Branson’s virgin orbit completes key rocket test

FILE PHOTO: Sir Richard Branson attends the "Venezuela Aid Live" concert near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, in Cucuta, Colombia, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) – Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit on Wednesday released a rocket from the wing of a modified Boeing 747 jetliner in mid-air in a key test of its high-altitude launch system for satellites, the company said.

In the penultimate mission before Virgin Orbit offers commercial satellite launch services, likely before year-end, the 70-foot (21.34 m) LauncherOne rocket cleanly separated from the jetliner.

The rocket, loaded with water and antifreeze to simulate the weight of fuel, was set to crash as planned into the Mojave Desert as the jetliner, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, continued on its flight path.

Virgin Orbit, Firefly and U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Lab are among companies designing smaller or non-traditional systems to inject smaller satellites into orbit and meet growing demand.

Competition is fierce. Virgin Orbit has fallen slightly behind Rocket Lab, which has already completed six orbital launches, though Virgin Orbit says its rocket can haul about twice the weight.

Branson may also be losing a competitor in Stratolaunch, which had designed a larger aircraft-and-rocket combo system but is shutting operations, Reuters reported in May.

Virgin Orbit also has a significant potential customer. Branson’s Virgin Group has invested in OneWeb’s satellite constellation project which aims to have global broadband coverage in 2021 from about 650 satellites.

Virgin Orbit’s subsidiary VOX Space LLC is selling launches using the same mid-air launch system to the U.S. military, with a first mission slated for early next year.

Virgin Orbit said last month it plans to bring its satellite launch system to Japan in partnership with airline operator ANA Holdings Inc, which will provide maintenance and possibly aircraft.

That launch location will join other sites including the United States, Guam and the United Kingdom, which Virgin Orbit says will provide satellite makers and governments more flexibility.

High-altitude launches, Branson argues, allow satellites to be placed in their intended orbit more efficiently while avoiding some cancellations due to inclement weather on the ground.

Branson’s separate space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, on Tuesday, announced plans for a stock market listing by the end of the year, giving it much-needed funds to take on a rival suborbital tourism service being developed by billionaire Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Alistair Bell)

France tells Iran to stop ballistic missile work designed for nuclear weapons

FILE PHOTO: A boy holding a placard with pictures of (L-R) President Hassan Rouhani, the late founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, poses for camera in front of a model of Simorgh satellite-carrier rocket during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – France on Friday called on Iran to immediately stop all activities linked to ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons after Tehran said it could put two satellites into orbit in the coming weeks.

“France recalls that the Iranian missile program (does) not conform with U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231,” Foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll told reporters in a daily briefing.

“It calls on Iran to immediately cease all ballistic missile-related activities designed to carry nuclear weapons, including tests using ballistic missile technology.”

Von der Muhll was responding to comments by President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday, who said two satellites would be sent into space using Iran-made missiles.

Tehran responded by telling France to avoid repeating “irresponsible and incorrect” claims about Tehran’s missile work that were made by countries that were against a 2015 deal reached between Iran and six major powers, Iranian state TV reported on Friday.

“Iran’s home-grown defensive missile program is the Iranian nation’s natural right,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by TV.

“Iran’s missile program is not in violation of U.N. resolution of 2231.”

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and John Irish in Paris editing by William Maclean)

France accuses Russia of spying on military from space

French Defence minister Florence Parly and her Finnish counterpart Jussi Niinisto (not pictured) during a joint news conference in Helsinki, Finland, August 23, 2018. Lehtikuva/Vesa Moilanen/via REUTERS

TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) – Russia attempted to intercept transmissions from a Franco-Italian satellite used by both nations’ armies for secure communications, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said on Friday, describing the move as an “act of espionage”.

In a speech outlining France’s space policy for the coming years, Parly said the Russian satellite Louch-Olymp had approached the Athena-Fidus satellite in 2017.

Parly said it came so close “that anyone would have thought it was attempting to intercept our communications.” She added: “Attempting to listen to your neighbors is not only unfriendly, it’s an act of espionage.

The minister’s remarks come a week after President Emmanuel Macron urged the European Union to modernize its post-Cold War ties with Moscow despite tensions with the West, including over allegations of meddling in foreign elections.

Built by Thales Alenia Space, the satellite provides secure communications to the French and Italian armed forces and emergency services.

Parly described the Russian efforts as a “little Star Wars” and said measures were taken immediately to prevent sensitive communications being compromised. The Louch-Olymp had since targeted other satellites, she added.

“We are in danger. Our communications, our military exercises, our daily lives are in danger if we do not react,” Parly said, emphasizing that Paris would complete a strategic space defense plan by the end of the year.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration in August announced an ambitious plan to usher in a new “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the U.S. military by 2020.

It would be responsible for a range of space-based U.S. military capabilities, which include everything from satellites enabling the Global Positioning System (GPS) to sensors that help track missile launches.

“I have heard many people mock the announcement of the creation of an American Space Force. I am not one of them… all I see is an extremely powerful sign, a sign of future confrontations,” Parly said.

(Editing by Johanna Decorse; writing by John Irish; editing by Richard Lough)

U.S. says Iran rocket test breaches U.N. resolution

Simorgh rocket is launched and tested at the Imam Khomeini Space Centre, Iran, in this handout photo released by Tasnim News Agency on July 27, 2017. Tasnim News Agency/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Iran successfully tested a rocket that can deliver satellites into orbit, state television reported on Thursday, an action the United States said breaches a U.N. Security Council resolution because of its potential use in ballistic missile development.

Iranian state television showed footage of the firing of the rocket, mounted on a launchpad carrying pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The rocket launch violated United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Thursday.

That resolution, which endorsed a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, calls upon Iran not to undertake activities related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such technology. It stops short of explicitly barring such activity.

“We would consider that a violation of UNSCR 2231,” Nauert said at a briefing with reporters when asked about the launch. “We consider that to be continued ballistic missile development. … We believe that what happened overnight, in the early morning hours here in Washington, is inconsistent with the Security Council resolutions.”

Tehran denies it has missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads.

“The Imam Khomeini Space Centre was officially opened with the successful test of the Simorgh (Phoenix) space launch vehicle,” state television said. “The Simorgh can place a satellite weighing up to 250 kg (550 pounds) in an orbit of 500 km (311 miles).”

“The Imam Khomeini Space Centre … is a large complex that includes all stages of the preparation, launch, control and guidance of satellites,” state television added.

The United States this month slapped new economic sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program, and said Tehran’s “malign activities” in the Middle East had undercut any “positive contributions” from the 2015 accord curbing its nuclear program.

President Donald Trump, who this month reluctantly recertified Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published this week that the United States had been “extremely nice” to Iran by saying it was complying with the terms of the deal.

Trump said he thinks the United States will declare Iran to be noncompliant at the next deadline, which is in October. “They don’t comply,” he told the Journal. “I would be surprised if they were in compliance.”

Nauert on Thursday called Iran’s rocket launch a “provocative action” that violated the “spirit” of the nuclear deal.

Iran says its space program is peaceful, but Western experts suspect it may be a cover for developing military missile technologies.

On Monday, Scott Kripowicz of the directorate for international affairs at the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency told a conference in Israel: “Space-launch activities which involve multi-stage systems that further the development of technologies for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are becoming a more realistic threat.

“In this region, Iran has successfully orbited small satellites and announced plans to orbit a larger satellite using the Simorgh space-launch vehicle, which could be configured to be an ICBM,” Kripowicz said.

“Progress in Iran’s space program could shorten the pathway to an ICBM, as space-launch vehicles use similar technologies, with the exception of their payloads,” he added.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; editing by Kevin Liffey, Hugh Lawson and Jonathan Oatis)

North Korea Satellite Launch Possibly Cover for Missile Test

North Korea has announced they will be launching satellites to mark the 70th anniversary of the country’s ruling party.

“Space development for peaceful purposes is a sovereign state’s legitimate right … and the people of (North Korea) are fully determined to exercise this right no matter what others may say about it,” the director told Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency.

The National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) released a statement saying that  “the world will clearly see a series of satellites soaring into the sky at times and locations determined” by the ruling Workers’ Party.

“The NADA is pushing forward at a final phase the development of a new earth observation satellite,” KCNA quoted NADA’s director.

“Successful progress made in reconstructing and expanding satellite launching grounds for higher-level satellite lift-off has laid a firm foundation for dynamically pushing ahead with the nation’s development of space science,” the director added.

The launches will be carried out with missiles that are causing concern around the world.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries both report the satellite launches are being used as methods to test long-range missiles that could deliver a nuclear payload to South Korea or surrounding nations.