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NASA awards contracts for lunar technologies and ice prospecting payload

Intuitive Machines lander

WASHINGTON — NASA has awarded more than $400 million in contracts to both demonstrate technologies needed for future lunar exploration and to send an ice-drilling payload to the south pole of the moon.

NASA announced Oct. 16 that it awarded a task order worth $47 million to Intuitive Machines, one of 14 companies in the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, to deliver the Polar Resources Ice Mining Experiment 1 (PRIME-1) payload to the south pole of the moon by the end of 2022.

PRIME-1 is a 40-kilogram payload designed to look for water ice at depths of up to one meter below the lunar surface. It will test a near-infrared spectrometer, mass spectrometer and drill that NASA plans to fly on the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission in 2023.

“We’re building up our capabilities for in-situ resource utilization, utilizing the resources on the moon,” Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, said at an Oct. 14 meeting of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium, a group that brings together academia, government and industry to assess technologies needed for exploration of the lunar surface. PRIME-1, he said, was one of the first experiments to support that effort.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, speaking earlier at the same meeting, also discussed the importance of both PRIME-1 and VIPER. “These missions are critically important to help us understand where we need to go so we can get the best assessment of those volatiles,” he said, which can help the agency identify promising landing site for future crewed Artemis missions.

This mission will be the second for Intuitive Machines under the CLPS program. It received in May 2019 one of the first CLPS task orders, for a mission scheduled for launch in late 2021. Astrobotic also received one of those first task orders, as well as one in June for the VIPER mission. Masten Space Systems won a CLPS order in April for a mission to the south polar regions of the moon.

The announcement of the PRIME-1 launch came two days after NASA awarded a much larger amount of money for lunar surface technologies. The 15 awards to 14 companies, made through the agency’s Tipping Point program, are intended to advance technologies nearing maturity that could support the later, “sustainable,” phase of the Artemis program.

“NASA believes that these kinds of companies, and capabilities they’ve developed, are going to be transformational for how we explore space,” Bridenstine said at the consortium meeting, where he announced the Tipping Point awards. “But we also believe it’s going to take a little bit of a push from NASA.”

Of the $372.2 million in Tipping Point contracts, $256.1 million will go to four companies working on cryogenic fluid management technology demonstrations: Eta Space, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. All four companies plan to conduct in-space demonstrations of technologies for storage and transfer of propellants like liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

“When we fly into space, we have to story cryogenic fluids for long periods of time,” Bridenstine said. “How can we manage cryogenic fluids so we can do spaceflight in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to?”

Eta Space will use its $27 million award to fly a small satellite called LOXSAT 1 to test liquid oxygen storage technologies. Eta Space is working with Rocket Lab, which will provide the Photon satellite bus LOXSAT 1 is based on and launch the spacecraft on its Electron rocket.

Lockheed Martin won an $89.7 million award to test liquid hydrogen storage technologies on a small satellite. The company is working with Momentus, which will host the payload on a Vigoride orbital transfer vehicle, and Relativity Space, which will launch the vehicle on its Terran 1 rocket in October 2023.

SpaceX, which has already been working with NASA on studying cryogenic fluid management technologies, won $53.2 million to demonstrate the transfer of 10 tons of liquid oxygen between tanks on a Starship vehicle in orbit. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, asked about orbital refueling at a Mars Society conference Oct. 16, said “we’ve got a shot of doing that in ’22.”

United Launch Alliance will use its $86.2 million award to demonstrate a “smart propulsion cryogenic system” using the Centaur upper stage of its new Vulcan rocket. That demonstration includes testing tank-to-tank transfer of propellants and “multi-week” storage.

The remaining Tipping Point funding went to 10 companies to demonstrate a range of technologies needed for landing and operating on the lunar surface. Masten Space Systems won two contracts, with a total value of $12.8 million, to demonstrate precision landing technologies with its Xogdor vehicle and a system to provide heat and power for payloads to allow them to survive the lunar night.

Other awards, ranging in value from $2.4 million to $41.6 million, cover technologies such as power systems, a payload to extract oxygen from lunar regolith, and a robotic arm. Nokia won a $14.1 million award to develop lunar communications systems using 4G wireless networks.

Intuitive Machines won the largest of those awards for development of a “hopper” that can carry a one-kilogram payload up to 2.5 kilometers across the lunar surface. “That’s going to give us high-resolution mapping of maybe volatiles on the surface of the moon,” Bridenstine said. “It’s going to help us understand how to pinpoint very precise landing spots on the surface of the moon.”


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ULA, SpaceX win landmark multibillion-dollar launch agreements with Pentagon

Artist’s concept of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX beat out Northrop Grumman and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin for billions of dollars in U.S. military rocket contracts, and will share the load in launching the Pentagon’s highest-priority national security space missions through 2027, officials announced Friday.

ULA, the 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will get 60 percent of the military’s most critical satellite launch contracts awarded through late 2024 for missions that will take off between 2022 and late 2027. SpaceX will receive 40 percent of the national security launch contracts over the same period, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon did not select proposals submitted by Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin.

The agreements cover contracts to launch satellites for the U.S. Space Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Missile Defense Agency, and other military services and agencies, providing an anchor customer for SpaceX and ULA.

“This is a groundbreaking day, culminating years of strategic planning and effort by the Department of the Air Force, NRO, and our launch service industry partners,” said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. “Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space.”

The agreements with ULA and SpaceX are part of Phase 2 of the Pentagon’s effort to transition military satellite launches off of rockets using Russian-made RD-180 engines, and onto vehicles with U.S.-built engines. ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket has launched more national security satellites than any other rocket currently in service, and its first stage is powered by the RD-180 engine.

The procurement strategy is also intended to reduce launch costs for the Pentagon.

“We have been stuck on Russian RD-180 engines for too long,” Roper said Friday in a conference call with reporters. It is a risk to our national security, so many years ago the Air Force decided to create an acquisition strategy to get us through the sole-source environment that we were in with a single rocket provider, and still tied to Russian engines, (and) build up a competitive U.S. industry base that would ultimately culminate in today, in a Phase 2 award to two vendors.”

The announcement Friday also marked the end of a hard-fought competition between four major players in the U.S. space industry for a chance at billions of dollars in revenue from lucrative military launch contracts.

ULA is developing the next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket, with all U.S.-made engines, to replace its Atlas and Delta launch vehicles, and SpaceX offered the Pentagon its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets already in service, albeit with some modifications to meet the military’s demanding launch requirements.

“ULA is honored to be selected as one of two launch providers in this procurement,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “Vulcan Centaur is the right choice for critical national security space missions and was purpose built to meet all of the requirements of our nation’s space launch needs.

“For decades, we have been a trusted partner to safely and securely deliver strategic national security space assets for our nation’s defense and this award shows the continued confidence of our customer in the commitment and dedication of our people to safeguard these missions by reliably launching our country’s most critical and challenging missions,” Bruno said in a statement.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment Friday on the Pentagon launch contract award.

Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle were also in the running.

Despite losing out on the Phase 2 awards with their own rockets, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin will still get business through national security launches. Northrop Grumman will supply solid rocket boosters and Blue Origin will build BE-4 main engines for ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket.

“We evaluated every proposal by the published award criteria, technical factors being first and foremost, then followed by past performance, their ability to work with small business, and then finally totally evaluated price,” Roper said. “Every proposal is evaluated. We call the ball and strikes as they are, and the ability to meet those technical factors — to do the mission –is the most important thing above all.”

For nearly a decade, the Pentagon awarded sole-source national security launch contracts to ULA, which builds and operates the fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets that have delivered to orbit nearly all of the military’s large reconnaissance, surveillance, communications, navigation and missile warning satellites currently in use.

But rising launch costs, pressure from upstart SpaceX, and worsening diplomatic relations with Russia prompted the Air Force to rethink its rocket procurement strategy for the military’s highest-priority space missions. Congress also passed a law in 2014 — after Russia’s annexation of Crimea — that capped the number of RD-180 engines the military could use to launch national security satellites before transitioning to a rocket with U.S.-made propulsion.

File photo of a Falcon Heavy launch in April 2019. Credit: SpaceX

The highest-priority class of payloads was previously part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program. Last year, military officials renamed the EELV program as the National Security Space Launch, or NSSL, program as the Pentagon moved into a new era of launch services, which include reusable rockets.

The Air Force ended competition for its EELV-class missions when the Pentagon approved the Boeing and Lockheed Martin consolidation in 2006, a decision ULA and military officials said was necessary to ensure the survival of the Atlas and Delta rocket families to launch U.S. national security satellites.

Pentagon officials say the military needs two independent launchers to ensure crucial payloads can get to space even if one of the rockets is grounded.

The Air Force certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch national security satellites in 2015, a process the military promised to speed up after SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force the previous year protesting the Pentagon’s $11 billion “block buy” sole-source order of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets in 2013.

Military officials made more launch contracts available for competition between ULA and SpaceX in an intermediate “Phase 1A” procurement round before moving on to Phase 2, which required rockets use only U.S.-made engines.

The Air Force awarded funding to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance in 2016 as part of cost-sharing public-private partnerships with industry to advance research and development of new U.S. rocket propulsion systems.

In 2018, the Air Force selected Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance for the next round of launch service agreement awards. Those agreements were cumulatively valued at around $2.3 billion.

SpaceX, which was the only company competing with a rocket already flying, was left out of the development contracts awarded in 2018.

The Pentagon also announced Friday the first three firm-fixed-price launch contracts awarded by the U.S. Space Force under the NSSL program’s Phase 2 agreements.

Two of those missions, designated USSF-51 and USSF-106, were awarded to ULA for launches in the the first quarter and third quarter of calendar year 2022. SpaceX won a task order to launch the USSF-67 mission in the third quarter of calendar year 2022.

ULA received $337 million in the task orders announced Friday, while SpaceX was awarded $316 million.

If ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which scheduled to debut in 2021, is not certified for the national security missions in 2022, ULA could offer an Atlas 5 rocket — with its Russian-made engine — as an alternative for the USSF-51 and USSF-106 missions.

A contract announcement posted on a Defense Department website said the contracts include “early integration studies, launch service support, fleet surveillance, launch vehicle production, mission integration, mission launch operations, mission assurance, spaceflight worthiness, and mission unique activities for each mission.”

Roper said of the 18 RD-180 engines Congress has allowed the Pentagon to buy through 2022 for national security missions, 12 remain available for purchase. There’s no prohibition on when the engines can actually launch a national security mission, just that the Pentagon can’t procure any more launches using the RD-180 engines after 2022.

“By the end of ’22, we cannot buy any more RD-180 engines,” Roper said. “We do have 12 engines that are available should we need to use those engines beyond the ’22 mark. We’re allowed to use them. We’re just allowed to purchase more. So the reason that this Phase 2 award weighted technical performance — technical merit — as the No. 1 priority is that we have to ensure that we get off of those engines.

“I’m very confident with the selection that we have made today that we have a very low risk path to get off the RD-180 engines on time and to not have to dip into that surplus that we have available, though we’re glad to know it’s there should we need it.”

The three task orders unveiled Friday are just the tip of the iceberg for ULA and SpaceX, which stand to compete head-to-head for dozens more national security launches contracts over the next four years. The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC, will order launch services annually from ULA and SpaceX, the military said in a statement.

Roper said military officials estimated SMC would order 32 to 34 national security launches during the five-year period covered by the Phase 2 agreements. But there is some uncertainty in that number, Roper said.

“It is an indefinite quantity contract because we wanted to be ready for a number of launches that can be in flux,” Roper said Friday.

That will help ensure ULA and SpaceX can relay on a steady “drum beat” of launches for the Pentagon, supplementing commercial missions on their launch manifests, he said.

“So there’s no ceiling on this contract,” Roper said. “It’s driven by the number of launches that we and the NRO, and organizations like the Missile Defense Agency and the Space Development Agency need.

“We’re very excited within the Space Force to provide a launch capability to the entire department that its dependable and reliable, and we look forward to building on the 81-out-81 mission success that the Air Force, and now the Space Force, has provided over the past years,” Roper said.

Artist’s illustration of Northrop Grumman’s planned OmegA rocket, which lost out in the Pentagon’s Phase 2 launch contract awards. The OmegA rocket’s design is based on two solid-fueled core stages and a liquid-fueled upper stage. Credit: Northrop Grumman

While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have the lift capacity to meet the Pentagon’s launch requirements, which include access to unusual, hard-to-reach orbits, there will be some changes on the launch vehicles and ground systems to accommodate the new missions.

For the Pentagon’s Phase 2 missions, SpaceX did not propose using the company’s next-generation Starship launch vehicle.

“It’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, no Starship,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, last year. “We bid to meet every requirement. The only modifications we need are an extended fairing on the Falcon Heavy, and we are going to have to build a vertical integration capability. But we are basically flying the rockets that they need.

“There are more data requirements they’re asking for, some additional inspection, some additional stuff that’s new to Phase 2,” she said. “I believe some of the reference orbits have slightly more mass to each orbit. But Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are beasts as they are.”

The most significant upgrades SpaceX plans for the Phase 2 missions are the construction of a new moveable gantry on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where the company launches powerful Falcon Heavy rockets. The mobile tower will sit just to the north of the pad’s launch mount, enabling SpaceX to satisfy military requirements to vertically integrate sensitive top secret spy satellites.

Read our earlier story for details on the dimensions and requirement for the gantry.

SpaceX will also introduce a larger payload envelope to fit some of the biggest satellites that need to be launched on the Phase 2 missions. The company could expand its Falcon 9 launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to accommodate the Falcon Heavy, which uses three Falcon 9 first stage boosters bolted together.

The NSSL missions include the military’s most expensive and critical payloads, such as school bus-sized spy satellites, nuclear-hardened communications satellites to link the president with military commanders, spacecraft to detect enemy missile launches, and the GPS navigation fleet used around the world.

The Space Force has other launch procurement mechanisms to award launch service contracts for smaller missions, such as technology demonstration satellites.

Roper said the Pentagon will work with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman to wind down their work under the launch service agreements awarded in 2018.

“The goal is not to carry them indefinitely,” Roper said. “So we will tie off the (launch service agreement) contracts as soon as we can at a point that makes sense. We want to make sure that work that’s in flux, that we’re able to document that … Where the government has rights to the data and the work, we want to make sure that we retain those.”

In a statement, Northrop Grumman said it was disappointed in the Pentagon’s decision to go with ULA and SpaceX for the Phase 2 awards.

“We are confident we submitted a strong proposal that reflected out extensive space launch experience and provided value to our customer, and we are looking forward to our debriefing from the customer,” Northrop Grumman said.

The fate of Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket program is uncertain. Building on its recent acquisition of Orbital ATK, the defense contractor designed the OmegA launch vehicle to be profitable with just a handful of launches per year, with an emphasis on capabilities aimed at the U.S. military’s requirements.

In recent months, construction crews have been assembling a tower on a mobile launch platform for the OmegA rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, said in an interview in June that qualification test-firings of the OmegA rocket’s solid-fueled stages were completed, and engineers were gearing up for a test-firing of the launcher’s hydrogen-fueled upper stage before the end of this year.

Precourt said in June that the OmegA rocket was on schedule to be ready for its first test launch from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2021. But that assumed Northrop Grumman would win a Phase 2 award from the Pentagon.

Blue Origin says development of its New Glenn rocket will continue in pursuit of business in the commercial and civil space markets.

The huge privately-developed rocket is the largest of all the launchers that were part of the Phase 2 competition. Capable of deploying up to 99,000 pounds, or 45 metric tons, to low Earth orbit, the New Glenn will have a reusable first stage powered by seven BE-4 engines.

ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket will have two methane-fueled BE-4 engines on its first stage.

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of, established Blue Origin in 2000. Bezos is funding the development of the New Glenn rocket, which is estimated to cost more than $2.5 billion, including construction of a huge factory near the Kennedy Space Center and a launch pad and test facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, said the company was disappointed the New Glenn was not selected for a Phase 2 launch service procurement contract.

“We submitted an incredibly compelling offer for the national security community and the U.S. taxpayer,” Smith said. “Blue Origin’s offer was based on New Glenn’s heavy-lift performance, unprecedented private investment of more than $2.5 billion, and a very competitive single basic launch service price for any mission across the entire ordering period.

“We are proceeding with New Glenn development to fulfill our current commercial contracts, pursue a large and growing commercial market, and enter into new civil space launch contracts,” Smith said. “We remain confident New Glenn will play a critical role for the national security community in the future due to the increasing realization that space is a contested domain and a robust, responsive, and resilient launch capability is ever more vital to U.S security.”

The Pentagon plans to open another competition for a Phase 2 launch service procurement later in the 2020s.

“We don’t think that this is the last round of innovation that we’re going see, and though we’re excited for the next five years of Phase 2, we’re looking ahead to Phase 3 five years from now, and are just wondering what new leap-ahead, lower-cost technologies might be on the forefront to make assured access to space not just assured, but cheaper,” Roper said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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News Analysis | With Pentagon award, SpaceX joins the establishment

LC-39A mobile service tower

WASHINGTON — Six years ago, SpaceX was the upstart launch company seeking to break United Launch Alliance’s monopoly on national security space launches. Now, it’s part of the establishment.

When the U.S. Air Force announced Aug. 7 that SpaceX and ULA would split the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 contracts for launches between 2022 and 2027, it cemented SpaceX’s position in the government launch market, one that it went to court not that long ago to enter.

In 2014, frustrated with the Air Force’s award of a block buy contract to ULA for Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, SpaceX filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing that some of those launches should be competed. The Air Force countered that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicle was not yet certified and thus could not compete.

“New entrants have to fight every day,” recalled Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, during a panel discussion at the Satellite 2020 conference in March. “If we’re entering a market where we weren’t before, the folks that are in the existing market are going to be upset and they’re going to make sure you have as difficult a road as you possibly can.”

SpaceX dropped the lawsuit in early 2015 after winning concessions from the Air Force, such as speeding up certification of the Falcon 9 and making more launches available for competition. SpaceX has since won several launch contracts for national security missions, which have included the launch of a GPS 3 satellite June 30.

Around the same time that SpaceX sued to win access to the national security launch market, the souring of U.S.-Russian relations raised concerns about continued reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 engine used by the Atlas 5, particularly when Russian officials threatened to ban exports of the engine in response to Western sanctions of Russia. That started a process to end reliance on the RD-180 that culminated in the NSSL Phase 2 competition.

SpaceX, once considered an unproven new entrant, went into this competition as something of an incumbent. It was the only one of the four bidders that offered vehicles flying today: Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. SpaceX instead made more incremental changes, such as an extended payload fairing. It will also build a mobile service tower at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in order to support vertical processing required for some national security payloads.

“We fought hard to enter this market and we really hope we can continue,” Shotwell said at Satellite 2020. “We have done a good job building a launch vehicle that can serve many markets.”

ULA may have fought SpaceX when that company tried to get into a market the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture had dominated for years. However, it also adapted to the changing market and the competition under the leadership of Tory Bruno, who became president and chief executive of the company in 2014. ULA has spent the last several years working on a next-generation rocket, Vulcan, that will ultimately replace both the Atlas and Delta and end reliance on the RD-180.

Although Vulcan is new, ULA’s long record of working in national security launch made it a front-runner, and Bruno was confident that ULA’s track record would overcome any uncertainty about a new launch vehicle. On that Satellite 2020 panel, he predicted the global launch market could sustain four large vehicles, of which one would be Russian and another European.

“Thank goodness that leaves two for the U.S. because we want to have assured access via two providers,” he said. “That is the right number, and that is why the Air Force will select two this summer. It’ll be ULA and one of my colleagues up here.”

The two losers in the competition, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman, face different fates. Blue Origin’s development of New Glenn, which company executives have estimated to cost $2.5 billion, has been funded by company founder Jeff Bezos, who has leveraged his massive wealth to support a long-term vision of millions of people living and working in space.

That vision is unlikely to be derailed by losing a single government contract. Work continues on both the New Glenn rocket and a launch complex at Cape Canaveral, not far from where the company built a large factory for building the rocket. Blue Origin is also still involved in the NSSL Phase 2 program as a supplier to ULA: the BE-4 engine it developed will be used on the first stage of Vulcan, as well as its own New Glenn rocket.

The future of Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket is less clear, though, without having a base of national security launch contracts. Company executives have emphasized that its use of hardware for the rocket with ties to other programs, like the Space Launch System, make it possible for the vehicle’s business case to close with just a handful of launches a year.

“OmegA is not a rocket seeking multiple payloads, it’s a rocket built on the margins of a number of other businesses we have,” Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, said on that Satellite 2020 panel.

“We’re doing synergies to make sure that we can sustain very, very low flight rates, lower than you could traditionally see in a launch vehicle provider,” he said. However, it’s unclear if that business case can still close without the U.S. government as an anchor customer.


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Breaking News | Pentagon picks SpaceX and ULA to remain its primary launch providers

WASHINGTON — The Department of the Air Force announced Aug. 7 that incumbents United Launch Alliance and SpaceX have been selected to receive five-year contracts totaling $653 million to launch national security satellites for the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.

United Launch Alliance received a $337 million contract and SpaceX received a $316 million contract for launches planned between between fiscal 2022 through fiscal 2027, according to the Pentagon’s announcement. The U.S. government’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The companies beat Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman in the four-way competition known as the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement.

SpaceX and ULA will collectively will fly as many as 34 missions for the Department of Defense and the National Reconnaissance Office under the firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery contracts.

“Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters.

Roper said the Phase 2 awards mark a pivotal point in the transition of the national security launch program to take advantage of commercial innovation and private investments in launch vehicles.

“Today’s awards mark a new epoch of space launch that will finally transition the Department of Defense off Russian RD-180 engines,” he said.

The shift to new launch vehicles also is compelled by a legislative mandate to end the Pentagon’s reliance on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket which has the Russian RD-180 as its main engine. By law, DoD will not be allowed to buy Atlas 5 launches after Dec. 31, 2022.

In Phase 2 ULA will get 60 percent of the missions, and SpaceX will get 40 percent. The Air Force will assign specific rockets on a yearly basis depending on the required missions.

The Air Force has insisted that it is not committing to buying a preset number of launches. The estimate of 34 missions for the covered five-year period could change as priorities and budgets fluctuate from year to year

The high-stakes Phase 2 competition officially started in May 2019 when the U.S. Air Force released the final solicitation for bids. Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance all submitted bids in August 2019. ULA and SpaceX are incumbent launch providers, whereas Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman are new entrants.

ULA is developing a new vehicle for Phase 2, the Vulcan Centaur, a two-stage heavy-lift launch vehicle with the main stage powered by Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.

SpaceX offered the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, the only certified vehicles that competed in Phase 2.


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ULA, SpaceX win contracts to launch satellites for SES in 2022

File photo of a previous Atlas 5 launch in the “531” configuration with three solid rocket boosters. Credit: United Launch Alliance

SES has selected United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to launch up to five new commercial C-band communications satellites from Cape Canaveral in 2022 aboard Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets, officials announced Wednesday.

Two Boeing-built communications satellites will launch together on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, and two telecom craft made by Northrop Grumman will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, according to SES, a global communications satellite operator based in Luxembourg.

The SES 18 and 19 satellites, based on Northrop Grumman’s GEOStar 3 satellite platform, will launch stacked together on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in 2022, SES said. SES also awarded SpaceX a contract to launch another C-band satellite if required.

The SES 20 and 21 communications satellites are slated to launch in tandem aboard a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, also in 2022, SES said.

SES ordered the four satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June to replace C-band capacity being transitioned to 5G cellular network services by the Federal Communications Commission. At the same time, Intelsat ordered six new C-band communications satellites from Maxar and Northrop Grumman as part of its C-band transition plan. Launch services contracts for the new Intelsat satellites have not been announced.

SES said it considered only U.S. launchers when awarding the launch services contracts, and having the new satellites in geostationary orbit on time is a high priority. That essentially left ULA and SpaceX as the only companies eligible for the contracts.

Financial terms for the launch contracts were not disclosed by SES, SpaceX, or ULA.

Suzanne Ong, an SES spokesperson, said the division of launch contracts between ULA and SpaceX — rivals in the U.S. launch business — fit the different offerings provided by the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets.

The Atlas 5 rocket will deploy the SES 20 and 21 satellites into a higher orbit, utilizing the long-duration, multiple-restart capability of the rocket’s Centaur upper stage. That will place the satellites closer to their final operating positions in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.

SES 20 and 21 will be built by Boeing and based on the Boeing 702SP spacecraft bus with all-electric propulsion. Electric thrusters are more efficient than conventional rocket engines, allowing the satellite to need less fuel during its mission. That results in a lighter satellite.

But the electric thrusters do not have as much thrust as a liquid-fueled thruster, so it takes longer for a satellite with all-electric propulsion to reach geostationary orbit.

“The Boeing 702SP satellites, relying only on electrical propulsion, would take longer to reach designated geostationary orbit if launched on SpaceX,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “This is the reason why ULA is launching Boeing satellites and SpaceX is launching the NG (Northrop Grumman) satellites.”

Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesperson, said the SES 20 and 21 satellites will launch on the “531” variant of the Atlas 5 rocket with a 5-meter payload fairing and three strap-on solid rocket boosters. That configuration has flown three times to date, and is set to launch a fourth time in September with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

File photo of a Falcon 9 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

“Clearing mid-band spectrum expeditiously while protecting cable neighborhoods across America is a huge undertaking and one that requires partners that can deliver mission success and schedule assurance,” said Steve Collar, CEO at SES. “We are thrilled to be working with ULA again and partnering to meet the FCC’s ambitious timeline for the accelerated clearing of C-band spectrum.”

“We are pleased SES selected ULA and our proven Atlas 5 for this important commercial launch service,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “Atlas 5 is known for its unmatched level of schedule certainty and reliability and this launch is critical to the timely clearing of C-band spectrum, empowering America’s accelerated implementation of 5G.

“ULA’s legacy of performance, precision and mission design flexibility allow us to deliver a tailored launch service that minimizes orbit raising time and perfectly meet our customer’s requirements,” Bruno said in a statement. “We are thrilled to provide this optimized launch solution to SES for this crucial launch.”

Two SES satellites have launched on previous Atlas 5 rocket missions in 2004 and 2006. ULA now has two commercial launches in its Atlas 5 backlog, along with a ViaSat 3 broadband payload due to fly on the most power Atlas 5 configuration with five solid rocket boosters.

The Northrop Grumman-built SES 18 and 19 satellites will use a combination of electric and liquid propulsion for post-launch orbit-raising maneuvers.

“We have a deep and trusted relationship with SpaceX having been the first to launch a commercial satellite with them and subsequently the first commercial company to adopt the flight-proven booster and we could not be more confident in their ability to deliver on this time-critical mission,” Collar said in a statement.

Six SES satellites have launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to date.

“SES is one of SpaceX‘s most-valued partners, and we are proud of their continued trust in our capabilities to reliably deliver their satellites to orbit,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. “We are excited to once again play a role in executing SES’s solutions to meet their customers’ needs.”

SES will soon order two additional C-band satellites from U.S. manufacturers as ground spares. The contract option with SpaceX to place a third C-band satellite into orbit would cover the launch of one of the ground spares, Ong said.

“The ground spares will only be launched if there is a systematic problem that delays the satellite construction, or if there is a launch failure or any other issue that puts the accelerated clearing schedule at risk,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “In case of a launch failure, SpaceX will launch one of the other C-band satellites that SES will order soon.”

The four SES satellites are part of the Federal Communications Commission’s order finalized earlier this year to clear 300 megahertz of C-band spectrum for the roll-out of 5G mobile connectivity networks.

The FCC plans to auction U.S. C-band spectrum — currently used for satellite-based video broadcast services to millions of customers — to 5G operators in December. In compensation for losing the spectrum, Intelsat is set to receive $4.87 billion and SES will get $3.97 billion from 5G bidders if they can accelerate the transition of C-band services to a smaller swath of spectrum by December 2023, two years before the FCC’s mandated deadline.

Artist’s concept of the SES 20 and SES 21 communications satellites to be manufactured by Boeing. Credit: Boeing

Intelsat and SES — along with operators with a smaller share of the U.S. C-band market — will also be reimbursed for their C-band relocation costs, including satellite manufacturing and launch expenses.

As part of the agreement, the satellite operators were incentivized to buy new C-band broadcasting satellites from U.S. manufacturers to operate in the 4.0 to 4.2 gigahertz swath of the C-band spectrum. The lower portion of the band previously allocated to satellite operators — 3.7 to 4.0 megahertz — is being transitioned to 5G services.

Ong said the ground spares SES is set to order soon will be available to launch on short notice to ensure SES can meet the FCC’s deadline to clear the upper part of the C-band spectrum for 5G services.

When it ordered the four new satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June, SES said each satellite will have 10 primary transponders, plus back-up equipment, to deliver television services to more than 120 million homes and enable other critical data services. At that time, SES said the satellites are scheduled for launch in the third quarter of 2022.

SES said in May that its board of directors approved an investment envelope of $1.6 billion to procure and launch the new C-band satellites, and pay for other equipment and services, such as signal filters on ground antennas, to accommodate the C-band transition to 5G services.

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