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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.


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SpaceX sees strong demand for smallsat rideshare launch services

Transporter-1 launch

WASHINGTON — SpaceX is seeing strong demand for its dedicated smallsat rideshare missions, a program that is putting pricing pressure on small launch vehicle developers.

During a panel discussion at the 2021 SmallSat Symposium Feb. 9, a SpaceX official said the company has two more dedicated rideshare missions scheduled this year after its Falcon 9 Transporter-1 launch Jan. 24 that placed a world-record 143 satellites into orbit.

“Customer demand has been extremely strong. Demand is growing, so we’re certainly going to have some very full rockets coming up,” said Jarrod McLachlan, senior manager of rideshare sales at SpaceX.

He declined to speculate if those future rideshare missions might exceed the 143 satellites on Transporter-1, since it depends on the mix of customers and their payloads. He noted the company is seeing a trend to “slightly larger microsats” that might reduce the total number of satellites on those upcoming launches compared to Transporter-1.

Some customers, McLachlan said, are designing their spacecraft specifically to use those rideshare launches based on the size, mass and other interface requirements SpaceX publishes for those launches.

“We’re seeing some people who are optimizing their spacecraft and their constellation design around that volume, as well as some of the integrator/broker partners out there who are doing multiple spacecraft in a single port,” he said. “Being so public with our pricing and our requirements is really enabling people to be creative.”

The upcoming dedicated rideshare missions, like Transporter-1, will go to sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). That’s driven by customer demand for that class of orbits, McLachlan said. SpaceX also offers rideshare services to mid-inclination orbits by flying satellites as secondary payloads on Starlink launches. “If we see demand from something outside of SSO or mid-inclined orbits,” he said, “we’ll certainly take a look at that.”

While rideshare launches of smallsats on larger launch vehicles are not new, the scale of SpaceX’s effort, and its prices, have attracted widespread interest. That program is also seen as a major competitor for the growing number of small launch vehicle developers that can’t match the per-kilogram price SpaceX quotes for its rideshare customers.

Those companies are instead focusing on their ability to meet specific customer requirements not possible on rideshare missions, such as schedule and orbit. “To do that, you need different types of mission solutions, and that’s where Virgin Orbit comes in,” said Stephen Eisele, vice president at Virgin Orbit, on the panel.

Virgin Orbit successfully demonstrated its LauncherOne rocket on the company’s Launch Demo 2 mission Jan. 17. That mission placed 10 cubesats into orbit on a NASA-funded launch.

Eisele said the company is preparing for its next LauncherOne mission “in a few months,” estimating it to be in late in the first quarter or early in the second quarter of 2021. “We will take a little bit more time to analyze the data from our last Demo 2 launch,” he said, noting that the rocket for the upcoming mission is now in final integration.

That launch will carry payloads for the U.S. Air Force as well as a 6U cubesat for the Dutch air force, a contract announced Jan. 25. Eisele said the launch will also carry two 3U cubesats from SatRevolution, a Polish company developing a 14-satellite constellation to provide medium-resolution multispectral imagery. Virgin Orbit announced the deal with SatRevolution shortly before the panel Feb. 9, but did not disclose when the satellites would launch beyond later this year.

“We’re pleased to have them all on our next launch, and we look forward to continuing to provide a high cadence and flexibility going forward,” he said.

Rocket Lab also announced the manifest for its next Electron mission, scheduled for mid-March from New Zealand. That launch will carry seven satellites for a mix of government and commercial customers, including Rocket Lab’s second Photon satellite. The Photon will test technologies needed for the launch later this year of NASA’s CAPSTONE lunar spacecraft, which will use Photon as a kick stage.

“We’re over 90% booked on both our launch and our space systems division” for this year, said Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, during the conference panel.


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Commercial launch industry off to slow start in 2020

Falcon 9 Starlink launch April 2020

WASHINGTON — The first half of 2020 has been sluggish for the commercial launch industry, but its problems can’t be explained solely by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to statistics compiled by SpaceNews, there were 45 orbital launch attempts in first six months of 2020, including four failed launches. That would put the overall launch industry on a pace for 90 launches in the year, somewhat less than the 102 launches attempted in 2019.

Of those 45 launches, just over half — 23 — were carried out or otherwise brokered by Western launch companies. That includes Arianespace, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Virgin Orbit. The rest were performed by Chinese organizations, the Russian government and Iran.

Most of those 23 launches, though, were not for commercial customers. Arianespace performed two Ariane 5 launches early in the year that carried either commercial communications satellites or government satellites whose launches were commercially competed. It also brokered two Soyuz launches of OneWeb satellites before OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.

Other launch companies have relied on government or internal customers. MHI’s two H-2 launches have been for the Japanese government, one carrying a reconnaissance satellite and the other an HTV cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Northrop Grumman’s sole Antares launch was also an ISS cargo mission. ULA has performed three Atlas 5 launches, two carrying payloads for the U.S. military and the other the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter spacecraft.

On the small launch vehicle market, Rocket Lab has carried out two Electron launches to date, with the National Reconnaissance Office the primary customer in both cases. Virgin Orbit’s first LauncherOne launch May 25, which failed to reach orbit, carried a demonstration payload only.

Among Western launch companies, SpaceX has been the most active, with 10 Falcon 9 launches so far. However, seven of those launches have been for the company’s own Starlink satellites, and did not generate any launch revenue beyond a small amount from carrying three SkySat secondary payloads for Planet on the most recent Starlink mission June 13. The other three launches were for U.S. government customers: an ISS cargo spacecraft, the Demo-2 commercial crew mission and the June 30 launch of a GPS 3 satellite for the U.S. Space Force.

The lack of commercial launches can be blamed in part on the pandemic. Some companies, like Arianespace and Rocket Lab, temporarily suspended launch operations because of government restrictions. A SpaceX launch of Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B satellite, which was commercially procured, was postponed this spring because of international travel restrictions.

The pandemic alone, though, is not responsible for the dearth of launches. “I think it would have been a rough year, no matter what,” said Janice Starzyk, vice president of commercial space at Bryce Space and Technology, in a July 1 interview.

That assessment is based on the sharp drop in orders for commercial geostationary orbit communications satellites in recent years. That decline in orders is showing up now as a lack of launches. “2020 was going to be a fairly slow year,” she said. “There just weren’t that many satellites ordered to launch this year.”

Starzyk said she did not expect an uptick in commercial launch activity in the rest of the year given that lack of orders. Another factor is OneWeb’s bankruptcy, which has halted what was to be a steady cadence of launches this year.

There are some signs of renewed commercial launch activity. Rocket Lab’s next Electron launch, scheduled for July 5, will carry a set of commercial satellites for Canon, Planet and In-Space Missions. Arianespace will resume Ariane 5 launches in late July with satellites for Intelsat and B-SAT, while a long-delayed Vega launch carrying dozens of smallsats is now scheduled for mid-August. SpaceX is expected to launch Anasis 2, a South Korean military satellite whose launch was commercially procured, in July as well.

Looking beyond 2020, there’s been an increase in commercial GEO satellite orders, including 10 C-band satellites ordered in recent weeks by Intelsat and SES as part of the FCC effort to clear satellite C-band spectrum for use by terrestrial 5G systems. While no launch contracts have been announced yet for those satellites, Starzyk said it’s likely Intelsat and SES have already arranged launches for them to ensure that the companies can meet the FCC’s deadlines for clearing that spectrum.

“It’s going to be a decent year” for the launch industry overall, she said. “It’s not going to be a great year, but it’s not going to be a horrible year.”