NASA asks private companies to share how they might supply the Lunar Gateway

NASA’s stated goal of sending the first woman ever, and the first man since the Apollo program, to the Moon involves setting up a new space station that will orbit the Moon, which is supposed to begin being built by the end of 2022, per current timelines. Today, the U.S. space agency issued an open call for industry feedback and insight on how American companies might help supply said station.

Like the ISS, the forthcoming “Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway” (aka the LOP-G, but much more commonly simply referred to as “The Gateway”) will need regular resupply runs and delivery of cargo — both for the many stages of its build, which are projected to span at least six years to get to its target state of completion. NASA is also considering the possibility that private companies could provide transportation for parts of its lunar landing and, eventually, exploration and base building on the Moon.

NASA’s move today is to release a draft request for proposals, which means that at this stage, it’s not actually looking for providers to submit formal bids — this is the step before that happens, when it’s more informally looking for guidance from industry on what kinds of cargo delivery methods they might even be able to provide ahead of looking to lock in any official contract winners for ongoing business.

To dive deeper into what it’s after and field questions from industry, NASA is hosting a Q&A on June 26, and comments are due on July 10. The more formal actual RFP will happen later this summer, the agency expects, and ultimately, the contract award for this admittedly big job could be as high as $7 billion.

NASA previously awarded private official “Commercial Resupply Services” for the ISS, which is a similar type of business but … Read the rest

SpaceX successfully re-launches and recovers Falcon 9 flown in March

SpaceX’s launch today from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base went off without a hitch, carrying three satellites that make up the RADARSAT constellation to be used for observation by the Canadian government.

The launch today included use of a Falcon 9 first stage that flew a mission only a few months ago, when it carried SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to orbit during an uncrewed demonstration mission in March. The first stage was refurbished and reflown, bringing SpaceX yet another step closer to its goal of narrowing the window between flights for its reusable rocketry further still.

SpaceX also recovered the first stage with a controlled landing back at the company’s LZ-4 landing pad at Vandenberg. SpaceX has now demonstrated its ability to land up to three boosters at once when launching its larger Falcon Heavy orbital rocket.

The SpaceX rocket also successfully deployed all three of its cargo of RADARSAT observation satellites into their respective target orbits, completing the mission for its customer MDA.

The next launch on the schedule for SpaceX is another Falcon Heavy launch set for June 24, which will be its third flight and its first for the US Air Force. On board, it’ll have the USAF’s Space Test Program Flight 2, which includes experimental small sat payloads and a number of research projects from NASA.

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Watch SpaceX launch Canadian observation satellites aboard a re-used Falcon 9

SpaceX has a launch scheduled today from California’s Vandenberg Air Force base, currently targeting a launch window of 14 minutes that opens at 7:17 AM PT (10:17 AM ET). The RADARSAT Constellation mission will carry a constellation of three satellites to low-Earth orbit, built by MDA for use by the Government of Canada in observing Canadian territory and surrounding ocean, with the added ability of being able to also provide imagery from anywhere around the world on top of its primary purpose.

The Government of Canada will make use of the new satellites’ capabilities to generate accurate maps of the sea ice present in Canada’s oceans and across the Great Lakes to help map and navigate those bodies of water for commercial interests. The satellites also have receivers on board to help them tag and ID any seafaring “ships of interest,” according to the mission description. Other uses for the imagery captured by the satellites including helping farmers boost yields from crops will reducing energy consumption, and assisting with the handling of disasters including wild fires.

The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to be used in this mission was flown once before – and only a few months ago in March, when it was used in an uncrewed demonstration mission for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.

Currently, the spacecraft is vertical at the launch pad awaiting the launch window. A backup window is set for Thursday, June 13 at 7:17 AM PT. The webcast above should go live around 15 minutes prior to the lift scheduled for today at 7:17 AM PT.

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NASA declares International Space Station ‘open for business,’ including private astronaut visits

At an event on Friday, NASA laid out its plans for making the International Space Station a hub for commercial activity in low Earth orbit. The agency has long planned to make the ISS a key anchor point for helping private business operate in space.

“We’re here because the International Space Station is now open for business,” NASA lead spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz said at the conference outset. Twenty companies joined NASA officials onstage to launch this new commercial ability and discuss the opportunities and plan.

Part of the plan includes allowing private astronauts to visit and stay on the ISS, traveling on U.S. vehicles. It also includes allowing private business activities to take place on the ISS, including “in-space manufacturing,” marketing activities, healthcare research “and more,” NASA says.

NASA articulated a five-part plan that it says “doesn’t conflict” with government and public sector use of the ISS, but that stands to allow creative and varied revenue-generating opportunities for private actors. NASA’s goal overall is to become “one of many” users of the ISS and low Earth orbit facilities, the agency said, and this should lead to benefits for tax payers, too.

Here’s NASA’s five-part plan, as described at a high level today:

  • Part one – NASA created an International Space Station Commercial Use Policy. It provides an initial supply or quota of resources, including crew time, and cargo launch and return capabilities for purchase by private companies.
  • Part two – Private astronauts can visit for up to two short durations per year, beginning early as 2020. Missions will be privately funded, dedicated commercial space flight and will have to use U.S. spacecraft (including those being certified by the NASA crew space travel program, like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon). NASA will lay out pricing for use of life support, crew supply, storage
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SpaceX reveals more Starlink info after launch of first 60 satellites

Last night’s successful Starlink launch was a big one for SpaceX — its heaviest payload ever, weighed down by 60 communications satellites that will eventually be part of a single constellation providing internet to the globe. That’s the plan, anyway — and the company pulled the curtain back a bit more after launch, revealing a few more details about the birds it just put in the air.

SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have been extremely tight-lipped about the Starlink satellites, only dropping a few hints here and there before the launch. We know, for instance, that each satellite weighs about 500 pounds, and are a flat-panel design that maximized the amount that can fit in each payload. The launch media kit also described a “Startracker” navigation system that would allow the satellites to locate themselves and orbital debris with precision.

At the fresh new Starlink website, however, a few new details have appeared, alongside some images that provide the clearest look yet (renders, not photographs, but still) of the satellites that will soon number thousands in our skies.

In the CG representation of how the satellites will work, you get a general sense of it:

Thousands of satellites will move along their orbits simultaneously, each beaming internet to and from the surface in a given area. It’s still not clear exactly how big an area each satellite will cover, or how much redundancy will be required. But the image gives you the general idea.

The signal comes from and goes to a set of four “phased array” radio antennas. This compact, flat type of antenna can transmit in multiple directions and frequencies without moving like you see big radar dishes do. There are costs as well, but it’s a … Read the rest