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On-Orbit Satellite Servicing: The Next Big Thing in Space?

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WASHINGTON — A team of researchers and Pentagon contractors was recently selected to organize a space industry consortium that will consider new “rules of the road” for commercial on-orbit activities like repairing and refueling satellites.

The effort, led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is being touted as a major step in the transition of on-orbit services from experiment to reality, and ultimate commercial success.

The project is significant, analysts said, because safety standards and other norms need to be in place to fuel investments and research in space applications, and open up new markets in robotic and human exploration.[In Photos: DARPA’s Futuristic Phoenix Satellite Recycling Project]

The federal government regulates space activities but there is no rule-making body for the new and mostly unknown activity of in-orbit services. The Federal Aviation Administration runs launch, the Federal Communications Commission oversees satellite communications, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regulates Earth imaging.

The Secure World Foundation, along with the University of Southern California’s Space Engineering Research Center and the Space Infrastructure Foundation were selected to coordinate the “consortium for execution of rendezvous and servicing operations,” known as Confers. DARPA last month awarded Advanced Technology International a contract to manage the operation.

“Satellite servicing and related technologies are the foundation of the future economic development of space and delivering increased benefits from space to the world,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning of the Secure World Foundation.

Technology has been developed to “approach, grasp, manipulate, modify, repair, refuel, integrate, and build completely new platforms and spacecraft on orbit,” he said. But the lack of clear, widely accepted technical and safety standards for on-orbit activities involving commercial satellites remains a major obstacle to the expansion of the industry.

The space activities known as “on-orbit rendezvous and proximity operations” are being explored by commercial firms, civilian governments and militaries, said Weeden. “Yet today there is no common set of standards or norms associated with safe and secure on-orbit activities in space.”

Over the first 12 months of the project, the contractors and researchers will start bringing together experts from industry, academia, government, and the international community. Weeden said a broad range of expertise will be needed to come up with standards for technical interfaces and designs, data exchange and sharing, operational practices, and transparency and confidence building measures to spur future activities.

Once the consortium members agree on a set of standards, the next step is to work with existing bodies such as the International Organization for Standardization and the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems.

The success of the consortium obviously depends on broad participation from the space industry and government agencies. Weeden said an outreach program soon will begin to recruit satellite manufacturers, satellite operators, service providers, insurers and underwriters, and other stakeholders.

DARPA’s support for on-orbit satellite services began years ago. The agency pioneered the concept of using robots in space and more recently invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a public-private partnership with Maxar Technologies’ Space Systems Loral to build an autonomous vehicle for servicing satellites 22,000 miles above Earth.

Maxar in June announced the launch of Space Infrastructure Services, a new U.S. company that will commercialize sophisticated satellite servicing, including refueling. SIS awarded SSL a $228 million contract to design and build a satellite servicing spacecraft that meets DARPA’s specifications. The company announced that SES, which operates more than 50 geosynchronous satellites and 12 mid-Earth orbit satellites, has signed an agreement to be the first commercial customer to use the SIS satellite refueling services.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

Space.com is the premier source of space exploration, innovation and astronomy news, chronicling (and celebrating) humanity's ongoing expansion across the final frontier. We transport our visitors across the solar system and beyond through accessible, comprehensive coverage of the latest news and discoveries. For us, exploring space is as much about the journey as it is the destination. So from skywatching guides and stunning photos of the night sky to rocket launches and breaking news of robotic probes visiting other planets, at Space.com you’ll find something amazing every day.

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In Pictures: Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser Aces Glide Test Flight

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Free-Flying

Credit: NASA

The glide test success indicates the program is one step closer to orbital exercises.

Ready for Testing

Ready for Testing

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

The spacecraft was moved from inside the facility by a transport to prepare for the test.

Gear in Place

Gear in Place

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

Apparatus attached atop the Dream Chaser enabled a helicopter to raise the craft for the release and flight.

Up and Away

Up and Away

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

The full scale Dream Chaser craft, shown here lifted by a Columbia Helicopters Model 234-UT Chinook helicopter, flew a pre-planned flight path after its release.

Safe and Secure

Safe and Secure

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

The successful test flight ended at Edwards Air Force Base on Runway 22L.

Big Plans

Big Plans

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

The first trip to the International Space Station for the Dream Chaser is planned for 2020.

Practicing for the Big Journey

Practicing for the Big Journey

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

The Dream Chaser is scheduled for at least six missions under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract, beginning as early as 2020.

Proof

Proof

Credit: NASA

This atmosphere Free-Flight test verified the craft has the design and capabilities to return and land safely.

Free-Flight

Free-Flight

Credit: NASA

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser has displayed the ability to provide safe and reliable orbital flight, according to corporate vice president, Mark Sirangelo.

Approaching the Runway

Approaching the Runway

Credit: NASA

With NASA on board, Sierra Nevada Corporation will analyze the test data.

Wheels Down

Wheels Down

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

Using results from this Free-Flight test, engineers can perfect the aerodynamics of the Dream Chaser, making it even safer for future flights.

Catching Some Air

Catching Some Air

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

As the full-scale test vehicle is raised by the Chinook helicopter on Nov. 13, 2017, Sierra Nevada Corporation looks to the future of this spacecraft.

Rollout

Rollout

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

The Dream Chaser spacecraft is readied for the atmospheric Free-Flight test.

Suspended Suspense

Suspended Suspense

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

Rising high into the atmosphere, the Dream Chaser begins the atmospheric Free-Flight test.

Teamwork

Teamwork

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

The Flight Crew prepares Sierra Nevada Corporation’s full-scale Dream Chaser test vehicle for the upcoming Free-Flight test.

Last Minute Checks

Last Minute Checks

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

The Flight Crew for the Dream Chaser spacecraft completes preflight checks before the craft participates in the monumental test.

Future at Hand

Future at Hand

Credit: Ken Ulbrich/NASA

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spacecraft looks to be the next phase in NASA’s journey into space.

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Rocket Lab Aborts Test Launch Seconds Before Liftoff

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A Rocket Lab Electron rocket nearly took off from the company’s launch facility in New Zealand on Dec. 11, but launch was aborted seconds before takeoff.

The private spaceflight company Rocket Lab aborted a scheduled test launch of its small-scale Electron rocket today (Dec. 11), just 2 seconds before liftoff.

At Rocket Lab’s private launch facility in New Zealand, the countdown clock had nearly reached zero when a white puff of smoke erupted from the bottom of the Electron rocket — but then, the clock stopped, and the rocket failed to rise off the ground. The launch was abruptly halted at 10:50 p.m. EST on Dec. 11 (0350 GMT), which is 4:50 p.m. New Zealand Time on Dec. 12.

“After reviewing the telemetry and data, and time remaining in our launch window, the team has decided to wave-off for the rest of the day,” Daniel Gillies, Rocket Lab’s mission management and integration director, said during a live webcast on the company’s website.  

This is the second test launch of Rocket Lab’s small-scale Electron rocket; the first test flight took place in May. This test — which the company has named “Still Testing” — has a 10-day launch window that opened on Dec. 7. Poor weather conditions have delayed a launch attempt until today.

Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield.Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Apollo 17 Astronaut Begins Releasing Diary 45 Years After Moon Mission

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Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, seen here during the first of his three moonwalks in December 1972, has begun to release his diary of the last lunar landing mission 45 years later.

Harrison Schmitt went for a walk on Dec. 11, 1972. Forty-five years later, he is almost ready to share his diary of that day.

The last of the twelve NASA astronauts to step foot onto the surface of the moon — and the only geologist to do so — Schmitt was the lunar module pilot on NASA’s Apollo 17 mission, the sixth, last, and as Schmitt puts it, “most recent human visit to the moon.” Now, on the 45th anniversary of his lunar journey, Schmitt is beginning to take the public on a stroll through history, his memories and the findings that came from exploring Taurus Littrow Valley on the moon.

“This project began 45 years ago,” explains Schmitt. “I am gradually getting to the point where the drafting, I think, is good enough that I can let other people share in what my impressions were during the mission, as well as what the whole operation was about.” [The Apollo Moon Landings: How They Worked (Infographic)]

Apollo 17: Diary of the Twelfth Man” quietly debuted as a new section of Schmitt’s website in early November when he uploaded the fourth chapter, “30 Days and Counting.” Although the first through third chapters still remain to be published, Schmitt chose the fourth to begin “because the interval between its online publication date and the launch date coincides with the chapter title,” he wrote in a note to accompanying the post.

On Friday (Dec. 7), 45 years to the day after he lifted off with Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan and command module pilot Ronald Evans, Schmitt posted the diary’s fifth chapter, “30 Seconds and Counting!” — an almost 49,000 word account of the Saturn V launch that follows Schmitt and his crewmates from the ground to leaving Earth orbit for the moon.

“[Seven and a half] 7.5 million pounds of thrust would lift us slowly at first and then faster and faster toward orbit on a trail of brilliant flame, not visible to us but splitting open the night for everyone below,” recounts Schmitt. “Pulsing waves of sound and searing streams of light buffeted the bodies and minds of onlookers, bringing spontaneous and unexpected hugs, cries and tears.”

The Apollo 17 launch marked the first time NASA had sent astronauts into space at night.

“Once again, a life-tipped pillar of fire, the Saturn rocket, a massive tribute to boldness and imagination, became a blazing symbol of human potential for greatness. Except for reflected light coming through the small window in front of Gene and another in the boost protective cover over the [crew] hatch, I had only a vague sense of the brilliant flame beneath us,” writes Schmitt.

Schmitt pulls from a wide variety of sources for the content of the diary. Amid his own observations, Schmitt cites from NASA air to ground radio transcripts, public affairs reports and the recollections of others. He has also formatted the journal to help readers keep track of the topics at hand.

“A complication to reading diaries is their instantaneous jump from subject to subject. In addition to the liberal use of endnotes, distinguishing between subjects and sources is aided by the consistent use of different font styles and colors in the text,” Schmitt explains in his preface.

Harrison Schmitt is releasing “Apollo 17: Diary of the Twelfth Man” in chapters on his website.

Credit: NASA

For example, Schmitt turns the text red when discussing anomalies, or problems, during the mission. He uses blue when writing of Earth observations and he uses purple for views about the moon. He reserves turquoise for “probable dialog” between he and his two crewmates, as he can best derive from his memory.

“On the horizon, bands of orange and blue lay below the black of space,” Schmitt writes, describing — in blue text — and captioning a photograph of his first view of Earth from space. “Outside, darkness finally had been broken by a spectacular sunrise that had provided what I described a few minutes later as ‘the biggest rainbow I’d ever seen,’ extending along the entire pre-sunrise horizon.”

“Like childhood’s home, we really see the Earth only as we prepare to leave,” waxes Schmitt.

“It [the diary] is both technical and philosophical, in some aspects,” Schmitt told collectSPACE.

Schmitt, who is now 82, logged a total of 75 hours on the lunar surface, including 22 hours out on three moonwalks. With Cernan’s death in January, Schmitt became the final living member of the Apollo 17 crew (Evans died in 1990).

Although 45 years have already passed for Schmitt to feel ready to prepare and share the diary, he still sees it as a “long-running project” that will not be completed within just the 12-day span of the mission.

“The 45th anniversary seemed like a good time to begin,” he said. “It is going to take a long time still. There is a lot to be said.”

To read “Apollo 17: Diary of the Twelfth Man,” see Harrison Schmitt’s website, americasuncommonsense.com.

Follow collectSPACE.com on Facebook and on Twitter at @collectSPACE. Copyright 2017 collectSPACE.com. All rights reserved.

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