Monday, January 18, 2021

FIRST UP | Virgin Orbit reaches orbit on second LauncherOne mission • SLS "Green Run" test ends early
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A SpaceNews daily newsletter | Monday, January 18, 2021

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Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne successfully reached orbit Sunday on its second launch. The air-launched rocket was released from its Boeing 747 carrier aircraft at about 2:39 p.m. Eastern, an hour after takeoff from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The two-stage rocket performed what the company called a "picture-perfect" flight, deploying 10 NASA-sponsored cubesats into a 500-kilometer orbit nearly an hour after ignition. The "Launch Demo 2" mission was the second test flight for LauncherOne, after the inaugural launch last May that failed seconds after ignition when a propellant feed line ruptured. Virgin Orbit said after the launch that it will now move into commercial operations, but did not announce a schedule or customer for its next launch. [SpaceNews]

The long-awaited Green Run test of the Space Launch System shut down early Saturday. The core stage of the SLS was to fire its four RS-25 engines for a full-duration burn lasting more than eight minutes at NASA's Stennis Space Center. However, the engines shut down just 67 seconds into the test Saturday afternoon. What caused the early shutdown is still under investigation, although controllers reported a "major component failure" in one of the engines about 45 seconds into the test, as well as a "flash" from a thermal protection blanket. NASA and Boeing officials said prior to the test they expected to get all the data they needed as long as the test ran for at least 250 seconds, but at a briefing Saturday evening agency officials said the truncated test didn't necessarily mean they would have to perform a second static-fire test. [SpaceNews]

The White House issued a new space policy related to space-based navigation services Friday. Space Policy Directive 7 highlights the growing dependence on the GPS system and suggests government and commercial organizations should have access to backup positioning, navigation and timing technologies as GPS signals are likely to be disrupted. The policy says the United States supports the use of foreign satellite-based services to supplement GPS, but cautions that the government does not guarantee the accuracy or reliability of them. The White House released the report late Friday, hours after publishing a report summarizing space policy achievements during the Trump administration. [SpaceNews]

An ongoing FCC auction of satellite C-band spectrum has raised nearly $81 billion so far. The auction of the spectrum for terrestrial 5G services is not yet complete, with an assignment phase, where companies awarded spectrum blocks bid for frequency-specific licenses, yet to come. The high value of the bids surprised many, which one analyst attributed to the success T-Mobile has had using similar "mid-band" spectrum for 5G services. In addition to paying for the C-band spectrum itself, winners of the C-band auction are scheduled to pay about $13 billion to compensate satellite operators for clearing spectrum on an accelerated timeline. [SpaceNews]

The Space Force has confirmed the selection of National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL) to manage its Space Enterprise Consortium. The Space Force delayed an award of the contract to NSTXL last month to look into a court judgment against NSTXL in a lawsuit filed by a former business partner on a separate contract. The Space and Missile Systems Center said Friday that, after that review, it would proceed with the contract with NSTXL. The Space Enterprise Consortium is a group of hundreds of space and defense companies that compete for technology development contracts. Under the 10-year agreement with NSTXL, consortium members will compete for up to $12 billion in projects. [SpaceNews]

Other News

NASA has ended efforts to deploy a heat flow probe on the InSight lander into the Martian surface. The Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package on the lander featured a "mole" designed to burrow several meters into the surface, but got stuck just below the surface shortly after its deployment nearly two years ago. Scientists and engineers worked to try and get the mole deeper into the surface, but last week said they were giving up, with the mole buried just a few centimeters below the surface. InSight's other instruments, including a seismometer and weather station, continue to work well, and NASA extended the lander's mission earlier this month through the end of 2022. [SpaceNews]

Rocket Lab scrubbed a launch attempt Saturday to review sensor data. The company said it was getting "strange data" from an instrument not used for flight, but something it wanted to investigate nonetheless. Rocket Lab has rescheduled the launch for Wednesday. The Electron is carrying a communications satellite built by OHB for an undisclosed customer. [RNZ]

SpaceX swapped out two Raptor engines on its SN9 Starship prototype, delaying an anticipated test flight. Elon Musk said Friday that, after performing three static-fire tests in one day last week, two of the three engines "need slight repairs" and would be replaced, work completed over the weekend. Another static-fire test could take place as soon as Monday, but plans for a flight similar to that performed by SN8 last month remain uncertain. []

The EPA and NASA have reached an agreement on cleaning up contamination at the Wallops Flight Facility. The contamination of soil and groundwater predates NASA's use of the site, and is instead linked to when the U.S. Navy owned Wallops. NASA will carry our remediation work there, funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with oversight by the EPA. The announcement didn't disclose the estimated cost of the cleanup or how long it will take. [EPA]

Former NASA astronaut William Thornton died last week at the age of 91. NASA selected Thornton as an astronaut in 1967, but he did not fly in space until the STS-8 shuttle mission in 1983, and flew again on STS-51B in 1985. Thornton, a medical doctor, performed research on space adaptation syndrome, or space sickness, and also developed a treadmill for use on the shuttle that is the forerunner of the one used by space station astronauts today. [collectSPACE]

The Week Ahead

  • Online: The AIxSPACE conference will examine the role artificial intelligence technologies can play in space applications.
  • Online: The second and final week of AIAA's SciTech Forum includes technical presentations and panels, including one on the legacy of the shuttle program on Thursday.
  • Kennedy Space Center, Fla.: Rescheduled launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying 60 Starlink satellites at 8:23 a.m. Eastern.
  • Xichang, China: Launch of a Long March 3B rocket carrying a Tiantong-1 communications satellite at 11:25 a.m. Eastern.
  • Mahia Peninsula, N.Z.: Rescheduled launch of a Rocket Lab Electron carrying an OHB-built communications satellite between 1:45 and 3:15 a.m. Eastern.
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