Nongovernment satellites are vulnerable to attack, and calling them critical infrastructure would make it easier for the U.S. to fight back
Commercial spacecraft are vying to land on the lunar surface, but can they jump-start a new space economy?
The decreasing cost of launch and a slew of other tech innovations have brought about a renaissance in geospatial intelligence, with multiple startups aiming to capture higher-quality and more frequent images of Earth than have ever before been available.
Most of these startups, however, are focused on using satellites to collect data. Not so for Near Space Labs, a four-year-old company that instead aims to gather geospatial intelligence from the stratosphere, using small autonomous wind-powered robots attached to weather balloons. The company has named its platform “Swifty,” and each one is capable of reaching altitudes between 60,000 and 85,000 feet and capturing 400-1,000 square kilometers of imagery per flight.
The company was founded in 2017 by Rema Matevosyan, Ignasi Lluch, and Albert Caubet. Matevosyan, who is an applied mathematician by training and previously worked as a programmer, did her Masters in Moscow. There, she started doing research in systems engineering for aerospace systems and also flew weather balloons to test aerospace hardware. “It clicked that we can fly balloons commercially and deliver a much better experience to customers than from any other alternative,” she told TechCrunch in a recent interview.
Four years after launch, the company has closed a $13 million Series A round led by Crosslink Capital, with participation from Toyota Ventures and existing investors Leadout Capital and Wireframe Ventures. Near Space Labs also announced that Crosslink partner Phil Boyer has joined its board.
Near Space, which is headquartered in Brooklyn and Barcelona, Spain, is primarily focused on urbanized areas where change happens very rapidly. The robotic devices that attach to the balloons are manufactured at the company’s workshop in Brooklyn, which are then shipped to launch sites across the country. The company’s CTO and chief engineer are both based in Barcelona, so the hardware R&D takes place over there, Matevosyan explained.
The company currently has eight Swifies in operation. It sells the data it collects and has developed an API through which customers can access the data via a subscription model. The company doesn’t need to have specific launch sites – Matevosyan said Swifties can launch from “anywhere at any time” – but the company does work in concert with the Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic control.
The main value proposition of the Swifty as opposed to the satellite, according to Matevosyan, is the resolution: from the stratosphere, the company can collect “resolutions that are 50 times better than what you would get from a satellite,” she said. “We are able to provide persistent and near real-time coverage of areas of interest that change very quickly, including large metro areas.” Plus, she said Near Space can iterate it’s technology quickly using Swifties’ “plug-and-play” model, whereas it’s not so easy to add a new sensor to a satellite fleet that’s already in orbit.
Near Space has booked more than 540 flights through 2022. While customers pay for the flights, the data generated from each trip is non-exclusive, so the data can be sold again and again. Looking ahead, the company will be using the funds to expand its geographical footprint and bring on a bunch of new hires. The goal, according to Matevosyan, is to democratize access to geospatial intelligence – not just for customers, but on the developer side, too. “We believe in diverse, equal, and inclusive opportunities in aerospace and Earth imaging,” she said.
Just like that, they came back.
The Inspiration4 crew made a triumphant splashdown on Saturday evening off the east coast of Florida, marking the close of the first completely private, all-civilian space mission. SpaceX’s Go Searcher recovery ship hauled the Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, a little less than an hour after splashdown. The crew was then ferried via helicopter to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where they received standard medical checks.
The successful completion of the mission is a major triumph for Elon Musk and SpaceX (and, more peripherally, NASA, which funded the development of the tech), who conducted the entirety of the mission. It’s also perhaps our clearest signal that a new dawn of space travel is officially here.
Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director for human-spaceflight programs, told reporters that the company is seeing an increased number of inquiries from potential customers for private missions. The company could fly “three, four, five, six times a year at least,” he said.
Of course, mission commander Jared Isaacman is not the first billionaire to go to space. This summer, both Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos conducted their own orbital joy-rides in vehicles developed by their respective companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. But those trips were significantly shorter – Bezos and his three crewmates went to space and back in under fifteen minutes, essentially traveling in a long parabolic arc.
In contrast, the Inspiration4 crew spent three days orbiting Earth at an altitude that went as high as 590 kilometers – that’s higher than the International Space Station, meaning they were the most ‘outer’ of all the people in space. Over the course of their mission, they travelled around the Earth an average of fifteen times per day.
While in orbit, the crew conducted a handful of science experiments, mostly capturing data on themselves with the aim of furthering our understanding of the effects of spaceflight on the human body. The crew also spent some time in the large glass domed window, which SpaceX calls the “cupola,” snapping pictures of space.
View from Dragon’s cupola pic.twitter.com/Z2qwKZR2lK
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) September 16, 2021
Other than Isaacman, who made his fortune from his payment processing company Shift4 payments, the crew included physician assistant and childhood cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux; geoscientist Sian Proctor; and Lockheed Martin engineer Chris Sembroski. Among the other firsts for the crew, Arceneaux is the youngest American to go to space and the first person with a prosthesis to go to space; Proctor is the first Black woman to pilot a space mission.
The historic mission was paid for entirely by Isaacman, though both he and SpaceX are staying mum on how much it cost in total. Instead, the mission was being framed as a $200 million fundraiser for St. Jude Research Hospital, to which Isaacman donated $100 million and Musk donated $50 million. The fundraiser received an additional $60.2 million in public donations.
This is the second time the Resilience spacecraft has safely carried humans to and from space. The first mission, Crew-1, carried four astronauts (three from NASA, one from the Japanese space agency) to the ISS and returned them back to Earth in May. SpaceX will be conducting another handful of crewed missions over the next six months, including another mission to the ISS on behalf of NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as the private AX-1 mission on behalf of Axiom Space.
“Thanks so much SpaceX, that was a heck of a ride for us,” Isaacman said moments after the capsule landed. “We’re just getting started.”
Watch a full stream of the splashdown here:
More spacecraft will be sent to orbit this year than ever before in human history, and the number of satellite launches is only anticipated to increase through the rest of the decade. Under these crowded conditions, being able to maneuver satellites in space and deorbit them when they reach the end of their useful life will be key.
Enter Aurora Propulsion Technologies. It’s one of a handful of startups that has emerged in the past few years to help simplify the problem of spacecraft propulsion. Since its founding in 2018, the Finnish company has developed two products – a tiny thruster engine and a plasma braking system – and will be testing both in an in-orbit demonstration in the fourth quarter of this year. Aurora’s activities have caught the eye of investors: the company has just closed a €1.7 million ($2 million) seed round to bring its technology to market.
The round was led by Lithuanian VC firm Practica Capital, with additional participation from the state-owned private equity company TESI (Finnish Industry Investment Ltd.) and Kluz Ventures. Individual investors also participated.
Aurora’s first in-orbit demonstration, Aurora Sat-1, will be heading to space on a Rocket Lab rideshare mission, the company announced last month. On that satellite will be two modules. The first module will contain six Aurora “resistojet” engines, designed to help small spacecraft adjust their attitude (the satellite’s orientation, not its mood) and de-tumble. Aurora will also test its Plasma Brake technology, which could be used to de-orbit satellites or even to conduct deep space missions.
Each resistojet thruster comes in at just around one centimeter long, and it moves the spacecraft using microliters of water and propellant. The six thrusters are distributed around the satellite in such a way to facilitate movement in virtually any direction, and the thruster can also modulate the temperature of the water and the strength of the puff of steam that’s discharged to generate movement.
Aurora CEO Roope Takala, who previously worked for Nokia, likened the innovations in weight and size in the space industry – which we see in the resistojet – to what happened to cell phones and computers twenty years ago. “The industry moves very slow,” he said in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “In the old space era, it took a quarter to develop a rocket engine – that would be a quarter of a century. Now, it takes two quarters of a year. That’s what we did.”
The Plasma Brake uses an electrically charged microtether to generate a lump of protons to generate drag. That’s ideal for de-orbiting a spacecraft, but interestingly (and counterintuitively), the Plasma Brake could also be used for traveling away from the planet, Takala said. That’s because when you go outside the Earth’s magnetosphere, the Plasma Brake becomes unstable and moves with solar wind (which is also plasma). “The same product can jump onto that flow of plasma from the sun and extract energy from that,” Takala explained. “In that context we can use it as an interplanetary traveling tool.”
Theoretically, if a spacecraft was equipped with multiple tethers extending different directions, it could be used to rotate and guide the spacecraft, like a sailboat, he added. This technology is only scalable to a certain degree, however, so don’t expect it to be sending a crewed spacecraft into deep space anytime soon. That’s mostly due to limitations in the material strength of the Plasma Brake tethers, but the tech can be used for satellites up to around 1,000 kilograms.
“That’s our future. That’s where we’re aiming,” Takala said. “We’re focused now for the short term on low Earth orbit with the Plasma Brake and the attitude control [resistojet], and later on when the moon businesses kick off as they are slowly starting to do, then we’ll probably be looking at that way.”
The Plasma Brake and resistojet thruster would need to be put on spacecraft before they launch to orbit, but Aurora is in conversation with other companies of the potential of in-orbit installation of Plasma Brakes for existing space junk. Looking to the short-term, the company is going to use the funding to productize the technology for low Earth orbit and to serialize its production, as well as to add features to the products to equip them for satellites larger than CubeSats.
In the longer term, Aurora has a vision of conducting missions in deep space. “We started off from the idea that we want to make a technology that fits into a really small spacecraft, [and] travels really fast so that we can catch up with the Voyager probes,” Takala said.
“First to the moon and then to Mars, Venus, and then one day we may be able to catch up with the Voyagers and take a big trip.”
Building an orbital launch business from scratch is no simple matter, but what if that business is just a stepping stone to a vertically integrated, interplanetary space company? Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck will be joining us next week at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 (Sept 21-23) to talk about the challenge and exhilaration of pursuing his passion for space, all the way to orbit, the moon and beyond.
Rocket Lab started over a decade ago as Beck tested increasingly large rockets, with the (supposedly) ultimate goal of building a small, reliable and relatively inexpensive launch vehicle that could deliver payloads to orbit at a weekly cadence — or even faster.
Since then the company and its Electron launch vehicle have become not just a sought-after ride to orbit, but it has begun expanding into spacecraft design and manufacturing with Photon, and announced a much larger vehicle called Neutron. Now they’ve even been tapped for an Artemis-related lunar mission and are planning a privately funded mission to Venus. (And of course they’ve raised a boatload of money and are going public.)
The always forthcoming, Beck will join us virtually from his home country HQ in New Zealand to discuss Rocket Lab’s success and future endeavors, and the challenge of adapting a company from underdog launch provider to sprawling space services company with competition nipping at its heels.
After months of publicity, an NFT auction, and even a Netflix docu-series, it’s finally here: the four-person crew of Inspiration4 will be heading to space.
What makes this launch different from any that came before it? None of the four people onboard are astronauts. The mission marks the first time that an all-civilian crew will fly to space. Let’s meet them:
- Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire whose fortune comes from the payment processing company Shift4 Payments, which went public in the summer of last year. He is the mission commander.
- Sian Procter, a community college professor with a PhD in science education. Procter was among 47 finalists chosen by NASA for a 2009 astronaut class, though she was not one of the nine eventually chosen to join the agency. She will be Inspiration4’s pilot, the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft. She’s 51.
- Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude’s Research Hospital and a survivor of childhood cancer. She’ll be the crew’s health officer.
- Christopher Sembroski, a data engineer for Lockheed Martin, also a former camp counselor at none other than Space Camp. The 42-year-old will be acting as mission specialist.
The crew will be cruising to orbit inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which will launch from a Falcon 9 rocket. They’ll spend three days flying around the Earth before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
SpaceX’s Youtube channel is hosting a live launch webcast starting from 3:45 PM EST, with the five-hour launch window opening at 8:02 PM EST. As of Sunday, Inspiration4 said weather conditions at Kennedy Space Center looked 70% favorable. There’s also a back-up launch window opening at the same time the following day.
NASA has awarded a combined $146 million in contracts to five companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics, to develop lander concepts as part of the agency’s Artemis program.
The awards include $26.5 million to Blue Origin; $40.8 million to Dynetics; $35.2 million to Lockheed Martin; $34.8 million to Northrop Grumman; and $9.4 million to SpaceX. Only two companies that submitted proposals, Blue Ridge Nebula Starlines and Cook & Chevalier Enterprises, did not receive contracts.
The contracts were awarded under NextSTEP-2 (Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships) Appendix N: Sustainable Human Landing System Studies and Risk Reduction. The solicitation, released at the beginning of July, says the objective of the contract is “to engage with potential commercial partners for concept studies, sustaining HLS concept of operations (ground and flight) development, and risk reduction activities.”
What that means in practice is that the selected companies will develop lander design concepts, including conducting component tests, and evaluate them for things like performance and safety.
These awards are separate from the Human Landing System contract that was given to SpaceX earlier this year – the one that both Blue Origin and Dynetics disputed to a government watchdog, and that Blue Origin later opposed in a lawsuit against NASA that’s still ongoing.
However, the outcome of this batch of awards will likely inform future lander development contracts through the rest of the decade. “The work from these companies will ultimately help shape the strategy and requirements for a future NASA’s solicitation to provide regular astronaut transportation from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon,” the agency said in a statement.
The Artemis program was established in 2020 with a number of objectives, not only to return humans to the moon for the first time since the days of Apollo but to make such travel routine by the late 2020s. NASA isn’t just stopping at the moon; the agency also wants to expand into inter-planetary exploration, including human missions to Mars.
Space rideshare service provider Spaceflight Inc. is going to be shuttling customers on a lunar flyby mission next year, part of its long-term vision of giving companies easy access to lunar orbits and beyond.
The Seattle-based company will be delivering payload using its propulsive transfer vehicle, Sherpa EScape, or Sherpa-ES, the latest iteration of Sherpa vehicles that the company has been testing for the past few years. The Sherpa essentially acts as last-mile space transportation, deploying payload to customers’ desired orbits after reaching outer space.
Spaceflight’s electric propulsive Sherpa-LTE flew on the SpaceX Transporter-2 mission in June, while Sherpa-LTC with chemical propulsion will launch later this year on Transporter-3. The company’s successfully deployed 50 customer spacecraft to date.
The Sherpa-ES will be delivering payloads for in-orbit refueling company Orbit Fab, which just closed $10 million in funding from two major aerospace primes, and new company GeoJump. It looks like GeoJump is also looking to get into the ridesharing business; its website bills it as offering “a new route to [geostationary orbit]” for small satellites. The mission will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The rideshare is part of a robotic lunar landing mission being undertaken by Intuitive Machines, one of a handful of companies selected by NASA to be part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program. Intuitive Machines will be sending its nearly 2,000-kilogram Nova-C lander to the lunar surface for a 14-day mission. The IM-1 lander will ferry around 130 kilograms of cargo.
Intuitive Machines also tapped SpaceX for its second lander mission, also for 2022. The company says this will be the first object to land at the moon’s south pole, and the first object to drill on lunar ice.
The aviation industry is notoriously difficult to decarbonize, in part because airplanes use a petroleum-based fuel to fly.
Alder Fuels wants to change that. The new cleantech company, headed by Bryan Sherbacow, is developing a low-carbon jet fuel that can be used as a 100 percent drop-in replacement for petroleum fuel, without needing to adapt existing aircraft or engines. That’s notable because the only commercially available sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) still requires a 50-50 blend with conventional fuel.
The technology has piqued the interest of the aviation industry. Alder Fuels said Thursday it has inked a multi-million dollar investment from aviation giants United and Honeywell – as well as a purchase agreement from United for 1.5 billion gallons of fuel, the largest known agreement for SAF in aviation history.
United consumes around 4 billion gallons of fuel per year, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch, so the purchase agreement would account for nearly 40% of the airlines overall annual fuel consumption.
Before the fuel starts powering United airplanes, it must meet specifications outlined by ASTM International, an international organization that sets the standards for a wide range of materials and products. From there, Alder and Honeywell expect to commercialize the technology by 2025.
Alder Fuels was formally launched earlier this year, but Sherbacow has been assessing the technology for around five years, he said in a recent interview with TechCrunch. It became clear through his previous work that the technology behind the low-carbon fuel – and especially the raw materials – needed to be scalable and widely available.
“What we’re all looking for is […] how do you access these carbon oil precursors, and efficiently convert them into something that works within the existing refining infrastructure?” Sherbacow said.
To solve that problem, he’s turned to carbon-rich woody biomass, like agricultural waste, which is turned into crude oil that can be used to make aviation fuel. The company uses a pyrolysis-based technology that transforms the biomass into a liquid and treats it in such a way that it can be put into existing refineries. Alder Fuels will initially use Honeywell’s proprietary “Ecofining” hydroprocessing technology. The ultimate aim is to make the new fuel compatible with all refining assets.
“There’s significant amount of [woody biomass] that’s already industrially aggregated, but has either no or very low economic value today,” Sherbacow explained. “But it’s a great opportunity for us because it’s a store of carbon that we can utilize.” It could even open up new markets for companies in forestry, agriculture, and even the paper industry, which are already generating plenty of bio-waste.
Alder Fuels’ research is supported by the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency and the Department of Energy, and Sherbacow stressed the importance of public-private partnerships to decarbonizing the aviation industry. Climate change has been of particular interest to President Joe Biden’s administration, and incentives for sustainable aviation fuel will likely end up in the $3.5 trillion spending bill currently being debated by Congress.
“That’s one of the roles of government, is to help the transition,” he said. “You need to incentivize the incumbents to change their behavior, or they’re going to resist a disruptive change.”
Airplanes and drones today, regardless of size or fuel type, all face the same limitation: eventually they have to land.
Skydweller Aero, the U.S.-Spanish aerospace startup, wants to break free from that constraint by developing an autonomous solar-powered aircraft it says will eventually be capable of perpetual flight.
Their pitch, which helped the company raise $32 million in a Series A, has led to an additional $8 million in oversubscribed funding led by Leonardo S.p.A, Marlinspike Capital and Advection Growth Capital. The company has also entered into a partnership with Palantir Technologies to use its Foundry analytics platform to process information at-scale and onboard the aircraft designed for telecommunications, government operations and emergency services.
“[Palantir is] the best at creating value from your data, whether it’s putting data into their system to create operational insights for how we may fly our aircraft, putting data in to understand the sensing systems that are coming off of our aircraft and what those might provide, or to understand what’s coming through the networks in the aircraft,” Skydweller co-founder John Parkes told TechCrunch in a recent interview.
And Skydweller will be generating a lot of data. The company is focused on three data-rich markets: telecommunications, geospatial intelligence and government surveillance. Skydweller plans to use the Foundry platform to help its customers, which includes the government, better understand whatever areas are being monitored.
The Foundry platform will also come in handy for route and mission planning, as Skydweller intends to leverage weather and atmospheric information to ensure the aircraft can efficiently use the sun’s rays to stay in the air.
“What it’s all about is creating a persistent aerial layer or pseudo satellite,” Parkes said. “We’re focused on building a perpetual flight aircraft. The goal is to create a plane that will fly for forever, so long as the sun rises.”
Weather and atmospheric data is especially important as it will determine, in part, the altitude at which the aircraft flies. While the plane will be able to fly at high altitudes, “the harder problem and the more useful problem,” according to Parkes, is to capture enough energy and use weather planning to stay at lower altitude. Lower altitudes give better internet quality, geospatial data, and provide more power for payload, he said.
Skydweller’s tech was born out of the Swiss solar aircraft project dubbed Solar Impulse, which was helmed by Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg. The project operated for 14 years and invested $190 million into the solar-powered aircraft, before the foundation behind it sold the intellectual property to Skydweller in 2019. The Solar Impulse was configured to be piloted, however, so much of the work since then has been to unman the platform and turn it into an ultra-long endurance aircraft, Parkes said.
The aircraft is all-electric, outfitted with 2,200 square-foot solar panel wings, 600 kilograms of batteries and a hydrogen fuel cell back-up power system. The solar panels aren’t only used to maintain flight; they will also power systems for customers, like a geospatial camera system or payload from a telecom company.
The company’s using standard commercial aviation parts but most of them haven’t been tested beyond a certain number of hours of use – certainly far less than the number of hours Skydweller plans to keep the aircraft in the air. Plus, like other planes built from emerging technologies, there isn’t a full certification framework already established for the vehicle
“You’re into that uncharted territory to break some of those hour paradigms,” he said.
Skydweller launched its flight test campaign in 2020, and has focused on installing and testing the autonomous systems tech since. He added that “in a very short horizon” the company will be test flying the autonomous aircraft, including take-off, full flight and landing, with future milestones focused on completing long-endurance flights. Customers will be able to start licensing the aircraft within a year to eighteen months, Parkes estimated.
It was a busy first half of the year for U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Lab, which posted earnings for the first six months of 2021 on Wednesday – the first such reporting since the company went public last month.
Rocket Lab reported revenues for the six-month period of $29.5 million. Its order backlog also grew to $141.4 million as of June 30, up 136% from $59.9 million compared to the same period last year.
While the general trend seems to be positive, executives emphasized the continued impact of COVID-19 restrictions in New Zealand, the site of one of the company’s key launch facilities. CFO Adam Spice said the third quarter has already been impacted by the pandemic, after New Zealand introduced strict lockdown restrictions in response to an 855-person outbreak of the Delta variant. Those restrictions resulted in “no further launch activity planned” for the quarter, Spice said, and will likely result in a $10-15 million impact on revenues for the year.
Despite these setbacks, executives said they anticipated a yearly revenue of $50-54 million. GAAP operating expenses, meanwhile, hit $29.3 million for the six-month period, up from $11.9 million for the first half of last year. The majority of that increase was from R&D spending, including the development of an automated flight termination system and the Neutron launch vehicle, Spice added.
Rocket Lab, which started as a launch company, has significantly branched out since its founding in 2006. The company now fashions itself as an end-to-end space company, providing launch services, as well as the design, manufacturing and operation of spacecraft.
It is this latter business area that Rocket Lab has aggressively grown over the past eighteen months; some recent milestones include an agreement to develop three of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft for space manufacturing company Varda Space Industries and plans to send two Photons to Mars on an upcoming space mission. The growth of its space systems division reflects these developments; for the six-month period, space systems made up a $5.4 million share of revenue, up from just $300,000 in the same quarter last year.
Rocket Lab also said it would start manufacturing satellite components at scale by the end of this year, starting with reaction wheels, a critical attitude and stability control system. Rocket Lab will be opening a new facility that will be capable of producing up to 2,000 reaction wheels annually, a massive increase in volumes compared to what’s ever been available to the space industry before.
“Satellite components typically have been produced in small numbers which has really limited the speed and scale of constellation development,” CEO Peter Beck said during an investor call Wednesday. “The [reaction wheel production] line has been built to solve that, enabling production at scale to meet the growing needs of customers in the industry at large.”
Rocket Lab’s space systems division was given a huge boost by the acquisition of major satellite hardware manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary last year, and it likely won’t be the company’s last purchase. Rocket Lab has around a half dozen deals it’s actively investigating, Spice told investors Wednesday. “The Sinclair acquisition has really emboldened us to lean forward and look at opportunities.”
“What’s interesting about this market right now is it does really feel like it’s ripe for consolidation,” he said. “Not consolidation in the sense of large companies necessarily getting together but the fact [that] the invest-ability of space is a relatively new phenomenon,” he said.
Company executives stayed largely mum on the Neutron rocket, with Beck simply noting that it “continues to develop really well” and that the company will provide a more detailed development in the coming months.
“Neutron is a vehicle that is not an increment on Electron,” he said. “It is something that really sets a new standard within the space industry.”
Rocket Lab also announced today that it has inked a multi-launch contract with Kinéis, a French connectivity provider for Internet of Things devices, to deploy its satellite constellation across five Electron missions. Kinéis’ investors include the French space agency Centre National d’Études Spatiales and French space company Collecte Localisation Satellites.
The constellation will consist of 25 satellites in total, adding to the over 100 satellites Rocket Lab has launched on its Electron rocket to date. The launches are scheduled for the second quarter 2023.
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) September 8, 2021
This is just the latest multi-launch deal Rocket Lab has inked in recent months, including a contract with satellite analytics company BlackSky for five launches.
Rocket Lab has continued to rise, closing Wednesday at $15.09. That represents a nearly 50% increase since the company’s public debut at the end of August.
In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (popularizing the modern internet). He didn’t protect the technology because he wanted it to benefit us all. Three decades later, most of the power — and a lot of the profits — of the internet are in the hands of a few tech billionaires, and much of the early promise of the internet remains unfulfilled.
To avoid the same fate for space, we need to subsidize new players to create competition and lower costs, as well as regulate space travel to ensure safety.
Space matters. It could create countless jobs and fuel economies, and may even hold the solution to climate change. Investors can already see this, having poured billions into space companies in an industry with a potential market value of $1.4 trillion by 2030.
Space may seem too vast to be dominated by a few tech billionaires, but in 1989, so did the internet. We need to get this right, because from the mechanics and aerospace engineers to the marketing, information and logistics workers, the space industry could fuel global job creation and economic growth.
For that to happen, we need competition. What we have now is a few players operating perhaps for their founders’ benefits, not the world’s.
We should not repeat the mistakes we made with the internet and wait for the technology to be abused before we step in. For example, in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a private technology company used weapons-grade social media manipulation to pursue their own profit (which is their obligation to their shareholders) but to society’s harm (which it is regulators’ job to protect).
In space, the stakes are even higher. They also affect all of humanity, not a few countries. There are environmental dangers (we are probing the carbon cost of “Earth” flights, but not space flights), and an accident, as well as leading to loss of life in space, could send fatal debris to Earth.
These dangers are not unforeseen. Virgin Galactic had its first fatality in 2014. A Space X launch puts out as much carbon dioxide as flying around 300 people across the Atlantic. Earlier this year, some unguided space debris from a Chinese rocket landed in the Maldives.
We should not wait until these accidents happen again — perhaps at a bigger scale — before we act.
Space tourism can and should be about much more than giving the 1% another Instagrammable moment and increasing the wealth of the billionaires who provide the service.
The space industry should be managed in a way that delivers the most good to the largest number of people. That starts with subsidies.
In short, we should treat space travel like any other form of transit. Making that sustainable economically will almost inevitably require some government intervention.
We have been here before: When the combination of air travel, highways and rising labor costs led the two largest railways in the United States to bankruptcy, the Nixon administration intervened and created Amtrak.
This wasn’t ideologically fueled (quite the opposite). This was a decision to make sure the U.S. reaped the economic benefits of interstate travel. Even though Amtrak remains unprofitable 50 years after its creation, it is a crucial piece of economic infrastructure upon which many other industries — as well as millions of individuals and families — rely.
We need to do the same with space travel. Very few individuals will benefit from what will be an uber-luxury segment of the travel market, with Virgin Galactic tickets predicted to cost $250,000 (and that is the entry-level space travel product; Virgin’s competitors are priced at multiples of that cost).
If we subsidize the industry now, while ensuring there are new competitors in space, we can ensure it hits a critical mass where all the broader benefits of space travel become a reality.
This will be much easier than waiting for monopolies to emerge and then trying to fight them (which is what the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is trying to do, decades too late, to Big Tech).
Space travel is not just hype or the plaything of billionaires. It is the final frontier, both physically and economically.
If we want it to be a success, we should learn from our successes and failures back on Earth and apply them to space now.
That means subsidies, support, regulation and safety. These things are important on Earth, but in space they are absolutely essential.
San Francisco-based startup Orbit Fab wants to be the go-to source for orbital refueling, and now it has raised over $10 million in its quest to get there. The money will go toward funding a refueling trial that’s due to launch as early as the end of 2022, in which the company plans to send to space two refueling shuttles that will repeatedly perform a three-step dock, transfer fuel and undock process.
The round was led by Asymmetry Ventures, with participation from existing investor SpaceFund and new investors Marubeni Ventures and Audacious Venture Partners. Notably, both Northrop Grumman Corporation and Lockheed Martin Ventures also participated, the first time the two contractor-rivals have done an investment together, Orbit Fab co-founder Jeremy Schiel told TechCrunch.
“We are the tide that raises all boats,” Schiel said. “We don’t give either a competitive edge, but we can as a whole have better alternatives for sustainability in space.”
“Getting [the two primes] to play nice with each other,” as he put it, is key for the company, which wants to position itself as the favored source for space refueling. Orbit Fab, which was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield in 2019, has developed a refueling valve it calls RAFTI (Rapid Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface) — but this component must be installed before spacecraft leave Earth, which means that much of the buy-in from major customers like the aerospace contractors must occur before their satellites even enter orbit.
The idea is that spacecraft outfitted with RAFTI would be able to dock with one of Orbit Fab’s refueling shuttles, which would be positioned in low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit and eventually even cis-lunar space. By 2025, Schiel said he hopes every spacecraft will have a RAFTI on it. In the long-term, the company is thinking even bigger: producing fuel in-space, using material mined from asteroids.
“We want to be the Dow Chemical of space,” Schiel said. “We want to be the first customers for lunar miners, asteroid miners, buying up their material that they mined off those bodies, and then convert that to usable propellants that we can produce in-orbit.”
Orbit Fab says orbital refueling will be the bedrock of the burgeoning new space economy, in which goods and spacecraft will need to be transferred from one orbit to another (a maneuver that’s extremely fuel-intensive), or to build out supply chains to return resources to Earth.
“We want to be that supply chain of propellant,” Schiel added.
Just like the automotive industry, aerospace has its sights set on going electric — but flying with battery-powered engines is a tougher proposition than rolling. Wright is among the startups looking to change the math and make electrified flight possible at scales beyond small aircraft — and its 2-megawatt engine could power the first generation of large-scale electric passenger planes.
Electric cars have proven to be a huge success, but they have an advantage over planes in that they don’t need to produce enough lift to keep their own mass in the air. Electric planes have been held back by this fundamental conundrum, that the weight of the batteries needed to fly any distance with passengers aboard means the plane is too heavy to fly in the first place.
In order to escape this conundrum, the main thing to improve is efficiency: how much thrust can be produced per watt of power. Since reducing the mass of batteries is a long, slow process, it’s better to innovate in other ways: materials, airframe, and of course the engine, which in traditional jets is a huge, immensely heavy and complex internal combustion one.
Electric engines are generally lighter, simpler, and more reliable than fuel-powered ones, but in order to achieve flight you need to reach a certain level of efficiency. After all, if a jet burned a thousand gallons of fuel per second, the plane couldn’t hold the amount needed to take off. So it falls to companies like Wright and H3x to build electric engines that can produce more thrust from the same amount of stored energy.
While H3x is focused on small aircraft that will probably be taking flight sooner, Wright founder Jeff Engler explained that if you want to take on aerospace’s carbon footprint, you really have to start looking at commercial passenger jets — and Wright is planning to make one. Fortunately, despite the company’s name, they don’t need to build it entirely from scratch.
“We’re not reinventing the concept of the wing, or the fuselage, or anything like that. What changes is what propels the aircraft forward,” said Engler. He likened it to electric vehicles in that much of the car doesn’t change when you go electric, mainly the parts that have operated the same way in principle for a century. All the same, integrating a new propulsion system into a plane isn’t trivial.
Wright’s engine is a 2 megawatt motor that produces the equivalent of 2,700 horsepower, at an efficiency of around 10 kilowatts per kilogram. “It’s the most powerful motor designed for the electric aerospace industry by a factor of 2, and it’s substantially lighter than anything out there,” said Engler.
The lightness comes from a ground-up redesign using a permanent magnet approach with “an aggressive thermal strategy,” he explained. A higher voltage than is normally employed for aerospace purposes and an insulation system to match enable an engine that hits the power and efficiency levels required to put a large plane in flight.
Wright is making sure its engines can be used by retrofitted aircraft, but it’s also working on a plane of its own with established airframe makers. This first craft would be a hybrid electric, combining the lightweight, efficient propulsion stack with the range of a liquid fuel engine. Relying on hydrogen complicates things but it makes for a much faster transition to electric flight and a huge reduction in emissions and fuel use.
Several of Wright’s motors would be attached to each wing of the proposed aircraft, providing at least two benefits. First, redundancy. Planes with two huge engines are designed to be capable of flying even if one fails. If you have six or eight engines, one failing isn’t nearly so catastrophic, and as a consequence the plane doesn’t need to carry twice as much engine as you need. Second is the stability and noise reduction that comes from having multiple engines that can be adjusted individually or in concert to reduce vibration and counteract turbulence.
Right now the motor is in lab testing at sea level, and once it passes those tests (some time next year is the plan) it will be run in an altitude simulation chamber and then up at 40,000 feet for real. This is a long term project, but an entire industry doesn’t change overnight.
Engler was emphatic about the enthusiasm and support the company has received from the likes of NASA and the military, both of which have provided considerable cash, material and expertise. When I brought up the idea that the company’s engine might end up in a new bombing drone, he said he was sensitive to that possibility, but that what he’s seen (and is aiming for) is much more in line with the defense department’s endless cargo and personnel flights. The military is a huge polluter, it turns out, and they want to change that — and cut down on how much money they spend on fuel every year as well.
“Think of how things changed when we went from propellers to jets,” said Engler. “It redefined how an airplane operates. This new propulsion tech allows for reshaping the entire industry.”
The manufacturing industry took a hard hit from the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are signs of how it is slowly starting to come back into shape — helped in part by new efforts to make factories more responsive to the fluctuations in demand that come with the ups and downs of grappling with the shifting economy, virus outbreaks and more. Today, a businesses that is positioning itself as part of that new guard of flexible custom manufacturing — a startup called Fractory — is announcing a Series A of $9 million (€7.7 million) that underscores the trend.
The funding is being led by OTB Ventures, a leading European investor focussed on early growth, post-product, high-tech start-ups, with existing investors Trind Ventures, Superhero Capital, United Angels VC, Startup Wise Guys and Verve Ventures also participating.
Founded in Estonia but now based in Manchester, England — historically a strong hub for manufacturing in the country, and close to Fractory’s customers — Fractory has built a platform to make it easier for those that need to get custom metalwork to upload and order it, and for factories to pick up new customers and jobs based on those requests.
Fractory’s Series A will be used to continue expanding its technology, and to bring more partners into its ecosystem.
To date, the company has worked with more than 24,000 customers and hundreds of manufacturers and metal companies, and altogether it has helped crank out more than 2.5 million metal parts.
To be clear, Fractory isn’t a manufacturer itself, nor does it have no plans to get involved in that part of the process. Rather, it is in the business of enterprise software, with a marketplace for those who are able to carry out manufacturing jobs — currently in the area of metalwork — to engage with companies that need metal parts made for them, using intelligent tools to identify what needs to be made and connecting that potential job to the specialist manufacturers that can make it.
The challenge that Fractory is solving is not unlike that faced in a lot of industries that have variable supply and demand, a lot of fragmentation, and generally an inefficient way of sourcing work.
As Martin Vares, Fractory’s founder and MD, described it to me, companies who need metal parts made might have one factory they regularly work with. But if there are any circumstances that might mean that this factory cannot carry out a job, then the customer needs to shop around and find others to do it instead. This can be a time-consuming, and costly process.
“It’s a very fragmented market and there are so many ways to manufacture products, and the connection between those two is complicated,” he said. “In the past, if you wanted to outsource something, it would mean multiple emails to multiple places. But you can’t go to 30 different suppliers like that individually. We make it into a one-stop shop.”
On the other side, factories are always looking for better ways to fill out their roster of work so there is little downtime — factories want to avoid having people paid to work with no work coming in, or machinery that is not being used.
“The average uptime capacity is 50%,” Vares said of the metalwork plants on Fractory’s platform (and in the industry in general). “We have a lot more machines out there than are being used. We really want to solve the issue of leftover capacity and make the market function better and reduce waste. We want to make their factories more efficient and thus sustainable.”
The Fractory approach involves customers — today those customers are typically in construction, or other heavy machinery industries like ship building, aerospace and automotive — uploading CAD files specifying what they need made. These then get sent out to a network of manufacturers to bid for and take on as jobs — a little like a freelance marketplace, but for manufacturing jobs. About 30% of those jobs are then fully automated, while the other 70% might include some involvement from Fractory to help advise customers on their approach, including in the quoting of the work, manufacturing, delivery and more. The plan is to build in more technology to improve the proportion that can be automated, Vares said. That would include further investment in RPA, but also computer vision to better understand what a customer is looking to do, and how best to execute it.
Currently Fractory’s platform can help fill orders for laser cutting and metal folding services, including work like CNC machining, and it’s next looking at industrial additive 3D printing. It will also be looking at other materials like stonework and chip making.
Manufacturing is one of those industries that has in some ways been very slow to modernize, which in a way is not a huge surprise: equipment is heavy and expensive, and generally the maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies in this world. That’s why companies that are building more intelligent software to at least run that legacy equipment more efficiently are finding some footing. Xometry, a bigger company out of the U.S. that also has built a bridge between manufacturers and companies that need things custom made, went public earlier this year and now has a market cap of over $3 billion. Others in the same space include Hubs (which is now part of Protolabs) and Qimtek, among others.
One selling point that Fractory has been pushing is that it generally aims to keep manufacturing local to the customer to reduce the logistics component of the work to reduce carbon emissions, although as the company grows it will be interesting to see how and if it adheres to that commitment.
In the meantime, investors believe that Fractory’s approach and fast growth are strong signs that it’s here to stay and make an impact in the industry.
“Fractory has created an enterprise software platform like no other in the manufacturing setting. Its rapid customer adoption is clear demonstrable feedback of the value that Fractory brings to manufacturing supply chains with technology to automate and digitise an ecosystem poised for innovation,” said Marcin Hejka in a statement. “We have invested in a great product and a talented group of software engineers, committed to developing a product and continuing with their formidable track record of rapid international growth
Remember that story we posted earlier today about Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight scheduled to launch in September?
We may have spoken too soon. This afternoon, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was grounding all Virgin Galactic flights until further notice, pending the results of the investigation into the company’s July 11 crewed flight.
“Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety.”
While the July 11 mission was completed with no injuries to staff or crew, including the company’s billionaire founder Richard Branson, it was recently uncovered that the spaceplane deviated its trajectory outside of cleared airspace. During flight, a red warning light came on the spaceplane’s dashboard, indicating that it went off its planned trajectory. The spaceplane flew off-course for a total of 1 minute and 41 seconds, the FAA said. The deviation was first reported by The New Yorker.
The regulator went on to add: “The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations. The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic investigation of its July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico. SpaceShipTwo deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.”
Depending on whether the investigation is complete – and what it finds – that first commercial flight in September may stay stuck on the ground. That flight is supposed to send members of the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council to the edges of space, in order to study the effects on transitioning to microgravity on the human body. But until then, Richard Branson’s supersonic company has to stay grounded.
Just two months after celebrating its first manned launch to orbit – which is now under investigation with the Federal Aviation Administration – Virgin Galactic wants to return to space.
The company will be conducting its first commercial mission, the 23rd for the VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane, in late September or early October from the company’s sprawling Spaceport America facility. The flight will carry three crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council, each of whom paid an undisclosed amount for the seat. A Virgin Galactic staff member will also be on board.
The role of mission lead will be held by Walter Villadei, a Colonel with the Italian Air Force; Angelo Landolfi, a physician and Lieutenant Colonel; Pantaleone Carlucci, an aerospace engineer on behalf of the National Research Council; and Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses. Michael Masucci and CJ Sturckow will pilot the spaceplane.
The goal of the mission will be to evaluate the effects of the “transitional phase” from gravity to zero G on the human body; to that end, the crew members will be wearing sensors to measure physiological activity, and Villadei will even be wearing a smart suit that Virgin says will “[incorporate] Italian fashion style and technology.”
The announcement comes just one day after the FAA said that it was investigating the first crewed flight of VSS Unity in July. The news was first reported by The New Yorker and confirmed by the aerospace regulatory, who said that the spaceplane “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.” According to journalist Nicholas Schmidle’s reporting, a red warning light appeared on the dash of the Unity during flight, indicating that it had diverged from its planned trajectory.
Virgin Galactic later issued a statement disputing the piece, saying that “athough the flights ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico.”
“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory,” the company added.
This is not the first time Schmidle has uncovered news regarding the safety of Virgin Galactic’s supersonic operations. His book, Test Gods, also includes a previously unknown account of a 2019 test flight (confirmed in the book by former employees) which saw potentially serious issues with the plane’s wing.
Peter Beck hasn’t been shy about his intention to grow Rocket Lab into more than just a launch provider, but a fully vertically integrated space company that makes spacecraft in addition to sending them to orbit. The company, which he founded in 2006, has taken yet another major stride toward that goal with the news Wednesday that it will open a new production facility to manufacture satellite components at a larger scale than ever before.
The facility will manufacture reaction wheels, critical attitude and stability control systems on satellites. Rocket Lab says the facility, which will be operational in the fourth quarter of this year, will be capable of producing up to 2,000 reaction wheels annually. Given that spacecraft generally have between 3 and 4 reaction wheels, it’s safe to assume that Rocket Lab customers likely have around 500 individual satellites ready in the pipeline to accept these components. “These are these are large volumes of supply across multiple constellations,” Rocket Lab CEO Beck said in a recent interview with TechCrunch.
The news is a marked expansion for Rocket Lab’s space systems business, which is already kept busy by the in-house Photon spacecraft and was boosted last year when the company acquired major satellite hardware manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary. Rocket Lab also offers bespoke Photons for individual use cases – it will be designing the vehicles for forthcoming launches with space manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries and two Photons that will be sent to Mars on an upcoming science mission.
Historically, spacecraft components have generally been produced on the scale of tens or hundreds, because the barriers to get to orbit were so high. But as the cost of launch has declined (thanks in part to innovations from companies like Rocket Lab) more and more entities are able to send projects to space. That means more satellites, and more reaction wheels. Even today, there are around 200 Rocket Lab-made reaction wheels in orbit, so 2,000 in a single year is a huge jump in scale.
It’s all part of Rocket Lab’s goal of being a fully-integrated space services company. A major benefit from the vertical integration for customers, Rocket Lab says, is slashed manufacturing lead times. Beck said that when the company first started producing Photons, they quickly encountered months-long delivery times for reaction wheels, which effectively pushed back their timeline for launching one to orbit.
“If the space economy is to grow in the way that it’s predicted, then this has to be solved,” he said. “This is a fundamental problem that has to be solved. The whole space supply chain is characterized by small scale operations that really lack the ability to produce volume in any scale.”
Rocket Lab will be hiring more than 16 roles to support the space systems division and the new production facility, which will otherwise be highly automated; the company said in a statement that the production tools and environmental testing workstations will all be automated, and the metal machining is optimized to operate unattended. Beck said these techniques are very much in line with Rocket Lab’s other manufacturing processes – he pointed to Rosie the Robot as a cornerstone of the company’s capacity to use automation to rapidly scale its products.
Beck stayed mum about whether the company is planning on scaling the production of other spacecraft components, like the star trackers navigation tool, which Rocket Lab also manufacturers. However, he did say that the company plans on introducing new products – what those will be will, he declined to specify. But Beck’s stated aim when he started the space systems division is that “everything that goes to space should have a Rocket Lab logo on it.”
That aim goes to Rocket Lab’s larger vision, which is becoming an end-to-end space company: combining launch services with spacecraft manufacturing to be able to build in-orbit infrastructure.
“When you combine those things together, you have an immensely powerful platform that you can use to develop infrastructure in orbit and ultimately provide services,” he said.
But when asked what kinds of services he was thinking of, Beck played it close to the chest, instead choosing to give a well-known example from a competitor: SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellite project, which it builds and launches itself. He stayed mum on what kinds of ventures Rocket Lab might pursue, just saying that the vertical integration gives the company the ability to try new business models.
“The marginal cost for us to experiment is very, very low.”
The ongoing reverberations from the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing to make themselves felt in the most unlikely of places: spaceflight. On Friday, NASA took the unexpected step to ground a September satellite launch due to pandemic-related shortages of liquid oxygen (LOX), and there may be more launch delays yet to come.
Demand for oxygen has only risen with the Delta variant, which in many cities pushed hospitalization and ICU admittance rates back to where they were at the start of the pandemic. But oxygen isn’t just used in ventilators. The space industry uses LOX as an oxidizer in rocket propellant, often in combination with other gases like liquid hydrogen. (That’s why there can be so much steam during a launch – it’s the hydrogen reacting with the oxygen to form water.)
NASA and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, said the launch date for the Landsat 9 satellite will now take place on September 23.
ULA isn’t the only launch company to potentially be impacted by the LOX shortage. “We’re actually going to be impacted this year with the lack of liquid oxygen for launch,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last week during a panel at the Space Symposium. “We certainly are going to make sure the hospitals are going to have the oxygen that they need, but for anybody who has liquid oxygen to spare, send me an email.”
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, was more tempered a few days later on Twitter, saying that the LOX shortage “is a risk, but not yet a limiting factor.”
This is a risk, but not yet a limiting factor
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 26, 2021
Even beyond the actual supply of oxygen, the gas shortage is also being exacerbated by widespread shipping delays as coronavirus-related disruptions continue to impact the supply chain. ULA CEO Tory Bruno added on Twitter that a contractor who handles nitrogen transportation to Vandenberg Space Force Base in California was diverted to assist with LOX delivery in Florida.
The USG contractor that transports liquid GN2 to VAFB is helping with the COVID related LOX effort in Florida. Working that situation now. https://t.co/sTyprcRA42
— Tory Bruno (@torybruno) August 25, 2021
It’s not just the space industry that’s feeling the effects of the LOX squeeze: shortly before NASA announced the launch delay, Orlando, Florida officials sent out a separate notice urging residents to conserve water, as LOX is used to treat the city’s water supply.
“Nationally, the demand for liquid oxygen is extremely high as the priority for its use is to save lives, which is limiting the supply that [Orlando municipal water utility] OUC is receiving,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said on Facebook. “There could be impacts to our water quality if we do not immediately reduce the amount of water we need to treat.”
As early as May of last year, the nonprofit Center for Global Development called COVID-19 a “wake-up call” for ensuring an adequate supply of oxygen to hospitals.
While the rocket launch sector is quickly becoming crowded, the same can’t be said for companies developing suborbital spaceplanes. This means there’s plenty of room to grow for startups like Dawn Aerospace, which has now completed five test flights of its Mk-II Aurora spaceplane that is designed to fly up to 60 miles above the Earth’s surface.
The flights, which took place at the Glentanner Aerodrome in New Zealand’s South Island in July, were to assess the vehicle’s airframe and avionics. While the vehicle only reached altitudes of 3,400 feet, the flights allowed Dawn’s team to capture “extensive data enabling further R&D on the capability of Mk-II,” CEO Stefan Powell said in a statement.
Dawn’s approach is to build a vehicle that can take off and land from conventional airports and potentially perform multiple flights to and from space per day. The obvious benefit of this approach is that it’s significantly less capital-intensive than vertical launches. Mk-II is also barely the size of a compact car, less than 16 feet long and weighing only 165 pounds empty, which further lowers costs.
As the name suggests, the Mk-II is the second iteration of the vehicle, but Dawn doesn’t plan on stopping there. The company has plans to build a two-stage-to-orbit Mk-III spaceplane that can also be used to conduct scientific research, or even capture atmospheric data for weather observations and climate modeling. While Mk-II has a payload of 3U, or less than 8.8 pounds, Mk-III will be capable of carrying up to 551 pounds to orbit.
The Mk-II will ultimately be fitted with a rocket engine to enable supersonic performance and high-altitude testing.
The company hit a major milestone last December when it received an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate from the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority to fly Mk-II from airports. It also received a grant from by the province of Zuid-Holland in the Netherlands, along with Radar Based Avionics and MetaSensing, to test a low-power sense and detect radar system. That demonstration, which is scheduled to take place next year, will happen once Mk-II undergoes some minor modifications, Powell told TechCrunch.
Peter Beck’s earliest memory is standing outside with his father in his hometown of Invercargill, New Zealand, looking up at the stars, and being told that there could very well be people on planets orbiting those stars looking right back at him.
“For a three or four year old, that was a mind-blowing thing that got etched into my memory and from that point onwards, that was me destined to work in the space industry,” he said at the Space Generation Fusion Forum (SGFF).
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But it’s true that Beck’s career has been characterized by an unusually single-minded focus on rocketry. Instead of going to university, Beck got a trade job, working as a tool-making apprentice by day and a dilettante rocket engine maker by night. “I was very, very fortunate through my career that the companies I worked with and worked for, and the government organizations that I’ve worked for, always encouraged – or tolerated, maybe is a better word – me using their facilities and doing things in their facilities at night,” he said.
His tinkering matured with experience, and working double-time paid off: in 2006, he founded his space launch company Rocket Lab. Now, fifteen years and 21 launches later, the company has gone public through a merger with a blank-check firm that’s added $777 million to its war chest.
$RKLB has launched! Today’s exciting next step in Rocket Lab’s story was made possible by the incredible people behind us – our team, our families, our customers, and our investors. Thank you, thank you, thank you. #SpaceIsOpenForBusiness #NasdaqListed pic.twitter.com/DLmVsmtqOj
— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) August 25, 2021
The space SPAC craze
The merger with Vector Acquisition catapulted Rocket Lab’s valuation to $4.8 billion, putting it second (by value) amongst space launch companies only to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SPACs have become a popular route to going public amongst space industry companies looking to secure large amounts of capital; rival satellite launch startups Virgin Orbit and Astra have each started trading via a SPAC merger, in addition to other companies in the sector, like Redwire, Planet and Satellogic (to name just a few).
Beck told TechCrunch that going public has been part of Rocket Lab’s plans for years; the original plan was to use a traditional initial public offering, but the SPAC route in particular enabled certainty around capital and valuation. According to an March investor presentation in advance of the SPAC merger – documents that should always be taken with a large grain of salt – the future is bright: Rocket Lab anticipates revenues of $749 million in 2025 and surpassing $1 billion the following year. The company reported revenues of $48 million in 2019 and $33 million in 2020, and anticipates hitting around $69 million this year.
But he remains skeptical of pre-revenue space startups, or those that failed to raise capital, using SPACs as a financial instrument. “There has been a lot of space SPACs go out, and I think that there is a spectrum of quality there for sure – some that have failed to raise money in the private markets, and [a SPAC merger] is the last-ditch attempt. That is no way to become a public company.”
While the space industry is relatively crowded now, with companies like Rocket Lab and SpaceX sending payloads to orbit and myriad newer entrants looking to join them (or, more optimistically, take their leading place), Beck said he anticipates the crowd thinning out.
“It’s going to become blatantly obvious to investors really quickly, who’s executing, and who’s aspiring to execute,” he said. “We’re in a time where there’s lots of excitement, but at the end of the day, this industry and the public markets is all about execution. The wheat from the chaff will get separated very, very quickly here.”
From Electron to Neutron
Rocket Lab’s revenues have largely come from the small payload launch market, in which it’s managed to take a leading position with its Electron rocket. Electron is only 59 feet tall and scarcely four feet in diameter, significantly smaller than other rockets going to space today. The company conducts launches from two sites: its privately-owned launch range on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, and a launch pad out of NASA’s Wallops Island facility in Virginia (which has yet to play host to an actual Rocket Lab mission).
Rocket Lab is in the process of transitioning Electron’s first-stage booster to be reusable. The company has been implementing a new atmospheric reentry and ocean splashdown process that uses a parachute to slow the booster’s descent, but the ultimate goal is to catch it in the air using a helicopter.
Thus far, Rocket Lab and SpaceX have dominated the market, but that could change soon. Both Astra and Relativity are developing small launch vehicles – the latest iteration of Astra’s rocket is around 40 feet tall, while Relativity’s Terran 1 is in-between Electron and Falcon 9 at 115 feet.
For that reason, it makes sense that Rocket Lab is planning on expanding its operations to include medium-lift rocketry, with its much-anticipated (and very mysterious) Neutron launch vehicle. The company has been keeping the details about Neutron close to its chest so far – Beck told SGFF attendees that even publicly-released renderings of the rocket have been “a bit of a ruse” (meaning the image below bears little to no resemblance to what the Neutron actually looks like) – but it’s expected to be more than double the height of Electron and be capable of sending around 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit.
“We do see a lot of people in the industry copying us in many ways,” he explained to TechCrunch. “So, we’d rather get a little bit further down the path and then reveal the work that we’ve done.”
Rocket Lab estimates that Electron and Neutron will be capable of lifting 98% of all satellites forecasted to launch through 2029, making the need for an additional heavy-lift rocket unnecessary.
In addition to Neutron, the company has also started developing spacecraft. It’s called Photon, and Rocket Lab imagines it as a “satellite platform” that can easily be integrated with the Electron rocket. The company’s already lined up Photon missions to the moon and beyond: first to lunar orbit for NASA, as part of its Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) program.
Two Photons were selected earlier this month for an 11-month mission to Mars, and Beck has publicly discussed long-term plans to send a probe into Venus’ atmosphere via a Photon satellite.
Beyond Photon, Rocket Lab has also locked in a deal with space manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries to build it a spacecraft, to launch in 2023 and 2024.
Neutron has been designed to be human-rateable right from the start, meaning that it will meet certain safety specifications for carrying astronauts. Beck said he’s certain that “we are going to see the democratization of spaceflight” and he wants Rocket Lab to be well-poised to deliver that service in the future. In terms of whether Rocket Lab would eventually expand into building other spacecraft, like landers or human-rated capsules, Beck demurred.
“Never, ever say never,” he said. “That’s the one takeaway I’ve learned in my career as a space CEO.”
Astroscale hit a major milestone Wednesday, when its space junk removal demo satellite that’s currently in orbit successfully captured and released a client spacecraft using a magnetic system.
The End-of-Life Services by Astroscale-demonstration (ELSA-d) mission was launched in March, with the goal of validating the company’s orbital debris removal tech. The demonstrator package, which was sent up on a Soyuz rocket that launched from Kazakhstan, included two separate spacecraft: a “servicer” which was designed to remove space junk, and a “client” that poses as said space junk.
“A major challenge of debris removal, and on-orbit servicing in general, is docking with or capturing a client object; this test demonstration served as a successful validation of ELSA-d’s ability to dock with a client, such as a defunct satellite,” the company explained.
The demonstration today showed that the servicer – a model of Astroscale’s future product – can successfully magnetically capture and release other spacecraft.
But that’s not the end for the ELSA-d demonstration mission; the servicer and client still must hit three more capture-and-release milestones before Astroscale can call it a complete success. Next up, the servicer must safely release the client and re-capture it from a greater distance away. After that, Astroscale will attempt the same release-and-capture process, but this time with the client satellite simulating an uncontrolled, tumbling space object. The final capture demonstration the company is calling “diagnosis and client search,” in which the servicer will inspect the client from a close distance, move away, then approach and re-capture.
Astroscale is one of a suite of companies working on the problem of orbital debris, but it’s the first to send up a debris removal demonstration mission. According to NASA, over 27,000 pieces of orbital debris are tracked by the Department of Defense’s global Space Surveillance Network sensors. The amount of junk in space is only anticipated to grow as the cost of launching a spacecraft, and other expenses, continue to decline.
You can watch a video of the mission operations team explain the test demonstration here:
Ispace, a Japanese space startup that aims to lead the development of a lunar economy, has unveiled its design for a large lander that could go to the moon as early as 2024.
Tokyo-based ispace said this next-gen lander, dubbed Series 2, would be used on the company’s third planned moon mission. The lander is both larger in size and payload capacity than the company’s first lander, coming in at around 9 feet tall and 14 feet wide including legs. The vehicle will be capable of carrying up to 500 kilograms to the moon’s surface and 2,000 kilograms to lunar orbit. Series 1, which will fly in 2022 and 2023, has a maximum payload capacity of only 30 kilograms.
Crucially, the new lander is designed to be able to survive the frigid lunar nighttime, possibly as long as a two-week stint on the moon’s surface. It’s also capable of landing on either the near or far side of the moon, including its polar regions.
The new lander has a few other features as well: it has multiple payload bays, and an advanced guidance, navigation and control (GNC) system to ensure the craft sticks the landing on the moon’s surface. The GNC technology is being provided by engineering developer Draper, a company with a deep footprint in the space industry. Draper is which is also one of fourteen eligible contractors for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.
Ispace said in a statement that the lander has completed its preliminary design review; the next stage is manufacturing and assembly, which will be completed in partnership with General Atomics, a defense and aerospace technology company.
The partnership with Draper – a CLPS contractor – is key, as ispace wants its Series 2 to compete in the NASA program. “Over the next few months, we will work closely with Draper and General Atomics to prepare for the next NASA CLPS task order,” Kyle Acierno, CEO of ispace’s U.S.-based subsidiary, said.
Ispace is developing the next-gen lander out of its North American offices in Colorado, and it intends to also manufacture the vehicle in the United States. In the meanwhile, the company is still at work preparing for its first two lunar missions in 2022 and 2023. The company said the Series 1 lander is undergoing final assembly of the flight module at a facility in Germany owned by space launch company ArianeGroup. The customer manifest for the first mission is full, but ispace did say payload capacity is still available for the subsequent mission.
The lander unveiling comes just weeks after ispace announced the close of a $46 million Series C funding round, capital it said at the time would go toward the second and third planned missions.
A quick survey of many of the most highly valued electric vertical take-off and landing companies shows one thing in common: All of them are developing aircraft powered by batteries. But a growing suite of aviation companies, turned off by what they see as the energy density limitations of lithium-ion batteries, are turning instead to hydrogen fuel cells.
This is where HyPoint comes in. The two-year-old company has been working with a number of eVTOL companies, like ZeroAvia, on air-cooled hydrogen fuel cell systems that it says have triple the power-to-weight ratio of traditional liquid-cooled hydrogen fuel cells. Now, the fuel cell developer is adding Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to its list of partners.
The relationship between the two companies is being minted with a $6.5 million multiphase development agreement for the design and certification of hydrogen fuel cell systems. Through the partnership, HyPoint aims to deliver five full-scale, 650 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for ground testing, demo flights and the certification process.
The goal is to create a system that has four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries, double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel cell systems, and that costs up to 50% less relative to the operative costs of turbine-powered rotorcraft. HyPoint unveiled a prototype of the new technology in March.
Through the deal, Piasecki will have exclusive license to the tech created as a result of the partnership. It aims to use the technology for use in its PA-890 manned helicopter, which it says would be the first hydrogen-powered helicopter on the market. HyPoint will maintain exclusive ownership of the fuel cell system.
The two companies said in a statement that they intend to make the system available to other eVTOL makers as well. “Piasecki is ready to support other eVTOL makers with Hypoint,” HyPoint CEO Alex Ivanenko told TechCrunch
The agreement started with a feasibility study, in which HyPoint created a very small-scale prototype to show proof-of-concept. Now, the company is in the design stage, at work building a single power module (each 650 kW system contains several), and an integration concept of the system in Piasecki’s aircraft. The single power module will be ready by the end of this year, with the first 650 kW system being delivered to Piasecki in 2023, and a commercially available product by around 2025.
The two companies have also developed a certification roadmap that outlines when HyPoint needs to deliver systems, to ensure that they’re ready for testing and demo flights with the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Our objective is to develop full-scale systems within two years to support on-aircraft certification testing in 2024 and fulfill existing customer orders for up to 325 units starting in 2025,” John Piasecki, CEO of Piasecki, said.
Elon Musk’s Starlink project, which aims to provide global broadband connectivity via a constellation of satellites, has shipped 100,000 terminals to customers.
100k terminals shipped!https://t.co/Q1VvqVmJ2i
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 23, 2021
It’s a jaw-dropping pace for the capital-intensive service, which began satellite launches in November 2019 and opened its $99/month beta program for select customers around a year later. Since that period, SpaceX has launched more than 1,700 satellites to date and — in addition to the 100,000 shipped terminals — has received over half a million additional orders for the service.
In some ways, it’s no surprise that SpaceX has managed to accelerate its Starlink service so quickly, as the company launches the satellites itself on the Falcon 9 rocket. Such vertical integration is a key strategy of the space company, now the highest-valued in the world.
Many of Starlink’s beta customers live in remote or rural areas, where access to conventional broadband is limited or nonexistent. Customers pay a $499 upfront cost for the service, which covers a starter kit to get them off the ground: a user terminal (which SpaceX lovingly refers to as “Dishy McFlatface”), Wi-Fi router, power supply, cables and a mounting tripod.
But while Starlink’s rapid growth reflects an aggressive strategy, it’s just the beginning for the project, if SpaceX has anything to say about it. The company ultimately wants to launch around 30,000 Starlink satellites into orbit, and expand its user pool to millions of customers. In an application for the next generation Starlink system, submitted to the Federal Communication Commission on August 18, SpaceX proposed two separate configurations for the constellation, one of which would use its next-gen Starship heavy-lift rocket.
That constellation would top out at 29,988 satellites in total; SpaceX also proposed an alternate configuration using its Falcon 9 rocket. But the obvious advantage of Starship is its massive-size payload capacity.
“SpaceX has found ways to leverage the advanced capabilities of its new launch vehicle, Starship, that has increased capability to deliver more mass to orbit quickly and efficiently and, combined with reuse capability of the upper stage, launch more often,” the company said in the amended application.
Rocket Lab is one step closer to going to Mars with NASA’s approval of the company’s Photon spacecraft for an upcoming science mission. If all continues according to plan the two craft will launch in 2024 and arrive on the red planet 11 months later to study its magnetosphere.
The mission is known as the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, or ESCAPADE (hats off to whoever worked that one out), and was proposed for a small satellite science program back in 2019, eventually being chosen as a finalist. UC Berkeley researchers are the main force behind the science part.
These satellites have to be less than 180 kilograms (about 400 pounds) and must perform standalone science missions, part of a new program aiming at more lightweight, shorter lead missions that can be performed with strong commercial industry collaboration. A few concepts have been baking since the original announcement of the program, and ESCAPADE just passed Key Decision Point C, meaning it’s ready to go from concept to reality.
This particular mission is actually a pair of satellites, a perk that no doubt contributed to its successful selection. Rocket Lab’s whole intention with the Photon program is to provide a more or less turnkey design for various space operations, from orbital work to interplanetary science missions like this one.
Interestingly, Rocket Lab won’t actually be launching the mission aboard one of its Electron rockets — the satellites will be aboard a “NASA-provided commercial launch vehicle,” which leaves it up to them. Perhaps by that time the company will be in the running for the contract, but for now Rocket Lab is only building the spacecraft, including most of the nonscientific onboard components: navigation, orientation, propulsion, etc.
“ESCAPADE is an innovative mission that demonstrates that advanced interplanetary science is now within reach for a fraction of traditional costs, and we’re proud to make it possible with Photon. We are delighted to receive the green light from NASA to proceed to flight,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck in the company’s announcement of the milestone.
Rocket Lab is already under contract to lift a CubeSat to cislunar orbit for Artemis purposes, and has locked in a deal with Varda Space Industries to build that company’s spacecraft, for launch in 2023 and 2024.
Australian regulators have given Taiwan Innovative Space, a five-year-old launch company that goes by Tispace, the green light to conduct a commercial launch at a newly licensed facility in southern Australia later this year.
Tispace will conduct a test flight of its two-stage, suborbital rocket Hapith I from the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex in Southern Australia. The flight will be used to validate the vehicle’s propulsion, guidance, telemetry, and structure systems, Tispace said in a news release.The launch facility, operated by space infrastructure company Southern Launch, received its license from the country’s industry ministry in March.
The news is potentially significant for both Australia and Taiwan’s burgeoning space industries, which have lagged behind other nations’. Australia only established a domestic space agency in 2018, and interest in how the country can get in on the new space economy has only grown since. The newly licensed launch facility will initially support a test launch campaign for up to three suborbital rockets, in order to collect data on the possible environmental impacts of the site.
“This [launch permit approval] is an important outcome in establishing Australia’s commercial launch capability and demonstrating what our country can offer to the international space sector,” Australia’s Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Christian Porter, said in a statement. “Space is a significant global growth market that will support Australia’s economic future through big investment, new technologies and job growth across multiple industries.”
Taiwan has also been slow to develop a home-grown space industry, though the country took a major step forward when Taiwanese legislators passed the Space Development Law in May to spur the development of a domestic space program. But while the country has a handful of satellites in orbit – most recently the YUSAT and IDEASSat CubeSats, which were transported into orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in January – it has yet to launch a rocket or spacecraft from its soil.
Hapith I is Taiwan’s first domestically manufactured rocket, and Tispace its first commercial space launch company. The company had planned to test the Hapith vehicle from a launch site in Taiwan, but the site was scrapped over legal issues concerning the location. In addition to launch, Tispace may start conducting even more of its operations abroad: according to an Australian press release, it’s also considering “bringing manufacturing of complete rocket systems” to the land down under.
3D rocket printing company Relativity Space has pushed back the date of the demonstration launch of its lightweight Terran 1 rocket from winter 2021 to early 2022. The company announced the updated schedule on Twitter, while also confirming that the launch will take place out of Cape Canaveral in Florida.
A few updates on #Terran1:
We’re excited to share that Stage 2 passed cryo pressure proof + hydro mechanical buckling test on our structural test stand. Up next: S1 structural testing!
Terran 1’s demonstration launch is now set for early 2022 from Cape Canaveral LC-16. pic.twitter.com/nrv1mUCl2t
— Relativity Space (@relativityspace) August 20, 2021
Relativity also said Stage 2 passed its cryo-pressure and hydro-mechanical buckling test. Stage 1 structural testing is to follow.
The news of the delay comes just two months after Relativity said (also on Twitter) that the Terran 1 would launch in winter of this year. The rocket that will perform the orbital demonstration flight will not be carrying any payload, but the company has already scheduled a second launch to take place June ’22. That rocket will carry CubeSats to low Earth oribt as part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 (VCLS Demo 2) contract.
A company spokesperson told TechCrunch that there is “no one single reason” why the launch date has been pushed back. “Over the past year, Relativity has i.e. refined Terran 1’s architecture, developed a brand new engine and upgraded its material while COVID slowed a few of its processes down,” the spokesperson added. “They updated the demonstration launch to early 2022 so they can better coordinate with partners.”
The launch will mark the world’s first of an entirely 3D printed rocket. Relativity’s tech has garnered quite a lot of interest from investors — so much that it’s valuation vaulted to $4.2 billion after a $650 million funding round this summer. In addition to the Terran 1, the company is also developing a second heavy-lift, fully-reusable rocket it’s calling Terran R. It aims to launch that rocket as early as 2024.
Rocket launch startup Astra has received a key license from the Federal Aviation Administration, giving the green light for the company’s first commercial orbital launch at the end of the month.
Astra CEO Chris Kemp tweeted the news on Thursday, adding that the launch operator license through the FAA is valid through 2026. The new license is a modification of the company’s previous launch license and applicable to the current version of the company’s rocket, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.
— Chris Kemp (@Kemp) August 19, 2021
The license, posted on the FAA’s website, authorizes Astra to conduct flights of its Rocket v3 launch vehicle from the company’s launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska. It expires on March 9, 2026. It clears the way for Astra to conduct a demonstration mission for the U.S. Space Force on August 27, as well as a second launch planned for some time later this year.
This is proving to be a big year for Astra. In addition to conducting its first commercial orbital launch on August 27, the company also starting trading on the NASDAQ under the ticker symbol “ASTR.” The company made its debut after merging with special purpose acquisition company Holicity at a pro-forma enterprise value of $2.1 billion.
Earlier this summer, Astra also acquired space-propulsion company Apollo Fusion. The acquisition gives a possible hint into how Astra is thinking about future launches, as electric propulsion systems are useful for moving objects from lower to higher orbits.
Emergency response is a time-sensitive business. When fires burn or a driver crashes their car, seconds can mean the difference between saving lives and watching a situation spiral rapidly out of control. For fire and police departments, getting teams on site can be challenging, what with the vagaries of traffic and bad routing.
Houston-headquartered Paladin is a startup building a custom drone hardware and software solution for cities to be able to respond to emergencies faster and with better data. After years of development, the company is publicly unveiling its Knighthawk and Watchtower products.
The Knighthawk is a custom-made drone designed for the specific needs of emergency response personnel. It comes complete with two cameras — one 10x zoom optical and one thermal — to provide the best video feeds on a developing situation at both day and night with only a half second latency. Importantly, the drone has a time range of 55 minutes and can travel multiple miles away to reach a site according to the company. Launch time can be as short as a few seconds from when a 911 call comes in.
To manage the drones and watch the video feeds, operators use the company’s Watchtower software (available as an app) to place a pin on a map to direct the drone to the likely site of an emergency. Once there, uploaded video feeds will display in the app as well as in a 911 center’s existing computer-aided dispatch systems, a topic we covered quite a bit in our RapidSOS EC-1 from a few weeks ago.
The public launch is a huge step forward for the company, which TechCrunch last profiled in 2019 as it was emerging from Y Combinator with a $1.3 million seed from the likes of Khosla, Correlation Ventures, and Paul Buchheit. Back then, the focus was on building software to integrate with an off-the-shelf DJI drone. Paladin was experimenting with a beta Android app where an operator could place a pin on a map and direct the drone to a site.
Yet, that model proved insufficient for the task. CEO and co-founder Divy Shrivastava said that as the company developed its product, it learned it needed to own the hardware stack as well. “The drones that we were using weren’t purpose built for automation,” he said. “We ended up coming up with our own communication technology for our drones … so that we won’t lose connection.”
Since the company’s founding in 2018, it has responded to about 1,600 emergencies according to its own internal data. The company has spent prodigious hours with departments in two locations — Memorial Villages in Houston and Orange Township in Ohio — responding to a handful of calls per day at specific hours.
That restriction hints at what has been one of the toughest challenges for the drone startup: regulations. The FAA has put in place strict rules around visual line of sight for operators of drones. In order to realize its vision of a completely seamless and easily deployed system, Paladin has had to collect extensive data and present it to the FAA to get operating waivers, which the agency offers through a “First Responder Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight” exception. So far, it has secured these types of waivers for the two cities it works with, and Shrivastava is confident that the company has developed a repeatable process for any new cities which want to purchase its products.
Installation is relatively simple according to Shrivastava. The drones themselves can be placed anywhere, even “a parking lot,” and are often stationed at a police department or firehouse. No special hardware or sensors or guidelines need to be installed in the city for the drones to process the terrain or understand their surroundings. Some software integration though is required to connect drones into the computer-aided dispatch system used by 911 call takers.
With the public launch and more proof points on the board, the company is focusing on ramping up sales and “our long-term goal is to have every single fire, police and first response agency use us,” Shrivastava said. The team has expanded to about 8, although the company’s other co-founder Trevor Pennypacker departed in late 2019, and now works at Tesla.