¶CLD consolidation. As mentioned last week, the set of teams vying to build commercial replacements for the ISS is currently in flux. Until recently there were five main efforts: Starlab (Nanoracks, its owner Voyager Space, and more recently Airbus who is replacing Lockheed Martin) with a $160M NASA contract; Orbital Reef (Blue Origin, with Sierra Space, Amazon, Boeing, Redwire) with a $130M contract; Northrop Grumman (with Dynetics) with a $125.6M contract; Vast (privately funded); and, Axiom Space ($140M for an upcoming ISS module, with plans to later detach it to form Axiom Station, plus $228M+ for spacesuits). Northrop Grumman has now announced that they are no longer working on their own commercial space station and are instead joining the Starlab team—NASA is apparently supportive of this move. And we learned last week that Blue Origin is likely pulling out of Orbital Reef, leaving the future of that effort deeply uncertain. Blue appears to be refocusing on their NASA lunar lander contract and “a closely held in-space mobility project.” Five station efforts now appear to be three.
Axiom Station, Vast Haven, and Starlab are all still in active development, while Orbital Reef looks to be teetering on the edge of collapse and Northrop has canceled their plans for a commercial station, instead joining the Starlab team.
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¶IAC Round up. The 74th International Astronautical Congress, held this year in Baku, offered up a slate of announcements, with various amounts of aspirational fairy tales mixed in.
- Russia announced multiple initiatives including new rockets (Amur-LNG and Korona), a polar-orbiting modular space station, and a nuclear thermal deep space craft. Meanwhile, Roscosmos’ budget is reported to be declining to $2.88B next year, $2.74B in 2025, and $2.6B in 2026 (for comparison, China’s space budget was estimated to be $12B in 2022, and NASA’s budget was $33.1B for FY23).
- Musk participated in a rambling video conference (complete with bad audio) suggesting timelines that included launching Starlink V3 satellites from Starship in 2024, catching a Starship booster within the next year, and landing on Mars four years from now (Musk’s IAC keynote from six years ago then suggested that a Mars landing might happen five years later, in 2022), while waving away the complexity of on-orbit fuel transfer at Starship scale.
- China announced Azercosmos, Azerbaijan’s space agency, as the latest partner in its future lunar research base (ILRS). This initiative now has 15 partners, including recently signed South Africa, that range from companies to countries—with at least seven of the latter. (For those keeping count at home, the Artemis Accords have 29 countries signed up, with UAE being the only country publicly involved in both initiatives.) China also highlighted its plans for the expansion of the CSS to 6 modules, a lunar communications constellation named Queqiao that could eventually reach Venus and Mars, and Chang’e 8 NET 2028 with a lander, rover, “operation” bot, and 200 kg of international payloads to explore the lunar south pole.
¶Protoflight takes off. Launching atop a ULA Atlas V, Amazon’s Protoflight mission delivered the first two Project Kuiper prototype satellites to orbit (here’s a supercut of the launch from ULA, complete with sweet guitar licks). Reminiscent of Tintin A & B launched to test Starlink back in 2018, it remains to be seen if Amazon, without SpaceX’s vertical integration of launch, can scale the constellation to compete with the now-established Starlink network. KuiperSat-1 & 2 will test Amazon’s system from end to end, including their (eventually) low-cost user terminals, which are expected to cost <$400 to produce (cf. after several years in production Starlink’s Dishy now costs the company less than its retail price of $599). Project Kuiper is targeting the launch of its first production satellites in the first half of 2024 and beta customer service by the end of next year. (Related: next up for ULA is its very first Vulcan launch, still hoped for before EOY.)
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| ¶News in brief. Japan’s SLIM lander flew by the Moon and will remain in a long, looping orbit to preserve fuel ahead of its LOI in a couple months ● Ingenuity broke its altitude record again (24 m this time) on its 61st flight ● Similar to its predecessor, Russian satellite Luch (Olymp) 2 is maneuvering (spying) close to other GEO satellites ● Virgin Galactic sent more tourists to suborbital space ● Stoke Space raised a $100m Series B —and revealed that their small, reusable rocket, which recently performed a hop test, will be called Nova ● NASA expanded their Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition program by selecting 7 companies to compete for $476M in EO contracts for Earth science research ● Rocket Lab completed cryogenic testing of the second stage tank of their Neutron rocket (and then popped it) ● China launched more reconnaissance satellites ● Germany introduced a new national space strategy that will use a “competition-oriented model” when procuring launches, making way for next generation European vehicles, many of which are being developed in Germany ● Japan is looking into reusable rockets to eventually replace their not-yet operational H3 ● Pale Blue raised $7.5M for water vapor thrusters (we appreciate the name) ● Spanish startup PLD Space launched their Muira-1 rocket into suborbital space, fulfilling all technical objectives (despite not reaching their initial planned altitude) and executing Europe’s first fully private rocket launch to space.|
Vamos MUIRA! Spanish startup PLD Space’s first suborbital Muira-1 rocket was launched from El Arenosillo military facility in Huelva, Spain.
- According to Roscosmos, Luna-25 crashed due to an onboard accelerometer failing to signal a control system, which skipped switching off the engines, which then burnt for 127 s instead of 84 s, putting the vehicle on an ‘intercept’ trajectory with the surface of the Moon.
- Astronomaly is an open source, deep-learning-based, flexible framework for anomaly detection in astronomy. A recent paper describes how it was applied to 4 million images of galaxies from the Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey and found ‘8 strong gravitational lens candidates, 1609 galaxy merger candidates, and 18 previously unidentified sources exhibiting highly unusual morphology.’
- Haiyang launched a new electric and autonomous ship to support additional Chinese sea launch capability.
- Curiosity has been slowly climbing the lower part of the 5-kilometer-tall Mount Sharp on Mars since 2014. The rover recently reached the ridge line formed of the eroded debris fan from an ancient debris flow, giving its instruments access to rocks transported by water from far up the mountain. NASA shared an interactive, 360-degree panorama.
- Prada is helping Axiom Space design the Artemis III spacesuits.
- In the CubeSat early years of the late 90s, a beanie-baby display cube was used as a model for CubeSat’s blocky form factor.
- 🧵How the Starship “pad anomaly” (aka DIY flame trench) from its first test flight has led to a new hypothesis related to future lunar launch pad reliability.
- NASA’s long-awaited Psyche mission could lift off later this week, although the weather for Thursday’s launch window is only 20% favorable. (Ben will be in attendance if any readers will be in the area as well.) 🤞
Titan (right; 5,150 km across and 4.3 million km distant), Mimas (center bottom; 396 km across and 3 million km distant), and Rhea (left; 1,527 km across and 2.6 million km distant) as imaged by Cassini on July 15th, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute