FIRST UP | SpaceX's record-setting rideshare launches 143 smallsats • Northrop Grumman, L3Harris win Missile Defense Agency satellite contracts
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A SpaceNews daily newsletter | Monday, January 25, 2021

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SpaceX set a record Sunday by launching 143 small satellites on a single Falcon 9. The rocket launched from Cape Canaveral at 10 a.m. Eastern, deploying its payloads over a half-hour period starting an hour after liftoff. The Transporter-1 mission was SpaceX's first dedicated smallsat rideshare mission, and its payload included 48 Planet cubesats and 36 Swarm smallsats, along with dozens of other smallsats from companies and government agencies. SpaceX also flew 10 of its Starlink satellites on the mission, the first to go into a polar orbit. The flight set a record for the most satellites deployed on a single launch. [SpaceNews]

The large number of satellites posed a challenge for space traffic management. The 18th Space Control Squadron, which monitors satellites and space debris for close approaches, had been coordinating with SpaceX and the satellite owners and operators before Sunday's launch to better understand how the payloads would be deployed, but the sheer number of satellites would make tracking and identification difficult. Such rideshare missions, analysts noted, can be efficient but have implications for spaceflight safety that have yet to be sorted out. [SpaceNews]

Northrop Grumman and L3Harris won Missile Defense Agency contracts to develop prototype missile-tracking satellites. Northrop Grumman won a $155 million contract Friday, while L3Harris received a $121 million contract earlier in the month. Each company will build a prototype satellite to launch into low Earth orbit to test the capabilities of the sensors to track hypersonic missiles and the faint upper stages of ballistic missiles. The satellites will be part of a larger missile warning network that also includes wide-field-of-view missile tracking satellites to be acquired by the Pentagon's Space Development Agency. [SpaceNews]

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said he is not worried the Biden administration will make major changes to the U.S. Space Force. Gen. John Hyten said Friday that, while he was not sure what the new administration's plans are for the service, he was confident that the Space Force was "on solid ground" because it was created for national security reasons that transcend administrations. Hyten said he had not yet spoken with President Biden or Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about the Space Force. [SpaceNews]

India will fly domestically developed private spacecraft on a launch next month. Three spacecraft developed by Indian startups will be secondary payloads on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle launch of Brazil's Amazonia-1 satellite scheduled for Feb. 28. The launch of those private Indian smallsats is part of reforms announced by the Indian government last year to promote commercial space activities. [The Times of India]

Other News

Sunday's Transporter-1 mission included the first electric thrusters developed by startup Phase Four. The company's Maxwell plasma thrusters flew on two undisclosed spacecraft. Phase Four has been working for several years on the thrusters, which it describes as the most compact thrusters available in its class for use on microsatellites. The company expects to fly as many as 10 Maxwell thrusters this year as it scales up production of those thrusters and works on advanced designs. [SpaceNews]

A proposed replacement for the giant radio telescope at Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico could also be used for space situational awareness work. One concept under consideration would replace the 305-meter single dish with an array of up to 1,000 dishes, each nine meters across. At a committee meeting last week, observatory officials said the new telescope would be equipped with a radar whose applications could include tracking objects in orbit. The concept is still in its early phases of development, and the NSF is weighing options on whether, and how, to replace Arecibo. The committee also addressed concerns that the loss of Arecibo deprives scientists of one of the few planetary radar systems used to study near Earth objects. [SpaceNews]

Russian officials believe there is another crack in its segment of the International Space Station. A slow air leak on the station led officials to conclude there is a small crack beyond those already found in the Zvezda module. The leak is very small and does not pose a hazard to the station. An upcoming cargo mission will deliver a microscope that cosmonauts will use to help find the leak. [TASS]

SpaceX wants to get into the natural gas business. At a hearing Friday, SpaceX told Texas regulators it's interested in drilling for natural gas near its Boca Chica test site, intending to use it for its methane-fueled Starship vehicles. A SpaceX subsidiary, Lone Star Mineral Development, bought an existing oil lease on the property but is in a legal dispute with another company with inactive wells there. Elon Musk, who once called burning fossil fuels "the dumbest experiment in human history," announced last week he'll offer a $100 million prize for the best carbon capture technology. [Bloomberg]

Former astronaut Julie Payette is resigning as Canada's governor general. Payette announced last week she would resign after a report concluded that she and her secretary led a "toxic work environment" at the office, which serves as the queen's representative in Canada. Employees had complained Payette and her secretary berated and publicly humiliated them. Payette didn't admit to any specific problems, but acknowledged "tensions" at the office. [CBC]

The Week Ahead

Monday: Tuesday: Tuesday-Wednesday: Wednesday: Thursday: Thursday - Feb. 4:
  • Sydney, Australia/Online: The 43th COSPAR Scientific Assembly takes place in a hybrid format, with some portions of the scientific conference in person and other online.
  • Kennedy Space Center, Fla.: Scheduled launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying 60 Starlink satellites.


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