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Northrop Grumman air-launches Pegasus XL rocket for US Space Force

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Northrop Grumman has successfully launched a payload into orbit for the US Space Force (USSF) using the company’s Pegasus XL rocket.

The Tactically Responsive Launch-2 (TacRL-2) payload was launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base.

The USSF’s tactically responsive launch concept seeks to introduce speed, agility, and flexibility into the launch enterprise in order to respond to dynamic changes in the space domain or an operational theatre and insert or replace assets on orbit much faster than standard timelines to meet emerging combatant command requirements.

Pegasus, the world’s first privately-developed commercial space launch vehicle, is an air-launched three-staged rocket carried aloft by Northrop Grumman’s specially modified Stargazer L-1011 aircraft.

Shortly after its release from Stargazer, at approximately 40,000ft above the Pacific Ocean, Pegasus ignited its first stage, beginning its successful flight carrying TacRL-2 to its intended orbit.

“This Pegasus launch was a clear demonstration of our team’s ability to provide rapid and responsive operational needs,” said Rich Straka, vice president, launch vehicles, Northrop Grumman. “Our team was able to execute the design, integration and testing of the TacRL-2 launch vehicle in less than four months from contract award.”

This is the 45th launch of Pegasus, which uses solid propulsion to offer maximum responsiveness by enabling launch to a wide variety of orbits on short timelines. This capability provides customers with the flexibility to operate from virtually anywhere on Earth with minimal ground support requirements.

Pegasus has launched more than 90 satellites into low earth orbit from five separate launch sites in the US, Europe and the Marshall Islands.

www.northropgrumman.com

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Source: https://www.aero-mag.com/northrop-grumman-pegasus-space-force-14062021/

Aerospace

Falcon Heavy to launch Europa Clipper

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WASHINGTON — NASA has selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to launch its Europa Clipper mission to a potentially habitable moon of Jupiter, a choice that appeared inevitable once NASA was no longer required to use the Space Launch System.

NASA announced July 23 that it awarded a launch services contract to SpaceX for the October 2024 launch of Europa Clipper on a Falcon Heavy rocket. The contract is valued at $178 million.

The award to SpaceX was expected after Congress, in the fiscal year 2021 omnibus spending bill passed in December 2020, gave the agency the flexibility to choose an alternative launch vehicle for the mission. Previous years’ spending bills required the use of the SLS for Europa Clipper, even as NASA requested the flexibility to acquire a commercial launch vehicle.

Congress relented because of potential hardware compatibility issues found last year between Europa Clipper and SLS. The 2021 spending bill directed NASA to use SLS for Europa Clipper only if “the SLS is available and if torsional loading analysis has confirmed Clipper’s appropriateness for SLS.”

A month after the passage of the bill, NASA directed the Europa Clipper project to halt all planning for launching the spacecraft on SLS and instead prepare to use a commercial vehicle. “We now have clarity on the launch vehicle path and launch date,” Robert Pappalardo, project scientist for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said at a meeting in early February.

That decision made it likely NASA would select SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy given the technical requirements for the mission and the launch vehicles available to meet it. NASA placed Europa Clipper in its “Category 3” requirements for launch services, requiring that vehicles have performed at least three successful launches, including at least two successful consecutive launches.

Falcon Heavy has flown three times, all successfully, although it has not launched since June 2019. Alternative vehicles with the performance required for the mission, such as Blue Origin’s New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur, will not make their first launches until at least next year.

Launching Europa Clipper on Falcon Heavy, rather than SLS, results in trade-offs on both cost and schedule. NASA, in its fiscal year 2021 budget request, argued that a commercial launch could save the agency “over $1.5 billion compared to using a Space Launch System rocket.” By contrast, a NASA Office of Inspector General report in 2019 concluded the cost difference could be less than $300 million, although that study estimated the cost of a Falcon Heavy launch at $450 million, more than twice the value of the contract awarded to SpaceX.

What is not in doubt, though, is that SLS would have offered a faster ride for Europa Clipper. An SLS launch would have allowed the spacecraft to fly directly to Jupiter, arriving less than three years after launch. With Falcon Heavy, Europa Clipper will make gravity-assist flybys of Mars and Earth, arriving at Jupiter five and a half years after launch.

The Europa Clipper contract adds to a growing manifest of future Falcon Heavy missions for NASA, the Defense Department and commercial customers. That includes contracts awarded by NASA in February for the launch of the first two modules of the lunar Gateway and by Astrobotic in April for the launch of its Griffin lunar lander carrying a NASA lunar rover. The Gateway launch is currently scheduled for November 2024, just one month after the Europa Clipper launch.

Ironically, the hardware compatibility issue that finally gave NASA the flexibility to select a vehicle other than SLS to launch Europa Clipper may not have been as severe as once thought. While NASA disclosed few specifics about the problem, Steve Jurczyk, NASA acting administrator in March, said it involved higher lateral loads on the spacecraft during an SLS launch than what the spacecraft was designed for.

“Given that the design is done and some of the hardware is already manufactured, it was going to be very challenging from a cost and schedule standpoint to modify the spacecraft or develop an isolation system to handle the lateral load issue,” he said in a March interview.

However, Robert Stough of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, speaking at a meeting of the steering committee of the planetary science decadal survey July 7, argued that engineers had used “very conservative” limits when doing the initial analysis. “It really was a nonissue at the end of the day,” he argued.


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Source: https://spacenews.com/falcon-heavy-to-launch-europa-clipper/

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Court denies Viasat attempt to halt Starlink launches pending legal action

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TAMPA, Fla. — A federal appeals court denied a motion from satellite operator Viasat to stop SpaceX from enlarging its Starlink megaconstellation.

Viasat had requested a stay on a SpaceX license modification that allows it to continue building out the low-Earth-orbit constellation, while legal action seeking to compel a thorough environmental review of the broadband network plays out through the court.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled July 20 that Viasat, which operates broadband satellites in geostationary orbit, “has not satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review.”

The court also granted a motion to expedite the appeal, setting dates that end with an Oct. 26 deadline for final briefs to clear the way for oral arguments.

We believe the decision will not impact the Court’s ultimate ruling, and we remain optimistic the Court will conclude that the FCC violated federal law by failing to analyze the environmental impacts of this historically unprecedented deployment of satellites into already crowded portions of space, a Viasat spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Viasat will continue to advocate for the future of a safe space environment. We believe it is important to further our engagements with industry, scientists, academics, as well as U.S. and international governments and regulators in order to develop the necessary tools and frameworks to ensure safe and equitable access to space is preserved for all.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

Satellite broadcaster Dish Network also objected to SpaceX’s license modification and its case is part of Viasat’s appeal.

Viasat first sought a stay from the Federal Communications Commission on SpaceX’s April 27 license modification, enabling it to continue expanding a constellation estimated to now exceed 1,600 satellites at an altitude of around 550-kilometers.

The company gave the FCC until the end of June 1 to grant the order, before submitting the motion to the same court that will decide whether the regulator was legally obligated to assess Starlink’s environmental impact before modifying its license.

The modification gives SpaceX permission to operate 4,408 satellites at 550-kilometers, instead of just 1,584 in this orbit and 2,825 at altitudes of 1,100 to 1,300-kilometers. 

Decreasing the distance between a satellite and Earth reduces signal lag for latency-critical applications including video calls and gaming. 

However, Viasat said the rapidly expanding megaconstellation poses orbital debris, light pollution and other environmental risks.

SpaceX has continued to deploy Starlink satellites amid the legal action, although the cadence has slowed as it works through launch missions for other customers.

Viasat is also calling on the FCC to review nearly $900 million of rural broadband subsidies that SpaceX won in December for Starlink.

In an application filed June 1, Viasat asked the FCC to review why it was not permitted to bid for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

This article was updated July 23 with a comment from Viasat.


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Source: https://spacenews.com/court-denies-viasat-attempt-to-halt-starlink-launches-pending-legal-action/

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Aerospace

Senators push for action on space traffic management

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WASHINGTON — Members of a Senate space subcommittee argued that the Commerce Department was not doing enough to implement policies on space traffic management (STM) or staffing the office responsible for it.

At the July 22 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, senators said they were worried that slow action by the Commerce Department to set up a civil STM system as outlined in Space Policy Directive (SPD) 3 in 2018 threatened U.S. leadership in space.

“I’m concerned that we’re now three years past SPD-3 was published and the Commerce Department has been slow to develop the open architecture repository that is desperately needed,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), ranking member of the subcommittee. “Instead, it has commissioned more studies to reexamine the already-answered question of which U.S. government agency is best suited to take on the task.”

That open architecture data repository, or OADR, would combine space situational awareness (SSA) data from government and commercial sources that could then be used for STM applications such as warnings of potential collisions. Congress provided funding to the Office of Space Commerce in its fiscal year 2021 spending bill to begin work on OADR pilot projects.

A lack of funding had hindered work on the OADR and other aspects of SPD-3, a former director of the Office of Space Commerce said. “One aspect of this was that we needed to get our heads around the different partnerships and some of the technical opportunities that were available in the commercial industry,” said Kevin O’Connell, who led the office from 2018 until the end of the Trump administration in January. “But, secondly, it really was a resource question: the extent to which we had a very, very small budget in the office.”

Another issue is the lack of leadership at the Office of Space Commerce, which has been without a full-time director since O’Connell’s departure. The office is currently led on an acting basis by Mark Pease, deputy assistant administrator for satellite and information services at NOAA, which hosts the office. “I am also concerned that the administration has not announced a director to take over the Office of Space Commerce,” Lummis said.

O’Connell noted that the office had been without a director for nearly 10 years when he was selected in 2018. “It had an accordingly very tiny budget and a very, very small staff,” he said. That’s not tenable, he suggested, with its assignment of leading civil STM. “This is absolutely the most important mission at this point in time, given what is at stake and given the need to make very rapid progress.”

A provision of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act passed by the Senate in June is the Space Preservation and Conjunction Emergency (SPACE) Act, legislation that would codify elements of SPD-3, including giving the Commerce Department the lead for civil STM and establishing an OADR. While the House is not planning to take up the overall bill, senators urged passage of the SPACE Act in some form.

“We need swift action,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), chair of the subcommittee, calling for enactment of the bill.

The Commerce Department was not represented at the hearing, but in a SpaceNews op-ed July 21, Don Graves, deputy commerce secretary, and Rick Spinrad, NOAA administrator, said that the department was working on an OADR prototype that will be ready for initial demonstrations this fall.

They also wrote that, by the fall, they will have results of studies on “procurement strategies, organizational framework, and governance approach” for civil STM services. “With this information, the Commerce Department will propose a strategy for SSA/STM based on the results of our detailed analyses, the results from the prototype demonstrations and community feedback.”

At the hearing, witnesses warned that delays in setting up the system, as well as establishing norms of behavior for safe space operations, not only posed a risk to space safety but also to U.S. leadership. “Ensuring a global commitment to space safety and space sustainability has never been more important,” said Karina Drees, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “Space situational awareness represents the most pressing issue to address today.”

“It is imperative that the United States lead the endeavor of setting these rules,” said Marcus Holzinger, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado. “If other nations lead these efforts, then they are going to be making the rules and regulations and, quite frankly, those will not be to the benefit of our own industry and national enterprises.”


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Source: https://spacenews.com/senators-push-for-action-on-space-traffic-management/

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Starliner cleared for second uncrewed test flight

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WASHINGTON — NASA approved plans July 22 for the launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on a second uncrewed test flight that seeks to demonstrate that the company has corrected the problems seen on the first.

At the conclusion of the flight readiness review, NASA gave the go-ahead for a July 30 launch of Starliner on the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission. Liftoff of the spacecraft on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 is scheduled for 2:53 p.m. Eastern that day. If the launch is postponed, the next opportunity is Aug. 3 because of range conflicts and orbital mechanics.

A launch July 30 would set up a docking attempt by the Starliner with the International Space Station about 24 hours later. Starliner would remain docked to the station until Aug. 5, undocking and landing later that day at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.

The OFT-2 mission will come more than a year and a half after the original OFT flight in December 2019. Software problems encountered immediately after the spacecraft separated from its Centaur upper stage prevented it from going to the ISS, and it instead landed after just two days in space.

The flight readiness review confirmed that Boeing had implemented 61 recommendations from an independent review team last year about software issues during the OFT mission as well as 19 recommendations to address communications problems encountered during the flight. “Those have been closed out,” Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said in a call with reporters after the review.

Among the changes made preparing for OFT-2 was a full mission rehearsal for the flight in a high-fidelity simulator. “We truly had an integrated mission rehearsal, a simulated mission from end to end,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager of the commercial crew program at Boeing. “We got a lot of learning out of that.”

The mission plan for OFT-2 will be very similar to what had been planned for OFT, Vollmer said. One change is that the spacecraft will maneuver shortly after Centaur separation to better orient its antennas for communications during that critical early phase of the mission.

The launch plans should not be affected by issues with Nauka, a new Russian module for the ISS launched July 21. That module has reportedly suffered issues with its propulsion system, although Roscosmos reported July 22 that the module has performed two maneuvers to raise its orbit. Nauka is scheduled to dock with the station July 29.

“We’ve been working with Roscosmos to set up that choreography,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager. While not going into details about any issues with Nauka, also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), he said that “we can support the OFT docking with or without the MLM.”

A successful OFT-2 mission would allow NASA and Boeing to proceed with the Crew Flight Test (CFT), the first crewed Starliner mission that will carry three NASA astronauts. Stich said that the CFT mission could take place “as soon as later this year” but declined to offer a more specific date. Some industry sources are skeptical that CFT could launch this year, even if OFT-2 launches on schedule and is successful.

“The most important thing, and the thing that the Boeing and NASA team have been focused on in the near term, is the execution of the orbital flight test. That has been our primary focus,” he said. Only after OFT-2 is complete and the data from it analyzed would NASA feel comfortable about setting a date for a crewed mission. “It looks like, right now, by the end of the year would be supportable, but again, we need to focus on the orbital flight test first and get that flight right.”

One factor that could accelerate the schedule for CFT is that the Starliner flying OFT-2 is closer to the configuration for the crewed flight than the one used on the previous flight. That includes installing the launch abort thrusters that would allow Starliner to escape the rocket in the event of an emergency.

NASA is anxious to get Starliner into service, providing redundancy for getting its astronauts to and from the ISS, a burden currently carried by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. “It’s very important for the commercial crew program to have two space transportation systems,” Stich said.

The flight is also critical to Boeing, Vollmer acknowledged. “It’s extremely important to us that we’re successful on this flight. With all that we’ve done over the past 18 months, we are very confident that we are going to have a good flight,” he said.

He added, though, that he expected there to be “some learning” from OFT-2. “It is a test flight,” he said. “It is of paramount importance that we have a successful flight.”


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Source: https://spacenews.com/starliner-cleared-for-second-uncrewed-test-flight/

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