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Blue Origin wins NASA support for a new space station

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and its partners have won a $130 million award to jump-start the design of their Orbital Reef commercial space station, which could take shape during the waning years of the International Space Station.

Two other teams also won NASA funding for their design efforts: Houston-based Nanoracks will get $160 million for its Starlab concept, while Northrop Grumman will get $125.6 million for its proposal.

Blue Origin — which is headquartered in Kent, Wash. — is partnering with Sierra Space as well as Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions and Arizona State University on Orbital Reef.

The project is envisioned as an expandable business park, with Boeing’s Starliner space taxi and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane transporting passengers to and from low Earth orbit for tourism, research, in-space manufacturing projects and more. NASA could presumably use Orbital Reef or the other commercial space platforms as a way station and training facility for missions beyond Earth orbit.

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GeekWire

NASA begins mission to try pushing away an asteroid

A space probe the size of a school bus is on its way to smash into an asteroid the size of Egypt’s Great Pyramid, directed by thruster systems built by Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond, Wash.

This is no “Armageddon,” and there’s no need for Bruce Willis to ride to the rescue. But the experiment is expected to help scientists figure out how to divert a dangerous asteroid heading for Earth should the need arise. That’s one giant leap for planetary defense — and for Aerojet Rocketdyne, whose made-in-Redmond thrusters have been used on dozens of space missions.

“We’ve been to every planet in the solar system,” said Joseph Cassady, Aerojet’s executive director for space. “But this is the first time we’ve ever done something that’s really truly planned as a defense against threats to life on Earth. The test we’re going to do here is really the first step in getting ourselves ready as a species to react and respond if we ever are threatened in that way.”

NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission, or DART, got off to a showy start with tonight’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Liftoff occurred at 10:21 p.m. PT, at the end of a smooth countdown.

Minutes after launch, the rocket’s second stage separated from the first-stage booster and proceeded to orbit, while the booster flew itself back to an at-sea landing on a drone ship stationed in the Pacific. Within an hour after launch, the second stage deployed the DART spacecraft and sent it on its way.

Tonight’s launch marked the first leg of a 10-month journey to a double-asteroid system that’ll be nearly 7 million miles away from Earth at the time of the encounter. The larger asteroid, called Didymos, is about half a mile wide — but that’s not DART’s target. Instead, Aerojet’s thrusters will guide the spacecraft to hit the smaller asteroid, known as Dimorphos.

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Cosmic Space

Russian anti-satellite test creates space station hazard

A Russian anti-satellite test sparked an orbital-debris emergency aboard the International Space Station today, followed by sharp protests from NASA’s administrator and other U.S. officials.

The incident, which involved the deliberate destruction of an obsolete Russian spy satellite known as Cosmos 1408, is likely to spur renewed debate over military rules of engagement in space and the nature of Russian (and Chinese) anti-satellite maneuvers.

The U.S. Space Command said Russia struck the one-ton satellite with a direct-ascent, anti-satellite missile, breaking it into more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and what’s thought to be hundreds of thousands of smaller bits.

“The debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers,” U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, commander of the Space Command, said in a news release. “Space activities underpin our way of life, and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”

The trajectories for the debris cloud and the International Space Station come close to each other every 90 minutes, and that required the space station’s seven crew members to take cover today.

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GeekWire

BlackSky strikes a satellite data deal with NASA

BlackSky Technology says it has secured a five-year, sole-source blanket purchase agreement with NASA for the use of high-revisit satellite imaging data in support of the space agency’s Earth observation research.

The agreement announced today is part of NASA’s Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition Program, or CSDAP. It will give researchers access to frequently updated high-resolution imagery via BlackSky’s Spectra AI geospatial data platform.

Spectra AI makes use of imagery from BlackSky’s on-demand satellite constellation as well as other sources to provide global real-time environmental monitoring. BlackSky’s satellites are manufactured in Tukwila, Wash., by LeoStella, the Virginia-based company’s joint venture with Thales Alenia Space.

BlackSky traces its lineage back to Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, which sold off Spaceflight Inc. for an undisclosed price in 2020 and adopted the BlackSky corporate brand. In September, BlackSky went public through a blank-check merger with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp. that provided $283 million in cash. More than 50 of BlackSky’s 200-plus employees are based in the Seattle area.

In a news release, BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole said the CSDAP award “reflects yet another valuable point of alignment between government demand and BlackSky’s commercially available real-time, global intelligence products.”

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Universe Today

NASA’s first Artemis moon landing slips to 2025

NASA has pushed back the timetable for landing astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than a half-century from 2024 to no earlier than 2025.

Blue Origin’s unsuccessful legal challenge to a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract awarded to SpaceX was one of the factors behind the delay in the Artemis moon program, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a Nov. 9 teleconference.

Nelson also pointed to Congress’ previous decisions not to fund the lander program as fully as NASA wanted, plus delays forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that “the Trump administration target of a 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility.”

“After having taken a good look under the hood these past six months, it’s clear to me that the agency will need to make serious changes for the long-term success of the program,” he told reporters.

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GeekWire

A win for SpaceX: Blue Origin loses lunar lander lawsuit

A federal judge today rejected Blue Origin’s challenge to a $2.9 billion contract that NASA awarded to SpaceX for building the lunar lander destined to carry astronauts to the moon.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ space venture had argued that NASA gave overly wide leeway to SpaceX in advance of the contract award in April — but Judge Richard Hertling of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims rejected Blue Origin’s arguments. His opinion was sealed, pending a Nov. 18 conference to discuss which details needed to be redacted for competitive reasons.

In a statement, NASA said that it would resume work with SpaceX under the terms of the contract “as soon as possible.”

Bezos tweeted that today’s ruling was “not the decision we wanted, but we respect the court’s judgment, and wish full success for NASA and SpaceX on the contract.”

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GeekWire

Blue Origin leads team for ‘Orbital Reef’ space outpost

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is joining forces with Colorado-based Sierra Space and a host of other partners, including Boeing, to propose building a space-based “mixed-use business park” called Orbital Reef.

The plan, announced today at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, is among about a dozen proposals being submitted to NASA for a share of development funds under a program aimed at preparing the way for replacing the International Space Station.

If Blue Origin and its partners follow through on the plan, the basic version of Orbital Reef would be in low Earth orbit sometime during the latter half of the 2020s — in time for an orderly transition from ISS operations. That version would include power-generating capability, a core module with picture windows looking down on Earth, a habitat provided by Sierra Space and a Boeing-built science lab.

Blue Origin’s senior vice president of advanced development programs, Brent Sherwood, told me that Orbital Reef would cost “at least an order of magnitude less” than the International Space Station. The development cost for the International Space Station is typically estimated at $100 billion, which would imply a cost in the range of $10 billion for Orbital Reef.

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GeekWire

Mockups of Mars machines are going on a road trip

Seattle’s Museum of Flight says it’ll serve as the first stop on a road trip for NASA’s full-scale replicas of the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter — display versions of the hardware that’s currently at work on Mars, 242 million miles away.

The SUV-sized rover and its drone-sized piggyback copter landed on the Red Planet in February, and since then they’ve both been surveying the terrain of Jezero Crater, which scientists suspect harbored a potentially habitable lake in ancient times. The Ingenuity helicopter began taking on exploratory flights in April.

The mockups are due to go on display in the Museum of Flight’s Charles Simonyi Space Gallery on Oct. 30. Representatives from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be on hand for the opening, which marks the kickoff of NASA’s yearlong “Roving With Perseverance” museum roadshow.

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GeekWire

Starliner’s next flight to orbit will slip into 2022

Boeing says its next attempt to send an uncrewed Starliner space taxi to the International Space Station will take place no earlier than the first half of 2022, due to the time needed to fix a valve problem that led to the last-minute cancellation of an August test flight.

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GeekWire

NASA boosts electric aviation efforts at MagniX and GE

Everett, Wash.-based MagniX will be getting $74.3 million from NASA over the next five years to demonstrate electric propulsion technologies for aircraft.

The fixed-price / cost-share award is being made through NASA’s Electric Powertrain Flight Demonstration program, or EPFD, which aims to introduce electric powertrain technologies to U.S. aviation fleets no later than 2035.

Another company, Cincinnati-based GE Aviation, is being awarded $179 million through the same program.

“This award from NASA is a testament to the fantastic work being done every day by the team at MagniX,” Roei Ganzarski, MagniX’s CEO, told GeekWire in an email. “This program will enable the next-generation commercial aircraft. We are proud to be in the same cohort with a great company like GE.”