SN Commercial Drive | LauncherOne reaches orbit • Redwire scoops up Oakman Aerospace • Chinese rocket builder plans IPO
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A commercial space newsletter from SpaceNews. Delivered Wednesdays.
 January 20, 2021
Presidential transitions always alter the space industry. The Obama administration changed NASA's focus from the moon to Mars, before the Trump administration refocused on sustained lunar exploration as a jumping-off point for human missions to the Red Planet. It's too soon to know the Biden administration's priorities. Still, companies are positioning themselves for an increased emphasis on Earth observation and climate change, as well as orbital debris mitigation. Beyond that, we'll have to see. With the impressive pace of launch activity and commercial innovation, though, it seems like the new administration will want to highlight and celebrate commercial space. 

P.S. For more analysis of the Biden transition, check out the Jan. 18 SpaceNews magazine. You can subscribe to the monthly magazine here. If you've been forwarded this free newsletter, sign up here


  • LauncherOne reaches orbit
  • Blue Origin closes in on flying people
  • Redwire scoops up Oakman Aerospace
  • Chinese rocket builder plans IPO

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket reached orbit on its second flight Jan. 17, demonstrating the performance of the air-launch system after years of development. The launch was the capstone of a development program that dates back to July 2012, when Virgin Galactic announced plans to build a small launch vehicle to complement its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle. In the pre-launch briefing, Virgin Orbit didn't disclose plans for its next launch. However, the company is assembling the next LauncherOne rocket, which Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart described as being a "few weeks away from being ready." [SpaceNews]

Blue Origin flew a new model of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle Jan. 14, a flight the company says brings it "really close" to finally flying people. The flight was the first for the Blue Origin capsule, called RSS First Step, as well as for the booster. The capsule featured modifications intended to support human spaceflight, such as seats, new communications systems and displays, and environmental control systems to regulate temperature and humidity. [SpaceNews]

Redwire acquired Oakman Aerospace, a Littleton, Colorado firm known for digital engineering and spacecraft development. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed. The acquisition announced Jan. 19 is the latest sign that Redwire continues to move rapidly to establish a multifaceted space company. Since private equity firm AE Industrial Partners formed Redwire in June 2020 with the acquisitions of Deep Space Systems and Adcole Space, Redwire has purchased Made In SpaceRoccor, Loadpath and now Oakman Aerospace. [SpaceNews]

Hanwha Aerospace, South Korea's largest defense company, announced plans Jan. 14 to pay $100 million for 30% of the shares of satellite manufacturer Satrec Initiative. Once the deal is completed, Satrec Initiative, a firm known for manufacturing small and medium-size Earth-observation satellites, will continue to be managed independently, but will have access to additional resources including Hanwha Aerospace's radar and infrared technologies. [SpaceNews]

Rocket Lab launched a communications satellite for German company OHB Group Jan. 20 in the first Electron mission of the year. The payload has been shrouded in secrecy, but the ultimate customer for the satellite may be GMS Zhaopin, a Chinese company planning an internet constellation. The launch is the first of what Rocket Lab previously called a "packed launch manifest" for 2021. The company has not announced the specific number of launches planned this year. In 2021, Rocket Lab is scheduled to begin launching from Launch Complex 2 at Wallops Island, Virginia, and from a second pad at Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. [SpaceNews]

A static-fire test of the Space Launch System core stage ended early Jan. 16 when a hydraulic system for one its four engines hit an "intentionally conservative" limit. NASA said Jan. 19 that the hydraulic system for Engine 2 on the core stage "exceeded the pre-set test limits that had been established" for the Green Run test, prompting flight computers to automatically end it. NASA officials want to review the data collected before deciding whether to perform a second hot-fire test or ship the stage to the Kennedy Space Center for final preparations for the uncrewed Artemis 1 test flight. [SpaceNews] 

Boeing has requalified software for its commercial crew spacecraft as it prepares to launch the vehicle on a second test flight. Boeing announced Jan. 18 it completed a "formal requalification" of the software for its CST-100 Starliner crew capsule. That work included reviews of the software itself as well as the processes by which Boeing developed and tested the software. The next test flight, called Orbital Test Flight-2, is scheduled for late March. [SpaceNews]

Chinese private rocket firm iSpace is planning an IPO while also making progress on technology for a reusable launch vehicle. Beijing-based iSpace is planning to file an initial public offering on the Science and Technology Innovation Board (STAR Market), a market established in 2019 to support tech companies. ISpace also announced progress developing the reusable first stage of its Hyperbola-2 liquid methane-liquid oxygen propellant launch vehicle. The firm carried out tests of struts for first stage landing legs, including structural, dynamic and vibration tests, and evaluated their performance in high and low temperatures. [SpaceNews]

French startup ThrustMe completed a successful in-orbit demonstration of its iodine electric propulsion. Thrustme's NPT30-I2 iodine electric propulsion fired during two 90-minute burns to change the altitude of its host satellite, Spacety of China's Beihangkongshi-1 cubesat, by 700 meters. The tests represent the first demonstration of iodine as a viable propellant for electric propulsion systems, ThrustMe CEO Ane Aanesland said by email. Aanesland called the demonstration "groundbreaking as it allows propulsion systems to be delivered completely pre-filled to customers, and for the satellite integration process to be significantly simplified and streamlined." [SpaceNews]

Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has joined the board of Maxar Technologies. Wilson, currently president of the University of Texas El Paso, served as Air Force secretary from 2017 to 2019. Wilson will provide Maxar strategic advice as the Earth imaging company seeks to grow its national security and intelligence business. [SpaceNews]


  • OneWeb raises $400 million
  • FCC cashes in on C-band
  • SpaceLink reveals leadership team
  • Starlink surpasses 1,000

OneWeb announced Jan. 15 it has raised $400 million, which means the satellite broadband company can continue deployment of its initial constellation of 648 satellites. The investment round garnered $350 million from SoftBank, one of OneWeb's biggest shareholder before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2020. The remainder is from Hughes Network Systems, which announced last year it would invest $50 million in the restructured company. OneWeb also is drastically reducing the size of its proposed next-generation constellation. In a Jan. 12 filing with the Federal Communications Commission, OneWeb sought permission to amend an application filed in May requesting to launch 47,844 satellites for its "Phase Two" constellation. The company now proposes a 6,372-satellite constellation. [SpaceNews]

SES and Intelsat are quickly clearing C-band spectrum to make room for U.S. 5G wireless networks, executives from the fleet operators told the FCC. "In brief, the accelerated relocation is on schedule, and SES and Intelsat expect to satisfy their clearing obligations by the Commission's aggressive transition deadlines," Petra Vorwig, SES vice president for legal and regulatory affairs, said in a Jan. 19 filing regarding a meeting with Peter Davidson, Intelsat government affairs vice president, and Umair Javed, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel's legal advisor for wireless and international issues. That's good news for the telecommunications companies that have agreed to pay nearly $81 billion for access to the 280 megahertz being vacated by satellite operators. Observers attributed the bidding frenzy to the example T Mobile set in reusing mid-band spectrum to offer high-speed internet access through a process called massive multiple-input, multiple-output. [SpaceNews]

SpaceLink, the subsidiary Electro Optic Systems formed in December to establish a high-speed data relay constellation, has brought space industry veterans onto its leadership team. The McLean, Virginia-based firm hired Tony Colucci, the former business development vice president at Space Systems Loral, now Maxar Technologies, to be its chief strategy and commercial officer. Larry Rubin, SpaceLink's new chief operating officer, worked for decades in program management and operations at Space Systems Loral and Hughes, now Boeing. Rabindra "Rob" Singh, the firm's new chief technology officer, was Maxar's vice president of strategy initiatives and chief architect. SpaceLink General Counsel David Lihani worked as outside counsel for the United Arab Emirates Space Agency and held posts at Astrolabe, Maxar and Virgin Galactic. [SpaceLink]

Aurora Insight, a Denver startup that gathers data on terrestrial and satellite communications, plans to launch the first of two cubesats built by NanoAvionics on the SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare mission scheduled for liftoff Jan. 22. With sensors on buildings, ground vehicles, aircraft and satellites, Aurora Insight gathers data on wireless spectrum and communications networks. Aurora Insight CEO Jennifer Alvarez said the new cubesats are far more capable than the company's first technology demonstration cubesat launched in 2018. [SpaceNews] 

China launched mobile telecommunication satellite Tiantong-1 Jan. 20 on a Long March-3B rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China's Sichuan Province. Developed by the China Academy of Space Technology, the satellite is designed to provide mobile communication services, such as voice, short message and data, for users in China, the Middle East, Africa and areas of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. [Xinhua]

SpaceX launched its latest set of Starlink satellites Jan. 20, bringing the total number of spacecraft launched for its broadband constellation to 1,015. Of those, 951 are still in orbit, according to statistics maintained by spaceflight observer Jonathan McDowell. SpaceX ramped up deployment of Starlink last year, with 14 launches. The rapid growth of the constellation has alarmed some astronomers, who are concerned that Starlink and other megaconstellations could disrupt their observations. However, SpaceX has taken major steps to reduce the impact of Starlink satellites on astronomy over the last year, Patricia Cooper, SpaceX vice president of satellite government affairs said Jan. 14 during an American Astronomical Society meeting. [SpaceNews]


Jan. 21
NewSpace New Mexico webinar Positioning US Companies to Compete in the Economic Great Game of Space at 1:30 p.m. Eastern
Jan. 22
Launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 Transporter 1 small satellite rideshare mission 
Feb. 8-11
SmallSat Symposium with Peter Beck of Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit's Dan Hart and Kevin O'Connell from the U.S. Commerce Department
Feb. 25
Soyuz rocket to launch 36 OneWeb broadband satellites 
Feb. 26
United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 to launch U.S. Space Force Space Test Program rideshare with NASA Laser Communications Relay Demonstration 
Thank you for reading this week's issue of SN Commercial Drive. For the latest commercial space news, visit SpaceNews.com and follow Debra Werner (@SpaceReportr) on Twitter.

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