The relationship between the nations’ space agencies is facing a series of difficult tests, including an antisatellite weapon and friction over Ukraine.
Yusaku Maezawa, the founder of the clothing retailer Zozo, will spend 12 days in orbit with a production assistant who will document his stay.
Jessica Watkins, who joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 2017, is scheduled to fly to the orbital outpost in a SpaceX capsule in April.
The test forced astronauts on the International Space Station to briefly take shelter in re-entry capsules.
The State Department said the cloud of debris from the missile strike added more than 1,500 pieces of sizable space junk to Earth’s orbit.
The Crew Dragon capsule Endurance docked on Thursday with the orbital outpost, where the four crewmates will stay until April 2022.
After bringing home another crew, SpaceX will launch four more people to the International Space Station in its Dragon capsule.
The Crew-2 astronauts spent nearly 200 days in orbit, and their stay aboard the International Space Station was punctuated with surprises.
Four crew members are scheduled to depart from the orbital outpost after about half a year in space. They will splash down near Florida on Monday.
For the first time, astronauts on the International Space Station cultivated chiles, adding some zing to their tacos.
The four crew members, three Americans and one German, were originally scheduled to launch on Sunday.
A discussion of repairs of the waste management systems used aboard the company’s passenger spacecraft offered rare insight into how it fixes things.
Blue Origin says it will team up with Sierra Space, Boeing and other companies to build an outpost that could help replace the International Space Station.
A Russian actress and film director landed near Russia’s spaceflight base in Kazakhstan after 12 days in orbit.
While the astronauts were said to not be in any danger, it was the second such incident since July.
It’s problematic enough when something goes wrong with a complicated, $2 billion physics experiment on Earth. Those challenges are considerably greater when said physics experiment is on the International Space Station, orbiting 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. Thanks to the efforts of the intrepid ISS crew, who conducted a series of spacewalks to make repairs, a damaged particle detector has a new lease on life.
Among the Stars, a new six-part documentary series on Disney+, chronicles the challenges the crew faced on that mission over the course of two years. The series also chronicles the final spaceflight of veteran NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, which occurred right as the COVID-19 pandemic put the world in lockdown. “I joke that, three years ago, I knew I was going into quarantine in March 2020, according to plan,” Cassidy told Ars. “I just didn’t know that the whole world would join me there.”
As we’ve previously reported, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) is a particle detector that launched to the International Space Station in 2011 on the penultimate flight of the space shuttle. The machine has steadily been collecting data during the last six years, looking at a variety of particles from many sources, among them dark matter collisions.
An actress and a director traveled to the International Space Station, aiming to shoot scenes from the first feature film made in orbit.
An actress and a director will head to the International Space Station, aiming to shoot scenes from the first feature film to rely on scenes shot in orbit.
Racing to beat NASA, an actress and a film director will blast off next month for the International Space Station, where they will film “The Challenge.”
The Nauka module met up with the orbiting outpost on Thursday morning, and later unexpectedly fired its thrusters.
Zebulon Scoville and others at NASA’s mission control in Houston spent Thursday righting the International Space Station after a new Russian module unexpectedly fired its thrusters.
More details are beginning to emerge on Houston-based Axiom Space’s ambitious project to build and operate the world’s first commercial space station.
Thales Alenia Space, a European aerospace manufacturer, will develop the two pressurized modules of the Axiom Space Station. The two elements, which are scheduled to launch in 2024 and 2025, will dock to the International Space Station before eventually detaching and operating as fully independent, commercial station.
The two companies announced the signing of the final contract, valued at €110 million ($130 million), on Thursday. Each module will be able to accommodate four people. Thales will also be designing the micrometeoroid and debris protection system for each module.
The modules are still in their design phase, Thales Alenia said. The company recently completed development of the first module’s four radial bulkheads at its facility in Turin, Italy. The bulkheads, once connected, will form a cylinder. That structure will attach to the common berth mechanisms, parts of the module that will can connect to the ISS, and hatches.
The two modules have a long road ahead of them. Thales Alenia, a joint venture between French company Thales Group and Italian conglomerate Leonardo, will begin welding on the first module this September through to next year. That module will be sent to Axiom’s Texas facilities in July 2023, where Axiom will then integrate the core systems and prepare it for launch in 2024.
NASA tapped Axiom to build the first commercial living quarters for the ISS in January 2020. Once the ISS is decommissioned, Axiom’s station will detach and function as a commercial center for future missions and scientific experiments. It’s a major part of NASA’s plans to encourage the growth of the burgeoning low Earth orbit economy and the buildout of other private orbital labs and commercial facilities.
Axiom will also operate the first fully private mission to the ISS, scheduled for January 2022. Axiom Mission 1 will send four private astronauts to space onboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon, for an eight-day mission.
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This week, China started staffing up its own space station, and Rocket Lab got the nod from NASA to develop small satellites for the purposes of exploring Mars. Meanwhile, space startups continue to raise money and it doesn’t look like the pace of that is going to slow much heading into summer.
China delivers 3 astronauts to its space station
China has launched astronauts to its space station for the first time, delivering three to the station’s core module, where they’ll remain for a mission that lasts until September. This is the first time China has flown a crewed mission since 2012, and it’s also going to set a record for the longest period of time a Chinese astronaut has remained in space continuously.
This will be a big step forward for China’s space program, and a key evolution of its ambitions to establish a continuous presence in low Earth orbit. China is not an International Space Station partner, and no Chinese nationals have ever set foot aboard that station. The European Space Agency had welcomed overtures for them to participate as a member nation in the ISS last decade, but the US refused.
China has sated outright that it will welcome participation in its space station from foreign astronauts, though there hasn’t been any specific agreements put in place for who those might be, or from what countries.
Rocket Lab will build two orbital research spacecraft for a mission to Mars
Rocket Lab has landed a contract of a different sort from its usual business, tapped to build small spacecraft that will go to Mars and perform valuable science and exploration missions on behalf of NASA and its partners. These will make use of Rocket Lab’s Photon platform, which is a satellite platform that it originally developed as one of its value-add offerings for its launch customers.
This is unique for Rocket Lab because the spacecraft its developing won’t be launched aboard a Rocket Lab Electron spacecraft, and will instead fly them on a commercial rocket to be selected by NASA in a separate contract process that will happen later.
The goal is to have these fly to the red planet by 2024, and it’ll help support NASA’s deep space exploration ambitions more broadly.
Startups raise $$
Some interesting funding rounds this week, including $5 million for Hydrosat, a company that’s spotting ground temperature from space and providing that to customers for use in industries like agriculture, wildfire and drought risk, water table information and more.
This kind of data has been monitored by weather and environmental monitoring agencies in the past, but Hydrosat aims to collect it at a frequency that hasn’t been possible before.
Meanwhile, another startup whose entire focus is making sure that companies and other users on the ground can make use of Earth observation data also raised a chunk of cash. Skywatch picked up $17.2 million to help expand its platform, which not only provides access to the data for customers, but can actually also provide the customers themselves, a useful feature for brand new satellite companies.
Join us at TC Sessions: Space in December
Last year we held our first dedicated space event, and it went so well that we decided to host it again in 2021. This year, it’s happening mid-December, and it’s once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join — and you can, too.
Three Chinese astronauts arrived on Thursday to help build their country’s rival to the International Space Station.
Three Chinese astronauts arrived on Thursday to help build their country’s rival to the International Space Station.
Three Chinese astronauts, the first since 2016, are set to launch into space. They will begin what is expected to be a continuous Chinese presence in Earth’s orbit for the next decade.
The two countries have pledged to cooperate on expeditions to the moon and to an asteroid, setting the stage for a new space race with the United States and its partners.
NASA said Friday it was seeking proposals from commercial companies for two new private crewed missions to the International Space Station. The first mission would likely take place between fall of 2022 and mid-2023. The second one would follow sometime between mid-2023 and the end of 2023.
Private astronaut missions are a relatively recent initiative from NASA, part of its Commercial low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Development program. For most of humanity’s history in space, trips to the ISS were reserved for astronauts from countries’ respective space agencies.
Houston-based startup Axiom Space was awarded the first private astronaut mission, to take place in January 2022. That mission will carry four private astronauts for an eight-day mission from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA will pay Axiom $1.69 million for services associated with the mission.
Each of the new missions can be up to 14 days and proposals are due by July 9. The agency specified that the missions must be brokered by a U.S. company and use approved U.S. transportation spacecraft. (Axiom’s private mission will use a SpaceX Crew Dragon.)
NASA said that enabling private manned missions such as this one may help “develop a robust low-Earth orbit economy where NASA is one of many customers, and the private sector leads the way.” Thanks to the significantly decreased launch costs – due in large part to innovations in rocket reusability, led by SpaceX – as well as a whole new ecosystem of ‘new space’ companies that have sprung up over the last five years, space has become busier than ever.
The agency also said LEO could eventually be used as a “training and proving ground” for the planned Artemis program – humanity’s long-awaited return to the moon – and missions even deeper into the solar system.
SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is once again heading to the International Space Station.
The company launched its 22nd Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission for NASA on Thursday. This is the fifth capsule SpaceX has sent to ISS in the last twelve months, SpaceX director of Dragon mission management Sarah Walker noted in a media briefing Tuesday. It’s also the first launch of the year on a new Falcon 9 rocket booster.
The rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 1:29 PM eastern time, right on schedule despite the threat of storm clouds from the south and east. The first stage separated as planned and touched down on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight minutes after launch. The second stage, which takes the capsule to orbit, separated 12 minutes after launch, also right on schedule.
The Falcon 9 Rocket launch vehicle is sending more than 7,300 pounds of research materials, supplies, and hardware, including new solar arrays, to the ISS crew. It’s the second mission under SpaceX’s new CRS contract with NASA; the first took place last December.
Dragon is carrying a number of research experiments to be conducted on the ISS, including oral bacteria to test germ growth with Colgate toothpaste; a number of tardigrades (also affectionately called water bears), primordial organisms that will attempt to fare and reproduce in space environments; and an investigation that will study the effects of microgravity on the formation of kidney stones – an ailment that many crew members display an increased susceptibility to during spaceflight.
The capsule is also delivering fresh food, including apples, navel oranges, lemons, and avocados.
Of the over 7,300 pounds of cargo, around 3,000 pounds will be taken up by a new roll-out, “flex blanket” solar array developed by space infrastructure company Redwire. As opposed to more traditional rigid paneled solar arrays, flex blanket technology provides more mass and performance benefits, Redwire technical director Matt LaPointe told TechCrunch.
The arrays were placed in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. It’s the first of three missions to send iROSA solar arrays to the station, with each mission carrying two arrays, LaPointe said. Once installed, the six iROSA arrays will collectively produce over 120KW of power. Redwire, which announced in March that it would go public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, says the new iROSA arrays will improve the ISS’s power generation by 20-30%.
The Dragon capsule is set to arrive at the space station at around 5 AM on June 5, where it will autonomously dock on a port of the Harmony module of the ISS. It will spend more than a month with the station before splashing down in the Atlantic with research and return cargo.
SpaceX is going to be providing more rides to private astronauts to the International Space Station, on top of the previously announced mission set to take place as early as next January. All four of these flights will be for Axiom, a private commercial spaceflight and space station company, and they’re set to take place between early next year through 2023.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 spacecraft make up the first commercial launch system certified for transporting humans to the ISS, and they’ve already delivered three groups of NASA astronauts to the orbital lab, including one demo crew for its final qualification test, and two operational crews to live and work on the station. In May, Axiom and NASA revealed the details of their AX-1 mission, the first all-private launch to the ISS, which will carry four passengers to the station on a Crew Dragon to live and work in space for a duration of eight days in total.
NASA and SpaceX will be providing training to all four of the Axiom crews set to make the trip to the station. And while neither SpaceX or Axiom has shared more details yet on what the other three missions will entail, or when they’re set to take place, four missions in two years technically absorbs all the existing capacity NASA has allocated for private astronaut missions, which is set at 2 per year, for 2022 and 2023.
One private astronaut flight to the ISS is already set for 2021: Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa booked a ride to the station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket for early December. Maezawa booked through Space Adventures, which has already provided a handful of trips for deep-pocketed private astronauts over the course of the past couple of decades.
Axiom meanwhile envisions a somewhat less niche, and more continually active future for commercial orbital space stations. The company is already working on a commercial module to be added to the existing ISS, and has designs on building a fully private successor to the station in future. Booking four trips with multiple crew members in two years goes a long way towards showing there’s more than just very sporadic demand from eccentric rich people for this kind of offering.
A Discovery reality TV competition, a Russian medical thriller and more productions could be heading to the orbital outpost in the next year.
China deployed a land rover on the surface of Mars on Saturday. The mission is one of many on its schedule as it challenges U.S. dominance of space exploration.
SpaceX private spaceflight ambitions got a big boost in 2018 when Japanese entrepreneur and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa announced he’d be taking a trip aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon on a round-trip flight passing the Moon. Maezawa is still on track to make that trip by 2023 according to current schedules, but he’s so eager to get to space that he just announced he’ll make a visit to the International Space Station as a private astronaut this December.
Maezawa will go as a client of Space Adventures, on a Russian Soyuz rocket set to take off from Kazakhstan on December 8, and he’ll be accompanied by his production assistant Yozo Hirano. Space Adventures is the same company behind prior Soyuz commercial spaceflight missions, including the trip made by Anousheh Ansari in 2006 and Guy Laliberté in 2009, among others. Laliberté’s trip was the most recent, with space tourism at the station officially on hold since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 since Soyuz has been the only means to access the ISS. Now that SpaceX is flying regular astronaut shuttle missions, however, tourist trips are back on.
The trip that Maezawa plans to take will take place over the course of 12 days, and he’ll be doing three months of training prior to the mission in Russia to get ready for the experience. In addition to being the first private astronaut visit to the ISS in over 10 years, this is also the first time that two private astronauts will fly on board the same Soyuz at the same time. Maezawa and Hirano will also be the first Japanese citizens to make the journey as private individuals.
It may seem like overkill to get to visit space twice in a lifetime as a private astronaut, but Maezawa says he’s driven by a curiosity of “what’s life like in space?” which will of course be useful information to have on the planned Moon mission, which will spend three days getting there, make a loop around our natural satellite, and then spend three days coming back. He’s also planning to post the experience to YouTube, which is why Hirano is accompanying him to document.
Houston-based startup Axiom Space and NASA unveiled more details Monday about the forthcoming Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1), the first fully private human mission to the International Space Station.
The Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1) spaceflight mission will ferry four private astronauts to the International Space Station in January 2022. The eight-day mission will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida using a SpaceX Crew Dragon. While in space, the crew will be living and working in the U.S. segment of the ISS.
NASA will be paying Axiom $1.69 million for services associated with the mission, such as transporting supplies to the ISS, though that does not include other reimbursable agreements between the two entities.
There’s a “high degree of confidence in the late January date” for the launch, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said.
Axiom in January released the identity of the crew members: Canadian investor Mark Pathy, investor Larry Connor, and former Israeli pilot Eytan Stibbe. Leading the crew as mission commander is former NASA astronaut and Axiom Space VP Michael López-Alegría, who has four spaceflights under his belt.
Pathy, Connor and Stibbe will engage in research missions while onboard. Pathy will be collaborating with the Montreal Children’s Hospital and the Canadian Space Agency; Connor, the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic; and Stibbe, to conduct scientific experiments coordinated by the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science and Technology.
“Larry and Mark are very serious individuals who are dedicated to being the best they can be in the mold of a NASA astronaut and they’re not interested in being tourists,” López-Alegría said during the media briefing. “They want to do their part to improve humankind.”
To prepare for the mission, the four crew members will go on a “camping trip” in the Alaskan foothills for training in July, López-Alegría said. He will start full-time training around August, with Larry starting in September. The rest of the crew will start in October, with around two-thirds of their time dedicated to ISS-specific training and the rest dedicated to training with SpaceX. The staggered schedule is due to the differing responsibilities between the crew members while on board. Axiom will be using the same contractor that NASA uses to train its astronauts.
While Suffredini declined to specify how much the private astronauts paid for their space on the flight, he said he “wouldn’t argue with” widely reported figures in the tens of millions. The Washington Post in January reported that the ticket prices came in at $55 million each.
Prices may not always be so high, but Suffredini said that the industry is likely at least a decade away from serious price drops that might make space travel feasible for the average space-goer.
Axiom intends to offer astronaut flights – both private and national – to the International Space Station and eventually its own privately-funded space station. While Axiom has “things lined up” for AX-2, AX-3 and AX-4, “like everyone we have to compete for the opportunity,” Suffredini said. The number of missions to the ISS is limited because there are only two docking ports on the ISS, Station deputy manager Dana Weigel added. That suggests that additional stations will be necessary to meet the burgeoning demand for both commercial and scientific space missions.
The company also in January 2020 won a NASA contract to develop and install a commercial module to the Harmony docking port of the ISS as early as 2024.
Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said that recent announcements on commercial spaceflights from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic in addition to the Axiom mission have heralded “a renaissance in U.S. human spaceflight.”
“A lot of times history can feel incremental when you’re in it, but I really feel like we are in it this year. This is a real inflection point with human spaceflight,” he said.
The bottle of Pétrus from 2000 — which is being sold by Christie’s — comes with a second bottle of “terrestrial” wine, a custom trunk, a decanter, glasses and a corkscrew crafted from a meteorite.
Crew-1, which launched to the space station in November, will head home in the capsule called Resilience.
Crew-1, which launched to the space station in November, will head home in the capsule called Resilience.
SpaceX has launched another batch of Starlink satellites, adding 60 more to the constellation on orbit. This is the 24th Starlink launch in total, and means SpaceX has now sent up over 1,500 Starlink spacecraft, with around 1,438 of those still in operation. This is the first Starlink launch since April 7 — which, surprisingly, is the biggest gap between these launches in quite a while.
This year, SpaceX’s overall launch calendar has been dominated by Starlink launches, as the company seeks to expand the availability, quality and coverage of its low Earth orbit broadband internet network. SpaceX also opened up availability of Starlink service this year, and now seems to be mostly supply-constrained on the consumer receiver terminal side, rather than necessarily on network capacity or regional ability.
Regarding that few week gap in the Starlink launch pace, it’s not like SpaceX was slacking in the meantime; the launcher sent up its second crew of astronauts destined for the International Space Station in a flight just last week. Plus, it has two three additional Starlink launches tentatively scheduled to happen in May.
This latest launch took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 11:44 PM EDT (8:44 PM PDT) on Wednesday, and it used a flight-proven Falcon 9 first stage booster, which was used on six prior missions, including four Starlink launches.
The crew arrived on Saturday on the Dragon Endeavour, a spacecraft built by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploration company.
SpaceX is set to launch its second operational commercial crew mission to the International Space Station for NASA, with a liftoff time of 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM PDT) on Friday morning. The flight will carry four astronauts, including two from NASA, one from JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and one from the ESA (European Space Agency), to the station, where they will begin a regular tour of duty conducting science experiments, and maintaining and upgrading the orbital platform.
This is the second commercial crew mission for SpaceX, which officially qualified its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket for human flight last year. NASA then launched four astronauts using SpaceX’s human-certified launch system later that year in November, becoming the first private company to deliver people to the ISS, and the first American vehicle to do so since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. Since the end of that program, NASA has relied on buying rides aboard Russian Soyuz rockets to keep up its representation on the ISS.
There’s already a SpaceX Crew Dragon at the Space Station from that Crew-1 launch last year, and it was relocated to another port on the station earlier this month in preparation for the arrival of the one flying for Crew-2. The Crew-1 Dragon capsule is set to return back to Earth with astronauts on board once they’re relieved by this flight’s crew, likely later this month on April 28.
One major notable change for this launch is the use of a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket booster. SpaceX has previously used new boosters fresh from the factory for its human launches, though it has a spotless track record when it comes to booster re-use for its cargo flights. It’s also the first re-use of a dragon spacecraft, and both components of this launch system actually previously supported human launches, with the first stage serving during Crew-1, and the Dragon capsule providing the ride for Demo-2, which flew astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
The astronauts on today’s flight are Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur from NASA, as well as Akihiko Hoshide from JAXA and Thomas Pesquet from the ESA. As mentioned, liftoff time is set for 5:49 AM EDT, but SpaceX will begin streaming live hours in advance at approximately 1:30 AM EDT on Friday (10:30 PM PDT on Thursday).
It will be the third flight of the company’s Crew Dragon capsule with people onboard.
The winner of NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract award is SpaceX, which bid $2.9 billion for the privilege of developing the means by which NASA astronauts will return to the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program. SpaceX was in the running alongside Blue Origin and Dynetics, but reportedly undercut both those prospective suppliers considerably with its bid, according to The Washington Post.
SpaceX proposed using its Starship spacecraft, currently under development, as the landing vehicle for astronauts once they arrive at their lunar destination. The HLS is a key part of NASA’s Artemis program, which will begin with uncrewed flights, followed by a Moon fly-by with a human crew, and eventually a human lunar landing at the South Pole of the Moon, during a mission which had been targeting 2024 as its fly date.
NASA announced that SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics made up the entirety of its field of approved vendors for bidding on the HLS contracts back in April last year. Since then, both Blue Origin (which bid alongside a “national team” that included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper) and Dynetics have built full-scale models of their system and submitted proposals detailing their plans for the functional versions to NASA for consideration. Meanwhile, SpaceX has been actively testing functional prototypes of its Starship spacecraft in Texas, and is also in the process of developing the Super Heavy booster that will propel it to the Moon once it’s ready.
The plan here was for NASA to have chosen all three companies to build out initial versions in order to satisfy the early requirements of the contract, and then ultimately, it was generally thought that the agency would select a couple from the list of three to build human landers, in order to provide it with some flexibility when it comes to means of getting to the lunar surface. That’s essentially how NASA operated with its Commercial Crew program for the International Space Station, which saw awards for both SpaceX and Boeing to build astronaut transport spacecraft. SpaceX has already qualified and begun to operate its vehicle, and Boeing hopes to bring its option online either late this year or early next.
SpaceX has won a lot of trust at NASA by delivering on the Commercial Crew program with a reliable, reusable human-rated spacecraft in the Crew Dragon. The Post also says that in addition to its attractive pricing, NASA wasn’t drawn to Starship’s flexibility and cargo capacity, since it’s aiming to be able to fly not just humans, but also large quantities of supplies and materials to the Moon, and eventually, beyond.
Starship is a long way off from that goal at the moment, however; SpaceX has been quickly developing new iterations in a rapid prototyping approach to its test phase, but the most recent Starship high-altitude flight ended poorly with an explosion prior to landing. Other elements of the test program, however, including showing that Starship can successfully reorient itself in mid-air and slow its decent for landing, have been more successful on past tests. None of the tests so far have left Earth’s atmosphere, however, nor have they involved any human flight testing, both of which will require a lot more development before the spacecraft is deemed mission-ready.
SpaceX was also the launch provider chosen to deliver components of the Lunar Gateway satellite in 2024, working with Maxar, which will produce the actual Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost. These, however, will be delivered via Falcon Heavy, which has already had multiple successful launches.
SpaceX is set to make a change to its Crew Dragon spacecraft for its forthcoming history-making all-civilian launch, currently set for September 15. That Dragon will replace its International Space Station docking mechanism with a transparent dome, through which passengers will be able to take in an awe-inspiring surround panorama of space and the Earth from an orbital perspective.
The glass dome will be at the ‘nose’ of the Dragon capsule, or its topmost point when it’s loaded upright on top of a Falcon 9 rocket readying for launch. There should be space for one passenger to use it at a time, and it’ll be opened up once the spacecraft is safely out of Earth’s atmosphere, exposed by a protective cover that can be flipped back down to protect the observation deck when the spacecraft re-enters on its return trip.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called it “the most ‘in space’ you could possibly feel” in a tweet sharing a concept render of the new modification in use. During a press briefing for the upcoming tourist flight, which is called ‘Inspiration4’ and led by billionaire Jared Isaacman, it was described as being similar to the exiting cupola on the International Space Station in terms of the views it affords.
The ISS cupola is an observatory module built by the European Space Agency (ESA) and installed in 2010. Based on these renders from SpaceX, the Dragon version will be a continuous unbroken transparent surface, whereas the ISS cupola is made up of segmented panes separated by support structure, so that could mean Dragon provides a better view.
This modification could pave the way for a more permanent alternate configuration of Dragon, one best-suited for SpaceX’s planned commercial passenger missions, most of which will likely aim to do orbital tours without any actual docking at the ISS. It’s possible the company will make further cabin modifications when the vehicle isn’t configured for crew delivery to the orbital science station.
SpaceX also revealed new details about the Inspiration4 mission today, including its planned launch date of September 15, and a three-day mission flight duration. The remaining two passengers on board the four-person crew were also revealed this morning.
After almost a year in space, Scott Kelly’s heart diminished, but he remained reasonably fit.
NASA doesn’t just let anyone launch whatever they want to space without checking in with the agency about potential impacts to its own assets on orbit, including the International Space Station (ISS). The agency has a standard set of guidelines around so-called “Conjunction Assessment,” which is basically determine the risk that a close approach between in-space objects might occur, which in turn could potentially result in a collision. This assessment determines when and where something flies, as you might expect.
Today, NASA published a new agreement between itself and SpaceX that goes above and beyond its standard Conjunction Assessment practices. The special agreement, which exists under the mandate of the Space Act that allows NASA to work with any company in order to fulfill its mandate, is defined as a ‘nonreimbursable’ one, or just one in which no money changes hands, which is designed to benefit both parties involved.
It effectively lays out that because SpaceX operates Starlink, which is the largest existing on-orbit constellation of spacecraft, and which is growing at a rapid pace, and because each of these is equipped with the ability to maneuver itself autonomously in response to mission parameters, there needs to exist a deeper ongoing partnership between NASA and SpaceX for conjunction avoidance.
Accordingly, the agreement outlines the ways in which communication and information sharing between NASA and SpaceX will exceed what has been typically been expected. For NASA’s part, it’ll be providing detailed and accurate info about its planned missions in advance to SpaceX so that they can use that to properly program Starlink’s automated avoidance measures whenever a mission is happening where NASA assets might cross paths with the constellation. It’ll also be working directly with SpaceX on improving its its ability to assess and avoid any incidents, and will be providing technical support on how SpaceX might better mitigate “photometric brightness,” or the reflectivity of its Starlink spacecraft.
Meanwhile, SpaceX will be responsible for ensuring its Starlink satellites take ‘evasive action’ to ‘mitigate close approaches and avoid collisions with all NASA assets.” It’ll also be required to provide time frame ‘cut-outs’ for periods when Starlink satellites aren’t able to employ their collision avoidance, which mostly occurs during the phase right after they’re launch when they’re still being activated and put into their target orbits.
Another key point in the agreement is that SpaceX plan Starlink launches so the they’re at minimum either 5km above or below the highest and lowest points of the International Space Station’s orbit as it makes its way around the Earth. Finally, SpaceX is also expected to share its own analysis of the effectiveness of its satellite dimming techniques, so the agency can adjust its own guidance on the subject accordingly.
The full agreement is embedded below, but the main takeaway is that NASA clearly wants SpaceX to be a better low-Earth partner and citizen as the size of its constellation pushes past the 1,200 mark, on track to grow to around 1,500 or more by year’s end. Also, NASA’s putting a lot of trust and responsibility in SpaceX’s hands – basically it’s laying out that Starlink’s built-in autonomous capabilities can avoid any really danger that might arise. The way NASA has structured this document also leaves open the possibility that it could repurpose it for other constellation operators – a growing need given the number of companies working on networks of low-Earth orbit spacecraft.
SpaceX has delivered another 60 Starlink satellites to orbit — meaning it has sent 180 in total to join its 1,000+ strong constellation in the past two weeks alone. Today’s launch also set a record for SpaceX for its Falcon 9 rocket reusability program, since it was the ninth flight and ninth landing for this particular first-stage booster.
The booster was used previously on a variety of missions, including five prior Starlink launches, as well as the Demo-1 mission for the company’s Crew Dragon capsule, which was the uncrewed test flight that proved it would work as intended from launch all the way to docking with the International Space Station and then returning back to Earth.
SpaceX set its prior reusability record in January this year – another Starlink launch – using this very same refurbished first stage, which had just flown in December of last year before that. SpaceX not only wants to continue to show that it can re-fly these boosters more and more times, but also that it can turn them around quickly for their next mission, since both speed and volume will have a significant impact on launch costs.
Rocket reuse is of particular importance when it comes to these Starlink missions, which are happening with increasing frequency as SpaceX pushes to expand the availability of its Starlink broadband internet service globally. As mentioned, this is the third launch of 60 satellites for the constellation in just 10 days — the most recent launch happened just Thursday, and the first of this trio took place the Thursday before that.
From here, expect SpaceX to just continue to launch at roughly this pace for the next little while, since it has two more planned Starlink launches before March is over, including one tentatively set for next Sunday. As the company is its own customer for these missions, it’s eating the cost of the launches (at least until Starlink starts operating beyond its current beta and bringing in more revenue) so re-flying boosters is a good way to help mitigate the overall spend.
Monday brings with it not one, but two space SPACS – there’s Rocket Lab, and there’s Spire Global, a satellite operator that bills itself primarily as a SaaS company focused on delivering data and analytics made possible by its 100-plus spacecraft constellation. SPACs have essentially proven a pressure-release valve for the space startup market, which has been waiting on high-profile exits to basically prove out the math of its venture-backability.
Spire Global debuted in 2012, and has raised over $220 million to date. It will merge with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) called NavSight Holdings, in order to make a debut on the NYSE under the ticker ‘SPIR.’ The combined company will have a pro forma enterprise value of $1.6 billion upon transaction close, which is targeted for this summer.
The deal will provide $475 in funds for the company, including via a PIPE that includes Tiger Global, BlackRock and Hedosophia. Existing Spire stockholders will wind up with around 67% of the company after the businesses combine.
Spire’s network of satellites is designed to provide customers with a ‘space-as-a-service’ model, allowing them to operate their own payloads, and access data collected via an API their developers can integrate into their own software. The model is subscription-based, and is designed to get customers up and running with their own space-based data feed in less than a year from deal designs and commitment.
Existing investors in Spire Global include RRE Ventures, Promus Ventures, Seraphim Capital, Mitsui Global Investment and more, with its most recent round being a raised of debt financing. The company has launched satellites via Rocket Lab, its companion in the Monday SPAC news rush. The satellites it operates are small cube satellites, and it has launches on a wide range of launch vehicles, including SpaceX’s Falcon 9, the Russian Soyuz, ISRO’s PSLV, Japan’s H-2B, ULA rockets, Northrop Grumman’s Antares and even the International Space Station.
Spire got its start from very humble origins indeed – tracing all the way back to a Kickstarter campaign that was successful with just over $100,000 raised from backers.
Because news of its SPAC-fueled public market debut wasn’t enough, Rocket Lab also unveiled a new class of rocket it has in development on Monday. The launch vehicle, called Neutron, will be able to carry 8 metric tons (around 18,000 lbs) to orbit, far exceeding the cargo capacity of Rocket Lab’s current Electron vehicle, which can host only around 660 lbs. Neutron will also have a fully reusable first-stage, designed to launch on an ocean landing platform, not unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster.
Rocket Lab says that Neutron will be designed to service increased demand from customers launching large multi-satellite constellations. The heavier lift will mean that it can take more small satellites up at one time to get those constellations in orbit more quickly. Its cargo rating also means it should be able to deliver up to 98% of all currently-forecasted spacecraft launching through 2029, according to Rocket Lab, and provide resupply services to the International Space Station. Rocket Lab also says it’ll be capable of human spaceflight missions, indicating an ambition to make it the company’s first human-rated spacecraft.
Neutron could significantly expand Rocket Lab’s customer base, and it’ll also improve costs and economics vs. what Electron can do now, thanks to a design focus don efficiency and reusability. The rocket will launch from Rocket Lab’s Wallops, Virginia facility, and since there’s already a launch pad in place for it, the company expects it’ll be able to fly Neutron for the first time by 2024. In addition to its LA-based HQ and the Wallops launch site, Rocket Lab anticipates it’ll be building a new Neutron production facility somewhere in the U.S. to build the new rocket at scale.
While it won’t have the launch capacity of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, it’s still intended to be a rocket that can also carry smaller payloads to the Moon and even deep space beyond. The medium-lift category in general is generating a lot of interest right now, given the projections in the amount and variety of constellations that both private and public organization are expected to put into orbit over the next decade. Constellations are offering advantages in terms of cost and coverage for everything from communications to Earth observation. Another rocket startup, Relativity Space, just unveiled similar plans for a larger launch vehicle to complement its first small rocket.
Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.
Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.
“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”
Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.
Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.
Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.
Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.
This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).
3D-printed rocket company Relativity Space has just revealed what comes after Terran 1, the small launch vehicle it hopes to begin flying later this year. It’s next rocket will be Terran R, a much larger orbital rocket with around 20x the cargo capacity of Terran 1, that will also be distinguished from its smaller, disposable sibling by being fully reusable – across both first and second-stages, unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9.
I spoke to Relativity Space CEO and founder Tim Ellis about Terran R, and how long it’s been in the works for the space startup. Ellis said that in fact, the vision every since Relativity’s time at Y Combinator has included larger lift rockets – and much more.
“When I founded Relativity five years ago, it always was inspired by seeing SpaceX launching and landing rockets, docking with the International Space Station, and this idea that going to Mars was critically important for humanity’s future, and really expanding the possibilities for human experience, on Earth and beyond,” Ellis told me. “But that all of the animations faded to black right when people walked out [of spaceship landing on Mars], and I believed that 3D printing had to be this inevitable technology that was going to build humanity’s industrial base on Mars, and that we needed to really inspire dozens, or even hundreds of companies to work on making this future happen.”
The long-term goal for Relativity Space, Ellis said, has always been to become an “end-product 3D printing company,” with its original Terran 1 light payload rocket simply representing the first of those products it’s bringing to market.
“3D printing is our new tech stack for aerospace, and really is rewriting something that we don’t feel has fundamentally changed over the last 60 years,” he said. “It’s really bringing automation that replaces the factory fixed tooling, supply chains, hundreds of thousands of parts, manual labor and slow iteration speed, with something that I believe is needed for the future on Earth, too.”
Terran R, which will have a payload capacity of over 20,000 kg (more than 44,000 lbs) to low-Earth orbit, is simply “the next logical step” for Relativity in that long-term vision of producing a wide range of products, including aerospace equipment for use right here on Earth. Ellis says that a larger launch vehicle makes sense given current strong customer demand for Terran 1, which has a max payload capacity of 1,250 kg (around 2,755 lbs) to low-Earth orbit, combined with the average size of satellites being launched today. Despite the boon in so-called ‘small’ satellites, many of the constellations being build today have individual satellites that weigh in excess of 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs), Ellis points out, which means that Terran R will be able to delivery many more at once for these growing on-orbit spacecraft networks.
“It’s really the same rocket architecture, it’s the same propellant, same factory, it’s the same printers, the same avionics and the same team that developed Terran 1,” Ellis said about the forthcoming rocket. That means that it’s actually relatively easy for the company to spin up its new production line, despite Terran R actually being quite functionally different than the current, smaller rocket – particularly when it comes to its full reusability.
As mentioned, Terran R will have both a reusable first and second stage. SpaceX’s Falcon 9’s first stage (a liquid fuel rocket booster) is reusable, and detaches from the second stage before quickly re-orienting itself and re-entering Earth’s atmosphere for a propulsive landing just after entering space. The Falcon 9 second stage is expendable, which is the space term for essentially just junk that’s discarded and eventually de-orbits and burns up on re-entry.
SpaceX had planned to try to make the Falcon 9 second stage reusable, but it would’ve required too much additional mass via heat shielding for it to make sense with the economics it was targeting. Ellis was light on details about Terran R’s specifics, but he did hint that some unique use of fairly unusual materials made possible though 3D printing, along with some sparing use of generative design, will be at work in helping the Relativity rocket’s second stage reusable in a sustainable way.
“Because it’s still entirely 3D-printed, we’re actually going to use more exotic materials, and design geometries that wouldn’t be possible at all, traditionally, to manufacture,” Ellis said. “It’s just too complicated looking; it would be way too difficult to manufacture traditionally in the ways that that Terran R is designed. And that will actually make it a much more reusable rocket, and really helped build the best reusable rocket possible.”
Terran R will also use a new upper stage engine that Relativity Space is designing, which is also unique compared to the existing engines used on Terran 1. It’s 3D printed as well, but uses a copper thrust chamber that will allow it to have higher overall power and thrust capabilities, according to Ellis. When I spoke to Ellis on Thursday evening, Relativity had just completed its first full success duration test of the new engine, a key step towards full production.
Ellis said that the company will share more about Terran R over the course of this year, but did note that the existing large 3D printers in its production facilities are already sized correctly to start building the new rocket – “the only change is software,” he said. He also added that some of the test sites Relativity has contracted to use at NASA’s Stennis Space Center are able to support testing of a rocket at Terran R’s scale, too, so it sounds like he’s planning for rapid progress on this new launch vehicle.