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This week: Lockheed plans to take space-as-a-service to the Moon, ISAR raises $165 million, and we prepareourselves for Chinese megaconstellations.
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NASA has grown to love SAAS. Not software as a service, but space as a service.
The idea of buying tasks rather than hardware has been a sea change (and a cost saver) for the US space agency, beginning with a program to buy cargo flights to the International Space Station that forged SpaceX. Outsourcing the job to companies that can move quickly, accept more risk and subsidize their work with commercial customers has proven successful so far—but mostly if that company is SpaceX.
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NASA has expanded its commercial partnerships to include not just cargo and human spaceflight in low-earth orbit, but also robotic missions and human missions to the Moon. Thus far, few other companies have been able to deliver—Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus deliveries to LEO are one example, the Capstone mission to the orbit the Moon is another.
Notably, however, aerospace giant Boeing has struggled to adapt to this new model of NASA contracting. Its Starliner spacecraft, designed to carry astronauts to the International Space Station in the same program that gave us SpaceX’s crew Dragon, saw another delay this week when its first crewed flight test was moved to July. Starliner had been expected to fly crew on a similar schedule to SpaceX, which launched its first astronauts in 2020, but bad test results and series of redesigns delayed the project and caused Boeing to report losses of at least $585 million dollars.
Now, Lockheed Martin is stepping up to the plate. This week, the aerospace contractor launched a new business called Crescent Space Services LLC, led by the long-time space evangelist and entrepreneur Joe Landon. Landon, who has led special projects for Lockeed Martin for the last few years, is launching Crescent to provide a communications network around the Moon. Lockheed has funded Crescent to launch two 250kg spacecraft to create communications and navigation network called Parsec around the Moon.
“NASA is shifting over time to buying capabilities as a service instead of buying spacecraft,” Landon says. The goal of Crescent is to “put a system out there in advance that NASA could buy as a service. You need to own the assets and be the operator of those assets.”
That would be a first for Lockheed, which has a rich history of building spacecraft and operates deep space missions for NASA, but hasn’t run its own space missions. Landon says Crescent is a response to demand in the marketplace, driven by NASA’s Artemis program to return to the Moon.
“As we expand the portfolio of Artemis capabilities, whether it is Gateway or the Human Landing System [and] surface operations, we are acutely aware that we need to improve the communications and tracking and navigation assets out there, so we do have additional investments planned in the [Deep Space Network used to communicate with spacecraft near the Moon],” Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis mission director, told reporters in Nov. 2022.
Landon notes some differences between Boeing and Lockheed’s first attempts atproviding space services. Most starkly, flying humans in space is complicated and dangerous compared to using proven, lower cost satellite technology. Crescent’s ambitions put it at the forefront of private companies operating near the Moon, but technically speaking, that’s a smaller lift than flying astronauts. The biggest challenges will be the distance to the Moon and the harsher radiation environment compared to space near the Earth.
Crescent’s initial customers are likely to be science and exploration missions backed by the US and other governments, but it isn’t the only company with this plan. The European Space Agency has a program called Project Moonlight where two consortiums including Surrey Satellite Systems, Airbus, SES, Telespazio and Inmarsat are competing for funding to launch a similar communications and guidance network. It’s not clear which networks will be launched first (both Crescent and Moonlight are aiming for 2025) but Landon says that redundancy could be good, given the risks of the lunar environment. He’d aim for networks that could work together and provide roaming services for robots and astronauts on the Moon.
One of Landon’s earlier ventures was the firm Planetary Resources, a start-up with ambitions to classify and eventually mine asteroids. That idea proved a little ahead of its time, but Landon argues that Crescent is right on time.
“The sustained investment in Artemis is one of the big factors here—a successful Artemis 1 mission already, subsequent missions are well on their way, the US has done a really good job of forming an international partnership around Artemis,” he says. “That’s creating demand that wasn’t there for Planetary Resources.”
This week, NASA announced the retirement of Kathy Lueders, the associate administrator in charge of space operations. She’s also one of the officials most responsible for NASA’s shift toward buying services instead of spacecraft, starting with the commercial crew program. Below, Lueders celebrates in 2020 when the first astronauts launched from the US in nearly a decade arrived at the International Space Station onboard a SpaceX crew Dragon.
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OneWeb is complete. The first phase of the original idea for a massive communications network in low-earth orbit now has all 616 spacecraft in orbit following a March 25 launch, after years of fundraising, one bankruptcy and the conflict in Ukraine slowed down the project.
ISAR fuels up. The German rocket company ISAR said it raised $165 million to help fund the development of a small rocket it hopes to launch by the end of the year. If successful in the hard business of rocket-building, it would be the first European start-up capable of taking on Europe’s Arianespace.
Virgin Orbit hanging by a thread. After an attempt to rescue the company from bankruptcy by raising $200 million from an investor named Matthew Brown failed, the company extended unpaid leave for its employees as it looks for capital to keep the doors open.
Prepare yourself for China satellite panic. The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) is gearing up to launch the first of as many as 13,000 satellites for a low-earth orbit communications network intended to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink. I’m not sure anyone is ready for the amount of attention that will be paid to competition among global space telecoms and the norms of behavior in low earth orbit once spacecraft from Starlink and Guowang (the Chinese term for “national network”) start having close passes.
Venusian recriminations. NASA’s decision to delay (and maybe disband) the VERITAS mission to Venus has come under fire, particularly after the recent discovery of active volcanos on the planet. Budgeting out complex space missions is no easy task, but scientists say it is unfair that an on-budget and on-time mission like VERITAS could lose funding because other projects face cost-overruns and delays.
“The Biden administration is engaging in a form of cannibalism in an effort to hide its mismanagement,” planetary scientist Mark Sykes wrote in a scathing March 26 editorial. “Congress needs to investigate these actions and provide the funding and direction this administration needs so the public can get the science return on their tax dollar investments in these missions instead of chaos.”
This was issue 174 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send your plan to fix NASA’s science mission mess, a lunar infrastructure wish list, tips, and informed opinions firstname.lastname@example.org.