Thursday, December 17, 2020

FIRST UP |  Next ESA chief chosen • Another space startup goes public • Chang'e-5 back on Earth
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China's Chang'e-5 spacecraft returned samples of the moon to Earth on Wednesday. The spacecraft's return capsule landed in Inner Mongolia at 12:59 p.m. Eastern and was soon located by recovery teams. The recovery ends the space segment of the 23-day Chang'e-5 mission, which aimed to collect about two kilograms of rock samples thought to be billions of years younger than samples delivered by the U.S. Apollo and Soviet Luna missions. Chang'e-6, a backup mission, will now be repurposed for a landing in the lunar south pole region. [SpaceNews]

Satellite telephony company AST&Science will go public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). The merger, along with investment from several partners, will provide the renamed AST SpaceMobile with $462 million in capital to develop a satellite constellation that will provide mobile phone services. The deal is expected to close in the first quarter in 2021, at which point AST SpaceMobile will be traded on the Nasdaq exchange under the symbol ASTS. AST SpaceMobile is the latest space company to go public through a SPAC, following Virgin Galactic last year and Momentus, which announced a merger with a SPAC in October. [SpaceNews]

A Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons test illustrates the vulnerability of American satellites, a Space Force official said. Russia tested a Nudol missile this week, which can be used for missile defense but also to intercept satellites in orbits as high as 2,000 kilometers. Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of staff of the Office of the Chief of Space Operations of the U.S. Space Force, said at an event Wednesday that the test validates the decision to establish a military space service focused on defending U.S. space systems. No satellite was reportedly targeted in Russia's latest test. [SpaceNews]

The U.S. military wants to shake its reputation as an unfriendly customer to space startups and other technology companies. Lt. Gen. John Thompson, head of the Space Force's Space and Missile Systems Center, acknowledged at a conference Wednesday that the way the Defense Department does business "has really been daunting to startups and new entrants." He said there are several efforts underway "to try to simplify our interaction" with such companies, citing as one example the Space Enterprise Consortium. [SpaceNews]

A European Space Agency official will become its next director general. ESA announced Thursday that Josef Aschbacher, director of ESA's Earth observation programs since 2016, has been selected by ESA member states to become director general. He will succeed Jan Woerner, the current director general, when his term ends in June 2021. Aschbacher was considered the front-runner for the job. [ESA]

A Canadian astronaut will fly on the first crewed Orion mission. NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced Wednesday they had signed an agreement confirming Canada's participation in the Artemis program, highlighted by providing a robotic arm for the lunar Gateway. In return, Canada will get a seat on the Artemis 2 mission around the moon in 2023 and a later mission to the Gateway. CSA hasn't determined which of its four current active astronauts will be assigned to Artemis 2. [SpaceNews]

The White House released a strategy Wednesday for the development of space nuclear power and propulsion systems. Space Policy Directive (SPD) 6, titled "National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion," features a road map that outlines plans to develop surface nuclear power systems, nuclear thermal propulsion and other capabilities to support civil and national security space missions. Many of the projects outlined in SPD-6 are already in progress, and a senior administration official said the strategy is designed to "pull together a common operating picture" and also set development priorities. [SpaceNews]

A final fiscal year 2021 omnibus spending bill has yet to be released, with a Friday deadline approaching. House and Senate negotiators are still working on elements of a coronavirus relief package that will accompany the omnibus spending bill, which itself is mostly complete. A continuing resolution funding the government expires Friday night, suggesting that another stopgap spending bill may be needed even if the omnibus bill is released today, given the time needed to get the bill through the House and Senate. [Roll Call]
 

Other News


India launched a communications satellite early Thursday. A PSLV rocket lifted off at 5:11 a.m. Eastern and released the CMS-01 satellite into a transfer orbit about 20 minutes later. CMS-01 will provide extended C-band services for India and offshore islands, replacing GSAT-12. K. Sivan, head of the Indian space agency ISRO, said after the launch that the next PSLV launch will carry the first Indian commercial satellite whose launch was arranged after space commercialization reforms announced earlier this year. [SpaceNews]

SpaceX is set to launch a classified NRO payload this morning. Launch of the NROL-108 mission on a Falcon 9 is scheduled during a three-hour window that opens at 9 a.m. Eastern. The NRO procured the launch outside of the military's National Security Space Launch program, working directly with SpaceX on a commercial basis. [Spaceflight Now]

The Italian government has ordered a second pair of second-generation Cosmo-Skymed radar imaging satellites. Thales Alenia Space won a contract valued at $365 million for the two satellites, scheduled to launch in late 2024 or early 2025 on a Vega C or Soyuz rocket. Telespazio won a contract to upgrade the system's ground segment. Thales Alenia Space and Telespazio said the just-ordered pair of satellites will complete the second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed constellation and allow Italy to retire its first-generation Cosmo-SkyMed satellites. [SpaceNews]

Amazon unveiled a flat-panel antenna that it plans to provide to customers of its Project Kuiper satellite broadband system. The company said the design is intended to be significantly less expensive than existing phased-array Ka-band antennas, but did not give a specific cost. An affordable antenna is essential to Amazon's goal to provide broadband services to tens of millions of customers through the Project Kuiper constellation under development. An Amazon executive also said that the company plans to use multiple launch providers to deploy that constellation of 3,236 satellites, but has yet to announce any launch contracts. [SpaceNews]

A space traffic management center has been spun out of AGI into a standalone company. As part of its acquisition by Ansys announced in October, AGI spun off the Commercial Space Operations Center subsidiary it established in 2014, creating Comspoc Corp. As a separate company, Comspoc operates more like a startup focused on space situational awareness, space domain awareness and space traffic coordination and management, although AGI has provided investment and office space. [SpaceNews]

Capella Space says it now offers the highest resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery. The company released Wednesday satellite images with a resolution of 50 centimeters by 50 centimeters taken by its Sequoia satellite launched in August. That spacecraft has a "spotlight" mode that allows it to dwell over one location for 20 to 60 seconds, producing sharper imagery. While Capella calls its images the highest resolution commercially available, it's difficult to compare SAR imagery because marketing materials often cite resolution in a single dimension rather than range and azimuth. [SpaceNews]

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is evaluating radiofrequency tracking data from Hawkeye 360. The company said Wednesday it has been supplying data to NGA and the U.S. military combatant commands since September from its constellation of three satellites designed to geolocate radiofrequency sources. It is part of a pilot program where intelligence analysts are examining the utility of Hawkeye 360 satellites to perform various roles, including "tipping and cueing" sensors on other spacecraft, such as optical and radar imaging satellites. [SpaceNews]

So, Pretty Fast


"I think it's going to be going Mach 32 when it gets back to Earth, which is scientific speak for really, really, really fast."

– Canadian astronaut Joshua Kutryk, discussing the speed at which the Orion spacecraft will be going when it returns from the moon during a press conference Wednesday to announce Canada's participation in the Artemis program.
 

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