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China pushes ahead with super-heavy-lift Long March 9




HELSINKI — China is pressing ahead with the Long March 9 super heavy launch vehicle for crewed lunar, robotic deep space exploration and space infrastructure.

The massive rocket is in the research and development stage with a test launch planned for around 2030, said Xu Hongliang, secretary-general of the China National Space Administration, speaking at the Wenchang International Aerospace Forum Nov. 24.

The event followed the launch of the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission from the Wenchang spaceport that morning local time. The mission was launched by China’s current largest rocket, the 878-metric-ton, 57-meter-long Long March 5. 

In contrast the Long March 9 will be 93 meters long, feature a 10-meter-diameter core, have a mass at liftoff of 4,140 metric tons. It will have four five-meter-diameter side boosters comparable to a Long March 5 first stage. The Long March 9 is designed be capable of lifting 140 tons to LEO or 50 tons to trans lunar injection.

The Long March 9 has long been stated as part of long term plans to send Chinese astronauts to the moon and facilitate deep space exploration. However the launcher’s exact role is still not clearly defined as China mulls pathways to robotic and human exploration of the moon.

Potential missions for the Long March 9 include a single-rocket Mars sample return, though a two-launcher profile using Long March 5 and 3B rockets may be preferred. Construction of a more tentative and technologically challenging space-based solar power project has also been slated as a possible task for the Long March 9.

The launcher is being developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT), an institute belonging to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC), a giant state-owned enterprise and the country’s main space contractor.

A presentation at the recent International Astronautical Congress CyberSpace edition reveals that China has made progress on the high-thrust engines required to power the Long March 9.

The first stage of the launcher will use four, dual nozzle 500 ton-thrust engines sometimes referred to as the YF-130. The assembly of the first YF-130 kerosene-liquid oxygen engine was completed in 2019 and ready for hot-fire test operation, according to Hui Chen of the Xi’an Aerospace Propulsion Institute, belonging to CASC.

Component technologies including high-power, high-efficiency turbopumps, high-pressure gas generators, wide-range thrust regulators, high-pressure and a large flow main LOX valve have all been verified. 

The Long March 9 is not explicitly stated to be reusable. However a “space transportation roadmap” presented by CASC since 2017 features the stated goal of making all of China’s launch vehicles reusable by around 2035.

Xu also noted that China was developing a reusable Earth-space transportation system to improve Chinese access to space. China in September launched a secretive “reusable experimental spacecraft”, widely speculated to be a winged space vehicle.

Alternative—or parallel—heavy launcher?

Another heavy lift launch vehicle, using three, five-meter-diameter first stage cores and clusters of YF-100K engines, is also being proposed by CALT for use as a human-rated launcher for crewed lunar missions.

While an architecture for crewed lunar missions to the moon presented at the 2020 China Space Conference in September did not feature the Long March 9, the reasoning is that the latter is required for major infrastructure to be delivered to the lunar surface in order to facilitate longer term stays on the moon.

The new launcher for human deep space missions is not yet apparently approved. It could however receive formal backing with the introduction of a new Chinese Five Year Plan for the period 2021-2025.

Long March 8 arrives

CASC’s first launch vehicle with a reusable first stage will be the Long March 8. The first flight model has been delivered to Wenchang and rolled out for a rehearsal. Launch is set for December 20.

This first Long March 8 will however be an expendable version, with the launcher not being upgraded to be capable of vertical landings and being reused until around 2025

Commercial Chinese launch companies are meanwhile developing their own reusable launch vehicles. Landspace aims to test launch the methane-LOX Zhuque-2 next year before upgrading to a variable thrust, VTVL first stage. 

Another, iSpace, which reached orbit in 2019 with a light solid rocket, is developing its methalox Hyperbola-2 to directly feature first stage reusability. This month the Beijing-based firm performed wind tunnel tests of a test first stage article and next year plans takeoff and landing tests at the meter, kilometer and 100-kilometer level.

Galactic Energy, which recently successfully held its first orbital launch, is also developing a medium-lift launcher. The Pallas-1, planned for late 2022, will burn kerosene and liquid oxygen and be capable of VTVL.



Bridenstine, departing NASA, hopes Artemis continues




WASHINGTON — Jim Bridenstine used part of his final full day as NASA administrator to call on the incoming administration to continue the Artemis program and return humans to the moon.

A Jan. 19 briefing on the Green Run static-fire test of the Space Launch System three days earlier became an opportunity for Bridenstine, who leaves the agency Jan. 20 at the end of the Trump administration, to reflect on his nearly three years on the job and his desire to see the agency’s human space exploration program continue.

“How do we build a program that can endure the test of time?” he said, noting the starts and stops of efforts dating back to the Space Exploration Initiative three decades ago. “We need our Artemis program, we need our moon-to-Mars program, to span generations.”

The failures of past efforts mean that Bridenstine, born in 1975, is the first NASA administrator not to have been alive when people last walked on the moon. “I think it’s important that I be the last NASA administrator in history that wasn’t alive when we had people living and working on the moon,” he said. “That’s a failure of the United States and of humanity. We need to make sure that we’re leading the world in a return to the moon and on to Mars.”

The incoming Biden administration has not detailed its plans for the space agency. A passage in the Democratic Party platform published last July indicated support for a human return to the moon, but did not endorse the Trump administration’s 2024 goal for doing so, a timeframe most in the industry now see as infeasible given limited funding and technical challenges.

“NASA needs to go back and look at the what the options are to go to the moon as quickly as possible,” Bridenstine said in an interview after the Jan. 16 Green Run test at the Stennis Space Center. That’s made more difficult, he acknowledged, by the funding shortfall for the Human Landing System (HLS) program for developing crewed lunar landers, which received only about one-fourth of the $3.3 billion NASA sought for fiscal year 2021.

In the call, Bridenstine said NASA was still analyzing the impact of the reduced HLS funding for that 2024 goal, given that the omnibus spending bill was signed into law less than a month ago. “NASA is doing its work to figure out, number one, do we need to change plans,” he said. “I have no doubt that the amazing people at NASA are going to present a range of options for our return to the moon that the next administration can fully buy into and support.”

Those plans, he said in the earlier interview, should include the SLS. “If we’re talking about sending humans to the moon, that’s the highest probability of success at the earliest possible moment,” he said. “Given the amount of effort and time and investment that has already been made, let’s just get it over the finish line and then go from there.”

Bridenstine’s successor

Bridenstine is leaving NASA with relatively little fanfare, such as a farewell ceremony. Jim Morhard, the departing deputy administrator, posted on Twitter a tribute video for Bridenstine Jan. 19, thanking him for his work leading the agency.

“This has been an emotional week just all the way around,” Bridenstine said in the interview. He said he had been in Washington just before the Green Run test “doing our farewells to people.”

With Bridenstine and Morhard departing, Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, will serve as acting administrator until the Biden administration nominates, and the Senate confirms, a permanent successor. The new administration hasn’t stated when it anticipates announcing a nominee, but did announce its “science team” Jan. 15, including the nomination of geneticist Eric Lander as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Shortly after the election, several potential candidates for NASA administrator emerged, primarily women. They have included former astronaut Pam Melroy, former Aerospace Corporation chief executive Wanda Austin, and Kendra Horn, a former congresswoman who chaired the House space subcommittee in the previous Congress.

“I think the Biden-Harris administration would very much like to name, from everything I understand, the first woman NASA administrator,” said Jack Burns, a professor of astronomy at the University of Colorado who served on the NASA transition team for the Trump administration four years ago, during a session of the 237th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society Jan. 14. “Some of the names that have been put forward are extremely well qualified.”

Bridenstine, in the interview, offered a similar assessment, but without identifying any particular candidates. “I’ve heard some names, all very qualified, very capable people,” he said. “I’m confident that the future is bright.”

That transition work has taken place quietly, and without some of the conflict and drama seen at other agencies where the outgoing Trump administration was uncooperative. “The situation at NASA, both in the last transition and this transition, has in fact been much closer to normal,” Burns said. “In talking to the Biden-Harris transition team for NASA, I have the sense that there has been good collaboration.”

Bridenstine said he hasn’t made any plans for his future after NASA, other than returning to Oklahoma and spending time with his family there. “I love space, but I don’t know what the future holds there,” he said when asked if he would like to remain in the industry in some way. “We’ll have to see.”

Bridenstine did say he’ll be closely following the agency, planning to watch next month’s landing of the Mars 2020 rover and the Artemis 1 launch. He also pledged to support whomever succeeds him as the leader of NASA. “Whoever the next NASA administrator is, I’m going to be all-in,” he said in the interview. “However I can help them, I want to help them.”

He reiterated that point at the end of the Green Run briefing. “I will be watching with great interest,” he said. “There will be a new NASA administrator, and when that person comes in, they’re going to have my full support to do the amazing things that NASA does.”


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Rocket Lab launches secretive communications satellite for OHB




WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab successfully launched a communications satellite for German company OHB Group Jan. 20 in the first Electron mission of the year.

The Electron lifted off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 at Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, at 2:26 a.m. Eastern after a brief delay because of gusty winds. Rocket Lab scrubbed the original launch attempt for the “Another One Leaves the Crust” mission four days earlier because of “strange data” from a sensor.

Electron released the sole satellite on the mission, GMS-T, 70 minutes after liftoff. “Perfect orbit, payload deployed. Hello 2021!” tweeted Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab.

The payload for this mission has been shrouded in secrecy since Rocket Lab announced the planned launch Jan. 5. The name of the satellite itself was not disclosed by OHB until after liftoff, and a press kit for the mission did not include the satellite’s mass or orbital altitude, stating only that it was going into an orbit at an inclination of 90 degrees.

Rocket Lab said in its announcement of the upcoming launch that the payloads “will be a single communication microsatellite that will enable specific frequencies to support future services from orbit.” OHB, which built the satellite, procured the launch last August. At the time it cited “an unmatched delivery time” by Rocket Lab, who agreed to launch the payload within six months.

An image of the rocket’s payload fairing included a logo with an illustration of the satellite and the words “BIU GMS-T.” Analysts speculated that the name of the satellite was GMS-T, with BIU referring to “bring into use,” a term in satellite communications for first use of spectrum allocated by the International Telecommunication Union and national regulators and consistent with the stated mission to “enable specific frequencies” for future applications.

The ultimate customer for the satellite may be GMS Zhaopin, a Chinese company planning a satellite constellation. It has been linked to a German company, KLEO Connect, that has announced plans for a constellation to provide internet of things services.

The launch is the first of what Rocket Lab previously called a “packed launch manifest” for 2021, although the company has not announced a specific number of launches it foresees performing this year. Those launches will include the first launches from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia, and from a second pad at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand.


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Biden’s Defense nominee embraces view of space as a domain of war




Austin: “If confirmed, I will ensure the space domain is carefully considered across the range of upcoming strategic reviews.”

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Jan. 19 that China is the United States’ “most concerning competitor” and in written testimony identified space as a growing national security concern.

“If confirmed, I will ensure the space domain is carefully considered across the range of upcoming strategic reviews,” Austin said in a statement submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

The SASC held a nearly four-hour confirmation hearing for Austin a day before Biden’s inauguration. He would be the nation’s first African-American secretary of defense. To get confirmed, Congress has to approve a waiver because Austin has not been retired from the military for seven years as the law requires. While some lawmakers said they oppose providing such a waiver, Austin is expected to be confirmed. 

In prepared testimony, Austin called space “an arena of great power competition” and endorsed the prevailing thinking in the national security space community that U.S. systems have to be more resilient and survivable against anti-satellite weapons.

“Chinese and Russian space activities present serious and growing threats to U.S. national security interests,” Austin stated. “While Russia is a key adversary, China is the pacing threat.”

Defense secretary nominee Lloyd Austin. Credit: SASC

Austin did not weigh in on whether it was a good idea to establish the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command — both strongly championed by the Trump administration. He said a military space reorganization had been advocated for years by independent commissions, lawmakers and multiple administrations.

“If confirmed, I will assess the current structure to ensure the defense space enterprise is postured to advance our national security objectives most effectively,” Austin testified. 

He noted that the DoD space enterprise is “still not well integrated with other services and terrestrial commands, and there are several other challenges that will need to be addressed.”

More broadly, given the importance of space in as an engine of economic competitiveness, he said “it is essential to continue developing best practices, standards and international norms of behavior in space.”

Austin warned that commercial activities in space are a concern to the military because of the congestion and the possibility of collisions in orbit.

He noted that thousands of new satellites will be sent to orbit in the coming decade, most privately owned and operated. This creates a risk to the United States “in the sense that the government needs to ensure that they do not collide with expensive and exquisitely capable government assets.”

None of the senators during the hearing asked Austin any questions on space policy. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) brought up the recent decision by the Trump administration to move the headquarters of U.S. Space Command from Colorado to Alabama. Heinrich represents one of the locations — Kirtland Air Force Base — that competed to host Space Command. 

Heinrich criticized the selection process and asked Austin to commit to “take a close look” at how the decision was made. Austin said he would do so. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pressed Austin on his ties to defense contractor Raytheon, where he served on the board of directors. Austin said he will recuse himself from all Pentagon business involving Raytheon for the entire time he’s in office. “I’m sensitive to the appearance concerns you raise,” he told Warren.

Austin said the coronavirus pandemic currently is the nation’s greatest challenge and he would support a greater Defense Department role in the response to the crisis.

Austin’s hearing was the last one chaired by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) before control of the Senate shifts to Democrats. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) will chair the SASC in the new Congress.

“That transition will take place very peacefully,” Inhofe said to chuckles in the room.


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Former U.S. Air Force secretary Heather Wilson joins Maxar’s board of directors




Wilson currently is president of the University of Texas El Paso.

WASHINGTON — Former secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson has joined the board of directors of Maxar Technologies, the company announced Jan. 19. 

Wilson currently is president of the University of Texas El Paso. She was the Air Force’s top civilian from May 2017 through May 2019 and previously was a congresswoman representing New Mexico. 

Wilson was appointed to the Maxar board but still has to be elected by the company’s stockholders at their next annual meeting later this year. Maxar’s board is led by retired Air Force general Howell Estes and one of its members is retired Air Force general Robert Kehler.

Maxar is the U.S. government’s largest supplier of satellite imagery and geospatial intelligence. Wilson will provide Maxar strategic advice as the company seeks to grow its national security and intelligence business.

Maxar’s executive vice president and chief technology officer Walter Scott told SpaceNews that the company sees a rising demand from U.S. defense and intelligence agencies for technologies that can rapidly analyze and exploit data. In 2020 Maxar acquired Vricon, a supplier of satellite-derived 3D data aimed at the defense and intelligence markets,

Scott said Maxar plans to use Vricon’s technology to create virtual training environments for the U.S. military. So-called “digital twins” of the planet also could be used by the military for navigation and targeting.

Maxar plans to launch its first two next-generation WorldView Legion satellites as early as September 2021 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This is a highly anticipated event, said Scott, as these satellites will provide new imagery capabilities from different orbits with with higher revisit rates.


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