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Vega rocket’s return-to-flight launch set for Wednesday night




The payload shroud containing six satellites set for launch on a European Vega rocket Wednesday night. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – G. Barbaste

Six satellites are set to ride a light-class European Vega rocket into orbit from French Guiana on Wednesday night, the first Vega launch since a failure last year that officials attributed to human error.

The prime payload on the four-stage Vega launcher is Pléiades Neo 3, a high-resolution Earth-imaging satellite built and owned by Airbus. Pléiades Neo 3 is the first of four French-built next-generation Pléiades with sharp eyes and the ability to rapidly beam their reconnaissance imagery back to military, scientific, and commercial customers.

Five smaller payloads for the Norwegian Space Agency, NanoAvionics, Spire, and Eutelsat will accompany Pléiades Neo 3 into orbit on top of the Vega launcher.

Liftoff from the European-run Guiana Space Center is set for 9:50:47 p.m. EDT Wednesday (10:50:47 p.m. local time), or 0150 GMT Thursday. It will be the 18th flight of a Vega rocket since 2012, and the first launch from the equatorial spaceport in South America this year.

The launch is crucial for Arianespace, the French launch services firm that oversees Vega launches, and Italy-based Vega prime contractor Avio. Two of the last three Vega rockets have failed to place their payloads into orbit, for different reasons.

After 14 straight successful flight since its debut launch, a Vega rocket lost control about two minutes after liftoff in July 2019 with the Falcon Eye 1 military surveillance satellite for the United Arab Emirates. The launcher and payload crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Investigators traced the cause of the accident to a “thermo-structural failure” on the forward dome of the Vega rocket’s solid-fueled second stage, allowing hot gas to damage the motor’s casing and leading to the in-flight breakup of the launch vehicle.

Engineers beefed up thermal insulation and improved quality control checks, and the next Vega launch in September 2020 successfully placed 53 small commercial and government satellites into orbit, a record number of payloads on a single Arianespace mission.

But failure struck again on the next Vega launch Nov. 16.

Engineers determined a problem on the rocket’s liquid-fueled fourth stage caused the loss of the Spanish SEOSAT-Ingenio Earth observation satellite and the French space agency’s Taranis research satellite.

Officials concluded that cables leading to thrust vector control actuators on the Vega’s Attitude and Vernier Upper Module, or AVUM, were inverted, a mistake from the assembly of the upper stage engine. The thrust vector control system pivots the upper stage engine nozzle to direct thrust, allowing the rocket to control its orientation and steering.

Quality control checks before the launch missed the cable installation error, which caused the engine to move its nozzle in the wrong direction in response to commands from the rocket’s guidance system. That resulted in the rocket losing control and tumbling just after ignition of the upper stage engine around eight minutes after launch with the SEOSAT-Ingenio and Taranis satellites.

A Vega launcher stands on its launch pad in French Guiana last year. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – P. Piron

Officials from Arianespace and the European Space Agency, which led the failure investigation, stressed last year that the failure on the Nov. 16 launch was attributable to human error, and not a design fault like the one that caused the July 2019 launch mishap.

Misleading instructions and inadequate preflight checks caused teams to overlook wrongly-installed cables on the launcher’s upper stage steering system, officials said.

Managers ordered additional inspections of already-built rocket components to ensure they are free of the problem that caused the failure in November, clearing the way for a resumption of Vega missions.

Arianespace has found success in selling Vega launches to ESA and the European Commission, which owns Europe’s fleet of Copernicus environmental satellites. National space agencies across Europe and in other parts of the world have also purchased rides on Vega rocket for their small satellites.

Startups and other commercial satellite operators have also secured slots on Vega rideshare missions, including the launch set to blast off Wednesday night.

The Vega rocket stands about 98 feet (30 meters) tall and is capable of delivering about 3,300 pounds (1.5 metric tons) of payload to a 435-mile-high (700-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit.

An upgraded version called the Vega C will feature larger first and second stage motors, plus a widened payload berth, increasing the rocket’s payload carrying capacity to about 4,850 pounds (2.2 metric tons) to the same orbit. The first Vega C launch is now scheduled for early 2022.

The Pléiades Neo 3 satellite and five secondary payloads are encapsulated inside the Vega rocket’s payload fairing in French Guiana. Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace – Photo Optique Video du CSG – G. Barbaste

The Vega rocket flying Wednesday night will blast off from the Guiana Space Center and head north over the Atlantic Ocean, targeting a polar orbit with its six satellite payloads.

The rocket’s three solid-fueled boost stages will fire and burn out in succession in the first six minutes of the mission, leaving the AVUM upper stage’s hydrazine-fed engine to maneuver the six satellites into orbit.

A first firing by the AVUM engine will cut off about 16 minutes after liftoff, and the rocket will coast over the North Pole and head south on the other side of the world before reigniting at Plus+52 minutes.

That will set the stage for deployment of the 2,028-pound (920-kilogram) Pléiades Neo 3 satellite at Plus+54 minutes, 29 seconds. The rocket will aim to release Pléiades Neo 3 into a 390-mile-high (628-kilometer) sun-synchronous orbit with an inclination of 97.89 degrees to the equator.

Two more AVUM engine burns will reduce the rocket’s altitude to 380 miles (613 kilometers) and adjust its inclination to 97.79 degrees before deployment of the remaining five satellites at T+plus 1 hour, 41 minutes.

The Pléiades Neo 3 spacecraft will improve on Airbus’s first-generation Pléiades Earth observation satellites launched in 2011 and 2012. Another Vega launch later this year will carry the Pléiades Neo 4 satellite into orbit, and a Vega C launch in 2022 will loft the final two Pléiades Neo payloads on a single mission, taking advantage of the new rocket’s increased capabilities.

Airbus says it entirely funded the development of the Pléiades Neo satellites, with intentions to sell the imagery commercially to private companies and government users. The company assembled the spacecraft at its facility in Toulouse, France.

“Pléiades Neo is a game changer for Airbus and its geo-intelligence customers,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, head of space systems at Airbus. “Thanks to our disruptive and bold investments we can offer a state of the art constellation delivering 30cm (11.8-inch) resolution imagery in near real-time, opening up a completely new range of applications to give our customers more detail, more quickly.”

The imaging resolution of Airbus’s four Pléiades Neo satellites is comparable to the resolution provided by Maxar’s six-satellite WorldView Legion surveillance satellites due to begin launching later this year. The companies are competitors, providing the highest-resolution Earth observation imagery on the global commercial market.

With the help of laser inter-satellite communications links, the Pléiades Neo satellites will be able to respond rapidly to tasking requests within 30 to 40 minutes, according to Airbus.

The five rideshare payloads on Wednesday night’s mission are mounted to a fixture below the Pléiades Neo 3 satellite inside the Vega rocket’s Swiss-made payload fairing.

They include Norsat 3, a 35-pound (16-kilogram) Norwegian Space Agency satellite that fuses an experimental on-board radar detector with a Automatic Identification System receiver to track maritime ship traffic.

There is also a briefcase-sized satellite built by NanoAvionics integrated with a radio frequency characterization payload from Denver-based startup Aurora Insight. The Bravo satellite, set for launch on the Vega rocket, joins the identical Charlie smallsat that flew into orbit on a SpaceX rideshare mission in January.

Two commercial CubeSats — also about the size of a briefcase — are on-board to join Spire’s ship tracking and commercial weather data collection fleet.

There’s also a small pathfinder satellite on the Vega rocket for Eutelsat’s planned constellation of narrowband data relay satellites. The ELO Alpha spacecraft, built by California-based Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, will allow Eutelsat to gauge how low Earth orbit satellites might augment services provided by the company’s large geostationary communications satellites.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Axelspace raises $24 million in Series C round




SAN FRANCISCO – Axelspace, the Japanese firm planning to offer daily global optical imagery, raised 2.58 billion Japanese yen ($23.8 million) in a Series C investment round announced May 14 in Tokyo, May 13 in the United States.

The Space Frontier Fund managed by Sparx Innovation for Future Co. provided funding alongside other venture capital firms and investment funds managed by Global Brain Corp., Japan Post Investment Corp., Kyocera Corp., Mitsubishi UFJ Capital Co. Ltd., Mitsui Fudosan Co. Ltd. and Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Investment Co. Ltd.

Axelspace launched its first 100-kilogram satellite in 2018 and raised $22.8 million in a Series B funding round. The company sent four more satellites into sun-synchronous orbit in March.

With funds from the Series C round, Axelspace will manufacture, launch and begin operating five additional satellites in 2023, Axelspace CEO Yuya Nakamura told SpaceNews. With a ten-satellite constellation, Axelspace will have daily opportunities to obtain imagery of mid-latitude regions including Japan, he added.

Axelspace’s GRUS satellites are designed to gather panchromatic imagery with a resolution of 2.5 meters and red, blue and green, near-infrared and red-edge imagery with 5-meter resolution. Axelspace also sells 2.5 meter pan-sharpened images through AxelGlobe, its web-based platform.

The red-edge band, introduced on commercial satellites by the RapidEye constellation, is a popular tool for monitoring the health of vegetation. Planet retired the RapidEye constellation in 2020.

Axelspace sees a competitive advantage in capturing large areas in a single image.

“Axelspace is about capturing macro data,” said Yasunori Yamazaki, Axelspace chief brand officer. “Horizontally, we are able to capture 57 kilometers and we are able to capture 1,000 kilometers vertically. One shot coming from one sensor on the same satellite is easier for clients to analyze than a mosaic of images with data coming from different times of the day, different orbits and different sensors.”

Of Axelspace’s 80 employees, more than 50 are engineers from all over the world. Attracting global talent is priority for the firm, Yamazaki said.

Closing an investment round during the COVID-19 pandemic posed challenges. In spite of limitations on travel and supply chain disruptions, the firm succeeded in keeping its work moving forward and attracting investors, Nakamura said.

One investor, Shinji Kato, a project manager in the venture co-creation department business development group at Japanese real estate firm Mitsui Fudosan said in a statement, that AxelGlobe’s plan to monitor the whole Earth with high frequency offers “big potential to create a new industry beyond our core business of community development.”

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SpaceX outlines plans for Starship orbital test flight




Artist’s concept of a Super Heavy booster and Starship vehicle stacked together during launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has revealed the flight plan for the first orbital test launch of the company’s huge stainless steel Starship rocket, a 90-minute, around-the-world mission that will originate from South Texas and culminate with a controlled re-entry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

SpaceX included an exhibit outlining the flight plan in a filing posted on the Federal Communications Commission’s website Thursday.

The test flight — without any passengers on-board — will take off from SpaceX’s Starship development facility at Boca Chica Beach in South Texas, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Starship launch site, which SpaceX calls Starbase, is the same location where technicians are rapidly building new prototpes for the giant next-generation rocket.

When fully assembled, the gigantic reusable rocket will stand nearly 400 feet (120 meters) tall, making the Starship stack the largest launcher ever built.

The booster stage, called the Super Heavy, will have as many as 28 methane-burning Raptor engines on operational flights, producing some 16 million pounds of thrust, twice the power of NASA’s Apollo-era Saturn 5 rocket. Six Raptor engines will be fixed to the bottom of the rocket’s upper stage, which is itself also named the Starship.

The Starship vehicle doubles as an upper stage and a refillable transporter to ferry people and cargo through space to destinations in Earth orbit, the moon, Mars, and other distant locations.

SpaceX is developing the Starship vehicle as a fully reusable launch and space transportation system capable of ferrying more than 100 metric tons of cargo into low Earth orbit, more than any other rocket in the world.

During an orbital launch attempt, a reusable Super Heavy first stage booster will detach from the Starship and come back to Earth for a vertical landing. Eventually, SpaceX wants to use catcher arms on the launch tower to capture the descending first stage, making it easier to configure and refuel for another mission.

The Starship will continue into orbit and deploy its payloads or travel to its deep space destination, and finally return to Earth to be flown again.

The Starship’s first orbital test flight, though audacious in scale, will aim to prove out the rocket’s basic launch and re-entry capabilities without fully testing out the complicated landing and recovery systems, according to SpaceX’s filing with the FCC.

This trajectory illustration filed with the Federal Communications Commission shows the course SpaceX’s Super Heavy booster will follow on the first Starship orbital test flight. Credit: SpaceX

The rocket’s Super Heavy booster will fire its cluster of up to 28 Raptor engines for around 2 minute, 49 seconds, on a track toward the east from the Starbase launch site.

About two seconds later, the 230-foot-tall (70-meter) Super Heavy booster will jettison to begin a descent to a landing in the Gulf of Mexico around 8 minutes, 15 seconds, after launch. The giant booster will aim to land about 12 miles, (20 kilometers) from shore, according to SpaceX.

Meanwhile, the Starship orbital stage will ignite its Raptor engines at T+plus 3 minutes, 56 seconds, and accelerate into orbit, heading east over the Gulf of Mexico and following a track passing between South Florida and Cuba. Cutoff of the Raptor engines is expected about 8 minutes, 41 seconds, into the mission, SpaceX said, once the rocket achieves the required orbital velocity of around 17,000 mph (more than 27,000 kilometers per hour)

“The Orbital Starship will continue on flying between the Florida Straits. It will achieve orbit until performing a powered, targeted landing approximately 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) off the northwest coast of Kauai in a soft ocean landing,” SpaceX said.

The entire flight — from liftoff in Texas to splashdown near Hawaii — will last around 90 minutes.

“SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally,” SpaceX said. “This data will anchor any changes in vehicle design or CONOPs (concept of operations) after the first flight and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations.”

This trajectory illustration filed with the Federal Communications Commission shows the course SpaceX’s Starship orbital stage will follow on the first Starship orbital test flight. Credit: SpaceX

The company did not identify a target date for the Starship program’s first orbital test launch, but SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk has said the Starship’s first shot into space could happen before the end of the year.

SpaceX’s request for authority from the FCC to operate communications equipment on the orbital Starship test flight suggests the company expects the demonstration mission to occur some time between June 20 and Dec. 20.

The first Starship orbital test flight, which Musk suggested earlier this year might happen as soon as July, will follow a series of ongoing atmospheric flights intended to validate the rocket’s performance at relatively low altitudes.

The five Starship prototypes launched since December have each used three Raptor engines to power the 16-story test rockets to altitudes of more than 30,000 feet (about 10 kilometers) over South Texas. Four test rockets exploded during or soon after landing, but the most recent Starship prototype — Serial No. 15 — nailed its vertical, propulsive touchdown back at the Starbase facility.

The Starship stage, like the Super Heavy booster and SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon 9 rocket currently in operation, will use variable thrust from its main engines to slow down for landing.

This trajectory illustration filed with the Federal Communications Commission shows the course SpaceX’s Starship orbital stage will follow during re-entry to conclude the first Starship orbital test flight. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX plans more atmospheric test flights of Starship prototypes to fine-tune the rocket’s takeoff and landing. The company also plans a first “hop” test of a full-size Super Heavy booster, presumably before pressing ahead with an orbital launch attempt.

Engineers have tested coupon samples of heat shield material on the Starship’s stainless steel skin, but the orbital-class rocket will require a more extensive thermal barrier to withstand the super-hot temperatures of atmospheric re-entry.

The SN15 prototype that successfully launched and landed May 5 debuted several upgrades to the Starship rocket. The changes “will allow more speed and efficiency throughout production and flight,” SpaceX said.

The upgrades on SN15 include “a new enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture in the aft skirt, and a new Raptor engine design and configuration,” SpaceX said.

The next jump in capability for the Starship rocket will come with SN20, which will be outfitted for an orbital test flight.

Musk tweeted earlier this year that the Super Heavy/Starship combination will initially have a high probability of achieving a successful launch into orbit, but it will likely take many attempts before SpaceX perfects the Starship’s re-entry and landing maneuvers from orbit.

Last month, SpaceX won a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to develop a derivative of the Starship vehicle to land astronauts on the Moon through the space agency’s Artemis program. SpaceX bested bids from Blue Origin and Dynetics to win the contract for NASA’s next human-rated lunar lander.

According to NASA’s plans, astronauts will depart Earth on the agency’s government-owned Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule, then rendezvous with a Starship pre-positioned in lunar orbit. The Starship would launch from Earth without anyone on-board.

After landing on the moon, the astronauts will exit the Starship and ride an elevator down to the surface. Once their work is complete, the crew members will launch on the Starship back into lunar orbit, meet up with the Orion capsule, and return to Earth.

Last month, SpaceX won a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to develop a derivative of the Starship vehicle to land astronauts on the moon through the space agency’s Artemis program. SpaceX bested bids from Blue Origin and Dynetics to win the contract for NASA’s next human-rated lunar lander.

According to NASA’s plans, astronauts will depart Earth on the agency’s government-owned Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule, then rendezvous with a Starship pre-positioned in lunar orbit. The Starship would launch from Earth without anyone on-board.

After landing on the moon, the astronauts will exit the Starship and ride an elevator down to the surface. Once their work is complete, the crew members will launch on the Starship back into lunar orbit, meet up with the Orion capsule, and return to Earth.

SpaceX has succeeded in cutting launch costs with the Falcon 9 rocket, which has a reusable first stage and payload shroud. But neither part is rapidly reusable, and the Falcon 9’s second stage is brand new for every mission.

“With Starship, we’ll hopefully reuse the whole thing,” Musk said last month. “This is a hard problem for rockets, that’s for sure. It’s taken us, we’re like 19 years in now. I think the Starship design can work. It’s just, it’s a hard thing to solve, and the support of NASA is very much appreciated in this regard. I think it’s going to work.”

Musk eventually wants to have a fleet of ocean-going platforms to recover and re-launch Super Heavy boosters and Starship rockets.

“It’s intended to be such that the booster can be used, I don’t know, a dozen times a day, basically every couple of hours,” Musk said in an X PRIZE webcast last month. “And that mostly is about reloading propellant and mounting the ship. and then the ship can probably be used, in theory, every three hours … But certainly every, say, six to nine hours. We’ll call it twice a day for the ship. And we’ll make more ships than there are boosters.”

SpaceX officials have suggested that Starships could be tasked with high-speed point-to-point intercontinental travel on Earth.

“Once we have the floating space platforms, we can position them such that the ship can come back in a single orbit,” Musk said. “So then it can be, let’s say we have three ship launches per day, that’s 1,000 flights a year, each with 100 to 150 tonnes of payload to orbit.”

“I’d say it’s only recently though that I feel that full and rapid reusability can be accomplished,” Musk said. “I wasn’t sure for a long time, but I am sure now.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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Japanese billionaire, Russian actress to fly to ISS




WASHINGTON — A Japanese billionaire best known for buying a SpaceX Starship flight around the moon will go to space first on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, two months after a Russian actress and director visit the station.

Space tourism company Space Adventures and the Russian space agency Roscosmos announced May 13 that Yusaku Maezawa will fly to the ISS on the Soyuz MS-20 mission launching Dec. 8 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. He will be accompanied by a production assistant, Yozo Hirano, on the 12-day flight, commanded by Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin.

“We are excited for Maezawa-san, and we are honored to have enabled this opportunity for him to fly to space,” Eric Anderson, chairman and chief executive of Space Adventures, said in the statement.

The mission will be the first brokered by Space Adventures, which arranged all previous space tourists to visit the ISS, since Guy Laliberté, the Canadian founder of Cirque du Soleil, flew to the station in 2009. British singer Sarah Brightman was to fly to the station in 2015 through a deal arranged by Space Adventures, but she backed out several months in advance, citing personal issues.

Space Adventures had been working on this mission, the first dedicated commercial Soyuz flight to the station, for some time, but the selection of Maezawa and Hirano was a surprise. Earlier reports suggested that Austrian pilot Johanna Maislinger and Japanese entertainer Yumi Matsutoya would fly on Soyuz MS-20.

Maezawa, an entrepreneur who made billions with the Japanese online apparel retailer Zozo, is best known in the space industry for his 2018 decision to buy a SpaceX Starship circumlunar flight. He said he planned to fly on that mission along with eight artists.

In March, Maezawa announced a contest to choose the people who will accompany him on that “dearMoon” mission, scheduled for 2023. That process is scheduled to conclude with the selection of the crew by the end of June, but the project has not provided any public updates since late March, and few details in general about the process it will use to determine who will accompany Maezawa.

“I’m so curious, ‘what’s life like in space’? So, I am planning to find out on my own and share with the world on my YouTube channel,” Maezawa said in the Space Adventures statement, which added that Hirano “will be responsible for documenting Mr. Maezawa’s mission.”

Maezawa said he was still planning to fly on Starship around the moon. “Going to the ISS before the Moon,” he tweeted.

The announcement of the Space Adventures flight came the same day that Roscosmos announced actress Yulia Peresild will accompany director Klim Shipenko and Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov on the Soyuz MS-19 mission to the ISS, launching Oct. 5.

Peresild and Shipenko will spend 12 days on the station, shooting scenes for a Russian movie called “Vyzov” (“The Challenge”) that Roscosmos is producing with a Russian network, First Channel. The two will return on the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft currently at the station with Oleg Novitsky.

Novitsky launched on Soyuz MS-18 April 9 with Russian cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov and American astronaut Mark Vande Hei. Dubrov and Vande Hei will have to remain on the station for an extended mission because their seats will be occupied by Peresild and Shipenko.

Vande Hei, formally added to Soyuz MS-18 just a month before launch after NASA and Roscosmos worked out a deal for a seat that involved a third party, Axiom Space, said before launch that he was aware he could stay longer than the typical six-month increment on the station. “Honestly, for me it’s just an opportunity for a new life experience. I’ve never been in space longer than six months,” he said. “I’m really enthusiastic about it.”

Peresild, an actress who has appeared extensively in Russian television and film, was one of four finalists for the mission. Another actress, Alena Mordovina, will train as the backup for the mission. A third finalist, Galina Kairova, a pilot and amateur actress, was invited by Roscosmos to train to become a professional cosmonaut.

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Shareholders approve extension of Momentus deal




WASHINGTON — Shareholders in the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) seeking to merge with in-space transportation company Momentus have narrowly approved a three-month extension of a deadline to complete the deal.

Stable Road Acquisition Corporation said May 13 a little more than 65% of the company’s shareholders had voted in favor of extending the deadline for closing a deal by three months, to Aug. 13. Had the vote failed, the SPAC would have been liquidated, with stockholders receiving $10.03 per share.

In a statement, Brian Kabot, chairman and chief executive of Stable Road, thanked shareholders for their “overwhelming support” in favor of the extension, noting that 98.2% of shares that participated in the vote approved the extension. However, because of shareholders who chose not to vote, the total fraction of shares voting in favor of the extension was 66.2%, just above the 65% threshold required for passage.

Stable Road made a full-court press in the last two weeks to win approval for the extension, including news releases and a one-hour webinar. It argued that it needed the extra time to complete the deal, and that it was not uncommon for SPACs to see three- and six-month extensions to close deals.

A SPAC typically has a two-year period from the time it raises money by going public to merge with a privately held company. Stable Road had only an 18-month deadline for completing a deal, Kabot noted earlier this month.

While Stable Road now has three more months to complete a merger with Momentus, it still faces several obstacles for doing so. Momentus announced May 11 that the Federal Aviation Administration denied its payload review application, which the company sought in order to fly its first two tugs as part of a SpaceX rideshare launch in June. The FAA informed Momentus that an interagency review concluded “the launch of Momentus’ payload poses national security concerns” because of the company’s foreign ownership.

The company has spent months addressing those foreign ownership concerns, raised early this year by the Defense Department. Mikhail Kokorich, the Russian co-founder of the company, stepped down in January, and in March he and Brainyspace LLC, a firm owned by co-founder Lev Khasis and his wife, agreed to divest their shares within three years.

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