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Military / National Security News

What's Happening in Space Policy July 13-18, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jul-2014 (Updated: 14-Jul-2014 09:49 AM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the upcoming week, July 13-18, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

Hopefully this week will get off to a roaring start -- literally -- with the launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Orb-2 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  Delayed a number of times, as of mid-afternoon today (Saturday) Orbital's Antares rocket is scheduled to lift off from Wallops Island, VA at 12:52 pm ET tomorrow (Sunday, July 13) sending the Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS.  If the launch does, in fact, take place tomorrow, Cygnus should arrive at the ISS on Wednesday.  Follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline for up to date information on the launch.

The Senate Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2015 defense appropriations bill this week (subcommittee markup is on Tuesday, full committee on Thursday).  One of the more interesting space policy-related issues will be whether it allocates any funding for the Air Force to begin a program to develop an alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.  The House version of the bill adds $220 million to do so even though the White House opposes the addition because it is "premature."   The Senate Armed Services Committee recommended $100 million in FY2015 in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, but that bill has not passed the Senate yet.

U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines is among the topics to be explored at a joint hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  The hearing on Options for Assuring Domestic Access to Space features witnesses from DOD, NASA, GAO and RAND, as well as the chair (retired AF Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell) of a recent Air Force review of alternatives to the RD-180 and the very recently retired head of NASA's Space Launch System and Orion programs (Dan Dumbacher).  It's somewhat interesting that NASA will be represented by Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot instead of Administrator Charlie Bolden, who would be closer in rank to the other agency witnesses:  Gen. William Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command, and Alan Estevez, Principle Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.  Lightfoot, however, is a former director of NASA's rocket-building Marshall Space Flight Center so knows rockets inside and out.

Lots of other interesting events coming up this week.  The full list of events that we know of as of Saturday afternoon is shown below.

Sunday, July 13

Monday, July 14

Tuesday, July 15

Wednesday, July 16

Thursday, July 17

Thursday-Friday, July 17-18

SpaceX One Step Closer to AF EELV Contracts & Gets FAA OK for Texas Launch Site

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2014 (Updated: 11-Jul-2014 10:50 PM)

SpaceX announced today (July 11) that the Air Force has certified that the company's Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket has successfully completed three flights.  That is one of the steps required before SpaceX can be awarded contracts from the Air Force for launches within the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.  Separately, on Wednesday it received approval from the FAA to conduct launches from a new launch site it plans to build in Texas.

The Air Force decision comes at a time when the SpaceX-Air Force relationship is rather strained.  The company is suing the Air Force because it awarded a block-buy contract to United Launch Alliance (ULA) last year for 36 EELV cores on a sole-source basis rather than allowing SpaceX to compete.  The Air Force and the Justice Department filed a motion last week asking the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to dismiss the suit.

Today's brief announcement by SpaceX is carefully worded to say that the Air Force certified that the Falcon 9 system successfully completed three flights, not that the company has been certified to win EELV contracts.   While asserting that it is "already qualified to compete for EELV missions," SpaceX said today it "must also be certified by the Air Force before any contract can be awarded..."   The statement concludes by saying that it expects to satisfy the remaining requirements by the end of this year.

SpaceX and the Air Force signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) in June 2013 that details the requirements SpaceX must meet to win contracts for EELV-class launches of national security satellites.  They include an evaluation of the Falcon 9's flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management, and launch facilities.  Achieving three successful flights of a common configuration of the Falcon 9 is part of that evaluation.

In February 2014, the Air Force certified the first successful flight under the CRADA.  That launch, of a Canadian science satellite and five smaller satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, took place on September 29, 2013 and was the first of the Falcon 9 v1.1.  The other two flights, on December 3, 2013 and January 6, 2014, now also have been certified as successful.  Both of those were from Cape Canaveral and launched commercial communications satellites for SES and Thailand, respectively.

Separately, on July 9 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved SpaceX's plans to conduct launches from a new launch site the company plans to build south of Brownsville, TX.  The Record of Decision provides FAA's final environmental determination and approval to support issuing launch licenses and/or experimental permits to launch the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy (still in development) "and a variety of reusable suborbital vehicles" from 68.9 acres adjacent to the village of Boca Chica.  The location is in Cameron County, TX, and is approximately 3 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border.  The approval is for up to 12 "commercial launch operations" per year.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is getting ready for another attempt to launch six Orbcomm second generation (OG2) communications satellites on Monday, July 14.  That launch has been delayed several times for a variety of technical or weather-related reasons.

Senate Armed Services and Commerce Committees to Hold Joint Hearing on Launch Industry

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Jul-2014 (Updated: 09-Jul-2014 05:29 PM)

Two Senate committees will hold a joint hearing next week on the status of the U.S. launch industry.  "Options for Assuring Domestic Space Access" will feature witnesses from DOD, NASA, RAND and GAO, as well as the chairman of a recent Air Force study on alternatives to Russia's RD-180 rocket engine and the very recently retired head of NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs.

The hearing on July 16 will be co-chaired by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the Science and Space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), chairman of the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Many U.S. space launches take place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the adjacent NASA Kennedy Space Center on the Florida coast.  Colorado has the nation's third largest aerospace economy.  It is home not only to a large number of aerospace companies, such as United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) headquarters, but also to military users of space systems, including Air Force Space Command.

The three government witnesses on the first panel are the head of acquisition for DOD, Alan Estevez; the commander of Air Force Space Command, Gen. William Shelton; and NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot.  Lightfoot is the former director of NASA's rocket-building Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. 

Questions that are likely to arise include the Air Force's long term procurement plan for launch vehicles and how "new entrants" like SpaceX are -- or are not -- being accommodated.   SpaceX is trying to get certified to bid for Air Force launch contracts and in the meantime filed a lawsuit against the Air Force because it gave United Launch Alliance (ULA) a sole source contract last year instead of allowing SpaceX to bid on it.  That matter is before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims so it is not clear how far Estevez or Shelton can go in discussing it, but the topic is almost certain to come up.   The Justice Department and the Air Force recently filed a motion with the Court to dismiss the lawsuit.

That contract is for ULA's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), Atlas 5 and Delta IV.  They are also used for NASA and NOAA satellites, so NASA's requirements are also an important part of the calculus, especially since two of the three companies it is funding in the commercial crew program (Boeing and Sierra Nevada) plan to use the Atlas V to launch their crew spacecraft (CST-100 and Dream Chaser, respectively).

NASA itself is developing a new launch vehicle, SLS, much more capable than the EELVs.  Whether DOD has any use for that type of capability may also be of interest to the committees.  SLS is being designed to take people beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  The initial version will be able to take 70 tons to LEO, more than twice the capability of the biggest EELV (Delta IV Heavy), and a future version will be able to launch 130 tons to LEO.  At the moment NASA is the only customer, which means a very low flight rate and high costs per flight.

As critical as the SpaceX and SLS issues are, perhaps of greatest interest is U.S. reliance on Russia's RD-180 engines for the Atlas V rocket.   With the deteriorating geopolitical situation between the Untied States and Russia, the House recently voted to allocate $220 million in the FY2015 defense appropriations bill to begin a rocket engine development program to replace the RD-180.   The Senate appropriations defense subcommittee is scheduled to markup its defense bill the day before this hearing, and the full committee may be debating it at the very same time.  The White House opposed the addition of the money in the House bill as premature.

In any case, Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell (Ret.), now with the Aerospace Corporation, is one of four witnesses on the second panel.  He just chaired a study on RD-180 alternatives for the Air Force that concluded there are few good options in the near term.   He will be joined by Dan Dumbacher who retired from NASA on July 1 and is now at Purdue University.  His last assignment at NASA was as Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development -- the person in charge of the SLS program and the Orion crew spacecraft it will launch.  Also on that panel are Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) who has extensive experience in auditing and analyzing DOD acquisition of space systems for GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, and Yool Kim of the RAND Corporation.  Kim was one of the authors of a 2008 RAND study on improving cost estimation for space systems.

The hearing is at 9:30 am ET in room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building.  

U.S. Government Seeks Dismissal of SpaceX Suit

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Jul-2014 (Updated: 03-Jul-2014 11:31 PM)

The U.S Government responded yesterday to the lawsuit filed by SpaceX against the Air Force and the United Launch Alliance (ULA).   Lawyers for the Justice Department and the Air Force requested that the U.S. Court of Federal Claims dismiss the lawsuit because SpaceX does not have "standing" to file such a protest.

SpaceX filed suit in April arguing that the Air Force should not have awarded a sole-source contract to ULA in December 2013 for 36 rocket cores for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, but instead have opened the contract for bid.  ULA builds and launches the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets, which are used primarily for launching national security satellites, but also spacecraft for NASA and NOAA.

The legal arguments are complex, but the bottom line of the government's "Motion to Dismiss" seems to be that SpaceX does not have standing to file a protest because, in legal terms, it is not an interested party and does not have a direct economic interest.

Citing case law to support its arguments, the government asserts that companies cannot successfully argue after the fact that they could have competed for a contract and won if they were not a qualified bidder when the contract was open and did not indicate at the time that they intended to bid.  In this case, SpaceX had not completed its certification flights at the time the request for proposals was issued in 2012 or when the contract was awarded in 2013.  it completed its third certification flight only in 2014 and is still in the process of being certified by the Air Force to bid for launch service contracts.  The government stresses that SpaceX did not file any complaints while the contracting process was underway in 2012-2013 even though it had opportunities and access to the necessary documentation to do so.

The government argues that SpaceX must show both that is an interested party and that it has a direct economic interest in order to have standing to file a protest. 

To be an interested party, SpaceX would have to be either an actual or prospective bidder.  To be an actual or prospective bidder, it would have had to have notified the government that it wanted to compete by submitting a statement of capability before the deadline, which it did not.  The government cites SpaceX's own legal filing in this case as saying that it "could be a bidder for future contracts," not for past contracts.

The government also argues that SpaceX did not have a "direct economic interest" because to "prove a direct economic interest, a party must show that it had a 'substantial chance' of winning the [challenged] contract."   Since SpaceX did not submit a statement of capability, it could not have had a substantial chance of winning the contract, therefore does not have a direct economic interest, and consequently does not have standing.

In short, the government contends, SpaceX "failed to submit a capability statement in response to the March 2012 solicitation. ... Nor ... did it indicate any dissatisfaction with the Air Force's intent to procure the launches sole-source" from ULA, and "took no steps to get involved in the procurement at the time the agency was planning its course.  It is too late for SpaceX to try to bring a challenge to that procurement now." 

The government makes a series of other arguments as well, all leading to a request that the court dismiss the case.  (It is somewhat more complicated than that because the government complains that the SpaceX lawsuit is "amorphous" in that it protests any sole-source EELV award, not just the one issued in December 2013.  The government asks the court to narrow the scope of the proceeding to the December 2013 contract, FA8811-13-C-0003, and therefore its filing is a Motion to Dismiss "portions" of the SpaceX lawsuit.)

Michael Listner, founder and principal at Space Law & Policy Solutions in New Hampshire, analyzed the government's Motion to Dismiss in a series of tweets (@ponder68) today and concluded it is "substantive, focused and confident."  While SpaceX may object, "they will have a difficult time overcoming this Motion," he predicts.

For more coverage of this issue, see these previous articles:

What's Happening in Space Policy June 30 - July 18, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jun-2014 (Updated: 02-Jul-2014 03:18 PM)

This edition of "What's Happening in Space Policy" covers THREE weeks rather than one since so many people -- including Congress -- are on vacation this coming week as the United States celebrates the July 4th (Independence Day) holiday and future activities have not yet been announced.   Here is our list of events June 30 - July 18, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is scheduled to return for legislative business on July 7 and the House on July 8.

During the Weeks

There could be some particularly interesting launches in the next three weeks -- or not.    

Russia's launch of its new Angara rocket was postponed in the final minutes of countdown on June 27.   As of today (June 29), Russian government and news sources have been silent about what caused the abort or when a new attempt will take place.  Angara is a family of launch vehicles that has been under development for about the past 20 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The new vehicles of various capabilities are intended to replace many of the Soviet-era rockets.  This suborbital test flight is of the smallest version and carries a dummy payload.

Here in the United States, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket also experienced an anomaly during countdown on June 22. It was the latest delay in the launch of six next-generation communications satellites for Orbcomm.  Like the Russians, SpaceX was not very forthcoming about what the problem was or how long it would take to fix.  SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a radio interview on The Space Show this past week, however, that the problem involves the first stage thrust vector control actuator and launch probably will not take place until at least July 14.  That information is not posted on SpaceX's website, however.

Also uncertain is when Orbital Sciences will conduct the next cargo run to the International Space Station (ISS), Orb-2. Orbital is investigating the failure of an AJ-26 rocket engine during a May 22 test at Stennis Space Center before deciding whether to clear the Antares rocket designated to take a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS.  The engine that failed is for a launch in 2015, but the company needs to determine whether the problem affects more than that one engine.  The "no earlier than" launch date for Orb-2 at the moment is July 10.  The launch was originally scheduled for May and initially delayed because a SpaceX cargo flight to ISS was postponed, but the May 22 engine test failure led to several additional delays. 

One U.S. launch that is on schedule, as of today at least, is NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2).  Launch is scheduled for very early in the morning of July 1 (2:56 am Pacific time, 5:56 am Eastern).  OCO-2 is a replacement for the original OCO, which was lost in a launch failure in 2009.

What's on tap in Congress when it returns is up in the air.  The House is passing appropriations bills, but the process in the Senate remains stuck.  Whether any agreement will be reached to allow progress once the Senate returns on July 7 remains to be seen.   The new fiscal year begins on October 1, which may seem a long time away, but Congress will be in recess all of August, so there are few legislative days available to get work done. 

In short, the space business and the space policy business is in an uncertain period.  Keep checking back here for updates!  

Sunday, June 29

Tuesday, July 1

  • OCO-2 launch, Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, 2:56 am PDT (5:56 am EDT), watch on NASA TV.  A post-launch press conference will take place approximately 2 1/2 hours after launch.

Thursday, July 10

Wednesday, July 16

Thursday, July 17

Thursday-Friday, July 17-18

SpaceX Seeks To Amend Lawsuit Against Air Force Based on McCain Letter

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jun-2014 (Updated: 26-Jun-2014 07:09 PM)

SpaceX is asking permission to amend its lawsuit against the Air Force for awarding a block-buy contract to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) in light of statements made in a letter from Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to the head of the defense department's acquisition office.

McCain sent a letter to Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics on June 20 asking about the price the Air Force pays for Russian RD-180 engines that are used in ULA's Atlas V rocket.  McCain said that he is "aware of claims that the engines have been sold by NPO Energomash to RD Amross at a much lower price than RD Amross charges ULA for them."   He asked nine detailed questions about RD-Amross including pricing data between Energomash and RD Amross, between RD Amross and ULA, and between ULA and the Air Force.  Energomash manufactures the RD-180 engines.  RD-Amross is a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies that supplies the engines to ULA.

In its proposed amendment to the lawsuit it filed in April, SpaceX asserts that it learned from McCain's letter that there are questions about the prices the Air Force pays for RD-180s and whether ULA met the requirement to provide certified cost and pricing information as part of its bid for the contract, which was awarded in 2013.   SpaceX is suing the Air Force because it was a sole-source award, rather than allowing competition. 

"Based on Senator McCain's letter, it appears that ULA failed to provide certified cost and pricing data for the RD-180 engines and/or the Air Force failed to rationally assess whether it was paying a fair and reasonable price for those engines," the SpaceX amendment states.  If ULA had provided that data,  the Air Force "would have been forced to confront the fact that at least one of its suppliers is fleecing the United States taxpayer."

SpaceX wants to be able to compete for national security space launches.  The Air Force requires potential launch providers -- "new entrants" -- to proceed through a certification process.  SpaceX is still in that process.  ULA therefore insists that SpaceX was not, and is not, certified to compete for the contract that was awarded last year.

SpaceX filed the lawsuit in the U.S Court of Federal Claims.  Yesterday's filing asks the Court to allow it to amend the filing even though certain deadlines have passed because it only became aware that ULA may not have fulfilled the requirement for providing certified cost and pricing data due to McCain's letter.

What's Happening in Space Policy June 23-27, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Jun-2014 (Updated: 22-Jun-2014 04:46 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events coming up in the next week, June 23-27, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

The House has S. 1681, the Senate-passed version of the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, on the suspension calendar for this week.  The Senate Intelligence Committee confidently predicted that the House would accept its version of the bill and that is looking likely.  Bills considered under suspension of the rules typically are non-controversial and the sponsors expect to achieve a two-thirds aye vote easily.  The Senate bill differs in many ways from the House version.  For example, it is only for FY2014 while the House-passed bill was for FY2014 and FY2015.   If the Senate bill is enacted, it gives Congress another opportunity to weigh in on intelligence issues legislatively in FY2015, which begins October 1.  The Senate bill also requires Senate confirmation of the Director and Inspector General of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which designs, builds and operates the nation's signals and imagery reconnaissance satellites (the bill also requires Senate confirmation of the Director and Inspector General of the National Security Agency).   No  other space-related bills are on the House agenda as of today (Sunday) and the Senate has only consideration of various nominations on its public schedule.  The fate of the appropriations bills that include NASA, NOAA, and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation remains in limbo in the Senate.

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold a hearing on the National Research Council's (NRC's) new report on the future of human space exploration on Wednesday. The co-chairs of the NRC committee, Mitch Daniels and Jonathan Lunine, will testify.  So far the report has gotten positive responses from Congress via press releases, but this hearing is an opportunity for Members to get their viewpoints on the record and ask questions that highlight their areas of interest.  The NRC committee's lack of enthusiasm for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, support for human missions back to the lunar surface, and identification of humans on Mars as the "horizon goal" are all in line with the views of most Members of the House SS&T Committee.  One point on which there may be disagreement is the NRC committee's endorsement of space cooperation with China, which Congress has prohibited by law.

Those and other space policy-related events for the upcoming week that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday, June 23

Monday-Tuesday, June 23-24

Tuesday, June 24

Wednesday, June 25

Thursday, June 26

House Approves RD-180 Replacement Appropriation As U.S. Readies More Russia Sanctions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jun-2014 (Updated: 20-Jun-2014 04:31 PM)

The House passed the FY2015 defense appropriations bill today (June 20) with the $220 million added to begin building a replacement for Russia's RD-180 rocket engines intact.  Also today, the Obama Administration imposed sanctions against seven Ukrainians and, along with Europe, is readying other sanctions aimed at specific Russian economic sectors including defense.

The availability of RD-180 engines for the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket has come into question since the deterioration of relationships with Russia because of its actions in Ukraine.  The House now has passed both a FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 4435) and a companion FY2015 defense appropriations bill (H.R. 4870) that provide $220 million for the Air Force to begin a program to develop a U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace the RD-180.  The White House disapproves of the additional funding, arguing that it is premature to commit that much money while options on how best to obtain a new U.S. engine are still being evaluated, but there seems to be agreement that a new U.S engine is needed to end America's reliance on Russia.   The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) also wants a U.S.-built engine and recommended $100 million in its version of the FY2015 NDAA (S. 2410).  SASC also adopted a McCain amendment that prohibits the purchase of additional RD-180 engines after the current contract expires.

U.S. national space policy requires that the government support two families of launch vehicles to ensure access to space, especially for national security satellites, in case one experiences a long hiatus because of a failure.  The Atlas V is one of the two (Delta IV is the other).  NASA and NOAA also use Atlas V and two of the three competitors for NASA's commercial crew program (Boeing and Sierra Nevada) plan to launch their spacecraft using the Atlas V.

ULA insists that it is "business as usual" with Energomash, the Russian company that manufactures the RD-180s.  The question is whether the evolving situation in Ukraine and potential sanctions against Russia's defense sector could disrupt that relationship.   ULA President Michael Gass said on Wednesday that the company is positioning itself to be able to respond to any eventuality.

Major media outlets including the New York Times report that a "senior administration official" briefed them today that the United States and Europe are readying tougher sanctions targeted against Russia's finance, energy and defense sectors because of continued Russian involvement in Ukraine.   According to the reports, the administration is accusing Russia of covertly arming Ukrainian separatists and redeploying "significant' Russian troops along the Ukrainian border despite a cease-fire declared by Ukraine today and ongoing negotiations between Moscow and Kiev on a peace plan.  The U.S. Treasury Department today imposed sanctions against seven Ukrainians who are viewed as separatist leaders.

Details of the potential sanctions against Russia's economic sectors have not been made public.   President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Russian President Putin earlier this month that he risked tougher sanctions if Russia did not withdraw Russian troops from the Ukrainian border and end its support for Ukrainian separatists.  Although Russia initially withdrew some of it troops, they reportedly now are redeploying.

Space-Based Systems Enhance Maritime Domain Awareness Say SWF Panelists

Marcia S. Smith and Len Ly
Posted: 19-Jun-2014 (Updated: 19-Jun-2014 03:01 PM)

Five experts explained the utility of space-based systems to enhance Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) at a June 16, 2014 panel discussion hosted by the Secure World Foundation (SWF).

SWF Washington Office Director Victoria Samson explained that MDA is defined as “effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact security, safety, economy, and environment.”  MDA relies on a layered set of terrestrial, air-borne, and space-borne systems.

The panelists focused on the role of satellites in MDA, including optical and radar imaging satellites, especially Canada’s Radarsat-2, as well as satellites that carry receivers for the Automatic Identification System (AIS) created by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

AIS transmitters provide a ship’s identity, location, speed, direction, and other data.   IMO regulations require AIS equipment to be aboard cargo ships of certain sizes that travel in international waters and on all passenger ships. Individual countries may have additional AIS regulations governing their coastal waters.  AIS itself is a terrestrial VHF system, but as panelist Guy Thomas explained, satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) are able to pick up AIS transmissions, leading to Satellite-AIS (S-AIS).

Thomas, co-founder of the C-SIGMA Centre, calls S-AIS the “game-changer” for its ability to “locate the good guys” and permit pattern-based analysis.   The idea is that the “good guys” allow themselves to be identified through AIS so when authorities are looking for the “bad guys,” the ships transmitting on AIS can be eliminated from the target list.  AIS was created as a collision avoidance and traffic management tool, he said, but it has expanded into many other uses including environmental protection, maritime resource protection, safety, commodities trading, and route planning.

The idea for S-AIS emanated from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.   At the time, Thomas was the Johns Hopkins liaison to the Naval War College and tasked to assist the Navy evaluate its maritime security.   He learned the United States lacked ways to detect ships off the coast, with the exception of warships, which have a unique signature.  For all the other maritime vessels, he was convinced that the AIS signals could be picked up by appropriately equipped satellites in LEO.

“I discovered that [at that time] there was only one satellite system in the world that met my requirements -- ORBCOMM,” Thomas said.  He approached ORBCOMM with the idea and in 2006 six satellites equipped with AIS receivers, one of which was funded by the U.S. Coast Guard, were launched.  S-AIS “has been used dramatically in many different ways now,” he said and is provided by ORBCOMM as a commercial service (the Coast Guard no longer funds the satellite receivers, but does buy services).  Additional AIS-equipped ORBCOMM satellites have been launched since and six more are awaiting launch at Cape Canaveral on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.  The launch is currently scheduled for Friday (June 20).

John Mittleman, an engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, pointed out, however, that despite the IMO regulations, AIS and other types of terrestrial ship-board transmissions that provide location and identification data are voluntary.   “The number of ships that may reasonably pose a threat to national security and economic security based on size, cargo-carrying capacity and ocean-going capability is well over 5 million,” and roughly “100,000 changes everyday are tracked [from] vessels based on voluntary broadcasts,” he said.

The key is separating vessels willing to identify themselves through AIS or other systems from those that do not and could pose a threat.   Boats that do not voluntarily transmit identification information and boats made of fiberglass or wood that cannot be detected by space-based radars are “dark vessels.”  Only the vantage point of space can provide a global perspective on maritime activities, Mittleman said, but it is a combination of observations from satellites, aircraft and other boats that narrow down where to investigate and when.

Maj. Charity Weeden, Royal Canadian Air Force and Assistant Attaché for Air and Space Operations at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, noted that Canada has maritime approaches from three oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic) and more than 150,000 miles of coastline.  “The existing gaps of knowing what is on the ocean approaches are starting to close,” she said, due to space-based solutions.  Among them is the launch of Canada’s Radarsat-2 in 2007, which helps provide “near real-time ship detection, tracking ice floes, detecting oil pollution, monitoring sea ice, and even determining wave direction, day or night.”  But the satellite’s average revisit rate is only 3 or 4 days. “The aim now is persistence,” she said.  The Radarsat Constellation Mission, which will consist of three satellites set to launch in 2018 that will work in tandem, will have daily access to 95% of the globe, up to four passes per day in the Arctic.  They will also have S-AIS. Weeden added that Canada and the United States share similar MDA commitments and should continue working together to maximize results.

Jon Huggins, director of the Oceans Beyond Piracy project of the One Earth Future Foundation, called MDA an essential element in addressing piracy while adding that “not everyone is in favor of more MDA.”  He cited a number of examples where ships do not want to be identified and choose, for example, to turn off their AIS systems in certain parts of the world.  “There were some reports that pirates were able to access certain types of AIS equipment, so a lot of ships were turning off their AIS systems that were transmitting in high-risk areas.”  Others prefer the freedom associated with anonymity such as when “you have an unapproved private security team, and perhaps an incident happens at sea that you may not want reported that brings liability issues as well as some reputation damage.”  Another example is ships that may briefly travel through war zones, but do not want to pay the higher insurance premiums required in those areas.

Bharath Gopalaswamy, deputy director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, focused on MDA in South and Southeast Asia and the need for international cooperation.  No single country has the resources to do it alone, he said, but he also identified a lengthy list of challenges, including “lack of shared training or conduct in maritime operations, limited maritime intelligence collection and sharing, limited patrol capacity” as well as a perception of the dangers of “a maritime arms race in the region.”  He added there are inadequate “crisis management mechanisms” among the nations in that region and two other challenges are “U.S. behavior in the region” and “the China factor.”  He did not address satellite or other types systems necessary for MDA, but rather the need for enhanced governance and security in that region.

Other panelists also stressed the need for international cooperation.  Regarding the space-borne contribution to MDA, a number of other countries are launching optical and radar imaging satellites and ORBCOMM is no longer the only satellite system equipped with S-AIS.  Thomas’ C-SIGMA Centre – Collaboration in Space for International Global Maritime Awareness Centre -- was founded specifically to “foster wider cooperation and exchange in the use of and access to satellite based maritime surveillance information” on a global level.

Weeden pointed out, however, that satellites cannot do the MDA job alone.  They are an “enhancer,” but there is no one solution -- an international, multilayered approach involving terrestrial, air- and space-borne systems is needed.

ULA Fights To Change Perceptions, Accelerates RD-180 Deliveries

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jun-2014 (Updated: 18-Jun-2014 11:09 PM)

United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Michael Gass announced today that the company is initiating an advertising campaign to change misperceptions and correct misinformation as its Air Force customer fights a lawsuit filed by competitor SpaceX and controversy swirls over the future of the Russian RD-180 rocket engines it uses for the Atlas V rocket.

ULA builds and launches the nation's two major launch vehicle families -- Atlas V and Delta IV -- that are primarily used for putting national security satellites into space.  NASA and NOAA also use those rockets.  The Air Force awarded ULA a sole-source block-buy contract for 36 rocket engine cores last year.  SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force in April arguing that it should have had a chance to compete for some of those launches.

The SpaceX lawsuit was one of three topics Gass wanted to discuss with representatives of the trade press at a media roundtable this morning in ULA's Washington-area office.  Among the points he stressed were that SpaceX was not -- and is not -- a certified launch services provider for the Air Force even today and "was not a viable competitor" when the Air Force issued the Request for Proposals in March 2012.  Another key message was that ULA has more than 100 years of combined experience launching rockets -- roughly 50 years each for the Atlas and Delta, which date back to the earliest days of the Space Age -- versus newcomer SpaceX.   The national security satellites launched by ULA "save lives," Gass emphasized, and experience counts to be sure they get into orbit when needed.

SpaceX not only wants to be able to compete against ULA for Air Force launches, but founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk argues that ULA's Atlas V rocket should be discontinued entirely because it relies on Russia's RD-180 engines.  National space policy calls for the government to support two families of launch vehicles to ensure access to space in case one requires a lengthy stand-down because of a failure.  Atlas and Delta are those two rockets today.  Musk wants his all-American Falcon to replace Atlas.

The future availability of RD-180s is a hot topic in Washington right now as the House debates the FY2015 Defense Appropriations bill, which would add $220 million to the Air Force budget to begin development on a new U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace it.   Gass made clear today that despite threats from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to prohibit RD-180s from being used to launch U.S. national security satellites, it is "business as usual" with the engines' Russian manufacturer Energomash.   However, ULA decided to accelerate delivery of the RD-180 engines it already has under contract.   Five engines were due to be delivered in November, but now two will arrive in August and the remaining three in November.  The plan had been for six engines per year after that, but instead Energomash will deliver eight per year.  That means the contract will be fulfilled a year earlier and Gass expects savings because of the shorter period of performance.

Although he still has confidence in the supply of RD-180s from Russia, Gass said ULA wants to position itself for any eventuality.  Therefore it announced earlier this week that it has contracted with "multiple" U.S. companies to develop technical concepts and perform business case analyses for alternative engines.  He declined to say how many companies, who they are, or precisely how much they are being paid, but he said it was company money.  ULA expects to choose one design and supplier by the end of this year with the goal of having a new engine ready for launch in 2019.

Gass complained about widespread misperceptions and "misinformation" being spread about ULA.  Consequently, the company is launching an advertising campaign aimed at decision makers to "illuminate the contrast between ULA and SpaceX."  The nation "has made mistakes in the past," Gass said, and "it is incumbent on us to not let the nation make those same mistakes again."