Today’s Tidbits: June 10, 2021

Today’s Tidbits: June 10, 2021

Here are’s tidbits for June 10, 2021:  Virginia spaceport gets new director; Biden and Johnson want space to be secure and sustainable; NASA selects its first lunar far-side science investigations. Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline for live-tweeting of events and other up-to-the-minute news.

Virginia Spaceport Gets New Director

Maj. Gen. Roosevelt (Ted) Mercer, Jr. (Ret.) speaking at a virtual press conference June 10, 2021. Screengrab.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced today that Maj. Gen. Roosevelt (Ted) Mercer, Jr. (Ret.) will succeed Dale Nash as CEO and Executive Director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCFSA), more commonly known as Virginia Space. VCSFA owns and operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA.

Nash announced his retirement in January after eight years on the job.  Virginia Space set up a search committee chaired by Maj. Gen. Ed Bolton, one of its Board members, to find his successor. Virginia Space chairman Jeff Bingham said at a press conference today that Mercer was unanimously selected from a strong field of candidates.

Mercer currently is Director of the Interagency Planning Office for the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System. Before retiring from the Air Force in 2008 after 32 years of service, he was Director of Plans and Policy for U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base. He joined ITT Excelis as Vice President and Director of Government, Commercial, and International initiatives for geospatial systems before returning to the government in 2016.  He will join Virginia Space on June 21, but the official handover of duties is on August 1.

Northam praised Mercer’s “decades of experience in the aerospace field and executive leadership in both the military and the private sector.”

MARS is already the launch site for Northrop Grumman’s Antares and Minotaur rockets and Rocket Lab is building a launch complex there right now. Mercer wants to “grow the business” and launch to the full capacity of the spaceport, not only rockets, but drones.

Nash gave an update on Rocket Lab’s preparations for its first Electron launch from MARS later this year. The pacing item is NASA certification of the Autonomous Flight Termination System to destroy the rocket if it goes off course. Nash thinks everything will be ready around November. Rocket Lab will launch NASA’s CAPSTONE cubesat to the Moon.

Rocket Lab is developing a larger rocket, Neutron, that will also launch from MARS. Nash said he expects the Electron launch rate to reach one per month, with 6-8 Neutron launches per year.  “So between the Northrop Grumman launches and the Rocket Lab launches we could be easily doing 20-25 launches a year within a couple of years. That is a significant cadence. And in the meantime we probably have four or five other rocket companies looking to come here.”

Virginia Space was created as a political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1995.

Biden and Johnson Want Space to Be Secure and Sustainable

President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson are in Cornwall, U.K. for the G7 summit, which begins tomorrow. The two met today for bilateral discussions, signing a “New Atlantic Charter” reaffirming the two countries’ commitment to working together and issuing a joint statement expanding on its provisions.

Under “Defence & Security,” the joint statement says:

“We will draw on our extensive diplomatic, defence, security, civil and scientific cooperation to ensure Space is a safe and secure environment for all.”

The U.K. is currently leading a multilateral effort at the United Nations for “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours“. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in February that the United States wants to “engage all countries, including Russia and China, on developing standards and norms of responsible behavior in outer space.”

NASA Selects First Lunar Far-Side Science Investigations

Despite decades of lunar exploration, so far China is the only country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon.  Its Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu2 rover have been exploring the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin at a place called the Von Kármán crater since January 2019.

NASA plans to change that in 2024. Two payload suites will be sent in tandem to Schrödinger basin, a large impact crater on the far side of the Moon near the lunar South Pole.

  • The Farside Seismic Suite will carry two seismometers. NASA has extensive data on seismic activity on the near-side of the Moon from the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Packages (ALSEPs) left by the Apollo crews, but not the far-side.
  • The Lunar Interior Temperature and Materials Suite will investigate the heat flow and electrical conductivity of the lunar interior.

Another experiment package also was selected that will go to the near-side. A lander/rover, Lunar Vertex will explore Reiner Gamma, a “lunar swirl.” Scientists don’t know what lunar swirls are, but think they are related to the Moon’s magnetic field and this experiment will make detailed surface measurements of the magnetic field.

Illustration of Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander. Credit: Astrobotic

These experiment suites will be delivered to the Moon through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program where NASA provides the experiments, but the private sector provides the rocket and lander and is encouraged to find other customers than NASA.

Procurement of services for these new experiment suites is pending. NASA said negotiations also are still underway on the price of the experiments themselves.

NASA wants to launch two CLPS missions a year beginning this year. Four are in work right now for launch between now and 2023. At the moment, Astrobotic’s Peregine lander will be first, later this year, with almost two dozen small payloads of which nine are from NASA.

These new payloads announced today would launch in the 2024 time frame.

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