Virgin Looks at Launch Sites in Australia

AdelaideNow has a story about Virgin Galactic’s plans to establish a spaceport in Australia for suborbital tourism flights. The London-based company is considering launch sites in South Australia’s Outback and Victoria.

“We do have plans to launch from venues worldwide and Australia is in our long-term plans,” said Virgin Galactic’s Carolyn Wincer. “South Australia and Victoria would be good places to launch from.”

NASA’s LADEE Mission to Study Lunar Dust

NASA PRESS RELEASE

NASA is preparing to send a small spacecraft to the moon in 2011 to assess the lunar atmosphere and the nature of dust lofted above the surface.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) will launch before the agency’s moon exploration activities accelerate during the next decade. LADEE will gather detailed information about conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust. A thorough understanding of these influences will help researchers understand how future exploration may shape the lunar environment and how the environment may affect future explorers.

“LADEE represents a low-cost approach to science missions, enabling faster science return and more frequent missions,” said Ames Director S. Pete Worden. “These measurements will provide scientific insight into the lunar environment, and give our explorers a clearer understanding of what they’ll be up against as they set up the first outpost and begin the process of settling the solar system.”

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Senators: NASA Should Use Existing Launch Areas, Not Wildlife Refuges

Florida’s two U.S. senators have urged NASA not to build a new commercial launch site in popular wildlife areas but to use existing launch locations instead, the Dayton News-Journal reports.

“There is great promise in the pursuit of a viable U.S. commercial space industry, and this can be achieved while respecting the existing and precious habitat of the Space Coast,” Mel Martinez wrote in a letter to NASA. His colleague, Bill Nelson, wrote a similar letter to the space agency this week.

The space agency is studying whether to build a new launch complex on one of two sites on north end of the Kennedy Space Center. The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore co-manage the areas.

The proposal has generated strong opposition from birdwatchers, fishermen and other locals who use the popular recreation areas. They fear the sites could be damaged by the rocket facility and closed to users.

One solution would be to situate the new launch complex at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where there are a number of abandoned launch facilities. Nelson’s letter indicates that Air Force Brig. Gen. Susan Helms, who oversees the station, is willing to work with NASA on finding a location for the facility.

Spaceport America Signs Up Another Company Ahead of Crucial Vote

The flurry of activity surrounding Spaceport America continued this week as an Albuquerque company agreed to continue using New Mexico’s rocket base.

Microgravity Enterprises Incorporated signed a memorandum of understanding with the spaceport. The company produces energy drinks and other products from ingredients flown on suborbital rockets.

Earlier in the week, the company’s rocket provider, UP Aerospace of Colorado, agreed to continue using the facility for another 10 years. In recent weeks, the New Mexico Space Authority gave its executive director authority to begin negotiations with space tourism provider Virgin Galactic. Governor Bill Richardson also traveled to Washington, DC, where he sought support from the federal government.

All this activity comes on the eve of a crucial April 22 vote by residents of Sierra County over whether to raise the county sales tax by .25 cents to help pay for construction of an upgraded spaceport capable of handling tourism flights. The vote is expected to be close.

South Korean Astronaut to Serenade ISS Crewmates on Cosmonauts’ Day

South Korean So-Yeon Yi will be the star of a celebratory sing-sing aboard the International Space Station on Saturday, AFP reports.

Yi will serenade her five fellow space travelers with a song, followed by a dinner with traditional South Korean food. The dinner show will be part of Cosmonauts’ Day celebrations, held to mark the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.

The anniversary also will be celebrated today with 190 parties and events around the world as part of Yuri’s Night. To find an event near you, please visit the organization’s website.

Spacecraft Spots Largest Known Potato in Orbit Around Mars

Phobos moon

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

NASA PRESS RELEASE

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took two images of the larger of Mars’ two moons, Phobos, within 10 minutes of each other on March 23, 2008. This is the first, taken from a distance of about 6,800 kilometers (about 4,200 miles). It is presented in color by combining data from the camera’s blue-green, red, and near-infrared channels.

The illuminated part of Phobos seen in the images is about 21 kilometers (13 miles) across. The most prominent feature in the images is the large crater Stickney in the lower right. With a diameter of 9 kilometers (5.6 miles), it is the largest feature on Phobos.

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Russia May End ISS Tourist Flights in 2010; Urges Use of Station Until 2020

Russian space officials said on Friday they may not be able to continue launching space tourists to the International Space Station after the crew size aboard the orbiting laboratory increases from three to six in 2010, according to the Associated Press.

“We will continue flying tourists to the international space station in accordance with the existing programs, but we may have problems with it starting from 2010 because of planned increase of the ISS’ crew,” said Anatoly Perminov, chief of the Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos.

This could be bad news for Reston, Virginia-based Space Adventures, which has already flown five wealthy private citizens to the station. Software guru Richard Garriott, who is scheduled to fly in October, would not be affected by the change.

Meanwhile, Agence France Presse reports that Russia is appealing to its ISS partners to continue using the station until 2020, longer than originally planned. Station construction has fallen behind schedule; Russia will not complete installation of its ISS research module until 2015.

Russia to Develop New Spaceport, Angara Rocket

Russian space officials have outlined an ambitious plan to increase its space autonomy by building a new spaceport in the Far East and accelerating development of a new family of rockets.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for speeding up the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the country’s Amur region near China, the Associated Press reports. The new facility would be ready for rocket launches by 2015; it would handle all human spaceflights by 2020.

“We must ensure Russia’s guaranteed access to space, that is a capability to make all kind of space launches — satellites, manned spacecraft and interplanetary probes — from our own territory,” Putin said.

Russia currently launches Soyuz crew vehicles and other rockets from the Soviet-era Baikonur Cosmodrome, which it leases from Kazakhstan. Russia is still planning to use Baikonur until at least 2050, the Russian news agency Novosti reported.

Putin called for the accelerated development of the new Angara launcher, a family of modular rockets capable of launching medium to heavy payloads. Angara will fly out of Russia’s Plesetsk Cosmodrome. A heavy lift version will be launched at Baikonur from a new launch pad being jointly developed by Russia and Kazakhstan, Novosti reported.

The first Angara launch is scheduled to occur in 2010 or 2011. Wikipedia has more about the rocket.

Commercial Space Still Searching for Big VC Investments

Although much money has been invested in start-up commercial space companies, the industry has yet to attract the mainstream venture capitalists who fueled the development of computers and the Internet, Investor’s Business Daily reports.

However, experts believe that the time isn’t too far off when venture capitalists will put serious money into the field.

“The investment community has very much a herd mentality, and what we need is a Netscape event,” said X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis, referring to the Internet pioneer’s initial public offering. “Until then, (this industry) will rely on private benefactors who are very passionate about space.”

National Space Society Executive Director George Whitesides, who also is a consultant for Virgin Galactic, agreed. “We’re at a dynamic moment in space history. We have a handful of very credible players who very soon will start launching things and people into space,” he said.

SpaceX: Profits Without Orbits

Investor’s Business Daily has an interview with SpaceX’s Elon Musk. The PayPal founder reports that his space company is profitable despite having failed to place anything into orbit thus far.

“We have been cash flow positive for the last six quarters,” Musk boasts. “We were profitable last year. Revenue was over $100 million. I won’t say how profitable we were, but it was a pretty healthy number.”

SpaceX failed in its two previous attempts to launch its Falcon 1 rocket. The first exploded shortly after takeoff; the second reached space but failed to obtain orbit. Musk and his team will try again in June. SpaceX hopes to significantly undercut its competitors.

“Our nearest competitor there is the Pegasus by Orbital Sciences, although the Falcon 1 has greater capability to orbit than Pegasus. The Pegasus has a NASA list price of $35 million, though I hear you can get it for $30 million commercially. Ours is $8 million,” Musk said.

SpaceX is also developing the larger Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft under NASA’s COTS program. Dragon is being designed to carry cargo and crew to the International Space Station after the space shuttle retires in 2010.

MDA Stock Falls Sharply as Canadian Government Rejects Sale

Shares of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates fell sharply on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Thursday after the Canadian government signaled that it would block the company’s sale of its space division to an American defense contractor.

Shares of the Richmond, BC-based company, which had been trading at a high of $47 Canadian on Wednesday, fell to $42.85 Canadian on Thursday after Industry Minister Jim Prentice indicated that the”investment is not likely to be of net benefit to Canada.” The stock recovered slight to finish the week at $43.03 Canadian.

MDA had planned to sell its space division to U.S.-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK) for $1.325 billion in order to focus on its information systems business. Stockholders overwhelmingly approved the sale last month.

However, opponents said the sale would devastate the Canadian space industry, give Americans access to taxpayer-subsidized technology, and compromise the nation’s sovereignty. MDA built the Canadarms and the Dextre robot for the space shuttle and International Space Station, both funded by the Canadian government.

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SES Americom Gives Up on AMC-14, to File Insurance Claim

SES Americom announced on Friday that it will not attempt to salvage its AMC-14 communication satellite, which was stranded in a lopsided orbit on March 15 after a Proton M upper stage shut down prematurely. Instead, the company will file a $150 million insurance claim.

“SES and Lockheed Martin have carefully examined all the available options for repositioning this satellite into its intended geostationary orbit,” said Edward Horowitz, President and CEO of SES Americom. “Unfortunately, none of those options would allow effective use of the spacecraft. The various repositioning scenarios presented carry unacceptable risks, and would result in a severely shortened life of the satellite. Therefore, we have no choice but to claim a total loss of the satellite with our insurers.”

Lockheed Martin built the satellite, which SES had completely leased to EchoStar. The American satellite television provider will file a separate $42 million insurance claim for its losses.