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TWIRL 24: United Launch Alliance to send CST-100 Starliner to the ISS
by Paul Hill
Following several weeks of billionaires launching themselves into space, we have a quieter week with just two confirmed launches. The first launch comes from the United Launch Alliance which will send its CST-100 Starliner on an uncrewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and the launch of a communications satellite called Zhongxing 2E from China.
Tuesday, August 3
The first launch of the week comes from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) where an Atlas V rocket will launch the second CST-100 Starliner on a second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) to the ISS as part of NASA’s commercial crew program. While the craft won’t be delivering humans to the ISS, it will be carrying 345kg of cargo for the astronauts already aboard. The CST-100 Starliner is expected to stay in space for five to 10 days before making its way back to Earth where it’s due to land in the Western United States. ULA did attempt this launch last Friday but it seems to have been delayed, the live stream link for the event remains the same as last week. The launch is expected at 5:20 p.m. UTC.
Friday, August 6
One of China’s Long March CZ-3B/E is set to launch the Zhongxing 2E communications satellite into orbit on Friday from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The technical details of this satellite are not known but its relation to other satellites suggests that it will be able to deliver secure voice and data communications to ground terminals. It could also feature advanced multiple steerable spot beam antenna technology so that ground users can communicate while they’re on the go. A stream for this launch isn’t likely. Its launch is slated for 3:00 p.m. UTC.
We were treated to several launches last week, the first was a Long March 2D carrying the Tianhui 1D satellite for the Hangtian Dongfanghond Weixing Corporation and the Chinese Academy of Space Technology for performing remote image sensing.
The second launch was a Rocket Lab Electron rocket carrying the Monolith satellite for the United States Space Force (USSF) Space Test Program (STP). The mission was called ‘It’s a Little Chile Up Here’.
The final launch was an Ariane 5 ECA+ carrying the Star One D2 and Eutelsat Quantum communications into orbit. The Star One D2 satellite is owned by Embratel Star One, a Brazilian telecoms firm. The satellite will deliver telecommunications, direct-to-home television services, and fast broadband across parts of the Americas.
Jeff Bezos gives NASA an offer it can't refuse to win the moon mission contract
by Chandrakant Isi
In Godfather-like fashion, billionaire Jeff Bezos has made NASA an offer it can't refuse. In a bid to secure a manned lunar lander mission for Blue Origin, its Founder who also happens to be the wealthiest man on the planet has offered to waive $2 billion of payments.
For those not in the know, this is a reaction to NASA's decision to award a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to Elon Musk's SpaceX. Blue Origin has already managed to put this program on hold by filing a complaint with the Government Accountability Office (GOA) claiming favorable treatment to SpaceX.
In a letter to NASA's Administrator, Bill Nelson, Bezos emphasizes how "meaningful competition" is crucial to take the Americans back to the moon, perhaps making you wonder how he feels about Amazon's monopoly in e-commerce. Bezos highlights that in April, only SpaceX was given a chance to revise their pricing, which led to their selection. The billionaire called it a "mistake" but stated it is "not too late to remedy".
As a solution, Bezos has offered to waive payments of up to $2 billion. Mind you, it is not like Amazon Buy Now, Pay Later scheme. As mentioned in the letter, it is an outright and permanent waiver of those payments. Blue Origin is willing to accept a fixed-price contract and will take care of any cost overruns.
Bezos believes that his offer takes care of "NASA's near term budgetary issues". As a result, the space agency can now afford to go ahead with the "dual-source" strategy for the Artemis program.
NASA and Bezos' rival billionaire Elon Musk, have not yet commented on this offer. It will be interesting to see if $2 billion are enough to influence a decision at the most prolific space agency in the world.
SpaceX to fly NASA's reconnaissance mission to Jovian moon Europa
by Chandrakant Isi
Elon Musk's SpaceX has bagged another contract from NASA. The private space exploration company has been awarded approximately $178 million to fly the upcoming Europa Clipper mission on its Falcon Heavy rocket. That's significantly cost effective compared to NASA's in-house Space Launch System (SLS) that burns around $2 billion per launch. The Europa Clipper mission is expected to take off in 2024 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Europa is one of the most fascinating heavenly bodies in our solar system. The Jovian moon has been on the radar of astronomers due to the vast ocean underneath its icy shell. It is one of the most likely places in our solar system to harbor life as we know it. Hence, NASA has been planning the Europa Clipper mission to closely study this Jovian moon and scout for possible landing sites for future lander missions.
The Europa Clipper spacecraft will be equipped with several instruments to study if this icy moon harbors conditions suitable for life. The reconnaissance mission will focus on capturing high-resolution images of Europa's surface and detect signs of geological activity. The onboard spectrography sensors will try to determine the moon's composition. NASA also hopes to measure the thickness of Europa's icy shell and the depth and salinity of the sub-surface ocean.
Based on current data, Europa's ice shell probably has a depth of 10 to 15 miles. Below that lies an ocean with depths of whopping 40 to 100 miles. To put things in perspective, although Europa's diameter is only one-fourth to that of Earth, it may hold twice as much water compared to our home planet.
In addition to this latest contract, SpaceX recently won a $2.9 billion contract from NASA to build a lunar lander. However, it has been put on hold after Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office (GOA) over NASA's favorable treatment to SpaceX among other things.
TWIRL 23: FAA denies Branson and Bezos astronaut title
by Paul Hill
Over the last few editions of This Week in Rocket Launches, we’ve covered Richard Branson’s and Jeff Bezos’ trips to space aboard their own spacecraft. Following their successful launches, the U.S.’ Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has come up with new rules which deprive the billionaires and their passengers of the title astronaut. Under the new definition, those looking to get the title must be part of the flight crew and make contributions to space flight safety.
Despite the FAA’s rejection of the billionaire’s claim to be astronauts, BBC reports that the FAA will offer honorary awards based on merit but that these are offered at the discretion of the FAA’s associate administrator. It’s unclear yet whether the FAA will recognise those on the two launches or not at this time.
Now, let's take a look at next week's launches.
Tuesday, July 27
The first launch of the week comes from China where a Long March CZ-2D will carry the Tianhui 1D satellite into orbit. The satellite was built by the Hangtian Dongfanghong Weixing Corporation and the Chinese Academy of Space Technology, it includes a three-dimensional imaging system. The constellation this satellite is part of has been merged with part of the Ziyuan Earth Observation program that’s made up of civilian and military remote sensing satellites.
Friday, July 30
There are two launches on Friday, the first is a United Launch Alliance Atlas V N22 rocket carrying the second CST-100 Starliner. The CST-100 Starliner will be doing its second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s commercial crew program. The craft will dock at the ISS for 5 to 10 days and will arrive with 345kg of cargo for those aboard. The cargo will consist of food and crew preference items. You will be able to see the launch on YouTube.
The second launch on Friday will be from Arianespace which will launch the Ariane 5 ECA+ rocket carrying the Star One D2 and Eutelsat Quantum communications satellites into orbit. The Star One D2 satellite is owned by Embratel Star One and will deliver telecommunications, direct-to-home television services, and fast broadband to people in South America, Mexico, Central America, and parts of the Atlantic Ocean.
The first launch we got last week was the Long March 2C carrying the Yaogan 30 Group 10 and Tianqi 15 satellites. The Yaogan satellites will perform electromagnetic detection.
The second launch was the popularized New Shepard 16 carrying Jeff Bezos and co. to the edge of space.
Finally, Roscosmos launched the much delayed Nauka module into space aboard a Proton M rocket. It will add about 14-meters to the ISS and is carrying the European Robotic Arm for the European Space Agency.