Spektr-R goes quiet, Dragon splashes down and SpaceX lays off

Unfortunate SpaceX workers start a different sort of countdown

A hand holding an axe in shadow

Roundup While China's rover kept on trundling, the news was not so cheery for workers in the US space sector or radio telescope fans over the past week.

10 Iridium satellites go up, 10 per cent of SpaceX workforce to, er, just go

SpaceX celebrated the launch of 10 more satellites for Iridium and the erection of its crew-capable Dragon spacecraft by, er, announcing it needed to shed around 10 per cent of its 6,000 employees.

The Los Angeles Times cited an email sent to employees by the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, which told the unfortunate workers that the reusable rocket outfit must “become a leaner company”, meaning parting ways with some “talented and hardworking members of our team”.

Ouch.

Bloomberg reported that some 577 workers will be laid off in Hawthorne, California, with employees sent home on Friday to await their fate by individual email.

Redundancy by email is undoubtedly the classy way to do it rather than an old-fashioned face-to-face meeting. A thread on Reddit makes for sombre reading as nervous SpaceXers await their fate.

The move is not entirely unexpected. The company is facing a slowdown in launch cadence in 2019, and one of the goals of its reusability drive is to improve efficiency. However, coming on the eve of the first Crew Dragon launch, the timing is unfortunate.

Away from the corporate shenanigans, SpaceX also celebrated the return of its Dragon capsule, fresh from a month or so attached to the International Space Station (ISS). The spacecraft, loaded with gear and experiments from the ISS, departed the orbiting outpost at 23:33 UTC on 13 January, eventually splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at 0512 UTC on 14 January.

The next time SpaceX will pay the ISS a visit will be with its Crew Dragon, due to launch some time in February, followed by another Dragon cargo freighter in May. Assuming anyone is left to press the big red button.

Where SpaceX leads, others follow. Unfortunately

While SpaceX did not point to the current US shutdown as a cause of its workforce trimming, another space upstart, Tethers Unlimited, had no such qualms, with its unofficial Twitter mouthpiece signing off as 20 per cent of staff were axed, laying at least part of the blame at the doorstep of Washington’s paralysis.

As any small business knows, cash-flow is king, and a glance at the contracts the company has trumpeted, including work on cubesat thrusters for NASA, shows it to have a dependency on the US government paying its bills. And, alas, with NASA and co currently furloughed, those invoices are piling up.

As the shutdown of the US government continues, disruption to the country’s space sector will continue to increase.

Hubble recovery work goes on as Spektr-R goes silent

While large chunks of NASA waited anxiously for lawmakers to cease their squabbling, those engineers still gainfully employed continued working on a fix for the borked Wide Field Camera 3 onboard the Hubble Space Telescope. The thing turned itself off automatically on 8 January after spotting some iffy voltage levels and ground-based engineers have been working to recover it rather than having to switch to redundant electronics.

Keeping Hubble (and other satellites) running is an activity not hit by the US government shutdown plan, with NASA making the work an exception. The same applies to keeping ‘nauts safe aboard the ISS.

Alas, the same may not be said of Russia’s Spektr-R space radio telescope, which fell silent after over seven years in space.

Russian mouthpiece TASS speculated the failure could be caused by “cosmic radiation accumulated in the spacecraft’s electronics” indicating that perhaps the silicon was insufficiently hardened.

The spacecraft itself, which orbits high above NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, is designed (PDF) to make high resolution radio astronomical observations using VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) techniques in conjunction with ground-based VLBI networks located in Australia, Chile, China, Europe, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, and the USA.

The project is known is RadioAstron, and the Spektr-R spacecraft itself also has contributions from Finland and ESA.

While Roscosmos was gloomy after a Sunday of trying to talk to the stricken craft there was some hope early this morning as US scientists managed to pick up the carrier signal of the telescope, indicating that all is not quite lost just yet. ®




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