With rocket launch, SpaceX to be first private firm to travel beyond low-Earth orbit

SpaceX is on its way to delivering NASA’s DISCOVR satellite to orbit after a succesfull rocket launch today, a feat that will make it the first private company to travel beyond the inner ring of Earth’s orbit. The satellite will travel 1 million miles to a location between the Earth and the Sun, where it will spot solar flares up to an hour before they hit Earth and take daily images of the planet.

SpaceX will not attempt rocket landing due to rough seas

SpaceX has decided against attempting to land its Falcon 9 rocket today, though the launch is still a go. The rocket launch is currently planned for 3:03 p.m. PT, when SpaceX will deliver NASA’s DISCOVR satellite to orbit. The rocket will then fall back to Earth and crash into the ocean, as is the common practice, instead of trying to land on a ship off the coast of Florida, where three-story waves have created dangerous conditions. Today was the last possible day to pair the DISCOVR launch with the Falcon 9 landing, as pushing the launch another day would require alterations to DISCOVR’s path. SpaceX attempted a Falcon 9 landing in January, but failed.

SpaceX aborts launch after radar goes down

SpaceX aborted the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket today due to problems with an Air Force radar tracker. The mission is designed to carry NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory, a space weather satellite, to space. It is also SpaceX’s second attempt to land its rocket back on Earth, which would be a major step in creating reusable rockets to bring down the cost of spaceflight.

Meet your new driveway-clearing masters: Robot snowplows

They won’t arrive in time for this week’s “historic snowstorm Juno,” but a spate of prototype autonomous snow-clearing devices (aka snow-shoveling robots) might spell relief for future events.

Eight college design teams are in St. Paul, Minnesota with devices they designed to navigate and clear two snow fields in a set amount of time. Entries in the Fifth ION Annual Autonomous Snowplow Competition cost from $4,000 to $12,000 to build according to this report from local CBS affiliate WCCO. (Video here.)

Sponsors for the event included the Institute of Navigation, SpaceX, [company]Lockheed Martin[/company], [company]Honeywell[/company], [company]John Deere[/company], and [company]Toro[/company].

The point of all this is to create a:

 “snowplow vehicle that will autonomously remove snow from a pre-defined path. The competition invites and challenges teams in the area of high-performance autonomous vehicle guidance, navigation, and control. The competition is also designed to encourage student interest in the areas of mathematics, science, and engineering.”

One of the devices relies on a magnetic track embedded in the path that it can follow. Stay tuned for the results.

Given that Juno is supposed to dump two to three feet of snow on parts of the Northeast, I sort of doubt that these prototypes will make a dent, but hey they’re a step in the right direction.

Contestants in the 2013 Autonomous Snowplow Competition

Contestants in the 2013 Autonomous Snowplow Competition

Elon Musk makes peace with U.S. Air Force over satellite contracts

In a busy year where he retooled his Tesla fleet and launched reusable rockets, Elon Musk also found time to pick a major fight with the defense industry: he sued the Air Force last April, claiming his company SpaceX had been wrongfully shut out from lucrative contracts to launch satellites.

According to Musk, the Air Force had breached procurement policies by giving an exclusive deal to a consortium run by Lockheed Martin and Boeing without giving [company]SpaceX[/company] the time to navigate a complex certification process.

The contract in question, which involves sending up 36 rockets to deliver satellites and other payloads, is worth billions of dollars with Musk claiming that SpaceX can do it far cheaper than what the incumbents are bidding. Musk has also made provocative comments about the cozy nature of defense contracting:

“Essentially we’re asking them to award a contract to a company where they are probably not going to get a job, against a company where their friends are. So they’ve got to go against their friends, and their future retirement program. This is a difficult thing to expect,” he told Bloomberg.

Now, however, he appears to have won at least a partial concession. In a Friday news release, SpaceX said it is dropping the lawsuit as a result of the Air Force improving the competitive landscape for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

“The Air Force also has expanded the number of competitive opportunities for launch services under the EELV program while honoring existing contractual obligations,” the release added.

The resolution comes at a time that SpaceX appears to have made major progress in developing reusable rockets and booster stages, which could significantly lower the cost of sending objects and people into space.