Thursday, January 31, 2019

China plans first seaborne rocket launch in mid-2019

China's first seaborne rocket launch is scheduled for mid 2019 with a Long March-11 carrier rocket set to blast off in the Yellow Sea, said Jin Xin, deputy chief commander of the rocket. China has achieved a breakthrough in the key technologies for seaborne launches, Jin, of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, told a press conference by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation on Tuesday. The Long March-11, with a length of 20.8 meters and a takeoff weight of about 57.6 tonnes, is the only rocket using solid propellants among China's new generation carrier rockets. It has a relatively simple structure and can be launched in a short time. After leaving port, the rocket could be launched within a week, said Jin. The rocket can carry a payload of up to 350 kg to a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 700 km and 700 kg to a low-Earth orbit at 200 km. It is mainly used to carry small satellites, and can take multiple satellites into orbit at the same time. A seaborne launch has many advantages over a land launch, Jin said. For instance, the launch site is flexible, and falling rocket remains pose less danger. Using civilian ships to launch rockets at sea would lower launch costs and give it a commercial edge, said Jin. It will also help lay the groundwork for developing reusable rockets and recovery technologies at sea.

The seaborne launch technology will help China provide launch services for countries participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, he added.

Another three Long March-11 launches on land are also planned this year.

The Long March-11, which made its maiden flight on Sept. 25, 2015, has so far sent 25 satellites into orbit in six launches with high reliability and good performance rates.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

To Catch a Wave, Rocket Launches From Top of World

On Jan. 4, 2019, at 4:37 a.m. EST the CAPER-2 mission launched from the Andoya Space Center in Andenes, Norway, on a 4-stage Black Brant XII sounding rocket. Reaching an apogee of 480 miles high before splashing down in the Arctic Sea, the rocket flew through active aurora borealis, or northern lights, to study the waves that accelerate electrons into our atmosphere. CAPER-2, short for Cusp Alfven and Plasma Electrodynamics Rocket-2, is a sounding rocket mission - a type of spacecraft that carries scientific instruments on short, targeted trips to space before falling back to Earth. In addition to their relatively low price tags and quick development time, sounding rockets are ideally suited for launching into transient events - like the sudden formation of the aurora borealis, or northern lights. For CAPER-2 scientists, flying through an aurora provides a peek into a process as fundamental as it is complex: How do particles get accelerated throughout space? NASA studies this phenomenon in an effort to better understand not only the space environment surrounding Earth - and thus protect our technology in space from radiation - but also to help understand the very nature of stars and atmospheres throughout the solar system and beyond. "Throughout the universe you have charged particles getting accelerated - in the Sun's atmosphere, in the solar wind, in the atmospheres of other planets, and in astrophysical objects," said Jim LaBelle, space physicist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and principal investigator for the CAPER-2 mission. "An aurora presents us with a local laboratory where we can observe these acceleration processes close at hand."

Technically, the CAPER-2 team is interested in what happens just before an aurora starts glowing. Electrons, pouring into our atmosphere from space, collide with atmospheric gases and trigger the aurora's glow. Somehow, they pick up speed along the way.

"By the time they crash into our atmosphere, these electrons are traveling over 10 times faster than they were before," said Doug Rowland, space physicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who also studies particle acceleration. "We still don't understand the fundamental physics of how that happens."

The CAPER-2 team focused on a special kind of aurora that forms during the day. Unlike the nighttime aurora, the daytime aurora is triggered by electrons that stream in directly from the Sun - and we know far less about them.

"There's been a huge amount of research done on the regular nighttime aurora, but the daytime aurora is much less studied," said Craig Kletzing, space physicist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and coinvestigator for the mission. "There are good indications that there are some similarities and there are also some differences."

The team is focusing on how the electrons that create daytime auroras are jostled around by waves, in ways that may or may not differ from nighttime auroras. Two kinds of waves are of special interest, and have opposite effects. Alfven waves, named after Swedish Nobel laureate Hannes Alfven who first predicted their existence in 1942, are thought to accelerate the electrons. These huge waves - measuring tens to hundreds of miles long from peak to peak - propagate along Earth's magnetic field lines, whipping electrons to and fro.

On the other side are Langmuir waves, which are generated by the electrons themselves - a process that steals some of the electrons' energy and slows them down. CAPER-2 will carry a high-resolution wave-particle correlator to measure them, the first sounding rocket mission to do so for the daytime aurora.

"This is very data-intensive," said LaBelle. "It's unique to sounding rockets to be able to look at this mechanism in this level of detail."

For the launch, the CAPER-2 team traveled to northern Norway, one of the few places that can put a rocket within range of the daytime aurora. Every day, northern Norway rotates under an opening in Earth's magnetic field known as the northern polar cusp, where particles from the Sun can funnel into our upper atmosphere.

Meeting the aurora right where they form is the best way to understand physical processes that are far too large to replicate in a lab.

"It's a kind of natural laboratory," LaBelle added. "We take our experiment to two different environments, where the variables are different, and then test the theory and answer the questions."

CAPER-2 was the third of nine sounding rocket missions taking part in the Grand Challenge Initiative - Cusp, an international campaign to explore the northern polar cusp. The VISIONS-2 and TRICE-2 missions launched in early December, and the fourth mission, G-CHASER, launched on Jan. 13. The window for AZURE, the next mission in the Grand Challenge Initiative - Cusp, opens on March 23, 2019.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Ball Aerospace tests electronically-steered antenna with Telesat's LEO Phase 1 satellite

Ball Aerospace has successfully completed the first communication demonstration between Telesat's LEO Phase 1 satellite and Ball's fully electronically-steered flat panel antenna at Telesat's Allan Park ground station in Ontario, Canada. Ball and Telesat are collaborating on the development of satellite communications (SATCOM) terminals based on Ball's advanced antenna technology. As part of the demonstration, Ball's electronically-steered antenna tracked and communicated with the Telesat LEO Phase 1 satellite and captured real-time video data, which showcased the low latency characteristics of the Telesat LEO system. Electronically-steered flat panel antennas enable non-stationary satellite tracking and support quick and seamless switching between satellites, which is necessary for large LEO constellations. In addition, electronically-steered antennas have enhanced reliability due to no moving parts, are easy to install and may be manufactured in volume at low cost. "For decades, Ball Aerospace has been developing and building electronically-steered flat panel antennas for military and government customers," said Rob Freedman, vice president and general manager, Tactical Solutions, Ball Aerospace. "We're thrilled to work with Telesat to demonstrate this technology for their LEO satellite constellation and other commercial applications." Telesat's LEO Phase 1 satellite was launched in January 2018 and provides an in-orbit platform for development of Telesat's high performance global constellation of low earth orbit satellites that will offer low latency high throughput data services that are truly competitive with terrestrial networks.

End-user terminals capable of tracking LEO satellites, handing off between beams and between satellites, and operating maintenance-free in remote locations will further enhance the Telesat LEO value proposition.

"By successfully tracking our LEO Phase 1 satellite through multiple passes, Ball has demonstrated that their electronically-steered antenna technology is fully compatible with our system architecture," said Michel Forest, director of Engineering, Telesat.

"Ball is an industry leader in advanced antenna technology and has proven expertise in the development of user terminal solutions that will allow us to meet our objective of providing fiber-like broadband and world-wide connectivity."

Ball Aerospace has five decades of heritage delivering electronically-steered flat panel, or phased array, antenna solutions, with two decades of experience delivering planar phased array terminals. Ball is developing architectures that can scale to high-volume, low-cost production using standard commercial processes and an established supply chain.

Ball's mature, low-cost antenna technology will enable lower lifecycle costs for the emerging LEO SATCOM market and other commercial applications such as aircraft in-flight connectivity and 5G data services.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Airbus wins DARPA contract to develop smallsat bus for Blackjack program

Airbus Defense and Space Inc. has been awarded a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a satellite bus in support of the Blackjack program. DARPA describes the Blackjack program as an architecture demonstration intending to show the military utility of global low-earth orbit constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight and cost. DARPA wants to buy commercial satellite buses and pair them with military sensors and payloads. The bus drives each satellite by generating power, controlling attitude, providing propulsion, transmitting spacecraft telemetry, and providing general payload accommodation including mounting locations for the military sensors. "Airbus has previously co-invested hundreds of millions of dollars in high-rate manufacturing technology and supply chain logistics to build large constellations of small satellites," said Tim Deaver, Director of US Space Programs at Airbus Defense and Space, Inc. "Airbus is committed to growing manufacturing capability in the US and our government customers can leverage this commercial capability to develop low-earth orbit constellations to complement large existing systems." This contract positions Airbus Defense and Space, Inc., of Herndon, Va., and its strategic joint venture partner, OneWeb Satellites, of Exploration Park, Fl., as the ideal service providers for Blackjack. High production rates and design-to-cost management techniques enable OneWeb Satellites to offer low cost constellation solutions for the U.S. government and current customers. Constellations of inexpensive satellites permit wide scale disaggregated architectures enhancing survivability across many different mission areas.

OneWeb Satellites is pioneering new value propositions in space. They are leading the design and manufacturing of ultra-high performing satellites at high-volumes.

"We have created a game changer with our overall design, supply chain and production system," said Tony Gingiss, CEO, OneWeb Satellites. "Our team is transforming the space industry and we are in the midst of demonstrating we can deliver on our promises."

OneWeb Satellites brings to bear capabilities which dramatically lower the cost and shorten acquisition timelines for customers thanks to a modular design and agile serial production of satellites.

The OneWeb Satellites satellite manufacturing facility in Florida is the latest step in Airbus' continued and long-standing commitment to growth in U.S. manufacturing, job creation and investment.

This facility, which will ultimately support thousands of jobs and follows the opening of our U.S. Manufacturing Facility for A320 aircraft in Mobile, Alabama, from which we delivered our first aircraft in 2016. An A220 assembly line on the same site in Alabama will break ground in January of 2019.

With our extensive network of U.S. suppliers, Airbus is the largest consumer of U.S. aerospace and defense goods in the world - buying more than any other company or even country. Airbus invested $16.5 billion with U.S. companies in 2017, supporting 275,000 American jobs.

Friday, January 11, 2019


Announced the discovery of K2-138. This was a system of five small planets around a K star (an orange dwarf star). The planets all have very short orbital periods (from 2.5 to 12.8 days! Recall that in our solar system the shortest period planet is Mercury, with a period of ~88 days) that form an unbroken chain of near-resonances. These resonances offer tantalizing clues as to how this system formed, a question we are still trying to answer for exoplanet systems in general. The resonances also beg the question – how far could the chain continue? This was the longest unbroken chain of near first-order resonances which had been found (by anyone, let alone citizen scientists!). At the time, we had hints of a sixth planet in the system. In the original data analysed by citizen scientists, there were two anomalous events that could not be accounted for by the five known planets – events that must have been caused by at least one, if not more, additional planets. If they were both due to a single additional planet, then we could predict when the next event caused by that planet would happen – and we did. We were awarded time on the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope at the predicted time, and BOOM. There it was. A third event, shown below, confirming that the two previous events were indeed caused by the same planet, a planet for which we now knew the size and period.

So, without further ado, I’d like to introduce K2-138 g! It is a planet just a little bit smaller than Neptune (which means it is slightly larger than the other five planets in the system, which are all between the size of Earth and Neptune). It has a period of about 42 days, which means it’s pretty warm (400 degrees K) and therefore not habitable. Also, very interestingly, it is not on the resonant chain – it’s significantly further out than the next planet in the chain would be. In fact, it’s far enough out that there is a noticeable gap – a gap that is big enough to hide more planets on the chain. If these planets exist, they don’t seem to be transiting, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be detected in other ways, including by measuring the effect of their presence on the other planets that do transit. The planet is being published in a forthcoming paper that will be led by Dr Kevin Hardegree-Ullman, a postdoctoral research fellow at Caltech/IPAC.

In the meantime, astronomers are still studying the previously identified planets, in particular to try to measure their masses. Having tightly packed systems that are near resonance like K2-138 provides a fantastic test-bed for examining all sorts of planet formation and migration theories, so we are excited to see what will come from this amazing system discovered by citizen scientists on Zooniverse in years to come!