SpaceX tests its flame deflector system. Sierra Space awarded a $22.6M to develop the Vortex Advanced Upper Stage Engine. Aeolus reentry success. And...
Boom arms getting stuck: so hot right now.
Viasat’s unexpected event. US Senate’s NASA budget. Pulsars to help PNT on Earth. Hawkeye 360’s series D-1 funding round. Guam and spaceflight. And more!
Viasat-3’s unexpected event. The US Senate makes NASA budget recommendations. Using the time-keepers of the universe to help PNT on Earth. Hawkeye 360’s series D-1 funding round. Guam says hafadai to spaceflight. Our guest today is friend of the pod Sita Sonty, is Partner, Associate Director, and Global Space Lead for the Boston Consulting Group, all about space environment management. And a whole lot more!
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Sita Sonty, Global Space Lead for the Boston Consulting Group, on space environment management.
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>> Maria Varmazis: There are phrases in the world of all things space that are both descriptive but also somehow massive understatements. So think of the overquoted, Houston, we have a problem. Or another spaceflight favorite that does a lot of heavy lifting, the anomaly. Today we're hearing another euphemistic turn of phrase that no doubt was something nobody ever wanted to say regarding the massive ViaSat-3 satellite in geostationary orbit. Unfortunately, there's been an unexpected event.
>> Unidentified Person: T-Minus 20 seconds to LOA. Go for the floor. Today is July 13, 2023. I'm Maria Varmazis, and this is T-Minus.
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ViaSat-3's unexpected event. The US Senate makes its NASA budget recommendations. Using the timekeepers of the universe to help PNT on Earth. Hawkeye 360 Series D-1 funding round. Guam says Hafa Adai to spaceflight. And my interview today is with S. Sita Sonty, who is partner, associate director, and global space lead for the Boston Consulting Group, about space environment management, what it means and the roles that commercial space, governments, and investors all play in incentivizing responsible space practices. Stay with us.
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Let's take a look at our intel briefing for today. So ViaSat-3, let's set the stage here a little bit. Satellite giant ViaSat is in the process of updating its global satellite internet capabilities with new massive satellites heading to geostationary orbit, with an expected throughput of 1 terabyte per second to customers in remote areas or on boats on airplanes. The first in this much anticipated satellite constellation, the ViaSat-3 Americas satellite, launched aboard a Falcon Heavy to much anticipation in late April. The gargantuan 6 metric ton satellite needed so much fuel for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy to launch to orbit that the normally partially reusable rocket was, instead, fully expended, meaning it was a one-way trip for the Falcon Heavy. The massive reflector on the ViaSat-3 is its crown jewel. That reflector is the largest ever sent to space, and its boom arm is basically a bigger version of the same thing that successfully deployed the James Webb Space Telescope sunshades. And the reflector size is also what enables the promised high data throughput for this broadband satellite. So put it all together, huge satellite bus, the massive reflector, the solar panels that power it all, and that makes the ViaSat-3 Americas one of the largest satellites ever, about as big as a Boeing 767 plane. So since ViaSat-3 Americas launch on April 30, things fell a little quiet from ViaSat side on how that satellite's been doing. And late yesterday we learned why. According to the company, there was an unexpected event in the deployment of the reflector that, quote, may materially impact the performance of the ViaSat-3 satellite. In a press release, Mark Dankberg, who's the chairman and CEO of ViaSat, said, We're disappointed by the recent developments. We're working closely with the reflector's manufacturer to try and resolve the issue. We sincerely appreciate their focused efforts and commitment. So sure; sometimes things get stuck during satellite commissioning. You might remember earlier this year when ESA's Juice had a stuck boom arm due to a sticky pin that eventually came unstuck, thanks to some creative thinking and, well, jiggling of the Juice to shake it all loose. Details are still too scant on what's happened here to understand if anything similar is even feasible for ViaSat-3. And, understandably, the company is keeping pretty sthoom on the whole affair. Nonetheless, the company's stock has taken a big hit since this news broke. It was trading at a little over $42 a share yesterday before the news went out. And, as of the time of this recording, it's hovering a little bit below 30. ViaSat says they'll update on the status of the satellite as well as any contingency plans on an earnings call on August 9. I can't help but wonder if this boom arm is super stuck and unjigglable, if this could be time for a satellite servicer to step in. Yes, ViaSat-3 is out in GEO, so it's not like someone can just pop over real quick. But satellite servicing in GEO is at least in the realm of possibilities. So who knows. Maybe this unexpected event could become an opportunity for iSAM to shine. I guess we'll have to keep an eye on this one. News this morning from the US Senate, Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies fiscal year 2024 appropriations bill; and it's pretty good news for NASA for the most part. For financial year 2024, NASA requested $27.2 billion, and the Senate says they're recommending approving 25 billion of that request. This is not saying that that's what NASA is actually getting in the end. The US House also has to make their own recommendations before the final 2024 budget for NASA is formally approved. But it's promising for the agency on a macro level, at least if you're really keen on seeing the Artemis missions and the SLS have what they say they need to succeed. From the Senate today, the bill fully funds Orion SLS and exploration ground systems consistent with the budget request. The bill provides sufficient funding to continue progress on the Artemis campaign development, including full funding for NASA to meet all contractual obligations for both human landing systems in fiscal year 2024. There was some worry that NASA's budget, especially for Artemis, might face severe cuts and put the program in jeopardy. At least right now that doesn't seem to be the case, although, again, the House also has to make their own recommendations next. So cautious optimism. In any case, we don't have a line-by-line breakdown yet of what's getting funded and how much, and some programs were not named at all in the Senate's bill. Notably absent is any mention of the fraught, to say the least, Mars sample return mission? Perhaps not wholly surprising as the program is under a lot of budgetary scrutiny right now, with the price tag continuing to balloon. Latest estimates in June was that it could be up to a $10 billion enterprise. That would make it nearly half of NASA's proposed 2024 budget. So it's not a small line item. And for it to not get any mentioned in the Senate Appropriations, well, it could be no big deal pending further review. But the feeling is, to paraphrase the Simpsons, Ralph Wiggum meme, if you know it, MSR, you're in danger. All right. On to other news now. Pulsars, the timekeepers of the universe. Who doesn't love them? They're so dependable that we put maps of them on the Voyager Golden Record to help other life forms, fingers crossed, find Earth. And studying pulsars for 15 years yielded the revelation of gravitational waves rippling across all of space time. You know, no big deal. And now scientists at the US Naval Research Laboratory are advancing celestial navigation using pulsars as precise cosmic clocks for deep space position, navigation, and timing. Unlike GPS, pulsar-based timing could work in cislunar space and beyond where GPS signals don't reach. This technology could also enhance the accuracy of GPS-based systems. Recent research includes finding more regular and strong signal pulsars for reliable navigation. The neutron star interior composition Explorer, which is an experimental X-ray telescope on the International Space Station, is already being used for the feasibility demonstrations. The development of pulsar timing also aligns with the US Navy's role as the Department of Defense's official timekeeper and the US Naval observatories work on atomic clocks, critical for current GPS systems. Optus, an Australian telecommunications provider, has signed a first of its kind deal with Starlink for straight-to-mobile voice and data services in remote areas, which won't require any specific hardware for customers. This partnership will significantly increase mobile coverage from the current 40 percent to nearly 100 percent of Australia's landmass. The phased implementation will begin with SMS in late 2024, followed by voice and data in late 2025. This comes after a competitor Telstra made a similar agreement with Starlink to deliver satellite internet. Hawkeye 360, a provider of space-based radio frequency data and analytics, has secured $58 million in a series D-1 funding round led by Blackrock, with participation from Manhattan venture partners and others. The new funds will support the development of new space systems and expansion of analytics for high-value defense missions. Hawkeye 360 has 21 satellites currently in orbit and intends to further invest in AI, data fusion, and multi intelligence orchestration to improve data analysis for its customers. In its draft 2024 defense budget bill released on July 11, the Senate Armed Services Committee raised concerns about the US Space Force decision to eliminate one satellite from the next generation overhead persistent infrared program, which serves as part of the US missile warning system. The Space Force has assured Congress that reducing the number of satellites will not cause mission gaps. The move aligns with a changing approach to missile threat tracking, focusing on smaller satellites in more diverse orbits to better defend against hypersonic weapons. President Biden has nominated Space Force Lieutenant General Stephen Whiting to head US Space Command, Lieutenant General Michael Guetlein to become Vice Chief of Space Operations, and Lieutenant General Phillip Garrant to take over Space Systems Command. The nominations of the Lieutenants General face potential delays due to an ongoing and, if we may editorialize a little bit, sophomoric and dangerous hold on all Defense Department nominations by Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. Though these nominations are uncontroversial, Senator Tuberville has been throwing a multi-month hissy fit summarily holding up all military nominations, more than 200 to date, over his objections to the US military's abortion policies. China's Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation has begun building an ultra low-orbit satellite constellation with the first launch set for December 2023. Despite technical challenges, these satellites provide high value near-Earth observation with lower costs. By 2027, CASIC plans a network of 192 satellites, growing to 300 by 2030. The constellation will deliver half-meter image resolution and provide data support for tasks like emergency rescue, fire monitoring, and disaster prevention to support a global 15-minute response capability. RS21, an Albuquerque-based data science company, has secured its first external funding of $3 million from San Francisco-based VC firm, Thayer Ventures. The investment kickstarts a Series A round targeted at $5 million and will drive expansion in areas including their AI-backed platform called -- and bear with me here -- SPAICE spelled S-P-A-I-C-E. We see you did there, RS21. Very clever. The platform is meant to predict satellite faults. With an existing Phase 3 contract from the US Space Force, the funding also facilitates 30 new jobs over two years and potential partnerships with universities, government agencies, and companies. Virgin Galactic today announced the flight window for Galactic 02, the second fully commercial spaceflight for the operator out of Spaceport America in New Mexico. The window opens on August 10 and will carry three private passengers to space. And Guam is saying Hafa Adai to spaceflight. At the 2023 Aerospace States Association annual meeting in Colorado this week, Lieutenant Governor Joshua Tenorio of Guam announced their intent to establish the island territory as a significant player in the aerospace industry. The US territory island in the Northern Marianas Islands is host to a large US Navy and US Air Force Base and is a key strategic position in the Pacific Ocean. The aim is to expand operations at the Guam International Airport, including the possible introduction of space flights. The proposal follows failed plans with the now bankrupt Virgin Orbit and now looks towards the Space Force National Guard for opportunities. And, in the selected Reading section of our show notes, we have some links to fascinating features we think you'll find very insightful. One's a deep dive on government adoption of commercial space tech, and another is a think piece titled, Why MEO satellites are the answer to Indonesia's digital divide. Check them out and more, of course, in our show notes at space.n2k.com.
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And that's our intel briefing for today. Coming up after the break is my interview with S. Sita Sonty about space environment management. And, hey, T-Minus crew. If your business is looking to grow your voice in the industry, expand the reach of your thought leadership, or recruit talent, T-Minus can help. We'd love to hear from you. Just send us an email at email@example.com, or send us a note through our website so we can connect about building a program to meet your needs.
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And my interview today is with S. Sita Sonty, partner, associate director, and global space lead for the Boston Consulting Group. Today she's guiding me through space environment management and how the US and international partners are working to establish norms here. Here's Sita explaining first what this term means and what it entails.
>> S. Sita Sonty: So the term of art that has emerged in industry that I'm aligned with is space environment management. And within space environment management there's what we like to call three components, roughly three components. One is space situational awareness, understanding where the objects are and how they're moving because all objects are moving in, you know, a sort of constant rate, in order to not only predict their location but in an effort to essentially prevent the probability of collision or mitigate the probability of collision. So that's sort of space situational awareness, which is essentially a gathering of data that identifies where individual aspect items might be. And those items can also be active or inactive, right. There's active satellites that are performing their functions, la di da. And then there's the space junk. So then there's the second piece of space environment management, which is space debris mitigation. That is focused on the inactive segment of the space situational awareness databases. And that space debris mitigation can be performed through a variety of different technologies. In many cases, a lot of the technologies that have been fielded have been focused on in-orbit propulsion or in-orbit servicing, meaning I'm just going to nudge you out of the way. I'm going to move you out of the way through various propellants, through various robotics, you know, different kinds of technologies. And you can see, just among propellants and robotics, there's sort of two technology categories, if you will, that fall into that. There's actually a third one that I'm really watching the space on, and that utilizes lasers and photonics. So that's really fascinating tech, but it's still coming online. So I'll be curious to see how it emerges in terms of really dominating the space of space debris mitigation or space debris management. The third and final is actually closer to home and that's space traffic management. So think of it as managing effectively what gets launched when and in which orbit it is placed. So you think of it as literally a version of space traffic control but geometric in nature as you apply it to orbital insertion because, as things are placed in orbit, the assumption is, if that is more effectively managed, or if there are both domestic, commercial national security, and unexpanded bases, international norms and standards that are established that all parties can adhere to, then the amount of payload that goes up and where it's inserted is managed at a reasonable enough pace to, therefore, mitigate the likelihood of creation of more space junk and, therefore, mitigate the challenges of identifying within a space situational awareness rubric what is active and what is inactive.
>> Maria Varmazis: Are there any efforts in place right now between the US and maybe international partners to make those norms more applicable and maybe more efficient?
>> S. Sita Sonty: Oh, there's definitely efforts. And, you know, it should come as no surprise that a lot of them are being led from here at home in the United States. First of all, there's a desire to identify how you can scientifically calculate what an orbital slot is in the various orbits now, to some extent that this has actually been done already for geosynchronous orbit, in an international norm led effort by the ITU. However, it has yet to be performed at scale for low-Earth orbit. And so one of the efforts that's being performed right now, there's actually a study that was awarded by NASA to a series of winners -- and one of the winners is a collaborator of mine at MIT -- is to actually quantify, to calculate how much orbital capacity or orbital bins are available and how much capacity is available within each bin in low-Earth orbit. Because you think about it as we call it parking spots for satellites is sort of an analogy that we use.
>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah, yeah.
>> S. Sita Sonty: You think about, you know, it's a garage, but it's a geometric garage. And you actually want to not only maximize the utility of each slot but you want to allocate these slots. And how are you going to identify a methodology to allocate them, given the really, really increased propensity of densification in low-Earth orbit.
>> Maria Varmazis: Right. And how do you do that fairly, also, making sure all nations have access and not just certain countries dominating access, right?
>> S. Sita Sonty: Precisely. And so the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs is leading an effort in that regard. The ITU is certainly playing a role in that regard as well. But what's interesting is, you know, we actually put forward that this was another one of the pieces that I published recently on -- and it's called literally parking spots for satellite. One of the recommendations that we put in there was, it's one thing for these international organizations to be performing these analyses or these studies to try to design, let's say, how do we do this effectively; but it's another to actually agree upon those sets of norms and to do so in a way that, as I said before, that encourages ethical and effective utilization that's equitably distributed. So some of those recommendations in the piece that we put out, you know, encouraged that the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or COPUOS, should we be a leading candidate to organize kind of the committee with a mandate from an international organization that says we're going to maybe evolve into -- and this is something that we put out. We certainly didn't put this recommendation out as our own unique we came up with this. This is the contribution of many, many policymakers, including ourselves, but to establish an international spaceflight organization and that IS&O, or notionalized IS&O would be akin to ICAO. ICAO, of course, is a similar organization that is international that has set and manages a number of those international regulations from a civil aviation standpoint. We said it's time that there needs to be a stand up of an independent international spaceflight organization that would perform a similar task or would be charged with a similar mandate, that would enable that equitable distribution of orbital slots. It can focus on this priority of calculating what that number is. And it can encourage, you know, really international participation and incentivize it. So I think there's ways that you can incentivize joining an international organization by saying, if you join the organization, you know, you can come up with governance structures, leadership structures, fee structures, contributions of budget structures. But you think about contributions to the European Space Agency. Think about contributions to NATO. Think about, in fact, actually contributions to ICAO. There are many precedents set in both time, leadership, and monetary contributions to international organizations that are diplomatic levers. And the premise of it is, the more you contribute, the more skin in the game that you have, the more you'll have available to you in terms of that resource pool. So there's some sort of loose structures that are sort of a good premise to really explore this, but it's still working. You know, it's still sort of a process that's being developed by the international community.
>> Maria Varmazis: That's a -- would be or is a civil led organization. And I'm wondering, in the meantime, are companies doing something to combat debris? Are they banding together to sort of try and tackle their own contribution to meet -- to specifically space debris, although I know we're talking more broadly here. But what's the commercial sector giving in this field?
>> S. Sita Sonty: Yeah. So there's a number of companies that are coming online to perform various segments of space environment management. Some companies are focused on the space situational awareness piece. Some of them are focused on - servicing, or anti-debris remediation, space debris management, that segment. And some of them are focused on the space traffic management piece. So different technologies are going to be required to function in each of those three domains. And different companies are really incentivizing themselves to come up with the solutions in house if you're sort of a vertically integrated provider, and/or look at the companies that are emerging in each of those three buckets and establish service agreements with all of them. But what's interesting to me is there's a really interesting role that both, as I said, governments, customers, and investors can play. And it really aligns around having a space environment management set of requirements as a prerequisite for moving forward with some of these services is actually going to be really helpful because that's going to incentivize satellite manufacturers or satellite operators, those who are launching payload to low-Earth orbit. It's going to incentivize them to say, hey, look. We are I won't say adding to the problem but we're adding to the scale of activity. We're adding to the scale of economic activity; and we want to underwrite, protect, and ensure our economic activity. But, to do so in a way that actually mitigates the risk of the probability of collision, we should have a space environment management plan. And the more that satellite operators actually develop this proactively and then message it to their downstream customers to say, hey, look. Here's something that makes us green in space, right. That kind of incentivization is powerful.
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>> Maria Varmazis: And we'll be right back. Welcome back. And for today's fun facts, you're actually getting two for one today. First is an unlikely collab. When I was logging onto social media today, I went to check up on what's going on at NASA after yesterday's awesome webaversary and was greeted by the dulcet tones of Metallica. We'd play you a clip of the music, but we don't want to get sued. So I'll just tell you the song that they use in sync with some very badass looking clips of the Artemis-I mission, Artemis-II astronauts walking slowly was fuel from their late '90s Reload album. So, yes. NASA and Metallica are working together to promote the SLS and the Artemis-II missions. Metallica in your space program? It's more likely than you think. Enter Sandman from Metallica's Black Album was the wake-up song on space shuttle Endeavour's STS-123 mission on March 21, 2008. And Metallica fans probably know this already, but Lars Ulrich has famously said he wanted Metallica to be the first band to play in space. Now Artemis-II looks pretty full R's. But maybe for Artemis-III. And the second fun fact for you today is Tom Cruise is going to space maybe. It wasn't enough to portray a naval top gun aviator. Now Cruise is taking the step of many actual naval aviators and going to space, in his case, for a movie, which already has the green light from Universal with a $200 million budget. But no production timeline just yet, so who knows that this will actually happen. But if it does actually happen, Cruise would be the first civilian to perform a spacewalk. Go figure. Space: It's basically the only place Cruise hasn't done his own stunts yet. But, seriously, the guy's 61. Geez, man.
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That's it for T-Minus for July 13, 2023. For additional resources from today's report, check out our show notes at space.n2k.com. We're privileged that N2K and podcasts like T-Minus are part of the daily routine of many of the most influential leaders and operators in the public and private sector, from the Fortune 500 to many of the world's preeminent intelligence and law enforcement agencies. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Tré Hester with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf. Our chief intelligence officer is Eric Tillman. And I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.
>> Unidentified Person: T-Minus done.
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