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SpaceNews 2015 Year in Review

yir-2015

The drama and uncertainty surrounding the U.S. government launch enterprise and its incumbent provider, United Launch Alliance, in 2015 stood out in contrast to the situation in Europe, which after some early hiccups now appears on track with development of the next-generation Ariane 6 rocket and an upgraded version of the smaller Vega.

Meanwhile, a number of startups planning huge constellations of low-orbiting satellites emerged from the woodwork, with OneWeb leading the pack with $500 million in investment and satellite construction and launch contracts.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank’s brush with death was another noteworthy event in a year that, as usual, provided plenty. Some, but by no means all, of them are recognized here.



JANUARY

JAXA's Quasi-Zenith satellite. Credit: JAXA/Mitsubishi Electric Co.
Japan’s Quasi-Zenith data relay satellite. Credit: JAXA/Mitsubishi Electric Co.

Japan approves a combined civil/military space budget of 324.5 billion yen ($2.75 billion) for fiscal year 2015, up 18.5 percent over the previous year, with a big focus on national security. An H-3 rocket and a data-relay satellite are also big budget items.

Satellite broadband provider ViaSat Inc. says it selected the yet-to-fly SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket for its ViaSat-2 Ka-band satellite because it could lift “more than twice the payload of the next-closest launch vehicle at only one-third the cost.”

SpaceX founder Elon Musk says delays in the U.S. Air Force certification of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket were the result of Air Force personnel dragging their feet so as not to offend monopoly incumbent United Launch Alliance.

The U.S.-French Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) satellite received a credibility boost with the French space agency, CNES, which signed the first of three contracts with satellite platform builder Thales Alenia Space. The $1.1 billion SWOT is scheduled for launch in 2020.

The European Space Agency discloses a budget of 4.4 billion euros ($5.3 billion) for 2015, up 8 percent over 2014, with Earth observation the biggest line item at 1.25 billion euros, more than twice the spending planned for launch vehicles, in second place.

Orbital Sciences Corp. and ATK shareholders approve a merger of the two companies, creating Orbital ATK.

At least a half-dozen proposals for massive satellite constellations were filed at the International Telecommunication Union at the end of 2014 and early 2015.

The Russian government approved a sweeping reorganization of the space sector, with an enlarged space agency to incorporate much of Russia’s space industrial base.

The Air Force cancels a six-month-old competition to launch a payload for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, thought to be SpaceX’s first chance to win a national security contract. The Air Force awards the contract to ULA on a sole-source basis.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell at a NASA panel discussion in 2013. Credit: NASA/Jay Westcott
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell. Credit: NASA/Jay Westcott

Google and Fidelity Investments put $1 billion into SpaceX, sparking debate over whether the money will be used for SpaceX’s 4,000-satellite Internet venture or put into the company’s general treasury to include work on the Falcon rocket. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says it’s the latter.

Last-minute funding by the Italian government preserves the planned 2017 and 2018 launch dates for two second-generation Cosmo SkyMed civil/military radar Earth observation satellites, averting a gap in data as the first-generation satellites are retired.

SpaceX drops its lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force in exchange for the service making more military launch missions available for competition. The Air Force also agrees to move faster on its efforts to certify SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office denies Sierra Nevada Corp.’s protest over its exclusion from the final round of NASA’s commercial crew program.

Airbus Defence and Space, citing its satellite sales success in 2014, reduces by 600 the number of jobs that had been scheduled for elimination. European governments’ decision on the next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, with Airbus as prime contractor, also helped.

Planet Labs announces a $95 million funding round, bringing the company’s total investment to more than $160 million.



FEBRUARY

World View 3 satellite. Credit: DigitalGlobe
World View 3 satellite. Credit: DigitalGlobe

The U.S. government approves the commercial sale of optical Earth observation imagery with a 30-centimeter ground resolution, the first government to do so, giving DigitalGlobe of the United States a competitive edge on world markets. DigitalGlobe’s World View-3 satellite, which entered service in October 2014, has a 30-centimeter imaging camera.

ESA approves the $500 million Biomass carbon-storage-measuring mission for launch in 2020 following an agreement with NASA on the use of U.S. technology for a 12-meter-diameter mesh antenna to be deployed by Biomass.

NASA says more than 100,000 kilograms of space junk re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in 2014 in some 600 incidents, none causing injury or major property damage. Peak solar activity, which expands Earth’s atmosphere, was one reason for the increased re-entry activity.

Intelsat, SES and Eutelsat say they are helping customers in Russia and Africa work through currency-exchange-rate and overcapacity issues to enable them to maintain their satellite leases rather than default on their contracts.

U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) accuses the Air Force of “actively keeping” SpaceX out of the national security launch market during Ash Carter’s confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of defense.

Harris Corp. announces plans to buy Exelis Corp. for $4.75 billion, combining a host of related space capabilities that appear largely complementary.

The U.S. House of Representatives passes by a voice vote a NASA authorization bill for fiscal year 2015, similar to a bill the House passed in 2014.

Virgin Galactic announces it is opening a new facility in Long Beach, California, to build its LauncherOne small satellite launch vehicle.

A 20-year-old U.S. Air Force weather satellite explodes in orbit following what the service described as a sudden temperature spike, producing more than 100 pieces of debris.

Satellite fleet operator SES says it will be first to fly on an enhanced-version Falcon 9 rocket after carefully reviewing the vehicle’s testing. The launch, scheduled for June, is subsequently pushed back to December.

The French defense-procurement agency, DGA, says the German government has confirmed it will invest in a third high-resolution optical imaging satellite, to follow the two already under contract to French industry, as part of a joint French-German space-based reconnaissance system.

CSA President Sylvain Laporte. Credit: CSA
Canadian Space Agency President Sylvain Laporte. Credit: CSA

Sylvain Laporte is named as the new president of the Canadian Space Agency.

Aerojet Rocketdyne replaces its president, Warren M. Boley, with Scott Seymour, chairman of parent company GenCorp.

The White House proposes an $18.53 billion budget for NASA in 2016, a $519 million increase that includes a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Budget also includes $2.4 billion for NOAA’s satellite division, including the start of construction on the final three spacecraft in the Joint Polar System Satellite series.

Rocket- and aircraft-engine builder Safran says it will pay Airbus 800 million euros ($850 million) in cash to assure Safran has a 50 percent stake in the two companies’ Airbus Safran Launchers joint venture, to be prime contractor for Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket.

NASA announces it will book six more Soyuz seats from Russia to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station in 2018 and 2019.



MARCH

Sen. Barbara Mikulski
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). Credit: Sen. Mikulski’s office

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a longtime patron of NASA programs, announces she will not run for re-election in 2016.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launches the first two Western-built all-electric commercial telecommunications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit. Owned by Eutelsat and ABS, the Boeing-built satellites will take about six months to reach their final operating positions.

The International Telecommunication Union says establishing a special regulatory regime for small satellites does not appear to be necessary insofar as the current regulations relate to what a satellite does, not to its size, and thus cover cubesats.

ULA says it plans to phase out all but the heavy-lift version of its Delta 4 rocket as early as 2018.

ViaSat concludes the terms of a $524.9 million loan from the U.S. Export-Import Bank by routing the purchase of the Boeing-built ViaSat-2 satellite, and its launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, through a ViaSat subsidiary in Britain.

Simon “Pete” Worden, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, announces he will retire from public service after nine years as director of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

The European Commission reaffirms its commitment to having 30 Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites in orbit by 2020, a goal that would require the commission to purchase four to six additional satellites by late 2016.

fancyARRM
Asteroid Redirect Mission concept. Credit: NASA

NASA settles on a concept — but not a budget or schedule — for its proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission. The mission will send a robotic spacecraft to a large asteroid to pluck a boulder-sized sample, rather than capture a full asteroid and send it to lunar space for astronauts to explore later.

The U.S. Air Force warns that a ban on the use of Russian engines to launch U.S. national security payloads will hamstring ULA in competitions for military business as early as this year.

Rocket Lab. Ltd., a U.S.-New Zealand company developing a small launch vehicle, announces it has raised a round of funding led by venture capital firm Bessemer Venture Partners, with Lockheed Martin making a strategic investment as well.

Aerojet Rocketdyne announces a consolidation plan that will reduce the size of its workforce by 10 percent over the next four years.

BEAM ISS
Artist’s concept of Bigelow’s BEAM module attached to the ISS. Credit: Bigelow/NASA

Bigelow Aerospace completes work on an inflatable module called BEAM that will be flown to and installed on the ISS.

NASA’s Mars czar, Jim Watzin, says the agency will follow its Mars 2020 rover with a new telecom orbiter that would launch to the red planet in 2022 to replace the aging Mars Odyssey as the primary communications relay for Martian surface craft.

India launches its fourth Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System satellite, allowing the start of initial service. The system ultimately will feature three geostationary satellites, two in inclined geostationary orbit and two spares.

NASA orders a ULA Delta 4 Heavy to launch its Solar Probe Plus mission in 2018.

Orbital ATK stuns incumbent Ball Aerospace to win a NASA contract to build up to three JPSS spacecraft for NOAA in a deal worth up to $470 million.

Google-owned Skybox Imaging contracts to launch four satellites on Europe’s Vega small-satellite rocket. Skybox has 12 satellites on order from Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, California, and plans to launch them by early 2017.



April

Diagram of Vulcan rocket
Diagram of ULA’s Vulcan rocket. Credit: ULA

ULA unveils plans for its next-generation Vulcan rocket featuring a U.S.-built main engine. Future versions will feature a new upper stage and, ultimately, reusable first-stage engines.

Startup satellite operator NewSat of Australia seeks bankruptcy protection in Australia and the United States, raising questions over whether its creditors, including the U.S. Ex-Im Bank and the French Coface export credit agencies, would recover their investments.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle is lofted from its West Texas launch site, reaching a peak altitude of 93.5 kilometers in the uncrewed test. The vehicle’s crew capsule parachutes to a safe landing, but its propulsion module suffers a hydraulics problem, preventing it from making a powered landing, and is destroyed.

Ball Aerospace protests NASA’s award of the JPSS satellite contract to Orbital ATK, claiming the latter could not guarantee the price it quoted to NASA.

Brazilian government officials say they are pulling out of the space launch cooperation agreement with Ukraine to operate Ukraine’s Cyclone-4 from Brazil after multiple delays and cost overruns.

The U.S. Air Force quietly unveils the initial steps in a procurement strategy to replace the Russian-built main rocket engine used today on ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5.

NASA delays the award of its Commercial Resupply Services-2 ISS cargo delivery contracts to September from June.

Credit: SpaceX Video
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage attempting to land. Credit: SpaceX Video

SpaceX launches a Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, but an attempt to land the Falcon 9 first stage on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean fails when the stage tips over after touching down on the ship.

Thales Alenia Space outlines an elaborate, multiyear technology transfer agreement with Brazil that is included in the contract for a defense and civil telecommunications satellite, SGDC, scheduled for launch in 2016.

A U.S. House military space oversight panel recommends the Air Force go “back to the drawing board” on its next-generation polar-orbiting weather satellite program.

ImageSat of Israel says its Eros-C optical observation satellite will equal the precision of DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3, with a 30-centimeter resolution. But its launch date remains unclear.

Russia’s space industry posted a 13 percent decline in exports in 2014 but likely will see improved prospects as it reorganizes the sector, Russia’s Roscosmos space agency says.

NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman. Credit: NASA
NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman. Credit: NASA

The U.S. Senate unanimously confirms MIT professor Dava Newman to become the next deputy administrator of NASA, filling the nearly two-year vacancy left after Lori Garver retired.

Lockheed Martin’s win of a two-satellite contract with fleet operator Arabsat of Saudi Arabia includes a sizable investment in a joint venture company in Saudi Arabia that ultimately will be able to build its own satellites.

The U.S. Air Force says it plans to award multiple contracts worth up to $6 million in 2015 for companies to demonstrate their ability to build the next batch of GPS 3 navigation satellites, a small fraction of the $100 million to $200 million the service touted a year earlier.

A Russian Progress cargo spacecraft suffers an anomaly shortly after reaching orbit, preventing it from delivering its cargo to the ISS.

Fleet operator SES says its Government Solutions division will carry a NASA heliophysics sensor, the Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk instrument, as a hosted payload aboard the SES-14 commercial communications satellite launching in 2017 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Turksat says construction of Turksat 6A, Turkey’s first domestically produced satellite, is underway with a budget of some 548 million Turkish lira ($203 million). The Turkish government places a priority on achieving autonomy in telecommunications satellite manufacturing.

Curiosity nav cam pic
A scene on Mars captured as Curiosity’s driving distance passed 10 km. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Rover, which landed on Mars in August 2012, marks 10 kilometers of roving on the red planet.

The U.S. House Science Committee approves a NASA authorization bill for 2016 and 2017 on partisan lines. The Republican-authored bill would trim hundreds of millions of dollars from Earth sciences and a lesser amount from space technology, and authorize more funding for the Space Launch System, Orion and planetary science than NASA says it needs.

NASA’s Messenger probe ends its scientifically successful mission after four years. The $450 million probe crashed into the surface of the innermost planet, beaming back science data the whole way down.

 



MAY

The May 16 liftoff of an ILS Proton rocket carrying Mexico's Centenario mobile communications satellite. Credit: video capture via SpaceVidsTV
Liftoff of an ILS Proton rocket carrying Mexico’s Centenario satellite. Credit: SpaceVidsTV video

A Russian Proton rocket fails shortly after liftoff, destroying the $300 million Mexican Centenario mobile communications satellite. It is the fourth Proton failure in as many years.

Airbus Safran Launchers and its principal industrial partners agree to finance with their own money some 400 million euros ($440 million) in development costs associated with the Ariane 6 rocket, removing an obstacle to a final contract with ESA.

After much delay, the U.S. Air Force certifies SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch military satellites.

A consortium of three companies, including propulsion provider Aerojet Rocketdyne, asks the U.S. Department of Defense about the possibility of obtaining production rights to ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.

SpaceX carries out a pad abort test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, demonstrating that it could safety escape the launch pad in the event of an emergency.

Eugene Tu
Eugene Tu, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center. Credit: NASA Ames

NASA appoints Eugene Tu director of the Ames Research Center, succeeding Pete Worden. Tu had been director of exploration technology at the center.

ESA orders the Jason-CS ocean topography satellite from Airbus Defence and Space, with a launch planned for 2020 if needed. The order reduces the threat of a break in data continuity from the Jason series, whose Jason-3 satellite, much delayed, is awaiting a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch in early 2016.

Telesat of Canada, Yahsat of the United Arab Emirates and Hispasat of Spain are the high bidders at a Brazilian orbital slot option, coming away with a total of four orbital positions, including two for Telesat.

The U.S. House approves a bill requiring NOAA to publish standards for commercial weather data buys by Dec. 31.

After a yearlong job search, NASA announces engineer Steven Clarke will succeed David Chenette as director of the agency’s $650 million Heliophysics Division.

The U.S. court handling the bankruptcy of NewSat allows Lockheed Martin to cancel its satellite construction contract with the Australian startup, making it all but certain that the U.S. and French export credit agencies will post their first major satellite credit loss.

Jean-Jacques Dordain. Credit: ESA
Jean-Jacques Dordain. Credit: ESA

Outgoing ESA chief Jean-Jacques Dordain warns other space agencies that Europe’s decision to force space debris mitigation measures on its industry is not sustainable unless agencies outside of Europe adopt similar policies.

The U.S. Senate drafts a defense authorization bill that would leave ULA with fewer Atlas 5 rocket engines than the company says it needs to stay in the competitive national security launch arena until its next-generation rocket becomes available.

NASA orders the first of at least two commercial crew missions from Boeing under a contract awarded last year.



JUNE

Just after T+2 minutes, the NASA announcer says "Everything coming back shows the vehicle on course, on track.” The Falcon 9 then appears to explode. Credit: NASA TV
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket fails. Credit: NASA TV

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying supplies to the ISS fails shortly after liftoff, stressing a commercial satellite industry already bottlenecked by the May failure of a Russian Proton rocket.

Asian telecommunications satellite operators warn that the oversupply of capacity in the Asia-Pacific will mean lean times for existing operators as newcomers sell bandwidth at bargain prices.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), a first-term House member whose district includes NASA’s Johnson Space Center, takes over as chairman of the House Science space subcommittee.

OneWeb LLC, which is planning a constellation of some 720 low-orbiting Internet delivery satellites, selects Airbus Defence and Space as prime contractor. The companies will create a 50-50 joint venture to build the spacecraft, likely at a U.S. site. It later announces it has $500 million in equity from Indian and Mexican telecommunications networks and the OneWeb contracting team including Airbus, Qualcomm and Hughes Network Systems. Satellite fleet operator Intelsat is also investing. OneWeb signs launch contracts with Arianespace of Europe for Russian Soyuz launches, and with Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne for replacement launches.

The U.S. Ex-Im Bank closes to new business as of July 1 following the inability of the U.S. Congress to reauthorize the bank. Bank supporters vow to get reauthorization accomplished before the end of the year.

The ITU warns the commercial telecommunications satellite industry that it is at risk of losing exclusive access to C-band radio spectrum to terrestrial wireless networks if it does not better organize its defense of the spectrum in the run-up to the World Radiocommunication Conference in November.

Iridium Next satellite
Artist’s concept of an Iridium Next satellite. Credit: Iridium

Harris Corp. of the United States and exactEarth of Canada form a strategic partnership to place maritime tracking terminals on the Iridium Next mobile communications constellation, to be in orbit by late 2017.

Two of the world’s three largest satellite fleet operators, SES and Eutelsat of Europe, say they are determined not to permit Arianespace and SpaceX to create a duopoly in commercial launch services. At least three viable launch service providers are needed, they say.

Avio SpA of Italy is hopeful that its owner, private-equity investor Cinven, will find a buyer in the coming months for Cinven’s majority stake in Avio. The Italian government has been unclear on what it would accept as a new owner, especially a non-Italian one.

Eileen Drake GenCorp
Eileen Drake. Credit: United Technologies Corp.

Aerojet Rocketdyne names Eileen Drake as the company’s new president and chief executive, replacing the retiring Scott Seymour.

SpaceX files with the Federal Communications Committee a license application for experimental communications satellites it plans to launch as precursors to a proposed broadband satellite constellation.

Five European nations — France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Britain — agree to pool their existing ground-based optical and radar telescopes to form a space surveillance network that will use funding from the European Commission.

UrtheCast of Canada, diversifying beyond its space station-mounted cameras, purchases Deimos Imaging of Spain, owner of the Deimos-1 and Deimos-2 in-orbit satellites, for about $84 million. The company also announces plans to develop a constellation of 16 optical and radar satellites to be launched by the end of the decade.

RD-180 engines. Credit: ULA
Russian-made RD-180 engines. Credit: ULA

The chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee says he wants the U.S. Air Force and launch industry to focus narrowly on replacing the Russian-made main engine on ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, as opposed to investing in various launch vehicle technologies.

Citing cost and technical concerns, NASA tells Harris Corp. to stop work on the Radiation Budget Instrument — the latest in a long-running series of sensors that help scientists measure the amount of energy entering and leaving Earth’s atmosphere. Harris inherited the instrument contract when it acquired Exelis in May. The instrument would fly on a future NOAA weather satellite.



JULY

New Horizons color image of Pluto. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI
New Horizons color image of Pluto. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft successfully flies past the dwarf planet Pluto, collecting images and other data the spacecraft will be transmitting back to Earth over the next year.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), citing information provided by U.S. Air Force leaders, says ULA will need access to 18-22 more of the banned RD-180 engines to stay competitive with SpaceX in the military market until its next-generation Vulcan rocket comes on line around 2020.

The GAO dismisses Ball Aerospace’s protest over the $470 million JPSS contract awarded to Orbital ATK in June.

Eutelsat and ESA sign a co-investing agreement for the Quantum software-defined-satellite design. Airbus Defence and Space and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. will build the first Quantum satellite for a 2018 launch.

A report by a former U.S. Air Force chief of staff questions whether there is sufficient military demand to sustain two rocket makers, as U.S. policy requires, and says ULA might have to be assured some number of missions to remain viable.

A NASA survey concludes that as many as one in five cubesats launched worldwide between 2003 and 2014 violates international guidelines calling for satellites to be deorbited within 25 years of retirement.

Russia formally tells its space station partners it will remain in the partnership until at least 2024, ending several months of contradictory statements from Russian government officials.

A U.S. Missile Defense Agency official floats the idea of a shared satellite constellation with the Air Force for both missile tracking and space surveillance.

Iridium says the first launch of its second-generation Iridium Next constellation has been delayed again, to December, because of a hardware defect in the satellites’ Ka-band feeder links. The company says all 72 satellites will still be in orbit by late 2017.

Clockwise from top left: Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Sunita Williams and Douglas Hurley. Credit: NASA/CollectSpace
NASA’s new commercial crew astronauts. Clockwise from top left: Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Sunita Williams and Douglas Hurley. Credit: NASA/CollectSpace

NASA selects four veteran astronauts to start training for test flights in 2017 of commercial crew vehicles under development by Boeing and SpaceX.

NanoRacks announces an agreement with Blue Origin to provide commercial payload services on flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board concludes that pilot error, and a lack of planning by the vehicle developer Scaled Composites to put in safeguards against such errors, caused last year’s fatal SpaceShipTwo crash.

Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems is among the first to feel the effects of the U.S. Ex-Im Bank shutdown as customer ABS of Bermuda suspends a contract for Boeing to build the ABS-8 telecommunications satellite.

SpaceX reports that its June launch failure was likely caused when a strut in the rocket’s upper-stage propellant tank failed, starting a chain of events that caused the tank to overpressurize and burst in flight.

Satellite builder MDA Corp. says it is considering multiple alternatives to counter suddenly tougher European competition following a drop in the value of the euro relative to the U.S. dollar, including moving some California operations to other locales.

The U.S. Air Force declares initial operational capability for the three-satellite Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellation for secure communications, including nuclear command and control, some five years after the first one launched.

NASA and SpaceX announce that SpaceX is delaying an in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, originally scheduled for late 2015, until after an uncrewed orbital test flight of the spacecraft scheduled for late 2016.

Artist's concept of ESA's Jupiter Icy Moons (Juice) mission. Credit: Airbus
Artist’s concept of ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons (Juice) mission. Credit: Airbus

ESA selects Airbus Defence and Space to build the Jupiter-bound Juice orbiter, to launch in 2022.

India’s PSLV rocket launches Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.’s three DMC3 Earth imaging satellites, whose full capacity has been leased by 21AT of China for seven years. SSTL hopes to sell a fourth DMC3 to another operator to widen the constellation.

Commercial remote sensing company Planet Labs acquires BlackBridge, which operates the RapidEye fleet of Earth imaging spacecraft.

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announces Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million effort to search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations led by former NASA Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden.

A NASA-funded study concludes that the use of public-private partnerships could reduce the cost of a human return to the moon to as little as $10 billion.



AUGUST

Ariane 6 and Vega C artist's concepts. Credit: ESA
Ariane 6 and Vega C artist’s concepts. Credit: ESA

ESA contracts with industry to build the next-generation Ariane 6 rocket and an upgraded Vega vehicle, called Vega-C, and with CNES to build the Ariane 6 launch installation. Vega-C’s inaugural flight is set for 2018, with Ariane 6 in 2020.

Senior U.S. military officials tout a planned Joint Interagency Coalition Space Operations Center as much more than a backup to the existing Joint Space Operations Center.

Russia’s Proton rocket returns to flight after a May failure with the successful launch of the third Inmarsat Global Xpress mobile broadband satellite. The launch will permit Inmarsat to complete the global ring of Global Xpress coverage and to debut commercial service worldwide.

NASA ISS program manager Michael Suffredini announces he is leaving the agency for a job in the private sector. NASA names Kirk Shireman, deputy director of the Johnson Space Center, as his replacement.

The White House warns that a continuing resolution that funds the government at 2015 levels would disrupt two high-priority programs, an upgrade to the Joint Space Operations Center and the follow-on mission to the Space Based Space Surveillance Block 10 satellite.

Canadarm 2 and HTV
The JAXA H-2 Transfer Vehicle berthing with the ISS. Credit: NASA

A Japanese H-2 rocket successfully launches an H-2 Transfer Vehicle carrying nearly 4 tons of cargo to the ISS.

NASA informs Congress that it is extending a contract with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, for Soyuz missions to and from the ISS through 2018, paying $490 million for six seats.

India’s GSLV successfully places the country’s GSAT-6 telecommunications satellite into orbit in the second consecutive success of India’s domestically built cryogenic upper stage.

SpaceX officials say the return to flight of the Falcon 9, previously scheduled for as soon as September, is expected to take place no earlier than November, and will also be the first mission of the upgraded version of the vehicle.



SEPTEMBER

Astrosat launch on PSLV rocket. Credit: ISRO
India’s September PSLV rocket launch. Credit: ISRO

India’s PSLV rocket launches the country’s Astrosat astronomy spacecraft and, in a first, four commercial U.S. weather satellites for Spire. The Spire launch is further evidence that the U.S. government is relaxing its policy that discourages using Indian rockets to launch U.S. satellites or satellite components.

China debuts its Long March 6 rocket, with liquid hydrogen and kerosene fuel, in a launch of 20 small satellites from northern China’s Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center.

Propulsion provider Aerojet Rocketdyne offers to buy ULA from parent companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin for $2 billion. Boeing executives, including ULA chairman Craig Cooning, reject the offer.

Several satellite operators with assets in geostationary orbit worry that startup OneWeb LLC’s proposed constellation in low Earth orbit will result in interference in Ku-band frequencies. OneWeb says it will comply with international regulations mandating noninterference.

The U.S. Congress passes a continuing resolution keeping the federal government funded at 2015 levels through Dec. 11.

Inmarsat bests incumbent Intelsat General and competitor Airbus Defence and Space to win a five-year U.S. Navy contract to provide a mix of satellite communications services over one to five years. Intelsat subsequently files a challenge to the award.

The U.S. Air Force releases its final request for proposal for the competitively awarded launch of a GPS 3 satellite in 2018. Incumbent ULA says it will be unable to bid, citing the congressional ban on the RD-180 engine that powers its Atlas 5 rocket.

A defective batch of pressure gauges delays the launch of Europe’s ExoMars 2016 mission from January to March — the end of its available launch window — and disrupts other European science satellites in development.

Market analysts are forecasting a sharp drop in satellite Earth observation imagery prices in the coming years as more higher- and medium-resolution satellites are launched, posing a challenge to established players’ business models.

Kirk Pysher. Credit: ILS
Kirk Pysher. Credit: ILS

International Launch Services replaces its president, John Slack, with Kirk Pysher, the company’s former vice president of mission assurance.

The U.S. Air Force says its two Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program satellites, still undergoing testing following a mid 2014 launch, have been pressed into service to make observations of unspecified objects in geosynchronous orbit.

Aerojet Rocketdyne agrees to pay Orbital ATK $50 million to settle a dispute between the companies about the role Aerojet’s AJ-26 engine played in last year’s Antares launch failure.

Congress approves a six-month extension of the “learning period” limiting safety regulations of spaceflight participants as part of a broader FAA bill, as Congress finalized a longer extension as part of a commercial space bill.

AGI wins a contract to supply the U.S. Air Force with orbital data from its Commercial Space Operations Center.

SpaceX announces the first launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket is scheduled for the spring of 2016 from Florida.

Lufthansa and Deutsche Telekom join mobile satellite services provider Inmarsat to provide satellite connectivity to European airline passengers, first with Global Xpress in Ka-band and later with the European Aviation Network’s S-band.

Blue Origin unveils plans for a two-stage orbital launch vehicle, powered by the BE-3 and BE-4 engines the company is already building, that will be built and launched from Cape Canaveral by the end of the decade.

Orion
An Orion spacecraft. Credit: ESA/D. Ducros

NASA estimates that the Orion spacecraft may not be ready for its first crewed flight until as late as April 2023, more than 18 months later than earlier plans.

A review by NASA’s inspector general concludes the agency missed opportunities to save more than $80 million on its commercial cargo contract with Orbital ATK, and warns of the potential for delays in the return to flight of the company’s Antares rocket.

Spaceflight Industries announces it is buying a Falcon 9 launch for a “dedicated rideshare” mission to sun-synchronous orbit in 2017 that will carry more than 20 satellites.

NOAA puts out a long-awaited commercial space policy, the first step in procuring weather data from commercially operated satellites and instruments. The catch: Commercial vendors must prove they can meet government standards — which do not yet exist.

NASA announces it has given up on efforts to salvage the radar instrument on its billion-dollar Soil Moisture Active/Passive satellite, which broke down in July, less than six months after the spacecraft launched. Agency officials vow to get the most out of SMAP’s other main sensor, a passive radiometer.



OCTOBER

Amos-6
Amos-6 satellite under construction. Credit: Spacecom

In a long-awaited deal, Facebook and Eutelsat agree to lease, for five years, Ka-band capacity on Israel-based Spacecom Ltd.’s Amos-6 satellite to provide Internet access in 14 nations in sub-Saharan Africa.

A U.S. Atlas 5 rocket successfully places Mexico’s Morelos-3 mobile communications satellite into orbit, allowing deployment of the MexSat system despite the May loss of an identical satellite in a Russian Proton launch failure.

U.S. President Barack Obama vetoes the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 over what the White House calls gimmicks to skirt sequestration budget caps.

NOAA says unspecified spacecraft issues have delayed by six months the launch of the Lockheed Martin-built Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R spacecraft — the first of four next-generation weather satellites — to October 2016.

A Long March 2D rocket carrying the Jilin-1 satellites lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. Credit: Xinhua/Zhao Peng
A Long March 2D rocket carrying China’s Jilin-1 satellites lifts off. Credit: Xinhua/Zhao Peng

China launches its first Chinese-built commercial high-resolution imaging satellite, Jilin-1, with a 72-centimeter ground resolution, in the latest example of the country’s decreasing reliance on non-Chinese satellites.

NASA awards contracts to Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic for dedicated launches of small satellites as part of the agency’s Venture Class Launch Services program.

The GAO says planned U.S. investments in space situational awareness through 2020 will top $6 billion.

Europe’s Eumetsat weather satellite organization and ESA finalize their contract to build the Metop Second Generation polar-orbiting meteorological satellites, to operate between 2021 and 2042.

The Pentagon says it will consider setting aside some launch contracts for sole-source awards if that is what it takes to maintain at least two sources for access to space.

SpaceX and its customers, SES and Orbcomm, reverse the order for the Falcon 9 return to flight, which features the first use of an upgraded first and second stage, to test the second-stage reignition that will be key for the launch of future heavy telecommunications payloads. Orbcomm will go first, followed by SES assuming a successful reignition test.

Matthew OConnell, CEO of OneWeb. Credit: USGIF
Matthew O’Connell, CEO of OneWeb. Credit: USGIF

OneWeb presents a detailed debris mitigation plan to space debris experts, including a fixture to allow grappling by future debris-removal vehicles in the event of an in-orbit satellite failure. OneWeb names Matthew O’Connell, former GeoEye chief executive, to run the company.

Space Systems/Loral wins a contract to build Azerbaijan’s second telecommunications satellite, Azerspace-2, in part by offering radar satellite expertise through is parent company, MDA Corp. of Canada, builder of Canada’s Radarsat satellites.

An independent NASA review of last year’s Antares launch failure does not find a single root cause for the accident, citing three potential reasons why the turbopump in the rocket’s first-stage engine malfunctioned shortly after liftoff.

Iridium says launches of its 72 Iridium Next satellites have been delayed again, by four months, to April 2016, as prime contractor Thales Alenia Space wrestles with a component issue.

Eutelsat contracts with Thales Alenia Space for a large Ka-band satellite for African consumer and small-business broadband provision, with a launch in 2019. The satellite will employ design and production modifications Thales Alenia Space has introduced as part of the Neosat program financed by European governments.

A Republican-led bipartisan group in U.S. House defies leadership and executes a procedural move to force a vote on stalled legislation to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank.

Intelsat acknowledges that a Russian satellite dubbed Luch had maneuvered itself to a location in between two of the company’s own satellites. Luch raises concerns about Russian and Chinese space threats to a new level.

Apollo 11 officials, including George Mueller (center), relax after liftoff. Credit: NASA
Apollo 11 officials, including George Mueller (center), after liftoff. Credit: NASA

Apollo program veteran and Kistler Aerospace founder George Mueller dies at 97.

The U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency unveils its Commercial Geoint Strategy, drafted to take advantage of the booming market for satellite imagery and applications.

Eutelsat, giving force to its stated need for three competing launch service providers, books a multilaunch agreement with Russian Proton rocket commercial provider International Launch Services of the United States. Intelsat follows suit.

A GAO report cites a lack of progress on several Pentagon efforts to field quick reaction launch vehicles.

Lockheed Martin and NASA report they have completed most of the critical design review of the Orion spacecraft, allowing Lockheed Martin to proceed with work to build and test the spacecraft for its 2018 uncrewed test flight.

Congress passes a two-year budget agreement that increases spending caps for both defense and domestic discretionary spending.



NOVEMBER

Credit: Blue Origin
Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin performs a second test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, reaching a peak altitude of 100.5 kilometers. The vehicle’s propulsion module makes a successful powered vertical landing.

The U.S. government agrees to permit U.S. allies — starting with those purchasing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — to use the higher-performance narrowband communications payload on the U.S. Navy’s MUOS satellites. The Wideband CDMA payload is the showcase feature of MUOS and accounts for 90 percent of the satellites’ capability.

The four-week World Radiocommunication Conference, held every four years, ends with the satellite sector holding its ground against attempted encroachments by terrestrial wireless networks, both in C- band and in Ka-band.

Congress passes the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, legislation that extends indemnification and a regulatory grace period for the commercial launch and spaceflight industries, respectively, and grants companies rights to resources they extract from asteroids and other solar system bodies beyond Earth.

The British Defence Ministry, which pioneered the privatization of military satellite communications 12 years ago with the Skynet 5 contract with Airbus Defence and Space, moves toward a conventional procurement for a Skynet 5 follow-on satellite to delay a full next-generation investment decision.

The office of U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby says the lawmaker, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is considering providing broader relief from the RD-180 engine ban affecting ULA as part of an omnibus spending bill that must pass by Dec. 11 to keep the government up and operating.

International radio frequency regulators, in a boost for the Iridium-created Aireon air traffic management company, approve the use of existing radio spectrum to provide communications links between aircraft and satellites equipped with ADS-B terminals.

Super Strypi rocket prepares to launch. Credit: U.S. Air Force
The Super Strypi rocket prepares to launch. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The experimental, rail-launched Super Strypi rocket carrying the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space 4 payload fails shortly after lifting off from Kauai, Hawaii.

ViaSat announces plans to build a global capacity in high-throughput satellite broadband with three satellites in geostationary orbit, each with a terabit of throughput per second.

Japan’s Space Policy Commission recommends doubling the size of the country’s Information Gathering Satellites constellation, consisting of optical and radar spacecraft.

NASA delays the award of follow-on commercial cargo contracts until late January 2016, but eliminates one of the competing companies, Boeing, from further consideration.

Honeywell International agrees to purchase satellite component builder Com Dev of Canada for $345 million in a transaction that will include the spinoff to shareholders of exactEarth, a Com Dev-created satellite-based maritime surveillance business.

SABRE Reaction Engines
Diagram of Reaction Engines’ SABRE (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine). Credit: Reaction Engines

British defense technology giant BAE Systems purchases a 20 percent equity stake, valued at $92.5 million, in Reaction Engines Ltd. of Britain in a key industrial endorsement of the promise of Reaction Engines’ air-breathing rocket engine, in development for 20 years.

XCOR Aerospace announces that co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Jeff Greason is leaving the company. Greason and two other XCOR co-founders create a new company, Agile Aero, devoted to studying new approaches to rapid development of aerospace vehicles.

The retired NOAA 16 weather satellite suffers a breakup event in low Earth orbit, creating dozens of pieces of debris.



DECEMBER

U.S. Export-Import Bank. Credit: House Minority Whip
U.S. Export-Import Bank. Credit: House Minority Whip

Congress passes, and President Barack Obama subsequently signs, a transportation bill reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank, whose charter lapsed in July.

Virgin Galactic unveils a Boeing 747 aircraft the company plans to use as the new launch platform for its LauncherOne system, enabling the company to develop a more powerful rocket that can carry heavier payloads.

European lawyers say the new U.S. commercial space law opening the way to the mining of resources in space poses many questions of international space law, with much depending on the implementation rules to be decided by next May.

Satellite industry officials say Britain’s Ofcom radio frequency regulator appears much less favorable to the space sector than the British government generally, judging from Ofcom positions at the recent conference of global frequency regulators.

Cygnus arrival at ISS
The ISS’s robotic arm prepares to grapple the Cygnus cargo spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly

An Atlas 5 successfully launches a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS on the first mission for the Orbital ATK-built spacecraft since the Antares launch failure in October 2014.

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency drops plans to conduct test launches of the Boeing-designed Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) system, featuring an expendable rocket launched from an F-15 combat jet, starting in 2016.

PlanetiQ signs a contract to launch its first two commercial weather satellites as secondary payloads on an Indian PSLV rocket in late 2016.

Congress passed a second continuing resolution Dec. 11, funding the federal government through Dec. 16 while finalizing an omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2016.

SpaceNews.com

Source: Space News

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SpaceNews 2015 Year in Review

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