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Two Congressmen press the Air Force for decision on engine for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket

Expanded diagram Vulcan six boosters

Two members of Congress are pressing the Air Force to make the decision on what engine to use on United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

In a letter to the acting Air Force secretary, Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said that the Air Force should not provide funding for ULA’s development of Vulcan unless the service has “full access, oversight of, and approval rights over decision-making” of the engines the vehicle will use.

ULA has yet to formally choose an engine for Vulcan, but has long considered Blue Origin’s BE-4 the front-runner over Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1. [Ars Technica]


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A congressman in the running to be the next NASA administrator got an endorsement from a key fellow member Thursday. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) appeared before two House appropriations subcommittees, seeking funding for military space programs and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. At one appearance, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said he supported Bridenstine’s unofficial candidacy to become NASA administrator. “Jim would do a superb job with that position and I strongly express my endorsement and support for your work,” Culberson said to Bridenstine after testifying at the transportation subcommittee meeting. [SpaceNews]

SpaceX believes the use of previously flown boosters will help the company reduce its backlog of launches. Company president Gwynne Shotwell said at the Satellite 2017 conference this week that the company plans to reuse six Falcon 9 first stages this year, taking pressure off the production of new stages. That reuse, along with returning Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida to service later this year, should allow the company to increase its flight rate and work through a backlog of launches. A successful static fire test Thursday of the next Falcon 9 clears the way for the launch of a communications satellite in the early morning hours Tuesday. [SpaceNews / Spaceflight Now]

Orbital ATK says it expects a “go/no-go decision” by early next year on a new large rocket it’s designing under an Air Force contract. The “Next-Generation Launcher” would use, as currently proposed, lower stages derived from shuttle solid-rocket boosters and an upper stage powered by a version of Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine. Orbital ATK CEO Dave Thompson said in an earnings call this week that the program is going well, and the company and the Air Force would decide by early 2018 whether to continue into full-scale development. Thompson said that, if the Air Force decides not to fund continued work, the company would scale back its own investment in the vehicle. [SpaceNews]

Paul Allen said Thursday he expects the giant Stratolaunch aircraft to make its first flight this year.Allen, speaking at the University of Washington to celebrate his $40 million donation to its computer science program, said the giant plane is “really coming along” with a first flight planned later this year. Stratolaunch is intended to be a platform for air-launch systems, and Stratolaunch Systems said last fall it was partnering with Orbital ATK to use it for Pegasus XL rockets. Allen, in his speech, hinted “there might be something in the cards in the future” regarding future space ventures, but offered no additional details. [GeekWire]

North Korea poses unique challenges to space security, experts warn. At a panel this week, space security experts said that while countries like Russia and China have incentives to remain peaceful in orbit, in order to protect their own assets, such restrictions aren’t applicable to North Korea. “You can’t necessarily deter that because they don’t have a lot to lose from it,” one person said of North Korea in a panel this week about space issues for the new administration. [SpaceNews]

As the risks to satellites from cyber attacks grow, protecting them is not getting any easier. At a Satellite 2017 panel this week, industry officials said cybersecurity issues for satellite systems are growing as satellite communications become increasing integrated into larger terrestrial networks. Those concerns may continue to grow, they warned, as satellites play unique roles in supporting networked systems in the “Internet of Things.” [SpaceNews]

NASA’s Orion spacecraft successfully tested its parachute system this week. An instrumented test module, shaped like the Orion spacecraft, was released from a C-17 cargo plane above the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona Wednesday. The capsule released two drogue chutes and three main parachutes in a descent profile designed to simulate a launch abort. The test is the second of eight planned to quality the parachute system for used on crewed Orion flights. [Spaceflight Now]

A New Mexico bill would allow Spaceport America to keep some customer information confidential.The bill, under consideration in the state legislature, would modify state public records laws to keep documents related to spaceport business dealings confidential. Such confidentiality, spaceport officials said, is needed to allow the state-owned facility to do business with commercial ventures reticent to share proprietary information. The spaceport would still keep revenue information public. [Albuquerque Journal]

NASA has used a radar system normally employed to study asteroids to find a “lost” lunar spacecraft.Radar pulses transmitted by a Deep Space Network antenna in California and received by the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia allowed scientists to locate India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, which stopped transmitting in August 2009. Scientists used the radar detections to update the spacecraft’s orbit, and found that the spacecraft’s position in that orbit had shifted by half a revolution from previous estimates. [NASA/JPL]

A mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, nicknamed Europa Clipper, will now be formally called… Europa Clipper. NASA announced this week that it has assigned the name Europa Clipper to what had been formally called the Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission. Europa Clipper was the name given to the original concept, where the spacecraft goes into orbit around Jupiter and makes dozens of close approaches to Europa. Such an approach makes the spacecraft smaller and less expensive than one that goes directly into orbit around Europa itself. [NASA/JPL]

A new closeup image of a moon of Saturn reminds many people of a variety of different foods. NASA released Thursday the first closeup image of the small Saturnian moon Pan taken by the Cassini orbiter, revealing it to be an oblong body with a large central bulge. People have various described Pan as looking like a walnut, ravioli, pierogi or empanada, depending, it appears, on what they’re hungry for. [The Verge]

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Two Congressmen press the Air Force for decision on engine for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket

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