— A plasma rocket engine now being tested holds new promise for NASA’s space exploration plans.
— NASA would get a budget boost under a new House spending plan, including for its return to the moon.
— A space analytics company has hired a team of veteran staffers to raise its profile on Capitol Hill.
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‘TOTAL TRANSFORMATION’: That’s what rocket company Ad Astra is ultimately hoping to achieve in deep space travel as it continues to test-fire its VASIMR plasma engine into the weekend — with the goal of reaching a 100 hours set by NASA.
“This is electric propulsion taken to a new level of power,” the company’s CEO, Franklin Chang-Diaz, told us on Thursday from Houston. “We’ve been after that goal for many years now. Assuming everything stays all together, the rocket seems to be comfortable and all the temperatures stable. Everything seems to be working out. It’s a big deal for us.”
How does it work? Chang-Diaz, a mechanical engineer and former NASA astronaut, calls the engine, with an exhaust temperature of 5 million degrees, an “alphabet soup of super-charged particles. This is what the sun and stars are made out of.”
He added that “there is no other electric rocket that has the capability. The most powerful operational electric rocket is 5 kilowatts. We’re at 80 kilowatts right now and we’ve been running for more than three days. No one has ever fired a rocket at this level.”
Ultimately, the vision is “essentially marrying a nuclear-electric power source to the engine,” he added. “We believe nuclear-electric is the end game.”
Why it could be a game-changer: Ad Astra was the only one of the three companies awarded NASA contracts in 2015 under the NextSTEP public-private partnership that is still in the running. If it can successfully complete the engineering phase, Chang-Diaz maintains, the engine could fuel a “total transformation of the transportation scheme.”
“We can see missions to Mars that could be two to three months one way and even faster than that as the technology progresses,” he explained, compared to “seven to eight months and maybe even longer. It would completely transform the way transportation is done.”
That also means “moving stuff from low-Earth orbit to the vicinity of the moon, picking up trash, repositioning satellites, transporting supplies, essentially supporting a logistics traffic system,” he said.
As for human space travel? “Less radiation, less consumables, everything is better,” Chang-Diaz said. A nuclear-electric engine would also mean spacefarers could more easily turn back or change course if needed, unlike traditional spacecraft, which are essentially designed to coast to their destination. “When you have a rocket like ours, you are really thrusting all the time,” Chang-Diaz said.
What’s his biggest worry? Right now it’s not whether the engine will work; “it’s almost boring to watch,” he said. It’s whether the company’s facility can survive the test. “The vacuum requirements are extreme. It’s putting a lot of exhaust into a chamber. You have to remove it,” he said. “The electricity we have to feed into the facility is very expensive. The facility is the challenge, at least now. Maybe a year ago I would have said the rocket was the challenge. Now the facility is the challenge.”
NASA BUDGET BOOST: The House Appropriations Committee this week marked up its version of the fiscal 2022 NASA budget, calling for an increase in funding for human space exploration, including a $150 million boost to the Human Landing System program to return American astronauts to the surface of the moon.
But is it enough to fund a second design for the HLS, as Congress wants? The space agency’s sole award to SpaceX in April set off a round of recriminations and a pair of protests from teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics. SpacePolicyOnline has more on what it all might mean for getting back to the moon, calling the panel’s proposal to select a parallel design “meager.”
Overall, the House appropriations panel approved $25.04 billion for the space agency for next year, nearly $2 billion over this year’s budget.
NRO DOUBLES DOWN: Planet Labs announced Thursday that the National Reconnaissance Office has renewed its contract for unclassified satellite imagery for defense and intelligence missions.
The super-secret NRO, which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, has increasingly relied on commercial imagery in recent years, opening up new opportunities for remote sensing companies such as Planet Labs, BlackSky Global, HySpecIQ and Maxar. The agency said last year it plans to award multiple such contracts in the future.
“This is a standalone award directly to Planet, but we are also awaiting a competitive solicitation for commercial imagery services that will be open for multiple companies to compete,” a Planet spokesperson told us. The contract amount was not disclosed.
The original Planet Labs contract was signed in 2019.
Plus: National Reconnaissance Office official picked to run Space Force acquisitions command, via Space News.
INTO THE WILD BLUE YONDER: Richard Branson’s flight to the edge of space aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo went off without a hitch on Sunday. But an even bigger test for the burgeoning space tourism industry is the “the first human flight” scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday from West Texas of Blue Origin’s New Shepard, with a crew that includes the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos.
Who else is going? Blue Origin on Thursday named the final member of the crew, 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, who will be the youngest person to travel to space.
Parting gift: The Amazon founder, who also owns The Washington Post, this week committed to donate $200 million to renovate the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum in Washington and build a new education center. It marks the single biggest donation since the founding gift to the institution in 1846 from James Smithson.
“We’re delighted that Jeff is making this commitment to help us extend the Smithsonian’s reach and impact, as we seek to inspire the next generation of scientists, astronauts, engineers, educators and entrepreneurs,” Steve Case, chair of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, said in a statement.
More: Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will bring science along on their joyrides, via Popular Science.
And: Russia’s space chief wishes his oligarchs invested in space like Branson and Musk, via ArsTechnica.
WAKE UP CALL? We checked in with a range of space policy experts for this week’s POLITICO’s China Watcher newsletter on what China’s recent run of major successes means for the future of space commerce and exploration.
What to worry about: “The [Chinese Communist] Party has control over vast state resources and can plan long term on which sectors to fund,” says Namrata Goswami, a space policy scholar and co-author of “Scramble for the Skies: The Great Power Competition to Control the Resources of Outer Space.”
Those sectors, she said, include space resource utilization such as mining on the moon and developing renewable energy via space-based solar power, as well as leap-frogging in high-tech areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics and quantum computing.
“U.S. policymakers have failed to grasp that this is part of China building a space infrastructure that would benefit and help it overtake the U.S. by 2049,” she said. “President Xi Jinping has included space as part of his focus on turning China from manufacturing into a high tech and innovation sector focused on services.”
What might be next? “They will test in-space power beaming, land reusable rockets, establish a lunar research station, build a solar power satellite prototype, test lunar 3-D printing, capture a small asteroid and return it to Earth, and fly nuclear-powered spacecraft,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Peter Garretson, a space strategist who is now a senior fellow in defense studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.
These ventures are “aimed at creating the building blocks for an Earth-independent supply chain to become an in-space industrial giant and dominant space power,” he added.
Will China treat space differently? Scott Pace, who served as executive secretary of the White House Space Council until January, says he has few illusions that Beijing will treat space any differently than its aggressive economic and security behavior here on Earth. “Will Chinese behavior in commercial space be markedly different than in other commercial sectors?” Pace asked. “Probably not. Will Chinese behavior in outer space be different than in other shared domains, such as the oceans? Maybe.”
Not everyone seems so worried. “China is definitely advancing its capabilities and the relative power balance is shifting,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, told us. “But that is generally because they started from a much lower point than the U.S. did.”
“I don’t quite buy into the China hype,” he added, “but I am concerned.”
TEACHING MOMENT: Kayrros, an Earth observation analytics company specializing in the energy sector with offices in New York and Houston, recently enlisted an influential team of lobbyists at the S-3 Group “to educate on Kayrros, a geospatial platform that leverages satellites to provide global, real-time and granular measurement to better understand the energy market and related infrastructure developments,” according to a recent public disclosure.
Kayrros’ lobbying team includes Mike Ference, who was an aide to former Rep. Eric Cantor and Sens. Jim Inhofe and Roy Blunt; Matt Bravo, who worked for Rep. Steve Scalise; Kevin Casey, former senior policy director of the Democratic Caucus; Olivia Kurtz, a former chief of staff to Sen. Susan Collins who also worked for former Rep. Mike Castle; and Jose Ceballos, a former Department of Transportation official.
Congrats to Kevin Canole, a senior program specialist in the Office of International and Interagency Relations at NASA headquarters, for being the first to correctly answer that the Apollo 13 astronauts traveled the farthest of any humans from Earth.
This week’s question: How many moons are there in our solar system? And which one is the largest and which moon is the smallest?
The first person to email [email protected] with the correct answers gets bragging rights and a shoutout in the next newsletter!
— NASA identifying, addressing spacesuit development challenges: Aviation Week
— China is using mythology and sci-fi to sell its space program to the world: The Space Review
— Israel’s SpaceIL secures funds for new lunar mission: The Associated Press
— Star Trek’s warp drive leads to new physics: Scientific American
TODAY: New Space New Mexico’s State of the Space Industrial Base conference continues.
TUESDAY: The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee holds a hearing on “Spectrum Needs for Observations in Earth and Space Sciences” at 10 a.m.
TUESDAY: The Washington Space Business Council hosts NRO Director Chris Scolese at 1 p.m.
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