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Archives for September 2010

US politicians cement a new philosophy for Nasa

Jonathan Amos | 15:13 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010


The deal is done. The US House of Representatives has accepted legislation drafted in the Senate to fund Nasa for the new financial year to the tune of $19bn. All that is required now is a signature from President Barack Obama. That looks a formality.



So, after eight  months of fractious debate in Congress, the US space agency now has a new mandate. You can read the detail in the 108-page document [300KB PDF] passed on the house floor late on Wednesday night.

It authorises $1.3bn over the next three years for commercial companies to begin taxiing crew to the International Space Station (ISS). It is not as much as the president wanted, but it cements a new philosophy in human spaceflight.

The legislation also instructs Nasa to start immediately the development of a big new rocket, together with a longhaul spaceship, capable of taking humans beyond the ISS to destinations such as asteroids and Mars.

The basic elements of this space launch system must be ready by 31 December, 2016.

And it funds operations at the ISS through to 2020, and allows the shuttle Atlantis one additional mission to the platform sometime between June and October next year.

All this, of course, represents yet another course correction for Nasa.

It brings to an end the Bush-era Constellation programme which had set the agency the task of going back to the Moon.

As recently as Tuesday, I sat through presentations on the Orion crewship, one of the cornerstones of Constellation, at the International Astronautical Congress in Prague.

That work will not be wasted and will now find its way into the vessel that eventually sits atop the new rocket. To all intents and purposes, Orion lives on.  Indeed, the new legislation says:

"The [Nasa Administrator Charles Bolden] shall continue the development of a multi-purpose crew vehicle to be available as soon as practicable, and no later than for use with the [new] Space Launch System. The vehicle shall continue to advance development of the human safety features, designs, and systems in the Orion project."

And of the new heavy-lift rocket itself, the politicians also want it to incorporate as much existing capability as is possible, from both the soon-to-be retired shuttles and from Constellation's Ares rockets which were billions of dollars away from operational flight:

"The Administrator shall to the extent practicable utilise space shuttle-derived components and Ares 1 components that use existing United States propulsion systems, including liquid fuel engines, external tank or tank-related capability, and solid rocket motor engines; and associated testing facilities, either in being or under construction as of the date of enactment of this Act."

Quite how this rocket will turn out is unclear. It could look like a cutdown version of the now abandoned Constellation Ares 5 launcher, or it could look more akin to an inline shuttle-derived rocket that some have long advocated - a concept dubbed Direct.

Boeing is working on its own commercial crew capsule

Although the political process is drawing to a close, it's evident the arguments are far from over.

Like many other observers, I have found it curious to see so many politicians who are normally very vocal in their opposition to "big government" speak out so vehemently against a bigger role for private enterprise, even when many of those companies have been working hand-in-hand with Nasa for decades.

There are those who claim that the money on the table will deliver neither a profitable commercial launch sector nor a government-led deep-space system; certainly not on the timescales being demanded.

It was instructive to hear Andrew Aldrin, director of business development for United Launch Alliance, talk at IAC2010 on Tuesday.

ULA operates the Atlas and Delta rockets developed in the late 1990s with billions of dollars from Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) programme was a partnership with government in which the aerospace companies took on most of the risk, and they got badly burnt when the anticipated satellite launches that prompted their investment never materialised.

ULA is now considering adapting the Atlas and Delta rocket systems to launch privately developed crew capsules, such as the Boeing CST-100 ship.

But Andrew Aldrin says ULA will want to see Nasa and the government shoulder a far greater burden of the risk before it commits itself to the expensive business of certifying its rocket systems to launch humans.

"Who's going to pay the money up front for this? Industry is perfectly comfortable doing fixed-price development but the rule of thumb is - fixed priced [equals] fixed requirements. And right now we're a long way from getting to fixed requirements for human spaceflight systems. I think, perhaps correctly, as Nasa developed human-rating requirements for the Ares-Orion systems, it was kind of a moving target because you always wanted to make something as safe as you could possibly make it. Well, you can't have a moving target when you have a fixed-price development programme."

In other words, the business case that underpins commercial crew services still has some way to go before being fully understood and established.

How public investments in space can pay back

Jonathan Amos | 11:46 UK time, Tuesday, 28 September 2010


As the UK government ponders how much money it can afford to invest in research, it will want to reflect on Tuesday's announcement from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) and the rather small amount of public cash it sent the company's way in 2000.

High resolution imager from SSTL

The new spacecraft from SSTL will incorporate a high-resolution imaging capability

The Guildford-based firm intends to spend £100m building, launching and operating three new spacecraft that will picture the Earth at resolutions down to just one metre.

It's a totally commercial venture. SSTL would take on this risk with its data-processing subsidiary, DMCii, because it is confident the market for Earth-imaging products is now sufficiently well developed it can earn back that sum (with a tidy profit) in the seven years that these spacecraft are expected to function in orbit.

That confidence comes from 25 years of sweat and graft proving the concept that small, low-cost satellites have an important role to play in space - you don't necessarily need a huge, expensive satellite to have a very smart capability in orbit.

The economic and the technology cases haven't always been so obvious, which is why the government's Mosaic (Micro Satellite Applications in Collaboration) programme was so important to SSTL a decade ago.

This £12m investment from then science minister Lord Sainsbury helped Surrey to do three things:


Surrey built the first demonstration spacecraft for Europe's proposed sat-nav system, Galileo

(1) To build a small imaging satellite called UK-DMC-1, which it flew with a constellation of mapping spacecraft purchased by other nations.

(2) To develop a small satellite called TopSat which had an innovative, high-resolution optics system.

(3) To develop a communications payload for a geostationary spacecraft [PDF 300k] that Surrey says directly led to it winning the contract to build Giove-A, the first demonstrator spacecraft in Galileo, Europe's forthcoming sat-nav system.

All up, Surrey says the Mosaic programme probably paved the way for it earning well in excess of £200m worth of export business. That's a 20-to-one return on investment.

If you consider just the £3m that went into the geostationary payload and the leading role Surrey will now play in rolling out the operational Galileo system, the investment return is probably more like 75-to-one.

Sir Martin Sweeting is the executive chairman of SSTL. He told me:

"That's an amazing success for government investments in science and technology, in this case in space; but it was a relatively small investment which had an enormous leverage. It not only created these export opportunities for the UK and UK companies, but it also presented the UK as a leading innovative, high-technology nation in an area of space which we specialise in, [which is] small satellites."


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On a wider note, I've written recently about the prospects for the UK having its own independent, sovereign Earth-observation (EO) capability. Britain must be just about the only G20 nation without one.

Current discussions are centred on the possibility of a privately financed EO service, one in which UK-built satellites acquire imagery for the MoD and other government departments, while selling other data on the open market.

This is an approach that has worked well in the provision of satellite telecoms to the armed forces - the Skynet system.

The advantage for government is that it doesn't have the expense of building all the infrastructure; the advantage for the private sector is that it is guaranteed sales to the government in the form of an "anchor tenancy".

Currently, no-one really knows how much EO data is needed across government (this is being assessed); but if it could be gathered up to form anchor contract, would Her Majesty's Government be interested in taking up some of the capacity on this new constellation from SSTL? Could this be the start of a Skysight system? One to watch, certainly.

[Update] Just a little clarification on how the £100m breaks down.  The satellites themselves would cost about £60m.  The rest is made up largely of launch and insurance fees. 


Government has a need for EO data but it doesn't necessarily need to own satellites

Watching Earth's convulsions from space

Jonathan Amos | 22:55 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010


One of the most impressive applications of satellite technology is the now-routine observation made from space of earthquakes.

I've posted previously about the "damage maps" [4MB JPEG] that can be made from radar data.

Relief workers use them to guide their activities in a shattered city, such as in Haiti's Port-au-Prince at the beginning of the year. But radar satellites are also used to study the shifting geological faults that give rise to these catastrophic tremors.

One of the most fruitful areas of research in the past 20 years has come from the use of Sar Interferometry (InSar).

Interferogram of New Zealand

The 4 September quake in New Zealand had its epicentre about 55km north-west of Christchurch

It involves combining at least two radar images of the same location on the Earth's surface in such a way that very precise measurements can be made of any ground motion that has taken place between the acquisitions.

In the case of quakes, these will be "before" and "after" images.

Artist's impression of Envisat

The European Space Agency's Envisat is a huge Earth observation spacecraft 

It enables scientists to produce something called an interferogram. Somebody once described these maps to me as looking like the rainbow effect you see on the surface of bubbles. They're certainly very pretty.

The coloured bands, or fringes, represent ground movement relative to the spacecraft. This gives researchers a remarkable overview of how rocks have shifted, and allows them to see phenomena that no amount of leg work at the surface could achieve.

At volcanoes, likewise, interferograms can show the mountains "breathing" as surface rock is pushed from below by rising magma.

"Hot off the presses" is the interferogram I've included at the top of this page revealing ground deformation resulting from this month's Magnitude 7 earthquake in New Zealand.

Scientists have only just started to pick over the information, so there is not yet much to say, but interferograms for previous quakes have given important insights into the true causes of those events and the consequences for future seismic hazard. Professor Barry Parsons is affiliated to the Centre for the Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes and Tectonics (Comet) at Oxford University:

"If you take the Bam earthquake that occurred in 2003, there is a very well-mapped fault - the geologists had been there and known about it for a long time. And immediately after the earthquake, they all rushed out and had a look at it, and they couldn't see very much. It turned out that when we looked at the radar, the fault that had moved in the earthquake was not that fault - it was a completely unknown fault and it was buried; it was not visible at the surface before."

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InSar has become something of a European speciality. Although conceptually devised as a technique in the US, it was only really with the launch of the European Space Agency's ERS satellites in the 1990s that this branch of science really took off.

Today, the key spacecraft for InSar, certainly in a European context, is the mighty Envisat.

Bam interferogram

The Bam interferogram revealed the quake was caused by a previously unrecognised fault

This eight-tonne behemoth is responsible for producing many interferograms, including the Bam image you see on this page (the NZ image comes from Japan's Alos sat [update:25/09/10]), and its data supplies an army of geophysicists right across the Esa member states, and indeed the rest of the world.

But Envisat, launched in 2002, is entering its dotage. And to eke out its remaining thruster fuel to keep it operating until a replacement capability is launched in 2013, Envisat's orbit is going to be allowed to drift slightly from next month.

For all the applications derived from Envisat's 10 instruments this is no big deal, bar one - InSar [6Mb PDF].

To produce interferograms requires the orbit of the spacecraft to be very tightly controlled and unfortunately, that's heavy on fuel. But the Envisat operators have come up with a clever trick.

They can fix a point above the Earth in this more relaxed orbit where Envisat will always come back to, enabling radar images to be accurately overlaid and permitting InSar studies to continue albeit in a very narrow band centred on 38 degrees North. But as Dr Henri Laur, Envisat's mission manager, explained to me this week, 38 degrees North is an important line across the Earth:

"First we have to think to our continent, Europe, and here we have Italy and in particular central-south Italy. 38 degrees is exactly Etna, which is certainly one of the most studied volcanoes in the world; and Vesuvius is not far away. It also covers Greece and Turkey, which are the most tectonic places in Europe. Going to the east, we cover northern Iran, part of China and Japan. And then in North America, we can see the northern part of California and San Francisco.
"We will have an excursion of plus or minus four degrees over three years. So we will have an eight degree band which will be good for InSar."

For the future, InSar studies will get a big boost when Envisat's radar replacement mission, Sentinel-1 gets into orbit. And, in fact, there'll be two of them, Sentinel-1a and 1b, returning more data, more frequently than Envisat is capable of doing right now.

Envisat Asar antenna

Envisat's UK-supplied radar instrument has made a major contribution to InSar science

As impressive as all this is, there's a bit of a sad story here for British space enthusiasts.

You see, the UK played a leading role in the development and construction of Envisat.


Sentinel-1a is expected to get into space in late 2012 or in early 2013

Its magnificent radar instrument, Asar, which delivers all these interferograms was produced in England. But the UK will not be producing Sentinel-1 because the government decided not to put the required funds into the project -  though it has probably invested something like 750 million euros in the Envisat programme down the years.

So despite Britain having the heritage and the expertise, and despite UK engineers doing the early design work on Sentinel-1 - the job of building the new spacecraft has been handed to Italian and German industry.

Only the central radar electronics subsystem will come from the UK.

And it should be remembered that the Sentinels are a recurring series - as well as 1a and 1b, there will be a 1c, 1d, 1e, 1f, and so on.

Long-term, these contracts will be worth hundreds of millions of euros; and assuming there is no massive foul-up, all this work will continue to be given to Italy and Germany.

Skylon spaceplane approaches decision time

Jonathan Amos | 09:40 UK time, Tuesday, 21 September 2010


It is one of those projects that has the potential to put the "great" back into Britain.

Artist's impression of Skylon

Each Skylon vehicle is expected to have an operational life of some 200 flights

The Skylon spaceplane concept has quietly been gaining momentum ever since the UK government withdrew its support from a previous incarnation of the vehicle, known as Hotol, at the back end of the 1980s.

The flaws that hobbled that earlier venture have now been fixed, its designers believe; and Skylon will very soon be at a state of technical readiness where investors have to decide whether to put their full weight behind the endeavour.

For those not familiar with Skylon or who have only a vague recollection of Hotol, let me reprise briefly what is on the table.

The autonomous, unmanned Skylon is being developed by Reaction Engines, a small company formed out of the Hotol experience.

Their 84m-long, single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane would take off from a runway, deploy its 15-tonne payload in low-Earth orbit and then return to land at the same runway.

That 15-tonne payload could include a retrievable upper-stage capable of pushing the biggest telecommunications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit some 36,000km above the planet.

The concept is very different from today's expendable rockets which dump stages as they ascend to orbit; or indeed the space shuttle, which as an entire system is only partially re-usable.

Skylon's disruptive technology is its Sabre propulsion unit. It is part jet-engine, part rocket-engine.

It burns hydrogen and oxygen to provide thrust - but in the lower atmosphere, this oxygen is taken straight from the atmosphere. This is extremely tricky.

Pre-cooler unit

The pre-cooler is made from a network of very fine pipes that rapidly extract the heat in the air

At high speeds, the air entering the Sabre intakes would be 1,000C, but to burn efficiently with the hydrogen it must be cooled prior to being compressed.

The "breakthrough" is a remarkable pre-cooler heat-exchanger. Arrays of extremely fine piping plunge the hot intake gases to about -140C in just milliseconds.

Sabre allows Skylon to carry less propellant, enabling the spaceplane to make that single leap to orbit with a payload that is much larger, relative to the vehicle's overall launch mass, than is currently the norm.

This, along with its airliner-like reusability, should lower the cost of access to space - dramatically. By an order of magnitude, maybe more.

If it can be made to work, it is a "game-changer".

The UK Space Agency has called a workshop this week to review the project and its prospects.

Is it really technically possible or have some showstoppers been overlooked? How much would it cost to develop (probably $9-12bn) and how would the UK make it happen - with European partners or with a wider international consortium?

First things first, the critical technology has to be proven.

A major event will occur next summer when a full version of the pre-cooler heat-exchanger will be demonstrated on an experimental rig at Culham in Oxfordshire.

A Viper engine will suck air through the pre-cooler, whereupon it will dive instantly to sub-zero temperatures. Ordinarily, the moisture in the air would be expected to freeze out rapidly, covering the network of fine piping in a blanket of frost that dislocates the whole system.

Except, Reaction Engines say they have developed an anti-frost solution that will allow the heat exchangers to run and run.

The vehicle would weigh a little over 300 tonnes, fuel included, as it went down the runway

So, assuming that all works, where does Skylon go next?

The project is envisaged as a commercial enterprise, one where investors could be expected to see a full return on the development costs and make a handsome profit.

The independent assessment recently carried out by the London Economics consultancy certainly makes Skylon look attractive, even using sceptical treasury appraisal methods.

Artist's impression of a Skylon take-off

Skylon would operate like a transport plane

It suggests that in a mature market, if you were to produce about 90 vehicles, unit costs could come down to about $650m per spaceplane, each of which would be designed to fly perhaps 200 missions.

However, as we all know, this is a game of uncertainties, and the space business is a strange beast where normal economics don't always apply.

National prestige demands certain satellites fly on particular rockets whatever the cost.

And trade barriers erected in the name of "national security" will prevent some satellite operators from using the cheapest rockets whatever their wishes.

Even if a British government does not itself invest heavily in Skylon, it will absolutely have to take a front-seat role in helping to smooth the political and regulatory barriers that will inevitably confront Skylon's introduction.

Alan Bond is the MD at Reaction Engines. He has doggedly pursued this project through its up and downs, and remains confident the project can be brought to fruition by the end of this decade. He told me this week:


"What I would really like to think is that a year from now there is a project that is growing - a British project predominantly, probably pulling in large parts of European industry, a little bit of government involvement and a large part of private finance. And that would, I think, give Europe and Britain a really strong hold on these technologies in the world. There are other people out there watching what we're doing - the Americans, the Russians, the Japanese. If we don't do it, sooner or later one of them will; and then we will have lost out again on something that could help transform the British economy."


You can hear my extended interview with Alan Bond by clicking on the audio below.

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I have also been chatting with Charlotte Duke from London Economics about the assessment her consultancy completed on Skylon.

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David Parker from the UK Space Agency explains its role in the Skylon review process.

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And because I know there are a great many Skylon fans out there, I had a brief conversation also with Mark Hempsell at Reaction Engines. He has been working on the latest iteration of the Skylon concept, known as the D1. This is a rescaling of the current C1 concept and is being designed to cope with the expected increase in mass of the next generation of large telecommunications satellites.

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A Herculean effort to deliver broadband by satellite

Jonathan Amos | 12:24 UK time, Saturday, 18 September 2010


The date was September 1999 and banker David Williams was sitting on a beach in Santa Monica:

"I'd just spent a soul-destroying day at a satellite manufacturer, trying to push forward a project and getting bogged down in just the most ridiculous bureaucracy. And I was thinking there had to be an easier way of doing the satellite business. It's not that complicated - you get some money, you pay someone to build a satellite, you launch it, you flog the capacity. How hard can that be? I was venting my frustration to my wife and she said: 'if you think you're so bloody clever, go and do it yourself!'"

Roll forward to September 2010 and David Williams, now CEO of Avanti Communications, is just about to see his first satellite go into orbit on an Ariane 5.

Engineer works on Hylas telecommunications payload

The payload for Hylas was developed through Esa's Artes telecoms research programme

Hylas-1 is intended to be the first of three spacecraft (and more). Its primary market will be those people who live in internet-deprived areas - locations where terrestrial technologies such as fibre do not reach.

In the UK alone, the number of households that currently struggle to get a 2Mbps connection runs to many hundreds of thousands. Across Europe, it runs to many millions.

Hylas operates predominantly in the Ka-band, a part of the satellite-apportioned radio spectrum that allows high data rates.

Consumers on Hylas should enjoy speeds up to 10Mbps. In other words, it will help meet the Universal Service Commitment in the UK to provide 2Mbps to everyone by 2012.

The endeavour has been a private-public one. The British government put funding into the European Space Agency's telecommunications research programme, Artes, to produce the Hylas payload at EADS Astrium.

This innovative piece of kit can vary the amount of power and bandwidth needed to match the peaks and troughs in demand for net access across its European "footprint". David Williams:

"This is a big event for Britain. This is the first Ka-band system launched in Europe. It was done through a combination of Avanti, Astrium, and the British government just buccaneering in a really creative way to get something done. It didn't involve a huge, expensive, complex government programme - it was very efficiently done by the UK Space Agency, as it's called now, just deciding that Astrium should develop this technology and trusting Avanti to go and raise the money in the market to do it."

Today, Avanti has market capital of more than half a billion pounds. Its second satellite is fully funded and should launch 2015.

An artist's impression of Hylas in orbit

Hylas-1 is due to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket in November

The whole proposition is popular with investors. Just look at how its share price has performed... and remember, Avanti has yet to get its first satellite in orbit.

That doesn't happen until late November.

There are naysayers, of course. One of the most frequently heard concerns is that the broadband-by-satellite market will eventually be beaten back by terrestrial technologies.

Henrik Nyblom covers the telecoms beat at investment bankers Nomura. He described to me the position held by established satellite operator SES and some others:

"There are different views from within the industry. SES say they don't believe in a dedicated satellite; they don't think it makes sense based on the fact that terrestrial broadband will build out into those rural areas that today you can see satellite broadband being used. There is only a window of a few years where this service could really have a market and then terrestrial broadband - wireless or fixed - will fill these holes. SES argues that if you look at the auctions coming up for analogue TV spectrum that will be repurposed, such as in Germany, [the authorities] put as part of the criteria that to bid for this spectrum and to win this spectrum, you need to start building out rural areas before you start building out urban areas."

Williams' response is that some of the new terrestrial technologies such as 4G will operate data limits that no home user will find satisfactory:

"You cannot do fixed broadband substitution on a mobile phone network. A mobile phone network cannot supply the bandwidth that you need as a consumer to do broadband at home. What mobile phones do is mobility and they do that very well. The mobile phone companies will stick to mobility. Stephen Carter said that in the Digital Britain report last year. He said mobile phone technology is not the answer for fixed broadband, so anyone who says it is has either failed to consider, or understand, the technology, or has an agenda."

One established satellite player certainly shares Williams' position, and that is Eutelsat. The Paris-based operator has its own broadband-dedicated spacecraft launching not long after Hylas.

Called Ka-Sat, the spacecraft is something of a gorilla in space terms compared to Hylas.

Whereas the UK platform weighs 2.5 tonnes, has eight spot beams and can serve up to 300,000 customers; the French bird weighs almost six tonnes, has 80 spot beams and can serve more than a million customers.

One might fear for the nimble Brit with such a heavyweight coming on to the scene, but there is another widely held view in the industry that the pair need each other to drive open the market. David Williams again:

"I share that view. It was good news for us the day that Eutelsat announced that they were building a Ka-band satellite because it just added credibility to what we were already doing; and two operators competing in the market place will create more noise, more PR. The consumer will have some choices. The consumer will be able to compare and contrast, and that makes for a healthier market. And it probably means the market will expand faster."

Journalists like a conflict narrative, and it makes for some fun that the British and the French should be going into space to do the same thing at broadly the same time.

One thing seems clear - the consumer is going to be a winner; and making a minimum 2Mbps broadband service available to all European households has got to be good for the continent as a whole.

The big rockets jostle for market share

Jonathan Amos | 17:54 UK time, Friday, 10 September 2010


"We call it a Honda, not a Ferrari." That is Gwynne Shotwell's description of the Falcon 9 rocket which completed its successful maiden flight in June.

The Falcon rocket's Merlin engine under test

The Falcon 9 has to build confidence by launching many times without incident

The president of the Californian SpaceX company believes the new vehicle will prove to be functional and reliable. It's not supposed to be flash.

Much of the fuss that has surrounded the rocket's introduction has centred on its possible role in lofting astronauts to the space station, but the greater part of its working life will be spent putting satellites in orbit.

Already, it has a queue of spacecraft operators who want to use it. The most high-profile contract to date is probably the one with satellite phone company Iridium, which will send most of its 66-spacecraft, next-generation constellation into orbit on Falcons.

A big part of the attraction has to do with price, of course.

SpaceX is the only rocket company that advertises prices on its website, and they are substantially lower than those charged by the established commercial launch companies. About a third lower - some $12,000 per kilo to geostationary orbit (GEO) compared with something just over $20,000.

The sceptics don't believe SpaceX can sustain this. But when I spoke to Gwynne Shotwell this week at the World Summit for Satellite Financing in Paris, she was adamant the prices were for real:

"I can't explain why our competitors' prices are as high as they are but I can state with confidence that the current prices that we have and that we're selling these vehicles for are sustainable.
"We'd love to reduce the price over time. Right now, we're at a comfortable place, both on covering the cost and overhead and making some margin. We'll have to see what inflation does; but as long as inflation stays where it is, then the price should largely stay where it is."

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The business of launching big commercial satellites - the ones that provide our TV and telephony/data services - is dominated by just two companies right now: Arianespace and International Launch Services who fly the Ariane 5 and the Proton, respectively.

Ariane 5 launch in French Guiana

Rocket economics demand a certain flight rate

Between them, they'll put 18 large commercial satellites in GEO this year, and it's fair to say they're not keen on seeing other rockets join the fray.

But, that's precisely what's about to happen. As well as SpaceX, the market will soon see the return from bankruptcy of Sea Launch, the company that lofts its rockets from a converted oil rig in the Pacific.

The American Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets dally with commercial work occasionally. The Chinese, too, have aspirations in this field, although their participation is hampered by trade restrictions that prevent US satellite components entering China.

So, there're a lot of rockets out there, even if like SpaceX they're not all capable of launching the very biggest satellites (over 4.5 tonnes).

Everyone's asking whether there are enough commercial customers to keep all these rockets happy - and in business.

At the moment, the picture looks quite good. The big satellite operators are in that part of the cycle where they need to replace and upgrade their fleets. And, as with Iridium, there are some multi-satellite constellations that need to be deployed mid-decade.

But most commentators believe that once this big flock of birds has flown, the rocket companies will have to survive on a more frugal fare.

Frank McKenna is the president of International Launch Services:

"A healthy industry is one where the supply is optimised to the demand and it is reliably launching at a tempo. These systems have a very long product life-cycle; they require very heavy investment, a significant skill base of engineers and manufacturing specialists, and modernised tooling and equipment to operate them. And in order to have that, you need a robust order-book, and a robust tempo and launch rate.
"If these projections are anywhere near close, there will be another shake-out. There's no doubt in my mind about that."

Jean-Yves Le Gall, the chairman and CEO of Arianespace, has a slightly different take on all this. He believes demand will stay high for the foreseeable future, and he likes to remind all who'll listen that price is not the key factor - it's reliability; and it's down to others to prove they have it:

"Publically, of course, our customers ask for a decrease in the prices. This is normal. But in the secret of our office, they ask not for a decrease in the price but an increase in the quality. And an increase in quality means an increase in the prices, and we observe that our customers - whatever they say publicly - they accept our prices."

The autumn is going to be interesting for those who follow rocketry, and especially the fortunes of SpaceX.

The White House and Congress are trying to forge an authorization bill at the moment that will fund the US space agency (Nasa). The way the legislation comes out will determine how much cash Nasa has to support companies like SpaceX in evolving their systems to launch astronauts. Gwynne Shotwell again:

"The crew piece is not at all required for SpaceX to stay a healthy, viable business. It's more of a philosophical piece that we're going after.
"The satellite market benefits from our drive to handle crew because the vehicle has to be more reliable; it has much larger margins than other vehicles. We have fault-tolerant avionics which is a bit usual. So, the crew piece is helpful on the Falcon 9 because it drove reliability. It's not required from a business perspective. It's something we want to do; it's not something we have to do."

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Watch the maiden launch of the Falcon 9

UK Space Agency needs continuous thrust

Jonathan Amos | 11:49 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010


MPs have now taken both written and oral submissions in their probe into the new UK Space Agency.

Some of the leading lights in the British space sector went before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday to give their "thrupp'nce" on the topic. There were no major headlines but we did get some insight into the progress - or lack of it, depending on your point of view - of the move towards a new way of doing space in the UK.

UK Space Agency logo

If you missed the session, you can still watch it here. It lasts about 70 minutes.

I've got some random thoughts, but just to recap first - very briefly - for anyone coming fresh to this topic:

The new executive space agency was set up on 1 April to bring together all elements of policy and activity that previously had been spread across a disparate bunch of government departments and scientific research councils.

The main bugbear had been the obvious lack of coherence in this old club of space "users", which had often left the UK floundering on many important space projects, particularly within the European Space Agency where 76% of the UK civil space budget (£270m) is spent.

From now on, the UKSA is supposed to be the driver of the decision-making process. And, critically, it is also supposed to control the funding that underpins those policy decisions.

So much for the theory.

Well, before Wednesday's oral evidence, I had sight of some written submissions and they were critical of the pace of change towards this new vision. Not much appeared to have happened since the Big Bang on 1 April, they said.

This view was echoed in the select committee hearing by Andy Green, the CEO of Logica and the co-chair of the UK Space Leadership Council, and Richard Peckham, the chair of UK Space (an industry umbrella group) and an executive at EADS Astrium. Andy Green said:

"Because of the difficulties of the election, the changes of leadership that go with that, and then the spending review - from our angle it's very difficult to see any concrete progress. I'm not particularly being critical - it's a really horrible time to do this, [so] we have to be realistic about it. But it's important. It's a PR issue inside government; the agency needs to be widely respected by all the other departments who are engaged in the needs, applications and outputs of space. We need to get that on the front foot; momentum matters. If it's seen to drift away then the other departments will start to ignore it and then the benefits... will be missed."

Dr David Williams, the acting chief executive of the UKSA, recounted the achievements made so far in bringing the previously fragmented responsibilities and budgets under one roof. In the past fortnight, the Department of Transport had finally agreed to come onside, Dr Williams said. This would mean, he explained, that the UKSA would now assume control of matters relating to Galileo, Europe's proposed satellite-navigation system. The UK is a major player in this project.

Dr Williams said an understanding had also now been reached with the MoD and the Home Office on how their space interests would be managed in future. In the case of the MoD, it is retaining oversight of matters that affect frontline activities.

So, for example, this means the UKSA will have to take a back seat when it comes to weather forecasting (the MoD funds the Met Office which is dependent on weather satellites which provide the forecasts for our forces). But the UKSA will get involved in the research and development of future weather satellite technology. This potentially is a very important change and something I'll return to in a later posting.

Overall, Dr Williams tried to get his audience to understand the complexities involved in some of the changes, right down to the apparently mundane issues like recruitment policies that can so often frustrate the pace at which new initiatives are implemented.

"We plan to have an open meeting, probably in London. We thought it was only sensible to do that at the end of the spending review when we can set out the way forward and say, 'this is how we're going to do it; this is the internal structure of the agency now and this is the resource we've got for the next four years to work with'. And in terms of the momentum of change - many space programmes are actually committed for the next or so. Changing the content of the space programme within a year is very difficult because of the way the commitments are made."

The big issue right now I guess is the level of funding the agency will have to work with following October's Comprehensive Spending Review.

The "space minister" David Willetts has lauded the efforts of the UK space community at every opportunity since taking office, but he's also reminded everyone at the same time of the difficult fiscal climate.

Mr Willetts' boss, Business Secretary Vince Cable, has delivered the blunt message in a speech about science and technology that the public sector would now have to do "more for less".

If you were looking for any straw to clutch in what Mr Cable said this week, it would be the line in his speech where he said there was "a case for identifying and building up the areas where the UK truly is a world leader", which included "stem cells and regenerative medicine, plastic electronics, satellite communications, fuel cells, advanced manufacturing, composite materials and many more".

On 20 October, we will get a sense of where the government wants to prioritise funding. It will be some weeks after that date, however, before we know precisely how much cash will be put in the hands of the UKSA.

(You can listen to Mr Willetts debate science funding with Professor Colin Blakemore, former chief executive of the British Medical Research Council, by clicking here.  The pair were on the BBC's Today programme on Thursday.  Again, Mr Willetts refers to space as a UK "strength".)

The ever growing flock of space 'birds'

Jonathan Amos | 15:03 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010


The space above us is about to get a lot more crowded.

A fascinating report from Euroconsult [220KB PDF], a research and analyst firm specialising in the satellite sector, has released a forecast for how many "birds" it expects to see fly between now and the end of the decade - 1,220 satellites.


That's a lot of spacecraft...and a lot of rockets that will be needed to put all those satellites in orbit.

It works out at an average of 122 satellites per year, which is up significantly on the average annual rate of 77 satellites seen in the 2000s.

It's one more indication I guess of just how important space has become.

In money terms, Euroconsult reckons the manufacturing and launch of those 1,220 satellites will generate revenues of some $194bn worldwide.

Rachel Villain, director for space for Euroconsult, is the editor of the report. She told me:

"About two-thirds of these 1,220 satellites are for governments, and that of course means the commercial sector will represent the other one-third. Most government satellites are launched to low-Earth orbit [a few hundred km above the Earth], while commercial companies launch mainly in geostationary orbit [about 36,000km above the Earth]; and almost exclusively commercial operators will launch communications satellites into geostationary orbit. Government LEO, on the other hand, is quite diversified - for example, Earth observation, telecommunications, science, and also satellites to test the technology for future satellites and new applications or services."

A couple of good examples of demonstrators would be the recent launch by Norway of a small spacecraft that can track ships in its territorial waters; several nations are thinking of doing this. And in the next few weeks, you should also hear a formal announcement of TechDemoSat, a small UK platform, funded by the government, which will prove several new sensors to study the Earth.

In China, the scale of space activity right now is most impressive. The China Great Wall Industry Corporation which has the sole rights to provide satellites for the government says it has 100 contracts for the next five years, meaning it will be launching something like 20 rockets a year.

Satellite chart

A couple of factors contributing to the upward trend are worth noting. One is that some of the big commercial TV satellite operators happen to be in that part of the cycle where they need to replace and upgrade their fleets.

And there are also some big constellations of satellites being rolled out mid-decade. Think about Galileo - Europe's new satellite-navigation system which will put at least 18 satellites in a medium-Earth orbit (MEO - about 23,000km up).

Think also about the satellite phone, messaging and internet operators who want to re-new, supplement or simply establish fleets of spacecraft. Comsat concerns like Iridium, Globalstar, Orbcomm, and O3B will between them loft 115 spacecraft.

The numbers inevitably highlight the subject of space debris and the need to remove redundant satellites from orbit in a timely fashion to reduce the risks of collision.

And it illustrates, too, the headache rocket companies will face this decade as they try first to ramp up launch rates to accommodate the rush to orbit, and then to rescale their efforts once the backlog has been cleared.

Inmarsat charts a new course for its business

Jonathan Amos | 08:55 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010


You can make the case that it's actually the biggest UK space story of the year so far - London-based Inmarsat's announcement that it's going to put three huge spacecraft in orbit, starting in 2014.

I know Britain got an executive space agency in April, and that's potentially a huge deal. But everyone is still waiting to see if the UKSA really does represent a new policy approach on the part of government or is merely a re-badging exercise for the way space policy is implemented in Britain. Time will tell.


In which case, a UK space company saying it's going to invest $1.2bn (£800m) in a new venture has to make us sit up - surely? And yet when Inmarsat made this announcement back in August, the UK media didn't spend long discussing it.

The BBC didn't even report it! (This correspondent was on a beach in the south of France at the time).

Inmarsat has a fascinating history. It's something of a granddaddy when it comes to satellite telecommunications.

It started life 31 years ago as a UN-created, not-for-profit outfit that would save lives at sea by routing distress signals from sinking ships to rescue services.

The International Maritime Satellite Organization (Inmarsat) was a remarkable endeavour in many ways, bringing together the US and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to do something for the global good.

Inmarsat still fulfils this safety-at-sea role, but its interests are now much wider; and it's also a fully commercial concern listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Its 11 satellites specialise in handling mobile satellite communications from remote areas, predominantly for the industrial, business and government sectors.

These could be container ships on the ocean waves, oil rigs in the North Sea, or news crews filing stories from a disaster zone. Phone calls, video, audio, data - it's all being bounced off satellites sitting 36,000km above the equator.

Vladimir Putin

There are few places out of sight - just small regions at the poles. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was recently pictured in the High Arctic making a call through one of the British company's satellites.

Inmarsat's new venture is called Global Xpress. The company has ordered three state-of-the art spacecraft from Boeing in America, to essentially improve its mobile broadband offering and to position itself for the bandwidth demands of tomorrow.

The I-5s, as they will be known, will be able to deliver speeds of up to 50 megabits per second (Mbps) to customers. In other words, the type of broadband service we currently enjoy in the home can also be had in the middle of a jungle with the next generation of satellites.

Andrew Sukawaty is the chairman and CEO of Inmarsat. He told me:

"The satellite business has long time horizons. We announced Global Xpress a month ago and four years from now the spacecraft will go up. We're looking at what speeds people are going to want to have supported in that timeframe. At home, you're going to experience much higher bandwidth speeds through DSL and cable connections, for internet and other types of applications. Those types of speeds will now be available in remote areas, too - on a ship, on an aeroplane; you can have it while you're climbing a mountain."

You may not climb a mountain very often, or even work on a ship, but the aeroplane example is an interesting one.

Offering connections to airline passengers is one of the fastest growing sectors for a company like Inmarsat. It's still a small sector, granted; but it's clear people will soon expect their "always on" lifestyles to extend 30,000ft into the sky.

Andrew Sukawat

It could be a simple text message to mum at the airport to tell her your plane is held in a stack over Heathrow; it could be that new presentation you need to send ahead to the conference you're about to attend.

An increasing number of airlines are now starting to put wi-fi in cabins, and the traffic is routed to the ground via satellites.

Just to come back to the space agency issue, finally. This week, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee will be taking oral evidence on the subject of the UKSA.

The MPs have been seeking the views of industry, academia and others, to try to establish whether anything has yet changed in the way government approaches space.

These are uncertain times, not least because the Treasury is likely to rein in public spending in all areas...including on space.

So, I thought it would be worth asking Andrew Sukawaty for his take on the current situation:

"Space needs government support and that sounds like money, but it's not just money. Money is a small part of it actually. It needs support in the programmes that it implements globally, and sometimes that takes the form of support in Europe, in Brussels [for EU-led programmes like the Galileo satellite-navigation system]; or in international forums like the International Telecommunications Union to make sure we get the right spectrum and orbital slots for our satellites.
"When I compare us to the rest of the world, we're in the top 10 certainly, but we're not in the top five. I would contrast us to France and the amount of support they've given to the space programme, which is just phenomenal.
"Commercial space and government space are important elements in having an economy which is leading-edge and providing the kinds of jobs and services that are world leading. The UK is in such a prime position because it has the engineering and science talent here, but it will not stay that way unless government supports it."

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