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Good morning, and Eid Mubarak to all of our readers celebrating around the world. 

In today’s newsletter:
💥 ASAT talks
🚀 SpaceX cadence
🗓️ The week ahead

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To ASAT Test or Not to ASAT Test

A visualization of the debris cloud created by Russia’s November 2021 ASAT test. Image: Numerica

Two weeks ago, VP Kamala Harris announced that the US would impose a ban on its own destructive, direct-ascent ASAT (ant-satellite) testing. The move is meant to set an example for other spacefaring nations to maintain a safe orbital environment. The US will also likely use its new posture as an example in upcoming UN space safety talks. 

Back in the US, discussion on the merits of the ban has continued. In Congress, vocal GOP critics have said that the ban could leave the US open to attack from space, or allow rival nations to leave us behind as they continue to develop this technology. 

Proponents of the ban argue that the US has a responsibility to set the norms for safe spacefaring, and that this particular type of ASAT tech creates debris clouds that threaten all orbital operations.

The critics

In an op-ed for Breaking Defense, Gen. Kevin Chilton, former NASA astronaut, Air Force general, and commander of US Strategic Command argued that the self-imposed ASAT ban does not do enough to deter aggressive actions from other nations in space. 

“We must convince our adversaries they cannot destroy our critical satellites, while retaining theirs,” Chilton wrote.

  • Chilton says that the testing ban should not stand in the way of the US using its ASAT capabilities if they’re ever needed for national defense. 
  • “This approach mirrors the policies and posture of our nuclear deterrent forces: Our voluntary compliance with the nuclear test ban treaty does not impede our fielding of a credible triad to deter adversarial strategic attacks on the U.S. or our allies,” he wrote.

Mike Rogers (R-AL), lead Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, also voiced his disapproval of the ban in a statement

  • “This unilateral decision mistakes activity for achievement. It does nothing to deter our adversaries in an escalating war fighting domain. In fact, I’m worried it will have the opposite effect,” he wrote. “Both the Russians and the CCP have demonstrated their anti-satellite capabilities—it would be naive to think they don’t intend to use them against our assets.”

A different perspective: On Saturday, Senator Mark Kelly, Arizona Democrat and former NASA astronaut, cast doubt on the idea that Russia would conduct another destructive ASAT test anyway. 

  • “They did an antisatellite test recently, but that test was just very well choreographed and produced to get a certain outcome,” he said on a panel at the McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum. “I wouldn’t say right now the Russians in particular have an antisatellite capability that I would be too worried about.”
  • He also said that the Russians don’t have advanced space situational awareness tech, and that the debris cloud created by their November ASAT test is still a danger to their other satellites.

Worth noting: The US ASAT ban only applies to one type of ASAT test: destructive, direct-ascent ASAT testing. That only means that the US will not fire any missiles from the ground directly at satellites and hit them as part of any tests. 

The US has other forms of kinetic and non-kinetic ASAT technology at its disposal that are still very much on the table. Plus, the US has tested destructive direct-ascent ASAT tech that works in the past, most recently in 2008, and already has that capability stowed away.

Read/share online.


SpaceX Notches New Turnaround Record

Launching from Cape Canaveral, the Starlink 4-16 mission delivered 53 new broadband satellites to space. The mission’s booster (tail name B1062) was previously flown just three weeks prior on the Ax-1 mission. B1062 has also previously launched two GPS spacecraft, Inspiration4, and another Starlink mission.
Image: SpaceX

On Friday, SpaceX flew its 17th mission of the year. 

Launching from Cape Canaveral, the Starlink 4-16 mission delivered 53 new broadband satellites to space. The mission’s booster (tail name B1062) was previously flown just three weeks prior on the Ax-1 mission. B1062 has also previously launched two GPS spacecraft, Inspiration4, and another Starlink mission. 

All-time SpaceX stats: 155 total launches, 117 landings, and 94 reflown rockets. Friday’s mission was the quickest turnaround for a Falcon booster (21 days, vs. the previous record of 27). And nearly 2,200 Starlinks are currently in orbit, per astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, with 2,166 of those satellites active and operational. 

Let’s extrapolate…SpaceX, as of Friday, is operating at an annual run rate of ~52 launches a year. According to Elon, SpaceX is targeting 60 Falcon 9/Heavy flights this year, which would be nearly double 2021’s total of 31.

Read/share online.


In Other News

  • China launched two remote-sensing satellites aboard a Long March 2C.
  • The UAE will send an astronaut to the ISS on a long-duration mission through a partnership with Axiom in 2023.
  • The FAA delayed its environmental review of Starship by another month, saying that SpaceX made significant changes to its application that require additional review.
  • Sierra Space has begun assembling its Dream Chaser spaceplane (H/T SpaceNews). The plane is expected to be fully built and shipped off to NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in August or September for thermal vacuum testing. 
  • Roscosmos launched its Angara 1.2 rocket, which has spent 25 years in development, for the first time on Friday.

The Week Ahead

All times in Eastern.

Monday, May 2: Rocket Lab will attempt a mid-air booster catch with a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter. The next launch window begins at 6:35pm.

Tuesday, May 3: Various Senate committees/subcommittees will hear budget requests for the Department of the Air Force, NASA, the DoD, and the DOT. NASA and Boeing will host a presser on the upcoming Starliner OFT-2 uncrewed test flight.

Wednesday, May 4: On Wednesday, Crew-3 may undock from the ISS (details TBA). If they do, they’ll splash down the next day. Also, NASA is seeking public comments on its Environmental Impact Statement for returning samples from Mars and will host two public meetings about it: Wednesday at 3pm and Thursday at 8pm.

Thursday, May 5: EchoStar (NASDAQ:SATS) will announce Q1 earnings at 11am, while Virgin Galactic (NYSE:SPCE) and Astra (NASDAQ:ASTR) will report after market close. The Atlantic Council is holding an event at 2:30pm on the national security implications of small satellites.

Friday, May 6: Telesat (NASDAQ/TSX:TSAT) will report earnings at 10:30am. The three-day Analog Astronaut Conference begins at Biosphere 2 in Arizona.


The View from Space

Image: NASA

Here’s a throwback: In 1972, the Apollo 16 mission landed on the lunar surface with NASA astronauts John Young (pictured above) and Charlie Duke. 50 years later, Duke, one of four surviving Apollo-era moonwalkers, is still looking forward to the next era of lunar exploration.