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Universe Today

Rival billionaires both play roles in MethaneSAT

Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are usually rivals on the final frontier, but they both have a role to play in MethaneSAT, a privately backed satellite mission aimed at monitoring methane emissions.

Last November, the Bezos Earth Fund made a $100 million grant to the Environmental Defense Fund to support the satellite’s completion and launch. That grant was part of a $791 million round that Bezos said was “just the beginning of my $10 billion commitment” to address challenges brought on by climate change.

Now MethaneSAT LLC — a subsidiary of Environmental Defense Fund — is announcing that it’s signed a contract with Musk’s SpaceX to send the satellite into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket by as early as October 2022.

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SpaceX’s Starship flight ends with a bang — and bravos

SpaceX put its Starship super-rocket through its first high-altitude test today — and although the flight ended in a fiery crash, the performance was impressive enough to draw congratulations from Jeff Bezos, who’s locked in a multibillion-dollar rivalry with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

“Anybody who knows how hard this stuff is is impressed by today’s Starship test,” Bezos, who’s the CEO of Amazon and the founder of the Blue Origin space venture, said in an Instagram post. “Big congrats to the whole SpaceX team. I’m confident they’ll be back at it soon.”

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SpaceX wins $885M for Starlink rural broadband

SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network — which relies on hundreds of spacecraft built in Redmond, Wash. — has been awarded $885.5 million in federal subsidies to boost high-speed internet service to rural Americans.

The awards are part of a $9.2 billion allocation made under the terms of the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction.

In all, 180 bidders won subsidies that are to be paid out over the next 10 years. Only one other satellite broadband provider is on the FCC list: Hughes Network Systems, which will receive $1.3 million to serve rural sites in Rhode Island.

The FCC said the RDOF program will provide $222.8 million to support broadband service to rural communities in Washington state. SpaceX is due to get the biggest share of those subsidies, amounting to $80.4 million. Washington also leads the state-by-state list for SpaceX subsidies.

More than 5.2 million homes and businesses are expected to benefit from the program, in which funds were allocated through a reverse auction.

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Cosmic Space

Dragon’s crew hooks up with space station

After a 27-hour trip, three Americans and a Japanese spaceflier arrived at the International Space Station tonight for the first regular six-month tour of duty facilitated by a commercial space taxi.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which was christened Resilience, handled the docking autonomously. “Excellent job, right down the center,” NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins radioed down to ground controllers at SpaceX’s California headquarters.

“All for one, Crew-1 for all,” Japan’s Soichi Noguchi declared.

The Dragon’s four crew members floated through the hatch a couple of hours later. As he brought up the rear, Noguchi carried a Baby Yoda toy mascot, which served as the Dragon’s zero-G indicator for the Nov. 16 launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Hopkins, Noguchi and their crewmates — NASA astronauts Shannon Walker and Victor Glover — were greeted with smiles and hugs by the three spacefliers on the other side of the hatch: NASA’s Kate Rubins and Russia’s Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov.

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX kicks off its first certified crew flight to orbit

This is not a test: For the first time, a commercial space venture has sent astronauts on their way to the International Space Station for a regularly scheduled crew rotation.

Today’s launch of three Americans and a Japanese spaceflier in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, powered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, followed the pattern set in May for the company’s first-ever crewed space mission. Like that earlier journey, this one is being funded by NASA at an estimated price of $55 million per seat.

But unlike May’s outing, this mission isn’t considered a test flight. Instead, it’s the first crewed SpaceX launch to be conducted under the terms of a post-certification contract with NASA. SpaceX’s space transportation system was officially certified for regular flights with astronauts last week — just in time for the flight known as Crew-1.

It’s also the first crewed orbital launch to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial spaceflight. “This is a big night for many of us, and it’s a big night for the FAA,” the agency’s administrator, Steve Dickson, said at a post-launch briefing.

In response to issues that arose during the crewed test flight, SpaceX beefed up the Dragon’s heat shield and fine-tuned the triggering system for the parachutes used for the spacecraft’s at-sea homecoming.

The first opportunity for launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on Nov. 14, had to be put off for a day due to weather concerns — and when today’s countdown began, the chances of acceptable weather were rated at 50-50. But the weather improved, a glitch involving a hatch leak was quickly resolved, and the Falcon 9 rose from its launch pad into the night at 7:27 p.m. ET (4:27 p.m. PT.)

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, thousands watched the launch in person from Florida’s Space Coast. Hundreds of thousands watched streaming video coverage via NASA and SpaceX. Live coverage is scheduled to continue during the Dragon’s cruise to the space station.

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Microsoft teams up with SpaceX for cloud computing

Microsoft says it’s taking the next giant leap in cloud computing, in partnership with SpaceX and its Starlink broadband satellite constellation.

“By partnering with leaders in the space community, we will extend the utility of our Azure capabilities with worldwide satellite connectivity, unblock cloud computing in more scenarios and empower our partners and customers to achieve more,” Tom Keane, corporate vice president for Microsoft Azure Global, said in a blog post.

The partnership with SpaceX is just one of the big revelations in today’s unveiling of Microsoft’s Azure Space cloud computing platform.

Microsoft also took the wraps off the Azure Modular Datacenter, or MDC, a mobile, containerized data hub that contains its own networking equipment and is capable of connecting to the cloud via terrestrial fiber, wireless networks or satellite links.

“If you choose, you can run this device completely disconnected from the rest of the world,” Bill Karagounis, general manager for Azure Global Industry Sovereign Solutions, said in a video describing the data center.

Today’s announcement builds on Microsoft’s earlier rollout of Azure Orbital, a satellite data processing platform that provides ground-station communications as a service. Azure Orbital, which is currently available in private preview, will become part of the wider Azure Space ecosystem.

The developments put Microsoft in the forefront of space-based cloud computing, alongside Amazon Web Services and its recently formed Aerospace and Satellite Solutions business unit. They’re also likely to turn cloud computing into yet another battleground for the multibillion-dollar rivalry between SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who founded the Blue Origin space venture.

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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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NASA astronauts splash down in SpaceX Dragon capsule

The first mission to send NASA astronauts into orbit on a commercially owned spaceship came back down to Earth today with the splashdown of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.

“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” Mike Heiman, a lead member of SpaceX’s operations team, told astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

The splashdown closed out a 64-day mission to the International Space Station, aimed at testing the first SpaceX Dragon to carry crew. The reusable spacecraft, which put 27.1 million miles on its orbital odometer, was dubbed Endeavour as a tribute to earlier spaceships.

In May, Endeavour’s launch atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket made history, and today’s return to Earth did as well: It was the first time since 1975 that a crewed NASA spacecraft returned to Earth at sea, and the first-ever space landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

The splashdown marked the completion of the first mission to launch astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since NASA’s final space shuttle flight in 2011.

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Astronauts dodge hurricane for Dragon homecoming

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule pulled away from the International Space Station today to begin the homeward flight for NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, even as Hurricane Isaias headed for Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Fortunately, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is heading for waters off Florida’s other coast.

Dragon Endeavour undocked from the station at 7:35 p.m. ET (4:35 p.m. PT), on track for a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Fla., at 2:48 p.m. ET (11:48 a.m. PT) Sunday. The alternate landing site is closer to Panama City, Fla.

Both sites should be far away from Isaias’ expected track along the United States’ Atlantic seaboard, and the timetable could be adjusted if the weather forecast changes. NASA and SpaceX had made plans for seven potential splashdown targets, but due to Isaias’ strength, NASA concentrated on the westernmost sites.

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