NASA Announces Initiative to Boost Small Science Satellite Efforts

Artist illustration of events on the sun changing the conditions in Near-Earth space. A new study finds daily U.S. economic cost from solar storm-induced electricity blackouts could be in the tens of billions of dollars. (Credit: NASA)

LOGAN, Utah — The head of NASA’s science programs unveiled an $100 million per year initiative on Monday focused on the use of small scuebce satellites that includes data buys from three spacecraft constellation operators.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said the funding would go to targeted space science, technology and educational projects. He made the announcement during a keynote address at the annual Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah.

A key element of the initiative is the purchase of Earth science data from companies with satellite constellations in Earth orbit. Zurbuchen announced that the first purchases will be made from DigitalGlobe, Planet and Spire. He did not disclose the amounts of the awards.

Zurbuchen said NASA’s goal is to work with the growing small-satellite industry, not to compete with it. The space agency will invest in early-stage research and development to advance and test new technologies.

Zurbuchen also announced a new opportunity for small-satellite technology demonstrations focused on heliophysics that will be funded at up to $65 million.

“This opportunity will ultimately help deploy #SmallSat technologies to better understand @NASASun science and protect Americans by protecting US technological infrastructure on Earth and in space from the perils of space weather,” he tweeted.

Zurbuchen said NASA plans to provide more launch and rideshare opportunities for small satellites built by government, commercial and international partners.

Planet Lays Off Dozens of Employees

In February 2014, Planet Labs Inc. launched its first flock of Dove nanosatellites into space. Shown are two shoebox-sized Doves being ejected into low-Earth orbit from the International Space Station. The company’s goal is for the flock to take a high-resolution snapshot of nearly the entire globe every 24 hours. (Credit: NASA)

Space News reports the remote-sensing company Planet has laid off up to 38 employees in what the company has called a “shift of focus” from creating the world’s largest constellation of satellites to “developing commercial products and building  successful business” to “more tightly align” with its current goals. Planet said it laid off less than 10 percent of its more than 500 employees.

Planet & Airbus Partner to Deliver New Geospatial Solutions

Two of the 28 Planet Labs Dove satellites that make up the Flock 1 constellation are seen launching into orbit from the International Space Station on Feb. 11. (Credit: NASA)

TOULOUSE, France (Planet PR) — Planet is expanding its engagement in Europe in a big way. Today, we’re excited to announce a partnership with Airbus, a leader in remote sensing, to enable access to each other’s data and joint cooperation on the development of new geospatial solutions.

(more…)

NGA Signs CRADA with Planet

SPRINGFIELD, Va. (NGA PR) — The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency signed a cooperative research and development agreement, April 4, with Planet, a commercial imagery provider, to explore and potentially improve the speed at which the agency can extract vital information and analytics from the company’s imagery.

The CRADA is expected to yield time-saving services for the agency related to change detection, such as monitoring objects across entire countries, advanced broad area search, and the generation of baseline and foundation layers, said Manuela McCabe, NGA’s Planet CRADA program manager.

“The Planet CRADA will fully inform NGA on the quality and utility of the services that Planet is able to develop and provide using their high-frequency imagery stacks,” said McCabe.

NGA purchased a $14 million subscription for Planet imagery in July 2017, following an introductory contract signed in 2016.

How a NASA Team Turned a Smartphone into a Satellite Business

Two of the 28 Planet Labs Dove satellites that make up the Flock 1 constellation are seen launching into orbit from the International Space Station on Feb. 11. (Credit: NASA)

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. (NASA PR) — Satellites aren’t small or cheap. The Solar Dynamics Observatory launched by NASA in 2010 weighs about 6,800 pounds and cost $850 million to build and put into orbit.

Even the satellites built under NASA’s Discovery Program, aimed at encouraging development of low-cost spacecraft, still have price tags beyond the reach of smaller companies or research organizations: one such satellite, the sun-particle collecting Genesis, ran up $164 million in expenses despite its modest design and mission.

(more…)

Fast Company Selects Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Space


Fast Company has released its annual list of the most innovative companies for 2018. The 10 top innovators in the space industry are shown above.

I’m a bit surprised by Stratolaunch landing at no. 10. The aircraft is impressive; I’ve seen it in person outside, and it’s positively Spruce Goosian in its size and ambition. And I’ve been on tarmacs walking around a 747 and an A380, which are also very large airplanes.

That being said, the reality is that the only rocket it available to launch is a Pegasus, whose primary launch aircraft is Orbital ATK’s 44-year old L-1011 that’s parked just down the flight line from the Stratolaunch hangar. They’re working on developing a larger booster for the giant aircraft, so maybe Stratolaunch will be as innovative as Fast Company believes it is at some point. Never say never.

It just seems that Burt Rutan got focused on building the coolest flying vehicle he could while the whole issue of the rocket was not as well thought through. A similar thing happened with SpaceShipTwo, contributing to years of delay.

The other thing is I heard last fall is the Stratolaunch aircraft might not fly until sometime well into next year. So, it could be a while before we see how well that thing actually performs in flight.

Rocket Lab Successfully Tested Kick Stage During Electron Flight

Electron kick stage deploying satellite. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Huntington Beach, California and Auckland, New Zealand (Rocket Lab PR): Rocket Lab, a US aerospace company with operations in New Zealand, has successfully tested a previously unannounced kick stage on the Still Testing Electron launch vehicle, using it to circularize the orbits of the two Spire Lemur-2 CubeSats on board.

(more…)

A Look Back at the Space Year That Was

Total solar eclipse photographed from NASA Armstrong’s Gulfstream III. (Credit: (NASA/Carla Thomas)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

I realize it’s a bit late, but here’s a look back at the major developments in space in 2017.

I know that I’m probably forgetting something, or several somethings or someones. Fortunately, I have eagle-eyed readers who really seem to enjoy telling me just how much I’ve screwed up. Some of them a little too much….

So, have at it!  Do your worst, eagle-eyed readers!

(more…)

Secondary Payloads Increasingly Take Center Stage

CubeSats (Credit: ESA/Medialab)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

On most launches, the small secondary satellites that ride along with the primary payloads garner little attention.

That has begun to change in recent years as CubeSats have become increasingly capable. The importance of these small satellites could be seen in the recent launch of an Indian PSLV rocket, which carried a CartoSat Earth observation satellite and 30 secondary spacecraft from India, Canada, Finland, France, Republic of Korea, UK and the United States.

(more…)

Second Rocket Lab Electron Flight Succeeds

Electron soars into orbit. (Credit: Rocket Lab webcast screenshot)

Rocket Lab has successfully launched its Electron rocket from New Zealand, marking the first success of the small satellite booster.

The two-stage Electron roared off its launch pad on the Mahia Peninsula and appeared to have nominal flight. Commentary on the company’s webcast indicate the rocket successfully deployed three CubeSats from Planet and Spire.

Planet confirmed deployment of its satellite via Twitter. Spire also confirmed the successful deployment of two Lemur spacecraft.

The Electron booster’s second stage just prior to cutoff. (Credit: sRocket Lab webcast screenshot)

It marked only the second launch of the booster, which failed during its inaugural flight in May 2017. The ground lost telemetry from the rocket, which was blown up by range safety.

Electron is powered by Rutherford engines and is capable of placing payloads up to 225 kg (496 lb) into a 500-km (310-mile) sun synchronous orbit.

China Launches Satellites, ULA & Rocket Lab Flights Set

Atlas V on launch pad. (Credit: ULA)

China launched a Long March 11 rocket with six satellites aboard on Friday from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. The booster orbited a pair of Jilin-1 Earth imaging satellites for the Chang Guang Satellite company as well as four secondary payloads.

ULA is set to launch an Atlas V rocket with an U.S. Air Force Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) GEO early warning satellite later today. The flight is scheduled to lift off at 7:48 p.m. from Cape Canaveral in Florida.  ULA scrubbed the launch on Thursday do to a problem with ground equipment.

The webcast is available at www.ulalaunch.com and www.youtube.com/unitedlaunchalliance

The delay has postponed an attempt by SpaceX to conduct a static fire of the Falcon Heavy’s first-stage engines on a nearby launch pad. The test had been planned for Friday, but the next earliest opportunity is Saturday providing the Atlas V launches tonight.

On Saturday, Rocket Lab will open a launch window for the second flight of its Electron rocket. The first four-hour window opens on January 20 at 2:30 p.m. NZDT (0130 a.m. GMT/8:30 p.m. EST on Friday).

Rocket Lab has reserved nine days with identical four-hour windows for this launch attempt. The booster is carrying CubeSats for Planet and Spire.

Check Rocket Lab’s website for information about the webcast.

Rocket Lab to Open Electron Launch Window on Jan. 20

Eelectron rocket on the launch pad. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

AUKLAND, January 11, 2018 (Rocket Lab PR) — Rocket Lab, a US aerospace company with operations in New Zealand, will open a nine-day launch window from Saturday January 20, 2018 (NZDT) to carry out the company’s second test launch of the Electron rocket. During this time a four-hour launch window will open daily from 2:30 p.m. NZDT.

(more…)

SpaceX Ruled Roost in 2017, Boosting U.S. to No. 1 in Global Launches

Falcon 9 carries the Dragon cargo ship into orbit. (Credit: NASA TV)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

SpaceX had a banner year in 2017, launching a record 18 times and helping to propel the United States to the top of the global launch table with a perfect 29-0 record. The U.S. total made up 32.2 percent of 90 orbital launches worldwide, which was an increase over the 85 flights conducted in 2016.

The 29 American launches were a leap of seven over the 22 flights conducted the previous year. This is the highest number of American orbital launches since the 31 flights undertaken in 1999. However, that year the nation’s launch providers suffered four failures whereas they were perfect in 2017.

(more…)

Busy Launch Week With Flights to ISS, Electron Test

The Soyuz MS-06 spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

We’ve got a busy launch week coming up with a new three-man crew headed for the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX launching a Dragon resupply mission to the station, and Rocket Lab attempting the second flight test of its Electron small-satellite launcher. Europe and China are also launching satellites this week.

December 10

Launch Vehicle: Long March 3B
Payload: Alcomsat 1 communications satellite (Algeria)
Launch Time: Approx. 1635 GMT (11:35 a.m. EST)
Launch Site: Xichang, China

December 10/11

Launch Vehicle: Electron
Payloads: 3 Planet and Spire CubeSats
Launch Window: 0130-0530 GMT on 11th (8:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m. EST on 10/11th)
Launch Site: Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand
Webcast: http://www.rocketlabusa.com

December 12

Launch Vehicle: Falcon 9
Payload: Dragon (CRS 13 mission)
Launch Time: 1646 GMT (11:46 a.m. EST)
Launch Site: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
Webcast: http://www.spacex.com and http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv/

Launch Vehicle: Ariane 5
Payloads: Galileo 19-22 navigation satellites
Launch Time: 1836:07 GMT (1:36:07 p.m. EST)
Launch Site: ELA-3, Kourou, French Guiana
Webcast: http://www.esa.int

December 17

Launch Vehicle: Soyuz
Payload: Soyuz spacecraft with Anton Shkaplerov (Roscosmos), Scott Tingle (NASA) and Norishige Kanai (JAXA)
Launch Time: 0720 GMT (2:20 a.m. EST)
Launch Site: Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan
Webcast: http://www.nasa.gov/nasatv/

Rocket Lab Electron Launch Window Set to Open on Dec. 8

Rocket Lab says it will live stream the flight at http://www.rocketlabusa.com minutes before the scheduled launch time.

This will be Rocket Lab’s second attempt to launch the Electron rocket from New Zealand after the first launch failed to reach orbit on May 25. The flight will carry CubeSats from Planet and Spire Global.