Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address:

Commercial Space News

Asteroid Bill Authors Open to International Discussions, But Not Regulatory "Yoke"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Dec-2015 (Updated: 13-Dec-2015 11:28 PM)

A key Member of Congress and two congressional staff expounded on congressional intent in the recently enacted commercial space law at a space law and policy conference in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.  The law's provisions regarding property rights to materials mined from asteroids were center stage and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) left no doubt that he does not want any international organization regulating those activities, but that does not rule out international discussions.

Babin provided the opening keynote at the 10th Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law on December 9. The asteroid mining provisions are controversial in the space law community because the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits countries that adhere to the Treaty ("States parties") from claiming sovereignty over the Moon or other celestial bodies.  It also requires States parties to authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities, such as companies, making the governments internationally responsible for what they do in space. Supporters of the law point out that no sovereignty claims are made to celestial bodies, only property rights to materials mined from them, and the law fulfills U.S. obligations to authorize and supervise what U.S. companies are doing in space.

Babin stressed that the new U.S. law does not support the idea of any international body regulating space resource mining.  Instead, he expects the legal regime to "evolve naturally" over time with the advent of other nations' domestic laws and development of customary practice.   The U.S. State Department, he said, could engage diplomatically with other countries as they develop their own laws that support "mutual recognition of space resource rights," but he emphatically rejected allowing any "international body to govern space resource mining."  Other countries might want to do that, he argued, in order to "impede" U.S. companies by establishing a "burdensome yoke of an international body around the neck of U.S. innovation.  While there is certainly a place for the U.S. to engage internationally, those efforts should focus on mutually beneficial arrangements. "

During a panel discussion later in the day, Tom Hammond, Republican staff director of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which Babin chairs, reiterated that Babin's objection is to an international body regulating such activities, not to an international agreement.  He stressed that the law only sets forth U.S. policy.

Hammond's Senate Democratic counterpart, Nick Cummings, agreed, saying that they knew discussions were underway in the academic and international communities and "we did not want to set those discussions back. ...We want those discussions to happen."   Cummings works for Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who was instrumental in getting the bill through the Senate. 

International discussions involving the five U.N. space treaties usually take place through the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which are led for the United States by the State Department.  The State Department did not reply by press time to a query as to whether it plans to raise property rights in space at the 2016 meetings of COPUOS and its two subcommittees -- the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, which meets in February, and the Legal Subcommittee, which meets in April.  The full COPUOS meets in June.

What's Happening in Space Policy December 14-December 31, 2015 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Dec-2015 (Updated: 14-Dec-2015 08:45 PM)

Here's our list of upcoming space policy events (updated December 14 to add a link to the list of AGU sessions that will be livestreamed).  This version covers the three weeks between now and the end of the year as the number of events dwindles and thoughts turn to holidays and fresh beginnings.  The House and Senate will meet this week at least.  If they fail to reach agreement on an FY2016 appropriations bill, they might be back next week.

During the Weeks

In Washington, everyone is awaiting congressional agreement on a full-year omnibus appropriations bill that will fund the government through the end of FY2016 (September 30, 2016).   Congress extended the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) now funding the government from December 11 to December 16 in the hope that the extra 5 days is enough for negotiators to reach a compromise on what policy provisions (riders) are included.   The goal is for the bill to be introduced tomorrow (Monday) and voted on three days later (Wednesday), giving House members three days to read the bill.  The House has a rule that three days notice is required, but it is often bypassed.  New House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants the House to return to "regular order" -- following the rules -- so if the bill is not introduced tomorrow, the date for a vote could slip.   Congress may, in fact, keep extending the CR for short or long periods of time.   As members of the appropriations committees point out, it is a wasteful and inefficient way to run a government (not only can new programs not begin, but existing programs cannot be terminated under a CR), so many are motivated to reach an agreement.  We'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference is taking place at the Moscone Center in San Francisco this week.   It is always a great venue for breaking news in the earth and planetary science fields and features top level industry, academic and government leaders.  For example,  Elon Musk is scheduled to be there on Tuesday morning (10:10-11:00 am Pacific Time).   Al Gore was just added to the program for a Town Hall meeting on Wednesday at 12:30 pm Pacific Time on "The Earth from a Million Miles: Advancing Earth Observations from L1."  Gore was the initiator of what is now known as the DSCOVR program (originally called Triana), which was finally launched in February after years in political purgatory.  It is now at Sun-Earth L1 sending back scientific data and the daily views of Earth that Gore sought.  UPDATE:  Many of the AGU general sessions, Town Halls, and press conferences will be livestreamed and/or archived on the AGU YouTube channel.  A list is posted on the conference website with links.  Note that all times are Pacific Standard Time (add three for Eastern).

Musk has quite a schedule this week.  He'll be at AGU on Tuesday and on Wednesday SpaceX will hold a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will be used to launch 11 ORBCOMM OG-2 satellites "about three days later" if all goes well.   This will be the first Falcon 9 launch since the June 28, 2015 failure and the beginning of a series of four missions the company plans to launch in the next two months.

The last of those four will be the next SpaceX cargo launch to the ISS, SpaceX-8 (SpX-8).  NASA will say only that its internal plans call for a launch in "February."   There will be six ISS crew members awaiting those supplies.  Three just returned on Friday and three more will launch on Tuesday, restoring the facility to its typical crew complement of six.

So this will be a very busy week, but if Congress gets the appropriations bill done, a two-week respite should follow. 

Here are all the events we know about as of Sunday morning.  Check back during the week for anything added to our Events of Interest list as the days progress.

Monday, December 14

Monday-Friday, December 14-18

Tuesday, December 15

Tuesday-Wednesday, December 15-16

Wednesday-Friday, December 16-18

Saturday, December 19

Tentative SpaceX Schedule Shaping Up, SpX-8 In February

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2015 (Updated: 11-Dec-2015 06:03 PM)

SpaceX will launch four Falcon 9 missions from two coasts in two months if tentative plans coming into focus today prove out.   It all begins with a December 16 static fire test of the rocket for the ORBCOMM launch.  If that goes well, ORBCOMM's satellites will launch around December 19, followed by SES-9 and Jason-3 in mid-January, and SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) in February.

SpaceX and ORBCOMM announced the plans for the launch of 11 ORBCOMM OG-2 satellites yesterday.  Their destination is low Earth orbit (LEO).  SES also announced yesterday that its SES-9 communications satellite arrived at Cape Canveral for launch in "mid-January."  It is headed to geostationary orbit.

Today, NASA and NOAA announced that the much-delayed Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite is now scheduled for launch on January 17, 2016 at 10:42 am Pacific Time (1:42 pm Eastern) from Vandenberg Air Force Base.  It will be placed into a high inclination (66.05 degree) orbit.  Its launch had been scheduled for July 22, 2015, but was delayed due to thruster contamination and then by SpaceX's Falcon 9 failure on June 28. 

SpaceX is recovering from that failure, which destroyed a Dragon cargo capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) launched as part of the company's Commercial Resuppply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  It was SpaceX's seventh operational CRS launch, SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7.  A failed strut in the Falcon 9 upper stage is thought to be the cause. 

NASA's Stephanie Schierholz told via email this afternoon that NASA is working toward a "no earlier than" (NET) February 2016 date for the next SpaceX cargo mission to ISS.   ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman said last week that January 8 was the NET date, but he conveyed that it was dependent on a number of factors.  One is NASA's desire to conduct a spacewalk to replace a failed part on the ISS exterior.  January 12-18 is an opportune time to do that, Schierholz said, and "[w]orking toward a February launch date for [SpaceX] CRS-8 affords both NASA and SpaceX important opportunities in preparation for launch."

The NASA statement adds that "We're excited for this historic [SpX-8] mission to bring the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which was developed under a public private partnership, to the ISS as a commercial vehicle and continue paving exciting new paths of innovation and cooperation for both NASA and the space industry."

SpaceX is proceeding cautiously in its return-to-flight strategy in that it chose the ORBCOMM launch to go first, instead of SES.  The ORBCOMM satellites need to go only to low Earth orbit, which does not require a second firing of the second stage as would be needed to reach geostationary orbit.   On the other hand, these next four launches present a challenging cadence that will test the rocket (which is being upgraded at the same time) in several regimes:  three launches from Cape Canaveral and one from Vandenberg, placing satellites into low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit, and two different high-inclination orbits (66.05 degrees for Jason-3 and 51.6 degrees for the ISS cargo mission), all in about two months.  The company additionally plans to continue its attempts to return one or more of the Falcon 9 first stages to Earth to demonstrate reusability, perhaps landing back at Cape Canaveral if it can get the required approvals.

Congress Extends Government Funding to December 16

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2015 (Updated: 11-Dec-2015 05:02 PM)

Congress passed a 5-day extension to the deadline for funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year today.  The bill, H.R. 2250, passed the House by voice vote.  The Senate passed it yesterday.

The bill in its current from is short and to the point, simply replacing the date of December 11 with December 16 in the previously-enacted FY2016 Continuing Resolution (CR). H.R. 2250 is being used as the legislative vehicle for the CR-extension.  As introduced, it was on an unrelated topic, but was in a useful stage of the legislative process to move  forward quickly.  The Senate struck all the language in the original bill and replaced it with the extension to December 16.

House and Senate Republicans and Democrats continue to negotiate over a wide range of controversial policy provisions -- riders -- that have held up final agreement on the funding bill.   It is anticipated that they will reach agreement on a single bill that consolidates all 12 regular appropriations bills -- an "omnibus" appropriations -- to fund the government through September 30, 2016, but that is not a foregone conclusion.  They could simply pass another short term extension.

But the good news is that today, at least, there will not be a government shutdown for lack of funds.  The President still needs to sign the legislation; that should take place in the next several hours.

Falcon 9 Return to Flight Targeted for December 19

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Dec-2015 (Updated: 10-Dec-2015 04:40 PM)

SpaceX announced today that it will conduct a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will be used to launch 11 ORBCOMM OG2 satellites on December 16.  If all goes well, the launch will take place "about three days later" or December 19.  This will be the first flight of Falcon 9 since its June 28, 2015 launch failure.

Falcon 9 is the only SpaceX rocket currently available and is used for launches of a variety of commercial and government spacecraft, including cargo launches to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA.   It was one of those missions, SpaceX CRS-7, or SpX-7, that failed in June.   It was launching a Dragon capsule loaded with supplies for the ISS crew. 

SpaceX had successfully launched six such operational missions to the ISS previously, including two in 2015, as part of NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.  Under the contract, SpaceX and its competitor, Orbital ATK, each are to launch 20 tons of supplies to ISS by the end of 2016.  Both companies also received additional launch contracts for 2017 and are vying for more business under NASA's CRS2 contract solicitation.  NASA has delayed announcement of the CRS2 contract winners several times already; the current plan is to award those contracts on January 30, 2016.

Orbital ATK also suffered a failure under the CRS contract and just returned its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to flight this weekend, but using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket instead of its own Antares.  It is still getting Antares ready to fly again using different engines.  The first flight is currently expected in May 2016.

SpaceX is taking a cautious approach in Falcon 9's return to flight.  Initially the plan was to launch an SES communications satellite to geostationary orbit on the return-to-flight mission, but that would require a second firing of the Falcon 9's second (or upper) stage.   It was the second stage that failed in June.   SpaceX decided to launch the ORBCOMM satellites first because they need to go only into low Earth orbit and a second firing is not necessary.

The exact order of SpaceX's next three launches remains a bit unclear.  ORBCOMM will be first, but whether SES or the next NASA mission, SpX-8, will be second has not been formally announced.  SES's satellite, SES-9, arrived at Cape Canaveral today to be ready for a mid-January launch.  NASA ISS Program Director, Kirk Shireman, said last week that January 8 is the earliest that SpX-8 will fly, but that is not a firm date.

ORBCOMM's press release conveyed that its launch date is dependent on the outcome of the December 16 static fire test:  "Once the static fire is completed to verify the readiness of the Falcon 9 rocket, ORBCOMM's second OG2 Mission is targeted to launch about three days later between 8:00 PM and 9:00 pm ET."  This is second and final launch of ORBCOMM's second generation satellite constellation, OG2, for machine-to-machine communications that allow companies to remotely track, monitor and control fixed and mobile assets from trucks to oil platforms to ships.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted the news:

SpaceX also is trying to land the Falcon 9's first stage back on Earth.  To date, attempted "landings" have been just above the ocean or on autonomous drone ships (which many people refer to as a barge, but barges do not have motors and these do), but the goal is to land them back at Cape Canaveral and SpaceX may attempt that with at least one of these missions if it can get the needed approvals.

Short Term CR Introduced to Keep Government Open 5 More Days

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2015 (Updated: 09-Dec-2015 11:00 PM)

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) today introduced a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating for 5 more days past the Friday deadline when the current CR expires.  The hope is that work can be completed on a bill that will fund it for the rest of FY2016 by early next week.

FY2016 began on October 1 and Congress should have passed 12 regular appropriations bills by then to pay for defense and non-defense discretionary federal government activities including DOD, NASA and NOAA.  None of those bills cleared Congress and a CR was enacted instead to keep agencies operating at FY2015 levels until agreement could be reached.  That CR expires on Friday, December 11.

A budget deal reached at the end of October between the White House and Congress cleared the way for agreement on spending levels, but policy provisions -- "riders" -- continue to hold up final action.   It is expected that all 12 bills will be combined into a single consolidated or "omnibus" appropriations bill that provides funding through the end of the fiscal year on September 30, 2016.

The decision to introduce another short-term CR can be viewed as good news in the sense that it indicates all sides may be close to an agreement if given just a few more days, though critics would argue that sufficient time has passed that they should have been able to get the job done by Friday.

The bill, H.J. Res. 75, would fund government operations at their current level though Wednesday, December 16.  Rogers said in a statement that it is his "hope and expectation that a final, full-year bill will be enacted before this new deadline."

Orbital ATK's OA-4 Cygnus Cargo Module Arrives at ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2015 (Updated: 09-Dec-2015 06:45 AM)

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) used Canada's robotic Canadarm2 to capture Orbital ATK's Cygnus capsule at 6:19 am Eastern Standard Time this morning.  It will be installed onto the Unity module of the ISS later today.

This is Orbital ATK's fourth operational cargo resupply mission to the ISS -- Orbital ATK Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)-4 or OA-4.  The first two were successful, while the third was lost in the October 2014 Antares launch failure. 

This module was launched on Sunday from Cape Canaveral, FL using a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket as Orbital ATK continues to get Antares ready to fly again.

Cygnus is delivering more than 7,000 pounds (3,500 kilograms) of supplies, scientific experiments and equipment to the ISS crew.  It is being dubbed Santa's sleigh since it also includes some holiday gifts for the crew, although three of the six will return to Earth on Friday so will be home in time to celebrate with their families.  A new three-person crew will be launched next week, restoring the ISS to its usual crew complement of six.


NAC Hears About Lunar Orbit "Shakedown Cruise," Worries About Readiness for New Administration

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Dec-2015 (Updated: 07-Dec-2015 10:42 PM)

NASA officials told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) that early plans for testing the Orion spacecraft and astronaut crews in cis-lunar space include a "shakedown" cruise where a crew would remain in lunar orbit for a year before an attempt is made to send people all the way to Mars.  NAC expressed concern that NASA is not ready to convince a new presidential administration that it is ready to send people to Mars in the 2030s as NASA currently proclaims.

During its December 1-3, 2015 meeting at NASA's Johnson Space Center, NAC members received briefings from NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Bill Gerstenmaier and International Space Station (ISS) Program Director Sam Scimemi about preliminary plans for NASA's human spaceflight program especially in the 2020s.  Those include NASA's plans for transitioning off of the ISS in low Earth orbit (LEO) and Exploration Mission (EM) flights of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft beyond LEO. The first SLS/Orion mission, EM-1, is expected in 2018, but will not carry a crew.  NASA recently officially stated that the first flight with a crew, EM-2, will come in 2023, although it says it is still working to an internal deadline of 2021, the prior estimate.

Gerstenmaier and his team created a concept for a three-phase program for the future of human spaceflight:  "Earth Dependent" --  the current  situation with ISS, which relies on frequent resupply missions from Earth;  "Proving Ground" -- where crews gain experience in cutting ties with Earth in cis-lunar space (the area between the Earth and the Moon, including lunar orbit), close enough that they can get home in a few days rather than months, but not just a few hours as they can from ISS; and "Earth Independent" -- where crews can survive for longer periods of time without continuous resupply from Earth or real-time communications, such as when they are sent to Mars.

NAC has pressed NASA officials at its quarterly meetings on NASA's exact plans for achieving the goal of sending people to Mars in the 2030s as directed by President Obama.  Much of that debate has centered on the difference between a "plan" and a "strategy," with some NAC members insisting that a strategy with at least some deadlines and objectives is needed to build public support.  Gerstenmaier has assiduously declined to get into specifics, arguing that maximum flexibility is needed so the effort can respond to changing political and financial support as the years go by.  He calls it the Evolvable Mars Campaign.

Technology development is fundamental to any effort to send people to Mars and one focus of the NAC meeting was whether NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) has the right program with the necessary level of funding to ensure success.   Congress routinely cuts the President's budget request for STMD, forcing it to pick and choose which technologies to develop.

After reviewing a technology risk/challenges matrix for sending people to Mars developed by STMD and comparing it to likely STMD funding, Bill Ballhaus, chair of NAC's Technology, Innovation and Engineering (TI&E) committee, reported that his committee does not think NASA is ready to make any commitments about when humans will reach Mars.  Ballhaus is a former NASA center director, Lockheed Martin executive, and President of the Aerospace Corporation.  He said it "probably doesn't make a lot of sense" to talk about going to Mars now from a technology standpoint.  Instead, he thinks NASA should focus on the Proving Ground missions to generate "urgency" for investing in the technologies needed to get people to Mars.

NAC member Tom Young, also a former NASA center director and Lockheed Martin executive, expressed concern that focusing only on cis-lunar missions in the Proving Ground, rather than the longer term goal of Mars, would be a "death knell."   Ballhaus replied that his committee's conclusion was "not the outcome we wanted."  It wanted a plan from NASA/STMD that would "generate urgency for investing in technology programs," but that is not what it found.  "This is where we are. We might as well face up to it," Ballhaus said.

During the three-day discussion, Young also expressed concern that NASA cannot afford to support the International Space Station (ISS) and a human exploration program beyond LEO simultaneously.  

Gerstenmaier emphatically disagreed, asserting he can accomplish EM-2, -3 and -4 while still operating ISS under currently planned NASA budget levels.  "I can do up to EM-4 at today's budget levels," he admonished the council.

To make the transition from Proving Ground to Earth Independent, Scimemi outlined NASA's current thoughts about the cadence of EM missions in the 2020s that would lead up to a year-long "shakedown" cruise in cis-lunar space before anyone embarks on a lengthy trip to Mars and back.  Using today's chemical propulsion, it takes at least 6 months to reach Mars, another 6 months to return, and a set period of time, which varies, at Mars while the Earth and Mars become properly aligned for the return trip.

The shakedown cruise nominally would take place around 2029, Scimemi said.  Such long duration missions will require a habitation module in addition to the Orion spacecraft and Scimemi revealed that NASA is doing trade studies on whether it is better to launch a single "monolithic" module intact or launch several smaller pieces that would be assembled in orbit.  SLS could launch a 40-50 metric ton (MT) monolithic module on a single launch, or smaller 10 MT pieces when it is being used to launch other payloads, he explained.

Scimemi's overall presentation was focused on what comes next after the ISS in LEO.   President Obama just signed a law that commits the United States to operating ISS until 2024 (Russia and Canada have agreed to this new schedule; Japan and Europe have not yet), but what happens after that is an open question.  Some ISS advocates argue for operating at least until 2028, the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first modules, but few expect the facility to last beyond that. Scimemi called 2028 the "engineering date" for the end of ISS, but left no room for doubt that ultimately there will be an end.  "Station will have an end date.  Parts will come down in the South Pacific," he acknowledged.  The key is for NASA and its partners to make "intelligent decisions" about how the transition to the future takes place.

What's next, then?  Gerstenmaier underscored that NASA is "moving out" of LEO and it is up to the private sector to fund, launch, and operate future LEO infrastructure.  He has been saying in many venues over the past year or more that he does not expect any expensive ISS-like facility, but single purpose stations, like a Dragon or Cygnus capsule or a Bigelow expandable module, to meet needs defined by non-NASA users. He noted at the NAC meeting that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is reaching out to the Department of Commerce to figure out how to incentivize the private sector in this area:  "This agency [NASA] is not about economic development.  They are."

NAC member and former astronaut Ken Bowersox argued that NASA will continue to need access to LEO if for no other reason than to allow astronauts some experience before they sign on to longer duration missions.  Several NAC members were skeptical about the commercial potential, too.  They agreed NASA should encourage the private sector, but not rely on it to build future LEO facilities.

All in all, NAC members seemed uneasy about NASA's strategy for getting people to Mars and how it is communicating with the public and political stakeholders.  The latter is particularly important, as Young pointed out, with an election less than a year away.  "I think we are ill prepared for the debate the next administration will want," he warned. "We are on a path that maximizes the probability of losing.  If someone asked me what's the plan to get to Mars, I'd say there isn't one."  He pointed out that one of the major factors that doomed the Constellation program begun under the George W. Bush Administration was that it did not win support by the new Obama Administration in its first budget request, initiating the Augustine Committee review instead.

NAC Chairman Steve Squyres agreed that Young "hit on a critical point" and a technology investment plan, including the shakedown cruise by 2029, is needed before a new administration writes its first budget.  

In the end, NAC agreed on one recommendation and one finding, subject to further editing by Squyres and NAC staff, as follows:






Antrix Wins PlanetIQ Contract, COMSTAC Debates India's Entry Into U.S. Market

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Dec-2015 (Updated: 06-Dec-2015 11:31 PM)

On Thursday, PlanetIQ announced that it signed a contract with India's Antrix, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), to launch the company's first two microsatellites in late 2016.  At the same time, the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) is set to discuss Antrix's plans to compete for U.S. satellite launches.

PlanetIQ is planning a constellation of 18 satellites by 2020 to provide radio occulation (RO) data to feed into numerical weather models on a commercial basis.  This method uses signals from Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) like the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) to make measurements of temperature and water vapor in the lower parts of the atmosphere.  Added to data from polar-orbiting weather satellites, better forecasts are enabled.   The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is partnered with the U.S. Air Force and Taiwan on COSMIC (Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate), a set of six microsatellites launched in 2006, and is planning COSMIC-2, to obtain such data today.  PlanetIQ says its sensor, Pyxis-RO, "quadruples the data collection capability of existing sensors" because it can track signals from all four GNSS systems in the world -- GPS, Russia's GLONASS, Europe's Galileo, and China's Beidou.

The first two PlanetIQ microsatellites, which weigh only 10 kilograms each, will fly on an ISRO PSLV rocket in late 2016, the company said in a press release.  It added that 10 more will be launched in 2017, but did not specify what rocket will be used.  Those 12 microsatellites will create an initial constellation, with six more microsatellites to follow.  Terms of the Antrix contract, such as price, were not disclosed.

COMSTAC will discuss Antrix's plans to move into the U.S. market during a telecon onThursday.  COMSTAC chairman Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace told today via email that the issue came before COMSTAC in response to a request from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) at COMSTAC's October 2015 meeting.  USTR wants feedback from the committee on expansion of domestic access to Indian launch vehicles.  COMSTAC's consideration is not specifically related to PlanetIQ or any other company's arrangement, Gold added.

The minutes of the October 2015 COMSTAC meeting say that USTR's Samuel duPont made a presentation to COMSTAC's International Space Policy Working Group on Antrix's plans.  "There is concern around whether Antrix will have an unfair advantage over domestic private sector competition, since it is an Indian governmental entity," as reported in the minutes.

That COMSTAC working group will meet for the first half of Thursday's telecon, followed by a meeting of the full COMSTAC, to potentially develop findings and/or recommendations.  They also will discuss whether FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation should engage with the European Space Agency (ESA) about potential commercial involvement in ESA's lunar village concept.

Fourth Time's a Charm for OA-4 Cargo Mission to ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Dec-2015 (Updated: 06-Dec-2015 11:32 PM)

After three weather-related delays, Orbital ATK's Cygnus spacecraft was successfully launched today (Sunday) aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.  Liftoff was at 4:44:57 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST).

This is the fourth operational launch to ISS for Orbital ATK under its Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  The first two were successes, but the third (Orb-3) was lost when its Antares rocket exploded 15 seconds after launch on October 28, 2014.   Orbital ATK hopes to resume launches on Antares in May 2016, but is using ULA's Atlas V rocket for two launches in the interim -- this one and another in March.

This mission is designated OA-4 because Orbital Sciences Corporation merged with ATK earlier this year, becoming Orbital ATK (OA) and is the fourth in the series begun by Orbital Sciences prior to the merger.  Orbital ATK names its ISS cargo spacecraft after prominent individuals, in this case former NASA astronaut and space launch entrepreneur Deke Slayton.

Cygnus is loaded with more than 3,500 kilograms (7,000 pounds ) of supplies, scientific experiments and equipment for the ISS crew.   If all goes according to plan, Cygnus will reach the ISS on Wednesday, December 9.

The launch was delayed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday because of weather issues (rain and wind).