Ukrainian police arrest multiple Clop ransomware gang suspects

Multiple suspects believed to be linked to the Clop ransomware gang have been detained in Ukraine after a joint operation from law enforcement agencies in Ukraine, South Korea, and the United States.

The Cyber Police Department of the National Police of Ukraine confirmed that six arrests were made after searches at 21 residences in the capital Kyiv and nearby regions. While it’s unclear whether the defendants are affiliates or core developers of the ransomware operation, they are accused of running a “double extortion” scheme, in which victims who refuse to pay the ransom are threatened with the leak of data stolen from their networks prior to their files being encrypted.

“It was established that six defendants carried out attacks of malicious software such as ‘ransomware’ on the servers of American and [South] Korean companies,” alleged Ukraine’s national police force in a statement.

The police also seized equipment from the alleged Clop ransomware gang, said to behind total financial damages of about $500 million. This includes computer equipment, several cars — including a Tesla and Mercedes, and 5 million Ukrainian Hryvnia (around $185,000) in cash. The authorities also claim to have successfully shut down the server infrastructure used by the gang members to launch previous attacks.

“Together, law enforcement has managed to shut down the infrastructure from which the virus spreads and block channels for legalizing criminally acquired cryptocurrencies,” the statement added.

These attacks first began in February 2019, when the group attacked four Korean companies and encrypted 810 internal services and personal computers. Since, Clop — often styled as “Cl0p” — has been linked to a number of high-profile ransomware attacks. These include the breach of U.S. pharmaceutical giant ExecuPharm in April 2020 and the attack on South Korean e-commerce giant E-Land in November that forced the retailer to close almost half of its stores.

Clop is also linked to the ransomware attack and data breach at Accellion, which saw hackers exploit flaws in the IT provider’s File Transfer Appliance (FTA) software to steal data from dozens of its customers. Victims of this breach include Singaporean telecom Singtel, law firm Jones Day, grocery store chain Kroger, and cybersecurity firm Qualys.

At the time of writing, the dark web portal that Clop uses to share stolen data is still up and running, although it hasn’t been updated for several weeks. However, law enforcement typically replaces the targets’ website with their own logo in the event of a successful takedown, which suggests that members of the gang could still be active.

“The Cl0p operation has been used to disrupt and extort organizations globally in a variety of sectors including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, aerospace, and technology,” said John Hultquist, vice president of analysis at Mandiant’s threat intelligence unit. “The actor FIN11 has been strongly associated with this operation, which has included both ransomware and extortion, but it is unclear if the arrests included FIN11 actors or others who may also be associated with the operation.”

Hultquist said the efforts of the Ukrainian police “are a reminder that the country is a strong partner for the U.S. in the fight against cybercrime and authorities there are making the effort to deny criminals a safe harbor.”

The alleged perpetrators face up to eight years in prison on charges of unauthorized interference in the work of computers, automated systems, computer networks, or telecommunications networks and laundering property obtained by criminal means.

News of the arrests comes as international law enforcement turns up the heat on ransomware gangs. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had seized most of the ransom paid to members of DarkSide by Colonial Pipeline.

#aerospace, #colonial-pipeline, #crime, #cybercrime, #e-commerce, #extortion, #government, #kroger, #law, #law-enforcement, #malware, #mandiant, #oil-and-gas, #pharmaceuticals, #qualys, #ransomware, #security, #security-breaches, #singtel, #south-korea, #telecommunications, #tesla, #ukraine, #united-states

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The air taxi market prepares to take flight

Twelve years ago, Joby Aviation consisted of a team of seven engineers working out of founder JoeBen Bevirt’s ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains. Today, the startup has swelled to 800 people and a $6.6 billion valuation, ranking itself as the highest-valued electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) company in the industry.

As in any disruptive industry, the forecast may be cloudier than the rosy picture painted by passionate founders and investors.

It’s not the only air taxi company to reach unicorn status. The field is now dotted with new or soon-to-be publicly traded companies courtesy of mergers and special purpose acquisition companies. Partnerships with major automakers and airlines are on the rise, and CEOs have promised commercialization as early as 2024.

As in any disruptive industry, the forecast may be cloudier than the rosy picture painted by passionate founders and investors. A quick peek at comments and posts on LinkedIn reveals squabbles among industry insiders and analysts about when this emerging technology will truly take off and which companies will come out ahead.

Other disagreements have higher stakes. Wisk Aero filed a lawsuit against Archer Aviation alleging trade secret misappropriation. Meanwhile, valuations for companies that have no revenue yet to speak of — and may not for the foreseeable future — are skyrocketing.

Electric air mobility is gaining elevation. But there’s going to be some turbulence ahead.

Big goals and bigger expenses

Taking an eVTOL from design through to manufacturing and certification will likely cost about $1 billion, Mark Moore, then-head of Uber Elevate, estimated in April 2020 during a conference held by the Air Force’s Agility Prime program.

That means in some sense, the companies that will come out on top will likely be the ones that have managed to raise enough money to pay for all the expenses associated with engineering, certification, manufacturing and infrastructure.

“The startups that have successfully raised or that will be able to raise significant amounts of capital to get them through the certification process … that’s the number one thing that’s going to separate the strong from the weak,” Asad Hussain, a senior analyst in mobility technology at PitchBook, told TechCrunch. “There’s over 100 startups in the space. Not all of them are going to be able to do that.”

Just consider some of the expenses accrued by the biggest eVTOLs last year: Joby Aviation spent a whopping $108 million on research and development, a $30 million increase from 2019. Archer spent $21 million in R&D in 2020, according to regulatory filings. Meanwhile, Joby’s net loss last year was $114.2 million and Archer’s was $24.8 million, though, of course, neither company has brought a product to market yet. Operating expenses will likely only continue to grow into the future as companies enter into manufacturing and deployment phases.

What that means for the future of the industry is likely two things: more SPAC deals and more acquisitions.

Mobility companies, including those working on electrified transport, are often pre-revenue and have capitally intensive business models — a combination that can make it difficult to find buyers in a traditional IPO. SPACs have become increasingly popular as a shorter, less expensive path to becoming a public company. SPACs have also historically received less scrutiny than IPOs. Should the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission start to take a closer look at SPAC mergers in the future, it may impair the ability of other air taxi companies to go public this way, Hussain said.

That means market consolidation is nearly guaranteed, as smaller companies may find it more advantageous to sell than continue to raise more capital. It’s already begun: At the end of April, eVTOL developer Astro Aerospace announced the acquisition of Horizon Aircraft.

Horizon cited “greater access to capital” as one of the many benefits of the transaction, and other companies will likely find the buy or sell route to be the most beneficial on the road to commercialization. And just last week, British eVTOL Vertical Aerospace, which has an order for 150 aircraft from Virgin Atlantic, said it would go public via a merger with Broadstone Acquisition Corp. at an equity value of around $2.2 billion.

#aerospace, #air-taxi, #aviation, #ec-mobility-hardware, #electric-aircraft, #evtol, #joby-aviation, #startups, #tc, #transportation, #venture-capital, #volocopter, #wisk-aero

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SpaceX launches Dragon cargo spacecraft to the Space Station with new Falcon 9

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is once again heading to the International Space Station.

The company launched its 22nd Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission for NASA on Thursday. This is the fifth capsule SpaceX has sent to ISS in the last twelve months, SpaceX director of Dragon mission management Sarah Walker noted in a media briefing Tuesday. It’s also the first launch of the year on a new Falcon 9 rocket booster.

The rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 1:29 PM eastern time, right on schedule despite the threat of storm clouds from the south and east. The first stage separated as planned and touched down on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight minutes after launch. The second stage, which takes the capsule to orbit, separated 12 minutes after launch, also right on schedule.

Image Credits: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 Rocket launch vehicle is sending more than 7,300 pounds of research materials, supplies, and hardware, including new solar arrays, to the ISS crew. It’s the second mission under SpaceX’s new CRS contract with NASA; the first took place last December.

Dragon is carrying a number of research experiments to be conducted on the ISS, including oral bacteria to test germ growth with Colgate toothpaste; a number of tardigrades (also affectionately called water bears), primordial organisms that will attempt to fare and reproduce in space environments; and an investigation that will study the effects of microgravity on the formation of kidney stones – an ailment that many crew members display an increased susceptibility to during spaceflight.

The capsule is also delivering fresh food, including apples, navel oranges, lemons, and avocados.

Of the over 7,300 pounds of cargo, around 3,000 pounds will be taken up by a new roll-out, “flex blanket” solar array developed by space infrastructure company Redwire. As opposed to more traditional rigid paneled solar arrays, flex blanket technology provides more mass and performance benefits, Redwire technical director Matt LaPointe told TechCrunch.

The arrays were placed in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. It’s the first of three missions to send iROSA solar arrays to the station, with each mission carrying two arrays, LaPointe said. Once installed, the six iROSA arrays will collectively produce over 120KW of power. Redwire, which announced in March that it would go public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, says the new iROSA arrays will improve the ISS’s power generation by 20-30%.

The Dragon capsule is set to arrive at the space station at around 5 AM on June 5, where it will autonomously dock on a port of the Harmony module of the ISS. It will spend more than a month with the station before splashing down in the Atlantic with research and return cargo.

#aerospace, #falcon-9, #international-space-station, #nasa, #outer-space, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc

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LeoLabs raises $65M Series B for its satellite monitoring and collision detection service

Low Earth orbit is full of stuff: not only bits of debris and junk, but also satellites — the number of which is growing rapidly alongside the decreasing cost of launch. This can occasionally pose a problem for satellite providers, whose valuable spacecraft run the risk of colliding with other satellites, or with the many thousands of other objects in orbit.

For most of the space age, debris tracking was performed by a smattering of military outfits and other governmental organizations, but that hardly paints a complete and broadly accessible picture. LeoLabs has been aiming to fill what it calls this “data deficit” in orbital object tracking since the company’s founding in 2016. Now it will be scaling its operations with a $65 million Series B financing round, jointly led by Insight Partners and Velvet Sea Ventures. This latest round brings the company’s total funding to over $100 million.

LeoLabs uses ground-based phased array radars – one in Alaska, one in Texas, two in New Zealand and two in Costa Rica – to monitor low Earth orbit, and to track and measure any object that flies through its observational area. One main advantage of LeoLabs’ tracking system is the size of the objects it can detect: as small as 2 centimeters across, as opposed to the much larger 10 centimeter objects tracked by legacy detection systems.

The difference in scale is huge: there are around 17,000 objects in orbit 10 centimeters or larger, but that number jumps to 250,000 when monitoring from 2 centimeters. That’s a lot of opportunity for collision, and though 2 centimeters sounds small (that’s less than an inch), they can do catastrophic damage traveling at orbital velocity. Customers can access this information using a subscription service, which will automatically alert them about collision risks.

“There just isn’t much information about what’s going on,” Dan Ceperley told TechCrunch. “So we’re rolling out this global radar network to generate a lot of data, and then all that software infrastructure to make it useful.”

LeoLabs sees around three to five close approaches involving larger objects, Ceperley said per year. Those are noteworthy because a collision could potentially produce thousands of smaller fragments – even more space junk. When tracking smaller objects, the company sees up to 20 times more collision risks. Fortunately, many satellites have electric thrusters that can be activated to avoid collisions or maintain orbit. With sufficient advance, companies can maneuver a few days prior to the anticipated collision.

With this new injection of funds, Ceperley said the company is looking to expand the number of radar sites around the world and scale its software-as-a-service business. While LeoLabs already has complete orbital coverage, more radars will increase the frequency with which objects are tracked, he explained. LeoLabs will also be scaling its software and data science teams (already the largest in the company), setting up locations outside the U.S., and adding new products and services.

“There’s a once in a lifetime revolution going on in the space industry, all this new investment has driven down the costs of launching satellites, building satellites and operating satellites, so there’s a lot of satellites going into low Earth orbit,” Ceperley said. “There’s a need for a new generation of services to actually track all these things [. . .] And so we’re building out that next generation tracking service, mapping service, for that new era.”

#aerospace, #leolabs, #orbital-debris, #radar, #space, #space-debris, #startups, #tc

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United Airlines agrees to purchase 15 Boom supersonic airliners

United Airlines is the first official U.S. customer for Boom Supersonic, a company focused on making supersonic commercial flight a reality once again. Boom unveiled its supersonic sub-scale testing aircraft last year, and intends to start producing its Overture full-scale commercial supersonic passenger jet beginning in 2025, with a planned 2029 date for the beginning of commercial service after a few years of flight testing, design refinement and qualification.

United agreed to purchase 15 of the Overture aircraft, provided they meet United’s “safety, operating and sustainability requirements,” and the agreement also includes an option for the airline to purchase an additional 35 after that. United is obviously interested in the benefits of supersonic flight, which aims to reduce travel times by half, but it’s also looking to boost its sustainability profile with this deal with Boom.

Boom’s goal is to be the first commercial aircraft that runs on net-zero carbon footprint fuel right from day one. The company is focused on sourcing and using 100% sustainable aviation fuel, and part of the arrangement between the two companies includes United working in collaboration with the startup to develop and improve production sources for that sustainable fuel.

U.S. airlines committed jointly to a goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and as part of that they agreed to partner with government and other stakeholders to accelerate the development and commercialization of sustainable aviation fuel, so this team-up with Boom could be a key driver of those aims for United long-term.

#aerospace, #aircraft, #airline, #aviation, #boom-supersonic, #boom-technology, #concorde, #driver, #sound, #tc, #transport, #united-airlines, #united-states

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Virgin Galactic to fly Kellie Gerardi to space on a dedicated research mission

Virgin Galactic has a new customer: The International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), which will be flying researcher, citizen scientist and STEM influencer Kellie Gerardi on an upcoming dedicated Virgin Galactic launch. Gerardi will be conducing a range of experiments on her flight, focused on researching healthcare technologies including a new biomonitor system to study the effects of spaceflights on astronauts in real time.

Gerardi has flown on multiple previous parabolic research flights, which are high-altitude aircraft flights that simulate the reduced gravity environment of space. This will be her first trip to space proper, however, and that transition exemplifies the benefits Virgin Galactic hopes to be able to offer to researchers who previously conducted their work in simulated zero-G conditions.

Kellie Gerardi

Image Credits: Kellie Gerardi

The biomonitor system that Gerardi will be testing was developed by Canadian startup Hexoskin along with the Canadian Space Agency, and is a wearable array of sensors dubbed ‘Astroskin’ that’s intended to provide monitoring of the impact of launch, reduced gravity, re-entry and landing for those making trips to space. Another experiment Gerardi will perform will test fluid dynamics to inform the design of humidifiers and syringes designed for use in space.

Virgin Galactic has booked similar missions previously, including a dedicated flight for scientist Alan Stern, who will be performing experiments on behalf of NASA and the Southwest Research Institute. Much of the attention on the company has focused on its space tourism flights for paying private astronauts, but the potential for commercial research is another key ingredient in its overall business mix.

#aerospace, #alan-stern, #nasa, #outer-space, #space, #space-tourism, #tc, #virgin-galactic

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OroraTech’s space-based early wildfire warnings spark $7M investment

With wildfires becoming an ever more devastating annual phenomenon, it is in the whole planet’s interest to spot them and respond as early as possible — and the best vantage point for that is space. OroraTech is a German startup building a constellation of small satellites to power a global wildfire warning system, and will be using a freshly raised €5.8M (~$7M) A round to kick things off.

Wildfires destroy tens of millions of acres of forest every year, causing immense harm to people and the planet in countless ways. Once they’ve grown to a certain size, they’re near impossible to stop, so the earlier they can be located and worked against, the better.

But these fires can start just about anywhere in a dried out forest hundreds of miles wide, and literally every minute and hour counts — watch towers, helicopter flights, and other frequently used methods may not be fast or exact enough to effectively counteract this increasingly serious threat. Not to mention they’re expensive and often dangerous jobs for those who perform them.

OroraTech’s plan is to use a constellation of about 100 satellites equipped with custom infrared cameras to watch the entire globe (or at least the parts most likely to burst into flame) at once, reporting any fire bigger than ten meters across within half an hour.

Screenshot of OroraTech wildfire monitoring software showing heat detection in a forest.

Image Credits: OroraTech

To start out with, the Bavarian company has used data from over a dozen satellites already in space, in order to prove out the service on the ground. But with this funding round they are set to put their own bird in the air, a shoebox-sized satellite with a custom infrared sensor that will be launched by Spire later this year. Onboard machine learning processing of this imagery simplifies the downstream process.

14 more satellites are planned for launch by 2023, presumably once they’ve kicked the proverbial tires on the first one and come up with the inevitable improvements.

“In order to cover even more regions in the future and to be able to give warning earlier, we aim to launch our own specialized satellite constellation into orbit,” said CEO and co-founder Thomas Grübler in a press release. “We are therefore delighted to have renowned investors on board to support us with capital and technological know-how in implementing our plans.”

Mockup of an OroraTech Earth imaging satellite in space.

Those renowned investors consist of Findus Venture and Ananda Impact Ventures, which led the round, followed by APEX Ventures, BayernKapital, Clemens Kaiser, SpaceTec Capital and Ingo Baumann. The company was spun out of research done by the founders at TUM, which maintains an interest.

“It is absolutely remarkable what they have built up and achieved so far despite limited financial resources and we feel very proud that we are allowed to be part of this inspiring and ambitious NewSpace project,” APEX’s Wolfgang Neubert said, and indeed it’s impressive to have a leading space-based data service with little cash (it raised an undisclosed seed about a year ago) and no satellites.

It’s not the only company doing infrared imagery of the Earth’s surface; SatelliteVu recently raised money to launch its own, much smaller constellation, though it’s focused on monitoring cities and other high-interest areas, not the vast expanse of forests. And ConstellR is aimed (literally) at the farming world, monitoring fields for precision crop management.

With money in its pocket Orora can expand and start providing its improved detection services, though sadly, it likely won’t be upgrading before wildfire season hits the northern hemisphere this year.

#aerospace, #ananda-impact-ventures, #artificial-intelligence, #earth-imaging, #findus-venture, #funding, #fundings-exits, #greentech, #ororatech, #recent-funding, #satellite-imagery, #satellites, #science, #space, #startups, #wildfire-detection, #wildfires

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Japanese space company ispace aims to send landers to the moon

Tokyo-based ispace has been selected to deliver rovers from Canada and Japan to the lunar surface after they launch aboard SpaceX rockets. The company will use its recently revealed Hakuto-R lander for both missions, currently scheduled for 2022 and 2023.

The Canadian Space Agency selected three private Canadian companies, each with separate scientific missions, to ride the lander. Mission Control Space Services, Canadensys and NGC are the first companies to receive awards under the CSA’s Capability Demonstration program, part of the agency’s Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program. LEAP, unveiled by the Canadian government in February 2020, earmarks $150 million over five years to support in-space demonstrations and science missions from Canadian private industry.

As part of the mission, the ispace lander will deliver the United Arab Emirates’ The Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC)’s 22 pound rover, “Rashid.” The rover will be equipped with an artificial intelligence flight computer from space robotics company Mission Control Space Services. Mission Control’s AI will use deep-learning algorithms to recognize lunar geology as the Rashid rover traverses the surface.

ispace will carry cameras “to capture key events during the mission” for Canadensys. The Japanese company will also collect lunar imagery data for demonstration of NGC’s autonomous navigation system.

“We are honored that all three of the companies awarded by CSA have each entrusted ispace’s services to carry out their operations on the lunar surface,” ispace founder and CEO Takeshi Hakamada said in a statement. “We see this as a show of the trust that ispace has developed with CSA over the past years, as well as a recognition of ispace’s positive position in the North American market.”

ispace will also be transporting a transformable lunar robot payload to the moon for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), in addition to conducting operations and providing lunar data. The data collected on this mission, Mission 2, will be used to aid the design of a future crewed pressurized rover.

JAXA’s lunar robot will be only around 80mm in diameter before it transforms to its surface form, and will weigh only around 250 grams. That mission is scheduled to take place in 2023. ispace did not disclosed the financial terms of the deals.

“While the robot travels on the lunar surface, images on behavior of the regolith, and images of lunar surface taken by the robot and the camera on the lunar lander will be sent to the mission control center via the lunar lander,” JAXA said in a news release. “The acquired data will be used for evaluation of the localization algorithm and the impact of the regolith on driving performance of the crewed pressurized rover.”

ispace unveiled their Hakuto-R lander design in July 2020. The Hakuto project was born out of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, in which teams competed to be the first to send a lunar rover to the moon, have it travel 500 meters and send back to Earth photos and video. None of the five finalists, including Hakuto, were able to complete a launch, and the competition subsequently ended in 2018 without a winner.

The MBRSC and JAXA rovers will have different deployment mechanisms from the landers, though Hakamada did not provide further details during a media briefing Wednesday.

The landers are being assembled in Germany and the assembly phase has just started, Hakamada said. “So we’re very confident we will meet this schedule,” he added.

Using water on the lunar surface is one of ispace’s long-term objectives. The company hopes to have more capability in the future to sustain resource utilization activites, Hakamada said.

This is only one of several lunar missions launching on SpaceX rockets. NASA announced in April that the space startup was selected to send humans to the lunar surface as part of its Artemis project, at a total award value of $2.89 billion. SpaceX will also be taking payloads from Firefly Aerosapce to take up its lunar lander in 2023.

#aerospace, #ispace, #lunar-lander, #lunar-mission, #moon-landing, #moon-mission, #space, #tc

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General Motors, Lockheed Martin to develop new lunar rover for NASA Artemis missions to the moon

The last time humans visited the moon in 1972, they got around on a relatively simple battery-powered vehicle. As NASA prepares for the next crewed mission to the moon, it’s looking to give the lunar rover an upgrade.

Lockheed Martin and General Motors said Wednesday they’re working together to develop a next-generation lunar vehicle designed to be faster and capable of traveling farther distances than its predecessor. If the project is selected by NASA, the rover would be used on the upcoming Artemis missions. The first mission, which will be an uncrewed test flight, is scheduled for November. The request for proposals will likely be published in the third or fourth quarter of this year, executives said at a media briefing Wednesday. NASA will award the contract after evaluating the submitted proposals.

The previous rover was only capable of traveling less than five miles from the Apollo landing site, limiting the astronauts’ ability to collect important data on far-flung lunar locales, like the north and south poles. The Moon’s circumference is nearly 7,000 miles. The two companies are aiming to improve the specs, Lockheed’s VP for lunar exploration Kirk Shireman said, noting that the exact materials used for the new rover, its range and other capabilities have yet to be determined.

GM will also be developing an autonomous driving system for the rover, which executives said Wednesday will improve safety and the ability for astronauts to collect samples and conduct other scientific research. GM is investing more than $27 billion through 2025 in electric and autonomous vehicle technologies and it aims to bring that research to the lunar rover project, Jeffrey Ryder, VP of growth and strategy at GM Defense, said. “We’re heads-down right now in investigating how we would take those capabilities and apply them to specific missions and operation associated with the Artemis program.”

GM also said it will be using its earth-bound research into battery and propulsion systems in developing the rover. Ryder anticipates that the rover program will lead to other market opportunities.

Both companies have supplied technology for NASA missions before, including its lunar missions. Auto manufacturer GM helped develop the previous lunar rover that was used during the Apollo era, including its chassis and wheels. It also manufactured and integrated guidance and navigational systems for the program. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin’s experience extends to building spacecraft and power systems that have been included on every NASA mission to Mars.

The companies said this was “one of several initiatives” they’re working on together, with further announcements regarding other projects expected in the future.

#aerospace, #artemis-mission, #artemis-program, #automotive, #general-motors, #lockheed-martin, #lunar-mission, #nasa, #space, #tc

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Phantom Space acquires StratSpace in pursuit of becoming a turnkey space service

Even as 2021 shapes up to see a record number of launches, demand is growing fast. Companies like Phantom Space Corporation aim to fill it with mass manufacturing techniques never yet seen in the space industry. Now the company has acquired StratSpace, a satellite program designer and manager, Phantom Space announced Tuesday. It’s a critical step towards building out a turnkey space transportation and manufacturing service, Phantom Space co-founder Michal Prywata told TechCrunch.

“[StratSpace] has all the know-how, all the tools, the satellite structures, communication systems that can make a spacecraft operate,” he explained. “Which is very critical for us, because we want to be one of the first companies that covers gives that full spectrum of service from start to finish.” The company declined to disclose the terms of the acquisition.

Phantom Space’s bet is that combining a mass rocket manufacturing strategy with acquisitions that position it as a ‘one-stop-shop’ will help bring down the cost of space access. Prywata said the company’s aiming to charge $4 million for a dedicated launch that would bring up to 450 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

“We’re talking about hundreds to potentially thousands a year,” Prywata said, referring to the number of launches the company eventually hopes to achieve. “As of right now, the market certainly supports hundreds of launches a year.”

They’re big aspirations for a company that has not yet begun even flight testing a rocket model. Phantom Space said it is outsourcing many components, like the engine and avionics system, that can take years to develop, to get it there. For other components and services, it’s looking to use an acquisition strategy.

“That’s why we’re looking at acquisitions pretty aggressively because we feel there’s an opportunity now to start integrating these types of technologies and companies within one umbrella and create this overall infrastructure of a company that can take ideas and bring them to space,” he said. That includes building satellites, integration, launch, and data communication. “We’re trying to cover that full spectrum, where we can help other companies that have some application that they want to launch into space, we can help them get there, because we have all these specific pieces that can make it all happen.”

Phantom Space is aiming to launch its two-stage Daytona rocket for the first time in the first quarter of 2023, with stage-level testing commencing in early 2022. Daytona, the company’s “workhorse” launch vehicle, comes in at 61 feet in height and can carry 450 kilograms to LEO on eight engines. While the Daytona is totally expendable, the company has plans to reuse its larger Laguna rocket model.

The company has signed a right of entry for Space Launch Complex 5 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, which will likely be the location of its first launches. It also just signed an agreement with the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska, where Astra (another company looking toward mass rocket manufacturing) completes its launches, and it’s planning on eventually having launch agreements with Cape Canaveral Spaceport in Florida.

But even if flight testing goes smoothly, reaching hundreds or even thousands of launches per year is still currently impossible given the small number of spaceports in the country.

“That said, having launch capability just in the US isn’t enough, because you won’t be able to get to hundreds a year, just out of those three sites,” Prywata said. So, the company is also looking at a site in northern Sweden, northern Australia, and Brazil. It’s also in talks with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to license spaceports that are restricted to horizontal launches only to allow for vertical launch.

Phantom Space’s acquisition of StratSpace it’s only going to be the first of many, Prywata said. “We’re still small so we’re trying to grow aggressively,” he said. “So we’re starting with these smaller acquisitions but very key acquisitions to enable our overall strategy.”

#aerospace, #space, #tc

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OneNav locates $21M from GV to map our transition to the next generation of GPS

GPS is one of those science fiction technologies whose use is effortless for the end user and endlessly challenging for the engineers who design it. It’s now at the heart of modern life: everything from Amazon package deliveries to our cars and trucks to our walks through national parks are centered around a pin on a map that monitors us down to a few meters.

Yet, GPS technology is decades old, and it’s going through a much-needed modernization. The U.S., Europe, China, Japan and others have been installing a new generation of GNSS satellites (GNSS is the generic name for GPS, which is the specific name for the U.S. system) that will offer stronger signals in what is known as the L5 band (1176 MHz). That means more accurate map pinpoints compared to the original generation L1 band satellites, particularly in areas where line-of-sight can be obscured like urban areas. L5 was “designed to meet demanding requirements for safety-of-life transportation and other high-performance applications,” as the U.S. government describes it.

It’s one thing to put satellites into orbit (that’s the easy part!), and another to build power-efficient chips that can scan for these signals and triangulate a coordinate (that’s the hard part!). So far, chipmakers have focused on creating hybrid chips that pull from the L1 and L5 bands simultaneously. For example, Broadcom recently announced the second-generation of its hybrid chip.

OneNav has a totally different opinion on product design, and it placed it right in its name. Eschewing the hybrid chip model of mixing old signals with new, it wants one chip monitoring the singular band of L5 signals to drive cost and power savings for devices. One nav to rule them all, as it were.

The company announced today that it has closed a $21 million Series B round led by Karim Faris at GV, which is solely funded by Alphabet. Other investors included Matthew Howard at Norwest and GSR Ventures, which invested in earlier rounds of the company. All together, OneNav has raised $33 million in capital and was founded about two years ago.

CEO and co-founder Steve Poizner has been in the location business a long time. His previous company, SnapTrack, built out a GPS positioning technology for mobile devices that sold to Qualcomm for $1 billion in stock in March 2000, at the height of the dot-com bubble. His co-founder and CTO at OneNav Paul McBurney has similarly spent decades in the GNSS space, most recently at Apple, according to his LinkedIn profile.

OneNav CEO and co-founder Steve Poizner, seen here in 2009. Image Credits: David McNew via Getty Images

They saw an opportunity to build a new navigation company as L5 band satellites have switched on in recent years. As they looked at the market and the L5 tech, they decided they wanted to go further than other companies by eliminating the legacy tech of older GPS technology and moving entirely into the future. By doing that, its design is “half the size of the old system, but much higher reliability and performance,” Poizner said. “We are aiming to get location technology into a much broader number of products.”

He differentiated between upgrading GPS from upgrading wireless signals. “With these L5 satellites, we don’t need the L1 satellites anymore [but] with 5G, you still need 4G,” he said. L5 band GPS does everything that earlier renditions did, but better, whereas with wireless technologies, they often need to complement each other to offer peak performance.

There’s one caveat here: the L5 signal is still considered “pre-operational” by the U.S. government, since the U.S. GPS system only has 16 satellites broadcasting the signal today, and is targeting 24 satellites for full deployment by later in this decade. However, other countries have also deployed L5 GNSS satellites, which means that while it may not be fully operational from the U.S. government’s perspective, it may well be good enough for consumers.

OneNav’s goal according to Poizner is to be “the Arm of the GNSS space.” What he means is that like Arm, which produces the chip designs for nearly all mobile phones globally, OneNav creates comprehensive designs for L5 band GPS chips that can be integrated as a system-on-chip into the products of other manufacturers so that they can “embed a high-performance location engine based on their silicon.”

The company today also announced that its first design customer will be In-Q-Tel, the U.S. intelligence community’s venture capital and business development organization. Poizner said that through In-Q-Tel, “we now have a development contract with a U.S. government agency.” The company is expecting that its customer evaluation units will be completed by the end of this year with the objective of potentially having OneNav’s technology in end-user devices by late 2022.

Location tracking has become a major area of investment for venture capitalists, with companies working on a variety of technologies outside of GPS to offer additional detail and functionality where GPS falls short. Poizner sees these technologies as ultimately complementary to what he and his team are building at OneNav. “The better the GPS, the less pressure on these augmentation systems,” he said, while acknowledging that, “it is the case though that in certain environments [like downtown Manhattan or underground in a subway], you will never get the GPS to work.”

For Poizner, it’s a bit of a return to entrepreneurship. Prior to starting OneNav, he had been heavily involved in California state politics. Several years after the sale of SnapTrack to Qualcomm, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the California State Assembly. He later was elected California’s insurance commissioner in 2007 under former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He ran for governor in 2010, losing in the Republican primary against Meg Whitman, who made her name as the longtime head of eBay. He ran for his former seat of California insurance commissioner in 2018, this time as a political independent, but lost.

OneNav is based in Palo Alto and currently has more than 30 employees.

#aerospace, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gps, #gv, #hardware, #karim-faris, #logistics, #mobile, #navigation, #onenav, #recent-funding, #silicon, #startups, #steve-poizner

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Wisk Aero files injunction in trade secret lawsuit against Archer Aviation

Electric aviation company Wisk Aero filed a motion for a preliminary injunction Wednesday in its ongoing lawsuit with rival electric air travel startup Archer Aviation. The injunction could put a serious wrench in Archer’s operations should the courts approve it.

Wisk has asked the court to immediately prohibit Archer from using 52 trade secrets that it alleges were stolen by former employees who were later hired by Archer. The trade secrets “span the gamut of systems within the aircraft and processes for development,” a Wisk spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Archer did not respond to a request for comment by press time. TechCrunch will update the story if they do.

Given the widespread subject matter of the trade secrets, an injunction would likely limit Archer’s operations. The courts have not yet ruled on whether Archer misappropriated trade secrets, as Wisk alleged in its original filing on April 6. Wisk says it discovered the trade secret theft after it sent the work laptops of a departing employee to an outsider investigator, who discovered that the employee had downloaded nearly 5,000 files. This employee is now a senior power electronics engineer at Archer.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a separate federal investigation into Archer based on Wisk’s trade secret allegations.

Archer said in a filing with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission that it had “placed an employee on paid administrative leave in connection with a government investigation and a search warrant issued to the employee.”

The injunction hearing has not been scheduled. It will likely occur within the next few days due to the nature of the request. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California under case no. 5:21-cv-2450.

#aerospace, #archer-aviation, #aviation, #electric-planes, #evtol, #lawsuit, #tc, #transportation, #urban-air-mobility, #wisk-aero

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Beta Technologies adds $368 million in Series A funding for its electric aviation ecosystem

Electric aviation startup Beta Technologies closed a $368 million Series A funding round on Tuesday, with investments from Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund. The new capital is the second round of funding announced by the company this year, after the company raised $143 million in private capital in March.

The funding round was led by Fidelity Management & Research Company with undisclosed additions from Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, a $2 billion fund established in September 2019 to advance the development of sustainable technologies. The Climate Pledge fund has also made contributions toward electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian, battery recycler Redwood Materials and ZeroAvia, a hydrogen fuel cell aviation company.

The company’s valuation is now at $1.4 billion, CNBC reported, putting it in a small circle of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) companies to have achieved valuations at over a billion dollars.

Unlike developers Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation, who have each also achieved valuations over the billion-dollar mark, Beta is not primarily focused on air taxis. Instead, it’s been targeting defense applications, cargo delivery, and medical logistics, as well as building out its network of rapid-charging systems in the northeast U.S. Its debut aircraft, the ALIA-250c, was built to serve these various solutions by being capable of carrying six people or a pilot and 1,500 pounds.

The Vermont-based startup has already scored major partnerships in all of these industries, including with United Therapeutics to transport synthetic organs for human transplant; UPS, who purchased 10 ALIA aircraft with the option of buying 140 more; and the U.S. Air Force.

The company has not entirely ignored passenger transportation, however, announcing last month a partnership with Blade Urban Air Mobility for five aircraft to be delivered in 2024.

Beta was the first company to be awarded airworthiness approval from the U.S. Air Force. The company expects to sign a contract in June with the Air Force to allow access to Beta’s aircraft and flight simulators in Washington, D.C. and Springfield, Ohio. However, it still must achieve certification with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The funds will be used to refine the ALIA’s electric propulsion system and controls, as well as to build out manufacturing space, including expanding its footprint in Vermont on land at the Burlington International Airport, the company said in a news release Tuesday.

#aerospace, #amazon, #amazon-climate-pledge-fund, #evtol, #fidelity-management, #funding, #startups, #tc, #transportation, #urban-air-mobility

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Benchmark Space Systems and Starfish Space team up to advance orbital docking and refueling

Humans may not have totally mastered getting objects to space, but we’ve done a pretty good job so far. The hundreds of satellites that orbit the Earth are proof enough that ‘send stuff to space’ is firmly in humanity’s capacity. But what about refueling, repairing, or even adding capabilities to spacecraft or satellites once they’re up there?

In the past few years, a host of companies have started to turn what has long been seen as a pipe dream into a real possibility. Now, satellite servicing company Starfish Space and space mobility provider Benchmark Space Systems will be entering into a new partnership aimed at advancing these much-needed capabilities – and their first demonstration will take place next month, on space startup Orbit Fab’s Tanker 1 mission.

Orbit Fab, which was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield in 2019, will be sending up an operational fuel depot on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in June. The tanker is the first of what Orbit Fab is envisioning as a “gas station in space” – in-orbit propellant available to satellite customers who will no longer be limited in terms of their spacecraft’s active life by the amount of fuel they take up on launch.

Benchmark Space Systems and Orbit Fab already have an agreement to combine Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system and the fuel depot startup’s fluid transfer interface (imagine a refueling apparatus) into an integrated propulsion package.

This is where Starfish Space comes in. It will be testing its CEPHALOPOD rendezvous, proximity operations and docking (RPOD) software with Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system to make sure that the refueling demonstration is as accurate as possible. The RPOD software is entirely autonomous and can give small servicing vehicles up to 8 times more maneuvering capability, the company says.

Demonstration missions like the one in June are just the beginning. Refueling capacity could not only extend the mission length of satellites and other spacecraft, it could help open the door to new types of space missions and the emerging space economy.

#aerospace, #orbit-fab, #orbital-servicing, #space, #startups, #tc

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Aevum is building a modular autonomous drone for space and terrestrial deliveries

Logistics and delivery providers are territorially split between Earth and space, with companies like Amazon and FedEx working to master ground, air and drone transportation, and new entrants like SpaceX honing its expertise in space launch.

Autonomous transportation startup Aevum wants to do both. And it was just issued a patent that will help it move dexterously between space launch to low Earth orbit, and air cargo and drone deliveries here on Earth.

The key is Aevum’s unmanned aircraft system, which it calls Ravn X. So far, Aevum has only publicly discussed its plans for the Ravn X in the context of space launches. It works like this: the Ravn X uses conventional jet fuel and takes off from an airport runway, like a plane, but it has a rocket nested in its belly that deploys at high altitude to deliver payload to space. As the second stage detaches, the Ravn X returns to Earth using conventional touch-down techniques, ready for another delivery.

The new Aevum patent, which was issued on May 4, is for a unique modular payload design positioned in the belly of the drone. With the new system described in the patent, that rocket payload module can be switched out for a cargo bay to carry deliveries around the world, or a drone module that can carry up to 264 smaller drones for last-mile delivery services. Theoretically, the Ravn X could depart from an airport, deliver its payload to space, return back to the airport to be reloaded with a filled cargo module, then take off again for earthbound deliveries.

While the exact amount a Ravn X can carry depends on the distance it’s traveling, the Ravn X air cargo will be able to carry up to 15,000 lbs and the space delivery payload will be able to carry up to 330 lbs. As of now, the rockets are expendable, but the company has plans for 100% reusability across its space launch and air cargo operations.

Aevum’s business model includes operating autonomous transportation and logistics as a service and partnering with existing logistics providers. One interesting possibility for the company is partnerships with logistics giants that so far have been effectively cut-off from space deliveries due to the vertically integrated models of companies like SpaceX, which handles logistics and launch services in-house.

“We aim to enable FedEx, Amazon, UPS, DHL, and others to build upon the logistics infrastructure they have already mastered,” Aevum CEO Jay Skylus said. “Any or all of these respected giants could partner with Aevum or purchase a fleet of Ravn X for their own and add space launch to their offerings. Space logistics should no longer be separated from general logistics.”

Aevum founder and CEO Jay Skylus with Ravn X

Likewise, large companies that have struggled to establish drone delivery services could use the Ravn X’s drone module to deliver and deposit drones over a central area, like a city center, for last-mile deliveries.

“The patent is so significant because what the patent allows you to do is say – the existing FedEx and UPS logistics architecture that’s sorting 70,000 packages an hour right now could not service the needs of defense and space because fundamentally that logistics infrastructure was designed to go from Earth to Earth and not Earth to space,” Skylus explained. “But if you really look at the problem and study it in detail, you know the missing link to allow this existing infrastructure to now be able to service the space domain – that missing link is what we just patented.”

Skylus imagines Ravn X fleets operating around-the-clock. “In my company, what matters is asset utilization. For any reusable flying machine, it doesn’t generate revenue on the ground. My machines will fly around the clock, every day,” he said in a statement.

The company still has a ways to go before it still takes to the skies, however. Ravn X is still undergoing ground test operations and will begin flight testing this year at an FAA-licensed testing facility for unmanned aircraft systems. Aevum’s intention is to fly with the United States Air Force’s ASLON-45 mission this fall and to take its air cargo service live next year.

Because the Ravn X has so many different capabilities, it will need to pursue a few different FAA certifications: for space launches, a license from the FAA Commercial Space Transportation office; for cargo operations, an FAA aircraft type certification and standard airworthiness certification.

“What we’ve patented is the next layer and large batch of connections in the global logistics infrastructure,” Skylus said. “Space logistics shouldn’t be separated from logistics that already exist.”

#aerospace, #aevum, #drone-delivery, #logistics, #space, #space-launch, #startups, #tc, #transportation

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Rocket Lab recovered the first stage from its failed May 15 launch, a silver lining for its reusability program

Rocket Lab may have experienced mission failure and total payload loss during the company’s 20th planned mission on May 15, but it wasn’t all bad news, the company said in an update Monday.

Importantly, the Electron rocket’s first stage – which contain nine Rutherford engines – performed as designed and did not contribute to the flight failure. Rocket Lab further said the first stage completed a successful ocean splashdown using a parachute and that the company was able to retrieve it, and bring it back to its production complex.

Rocket Lab was also testing a redesigned heat shield on this mission made out of stainless steel, rather than aluminum, and that also seemed to function well. Testing these reusability system elements was a secondary objective here, since the primary goal is always to deliver the payloads of paying customers, but ultimately reusability could be absolutely crucial to the company’s long-term business.

“The new heat shield debuted in this flight protected the stage from the intense heat and forces experienced while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and the program took yet another major advancement towards reusability of the rocket,” the company said Monday.

This is great news for Rocket Lab’s reusability program, as the first stage and engines can be examined and evaluated for further reflight trials on future missions. The company still intends on conducting its third recovery mission later this year. Rocket Lab said it was leading flight review of the May 15 mission failure with the support of the Federal Aviation Administration and anticipates the full review to be complete in the coming weeks.

#aerospace, #electron, #rocket-lab, #space, #tc

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SpaceX launched 52 more Starlink satellites to orbit on Saturday

SpaceX successfully launched another 52 Starlink internet broadband satellites into orbit on Saturday, less than one week after it sent up the last batch. A small satellite from startup Capella Space and a Tyvak observation satellite also hitched a ride on the launch, which took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday evening.

The launch used a veteran Falcon 9 booster that’s seen seven previous launch and landings, including during three Starlink missions. It departed from its launch pad at 6:56 PM ET (3:56 PM PT) and returned to Earth approximately nine minutes later. The rocket landed vertically on SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship “Of Course I Still Love You” in the Atlantic Ocean.

The launch company has now sent over 530 Starlink satellites to space since March, and all of them on reused rockets. Reusability is a key factor toward making the launches as cost-effective as possible, a factor that is especially important as SpaceX is both the launch provider and customer of the Starlink service. As a consequence, SpaceX has been able to rapidly accelerate its Starlink launch program, with 28 launches under its belt so far. At least one additional launch is likely in the works for later this month.

The company said earlier this month that it had received “over half a million” pre-order reservations for Starlink broadband service so far. Starlink is available in beta to customers in six countries: Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Mexico and Canada. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said the company aims to have its low Earth orbit broadband internet network operational across nearly the entire globe as early as the end of 2021.

#aerospace, #falcon-9, #space, #spacex, #starlink, #tc

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Alba Orbital’s mission to image the Earth every 15 minutes brings in $3.4M seed round

Orbital imagery is in demand, and if you think having daily images of everywhere on Earth is going to be enough in a few years, you need a lesson in ambition. Alba Orbital is here to provide it with its intention to provide Earth observation at intervals of 15 minutes rather than hours or days — and it just raised $3.4M to get its next set of satellites into orbit.

Alba attracted our attention at Y Combinator’s latest demo day; I was impressed with the startup’s accomplishment of already having 6 satellites in orbit, which is more than most companies with space ambition ever get. But it’s only the start for the company, which will need hundreds more to begin to offer its planned high-frequency imagery.

The Scottish company has spent the last few years in prep and R&D, pursuing the goal, which some must have thought laughable, of creating a solar-powered Earth observation satellite that weighs in at less than one kilogram. The joke’s on the skeptics, however — Alba has launched a proof of concept and is ready to send the real thing up as well.

Little more than a flying camera with the minimum of storage, communication, power, and movement, the sub-kilogram Unicorn-2 is about the size of a soda can, with paperback-size solar panel wings, and costs in the neighborhood of $10,000. It should be able to capture up to 10 meter resolution, good enough to see things like buildings, ships, crops, even planes.

A member of the Alba Orbital team holds a Unicorn-2 satellite.

Image Credits: Alba Orbital

“People thought we were idiots. Now they’re taking it seriously,” said Tom Walkinshaw, founder and CEO of Alba. “They can see it for what it is: a unique platform for capturing datasets.”

Indeed, although the idea of daily orbital imagery like Planet’s once seemed excessive, in some situations it’s quite clearly not enough.

“The California case is probably wildfires,” said Walkinshaw (and it always helps to have a California case). “Having an image once a day of a wildfire is a bit like having a chocolate teapot… not very useful. And natural disasters like hurricanes, flooding is a big one, transportation as well.”

Walkinshaw noted that they company was bootstrapped and profitable before taking on the task of launching dozens more satellites, something the seed round will enable.

“It gets these birds in the air, gets them finished and shipped out,” he said. “Then we just need to crank up the production rate.”

Alba Orbital founder Tom Walkinshaw next to a Y Combinator sign.

Image Credits: Alba Orbital

When I talked to Walkinshaw via video call, ten or so completed satellites in their launch shells were sitting on a rack behind him in the clean room, and more are in the process of assembly. Aiding in the scaling effort is new investor James Park, founder and CEO of FitBit — definitely someone who knows a little bit about bringing hardware to market.

Interestingly, the next batch to go to orbit (perhaps as soon as in a month or two, depending on the machinations of the launch provider) will be focusing on nighttime imagery, an area Walkinshaw suggested was undervalued. But as orbital thermal imaging startup Satellite Vu has shown, there’s immense appetite for things like energy and activity monitoring, and nighttime observation is a big part of that.

The seed round will get the next few rounds of satellites into space, and after that Alba will be working on scaling manufacturing to produce hundreds more. Once those start going up it can demonstrate the high-cadence imaging it is aiming to produce — for now it’s impossible to do so, though Alba already has customers lined up to buy the imagery it does get.

The round was led by Metaplanet Holdings, with participation by Y Combinator, Liquid2, Soma, Uncommon Denominator, Zillionize, and numerous angels.

As for competition, Walkinshow welcomes it, but feels secure that he and his company have more time and work invested in this class of satellite than anyone in the world — a major obstacle for anyone who wants to do battle. It’s more likely companies will, as Alba has done, pursue a distinct product complementary to those already or in the process of being offered.

“Space is a good place to be right now,” he concluded.

#aerospace, #funding, #fundings-exits, #gadgets, #hardware, #planet, #recent-funding, #space, #startups, #tc, #y-combinator

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Rocket Lab prepares to recover second booster at sea after May 15 launch

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck shared more details on the company’s next launch, which is set to take off from its New Zealand facility on May 15. The Electron vehicle will be carrying satellites from BlackSky, but delivering that payload is only half of the mission: the other half will be recovering the booster stage after an ocean splashdown.

This is the second of three planned booster recovery missions, part of Rocket Lab’s long-term plan to reach reusability for its launch vehicle, an achievement most famously held by its competitor SpaceX. The first recovery mission, dubbed “Return to Sender,” successfully splashed down in the Atlantic in November. While Beck told reporters Tuesday the condition of that booster “was remarkable,” this upcoming mission nevertheless features a number of component and system upgrades aimed at further fortifying the booster.

Most notably, the booster will be equipped with a redesigned heat shield made out of stainless steel, rather than aluminum, “designed to carry the reentry loads as well as the ascent loads,” Beck said. Electron must endure temperatures as high as 2400ºC during reentry, conditions the original equipment wasn’t intended to handle.

The company is also introducing what it’s calling the Ocean Recovery and Capture Apparatus, or ORCA, a dedicated system to help lift the rocket stage out of the water and onto the deck of a ship. Rough seas in November presented a challenge to the recovery effort, though ultimately the booster was not damaged.

The mission will also reuse components from the recovered booster, which (although the booster itself was dismantled) were subsequently inspected and requalified for flight. “From here on in, we should be able to reuse this system on every single launch vehicle that we’ve been bringing back,” Beck said.

Rocket Lab is pursuing a unique route to reusability. As opposed to the approach from SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 rockets use powered decelerations and landings, Rocket Lab’s approach with Electron is to decelerate the vehicle passively using the atmosphere and a parachute.

The reentry method is constrained by the size of the launch vehicle, Beck explained. “You don’t really have that ability to carry extra fuel to do maneuvers or deceleration burns or anything like that,” he said. Instead, the vehicle enters engines-first and propagates a massive shockwave on its journey back to Earth, carefully managed to reduce peak heat on its vulnerable parts. This results in a nearly negligible payload reduction: about 10%, as opposed to the 30-40% required for a propulsive landing. These are very tight margins, Beck acknowledged:

“This is not a simple thing to do. It sounds pretty basic – let’s just bring the stage back and put it under a parachute and splash down – but actually, doing it with no significant reentry elements and just using the atmosphere to do all the work is really challenging.”

The final splashdown recovery mission will take place before the end of 2021, Beck said, and will include improvements to the decelerator and a more general block upgrade. Once these missions are complete, Rocket Lab will turn to its ultimate goal: to do away with splashdown recovery altogether and to retrieve the booster mid-descent under its parachute using a helicopter.

Looking ahead, the company’s next rocket will be the Neutron, “a vehicle designed for reusability from day one,” Beck said. The Neutron will be much larger than its predecessor and capable of lifting heavier payloads to orbit. He estimated that Rocket Lab will construct one Neutron rocket per year and aim to operate a fleet of four to begin with.

#aerospace, #electron, #rocket-lab, #space, #spaceflight, #tc

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Axiom Space and NASA detail first fully private human launch to the Space Station, set for January 2022

Houston-based startup Axiom Space and NASA unveiled more details Monday about the forthcoming Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1), the first fully private human mission to the International Space Station.

The Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1) spaceflight mission will ferry four private astronauts to the International Space Station in January 2022. The eight-day mission will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida using a SpaceX Crew Dragon. While in space, the crew will be living and working in the U.S. segment of the ISS.

NASA will be paying Axiom $1.69 million for services associated with the mission, such as transporting supplies to the ISS, though that does not include other reimbursable agreements between the two entities.

There’s a “high degree of confidence in the late January date” for the launch, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said.

Axiom in January released the identity of the crew members: Canadian investor Mark Pathy, investor Larry Connor, and former Israeli pilot Eytan Stibbe. Leading the crew as mission commander is former NASA astronaut and Axiom Space VP Michael López-Alegría, who has four spaceflights under his belt.

Pathy, Connor and Stibbe will engage in research missions while onboard. Pathy will be collaborating with the Montreal Children’s Hospital and the Canadian Space Agency; Connor, the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic; and Stibbe, to conduct scientific experiments coordinated by the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science and Technology.

“Larry and Mark are very serious individuals who are dedicated to being the best they can be in the mold of a NASA astronaut and they’re not interested in being tourists,” López-Alegría said during the media briefing. “They want to do their part to improve humankind.”

To prepare for the mission, the four crew members will go on a “camping trip” in the Alaskan foothills for training in July, López-Alegría said. He will start full-time training around August, with Larry starting in September. The rest of the crew will start in October, with around two-thirds of their time dedicated to ISS-specific training and the rest dedicated to training with SpaceX. The staggered schedule is due to the differing responsibilities between the crew members while on board. Axiom will be using the same contractor that NASA uses to train its astronauts.

While Suffredini declined to specify how much the private astronauts paid for their space on the flight, he said he “wouldn’t argue with” widely reported figures in the tens of millions. The Washington Post in January reported that the ticket prices came in at $55 million each.

Prices may not always be so high, but Suffredini said that the industry is likely at least a decade away from serious price drops that might make space travel feasible for the average space-goer.

Axiom intends to offer astronaut flights – both private and national – to the International Space Station and eventually its own privately-funded space station. While Axiom has “things lined up” for AX-2, AX-3 and AX-4, “like everyone we have to compete for the opportunity,” Suffredini said. The number of missions to the ISS is limited because there are only two docking ports on the ISS, Station deputy manager Dana Weigel added. That suggests that additional stations will be necessary to meet the burgeoning demand for both commercial and scientific space missions.

The company also in January 2020 won a NASA contract to develop and install a commercial module to the Harmony docking port of the ISS as early as 2024.

Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said that recent announcements on commercial spaceflights from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic in addition to the Axiom mission have heralded “a renaissance in U.S. human spaceflight.”

“A lot of times history can feel incremental when you’re in it, but I really feel like we are in it this year. This is a real inflection point with human spaceflight,” he said.

#aerospace, #axiom-space, #commercial-spaceflight, #international-space-station, #nasa, #private-spaceflight, #space, #spaceflight, #tc

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SpaceX might try to fly the first Starship prototype to successfully land a second time

SpaceX is fresh off a high for its Starship spacecraft development program, but according to CEO Elon Musk, it’s already looking ahead to potentially repeating its latest success with an unplanned early reusability experiment. Earlier this week, SpaceX flew the SN15 (i.e., 15th prototype) of its Starship from its development site near Brownsville, Texas, and succeeded in landing it upright for the first time. Now, Musk says they could fly the same prototype a second time, a first for the Starship test and development effort.

The successful launch and landing on Wednesday included an ascent to around 30,000 feet, where the 150-foot tall spacecraft flipped onto its ‘belly’ and then descended back to Earth, returning vertical and firing its engines to slow its descent and touch down softly standing upright. This atmospheric testing is a key step meant to help prove out the technologies and systems that will later help Starship return to Earth after its orbital launches. The full Starship launch system is intended to be completely reusable, including this vehicle (which will eventually serve as the upper stage) and the Super Heavy booster that the company is also in the process of developing.

A second test flight of SN15 is an interesting possibility among the options for the prototype. SpaceX will obviously be conducting a number of other check-outs and gathering as much data as it can from the vehicle, in addition to whatever it collected from onboard sensors, but the options for the craft after that basically amounted to stress testing it to failure, or dismantling it and studying the pieces. A second flight attempt is an interesting additional option that could provide SpaceX with a lot of invaluable data about its planned re-use of the production version of Starship.

Whether or not SpaceX actually does re-fly SN15 is still up in the air, but if it does end up being technically possible, it seems like a great learning opportunity for SpaceX that could help fast-track the overall development program.

 

#aerospace, #elon-musk, #outer-space, #space, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc, #texas

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Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is returning to space in June

Orbital launch company Virgin Orbit has scheduled its next mission to space.

Virgin Orbit will be returning its LauncherOne rocket to orbit in June to deliver payloads for the U.S. Department of Defense Space Test Program, SatRevolution, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

The manifest includes three CubeSat satellites as part of the DoD’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative; a CubeSat satellite called BRIK II, Norway’s first military satellite to go to space; and two optical imaging satellites from SatRevolution for Earth observation. DoD awarded the launch to Virgin Orbit’s defense-focused subsidiary VOX Space last April.

LauncherOne will take its payload to a target orbit of around 310 miles above Earth.

This will be the LauncherOne’s first take-off since a demonstration mission in January, during which the LauncherOne carried satellites to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. That most recent demonstration was the first time Virgin Orbit proved that its unique hybrid aircraft/orbital rocket system actually works. The first try, which took place in May of last year, ended after the rocket initiated an automatic safety shutdown after detaching from the Boeing 747 that takes it to launch altitude.

The mission will be conducted from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on a yet-to-be-announced date in June. The rocket will be shipped out to the Mojave site “in the coming days” for prelaunch operations, the company said. Virgin Orbit will offer a public livestream of the mission on its website.

Virgin Orbit is part of a small cohort of private orbital launch companies that have actually sent payloads to space. As opposed to providers like SpaceX, which uses massive rockets similar to legacy designs from agencies like NASA, LauncherOne is essentially a 747 that’s been retrofitted with a rocket. Besides being smaller and able to take off from traditional airplane runways, the 747 saves on costs by being completely reusable.

Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic in 2017, with the latter focusing exclusively on commercial human spaceflight services. In homage to its beginnings as a humble record company, the mission has been christened “Tubular Bells, Part One,” so named after the first track on the first album ever released by Virgin Records.

#aerospace, #launch-services, #launcherone, #outer-space, #rocketry, #small-satellite, #space, #spaceflight, #tc, #transportation, #virgin-orbit

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Click Studios asks customers to stop tweeting about its Passwordstate data breach

Australian security software house Click Studios has told customers not to post emails sent by the company about its data breach, which allowed malicious hackers to push a malicious update to its flagship enterprise password manager Passwordstate to steal customer passwords.

Last week, the company told customers to “commence resetting all passwords” stored in its flagship password manager after the hackers pushed the malicious update to customers over a 28-hour window between April 20-22. The malicious update was designed to contact the attacker’s servers to retrieve malware designed to steal and send the password manager’s contents back to the attackers.

In an email to customers, Click Studios did not say how the attackers compromised the password manager’s update feature, but included a link to a security fix.

But news of the breach only became public after after Danish cybersecurity firm CSIS Group published a blog post with details of the attack hours after Click Studios emailed its customers.

Click Studios claims Passwordstate is used by “more than 29,000 customers,” including in the Fortune 500, government, banking, defense and aerospace, and most major industries.

In an update on its website, Click Studios said in a Wednesday advisory that customers are “requested not to post Click Studios correspondence on Social Media.” The email adds: “It is expected that the bad actor is actively monitoring Social Media, looking for information they can use to their advantage, for related attacks.”

“It is expected the bad actor is actively monitoring social media for information on the compromise and exploit. It is important customers do not post information on Social Media that can be used by the bad actor. This has happened with phishing emails being sent that replicate Click Studios email content,” the company said.

Besides a handful of advisories published by the company since the breach was discovered, the company has refused to comment or respond to questions.

It’s also not clear if the company has disclosed the breach to U.S. and EU authorities where the company has customers, but where data breach notification rules obligate companies to disclose incidents timely. Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual global revenue for falling foul of Europe’s GDPR rules.

Click Studios chief executive Mark Sandford has not responded to repeated requests for comment by TechCrunch. Instead, TechCrunch received the same canned autoresponse from the company’s support email saying that the company’s staff are “focused only on assisting customers technically.”

TechCrunch emailed Sandford again on Thursday for comment on the latest advisory, but did not hear back.

#aerospace, #articles, #banking, #computer-security, #crime, #cybercrime, #data-breach, #europe, #european-union, #major, #microsoft, #outlook-com, #password, #password-manager, #passwordstate, #phishing, #security, #social-engineering, #social-media, #spamming, #united-states, #webmail

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SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites

SpaceX has launched another batch of Starlink satellites, adding 60 more to the constellation on orbit. This is the 24th Starlink launch in total, and means SpaceX has now sent up over 1,500 Starlink spacecraft, with around 1,438 of those still in operation. This is the first Starlink launch since April 7 — which, surprisingly, is the biggest gap between these launches in quite a while.

This year, SpaceX’s overall launch calendar has been dominated by Starlink launches, as the company seeks to expand the availability, quality and coverage of its low Earth orbit broadband internet network. SpaceX also opened up availability of Starlink service this year, and now seems to be mostly supply-constrained on the consumer receiver terminal side, rather than necessarily on network capacity or regional ability.

Regarding that few week gap in the Starlink launch pace, it’s not like SpaceX was slacking in the meantime; the launcher sent up its second crew of astronauts destined for the International Space Station in a flight just last week. Plus, it has two three additional Starlink launches tentatively scheduled to happen in May.

This latest launch took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 11:44 PM EDT (8:44 PM PDT) on Wednesday, and it used a flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage booster, which was used on six prior missions, including four Starlink launches.

#aerospace, #broadband, #falcon-9, #florida, #international-space-station, #outer-space, #space, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #spacex, #starlink, #tc

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Wingcopter debuts a triple-drop drone to create “logistical highways in the sky”

German startup Wingcopter has launched a new autonomous delivery drone designed to remove a technical bottleneck hindering the growth of drone transport services.

The Wingcopter 198, which was revealed Tuesday, is capable of making three separate deliveries per flight, the company said. Wingcopter has couched this multi-stop capability as a critical feature that will allow it to grow a cost-efficient — and hopefully profitable — drone delivery as a service business.

The company, which was founded in 2017, got its start manufacturing drones. It used the revenue to scale and now expand its business model to include drone-delivery-as-a-service. “That’s actually our next mission, to not just build drones, but to build networks,” CEO Tom Plümmer told TechCrunch. The company’s website is now promoting the delivery business, which aims to provide healthcare, e-commerce and grocery delivery among other services. It’s ultimate aim is to create “logistical highways in the sky,” according to a statement by Plümmer.

The key to this delivery nirvana, the company claims, is its patented tilt-rotor propellant mechanism that combines the advantages of two drone types — the multicopter, which gives drones their smooth vertical take-off and landing capabilities and the ability to hover precisely in the air, with the fixed wing, which provides fast flight times over long distances.

The new model Wingcopter 198 has a top speed of 93 miles an hour and can carry payloads up to 13 pounds for a distance of about 47 miles from a single battery charge. It can travel up to 68 miles when carrying lighter cargo, the company said.

Plümmer explained that the tilt-rotors can also automatically respond to gusts of wind and other inclement weather conditions. Its architecture includes eight motors for redundancy and safety reasons.

Image Credits: Wingcopter

 

The drones, which are equipped with sensors and software to avoid obstacles and drop parcels at designated sites, are all automated. This level of automation allows one human operator to monitor and control up to 10 of these new drones from a computer equipped with Wingcopter’s control station software anywhere in the world. Plümmer explained that running the drones is a simple as the operator pressing ‘start’ on the software program from anywhere in the world.

Plümmer also touted the scalability of the tilt-rotor system, noting that it could be applied (theoretically) to a larger aircraft to carry cargo, or even human passengers.

“It’s just a cost factor,” Plümmer said, noting that the company already employs people who have the experience in aviation and aerial engineering required to one day take the tilt-rotor aircraft to scale. “However, we thought, let’s start with the smaller version … get these 1000s of [flight] hours, 1000s of kilometers, and take these learnings into every next generation of Wingcopter so they will constantly get bigger, first for cargo, later for mobility.”

Plümmer said they’ve drawn a hard line at working with any company or government institution that would use their drones for military or surveillance purposes.

“It’s mainly moral,” he said of the objection. “We believe it would be really not fitting to our vision. Our vision is to save lives and improve life by using drone technology and drone solutions.”

Looking to the future, the company is currently pursuing a type certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, which would allow it to operate commercial flights in the United States. If they receive this certification, they will be one of only a handful of competitors operating in the space. They’ve also set their sights on another funding round, fresh of the heels of a $22 million Series A round in January. The company has around 120 employees but with an additional injection of capital in a Series B, it could hire people with expertise in AI, piloting and production.

#aerospace, #drones, #transportation, #wingcopter

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Passwordstate users warned to ‘reset all passwords’ after attackers plant malicious update

Click Studios, the Australian software house that develops the enterprise password manager Passwordstate, has warned customers to reset passwords across their organizations after a cyberattack on the password manager.

An email sent by Click Studios to customers said the company had confirmed that attackers had “compromised” the password manager’s software update feature in order to steal customer passwords.

The email, posted on Twitter by Polish news site Niebezpiecznik early on Friday, said the malicious update exposed Passwordstate customers over a 28-hour window between April 20-22. Once installed, the malicious update contacts the attacker’s servers to retrieve malware designed to steal and send the password manager’s contents back to the attackers. The email also told customers to “commence resetting all passwords contained within Passwordstate.”

Click Studios did not say how the attackers compromised the password manager’s update feature, but emailed customers with a security fix.

The company also said the attacker’s servers were taken down on April 22. But Passwordstate users could still be at risk if the attacker’s are able to get their infrastructure online again.

Enterprise password managers let employees at companies share passwords and other sensitive secrets across their organization, such as network devices — including firewalls and VPNs, shared email accounts, internal databases, and social media accounts. Click Studios claims Passwordstate is used by “more than 29,000 customers,” including in the Fortune 500, government, banking, defense and aerospace, and most major industries.

Although affected customers were notified this morning, news of the breach only became widely known several hours later after Danish cybersecurity firm CSIS Group published a blog post with details of the attack.

Click Studios chief executive Mark Sanford did not respond to a request for comment outside Australian business hours.

Read more:

#aerospace, #banking, #computer-security, #cybercrime, #data-security, #major, #malware, #password, #password-manager, #phishing, #security

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Watch SpaceX launch its second crew of Space Station astronauts on a flight-proven Falcon 9 live

SpaceX is set to launch its second operational commercial crew mission to the International Space Station for NASA, with a liftoff time of 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM PDT) on Friday morning. The flight will carry four astronauts, including two from NASA, one from JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and one from the ESA (European Space Agency), to the station, where they will begin a regular tour of duty conducting science experiments, and maintaining and upgrading the orbital platform.

This is the second commercial crew mission for SpaceX, which officially qualified its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket for human flight last year. NASA then launched four astronauts using SpaceX’s human-certified launch system later that year in November, becoming the first private company to deliver people to the ISS, and the first American vehicle to do so since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. Since the end of that program, NASA has relied on buying rides aboard Russian Soyuz rockets to keep up its representation on the ISS.

There’s already a SpaceX Crew Dragon at the Space Station from that Crew-1 launch last year, and it was relocated to another port on the station earlier this month in preparation for the arrival of the one flying for Crew-2. The Crew-1 Dragon capsule is set to return back to Earth with astronauts on board once they’re relieved by this flight’s crew, likely later this month on April 28.

One major notable change for this launch is the use of a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket booster. SpaceX has previously used new boosters fresh from the factory for its human launches, though it has a spotless track record when it comes to booster re-use for its cargo flights. It’s also the first re-use of a dragon spacecraft, and both components of this launch system actually previously supported human launches, with the first stage serving during Crew-1, and the Dragon capsule providing the ride for Demo-2, which flew astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

The astronauts on today’s flight are Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur from NASA, as well as Akihiko Hoshide from JAXA and Thomas Pesquet from the ESA. As mentioned, liftoff time is set for 5:49 AM EDT, but SpaceX will begin streaming live hours in advance at approximately 1:30 AM EDT on Friday (10:30 PM PDT on Thursday).

#aerospace, #commercial-crew-program, #esa, #european-space-agency, #falcon, #international-space-station, #japan-aerospace-exploration-agency, #jaxa, #nasa, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #shuttle, #space, #space-station, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc

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Deepfake tech takes on satellite maps

While the concept of “deepfakes,” or AI-generated synthetic imagery, has been decried primarily in connection with involuntary depictions of people, the technology is dangerous (and interesting) in other ways as well. For instance, researchers have shown that it can be used to manipulate satellite imagery to produce real-looking — but totally fake — overhead maps of cities.

The study, led by Bo Zhao from the University of Washington, is not intended to alarm anyone but rather to show the risks and opportunities involved in applying this rather infamous technology to cartography. In fact their approach has as much in common with “style transfer” techniques — redrawing images in an impressionistic, crayon and arbitrary other fashions — than with deepfakes as they are commonly understood.

The team trained a machine learning system on satellite images of three different cities: Seattle, nearby Tacoma and Beijing. Each has its own distinctive look, just as a painter or medium does. For instance, Seattle tends to have larger overhanging greenery and narrower streets, while Beijing is more monochrome and — in the images used for the study — the taller buildings cast long, dark shadows. The system learned to associate details of a street map (like Google or Apple’s) with those of the satellite view.

The resulting machine learning agent, when given a street map, returns a realistic-looking faux satellite image of what that area would look like if it were in any of those cities. In the following image, the map corresponds to the top right satellite image of Tacoma, while the lower versions show how it might look in Seattle and Beijing.

Four images show a street map and a real satellite image of Tacoma, and two simulated satellite images of the same streets in Seattle and Beijing.

Image Credits: Zhao et al.

A close inspection will show that the fake maps aren’t as sharp as the real one, and there are probably some logical inconsistencies like streets that go nowhere and the like. But at a glance the Seattle and Beijing images are perfectly plausible.

One only has to think for a few minutes to conceive of uses for fake maps like this, both legitimate and otherwise. The researchers suggest that the technique could be used to simulate imagery of places for which no satellite imagery is available — like one of these cities in the days before such things were possible, or for a planned expansion or zoning change. The system doesn’t have to imitate another place altogether — it could be trained on a more densely populated part of the same city, or one with wider streets.

It could conceivably even be used, as this rather more whimsical project was, to make realistic-looking modern maps from ancient hand-drawn ones.

Should technology like this be bent to less constructive purposes, the paper also looks at ways to detect such simulated imagery using careful examination of colors and features.

The work challenges the general assumption of the “absolute reliability of satellite images or other geospatial data,” said Zhao in a UW news article, and certainly as with other media that kind thinking has to go by the wayside as new threats appear. You can read the full paper at the journal Cartography and Geographic Information Science.

#aerospace, #artificial-intelligence, #deepfakes, #mapping, #maps, #satellite-imagery, #science, #space, #tc, #university-of-washington

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Satellite Vu’s $5M seed round will fuel the launch of its thermal imaging satellites

Earth imaging is an increasingly crowded space, but Satellite Vu is taking a different approach by focusing on infrared and heat emissions, which are crucial for industry and climate change monitoring. Fresh from TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield, the company has raised a £3.6M ($5M) seed round and is on its way to launching its first satellite in 2022.

The nuts and bolts of Satellite Vu’s tech and master plan are described in our original profile of the company, but the gist is this: while companies like Planet have made near-real-time views of the Earth’s surface into a thriving business, other niches are relatively unexplored — like thermal imaging.

The heat coming off a building, geological feature, or even a crowd of people is an enormously interesting data point. It can tell you whether an office building or warehouse is in use or empty, and whether it’s heated or cooled, and how efficient that process is. It can find warmer or cooler areas that suggest underground water, power lines, or other heat-affecting objects. It could even make a fair guess at how many people attended a concert, or perhaps an inauguration. And of course it works at night.

An aerial image side by side with a thermal image of the same area.

You could verify, for instance, which parts of a power plant are active, when.

Pollution and other emissions are also easily spotted and tracked, making infrared observation of the planet an important part of any plan to monitor industry in the context of climate change. That’s what attracted Satellite Vu’s first big piece of cash, a grant from the U.K. government for £1.4M, part of a £500M infrastructure fund.

CEO and founder Anthony Baker said that they began construction of their first satellite with that money, “so we knew we got our sums right,” he said, then began the process of closing additional capital.

Seraphim Capital, a space-focused VC firm whose most relevant venture is probably synthetic aperture satellite startup Iceye, matched the grant funds, and with subsequent grant the total money raised is in excess of the $5M target (the extra is set aside in a convertible note).

“What attracted us to Satellite Vu is several things. We published some research about this last year: there are more than 180 companies with plans to launch smallsat constellations,” said Seraphim managing partner James Bruegger. But very few, they noted, were looking at the infrared or thermal space. “That intrigued us, because we always thought infrared had a lot of potential. And we already knew Anthony and Satellite Vu from having put them through our space accelerator in 2019.”

They’re going to need every penny. Though the satellites themselves are looking to be remarkably cheap, as satellites go — $14-15M all told — and only seven will be needed to provide global coverage, that still adds up to over $100M over the next couple years.

Simulated image of a Satellite Vu imaging satellite.

Image Credits: Satellite Vu

Seraphim isn’t daunted, however: “As a specialist space investor, we understand the value of patience,” said Bruegger. Satellite Vu, he added, is a “poster child” for their approach, which is to shuttle early stage companies through their accelerator and then support them to an exit.

It helps that Baker has lined up about as much potential income from interested customers as they’ll need to finance the whole thing, soup to nuts. “Commercial traction has improved since we last spoke,” said Baker, which was just before he presented at TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 Startup Battlefield:

The company now has 26 letters of intent and other leads that amount to, in his estimation, about a hundred million dollars worth of business — if he can provide the services they’re asking for, of course. To that end the company has been flying its future orbital cameras on ordinary planes and modifying the output to resemble what they expect from the satellite network.

Companies interested in the latter can buy into the former for now, and the transition to the “real” product should be relatively painless. It also helps create a pipeline on Satellite Vu’s side, so there’s no need for a test satellite and service.

An aerial image side by side with a thermal image of the same area.

Another example of the simulated satellite imagery – same camera as will be in orbit, but degraded to resemble shots from that far up.

“We call it pseudo-satellite data — it’s almost a minimum viable product.We work with the companies about the formats and stuff they need,” Baker said. “The next stage is, we’re planning on taking a whole city, like Glasgow, and mapping the whole city in thermal. We think there will be many parties interested in that.”

With investment, tentative income, and potential customers lining up, Satellite Vu seems poised to make a splash, though its operations and launches are small compared with those of Planet, Starlink, and very soon Amazon’s Kuiper. After the first launch, tentatively scheduled for 2022, Baker said the company would only need two more to put the remaining six satellites in orbit, three at a time on a rideshare launch vehicle.

Before that, though, we can expect further fundraising, perhaps as soon as a few months from now — after all, however thrifty the company is, tens of millions in cash will still be needed to get off the ground.

#aerospace, #battlefield, #earth-imaging, #earth-observation, #funding, #fundings-exits, #recent-funding, #satellite-vu, #satellites, #space, #startups, #tc, #thermal-imaging

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UK drone startup sees.ai gets go ahead to trial beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has given the go ahead to local startup sees.ai, which is developing a beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) command & control solution to aid data capture for industrial use-cases, to trial a concept for routine BVLOS operations — the first such authorization for a U.K. company, the regulator said today.

The test is taking place under a sandbox program announced back in May 2019 — directing government funding and regulatory support to R&D in the drone space — initially through virtual testing, such as of avoid and detect systems.

Sees.ai, an early participant in the sandbox, has now secured authorization to trial a concept for routine BVLOS operations at three (physical) sites without needing to pre-authorise each flight.

The Techstars-backed startup is focused on drone operations in industrial settings — building tech to scale the use of drones for inspection and maintenance purposes in industries, such as the oil & gas sector, by enabling pilots to remote-control craft from a central location, rather than needing to be on site for each flight.

But it’s clear BVLOS capabilities will be essential for other uses of drone tech — such as delivery — hence the CAA calling the trial “a significant step forward for the drone industry”.

“By testing the concept in industrial environments for inspection, monitoring and maintenance purposes, sees.ai aims to prove the safety of its system within this context initially, before extending it to address increasingly challenging missions over time,” it added.

Under current U.K. rules, drone operators must keep their aircraft within line of sight and follow the country’s drone code — unless they have specific permissions to do otherwise.

One company that previously gained such permission was U.S. tech giant Amazon — which started testing BVLOS delivery drones in the UK back in 2016 — and continues to work on bringing a commercial drone delivery service to market, under its Prime Air brand.

Amazon’s effort has already been years in the making (it’s been running experiments since 2013) — and last year the FT, citing a Prime Air source, reported that it still remains “years” out from realizing the goal of drone deliveries at scale. So while (another) U.K. trial of BVLOS drone tech is being lauded as a significant development for the industry by the regulator, any Brits expecting drone deliveries in the wild anytime soon are likely to be disappointed.

The CAA authorization for the sees.ai trial will enable the BVLOS test flights to operate under 150ft — initially requiring an observer to remain in visual line of sight with the aircraft and be able to communicate with the remote pilot if necessary, per the regulator.

So, technically then, the trials will begin as extended-line-of-sight (EVLOS), which still entail limits vs true BVLOS — enabling drone flights to operate further than 500m from the remote pilot (by deploying flight observers) but not removing on-site observers entirely, as is the ultimate industry goal.

In a regulatory roadmap published last fall the CAA wrote that many steps are required to arrive at the sought-for situation of BVLOS being ‘business as usual’ in non-segregated airspace — so there still looks to be a long road ahead before commercial drones will be able to legally whiz around gathering data (or delivering stuff) far from any humans in the loop.

“The long-term aspiration of operators is for BVLOS operations to be a routine part of business across the UK. This vision requires a significant volume of evidence, experience and learning by everyone involved. There will inevitably be a need for innovators and the CAA to build, test, learn and repeat in small steps to work towards the vision,” the CAA roadmap notes.

Commenting on sees.ai’s trial authorization in a statement, CEO John McKenna dubbed it a “significant milestone”, adding: “We are accelerating towards a future where drones fly autonomously at scale — high up alongside manned aviation and low down inside our industrial sites, suburbs and cities. Securing this UK-first permission is a major step on this journey which will deliver big benefits to society across public health & safety, efficiency and environmental impact.”

 

#aerospace, #amazon, #artificial-intelligence, #bvlos, #civil-aviation-authority, #drones, #emerging-technologies, #europe, #prime-air, #regulatory-sandbox, #robotics, #techstars, #united-kingdom

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Amazon taps ULA as first launch provider for Project Kuiper satellite constellation

Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite constellation is one step closer to actually making it to space: The company announced it has secured an agreement with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to fly its satellites on nine Atlas V rocket launches. Amazon intends to use multiple launch providers and spacecraft to ultimately get the full complement of 3,236 Kuiper satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO), but ULA is the first launch provider that Amazon has signed or announced.

ULA’s Atlas V is a proven workhorse in the space launch industry, having flown 85 prior missions with a perfect track record. The spacecraft was used to launch NASA’s Perseverance rover, for example, as well as Lockheed Martin’s OSIRIS-REx robotic asteroid exploration craft. While Amazon and ULA detailed to total number of launch vehicles that the contract covers, they didn’t share a timeline about when we can expect the launches to take place.

Late last year, I spoke to Amazon SVP of Devices & Services Dave Limp at our TC Sessions: Space events, and I asked him about timelines for launches. Limp said at the time that Amazon was about at the “middle of [its] design phase” for the Project Kuiper satellites, which indicates there’s still work to be done before they enter mass production, which would obviously precede launch.

Limp also pointed out that the clock is ticking for Amazon in terms of its FCC license to operate the constellation, so it essentially has to “have half [its] constellation up in about six years.” That will mean an aggressive launch schedule once the design phase is complete and its actually in the process of building its satellites.

Amazon has invested a lot of capital and time into Project Kuiper, with a commitment to back it with an initial $10 billion investment, and a dedicated staff on the project that now includes 500 people, as well as a dedicated office and research & development facility in Redmond near its global HQ.

#aerospace, #amazon, #atlas, #federal-communications-commission, #lockheed-martin, #osiris-rex, #outer-space, #satellite-constellation, #space, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #svp, #tc, #united, #united-launch-alliance

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NASA makes history by flying a helicopter on Mars for the first time

NASA has marked a major milestone in its extraterrestrial exploration program, with the first powered flight of an aircraft on Mars. The flight occurred very early this morning, and NASA received telemetry confirming that the ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter it sent to Mars with its Perseverance rover. This is a major achievement, in no small part because the atmosphere is so thin on Mars that creating a rotor-powered craft like Ingenuity that can actually use it to produce lift is a huge challenge.

This first flight of Ingenuity was an autonomous remote flight, with crews on Earth controlling it just by sending commands through at the appropriate times to signal when it should begin and end its 40-second trip through the Martian ‘air.’ While that might seem like a really short trip, it provides immense value in terms of the data collected by the helicopter during the flight. Ingenuity actually has a much more powerful processor on board than even the Perseverance rover itself, and that’s because it intends to gather massive amounts of data about what happens during its flight test so that it can transmit that to the rover, which then leapfrogs the information back to Earth.

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter in flight on Mars.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter in flight on Mars.

As mentioned, this is the first ever flight of a powered vehicle on Mars, so while there’s been lots of modelling and simulation work predicting how it would go, no one knew for sure what would happen before this live test. Ingenuity has to rotate its rotor at a super-fast 2,500 RPM, for instance, compared to around 400 to 500 RPM for a helicopter on Earth, because of how thin the atmosphere is on Mars, which produced significant technical challenges.

What’s the point of even flying a helicopter on Mars? There are a few important potential applications, but the first is that it sets up future exploration missions, making it possible for NASA to use aerial vehicles for future science on the red planet. It can explore things like caves and peaks that rovers can’t reach, for instance. Eventually, NASA is also hoping to see if there’s potential for use of aerial vehicles in future human exploration of Mars, too — martian explorers would benefit significantly from being able to use aircraft as well as ground vehicles when we eventually get there.

Now, NASA will work on unpacking the data to glean more insights from the flight, and get back more photos and video of the helicopter during its ascent, hover and landing. Following this flight, it’ll plan additional flight testing attempts based on remaining power and other parameters now that it knows Ingenuity can fly and did as intended.

#aerospace, #ingenuity, #mars, #nasa, #outer-space, #perseverance, #rover, #science, #simulation, #space, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #tc, #united-states

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SpaceX wins NASA contract to develop human landing system for returning to the Moon

The winner of NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract award is SpaceX, which bid $2.9 billion for the privilege of developing the means by which NASA astronauts will return to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program. SpaceX was in the running alongside Blue Origin and Dynetics, but reportedly undercut both those prospective suppliers considerably with its bid, according to The Washington Post.

SpaceX proposed using its Starship spacecraft, currently under development, as the landing vehicle for astronauts once they arrive at their lunar destination. The HLS is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program, which will begin with uncrewed flights, followed by a Moon fly-by with a human crew, and eventually a human lunar landing at the South Pole of the Moon, during a mission which had been targeting 2024 as its fly date.

NASA announced that SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics made up the entirety of its field of approved vendors for bidding on the HLS contracts back in April last year. Since then, both Blue Origin (which bid alongside a “national team” that included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper) and Dynetics have built full-scale models of their system and submitted proposals detailing their plans for the functional versions to NASA for consideration. Meanwhile, SpaceX has been actively testing functional prototypes of its Starship spacecraft in Texas, and is also in the process of developing the Super Heavy booster that will propel it to the Moon once it’s ready.

The plan here was for NASA to have chosen all three companies to build out initial versions in order to satisfy the early requirements of the contract, and then ultimately, it was generally thought that the agency would select a couple from the list of three to build human landers, in order to provide it with some flexibility when it comes to means of getting to the lunar surface. That’s essentially how NASA operated with its Commercial Crew program for the International Space Station, which saw awards for both SpaceX and Boeing to build astronaut transport spacecraft. SpaceX has already qualified and begun to operate its vehicle, and Boeing hopes to bring its option online either late this year or early next.

SpaceX has won a lot of trust at NASA by delivering on the Commercial Crew program with a reliable, reusable human-rated spacecraft in the Crew Dragon. The Post also says that in addition to its attractive pricing, NASA wasn’t drawn to Starship’s flexibility and cargo capacity, since it’s aiming to be able to fly not just humans, but also large quantities of supplies and materials to the Moon, and eventually, beyond.

Starship is a long way off from that goal at the moment, however; SpaceX has been quickly developing new iterations in a rapid prototyping approach to its test phase, but the most recent Starship high-altitude flight ended poorly with an explosion prior to landing. Other elements of the test program, however, including showing that Starship can successfully reorient itself in mid-air and slow its decent for landing, have been more successful on past tests. None of the tests so far have left Earth’s atmosphere, however, nor have they involved any human flight testing, both of which will require a lot more development before the spacecraft is deemed mission-ready.

SpaceX was also the launch provider chosen to deliver components of the Lunar Gateway satellite in 2024, working with Maxar, which will produce the actual Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost. These, however, will be delivered via Falcon Heavy, which has already had multiple successful launches.

#aerospace, #artemis-program, #astronaut, #blue-origin, #boeing, #commercial-crew-program, #commercial-spaceflight, #dynetics, #international-space-station, #lockheed-martin, #northrop-grumman, #outer-space, #space, #space-tourism, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #spacex, #starship, #tc, #texas, #the-washington-post

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