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Op-ed | Can we backhaul our way to space?



If the market grows large enough, a dedicated lunar-to-LEO tanker industry could evolve

Trade. It enables, disseminates, and helps pay for new technologies and skills. It encourages sciences, the arts, and communications across oceans and cultures. It is a requirement for the evolution and supply of settlements and cities. Like technology and physical expansion, trade is a defining characteristic of humanity. It is impossible to overstate its importance in human history and development.

So, how do we get trade, and all of its ancillary benefits, started on the new frontier of space? After finding things to trade – like lunar or Martian scientific knowledge or lunar water – trade is most likely encouraged by making both the upfront and ongoing costs of space transportation and operations as low as possible. That requires the most efficient possible use of whatever transportation is available. One way to increase efficiency is to employ a concept the trucking industry calls‚“backhaul.”

The administration of Donald Trump challenged NASA to aggressively return astronauts to Earth’s moon, and to prepare for going on to Mars. President Joe Biden’s administration appears to support continuation of that vision. A young administration confronted with a Congress precisely balanced between bitterly fighting political parties is unlikely to want to spend its limited political capital squabbling over space policy. That encourages continuity.

There also seems to be a new sense of reality at NASA. While senators appear to have headed off any attempt to cancel NASA’s vastly late and over-budget Saturn 5-class Space Launch System and freeing the resources it consumes for more useful purposes, NASA is doing what it can to minimize the SLS’s lost opportunity costs. Payloads that Congress baselined for the SLS have been moved to cheaper commercial rockets. NASA picked SpaceX’s largely self-funded, Starship-based lander for the Human Landing System. Boeing has been strongly urged to improve their dismal performance managing SLS — though there is little sign of that actually happening. Nonetheless, it is becoming possible to believe that a “lunar gateway” station, and maybe even early visits to the lunar surface, could actually occur – if not by 2024, at least within the decade of the 2020s.

In an early, lunar transportation architecture dependent on the expendable SLS, the astronaut capsule alone will return to Earth — usually with a small amount of spare volume and mass. Later when reusable spacecraft ply between Earth and her moon, and supplies are transported in one direction, empty or partially filled vehicles will return to be used again. Since the empty vehicles produce no value beyond returning for reuse, anything that allows space on them to be used or sold is a net gain for the transportation provider. In the trucking industry, goods “backhauled” in this way often pay extraordinarily low rates, subsidized by the primary purpose of moving the outbound goods. Crucially, the outbound cargo can be totally unrelated to the inbound backhaul.

Early first-generation vehicles will be severely constrained in both volume and mass, but even then backhaul may be relevant. Returning crew capsules could carry small items stored “under the seats.” These might include lunar samples desired by companies or scientists, or even wealthy individuals, in addition to those wanted by NASA. Low-mass ornaments or jewelry, like glass beads from ancient lunar volcanic “fire fountains” and other collectible mineral grains, whose value comes solely from their being obtained on Earth’s moon, are possible high-value items. Possible rare, high-value heavy elements or rare-earth elements collected from asteroid impact sites could be used in orbit or on Earth.

Tiny but abrasive and chemically reactive lunar dust particles can damage equipment and human lungs, so all samples need to be properly stored in sealed containers. After arrival on Earth, they must be cleaned before distribution to nonscientists.

Later, if second-generation lunar crew transportation vehicles were reusable, backhaul opportunities become much more attractive. After dropping crew and supplies off at a lunar base, cislunar supply vehicles would return empty, or with smaller return cargoes, to low Earth orbit or elsewhere in cislunar space. At that time, backhaul might become a real market.

The International Space Station and future semi-commercial stations, Lunar Gateway, applications satellites, and other activities in cislunar space need water and oxygen for propulsion, drinking, and breathing – both of which are readily available on Earth’s moon without having to lift them from Earth’s surface. Oxygen can be derived from oxidized surface rocks available in many locations, not only from polar water deposits. Water, because it is useful or necessary for so many things in so many places, has been called the “oil” of the solar system.

If NASA were to establish a science base on Earth’s moon, lunar water or oxygen might be backhauled for use at the cislunar facilities. If the market grows large enough, a dedicated lunar-to-LEO tanker industry could evolve – which might never happen if the infrastructure for supplying space facilities with lunar water had to be paid for up front and from scratch, before any water was delivered.

Backhaul allows trade to start small, possibly very small, early on while transportation infrastructure is still rudimentary. That could increase early income from lunar activities, amortizing some of the costs and encouraging growth, leading to earlier development of largescale commercial or semi-commercial industrial stations or orbital tourist facilities. Costs could be spread over multiple activities, in this case both science and commerce.

Similar ideas for incremental development are not new. Companies developing a new technology often take an incremental approach, earning money on partial solutions while developing their better mouse traps. SpaceX was able to parlay testing retro-propulsion deceleration technologies needed for their Falcon 9 reusable first stage —using rocket engine plumes to protect the vehicle during reentry — by trading test data useful for potential Mars missions with NASA.

The space agency flew aircraft with advanced thermal imaging sensors to observe reentering test vehicles paid for by SpaceX, and shared the results. NASA got data it could not otherwise afford while SpaceX got the data they needed to perfect firststage reentry without having to fly their own sensors.

Later, SpaceX went a step further. The company tested reusing Falcon 9 first stages while launching operational satellites for paying customers. The test could take place after the first stage had completed its operational mission of delivering the second stage and payload to the needed trajectory. The customer paid for the launch — presumably at a somewhat reduced price to accept the risk of flying with experimental hardware on board — while SpaceX got their test data without having to pay for a dedicated test launch.

The advent of a new partially commercialized lunar strategy is exciting, but it remains true that no lunar base is likely in the immediate future. That means no returning vehicles with excess capacity to sell cheap.

So, let’s look closer to home. There are already operational flights that could offer backhaul opportunities. Right now, there are three vehicles delivering crew or cargo to the ISS and returning to Earth: the Russian Soyuz, the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and the SpaceX Cargo Dragon. Soon the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser will join the mix. Returning Soyuz and other returning crew vehicles have little excess capacity. Dragon Cargo is another story.

Dragon Cargo can return 3,000 kg in 10 cubic meters from the ISS. Because of various constraints like available volume and operational needs, Dragons usually do not return with their full theoretical capacity in cargo. On most return missions, small amounts of space could probably be found for backhaul. Soon, Dream Chaser will also return with substantial cargo capacity.

So, what might we backhaul from the International Space Station?

A company called Made In Space is deploying a series of ever-improving 3D printers to the station. Currently, these are used experimentally to make tools and parts needed on the station.

It is not hard to imagine using excess capacity or a second machine to print small novelty items for export to Earth on returning crew or cargo capsules. Such items might be quite valuable to those interested in space exploration, or in owning something truly unique. If backhaul costs were low enough, and especially if the prospective objects incorporated some property that could only be made in space, the market could be significant. If one entrepreneur makes a profit, others will follow, each with their own take. Some might even invent something useful that cannot be made on Earth.

While NASA has traditionally been resistant to using publicly owned infrastructure for profit-making businesses seen as frivolous, attitudes are changing. The Russians have fewer qualms, and one module already is privately owned and rented by NASA. Further private modules are planned for the very near future. If someone wanted to start a small business that used backhaul to get its products to Earth, they could probably find a way to do it, especially if production could be automated and not use valuable astronaut time.

If a few small businesses succeed, they could grow. At some point, volume might grow high enough for a consortium to purchase full-priced transportation to Earth. At that point, a mature industry will have arrived, and a trading economy will be firmly established.

Trade will have achieved yet another breakthrough for humanity — helping to pay for our expansion into the final frontier.

Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco. Follow him at @DonaldFR.

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

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China launches classified space debris mitigation technology satellite



Shijian-21 lifts off atop a Long March 3B from Xichang Satellite Launch Center, at 9:27 a.m. local time, October 24.

China launched the Shijian-21 satellite from Xichang late Saturday with the stated aim of testing space debris mitigation technologies.


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Arianespace breaks payload mass record on final Ariane 5 launch before Webb



An Ariane 5 rocket lifts off from the Guiana Space Center with the SES 17 and Syracuse 4A communications satellites. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/S. Martin

A European Ariane 5 rocket fired into space Saturday night from French Guiana with a commercial broadband satellite for SES and a French military telecom craft, setting a new payload mass record for geostationary transfer orbit on the final Ariane 5 flight before launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in December.

Running a day late after a ground system issue forced a 24-hour delay from Friday, teams pumped cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the Ariane 5 launcher’s main stage and upper stage Saturday afternoon on the ELA-3 launch pad at the Guiana Space Center in South America.

The Ariane 5’s countdown stopped five minutes before the rocket’s first launch opportunity Saturday night. After a 67-minute hold to allow engineers to analyze pressure readings in the Ariane 5’s main stage, the countdown resumed and the rocket’s Vulcain 2 main engine flashed to life at 10:10 p.m. EDT (0210 GMT).

Seven seconds later, the Ariane 5’s twin solid rocket boosters ignited to propel the launcher off the pad with 2.9 million pounds of thrust.

The Ariane 5 lifted off at 11:10 p.m. local time in French Guiana, darting though a cloud layer as it accelerated due east from the spaceport on the northern coast of South America.

The rocket jettisoned its two spent solid rocket booster casings nearly two-and-a-half minutes into the mission. The Ariane 5’s  Swiss-made payload shroud released in two halves moments later, once the rocket climbed above the dense, lower layers of the atmosphere.

The main stage continued firing its Vulcain 2 main engine until nearly nine minutes into the flight, before switching off and dropping away to fall back into the atmosphere off the coast of Africa.

An upper stage powered by a hydrogen-fueled HM7B engine ignited for a 16-minute burn to inject the SES 17 and Syracuse 4A satellites into an oval-shaped geostationary transfer orbit stretching nearly 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the planet.

The Ariane 5 released each satellite right on time, first deploying the SES 17 spacecraft from the upper position on the rocket’s dual-payload stack nearly 30 minutes after liftoff. After casting off an adapter structure, the Ariane 5 deployed Syracuse 4A about nine minutes later.

The SES 17 satellite during integration and testing at Thales Alenia Space’s factory in Cannes, France. Credit: Marie-Ange Sanguy / Thales Alenia Space

Arianespace, the French company that manages Ariane 5 launch operations, declared success on the mission. Designated VA255 in Arianespace’s flight sequence, the launch Saturday night was the 111th flight of an Ariane 5 rocket since 1996, and the 255th mission overall with the Ariane rocket family.

Built Thales Alenia Space, the SES 17 communications satellite will provide internet connectivity to airline passengers over the Americas, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic Ocean for SES of Luxembourg. The fully fueled satellite weighed 14,133 pounds (6,411 kilograms) at launch, according to Arianespace’s launch press kit.

SES 17 is the largest satellite ever procured by SES, and the largest spacecraft ever built by Thales. It carries a new digital payload controller, developed in a public-private partnership with ESA, that is capable of re-programming the satellites’s nearly 200 spot beams, adjusting power and frequency allocations to respond to changing customer needs.

“Thanks to Arianespace, SES-17 is now on its way to orbit,” said Steve Collar, CEO of SES. “We are looking forward to SES customers being able to leverage the high throughput, global reach and low-latency of SES’s multi-orbit, interoperable Ka-band satellite network comprising SES-17 and our upcoming O3b mPOWER constellation.”

The SES 17 satellite also carries a mechanically pumped loop cooling system, the first such active thermal control loop to be used on a large commercial communications spacecraft. Previous commercial telecom satellites used passive thermal control systems, or heat pipes, to keep their internal electronics at proper temperatures.

The 8,492-pound (3,852-kilogram) Syracuse 4A spacecraft, also built by Thales Alenia Space, will provide communications services for the French military. The satellite will relay secure communications between French military aircraft, armored ground vehicles, and naval vessels, including submarines.

The Syracuse 4 program replaces the Syracuse 3 generation, which comprises two French satellites launched in 2005 and 2006, and a joint spacecraft with Italy that went into orbit in 2015. The Syracuse satellites provide relay services for French military forces deployed and on the move in areas outside the each of terrestrial communications.

“All of these activities require constant, reliable communications, and only space telecommunication can provide that,” and Commander Ludovic Esquivié, Syracuse program officer at French Space Command. “Syracuse … is a secure communication system totally controlled by the armed forces, and hardened against external aggressions.”

The French defense ministry announced in 2019 that the new generation of Syracuse satellites would have cameras to help identify and monitor possible attackers. The Syracuse 4 satellites are also resistant to jamming, and provide higher data relay rates and improved flexibility over the aging Syracuse 3 satellites.

“These satellites are exposed to, or must be capable of dealing with, all kinds of threats, including a nuclear threat, but also threats in terms of cyber security or cyber attacks,” said Hervé Derrey, CEO of Thales Alenia Space.

The Syracuse 4A satellite. Credit: DGA

SES 17 and Syracuse 4A will use plasma thrusters over the next few months to circularize their orbits more than 22,000 miles over the equator. Once in geostationary orbit, the satellites will have fixed geographic coverage zones as they more around Earth with the planet’s rotation.

Saturday night’s mission set two records.

The combined launch weight of the SES 17 and Syracuse 4A satellites was 22,626 pounds (10,263 kilograms). The two spacecraft comprised the heaviest payload stack ever to be launched into geostationary transfer orbit, a typical drop-off orbit for large communications satellites.

The Ariane 5 rocket Saturday night flew with a raising cylinder at the base of the payload fairing that increased the launcher’s height by 5 feet (1.5 meters) relative to the standard launcher design. The change gave the rocket a total height of 184 feet (56.3 meters), making it the tallest Ariane 5 to ever fly.

The flight Saturday night helped clear the way for the next Ariane 5 mission to launch the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

The Ariane 5 is one of the most reliable launch vehicles in the world, with just one partial failure in its last 97 flights. The European Space Agency is paying for Webb’s launch as part of its contribution to the mission. NASA paid the bulk of Webb’s development costs, and the Canadian Space Agency is the third partner on the observatory.

NASA engineers helped ESA and Arianespace assess the Ariane 5 rocket’s readiness to launch Webb, the most expensive robotic space mission in history. The launch Saturday was the final test before Webb is mounted to the next Ariane 5 for a liftoff scheduled for Dec. 18.

The Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center, which provides oversight for launches carrying NASA science missions to space, took on a consulting role for the James Webb Space Space Telescope.

“I think that helps calm some folks’ feelings, or perhaps perceptions, of why in the world are we launching this on a foreign vehicle,” said Omar Baez, a launch director at Kennedy, in a recent interview with Spaceflight Now.

Baez said he took his first trip to the Ariane 5 launch base in Kourou, French Guiana, two decades ago to start evaluating facilities at the spaceport, which is managed by CNES, the French space agency.

“It’s touchy because you’re going up against Arianespace and CNES, and you’re a foreign agent, but we have worked well together,” Baez said.

He said NASA assigned experts in spacecraft processing, mission integration, and risk management as consultants to work with ESA and Arianespace ahead of Webb’s launch.

“Our risk manager has been following how the French and ESA folks bubble up any problems that Arianespace may have, and it’s very similar to the system we have here, with regard to insight and oversight by government agencies,” Baez said. “So we take credit for some of that insight by seeing that they have the same type of rigor that we show when we fly one of our precious payloads.”

“Ariane 5 demonstrates continuous improvement with each launch,” said Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation, in a statement after Saturday night’s launch. “The success today of launch VA255 and the success of VA254 last July were crucial to move towards Ariane 5’s December launch carrying the James Webb Space Telescope.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is seen inside the S5C payload processing facility at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

In their analyses to ensure the Ariane 5 is ready to launch Webb, engineers in Europe and the United States have focused on the rocket’s payload fairing, or nose cone, which protects payloads during the first few minutes of flight through the atmosphere. The shroud jettisons in two pieces a few minutes after launch, exposing satellites for separation from the rocket once in orbit.

JWST will fold up origami-style to fit under the Ariane 5 rocket’s payload shroud, then unfurl solar panels, antennas, a segmented mirror array, and a thermal sunshield the size of a tennis court after separating from the Ariane 5 on the way to an observing post nearly a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.

Once in position, JWST’s telescope — the largest ever flown in space — and four science instruments will peer into the distant universe, studying the turbulent aftermath of the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies and the environments of planets around other stars.

The Ariane 5 payload shroud is made by RUAG Space in Switzerland.

Engineers introduced modifications to the Ariane 5’s payload fairing to reduce vibrations imparted on the satellites during separation of the nose cone.

ESA, Arianespace and RUAG also changed the design of vents on the Ariane 5’s payload shroud to address a concern that a depressurization event could damage the Webb observatory when the fairing jettisons after liftoff. Engineers were concerned residual air trapped in Webb’s folded sunshield membranes could cause an “over-stress condition” at the time of fairing separation.

Baez said NASA engineers based at Kennedy Space Center were “very instrumental” in discovering an issue with how the Ariane 5 fairing depressurizes during ascent.

“We were able to, in cooperation with our French partners, instrument the fairing on previous flights that captured that environment and make sure that we had accurate information,” Baez said. “And, in fact, we did find a problem. We had to work on a scheme to be able to vent that fairing properly on its ascent.”

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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NASA sets Artemis 1 launch for no earlier than February



Orion Artemis 1

NASA officials said they’re now targeting no earlier than February for the Artemis 1 launch as the completed vehicle enters the final phase of launch preparations.


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Live coverage: Ariane 5 rocket counting down to launch from French Guiana



Live coverage of the countdown and launch of an Ariane 5 rocket with the SES 17 and Syracuse 4A communications satellites. Text updates will appear automatically below; there is no need to reload the page. Follow us on Twitter.

Arianespace’s live video webcast will begin approximately 15 minutes before launch and will be available on this page.

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