X-37B space plane lands after 780 days in orbit

X-37B landing
The Air Force’s X-37B space plane lands at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Air Force Photo)

The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane landed today after spending a record-setting 780 days in orbit testing hush-hush technologies for long-duration spaceflight.

Touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida came at 3:51 a.m. ET (12:51 a.m. PT), the Air Force said in a statement. The landing marked the end of the fifth test mission for the uncrewed mini-space shuttle, which experts say appears to be part of an effort to develop more versatile, faster-acting and longer-running spacecraft for remote sensing and satellite deployment.

“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said in today’s statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”

Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said the X-37B “successfully completed all mission objectives.”

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Rocket Lab launches a foursome of satellites

Rocket Lab Electron launch
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket lifts off from its launch pad in New Zealand. (Rocket Lab via YouTube)

Rocket Lab sent a foursome of satellites into orbit today for a threesome of customers, including the Seattle-based BlackSky Earth-watching venture.

BlackSky’s sibling subsidiary, Spaceflight, handled the prelaunch logistics for the Global-4 satellite and for a pair of experimental U.S. Air Force satellites. The fourth spacecraft in the set is the first satellite for what’s destined to become a maritime surveillance constellation fielded by a French venture called UnseenLabs.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket rose from the company’s launch pad on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 12:12 a.m. local time Aug. 20 (5:12 a.m. PT Aug. 19). It successfully went through second-stage separation and fired up its kick stage to deploy the satellites into a 335-mile-high, medium-inclination orbit.

“That’s now eight Electron launches to date and a total of 39 satellites delivered to orbit,” Rocket Lab said in a tweet.

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Blue Origin protests launch contract rules

New Glenn rocket
An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s future New Glenn rocket, which is currently due to have its first flight in 2021. (Blue Origin Illustration)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is protesting the rules of the game for awarding future national security launch contracts, while continuing to play against SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman.

All four companies have submitted bids in the second phase of an Air Force competition aimed at selecting vendors for launches in the 2022-2026 time frame.

In the first phase of the competition, the Air Force said it would set aside as much as $2.3 billion to support the development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, ULA’s Vulcan rocket and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket. All those rockets are scheduled to enter service in the 2021 time frame.

However, the Air Force said it would reduce the field to two companies next year. Moreover, SpaceX – which didn’t qualify for development funds in Phase 1 – is joining the field for Phase 2 with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, both of which are already flying.

In May, SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the federal government, complaining that it was unfairly left out of the Phase 1 awards and left at a disadvantage for Phase 2. Back then, the other three companies disputed SpaceX’s claims and supported the Air Force’s Phase 1 arrangement.

Today, it was Blue Origin’s turn to protest: The company said it filed a pre-award bid protest with the Government Accountability Office, claiming that it would be unfair for the Air Force to reduce the field to just two companies.

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Filings reveal details of SpaceX rocket lawsuit

BE-4 engine test
Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine, shown here during a test firing in Texas, is being developed for use on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket as well as United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and subsidiaries of United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman are intervening in a SpaceX lawsuit protesting $2.3 billion in rocket development awards to those three companies.

In a redacted version of the lawsuit, originally filed on May 17 and made public today, SpaceX says it was unfairly passed over when the awards were made last October — and disparages the three companies’ rocket projects.

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Space Force to be created under Air Force’s wing

Oval Office signing
Vice President Mike Pence makes comments at an Oval Office signing ceremony for Space Policy Directive 4, alongside President Donald Trump and officials including Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva and Susan Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence. (White House Photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Donald Trump today signed a space policy directive that lays out further steps in the creation of the U.S. Space Force as a sixth military branch housed within the Department of the Air Force.

The plan wouldn’t involve splitting off Space Force from the Air Force immediately, although it leaves the door open to take that step at a later time. As described in the White House’s Space Policy Directive 4, the arrangement would be similar to the Marine Corps’ status as a military branch within the Department of the Navy.

Such a concept is more likely to meet with approval from the Democratic-led House, which along with the Senate would have to approve the Space Force’s creation.

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who heads the House Armed Services Committee, told Politico earlier this month that “we can work with” the concept, which some have referred to as a “Space Corps” rather than a Space Force. In contrast, Smith previously voiced his opposition to the idea of creating a Space Force that was independent from the Air Force.

The Space Force would be the first new military branch created since the Air Force was born in 1947. (The others are the Army, the Navy, the Marines and the Coast Guard.)

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Boeing hands over first two tankers to Air Force

KC-46 tanker ceremony
Boeing employees, military personnel and VIPs gather at Boeing’s assembly plant in Everett, Wash., for the handover of the first KC-46 refueling airplane. (Boeing via LiveStream)

Boeing executives today added an extra twist to what was expected to be a cut-and-dried ceremony to hand over its first KC-46 tanker aircraft to the U.S. Air Force.

Leanne Caret, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, sprung the surprise in front of the hundreds of employees, Air Force personnel and VIPs gathered at the company’s assembly plant in Everett, Wash., where the heavily modified 767 jets have taken shape.

“I am delighted to be with you all today to celebrate the delivery of the first KC-46 tanker from Boeing to the United States Air Force,” she said. “Wait a minute! I’m sorry, I have made a mistake. I think I had that wrong. I believe I am delivering two KC-46 aircraft to the United States Air Force! Two!”

Caret announced that officials from Boeing and the Air Force signed the acceptance forms for a second KC-46, following up on the paperwork that was approved earlier this month for the first jet.

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Air Force accepts first Boeing KC-46 tanker

KC-46 tanker
Air Force Maj. Nick Cenci and Maj. Anthony Mariapain stand in front of a KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft at Seattle’s Boeing Field in advance of its acceptance for delivery. Cenci and Mariapain led flight acceptance testing on the jet. (Boeing Photo)

After struggling through years of delay and absorbing billions of dollars of cost overruns, Boeing says the U.S. Air Force has accepted the first of what’s expected to be hundreds of KC-46 tanker aircraft.

The Air Force says the plane still has problems relating to a remote camera system that’s supposed to show the flight crew how the refueling process is going. But it struck a deal to have Boeing fix those problems after delivery.

Boeing and the Air Force say the milestone delivery to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., could be made by the end of January.

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SpaceX launches first next-gen GPS satellite

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sent a next-generation GPS satellite into orbit today for the U.S. Air Force, marking a couple of firsts — as well as a “last.”

It’s the first GPS III spacecraft to reach space, marking the start of a transition that will triple the accuracy of the Global Positioning System and boost its capability to resist jamming by up to eight times.

It’s also the first official SpaceX launch of a national security payload for the Air Force under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, after a years-long process that saw SpaceX file a lawsuit against the federal government (and ultimately reach a settlement).

And the “last”? Today’s mission was the 21st and last launch for SpaceX in 2018, setting a new record for the California-based company. (Last year’s 18 marked its previous personal best.)

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SpaceX wins $28.7M for connectivity studies

Satellite constellation
SpaceX’s plan for global broadband satellite coverage calls for using sets of satellites orbiting at different altitudes. (PatentYogi via YouTube)

SpaceX has won a $28.7 million fixed-price contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory for experiments in data connectivity involving ground sites, aircraft and space assets — a project that could give a boost to the company’s Starlink broadband satellite service.

The contract was awarded on Dec. 19, with work due to be completed by mid-2021.

It’s part of a program called Defense Experimentation Using Commercial Space Internet, or DEUCSI, which aims to provide the Air Force with the ability to communicate via multiple satellite internet services, using common hardware elements.

That strategy would make it possible for the Air Force to switch data service providers easily — for example, if new providers decide to enter the market, or if existing providers decide to leave it.

There are also tactical reasons for switchability. “An Air Force pilot using the space internet may wish to change vendors in flight to access a more favorable spectrum or geometry,” the project’s managers said in one of their calls for proposals.

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Trump authorizes revival of U.S. Space Command

Vice President Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (White House via YouTube)

President Donald Trump today authorized the Pentagon to set up the U.S. Space Command as its own combatant command, in preparation for creating a Space Force as a separate branch of the military.

The authorization for the Space Command came in the form of a memorandum that doesn’t require congressional approval. Creating the Space Force, however, is dependent on action in Congress — and with Democrats taking charge of the House, there’s a chance that the force may take a form different from what the White House originally envisioned.

Cost estimates for setting up a Space Force as the first branch of the military to be created since the Air Force’s birth in 1947 range from a few billion dollars to as much as $13 billion. Some policymakers favor less expensive alternatives — such as a Space Corps that would be created within Air Force, just as the Marine Corps was created under the Navy’s administrative aegis.

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