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Monday launch from California begins countdown to Atlas 5 retirement



A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket awaits liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, with the Landsat 9 satellite. Credit: Alex Polimeni / Spaceflight Now

The launch of a Landsat environmental monitoring satellite Monday from California’s Central Coast will be the first liftoff of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket since the company confirmed there will be 29 more Atlas 5 flights before the Atlas family’s retirement.

ULA is retiring its Atlas and Delta rocket lines with the debut of the company’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is scheduled to blast off for the first time next year.

An Atlas 5 rocket standing on a launch pad at Vandenberg Space Force Base, set for liftoff Monday with the Landsat 9 Earth observation satellite, is one of 29 Atlas 5s remaining in ULA’s inventory. Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesperson, confirmed last month that all 29 Atlas 5s have been sold to customers for future launches.

ULA received its final shipment of RD-180 engines from Russia earlier this year. A dual-nozzle RD-180 engine, made in Russia by NPO Energomash, powers the first stage of each Atlas 5 rocket, generating around 860,000 pounds of thrust at full throttle while guzzling kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants.

The new Vulcan Centaur will be driven by twin U.S.-made BE-4 main engines from Blue Origin, the space company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos. ULA says the Vulcan Centaur will have more lift capability, additional mission flexibility, and will be cheaper to operate than the existing Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket families.

There are three Delta 4 rockets left to fly on ULA’s schedule.

The Landsat 9 mission is the latest in a series of environmental satellites developed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. The new mission is designed for a lifetime of at least five years, extending an unbroken data record of global land images that  dates back to the launch of the first Landsat satellite in 1972.

Developed for a bit less than $750 million, Landsat 9 is a near-clone of the Landsat 8 satellite launched in 2013. The spacecraft was built by Northrop Grumman, with instruments from Ball Aerospace and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

With two Landsat satellites operating simultaneously, the constellation will observe all of Earth’s land surfaces every eight days, returning pictures used to track agriculture, forests, coastal waters, and urban growth. Landsat data are also widely used to monitor water sources in the Western United States.

“It tells us about vegetation, land use, coastlines, and surface water, just to name a few,” said Karen St. Germain, head of NASA’s Earth science division. “But the power is really unleashed when we combine the data from  Landsat with our other Earth science missions. That can tell us just not what is happening, but also why.”

“Landsat is our most economically impactful Earth science mission,” St. Germain said.

Liftoff is timed for 11:12 a.m. PDT (2:12 p.m. EDT; 1812 GMT) from Space Launch Complex 3-East  at Vandenberg, a military  base around 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

The expendable Atlas 5 rocket will fly in ULA’s basic “401” configuration with a four-meter (13.8-foot) diameter payload fairing, no strap-on solid rocket boosters, and a Centaur upper stage with a single hydrogen-fueled RL10 engine.

It will be the 39th flight of an Atlas 5-401 rocket, and the 88th blastoff of an Atlas 5 rocket overall since its inaugural flight in August 2002. The Atlas 5 placed its payloads into the correct orbit on all but one of the flights, but that mission’s customer, the National Reconnaissance Office, deemed the flight a success.

The Atlas 5-401 is the most-used variant of the Atlas 5 rocket, but just three of the remaining Atlas 5s will use that configuration, including the Landsat 9 mission Monday.

“NASA has a terrific record flying on Atlas 5,” said Tim Dunn, NASA’s launch director for the Landsat 9 mission. “We have  launched 19 missions on this magnificent rocket, missions to Pluto, Jupiter, the moon, the sun, the radiation belts, five different spacecraft to Mars.

“We’ve gone to the asteroid Bennu as well as (launched) three TDRS communications satellites and two life-saving GOES weather satellites,” Dunn said in a pre-launch press conference. “Landsat 9 will be the 20th NASA mission on Atlas 5.”

The launch of Landsat 9 will be the 16th Atlas 5 launch from Vandenberg. But just one more Atlas 5 remains on ULA’s schedule at the West Coast launch base. That mission, scheduled for September 2022, will deploy a polar-orbiting NOAA weather satellite   and an experimental inflatable heat shield developed by NASA to protect spacecraft entering planetary atmospheres, from Earth to other worlds throughout the solar system.

The other 27 Atlas 5 launches on ULA’s books will take off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.

One “last” that Monday’s mission will achieve is it will be the final daytime Atlas 5 launch from Vandenberg. The launch of NOAA’s JPSS 2 weather satellite next September is expected to occur in nighttime.

To round out the stats for Monday’s launch, it will mark the 300th flight of an Atlas rocket from Vandenberg, and the 2,000th total launch from the California spaceport since 1958.

Ground crews lift the Landsat 9 Earth observation satellite during pre-launch processing at Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. Credit: USSF 30th Space Wing/Anthony Men

The first Vulcan Centaur rockets will take off from Cape Canaveral, but ULA plans to reconfigure the SLC-3E launch pad at Vandenberg for eventual Vulcan missions.

Vandenberg is well-positioned for launches toward the south targeting high-inclination polar orbits. Such orbits are optimized for Earth observation satellites and some communications missions.

ULA’s primary customer is the U.S. government. Missions for NASA, the U.S. Space Force, and the National Reconnaissance Office have taken the lion’s share of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 flights, and make up the bulk of the Vulcan Centaur’s backlog, too.

Formed in 2006 by the merger of Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 and Boeing’s Delta 4 rocket programs, ULA has faced increasing competition from SpaceX in the military launch market.

ULA has completed modifications to launch facilities at Cape Canaveral for the Vulcan Centaur rocket. Vulcan flights will take off from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape, the same site used by Atlas 5 rockets.

Atlas 5s will continue flying for several more years from Florida’s Space Coast, alternating positions in ULA’s launch schedule with missions using the new Vulcan launcher.

Vandenberg’s final Atlas 5 launch next year will trigger a cutover to the Vulcan program.

“We have two remaining West Coast Atlas 5 missions, Landsat, and then next year we’ll have JPSS, and then that’s the end of Atlas operations on the West Coast,” said Mark Peller, vice president of major development at ULA.

“Because of the unique configuration of the West Coast facilities, we chose to modify them in a way that those modifications won’t be backward compatible,” Peller said in a recent interview with Spaceflight Now. “So once we make the decision to modify for Vulcan, we won’t retain the capability to launch the Atlas.”

ULA is currently designing the modifications to the pad it will implement after the launch of the JPSS 2 weather satellite next year.

“Some of the heavy lifting really has to happen after the JPSS mission, so we’ll go take the pad hard down, spend about a year implementing the final modifications, and we’ll have a repurposed facility out of SLC-3 focused on Vulcan operations,” Peller  said.

The Atlas 5 launch pad at Vandenberg has a mobile gantry that allows ground crews to stack rocket segments on the launch pad. The service tower wheels away in the final hours before liftoff, revealing the rocket before cryogenic propellants are pumped aboard.

At Cape Canaveral, ULA stacks the Atlas 5 rocket inside a fixed Vertical Integration Facility. The rocket then rides a mobile transporter to the launch pad.

Peller said the mobile gantry at SLC-3E will be modified to accommodate the wider diameter of the Vulcan rocket. But ULA won’t need to raise the structure’s height, which was increased in the 2000s to update the pad for Atlas 5 missions.

The Landsat 8 satellite launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket Feb. 11, 2013. The Landsat 9 satellite will use the same type of rocket. Credit: United Launch Alliance

The Atlas 5 launch set for Monday will propel the Landsat 9 satellite into an orbit more than 414 miles (666 kilometers) above the planet, positioning the spacecraft to join a nearly identical predecessor named Landsat 8 collecting daily images of land surfaces around the world.

The rocket’s RD-180 main engine will flash to life less than four seconds before liftoff, ramping up to full power to push the Atlas 5 off the launch pad.

The Atlas 5 will head south over the Pacific Ocean and break the sound barrier at T+plus 1 minute, 20 seconds. The bronze first stage will shut down and jettison just past the four-minute mark in the mission, giving way to a Centaur upper stage to steer the 5,975-pound (2,710-kilogram) Landsat 9 spacecraft into orbit.

Landsat 9 will deploy from the Centaur upper stage at T+plus 1 hour, 20 minutes.

A half-hour later, the Centaur stage will reignite its Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine for 10 seconds to begin maneuvering into a lower orbit for separation of four small CubeSat rideshare payloads.

Another 10-second Centaur burn at T+plus 2 hours, 10 minutes, will compete the orbit adjustment, setting the stage for release of the four CubeSats — two for NASA and two for the U.S. military — at T+plus 2 hours, 14 minutes.

A fourth and final Centaur burn will deorbit the stage, targeting a destructive re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.

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Investigations of U.S. Space Command’s basing decision to continue into 2022



WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office and the Defense Department’s inspector general are still months away from completing their investigations of the decision to relocate U.S. Space Command from Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Alabama. 

“We have been told by the department that results are expected sometime in spring of 2022,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) said Oct. 18 during a call with reporters along with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).

“So we continue to push for that to be expedited and to be moved faster,” Crow said. 

Bennet and Crow said they just returned from a two-day tour of military installations in Colorado as they continue to fight the relocation decision made by former President Trump. Colorado lawmakers argue the process was tainted by politics and did not follow the standard military basing process. 

Both the GAO and the DoD IG are “analyzing whether the decision was made in an appropriate nonpolitical manner,” Bennet said. 

The Colorado delegation most recently asked Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to suspend any actions on the relocation until the investigations are completed. Bennet said Kendall has not responded to the most recent letter lawmakers sent him Sept. 30.

Crow said that while the president has the power to relocate a military base, Trump abused that power for political gain.

For now, lawmakers are trying to stop the relocation by denying funding. 

“It’s Congress’s role is to decide how taxpayer money is spent and how we allocate that money within the Department of Defense, and you obviously can’t make those decisions and conduct a base move or build out a new command for that matter without the funding,” said Crow. “So that’s our primary mechanism of conducting that level of oversight.”

The Department of the Defense has a long-standing process for selecting the location of military installations and U.S. Space Command’s basing should have followed that process, he said, “so it’s done in the best interest of our national security and it’s not a political decision made by any one or a handful of elected officials.”

 “That’s the way it has been in the past and that that’s the way it should be in the future,” said Crow. “The Air Force was supposed to follow a process. There are many indications that then President Trump overrode that process and put his thumb on the scale in favor of one location.” 

The GAO and IG are working to “determine whether or not that occurred and if it did, of course we need to revisit that process and go through it the right way.”

Crow said that during their recent tour of military installations, he and Bennet spoke with officials from U.S. Space Command, U.S. Space Force, Missile Defense Agency and others about the issue and their response was that they would prefer to stay out of the political fray.

“Certainly the visit underscored for us there’s a level of professionalism of these individuals and that they’re not going to weigh in,” Crow said. 

Leaders from these organizations did tell lawmakers that the most important factor in a relocation is human capital.

“You can invest in technology, you can invest in buildings, all day long, but unless you have the right people in place, unless you have the talent to ensure the success of admission, it’s not going to work,” said Crow.

Colorado lawmakers have repeatedly made the case that moving Space Command to Alabama would be counterproductive as most of Space Command’s workforce and industrial base reside in Colorado.

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NASA officials optimistic Lucy asteroid mission will overcome solar array snag



Artist’s illustration of the final phase of deploying the solar arrays on NASA’s Lucy spacecraft. Credit: NASA

A NASA official said Monday there is “widespread optimism” that a solar array snag discovered on the Lucy asteroid probe after its launch over the weekend will not jeopardize the spacecraft’s 12-year exploration mission.

Lucy’s two solar arrays were folded up on each side of the box-shaped spacecraft during launch Saturday from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas 5 rocket. One of the two solar array wings fully unfurled and latched after launch, but NASA says it did not receive confirmation that the other wing latched into place.

The Atlas 5 deployed the Lucy probe nearly an hour after liftoff, sending the 3,300-pound (1,500-pound) spacecraft on an escape trajectory into the solar system. The launch kicked off a $981 million mission to explore the Trojan asteroids, a primordial population of small worlds leading and trailing Jupiter in its orbit around the sun.

Lucy is the mission is the first to explore the Trojan asteroids, which scientists say are leftover building blocks similar to objects that came together to form the solar systems giant outer planets. The probe will fly by seven Trojan asteroids between 2027 and 2033, plus one object in the main asteroid belt in 2025.

A few minutes after separating from the Atlas 5 launcher, Lucy began a pre-programmed sequence to unfold the solar arrays like giant Chinese fans. Fully deployed, the UltraFlex solar wings span about 24 feet (7.3 meters) in diameter, the circular power arrays to ever fly in space.

Both solar arrays are generating power, and Lucy’s batteries are fully charged, said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division.

“The spacecraft is stable and healthy, and it’s safe,” Glaze said Monday in a virtual town hall meeting by NASA’s science mission directorate. “It’s not in any danger, at this point, in this configuration. So we are taking our time in determining what’s going on with the solar array, and developing a path forward on how to remediate.”

“We’re very happy to report that we are getting most of the power we expected at this point in the mission,” said Joan Salute, associate director for flight programs at NASA’s planetary science division. “It’s not 100%, but it is fairly close. So that is great news.’

In an interview with Spaceflight Now, Salute said the power output from the solar arrays appears to be “most likely above 90%” of the expected level of 18,000 watts.

“We don’t know if it’s a latch problem, or that it is only partially deployed,” Salute said.

Lucy will become the farthest spacecraft from the sun to ever rely on solar power, reaching a maximum distance of 530 million miles (853 million kilometers), nearly six times farther than Earth’s orbit. When it reaches the Trojan asteroids, Lucy’s solar arrays were expected to generate just 500 watts of power.

That level power output is sufficient to feed Lucy’s three science instruments, which only need about 82 watts of power during each asteroid encounter. Lucy’s flight computer, communications system, and other components will also draw on power generated by the UltraFlex arrays.

Salute said controllers may attempt to command Lucy to re-attempt a full deployment of the solar array.

“They’re checking different analyses, making sure that that would be safe to implement,” she said. “One of the steps that they would be taking in the fairly short term would be to provide a second attempt at full deployment and latching.”

The UltraFlex solar arrays on NASA’s Lucy spacecraft unfold during a ground test at a Lockheed Martin test facility in Colorado. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Lucy spacecraft, oversees mission operations from a control center near Denver.

Although the solar arrays are generating sufficient power, engineers are also evaluating whether it is safe to fire the spacecraft’s main engine with an unlatched solar array. The mission’s first major deep space maneuver is tentatively scheduled for mid-November.

“At this point in time, they hope to go ahead with that maneuver, but it is too early to tell,” Salute said.

The spacecraft has continued firing its smaller attitude control thrusters without any issues, she said.

“They just want to really get a little more understanding under their belt about which would be safer — to re-deploy or to operate as is,” Salute said. “And I don’t think they have a firm answer on that option quite yet.”

Managers have postponed one other major post-launch activity to allow engineers to address the solar array issue. Lucy’s instrument platform was supposed to release and deploy two days after launch. That has been temporarily put on hold, according to Salute.

“There’s still widespread optimism that this can be overcome, or worked with,” Salute said.

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Betting on flexibility: Intelsat’s post-bankruptcy growth strategy



SpaceNews spoke with Samer Halawi, Intelsat’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, to learn more about the satellite giant’s post-restructuring growth strategy.

Intelsat is devising a transformational business plan for after it emerges from bankruptcy restructuring later this year, including a big bet on software-defined satellites and potentially its own low-Earth-orbit broadband constellation.

The operator, which has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for nearly a year and a half, issued a request for proposals (RFP) at the end of July for 10 satellites that could be reconfigured in-orbit for changing mission needs.

Samer Halawi, Intelsat Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer. Credit: Intelsat

What role will software-defined satellites play for Intelsat after it emerges from restructuring?

Software-defined satellites are an integral part of our strategy. We have ordered two of them so far, in the factory today, and we have just launched an RFP for 10 of them. We’re not going light on this. This is a major investment in technology.

Is there a deadline for this RFP?

We just launched it, and the time period is going to be in the next three to five years — it’s not too extended.

We don’t need the 10 to cover the globe. Our first two, plus what we have today, give us pretty much global coverage. The rest is all adding capacity where it’s needed. So it’s not from a coverage point of view, but more of a densification element. The beauty about those things is, as time elapses, you need less and less time from contract to orbit. So we can get them up in a very quick manner.

What else can you say about what these 10 satellites will do — I suppose them being software-defined means you can change that on the fly?

Yes, Intelsat has the richest portfolio of slots in the industry, so it depends on the mission. We obviously have a plan right now for our first two and where we’re going to put those, but for the rest we’re just going to plug the holes or add capability as needed.

Does it just make sense then to bulk-buy as many software-defined satellites as you can, because of the supply chain issues currently facing the industry?

Partly, but also we have a business strategy coming out of this restructuring that is growth-orientated. In order to deliver that growth, you need the assets behind it. So we’re designing a network that can more than satisfy our needs. When you look at commercial aviation connectivity, for example, you realize that today’s take rates on airplanes is very low. You’re talking about 8-10% take rates on airplanes, because the Wi-Fi services have traditionally been low quality or expensive, but that model is changing to where a lot of airlines now are offering this as a freemium, ad-supported or content-supported model.

When you move to this environment, the take rate is going to jump dramatically. So the capacity that will be required on airplanes will increase by orders of magnitude. Then to keep up, because you want to provide the right quality, you’ll need a lot of capacity. That drives the requirement for up to 10 satellites.

So it’s about the traditional markets, but also markets that when they grow they require so much more capacity. Similarly in the cruise market. You used to go on cruises to disconnect, but now their advertising is based on the fact that you can have internet onboard.

This is also great news for the GEO manufacturing market.

Yes, today we have 10 satellites in the factory. Seven C-band satellites, the two software-defined satellites, and an advanced version of our [high-throughput platform] Epic.

I don’t even know if a factory a year or two ago even had 10 satellites combined. I think in many ways we have revived some manufacturers that may have gone bankrupt otherwise. You’re absolutely right, I think there’s a rejuvenation within the GEO market. It’s centered around the traditional C-band satellites that will continue to be there for a long time, but also I think you’ll see a lot more software-defined satellites.

I imagine you’re going to want to spread these 10 satellites around different manufacturers?


When do you expect to decide on all of this?

I think within the first quarter of next year, as we emerge from the restructuring and finalize our business plan.

How do these software-defined satellites fit within your existing GEO fleet?

Our view is that we need to have a system that really has multiple layers to it in GEO for serving different applications. You have your traditional C-band satellites that serve our media customers — and our media businesses are still 42% of our business today, and then you have wide-beam satellites that serve applications like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR. Then we have Epic satellites with high throughput that serve our network business and mobility customers. On top of that, we want our software-defined satellites.

The idea is, within the GEO layer, we would be able to serve the customer with the most optimum capacity for the application that they are utilizing, at the location where they are.

Especially when you talk about commercial aviation, you want a lot of capacity density in some areas, and we are able to do that with this multi-layer approach.

The second part of the strategy is a multi-band capability. Traditionally, most of our business has been in Kuband, but we have also started offering Ka-band services. In the future, we see ourselves moving into Q, V and other bands as well. So it’s not only about Ku-band, although today we hold a lot of slots and frequencies in this band.

Intelsat plans a multi-layered strategy post-restructuring to tailor connectivity services to diverse markets. Credit: Intelsat

What about opportunities Intelsat sees in a nongeostationary orbit (NGSO)?

The third element of our strategy is multi-orbit, because as much as we believe GEO is fundamental to our offering, we think that there is an advantage to an NGSO constellation that could provide capabilities that are mainly centered around latency and coverage. Especially when you start looking at the poles, which are becoming increasingly important both for government and commercial aviation customers. So we’re defining and designing our NGSO strategy today. We haven’t made any announcements yet. It’s no secret that we’re working in partnerships with some of the existing players, but we’re also looking at potentially building our own.

We do not believe that a stand-alone NGSO system is ever going to make money. We don’t believe that you can get a return on investment. We believe that people who do it, do it for other reasons that’s of value to them for other parts of their businesses.

We’ve looked into this quite a bit and we’ve explored that enough to know that you just cannot monetize a system like this — but we believe that if you put that as a complement to a GEO constellation, it starts making sense.

How so?

Firstly, because you don’t have to build something that is worldwide. You can build it to cover where your gaps are. Secondly, you’re building it on top of an existing platform of revenues and customer base.

The biggest problem we believe in NGSO is the fact that you have to build the system, and then you have a very short window of time in which you have to monetize the whole thing so you can replenish the system, because every five years you need new satellites, right? When you have an existing customer base and you’re just upselling them services or bundling, it’s different from when you’re trying to build a new customer base. From that point of view, we believe that our NGSO strategy is probably the right one.

So this is what we’re building. It’s a multi-orbit, multi-layer and multi-band strategy from a space segment.

Intelsat entering the NGSO market directly would be big news.

We haven’t made any announcements on this. We’re exploring today the possibility of us building, as opposed to just partnering. There are more things to say about that in the future.

When do you expect to make a decision on that?

I think early next year we’ll have probably formulated our plans and made them public. You must have seen Inmarsat recently talking about adding a LEO element to their GEO constellation? I think a lot of people understand that the combination of the two is useful. Whether people pull it off or not, that’s a different story.

And this is all part of a new chapter in Intelsat’s story as it seeks to emerge with a fresh balance sheet after restructuring?

We are quite diversified as a company, if you think about it, we serve all of the sectors. This diversification has, by the way, been extremely helpful for us in a COVID-19 environment, where you had some sectors that got hit, but others that did really well.

But how do you serve multiple sectors?

If you look at some of the NGSO designs, for example, some of our competitors have very inflexible designs or they have like one flavor of the space segment — you can never serve multiple sectors with one flavor of space segment. You can do it, but you’re just doing it in a very non-optimal way. For us, what we want to do is use the different types of space segment capability that we’re bringing to optimally serve different verticals with each. For that, of course, you need scale.

You spoke about how having an existing customer base is an essential foundation. Is there also an advantage to not being a first-mover? Ground antennas have been a big issue for the LEO broadband pioneers. Are you expecting costs to have come down by the time Intelsat arrives?

You’re 100% right. Three years ago, no one was talking about multi-orbit terminals. Everyone was talking about just trying to get one terminal in place and that wasn’t easy. So we’re starting from the gate talking about multi-orbit terminals. The ground is where the other part of the innovation is and where our focus is — having infrastructure that is completely 5G-capable.

We’re starting with a core network that is 5G, so that the interoperability with our customers becomes seamless. That’s very, very important. We’re also looking into potentially using a 5G waveform in the future. We’re taking it to the point where terrestrial technology is really at the heart of what we use to communicate. Not just in the back office, but the service will be 5G-capable. That’s what we’re shooting for.

Enabling handsets that consumers are already using to connect to satellites as well as terrestrial networks?

There are two parts to this. One, you have to be able to close the link with the satellite asset. With a GEO, you would never be able to close the link directly to the handset. But we’re not just talking about GEO now. We’re talking multiple layers of capability, even probably to the point of having high altitude platforms [such as autonomous airships], and they are things that can communicate directly with the device.

So you have that link, but then you also have the technology — the waveform, what is that based on? We as a company have been driving Release 17 of the 3GPP standard. That defines how satellite integrates seamlessly within a terrestrial environment. That is something we’re working heavily on, plus having our own cloud services as well.

In addition to this, we’re heavy on the concept of virtualization. Look at COVID, a lot of people struggled not because the bandwidth requirements weren’t there, but because they couldn’t get engineers on sites to upgrade equipment. When you’re in a world of virtualization, you don’t have that problem, and you can rely more on software as opposed to a business of inefficient hardware that you have to keep replicating and produce.

Open architecture has a role to play in this?

We’ve always had an open architecture as opposed to vertically integrated, closed technology. What we’re doing today is we’re opening the door for like-minded operators in the industry to join us in some form of alliance program where they can bring their capabilities, put them in the network with us and vice versa, and we can orchestrate all of that to the benefit of customers. So customers that work with us will not only have the benefit of having access to all of our space assets today, and the ones that are coming up, but also the assets of others that could be competitors on the service side, but we believe that we can have offerings that really make sense.

Doing this really builds scale, and this is a business of scale. The scale that we’re looking at for the future is really orders of magnitude higher than what it used to be.

So Intelsat’s view is one satellite operator will not be able to reach the scale to serve everyone everywhere, and partnerships are needed to patch a network together?

Absolutely, and that’s the right strategy. There are companies that obviously want to do things on their own, and they’re vertically integrated. I think they will struggle, and it will be difficult for them to be self-sustainable.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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China launches orbiting solar observatory



A Long March 2D rocket blasts off with China’s Xihe solar research satellite. Credit: CASC

China successfully launched a half-ton scientific research satellite Oct. 14 to study the violent and sudden physical processes behind solar flares, joining 10 other small payloads on a Long March 2D rocket that also tested grid fins to help guide the expendable booster away from populated areas during its fall back to Earth.

The Long March 2D rocket blasted off from the Taiyuan launch base in Shanxi province, located in northern China, at 6:51 a.m. EDT (1251 GMT) on Oct. 14, according to China’s space agency.

The two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket headed south from Taiyuan and placed the 11 satellites into a polar sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of approximately 323 miles (520 kilometers).

The rocket employed a grid fin control system on its first stage, the first time such a steering mechanism has been used on a Long March 2D launcher. The grid fins extended from the first stage after the booster jettisoned a few minutes after launch.

The system is designed to reduce the size of the booster’s impact area by more than 80%, according to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., the leading state-owned contractor for China’s space program.

China does not recover and reuse its rockets. Launches from China’s inland spaceports drop their spent boosters over Chinese territory, sometimes near populated areas.

The grid fins make the booster impact site “more precise and controllable” and will “greatly improve the safety environment of the landing area,” CASC said in a statement. China previously tested grid fins on other versions of the Long March rocket family.

The primary payload on the launch was the Chinese Hydrogen Alpha Solar Explorer, or CHASE satellite, China’s first science mission dedicated to observing the sun.

Chinese officials announced a new name for the mission, Xihe, after a public call for ideas. Xihe is a goddess the sun in Chinese mythology.

The Xihe mission, which China’s space agency described as a solar research and technology demonstration satellite, carries a solar telescope tuned to monitor the sun in the hydrogen alpha spectrum. Observations in the hydrogen alpha spectral line see the sun in a deep red color, which is suited to study solar flares, revealing details not visible to telescopes operating in other optical bands.

Solar flares, the largest explosive events in our solar system, are giant eruptions from the sun that send radiation into space. The Xihe mission aims to study the mysterious physical processes that drive solar flares, which scientists say are associated with the sudden release of magnetic energy near sunspots.

The Xihe solar telescope will look for changes in temperatures and velocities of material in the solar photosphere and chromosphere — the visible surface of the sun, and the super-heated gaseous layer just above it.

Chinese scientists say the Xihe mission will explore the dynamic trigger mechanisms that drive solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which can impact Earth and generate geomagnetic storms, affecting communications, electrical grids, and satellite operations.

The Xihe spacecraft, along with several of the mission’s secondary payloads, is attached to the payload adapter of its Long March 2D rocket. Credit: CNSA

The satellite weighs about 1,100 pounds, or 500 kilograms, according to Chinese officials. It uses a new ultra-precise pointing platform that applies “maglev technology” that helps isolate the science payload from tiny spacecraft vibrations, according to the China National Space Administration.

Future Chinese satellites could use similar technology for remote sensing, solar system exploration, and astronomy missions, the space agency said in a statement.

The Chinese space agency approved development of the Xihe mission in 2019. Nanjing University leads the science team. The Shanghai Academy of Spaceflight Technology, a government-run enterprise, developed the spacecraft platform.

The Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, developed the Xihe mission’s scientific payload. The science instrument consists of a telescope, a grating spectrometer, and scanning mirrors to focus on specific regions on the sun’s disk, a capability enabled by the satellites fine pointing system.

In a statement, Nanjing University said data from the Xihe mission will be released to domestic and international scientists after calibration.

China plans to launch the Advanced Space-based Solar Observatory, or ASO-S, next year. Chinese officials have said they plan to develop a multi-spacecraft three-dimensional solar observatory in the future.

The Long March 2D rocket that deployed China’s Xihe solar research satellite also released 10 smaller payloads into orbit.

Grid fins on the Long March 2D’s first stage. Credit: SAST

The secondary payloads included the SSS 1 and SSS 2A student-built microsatellites from Beihang University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The SSS 1 satellite deployed a coiled extension arm after reaching space.

China Great Wall Industry Corp., which arranges launch services for commercial and international satellites on Chinese rockets, said in a statement that it contracted rides to space for the other eight small payloads.

The other rideshare satellites included the HEAD 2E and 2F spacecraft for a Beijing-based company named HEAD Aerospace, which is deploying a fleet of small spacecraft to track ships and aircraft.

The Tianshu 1 spacecraft will test technologies to augment space-based navigation services. Another satellite, named MOTS, will demonstrate use of a VHF Data Exchange System for Shanghai Lizheng Satellite, testing technology that could be used to relay communications from maritime vessels.

Also on-board the launch was the Golden Bauhinia N2 remote sensing satellite from Hong Kong Aerospace Science and Technology Group, which is developing a constellation of small spacecraft to provide near-real-time, all-weather high-resolution images of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area.

Another satellite, named MD 1, developed by Shenzhen Aerospace Dongfanghong Satellite Co. Ltd. is designed to study atmospheric density in low Earth orbit.

The QX 1 satellite, developed by the same company, is an experimental pathfinder for a future constellation of weather monitoring smallsats to obtain data on atmospheric temperature, humidity, and air pressure using occultation measurements of satellite navigation signals.

The Tianyuan 1 from Nanjing University was the final satellite on the Long March 2D launch last week. The suitcase-size spacecraft will test a new type of solid thruster and a micro-propulsion system.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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