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TDRS launch marks end of an era

TDRS launch marks end of an era
Atlas 5 TDRS-M launch

WASHINGTON — The successful launch of a NASA communications satellite Aug. 18 is the final flight of the current generation of data relay spacecraft as well as for a venerable satellite bus.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 401 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:29 a.m. Eastern. The launch was delayed by 26 minutes because of an issue with the temperature on the Centaur upper stage detected during the standard T-4 minute hold.

The Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) M spacecraft separated from the Centaur in a geostationary transfer orbit nearly two hours after liftoff. In a statement, NASA confirmed TDRS-M was in good health and in contact with controllers after separation.

The launch, previously scheduled for early August, was postponed by two weeks because of an incident during payload processing that damaged an S-band antenna on the Boeing-built spacecraft. That antenna was later replaced.

During a pre-launch news conference Aug. 17 at the Kennedy Space Center, a Boeing manager said the antenna suffered some “minor damage” when a crane bumped it. “It was prepping to the lift the satellite, and the crane did come down and touch it,” said James Wilson III, Boeing program manager for NASA and civil space programs.

Wilson suggested, but did not explicitly state, that the incident was the result of human error. Asked at the press conference if the crane mishap was a mechanical problem or human error, he said, “There was no machine problem.”

End of the lines

TDRS-M is the third and final satellite in the latest generation of TDRS satellites. Boeing won a contract from NASA for the satellites in 2007 that included two satellites and options for two more. NASA exercised the option for one satellite, but not the other, which would have been TDRS-N.

“The deployment of the satellites depends on the requirements. At this moment, there is no need a TDRS-N,” said Badri Younes, deputy associate administrator for Space Communications and Navigation at NASA Headquarters. “We are seeing a need for additional data relaying capability around the 2025 time frame.”

Those future needs will be met by a later generation of communications satellites. Younes, at the press conference, said those future spacecraft will likely incorporate new technologies, including laser communications, which he said can offer up to 100 times the bandwidth for the same amount of power. “We have declared the next decade to be the decade of light, as we intend to light up the communications highways over the solar system,” he said.

Other technologies he said NASA was considering incorporating on future satellites include disruption tolerant networking and quantum entanglement, which would provide essentially unbreakable encryption for satellite communications. China has been testing quantum entanglement for communications using a satellite launched last year.

Younes suggested that those future data relay satellites might be owned and operated by commercial entities rather than NASA. “NASA’s optimum goal is to push the technology to enable the commercial sector such that these services can be provided by commercial providers, and NASA will not need in the future to build these kinds of capabilities,” he said. “They can become a user, like any other user.”

TDRS-M also marks the end of the line for the Boeing 601 family of communications satellites. The 601 was introduced in 1987 by Hughes Space and Communications, which was acquired by Boeing in 2000. The companies built more than 80 spacecraft using the Boeing 601 bus for commercial and government customers.

“I started out on 601s when I was a young engineer,” said Boeing’s Wilson. “It’s incredibly exciting for me, as an engineer and now as a manager, to have gone through that and see the final launch.”

Source: Space News

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CASIS awards Audacy grant to test radio on space station

CASIS awards Audacy grant to test radio on space station
Audacy’s constellation is designed to provide high-availability mission critical communications to users anywhere in near Earth space. Credit: Audacy

The nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) awarded a grant Aug. 17 to Audacy that will enable the Silicon Valley startup to demonstrate its high data-rate radio on the International Space Station.

Audacy, a company established in 2015 to create a commercial space-based communications network, plans to send the Audacy Lynq demonstration mission to the space station’s NanoRacks External Payload Platform on a NASA commercial cargo fight in late 2018.

“We plan to demonstrate the efficacy of Audacy’s high-rate customer terminal, as well as the utility of Audacy’s communications services for downloading science and imagery data from customers onboard the ISS,” Ellaine Talle, Audacy project lead, said by email.

On Aug. 8, Audacy announced a related project. The firm is working with Scotland’s Clyde Space to send a cubesat into orbit in 2018 to demonstrate the performance of terminals customers flying small satellites can use to transmit data to Audacy’s ground stations.

Talle declined to say the value of the CASIS award but said it was large enough to cover the cost of launching Audacy Lynq on a commercial cargo flight and a six-month test of Audacy K-band antenna and radio on the space station.

In 2019, Audacy plans to launch three large satellites into medium Earth orbit to relay data from spacecraft in low Earth orbit to ground stations. Audacy is establishing a global network of ground stations to communicate with its future relay satellites and to support customers operating missions beyond the relay satellites’ field of view, Talle said.

“While we hope future ISS demonstrations will utilize the relays, this initial mission will only exercise the ground segment,” she added.

Source: Space News

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Google Lunar X Prize teams get extra time to win competition

Google Lunar X Prize teams get extra time to win competition
MX-1E Moon Express

WASHINGTON — After months of stating that it would offer no further extensions of the Google Lunar X Prize competition, the X Prize Foundation announced Aug. 16 it was effectively giving the five remaining teams a little extra time.

In a statement, the foundation, which administers the lunar landing competition, said that teams now had until March 31, 2018, to complete all the requirements of the prize, which include landing on the lunar surface, traveling at least 500 meters, and returning video and other data.

Prior to the announcement, teams had until the end of 2017 to launch their missions. The revised deadline, therefore, offers an extension of less than three months, to account for the time needed for each team’s spacecraft to travel to and land on the moon and perform required activities there.

The foundation, in the statement announcing the revised deadline, did not give a reason for the change. In a later statement provided to SpaceNews, Chanda Gonzales-Mowrer, senior director of the Google Lunar X Prize, described the change as a “re-focus” rather an explicit extension.

“The most recent Dec. 31, 2017, date was established as the date by which teams needed to initiate a launch, and was used as a means to downselect to the current five finalists,” she said. “Now, what is more important to teams, who all have different mission profiles (and paths to the moon, length of time in orbit) is the deadline by which they need to complete the mission, which is now the only date that matters.”

In the past, foundation officials had said that the end-of-2017 deadline — originally for completing the mission and revised earlier this year to just launching the spacecraft — was firm. “We’re stuck now with this timeline,” Andrew Barton, at the time the technical director of the prize, said last September in a presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico.

In a June 29 speech at the NewSpace 2017 conference in San Francisco, Amanda Stiles, the current director of technical operations for the prize, reiterated that there were no plans for further extensions of the prize.

“There is definitely a chance that this prize could expire without a winner, and I think the question people usually are asking here is, ‘Are we extending the prize again?’” she said. “The answer to that is the Google Lunar X Prize will end at the deadline and it will end as it is.”

Stiles added, though, that the X Prize Foundation was open to considering a range of options should it become clear that no team was likely to win the prize by the end-of-2017 deadline, but said any such discussions would not take place until “much later” this year. “We don’t really feel like that’s necessary at this point,” she said in the June speech.

However, with four and a half months until the end of the year, it had become increasingly clear that most, if not all, of the teams would not be ready to launch. SpaceIL, an Israeli team that was the first to have its launch contract validated by the foundation in 2015, has had its launch, as a rideshare payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9, delayed until early 2018.

SpaceIL lander
SpaceIL plans to launch its lunar lander for the Google Lunar X Prize competition on a SpaceX Falcon 9, now scheduled for early 2018. Credit: SpaceIL

Team Indus, an Indian team with a contract to launch on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, has set a launch date for its mission, which will also carry a rover from Japan’s Team Hakuto, of Dec. 28. However, in a July 30 statement, Rahul Narayan, leader of Team Indus, acknowledged that meeting that launch date would be a challenge.

“We have backed ourselves to meet some pretty crazy deadlines before, and are committing to keep trying until we have exhausted all possible options of winning the Grand Prize,” he wrote. He added that Team Indus “would need to clear multiple tests, certifications and rehearsals before we get onto the launch pad,” which have yet to be completed.

Synergy Moon plans to launch its lunar lander on a Neptune 8 rocket by Interorbital Systems of Mojave, California. That rocket has yet to fly, and Interorbital has, to date, performed only low-altitude flight tests of smaller versions of the Neptune.

Moon Express has a multiple-launch contract with Rocket Lab to launch its MX-1E lander on an Electron rocket. That rocket performed a partially successful initial launch in May, and the company said Aug. 6 it was planning a second test launch in October.

If that second launch is successful, Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck said the company would then move into commercial operations, in time to support a launch of Moon Express by the end of the year. “We’re in a good position to fulfill that customer, for sure,” he said in an Aug. 6 interview.

Bob Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, appreciated the extra time regardless of whether or not the team needs it. “Removing the constraint of a 2017 launch deadline is also a welcome development,” he said Aug. 16.

In addition to the revised deadline, the X Prize Foundation announced two additional milestone prizes. A $1.75 million Lunar Arrival Milestone Prize will be split among the teams that either place a spacecraft into orbit around the moon or attempt a landing by March 31. A $3 million Soft Landing Milestone Prize will be shared among the teams that successfully make a landing. Those prizes would be deducted from the $20 million grand prize or $5 million second prize that any team won.

“The in-space Milestone Prizes are in place to recognize the significant achievement in a private company reaching the moon’s orbit and soft landing on the surface,” Gonzales-Mowrer said in a statement to SpaceNews.

The new prizes also had the backing of Moon Express’ Richards. “The lunar arrival and soft landing milestone prizes are a great addition to the Google Lunar X Prize and are well aligned with major risk points of the competition,” he said.

Source: Space News

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