Due to the appeal by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) of the CCtCap awards to Boeing and SpaceX both companies have been told to stop any work until the appeal process has been completed.
SNC filed a complaint on 26th Sept 2014 with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), while full details of the complaint are not currently available the general summary appears to be related to irregularities with the selection process and the fact that their bid was $900m less than Boeing’s. The GAO has 100 days to review and rule on the appeal, at present there is no way to know what they could decide, at the minimum they could rule there is no basis in the complaint at worse they could rule that the contracts are invalid and require the process to be done again.
So what impact does this have on the Commercial Crew program for NASA. Depending on the GAO’s decision it could either result in a slight delay or at worse could push Commercial Crew into 2018 or beyond. This would almost certainly mean that NASA would also have to negotiate more seats on Soyuz to cover the delay which based on the last cost increase could run at more than $80m a seat.
What if GAO rules one of the contracts is invalid? Well that would almost certainly guarantee an appeal by whoever’s contract is invalidated which could drag out the process even further.
The Irony in all this is clearly based on the SNC/Stratolaunch System’s announcement made just yesterday SNC has no plans to abandon the Dream Chaser program and while we are sure having $3.3b would go a long way to complete this they most likely could have found funding elsewhere.
The same goes for SpaceX they clearly have plans that go well beyond just providing Dragon V2 for NASA and again the $2.6b will help realize these goals faster then if they had to fund the development themselves.
Finally Boeing did indicate that if they didn’t get the award they would be laying off workers, whether they would abandon CST-100 is really unknown as there have been indications that they might have or still might consider competing for the CRS2 Cargo contracts which was announced recently.
It seems to us that the only people who will lose out in the mess is NASA and the Taxpayer, NASA because they will potentially be reliant on Russia for longer and Taxpayer because we will have to foot the bill of the appeal process and any changes to the contracts resulting form the appeal.
Following on from my previous article I wanted to explore the possibility that the Space Launch System (SLS) may never actually fly.
While progress has been made on the SLS it will not be ready to fly when President Barack Obama leaves office and given that he cancelled the Constellation Program (CxP) when he came to office it is quite likely that whoever takes office in 2017 could look at how much has been spent on SLS and decide to cancel it too. Thankfully we believe that the Commercial Crew program will be far enough along that it won’t be cancelled but there is no guarantee.
So what happens if SLS is cancelled?
1) The US would have spent close to $25 billion on CxP and SLS by the time it is cancelled (including Orion and Ground support work). While elements of the work could be used on a new program it is likely that some of the money would have been wasted.
2) Depending what direction the new President decided the new launcher for NASA could be many years away.
3) NASA would be dependent on Commercial Crew or Russia to launch people to orbit, while that would be the case for International Space Station (ISS) anyway this would also apply to any other missions before an alternate is available.
What do we hope happens?
1) That SLS is cancelled, despite how much has been “invested” in the program we feel that the system is just too expensive to ever fly. We have heard estimates that each flight could cost $2-3b but at present there just isn’t enough data to know for certain.
2) That any new direction decided would make use of the Commercial partners that are already providing services to NASA. SpaceX have plans for Falcon Heavy which would have the largest payload capacity of any rocket currently available and they are already working on engines for a successor to that. The three competitors in the Commercial Crew Program Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX all have vehicles that can carry as many as seven passengers to orbit. SpaceX’s long term goals are to travel to Mars which means they will have vehicles in the future that can make the journey.
3) That whatever plan is decided on by the President is based on feedback from the citizen’s of the US, either via a Survey or by putting together a team of non government experts who could layout a course that benefits everyone, a decadal survey for manned space flight.
4) Whatever plan is adopted needs to at least have started flying within a single Presidential term so that it is much harder to cancel when the next President takes office.
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When New Horizons was first launched towards Pluto the plan was for it to complete it’s mission and then fly on to another object in the Kuiper belt and perform the same observations as it does at Pluto. The second destination has not yet been choose and researchers are now utilizing the power of the Hubble Space Telescope to aid the search. While there is still plenty of time the science team will need to ensure they determined the orbit of the object so they can make any adjustments to the path of New Horizons once it leaves Pluto.
NASA’s Messenger spacecraft currently in orbit of Mercury has allowed scientists for the first time to spot a hot flow anomaly or HFA. A HFA is a classic space weather event which has been previous spotted at Venus, Earth, Mars and Saturn.
Last week a number of teams took part in the NASA Centennial Sample Return Robot Challenge that was hosted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, MA.
For this years challenge there were two levels available, the first level teams would compete for 30 minutes and had to return the designated sample to their starting platform with the robot operating complete autonomously. Fourteen teams competed for this level with a single $5000 prize being awarded to the Mountaineers, first-time competitors from West Virginia University, Morgantown.
For the second level, teams had 2 hours to complete the challenge, this time they had to autonomously collect as many samples as they could during the allotted time with the prize money based on total weigh collected within the rules which can be found here. This year there was only one team competing for this level, Team Survey who had completed level one last year, unfortunately due to a malfunction during start up of the robot they were not able to complete the challenge. They did reboot the robot and performed a demonstration run on the course allowing them to collect very valuable data on the performance of the robot.
This was the third year of the competition hosted by WPI, next year Mountaineers and Team Survey will both be eligible for level 2 if they choose to compete.
Airbus and Safran join forces in Launcher market
Love them or hate them SpaceX are clearly making waves in the satellite launcher business, this is born out by the news this week that Airbus Group and Safran are further strengthening there relationship by creating a 50-50 joint venture to combine the launcher systems from Airbus and propulsion systems from Safran.
Researchers in Chile have observed 800 celestial objects that are up to 100 times heavier than our Sun, and concluded that 90% turn out to be multiple systems. Current telescopes do not have the power to see individual objects with a multiple system however so they can only go by the oscillation of the brightness of the object while being observed.
Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) will soon be able to enjoy a freshly brewed coffee instead of the instant coffee they currently use. The ISSpresso machine is a capsule based espresso machine built by coffee retailer Lavazza and aerospace company Argotec. It is due to fly up to ISS later this year to coincide with the expedition of European Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti who will not only be the first Italian woman in space but if all goes as planned by the first to enjoy a real Italian espresso in space.
Earth’s gravity causes Lunar bulges
For the first time scientists have been able to observe the bulge on the surface of the moon that is created by the gravitational pull of the Earth on the moon, using NASA satellites. Due to the size of both the Earth and Moon they are in a gravitational tug-of-war which stretches both and causes them to have a slight oval shape.
On Earth we see the effects of this in the tides, however on the moon it is much harder as it is solid on the surface. Careful observations of the surface have shown a 20 inch bulge on each side of the moon. While the same side of the moon faces the earth this bulge does move around slightly due to the wobble of the moon during it’s orbit.
The final antenna for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory, high on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, has arrived. The array consists of 66 antenna’s which can work together to form a single massive radio telescope. The array has been operation since 2011 and has already returned stunning images of the universe.
The debate as to whether or not there are large planets beyond Pluto has been going on for decades and with the recent discovery of 2012 VP113 has revived interest in the subject. Observations of extreme trans-Neptunian objects seems to indicate that they are being shepherded by a distant, undiscovered planet larger than Earth.
Astronomers for the European space observatory Gaia, which was launched last December have run into a problem with stray light entering the spacecraft. This stray light will effect how well it can see the stars it is observing, the Astronomers stated that this would only effect the faintest of stars. They also announced that the optics are not transmitting as efficiently as designed but that the amount of scientific data return will still be immense.
A team of scientists utilizing supercomputers have developed a new absorption spectrum for methane that is 2000 times more comprehensive than before. This will allow Astronomers to sniff out Methane on alien planets and aid in the search for life beyond Earth.
Giant Telescopes pair up to image near-Earth Asteroid
Scientists from NASA working with a team from the Arecibo Observatory have taken radar images of Asteroid “2014 HQ124”. Captured on the 8th June they are some of the most detailed radar images of a near-Earth asteroid ever obtained.
This week United Launch Alliance (ULA) signed contracts with multiple US companies to allow them to mature next-generation rocket engine concepts. ULA would like to be able to replace the RD-180 rocket engines currently sourced from Russia with home-grown engines. The contracts call for first launch in 2019.
Boeing are preparing to send out 215 layoff notices to employee’s currently working on the Commercial Crew entry CST-100. Under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) they are required to give 60 days notice of any pending layoffs.
The next round of Commercial Crew awards is due over the summer, due to the funding it seems likely only one of the three competitors Sierra Nevada, Boeing and SpaceX will be awarded a CCtCap contract to continue working on there system.
NASA Dark Energy Mission could spot 3,000 more exo-planets
A NASA mission designed to probe the nature of dark energy may also help discover thousands more exo-planets. The Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) which is due to launch in the mid-2020’s will be able to capture 300 megapixels per image and would rely on gravitational microlensing to enable it to capture the images.
NASA has issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) for commercial services for the ISS.
The International Space Station (ISS) Commercial Resupply Services 2 (CRS2) contract, a pre-solicitation conference is currently planned for August 7th with final proposals to be submitted by November 14th 2014.
The services requested are delivery of pressurized and unpressurized cargo, return and disposal of pressurized cargo, disposal of unpressurized cargo, special tasks and studies, and ground support services for the end-to-end cargo resupply services. The supplies to be delivered by terms of the contract include air, water, food, clothing, medicine, spare parts, and scientific experiments for use in the U.S. and International Partner experimental modules.
Russian EVA completed successfully
Cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev conducted an extended seven-hour 23-minute spacewalk outside the International Space Station Thursday, installing a telemetry antenna, re-positioning an experiment and jettisoning a mounting fixture after moving another experiment to a recently installed payload boom.
They ran into several issues during the spacewalk trying to remove bolts that had been in place since the Zvezda module was first launched in July 2000, however were able to overcome those issues and complete the tasks successfully.
This was the first spacewalk for both Alexander and Oleg.
NASA wants to send Quadcopter Drone to Titan
While one NASA probe whizzes by Saturn’s moon Titan on Thursday to analyze its atmosphere, the American space agency is also considering a plan to send a quadcopter drone capable of searching for life.
The ambitious idea was outlined by Larry Matthies, a research scientist and supervisor at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California, and involves a drone that would be capable of flying out of a lander or balloon. The drone would explore the moon’s landscape and seas, collect samples, and return to the “mothership” in order to recharge its batteries and submit whatever it collects for analysis.
Sierra Nevada Corporation to Acquire Orbital Technologies Corporation
Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), headquartered in Sparks, Nevada, announces that it has signed a definitive purchase agreement to acquire the Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) as a wholly-owned subsidiary of SNC. ORBITEC is a leading subsystems integrator and high technology development company based in Madison, Wisconsin. ORBITEC’s strong liquid rocket propulsion, life science and support, and fire suppression technology portfolio will enhance both SNC Space Systems’ Propulsion and Spacecraft Systems’ product lines.
The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) groundbreaking took place this week with a live Webcast of the first blast designed to flatten the mountaintop that the telescope will be built on.
The E-ELT will be the biggest optical/near-infrared telescope built so far with a 39m primary mirror made up of 768 hexagonal segments each 1.4m widfe and 5cm thick. It will collect more light than all of the existing 8–10-metre class telescopes on the planet combined, and 100 million times more light than the human eye.
Russian Dnepr rocket lofts record haul of 37 satellites
A Russian Dnepr rocket launched a record-breaking thirty-seven satellites on Friday morning local time, deploying a cluster of spacecraft for scientific research and commercial operation. The mission departed on schedule from Dombarovsky in Southern Russia at 01:11 local time (19:11 UTC on Thursday).
This launch saw the record for most spacecraft launched by a single rocket broken for the fourth time in less than a year.
NASA Announces Latest Progress, Upcoming Milestones in Hunt for Asteroids
NASA is on the hunt for an asteroid to capture with a robotic spacecraft, redirect to a stable orbit around the moon, and send astronauts to study in the 2020s — all on the agency’s human Path to Mars. Agency officials announced on Thursday recent progress to identify candidate asteroids for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), increase public participation in the search for asteroids, and advance the mission’s design.
NASA plans to launch the ARM robotic spacecraft in 2019 and will make a final choice of the asteroid for the mission about a year before the spacecraft launches. NASA is working on two concepts for the mission: the first is to fully capture a very small asteroid in open space, and the second is to collect a boulder-sized sample off of a much larger asteroid. Both concepts would require redirecting an asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in size into the moon’s orbit. The agency will choose between these two concepts in late 2014 and further refine the mission’s design.
This week SpaceX conducted another test flight of it’s F9R rocket, this time with deployable fins on the side of the rocket, these are designed to give the rocket more control during descent and is another step towards Elon Musk’s goal of having a fully re-usable Falcon 9 first stage.
No word yet when/if these will be flown on an actual Falcon 9 vehicle.
There may also be a possibility of testing the controlled descent on the Orbcomm flight scheduled for tonight.
SpaceX Launch later today (hopefully)
The Orbcomm OG2 launch has been rescheduled for later today, last Sunday’s attempt to scrapped to allow Orbcomm more time to verify their satellites were in a good configuration for launch. The launch window starts of 6:08pm EDT and extends for 53 minutes.
At time of publishing the forecast shows only a 30% change that weather would co-operate, with a slightly better 60% tomorrow. However the last launch had a low change of launching and they plugged away and got off the ground on time so there is a chance it will still go.