Inspected (11/16/21 Newsletter)

To: Payload Subscribers

November 16, 2021

Good morning. Believe us when we say that we wish today’s top story could be about any other topic. But alas.

In today’s newsletter… 
💥 Russian ASAT test 
🔬 NASA IG report 
🔁 On the move

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 A Smoking Gun in Space

Image: NASA

On Monday, Russia struck a Soviet-era spy satellite with a missile. The antisatellite (ASAT) test destroyed a dead, decades-old spacecraft and generated at least 1,500 trackable orbital debris in LEO, along with hundreds of thousands of smaller shards. Washington confirmed the ASAT test and condemned Moscow for reckless space behavior. 

  • The US State Department called Russia’s actions “dangerous, reckless, and irresponsible.” A State spokesperson said it’s “disingenuous and hypocritical” for Russia to claim that it opposes the weaponization of space. 
  • “Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible,” USSPACECOM Commander James Dickinson said. Russia gave no advance warning of the test, according to the Pentagon. 
  • NASA was slower to respond but offered more details, confirming a connection between Monday’s ISS emergency and the ASAT test. 

The details: Russia is thought to have used Nudol, a direct-ascent ASAT and Earth-based satellite interceptor. Kosmos-1408, the target, was an obsolete electronics intelligence satellite. While Russia has tested Nudol ten-ish times, yesterday’s strike was the weapon’s first kinetic attack. 

  • The US, China, and India have also tested ASATs.   

Further corroboration: A Russian airspace notice indicated a launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, with a trajectory that lined up with Kosmos-1408’s orbit. LeoLabs, a satellite-tracking radar startup, quickly detected new objects near where Kosmos-1408 should have been. Database operator Seradata tweeted that the collision was “a bit higher than ISS but not much,” and that a cloud of space junk could’ve been pushed downward. 

Payload’s takeaway: ASATs are dangerous displays of in-space saber rattling. They pose a threat to human spaceflight missions and on-orbit assets, including satellites owned and operated by the offending nation. 

  • The new debris field endangers the safety of two cosmonauts, five astronauts, and three taikonauts…and creates risks for the $150B ISS.

“We had the Chinese ASAT in 2007,” SpaceX VP Bill Gerstenmaier said at Ascend yesterday. “That’s been our nemesis for an extended period of time. It looks like now we have another one of these. This is not what we need to do.”


 Scope Creep on Artemis

NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released an audit of the agency’s Artemis management. Spoiler alert: not great, but not the biggest surprise.

The big picture: The Artemis program is over budget and behind schedule. NASA provided updated timelines last week, and now, OIG is moving the goalpost again. Due to numerous technical delays, Covid, and storm damage, OIG predicts that none of the three phases of the Artemis program will proceed as scheduled. OIG’s predicted timetables: 

  • Artemis I: from November 2021 to summer 2022
  • Artemis II: from late 2023 to mid-2024
  • Artemis III: from 2024 to “several years” later—2026 at the earliest.

Budget burden: The report assessed FY2012–FY2025 Artemis costs at a whopping $93B, $25B higher than NASA’s latest estimate, and pegs SLS/Orion price per launch at $4.1B. 

  • OIG’s culprits: Sole-source, cost-plus contracts, updating contractual terms on the fly, and expendable launch/spaceflight infrastructure.

Now what? OIG made nine recommendations to NASA management to address the lapses in communication on the program’s timeline and budget. NASA leadership agreed to five and partially accepted two. They rejected two outright:

  1. To develop an annual cost estimate for the entire Artemis program
  2. To keep track of the cost per mission and establish affordability benchmarks

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In Other News

  • Arianespace’s 20th Vega launch is in the books.
  • Starlink has ~140k users in 20+ countries, SpaceX stated in recent FCC filings.
  • Airbus and NTT Docomo, a Japanese telecom, demoed connectivity from the solar-powered Zephyr High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS).
  • The FAA is targeting Dec. 31 to finish its Boca Chica environmental review. If the deadline sticks, a Starship orbital attempt in Q1 ‘22 could very well happen. 
  • Rocket Lab (NASDAQ:RKLB) reported $5.3M of Q3 revenue and ~$793M in cash on hand. Rocket Lab has also agreed to acquire Planetary Systems Corporation, a spacecraft separation systems developer. 
  • AST SpaceMobile (NASDAQ:ASTS) is entering the final stage of building, integrating, and testing its next-gen BlueWalker 3 satellite. AST has ~$360M in cash and no financial debt, the company said in Q3 earnings. 

On the Move

  • Rocket Lab appointed Andrew Bunker as VP of government operations and business strategy. Bunker most recently held a similar role at ULA.
  • Nanoracks named Dr. Amela Wilson as its new CEO. Outgoing CEO Jeffrey Manber will remain chairman of the board, and become president of international and space stations at parent company Voyager Space.
  • Ursa Space appointed Morten Hagland Hansen, a wireless network and IT exec, as its new VP of energy & maritime.
  • Planet announced that Niccolo de Masi, director of dMY Technology Group, will join its board when the company goes public.
  • Spirit Aerosystems Holdings (NYSE:SPR) added William A. Fitzgerald and Patrick M. Shanahan to its board. Fitzgerald was a GE Aviation exec; Shanahan was acting secretary of defense from January to June 2019.

The View from French Guiana

Image: Arianespace

A Vega rocket lifted off from French Guiana at 4:27 AM EST this morning, carrying three Airbus-built CERES satellites for France’s military. It was Arianespace’s 300th launch from the Guiana Space Center.