Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos and his brother, Mark, will join the winner of an on-line auction for blast off next month on an up-and-down sub-orbital flight to the edge of space aboard a New Shepard rocket and capsule built by Blue Origin, the tech billionaire’s space company.
After 16 unpiloted test flights, the upcoming July 20 launch will mark the first flight of the six-seat capsule with people on board as Blue Origin gears up to begin commercial flights later this year. Bezos made the announcement Monday on Instagram.
“You see the Earth from space that changes you, it changes your relationship with this planet with humanity. It’s one Earth,” Bezos said in a video post. “I want to go on this flight because it’s the thing I’ve wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure. It’s a big deal for me. I invited my brother to come on this first flight because we’re closest friends.”
Brother Mark Bezos called the flight “a remarkable opportunity, not only to have this adventure, but to be able to do it with my best friend.”
Bezos’ company is competing with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to carry passengers and payloads on sub-orbital flights to the lower reaches of space. Virgin’s winged rocket plane has already carried company pilots and engineers into space and the company plans to begin launching passengers in the near future.
But Blue Origin will be first off the pad with a commercially built spacecraft carrying purely civilian passengers.
Like Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, New Shepard is a strictly sub-orbital spacecraft that is not capable of achieving the velocities required to reach orbit. While Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane will be flown by professional pilots and glide to a runway landing, the fully automated New Shepard, equipped with a flight-tested emergency abort system, descends to touchdown under large parachutes.
NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force consider 50 miles the lower “boundary” of space while the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, an international governing body for aviation-related sports and records, considers 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, the effective dividing line between the discernible atmosphere and space.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin’s spaceplane both are designed to carry passengers and payloads into the realm where wings and aerodynamics no longer have any effect, providing about five minutes of weightlessness as the spacecraft reach the top of their trajectories and begin falling back to Earth.
Blue Origin has not announced how much it will charge for a ticket to space, but rides are expected to run in the neighborhood of several hundred thousand dollars each. And space tourism is just one market. NASA is looking into taking advantage of the sub-orbital spacecraft to give astronauts spaceflight experience and is already using both companies to launch research payloads.
Blue Origin carried out its 16th unpiloted test flight of the New Shepard system on April 14 and announced last month it would launch its first piloted mission on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, putting the first seat up for grabs in an on-line auction. As of Monday, the company said, bidding stood at $2.8 million.
When the auction was announced, the company did now reveal who might accompany the winner, but many speculated Bezos would eventually take a trip to space. No word yet on who might use the capsule’s other three seats.
Along with the sub-orbital New Shepard, Blue Origin is developing orbit-class New Glenn rockets that will use a powerful new company-designed engine, the BE-4, to help boost large satellites into orbit.
The company has built a huge rocket factory just outside the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to manufacture the rockets and is developing a launch complex at the nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Lawmakers question Space Force technology investments
Smith: “While it is encouraging to see an increase in research and development across the portfolio, much of the request is for systems that have been called ‘big juicy targets'”
WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Force technology investments was one of the topics discussed June 16 at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, which held a three-hour session to review the Department of the Air Force budget request.
Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) noted that this is the first year the Space Force has “control of its own budget process” and raised some concerns about the proposal.
Testifying at the hearing were Acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown and Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond.
The Biden administration is seeking $17.4 billion for the Space Force in fiscal year 2022 — more than a $2 billion increase compared to 2021. The Pentagon says more money is needed to counter offensive weapons developed by China and Russia to destroy or disable U.S. satellites.
Smith said his committee agrees that the Space Force has to invest in new capabilities to defend U.S. satellites. But he is concerned that the budget funds mostly legacy programs and not enough cutting-edge technologies.
“While it is encouraging to see an increase in research and development across the portfolio, much of the request is for systems that have been called ‘big juicy targets,’” Smith said.
Similar comments were made last month by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chairman of the HASC strategic forces subcommittee. Cooper questioned why billions of dollars in the Space Force budget are for satellites that the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten criticized for being too big and expensive, making them attractive targets for enemies.
Smith also warned that lawmakers will not support spending that grows bureaucracies. “A goal of Congress in standing up the Space Force was to maintain a lean and agile force,” he said. “However, it appears in this budget request we are being asked to authorize new commands, centers, and organizations within Space Force that are counter to that initial vision.”
Following Smith’s statements, Raymond said he agreed that current U.S. satellites are hard to defend and that the Space Force wants to move in a different direction.
“We have to shift to a new architecture, we have to modernize our forces,” Raymond said. “The capabilities that we have in space today are exquisite. They’re the world’s best, they’re expensive, but they’re not defendable.”
Smith pressed Raymond to point at what items in this year’s budget show that there is a shift in priorities. Raymond did not name specific items. He said the plan is to transition to a “more diversified architecture that has resiliency built into it and not bolted on as an afterthought.”
In a diversified architecture, the U.S. would rely on military, commercial and allied nations’ satellites, for example.
“We can leverage a burgeoning commercial industry,” he said. “The other thing that we need to do is o leverage our international partners to a greater extent.”
Raymond said one of the priorities for the Space Force is to support growing military demands for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data. The Air Force relies on large spy aircraft to monitor the battlefield but those platforms are vulnerable to air-defense missiles. He said the Space Force plans to invest in space-based ISR.
The Space Force and theAir Force are working to develop small radar satellites to track moving objects on the ground. The project had been classified but Raymond pushed to disclose its existence to allow more participation from the commercial space industry.
Committee members also asked Raymond about Space Force efforts to speed up the acquistion of new technology.
“We’re working that really hard, we have to go faster,” said Raymond. “With the help of this committee we set up a Space Rapid Capabilities Office, they’re just two years old and they are already delivering at speed.”
The Space Force’s main acquisition organization, the Space and Missile System Center, has been reorganized and is moving faster, said Raymond. As an example, he noted that a surveillance satellite that flew to orbit June 13 was developed and launched in less than a year.
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Satellite makers are getting to grips with component shortages
TAMPA, Fla. — Component shortages have been challenging manufacturers to bolster supply chains as a lack of semiconductors threatens delays and price hikes.
COVID-19-related supply chain disruption has caused a microchip shortage that could take years to settle, exacerbated by surging demand for technology during the pandemic as consumers stayed at home.
Although the issue mostly affects very high volume production businesses, such as those in the automotive and consumer electronics industries, it has sent ripples through the space industry.
“Any component shortage can have a direct impact on timely deliveries and this is obviously a concern for us at Airbus,” Andreas Lindenthal, head of business operations for Airbus Space Systems, told SpaceNews.
“We are aware of current shortages on components and are working with our supply chain to mitigate the impact.”
Airbus has a joint venture with low Earth orbit broadband operator OneWeb called OneWeb Satellites, which aims to churn out more than one satellite a day for the expanding megaconstellation.
Access to semiconductors has been a challenge for smaller space companies long before the pandemic, according to nanosatellite maker NanoAvionics CEO Vytenis Buzas.
These companies must compete with bigger buyers of semiconductors in other industries “with an immense product output” that gives them priority, Buzas said.
However, he added Lithuania-based NanoAvionics “hasn’t drastically felt any supply shortage yet and we haven’t had any delays in our lead times or production of satellite buses.”
Part of the reason is that it started stocking up on supplies at the start of 2020, before the pandemic tightened its grip on supply chains.
“Those stocked components will last us about two years,” Buzas told SpaceNews.
“What we have seen though is that today these same components have lead times of one year or longer.”
The company is also partly shielded from external manufacturing disruption because it builds about 95% of its satellite subsystems in-house, with a controlled stock of components and raw materials.
Large aerospace and defense companies that produce satellites also tend to have dedicated foundries for producing semiconductors.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin and others with satellite businesses have benefited from being classed as essential by the U.S. government during the pandemic.
That has helped them accelerate payments to keep the small and vulnerable suppliers they do use healthy — sometimes even speeding up deliveries of materials.
Amid trade tensions with China, U.S. federal policy is also seeking to incentivize domestic semiconductor infrastructure to increase supplies.
The Biden-Harris administration recommended Congress support at least $50 billion in investments to advance domestic semiconductor manufacturing, and promote research and development, as part of a 100-day supply chain review published June 8.
Satellite makers at the smaller end of the market can benefit from forming stronger relations with suppliers, Buzas added, treating them as extensions of their team.
“We also expect to better manage costs and supply with the growth of satellite production,” he said.
“Downstream companies are starting to build their constellations, which after initial pathfinder missions will eventually happen very quickly.
“Lots of microchip factories had to freeze operations during the first wave of the pandemic. Now they really need to catch up with their backlog and new orders due to growing demand for electronic products. At NanoAvionics, we believe that this is only a temporary problem because ramping production up is a better problem to deal with than having no demand.”
While it is difficult to estimate the pandemic’s impact on future supply chains, and the different speed of recovery across international markets, Buzas expects an “at least temporary increase of prices in some certain areas.”
ESA and EU to sign partnership agreement
WASHINGTON — The European Space Agency and the European Union will sign an agreement next week governing their work on joint projects, one that the agency says will allow ESA members who are not part of the EU to participate on those projects.
At a June 16 press conference, Anna Rathsman, chair of the ESA Council, said that, during the council’s two-day meeting that had just concluded, members unanimously approved a Financial Framework Partnership Agreement (FFPA) that the agency had been in lengthy negotiations with the European Commission about.
“I think it’s really very, very good that now our relations with the EU are becoming much, much better,” she said. “We have good collaboration and there have been very good and constructive discussions when working to get this FFPA in place.”
Neither Rathsman nor Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA, went into the details of the agreement. They noted a formal signing ceremony is scheduled for June 22 in Brussels during a “launch event” for the EU’s space program, where more details about the FFPA will be released. However, they said that the agreement will allow ESA members who are not part of the EU, including Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, to participate in at least some EU space programs.
Aschbacher said that the positions of those non-EU ESA members were accounted for in the FFPA negotiations so that they “are content with what we negotiated and feel that there is no disadvantage for them in the way the agreement is constructed.”
That is a particular concern for the United Kingdom, which exited the European Union at the end of last year. The agreement covering Britain’s exit from the EU allows it to continue to participate in the Copernicus Earth observation program, pending completion of various implementing agreements.
“The U.K. is a very important member state of ESA, and we will do everything to have the U.K. as a good partner in ESA and making sure that ESA remains an attractive place for the U.K. to invest,” he said. He added, however, that the final decision on allowing the United Kingdom to remain in Copernicus lies with the EU.
Invited to join ILRS
The press conference took place shortly after a session of the Global Space Exploration Conference 2021, or GLEX 2021, in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Chinese and Russian officials laid out their plans for a joint International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). Those officials said that ESA was one of the agencies they had been in discussions with about participating in the project.
At a press conference during GLEX 2021 June 15, Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Rogozin, also singled out ESA as a potential participant in the program. “We are in negotiations with a number of countries,” he said through an interpreter in response to a question from SpaceNews about cooperation on ILRS. “I think, suffice it to say, that our key prospective partner in relation to this project is the European Space Agency.”
Asked about ESA’s role in the ILRS, Aschbacher suggested any discussions are not very far along. “I got a letter of invitation to join the International Lunar Research Station, both co-signed by Mr. Rogozin and the head of the China National Space Administration,” he said.
“We are discussing this matter with our member states,” he continued, with no decision about whether or how to participate in the project. “The offer is on the table. We will reflect with our member states how to respond. I’m not in a position today to give an answer.”
ESA is a major partner on the NASA-led Artemis lunar exploration program, providing contributions such as the service module for the Orion spacecraft and elements of the lunar Gateway. “We want to intensify all of the excellent cooperation we have with NASA,” he said later in the briefing.
Separate from lunar exploration, Aschbacher said ESA and NASA are developing a “strategic partnership” on Earth observation. That agreement could be signed when Aschbacher and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson meet in person in August at the Space Symposium in Colorado.
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