Blue Origin, Sierra Space, and Boeing announce Orbital Reef

Amid a year of momentous developments in commercial spaceflight, including the all-civilian Inspiration4 mission and… The post Blue Origin, Sierra Space, and Boeing announce Orbital Reef appeared first on

Blue Origin, Sierra Space, and Boeing announce Orbital Reef

Amid a year of momentous developments in commercial spaceflight, including the all-civilian Inspiration4 mission and the first feature film to be shot in space, a consortium led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space has announced a commercial space station project known as Orbital Reef. The project is billed as a “mixed-use business park” that would use a 500-kilometer altitude orbit inclined 51.6 degrees to the equator.

The orbital altitude would be higher than that of the International Space Station, and the inclination would be the same as the ISS, allowing the project to use a Blue Origin-built space tug to collect usable ISS resources for Orbital Reef. This inclination would take Orbital Reef over most of the world, including launch sites in the United States, Kazakhstan, China, Japan, India, and South America.

Orbital Reef’s elements are planned to be launched by the New Glenn rocket currently being developed by Blue Origin, while the Boeing Starliner is planned to provide crew transportation services to the station. Sierra Space is planned to provide node and LIFE ((Large Integrated Flexible Environment) modules as well as the Dream Chaser spacecraft for cargo and crew transport.

Boeing not only would be tasked with providing Starliner for crew transportation but also science modules and station operations and maintenance. Jacksonville, Florida-based Redwire Space, a contractor that has provided sensors and components for many missions, is tasked with providing deployable structures, payload operations, and microgravity research support.

Orbital Reef Updates
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  • Genesis Engineering Solutions, a company based in Lanham, Maryland, is planning on developing the Single Person Spacecraft, a spacecraft designed to accommodate a single human being in a shirt-sleeve environment, supplanting traditional spacesuits for station servicing and tourist excursions away from Orbital Reef. Genesis does have experience with avionics and other components for space missions.

    Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona is leading a consortium of 14 universities that would provide research advisory services and public outreach. Vice president of the ASU Interplanetary Initiative and Psyche mission principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton stated, “ASU’s going to bring together this international group of 14 universities to work with Orbital Reef on the ethics and guidelines of research on how they can bridge all of our expertise.”

    Initial CGI impressions of the Orbital Reef station show three core modules containing large windows and docking ports, with a Dream Chaser and multiple Boeing Starliners docked, along with six additional modules for science or other purposes attached to the sides of the station core. A truss with four radiators is mounted on the underside of the station core, along with eight pairs of large solar panels similar in appearance to the iROSA arrays recently installed on the ISS. 

    Render of Orbital Reef showing station modules and visiting spacecraft – via Blue Origin

    The Orbital Reef is planned to start operations in the second half of this decade, though it remains to be seen exactly when the first element launch would occur, as the New Glenn, Starliner, and Dream Chaser programs have all encountered significant delays. The station design will no doubt be continuously evaluated as the project progresses, with elements like the large core module windows and add-on inflatable modules needing to be designed to survive the debris environment in low Earth orbit.

    The Orbital Reef, in its fully built-up configuration, will feature a living and working space containing 90 percent of the internal volume of the International Space Station (830 cubic meters) as well as a crew of ten. Planned uses for this station include space tourism, manufacturing, and microgravity research.

    Orbital Reef is also pitched as a location where countries and companies that want to start a presence in space can send experiments, facilities, or people. Industries that have not really had a presence in space are being targeted as potential users.

    NASA is planned to be the anchor tenant, but Orbital Reef is envisioned to be opened to many users. International involvement is strongly emphasized in the station’s marketing, and the project aspires to make the station accessible to all nations. However, space law was not really designed for commercial operations, and legal as well as financial issues are expected to be more difficult for the project to overcome than engineering hurdles, according to Redwire Space’s Mike Gold, who remarked on this at the 2021 International Astronautics Congress in Dubai.

    Render of the LIFE module under development by Sierra Space – via Blue Origin

    The Orbital Reef is the latest commercial space station to be announced, joining the Axiom and Nanoracks/Lockheed Martin offerings. Sierra Space would be using its involvement in Orbital Reef in lieu of its earlier independent station offering, as per remarks made at the IAC in Dubai. Sierra Space’s president Janet Kavandi, a former shuttle astronaut, also stated that Sierra Space wanted NASA to have a station to use when the ISS is retired.

    The Orbital Reef project gives Starliner and Dream Chaser potential business outside NASA crew and cargo contracts, once these systems become operational and if the Orbital Reef comes to fruition. New Glenn is also planned to be compatible with the Starliner and Dream Chaser spacecraft, although no plans by Boeing nor Sierra Space have indicated New Glenn as a planned launcher for either vehicle.

    The International Space Station is currently scheduled to retire by 2028, though that retirement date is under evaluation. As it approaches, the commercial sector is beginning to work on follow-on stations that would allow the United States to continue a permanent human presence in space for its astronauts, as well as to continue the scientific research that has been taking place aboard ISS. One or more of these stations could take flight in the latter half of this decade.

    (Lead render via Blue Origin)

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    China launches Jilin-1 Gaofen-02F remote sensing satellite via Kuaizhou 1A

    China’s small Kuaizhou 1A rocket has launched the latest satellite in the Jilin-1 Earth-imaging constellation… The post China launches Jilin-1 Gaofen-02F remote sensing satellite via Kuaizhou 1A appeared first on

    China launches Jilin-1 Gaofen-02F remote sensing satellite via Kuaizhou 1A

    China’s small Kuaizhou 1A rocket has launched the latest satellite in the Jilin-1 Earth-imaging constellation Wednesday, in a low-key mission out of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center. Kuaizhou lifted off at 06:19 UTC (14:19 Beijing time), deploying its payload into a sun-synchronous orbit.

    Wednesday’s launch carried the Jilin-1 Gaofen-02F satellite, continuing deployment of the commercial remote sensing satellite network under development by the Chang Guang Satellite Technology Corporation. Gaofen, meaning “high resolution,” signifies the satellite’s role within the wider Jilin-1 system and is not to be confused with the series of larger imaging satellites of the same name that are operated by the Chinese government.

    The Jilin-1 constellation, which is expected to consist of up to 138 satellites by the end of the decade, contains different types of satellites to perform different roles. In addition to the Gaofen satellites’ high-resolution imaging mission, other satellites in the constellation provide video capture, wider-area, and multi-spectral imaging.

    Kuaizhou-1A ascends from Jiuquan. (Credit: CCTV)

    Deployment of Jilin-1 began with a Chang Zheng 2D launch in October 2015 which carried the first four satellites. These included the Jilin-1 Lingqiao Yanzheng technology demonstrator, also known as the Smart Verification Satellite or Jilin-1LQ, an optical imaging satellite, Jilin-1 Guangxe-A, and a pair of Jilin-1 Shipin video-recording satellites. In the six years since, over thirty satellites have been deployed.

    Jilin-1 Gaofen-02F Updates
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  • The Gaofen part of the constellation consists of two series of spacecraft: Gaofen-02 and Gaofen-03. The Gaofen-02 satellites, including the one deployed by Tuesday’s launch, are larger than their Gaofen-03 counterparts, with masses a little under 250 kilograms. Equipped with a push broom imager, Jilin-1 Gaofen-02F will be able to image the Earth at resolutions better than 0.75 meters in panchromatic mode, capturing light at wavelengths between 450 and 700 nanometres. It can also operate in multi-spectral mode across four optical and near-infrared channels, with a resolution of about three meters.

    Wednesday’s launch marks the sixth flight of a Jilin-1 Gaofen-02 satellite, following the successful deployment of Jilin-1 Gaofen-02D last month. Both the 02C and 02E satellites were lost in launch failures last year – 02C aboard a Kuaizhou 1A rocket and 02E on the maiden flight of the larger Kuaizhou 11. Thirteen of the smaller Jilin-1 Gaofen-03 spacecraft are also in orbit.

    Like most of its predecessors, Jilin-1 Gaofen-02F rode to orbit aboard a Kuaizhou 1A rocket. The launch was coordinated by the ExPace Technology Corporation, a subsidiary of the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), and took place from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center (JSLC).

    A Jilin-1 Gaofen satellite in pre-launch processing

    Jiuquan, one of China’s four main launch sites, is located in the Gobi Desert about 200 kilometers northeast of the city of Jiuquan. The JSLC was the site of China’s first orbital launch in 1970 when a Chang Zheng 1 rocket orbited Dong Fang Hong I from what is now the facility’s north site. Today only the launch pads of the South Launch Site continue to be used for orbital missions, with two launch pads at Site 43 used by the large liquid-fuelled Chang Zheng rockets.

    Close to the Chang Zheng pads, Complex 43/95 houses launch facilities shared between several of China’s smaller solid-fuelled rockets including the Kuaizhou 1A. It was from one of these pads that Wednesday’s launch took place.

    The Kuaizhou 1A, or KZ-1A, is the smallest member of the family of Kuaizhou rockets that ExPace offers for commercial launches. Capable of placing an approximately 400-kilogram payload into low Earth orbit, this four-stage vehicle uses three solid-fueled stages with a small liquid-fueled upper stage to complete orbital insertion. It has been speculated that the rocket may be a derivative of the Dongfeng 21 missile which entered service with the People’s Liberation Army in 1991.

    Kuaizhou 1’s first launch likely took place in March 2012, when China conducted a mysterious sub-orbital launch out of Jiuquan. When the Kuaizhou made its first publicly announced – and orbital – launch in September 2013, the launch hazard areas lined up with that previous launch, indicating that it was likely a test flight of the new rocket. The first Kuaizhou 1A launched in January 2017, with the two rockets differing in that the Kuaizhou 1 is designed to launch payloads that are integrated into its upper stage, while the 1A deploys free-flying satellites.

    The Kuaizhou-1A launch vehicle prior to flight

    The name Kuaizhou, meaning “Quick Vessel”, reflects its designers’ ambitions of it being a quick-reaction launch vehicle, able to put satellites into orbit at short notice if required. To highlight one aspect of its quick-turnaround capability, two launches were staged on the same day, six hours apart, out of the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in December 2019.

    Tuesday’s launch marked the fifteenth flight of the KZ-1 rocket overall, its fourteenth orbital launch, and the thirteenth flight of the KZ-1A variant. All but one of Kuaizhou’s previous launches have been successful – the exception being the Jilin-1 Gaofen-02C launch last year when the rocket is believed to have suffered an upper stage issue and failed to reach orbit. Tuesday’s launch is the second since the failure, with the previous KZ-1A mission at the end of September marking the rocket’s return to flight.

    Once assembled in a horizontal integration building, Kuaizhou requires minimal launch infrastructure at the pad itself, with a mobile launcher transporting, erecting, and firing the rocket. Kuaizhou’s solid-fueled first, second, and third stages burned in sequence to propel Jilin-1 Gaofen-02F towards orbit, with the satellite enclosed within the rocket’s payload fairing during the early stages of flight. This fairing separated shortly after reaching space, at which point the vehicle had cleared the atmosphere and its protection was no longer required.

    Following third stage burnout, Kuaizhou’s fourth stage took over. Burning liquid propellants, this stage was used to inject the payload precisely into its planned 535-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. With orbital insertion completed, Jilin-1 Gaofen-02F separated to begin its own mission.

    (Lead photo: Kuaizhou-1A lifts off with Jilin-1 Gaofen-02F. Credit: CCTV)

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