space digest

April 6-12, 2015

Progress of Blue Origin, SmallSat initiative by SSTL & NanoRacks, rumours around Brizilian-Ukrainian Cyclone-4 program, and many more in our weekly space digest!

Photo of the Week

'Just Read the Instructions' now on the SpaceX' drone ship landing platform. Credit: SpaceX
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Video of the Week

Sierra Nevada Corp. released an amazing video of its Dream Chaser Cargo System concept.

International Day of Human Space Flight and other 'OTDs'

This week was full of anniversaries and notable space industry "on-this-day's" (OTDs). While April 12 is well-known and globally recognized as Cosmonautics Day (in Russia and other post-Soviet countries), or the International Day of Human Space Flight (according to the UN), there were some more interesting but less popular OTDs:

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TIME cover dedicated to Yuri Gagarin

April 12, 1961 - start of human spaceflight era. 27-year-old Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, circled the Earth for 108 minutes aboard Vostok 1 spacecraft and safely returned on Earth, became the first human to journey into outer space. In order to commemorate milestones in space exploration, every April 12 since 2000 there is held Yuri's Night, or 'World Space Party', in different locations around the world.

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Odyssey, Apollo 13 command module recovered by NASA

April 11, 1970 - launch of Apollo 13, 7th manned mission in the US Apollo space program and the 3rd intended to land on the Moon. However, lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days after the launch, crippling the Service Module upon which the Command Module depended. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need carbon dioxide removal system, the crew (Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise) returned safely to Earth on April 17.

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First launch of Space Shuttle Columbia

April 12, 1981 - NASA conducted the first orbital flight of its Space Shuttle program. The first orbiter, Columbia, launched on 12 April and returned on 14 April, orbited the Earth for 37 times. Columbia carried a crew of two - mission commander John Young and pilot Robert Crippen. The launch occurred on the 20th anniversary of the first-ever human spaceflight. This was a coincidence rather than a celebration - a technical problem prevented STS-1 from launching two days earlier, as it had been planned.

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Zenit-2 rocket being placed on Baikonur launch pad

April 13, 1985 - first launch of Zenit-2 rocket, made by Ukrainian Yuzhnoye Design Office, from Baikonur. Zenit-2 is a two-staged vehicle of Zenit rocket family, comprising also Zenit-3SL (Sea Launch), Zenit-3SLB, and Zenit-3SLBF (Land Launch). By its 30th anniversary, this family of rockets has faced tough times, since Sea Launch and Land Launch commercial programs freezed, and Russian governmental missions hardly to be continued after two Zenit launches scheduled for 2015 and 2016.

Interesting to note that beginning of Zenit exploitation was not smooth as well. The first Zenit mission was initially planned for April 10, 1985, a Holy Friday prior to Orthodox Easter. During the breakfast, a chair of Zenit chief designer Vladimir Utkin broken, with other weird signs followed. The launch itself was postponed due to malfunction of the rocket holders few seconds prior T-0. The mission was conducted 3 days after but was classified as unsuccessful due to second stage flow rate regulator failure to operate.

Remembering the past, we are not forgetting about the present. Other news of this week in space are below.


  • Blue Origin makes progress. The company completes acceptance testing of liquid oxygen - liquid hydrogen BE-3 engine for New Shepard suborbital flight (BE-3 engine test is on the digest's cover). According to Rob Meyerson, President of Blue Origin, the company plans to begin flight tests of its reusable suborbital New Shepard vehicle later this year from its West Texas facility.
  • Firefly Space Systems, one of a growing number of ambitious new small satellite launch companies, is successfully hitting a series of milestones on its way to the inaugural launch of the Firefly Alpha rocket. The vehicle, designed to lift approximately 400 kg to a low Earth orbit (LEO), is slated for its first launch by the end of 2017 – Via Satellite.
  • According to some Brazilian media, the country's Federal Government decided to terminate the international space program with Ukraine under Cyclone-4 rocket launches from Alcantara Launch Site. How much this piece of information is true and 'Is really the end of Cyclone-4 program so close'?

Cyclone-4 artist concept. Credit: Yuzhnoye SDO
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  • Surrey Satellite, NanoRacks to make possible larger satellite deployment from the ISS. Surrey Satellite Technology US, wholly owned subsidiary of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited of UK, announced cooperation with Aerojet Rocketdyne and NanoRacks on the development of FeatherCraft platform for a 100-kg class satellite, optimized for deployment from the International Space Station (ISS).
  • SpaceNews interviewed Eric Beranger, Head of Space Systems/Programs at Airbus Defence and Space. Much of the attention was paid to electric propulsion satellites and Airbus' achievements in this field.
  • COM DEV International announced that it received a $2.6 million contract extension on activities associated with the James Webb Space Telescope. The investment by the Government of Canada, through the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), will help integrate Canadian instruments into the telescope and directly support all test activities with the instruments in preparation for the telescope's launch in October 2018.
  • Roscosmos plans to increase (in Rus) number of orbiting civil satellites from existing 80 to 100 by 2025, said agency's chief Igor Komarov. 'All new satellites shall be 'state-of-the-art'. Number of national economy-serving satellites will be amounted to 65 (currently it is only 35), and 17 out of them will be Earth remote sensing spacecraft. Glonass orbital constellation, to be fully replaced by 2025, shall comprise 24 acting and 2 back-up spacecraft, said Komarov.
  • The US Missile Defense Agency has been careful not to identify the satellites that would host its planned network of experimental kill assessment sensors, but industry sources say the likeliest candidate is the Iridium Next constellation of mobile communications satellites – SpaceNews.
  • A story about Tom Walkingshow, founder of PocketQube Shop, a Glasgow-based company which provides the components for making tiny 5 cm³ PocketQube satellites.

Tom Walkinshaw. PocketQube Shop founder. Credit: Murdo MacLeod
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  • UrtheCast reported signing of a contract, valued at approximately $9 million, to provide a range of engineering services and related space hardware to an 'international customer'. Two days later the company announced entering into an agreement with Canaccord Genuity and Clarus Securities, acting on behalf of a syndicate of underwriters, pursuant to which they agreed to purchase common shares of UrtheCast totaling to near $12 million.
  • Orbital ATK announced that the company has cut 61 jobs. The cuts were from the propulsion systems department in divisions located in Alabama, Florida and Utah. On the contrary, Peter Platzer, CEO of nanosatellite and data startup Spire (formerly Nanosatisfi), is reported to be an executive who has never fired anyone.
  • Struggling startup satellite fleet operator NewSat of Australia said negotiations with its lenders were at a standstill because one of them, French export-credit agency Coface, refused to approve loan waivers that would permit funding to resume. NewSat reported Coface's decision has had a domino effect on the company's other creditors, notably Coface's US counterpart, the Export-Import Bank. As a result, $222 million in loans have been frozen – SpaceNews.
  • Aerojet Rocketdyne, which is suffering from two separate headaches caused by Russian rocket engines, said it is likely to decide by June 12 whether to exercise its option to buy a 50% stake in the RD Amross, company that sells Russian RD-180 rocket engines for use in US Atlas V rockets, from United Technologies Corp. (UTC). The other 50% stake is held by rocket engines manufacturer Energomash of Russia – SpaceNews.
  • Ball Aerospace is challenging NASA's surprise award of a contract to build next three US civil weather satellites to rival Orbital ATK. Colorado-based Ball is building the first Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellite, scheduled for launch in 2017, and built a similar satellite now in operation. As such it was considered the odds-on favorite to win the follow-on contract. But Orbital ATK offered with a lower-priced bid – SpaceNews.

Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft. Credit: NASA
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  • With less than six months to go before a limitation on regulating US commercial human spaceflight companies expires, industry and government officials have yet to find agreement on whether to extend the current arrangement or, if not, how to replace it. An analysis of this issue in SpaceNews article.
  • Dr. M. Annadurai was named as Director of ISRO Satellite Centre in Bangalore. He took over as Director from Dr. S.K. Shivakumar, who retired on March 31, 2015.
  • The head of France's aerospace industries association said Europe's rocket industry will resist investing in a next-generation Ariane 6 rocket if European governments do not give industry control of the rocket's entire product life cycle, including design, production, commercialization and operations. More about this in SpaceNews article.
  • ESA is celebrating the tenth signature of the European Cooperating State Agreement, strengthening its relations with Bulgaria. ESA's Director of Industry, Procurement and Legal Services, Mr. Eric Morel and the Bulgarian Minister of Economy, Mr. Bojidar Loukarski, signed the ECS Agreement in Sofia on 8 April 2015.
  • UAE Space Agency (UAESA) and CNES signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to create a strategic partnership between the two entities. This MoU allows for extensive future cooperation activities in the field of space, including joint work on the UAE's planned 2020 launch of a probe to Mars. Four days before, UAESA concluded bilateral space agreements with Russia, Britain and Kazakhstan. As for CNES, it is planning to ink a pact for joint interplanetary exploration with India, when PM Narendra Modi visits Paris.

Indian PM Narendra Modi visits Airbus production facilities in Toulouse. Credit: Airbus
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New Tech & Tests

  • Japanese researchers have built a 50-kg class satellite that can communicate half as fast as a 2-ton satellite. Such small satellites have been used to observe the Earth's surface with high resolution and detect objects of at least a few meters. These SmallSats, however, cannot send large quantities of image data to ground stations due to power and mass constraints.
  • Engineers completed fabrication of core stage simulator structural test article for NASA's new rocket, Space Launch System (SLS). The structural test article is a replica of the top of core stage and is near 3 m tall and 8.2 m in diameter. The rocket's core stage, more than 60 m tall, will store cryogenic liquid hydrogen and oxygen that will feed RS-25 engines. When combined with two five-segment solid boosters, the rocket will produce 3.800 ton of thrust at liftoff to carry 70 ton of payload.
  • Humanity could soon be building huge structures in space one piece at a time, the way spiders spin their webs here on Earth. A company called Tethers Unlimited is developing an in-space manufacturing system called "SpiderFab," which would use arachnid-like robots to put together large objects in orbit or beyond –
  • NASA has selected 3 proposals to develop and manufacture ultra-lightweight (ULW) materials for future aerospace vehicles and structures. The proposals will mature advanced technologies that will enable NASA to reduce mass of a spacecraft for deep space exploration by 40%. The three awards were given to HRL Laboratories, ATK Space Systems, and Dynetics.
  • Copenhagen Suborbitals conducted BPM 2 rocket engine test firing. The test was a forerunner for the planned test of the BPM 5 rocket engine. The BPM 2 test is primarily a test of a new mobile test stand and test of various fuel combination intended to use for the series of test of the BPM 5 rocket engine planned for the first half of 2015.

BPM 2 rocket engine test firing. Credit: CopSub
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Space Exploration

  • NASA extends Lockheed Martin contract to prepare critical cargo for the International Space Station (ISS). Lockheed Martin will plan, process and pack a steady supply of cargo, ranging from science hardware to food and crew's personal items. Currently, LM maintains more than three million items destined for the station. The one-year extension is valued at $23 million. This is the second of four options in the original Cargo Mission Contract awarded in December 2010.
  • Orbital ATK announced signing of a $90 million contract with Lockheed Martin to provide the Attitude Control Motor (ACM) for Orion's Launch Abort System (LAS). The LAS enables the astronaut crew to safely escape in the event of an emergency during launch, as the capsule is jettisoned away from the launch vehicle.
  • BRICS countries may be invited to participate in a new international orbital station program, Roscosmos chief Igor Komarov said. Speaking in an interview with a Russian newspaper, Komarov said that a new orbital station is under discussion to replace the ISS – Sputnik News. Meanwhile, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the NASA Advisory Council that Igor Komarov, during their meeting at Baikonur, committed only to extend the ISS through 2024. Bolden also talked about favorable impression of Komarov, calling him a "forward-looking, positive" individual – Space Policy Online. Earlier it was incorrectly stated that Komarov had said he and Bolden agreed to work together to build another space station after the ISS.
  • As NASA develops its plans for eventual human missions to Mars, the agency is deferring decisions on a number of major details, in part to retain flexibility to keep the program alive when US President Barack Obama leaves office in two years – SpaceNews.

NASA's 'Journey to Mars' plan. Credit: NASA
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  • Existing Atlas and Delta launch sites are vying for a future when United Launch Alliance (ULA) completes its modernization with a new rocket system and downsizing to one pad on each coast. The rocket operator currently uses five launch complexes at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. That number will fall to just two in the coming years – Spaceflight Now.
  • published an amazing article '15 before-and-after satellite images that show how we're transforming the planet'. Must read.
  • Richard Branson visited Virgin Galactic manufacturing facility in Mojave and noted tremendous work that had been done with SpaceShipTwo since his last visit there two months before. Some details and photos in Sir Branson's blog.

Richard Branson talking to Virgin Galactic employees. Credit: Virgin
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