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posted by martyb on Thursday October 11 2018, @05:36AM   Printer-friendly
from the if-these-companies-had-cheerleaders,-would-they-be...booster-boosters? dept.

The military chooses which rockets it wants built for the next decade

On Wednesday, the US Air Force awarded its much-anticipated new round of "Launch Service Agreements," which provide funds to rocket companies to complete development of their boosters. There were three winners:

  • United Launch Services: $967,000,000 for the development of the Vulcan Centaur launch system.
  • Northrop Grumman: $791,601,015 for development of the Omega launch system
  • Blue Origin: $500,000,000 for the development of the New Glenn launch system

At least two other companies were believed to be in the running for these awards, as they won grants during an earlier round of funding in 2016. It was not a surprise to see Aerojet Rocketdyne fail to win an award, as that company does not appear to have a customer for its AR1 rocket engine, which the military initially supported. It was something of a surprise not to see SpaceX win an award.

[...] These are hugely consequential awards for the rocket companies. Essentially the US Air Force, which launches more complex, heavy payloads than any other entity in the world, believes these boosters will have a significant role to play in those missions during the next decade. And when the military has confidence in your vehicle, commercial satellite contracts are more likely to follow as well.

"This is a big win for companies like United Launch Alliance, that have the space pedigree they have, and for a company like Blue Origin that is aiming to establish itself," said Phil Larson, an assistant dean and chief of staff at the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Engineering and Applied Science. "It is great to see the Air Force embracing public private partnership-type arrangements even more, and of course, with anything contract related, the devil will be in the details."

[...] the Air Force funding means ULA can press ahead toward a mid-2020 launch (at the earliest) of Vulcan. This was a huge lifeline for a company that has provided the Air Force with more than a decade of costly (but supremely reliable) launches and which has struggled in the face of stiff competition from SpaceX in recent years.

This was also a game-changing win for Northrop. This company, also, seemed unlikely to pursue development of its Omega rocket without significant government funding. The Omega rocket, which uses solid-propellant rockets for its first and second stages and a liquid hydrogen upper stage, could be ready for its first flight by 2021. Such a large award for solid-rocket booster technology was a surprise to some aerospace officials Ars spoke to.

Wednesday's announcement also was a huge vote of confidence in Blue Origin and its BE-4 rocket engine, which will power both the New Glenn and Vulcan rockets. The award will allow the company to rapidly build infrastructure needed for New Glenn, including a vertical-integration facility at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, as well as perform other certification activities.

[...] Regardless of the reasons, the lack of an award for SpaceX means that the successful, innovative, and individualistic company from California will now face three companies receiving military support as it competes with them in the the global launch industry. As ever, the battle will be epic and captivating.


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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11 2018, @06:45AM (8 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11 2018, @06:45AM (#747310)

    Essentially the US Air Force, which launches more complex, heavy payloads than any other entity in the world, believes these boosters will have a significant role to play in those missions during the next decade.

    What complex, heavy payloads are they launching? Are they building something up there?

  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11 2018, @07:02AM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11 2018, @07:02AM (#747316)

    The latest launch seems to have been this argentinian satellite whose mission is "the benefit of society, emergency management and economic development."

    https://www.afspc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/1657265/vandenberg-launches-spacex-falcon-9/ [af.mil]
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/SAOCOM [wikipedia.org]

    So, is the US defense budget paying for the launch of satellites with poorly defined missions from other countries?

    • (Score: 2) by takyon on Thursday October 11 2018, @01:18PM

      by takyon (881) <takyonNO@SPAMsoylentnews.org> on Thursday October 11 2018, @01:18PM (#747409) Journal

      SpaceX conducts launches from Vandenberg under an agreement they have with the Air Force. So of course the USAF is going to "watch the skies" or whatever it does to support the mission.

      --
      [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 [soylentnews.org]
  • (Score: 3, Funny) by driverless on Thursday October 11 2018, @07:17AM

    by driverless (4770) on Thursday October 11 2018, @07:17AM (#747319)

    What complex, heavy payloads are they launching? Are they building something up there?

    The Orbiting Peace Platform isn't just going to lift itself up into space, y'know?

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by bob_super on Thursday October 11 2018, @07:19AM

    by bob_super (1357) on Thursday October 11 2018, @07:19AM (#747321)

    They regularly team up with the NRO. Nobody builds anything more complex than the NRO, outside of maybe the ISS.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11 2018, @07:51AM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11 2018, @07:51AM (#747325)

    Consider things like their X-37B [wikipedia.org] series of space ships. These launches are not classified, though the payloads and purpose are. And they are big, and are probably only going to get bigger in the future. Or consider things like the NRO, national reconnaissance office (spy sats), back in 2012 handing a couple of hand me downs to NASAs. These satellites they viewed as disposable were literally at least as powerful as hubble (same primary mirror size + some niceties). They also gave them key components needed to assemble a third. The point of this is that if that's their throw aways, imagine what the state of the art we have up their right now. And I'd expect the launching was tasked to the air force rather than carried out directly through the NRO/DOD or whatever. Point being even just conventional stuff they're sending up is going to be pretty huge.

    Second thing is that as the rest of the world starts to achieve space successes of their own, it's going to become more of a pissing contest in space. This is going to be incredible for progress in space tech and will also mean we're going to see a lot more stuff going up. We'll even eventually need to start doing things like testing weapons systems and other technologies in 0 and low-g environments (such as the moon). Yes, this goes completely against the Outer Space Treaty. No, it doesn't matter.

    And finally for my own personal speculation. There was a lot of hype around the EM drive. We went all the way to having NASA test it and then contract out assembly and testing to three different contractors once it passed their tests to try to confirm. And it passed all those tests as well. After that, they went silent. That makes no sense at all. And in my opinion further work and testing has likely been classified. I think it is being actively tested upon one of those X-37B. It even fits the one statement they secretary of the air force made on their purpose -- that being "risk reduction, experimentation, and operational concept development for reusable space vehicle technologies, in support of long-term developmental space objectives". Anyhow, if it passed small scale tests on the X-37 the next step would be to scale it up massively and see how it operates independently. Again, big stuff.

    Basically, the future is looking fun, but classified.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11 2018, @08:00AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 11 2018, @08:00AM (#747326)

      So you think thats the next bubble? Makes some sense.

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday October 11 2018, @10:41AM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday October 11 2018, @10:41AM (#747374) Journal

      Second thing is that as the rest of the world starts to achieve space successes of their own, it's going to become more of a pissing contest in space. This is going to be incredible for progress in space tech and will also mean we're going to see a lot more stuff going up. We'll even eventually need to start doing things like testing weapons systems and other technologies in 0 and low-g environments (such as the moon). Yes, this goes completely against the Outer Space Treaty. No, it doesn't matter.

      On that last point, it doesn't go against the Outer Space Treaty, unless one fails to withdraw from the treaty first. It's very easy to leave the treaty, just give one year's public notice to the other treaty holders and you're complying with the terms of the treaty.

      My view is that the days of the treaty are numbered. It has a bad model for property ownership. And of course, there will eventually be conflict off of Earth.

  • (Score: 2) by ElizabethGreene on Thursday October 11 2018, @03:30PM

    by ElizabethGreene (6748) on Thursday October 11 2018, @03:30PM (#747458)

    NRO satellites, aka spy satellites, are not small payloads. Like any telescope their imaging capabilities are directly related to mirror size. Bigger mirrors=Better images. Add to that their life is limited by fuel. More fuel means a longer life in the same orbit, or the same life in a lower (better for imaging) orbit.

    It isn't unreasonable to assume we'll develop offensive satellite capability in the next decade too. Those payloads will need very large post-orbit maneuvering capability to disguise what they are doing from launch observers.