Virgin Galactic looks to late September, early October for first commercial crewed flight

Just two months after celebrating its first manned launch to orbit – which is now under investigation with the Federal Aviation Administration – Virgin Galactic wants to return to space.

The company will be conducting its first commercial mission, the 23rd for the VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane, in late September or early October from the company’s sprawling Spaceport America facility. The flight will carry three crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council, each of whom paid an undisclosed amount for the seat. A Virgin Galactic staff member will also be on board.

The role of mission lead will be held by Walter Villadei, a Colonel with the Italian Air Force; Angelo Landolfi, a physician and Lieutenant Colonel; Pantaleone Carlucci, an aerospace engineer on behalf of the National Research Council; and Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses. Michael Masucci and CJ Sturckow will pilot the spaceplane.

The goal of the mission will be to evaluate the effects of the “transitional phase” from gravity to zero G on the human body; to that end, the crew members will be wearing sensors to measure physiological activity, and Villadei will even be wearing a smart suit that Virgin says will “[incorporate] Italian fashion style and technology.”

The announcement comes just one day after the FAA said that it was investigating the first crewed flight of VSS Unity in July. The news was first reported by The New Yorker and confirmed by the aerospace regulatory, who said that the spaceplane “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.” According to journalist Nicholas Schmidle’s reporting, a red warning light appeared on the dash of the Unity during flight, indicating that it had diverged from its planned trajectory.

Virgin Galactic later issued a statement disputing the piece, saying that “athough the flights ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico.”

“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory,” the company added.

This is not the first time Schmidle has uncovered news regarding the safety of Virgin Galactic’s supersonic operations. His book, Test Gods, also includes a previously unknown account of a 2019 test flight (confirmed in the book by former employees) which saw potentially serious issues with the plane’s wing.

#aerospace, #commercial-spaceflight, #outer-space, #richard-branson, #space, #spaceport, #virgin-galactic

Peter Beck on Rocket Lab’s public listing debut, space SPACs, and the Neutron rocket

Peter Beck’s earliest memory is standing outside with his father in his hometown of Invercargill, New Zealand, looking up at the stars, and being told that there could very well be people on planets orbiting those stars looking right back at him.

“For a three or four year old, that was a mind-blowing thing that got etched into my memory and from that point onwards, that was me destined to work in the space industry,” he said at the Space Generation Fusion Forum (SGFF).

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But it’s true that Beck’s career has been characterized by an unusually single-minded focus on rocketry. Instead of going to university, Beck got a trade job, working as a tool-making apprentice by day and a dilettante rocket engine maker by night. “I was very, very fortunate through my career that the companies I worked with and worked for, and the government organizations that I’ve worked for, always encouraged – or tolerated, maybe is a better word – me using their facilities and doing things in their facilities at night,” he said.

His tinkering matured with experience, and working double-time paid off: in 2006, he founded his space launch company Rocket Lab. Now, fifteen years and 21 launches later, the company has gone public through a merger with a blank-check firm that’s added $777 million to its war chest.

The space SPAC craze

The merger with Vector Acquisition catapulted Rocket Lab’s valuation to $4.8 billion, putting it second (by value) amongst space launch companies only to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SPACs have become a popular route to going public amongst space industry companies looking to secure large amounts of capital; rival satellite launch startups Virgin Orbit and Astra have each started trading via a SPAC merger, in addition to other companies in the sector, like Redwire, Planet and Satellogic (to name just a few).

Beck told TechCrunch that going public has been part of Rocket Lab’s plans for years; the original plan was to use a traditional initial public offering, but the SPAC route in particular enabled certainty around capital and valuation. According to an March investor presentation in advance of the SPAC merger – documents that should always be taken with a large grain of salt – the future is bright: Rocket Lab anticipates revenues of $749 million in 2025 and surpassing $1 billion the following year. The company reported revenues of $48 million in 2019 and $33 million in 2020, and anticipates hitting around $69 million this year.

But he remains skeptical of pre-revenue space startups, or those that failed to raise capital, using SPACs as a financial instrument. “There has been a lot of space SPACs go out, and I think that there is a spectrum of quality there for sure – some that have failed to raise money in the private markets, and [a SPAC merger] is the last-ditch attempt. That is no way to become a public company.”

While the space industry is relatively crowded now, with companies like Rocket Lab and SpaceX sending payloads to orbit and myriad newer entrants looking to join them (or, more optimistically, take their leading place), Beck said he anticipates the crowd thinning out.

“It’s going to become blatantly obvious to investors really quickly, who’s executing, and who’s aspiring to execute,” he said. “We’re in a time where there’s lots of excitement, but at the end of the day, this industry and the public markets is all about execution. The wheat from the chaff will get separated very, very quickly here.”

From Electron to Neutron

Rocket Lab’s revenues have largely come from the small payload launch market, in which it’s managed to take a leading position with its Electron rocket. Electron is only 59 feet tall and scarcely four feet in diameter, significantly smaller than other rockets going to space today. The company conducts launches from two sites: its privately-owned launch range on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, and a launch pad out of NASA’s Wallops Island facility in Virginia (which has yet to play host to an actual Rocket Lab mission).

Rocket Lab is in the process of transitioning Electron’s first-stage booster to be reusable. The company has been implementing a new atmospheric reentry and ocean splashdown process that uses a parachute to slow the booster’s descent, but the ultimate goal is to catch it in the air using a helicopter.

Thus far, Rocket Lab and SpaceX have dominated the market, but that could change soon. Both Astra and Relativity are developing small launch vehicles – the latest iteration of Astra’s rocket is around 40 feet tall, while Relativity’s Terran 1 is in-between Electron and Falcon 9 at 115 feet.

For that reason, it makes sense that Rocket Lab is planning on expanding its operations to include medium-lift rocketry, with its much-anticipated (and very mysterious) Neutron launch vehicle. The company has been keeping the details about Neutron close to its chest so far – Beck told SGFF attendees that even publicly-released renderings of the rocket have been “a bit of a ruse” (meaning the image below bears little to no resemblance to what the Neutron actually looks like) – but it’s expected to be more than double the height of Electron and be capable of sending around 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

“We do see a lot of people in the industry copying us in many ways,” he explained to TechCrunch. “So, we’d rather get a little bit further down the path and then reveal the work that we’ve done.”

Rocket Lab estimates that Electron and Neutron will be capable of lifting 98% of all satellites forecasted to launch through 2029, making the need for an additional heavy-lift rocket unnecessary.

In addition to Neutron, the company has also started developing spacecraft. It’s called Photon, and Rocket Lab imagines it as a “satellite platform” that can easily be integrated with the Electron rocket. The company’s already lined up Photon missions to the moon and beyond: first to lunar orbit for NASA, as part of its Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) program.

Two Photons were selected earlier this month for an 11-month mission to Mars, and Beck has publicly discussed long-term plans to send a probe into Venus’ atmosphere via a Photon satellite.

Beyond Photon, Rocket Lab has also locked in a deal with space manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries to build it a spacecraft, to launch in 2023 and 2024.

Neutron has been designed to be human-rateable right from the start, meaning that it will meet certain safety specifications for carrying astronauts. Beck said he’s certain that “we are going to see the democratization of spaceflight” and he wants Rocket Lab to be well-poised to deliver that service in the future. In terms of whether Rocket Lab would eventually expand into building other spacecraft, like landers or human-rated capsules, Beck demurred.

“Never, ever say never,” he said. “That’s the one takeaway I’ve learned in my career as a space CEO.”

#aerospace, #commercial-spaceflight, #electron, #nasa, #new-zealand, #outer-space, #peter-beck, #photon, #rocket-lab, #space

Ispace unveils bigger moon lander capable of surviving lunar nights

Ispace, a Japanese space startup that aims to lead the development of a lunar economy, has unveiled its design for a large lander that could go to the moon as early as 2024.

Tokyo-based ispace said this next-gen lander, dubbed Series 2, would be used on the company’s third planned moon mission. The lander is both larger in size and payload capacity than the company’s first lander, coming in at around 9 feet tall and 14 feet wide including legs. The vehicle will be capable of carrying up to 500 kilograms to the moon’s surface and 2,000 kilograms to lunar orbit. Series 1, which will fly in 2022 and 2023, has a maximum payload capacity of only 30 kilograms.

Crucially, the new lander is designed to be able to survive the frigid lunar nighttime, possibly as long as a two-week stint on the moon’s surface. It’s also capable of landing on either the near or far side of the moon, including its polar regions.

The new lander has a few other features as well: it has multiple payload bays, and an advanced guidance, navigation and control (GNC) system to ensure the craft sticks the landing on the moon’s surface. The GNC technology is being provided by engineering developer Draper, a company with a deep footprint in the space industry. Draper is which is also one of fourteen eligible contractors for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

Ispace said in a statement that the lander has completed its preliminary design review; the next stage is manufacturing and assembly, which will be completed in partnership with General Atomics, a defense and aerospace technology company.

The partnership with Draper – a CLPS contractor – is key, as ispace wants its Series 2 to compete in the NASA program. “Over the next few months, we will work closely with Draper and General Atomics to prepare for the next NASA CLPS task order,” Kyle Acierno, CEO of ispace’s U.S.-based subsidiary, said.

Ispace is developing the next-gen lander out of its North American offices in Colorado, and it intends to also manufacture the vehicle in the United States. In the meanwhile, the company is still at work preparing for its first two lunar missions in 2022 and 2023. The company said the Series 1 lander is undergoing final assembly of the flight module at a facility in Germany owned by space launch company ArianeGroup. The customer manifest for the first mission is full, but ispace did say payload capacity is still available for the subsequent mission.

The lander unveiling comes just weeks after ispace announced the close of a $46 million Series C funding round, capital it said at the time would go toward the second and third planned missions.

#aerospace, #commercial-spaceflight, #ispace, #nasa, #outer-space, #space, #spaceflight

Astra given regulatory green light for its first commercial orbital launch at the end of the month

Rocket launch startup Astra has received a key license from the Federal Aviation Administration, giving the green light for the company’s first commercial orbital launch at the end of the month.

Astra CEO Chris Kemp tweeted the news on Thursday, adding that the launch operator license through the FAA is valid through 2026. The new license is a modification of the company’s previous launch license and applicable to the current version of the company’s rocket, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The license, posted on the FAA’s website, authorizes Astra to conduct flights of its Rocket v3 launch vehicle from the company’s launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska. It expires on March 9, 2026. It clears the way for Astra to conduct a demonstration mission for the U.S. Space Force on August 27, as well as a second launch planned for some time later this year.

This is proving to be a big year for Astra. In addition to conducting its first commercial orbital launch on August 27, the company also starting trading on the NASDAQ under the ticker symbol “ASTR.” The company made its debut after merging with special purpose acquisition company Holicity at a pro-forma enterprise value of $2.1 billion.

Earlier this summer, Astra also acquired space-propulsion company Apollo Fusion. The acquisition gives a possible hint into how Astra is thinking about future launches, as electric propulsion systems are useful for moving objects from lower to higher orbits.

#aerospace, #astra, #commercial-spaceflight, #federal-aviation-administration, #low-earth-orbit, #outer-space, #space, #u-s-space-force

Aurora Propulsion Technologies will be sending up space junk removal tech on Rocket Lab’s Electron later this year

Aurora Propulsion Technologies, a Finnish company that develops thrusters and de-orbiting modules for small satellites, will be sending its technology to space for the first time. The company has signed on with Rocket Lab to send its inaugural AuroraSat-1 cubesat into low Earth orbit aboard an Electron rocket rideshare mission in the fourth quarter of this year.

Aurora is part of a small number of startups have emerged over the past few years whose technology could help solve a tricky problem that, for most of us, can be summed up as ‘out of sight, out of mind’: space junk.

Space junk, or orbital debris, includes any human-generated object in space that’s no longer functional. While the Department of Defense keeps track of around 27,000 pieces of space junk through its Space Surveillance Network, there are estimated to be millions of pieces of debris floating around in low Earth orbit. As the costs of launch and other technology continues to decline, LEO is only poised to grow more crowded in the coming years – which could mean more useless junk floating around us in the long-term.

The launch with Rocket Lab later this year is the opportunity for the company to demonstrate its technology in-space. AuroraSat-1 will have two modules. The first module will contain 6 “resistojet” thrusters, designed to help cubesats quickly de-tumble and adjust their attitude control, or the satellite’s orientation. Aurora will also test its Plasma Brakes, which use an electrically charged microtether to generate drag for satellite de-orbiting.

AuroraSat-1 was originally scheduled to fly with in-space transportation provider Momentus on board a Space X Falcon 9 rideshare mission earlier this year, but that flight was halted after Momentus failed to receive approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Regarding the switch up, Aurora CEO Roope Takala told TechCrunch that “in light of Momentus’ difficulties, we had to re-manifest the satellite onto the now published Rocket Lab flight.” Aurora announced in March it had signed on to launch a satellite with Momentus in June 2022.

#aerospace, #aurora-propulsion-technologies, #electron, #low-earth-orbit, #outer-space, #rocket-lab, #space, #space-debris, #space-junk

Astra targets first commercial orbital launch for August 27

Astra’s last test launch went better than expected, nearly achieving orbit — kind of a stretch goal for that specific mission. The company at the time said that it would only need to tweak software to reach an orbital destination, and now we know when it’s going to get the chance to prove it: Astra revealed a launch window today of August 27 for its first ever commercial orbital launch, a demonstration mission for the U.S. Space Force.

The contract Astra has with the Space Force also includes a second launch, set for sometime later this year, with the exact schedule for that launch yet to be finalized.

The payload that Astra’s rocket will carry for the Space Force will be a test spacecraft flown for the agency’s Space Test Program. The launch will take place from Astra’s spaceport in Kodiak, Alaska, which is where it has flown its test missions previously.

While the launch window officially opens at 1 PM PT on August 27, it will remain open all the way through Saturday, September 11, and Astra could easily shift the launch within that window based on weather conditions and other factors.

Astra, which become a publicly traded company at the start of July through a SPAC merger, builds it own launch vehicles at its factory in Alameda, California. The launch provider is targeting cheap, high-volume, low mass launches as its milieu, offering more flexible services relative to SpaceX, and a cost advantage when compared to Rocket Lab.

#aerospace, #alaska, #astra, #california, #kodiak, #launch-vehicle, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #rocket-lab, #space, #spaceflight, #spaceport, #spacex, #tc, #u-s-space-force

Japanese startup ispace raises $46M to support planned moon missions

Japanese startup ispace has raised $46 million in a fresh round of Series C funding as it looks to complete three lunar lander missions in three years.

The funding will go toward the second and third of the planned missions, scheduled for 2023 and 2024. The first mission, which ispace aims to conduct in the latter half of 2022, is being furnished by earlier financing.

The Series C was led by Japanese VC firm Incubate Fund, with additional investment from partnerships managed by Innovation Engine, funds managed by SBI Investment Co., Katsunori Sago, Aizawa Investments and funds managed by HiJoJo Partners and Aizawa Asset Management. Incubate Fund’s investments in ispace stretch back to the company’s seed round in 2014.

Ispace’s total funding now stands at $195.5 million.

The company said last month it had started building the lunar landing flight module for the 2022 mission at a facility owned by space launch company ArianeGroup, in Lampoldshausen, Germany. The lander for that first mission, the Hakuto-R, will take three months to reach the moon, largely to save costs and additional weight from propellant. It will deliver a 22-pound rover for Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, a lunar robot for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and payload from three Canadian companies. The lander will reach the moon aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The 7.5 foot-tall Hakuto-R will also be used in the second mission in 2023, to deposit a small ispace rover that will collect data to support the company’s subsequent missions to the moon. For the final mission, the Toyko-based startup is developing a larger lander in the United States.

Ispace describes its long-term goal as being a “gateway for private sector companies to bring their business to the Moon.” The company has particular interest in helping spur a space-based economy, noting on its website that the moon’s water resources represent “untapped potential.”

#aerospace, #commercial-spaceflight, #incubate-fund, #ispace, #japan, #outer-space, #recent-funding, #space, #spaceflight, #startups

A docu-series on the Inspiration4 mission is coming to Netflix

Inspiration4 is getting its own documentary. Netflix said Tuesday it would be releasing a five-part series on the mission, its first documentary to cover an event “in near real-time,” in five parts in September.

“Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space” will follow the first all-civilian Inspiration4 crew as they prepare for and undergo a three-day flight to low Earth orbit. The private flight is being funded by — surprise! — a billionaire: Jared Isaacman, the CEO and founder of payment processor Shift4 Payments. He will be joined by Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and a pediatric bone cancer survivor; Christopher Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin engineer and Air Force veteran; and professor of geoscience Sian Proctor.

Isaacman has committed to donating $100 million to St. Jude’s out of his own funds, in addition to the public donation drive that was used to select Sian Proctor’s seat. As of March, the donation drive raised an additional $13 million for the children’s hospital.

The crew will travel to orbit in a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and a Falcon 9 rocket. The launch giant is customizing the Dragon especially for the mission, replacing a docking mechanism with a transparent glass dome out of which crewmembers will be able to take in what will likely be some pretty spectacular views. The dome will only be large enough to fit one passenger at a time, and it’ll only open once the spacecraft has safely exited Earth’s atmosphere. (Stellar views are a relatively recent concern for launch developers and space passengers, mostly an effect of the burgeoning space tourism industry.)

The Netflix series will likely be the cherry on top of the massive media event that will be Inspiration4. The Netflix series will be directed by Jason Hehir, who previously headed “The Last Dance,” an ESPN documentary miniseries about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

#aerospace, #commercial-spaceflight, #netflix, #outer-space, #space, #space-tourism, #spacex, #tc

Watch Blue Origin launch Jeff Bezos to space live, along with the youngest and oldest astronauts ever

Blue Origin is set to launch its fully reusable New Shepard spacecraft with humans on board for the first time on Tuesday, and it’s sending Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos up along with his brother and two record-setting astronauts. The launch live stream above is scheduled for 6:30 AM CDT (7:30 AM EDT/4:30 AM PDT), with the actual liftoff targeted for 8 AM CDT (9 AM EDT/6 AM PDT).

The full flight profile includes a takeoff from Blue Origin’s remote West Texas facility, followed by an ascent to a height of roughly 62 miles above the Earth’s surface. Those on board, including Bezos, his brother Mark, 82-year old Wally Funk and 18-year old Oliver Daemen will then experience between 3 and 4 minutes of weightlessness inside the New Shepard capsule, before it returns to Earth slowed by parachutes for a touchdown in the West Texas desert and then a recovery by Blue Origin staff.

This is not significantly different in terms of timing or sequence from the 15 prior New Shepard flights that Blue Origin has flown, but this is the first one with humans on board (including the world’s richest), so it’s obviously the one to watch.

#amazon, #blue-origin, #jeff-bezos, #new-shepard, #outer-space, #space, #space-tourism, #spaceflight, #tc, #weightlessness

Thales Alenia Space to develop pressurized modules for Axiom’s private space station

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.

#aerospace, #axiom-space, #hardware, #international-space-station, #nasa, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #space, #space-station, #spaceflight, #tc, #thales-alenia-space

Blue Origin’s final passenger for its first human spaceflight will be 18-year-old Oliver Daemen

The mystery of who will occupy the final seat on Blue Origin’s debut human spaceflight next week is a mystery no longer: The company revealed today that the winning bidder who forked over $28 million for the privilege is actually going to fly on a later mission, and instead the final seat on the debut flight will go to Oliver Daeman, an 18-year-old high school graduate bound for the University of Utrecht. He’ll be the youngest person to travel to space, which means this launch will include both the youngest and the oldest people ever to make the trip.

Blue Origin is planning to fly its founder Jeff Bezos to space in just a few days on July 20, on its debut human spaceflight. That spacecraft will also be carrying Bezos’ brother, along with 82-year old aerospace pioneer Wally Funk, on the trip to suborbital space for a few minutes of weightlessness and unparalleled views before coming back down for a controlled landing in West Texas.

The final seat was auctioned off via a multi-stage process that culminated in a live online bidding rally, which brought the final total paid for the ticket to that whopping $28 million, which is much more than the regular price of the average seat will be during regular commercial flight of the New Shepard spacecraft. That winner, who remains anonymous for now, has declined to go on this one due to “scheduling conflicts.” The funds from the ticket auction are actually being donated to charity, however, rather than acting as revenue for Blue Origin in a commercial sense, going instead to its registered non-profit Club for the Future, which is dedicated to furthering STEM education.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle is designed for suborbital commercial human spaceflight, including both tourism and research uses. The fully reusable system consists of a booster and an upper stage that includes a crew capsule, and after a series of test flights that began in 2015, Blue Origin is now ready to fly it with people on board for the first time, as a final set of

#blue-origin, #human-spaceflight, #jeff-bezos, #new-shepard, #outer-space, #space, #space-tourism, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #tc

Max Q: Billionaire Blast-off Boys Club

Max Q is a weekly newsletter from TechCrunch all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Mondays in your inbox.

It’s a space race of the most indulgent kind, plus there’s a new commercial launch enterprise in the games and another is prepping for production at a massive scale. Also, Starlink aims for the stars — ‘the stars’ in this case being not going bankrupt.

The billionaire bragging rights battle no one asked for

Richard Branson surprised absolutely no one by announcing last week that he’d be aboard the next Virgin Galactic to fly to low Earth orbit, which is set to take off on July 11, and be the space tourism company’s first to carry a full crew complement. Jeff Bezos is heading up in his company’s own phallic reusable rocket on July 20, which means if all goes to schedule, Branson will beat him by just over a week.

If you find you have a hard time mustering a lot of enthusiasm or really any feelings at all about these two grown man boys burning cash in a race to be the first billionaire to spend a couple minutes at an altitude technically considered ‘space’ by a more or less arbitrary definition, then congratulations: You should not care. No one should, and yet here we are, writing and reading about it in a newsletter.

These ‘events’ will be worth watching because of the technical achievements they represent for the companies involved, and the teams that worked hard on making sure either spacecraft is able to safely transport humans to space; the billionaires on board are mere chattel, weight and mass simulators that can provide a surprisingly good, but not altogether perfect, simulacrum of a human passenger.

Elon actually wins some rare kudos for not apparently giving much of a shit about this particular bro off.

SpaceX and Virgin Galactic deliver

SpaceX and Virgin Orbit have delivered payloads on behalf of paying customers this past week — par for the course for the former, but a novel experience for the latter. SpaceX sent up 85 satellites on behalf of customers during its second official rideshare mission, along with three of its own, and Virgin Orbit launched its first official commercial mission (after its successful demonstration launch earlier this year), carrying a number of small satellites including the first ever for the Netherlands military.

If Virgin Orbit succeeds in ramping its operations according to its plan, a week like this with multiple launches from a number of commercial launch providers capable of sending up small satellites might become a lot more common. Virgin Orbit joins SpaceX and Rocket Lab now as having the potential to fly on any given week, and others are hot on their heels, including Astra (which is now an officially publicly traded company) and Relativity.

Speaking of that last one, Relativity announced a new 1 million square foot factory that will house a lot of its massive 3D printers to ramp up production of its larger Terran R rocket. The company has yet to fly its Terran 1, the first of its 3D printed spacecraft, but that’s still on track to happen later this year.

SpaceX’s Starlink terminal costs over 2x what it costs

Image Credits: Starlink

Elon Musk virtually joined the MWC conference in Barcelona to talk about Starlink, and when asked what success for the bourgeoning global connectivity service would look like, he said that essentially they’ll be happy if it doesn’t go bankrupt. Then, if they can jump that hurdle, they’ll start thinking longer term.

He pointed out that everyone who has tried to do what Starlink is trying to do so far has gone bust, and admitted that the company has probably already sunk between $5 and $10 billion into its work on the constellation and service so far, with another $30 billion expected to be invested long-term. He also pointed out that the $500 terminal and modem kit customers need to buy to get connected actually costs SpaceX over $1,000 to produce, so it’s selling them at a significant loss for now.

Starlink could be a big source of ongoing revenue, and more consistent and predictable than the launch business, but it’s obviously going to take a long time to get there. Now it make sense why the company is launching Starlink satellites with such frequency, as it aims for global coverage, and the larger customer base that brings.

#astra, #elon, #jeff-bezos, #max-q, #outer-space, #rocket-lab, #space, #space-tourism, #spaceflight, #spacex, #starlink, #tc, #virgin-galactic, #virgin-orbit

Virgin Orbit successfully launches its first commercial payloads to space

Virgin Orbit had a successful first commercial launch, meaning there’s now officially another small satellite launch provider in operation with a track record of delivering payloads to space. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket took off from its carrier aircraft at around 11:45 AM EDT today, and the spacecraft had a successful series of engine fires and stage separations to make the trip to low Earth orbit.

On board, Virgin Orbit carried seven payloads, including the first-ever defense satellite for the Netherlands, as well as cubsats developed by the U.S. Department of Defense for its Rapid Agile Launch initiative. The initiative is seeking to test the viability of flying small spacecraft to space on relatively short notice on launch platforms with increased flexibility, which Virgin Orbit’s provides thanks to its ability to take off horizontally from more or less conventional runways.

Virgin Orbit also carried two Earth observation satellites for Polish startup SatRevolution, and it will be delivering more in future flights to help build out that company’s planned 14-spacecraft constellation.

In January, Virgin Orbit completed its final demonstration mission, reaching orbit for the first time with LauncherOne. That paved the way for this mission, and the company plans to increase the pace and frequency of its commercial missions, with at least one more planned tentatively for later this year and many more in 2022.

In terms of payload capacity, Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One can carry around 1,100 pounds to low Earth orbit, which compares favorably with the capacity of Rocket Lab’s Electron, which can carry around 661 pounds to the same destination.

It fits a niche for small satellite operators that currently have a lot of demand, served in part by SpaceX, as well with its ridesharing missions, but Virgin Orbit has the potential to provide more dedicated services for operator looking to launch just a few small spacecraft for a modest constellation. And as mentioned, its potential for varying its take-off location in future could be a big competitive advantage in the defense and security industries.

#launch-vehicle, #launcherone, #outer-space, #rocket-lab, #satellite, #satellite-launch, #satrevolution, #small-satellite, #space, #spaceflight, #tc, #virgin-galactic, #virgin-orbit

SpaceX aiming for first orbital test launch of Starship in July

SpaceX is hoping to attempt to fly its in-development spacecraft Starship to orbit for the first time in July, according to company president Gwynne Shotwell. Shotwell shared the timeline at the International Space Development conference during a virtual speaking engagement.

Starship has been in development for the past several years, and it has been making shorter test flights, but remaining within Earth’s atmosphere, since last year. Its most recent flight also included its first fully successful landing, which is a key ingredient in the development of the Starship launch system, which is designed to be SpaceX’s first that is fully reusable.

July (aka next month) is an ambitious timeline for making the first orbital flight attempt of Starship, but in May SpaceX filed its planned course for the flight, which would lift off from the company’s Starship development site in south Texas near Brownsville (known as ‘Starbase’) and then eventually return to Earth with a splash down in the Pacific Ocean somewhere off the cost of Hawaii.

This first flight won’t end with a controlled landing, and the focus will be on reaching orbit and testing the spacecraft component through that part of the flight. Later tests will include a controlled landing of the Starship spacecraft, with the goal of eventually making the entire system, including the Super Heavy booster that will help propel it to orbit, fully reusable.

While Shotwell seemed to indicate high confidence that SpaceX is pretty much technically ready to begin orbital test flights of Starship, the company still needs to secure a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in order to perform orbital launches, since its existing license only covers suborbital flights. The FAA is currently in process on reviewing the requirements for that license, including an environmental impact review of what it would mean for the surrounding area.

#federal-aviation-administration, #gwynne-shotwell, #outer-space, #space, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #spacex, #spacex-starship, #starship, #super-heavy, #tc

FAA clears Virgin Galactic for commercial astronaut spaceflight

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has given Virgin Galactic the green light to begin transporting commercial passengers to space aboard its VSS spacecraft. This is an expansion of the company’s existing license, which had granted it permission to fly professional test pilots and astronauts to space using its spaceplane. The updated license comes on the heels of Virgin Galactic’s successful test flight on May 22.

This means that the way is cleared for Virgin Galactic to being operating as the first official ‘spaceline’ — which is like an airline, but for space. The company aims to provide regular service for space tourists and researchers to suborbital space, with an experience that includes unparalleled views of Earth and a few minutes of weightless during the roughly 2 hour trip.

The FAA’s approval is a big step, but it’s not the final one before Virgin Galactic begins its actual regular service flights for paying customers: The company still needs to complete three remaining test flights before that happens. These will be the first flights of the Virgin spacecraft and its carrier plane while carrying a full crew, and at the goal is still to fly the first of those sometime “this summer,” according to CEO Michael Colglazier.

A report from earlier this month claims that Virgin Galactic backer Sir Richard Branson could fly on the next test flight, and that it might occur as early as the coming July 4 weekend, which would mean he makes it to space faster than his billionaire rocket riding rival Jeff Bezos, who is set to make a trip on his own Blue Origin New Shepard spaceship on July 20. Virgin Galactic hasn’t said officially when its next test flight would occur, however.

#blue-origin, #ceo, #federal-aviation-administration, #jeff-bezos, #michael-colglazier, #outer-space, #richard-branson, #space, #space-tourism, #spaceflight, #spaceplane, #suborbital-spaceflight, #tc, #virgin-galactic

Orbion, manufacturer of in-space plasma propulsion systems, raises $20M Series B

Electric propulsion developer Orbion Space Technology has raised $20 million in a Series B funding round, which it says it will use to scale production capacity of its Aurora propulsion system.

The Michigan-based startup manufactures Hall effect plasma thrusters for use in small and cube satellites. Thrusters are used throughout the lifespan of a satellite (or any object in space that needs to maintain its orbit, like the space station) to adjust orbital altitude, avoid collisions, and de-orbit the craft once it has reached the end of its useful life. Hall thrusters use a magnetic field to ionize a propellant and produce plasma.

While they have long been used in space, this type of thruster has mostly been too expensive for small satellite operators. Orbion says it has created a cost-effective production capacity to meet the growing demand of startups and developers launching to low Earth orbit. Orbion CEO Brad King said in a statement that the company considered contract manufacturers but ultimately chose a vertically integrated manufacturing model. Now, the company says it has outgrown its existing manufacturing space.

The company is facing “unprecedented market demand” for its Aurora system, King said. With the boom of the so-called new space economy, driven in part by the decreased costs of processors, components and even launch, it’s no surprise that there’s been a concurrent uptick in demand for efficient in-space propulsion systems.

The company had previously raised a $9.2 million Series A in August 2019. Since that time, the company secured a research partnership with the U.S. Department of Defense that’s testing the resiliency of American space systems. Orbion also landed a contract with satellite manufacturer Blue Canyon Technologies last September.

This most recent funding round was led by the US-India VC firm Inventus Capital Partners, with additional participation from Material Impact, Beringea and Wakestream Ventures.

“The space game is changing,” Inventus Capital Partners investor Kanwal Rekhi said in a statement. “Large satellites are being replaced by a multitude of nano-satellites; just like the PCs replaced mainframes. Orbion is providing these nano-satellites maneuverability to get into more precise orbits and stay there longer.”

#cubesats, #orbion, #outer-space, #plasma-physics, #recent-funding, #satellites, #space, #spacecraft, #startups

Max Q — China’s space station gets a staff

Max Q is a weekly newsletter from TechCrunch all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Mondays in your inbox.

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

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

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.

#agriculture, #astronaut, #china, #european-space-agency, #flight, #human-spaceflight, #hydrosat, #international-space-station, #mars, #nasa, #outer-space, #rocket-lab, #space, #space-exploration, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #tc, #wildfire

Rocket Lab to design two orbital spacecraft for NASA to study Mars

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.

#outer-space, #photon, #rocket-lab, #space, #space-exploration, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #tc

Jeff Bezos and his brother will fly on Blue Origin’s first human spaceflight with auction winner

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.

#amazon, #blue-origin, #human-spaceflight, #jeff-bezos, #mark, #new-shepard, #online-auction, #outer-space, #richard-branson, #space, #space-tourism, #spaceflight, #tc, #texas, #virgin-galactic

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: SpaceX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kellie Gerardi

Image Credits: Kellie Gerardi

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

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

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

SpaceX will launch four private astronaut missions to the Space Station through 2023

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.

#axiom, #elon-musk, #falcon, #human-spaceflight, #international-space-station, #nasa, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #space, #space-adventures, #space-tourism, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc, #yusaku-maezawa

Max Q: Selling space

Max Q is a weekly newsletter from TechCrunch all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Mondays in your inbox.

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

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

Lander Rover

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.

Meanwhile, GM announced this past week that it’s working with space industry veteran Lockheed Martin to develop a next-gen Moon rover that will provide future lunar astronauts with more speed and greater range. GM and Lockheed will still have to win a NASA contract in order to actually make the thing, but they’re clearly excited about the prospect.

TC Sessions: Space is back 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 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.

You can already get tickets, and if you get in early, you save $100.

#bezos, #blue-origin, #canada, #ceo, #elon-musk, #falcon, #google, #google-lunar-x-prize, #ispace, #japan, #kathy-lueders, #lockheed-martin, #max-q, #outer-space, #peter-beck, #private-spaceflight, #rocket-lab, #space, #space-tourism, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #spacex, #spacex-starship, #tc, #techcrunch, #united-states

SpaceX’s inaugural Moon tour private astronaut is heading to the International Space Station first

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.

#anousheh-ansari, #astronaut, #human-spaceflight, #international-space-station, #moon-mission, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #soyuz, #space, #space-adventures, #space-tourism, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc, #yusaku-maezawa

SpaceX launches and lands a Falcon 9 rocket booster a record 10th time

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.

#broadband, #elon-musk, #falcon, #falcon-9, #outer-space, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex, #starlink, #tc

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne is returning to space in June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FAA authorizes SpaceX’s next three Starship test launches

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.

#elon-musk, #faa, #federal-aviation-administration, #outer-space, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex, #spacex-starship, #tc

SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites

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

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

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

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

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

SpaceX successfully launches astronauts with a re-used Dragon spacecraft for the first time

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.

#astronaut, #commercial-crew, #elon-musk, #esa, #falcon-9, #human-spaceflight, #jaxa, #nasa, #outer-space, #private-spaceflight, #space, #space-station, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc, #united-states

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter in flight on Mars.

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter in flight on Mars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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