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DARPA selects Boeing for spaceplane project

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DARPA selects Boeing for spaceplane project
Boeing Phamtom Express XS-1

WASHINGTON — The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency announced May 24 that it has picked Boeing to develop an experimental reusable first stage with the promise of lowering launch costs for medium-sized payloads.

Boeing will develop its “Phantom Express” vehicle for phases 2 and 3 of DARPA’s Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program, which has the goal of performing 10 flights in 10 days to demonstrate responsive and low-cost launch. Phase 2 will cover development of the vehicle and ground tests though 2019, with a series of 12 to 15 test flights planned for phase 3 in 2020.

DARPA spokesman Rick Weiss said the value of the award to Boeing is $146 million. The award is structured as a public-private partnership, with Boeing also contributing to the overall cost of the program, but Boeing declined to disclose its contribution.

“As it’s a competitive market, we do not plan to disclose our investment,” Boeing Phantom Works spokeswoman Cheryl Sampson said. “We are making a significant commitment to help solve an enduring challenge to reduce the cost of space access.”

The Phantom Express vehicle will take off vertically, with an upper stage carrying a satellite payload mounted on top of the fuselage. After releasing the upper stage, the suborbital vehicle would glide back to a runway landing.

“Phantom Express is designed to disrupt and transform the satellite launch process as we know it today, creating a new, on-demand space launch capability that can be achieved more affordably and with less risk,” said Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works, in a company statement.

Phantom Express is powered by an Aerojet Rocketdyne engine designated the AR-22, based on the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME). In a statement, Aerojet Rocketdyne said it is providing two such engines “with legacy shuttle flight experience” using parts from both the company’s and NASA inventories of earlier versions of the SSME. The engines will be assembled and tested at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

That engine represents an apparent switch in Boeing’s XS-1 concept. In phase 1 of the program, Boeing was partnered with Blue Origin, with the expectation Blue Origin would provide an engine for the spaceplane. “We selected the Aerojet Rocketdyne engine as it offers a flight proven, reusable engine to meet the DARPA mission requirements,” Sampson said.

DARPA announced the XS-1 program in 2013 as an effort to develop a reusable first stage that, coupled with an expendable upper stage, could lower the cost of launching payloads weighing up to 2,200 kilograms by an order of magnitude from the roughly $50 million the government pays for Minotaur 4 launches.

“The XS-1 would be neither a traditional airplane nor a conventional launch vehicle but rather a combination of the two, with the goal of lowering launch costs by a factor of ten and replacing today’s frustratingly long wait time with launch on demand,” said Jess Sponable, DARPA XS-1 program manager, in an agency statement.

Sponable, in past discussions of the XS-1, noted the use of “spaceplane” in the program’s name was meant to describe the goal of aircraft-like operations, not the design of the vehicle itself.

In 2014, DARPA announced three phase 1 awards for initial studies of the XS-1 concepts. In addition to Boeing, DARPA provided awards to Masten Space Systems, working with XCOR Aerospace; and Northrop Grumman, working with Virgin Galactic.

DARPA issued a call for proposals in April 2016 for phases 2 and 3 of the program. Boeing, Masten and Northrop Grumman all submitted proposals for phase 2, but DARPA also allowed other companies to compete. DARPA did not disclose the number of proposals it received.

A key aspect of the program retained from its earlier days is a requirement to carry out 10 flights in 10 days. In phase 2, the vehicle will fire its engine in ground tests 10 times in as many days, with the 10 flights in 10 days, at speeds up to Mach 5, in phase 3.

Later test flights of the Phantom Express will go up to Mach 10, another original goal of the program. At least one test flight will carry an upper stage that would place a demonstration payload into orbit.

DARPA and Boeing recently worked together on another program that attempted to provide less expensive and more responsive space access. DARPA selected Boeing in March 2014 to develop a launch vehicle for its Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program. The ALASA rocket, launched from an F-15 aircraft, was intended to place satellites weighing up to 45 kilograms into orbit for $1 million a launch, and do so on 24 hours’ notice.

ALASA suffered problems, though, linked to its use of an unconventional “mixed monopropellant” called NA7, a mixture of nitrous oxide and acetylene. Ground tests found that NA7 was less stable than expected and, in November 2015, DARPA changed the goals of ALASA to continue testing NA7, scrapping development of the launch vehicle.

DARPA, in its announcement of the XS-1 award, said that autonomous flight termination systems and related autonomous flight technologies developed as part of the ALASA program will be applied to Boeing’s Phantom Express vehicle.

SpaceNews.com

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India’s space agency planning to launch next lunar mission in 2018

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India’s space agency planning to launch next lunar mission in 2018
India's GSLV Mark 2 rocket on Sept. 8 launched the INSAT-3DR advanced weather satellite into its planned geostationary transfer orbit. Credit: ISRO

India’s space agency is planning to launch its next lunar mission in the first quarter of 2018.

The Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft would include an orbiter and a lander, with that lander carrying a rover.

The mission will launch on a GSLV Mark 2 rocket.

The mission will come after a private Indian venture, Team Indus, expects to launch its own lunar lander and rover at the end of this year to compete for the Google Lunar X Prize. [Business Standard]


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The White House’s detailed fiscal year 2018 budget request, released Tuesday, provided more information on planned cuts to NASA Earth science and education programs. The request, which offers $19.1 billion for NASA, cuts $191 million from Earth science through the cancellation of five spacecraft and instruments. The Radiation Budget Instrument, under development for a future weather satellite, was added to four projects previous slated for cancellation. Flat budgets in future years, including no adjustment for inflation, also affect NASA’s exploration and planetary science programs, such as delaying the Europa Clipper launch to the mid to late 2020s. NASA officials pitched the budget as a “very positive” request despite those constraints, although one key senator said he expected Congress to take action to restore cuts and other underfunded programs. [SpaceNews]

Rocket Lab’s CEO said the company remained patient as weather again delayed the company’s first launch. An attempt late Tuesday was postponed for the second straight day because of triboelectrification concerns linked to high-altitude clouds. CEO Peter Beck said in an interview that the company wouldn’t rush to carry out the launch in marginal conditions, despite the delays, citing the importance of launching in good conditions to maximize the data that they collect. The launch is the first of three test flights of the Electron rocket that Rocket Lab plans before beginning commercial missions. [SpaceNews]

Astronauts successfully replaced a faulty computer outside the International Space Station during a spacewalk Tuesday. Jack Fischer and Peggy Whitson spent 2 hours and 46 minutes outside the station during the “contingency” spacewalk, replacing the multiplexer-demultiplexer electronics box on the station’s truss that had failed Saturday. The cause of the failure isn’t known, and the box showed no signs of external damage. Astronauts also installed wireless communications antennas on the Destiny module during the spacewalk, a task postponed from a spacewalk earlier this month. [CBS]

Eutelsat plans to order two more Quantum communications satellites that give the company the flexibility to reconfigure services. The first Quantum satellite, being built by Airbus Defence and Space, is scheduled for launch by SpaceX in 2019. A Eutelsat executive said last week that, based on customer interest in that first satellite, the company was planning at least two more to provide global coverage. The Quantum satellites feature phased array antennas and an advanced beam-forming assembly to reshape the coverage and power levels of its beams to meet changing requirements. [SpaceNews]

Canadian company MDA said its planned acquisition of DigitalGlobe is a hedge against a market downturn. MDA, whose work on communications satellites fell in the first three months of 2017, said that combining with DigitalGlobe will allow the company to diversify its revenue sources, tapping more into the Earth-observation market. That deal, announced in February, is still on schedule to close in the second half of this year. [SpaceNews]

A California woman has been arrested in charges of smuggling sensitive space technology to China.Si Chen, also known as Cathy Chen, was arrested Tuesday after a grand jury indicted her of shipping devices used in space communications to China, falsifying export paperwork to inidcate their value was just $500 versus more than $100,000. Chen faces up to 150 years in prison if found guilty of all charges in the case. [Reuters]

The trial has started in a lawsuit filed by a former SpaceX employee against the company. Jason Blasdell, a former technician, alleges that the company fired him for complaining about the failure of the company to follow its testing and safety protocols for developing its Falcon 9 rockets. Opening statements took place Tuesday, with the trial expected to take two weeks. The judge in the case ruled that jurors will not judge the technical merits of Blasdell’s arguments but instead whether his firing was unjustified. [Bloomberg]

China has established a fund to support research using four space science satellites. The National Natural Science Foundation of China and Chinese Academy of Sciences jointly established the $23.3 million fund for research involving spacecraft studying dark matter, quantum communications and space life sciences. The two organizations are equally funding the effort, which will run through 2020. [Xinhua]

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Eutelsat adding two more Quantum satellites to fleet

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Eutelsat adding two more Quantum satellites to fleet
Eutelsat Quantum Airbus SSTL

SINGAPORE and WASHINGTON — Global fleet operator Eutelsat is planning to order at least two more Quantum-class satellites in order to achieve global coverage with satellites that can move capacity around in customizable beams.

Paris-based Eutelsat has one Quantum satellite under construction from Airbus Defence and Space UK, purchased in 2015 for 180 million euros ($198 million). Speaking at Milsatcom Asia-Pacific in Singapore May 16, Willy Guilleux, Eutelsat’s senior vice president of global government services, said the operator has already pre-sold half of the capacity on the first satellite, and now has confidence to expand Quantum into a new fleet.

“The idea is to expand the fleet as a minimum to three satellites to make sure we put complete coverage of the Earth,” he said.

Guilleux said Eutelsat is placing the first Quantum satellite at 12.5 degrees west, a geostationary position over the Atlantic Ocean with the ability to cover the Americas, Europe and Africa. The second satellite will likely go over Asia, he said.

Eutelsat Quantum is a software-defined, reprogrammable satellite with public support from the U.K. and European space agencies. Using a phased-array antenna from Airbus subsidiary CASA and an advanced beam-forming assembly from microwave component supplier Anaren, the satellite can reshape the coverage and power level of its beams, letting customers adapt the satellite based on their needs. SpaceX is under contract to launch the satellite in 2019.

Eutelsat and its partners have described Eutelsat Quantum as a breakthrough in the pursuit of “flexible” satellites. Most telecommunications satellites today have coverage areas, or “footprints,” with predetermined contours and signal power. Some satellites also carry steerable beams that can shift from region to region like a spotlight to areas of customer demand. Eutelsat Quantum has no permanent footprints.

Guilleux said the first Quantum satellite will have eight 1-gigahertz downlink beams that can range from a minimum diameter of 600 kilometers to a maximum of one-third of the Earth’s surface (the larger the beam, the more dispersed the signal power), and eight uplink beams. Customers can split any of those eight beams into smaller sub-beams and follow assets such as ships and planes, he said. The first Eutelsat Quantum will function just in Ku-band, but Guilleux said future iterations could support other frequencies, including both military and civilian Ka-band. He estimated the next satellite would launch around 2020 to 2021.

Guilleux said many of Eutelsat Quantum’s features have military satcom roots, and those carry over now for commercial applications. He said Eutelsat Quantum’s phased-array antenna can identify jammers and sources of interference by geo-localizing to within approximately 20 kilometers. The satellite can also blot out the jammer by nulling coverage over that location, or excluding the spectrum the jammer is transmitting on from use.

Military customers are a major market for Eutelsat in selling Quantum capacity. Guilleux said the operator would go as far as designing Quantum hosted payloads on future satellites for government customers who desired them. Airbus subsidiary Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in the U.K. is providing the spacecraft platform for the first Eutelsat Quantum satellite.

SpaceNews.com

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