Development of a space-based economy, space settlement, and space news

Monthly space news

The following are recent presentations on space-related news, made to the monthly meetings of the North Houston chapter of the National Space Society.  You can subscribe to the videos for free at channel gstanley0 on youtube.
Monthly Space News, June 11, 2022 (pdf)   YouTube video (21 minutes
This month's Space News covers activity at the Chinese space station, the Boeing Starliner unmanned test flight to the International Space Station (ISS), minor damage to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA's badly-needed new competitive spacesuit rental contracts for both the ISS and the Artemis moon landings, the Nanoracks demo of metal cutting in orbit, an update to the solar cell latching problem for the Lucy asteroid mission, another Blue Origin suborbital flight, a new NASA study on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP - the new name for UFOs), a brief review of 10 recent launches to space, discussions including the economics favoring "rideshares" or SpaceX consolidated "Transporter" missions with space tugs, over smaller launches, and the scheduling difficulties for rideshares caused by delays such as the Psyche metallic asteroid mission delay.

Monthly Space News, May 14, 2022 (pdf)    YouTube video (21 minutes)  
Winter is coming to the Mars northern hemisphere, affecting solar-powered surface craft with decreased light and increased dust.  Steps are taken to conserve power for heating to survive the nights. The Ingenuity Mars helicopter temporarily lost contact with the Perseverance roverChina's Zhurong Mars rover operations are scaled back.  The Insight lander (2018) is barely hanging on, but did detect the largest Marsquake so far, magnitude 5.  DARPA's DRACO project is soliciting proposals for phases 2 & 3 to demonstrate a Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) Rocket in orbit by 2026. The U.S. Space Force is seeking technologies and participation from small business and universities for its "Orbital Prime" program for space sustainability, starting with orbital debris cleanupScientists grew plants in lunar regolith for the first time.  Seeds sprouted and grew, but were stressed and stunted.  Plants did worse with surface regolith heavily exposed to micrometeorites, radiation, and solar wind.  OneWeb launches will now include some from India.  ESA continues re-planning missions after Russian cooperation ended.  Ukraine claims 150,000 Starlink (satellite internet) users on 10,000 terminals. Rocket Lab caught a first stage booster with a helicopter and net, but dropped it. There were 18 launches to orbit since the last meeting, including 3 launches whose reporting was delayed

Monthly Space News, April 9, 2022 (pdf)    YouTube video (26 minutes)  
The James Webb Space Telescope mirror alignment is completed. Passive cooldown is also nearly complete. Commissioning is proceeding for 3 remaining instruments, with full startup still expected in June.   The Space Launch System (SLS) was rolled out for a "wet dress rehearsal", where the cryogenic propellant tanks are filled.  Problems arose with a vent valve, fans, and some overly-warm liquid O2.  Testing will resume soon after the launch of the Axiom Space Ax-1 mission on the adjacent launch pad.  The Ax-1 mission launched the first fully-private human flight to the International Space Station (ISS), setting a pattern for future private space station operations.  The 10-day mission is controlled from Axiom HQ while at the ISS. ISS operations are normal despite some Russian bluster:  A new crew was launched from Russia, and an American astronaut returned via Russian craft as planned. 

OneWeb (satellite internet) future launches are now planned using competitor SpaceX rockets, replacing the Russian Soyuz rockets previously used. Amazon's Project Kuiper (to provide internet service via 3,236 satellites) contracted for up to 83 launches from everyone but SpaceX or Russia, in the largest commercial contracts ever. Launches will be split between the United Launch Alliance (ULA), Blue Origin, and Arianespace, all on rocket models that have never been launched yet, along with the 9 Atlas 5 launches previously contracted. This provides a lifeline to SpaceX competitors, and uses up about all the medium to heavy lift capacity for multiple years.  This leaves SpaceX as the only source for those launches for several years at least, until new medium lift capacity arrives from Rocket Lab and Relativity Space.  Inflation (and possibly an enviable market position) caused SpaceX to raise prices for both launches and Starlink (internet) service.  Norwegian company KSAT is expanding their network of space communications antennas, adding larger antennas to support lunar missions, as another sign of expansion of lunar activities.  Blue Origin had another 6-passenger suborbital launch.  SpaceX will now exclusively use Raptor Version 2 engines for Starship testing, despite Elon Musk comments in February that they were still melting those engines at full thrust. 

There were only 8 launches to orbit since the last meeting Mar. 12.

Monthly Space News, March 12, 2022 (pdf)   YouTube video (42 minutes)  This month's Space News focuses on the impact of the Ukraine war on space programs worldwide, and a brief discussion on newly-revealed costs for the Space Launch System (SLS)

The Russian commercial space program is in crisis.  Commercial relationships with the West (including Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) are broken short term, and will probably be untangled for the long term.  This means a severe decline in Russia's commercial launch business as well as the sale of engines. India and the Middle East are more of an open question. As Russia is forced more into a client state of China, it will be the junior partner of China in joint projects such as their Lunar base.  The Russian space program will probably fall back to mainly a military focus.  Long term, sanctions will degrade even that, although the effectiveness of those sanctions remain to be seen, and depend on the extent of Chinese help. 

The Ukrainian space industry was bigger than most think, but now devastated.  They manufactured engines for Europe's Vega rockets.  The first stage of the Northrop Grumman Antares rocket, which sends the Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS), was designed and built in the Ukraine, with a Russian engine. 

Impact on U.S. government space programs is limited because of policy since 2014 to reduce dependence on Russia.  The U.S. can deliver astronauts to ISS via SpaceX (and eventually Boeing) spacecraft.  There are still 24 remaining Atlas rockets, which use the Russian RD-180 engine.  But, the U.S. stockpiled enough engines.  Newer rockets have "designed out" the Russian or Ukrainian engines, except for Antares.  The Venera-D robotic mission to Venus is halted, but was only in the earliest stages. ISS is the biggest question. So far, cooperation is holding, with the exception of some tweet wars and a few on-board experiments.  Russian modules and cargo ships provide thrusters needed to maintain the ISS orbit and maneuver to avoid collisions.  The U.S. will soon test maneuvering using the Cygnus cargo freighter, though.  The heightened tensions may lead to earlier termination of ISS. 

The impact on the European Space Agency is more severe, since it manages commercial sales of Soyuz rocket launches, both at the ESA launch site in French Guiana and from several Russian launch sites.  The 87 Russian staffers left Guiana, stopping the next 7 Soyuz launches there.  Even French military satellites were launched on Soyuz rockets.  There were at least a dozen Soyuz launches in the near future, now canceled.   The ESA small Vega rockets depend on Ukrainian engines.  The ExoMars joint ESA/Russia mission to send a rover to Mars in 2022 is stopped.  The next launch window would be in 2024, and even that is now doubtful.  The Spektr-RG space X-ray observatory was a joint Russian/German project already in use.  The Russians turned it off, and said they would take it over. 

Few companies or countries have much additional capacity to handle the canceled Soyuz launches. The clear winner will be SpaceX, and, to a lesser extent, Rocket Lab for small payloads.  The Europeans will probably delay many missions until their new rockets are ready.  Space-based internet service from Starlink competitors will be the most affected.  All previous and planned launches of OneWeb satellites were on Soyuz.  OneWeb will avoid SpaceX launches, since it competes with SpaceX Starlink.  Starlink started internet service in Ukraine at their urgent request.  Now SpaceX is prioritizing cyber defense, and overcoming the jamming it sees in Ukraine.  A cyberattack stopped Viasat satellite internet for Ukraine and nearby countries.  The rapidly-growing Earth observation satellite business is getting a boost.  Secrecy in peace or war is harder, and even the public is getting more access to high quality imagery.  Ukraine, for instance, is now getting real-time satellite-based intelligence through a Canadian company.  Space business is also subject to indirect effects of war and pandemics that all businesses experience.  This includes competing for funds shifting into defense and energy infrastructure, and building shorter supply chains, as well as unexpected interruptions in supply chains.  

The staggering costs of the first four Artemis (Moon program) launches were finally revealed, stated as unsustainable.  The launches will each cost $4.1 billion dollars, not even counting previous development costs. The entire program from 2012-2025 will cost about $93 billion dollars.  Newer technologies such as Starship or even the existing Falcon Heavy promise to be an order of magnitude cheaper with the orbital refueling now included in Artemis plans.  But the former space shuttle contractor jobs program continues, driven by Congress with cost-plus contracts, creating no incentive to keep costs down.  Politically, until Starship is really proven, it will be hard to change the current planning.

There were 13 launches to orbit since the last meeting Feb 12

Monthly Space News February 12, 2022 (pdf)  YouTube video (31.5 minutes)  This month's news includes a special focus on Space Based Solar Power (SBSP).
The James Webb Telescope (JWST) is now fully deployed, in a 6-month orbit around the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point.  It continues to cool down, and calibration of the 18 primary mirrors has started.  The fuel for maintaining its orbit should last for 20 years.  

In a demonstration of the importance of paying attention to space weather, SpaceX lost 40 Starlink (internet) satellites out of 49 that it launched on February 3.  A solar flare on January 30 launched plasma (ions), which started to arrive on February 2, causing a geomagnetic storm.  The Earth's magnetic shield dumped the ion's energy into the upper atmosphere (visible as the Aurora Borealis), warming it and increasing its density.  So, atmospheric drag increased by 50% at the Starlink initial orbit.  The satellites were put in a "safe mode" to ride out the storm, but the atmospheric drag to was too much, so 40 of the satellites fell out of orbit and vaporized.   These storms will increase with the normal 11 year solar cycle, peaking in 2025.  More powerful storms are expected, including ones that could damage electrical circuits.

The Chinese Shijian-21 satellite grabbed a defunct Chinese satellite in geosynchronous orbit, moved it into a much higher "graveyard" orbit, and then returned. This demonstrated useful capabilities for space debris removal, comparable or possibly improving on similar U.S. satellites MEV-1 and MEV-2.  Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the ability to disable a satellite in a space war. A U.S. satellite approached a pair of Chinese satellites, which then moved away to avoid closeup inspection. This symptom of an ongoing "space cold war" is reminiscent of earlier cold wars including close encounters between submarines, planes, and ships. The Japanese company Astroscale paused a low earth orbit debris removal test due to an unspecified "anomaly".

An NSS press release congratulated Japan for its revised technology roadmap for space based solar power (SBSP), significant mainly because of a firm commitment to testing power transmission from low earth orbit in 2025, and a 1 gigawatt commercial power satellite in the 2030's. The basics of SBSP were reviewed, along with benefits and barriers, especially costs. There are other ongoing projects by the US Naval research lab, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Caltech, the UK, and China.
There were 11 launches to orbit since the last meeting (January 8). There are now about 2,050 launched Starlink satellites, and 428 OneWeb satellites. With their recent "Transporter 3" mission launching 105 small satellites, SpaceX continues to threaten small rocket specialists like Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit.

Monthly Space News and year end summary January 8, 2022 (pdf)   YouTube video (42 minutes)
The James Webb Telescope (JWST) was launched December 25, as a successor 100x more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope located 1 million miles farther from Earth than the Hubble.  The extremely complex unfolding was much higher risk than the launch. By the time of the meeting, deployment was nearly complete, and was completed Jan. 8.  It appears that there will be enough fuel left that JWST should be able to maintain orbit for 10 years, not just the 5 promised.  The Parker Solar Probe "touched the Sun", meaning it entered the Sun's corona.  The goal is to improve solar modeling to better forecast solar wind events that endanger communications, satellites, and astronauts. Design for the high solar radiation included a thick heat shield and careful autonomous control.  China announced advancing their lunar base schedule by 8 years, to 2027, reflecting an increasing emphasis on their space program and asserting some control over the Moon.

There were 12 launches since the last meeting (Dec 11).  A review of launches in 2021 shows matching or exceeding all previous records for launches and successful launches.  The US and China vie for the lead (China winning, with some uncertainty in the exact count), followed by Russia, and much smaller numbers for Europe and others. 

2021 highlights included record numbers of space missions and satellites.  3 Mars missions arrived, including rovers from China and the US, and the US helicopter.  Other major NASA achievements included taking samples from asteroid Bennu by OSIRIS-REX, the Parker Solar Probe, and major launches: Lucy (asteroid explorer), DART (planetary defense test), IXPE (X-ray explorer), and JWST.  NASA also contracted for the Human Landing system for the Moon, and commercial space stations.  The Chinese launched their space station and added a module.  Russia added the Nauka science module to the International Space Station (ISS).  Suborbital tourism started from both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.  New companies reached orbit, including Astra and Virgin Orbit.  The SpaceX Starship (upper stage) test landed successfully after many previous explosions.   2021 lowlights included more delays in the SLS rocket (Space Launch System), Boeing Starliner (crew capsule), the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine (affecting both their New Glenn rocket and the ULA Vulcan rocket), and delays in the Artemis Moon missions, partly due to Blue Origin legal maneuvers.  A Russian ASAT (Anti-satellite) weapon test spread space debris, requiring the ISS to maneuver.  The Chinese space station maneuvered to avoid some Starlink satellites.  Aging modules at ISS threaten its reliability with cracks and leaks, first affecting the Russian-built modules that are the oldest part of ISS.  The Russians accidentally fired thrusters, destabilizing the ISS -- twice!   General trends in space include the rapid ascent of the Chinese space program, and the market lead of the SpaceX Falcon 9.  Falcon 9 accounted for 31 of 51 US missions, all successful, and only required 2 new first stages, proving re-usability.   New launch companies arose, including Rocket Lab with 6 launches.  There is a rise of new companies providing services in space, just assuming launch costs will continue to get cheaper.  The number of satellites continues to explode, including ever-smaller ones, now down to the size of a sandwich.  That's 1/4 of a popular "cubesat" (4 inch cube).
Expectations for 2022 include more launches, with estimates of 150.  There will be new competitors for rockets, if they all stay on schedule, including SpaceX Starship, SLS, Vega-C, Arian 6, H3, Terran 1, Vulcan, ... . Both the Chinese and Europeans will make progress on re-usable craft.  There may be as many as 9 Moon missions if all stay on schedule, including multiple robotic landers.   There will be increasing growth in commercialization and space-based services, especially in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  Internet service from Starlink and OneWeb will mature.  Space-based monitoring will grow substantially.  Various companies can now answer questions like "how many cars park in Walmart parking lots each day?" with satellite imagery and analytics.  In-orbit services will grow, including moving existing satellites, capturing and moving or de-orbiting space junk, and space tugs to deploy satellites into multiple orbits from large, low-cost launches.  There will be increasing conflict over utilization of space, including the dominant space race between China and the US, both in orbit and to the Moon.  There will be increased concern about space junk, avoiding collisions, and hardening satellite systems.  The military will increasingly rely on commercial services.

Monthly Space News December 11, 2021 (pdf)  YouTube video (63 minutes)
NASA launched the DART mission to test planetary defense, altering the orbit of an asteroid by crashing into it.  The data from this and other interplanetary missions arrives via the Deep Space Network run by JPL.  The Russians destroyed one of their old 2-ton satellites with a ground based anti-satellite (ASAT) missile.  This created over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris (over 4 inches), and potentially hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces.  This will threaten all satellites and passing spacecraft in Low Earth Orbit between 190-680 miles.  Some of this debris will burn up within 5 years (with orbital decay due to air friction), while the higher debris could stay for decades.  The International Space Station (ISS) and some SpaceX Starlink satellites adjusted orbits to avoid immediate damage.  This was another warning that Russia or others could make space dangerous or even inaccessible for significant periods of time. 

NASA officially delayed the target for landing humans on the moon until at least 2025.  While there was deserved blame on Blue Origin for its recent lawsuit, there are numerous other reasons.  There was also a warning that the Chinese might get there first.  NASA further locked into the troubled Space Launch System (SLS) with a $3.2B contract with Northrop Grumman to produce 6 more pairs of SLS solid booster rockets through 2031.  NASA awarded funding for 3 commercial space station concepts to replace ISS. The teams are led by Nanoracks, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman.  This is just for design work through 2025, unlike the $140M already awarded to Axiom to both design and build a detachable ISS module. 

SpinLaunch ran their first test of launching small rockets by spinning them to supersonic speed in a vacuum-sealed centrifuge before release. This replaces the first stage, saving 75% on fuel, but a small simple conventional rocket is needed to achieve orbit.  The test was a 20% low-power run on their 1/3 scale test launcher.  Future testing will determine if this approach scales to overcome challenges such as high vibration and high g-force (10,000 g).  This is for sturdy cargo up to 440 lbs., never for humans or other living things.  

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will finally launch Dec 22, delayed from its initial optimistic 2007.  This is a much powerful telescope to replace the Hubble.  It will operate much farther away from Earth at the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point a million miles away, instead of the low Earth orbit of the Hubble. 
There were 21 launches attempting orbit or beyond since the last news.  In addition to launches mentioned above, this also included the third SpaceX crew launch to ISS, the start of a new "shell" of Starlink internet satellites, the first successful Astra test flight to orbit, and a 12-day tourist mission to the ISS. 

Monthly Space News Nov 6, 2021 (pdf)   YouTube video (58 minutes)
China launched a second crew of 3 to their space station.  Construction will continue through 2022 for the initial target of 3 modules.  There is an upsurge in proposals for new space stations, driven by the aging of the International Space Station (ISS), and a new NASA program to partly fund private space station development.  Major entrants include Axiom (previously funded for new ISS modules that can be detached later as a standalone station), Nanoracks/Lockheed Martin, and Blue Origin/Sierra Space/Boeing and others. The Blue Origin PR material makes the inside look like an Apple store without all the clutter, the opposite of the ISS. Russia made part of a movie at the ISS, and once again also rotated and destabilized ISS through errant thruster firing.  Recent space tourism triggered debates on a false dichotomy between investing in space vs. fighting climate change.  In reality, environmental monitoring and modeling depend heavily on satellite data, and the current and expected space benefits far outweigh the minor costs of space development.  NASA's Lucy probe launched on a 12 year mission to explore 8 asteroids trapped at Lagrange points before and after Jupiter in its orbit around the sun. There is concern over a solar panel that didn't fully deploy.  Lucy's complex trajectory includes 3 earth fly-bys for gravity assist.  New controversy erupted over NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), the heavy lift rocket with a troubled budget and delayed schedule.  Contract disputes to delay the Artemis (lunar) Human Landing System may finally be over, as a federal judge dismissed a Blue Origin lawsuit.  A U.S. X-37B space plane landed after a record 780 days in orbit.  The Chinese launched twice what was claimed to be a space plane test, but was probably a long-range hypersonic glider missile test, making a complete orbit.  Space planes vs. hypersonic weapons were reviewed, with strategic implications of an unstoppable missile.  The Chinese appear to be ahead of the U.S., having first deployed intermediate range hypersonic missiles in 2019.  The Chinese also launched a new satellite allegedly testing space debris mitigation.  But almost all mitigation of space debris can be used for military purposes - it's just a question of who defines what debris is. Russia, China, and the US have all tested anti-satellite weapons, because the military (especially the US) depends heavily on space-based assets. Brute force "kinetic weapons" are developed as a deterrent, but unlikely to be used except as a last resort because the resulting small debris imperils all satellites, friend or foe.  EMP weapons have a similar problem of disabling friend or foe as well. The development emphasis now for the U.S. and China is on disabling satellites in place without creating debris, ideally with deniability.  Future space wars are likely to be like the low-level cyberwarfare already going on, mostly hidden.  Offensive and defensive tactics were reviewed.  How to respond to attacks like a laser blinding a satellite, or threats implied by tailgating, are open strategy questions.  There were 12 launches to orbit or beyond since the last news. 

Monthly Space News October 2, 2021 (pdf)   YouTube video (25.5 minutes
Serious all-private space tourism has now started, reaching Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  The SpaceX Inspiration4 mission orbited 4 private citizens for 3 days, the first to orbit without government astronauts.  This is consistent with the newer direction of NASA, having commercial interests run LEO operations.  Interesting ISS (space station) experiments are under way for 3D printing with simulated lunar regolith (for future habitats), a space-rated robot arm (for future space construction), and others.  There are now more biological experiments because new automated labs reduce astronaut workloads. New studies include the effects of microgravity and high radiation on muscle loss, bone loss, plant germination and growth (so we can achieve agriculture in space), the interactions of animals with their microbes supporting digestion and the immune system, and the effects on tardigrades.  Tardigrades are unique, in that they can survive significant periods in outer space (1 degree above absolute zero temperature, 0 pressure, micro gravity, lack of O2, food and water, and 1000x the radiation compared to humans).  We want to understand how they do this, for preserving medicine, food, and improving our own radiation resistance.  The Artemis lunar landing program is again derailed, by a Blue Origin lawsuit complaining about awarding the HLS (Human Landing System) contract solely to SpaceX.  NASA threw a bone to the losers in that competition, with $146M for loosely-defined studies for future landers.  NASA is building a new Mars simulated habitat (an "analog") called CHAPEA.  It includes a 1,700 sq. ft. 3D printed habitat.  Each of 3 missions will have 4 crew members, starting in Fall 2022.  Some previous Moon or Mars analogs were reviewed.   Some other new facilities were described, including Mars Science City in Dubai, and SAM, by the University of Arizona, building on previous test facilities associated with Biosphere 2.  There were 10 launches attempting to reach orbit in the last month.

Monthly Space News September 4, 2021 (pdf)   YouTube video (33.5 minutes)
Lunar news this month mostly was about impediments to NASA's Artemis program to get humans to the moon by 2024.  The large rocket SLS (Space Launch System) test flight may slip until next year.  A review of the $1B NASA program to develop a lunar space suit concluded it won't be ready in time.  NASA will continue work, but also award a commercial contract for this in 2022.  After losing the HLS (Human Landing System, for the Artemis program) contract and first protest, Blue Origin lawyers are again delaying HLS by suing NASA. In Mars news, the Perseverance rover failed to store its first rock sample.  The second rock sample was successful.  The rover has now driven 1.35 miles, and the Ingenuity helicopter being used as a scout has traveled 1.66 miles in 12 flights.   The Chinese rover completed its primary 3 month mission, driving 0.55 miles.  The NASA Curiosity rover has now been active for 9 years, driving 16.4 miles and climbing 1,073 feet up Mt. Sharp.  It has returned some dramatic pictures of the local scenery, as well as returning extensive sample results.  The Insight Mars lander has been active for 2.75 years, but is near the end of operations because of dust on its solar panels.  Recent papers based on its data showed the Mars molten core is bigger than previously thought.  An Earth-Mars solar conjunction will soon stop Mars communications for 2 weeks, halting rover operations. August brought two cargo deliveries to the ISS (International Space Station). There are significant differences between the SpaceX Cargo Dragon and the Northrop Grumman Cygnus capsule, including the sole ability of the Dragon to return cargo to Earth - a key ability for future manufacturing in space and many science experiments.  The status of the Starlink internet service was reviewed.  It now has 1,619 working satellites out of 4.408 approved.  It has 100,000 beta test users in 12 countries, and 500,000 pre-orders.  This is one of two SpaceX "bet the company" projects requiring large investment before significant revenue, the other being the Starship large rocket.  All future Starlink satellites launched will now include laser crosslinks, reducing the number of needed ground stations.  SpaceX is requesting revisions to its Gen2 next phase of 30,000 satellites.  They will be bigger and more powerful, with more varied orbits. Blue Origin is protesting.  When Starship is ready, it will launch 400 Starlink satellites at a time directly to the final orbits, vs. the 60 at lower orbits today with a Falcon 9 rocket.  SpaceX is still expecting 10x the revenue from Starlink as from the launch business, perhaps $30B/year. The main competition so far is OneWeb, with 288 satellites out of 648 planned, but that's mainly aimed at business users.  But SpaceX is buying Swarm, which directly competes against Iridium for part of their business: the low-speed, low-power, low cost internet of things applications, at 1/4 to 1/20 the cost of Iridium service.  Recent launches attempting to reach orbit in the last month were reviewed.  Only 7 of 10 succeeded, with failures for Astra, Firefly, and the Indian space agency. COVID-19 is impacting launch schedules because it is causing a shortage of liquid oxygen (needed by hospitals) and liquid nitrogen (because liquid N2 trucks are carrying liquid O2 instead).  The related global semiconductor shortage is also impacting space-related hardware manufacturing, such as the Starlink ground terminals.

Monthly Space News August 7, 2021 (pdf)   YouTube video (24 minutes
Suborbital space tourism is now really started, with passenger launches by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, reaching 53.5 miles and 66.5 miles respectively. Both provided about 3 minutes of weightlessness.   The Virgin Galactic space plane carried 4 passengers and 2 pilots.  Virgin claims there are about 600 reservations at $200K - $250K per seat.  New tickets are being sold, but the price has increased to $450K.   Blue Origin launched 4 passengers, with no pilots required.  Blue Origin claims there is a $100M backlog of tickets sold. 
Russia delivered the Nauka Science Lab module to the International Space Station (ISS), the first large pressurized element since 2011.  The launch also carried the 37 foot European Robot Arm, built 15 years ago.  After docking, Nauka thrusters accidentally fired for 15 minutes, and rotated the ISS 1.5 times before control was re-established.  This delayed the Boeing Starliner test launch, which then was delayed again when a valve problem was discovered.  The GAO (Government Accountability Office) rejected an appeal from Blue Origin, so that the single-sourcing of the HLS (Human Landing System, taking astronauts between lunar orbit and the lunar surface) to SpaceX could resume. Robotic exploration of the moon is intensifying in 2022-2024:  A lunar lander from Intuitive Machines will release a "hopper lander", essentially a drone to look for water in permanently shaded regions.  Also, a joint venture between Helios and ispace will attempt to extract O2 and metals from lunar regolith.  The Falcon Heavy rocket has now officially been chosen for the NASA Europa Clipper mission in 2024. There were 9 launches to orbit since last month.  Notably, not one was launched from the US this time.  We give an award for the most scenic launch site, to the Chinese Xichang Satellite Launch Center.  

Monthly Space News July 10, 2021 (pdf)  YouTube video (34 minutes
NASA announced 2 robotic missions to Venus around 2029, the first in 30 years, including a probe parachuting down to the surface.  Goals include better understanding geological activity, how the atmosphere and possible past oceans became so hostile, and looking for phosphine which could be a biomarker for life in the clouds.  The European Space Agency (ESA) is sending an orbiter in 2031 with similar goals.  Rocket Lab is still planning a private mission to Venus in 2023, using their photon spacecraft which now has NASA contracts to go to both the Moon and Mars.  The suborbital private space tourism market is heating up, with imminent launches by both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.  A balloon from Space Perspective was recently tested, keeping it in the suborbital race, reaching a lower altitude but for a longer time period.  The orbital space tourism market is still expanding, now with 4 Axiom missions to the International Space Station (ISS), and separate private missions flown by SpaceX for Earth orbit and lunar orbit.  Relativity space announced a new, larger, reusable 3D printed rocket to compete with the SpaceX Falcon 9, even before its first launch of a smaller expendable 3D printed rocket this year.  3D printing is just one disruptive technology advancing the space industry.  Other disruptive technologies have already reduced the cost of launch to Low Earth Orbit to 1% of the 1980 costs.  In particular, SpaceX alone through reusable rockets has reduced the cost to orbit by 90%. Other disruptive technologies in use include ion engines, cubesats, space tugs, and future technologies like space solar power and nuclear thermal propulsion. All the technologies for transportation are necessary enablers, but many other new technologies will still be needed to succeed in space.  Disruptive business models and regulatory frameworks are also changing things, including NASA's shift to buying services instead of just hardware, the Artemis accords, and in-orbit services.  As a result of all these changes, the pace of technology iterations is increasing. Investment is pouring into space, because people see the analogy to the vast changes resulting from the rapid increase in computing power summarized as Moore's law in semiconductor chips.  A brief review of the 15 orbital launches since the last meeting included the launch of 3 Chinese astronauts to their new space station, launch using a converted 54 year old Minuteman missile (the oldest rocket engine ever used),  more OneWeb satellites to compete against the Starlink internet service, and several launches of rockets dropped from planes.

Monthly Space news, June 5, 2021 (pdf)   YouTube video (23 minutes
The Chinese Mars mission finally sent its lander to the surface, releasing the 529 lb rover, while the orbiter continued its observation mission and relaying data.  The US Mars mission ran more extreme altitude, distance, and speed tests for the Mars helicopter acting to scout ahead of the rover's path. At high speed, a software bug led to some control instability.  Virgin Galactic test pilots flew the VSS Unity spacecraft to space, although not as high as the traditional Kármán line.  The physical basis for the Karman definition of the edge of space is based on ability to achieve aerodynamic flight, ability to maintain a satellite in orbit, and large air temperature changes.  11 recent orbital launches were reviewed, including 4 batches of SpaceX Starlink internet satellites, and some internet competition from new OneWeb satellites.  The Falcon/Cargo Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station was the first in 17 launches this year to use a new booster.

Monthly Space News, May 1, 2021 (pdf)  YouTube video (26 minutes)  Perseverance, NASA's Mars rover, demonstrated the first in-situ resource use in space, proving that O2 can be extracted from the Martian CO2 atmosphere.  It extracted enough O2 in an hour for 10 minutes of breathing. Otherwise, Perseverance mostly relayed data and video from the Ingenuity Mars helicopter. The  helicopter was very successful, with 4 test flights, and will continue working for at least another month. NASA selected SpaceX Starship as the sole lander for the "Human Landing System" in the Artemis Moon program.  This was protested by the other vendors, so progress will be halted for an unknown time for litigation. The first Artemis program landing would still involve the SLS rocket and Orion capsule, and require Starship refueling in Earth orbit.  Long term, this could hasten the end of SLS, Orion, and Gateway, so the political decisions may be a bigger hurdle than the technical ones.  Astrobotic chose the SpaceX Falcon Heavy as the rocket for its 2023 lunar robotic mission.  Blue Origin will start selling tickets for 10 minute suborbital rides starting May 5, following 15 successful tests out of 15.  The New Glenn orbital rocket won't be available until late 2022. Northrup Grumman grabs another Intelsat satellite to extend its life with additional propulsion.  The International Space Station (ISS) had a busy month, with crews arriving from both Russian and American launches, starting bartered trades of launch seats between Russia and the US.  China still expects to land their Mars rover in mid-May.  China launched the first module for its new space station, with 10 remaining launches for 2022 completion.  China and Russia also formally invited other countries to join their Lunar Research Station. Bill Nelson is confirmed as NASA's next administrator.  There were 10 orbital launches since the last meeting.

Monthly Space News, April 3, 2021 (pdf)  YouTube video (31 minutes) NASA's Perseverance Mars rover has completed initial self tests, analyzed some rocks by zapping them with lasers, and recorded sounds from Mars. A strange green rock has been analyzed, but not yet understood. Perseverance has been scouting out an airfield for Ingenuity, the helicopter it carries. Ingenuity is mainly a technology demo, gathering information for the next design.  Benefits of a working helicopter include scouting, faster exploration, and reaching areas inaccessible to rovers or humans.  Ingenuity was built quickly with all new technology, including open source software and commercial components like a cell phone processor. With an atmospheric density only 1% of earth, Ingenuity requires large blades spinning very rapidly.  2/3 of the rechargeable battery power is needed just to stay warm at night. Most of the Ingenuity commercial electronics are not radiation hardened.  As a result, computations may be incorrect fairly frequently.  Circuitry was added to detect problems, and reboot quickly in that case.  Inertial navigation is used, coupled with solar tracking and use of a downward-facing camera to match locations with photos. An airfield has been selected based on aerial photos and the up-close inspection. Perseverance is currently deploying the helicopter. The first flight is planned for April 11.  Space debris cleanup is getting more critical.  Astroscale launched a test of a satellite for finding a dead satellite or rocket body, docking with it, and de-orbiting.  The space industry is relieved that it seems space policy will likely remain essentially the same with the new administration, for the first time in 30 years. SpaceX Starship prototype SN11 blew up. Nine recent orbital launches were reviewed, including 216 satellites for internet service by SpaceX (Starlink) and OneWeb.

Monthly Space News, March 6, 2021 (pdf)  YouTube video (27.5 minutes) 3 robotic mars missions launched in July 2020 all arrived at Mars, after traveling  over 300 million miles in 200 days. They were launched by the UAE, China, and the US during a favorable alignment window occurring every 26 months. The UAE and China missions went into orbit around Mars, while NASA's Perseverance Rover landed successfully in the Jezero crater/ancient river delta. The nuclear-powered Perseverance rover, about the size of a car, will drive autonomously to search for ancient life with cameras and multiple instruments, and cache samples on the surface for a future return mission.  So far, the rover has been going through self tests, including flexing the robot arm and taking a short drive.  The Ingenuity helicopter has not been released yet. There are currently 11 active missions at Mars, including orbiting satellites as well as rovers and a stationary lander. The asteroid Apophis flew close to Earth on Mar 5, and will fly within the orbits of geosynchronous satellites on its next visit in 2029.  The government's Space Launch System (SLS), a troubled heavy lift vehicle, will be dropped from the 2024 mission to Europa, in favor of a "proven commercial heavy lift rocket", meaning the Falcon 9 Heavy.  A luxury space hotel in orbit in the form of a rotating wheel to achieve artificial lunar gravity has been announced by Orbital Assembly Corporation. The company is actively looking for investors, and produced slick marketing materials.  The CEO of Rocket Lab once said he would eat his hat if they ever moved to make their boosters reusable.  Now that they are pursuing that, he did eat his hat during a meeting announcing a new, larger rocket, saying "This hat is not tasty".  SpaceX continues to put on the best shows on earth, gathering a lot of data during rocket test launches, followed by large explosions:  the Starship prototype SN10 blew up spectacularly 8 minutes after a completely successful suborbital test, taking off and landing back on the launch pad. Among the 7 orbital launches since the last meeting, it is now rare news that SpaceX lost a booster instead of recovering it.  Just a few years ago, everyone was amazed it was even possible.

Monthly Space News, February 6, 2021 (pdf)  YouTube video (31 minutes)  NASA delays decision on Human Landing System.  Delays are not unexpected in any organization under new management, but the 2024 NASA human Moon landing gets even less likely.  NASA selects Firefly Aerospace in 6th CLPS award for payloads to the Moon.  All 3 robotic missions to Mars (UAE, China, US) are still on track to arrive in February.  Virgin Orbit with their hybrid plane/rocket launch system successfully delivers satellites to orbit.  SpaceX launches record 143 satellites with one rocket, into sun-synchronous orbit.  Organizing 143 satellites was helped by mission aggregators and space tugs. General issues with the expanding small satellite business, including launch vendor positioning and military strategy. What is a sun-synchronous orbit. Starlink now has 1,022 orbiting satellites, 10,000 customers, and now includes some polar orbits with laser crosslinks between satellites. SpaceX is converting 2 deepwater oil rigs into floating spaceports. Space tourism is taking off, with a charity mission in October, Axiom's tourists to the ISS in January, and yet another successful Blue Origin test. Venus life is looking much less likely. Starship SN9 test fails landing again. Recent launches.

Monthly Space News, January 9, 2021 (pdf)  Chinese lunar sample return (Chang’e 5) update. Japanese Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample return update, with lessons re-learned  about our future space-based economy, including not to expect “space freighter captain” to be a real job.  Offbeat news on ashes smuggled aboard the ISS for Star Trek’s Scotty, smuggling alcohol and food to space stations, and Space Force now as “guardians of the ... galaxy?”.  Recent launches, and a scorecard on launches in 2020. 

Monthly Space News, December 12, 2020 (pdf)  Chinese lunar sample return (Chang’e 5) and the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) in general. Japanese Hayabusa 2 asteroid sample return..  Arecibo observatory collapses. SpaceX Starship protoype SN8 test “puts a crater in the right spot”. SpaceX Starlink gets FCC subsidies over 10 years. Relativity Space raises money, becoming 2nd most valuable venture-backed company. Recent launches include everything from ISS astronauts and cargo, to large spy satellites, and communications satellites the size of a slice of bread.

Monthly Space News, November 7, 2020 (pdf)  Asteroid Bennu sample collection by OSIRIS-REx. Other asteroid missions past and future.; SpaceX Starlink update.  More water found on the Moon.  NASA Tipping Point contract.  Venus life might be a false alarm.  ISS inhabited 20 years continuously. 7 nations joined Artemis accords. Blue Origin New Shepard test.  Recent launches.

Monthly Space News, October 3, 2020 (pdf)   NASA’s Artemis (Moon) plans and treaty issues. Venus might have life. Cubesat launching. Recent  launches.

Monthly Space News, September 5, 2020 (pdf) SpaceX Starlink update, including use of barges, polar orbit launches and related history of the “most expensive cow in history” in Cuba. SpaceX Starship tests. US Department of Defense selection of primary rocket launch companies. Chinese lunar base plans. Recent launches.

Monthly Space News, August 1, 2020 (Powerpoint) 3 missions to Mars launched by UAE, China, US. Launch windows and Hohmann transfer orbits; miscellany. Recent launches.  (Click on the animated gifs, especially for the Hohmann transfer orbits, or go to slide show mode)

Monthly Space News, July 11, 2020 (pdf) Delayed US Mars Perseverance mission to Mars preview. Starlink and OneWeb updates. Spaceship Neptune:  To the stratosphere in a balloon. Zombie satellites return from the graveyard. NASA “Lunar Loo Challenge. “Eau de Space”. A noisy way to light birthday candles. Recent launches.

Monthly Space News, June 6, 2020 (pdf) Historic crewed launch to ISS on SpaceX Falcon 9/Crew Dragon. Serious re-usability shown in 8th Starlink launch. SpaceX Starship prototype SN4 explodes. Asteroid near miss. China announces space station in 2 years. Miscellany. Recent launches.

Monthly Space News May 2, 2020 (pdf) ISS (International Space Station) crew launch and return. NASA contracts for robotic lunar landings in 2021-2022 by Masten Space Systems, Intuitive Machines, Astrobotic. NASA funding for lunar Human Landing System by Blue Origin/Lockheed Martin/Northrop Grumman, Dynetics/Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX. Starlink update on addressing astronomers concerns on satellite brightness. Recent launches.

Monthly Space News, April 4, 2020 (pdf) OneWeb launches 34 more communications satellites, then declares bankruptcy. SpaceX Starlink receives FCC license for 1 million user terminals, which are now a “UFO on a stick”. NASA selects SpaceX for transportation to Lunar Gateway (if it’s ever built). “Space Fence” for tracking satellites and space debris completed. COVID-19 impact. Recent launches


Presentations on space-related topics

Presentations on specific topics related to the development of a space-based economy and settling in space are:  

Biosphere 2 and closed ecological systems:  systems biology for sustainable life outside earth, and a space settlement prototype 30 years ahead of its time (YouTube video or slides)

Biosphere 2 was constructed as a demonstration/test site for prototyping sealed life support systems to support future space colonization, and to better model how earth’s ecosystems work. 8 people were sealed in the 3.14 acre facility for 2 years starting in 1991.  It holds the record as the world’s largest and longest-running closed environment test.  The facility is still there and open to the public, although it is no longer sealed. The presentation Biosphere 2:  A space settlement prototype 30 years ahead of its time (pdf) offers a retrospective on its unique contributions to understanding the complexities of sustaining life outside earth.  The presentation was to the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) Annual Technical Symposium (Houston),  October 24, 2020.  There is a 30 minute YouTube video of the presentation.  There also a video of the AIAA Biosphere 2 presentation on the Houston AIAA site, but security software often flags that site as unsafe, so it is best to view the YouTube version.

Lunar gateway orbit options

The “lunar gateway” has gone through various name changes over time.  If it is built, it will be a small-scale, short term human habitat orbiting the moon (also called “cis-lunar space”).  An overview of the issues in choosing an appropriate orbit is given in this Lunar gateway orbit options presentation (Powerpoint) from January, 2019.  The presentation includes some animations.  To see those, you may need to go into “slide show” mode.

SpaceX’s StarLink and other satellite-based internet services

StarLink is a satellite-based worldwide internet service being built by SpaceX.  It was initially envisioned to be based on up to 12,000 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, although there is now an application to increase this to 30,000 satellites.  By comparison, there were only about 5000 satellites in orbit at the time of the first launch.  There are other competitors who also are launching large numbers of satellites in the race to provide space-based internet service.  This StarLink presentation (Powerpoint) from June, 2019 provides an overview.  The presentation includes some animations.  To see those, you may need to go into “slide show” mode or click on the picture.


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