aerospace Astra Space astronomy cubesats Momentus nasa Rocket Lab spacex Starship Virgin Orbit

SpaceX bid on launch of NASA cubesat mission

Starship SN10 liftoff

WASHINGTON — A NASA competition to launch a cluster of cubesats attracted a bid from SpaceX, who appeared to offer a vehicle other than its current Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy.

NASA released March 11 the source selection statement from the competition to launch the Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation Structure and Storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) mission, a group of six cubesats to be launched into three orbital planes in 2022 to study tropical weather systems. NASA awarded a contract for the launch to Astra Feb. 26, valued at $7.95 million.

The agency said in the statement that it received five proposals last August for the mission. Besides Astra, two other small launch vehicle companies, Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit, submitted bids. A fourth came from Momentus, which offers in-space transportation services for satellites launched on rideshare missions.

The fifth bid came from SpaceX, which has a smallsat rideshare program, bundling groups of cubesats and other small satellites on Falcon 9 launches. However, the company did not appear to offer launch services from that program for the TROPICS competition.

In its assessment of the bidders, NASA noted a weakness in SpaceX’s proposal because the company “did not clearly demonstrate progress toward the resolution of the environmental assessment which results in risk associated with obtaining an FAA launch license, increasing the likelihood of delays that would affect contract performance.”

The source selection statement also identified a significant weakness regarding the “risk to launch approach” for the mission, noting the company had not updated an integrated master schedule in its initial proposal. “As a result, there is significant risk in the proposed launch approach based on the required launch date and the current status of the proposed launch vehicle that increases the likelihood of unsuccessful contract performance.”

Neither criticism would appear to apply to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles currently in service. Both vehicles have launch licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration, which updated an environmental assessment for launches from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Kennedy Space Center in July 2020. SpaceX has won a series of contracts for launches of larger NASA missions using those vehicles.

An intriguing possibility is that SpaceX instead offered its Starship vehicle under development. That vehicle has an FAA launch license today only for its current series of suborbital test flights. The FAA is also performing an environmental assessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, site for orbital launches of that vehicle. The agency recently published a “scoping summary report” outlining public comments it received in the scoping process of the assessment, but did not issue a schedule for the release of a draft version of the environmental assessment.

Starship would appear to be massively oversized for TROPICS. When launched with a booster called Super Heavy, Starship will be able to place more than 100 metric tons into low Earth orbit. SpaceX has previously suggested, though, that the Starship upper stage alone may be able to reach orbit, but without a significant payload. That could be sufficient for TROPICS, whose combined mass is about 56 kilograms.

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment on its proposal for TROPICS.

In the source selection statement, NASA compared SpaceX’s proposal with that from Astra, whose Rocket 3 small launch vehicle has yet to reach orbit but which the company has declared orbit-capable after two test launches. Astra was cited for a weakness in its proposed launch site, citing development and range conflict issues. The statement did not disclose the launch site, but in the announcement of the contract last month, NASA said the launches would take place from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

While SpaceX also had a launch site risk “with obtaining an FAA launch license in time to support orbital test flights,” NASA concluded that the “risk in its launch approach based on the required launch date and current status of the proposed launch vehicle” was a bigger concern. That resulted in Astra being rated slightly higher than SpaceX regarding technical and management capability. SpaceX’s proposed price was also “somewhat higher” than Astra’s bid.

NASA also eliminated Virgin Orbit because its original bid did not fall in the “competitive range” the agency established, and it was the only bidder not asked to provide an updated proposal, due Feb. 5. Momentus was eliminated from consideration because its proposal did not demonstrate it could meet all the requirements of the launch services interface requirements document, which “places the government at extreme risk of unsuccessful contract performance.”

The competition came down to Astra and Rocket Lab, whose proposal had several strengths, but also a “significantly higher” price than Astra. NASA concluded that “after reviewing the benefits associated with Rocket Lab’s proposal and Astra’s assessed risk in combination with their significantly lower price, the technical benefits do not offset the significant difference in price” and selected Astra for launching the TROPICS mission.


aerospace astronomy Momentus rideshare spacex

Momentus delays first Vigoride launch

WASHINGTON — In-space transportation provider Momentus is delaying its first operational mission, which was to fly on a SpaceX Falcon 9 later this month, because of delays completing an interagency review.

In a Jan. 4 statement, Momentus said the flight of its first Vigoride tug, which was to be part of the payloads on a Falcon 9 dedicated rideshare mission launching as soon as Jan. 14, will be delayed to later in the year because it was unable to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for the mission.

“This move will allow for the additional time necessary to secure FAA approval of Momentus’ payloads, including completion of a standard interagency review,” the company said in a statement.

The company did not elaborate on that review, but part of the FAA commercial launch licensing process is a review of the payload that the agency describes as intended “to determine whether its launch would jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States.” That process can include consultation with other government agencies.

In a Jan. 5 document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the form of an interview, Fred Kennedy, president of Momentus, said there was no specific issue that was delaying that review. “The FAA did not express any specific concerns of its own, but rather indicated that more time was needed to complete its interagency review of Momentus’ payload,” he said.

He added that the company had completed interagency reviews for other licenses it needs, such as one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which licenses a camera on the Vigoride vehicle as part of commercial remote sensing regulations. Kennedy said Momentus “recently cleared an interagency review” for that license, and NOAA’s website lists Momentus among the companies that have a commercial remote sensing license.

Momentus did not disclose in its announcement the payloads on the mission, known as Vigoride-1 or VR-1. However, in a Federal Communications Commission filing in June, the company said the vehicle would carry five cubesats, ranging in size from 1.8 to 4.4 kilograms each, from Aurora Propulsion Technologies, SatRevolution, SpaceManic and Steamjet Space Systems.

In the FCC filing, Momentus said that Vigoride-1 would be released from the Falcon 9’s upper stage in a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of about 525 kilometers. Vigoride-1 would then use its onboard propulsion to raise its orbit to 570 kilometers, then deploy the payloads. Vigoride-1 would then perform a deorbit maneuver to decrease its perigee to as low as 300 kilometers, enabling a reentry within a year. Without the deorbit maneuver, it would remain in orbit for up to 16 years.

One of those customers said they would continue to work with Momentus despite the delay. “We remain committed to Momentus’ value-add transport and service platform,” said Grzegorz Zwolinski, chief executive and co-founder of SatRevolution, in the Momentus statement about the Vigoride-1 delay.

Momentus said the delay in the Vigoride-1 launch would not affect its financial projections for the year. In an investor presentation filed with the SEC Dec. 14, the company projected revenues of $20 million in 2021, but a loss of $46 million for the year.

That presentation was filed as part of a planned merger between Momentus and Stable Road Acquisition Corporation, a special-purpose acquisition company, announced in October. That merger would turn Momentus into a publicly traded company with an estimated valuation of $1.2 billion and with $310 million in cash.

The company said that the merger is still scheduled to close in the first quarter of this year, pending approval by shareholders and other regulatory approvals.

Vigoride-1 was scheduled to be part of the payloads of a Falcon 9 mission called Transporter-1 by SpaceX, the first in a series of dedicated rideshare missions. The mission is expected to carry several dozen smallsats, although SpaceX has not published a roster of payloads.

That list of payloads remains in flux after two Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency satellites that were to fly on the mission were damaged in pre-launch preparations. The satellites, named Mandrake 1 and Mandrake 2, were to test advanced technologies DARPA plans to implement on future Blackjack satellites.

SpaceX is also seeking to add Starlink satellites to the Transporter-1 launch. In a Jan. 5 FCC filing, SpaceX disclosed it held a conversation with FCC officials the previous day stating that it plans to fly 10 Starlink satellites on the mission if it receives FCC authorization to do so. SpaceX, in recent FCC filings, sought permission to launch Starlink satellites into a polar orbit on an undisclosed “upcoming polar launch availability.”


aerospace astronomy EnduroSat Momentus rideshare spacex

Momentus and EnduroSat sign two launch agreements

SAN FRANCISCO – In-space transportation provider Momentus announced agreements June 16 with Bulgaria’s EnduroSat to provide transportation for two cubesats scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare flight in February 2021.

Under the agreement, Momentus will enclose Kuwait’s first spacecraft, QMR-KWT, and EnduroSat’s Shared Platform for Applied Research and Technology Affirmation (SPARTAN) in its Vigoride orbit transfer vehicle for the Falcon 9 launch. At the conclusion of the Falcon 9 flight, Vigoride will transport the cubesats to different orbits.

SPARTAN, a six-unit cubesat, is home to seven technology demonstrations and commercial payloads, according to a June 16 news release. EnduroSat intends the mission to serve as a pilot for its Shared Satellite Service.

For Shared Satellite Service missions, EnduroSat plans to handle integration, validation, testing, launch and operations of the satellite and payloads. EnduroSat customers will have access to payload data in the cloud through a digital ground station, according to the news release.

“The goal is to provide easy access to space for visionary entrepreneurs, scientists and technologists, helping them drive innovation at the final frontier,” EnduroSat CEO Raycho Raychev said in a statement. “EnduroSat is proud to cooperate on this pilot mission with the team of Momentus, and we look forward to the next missions.”

The agreements signal Momentus’ expansion in Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East through its partner EnduroSat, Momentus CEO Mikhail Kokorich said in a statement.

QMR-KWT is an educational mission funded by the Kuwaiti company Orbital Space and EnduroSat. Students around the world will write software to be uploaded to one of the satellite’s onboard computers, according to the news release.

Momentus purchased rides on five SpaceX Falcon 9 smallSat rideshare missions in 2020 and 2021 to showcase the ability of its Vigoride in-space transportation vehicle to move customer satellites 300 to 1,200 kilometers beyond the drop-off point.