SpaceX leads in launch competition, by default

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the DSCOVR satellite in February. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is poised to win an Air Force national security launch contract by default because its archrival, United Launch Alliance, has dropped out of the competition.

ULA said this week that it decided not to bid on the Air Force contract for launching a GPS-3 satellite in 2018, leaving SpaceX as the sole bidder. The contract was the first of its kind to come up since the Air Force certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch national security payloads.

Reuters quoted ULA’s chief executive officer, Tory Bruno, as saying that the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture couldn’t submit a compliant bid because of a federally mandated ban on the use of Russian-built RD-180 engines for national security launches. ULA uses the RD-180s on the first stage of its Atlas 5 rocket, which has traditionally been used for such launches. A defense authorization bill currently under consideration in Congress includes a provision that would give ULA access to four more of the engines, but that bill has not yet been signed into law.

Bruno also told Reuters that the criteria for bid selection don’t give ULA enough credit for its record of reliability and schedule certainty, and that the accounting procedures for separating the funds for GPS-3 from other government contracts were too onerous.

Monday was the deadline for submitting a bid for the GPS-3 launch. SpaceX declined to comment on the prospects for the contract, which is thought to be worth in the neighborhood of $70 million to $80 million.

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Stratolaunch project’s fate is up in the air

Stratolaunch landing
An artist’s conception shows the Stratolaunch jet landing. (Credit: Vulcan Aerospace)

The world’s largest airplane is taking shape for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace venture, but it’s not yet clear what kind of rocket would be launched from the Stratolaunch super-jumbo jet.

The uncertainties reflect transitions taking place at Vulcan Aerospace as well as in the launch industry. Last month, the venture’s president, Chuck Beames, said he was still in the midst of defining where Stratolaunch fit in the context of Vulcan’s wider “NextSpace” vision. Meanwhile, there’s been a switch in the CEO spot for the Stratolaunch Systems subsidiary, from Gary Wentz to Jean Floyd.

The past few months also have been marked by rapid shifts in the satellite launch industry – particularly for small to medium-size satellites, which are supposed to be in the sweet spot for Stratolaunch’s air-launch system. The Wall Street Journal quotes unnamed aerospace industry officials as saying those shifts could threaten the project’s overall viability.

In a statement emailed to GeekWire, Vulcan Aerospace said the Journal’s report was “inaccurate” and “based on nothing more than rumors and speculation, not facts.” The statement went on to sketch out Vulcan’s vision of transforming space transportation to low Earth orbit by changing the current model for launching payloads into space.

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Blue Origin plans research spaceflights in 2016

Image: New Shepard launch
Blue Origin’s prototype suborbital spaceship rises from its launch pad in April. (Blue Origin photo)

Blue Origin, the space venture backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is reportedly planning to start flying research payloads on its New Shepard suborbital space vehicle as early as the first half of 2016.

“We’re aiming for the second quarter of next year,” Space News quoted Erika Wagner, business development manager for Blue Origin, as saying on Tuesday at a workshop in Washington, D.C. The workshop on microgravity research was organized by NanoRacks, a Houston-based company that’s partnering with Blue Origin to fly scientific experiments on New Shepard.

Blue Origin, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., has been putting New Shepard through a series of uncrewed flight tests at the company’s West Texas launch facility. The most recent test took place in April. The rocket-powered vehicle rose to a height of 307,000 feet – and although the propulsion module couldn’t be recovered as hoped, due to a hydraulic problem, the crew capsule made a flawless parachute landing.

“Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return,” Bezos said at the time.

Blue Origin says the next test flight could take place by the end of the year.

Like the test flights, the research flights would be launched without a crew. Instead, standard-size payload lockers would be loaded aboard New Shepard, sent up on a flight rising above 100 kilometers (62 miles) that would involve about three minutes of weightlessness, and then be recovered after landing.

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Mystery object’s breakup caught on video

Scientists flying on an instrument-laden jet captured great video views of a mysterious space object known as WT1190F as it streaked through the air and burned up over the Indian Ocean today.

The pictures were put on the Web just hours after the object, which is thought to have been debris from a rocket or spacecraft, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 06:18 GMT Friday (10:18 p.m. PT Thursday).

WT1190F was discovered by astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey just last month, but an analysis of archived telescope data revealed that the object had been tracing a highly elliptical Earth orbit for years, ranging up to twice as far away as the moon.

The analysis also showed that the object was relatively lightweight, and measured about 6 feet (2 meters) in length. That’s what led experts on orbital debris to conclude that it was a piece of space junk.

There are thousands of bits of space junk orbiting our planet, but what’s remarkable about WT1190F is that its atmospheric re-entry could be calculated so precisely in advance. The pictures and data captured from a Gulfstream jet flying out of Abu Dhabi provides the evidence that scientists nailed it.

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Mystery space object heads for Indian Ocean

Image: Hayabusa re-entry
An image taken from a NASA DC-8 airplane shows the re-entry of Japan’s Hayabusa spacecraft in 2010. WT1190F’s re-entry will be less spectacular because it’s due to occur at midday local time. (Credit: Jesse Carpenter / Greg Merkes / NASA Ames file)

Is it a spent Apollo rocket stage from the ’60s? A scary space rock? Whatever it is, the mysterious object known as WT1190F is zooming in from deep space – and it’s expected to go out in a blaze of glory tonight.

The big question is whether anyone will see that blaze. Experts on orbital debris estimate that WT1190F is a low-density, possibly hollow object measuring just 6 feet (2 meters long). Astronomers with the Catalina Sky Survey first observed the object in October. When they looked back at archived telescope data, they figured out that it’s been tracing a highly eccentric orbit around Earth that swings out beyond the moon’s orbit.

The European Space Agency says the best match for an object with those characteristics is a “discarded rocket body.” Other observers suggest it could be debris cast off by a moon mission, perhaps going back to the Apollo era. No wonder the thing has been nicknamed “WTF.”

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Legislation sets up space property rights

Image: Asteroid mining
An artist’s conception shows an asteroid being mined by robots. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

After months of consideration, Congress is finishing up work on legislation that establishes legal rights for U.S. citizens to own resources in outer space – a key requirement for asteroid mining ventures like Planetary Resources.

“Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multiplanetary species,” Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of the Redmond-based company, said today in a statement. “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space.”

The legislation also extends the regulatory “learning period” for commercial spaceflight ventures through 2023, confirms that the International Space Station should stay in operation through 2024, and extends indemnification of commercial launches through 2025.

The Senate and House passed different versions of the legislation, known as H.R. 2262 and S. 1297, earlier this year – but it took until today for the Senate to pass an amendment that incorporates provisions agreed upon by both houses of Congress. The measure was sent back to the House for final passage, and if the legislation is approved as expected, it will be sent onward to the White House for President Barack Obama to sign into law.

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Solar system’s most distant world detected

Image: Kuiper Belt object
An artist’s conception shows an object in the distant Kuiper Belt. The newly reported object is beyond the Kuiper Belt, in a region known as the inner Oort Cloud. (Credit: G. Bacon / STScI / NASA)

Astronomers say they’ve identified the most distant celestial object in our solar system – a speck of light more than three times farther out than Pluto, called V774104.

The object is smaller than Pluto or Eris, which rank as the largest known worlds beyond Neptune with diameters of a little less than 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers). V774104’s brightness suggests that it’s just 300 to 600 miles (500 to 1,000 kilometers) wide. But based on a limited number of observations by the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, astronomers estimate its distance at more than 9.5 billion miles, or 103 times the distance between the sun and Earth.

The sun-Earth distance, known as an astronomical unit or AU, provides the best measuring stick for distant objects in the solar system. Pluto is currently 33 AU from the sun, and Eris’ distance is 96 AU. V774104 is farther out, in a twilight zone that’s between the belt of icy material called the Kuiper Belt and a halo of comets called the Oort Cloud.

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Pluto probe sees evidence of ice volcanoes

Image: Piccard Mons
A color-coded topographical map, based on New Horizons data, shows Piccard Mons on the surface of Pluto. The mountain’s structure suggests that it’s an ice volcano. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Scientists with NASA’s New Horizons mission say that at least a couple of the miles-high mountains on Pluto look as if they’re ice-belching volcanoes, providing further evidence that the dwarf planet is geologically active.

Although the case for cryovolcanoes isn’t yet rock-solid, it’s the “least weird explanation” for the observations of 2-mile-high Wright Mons and 3-5-mile-high Piccard Mons, said Oliver White of NASA’s Ames Research Center, a member of the mission’s geology team.

If the mountains’ status is confirmed, “that would be one of the most phenomenal discoveries of New Horizons,” White told reporters. “Whatever they are, they’re definitely weird.”

Image: Wright Mons
Like Piccard Mons, Wright Mons has a summit depression that suggests it’s an ice volcano on Pluto. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

Pluto’s potential status as a volcanic world was just one of the revelations that came to light on Monday during a review of New Horizons’ latest discoveries at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in National Harbor, Md.

“The New Horizons mission has taken what we thought we knew about Pluto and turned it upside down,” Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release about the findings.

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Missile launch sparks UFO freakout in L.A.

Image: Light in sky
A missile launch lit up the skies at around 6 p.m. PT Saturday. (Credit: Julien Solomita via YouTube)

An unannounced Trident missile launch lit up the skies over Los Angeles on Saturday night, setting off a hail of UFO reports, tense tweets and YouTube videos.

After the flare-up, the U.S. Navy confirmed that the USS Kentucky, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine that’s homeported at the Bangor submarine base on the Kitsap Peninsula, conducted a “scheduled, on-going system evaluation test” in the Navy’s Pacific Test Range off the coast of Southern California. The missile was not armed, the Navy said in its statement.

It’s typical for the Navy to refrain from announcing Trident test launches in advance, but it’s definitely not typical for the launch to be witnessed by millions of people in one of the nation’s most populous regions.

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No alien signals heard from anomalous star

Image: Allen Telescope Array
The Allen Telescope Array looks for alien radio signals. (Credit: Seth Shostak / SETI Institute)

The SETI Institute says it hasn’t detected any alien radio signals coming from a star whose light seems to be dimming in a weird way, but it’s too early to determine what kind of phenomenon is behind the pattern.

The star, which is known as KIC 8462852 and lies about 1,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus, has been the focus of otherworldly buzz for the past month due to anomalous observations gathered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. Kepler’s data suggested that the star goes dramatically dim on an irregular schedule, at intervals ranging from five to 80 days.

Astronomers said the best natural explanation for the effect appeared to be a swarm of comets that just happened to be passing across the star’s disk when Kepler was looking. But one research team, led by Penn State astronomer Jason Wright, speculated that the effect could be caused by an alien megastructure that was being built around the star.

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