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Blue Origin Reveals Its Heavy Lift Rocket -- New Glenn

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Sep-2016 (Updated: 13-Sep-2016 05:24 AM)

Blue Origin has announced plans to test a heavy lift rocket, New Glenn, by the end of the decade.  It will be more capable than SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, but smaller than NASA's Space Launch System (SLS).  Blue Origin plans to use New Glenn to launch humans as well as cargo into space.

Named in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, the rocket will come in 2- and 3-stage versions.  Like Blue Origin's current New Shepard rocket (named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space), it will launch and land vertically and be reusable (first stage only).  New Shepard is a suborbital rocket that uses Blue's BE-3 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen (LOX) engines.  New Glenn will use Blue's BE-4 engines, the first engines to use a liquefied natural gas (methane)/LOX combination.

Blue's development of the BE-4 is well known.  The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced a partnership with Blue exactly two years ago to use BE-4 engines for its new Vulcan rocket, expected to debut around the end the decade, although it subsequently decided to also consider Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR1.  It will choose one of the two in the next few months.

Blue Origin founder and President Jeff Bezos, who is also President of, has hinted at his development of a large orbital rocket before and yesterday's announcement revealed the company has been working on it for three years already.  Bezos released a graphic comparing the two versions of New Glenn with other past, present and future rockets.

Graphic credit:  Blue Origin
Editor's Note:  Antares (U.S. - Orbital ATK), Soyuz (Russia), Ariane 5 (Europe), Atlas V (U.S.-United Launch Alliance), Falcon 9 (U.S.-SpaceX), and Delta IV Heavy (U.S.-United Launch Alliance) are currently operational orbital launch vehicles.  Vulcan (ULA), Falcon Heavy (SpaceX) and New Glenn (Blue Origin) are in development.  Saturn V (NASA) was used to launch Apollo astronauts to the Moon and the Skylab space station; its last flight was in 1973.

New Glenn is 23 feet in diameter and launches with 3.85 million pounds of thrust from seven BE-4 engines, Bezos said in a statement.  The 2-stage version is 270 feet tall, while the 3-stage variant is 313 feet tall.  The two use the same first and second stages (the second stage is powered by a single BE-4). The third stage uses one BE-3 engine.

The first launch of New Glenn is planned before the end of this decade from Launch Complex-36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Bezos plans to use it to launch commercial satellites as well as humans into space and he added that the 3-stage version can fly "demanding" missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), although he was not explicit about the nature of those missions.  LEO is a popular orbit for some commercial and many government satellites (the International Space Station is in LEO, for example), but most commercial satellites are placed into geostationary orbit high above the equator, so it is not unusual or demanding for rockets to be able to launch missions beyond LEO, even far into the solar system like the New Horizons mission to Pluto that launched on ULA's Atlas V.

The terminology has come to be used in recent years, however, to refer to human missions to the distance of the Moon and beyond.  Bezos did restate his vision of  "millions of people living and working in space" and asserted that New Glenn is just one step in that direction:  "Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong.  But that's a story for the future."

That rocket would be named in honor of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon.

Interestingly, Bezos omitted NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) from the graphic, using a Saturn V for comparison instead.  NASA is building SLS to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.  Its first test flight is scheduled for late 2018.   Three versions are planned -- 70, 105, and 130 metric tons (MT) to LEO.  The largest would be slightly greater in capability than the Saturn V.   The 70-MT version, which will launch in 2018, is 322 feet tall and its engines will generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.  The 130-MT version will be 365 feet tall with 9.2 million pounds of thrust.

SLS critics assert that there is no need for the government to pay for a new big rocket because SpaceX and Blue Origin are moving forward on their own and NASA can buy launch services from them.  NASA does not own any launch vehicles today (the space shuttle was the last, and that program ended in 2011).  It purchases services from companies like SpaceX, ULA, and Orbital ATK.   SLS advocates argue that SLS will be much more capable than any of the commercial designs and is required for challenging missions such as sending humans to Mars.  The need to ensure a strong U.S. industrial base is another argument often used to explain the need for the government to continue to be involved in building new rockets. 

SLS is an expensive undertaking.  NASA has released a cost estimate for the program only through the first launch (Exploration Mission-1) -- $7 billion for development or $9.78 billion if formulation costs are included.  That excludes costs for associated ground systems at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.   The Government Accountability Office is skeptical of NASA's cost estimating procedures, however, and no estimate has been released for the program beyond the first flight.  SLS will launch the Orion spacecraft and NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development Bill Hill reportedly said his goal is for SLS, Orion and their ground systems to cost no more than $2 billion per year for production and operation once development is complete. That is only a goal, however, and still would represent a sizeable percentage of NASA's budget every year for the indefinite future.

Blue Origin's announcement may add fuel to the debate over the need for SLS, although it has strong support in Congress.  It was Congress, in fact, that insisted NASA build a new, big rocket in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act after President Obama cancelled the Constellation program.  Begun under President George W. Bush, Constellation was designed to send humans back to the surface of the Moon and someday to Mars using a rocket called Ares V.   Development of that rocket was, indeed, terminated by President Obama, but Congress replaced it with SLS.  The SLS program is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and is an ardent SLS supporter.  It has strong support from others in the Senate and the House, as well as NASA itself.

One complaint about SLS is that it will be launched so infrequently -- at most, once a year -- that its safety could be undermined because launch crews will not maintain their proficiency.  Against that backdrop, the market for New Glenn seems soft unless Bezos's vision of millions of people living and working in space is realized.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 12-16, 2016 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Sep-2016 (Updated: 12-Sep-2016 08:11 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 12-16, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

From Long Beach, California to Vienna, Austria, it's a busy week in space policy.

Starting in Long Beach, AIAA holds its Space 2016 conference Tuesday-Thursday.  Many sessions will be livestreamed and others will be posted later. The agenda on the livestream site tells you which is which. Note that all the times are Pacific Daylight Time, so add three for Eastern Daylight Time.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, DOD's Winston Beauchamp, and DFJ's Steve Jurvetson formally kick things off on Tuesday at 8:00 am PDT/11:00 am EDT.  There are many very interesting plenary and "Forum 360" presentations throughout the conference, as well as the Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship on Thursday evening (6:30-7:30 pm PT/9:30-10:30 pm ET). The Brill Lectureship is awarded every two years by AIAA and the National Academy of Engineering.  This year's honoree is Wanda Austin, President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, who will speak on Engineering Leadership.  It will be livestreamed.

Just south of Long Beach, in Irvine, the National Academies Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences (CAPS) is meeting on Wednesday-Thursday.  It will be available by WebEx and telecon.  Among the topics are updates on robotic Mars exploration, the Europa mission, efforts to ensure a reliable supply of plutonium-238 (needed to power spacecraft that travel too far from the Sun or will land somewhere that make solar power infeasible), and NASA's astrobiology program.

Jumping 3,000 miles to the East, astrobiology will also be a topic in Washington, DC at the Library of Congress's Kluge Center on Thursday.  The day-long symposium will discuss "The Emergence of Life:  On the Earth, in the Lab, and Elsewhere."   It will be filmed and the video posted later on the Kluge Center's website and YouTube.

Many other events are on tap in the Washington area.  We'll highlight just two here.  First. the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) will meet via telecon to discuss draft legislation proposed by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) to allow the FAA to perform an enhanced version of its current payload review process to authorize companies to conduct certain operations in Earth orbit, on the Moon and elsewhere in compliance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  The FAA did that for Moon Express recently, but it was an ad hoc process.  The legislation apparently would codify that or a similar arrangement.  Anyone may listen in on the telecon.  

Second, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will hold a hearing on Thursday morning on long term military budget challenges. It's a broad topic and the witnesses are the service chiefs so it is difficult to anticipate the extent to which national security space issues will arise, but it would not be surprising.  Most SASC hearings are webcast.

The House and Senate are in session this week and still discussing what to do about the FY2017 budget. They need to pass something by September 30 (probably a Continuing Resolution that lasts until mid-December, but we know the peril of trying to guess what Congress will do) and what to do about the rest of the fiscal year.  Typically they end up passing one huge "omnibus" appropriations bill incorporating all 12 regular appropriations bills, but House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly prefers several smaller "minibus" bills combining two or three at a time.  As a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, he is well versed in budget matters, but there are critical top-level issues to resolve starting with the total amount of money that Congress should approve.  The House and Senate reached agreement last fall on the total for FY2017, but very conservative Republicans did not vote in favor of it and want to more tightly constrain the amount for non-defense activities.

Moving even further East, the European Space Agency is sponsoring a "Space for Inspiration" conference at the London Science Museum on Wednesday-Thursday.  It will be webcast on ESA's website.  ESA Director General Jan Woerner heads an impressive set of government, industry, academic and non-profit speakers from Europe, Japan, and the United States, including several current and former astronauts.

A bit further East, Euroconsult will hold its annual World Satellite Business Week in Paris Monday-Friday.  The website does not indicate if any of the sessions will be webcast.   The "week" includes the 20th Summit for Satellite Financing, the 13th Symposium on Satcom Market Forecasts, the 8th Summit on Earth Observation Business, and SMARTPlane 2016.

Vienna, Austria is the last stop on this week's space policy journey.  The European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) will hold a two-day (Thursday-Friday) symposium on Space for Sustainable Development.

Meanwhile, we'll be keeping an ear out for any news on SpaceX's investigation of the on-pad explosion on September 1.   Elon Musk tweeted on Friday that it is the "most difficult and complex failure" the company has encountered.

Also, Chinese media report that the launch date for China's second space station, Tiangong-2 is in the September 15-20 time period.  It will launch on a Long March 2F from Jiuquan.  The first launch of China's new heavy lift Long March 5 from the new Wenchang launch site on Hainan Island is also coming up soon.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Monday-Wednesday, September 12-14

Monday-Friday, September 12-16

  • Euroconsult's World Satellite Business Week
    • 20th Summit for Satellite Financing (Sept. 12-15)
    • 13th Symposium on SATCOM Market Forecasts (Sept. 15)
    • 8th Summit on Earth Observation Business (Sept. 15-16)
    • SMARTPlane 2016 (Sept. 14)

Tuesday, September 13

Tuesday-Thursday, September 13-15

Wednesday, September 14

Wednesday-Thursday, September 14-15

Thursday, September 15

Friday, September 16

Saturday, September 17


Note:  this article was updated on September 12.

Musk: "Most Difficult and Complex Failure We Have Seen"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Sep-2016 (Updated: 09-Sep-2016 07:26 AM)

In a series of tweets this morning, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk provided a brief update of the company's investigation into the explosion last week that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the Amos-6 communications satellite during a pre-launch test.  The cause remains unknown.

Musk (@elonmusk) called it "the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years," noting that it happened "during a routine filling operation" when "engines were not on and there was no apparent heat source."  He offered appreciation to NASA, the FAA, the Air Force "and others" for "support & advice."

He said they are "Particularly trying to understand the quieter bang sound a few seconds before the fireball goes off" that "May come from rocket or something else."  He asked anyone with recordings of the event to email them to

In reply to someone else, he said SpaceX has not ruled out the possibility that something hit the rocket.

A video of the September 1 incident posted by shows an eruption in the area of the second stage, with fire quickly engulfing the entire vehicle followed by a series of explosions and the Amos-6 satellite inside its shroud falling to the ground and itself exploding.

Today's tweets are the only information SpaceX has made available since a statement released last Friday, a day after the "anomaly."   SpaceX itself is in charge of the investigation. It was a commercial launch of a commercial satellite and therefore regulated by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  Under those regulations, the relevant company leads the investigation, not the government.

This event took place during a routine pre-launch "static fire" test two days before the scheduled launch from Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  SpaceX leases the pad from the Air Force.  The video suggests that the pad suffered extensive damage.  SpaceX has not explicitly stated how much damage was incurred, but in last week's statement noted that it is the final stages of preparing another launch pad at NASA's adjacent Kennedy Space Center.  SpaceX leases NASA's Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), a launch pad once used for Apollo and space shuttle launches.   Both the Falcon 9 and the new Falcon Heavy rocket SpaceX is developing can be launched from LC-39A.  SpaceX also leases another Air Force launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base for launches into polar orbits and is building its own launch site near Brownsville, TX.  It therefore has options beyond simply repairing SLC-40, which likely will be expensive and time consuming.

SpaceX has a full manifest of commercial and government launches that were planned for this year and beyond, including cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA and the first flights of its new Falcon Heavy.  It is not clear at this point when any of those launches will take place.

The Amos-6 communications satellite destroyed in the incident was owned by Israel's Spacecom and built by Israel Aerospace Industries.  Facebook planned to use most of the satellite's capacity to provide Internet service to African countries.   The satellite was covered by two insurance policies, one for the period of time before launch (transport and pre-launch preparations) and another beginning with launch.  Since this happened during a pre-launch test, the former policy was in effect.  Press reports in the Israeli media quote Spacecom officials as saying they expect to recover $205 million from insurance as well as either $50 million from SpaceX or a future launch at no cost.


NASA Asteroid Sample Return Mission OSIRIS-REx on Its Way to Bennu

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Sep-2016 (Updated: 08-Sep-2016 09:40 PM)

NASA's first asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx, successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on time at 7:05 pm ET.   Its Atlas V/Centaur rocket performed perfectly, sending the spacecraft on a two-year journey to the asteroid Bennu.  The sample it collects will return to Earth in 2023.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) needs a gravity-assist from Earth to reach Bennu, which is in an orbit around the Sun similar to Earth's, but slightly further out (1.2 astronomical units compared to 1.0 for Earth).  The spacecraft is on a trajectory to return to Earth's vicinity in one year (September 2017), get the boost, and arrive at Bennu in August 2018. 

Bennu (pronounced BEN-yu) is quite small -- just 492 meters (1,614 feet) in diameter. The Empire State Building is 443 meters or 1,454 feet high, including antennas, by comparison.  OSIRIS-REx will not go into orbit around Bennu, but fly in formation with it for more than a year to study the surface and determine the best place to obtain a sample.  When ready, it will briefly touch Bennu's surface.  Using its 3.35 meter (11-foot) Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), it will get the sample, move away, and do a check to confirm a sample was obtained.  If not, it can try once more.

The spacecraft must wait until March 2021, when the orbits of Bennu and Earth are correctly aligned, before starting the trip home.  It will take 2.5 years to return to Earth.  The sample will be in a special capsule that will separate from the main spacecraft about four hours before Earth arrival, reenter through Earth's atmosphere, and land at the Utah Test and Training Center in Tooele County, Utah, in September 2023.  The same type of container was used for the Stardust mission that returned a sample of a comet to Earth in 2006.  The sample will be taken to the Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas for analysis.  The main OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will remain in space, orbiting the Sun.

The goal is to bring back at least 60 grams (2 ounces), but perhaps as much as 2 kilograms (4.4. pounds) of asteroid material. 

Bennu was originally designated 1999 RQ36 and received its name after an international student competition. A third grader, Michael Puzio, proposed Bennu, the name of an Egyptian mythological deity linked to rebirth.

The approximately $800 million mission (not including launch) is the third of NASA's New Frontiers series of Principal Investigator (PI)-led medium-size robotic planetary exploration missions.  The first two were the New Horizons spacecraft that reached Pluto last year after a 10-year journey, and the Juno mission that just arrived at Jupiter.

The PI for OSIRIS-REx is Dante Lauretta, Professor of Planetary Science and Cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.  NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the program.  Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft, TAGSAM, and the return capsule.

OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta.  Photo Credit:  University of Arizona website

In addition to TAGSAM, OSIRIS-REx has several other scientific instruments including cameras, a laser altimeter, a visible and infrared spectrometer, a thermal emission spectrometer, and a regolith X-ray imaging system (REXIS).  REXIS is an MIT-Harvard student experiment to map elemental abundances on Bennu's surface.  It also has high- and low-gain antennas that not only provide communications back to Earth, but will provide data to measure the mass and gravity field of Bennu, providing information on the asteroid's internal structure and refining measurements of the "Yarkovsky Effect" of how the asteroid's orbit is affected by surface heating and cooling.

Japan returned the first sample of an asteroid, Itokawa, with its Hayabusa mission in 2010, but only particles were obtained because of a problem with the sample collecting device.  It launched a second mission, Hayabusa2, in 2014 that will return a sample of the asteroid Ryugu to Earth in 2020.   A number of other space missions have studied asteroids and comets, but Hayabusa and Stardust are the only ones so far to bring samples back to Earth for study and the amounts are meager.  OSIRIS-REx is expected to return a larger amount to allow more detailed scientific analysis of these primordial objects, adding to knowledge about the earliest era of solar system formation.

DOT Tells Congress It Can Handle Releasing SSA Data to CFEs if Authorized and Funded

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Sep-2016 (Updated: 08-Sep-2016 06:31 PM)

A new report to Congress from the Department of Transportation (DOT) concludes that it is feasible for a civil agency like DOT to take over responsibility from DOD for providing space situational awareness (SSA) data to commercial and foreign entities (CFEs).  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) has been advocating for such a change to enable DOD to focus its SSA efforts on meeting military requirements while someone else, like DOT, handles non-military users.

Bridenstine was the chief House sponsor of the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA).  Sec. 110 of that Act required DOT to study the feasibility of  processing and releasing safety-related SSA data and information "to any entity consistent with national security interests and public safety obligations of the United States."   Today's report satisfies that statutory obligation.

The report, written by DOT with concurrence from the Department of Defense (DOD) and in consultation with NASA, the Departments of Commerce and State, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Director of National Intelligence, summarizes past and present SSA arrangements, including the current "SSA Sharing Strategy."   That strategy, adopted in 2014, established three categories of SSA information users:  the public, SSA Sharing Agreement Holders (commercial, government, and intergovernmental satellite owners and operators that have signed a formal sharing agreement with U.S. Strategic Command), and U.S. national security partners.

Today, DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC, part of U.S. Strategic Command) continuously collects data about the location of the18,000 objects in Earth orbit.  The report says that only 7 percent of those objects are operational satellites.  The rest are debris -- everything from intact, but non-functional, satellites to expended rocket stages to paint chips to remnants of damaged or destroyed spacecraft.

Global concerns about the debris created by in-space events were sparked by the 2009 accidental collision of an active U.S. Iridium communications satellite with a defunct Russian communications satellite and China's 2007 intentional destruction of one of its own satellites as an antisatellite test.  Both created a lot of debris and with more and more satellites being launched, especially hundreds of tiny "cubesats," SSA is increasingly vital to a growing number of users of the space environment. JSPoC calculates "conjunction analyses" to warn satellite owners/operators if objects pose a collision risk and issues alerts.

A civil agency like DOT, through the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), could assume responsibility for releasing safety-related SSA data on tracked space objects to non-military users under certain conditions, today's report concludes.  The conditions include:

  • interagency collaboration, especially a strong DOT-DOD relationship;
  • passage of legislation specifically authorizing DOT to take on this role and providing the same immunity from lawsuits as in 10 U.S.C. Section 2274 for DOD's SSA activities; and
  • providing additional resources for FAA/AST (a rough estimate of $20 million is provided in the report as an initial investment, with additional recurring costs for more personnel).

Bridenstine welcomed the report in a statement provided to

"This report shows that this Administration, including the Department of Defense, agrees with what I have been advocating for a long time: that FAA/AST is an appropriate agency to maintain space situational awareness and provide information and services to civil, commercial, and foreign actors. This will empower STRATCOM and JFCC Space to focus on fighting and winning wars, while a civil agency does routine conjunction analysis and reporting. I look forward to working with the DOD, FAA, and Congressional stakeholders to begin implementing such a framework.”

Bridenstine is also the primary sponsor of pending legislation, the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA), which would go even further and take the first steps towards designating a civilian agency, like FAA, to be responsible for Space Traffic Management (STM) under which a satellite owner/operator could be compelled to take action to avoid a collision.   Currently, JSPoC issues conjunction analyses, but it is up to the satellite operator to decide what to do, if indeed the satellite is capable of moving.  ASRA is very broad and Bridenstine makes clear he does not expect it to pass in its entirety.  Instead, it is a repository of provisions that could be incorporated into other legislation over time.

Three ISS Crew Members Safely Return to Earth

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Sep-2016 (Updated: 06-Sep-2016 09:50 PM)

Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members safely returned to Earth tonight (Eastern Daylight Time).  They and their Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft landed in Kazakhstan at approximately 9:14 pm EDT (7:14 am Wednesday local time at the landing site) after 172 days in space.

The three crew members are NASA's Jeff Williams and Roscosmos's Oleg Skripochka and Aleksey Ovchinin.  They launched to the ISS on March 19, 2016. 

Williams now holds the U.S. record for total time in space -- 534 days over four flights.   Scott Kelly, who returned to Earth earlier this year after spending 340 days on ISS, still holds the U.S. record for continuous time in space.  One of the research goals of the ISS is to study how humans react to long durations in weightlessness in preparation for longer trips to destinations like Mars.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams (left) minutes after landing in the Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft in Kazakhstan on September 6, 2016 EDT (September 7 local time at the landing site).  Roscosmos cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin is on the right.  Screengrab from NASA TV

Three other crew members remain aboard the ISS:  NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi, and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin.  The ISS crew complement will return to its usual six later this month after the September 23 EDT launch of Soyuz MS-02.   Aboard will be NASA's Shane Kimbrough and two Roscosmos cosmonauts - Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov.

The ISS has been permanently occupied by two-to-six person crews since the end of 2000.  The crews rotate on roughly 4-6 month schedules, although two crew members remained aboard for 340 days -- NASA's Scott Kelly and Roscosmos's Mikhael Kornienko.  The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 members of the European Space Agency.

Soyuz TMA-20M is the final flight of this version of the Soyuz spacecraft, which made its debut in 1967, but has been upgraded several times.  The most recent upgrade, the Soyuz MS series, had its first flight in July, taking Rubins, Onishi and Ivanishin to the ISS.

China Readies New Space Station, New Heavy Lift Rocket for September Launches

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Sep-2016 (Updated: 06-Sep-2016 05:37 AM)

China is getting ready to launch a new small space station, Tiangong-2, and its new Long March 5 heavy lift rocket this month. Tiangong-2 will be launched by the venerable Long March 2F, but larger space station modules will be launched aboard Long March 5 rockets in the early 2020s.

China's first space station, Tiangong-1 was orbited in 2011.  Over the next two years, it was visited by three spacecraft: an uncrewed Shenzhou-8 spacecraft in 2011 as a systems test, followed by two three-person crews in 2012 and 2013 (Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10). has a list of all of China's human spaceflight-related flights since the first in 1999.  China has launched a total of 5 crewed flights since then: in 2003 (one man), 2005 (two men), 2008 (three men), 2012 (two men and one woman) and 2013 (two men and one woman).   While some analysts cite this as an aggressive schedule reminiscent of the early Soviet and U.S. human spaceflight programs in the 1960s, it is in fact a very measured pace.

The list is about to get longer with the launch of Tiangong-2 in mid-September.  These space stations are quite small in comparison with the first Soviet and U.S. space stations (Salyut 1 and Skylab, respectively).  Tiangong modules are 8.5 metric tons (MT), while Salyut 1 (launched in 1971) was 18.6 MT and Skylab (1973) was 77 MT.   The International Space Station now in orbit is approximately 400 MT and has been permanently occupied by two-six person crews operating generally on 4-6 month rotations since the year 2000. 

Despite its modest size, the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 crews remained aboard Tiangong 1 for about two weeks.  The crew size for Tiangong-2 has been reduced to two and they will stay for 30 days.  The first, composed of two men, reportedly will launch on Shenzhou-11 in mid-October.

Tiangong space stations and Shenzhou spacecraft are launched from China's Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert, China's original launch site.  Tiangong-2 arrived at Jiuquan in July and Shenzhou-11 and the two rockets in August.

Meanwhile, China has inaugurated its new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.   That brings to four the number of Chinese space launch sites.  The others are Xichang near Chengdu, used for launches to geostationary orbit, and Taiyuan, south of Beijing, for polar orbit launches.  

The first launch from Hainan took place in June.  It was the debut of the new mid-sized Long March 7 rocket capable of placing 13.5 MT in low Earth orbit (LEO).   China now is getting ready for the first flight of its Long March 5 from Hainan, expected in mid-September. 

The 5-meter diameter Long March 5 will be the largest in China's fleet, able to put 25 MT into LEO.  The largest U.S. rocket is the Delta IV Heavy, which can place 28.4 MT into LEO.

Long March 5 is the latest in a series of new launch vehicles China is developing to replace its original fleet of various versions of Long March 2, 3 and 4.  It tested two small rockets, Long March 6 (liquid-fueled) and  Long March 11 (solid-fueled), in 2015.  The mid-sized Long March 7 was tested in June and now the large "heavy" Long March 5.  Long March 5, 6 and 7 use environmentally friendly fuels and have a modular design where common components are shared according to China's CCTV news channel.

China lists the Chang'e-5 robotic lunar probe, a robotic Mars probe, and the core module for a new generation space station as upcoming Long March 5 launches.  The launch of Chang'e-5, designed to return samples from the Moon, is expected in 2017.  The 200 kilogram Mars probe (a lander and rover) is scheduled for launch in August 2020.  The new generation space station, a three module design with a total mass of 60 MT, is planned for the early 2020s (Chinese officials variously say 2022 or 2023).

Philae Comet Lander Located -- Just in Nick of Time

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Sep-2016 (Updated: 05-Sep-2016 02:31 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) exuberantly announced today that imagery from a camera aboard its Rosetta spacecraft has finally located the Philae lander on the surface of Comet 67P.  After returning data for 57 hours in 2014, contact with Philae was lost.  It briefly resumed transmissions in 2015, but ceased again.  The imagery released today confirms that the problem is Philae's position, which does not allow its solar panels to charge the battery.  The Rosetta mission will end on September 30, so the discovery came just in the nick of time.

The trials and tribulations of the tiny lander made headlines in November 2014 when it separated from Rosetta and headed down to the surface of the comet, the first time such a feat was attempted.  After initial contact, harpoons intended to secure Philae to the surface failed to fire, however, and it bounced twice more before landing elsewhere.  Philae communicates to Earth via Rosetta, which is in orbit around the comet, and communications were established even though ESA and the German space agency, DLR, which built Philae, did not know precisely where it was.

Philae had enough battery power for one round of experiments and it successfully completed 80 percent of them, but contact then was lost and mission managers assumed that the spacecraft landed in a position where sunlight could not reach its solar panels to charge a secondary battery that is aboard.  They hoped that as the comet neared the Sun, more sunlight would reach the panels.  Indeed, Philae "phoned home" briefly in June and July 2015, only to disappear again.

Rosetta has continued to orbit the comet, whose full designation is 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after the two Ukrainian astronomers who discovered it, on its journey in toward the Sun and out again.  The comet-spacecraft duo came closest to the Sun (perihelion) in August 2015.  This is 67P's first encounter with the Sun and thus it still contains the primordial material of which it was made 4.5 billion years ago making it of special interest to scientists.  

The comet and spacecraft are now on their way back to the outer edges of the solar system.  On October 1, they will move behind the Sun relative to Earth, preventing communications.  Coupled with other technical factors affecting the longevity of the spacecraft and its instruments, program managers decided to formally end the mission on September 30 when they will command it to make a controlled impact with the surface for one last set of observations. 

That final descent is still almost a month away, but the images showing Philae were taken by Rosetta's narrow-angle camera, OSIRIS, when it was just 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles) above the surface. Cecilia Tubiana of the OSIRIS team was the first to see the images and identify Philae.   ESA has been looking for Philae all this time and narrowed its location down to a few potential sites, but this is the first time its location could be confirmed.  Philae is "wedged into a dark crack," ESA said, also proving that the problem is lack of sunlight to charge the secondary battery.

Image of Philae on the surface of Comet 67P from camera aboard ESA's Rosetta orbiter, September 2, 2016.  Photo credit:  ESA

ESA also released a copy of the image with the spacecraft components labeled.

Image of Philae on the surface of Comet 67P with labels added by ESA to identify spacecraft components.  Photo credit: ESA

ESA Rosetta mission manager Patrick Martin said "[w]e were beginning to think that Philae would be lost forever. It is incredible we have captured this at the final hour."   ESA Rosetta program scientist Matt Taylor added that now scientists have "ground truth" that will allow them to put Philae's science data into the proper context.

ESA explains that Rosetta and Philae "aim to unlock the mysteries of the oldest building blocks of our solar system -- comets" and hence the names are connected to the deciphering of hieroglyphics. 

  • Rosetta is named after the Rosetta Stone that allowed the deciphering of hieroglyphics and therefore an understanding of Egyptian civilization.
  • Philae is the name of an island in the Nile river where an obelisk was found with the final clues to enable the decryption.
  • Philae was flooded when the Aswan dams were built in the 20th century and a complex of Ancient Egyptian buildings, including the Temple of Isis, were moved to another island, Agilkia,   ESA held a contest to name Philae's intended landing site on 67P and of 8,000 entries, more than 150 suggested Agilkia and that was the winner.  Although Philae briefly touched down there, its final landing site is named Abydos after one of the oldest cities in Egypt.

Rosetta and Philae were launched on March 2, 2004.  It took 10 years for them to reach their destination -- the 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) diameter Comet 67P.  It was 540 million kilometers (335 million miles) from the Sun or 404 million kilometers (251 million miles) from the Earth at that time. As of today, they have traveled 7.9 billion kilometers (4.9 billion miles).  ESA has an interactive "Where is Rosetta" graphic that shows Rosetta's location at every point along its route.

Rosetta is an ESA mission, but NASA provided three of its instruments and part of the electronics for a fourth.

NASA-Goddard's Hartman, Gilbert Among 2016 WIA Award Winners

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2016 (Updated: 04-Sep-2016 10:22 PM)

Women in Aerospace (WIA) has announced the winners of its 2016 awards.  Among the six women being honored are Colleen Hartman and Holly Gilbert from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  WIA will present all of its awards on October 13, 2016 at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Arlington, VA.

Hartman currently is Director of Goddard's Sciences & Exploration Directorate and has worked at Goddard and NASA headquarters since 1994.  She is receiving the 2016 WIA Leadership Award for "30 years of exemplary leadership at the highest levels of government and for inspiring the next tier of scientists, engineers and managers."

Gilbert is Deputy Director of the Heliophysics Science Division within Goddard's Sciences & Exploration directorate.  She is being recognized with the 2016 Aerospace Awareness Award for "outstanding leadership in bringing heliophysics science to the public."   NASA's heliophysics discipline incorporates the study of the Sun and solar-terrestrial interactions (the field is sometimes referred to as solar and space physics).

WIA is also honoring four other women, one of them posthumously.

WIA's 2016 Achievement Award will be presented to Celia Blum of Lockheed Martin for "leading the team that reduced the mass of the Orion Crew Module pressure vessel and delivered it to Kennedy Space Center for Exploration Mission 1 integration."   Orion is part of NASA's new human space transportation system intended to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo lunar missions.  Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) will be the first flight of Orion aboard the Space Launch System (SLS), a large rocket NASA is building for that purpose.  The EM-1 mission will not carry a crew.  It is a test launch scheduled for 2018.

Mary Bowden of the University of Maryland, College Park, is receiving the 2016 Aerospace Educator Award for "motivating interest in space systems, being an inspiring role model and promoting the success of students at all levels."

Lt. Amanda Lippert, Naval Air Systems Command, is the winner of the 2016 Initiative, Inspiration, Impact Award for "her multiple achievements and contributions to the field of aerospace science and industry within the past twenty-four months."

The 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented posthumously to Molly Macauley, who was murdered in July.  Macauley was one of the few economists who specialized in the economic aspects of the space program.

The WIA Awards Dinner is October 13, 2016 at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City in Arlington, VA.   WIA will also honor the late Patti Grace Smith, who died of cancer earlier this year.  She will be recognized for "her tremendous impact not only for women in the aerospace community, but for her influence on the aerospace industry as a whole."

WIA Honors Molly Macauley with Lifetime Achievement Award - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Sep-2016 (Updated: 06-Sep-2016 03:37 PM)

Women in Aerospace (WIA) is honoring Molly Macauley with its 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award.  It will be presented posthumously at the WIA Awards Dinner on October 13.  Her murder on July 8 remains unsolved. Resources for the Future (RFF), where she spent most of her career, will hold a memorial service on September 23.

Macauley was one of the few economists who specialized in studying the economic implications of space activities, especially earth observation satellites. After four years working at the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT), she spent the rest of her career at RFF, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on the economics of natural resources.  She also was a visiting professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University for many years.

She was murdered while walking her dogs near her home in Baltimore.  The police said at the time there was no motive and no suspects. No further news has been forthcoming.

Macauley published widely and she was a member of the International Editorial Board of the quarterly journal Space Policy.  Elsevier, the publisher of Space Policy, is making the articles she wrote for the journal available for free for the remainder of this year and published tributes to her by other members of the Editorial Board and many space policy colleagues.  

RFF also has a tribute page and will hold a memorial service for her on September 23 at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, DC from 3:30-5:30 pm ET.  (All of Molly's friends and colleagues are welcome, but please RSVP in advance to

In its press release announcing the winners of its 2016 awards, WIA said that Macauley was being honored for "having successfully pioneered the field of 'space economics' over the lifetime of her professional career and contributing to academic and public policy impacts of linking economics with space science."

The WIA Awards Dinner is on October 13 at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City in Arlington, VA.

Updated with RSVP instructions for Molly Macauley's memorial service.

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