Rocket Lab is developing two spacecraft based on its Photon platform to orbit Mars, studying the planet’s magnetosphere in order to gain a better understanding of the ways in which Mars’ climate has changed over time. The science mission was awarded through NASA’s Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration (SIMPLEx) program, and will fly to Mars in 2024, aboard a yet-to-be-identified commercial lunch vehicle contracted by NASA as a rideshare rocket.
This is a noteworthy development for a few reasons, including that Rocket Lab will realize its earlier announced vision of using Photon as a platform for satellites that travel beyond Earth’s orbit. It’s also interesting because it will ostensibly mark the first decoupling of Rocket Lab’s launch and spacecraft services businesses.
Rocket Lab’s Photon is a satellite platform that includes the company’s Curie in-space propulsion system, and they’ll also be outfitted for this mission with star trackers and reaction wheels to make up a situational control system, as well as a deep space navigation system or way finding. The appeal of Photon is meant to be deep space exploration capability in a small, affordable and relatively low mass for launch package that could broaden access to interplanetary science for more organizations and institutions.
Next up for the Rocket Lab-supported Escapate mission that will use these two Mars-bound Photos is a design review in June, which will be followed up by a final confirmation review in July as a last check before the Photons are built, equipped and readied for their eventual flight.
Jeff Bezos is going to be one of the passengers on his spaceflight company Blue Origin’s first ever human space launch on July 20. The Amazon founder announced the news via his Instagram on Monday morning, revealing that his brother Mark will also be coming along for the ride. Bezos and his brother will join the winner of an online auction Blue Origin is currently hosting, which currently stands at $2.8 million as the highest bid for that seat.
The Blue Origin launch of its suborbital, reusable New Shepard rocket on July 20 will be the first time it has ever flown with people on board. It’s unusual for a company to make its first ever human spaceflight a mission with a paying passenger, and now we know that it’s also going to be carrying one of the world’s richest people, another bold choice for a first human flight. Virgin Galactic, by contrast, has flown to space multiple times with test pilots and astronauts before its forthcoming trip with Sir Richard Branson. Elon Musk has also never flown on a SpaceX launch, though he has suggested in the past that he will fly on one of his company’s vehicles at some point.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard has flown plenty of times without people, however, and save for the first flight where the reusable booster was lost, has had a complete success for each of those 15 missions, including landing of the booster (except that first time) and recovery of the capsule (for all of the launches). The New Shepard rocket doesn’t go all the way to orbit, but instead flies to the edge of space, where passengers experience a few minutes of weightlessness and an unbeatable view of Earth through the capsules many windows, before returning to a parachute-assisted landing on the ground in Texas near Blue Origin’s launch site.
The auction for Blue Origin’s first paying customer seat currently sits at $2.8 million, and it’s been there for a while now after the price raised from $1.4 million when Blue Origin opened unsealed bidding on May 19. The final phase of the auction, set for June 12, will include live online bidding from remaining participants who bump their existing bid to match the high offer.
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 plannedand touched down on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight minutes after launch. The second stage, which takes the capsule to orbit, separated 12 minutes after launch, also right on schedule.
Image Credits: SpaceX
The Falcon 9 Rocket launch vehicle is sending more than 7,300 pounds of research materials, supplies, and hardware, including new solar arrays, to the ISS crew. It’s the second mission under SpaceX’s new CRS contract with NASA; the first took place last December.
Dragon is carrying a number of research experiments to be conducted on the ISS, including oral bacteria to test germ growth with Colgate toothpaste; a number of tardigrades (also affectionately called water bears), primordial organisms that will attempt to fare and reproduce in space environments; and an investigation that will study the effects of microgravity on the formation of kidney stones – an ailment that many crew members display an increased susceptibility to during spaceflight.
The capsule is also delivering fresh food, including apples, navel oranges, lemons, and avocados.
Of the over 7,300 pounds of cargo, around 3,000 pounds will be taken up by a new roll-out, “flex blanket” solar array developed by space infrastructure company Redwire. As opposed to more traditional rigid paneled solar arrays, flex blanket technology provides more mass and performance benefits, Redwire technical director Matt LaPointe told TechCrunch.
The arrays were placed in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. It’s the first of three missions to send iROSA solar arrays to the station, with each mission carrying two arrays, LaPointe said. Once installed, the six iROSA arrays will collectively produce over 120KW of power. Redwire, which announced in March that it would go public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, says the new iROSA arrays will improve the ISS’s power generation by 20-30%.
The Dragon capsule is set to arrive at the space station at around 5 AM on June 5, where it will autonomously dock on a port of the Harmony module of the ISS. It will spend more than a month with the station before splashing down in the Atlantic with research and return cargo.
Virgin Galactic has a new customer: The International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), which will be flying researcher, citizen scientist and STEM influencer Kellie Gerardi on an upcoming dedicated Virgin Galactic launch. Gerardi will be conducing a range of experiments on her flight, focused on researching healthcare technologies including a new biomonitor system to study the effects of spaceflights on astronauts in real time.
Gerardi has flown on multiple previous parabolic research flights, which are high-altitude aircraft flights that simulate the reduced gravity environment of space. This will be her first trip to space proper, however, and that transition exemplifies the benefits Virgin Galactic hopes to be able to offer to researchers who previously conducted their work in simulated zero-G conditions.
Image Credits: Kellie Gerardi
The biomonitor system that Gerardi will be testing was developed by Canadian startup Hexoskin along with the Canadian Space Agency, and is a wearable array of sensors dubbed ‘Astroskin’ that’s intended to provide monitoring of the impact of launch, reduced gravity, re-entry and landing for those making trips to space. Another experiment Gerardi will perform will test fluid dynamics to inform the design of humidifiers and syringes designed for use in space.
Virgin Galactic has booked similar missions previously, including a dedicated flight for scientist Alan Stern, who will be performing experiments on behalf of NASA and the Southwest Research Institute. Much of the attention on the company has focused on its space tourism flights for paying private astronauts, but the potential for commercial research is another key ingredient in its overall business mix.
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.
This week actually includes two, since I was out last week for a Canadian national holiday (and back today for the U.S. one, ironically). There’s plenty to cover, including Blue Origin’s bidding process, lunar landers, spaceships launching at sea and the return of our very own space event.
Blue Origin’s big bid
Blue Origin is auctioning off one seat on its first ever human spaceflight, and the bidding got started at $1.4 million — or at least, the public bidding started there. Before last week, people had been submitting blind bids, but now Blue Origin is posting the top current bid to its website whenever it hits a new high. It’s currently set at $2.8 million, meaning it’s doubled since the bids opened up to public scrutiny, and presumably FOMO.
Everything’s building up to June 12, when the auction will conclude with a live, real-time online competitive bidding round. Seems likely it’ll at least cross the $3 million mark before all’s said and done, which is good news for Blue Origin, since run-of-the-mill tickets for the few minutes in suborbital space going forward will probably end up more in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.
The winning bidder will be flying on July 20, if all goes to the current plan, and will be accompanied by other passengers selected by Blue Origin through some other mechanism. We don’t yet know who else will be on the ride. Bezos maybe?
SpaceX’s Deimos spaceport is under construction
ENSCO offshore oil rig like the one SpaceX is converting.
SpaceX is really flexing its sci-fi-made-real muscle with its latest move: The company is turning two offshore oil rig platforms into floating spaceports, and one of the two, codenamed ‘Deimos’ after one of Mars’ moons, is already being worked on. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared that the company is hoping to have it ready for operations next year, meaning it could host actual launches in 2022.
Eventually, Deimos and its twin, Phobos, will provide launch and landing services to SpaceX’s first fully reusable launch vehicle — Starship. Starship only just managed to land successfully after a high, but still very much atmospheric flight test, however, so it has a way to go before it’s making amphibious departures and arrivals using the converted oil platforms.
Putting these in the ocean presumably helps solve some key issues, not least of which is being mindful of the impact of launching absolutely massive rockets on land anywhere near people. Ditto the landings, which at least early on, are bound to be risky affairs better carried out with a buffer of surrounding ocean.
Landers; lunar ones
Concept graphic depicting ispace’s HAKUTO-R lander and rover.
There’s quite a bit of lunar lander news this week, including Japan’s ispace revealing that it’ll provide commercial lunar lander service to both Canada and Japan, with a ride for both provided by SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket. These will be two separate missions, with the first one set for next year, and the second one set to take place in 2023.
Both will use ispace’s Hakuto-R lander, which it originally developed to take part in the Google-backed Lunar XPRIZE competition. That ended without a winner, but some companies, including ispace, continued to work on their landers with an eye to commercialization. The Hakuto-R being sent on behalf of JAXA will carry an adorable ball-shaped Moon robot which looks like a very novel take on a rover.
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 December 14 and 15, and it’s once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join.
We had an amazing line-up of guests and speakers at last year’s event, including Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck, NASA’s Kathy Lueders and more, and we’re already working on a fantastic follow-up agenda that’s sure to thrill all kinds of space fans.
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.
SpaceX has launched another 60 Starlink satellites — making 180 delivered to orbit in under two weeks — but the launch early Sunday morning was more notable because it set a new, key record for Falcon 9 rocket reusability. This marked the 10th flight of the first-stage rocket booster used for the launch, which sets a record for re-use for SpaceX as the rocket booster with the most successful mission under its belt.
The launch took place at 2:42 AM EDT, flying from Cape Canaveral in Florida. SpaceX also successfully returned the booster to its drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean for a tenth successful landing for the rocket, too, making it a record-setter in that regard as well, and setting up the possibility that it could fly yet again. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said it could be “possible” for a Falcon 9 booster to fly “100+” times with servicing and component replacement.
This Falcon 9 has previously flown on missions including the original uncrewed demonstration mission of Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s astronaut spacecraft, and seven prior Starlink launches. SpaceX has shown just how reusable its rockets are with its aggressive Starlink launch schedule, most of which have employed rocket boosters that have flown a number of missions before, including other launches for the broadband internet megaconstellation.
Since SpaceX is both launch provider and customer on Starlink, it’s actually crucial for the company to realize as many cost savings as possible during its frequent flights building the network of low Earth orbit satellites. Re-use of the boosters is a key ingredient, and one where the cost savings definitely accrue over time. Musk has previously said that the economics are such that for its external customer flights, it’s at about “even” on the second use of a booster, and “ahead” in terms of costs by the third. During its Starlink launch program, SpaceX has repeatedly set and broken its own reusability records, indicating a key means of keeping the costs of building out its in-space satellite infrastructure is using flight-proven boosters as much as possible.
This is the 27th Starlink launch thus far, and SpaceX has another planned just six days from now on May 15, with at least one more likely in the works for later this month after that. The company hopes to have its broadband network built out to the point where it has global reach by the end of this year.
The successful launch and landing on Wednesday included an ascent to around 30,000 feet, where the 150-foot tall spacecraft flipped onto its ‘belly’ and then descended back to Earth, returning vertical and firing its engines to slow its descent and touch down softly standing upright. This atmospheric testing is a key step meant to help prove out the technologies and systems that will later help Starship return to Earth after its orbital launches. The full Starship launch system is intended to be completely reusable, including this vehicle (which will eventually serve as the upper stage) and the Super Heavy booster that the company is also in the process of developing.
A second test flight of SN15 is an interesting possibility among the options for the prototype. SpaceX will obviously be conducting a number of other check-outs and gathering as much data as it can from the vehicle, in addition to whatever it collected from onboard sensors, but the options for the craft after that basically amounted to stress testing it to failure, or dismantling it and studying the pieces. A second flight attempt is an interesting additional option that could provide SpaceX with a lot of invaluable data about its planned re-use of the production version of Starship.
Whether or not SpaceX actually does re-fly SN15 is still up in the air, but if it does end up being technically possible, it seems like a great learning opportunity for SpaceX that could help fast-track the overall development program.
Orbital launch company Virgin Orbit has scheduled its next mission to space.
Virgin Orbit will be returning its LauncherOne rocket to orbit in June to deliver payloads for the U.S. Department of Defense Space Test Program, SatRevolution, and the Royal Netherlands Air Force.
The manifest includes three CubeSat satellites as part of the DoD’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative; a CubeSat satellite called BRIK II, Norway’s first military satellite to go to space; and two optical imaging satellites from SatRevolution for Earth observation. DoD awarded the launch to Virgin Orbit’s defense-focused subsidiary VOX Space last April.
LauncherOne will take its payload to a target orbit of around 310 miles above Earth.
This will be the LauncherOne’s first take-off since a demonstration mission in January, during which the LauncherOne carried satellites to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. That most recent demonstration was the first time Virgin Orbit proved that its unique hybrid aircraft/orbital rocket system actually works. The first try, which took place in May of last year, ended after the rocket initiated an automatic safety shutdown after detaching from the Boeing 747 that takes it to launch altitude.
The mission will be conducted from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on a yet-to-be-announced date in June. The rocket will be shipped out to the Mojave site “in the coming days” for prelaunch operations, the company said. Virgin Orbit will offer a public livestream of the mission on its website.
Virgin Orbit is part of a small cohort of private orbital launch companies that have actually sent payloads to space. As opposed to providers like SpaceX, which uses massive rockets similar to legacy designs from agencies like NASA, LauncherOne is essentially a 747 that’s been retrofitted with a rocket. Besides being smaller and able to take off from traditional airplane runways, the 747 saves on costs by being completely reusable.
Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic in 2017, with the latter focusing exclusively on commercial human spaceflight services. In homage to its beginnings as a humble record company, the mission has been christened “Tubular Bells, Part One,” so named after the first track on the first album ever released by Virgin Records.
SpaceX is continuing its Starship spacecraft testing and development program apace, and as of this afternoon it has authorization from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct its next three test flights from its launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. Approvals for prior launch tests have been one-offs, but the FAA said in a statement that it’s approving these in a batch because “SpaceX is making few changes to the launch vehicle and relied on the FAA’s approved methodology to calculate the risk to the public.”
SpaceX is set to launch its SN15 test Starship as early as this week, with the condition that an FAA inspector be present at the time of the launch at the facility in Boca Chica. The regulator says that has sent an inspector, who is expected to arrive today, which could pave the way for a potential launch attempt in the next couple of days.
The last test flight SpaceX attempted from Boca Chica was the launch of SN11, which occurred at the end of March. That ended badly, after a mostly successful initial climb to an altitude of around 30,000 feet and flip maneuver, with an explosion triggered by an error in one of the Raptor engines used to control the powered landing of the vehicle.
In its statement about the authorization of the next three attempts, the FAA noted that the investigation into what happened with SN11 and its unfortunate ending is still in progress, but added that even so, the agency has determined any public safety concerns related to what went wrong have been alleviated.
The three-launch approval license includes flights of SN16 and SN17 as well as SN15, but the FAA noted that after the first flight, the next two might require additional “corrective action” prior to actually taking off, pending any new “mishap” occurring with the SN15 launch.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has at time criticized the FAA for not being flexible or responsive enough to the rapid pace of iteration and testing that SpaceX is pursuing in Starship’s development. On the other side, members of Congress have suggested that the FAA has perhaps not been as thorough as necessary in independently investigating earlier Starship testing mishaps. The administration contends that the lack of any ultimate resulting impact to public safety is indicative of the success of its program thus far, however.
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.
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.
SpaceX has another successful human space launch to its credit, after a good takeoff and orbital delivery of its Crew Dragon spacecraft on Friday morning. The Dragon took off aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 5:49 AM EDT (2:49 AM EDT). On board were four astronauts, including NASA’s Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, as well as JAXA’s Akihiko Hoshide and the ESA’s Thomas Pesquet.
This was Spacex’s second official astronaut delivery mission for NASA, after its Crew-1 operation last year. Unlike Crew-1, Crew-2 included use of two re-flown components in the spacecraft system, including the first stage booster, which was used during the Crew-1 launch, and the Dragon capsule, which was used for SpaceX’s first ever human spaceflight, the final demonstration mission of its spacecraft certification program for NASA, which flew Bob Behnken (side note: this mission’s pilot, McArthur, is Behnken’s wife) and Doug Hurley to the ISS. SpaceX has characterized the use of re-flown elements as arguably even safer than using new ones, with CEO Elon Musk noting that you wouldn’t want to be on the “first flight of an airplane when it comes out of the factory” during a conversation with XPRIZE’s Peter Diamandis on Thursday evening.
Now that the Crew Dragon is in its target transfer orbit, it’ll be making its way to rendezvous with the Space Station, which will take just under 24 hours. It’ll be docking with the station early tomorrow morning, attaching to a docking port that was just cleared earlier this month when SpaceX’s other Crew Dragon relocated to another port on the ISS earlier this month.
This launch also included a recovery attempt for the booster, with a landing at sea using SpaceX’s drone landing pad. That went as planned, meaning this booster which has already flown two different sets of human astronauts, could be used to fly yet another after refurbishment.
SpaceX’s Commercial Crew program with NASA continues to be the key success story in the agency’s move to partner with more private companies for its research and space exploration missions. NASA also recently tapped SpaceX to develop the human landing system for its Artemis program, which will return humans to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program, and which will use SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft. For SpaceX’s human spaceflight program, the next big milestone will be its first flight of a mission made up entirely of paying private citizens, which is currently set to take place this fall.
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.
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).
Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellite constellation is one step closer to actually making it to space: The company announced it has secured an agreement with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) to fly its satellites on nine Atlas V rocket launches. Amazon intends to use multiple launch providers and spacecraft to ultimately get the full complement of 3,236 Kuiper satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO), but ULA is the first launch provider that Amazon has signed or announced.
ULA’s Atlas V is a proven workhorse in the space launch industry, having flown 85 prior missions with a perfect track record. The spacecraft was used to launch NASA’s Perseverance rover, for example, as well as Lockheed Martin’s OSIRIS-REx robotic asteroid exploration craft. While Amazon and ULA detailed to total number of launch vehicles that the contract covers, they didn’t share a timeline about when we can expect the launches to take place.
Late last year, I spoke to Amazon SVP of Devices & Services Dave Limp at our TC Sessions: Space events, and I asked him about timelines for launches. Limp said at the time that Amazon was about at the “middle of [its] design phase” for the Project Kuiper satellites, which indicates there’s still work to be done before they enter mass production, which would obviously precede launch.
Limp also pointed out that the clock is ticking for Amazon in terms of its FCC license to operate the constellation, so it essentially has to “have half [its] constellation up in about six years.” That will mean an aggressive launch schedule once the design phase is complete and its actually in the process of building its satellites.
NASA has marked a major milestone in its extraterrestrial exploration program, with the first powered flight of an aircraft on Mars. The flight occurred very early this morning, and NASA received telemetry confirming that the ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter it sent to Mars with its Perseverance rover. This is a major achievement, in no small part because the atmosphere is so thin on Mars that creating a rotor-powered craft like Ingenuity that can actually use it to produce lift is a huge challenge.
This first flight of Ingenuity was an autonomous remote flight, with crews on Earth controlling it just by sending commands through at the appropriate times to signal when it should begin and end its 40-second trip through the Martian ‘air.’ While that might seem like a really short trip, it provides immense value in terms of the data collected by the helicopter during the flight. Ingenuity actually has a much more powerful processor on board than even the Perseverance rover itself, and that’s because it intends to gather massive amounts of data about what happens during its flight test so that it can transmit that to the rover, which then leapfrogs the information back to Earth.
NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter in flight on Mars.
As mentioned, this is the first ever flight of a powered vehicle on Mars, so while there’s been lots of modelling and simulation work predicting how it would go, no one knew for sure what would happen before this live test. Ingenuity has to rotate its rotor at a super-fast 2,500 RPM, for instance, compared to around 400 to 500 RPM for a helicopter on Earth, because of how thin the atmosphere is on Mars, which produced significant technical challenges.
What’s the point of even flying a helicopter on Mars? There are a few important potential applications, but the first is that it sets up future exploration missions, making it possible for NASA to use aerial vehicles for future science on the red planet. It can explore things like caves and peaks that rovers can’t reach, for instance. Eventually, NASA is also hoping to see if there’s potential for use of aerial vehicles in future human exploration of Mars, too — martian explorers would benefit significantly from being able to use aircraft as well as ground vehicles when we eventually get there.
Now, NASA will work on unpacking the data to glean more insights from the flight, and get back more photos and video of the helicopter during its ascent, hover and landing. Following this flight, it’ll plan additional flight testing attempts based on remaining power and other parameters now that it knows Ingenuity can fly and did as intended.
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.
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.
Blue Origin has launched its New Shepard rocket for the second time this year, and the 15th time overall. The mission profile saw the reusable spacecraft fly to suborbital space, and then return for a parachute-assisted landing at Blue Origin’s launch facility in West Texas.
This flight was a little different than its usual missions, because it included a rehearsal component with people standing in for what will eventually be Blue Origin’s paying private astronaut customers. What that means is that they actually went through the process of flight preparations, including transporting to the pad, and even climbing in to the New Shepard vehicle and getting seated as if they were going along for the ride.
The crucial difference between this and an actual passenger flight is that Blue Origin then paused the countdown, and the mock crew disembarked, before the countdown was resumed and the flight proceeded as planned — without any passengers, save for Mannequin Skywalker, the Blue Origin test dummy who flies on these preparation missions to take crucial readings during the launch and return.
New Shepard returned and touched down without any issue, and in fact showed off one of its smoothest landings yet. This was the second launch and landing for this particular booster stage. The capsule also touched down as planned, with a soft landing facilitated by the spacecraft’s parachute descent system.
Image Credits: Blue Origin
Next up, Blue Origin is going to do a dry run of what would be the ending stage of the mission for an actual human crew, by bringing out those rehearsal astronauts and putting them back into the capsule, then rehearsing in full the astronaut recovery and departure process that would occur during a live tourist flight.
All of today’s activities showed off what Blue Origin hopes to accomplish sometime this year with people on board. It’s yet another way paying private astronauts can get to space, in a growing roster of options that now includes SpaceX Dragon flights, and hopefully soon, Virgin Galactic launches.
Space startup Astranis has raised a $250 million Series C round to provide it with a capital injection to help scale manufacturing of its unique MicroGEO satellites — geostationary communications satellites that are much smaller than the typical massive, expensive spacecraft used in that orbital band to provide communications and connectivity to specific points on Earth.
The Astranis Series C was led by BlackRock-managed funds, and includes participation from a host of new investors including Baillie Gifford, Fidelity, Koch Strategic Platforms and more. Existing investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Venrock, and more also chipped in, with the raise valuing the company at $1.4 billion post-money.
This brings the total funding raised by Astranis to over $350 million, including both equity and debt financing. Astranis got started only in 2016, and was part of the YC Winter 2016 cohort. While a lot of other companies are looking to build satellite constellations in low-Earth orbit to provide low-cost broadband on Earth, Astranis, led by co-founder and CEO John Gedmark, is focused on the GEO band, where the large legacy communications satellites currently operate, orbiting the Earth at a fixed position and providing connectivity to a set area on Earth.
Gedmark has told me previously that the company’s offering is very different from the LEO constellations being put up and operated by companies including SpaceX, because they’re essentially a much more targeted, nimble solution that works with existing ground infrastructure. Customers who have a specific regional need for connectivity can get Astranis to put one one up at a greatly reduced cost compared to a traditional GEO communications satellite, and do so to replace or upgrade aging existing satellite network infrastructure, for example.
SpaceX is set to send a payload to the Moon in 2023, using its larger (and infrequently used) Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. The mission will fly a lander built by space startup Astrobotic, which itself will be carrying NASA’s VIPER, or Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (this is the agency that loves torturing language to come up with fun acronyms, after all).
The launch is currently set for later in the year, and this would be Falcon Heavy’s first Moon mission if all goes to plan. It would not, however, be SpaceX’s first lunar outing, since the company has booked missions to launch lunar landers as early as 2022 on behalf of both Masten and Intuitive Machines. Those would both employ Falcon 9 rockets, however, at least according to current mission specs. Also, all of the above timelines so far exist only on paper, and in the business of space, delays and schedule shifts are far from unusual.
This mission is an important one for all involved, however, so they’re likely to prioritize its execution. For NASA, it’s a key mission in its longer-term goals for Artemis, the program through which it seeks to return humans to the Moon, and eventually establish a more permanent scientific presence there both in orbit and on the surface. Part of establishing a surface station will rely on using in-situ resources, of which water would be a hugely important one.
Image Credits: Astrobotic
Astrobotic won the contract to deliver VIPER on behalf of NASA last year. The mission profile includes landing the payload on the lunar South Pole, which is the intended target landing area for NASA’s Artemis missions involving human astronauts. The lander Astrobotic is sending for this task is its Griffin model, which is a larger craft vs. its Peregrine lander, giving it the extra space required to carry the VIPER, and making it necessary to use SpaceX’s heavier lift Falcon Heavy launch vehicle.
NASA’s ambitious target of landing astronauts back on the Moon by 2024 is in flux as the new administration looks at timelines and budgets, but it still seems committed to making use of public-private partnerships to pave the way, whenever it does attain that goal. This first Griffin mission, along with an earlier planned Peregrine landing, are part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, which sought private sector partners to build and deliver lunar landers with NASA as one customer.
Rocket Lab is preparing for its next launch, currently set to take place in May from its launch facility in New Zealand. The payload for the flight are two satellites to join BlackSky’s Earth observation constellation, but Rocket Lab has a secondary goal crucial to its aim of adding reusability to its Electron launch vehicle: Recovering the booster stage after its return from space.
This isn’t the first time Rocket Lab has done a booster recovery; last December, it fished one out of the sea following its aptly-named ‘Return to Sender’ mission. For this flight, dubbed ‘Running Out of Toes,’ the goal is roughly the same, but the Electron vehicle has some upgrades and modifications that will help Rocket Lab gather even more data, and make progress towards actually fully reusing one of these boosters once they get it back.
“We were very, very pleased with the condition of the [first] booster we got back with basically no modifications to any of the thermal protection systems,” Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck explained in an interview. “The way that we enter with the booster is obviously engines-first and propagate a big shockwave forward. This next flight is the next iteration where we’ve upgraded the heat shield to be able to actually carry those loads, because we know those loads now.”
Flight one provided plenty of valuable data about what the actual stresses were on the Electron booster during re-entry — information that engineers on the ground could make educated guesses about, but couldn’t actually really know without a real-world test. The data collected by sensors onboard the rocket during that December flight provided Rocket Lab the ability to redesign Electron’s heat shield for a “major increase in performance and strength,” according to Beck.
This second flight will test the efficacy of those improvements, and provide even more data to the Rocket Lab team, which will be used to inform the design of the third and final planned recovery test. That will focus on adjusting the re-entry procedure so that the Electron booster sheds even more of its speed while coming back into the atmosphere, which makes Rocket Lab’s final recovery steps — a parachute-assisted slowdown and a mid-air helicopter capture — more viable.
“There’ll be one other design iteration after this, where we will look to scrub even more velocity in the air for more heat off the stage, to get us to that point where it really is worth introducing the other elements of the helicopter to go and pick up a stage that we feel like we could go and re-fly,” Beck said.
That third and final splashdown test should happen sometime later this year, if all goes to plan. And while Rocket Lab doesn’t aim to actually re-fly any of the boosters from these three development tests, Beck told me that certain components from the first booster they got back have been re-integrated into this second test vehicle, and the plan is to recover and re-use even more parts for test #3.
Beck said that bringing the booster back to the Rocket Lab factory and essentially cutting it into tiny pieces is actually the best way for the company’s engineers to learn about what happens during re-entry, and what parts of the rocket are affected most.
“There’s nothing like putting a stage back in the factory to really understand,” he explained. “You can have all the instrumentation you want, but we brought that stage back here and the first thing we did is, we cut it up. We cut all the heat-affected areas, all of the areas that are in the shadow of flow, and then start doing tensile polls on them to understand the material properties.”
All of this work drives towards the end goal of re-flying a recovered Electron booster — which will be a major accomplishment not only because it should help Rocket Lab increase its launch pace, but also because the vehicle was never designed for reusability to begin with. I asked Beck whether that first re-flight of a recovered Electron will be a commercial mission, or just a test without a customer payload.
“I would imagine it would be a commercial mission, simply because we’re not going to put anything on the pad that we don’t have really high confidence in anyway,” he said. “I suspect the first reused vehicles will have quite a lot of refurbishment on them, because if you look at the only other company that has demonstrated reusability [SpaceX], it’s been many, many years of learning and understanding. You don’t just kind of grab a launch vehicle, say it looks good, put it back on the pad and fly again. It’s a very iterative process of building confidence and assurance.”
While introducing reusability to Electron has benefits in its own right for that launch vehicle, the process of developing that capability has also been invaluable for Rocket Lab’s efforts to build out its next spacecraft, the higher-capacity Neutron launch system, according to Beck. Neutron is designed to launch and land propulsively, and to include a lot more usability by design from the very start.
“Electron was designed to be the world’s most manufacturable launch vehicle — Neutron is designed to be the most reusable launch vehicle,” Beck said. “They’re very different paradigms, but unusually we now have experience in both. For Neutron, the innovation really is around reusability, and there’ll be some interesting bits shortly, when we we reveal a little bit more about the vehicle architecture, that will make it very obvious to what degree we’re going to make this a reusable launch vehicle.”
SpaceX has launched another batch of Starlink satellites, keeping up its rapid pace of launches for the broadband constellation it’s deploying in low Earth orbit. This now makes 300 Starlink satellites launched since March 4, with 60 on each of five flights between then and now.
The most recent launch before this one happened on March 24, with prior flights on March 14, March 11 and March 4 , respectively. That pace is intentionally fast, since SpaceX has said it aims to launch a total of 1,500 Starlink satellites over the course of this calendar year. Before that especially busy month, SpaceX also flew four other Starlink missions, including a shared ride on SpaceX’s first dedicated rideshare mission that also carried satellites for other customers.
In total, SpaceX has now launched 1,443 satellites for its Starlink constellation. That doesn’t reflect the total number of satellites on orbit, however, as a handful of those earlier satellites have been deorbited as planned. In total, the eventual planned sizer fo the constellation is expected to include up to 42,000 spacecraft based on current FCC frequency spectrum filings.
SpaceX recently signed a new agreement with NASA that outlines how the two organizations will avoid close approach or collision events between their respective spacecraft. NASA has measures it requires all launchers to follow in order to avoid these kinds of incidents, but the scale and frequency of SpaceX’s Starlink missions necessitated an additional, more extensive agreement.
This launch also included a landing of the Falcon 9 booster used, its seventh so far. The booster touched down as intended on SpaceX’s floating landing pad in the Atlantic Ocean, and will be refurbished for another potential reuse. SpaceX is also going to be looking to recover its fairing halves at sea, which are the two cargo covering shields that encase the satellites during take-off. The company actually just decommissioned two ships it had used to try to catch these out of mid-air as they fell slowed by parachutes, but it’s still looking to retrieve them from the ocean after splashdown for re-use.
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.
International Space Station cupola exterior.
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.
Dr. Proctor takes the state reserved for the online business competition portion of the crew selection process, which saw entrants taken from submissions based on people who had created businesses on Isaacman’s Shift4Shop e-commerce platform. Sembroski won his seat by contributing to the ongoing St. Jude fundraising drive Isaacman is hosting as part of the mission’s promotional campaign.
Inspiration4 crew member Dr. Sian Proctor
Both Proctor and Sembroski have specific sets of skills relative to spaceflight that seem likely to have factored Ito their selection for the crew. Proctor is a trained pilot, for instance, and Sembroski is a veteran aerospace employee, most recently at Lockheed Martin, and also a literal veteran, having served in the U.S. Air Force.
Inspiration4 crew member Christopher Sembroski
As part of this final crew reveal, Inspiration4 also shared how many entries it received in each category. Somewhat surprisingly, the Shift4Shop e-commerce platform competition only drew a total of “approximately” 200 entries — and use of ‘approximately’ suggests fewer — while the charity drive drew 72,000 entries, and has raised around $113 million to date. That’s still short of the campaign’s $200 million goal, and includes Isaacman’s personal commitment of $100 million, but the drive continues and there are additional awards to be one, even if the top prize of the trip to space is gone.
This whole mission campaign has honestly been one of the most bizarre stories in spaceflight in recent memory, beginning with the big announcement, which included a press conference with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk joining Isaacman to discuss the flight, and seemingly not being aware of any relevant details about mission specifics. Isaacman also dedicated $100 million of his own money to the charity drive for St. Jude, as mentioned, but clearly donations from the community aren’t living up to expectations with around 13% of the total target raised from those to date.
That “approximately 200” entries in the Shift4Payments build-a-business competition might be the most perplexing, since the award was a free trip to space. In retrospect, this seems like it was the path to space with the most likelihood of working out, even if you had to convince an oddly stunt cast panel of judges to select yours as the winner.
Commercial human spaceflight company Virgin Galactic has unveiled the first ever Spaceship III, the third major iteration of its spacecraft design. The first in this new series is called ‘VSS (Virgin SpaceShip) Imagine,’ and will start ground testing now with the aim of beginning its first glide flights starting this summer. VSS Imagine has a snazzy new external look, including a mirrored wraparound finish that’s designed to reflect the spacecraft’s changing environment as it makes its way from the ground to space — but more importantly, it moves Virgin Galactic closer to achieving the engineering goals it requires to produce a fleet of spacecraft at scale.
I spoke to Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier about VSS Imagine, and what it represents for the company.
“We can build these at a faster pace,” he explained. “These are still relatively slow, versus what we want in our next class of spaceships. But what we do expect to have here is, we’ve taken all the learnings from [VSS] Unity, and built-in what we need to do so that we can turn these ships at a faster pace, because obviously, the number of flights we can do is the product of how many ships you have, and how quickly you can turn them.”
Unlike Unity, which is the spacecraft that Virgin Galactic first flew in September 2016, and that it ‘s still using in New Mexico now for its testing and commercial launch preparation program, Imagine has a “modular design” that makes it much easier to maintain, and increases the rate at which it can fly subsequent missions. As Colglazier mentioned, there’s still more work to be done in that regard to get the Spaceship design to the point where it’s able to support the company’s target of around 400 flights per year, per individual spaceport, but it’s a big upgrade, and the company is already beginning manufacturing work on a second Spaceship III-class vehicle, ‘VSS Inspire.’
“What you’re seeing in the images, the choice of the livery, the film that we’ve put out, is a very clear step, as a consumer brand launch, and as we’re stepping in and building that, that will build over the course of the summer as we build up towards Richard [Branson]’s flight,” he said. “Very purposefully, we’ve used these lofty words of ‘democratizing space’ — but space is meant for everyone. It may take a while, just for everyone to get there, but it’s coming. And so this was leading with a very consumer facing, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
In fact, that focus on the consumer side of the business has been a lot of Colglazier’s work over the past eight months since joining the company. He said that the Virgin Galactic he joined had a “world-class team” that had the aerospace pieces completely locked in, but that his particular contribution has been in building up the commercial side of the business to match.
“We’re now bringing some talent in that is used to scaling this kind of a business, so Swami Iyer actually started Monday of last week,” he said. “And when you see a guy like Joe Rohde, who came in on the experience side, there’s no replacement — that’s additive to building out now the shoulders around this experience.”
Iyer joined as President of Aerospace Systems, and brings years of experience in the commercial space and defense industry, across GKN Advanced Defernce Systems, Honeywell Aerospace and more. Rohde, on the other hand, boasts a very different background, as a longtime Disney Imagineer, who joins the company as its first ‘Experience Architect,’ focused squarely on defining what the Virgin Galactic experience is for its astronaut customers, their friends and family, and the broader public, too.
Colglazier said that their vision for what the experience will look like will also be different depending on what part of the world you’re flying from, noting that weather you fly from a spaceport in Europe, Asia, India or Australia should result in something “dramatically different,” even if the spacecraft themselves are all used in the same way as they are in New Mexico. That definitely seems like a logical approach from an executive whose prior experience includes leading Disney’s parks in Burbank, Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo.
Image Credits: Virgin Galactic
In the end, Colglazier said that the core philosophy Virgin Galactic will pursue in terms of consumer brand will be one focused on inclusion, even if the actual ‘going to space’ part of its offering remains out of reach for most in the short term.
“This is for everyone, it has to be for everyone,” he said. That aspiration may take some number of years to actually be realized, but in the meantime, we have to find a way that our brand and our company can be accessed, that what we do can be accessed by all sorts of people at all different layers of engagement, so we’re going to be very purposeful about that. You’re going to hear us talking mostly about, effectively the apex experience — actually taking the new ships to space. But the ability to tier down out of that is really, really important, and the ability for us to be a brand that’s reaching out to everyone is incredibly important.”
That begins with the approach to this spacecraft debut today, Colglazier says, and is apparent in the tone of the video the company debuted (embedded above) to mark the reveal. And Virgin Galactic also still has 600 passengers booked and waiting for their own flights, so that’s obviously a key focus after Branson’s flight targeted for later this year.
Finally, I asked Colglazier when he himself intends to go up, since he said he definitely plans to when joining the company. Mostly, he said, he doesn’t want to cut in front of any paying customers.
“Okay, there are 600 or so people that are going to be a little ticked at me, if I jumped the line, so I’m going to keep focused at the consumer level,” he said. “But nobody else is in line yet, so I’m gonna get in before anybody else comes in line.”
The latest in a string of space tech SPACs announced this year is Redwire, an entity created by a PE firm in 2020, which has acquired a number of smaller companies including Adcole Space, Roccor, Made in Space, LoadPath, Oakman Aerospace, Deployable Space Systems and more — all within the last year or so. Redwire announced that it will go public through a merger with special purpose acquisition company Genesis Park Acquisition Crop., and the combined company will list on the NYSE.
The deal puts Redwire’s pro forma enterprise value at %615 million, and is expected to provide an additional $170 million to Redwire’s coffers post-merger, including a PIPE valued at over $100 million. Unsurprisingly, one of the uses of the proceeds that Redwire intends to pursue is continued M&A activity to build out its list of service offering in the space domain.
Redwire’s mandate isn’t specifically to go after new space companies, and instead its targets share in common expertise in a particular, rather narrow slice of the severally space market. It’s capabilities include on-orbit manufacturing and servicing; satellite design, manufacture and assembly; payload integration; sensor design and development, and more. The idea appears to be to build a full-stack infrastructure company that can offer tip-to-tail space technology services, exclusive really only of launch and ground station components (for now).
It’s a smart approach for a bourgeoning new space economy where increasingly, technology companies who want to operate in space would rather focus on their unique value proposition, and outsource the complex, but mostly settled business of actually getting to, and operating in, space. Other companies are addressing the market in similar ways, with launchers bringing more of that part of the process in-house so their payload customers basically only have to show up with the sensor or communication device they want to send to space, and the launcher providing everything else — including even the satellite, in the relatively near future.
Redwire has proven revenue-generating power, with projected 2021 revenue of $163 million, and many of the companies now operating under its umbrella are fairly mature and have been operating cash flow positive for many years. Accordingly, a SPAC as a path to public markets likely does make sense in this particular instance, but the increasing frequency and volume of space companies choosing this route, is, on the whole, a trend to watch with healthy skepticism.
SpaceX has added yet more Starlink satellites to its existing constellation on orbit, with a successful delivery of 60 spacecraft this morning from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The mission used a Falcon 9 with a flight-prove booster that served on five previous launches, and a cargo fairing cover made up of two re-used halves from past flights.
This is the fourth Starlink launch in under a month, with prior batches of 60 sent up on March 14, March 11 and March 4, respectively. In total, that means it’s sent up 240 satellites in about three weeks, which is actually around on par with the number satellites than the second-largest commercial constellation operator, Planet, has in space in total.
The stated goal for SpaceX is to have launched 1,500 Starlink satellites in 2020, and given its progress, it looks on track to make that target at the current launch pace. Starlink should eventually grow to include as many as 10,000 or more active satellites in low-Earth orbit, but the near-term goal is to continue expanding geographic coverage of its broadband internet service to additional countries and customers.
Right now, it seems like the beta service rollout is more hardware-constrained on the ground component side, since SpaceX opened up pre-orders to anyone in a geography it services earlier this year. Customers signing up now for the Starlink antenna and modem kit are getting delivery times that extend out to the end of this year, even in areas where service is known to be available and performing well for existing beta users.
Starlink could become a massive revenue driver for SpaceX once it’s fully operational, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said the plan is to eventually spin the company out once it’s past the initial infrastructure investment phase and revenues have stabilized. So far, customer seem to be having a positive experience with the network in terms of speed and reliability relative to other rural broadband solutions, but the next big test will come once the network is experience heavy load in terms of customer volume.
Space startup Astroscale has launched ELSA-d, the demonstration mission for its End-of-Life Services by Astroscale (ELSA) technology, which aims to dock with, and then safely remove, orbital debris. Astroscale’s demonstrator package includes two separate payloads, a servicer that represents its future production spacecraft, and a ‘client’ satellite that’s meant to represent the debris satellites it’ll be de-orbiting on behalf of customers in future.
The Astrocale payload was launched via a Soyuz rocket that took off early this morning from Kazakhstan carrying 38 commercial satellites from 18 countries. It’s the first Astroscale spacecraft to reach orbit, since the startup’s founding in 2013 by Japanese entrepreneur Nobu Okada. Astroscale had launched a micro satellite designed to measure small-scale debris in 2017, but all 18 of the satellites on that particular mission failed to reach orbit, due to human error in the launch vehicle’s programming.
This ELSA-d mission is a much more ambitious effort, and involves what amounts to an active on-orbit demonstration of the technology that Astroscale ultimately hopes to commercialize. The mission profile includes repeat docking and release maneuvers between the servicer satellite and the simulated client satellite, which is equipped with a ferromagnetic plate to assist the servicer with its magnetic docking procedure.
Astroscale hopes to prove out a range of its advertised capabilities with this demonstration, including the servicer’s ability to search out and located the client satellite, inspect it for damage, and then dock with it as mentioned, in both non-tumbling and tumbling scenarios (ie., a payload that’s maintaining a stable orbit, and one that’s spinning end-over-end in space with no ability to control its own attitude).
There’s a lot riding on this mission, which will be controlled from a ground center established by Astroscale in the UK. Aside from its long-term commercial ambitions, the startup is also contracted to partner with JAXA on the Japanese space agency’s first orbital debris removal mission, which aims to be the first in the world to remove a large object from orbit, representing the spent upper stage of a launch rocket.
SpaceX has completed what’s known as the ‘stacking’ of its first Super Heavy prototype, the extremely large next-generation first-stage rocket booster that it will eventually use to propel its Starship spacecraft to orbit and beyond. The Super Heavy Booster is about 220 feet tall – which is roughly the wingspan of a Boeing 747, or a bit taller than the Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World in Florida.
That’s without Starship on top, which will add around another 160 feet. Super Heavy will undergo its own testing prior to flying with Starship, however, and a lot of that will be focused on assuring its fuel tanks can handle the pressurization and extreme temperatures required for keeping all that ignitable material stable prior to when the engines actually fire.
Super Heavy uses the same engines as Starship — Raptor engines, to be specific, which SpaceX created new for this generation of launch vehicle. The final version will have a total of 28 Raptor engines, but this first prototype will likely be outfitted with far fewer, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has confirmed that it’ll also remain grounded, as it’s intended to be use only for testing things like build and transportation mechanics.
Yes, Booster 1 is a production pathfinder, figuring out how to build & transport 70 meter tall stage. Booster 2 will fly.
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.
Laura Crabtree spent a good chunk of her childhood watching rocket launches on television and her entire professional career launching rockets, first at Northrup Grumman and then at SpaceX.
Now, the former senior missions operations engineer at SpaceX is the co-founder and chief executive of a new LA-based space startup called Epsilon3, which says it has developed the operating system for launch operations.
“The tools I had wanted did not exist,” said Crabtree. So when she left SpaceX to pursue her next opportunity, it was a no-brainer to try and develop the toolkit she never had, the first-time entrepreneur said. “I started looking at ways in which I could help the space industry become more efficient and reduce errors.”
Joining Crabtree in the new business is Max Mednik, a serial entrepreneur whose last company, Epirus, raised at least $144.7 million from investors including 8VC, Bedrock Capital and L3 Harris Technologies, and Aaron Sullivan, a former Googler who serves as the chief software engineer. Mednik worked at Google too before turning his attention to entrepreneurship. His previous businesses ranged from financial services software to legal services software, Mednik too had an interest in aerospace. His first job offers out of school were with SpaceX, JPL, and Google. And Aaron Sullivan another former
Part of a growing network of SpaceX alumni launching businesses, Epsilon3, like its fellow travelers First Resonance and Prewitt Ridge, is creating a product around an aspect of the design, manufacturing mission management and operations of rockets that had previously been handled manually or with bespoke tools.
“They make mission management software for the launchers and for the satellite companies that are going to be the payload of the rocket companies,” said Alex Rubacalva, the founder and managing partner of Stage Venture Partners, an investor in the company’s recent seed round. “It’s not just the design and spec but for when they’re actually working what are they doing; when you’re uplinking and downlinking data and changing software.”
Rubacalva acknowledged that the market for Epsilon3 is entirely new, but it’s growing rapidly.
“This was an analysis based on the fact that access to space used to be really expensive and used to be the provenance of governments and ten or 20 commercial satellite operators in the world. And it was limited by the fact that there were only a handful of companies that could launch,” Rubacalva said. “Now all of a sudden there’s going to be thirty different space flights. Thirty different companies that have rockets… access to space used to scarce, expensive, and highly restricted and it’s no longer any of those things now.”
Image Credits: Relativity Space
The demand for space services is exploding with some analysts estimating that the launch services industry could reach over $18 billion by 2026.
“It’s a very similar story and we all come from different places within SpaceX,” said Crabtree. First Resonance, provides software that moves from prototyping to production; Prewitt Ridge, provides engineering and management tools; and Epsilon3 has developed an operating system for launch operations.
“You’ve got design development, manufacturing, integration tests and operations. We’re trying to support that integration of tests and operations,” said Crabtree.
While First Resonance and Prewitt Ridge have applications in aerospace and manufacturing broadly, Crabtree’s eyes, and her company’s mission, remain fixed on the stars.
“We’re laser focused on space and proving out that the software works in the highest stakes and most complex environments,” said Mednik. There are applications in other areas that require complex workflows for industries as diverse as nuclear plant construction and operations, energy, mining, and aviation broadly, but for now and the foreseeable future, it’s all about the space business.
Mednik described the software as an electronic toolkit for controlling and editing workflows and procedures. “You can think of it as Asana project management meets Github version control,” he said. “It should be for integration of subsystems or systems and operations of the systems.”
Named for the planet in Babylon Five, Epsilon3 could become an integral part of the rocket missions that eventually do explore other worlds. At least, that’s the bet that firms like Stage Venture Partners and MaC Ventures are making on the business with their early $1.8 million investment into the business.
Right now, the Epislon3’s early customers are coming from early stage space companies that are using the platform for live launches. These would be companies like Stoke Space and other new rocket entrants.
“For us, space and deeptech is hot,” said MaC Ventures co-founder and managing partner, Adrian Fenty. The former mayor of Washington noted that the combination of Mednik’s serial entrepreneur status and Crabtree’s deep, deep expertise in the field.
“We had been looking at operating systems in general and thinking that there would be some good ones coming along,” Fenty said. In Epsilon3 the company found the combination of deep space, deep tech, and a thesis around developing verticalized operating systems that ticked all the boxes.
“In doing diligence for the company… you just see how big space is and will become as a business,” said Michael Palank, a co-founder and managing partner at MaC Ventures predecessor, M Ventures alongside Fenty. “A lot of the challenges here on earth will and only can be solved in space. And you need better operating systems to manage getting to and from space.”
The view from Astra’s Rocket 3.2 second stage from space.
Relativity Space already has a significant volume of launch contracts on the books – more pre-sales for its Terran 1 rocket than any other launch vehicle in history, in fact, according to CEO and co-founder Tim Ellis. But its latest customer is a key one: The U.S. Department of Defense, which has contracted Relativity Space to launch a payload on its behalf as part of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU)’s continued efforts to find responsive launch partners capable of sending payloads with a mass between 450 kg and 1,200 kg (roughly 1,000 to 2,650 lbs) to low-Earth orbit.
“It’s a bigger satellite, and there’s a much limited number of companies that can actually launch this spacecraft,” Ellis said in an interview. “[Terran 1’s] three meter payload fairing is unique, among all the US=based companies that can actually launch that payload size, we’re still the only one that actually has the fairing big enough for that scale.”
The DIU has a specific mandate of working with innovative American companies, typically in the earlier stages of their development, and their collaboration is often seen as a stamp of approval that can set up a company for a much deeper DoD relationship going forward. In this case, citing Relativity’s relative maturity and its queue of pre-sold missions, which include a number of non-defense government contracts.
“In this case, there was just a true mission need for this particular spacecraft,” Ellis said. “And it was a good opportunity to work with them as our first DoD customer, to start on-ramping into a broader ecosystem of capabilities that we’re hearing the government wants to see. So it’s all specifically focused on Terran 1, though of course, we now have talked about Terran R, totally independent of this program. It’s a start of a conversation, and we see lots of opportunities to help support national interests across many different places with all the things that we’re building.”
Ellis is referencing Relativity’s newly-unveiled larger payload spacecraft, the Terran R. The 3D printing rocket company debuted its plans for the much larger launch vehicle in February, and it’s tailor-made for delivering satellite constellations to low-Earth orbit – a need that the DoD has expressed plenty of interest in, given its focus on satellite technologies that offer responsive, redundant capabilities to suit shifting needs.
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