Spacing Out; OneWeb Rescue, Starlink Base Stations, And Rocket Tests

Another couple of weeks, and a fresh crop of space news to run through as a quick briefing of the latest in the skies above us.

OneWeb's most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020.
OneWeb’s most recent launch, from Baikonur on the 21st of March 2020. (OneWeb)

The global positioning orbits are getting pretty crowded, with GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, the EU’s Galileo, Japan’s QZSS, and now with the launch of the final satellite in their constellation, China’s BeiDou. As if five were not enough the chance that they might be joined by a sixth constellation from the United Kingdom resurfaced this week, as the UK government is expressing interest in supporting a rescue package for the troubled satellite broadband provider OneWeb. The idea of an independent GPS competitor from a post-Brexit UK has been bouncing around for a couple of years now, and on the face of it until this opportune chance to purchase an “oven ready” satellite constellation might deliver a route to incorporating a positioning payload into their design. The Guardian has its doubts, lining up a bevvy of scientists to point out the rather obvious fact that a low-earth-orbit satellite broadband platform is a very different prospect to a much-higher-orbiting global positioning platform. Despite the country possessing the expertise through its work on Galileo then it remains to be seen whether a OneWeb purchase would be a stroke of genius or a white elephant. Readers with long memories will know that British government investment in space has had its upsets before.

Happily for Brits, not all space endeavours from their islands end in ignominious retreat. Skyrora have scored another milestone, launching the first ever rocket skywards from the Shetland Islands. The Skylark Nano is a relatively tiny craft at only 2m high, and gathered research data during its flight to an altitude of 6km. We’ve followed their work before, including their testing in May of a Skylark L rocket on the Scottish mainland with a view to achieving launch capability in 2023.

A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)
A Starlink phased array end user antenna, spotted in Winsconsin. (darkpenguin22)

SpaceX’s Starlink is never far away from the news, with a fresh set of launches delayed for extra pre-launch tests, and the prospect of signing up to be considered for the space broadband firm’s beta test. Of more interest for Hackaday readers though are a few shots of prototype Starlink ground stations and user terminals that have made it online, on the roof of a Tesla Gigafactory and at a SpaceX facility in Wisconsin. What can be seen are roughly 1.5m radomes for the ground stations and much smaller dinner-plate-sized enclosed arrays for the user terminals. The latter are particularly fascinating as they conceal computer-controlled phased arrays for tracking the constellation as it passes overhead. This is a technology more at home in billion-dollar military radars than consumer devices, so getting it to work on a budget that can put it on a roof anywhere in the world must be a challenge for the Starlink engineers. We can’t wait to see the inevitable eventual teardown when it comes.

Elsewhere, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two completed its second glide test over its Mojave Spaceport home since being grounded in 2019 for extensive refitting, and is now said to be ready for powered tests leading to eventual commercial service giving the extremely well-heeled the chance to float in the zero gravity of suborbital spaceflight. And finally, comes the news that NASA are naming their Washington DC headquarters building for Mary W. Jackson, their first African American female engineer, whose story some of you may be familiar with from the book and film Hidden Figures. The previously unnamed building sits on a section of street named Hidden Figures Way.

Virgin Orbit Readies First Launch

Ever since the Pan Am “Space Clipper” first slid into frame in 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the world has been waiting for the day that privately funded spaceflight would become as routine as air travel. Unfortunately, it’s a dream that’s taken a bit longer to become reality than many would have hoped. The loss of Challenger and Columbia were heartbreaking reminders that travel amongst the stars is not for the faint of heart or the ill-equipped, and pushed commercial investment in space back by decades.

Although Pan Am has since folded, we now have a number of companies working hard towards making the dream of commercial spaceflight a reality. SpaceX and Rocket Lab have shown private companies developing and operating their own orbital class vehicles is a concept no longer limited to science fiction. Now that private industry has a foot in the door, more companies are coming forward with their own plans for putting their hardware into orbit. In many ways we’re seeing the dawn of a second Space Race.

If all goes according to plan, a new challenger should be entering the ring in the very near future. Scheduled to perform their first test launch before the end of the year, Virgin Orbit (a spin-off of the passenger carrying Virgin Galactic) promises to deliver small payloads to Earth orbit faster and cheaper than their competitors. But while most other commercial space companies are using fairly traditional booster rockets to do their heavy lifting, Virgin Orbit is opting for a the less common air launched approach. Before Virgin joins the ranks of commercial companies exploring the final frontier, lets take a look at their plan for getting into space and the advantages it offers compared to the competition.

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The SmallSat Launcher War

Over the last decade or so the definition of what a ‘small satellite’ is has ballooned beyond the original cubesat design specification to satellites of 50 or 100 kg. Today a ‘smallsat’ is defined far more around the cost, and sometimes the technologies used, than the size and shape of the box that goes into orbit.

There are now more than fifty companies working on launch vehicles dedicated to lifting these small satellites into orbit, and while nobody really expects all of those to survive the next few years, it’s going to be an interesting time in the launcher market. Because I have a sneaking suspicion that Jeff Bezos’ statement that “there’s not that much interesting about cubesats” may well turn out to be the twenty first century’s “nobody needs more than 640kb,” and it’s possible that everybody is wrong about how many of the launcher companies will survive in the long term.

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