price, and moved to their own engines. And now they’ve got some additional funding via Lockheed Martin for what’s next:

Proceeds from the financing will be used to advance ABL's development and test program, including a planned integrated stage test in the second half of 2019. ABL is planning a first launch of RS1 in 2020.

No word on how much Lockheed invested, but they made a similar type of investment in Rocket Lab back in 2015.

I’m particular interested in ABL’s RS1 because of its payload class. Rocket Lab’s Electron is on the smaller end of what seems viable in the short- and medium-term market, and Virgin Orbit is currently having problems getting above Electron’s capability. I’m curious to see how the likes of ABL, Firefly, and Relativity do at 1,000+ kilograms to orbit.

FCC Proposal for new Smallsat Licensing

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews, on an FCC proposal that I like the sound of and will be keeping my eye on:

The FCC released the text of the proposed licensing rules July 11. On Aug. 1, FCC commissioners will vote on adopting the measure, which so far has received praise from satellite industry groups. 

To qualify for the streamlined licenses, the FCC proposal requires satellites either deploy into orbits below 600 kilometers or carry propulsion systems to deorbit satellites in six years. 

Eligible satellites have to weigh 180 kilograms or less (including fuel), and need to be 10 centimeters or larger in their smallest dimension. The licenses are also applicable to a maximum of 10 spacecraft at a time.

SLS Officially Slipping to Late 2021, At Best

Eric Berger over at Ars Technica with his typical great insight from interesting sources:

According to a NASA source familiar with this assessment, the agency found that under current plans, including a “green run” test firing of the core stage at Stennis Space Center in 2020, the Artemis-1 mission would not be ready for launch until at least “late 2021.” Moreover, NASA was likely to need more money—above the more than $2 billion it already receives annually for SLS development—to realistically make a late 2021 launch date.


Off-Nominal 21 - Carpet Bombing Venus

On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Jake and I talk about the aftermath of Apollo and alternate histories we could have seen—the Apollo Applications Program, a crewed Venus flyby, and more Skylab.

Vandenberg’s Lull is California’s Problem

A couple of comments by people at Vandenberg from this SpaceNews article by Sandra Erwin have been eating at me since I read it last week.

“We are having a lull,” said Col. Michael Hough, commander of the Air Force 30th Space Wing and Western Range. “This is market driven. Demand for polar orbits is just not that high,” he said during a recent meeting with government officials attended by a SpaceNews reporter.

The “polar isn’t popular” sentiment doesn’t ring true at all. Browsing through recent launches, it seems as if every other satellite is headed to sun-synchronous orbit. For medium-to-heavy size payloads, demand is lower than for smallsats, sure.

But also, Vandenberg has only a single commercially-viable operator right now—SpaceX—so this is a little bit chicken-or-egg. Firefly is moving into SLC-2W soon, but the Vandenberg crew needs to cultivate more small launch tenants if they want to see increased activity.

The big problem is that it’s painful to get established at Vandenberg because of the environment the state has created there. Head to Cape Canaveral, and Space Florida will actively throw money your way. Head to Vandenberg, and you better watch where you step.

Hough said it would take at least two years to secure state permits for a space launch pad and although Vandenberg is a huge base, the land available to build a large pad is limited.


Later in the article, people from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) talk up SLC-6, where Delta IV Heavy launches from currently, as a potential multi-user pad, but I wish they would publish a list of available sites.

Back in April, I asked a handful of SMC members about which sites were available, and they were stumped. I followed up via email and never heard back. Someone must have a list of available sites, but I suppose the presence of double-fenced areas makes it tricky to talk about.

Until we hear otherwise, I’ll continue to bet that Relativity will take over SLC-3W.

But if the state is stubborn and wants it to take 2 years to get permits in place, maybe they’re better off taking the trek to Alaska, or in the future, Nova Scotia.