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Britain Backpedals on Privatized Milcom Satellites

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Britain Backpedals on Privatized Milcom Satellites
All Skynet assets will become the property of the British government as of August 2022 unless the contract with Airbus Defence and Space is renewed.

LONDON — Twelve years ago, the British government revolutionized the process of purchasing military satellite telecommunications by outsourcing it all to the private sector. Now Britain appears about to return to conventional procurement for its follow-on satellites as a way to put off a longer-term decision, British government and industry officials said.

All Skynet assets will become the property of the British government as of August 2022 unless the contract with Airbus Defence and Space is renewed.
All Skynet assets will become the property of the British government as of August 2022 unless the contract with Airbus Defence and Space is renewed.

The government’s decision, now being refined, appears to be leaning toward a more-limited commitment to gapfiller satellites to succeed the current Skynet 5 X- and UHF-band satellites.

Under a contract that many thought would set a precedent for other governments but never did, the British Defence Ministry in 2003 contracted with what is now Airbus Defence and Space for the Skynet 5 system of  nuclear-hardened, encrypted military satellites.

Under the contract, valued at 3.6 billion British pounds ($5.6 billion) to mid-2022, Airbus operates the four Skynet 5 satellites that it paid for and launched, in addition to four older Skynet 4 spacecraft that were transferred to it from the British Defence Ministry.

British defense officials over the years have said they were happy with the contract, with enables the government to benefit from regular technology-refresh, as provided in the contract, without having to budget for a large capital expenditure that would accompany satellite purchases.

The Skynet 5 contract ends in August 2022, a date that is increasingly on the minds of both the British defense authorities and Airbus officials. Over the years, Airbus has gradually taken over so much of what was a government operation that extricating the company from the system will be no easy task.

The ability to do exactly that is one reason why the contract included the provision that all the Skynet assets will become the property of the British government as of August 2022 unless the contract is renewed.

Airbus officials have been urging the government to renew the contract sooner than that to give the company time to start work on a Skynet 6 constellation.

The last Skynet 5, the Skynet 5D, was launched in 2012 as part of a contract extension that at the time was viewed as government endorsement of the service contract’s value. The first three were launched in 2007 and 2008.

British Defence Ministry officials attending the Global Milsatcom conference here Nov. 3-5 said they are nearing a decision on what to do when the current contract ends.

They said no decision had been made, but that one of the options being considered is the procurement of one satellite, to be followed by another a couple of years later in a second procurement.

Air Commodore John Philliban, head of the Joint User group at the British Defence Ministry’s Joint Forces Command, said the government’s Future Beyond Line of Sight policy is being crafted now and would be the subject of an interim assessment by the end of this year.

A more formal report would be issued by mid-2016.

Philliban said a simple continuation of the contract, or the replacement of Airbus by another company operating under similar terms, remains an option. But he stressed the advantages to the government of buying a satellite of its own around 2019.

Philliban said this satellite, which could be launched in 2021 or 2022, would extend the Skynet 5 constellation’s in-orbit life by several years given that the in-orbit health of the newer Skynet 5 spacecraft. A second satellite would be procured a year or two later, this one likely carrying enhanced features including a possible Ka-band payload.

A second option is to conclude a service-provision agreement with a commercial company, either Airbus or a replacement. The depth of Airbus’s integration with British defense forces that has occurred during the Skynet 5 contract means any divorce between Airbus and its customer was going to be complicated.

Philliban said the ministry’s assessment of life after August 2022 “has increased our confidence that it is indeed feasible for a competitor to bid for this contract.”

But he also conceded the difficulties. “The entire Skynet system reverts to MoD ownership, and this will present different challenges to the existing contracting relationship,” he said. “The existing Skynet 5 satellites would be provided as government-furnished equipment to the new service provider.”

Philliban did not suggest that the ministry has become disenchanted with the Skynet 5 relationship between the service provider and its customer – a model that has been much debated in other European nations, especially France.

French government officials have said British authorities are paying too much for the Skynet 5 service. British officials and Airbus have responded that France and other governments do not realize how much they are paying by maintaining government staffs on the payroll to manage these nations’ military telecommunications service given how dispersed the cost base is in their bureaucracies.

Philliban hinted that one reason favoring a decision to purchase two satellites in a conventional government procurement process is to buy time before deciding what the government wants over the long term.

“The ability to give us that out-of-service date extension, and perhaps to have a look at emerging capabilities, is more acceptable,” he said. “It gives us additional breathing room.”

SpaceNews.com

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NASA Delays Award of Commercial Cargo Contracts Again, Drops Boeing

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NASA Delays Award of Commercial Cargo Contracts Again, Drops Boeing
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WASHINGTON — NASA has once again delayed the award of contracts to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station, this time not only pushing the announcement of contracts until as late as the end of January 2016 but also dropping one of the companies from the competition.

In a brief statement posted to the procurement website for the Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract Nov. 5, the previous date offered by NASA for a contract announcement, the agency said it was postponing the award to no later than Jan. 30 “to allow additional time for the Government to assess proposals.”

“CRS-2 is a complex procurement,” NASA spokesman Dan Huot said Nov. 5. The delay until late January, he said, will “allow time to complete a thorough proposal evaluation and selection.”

Huot added there was little more that the agency could say about the competition at this time, citing “a procurement communications blackout.”

However, one of the companies that submitted a proposal says it’s been notified it is no longer part of the competition. Boeing spokeswoman Kelly Kaplan said Nov. 5 that NASA informed the company shortly before announcing the award delay that it was no longer considering the company for a contract. NASA did not give a reason for the delay, she said. Boeing has requested a debrief from NASA, which may not take place until after the contracts are finally awarded.

Boeing CST-100
Boeing’s commercial crew capsule CST-100. Credit: Boeing

Boeing offered to NASA a version of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft that the company is developing for NASA’s commercial crew program. The loss of the award would not have an immediate impact on the company, Kaplan said, because of its commercial crew work.

The latest delay is the third time that NASA has pushed back the award of the CRS-2 contracts since proposals were submitted in early December 2014. In April, NASA delayed the contract awards from June to September. In August, NASA delayed the awards again, this time to Nov. 5. In both cases, NASA said it needed additional time to evaluate proposals.

NASA previously tried to allay concerns about another delay. “Cargo resupply continues to be a high priority for the ISS Program and the Agency,” NASA said in a Sept. 10 statement on the procurement website. “Evaluation of the proposals continues and NASA remains on schedule to support the November 5th award date.”

At least five companies submitted CRS-2 proposals. In additional to Orbital ATK and SpaceX, which have cargo contracts under the existing CRS program, Boeing, Lockeed Martin and Sierra Nevada Corp. all stated they submitted CRS-2 proposals. Industry sources said earlier this year that NASA has since dropped Lockheed Martin from consideration, but there has been no formal notice of a downselect by NASA or Lockheed.

Sierra Nevada Corp. spokeswoman Krystal Scordo said Nov. 5 that the company has been notified by NASA that it is still being considered for a contract. NASA, she said, “has decided to re-open discussions with offerors in the competitive range for NASA’s CRS-2 contract,” and that Sierra Nevada was “selected to re-open discussions regarding its CRS-2 proposal.”

Orbital ATK spokeswoman Sean Wilson said Nov. 5 that the company was still in the CRS-2 competition, but declined to discuss any details about the delay in awards. Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Allison Rakes said the company had no information beyond NASA’s announcement of the delay. SpaceX spokesman John Taylor declined to comment, citing company practice not to discuss ongoing procurements.

A delay in contract awards until perhaps late January would also span the predicted return to flight of Orbital’s Cygnus and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which have both been sidelined after launch failures. Cygnus is scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 Dec. 3 on the first mission for that cargo spacecraft since an Antares launch failure in October 2014.

Sam Scimemi, ISS director at NASA Headquarters, told a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee Nov. 5 that preparations for that mission are going well. He added that the launch could be moved up “a day or so” depending on ULA’s ability to get the Atlas ready.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is scheduled to launch its first Dragon mission since a June 28 Falcon 9 launch failure in January, Scimemi said. A schedule he presented at the meeting showed that launch slated for Jan. 3, but he noted it would take place after commercial missions SpaceX is planning for December.

That schedule is also dependent on SpaceX completing its launch failure investigation. “They’re nearing completion, as I understand it, of their accident investigation” and making unspecified modifications to the launch vehicle to support a return to flight, Scimemi said. “We’re continuing to do all of the processing that is necessary to meet the January launch date, and things are going well with that.”

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NOAA To Trickle Out Commercial Weather Standards

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NOAA To Trickle Out Commercial Weather Standards
Aurora australis dancing over an LED illuminated igloo giving a blue tinge to the color of snow.
 
Credit: SpaceNews Graphic. Photo courtesy NOAA/Ross Burgener and SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will not publish quality standards for commercial weather data until at least the end of the year, a senior NOAA official said here Nov. 4.

Even then, the weather agency will not spell out every standard for every sort of measurement it might purchase, Deputy Administrator Manson Brown said after a speech at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon.

Instead, NOAA will trickle out quality standards as part of a so-called procedural guide it will publish in December. The guide will formalize the rules of engagement between NOAA and aspiring commercial weather companies, which according to the draft Commercial Space Policy NOAA released Sept. 1, will interface with the agency through its Office of Space Commercialization.

“One of the things we’ve been thinking about doing, because we know that there’s a lot of anxiety out there about what those standards are … is perhaps giving an example or two in the procedural guide, so that people can see the context of what we’re talking about” Brown said. “That discussion continues within NOAA.”

The procedural guide is slated to appear in draft form in the federal register by the end of the year, Brown said.

Meanwhile, NOAA will issue its finalized Commercial Space Policy “in the coming weeks,” Brown said.

The policy got a chilly reception from lawmakers on Capitol Hill who want to see data from the private sector folded into NOAA weather forecast models as soon as possible.

In September, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who respectively chair the House Science Committee and its environment subcommittee, complained in a joint letter to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan that the policy did not include data buy standards.

Some in industry were also unhappy with the draft policy.

Anne Miglarese, president and chief executive of aspiring commercial weather satellite operator Planet IQ, Bethesda, Maryland, panned the draft policy, writing in a formal comment that it “focuses more on the concerns of foreign stakeholders than on making the agency’s capabilities more resilient and robust.”

In a hearing this summer before Bridenstine’s environment subcommittee, Brown told lawmakers NOAA must share any global weather data it collects with international space agencies, under the 20 year-old World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40. The World Meteorological Organization is part of the United Nations.

Brown said during that hearing there is no getting around that obligation by any means — a notion Bridenstine and Planet IQ have challenged.

Brown said Nov. 4 that NOAA’s final Commercial Space Policy would include “appropriate adjustments” based on the comments the agency received on its draft.

The next chance would-be commercial data providers will get to bend NOAA’s ear on policy matters will be during a yet-to-be-scheduled conference similar to a gathering the agency hosted in April for users of its various satellites.

NOAA has yet to set time or a venue for that conference. Brown said the gathering would happen within 90 days of Nov. 4.

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The Prince of Darkness Visits JSC

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The Prince of Darkness Visits JSC
Ozzy Osbourne tweeted a photo Nov. 4 of him at a  hotel near Johnson Space Center, with the caption "in Houston @NASA History."  Credit: @OzzyOsbourne/Twitter

Rock star Ozzy Osbourne has been spotted at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, although exactly why is unclear.

Osbourne and his son Jack were seen on the JSC campus, although, surprisingly, “few photos or even selfies have surfaced,” according to a report.

Osbourne himself tweeted a photo Tuesday of him at a nearby hotel, with the caption “in Houston @NASA History.”

Osbourne and his son have been working on a television series for the History Channel which he recently described as a “father and son spoof on history.” [Houston Chronicle]


More News

NASA could award commercial cargo contracts as soon as today. Schedules for the Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS-2) contract call for NASA to make awards on Thursday, although NASA has not publicly confirmed that it still on schedule. NASA is expected to award at least two contracts to transport cargo to and from the station after current contracts held by Orbital ATK and SpaceX end. Both those companies submitted proposals for CRS-2, along with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sierra Nevada Corp. [Florida Today]

NASA will soon open a new astronaut selection round. NASA announced Wednesday it will start accepting applications next month for an astronaut selection process that will culminate with the announcement of a new astronaut class in mid-2017. In the previous round in 2013, NASA received more than 6,000 applications, ultimately selecting eight people to join the astronaut corps. [Ars Technica]

NASA is counting on a budget increase yet to be passed by Congress for 2016 to keep its key exploration programs on track. Agency officials said at a NASA Advisory Council meeting Wednesday that they are spending money on SLS, Orion and ground systems at a level that assumes a budget increase included in House and Senate bills will be approved. NASA is currently operating under a continuing resolution that would normally keep those programs at lower fiscal year 2015 levels. The agency said that the increase proposed by Congress is needed to continue work on a new upper stage for SLS that NASA hopes to have ready in time for the first crewed SLS mission in the early 2020s. [SpaceNews]

The House rejected a number of amendments attempting to block reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank Wednesday night. The House debated, and ultimate rejected, ten amendments that would have altered provisions reauthorizing the bank in a highway bill the Senate previously approved. Proponents of the bank argued that the amendments were an effort to weaken the bank by its opponents, after failing to stop a standalone bill the House passed last week to reauthorize the bank. The Ex-Im Bank has been unable to do new deals since its authorization lapsed at the beginning of July. [The Hill]

A U.S. policy change will allow allies to access to a mobile communication satellite system. An official with U.S. Strategic Command said at a London conference this week that the government quietly made a policy change in April, allowing allies access to the Wideband Code Division Multiple Access payload on the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellites. The full MUOS system is now scheduled to enter service in 2016, a year earlier than previous estimates. [SpaceNews]

The first Canadian in space is now a government minister. New Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his cabinet Wednesday, selecting Marc Garneau as Minister of Transport. Garneau, a member of Parliament from Montreal since 2008, became the first Canadian in space when he flew on a shuttle mission in 1984. Trudeau also selected Navdeep Bains as the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, whose portfolio includes the Canadian Space Agency. [CBC]


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A new space weather policy asks NOAA to consider commercial and international data sources. The Space Weather Action Plan, released by the White House last week, instructs NOAA to consider “commercial solutions and international partnerships” for its space weather data needs. The first opportunity to do so may be when NOAA, working with NASA and the Air Force, prepares a study on how to replace the aging SOHO satellite, a key tool for monitoring solar storms. [SpaceNews]

Questions remain about NATO’s satellite communications plans. The defense alliance is expected to approve funding and “basic outlines” of a 15-year satellite telecommunications purchase by the end of this year, but exactly how it will implement that purchase is unclear. While NATO is not expected to field its own communications satellites, the organization has yet to decide whether to rely entirely on member nations’ satellites or supplement them with commercial satellites. [SpaceNews]

The Johnson Space Center will provide support to a nearby commercial spaceport. NASA officials announced Wednesday that it will work with the Houston Airport System to provide “expertise and credibility” for a commercial spaceport at Ellington Airport, located near JSC. That partnership will begin with JSC providing safety training to personnel at Ellington, and could expand to allow the spaceport to make use of JSC training facilities and other resources. Ellington received a commercial spaceport license from the FAA earlier this year, but is still working to attract customers to the site. [Houston Chronicle]

Hawaii is moving ahead with plans to seek a spaceport license for Kona International Airport. A draft environmental review of potential launch activities at the airport on the Big Island should be done soon and briefed to local residents early next year, a state official said. Assuming the review finds no significant impacts to such activities, the state would submit a spaceport license application to the FAA six months after the report is completed. The state has signed nondisclosure agreements with two companies reportedly interested in using the spaceport, but officials did not identify those companies. [Hawaii Tribune-Herald]

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NASA Counting on Budget Increase for SLS and Orion

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NASA Counting on Budget Increase for SLS and Orion
When NASA announced the completion of the Space Launch System's critical design review Oct. 22, it also released an updated illustration of the rocket, with the core stage now orange instead of white. NASA said in a press release that orange is "the natural color of the insulation that will cover those elements," as was the case with the shuttle's external tank. Not explained in the release, those, are the curved gray and orange stripes on the solid rocket boosters. Some think they are intended to evoke memories of the shuttle itself or the logo of original shuttle contractor Rockwell International — or, perhaps, computer game company Atari. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA is currently spending money on its key exploration programs at a rate that assumes Congress will approve a budget increase in the next month, a move that could delay some efforts should the additional funds not materialize.

Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, told a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee here Nov. 4 that NASA was funding programs like the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft at a higher rate than specified in the continuing resolution (CR) currently funding the agency.

“Today we’re running hot. We’re running based on what we saw in the draft House and Senate levels,” Hill said. “But if we don’t ultimately achieve those levels in an appropriations bill, then we’ll have to power back and replan.”

The CR that currently funds NASA and the rest of the federal government through Dec. 11 keeps agencies at their fiscal year 2015 levels. SLS, for example, received $1.695 billion, according to the agency’s final operating plan for 2015. However, an appropriations bill passed by the House in June would provide SLS with $1.85 billion in 2016, while a Senate version gives the program $1.9 billion. NASA had requested just $1.36 billion for SLS in its original 2016 budget proposal.

That difference could determine whether NASA moves ahead this year with plans to develop the Exploration Upper Stage, a more powerful upper stage for the SLS that the agency hopes to have ready for the second SLS mission. A decision whether to proceed with the stage hinges on the outcome of the 2016 budget.

“The difference in appropriations between where the continuing resolution is and what we saw in the draft appropriations in both the House and the Senate for SLS will determine whether we can continue the effort” on that upper stage, he said.

Hill said the program is ready to hold a preliminary design review for the new stage in 2016, assuming the program gets the increase offered in the draft bills. “If the appropriations levels don’t come in as we expect, we may have to turn that off for a year, and that’s not going to be a good thing to do,” he said.

A delay in development of the Exploration Upper Stage could force NASA to continue to use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), a modified Delta 4 upper stage that will be used on the first SLS mission in late 2018. The ICPS would require additional work to be human-rated should it be flown beyond that first, uncrewed SLS mission, an expense Hill said NASA wanted to avoid.

One issue about using the ICPS beyond that first mission is its vulnerability to damage from orbital debris and micrometeoroids. Hill said that concern led mission planners to decide to carry out a translunar injection burn on the first orbit after launch, rather than the second as originally planned, to minimize exposure to debris. That approach, he added, would not work on later crewed missions, when the spacecraft would likely spend several orbits around the Earth checking out systems before departing.

Hill didn’t identify any other elements of SLS or Orion that could be in danger of delays should funding fall short of the agency’s projections. Both SLS and its ground systems are on schedule to support a first launch in June 2018, he said, while Orion would be ready for that launch in September 2018. Hill also said NASA is also holding an August 2021 date for the first crewed Orion launch on SLS, although the agency announced in September that this mission could be delayed to as late as April 2023.

“We are hopeful that we will get some sort of omnibus appropriations before the end of the calendar year, and we’re going to need that,” Hill said. “If we have to maintain continuing resolution levels, we could be challenged in a couple of significant areas.”

A budget increase appeared more likely after Congress approved in late October a two-year budget deal that raised spending caps for both defense and other discretionary spending. Those increases, though, have yet to be incorporated into revised appropriations bills, and there is some concern that debate over policy provisions that could be tacked onto the spending bills might delay or even block their passage.

Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at the committee meeting that the outcome of the appropriations discussion was still uncertain. “We don’t really know how we’re going to come out” in the 2016 budget, he acknowledged, although noting that the increased budget caps “is good news so far.”

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