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Space Force awards $87.5 million for rocket development

The U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command today announced awards totaling $87.5 million to support prototype commercial projects relating to next-generation rocket testing and enhancements to make upper stages more resilient.

The awards were made under the aegis of the National Security Space Launch program using the Space Development Corps’ Space Enterprise Consortium, which facilitates engagement involving the Pentagon space community, industry and academia.

The awards include:

  • $24.35 million to Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture for cryogenic fluid management on the New Glenn rocket’s second stage.
  • $24.35 million to Rocket Lab to develop the Neutron rocket’s upper stage.
  • $14.47 million to SpaceX for rapid throttling and restart testing of the Raptor rocket engine, which is destined for use on SpaceX’s Starship rocket, liquid methane specification development and testing; and combustion stability analysis and testing.
  • $24.35 million to United Launch Alliance for uplink command and control for the Centaur V upper stage, which will be used with ULA’s Vulcan rocket.
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Cloud computing speeds up Pentagon’s satellite data flow

How will Pentagon planners cope with the torrents of data that are expected to rain down from a constellation of satellites monitoring hotspots from low Earth orbit?

Microsoft and Ball Aerospace say they’ve demonstrated that the cloud can handle it — and not just handle it, but process multiple streams of satellite data five times faster than the Pentagon’s target speed.

The demonstration of a prototype system was conducted this year for the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit in support of the Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations Program Office, or CASINO, which is under the aegis of the U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

For the purposes of the test, Telesat provided access to its satellite network in low Earth orbit. Ball Aerospace provided the event-driven architecture for dealing with the data beamed down from space. And Microsoft Azure provided the cloud-computing firepower for processing the data and pulling out insights.

Telesat’s satellite sent down as many as 20 separate streams of simulated Overhead Persistent Infrared sensor readings, also known as OPIR. Such data streams could be crucial for detecting and countering missile threats — but processing the flood of data is no easy task.

“What this prototype did was prove out that low Earth orbit is a viable capability for the Space Force, working with the cloud. Against the program goals that the DIU set, the ground processing with space data is about five times faster with the Azure cloud,” Tom Keane, corporate vice president for Azure Global, told GeekWire.

“We think it’s a pretty big deal,” Keane said.

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SpaceX sticks with lawsuit over launch competition

Update: A federal district judge in California ruled against SpaceX and ordered its case against the Air Force to be vacated. The order was issued under seal on Sept. 24, but an Oct. 2 filing indicated that the court decided in the Air Force’s favor on all of SpaceX’s claims.

Previously: In August, SpaceX said it would 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 the August 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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SpaceX launches GPS III satellite for Space Force

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the third in a series of next-generation GPS III satellites into orbit today, marking another step forward for America’s satellite-based navigation system and the Space Force that manages it.

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X-37 space plane begins shadowy orbital mission

A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket launched a Boeing-built X-37B space plane today on a semi-secret orbital mission under the management of the recently created Space Force.

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Space Force X-37B mission to test power beaming

X-37B space plane
The Pentagon’s X-37B space plane is encapsulated within the payload fairing of its Atlas 5 launch vehicle. (Boeing Photo)

When a Boeing-built X-37B space plane is sent into orbit this month for the test program’s sixth flight, it will try out a technology that’s been more than a decade in the making: space-based solar power.

An experiment designed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will transform solar power into a microwave beam, potentially for transmission to the ground. If such a power-beaming system could be perfected, concentrated microwave energy from space could conceivably be converted to electricity for far-flung military outposts.

Back in 2007, the Pentagon issued a report saying the U.S. military could be an “anchor tenant customer” for space-based power generation systems. That report piggybacked on a NASA study that was written a decade earlier, assessing the feasibility of wireless power transmission from space.

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Space Force’s first official orbital mission begins

AEHF-6 launch
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket launches the AEHF-6 military communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (ULA via YouTube)

The first satellite mission conducted under the name of the U.S. Space Force got underway today with the launch of the AEHF-6 military communications satellite atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

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Space Force’s new seal sparks Star Trek snark

We don’t know whether Mr. Spock would have cocked an eyebrow over the Starfleet-like U.S. Space Force seal that was revealed by President Donald Trump today, but we’ve found out what Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu would do.

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Space Force flies through flak over earthy uniforms

Space Force uniform
The U.S. Space Force puts its own nametape on what looks like a standard-issue woodland camouflage uniform. (U.S. Space Force Photo via Twitter)

The newly minted U.S. Space Force unveiled its uniform on Jan. 17 — and defended its fashion statement against Twitter criticism that the camouflage color scheme should have been more spacey.

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