Main Engine Cut Off

New Skylab

Speaking of Blue Origin, Jeff Foust wrote an article last week about their study into using New Glenn’s upper stage as a habitat module (or similar). The connection Foust makes to NanoRacks towards the end of the article is not a coincidence.

One of the things I’m always interested to hear more about is Blue Origin’s long-term plans for in-space architecture. Not the general vision of the future—the actual hardware that makes it possible. But before we can get too far down the road of wet workshops, we’ve got to see that BE-4 firing at 100% throttle.

First Vulcan Flight Hardware

Tory Bruno tweeted a photo of the first piece of flight hardware for Vulcan, and flight hardware is always good to see.

From what I’ve heard, Vulcan is making really good progress, and is one of the odds-on favorites for selection for NSSL Phase 2.

That said, we’re still waiting for BE-4 to get to full power. The engine’s progress—while not very openly shared—has been disappointingly slow, and I’ve heard a few interesting things about what the hang ups have been so far.

Here’s hoping Blue Origin pulls it together soon, but the stances they’ve taken on NSSL Phase 2 have not exactly been promising.

OneWeb Raises Another $1.25 Billion

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews:

Japanese tech giant SoftBank — OneWeb’s largest investor — led the round, as did returning investors Grupo Salinas, Qualcomm Technologies, and the government of Rwanda.

The new financing bring OneWeb’s total funding to $3.4 billion, following a $500 million round in 2015, a $1.2 billion round in 2016 and undisclosed fundraising of around $450 million last year.

Seems like one of those rounds of funding that was contingent on getting the first satellites up, but good to see the money still flowing into OneWeb. And boy, will they need it:

OneWeb no longer shares cost projections for the system, which originally were between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion, but have been externally estimated at as high as $7.5 billion.

Behind Today’s Contentious FCC Spectrum Auction

Fantastic article by Debra Werner, for SpaceNews, that explains the furor over today’s FCC spectrum auction:

At the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in January, researchers and weather forecasters agreed 5G would offer many societal benefits and suggested it could be rolled in a way that would not interfere with weather sensors. The question is how much the 5G signals should be allowed to spill over into adjacent bands.

The FCC is proposing a noise threshold of -20 decibel watts.

“There is great concern that the FCC’s noise threshold will allow interference with weather and climate assets,” Johnson and Lucas said. A NOAA-NASA study recommended a noise threshold of -50 decibel watts, they added.

European regulators are proposing a noise threshold of -56 decibel watts, which is nearly 4000 times more stringent than the FCC’s proposed threshold.

Space Development Agency Officially Established

Sandra Erwin, for SpaceNews:

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Tuesday officially established the Space Development Agency as a separate organization within the Department of Defense that will be led by Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin.

According to the memo, the SDA will be responsible for overall program policy development and execution of next-generation military space capabilities except those funded in the military intelligence budget.

It is likely that resources from other agencies or military departments will transition to the SDA in the future. The undersecretary for research and engineering will work with the Pentagon comptroller to “determine any realignment of FY19 and FY20 resources.”

A second article by Sandra has some details from a meeting that Griffin had with reporters:

The SDA will be based at the Pentagon and is projected to have about 100 people. Its first job will be to design and architect a constellation of low-cost satellites in low-Earth orbit that will be used for communications and surveillance, what Griffin calls a “proliferated LEO sensor and communications transport layer.” The idea is to use small satellites and other technologies available from commercial vendors as a foundation for future designs of military constellations that would be more resilient to disruptions or attacks than traditional, larger and more expensive military spacecraft.

And from the soon-to-be-outgoing Air Force Secretary Wilson:

In the memo, Wilson also questioned the idea of proliferated LEO constellations as the solution to space resiliency. The Air Force and the office of the director of cost analysis and program evaluation, she wrote, are “currently conducting detailed analysis on the effectiveness of more satellites on resiliency and failure, compared to the current architecture. It is premature to conclude that a massively proliferated low-Earth orbit architecture would be more resilient in the face of deliberate attack than alternative, similar priced architectures. The proposed plan requires in-depth supporting analysis and validation by the warfighter.”

This is a really great example to show why I’m supportive of the Space Force as a wholly separate branch. Traditional Air Force leadership is vastly out of touch with space.

There aren’t many people that I know within the space industry that would argue a constellation of inexpensive, commercially-sourced small satellites is less resilient than a handful of expensive, traditionally-acquired satellites.

NASA’s SLS Pushback Continues

Rough week for SLS. The NASA 2020 budget request suggested shifting Europa Clipper and Lunar Gateway elements away from SLS and onto commercial launch vehicles.

Today, in front of the Senate, Administrator Bridenstine suggested keeping EM-1 on track for 2020 by launching the mission via two commercial launch vehicles—one for Orion and its service module, and another for an upper stage to send the stack around the Moon.

With that, within the span of 3 days, NASA has officially, publicly stated that they want all previously-SLS-only flights flown on commercial vehicles. This is a massive shift, and as I said yesterday, one that will probably be rejected by Congress. But it’s a massive, noteworthy shift, nonetheless.

A great little insight from Eric Berger of Ars Technica:

Bridenstine was careful to reiterate on Wednesday that NASA remains committed to the SLS rocket for its long-term exploration plans. But the reality is that if NASA can perform its first Exploration Mission on private rockets, future missions with crew could also be sent to the Moon in a similar manner on commercial rockets. Private rockets also could launch elements of the agency's Lunar Gateway and landers, the agency recently acknowledged.

On-orbit assembly was always said to be too complicated and risky to consider, and that is why SLS reigned supreme—because it has the ability to launch missions alone. But if EM-1 is flown on commercial vehicles, and the capability to assemble this type of mission on-orbit is proven, that’s as dead as SLS could ever be.

Almost 10 years ago, SLS was born out of the ashes of a program that would fly this type of mission in the same way—crew flown on Ares I, an upper stage flown on Ares V.

It’s ironic—and fitting—that it might die in the same way it was born.

NASA 2020 Budget Request

In the current era, White House budget requests often don’t matter much in the outcome of NASA’s budget, but they do speak volumes about the administration’s intentions.

There are a bunch of things in this request that will be tossed out quickly by Congress—the cuts to Earth science mission, WFIRST, and NASA Education, to name a few. More funding for Mars sample return, the Lunar Gateway, and walking back the “Sink ISS in 2025” statements will almost certainly be welcomed.

The request also shifts Europa Clipper and Lunar Gateway elements from SLS to commercial launch vehicles, and delays (read: cancels) SLS Block 1B for just about 10 years. This is the most full-throated rebuke of SLS since the 2011 budget request in which the Obama administration canceled Constellation.

But don’t forget that Congress promptly reinstated SLS and Orion.

Audacy signs MOU with ICEYE

Audacy, a space communications service provider delivering real-time spacecraft connectivity, and ICEYE, an Earth observation company creating the world’s largest Synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) satellite constellation, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together to explore enabling continuous satellite communications for ICEYE’s SAR satellite constellation via Audacy’s inter-satellite data relay network. This will give ICEYE the ability to task its satellites to image a location only minutes before it passes a location of interest, anywhere on Earth, at all times.

I’m not big on MOUs, but Audacy is one of the most exciting up-and-comers in space today, so it’s worth noting when they sign something with a potential customer.