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New study calls for ‘national dialogue’ on future environmental satellites



The Aerospace study says a discussion on weather satellite investments could be elevated to White House-level bodies like USGEO and ICAMS

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is poised to make large investments in environmental monitoring satellites but these efforts are not well coordinated across agencies that acquire these systems and the users of data collected by weather satellites, says a new report by the Aerospace Corp. published June 8.

Weather satellites procured by the Defense Department and the Commerce Department are critical assets that provide meteorological data to numerous national and international organizations. Both agencies are in the process of transitioning to new systems, which creates a window of opportunity to have a “national dialogue” about these programs, says the study by the Aerospace Center for Space Policy and Strategy.

Environmental satellites are acquired by the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Defense Department. DoD and NOAA share data and coordinate investments but their plans should be more broadly discussed at a higher level, says Timothy Hall, Aerospace’s director of environmental civil space programs and a co-author of the study.

Plans for future weather satellite programs could be discussed and coordinated at White House-level bodies like the United States Group on Earth Observations (USGEO) and the Interagency Council for Advancing Meteorological Services (ICAMS), says the study.

“There can be a richer dialogue, and that was the motivation behind this paper,” Hall tells SpaceNews.

Thomas Adang, principal engineer at Aerospace’s civil systems group and co-author of the report, says environmental satellite investments should be discussed with groups like USGEO and ICAMS so NOAA and DoD can gain a deeper understanding of the needs of users of weather data. 

Once launched, weather satellites are in place for decades, Adang says. “How do we make sure we have good dialogue, cooperation and feedback from those who have been using the old data, and will use the new data?” There has to be better communication between the developers and the users, says Adang.

NOAA and DoD are pursuing an “almost a once-in-a-generation process to look at what comes next in the next 20 or 30 years” in space-based environmental monitoring, Hall says. “They’re at an inflection point and there’s this great opportunity to combine what’s going on in the commercial sector, particularly the innovation with small satellites and technology that is enabling new business models.”

The conversation should be “broader than just a NOAA-DoD thing,” Hall said. 

The study says this issue has national security implications as China continues to invest in weather satellites. “If we do not develop a more coordinated U.S. governmentwide approach to developing capabilities, the United States could find itself at an international disadvantage,” says the report. “In particular, China is planning to fill potential capability gaps traditionally provided by U.S. assets, putting both the U.S. and allies into the position of relying on an adversary for critical weather data.”

Agencies share responsibilities 

The study points out that NOAA, NASA and DoD more than 20 years ago embarked on a joint effort to acquire the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) to support civilian and military agencies. NPOESS was an ambitious attempt to bring the agencies under one program but it got too complex and expensive. NPOESS collapsed in 2010 and since then NOAA and DoD have pursued separate paths.

DoD, NOAA and Europe’s Eumetsat today fly satellites in three orbits that pass over Earth’s polar regions and overfly points on Earth at the same local time each day. The weather community uses data collected in the three orbits commonly referred to as “early morning,” “mid-morning” and “afternoon.” 

After NPOESS broke up, DoD got the responsibility for covering the early morning orbit, Eumetsat the mid-morning orbit and NOAA the afternoon orbit. The three-orbit architecture provides satellite cloud imagery coverage over every point on the Earth at least every four hours.

The Aerospace study notes that the DoD satellites that cover the morning orbit — the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) — are aging and at risk of failing. “Cloud imaging instruments continue to function,” the report says. But DMSP’s atmospheric sounding capabilities have failed.

The study says China is poised to insert satellites into nearby orbits and share the data with U.S. allies and adversaries, “filling a gap that could exist for the U.S. and its international partners when DMSP end-of-life is reached.”

As DMSP satellites reach the end of their service life, “international entities are aware of the gap in the early morning LEO [low Earth orbit] sounding coverage and are considering non-U.S. alternatives,” says the report. 

Urged by the World Meteorological Organization, China is on track to launch imagery, sounding and space weather instruments into the early morning orbit in 2021, says Aerospace. “There is a possibility that China will offer the only available early morning sounding data for global weather modeling in the 2024 to 2027 timeframe.”

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Transportes Aeromar signs ATR aircraft propeller maintenance contract



Mexican carrier Transportes Aeromar has awarded a contract to Piedmont Propulsion Systems to support its next-generation ATR 42 and 72 aircraft fleet.

As part of the multi-year contract, Piedmont Propulsion Systems will provide complete propeller maintenance for the aircraft.

The financial details of the contract have not been disclosed.

Transportes Aeromar procurement and supply chain manager Javier Tellez Vidal said: “After a competitive market study of the alternatives, the decision to choose Piedmont Propulsion Systems made both technical and financial sense for us.”

Piedmont Propulsion Systems is a wholly owned subsidiary of First Aviation Services and a verified propeller maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) provider.

It offers new proprietary replacement parts and repairs certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The company’s customer base includes Air Canada Jazz, WestJet, Lion Air Group, FedEx Express, Lufthansa Technik, Bombardier Aerospace and the US Department of Defence.

Last month, it became an independent MRO facility to offer complete major inspection support for the Model 568F propeller, including the removal and re-application of the blade compression wrap.

The propeller is fitted on the Next-Gen ATR turboprop aircraft family.

Piedmont Propulsion Systems general manager Sammy Oakley said: “Piedmont Propulsion Systems has invested extensively in the ATR/568F platform which allows us to provide significant cost savings for our customers. We’re excited to continue and grow our relationship with Javier Tellez and his team.”

Headquartered in Westport, Connecticut, First Aviation Services provides component repair and overhaul, PMA parts manufacturing and spare part management for the global aviation industry.

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Report: Space Force has to prepare for operations beyond Earth’s orbit



Col. Eric Felt: ‘Operating spacecraft beyond geosynchronous Earth orbit poses unique challenges’

WASHINGTON — A new report published by the Air Force Research Laboratory suggests the U.S. Space Force has to prepare for a day when the moon and the volume of space around it could become the next military frontier.

 “A Primer on Cislunar Space” was released June 23 by AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate. Its intended audience are military space professionals who one day might have to develop spacecraft and concepts for operations in regions beyond Earth’s orbit.

Col. Eric Felt, the director of AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate, said the document aims to “educate and inspire.”

“Operating spacecraft beyond geosynchronous Earth orbit poses unique challenges,” Felt said in a statement. “As commerce extends to the moon and beyond, it is vital we understand and solve those unique challenges so that we can provide space domain awareness and security.”

Cislunar space generally is defined as the region that contains the Earth, moon, and Lagrange points where spacecraft may be deployed in the future if a cislunar economy emerges.

The report was written by C. Channing Chow, CEO of Cloudstone Innovations; Marcus Holzinger, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder; and Peter Garretson, a consultant at the American Foreign Policy Council.

AFRL has long been a proponent of advancing research on cislunar space. The Space Vehicles Directorate last year announced it will fund an experiment to investigate technologies to monitor cislunar space. The experiment was named CHPS, for Cislunar Highway Patrol System.

One of the concerns is developing technologies for surveillance, navigation and communications in cislunar space.

A cooperative agreement signed by the Space Force and NASA last year calls for future collaboration on cislunar space research and technologies.

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Masten delays first lunar lander mission



WASHINGTON — Masten Space Systems is pushing back the launch of its first lunar lander mission by nearly a year, the latest in a series of delays by companies with NASA contracts to transport payloads to the moon.

Masten said June 23 that its Masten Mission 1 lander, which had been scheduled to launch in December 2022 to land near Haworth Crater in the south polar regions of the moon, will instead launch in November 2023. The company blamed the delay on the cumulative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and industry-wide supply chain issues.

“We’ve all been impacted by the pandemic in some way, and the aerospace industry is no exception,” Dave Masten, founder and chief technology officer, said in the company’s announcement of the delay. “However, we’ve consulted with NASA, our launch provider and payload partners, and we have full confidence in the new mission schedule.”

Masten won a NASA task order as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in April 2020 for the mission, valued at $75.9 million. Masten will deliver a set of NASA science and technology payloads, with room on the lander for additional commercial payloads. Masten contracted with SpaceX to launch the lander, a design the company calls XL-1.

“Our team continues to make progress on XL-1 development and achieve important milestones that will help ensure a safe, precise landing near the resource-rich Haworth Crater,” Dave Masten said. One advantage of the delay, the company added, is that there will be reduced shadowing from terrain during the new landing period, a key issue in polar regions where the sun is low on the horizon.

NASA confirmed it was aware of the delay in the Masten lander mission. “Masten has notified NASA it’ll delay the delivery by 12 months due to COVID-19 impacts that pushed past the current launch window,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, tweeted. “NASA Payloads will be ready when Masten is able to launch safely.”

Masten is one of four companies that have received a total of six CLPS task orders that NASA has awarded to date. Two other CLPS companies have also suffered delays in their initial lunar lander missions.

Intuitive Machines confirmed in April that its IM-1 lander mission, which had been scheduled for launch in the fall of 2021, had been delayed to early 2022. The company said SpaceX, its launch provider, delayed the launch because of “unique mission requirements” that neither Intuitive Machines nor SpaceX would disclose.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander had also been scheduled to launch in late 2021 as the payload on the inaugural launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur. However, ULA has said in recent weeks that the first Vulcan launch had been delayed to 2022 because of customer payload delays.

While Astrobotic hasn’t made a public announcement about the schedule for Peregrine, John Thornton, chief executive of the company, told SpaceNews June 23 that the mission is now scheduled for launch in 2022.

“I commend our team for their incredible work and perseverance through what we can all agree was a tough year,” he said. “Many businesses and supply chains were affected by COVID, and Astrobotic is no exception. We’re optimistically moving into 2022 together with the same tenacity we’ve always possessed.”

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Army, Navy satellite operations to consolidate under Space Force



WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force later this year will begin to take over the operation of 11 Navy narrowband communications satellites. It also will absorb Army units that currently operate military communications payloads, a Space Force official said June 23.

The transition, scheduled to begin in October, will create a more integrated U.S. military satcom enterprise which for decades has “largely been a loose federation,” said Col. Matthew Holston, commander of Space Delta 8 at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado.

Holston spoke about the upcoming reorganization at the SMi MilSatCom USA virtual conference. 

Space Delta 8 operates communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites from Schriever and from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California. 

With 635 personnel, Space Delta 8 operates 66 satellites: 37 GPS, six Advanced EHF communications, five Milstar, two Enhanced Polar System hosted payloads, 10 Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) and six Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS).

The operation of the Navy’s 11 narrowband communications satellites will move to Space Delta 8. That includes a mix of Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), Ultra High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) and FLTSATCOM UHF satellites. 

Space Delta 8 also will absorb three Navy satellite control antennas and ground control stations at Prospect Harbor, Maine; Laguna Peak, California; and Finegayan, Guam. 

Transitioning from the Army are two units that currently are part of the Army’s satellite operations brigade: The 53rd Signal Battalion and the SATCOM Directorate.

The 53rd Signal Battalion is the only U.S. military unit that controls the payloads of the WGS and DSCS communication constellations.

The SATCOM Directorate supports wideband and narrowband services for U.S. Space Command, and oversees international partner satcom agreements.

 The consolidation of units is “really an opportunity from a space segment perspective as well as a resource management perspective to start moving towards an integrated satcom enterprise,” Holston said.

Army and Navy satellite operators will not be obligated to move over to the Space Force but can voluntarily transfer. 

“We’re working with both our partners in the Army in the Navy to do the service transfers associated with that,” said Holston.

He said this is one step toward accomplishing the Space Force’s vision of an integrated satcom enterprise of military and commercial systems.

That strategy was laid out in the “United States Space Force Vision for Satellite Communications,” which was approved by Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond in January 2020.

Raymond directed the Space Force to figure out how to integrate military and commercial satcom systems so users can roam between networks the way consumer cellphones switch between providers when they travel from one country to another.

Holston said the integration of commercial systems, including space internet services in low Earth orbit, is being handled by the Space Force’s acquisition organization, the Space and Missile Systems Center.  

“I think those discussions are certainly ongoing,” he said. “If you look at the enterprise satcom vision, we certainly want to partner across what is available across different orbital regimes.” 

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