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Blue Origin team hands NASA a lunar lander mock-up

An all-star space industry team led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has assembled a mock-up of its proposed lunar lander right where it’ll do the most good, in a training area at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.

The full-scale engineering module showcases Blue Origin’s Blue Moon descent element, which Bezos unveiled last year; as well as the ascent element designed by Lockheed Martin. It stands more than 40 feet tall in Johnson Space Center’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, alongside mock-ups of the space shuttle, space station modules and next-generation space capsules.

Members of the industry team — from Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin as well as Northrop Grumman and Draper — will collaborate with NASA engineers and astronauts to test out the lander’s usability and make any necessary tweaks in preparation for crewed lunar landings that could begin as early as 2024. The tweaks could address such details as the size of the hatch, the placement of the windows and the arrangement of the controls.

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SpaceX sticks with lawsuit over launch competition

SpaceX says it will keep pursuing its lawsuit against the federal government as well as its rivals in the launch industry, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, even though it’s been cleared for billions of dollars in contracts for national security space missions.

Both sides in the long-running dispute laid out their positions in a notice filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Aug. 14, a week after the U.S. Space Force announced that United Launch Alliance and SpaceX were the winners in a competition for future launches.

Leading up to that decision, the Air Force provided hundreds of millions of dollars in development funding for ULA as well as Blue Origin and Orbital Sciences Corp. (now part of Northrop Grumman). SpaceX was left out but protested the awards.

In this month’s filing, SpaceX said the funding gave ULA an “unwarranted advantage” and called for the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center to “rectify” its errors, presumably by providing more funding for SpaceX.

Lawyers for the federal government and ULA said the competition for development funding was decided fairly. They said no rectification was warranted, especially considering that SpaceX proposed its Starship super-rocket for development funding but ended up offering a different launch vehicle  — a modified Falcon Heavy rocket — for the Space Force’s future heavy-lift launches.

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ULA and SpaceX win shares of Space Force launches

The U.S. Space Force designated United Launch Alliance and SpaceX as the winners of a multibillion-dollar competition for national security launches over a five-year period, passing up a proposal from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in the process.

Northrop Grumman and its OmegA rocket also lost out in the Phase II competition for the National Security Space Launch program.

ULA will receive a 60% share of the launch manifest for contracts awarded in the 2020-2024 time frame, with the first missions launching in fiscal 2022, said William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics.

SpaceX will receive the other 40%.

The competition extended through the creation of the U.S. Space Force, whose Space and Missile Systems Center will be in charge of executing the launches in partnership with the National Reconnaissance Office.

The five-year Phase II program provides for fixed-price but indefinite-delivery contracts, which means there isn’t a specified total payout. But Roper said it’d be reasonable to estimate that somewhere around 32 to 34 launches would be covered, which would translate to billions of dollars in business.

Three launches were assigned today: ULA is scheduled to launch two missions known as USSF-51 and USSF-106 for the Space Force in 2022, while SpaceX has been assigned USSF-67 in mid-2022.

ULA’s two contracts amount to $337 million, and SpaceX’s contract is worth $316 million. Roper said details about the payloads are classified.

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Satellite hookup demonstrates orbital servicing

An image captured by Northrop Grumman’s MEV-1 satellite shows the Intelsat 901 satellite from 80 meters, with Earth in the background. (Northrop Grumman / SpaceLogistics Photo)

For the first time, one commercial satellite has docked with another satellite in geosynchronous orbit, demonstrating a technology that will be crucial for on-orbit servicing and reducing space junk.

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Cygnus cargo ship heads for space station

Northrop Grumman’s robotic Cygnus cargo spacecraft is on its way to the International Space Station after two launch postponements.

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Cargo ship heads to orbit with student satellite

Antares launch
Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket rises from its Virginia launch pad, sending a Cygnus cargo craft to the International Space Station. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Northrop Grumman launched a robotic Cygnus cargo capsule to the International Space Station today, marking one giant leap for a small satellite built by students at the University of Washington and Seattle’s Raisbeck Aviation High School.

The 7-pound HuskySat-1 was among 8,200 pounds of supplies, equipment and scientific payloads packed aboard the Cygnus for liftoff atop Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket at 9:59 a.m. ET (6:59 a.m. PT) from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast. Hundreds of onlookers cheered as the rocket rose into sunny skies after a trouble-free countdown.

“Good launch all the way around,” launch conductor Adam Lewis said.

HuskySat-1, which is about the size of a loaf of bread, is the UW’s first student-built satellite to go into space. It’s designed to be sent out on its own early next year, to test a new type of pulsed plasma electric propulsion system as well as a high-bandwidth communication system. The K-band communication system was built by Paul Sturmer, a former UW graduate student who now works at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

High schoolers at Raisbeck built HuskySat-1’s miniaturized camera system, which will send down low-resolution, black-and-white photos of Earth. Data will be transferred via antennas installed atop UW’s Johnson Hall.

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Jeff Bezos announces Blue Moon lander team

Jeff Bezos
m Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos discusses his space ambitions during a fireside chat at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos says his Blue Origin space venture is heading up a team of top space companies — including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — to build a landing system to take NASA astronauts to the moon as early as 2024.

“This is a national team for a national priority,” Bezos said here at the International Astronautical Congress, where he received the International Astronomical Federation’s first Excellence in Industry Award on Blue Origin’s behalf.

Blue Origin would serve as the prime contractor for the lander project, with its Blue Moon lander serving as the heart of the system.

Bezos said Northrop Grumman, which built the lunar lander for the Apollo program a half-century ago, would be responsible for the orbital transfer vehicle that would take astronauts from a moon-orbiting Gateway platform to a lower lunar orbit.

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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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Northrop Grumman to build moon-orbiting habitat

Cygnus-derived habitation module
An artist’s conception shows Northrop Grumman’s habitation module, which is based on the design of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft. (Northrop Grumman Illustration)

NASA says it’s choosing Northrop Grumman to build the habitation module for its future moon-orbiting Gateway outpost, because it’s the only company that can do the job in time for a 2024 lunar landing.

In a procurement document released last week, the space agency said the other companies that were competing to build the Minimal Habitation Module as part of NASA’s NextSTEP program — Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NanoRacks and Sierra Nevada Corp. — couldn’t have their hardware ready in time to meet the deadline set by the Trump administration.

“NGIS [Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, formerly Orbital ATK] was the only NextSTEP-2 contractor with a module design and the production and tooling resources capable of meeting the 2024 deadline,” NASA said.

For that reason, NASA is going with a sole-source process to award the contract for the habitation module, short-circuiting the full and open NextSTEP-2 Appendix A competition. As long as Northrop Grumman submits an acceptable proposal with a price tag that’s “fair and reasonable,” NASA will give its go-ahead.

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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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