NASA funds initial development on three crewed lunar landers. The three teams, led by Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX, were selected by NASA to start building landers for use as early as 2024. Using this funding, the companies will spend 10 months working with NASA, then the agency may down-select one or more designs for further funding. All three options would rely on NASA’s Orion vehicle launched on SLS for crew transport to lunar orbit— anything else isn’t currently politically viable— where the crew would meet up with their commercially-launched and built lander.
Award amounts were apparently based on the amount requested and don’t represent an explicit ranking. Boeing did not win an award… fail enough times and maybe even your lobbyists can’t overcome it?
- Blue Origin, in a team with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, was awarded $579 million to start building a two-stage lander similar to the Apollo LEM.
- The Dynetics + Sierra Nevada Corp team won $253 million for their ALPACA lander which is mostly reusable except for separately-launched, disposable drop tanks that are shed during descent. 🦙
- SpaceX won $135 million to develop a variant of Starship for lunar landing, launched using Super Heavy— this is a big deal, and a huge step forward in NASA’s acceptance of Starship as a conceivable option. "SpaceX is really good at flying and testing—and failing and fixing," Bridenstine said. "They have a design here that, if successful, is going to be transformational." So NASA is hedging its bets. Tim Dodd has an excellent (and long) video about the status of SLS & Starship and these announcements.
FCC updates its orbital debris mitigation rule. The Agency voted to adopt a clarified set of requirements around satellite debris mitigation strategies. (It may be a surprise to some readers that an agency charged with communications oversight acts as the gatekeeper for satellites in the US, however, there is currently no other agency that has a comprehensive mandate for oversight—the FAA and NOAA oversee launch and imagery respectively, but as almost all satellites have radios, the FCC usually ends up with final jurisdiction.) The new rule is generally a positive step with more aggressive requirements than the Trump administration's somewhat-lackluster Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices, which was released last year. The rule requires that satellites in orbits above 400 km (the typical maximum altitude for space stations, including the ISS) include maneuverability for collision avoidance and that operators assign numeric values to the risk of collision, the ability to de-orbit, and other debris-related factors for all spacecraft. After the draft rule incited strong opposition to its required indemnification of the US government by satellite operators— Boeing objected to every single change—and garnered feedback from NASA suggesting that constellations should not have to report risk as a whole, the agency moved several items to a "Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" and invited additional comments.
A Long March 5B launched a prototype next-generation crew capsule. China’s second variant of its heavy-lift vehicle, which returned to flight last December, launched carrying a 20 metric ton crewed spacecraft prototype this morning (launch video, tracking shot). The 5B is a Long March 5 first stage with 4 strap-on boosters designed to hoist heavy payloads to LEO foregoing the rocket's second stage. The launch was the first test of this version of the vehicle, as well as the first flight for the country’s next-generation deep space crew capsule. The mission will test the capsule’s reentry capability from a highly elliptic orbit of ~8,000 km in order to simulate an energetic reentry from deep space. The Long March 5 and 5B represent core parts of China’s launch strategy for its upcoming space station, as well as the Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission. They also represent a new era in Chinese rocket technology—running YF-77 hydrolox engines, they are a departure from China's historic reliance on toxic hypergolic fuels.
| News in brief. The 2 km wide 1998 OR2 flew by the Earth (at 6.3 million km away, >16 times the Earth-Moon distance—on average, asteroids of this size fly by this close to Earth once every five years)—check out this radar image; Progress MS-14 reached the ISS on 25 April; Sierra Nevada’s first Dream Chaser spaceplane got wings and a name; Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity took its first solo glide test flight (video); Rocket Lab rolled out their first Electron planned for launch from their new launch complex (LC2) in the US; and, SpaceX completed their final Crew Dragon parachute test ahead of Demo-2 launching NET May 27 to the ISS.|
- Related to last week’s item on Voyager’s golden records, the pulsar maps included with Voyager 1 & 2 (and also Pioneer 10 & 11), don’t really work.
- SpaceX has released a more detailed version of their Astro2020 presentation on Starlink—including their upcoming sunshades—and its impact on astronomy.
- NASA, ESA, and JAXA are launching a virtual hackathon to develop COVID-19 solutions, based on open data, from May 30-31.
- ConsenSys, which purchased Planetary Resources in 2018, appears to be dropping the project— they have open-sourced their TruSat community-based satellite tracking platform (here are the forums) and released all of Planetary Resource’s patents for free use. Good for them!
- The US Navy released their “UFO” videos, the source of many recent conspiracies. I’m not saying it’s not aliens, but it’s not aliens. (To us, it almost feels like they intentionally release only enough information to spur conspiracy theories. There you have it, folks: a conspiracy theory about people trying to cause conspiracy theories.)
- 2020-026B, the disposable upper stage that delivered the uncrewed Progress MS-14 to resupply the ISS last week, was spotted burning up during reentry over Spain and Portugal.
- Earth Observation satellites continue to refine our view of the Anthropocene: NASA’s ICESat-2 shows net ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica (paper)—resulting in more than a half-inch of global sea-level rise since 2003—and floating patches of plastics are detectable through spectroscopy from orbit (paper).
- NASA will pay a staggering $146 million for each SLS rocket engine, with 4 needed per SLS flight. These Space Shuttle main engines were intended to be reused, but SLS will throw them away. Other things you could buy for $146 million: two basic Atlas V rocket launches, three Falcon 9 launches, or a fully expendable Falcon Heavy launch, with ⅔ the lift capacity at 1/20th the cost. (Related: Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA shared a rule of thumb for launch costs: the rocket is ½ the launch cost, the booster is ½ the rocket cost, and the engines are ⅔ of the booster cost.)
- How space tourism and rockets to Mars became 'critical' business during the pandemic.
- A study (infographic pdf) found that all 1,078 commercially-launched smallsats in the last five years experienced delays, with a median delay of 128 days. The largest delay categories: 11% of delays were administrative, 13% were ISS manifest changes (for ISS-deployed sats), 20% were due to delays in launch vehicle development, and 40% were due to primary payload delays affecting their rideshares. (This study was funded by Spaceflight, and the existence of this large category supports their dedicated rideshare missions, as well as SpaceX’s and others.)
Hubble caught Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) breaking up into 30+ pieces. It was discovered in December by ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System), a pair of automated telescopes in Hawaii that scan the entire sky for moving objects nightly. “ATLAS will provide one day's warning for a 30-kiloton ‘town killer,’ a week for a 5-megaton ‘city killer,’ and three weeks for a 100-megaton ‘county killer’.”