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San Francisco — Planet, the startup that operates the world’s largest constellation of Earth imaging satellites, laid off dozens of workers July 13. One source put the number at 38.

A Planet spokesperson declined to confirm that number, but said the firm restructured its operations in a move that affected less than ten percent of its workforce.

“Planet has grown quickly and our revenue has experienced rapid growth,” the Planet spokesperson said by email. “As we shift our focus from meeting big technical challenges — like successfully building and deploying the largest constellation of satellites ever — to developing commercial products and building a successful business, we recently restructured teams to more tightly align with our current business goals. As part of this, Friday was the last day for some Planet employees (less than ten percent), who we thank for helping to get Planet to where it is today. Planet continues to invest in teams and is accelerating products that are core to future growth.”

Planet was founded in 2010 with a small team and a big idea: to deploy an enormous constellation of cubesats to offer daily, global Earth imagery. The San Francisco startup, which grew to employ nearly 500 people, achieved that goal late last year with 200 satellites, including its own cubesats and larger spacecraft it acquired when it took control of BlackBridge’s RapidEye fleet in 2015 and Google’s Terra Bella constellation in 2017.

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FARNBOROUGH, England — Blue Origin conducted a successful test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle July 18 that demonstrated its crew capsule escape system.

The vehicle lifted off from the company’s West Texas test site at 11:11 a.m. Eastern. The launch, the ninth test flight in the overall New Shepard development program, was announced a day in advance by the company.

The vehicle’s propulsion module boosted the crew capsule on a standard trajectory. About 20 seconds after the capsule separated, the capsule fired its solid-propellant escape motor in a planned test of its performance at high altitudes.

The motor performed as expected, giving the capsule an extra boost and setting an altitude record of 118.8 kilometers before landing by parachute 11 minutes after liftoff. The propulsion module, about 30 meters away from the crew capsule when the motor fired, was unaffected by the test and made a powered vertical landing on a pad near the launch site.

“It’s an important test in our march towards flying humans into space, which hopefully will be soon,” Ariane Cornell, head of astronaut strategy and sales at Blue Origin, during a company webcast of the test.

While this flight was primarily intended to demonstrate the vehicle’s escape system, the crew capsule carried eight research and technology demonstration payloads, similar to what the vehicle has done on previous suborbital test flights.

Those payloads some that flew previously, like the Schmitt Space Communicator developed by Solstar, a New Mexico company seeking to demonstrate the use of wifi communications technologies in space. Another reflown payload was an electromagnetic field experiment from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, previous versions of which went on the sixth and seventh test flights of the vehicle.

Another payload offered an unusual synergy with another part of Blue Origin. Thai company mu Space, which ordered a launch of Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital rocket in 2017, included a package with several experiments from universities and organizations in Thailand.

“We are excited to join the upcoming New Shepard flight. We are really curious how microgravity affects the structure and properties of things, and we hope this flight will help us understand the science behind it,” said James Yenbamroong, chief executive and founder of mu Space, in a preflight statement.

Another experiment, Granular Anisotropic Gases, was developed by Otto-von-Guericke University in Germany and funded by the German space agency DLR. The flight of experiment was arranged Olympiaspace, a European “commercial space agency” that took care of logistical and regulatory matters for the payload.

This launch was the ninth for the New Shepard program, and the third for this particular combination of crew capsule and propulsion module. The next flight, Cornell said, will feature “finished customer interiors” like those that will be used on commercial flights of the vehicle, intended to carry up to six people.

Blue Origin has provided only vague schedules about when human flights would begin, with company officials saying recently they anticipated starting to fly humans on test flights by the end of this year. The company has yet to start selling tickets for the vehicle and has not established an official price for those flights.

Cornell didn’t offer a timetable for crewed flights beyond “soon” during the webcast but said they could begin “after a couple more tests.”

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FARNBOROUGH, England — With hundreds of satellites projected to launch from future UK spaceports and elsewhere in Europe in the coming years, an industry race is underway to develop space robots that will fix and maintain constellations in orbit.

Maxar Technologies has made inroads in satellite servicing with Pentagon and NASA contracts in recent years. It now also wants to become a player in the logistics support of commercial satellites in the burgeoning European market.

The company announced on Wednesday that its recently acquired Neptec robotic technology company was selected to supply sensors for the “Space Drone,” a servicing vehicle developed by Effective Space, based in the UK.

The Space Drone will use Neptec’s light detection and ranging (lidar) sensors and infrared cameras to approach and dock with orbiting satellites in geostationary earth orbit. Effective Space said it plans to launch two vehicles into orbit in 2020 as part of a $100 million contract with an undisclosed regional satellite operator. Maxar’s MDA division will work on the project from its recently expanded UK operation.

Lidar and infrared sensors will be used to generate a 3D picture of the target spacecraft. After rendezvous, the Space Drone docks with the host satellite and functions as an external “jetpack,” providing attitude and orbit control for the combined vehicle, so the satellite can continue to operate.

Neptec developed the sensors with funding from the UK Space Agency. The space lidar, originally designed for a lunar lander, will be used for rendezvous and docking in orbit, and for the de-orbiting of space debris. Lidar relies on reflected pulses of light from a laser to build a 3D map of a target.

Maxar this week also announced a $1.3 million deal with the UK Space Agency to develop space robotics technology in the United Kingdom. This puts MDA in a position to lead a European consortium to bid on the first phase of the European Space Agency’s space servicing vehicle robotics program.

“Space robotics are a key enabler for the new space economy, powering applications such as servicing, repairing, refueling and de-orbiting of satellites and building large structures in space,” Maxar said in a news release.

These emerging opportunities in the UK and Europe explain why Maxar moved to acquire the Neptec Design Group for $32 million. Neptec’s workforce of about 100 employees is based in Ottawa, Canada, and Harwell, United Kingdom.

At the Farnborough Airshow, Effective Space UK managing director Daniel Campbell briefed potential customers and journalists on the features of the Space Drone. At about 400kg, it’s about the size of a washing machine,

Campbell said in-orbit servicing, like launch, can help drive economic growth for the United Kingdom.

The company is positioning the Space Drone to compete against the likes of Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle for satellite servicing work, debris removal, in-space explorations, mining and manufacturing in space. Initially it will focus on life-extension services of aging GEO satellites, which is considered the most lucrative portion of the market. The Space Drone will be adapted at a later time to support constellations in middle and low earth orbits.

Effective Space was founded in 2013 by Arie Halsband, general manager of the space division of Israel Aerospace Industries. The company decided to become permanently based in the United Kingdom for its favorable business climate and policies aimed at boosting the space economy.

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U.S. officials on a mission to sell American products. It has been awkward

Trump administration officials — including representatives from Defense, State, Commerce and NASA, as well as governors from several U.S. states — are at the Farnborough Airshow in the United Kingdom this week on a mission to sell American aerospace and weapons. This is routine during major international gatherings like this one. But this time they are having to walk a delicate line as they are trying to persuade longtime allies to buy American products and invest in the United States while the president continues to wage a trade war, repeatedly slams NATO allies for not spending enough on defense, bashes the U.K. prime minister for being soft on Brexit, calls the European Union a “foe” and sides with Europe’s enemy Vladimir Putin.

How can this not possibly hurt U.S. trade?

It’s complicated. Tina Kaidanow, acting assistant secretary of State who runs the Bureau of Political Military Affairs, cautioned to not overreact.

During a telephone conference with reporters at Farnborough, she played down the impact of the president’s rhetoric. When asked how allies were reacting to tariffs and other actions coming out of the White House, Kaidanow said: “We don’t get into public conversations of what we discuss with our individual partners and allies.” She then suggested that weapons deals are the product of long-nurtured ties not likely to be affected by the 24-hour news cycle. “It’s an increasingly challenging world, and we are looking to develop these strategic relationships in a way that makes sense for us and for our partners, not just for a year or six months.”

“These are long-term relationships. That doesn’t really change.”
Tina Kaidanow, U.S. acting assistant secretary of State

U.S. government officials at Farnborough are there to “reassure our companies that we have their back … but also to reassure our partners that there is a strong purpose in acquiring these systems. It’s to make us more interoperable, to give us a strong set of relationships that we can continue to nurture over time.” Kaidanow insisted: “It’s a long-term process. This is not a month-long set of issues. This is something we want to engage in for the long term.”

ARMS SALES On the defense side, the decisions that countries make are “not really dictated so much by short-term trade considerations one way or the other,” she said. “What I think they are dictated by largely is by a set of concerns that are driven by security, strategic partnerships. … These are the kinds of thoughtful decisions we want countries to make. We don’t want them to be acting on the concerns of the moment per se.”

BOTTOM LINE It is too early to predict whether Trump’s unfriendly rhetoric will have long-lasting chilling effects. Kaidanow: “The conversations we’ve had with partners have been very straightforward, even with the Europeans. I think for the most part, it’s been able to transcend some of those other back-and-forth issues.”

U.S. OBJECTIVES are to bolster U.S. industry and preserve American jobs, she said. “We’ve got the entire weight of the U.S. government behind these efforts, and that’s going to continue to be the case.”

Despite growing angst about Trump’s hostility toward allies, there is still an interest in acquiring U.S. weapons systems. The potential fallout may be more damaging on the commercial side, where the market is more competitive and analysts fear that retaliation over U.S. tariffs could put a damper on U.S. aviation and space exports.

New numbers unveiled at Farnborough by AeroDynamic Advisory and Teal Group put the 2017 global aerospace market at $838 billion. The United States has enjoyed an “extremely strong trade position reflecting export market dominance in most key segments.”

The Aerospace Industries Association reported that the U.S. aerospace sector generated $143 billion in exports and a positive trade balance of $86 billion in 2017. AIA President and CEO Eric Fanning has warned that a protracted trade war could hurt aerospace sales, U.S. jobs and the nation’s economy as countries affected by these tariffs fire back.

AIR FORCE LEADERS AT FARNBOROUGH: WE CAME HERE TO STRENGTHEN ALLIANCES, TALK PARTNERSHIPS

In a joint press conference at the Farnborough Airshow, U.S. Undersecretary of the Air Force Matt Donovan (left) and Assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisitions Will Roper said they were enthused about having a chance to meet with their foreign counterparts and U.K.-based suppliers.

“We’re here to talk to our allies about the U.S. national defense strategy,” said Donovan. He pointed out that one of the pillars of the strategy is to strengthen alliances. “To paraphrase Secretary Mattis, ‘nations who have allies thrive and those that do not whither.’”

Donovan said he personally did not hear any blowback from allies on trade issues or political tensions surrounding President Trump’s criticism of NATO.

TEAMING WITH U.K. Roper said he planned visits this week to the U.K. Ministry of Defence “rapid capabilities office” and several defense and space companies. “We really do get a lot from working with people who have a different point of view, that have different strings in their industry base,” he said.

The British RCO, he said, is a “mirror of our own. We’re looking to work together. .. We don’t just fight alongside with allies but build things with them.”

With the U.K. making a big push to invest in space technology, British companies are seeking to work with the U.S., said Roper. “I’m extremely excited to hear about the U.K. upcoming launch capabilities.”

Right now, he said, “I’m seeing amazing innovations from companies that are new blood in space, that have new ideas, that are pushing prices down, which always makes an acquisition executive excited,” Roper added. “We’ll be looking to partner with the U.K. in many areas but space will definitely be one.”

CLICK HERE FOR SPACENEWS COVERAGE OF FARNBOROUGH 2018

QUANTUM COMPUTING A KEY WEAPON TO FIGHT IN SPACE

Quantum computing is one area where the Pentagon worries that it is playing catchup while China continues to leap ahead. The technology is being developed for many civilian applications and the military sees it as potentially game-changing for information and space warfare. “We see this as a very disruptive technology,” said Michael Hayduk, chief of the computing and communications division at the Air Force Research Laboratory. Artificial intelligence algorithms, highly secure encryption for communications satellites and accurate navigation that does not require GPS signals are some of the most coveted capabilities that would be aided by quantum computing. “The Air Force is taking this very seriously,” Hayduk said. The Pentagon is especially intrigued by the potential of quantum computing to develop secure communications and inertial navigation in GPS denied and contested environments. READ MORE HERE

GIANT SATELLITE FUEL TANK MADE WITH PRINTED PARTS

Lockheed Martin is claiming a new breakthrough in the use of 3D printed parts for space. It rolled out a satellite propulsion tank that includes a 46-inch-diameter titanium dome built using electron beam additive manufacturing, then smoothed and welded to a central cylinder.

This is part of a multi-year program to create giant, high-pressure tanks that carry fuel on board satellites. The company says tank delivery time was slashed from two years to three months.

Satellite fuel tanks must be both strong and lightweight to survive launch and decade-long missions in the vacuum of space. That makes titanium an ideal material. “Procuring 4-foot-diameter, 4-inch-thick titanium forgings can take a year or more, making them the most challenging and expensive parts of the tank,” Lockheed said in a news release. “Traditional manufacturing techniques also meant that more than 80 percent of the material went to waste. 3D printing eliminates all that lost material and the titanium used for printing is readily available with no wait time.”

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LONDON — As Astrobotic prepares to compete for NASA lunar payload delivery contracts, the company has signed an agreement with Dynetics for the last major component of its lunar lander.

Under the teaming agreement announced July 17, Dynetics will provide a main propulsion system for Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, as well as attitude control thrusters. The companies did not disclose the terms of the deal.

Peregrine will have five 150-pounds-force engines, using hydrazine and mixed oxides of nitrogen (MON) propellants, to send the spacecraft from Earth transfer orbit to the surface of the moon. The lander will also have 12 five-pounds-force attitude control thrusters.

Dynetics is responsible for the overall propulsion system, including engines, tanks and related components. The engines themselves come from subcontractor Frontier Aerospace, a California company that developed the engines under a NASA contract.

“Dynetics was the right pick for us because they have a lot of experience in space. They’re very forward-looking and looking for new opportunities just like this,” John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, said in an interview prior to the announcement. “What they’re offering with this propulsion system, with their partnership with Frontier, is particularly interesting to us.”

That includes the use of a variant of the MON propellant known as MON-25. That propellant has a higher nitric oxide content, which lowers its freezing point. “NASA recognized the need for this capability a couple years ago and had awarded a contract to Frontier Aerospace to qualify engines of an appropriate size for a small lander,” said Andy Crocker, space solutions propulsion department manager at Dynetics.

The propulsion system was the last main component Astrobotic had to select for the Peregrine lander. “This completes the missing piece for the lander, and we’re quite excited that we have all the players ready to go,” Thornton said.

Astrobotic has been working on lunar lander concepts for several years, more recently focusing on the Peregrine design. The lander is capable of placing up to 265 kilograms on the surface, but will carry only 35 kilograms on its initial mission scheduled for launch in 2020. Thornton said no changes to the propulsion system are needed to support later missions with heavier payloads.

While Astrobotic has lined up about a dozen deals with commercial and international government customers, the company is currently focused on competing for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program announced earlier this year. Under that program, NASA will buy payload space on small commercial lunar landers as an early step in a broader effort to return humans to the Moon.

With NASA expected to soon release the final solicitation for the competition, Astrobotic and Dynetics have made a few tweaks to the Peregrine design, such as increasing the thrust of the main engines from 100 to 150 pounds-force. “It provides some extra margin for the highest payload capability,” Crocker said.

The overall lander design has not changed, though, since the announcement of the CLPS program earlier this year. “The upcoming NASA solicitation hasn’t changed it all that much,” Thornton said. “We are looking at a few possibilities to push the edges of what the lander can do.”

“I think this positions us well as we head into the opportunities that NASA’s setting up for a return to the moon,” he said of the selection of the Dynetics propulsion system. “We’re just waiting for the starting gun from NASA.”

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FARNBOROUGH, England — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said July 17 that he’s had good discussions with European officials here about potential cooperation on NASA’s plans to return to the moon.

In a brief interview after a panel discussion at the Farnborough International Airshow, Bridenstine described the meetings he’s held during the event, including with the heads of the European Space Agency and national space agencies, as “fantastic” and said more details about the agency’s “exploration campaign” plans, such as the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, could be released this fall.

“There’s a lot of support for, ultimately, our next big exploration campaign, which includes the moon,” he said. “We’re putting together concepts and ideas from our international partners for who can plug in where.”

Discussion of NASA’s lunar exploration campaign was one topic of Bridenstine’s discussion with Jan Woerner, director general of ESA, according to a tweet from Bridenstine’s account. Other topics of that discussion included the ESA-provided Orion service module that has suffered development delays, space traffic management, space weather and ESA’s commitment to launch NASA’s long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope.

In a July 15 video, Bridenstine suggested more details about NASA’s exploration plans, including roles for international and commercial partners, could be released in the near future. “NASA has a lot of business upcoming with our future exploration campaign that we’re going to be rolling out details in the very near future,” he said.

Asked after the panel when those details could be released, Bridenstine responded, “Maybe in September.”

Hit the ground running in London. Looking forward to representing @NASA at the Farnborough International Airshow. #FIA18 pic.twitter.com/0CrVmdakp5

— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) July 15, 2018

Bridenstine also met with executives of several aerospace companies at the air show, including Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney, Airbus and Arianespace, according to a readout of his activities at the event July 16 provided by Megan Powers, NASA press secretary.

During the panel, Bridenstine discussed NASA’s International Space Station transition plans, which call for ending direct federal funding of the station by 2025. That transition, he argued, is essential to carry out national space exploration policy, which calls for human missions to the moon and, later, Mars done in a sustainable way.

“In order to accomplish these goals, we need to have a transition in low Earth orbit,” he said. “Whether it is transitioning the International Space Station to our commercial partners or an international consortium of commercial partners, or taking advantage of brand-new platforms, all of that needs to be in the mix.”

There’s been skepticism, though, that the ISS could be operated commercially, at least in its current form and with current markets for the facility. Bridenstine, in response, asked for patience.

“We’ve got seven years,” he said. Potential new markets, such as additive manufacturing in space and biological research, could prove promising, he argued. “The goal is to commercialize low Earth orbit. NASA becomes a customer, and then we use the resources of the taxpayers to go further than we’ve gone before.”

Among the skeptics of a full commercial transition of the ISS is ESA’s Woerner, who was on the same panel. He said he saw the potential for more direct private funding of the ISS, but did not expect the station to be fully funded and run by the private sector. “Personally, I don’t think we can switch it to totally private operation without public funding,” he said.

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FARNBOROUGH, England — The top weapons buyer of the U.S. Air Force said more “rapid acquisitions” are happening in the service’s space portfolio than in any other area.

“We have to go much faster,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force, told reporters on Tuesday.

Roper planned to spend Wednesday visiting the U.K. military’s “rapid capabilities office” and British aerospace firms that are involved in the nation’s fast growing space sector. “I’m extremely excited to hear about the U.K. upcoming launch capabilities,” he said. “We’ll be looking to partner with the U.K. in many areas but space will definitely be one.”

At a separate news event Tuesday hosted by Lockheed Martin and the UK Space Agency, officials were talking about future spaceports where, in just a few years, the militaries of the United Kingdom and close allies like the United States will be able to launch satellites on 72-hours’ notice. Air Vice-Marshal Simon “Rocky” Rochelle, chief of staff capability and development of the U.K. Royal Air Force, said responsive launch will be an important capability for the military.

The United States and the United Kingdom have “very similar strategies” for gaining faster and cheaper access to space, said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin’s space business.

Lockheed is now a central player in both the U.S. and U.K. space sectors. The company made headlines at the airshow this week when it was awarded $31 million by the UK Space Agency to support the nation’s new spaceflight program, an initiative to create a commercial launch market that offers regular, reliable and responsible access to space.

The U.K. vision is to build the infrastructure to support both vertical and horizontal launch, which requires large airplanes, and have a manufacturing and supplier base that can produce small satellites quickly.

The industry frequently gets drawn into debates on the merits of vertical-versus-horizontal launch, or small-versus-large satellites. “We get asked those questions a lot,” said Ambrose. “My position is that you want access to space. There’s room in the market for all,” he said in an interview.

Satellite manufacturing is the other piece. With a $9 billion a year space business, Lockheed is best known for making huge spacecraft and customized military hardware. About five years ago it started to retool its products and manufacturing lines in anticipation of a shift to smaller and faster space.

“As the UK develops its space industry further, I think you’ll see bigger economics from the mini-satellites and the value they create from data, from science, and from military missions,” said Ambrose.

For the UK spaceflight program, Lockheed is considering using a launch vehicle from startup Rocket Lab and a second-stage orbital delivery vehicle made by Moog that can carry up to six cubesats. This type of “precision delivery” of satellites is important for smallsat constellations that will need to be refreshed on short notice.

Despite the smallsat revolution, Ambrose does not expect large geosynchronous orbit satellites will be replaced in the foreseeable future. Part of responsive space is the ability to have a mix of systems, said Ambrose. “I’ve heard this over and over, that we can’t do everything with small satellites.” The technology is not there yet, he said. Key components like beams, optics and apertures are not yet miniaturized to the degree they need to be, and that may not happen for five or 10 years. “But we are going to be moving down this curve,” Ambrose said.

Additive manufacturing is the secret sauce that Lockheed believes will help shift gears from one size satellite to another depending on the mission. “That is how I bring small and large, and converge in a way that I can use many similar manufacturing techniques.”

Satellite fuel tanks are a case in point. The first tanks that were 3D printed were for smallsats. Over the past three years, Lockheed gradually increased the size of the parts and now can print a 46-inch tank. “This is not trivial,” he said. “Now almost in the same timeframe I can print a small tank or a large one. Imagine projecting that to the future.”

There is no one-size-fits-all for responsive space, he said. “You may need clusters of small satellites. There may be some things that stay with large ones. Taking one extreme or the other is a dangerous intellectual place to be.”

The holy grail is a “software defined satellite” that could be reprogrammed like a computer when it needs to change location or mission. Ambrose said Lockheed is “making progress” and plans to soon discuss more details publicly.

Two of the Air Force space programs that the service is trying to accelerate are hypersonic missiles and missile-launch detection and warning satellites. Lockheed is the primary contractor on both.

“A lot is going on in the Air Force right now,” Ambrose said. The service wants to see technologies move faster from the lab to the field, and is doing things like simplifying red tape and eliminating layers of middle management in programs. “I have not seen this much change in at least a  decade.”

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FARNBOROUGH, England — While Lockheed Martin continues to suggest it will use Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket at a Scottish launch site announced at the beginning of this week, company officials said July 17 they have yet to formally select a vehicle to fly at the site.

The U.K. Space Agency awarded $31 million to Lockheed Martin July 17 to establish operations from a new launch site in Sutherland, Scotland, that the agency announced a day earlier. That funding will also go towards development of an upper stage, called the Small Launch Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle, designed to place up to six cubesats into orbit.

Neither the agency’s announcement nor a separate press release, though, identified the launch vehicle that Lockheed Martin would use. At a press conference during the Farnborough International Airshow here July 17, company and government officials were similarly coy about the identity of the vehicle.

“They offered tried and tested technology, an established launch vehicle,” said Mike Taylor, spaceflight program director at the U.K. Space Agency, in remarks discussing why the company received the largest award of any company proposing launch or spaceport development in the country.

“We’ll use an affordable, flight-proven commercial launcher built specifically for small satellites,” said Patrick Wood, Lockheed Martin’s U.K. country executive for space, at the briefing. “We’ll have more details on the launcher in the very near future.”

Most industry observers believe that vehicle is Rocket Lab’s Electron. The rocket is a commercially developed vehicle designed for small satellites and performed its first successful launch in January. Moreover, Lockheed Martin made a strategic investment in Rocket Lab in 2015.

However, Lockheed Martin officials declined to confirm at the briefing it planned to use Electron. “We just announced yesterday, so there are a lot of details to fill in,” said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin’s space business. “Now that we have announced, we can go ahead and go finish up a lot of our deliberations.”

Ambrose appeared to leave open the door to considering alternative vehicles to launch from Scotland. “It’s very public that we’re a strategic investor in Rocket Lab,” he said. “It’s also interesting how, just in 24 hours, we’ve had a lot of interest.”

“We’re working across all of our supply chains,” he said later when asked if Lockheed was considering launch vehicles other than the Electron. “We have a lot of details to work out across the board.”

Both Ambrose and Wood, though, indicated that Rocket Lab’s Electron is the company’s preferred choice to use from the site. “We’ve worked very close with that particular organization. We understand their launch vehicle very well,” Wood said. “We are a strategic investor in Rocket Lab and that’s where we’re focusing at the moment.”

Their comments came several hours after Rocket Lab, in a statement, said the company was “evaluating launch opportunities” from the Scottish site, but did not commit to using the spaceport.

“Electron is well-positioned to be the first orbital rocket launched from U.K. soil,” said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, in the statement. “We’re excited to review the opportunity to develop a launch service to support the U.K.’s space industry’s growth.”

Lockheed Martin executives said at the briefing that, whatever vehicle they select to launch from the Scottish spaceport, they expect a steady cadence of missions once operations are up and running. “We envisage, from kind of a steady state, about 10 launches a year,” Wood said. “Obviously we have the ability to go to a higher cadence, and we’ve sized the organization for slightly less than that as well.”

One potential use of the spaceport is for responsive launches of military satellites. “A military capability perspective that I am interested in is the ability to do responsive space launch,” said Air Vice-Marshal Simon “Rocky” Rochelle, chief of staff capability and development at the Royal Air Force. The details of such a capability are still being worked out, he said, but could include launches of off-the-shelf satellites on 72 hours’ notice.

That capability, he added, could be shared among allies, such as the “Five Eyes” partnership of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. “We do all sorts of things together,” he said, adding that such cooperation could help allies “control that space domain rather than being threatened.”

Lockheed Martin hopes to start launching from the spaceport as soon as 2020, a timeline that depends on progress in winning regulatory approvals for both building the spaceport and launching from it. “From our point of view, we’re very comfortable with a 2020 schedule,” said Wood. “We understand it’s challenging.”

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WASHINGTON — Maxar Technologies on July 16 purchased Neptec, a Canadian company with robotic expertise deemed useful for in-space activities like satellite servicing and building space stations.

Maxar said the 42 million Canadian dollar ($32 million) acquisition of Neptec will fold the company’s 100 employees into Maxar’s Vancouver, Canada-based MDA division.

Neptec will enable Maxar to leverage advanced electro-optical and electro-mechanical systems as well as LIDAR — Light Detection and Ranging — systems for connecting structures in space using guidance and navigation sensors, Maxar said.

With offices in Ottawa, Canada and Harwell, United Kingdom, Neptec is a supplier for several international space programs, including the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover cameras, Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus resupply vessel, and Canadian Space Agency-funded instruments for the International Space Station.

In April, the Canadian Space Agency awarded Neptec an CA$11.9 million contract to develop a new vision system for the ISS that would allow the station’s Dextre robotic arm to monitor for external damage.

MDA said Neptec is well positioned for business areas including “on-orbit servicing, space mining, space manufacturing and the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway,” the latter being a NASA program to build a space station in orbit around the moon in the 2020s.

“Robotics needed for this project will incorporate significantly more autonomous decision-making capabilities using artificial intelligence and state-of-the-art robotics and software,” Maxar said of the Lunar Gateway.

Maxar, through its Space Systems Loral division, is developing a satellite-servicing vehicle with the U.S. Defense Department and plans to start a spacecraft refueling business in 2021.

“The Neptec team is well-established in the industry, and this investment represents an important strategic opportunity to offer broader solutions for the growing space exploration market,” Mike Greenley, group president of MDA, said in a statement.

Maxar said Neptec has also been developing quantum computing systems for space communications.

Maxar paid for Neptec using roughly CA$8 million in cash and CA$34 million of common shares. The company expects Neptec will be accretive to its operating earnings per share starting next year.

Maxar was formed last fall in a $2.4 billion deal that merged commercial remote-sensing firm DigitalGlobe and its Radian Solutions division with MDA and its Space Systems Loral subsidiary.

SpaceNews.com

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WASHINGTON — A solid rocket booster designed for both the Ariane 6 and Vega C next-generation launchers completed a successful test firing Monday, clearing a hurdle for the maiden flights of both vehicles.

Organizations working on the P120C solid rocket held the 135-second test fire at the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, demonstrating the requisite burn time for the first stage of flight for both vehicles.

Built by an ArianeGroup and Avio joint venture called Europropulsion, the P120C will serve as the first stage of the Avio-led Vega C light-lift launcher and as a strap-on booster for the heavier Ariane 6 rocket from ArianeGroup. Avio told SpaceNews by email that Vega C’s first launch is scheduled for around the end of 2019. Ariane 6’s maiden flight is slated for 2020.

The European Space Agency said the July 16 test occurred without incident and “met expectations” — good news since solid-fuel rockets cannot shut off once ignited. The agency plans several months of analysis with the test data.

Another two test firings of the P120C will take place to qualify the booster ahead of Vega C’s first flight, according to an ArianeGroup statement. ESA said the next firing will take place at the end of the year.

Weighing 150 metric tons (eight tons for the casing and 142 tons of propellant), the engine is the largest monolithic carbon-fiber solid rocket motor in the world, ArianeGroup and Avio say.

A compromise reached in May by European Space Agency members funding launch vehicle development will keep production of the P120C in Italy, allowing Avio to produce up to 35 boosters annually. A previous arrangement would have split production between Colleferro, Italy-based Avio and MT Aerospace of Augsburg, Germany.

The economies of scale provided by using the same booster for two rockets and concentrating production in one place are a key aspect of reducing the price for Ariane 6 missions by 40 to 50 percent compared to the Ariane 5 in use today.

The P120C solid rocket motor is almost 60 percent more massive than the P80 motor used on today’s Vega rocket, and will help increase Vega C’s lift ability to 2,200 kilograms of payload (from Vega’s 1,500 kilograms) to low Earth orbit.

Ariane 6 in its early days is expected to lift between 4,500 and 5,000 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit when equipped with two solid rocket boosters (Ariane 62), and 11,500 kilograms with four solid rocket boosters (Ariane 64). Arianespace, which markets the Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets, says the Ariane 64 version has “significant growth potential” to lift heavier payloads over time.

SpaceNews.com

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