Rocket Report: Starlink flies, OneWeb has next mega-constellation launch 0 16

Rocket Report: Starlink flies, OneWeb has next mega-constellation launch

Jump into the flame trench —

“This marks the start of a regular launch campaign during 2020.”

Cartoon rocket superimposed over real rocket launch.

Enlarge / The mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket takes to the skies.

Welcome to Edition 2.30 of the Rocket Report! We’ve reached the end of January, and the business of launch has really started to heat up for 2020. Plenty of news this week from the deepening of the low Earth orbit satellite Internet race to quirky stories involving tech journalists and rocket companies. All that, and more, in this week’s report.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Spaceport authority asks New Mexico for $57 million more. The New Mexico Spaceport Authority is seeking $57 million in capital outlay this year for infrastructure projects it considers critical, beginning with $25 million for a welcoming center and visitor access control installations. The preparations come as Virgin Galactic seeks to fly humans on suborbital spaceflights from New Mexico later this year.

That’s a lot of money … “Those are tall orders for this year’s legislative session, especially because the state has already invested $220 million to build the spaceport, plus $25 million in capital outlay in the past two years for other infrastructure projects,” the Albuquerque Journal writes. But spaceport leaders and supporters say the new projects are critical as New Mexico moves to the forefront of the world’s emerging commercial space industry. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Iran preparing for another Safir rocket launch. Iran is preparing for the launch of two small communications satellites, Zafar 1 and Zafar 2, from the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran, Ars reports. The country’s communication’s minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, confirmed the launch. The satellites will likely launch on the Safir-1 or Safir-2 rocket, which reportedly have capacities of 65kg and 350kg to low Earth orbit.

Peace or bombs? … Combined, the vehicles have a checkered history, with four known successes and four known failures during the last 12 years. The United States and Iran have clashed over the nation’s rocket program. American officials contend the program is part of an effort to develop ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons to distant foreign targets. The Iranian government says its space program serves peaceful purposes.

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

Vector selling off assets. On Friday, Vector announced a court-supervised sale of its Galactic Sky assets. Lockheed Martin agreed to buy the satellite assets for $4.25 million, but Vector will solicit higher bids. Galactic Sky was designed to provide a service to developers to quickly get their applications into orbit on an existing satellite or constellation.

Rocket parts for sale, too … As part of its bankruptcy proceedings, the company said it is also accepting bids for its “launch vehicle assets” provided that certain minimums are met. The continuing dissolution of Vector is a sad but inevitable part of the growing smallsat launch industry. They won’t be the last. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Bob Cringely is starting a rocket company? There was a time, in the 1990s and early 2000s, that Robert X. Cringely was a big name in tech journalism. Since then he’s dabbled in business, such as a Kickstarter-gone-bad to develop a custom Minecraft server. Now, Cringely says, he’s starting a solid rocket company while inventing “nothing.” Cringely said his company plans to charge $1 million for up to 12U into any orbit by air launching from a “proper angle.”

Air launch and solid rockets … “We took 50-year-old ammonium perchlorate composite propellant and improved it using modern materials, processes, and some common sense. NO 3D printing! The result is a cheaper rocket that can sit on the shelf for years then be launched as-needed within hours,” he wrote on his blog. “We’ve offered to launch on FOUR hours notice and then launch again every TWO hours after that until they tell us to stop.” The history of modern aerospace is littered with ideas such as this, presented as simple solutions to complex problems. But good luck all the same. (submitted by Respice and GJDitchfield)

Black Brant rocket launches mission for NASA. A Black Brant IX sounding rocket carried a NASA science mission to an altitude of 161 miles on Jan. 27. The NASA Polar NOx mission aims to better understand the abundance of nitric oxide in the polar atmosphere, especially at the higher levels. Nitric oxide in the northern regions exists between 53 and 93 miles altitude.

Making a week of it … Preliminary reports show that good science data was obtained. The launch took place from University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute’s Poker Flat Research Range, which is located just south of the Arctic Circle. The local community held a “Space Week” to celebrate the launch, complete with presentations by NASA scientists. (submitted by Shlazzargh and ColdWetDog)

OneWeb confirms launch date. The second mega-constellation of LEO internet satellites is coming. This week OneWeb confirmed that its first launch of 2020 will occur on February 6, with 34 satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket, from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. Arianespace will perform the launch, which will place the satellites into a near polar orbit at an initial altitude of 450 kilometers from where they will rise to their final orbit of 1,200km.

Service starting next year … According to the company, This marks the start of a regular launch campaign during 2020 that will rapidly grow OneWeb’s first phase constellation of 648 satellites and represents one of the largest civilian satellite launch campaigns in history. OneWeb aims to provide full commercial global services for sectors such as maritime, aviation, government and enterprise in 2021.

Falcon 9 completes another Starlink mission. On Wednesday morning, SpaceX’s launch of its fourth batch of 60 Starlink satellites proceeded smoothly. About 1 hour after launch, the stack of satellites deployed into low Earth orbit at an altitude of 290km. They will raise their orbits to an altitude of 550km over the next one to four weeks, Ars reports. The launch came as some astronomers are mobilizing to fight back against the growing constellation and plans for others.

Catching a falling fairing … Meanwhile, recovery operations also went well. The Falcon 9 rocket’s thrice-used first stage landed on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship, and the Ms. Tree vessel caught one of the two payload fairing halves. Ms. Chief just missed the other one, the company said on its webcast. If you’re keeping score, SpaceX has launched the Falcon 9 three times already in 2020.

James Webb telescope launch may be delayed. The large James Webb Space Telescope is likely to be one of the final payloads launched by the Ariane 5 rocket. But now the payload’s scheduled March 2021 launch may be at risk, the US Government Accountability Office says in a new report.

Ariane 6, anyone? … Because the space agency and the telescope’s prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, continue to tackle serious technical problems, the report estimates that there is only a 12 percent chance that the large space telescope will launch in March 2021. The new report estimates the launch date will likely slip to at least July 2021. It is not clear how long European space officials will wait, and we wonder when they might begin pushing to move the launch to the new Ariane 6 rocket.

SpaceX releases preliminary Crew Dragon data. Data from the Jan. 19 in-flight launch escape demonstration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft indicate the performance of the capsule’s SuperDraco abort engines was “flawless,” Spaceflight Now reports. For its final full-scale test before astronauts ride it into space, a Falcon 9 rocket carried the capsule aloft—just as it would on a crewed mission—for the first 85 seconds of the mission. The launch escape system was triggered when the Falcon 9 was traveling at a velocity of 536 meters per second, according to SpaceX.

Breathing fire … Eight SuperDraco thrusters immediately pressurized and ignited as the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage engines were commanded to shut down as part of the abort sequence. The escape engines on the Crew Dragon produced nearly 130,000 pounds of thrust at full power. The SuperDracos performed flawlessly, SpaceX said, accelerating the capsule away from the top of the Falcon 9 at a peak acceleration of 3.3Gs. The SuperDracos accelerated the spacecraft to 675 meters per second in approximately seven seconds, according to SpaceX. (submitted by platykurtic)

Long March 5B could launch uncrewed test in April. China’s next-generation spacecraft, designed for deep space flight, has arrived at a coastal spaceport in preparation for a test flight. It could launch on the Long March 5B rocket as early as April, reports. The capsule, which is 8.8 meters long, has a capacity for up to six taikonauts.

No life support on board … Like NASA’s Orion EFT-1 test flight in 2014, the spacecraft will be sent into a relatively high, elliptical orbit, reaching an apogee of 8,000 km before reentry—far beyond that of China’s previous human spaceflight-related flights. The flight will test the spacecraft’s performance in orbit, a lightweight heat-resistant coating for reentry, parachute systems and a new airbag-cushion-landing design. Systems such as life support will be absent from the spacecraft for the first flight. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

House bill prefers SLS rocket for Artemis Program. On Friday evening, a US House of Representatives subcommittee released H.R. 5666, an authorization act for NASA. Such bills are not required for an agency to function, and they do not directly provide funding—that comes from the appropriations committees in the House and Senate. Authorization bills provide a “sense” of Congress, however and indicate what legislators will be willing to fund in the coming years, Ars reports.

The House likes cost-plus contracts … The bill, which will be considered by the full Science committee in February, says the Human Landing System for the Moon should not be awarded on a fixed price contract, but rather than NASA should “own” the system. The lunar plans should utilize “the Orion vehicle and an integrated lunar landing system carried on an Exploration Upper Stage-enhanced Space Launch System for the human lunar landing missions. As currently written, the bill handcuffs NASA’s Artemis Program and likely will face significant changes if it is to be reconciled with the Senate’s authorization legislation. (submitted by george moromisato)

About that reality television show. E-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has backtracked from his plan to find a girlfriend to take into space by way of reality TV show, The Verge reports. The founder of Zozotown, who made a significant downpayment on a private SpaceX flight around the Moon and had initially planned to take several artists with him, but later announced plans to solicit a romantic partner for the journey and beyond through an AbemaTV documentary to be called “Full Moon Lovers.”

Feels extremely remorseful … Maezawa has requested the show’s cancellation citing “personal reasons.” “Despite my genuine and honest determination toward the show, there was a part of me that still had mixed feelings about my participation,” he wrote on Twitter. “To think that 27,722 women, with earnest intentions and courage, had used their precious time to apply makes me feel extremely remorseful to conclude and inform everyone with this selfish decision of mine.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

Jan. 31: Electron | “Birds of a Feather” mission | Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand | 00:00 UTC

Feb. 6: Soyuz 2.1b | OneWeb communications satellites | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 21:42 UTC

Feb. 9: Atlas V | Solar Orbiter for NASA, ESA | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida | TBD

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Google Maps gets new icon, tweaked UI for 15th birthday 0 13

Google Maps gets new icon, tweaked UI for 15th birthday

OK, but what about dark mode? —

There’s a new icon, new tabs, and the death of the hamburger button.

  • Left: the new Google Maps logo. Right: the old logo.

  • The new logo loosely follows Google’s new icon style, which is slowly creeping across the app lineup.

  • Here’s the “new” Google Maps. There are two new tabs at the bottom and “For You” was renamed to “Updates.” Also the hamburger button is dead.

  • Here are the two new tabs. Neither of these sections are new; they’re just tab buttons now.

Google Maps is turning 15 this year, and Google is celebrating with a new icon and a few UI tweaks.

First, the Google Maps icon is no longer, well, a map and is now a multi-colored map pin. Like all of Google’s other recent icons, Maps’ icon follows a formula of outfitting a simple shape or letter with the colors red, blue, green, and yellow, and calling it a day. You can expect this new icon to pop up on your phone sometime soon.

The bottom tab navigation is going to switch from three tabs to five, with new tabs for “Saved” (Saved places), “Contribute,” and “Updates.” None of these sections really represent new features, they just used to live in the left-side navigation drawer and now they have top-level access via the tab bar. Speaking of the left-side navigation drawer, the hamburger button that used to open it is dead. Presumably, the settings and other miscellaneous menu options will live under the account switcher, accessible via your profile picture on the right side of the search bar.

Crowdsourcing has always been a major source of information for Google Maps, and soon Google says it will start surfacing information based on surveys that past Google Maps users have filled out. Things like the temperature of a mass transit car, accessibility, and the security level will soon be surfaced when you’re planning your travels.

Google’s last update concerns the company’s augmented reality “Live View” mode in Maps. Instead of unreliable smartphone compass hardware, Live View cross-references your camera feed with Street View imagery to figure out the direction you’re facing. The feature is meant to help with walking navigation in big cities, where getting that first turn right can often be a challenge. Live View works, but location compatibility is currently extremely limited right now. Google says it will be “expanding Live View and testing new capabilities” over the coming months but doesn’t provide any detail on what, exactly, that means.

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Downloading public court documents costs a dime a page—is that legal? 0 19

Downloading public court documents costs a dime a page—is that legal?

Tear down this wall? —

Federal courts use hefty PACER fees to pay for non-PACER projects.

Chief Justice John Roberts.

Enlarge / Chief Justice John Roberts did not actually use PACER fees to buy a new chair. That’s just a hypothetical example.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

If you need documents from federal court cases, you’re in luck. Almost every brief, exhibit, and legal ruling is available for download from the judiciary’s PACER website. But there’s a catch: documents cost 10 cents a page.

In 2016, three nonprofit organizations, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center, and the Alliance for Justice sued the federal courts—in federal court. The class action lawsuit, filed on behalf of all fee-paying PACER users, argued that these hefty charges were illegal. Federal law allows the courts to charge fees “only to the extent necessary” to provide public access to information. Over the last 15 years, the cost of storage and bandwidth has plunged. Yet PACER’s fees have actually risen from 7 cents to 10 cents. These fees have raised far more money than it costs to run the PACER system: $146 million in 2016 alone.

In a 2018 ruling, Judge Ellen Huvelle largely agreed with the plaintiffs, concluding that the courts are breaking the law by spending PACER money on non-PACER projects like installing flat-screen TVs in courtrooms and sending electronic notifications to bankruptcy creditors. On Monday, the case reached the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where three judges heard oral arguments from each side. Judges seemed skeptical of the arguments of government lawyers representing the judiciary.

Before I explain the arguments, I should note that I’m not a neutral observer on this issue. As a reporter, I’m a frequent user of PACER; Ars Technica will probably get some money back if the plaintiffs win this lawsuit. Also, a decade ago, I helped create RECAP, a browser extension that helps PACER users share documents with each other and avoid paying PACER fees. I’ve long been on record arguing that public court documents should be free to the public—not locked behind a paywall.

The current lawsuit wouldn’t go that far. Both sides agree that the courts are allowed to charge something for judicial documents. But the two sides in Monday’s oral arguments disagreed radically about how much the documents should cost. Plaintiffs argued that the law only allows the courts to charge the marginal cost of distributing documents—a tiny fraction of the current fee. The Administrative Office of the Courts, on the other hand, has argued for an expansive interpretation of the law that allows them to charge as much as they want and to spend it on anything related to distributing information electronically to the public.

In her 2018 ruling, Judge Huvelle charted a middle course. She ruled that the courts could not only charge for the cost of delivering a particular document to a particular customer, but also for the costs of maintaining the infrastructure behind the PACER system. That includes CM/ECF, the website that litigants and judges use to upload, organize, and view case documents. She concluded that these costs are relevant because PACER is fundamentally a public-facing front-end for the CM/ECF system. But she held that the courts couldn’t use PACER fees to pay for projects completely unrelated to PACER.

“We’re redecorating all judges’ offices with gold plate”

Monday’s oral arguments (MP3 recording here) didn’t go well for Alisa Klein, the government lawyer representing the judiciary. At one point an exchange got so testy that Judge Raymond Clevenger snapped, “Do you have a lot of trouble answering questions generally in life or just when you come in front of the court?”

Rather than directly defending the courts’ use of PACER fees for non-PACER purposes, Klein spent most of her time arguing that the courts shouldn’t be hearing the case at all—an issue known as “standing” in legal jargon. While the law restricts how fees can be spent, she said, Congress didn’t intend to let individual PACER users sue the courts if the law wasn’t followed.

The judges seemed skeptical. Clevenger asked incredulously whether it would be legal for PACER fees to be used to replace “the curtains at the Supreme Court” and to buy “the Chief Justice’s new chair.”

“We’re redecorating all judges’ offices with gold plate,” he said sarcastically. Under the judiciary’s theory, he said, “there’s absolutely no remedy” for this kind of illegal spending.

But Klein pointed out that the judiciary’s budget gets reviewed and approved every year by Congress. If Congress doesn’t want the courts spending PACER fees on gold-plated office renovations, Congress can easily nix expenses it doesn’t like. This annual process of oversight and appropriations, not lawsuits from private citizens, should shape spending decisions by the courts, she argued.

If the judges do decide that the courts have overcharged customers, they’ll be left with the tricky problem of deciding how much was overcharged. Deepak Gupta, the lawyer who represented the non-profit plaintiffs, said he didn’t have enough information to draw a clear line between permitted and illegal uses. He suggested that the judges send the case back down to the lower courts with instructions to dig into the courts’ budgets, uncover more information, and then rule on the issue.

While this lawsuit might force the courts to reduce PACER fees, eliminating the paywall entirely will probably take action from Congress. Last year, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) introduced legislation requiring the courts to make PACER documents available free of charge. But so far the bill hasn’t gotten much traction.

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