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GAO’s annual review of DoD programs raises concerns on space launch, missile warning satellites



GAO: A U.S. produced rocket engine under development for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle is experiencing technical challenges

WASHINGTON — Technical challenges in the development of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket could prevent the Defense Department from ending its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine by 2022 as required by Congress, the Government Accountability Office said in a report published June 8.

National security space launch was one of 107 military programs reviewed by the watchdog agency in its 2021 annual report on the performance of major defense acquisitions. 

GAO said delays in the development of Vulcan’s main engine could make it difficult to comply with legislation that bans DoD from procuring launches on RD-180-powered vehicles beyond 2022.

DoD for decades launched satellites on ULA’s workhorse rocket the Atlas 5 — which uses the RD-180 engine to power its first stage. Congress in 2016 directed the Pentagon to stop using launch vehicles powered by Russian engines and only allowed DoD to award contracts for Atlas 5 launches through 2022.

DoD in August 2020 awarded ULA and SpaceX five-year launch service contracts for approximately 34 launches starting in 2022 and continuing through 2027. For this contract ULA bid its new Vulcan rocket which uses the domestically produced BE-4 engine made by Blue Origin.

“A U.S. produced rocket engine under development for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle is experiencing technical challenges related to the igniter and booster capabilities required and may not be qualified in time to support first launches beginning in 2021,” said GAO.

National security space launch program officials told GAO that Vulcan “remains on track to support first launches and certification in 2021,” the report said. “However, if ULA cannot complete engine qualification before the 2021 flight certification, the program might continue to rely on ULA’s Atlas 5 to support ULA’s 2022 launches, despite a nearly $2.9 billion investment in new launch system development.”

ULA last month confirmed that Vulcan’s first launch will be pushed from 2021 into 2022 due to customer payload delays. Blue Origin said it expects to deliver the first flight-ready BE-4 engine later this year. Vulcan has to successfully complete two orbital flights before it’s certified for national security launch. The company said it reached an agreement with the U.S. Space and Missile Systems Center to use the Atlas 5 to launch what would have been Vulcan’s first national security mission.

Missile warning satellites  

In its assessment of defense programs, GAO also raised concerns about the U.S. Space Force’s Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellites, an estimated $12 billion constellation intended to provide initial warning of a ballistic or tactical missile launch anywhere on the globe. 

The current program includes three geosynchronous orbit satellites made by Lockheed Martin and two polar orbit satellites made by Northrop Grumman. 

GAO said the Space Force will have difficulties meeting its target launch date in 2025 for the launch of the first GEO satellite and complete the launch of all five spacecraft by 2030.

“According to the program office, the program has 17 critical technologies, seven of which are immature,” GAO said. “Most of the immature technologies are related to the payload.”

The program faces significant challenges in developing and integrating new technologies, said the report. “Driven by the 2025 launch requirement and minimal schedule margin, the program is concurrently developing mission payload engineering and flight units. Such concurrency raises the risk of schedule delays because issues identified during engineering unit testing will necessitate corrective flight unit rework.”

In addition, the ground segment — developed under a separate program — may not be ready when the first satellite is delivered, the report said. “To mitigate this risk, the program is designing the GEO satellites to integrate into the existing ground architecture.”

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Op-ed | NOAA is stalling U.S. space traffic management



As demonstrated by the uncontrolled reentry of a Chinese rocket last month, irresponsible space activities can put billions of dollars and human life at risk. Recognizing the reality of increasing space activities and the need for the national security community to focus its resources on security threats, the Trump administration issued Space Policy Directive 3 (SPD-3), “National Space Traffic Management Policy” in 2018. The Department of Commerce was tasked to create an “open architecture data repository” (OADR) to provide basic space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management (STM) services, functions historically provided by the U.S. military. This policy was intended to allow Commerce to focus on enabling growth in the U.S. commercial space industry while allowing the national security community to focus on threats in and from space.

The National Space Council developed SPD-3 through an in-depth interagency process that recognized the Department of Defense faces modernization challenges with legacy systems and rejected oversimplified comparisons between space traffic and air traffic. The open architecture approach was intentionally designed to enable massive data fusion, leverage the most advanced analytic tools and encourage continuous innovation for a rapidly changing space environment. The major elements of SPD-3 echo similar interagency discussions that also occurred during the Obama administration and which are reflected in the 2020 National Space Policy.

In 2020, Congress commissioned a study by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to identify the appropriate agency to take on the STM job. After a six-month effort, NAPA concluded that Commerce was best positioned to perform the work. Building on that endorsement, Commerce began making progress on standing up a STM data repository. Requests for information were issued and an industry day event attracted more than 250 participants offering services across the value chain of SSA and space safety. There was no need for a lengthy or expensive development program at government expense; American industry was ready to start providing space data, storage and services immediately.

Unfortunately, fulfilling that vision has hit a roadblock in Commerce’s fiscal year 2022 budget request, specifically in the Office of Space Commerce. Instead of spending $10-15 million for commercial space traffic data and services, as recommended by NAPA, the budget for the entire office remains at $10 million, with no funds for commercial data. Rather than begin populating an open repository with commercial data, NOAA is using fiscal year 2021 funds to pay for more studies by three federally funded research and development centers, revisiting the topics of the NAPA study, and talking vaguely of a future pilot program. These funding cuts come on top of personnel changes at the Office of Space Commerce that threaten the ability to meet its SSA and STM responsibilities.

Ensuring the long-term sustainability of space activities has been a priority for multiple administrations and SPD-3 was the end result of a near decade of effort. NOAA’s current approach is wasting both money and time, with the latter being especially harmful in today’s highly competitive environment. Existing systems can barely handle the more than 4,600 satellites in orbit now, let alone the nearly 100,000 satellites planned for launch over the next decade. Ceding U.S. leadership on this means either accepting more accidents and collisions in space or relying on another country to create an international solution at some indeterminate time in the future. The European Commission has multiple STM studies that could create potential barriers to U.S. industry-led technical standards, and there are Russian and Chinese proposals that would, at best, be opposed to an open architecture and, at worst, be hostile to U.S. industry.

We stand at inflection point with four options: 1) proceed with the open architecture data repository as directed in SPD-3 and rely on commercial industry, 2) create a unique U.S. government solution at much greater cost and delay with far lower flexibility to change with technology advances, 3) rely on uncertain foreign or international systems, or 4) have satellite owner/operators pursue their own solutions outside of governments.

Commerce does not need a traditional “program of record,” nor should it repackage legacy solutions that will only fail to address existing and growing data deficits; rather, it should seek to buy “space situational awareness as a service.” Large constellations such as Starlink, OneWeb, and Kuiper require more precise and timely data than U.S. Space Command provides and private sources for such data already exist. While it would be preferable, for a host of policy and diplomatic reasons, to have a trusted Commerce-sponsored data repository, the government is not vital to closing the business case for SSA data. But it should encourage new commercial services such as orbit optimization, proximity coordination, attribution and others as part of an entirely new space safety industry. An open data approach also encourages secondary industries, like insurance, through improved risk assessments for different orbits and constellations.

There are some aspects of STM, such as assuring compliance with international law and supporting research, where government is necessary. However, unlike NOAA weather satellites, there is no technical, economic or policy reason for SSA data to be a government monopoly. The OADR could be created using plentiful cloud storage services, ingested data from U.S. Space Command and NOAA’s own Space Weather Prediction Center, and a variety of existing commercial data sources. In effect, Commerce could create “space sustainability services version 1.0,” and periodically iterate with block upgrades as civil, commercial and international capabilities evolve.

For our security and our prosperity, it is vital that the United States lead the world in ensuring the long-term sustainability of space activities. This requires new levels of SSA commensurate with a growing, dynamic environment. If the new leadership at Commerce is unable to overcome the inertia at NOAA, then Congress may need to be more directive with funding and time tables. If the government fails to create a trusted, open data repository, the commercial space sector and its investors will need to create their own solutions, which may or may not be emulated by other countries. Regardless, this is an urgent issue in which government must either lead or get out of the way.

Scott Pace is a former Executive Secretary of the National Space Council and Director of the Space Policy Institute at the Elliott School of International Affairs.

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Henkel and Boeing partner on adhesive for aircraft interiors



Henkel and Boeing partner on adhesive for aircraft interiors

Henkel, a leader in structural adhesives and surface treatments for aircraft OEMs and MRO industries, recently collaborated with Boeing to develop Loctite EA 9365FST, a new two-part epoxy adhesive that reinforces and bonds thermoplastic and thermoset substrates and can serve as a matrix resin on fiberglass to strengthen the thin walls of thermoplastic assemblies.

Developed for use in aircraft interiors, the halogen and antimony-free adhesive meets industry fire retardancy, smoke density and toxicity (FST) requirements, is REACH and EH&S compliant worldwide, and is qualified to Boeing process specification BAC 5568.

Loctite EA 9365FST cures in just 2 hours at 70°C or in seven days at room temperature. The adhesive offers good mechanical performance when bonding properly treated thermoplastics and thermosets to a range of other substrates. This user-friendly epoxy provides an excellent balance of adhesion performance and FST compliance. Designed not to yellow over time, the product is paintable, delivering good colour performance with less show-through than older adhesive formulations.

When used as a matrix resin, Loctite EA 9365FST easily wets out fiberglass, strengthening thin thermoplastic assembly walls for enhanced structural support in interior applications including wall, ceiling and floor panels; compartments and cabin stowage; galleys; lavatories; and seating. The product is available globally and has targeted applications in commercial aviation, defense and rail applications.

“Loctite EA 9365FST is a high-tech, FR and FST-qualified technology that has expanded Henkel’s already robust paste adhesive portfolio,” explained William Smoot, technical account manager at Henkel Adhesive Technologies. “This product answered a need at Boeing and across the aerospace and rail industries for critical flame retardancy, toxicity and smoke suppression adhesives for cabin interiors. Product safety and sustainability are increasingly important. This product is sustainable and REACH-compliant with no halogens or other hazardous chemistries.”


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House hearing rehashes longstanding commercial space transportation issues



WASHINGTON — A House aviation subcommittee hearing on commercial space transportation June 16 plowed familiar ground, revisiting a wide range of issues that have yet to be resolved.

One of the few new topics addressed at the hearing by the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee dealt with the Federal Aviation Administration’s response to SpaceX’s violation of its launch license during the December launch of its Starship SN8 prototype. SpaceX conducted that suborbital flight despite weather conditions that violated the “far field blast overpressure” limits of its license to protect the uninvolved public.

The FAA briefly halted Starship tests, requiring SpaceX to perform an investigation and make corrective actions, the agency said in February. The FAA imposed no other penalties on the company.

That prompted a March 25 letter from Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), chairs of the full House Transportation Committee and its space subcommittee, respectively, to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, expressing their disappointment “that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and, to the best of our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action.”

At the hearing, DeFazio asked Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, about the letter. Monteith said his office was satisfied with how SpaceX addressed the violation of its launch license.

“We would not have cleared them to start flight operations again had I not been confident that they had modified their procedures effectively and addressed the safety culture issues that we saw” on the SN8 launch, he said.

Despite the hearing’s title, “Starships and Stripes Forever – An Examination of the FAA’s Role in the Future of Spaceflight,” SpaceX was not among the witnesses. An industry source said that the company had not been invited to testify.

One industry witness who did appear was Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of United Launch Alliance. “It is vital that Congress provides FAA the support it needs to conduct effective oversight and enforcement of the licensing process,” he said in his opening statement. “Responsible operators will comply with FAA regulations and license. Those who do not should face enforcement and impactful consequences.”

Dual mandates and dueling committees

Much of the hearing, which lasted for more than two hours, along with a two-hour recess because of votes on the House floor, reviewed long-standing issues about regulation of commercial spaceflight and the activities of the FAA.

DeFazio, a longtime critic of the FAA’s “dual mandate” to both regulate and promote the commercial space transportation industry, reiterated his desire to end that mandate. “NASA can promote commercial space, the Commerce Department can promote it, whomever,” he said, vowing to introduce legislation to end that dual mandate. “It is not up to the FAA to promote commercial space and regulate it at the same time.”

Heather Krause, director of physical infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office, said the last review of the FAA’s dual mandate in commercial space transportation was in 2008. The Department of Transportation concluded at that time “there was no compelling reason to remove the promotional role for FAA through 2012,” she said. However, while that report recommended periodic reviews, there had been none since then. “Another review may be warranted.”

Monteith said while there has been no formal review of the dual mandate, the FAA does examine the issue more informally. “Everything is based on safety,” he said of his office’s work, noting its “encourage, facilitate and promote” role doesn’t extend to activities like marketing.

Committee members also discussed the integration of space launches and reentries into the national airspace system. That became a hot topic in 2018, when the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket blocked airspace off the Florida coast for several hours on a weekday afternoon, rerouting hundreds of airline flights.

The commercial aviation and launch industries have since worked to better coordinate such activities, although not to the satisfaction of members like DeFazio, who said he was opposed to telling airline passengers that their flights were being delayed “because some millionaire or billionaire is going to experience 15 minutes of weightlessness.”

He pressed Monteith on the slow progress on a project called the Space Data Integrator, which is intended to provide information on launch activities more quickly to air traffic controllers and pilots, reducing the size and duration of airspace restrictions. That project has been in development for several years.

Monteith said there was no specific timeline for bringing the Space Data Integrator into full operation, although operational tests are scheduled to begin in the next few months. Work on it has accelerated, he said, since the project was handed over to Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.

Projected growth in launch activity in the next several years is also expediting work on better integration of launches into the national airspace system. “The FAA must build upon a pattern of collaboration by the aviation and aerospace sectors,” said Capt. Joe DePete, the president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), at the hearing. “ALPA believes that, now more than ever, the FAA, industry and labor can work together to create a national space integration strategy.”

A third familiar issue at the hearing involved the so-called “learning period,” which restricts the FAA’s ability to enact regulations regarding the safety of spaceflight participants, so that industry could build up enough experience to serve as the basis for such regulations. The learning period was established in a 2004 commercial space launch bill and originally intended to last for eight years. It has since been extended several times because of a lack of commercial human spaceflight activity, most recently to 2023.

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), ranking member of the aviation subcommittee, suggested it’s time to consider yet another extension of the learning period. “Congress will need to decide whether to extend the learning period, let it lapse or find an alternative policy solution,” he said.

Mike Moses, president of space missions and safety at Virgin Galactic, argued an extension of the learning period would be warranted. “The industry is still in its early days, and more time is needed to have informed discussions on what the regulatory framework should look like in the future to support human spaceflight,” he said. “Extending the learning period would allow these discussions to take place in Congress, in partnership with industry and the FAA.”

This hearing is not the first time that the House Transportation Committee has examined commercial space transportation. It’s held hearings every couple of years over the last several years on the topic but has taken little action beyond those hearings.

That is, at least in part, because commercial space transportation lies in the jurisdiction of the House Science Committee. While the hearing was in progress, Reps. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking members of the full House Science Committee and its space subcommittee, released a letter they sent to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on commercial spaceflight.

The letter noted that the original Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 was prepared by the House Science Committee, as well as commercial launch bills in 2004 and 2015. Those bills “were drafted by committee leadership and solely referred to the committee,” they wrote in the letter.

Larsen acknowledged at the hearing that space was outside of the jurisdiction of his committee, but that its effects on airspace made it relevant. “We do not believe that we have jurisdiction over space, but you have to travel through airspace to get to space, what I like to think of as ‘our space,’” he said. “This is why this hearing is so critically important.”

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China launches new group of classified Yaogan-30 satellites



HELSINKI — China launched a group of classified Yaogan-30 satellites and one commercial satellite on a Long March 2C rocket early Friday.

The Long March 2C rocket lifted off from Xichang Satellite Launch Center, southwest China, at 2:30 a.m. Eastern. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. (CASC) confirmed the success of the launch within an hour.

Aboard were a ninth group of Yaogan-30 satellites. Chinese media described the new spacecraft as remote sensing satellites. The commercial Tianqi-14 satellite for commercial company Beijing Guodian Gaoke Technology Co. Ltd.

Previous groups of three satellites launched in the Yaogan-30 series have been stated to be for “electromagnetic environment detection and related tests”.

The previous launches sent the groups of three Yaogan-30 satellites into roughly circular, 600-kilometer altitude orbits inclined by 35 degrees.

A launch attempt was expected a day earlier according to airspace closure notices. However the launch did not take place with weather forecasting indicating rain in the area. New notices were issued hours later covering the Friday launch.

Yaogan series satellites are perceived by outside analysts to be designated for military purposes. The inclination of the Yaogan-30 constellation suggests it may provide frequent revisits for electronic and signals intelligence and optical and radar imaging in areas close to China.

Tianqi-14 is part of Guodian Gaoke’s plans for a low-Earth orbit narrow-band Internet of Things constellation. It was developed by the Shanghai Institute of Space Systems Engineering, belonging to the Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology (SAST), a major institute under CASC.

Chinese launch activities

Friday’s launch is China’s 19th of 2021, including one failure of a commercial rocket. It follows a little over a day after launch of the first crewed mission, Shenzhou-12, to the Tianhe space station module. 

CASC plans to launch more than 40 times this year. Other Chinese state-owned and commercial companies are also planning launches, including Landspace, iSpace, Deep Blue Aerospace, Expace and CAS Space.

The previous launch from Xichang, June 2, included tests of a controllable parafoil installed inside the nose cone of one of four side boosters of the Long March 3B, CASC reported after the event. 

CASC stated the developments were to constrain drop zones and reduce risks of rocket stages falling on inhabited areas

Grid fins have also been tested on Long March 2C launches from Xichang. CASC states these trials were part of development of future vertically recoverable rocket stages.

Meanwhile debris from the Shenzhou-12 launch has been located and secured downrange from Jiuquan, northwest China, by a task group. The boosters, displaying signs of residual dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer, fell within uninhabited drop zones indicated by NOTAMs issued ahead of launch.

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