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.
A ticket to take a brief trip to space with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos next month has been sold at auction for $28 million.
The bidding process, which began in early May, drew offers from more than 7,000 participants from 159 countries, Blue Origin said. The price had stood at $4.8 million ahead of Saturday’s live auction, which was streamed online.
The identity of the winning bidder has not yet been made public but will be revealed in the coming weeks, Blue Origin said.
NASA said Friday it was seeking proposals from commercial companies for two new private crewed missions to the International Space Station. The first mission would likely take place between fall of 2022 and mid-2023. The second one would follow sometime between mid-2023 and the end of 2023.
Private astronaut missions are a relatively recent initiative from NASA, part of its Commercial low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Development program. For most of humanity’s history in space, trips to the ISS were reserved for astronauts from countries’ respective space agencies.
Houston-based startup Axiom Space was awarded the first private astronaut mission, to take place in January 2022. That mission will carry four private astronauts for an eight-day mission from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA will pay Axiom $1.69 million for services associated with the mission.
Each of the new missions can be up to 14 days and proposals are due by July 9. The agency specified that the missions must be brokered by a U.S. company and use approved U.S. transportation spacecraft. (Axiom’s private mission will use a SpaceX Crew Dragon.)
NASA said that enabling private manned missions such as this one may help “develop a robust low-Earth orbit economy where NASA is one of many customers, and the private sector leads the way.” Thanks to the significantly decreased launch costs – due in large part to innovations in rocket reusability, led by SpaceX – as well as a whole new ecosystem of ‘new space’ companies that have sprung up over the last five years, space has become busier than ever.
The agency also said LEO could eventually be used as a “training and proving ground” for the planned Artemis program – humanity’s long-awaited return to the moon – and missions even deeper into the solar system.
Astra, the space launch startup with plans to go public via a SPAC merger, will acquire electric propulsion maker Apollo Fusion, the company said Monday. Electric propulsion systems are effective at moving spacecraft from lower to higher orbits, even to the moon, Astra Chief Engineer Benjamin Lyon said in a blog post Monday, pointing to Astra’s plans beyond missions to Earth’s orbit.
Under the terms of the deal, Astra will buy Apollo for $30 million in stock and $20 million in cash, for a total purchase price of $50 million. There is also the potential for an additional earn-out of up to $95 million if Apollo hits certain performance benchmarks. PJT Partners is acting as financial advisor to Astra with regard to the transaction, the Alameda-based launch startup said Monday.
Astra CEO Chris Kemp has been forthright about his goal of making the company a vertically integrated launch and space services provider, and Apollo’s thruster technology is a major piece of that puzzle. Astra successfully launched its first test rocket from Kodiak, Alaska last December, but in public statements Kemp has indicated plans for monthly commercial launches.
Apollo produces two EP thruster systems, the Apollo Constellation Engine (ACE) and the ACE Max. Both are compatible with krypton or xenon propellants. The company said it had been selected by York Space Systems as the propulsion system provider for a LEO satellite constellation program that will be launched in 2022.
The transaction between Astra and Apollo will close after Astra’s merger with special purpose acquisition company Holicity is completed later this year.
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.
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.
Rocket Lab flew its 20th Electron mission on Saturday morning, but the launch ran into a significant issue just after its second stage engine ignited. The engine appeared to shut down just after the ignition, which is not what it’s supposed to do, and which is likely the result of an automated emergency shutdown process that would trigger in case of a system failure. Rocket Lab confirmed that the issue happened shortly after the ignition of the second stage and resulted in the loss of the vehicle and its payload.
This flight, called “Running Out of Toes,” was Rocket Lab’s third this year, and a paid, dedicated launch for customer BlackSky, meant to deliver an Earth observation satellite for that company to help power its global monitoring and intelligence platform. This mission profile also included a key test of Rocket Lab’s rocket reusability program, with a planned recovery of the first-stage booster used in the Electron vehicle that carried the satellite to space.
This was to be the second time that Rocket Lab performed a rocket recovery, after picking one up post-launch back in November. The company had created a lot of improvements for this second try, including upgrades to Electron itself, with a better thermal protection system and upgraded heat shield to protect the Rutherford engines that power the booster, which are designed to help the final reusable design keep those in good shape for future reuse post-recovery.
It doesn’t look like the first-stage recovery is happening based on Rocket Lab’s statements thus far, but the company says that it will be providing more information on the failed launch once that becomes available.
SpaceX’s bourgeoning Starlink satellite-based broadband internet service just got a big boost from a significant new partner: Google Cloud. Thanks to a new partnership between the two, SpaceX will now be locating Starlink ground stations right within Google’s existing data centers, providing the Starlink network with direct access to ground-based network infrastructure to help facilitate network connections for customers who are on the edges of the footprint of existing network access.
Starlink’s entire aim is to provide reliable, broadband-quality connections to areas that have typically be hard or impossible to reach with legacy ground-based network infrastructure, including cellular networks. The tie-up with Google means that not only will business and public sector customers taking advantage of that new network reach have access to internet connections, but also to cloud-based infrastructure and applications, including AI and machine learning capabilities, analytics and more.
This should not only bolster Starlink’s reliability in terms of its consumer clients, but also provide key capabilities for serving enterprise customers — another key target demographic for the growing Starlink business, though much of the public focus thus far for Starlink’s roll-out has been on residential access across its expanding beta.
Google and Starlink expect to begin to become available to enterprise customers soon — sometime pin the “second half of 2021” according to a press release issued by the companies.
SpaceX has been very aggressive in building out the Starlink network in the past few months, launching 480 in just around there months. All that in-space infrastructure build out could well have been pre-amble to this collaboration and enterprise-focused service launch, in addition to helping SpaceX expand Starlink consumer service quality and availability.
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.
As private companies like Axiom Space, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX prepare to ferry private customers to the stars, a whole new market is opening up to train affluent would-be travelers for their future missions. Case in point: space training company Orbite, whose goal is to combine aeronautics and five-star hospitality in its inaugural astronaut training program.
“We’re going to have hundreds, if not thousands of people this decade of the 2020s, who will go to space, but you just don’t get off the couch and strap into a rocket […] you actually have to get mentally prepared, physically prepared, and also spiritually prepared for this out of out of this world journey,” co-founder Jason Andrews told TechCrunch. “And that’s really our role.”
Orbite (the French word for ‘orbit,’ pronounced or-beet) was founded by space and hospitality industry veterans Andrews and Nicolas Gaume. Andrews is an aerospace entrepreneur that founded Spaceflight and BlackSky, while Gaume, a software and game development entrepreneur, sits on the board of his family’s resort and hotel business Groupe Gaume. Last year, Gaume’s business Space Cargo Unlimited shipped a dozen bottles of wine to the International Space Station. They were later retrieved. (When asked how the wine tasted, Gaume told TechCrunch, “It’s a unique product.”)
The program will be led by Brienna Rommes, who previously worked as the director of space training and research at the National Aerospace Training and Research Center. Rommes has trained over 600 people to prepare for spaceflight, including Sir Richard Branson, Orbite said.
Led by Rommes, the program aim to prepare travelers that are determined to reach space, but Andrews also said Orbite can help customers “try before they buy” – give people a taste of spaceflight for those who are unsure whether they’d actually want to board a launch vehicle. This seems to be their main value proposition, by providing a general overview to space travel across different companies, because they’ll also be competing to a degree with the native (and mandatory) training programs of individual private launch companies that are purpose-built to prepare customers for their flight.
Costs remain prohibitively high for the average spacefarer: it’s been reported that a ticket on Axiom’s inaugural commercial launch to the International Space Station costs upwards of $55 million. Orbite’s premium training program comes in at $29,500 per person for the three-day, four-night stay.
In acknowledgement on the premium price tag, the four training program sessions scheduled through the remainder of 2021 will be held at luxury resorts: the Four Seasons Resort in Orlando, Florida, and Hôtel La Co(o)rniche in Pyla-sur-Mer, France. The latter hotel is owned by Groupe Gaume.
Would-be space travelers will be able to experience up to 5 Gs by taking a ride on a high-performance aircraft as well as simulated zero-gravity. To prepare customers mentally and even spiritually, the training program itinerary includes meditation training, a workshop on stress and anxiety management, and individual coaching with staff “to explore personal goals for space, thoughts and asses possible flight options,” the company said. The itinerary also includes virtual reality mission experiences and a ‘Michelin star’ space food tasting.
“We really want to make sure we bridge the gap with more of a sensorial, psychological, even spiritual preparation for the trip,” Gaume said.
The company’s long-term vision is building and operating many training facilities around the world. The first facility will open in 2023 or 2024, though Andrews and Gaume are not yet sharing where it will be located. They did say that the dedicated training facility will offer a range of packages, with some as short as single-day experiences. They will also offer accommodation and hospitality, potentially for the long term – weeks or even months, depending on if we reach a stage in human space travel where we’re sending private citizens to the Moon or even Mars.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck shared more details on the company’s next launch, which is set to take off from its New Zealand facility on May 15. The Electron vehicle will be carrying satellites from BlackSky, but delivering that payload is only half of the mission: the other half will be recovering the booster stage after an ocean splashdown.
This is the second of three planned booster recovery missions, part of Rocket Lab’s long-term plan to reach reusability for its launch vehicle, an achievement most famously held by its competitor SpaceX. The first recovery mission, dubbed “Return to Sender,” successfully splashed down in the Atlantic in November. While Beck told reporters Tuesday the condition of that booster “was remarkable,” this upcoming mission nevertheless features a number of component and system upgrades aimed at further fortifying the booster.
Most notably, the booster will be equipped with a redesigned heat shield made out of stainless steel, rather than aluminum, “designed to carry the reentry loads as well as the ascent loads,” Beck said. Electron must endure temperatures as high as 2400ºC during reentry, conditions the original equipment wasn’t intended to handle.
The company is also introducing what it’s calling the Ocean Recovery and Capture Apparatus, or ORCA, a dedicated system to help lift the rocket stage out of the water and onto the deck of a ship. Rough seas in November presented a challenge to the recovery effort, though ultimately the booster was not damaged.
The mission will also reuse components from the recovered booster, which (although the booster itself was dismantled) were subsequently inspected and requalified for flight. “From here on in, we should be able to reuse this system on every single launch vehicle that we’ve been bringing back,” Beck said.
Rocket Lab is pursuing a unique route to reusability. As opposed to the approach from SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 rockets use powered decelerations and landings, Rocket Lab’s approach with Electron is to decelerate the vehicle passively using the atmosphere and a parachute.
The reentry method is constrained by the size of the launch vehicle, Beck explained. “You don’t really have that ability to carry extra fuel to do maneuvers or deceleration burns or anything like that,” he said. Instead, the vehicle enters engines-first and propagates a massive shockwave on its journey back to Earth, carefully managed to reduce peak heat on its vulnerable parts. This results in a nearly negligible payload reduction: about 10%, as opposed to the 30-40% required for a propulsive landing. These are very tight margins, Beck acknowledged:
“This is not a simple thing to do. It sounds pretty basic – let’s just bring the stage back and put it under a parachute and splash down – but actually, doing it with no significant reentry elements and just using the atmosphere to do all the work is really challenging.”
The final splashdown recovery mission will take place before the end of 2021, Beck said, and will include improvements to the decelerator and a more general block upgrade. Once these missions are complete, Rocket Lab will turn to its ultimate goal: to do away with splashdown recovery altogether and to retrieve the booster mid-descent under its parachute using a helicopter.
Looking ahead, the company’s next rocket will be the Neutron, “a vehicle designed for reusability from day one,” Beck said. The Neutron will be much larger than its predecessor and capable of lifting heavier payloads to orbit. He estimated that Rocket Lab will construct one Neutron rocket per year and aim to operate a fleet of four to begin with.
Houston-based startup Axiom Space and NASA unveiled more details Monday about the forthcoming Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1), the first fully private human mission to the International Space Station.
The Axiom Mission 1 (AX-1) spaceflight mission will ferry four private astronauts to the International Space Station in January 2022. The eight-day mission will be launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida using a SpaceX Crew Dragon. While in space, the crew will be living and working in the U.S. segment of the ISS.
NASA will be paying Axiom $1.69 million for services associated with the mission, such as transporting supplies to the ISS, though that does not include other reimbursable agreements between the two entities.
There’s a “high degree of confidence in the late January date” for the launch, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini said.
Axiom in January released the identity of the crew members: Canadian investor Mark Pathy, investor Larry Connor, and former Israeli pilot Eytan Stibbe. Leading the crew as mission commander is former NASA astronaut and Axiom Space VP Michael López-Alegría, who has four spaceflights under his belt.
Pathy, Connor and Stibbe will engage in research missions while onboard. Pathy will be collaborating with the Montreal Children’s Hospital and the Canadian Space Agency; Connor, the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic; and Stibbe, to conduct scientific experiments coordinated by the Israel Space Agency at the Ministry of Science and Technology.
“Larry and Mark are very serious individuals who are dedicated to being the best they can be in the mold of a NASA astronaut and they’re not interested in being tourists,” López-Alegría said during the media briefing. “They want to do their part to improve humankind.”
To prepare for the mission, the four crew members will go on a “camping trip” in the Alaskan foothills for training in July, López-Alegría said. He will start full-time training around August, with Larry starting in September. The rest of the crew will start in October, with around two-thirds of their time dedicated to ISS-specific training and the rest dedicated to training with SpaceX. The staggered schedule is due to the differing responsibilities between the crew members while on board. Axiom will be using the same contractor that NASA uses to train its astronauts.
While Suffredini declined to specify how much the private astronauts paid for their space on the flight, he said he “wouldn’t argue with” widely reported figures in the tens of millions. The Washington Post in January reported that the ticket prices came in at $55 million each.
Prices may not always be so high, but Suffredini said that the industry is likely at least a decade away from serious price drops that might make space travel feasible for the average space-goer.
Axiom intends to offer astronaut flights – both private and national – to the International Space Station and eventually its own privately-funded space station. While Axiom has “things lined up” for AX-2, AX-3 and AX-4, “like everyone we have to compete for the opportunity,” Suffredini said. The number of missions to the ISS is limited because there are only two docking ports on the ISS, Station deputy manager Dana Weigel added. That suggests that additional stations will be necessary to meet the burgeoning demand for both commercial and scientific space missions.
The company also in January 2020 won a NASA contract to develop and install a commercial module to the Harmony docking port of the ISS as early as 2024.
Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said that recent announcements on commercial spaceflights from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic in addition to the Axiom mission have heralded “a renaissance in U.S. human spaceflight.”
“A lot of times history can feel incremental when you’re in it, but I really feel like we are in it this year. This is a real inflection point with human spaceflight,” he said.
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 has launched 60 more of its Starlink internet broadband satellites — on ‘Star Wars Day,’ no less, and only five days after it launched the last batch. The company has now delivered 420 Starlink satellites since the beginning of March, a sum that SpaceX CEO and founder must not be aware of because he definitely would’ve tweeted about it by now if he was.
This launch took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 3:01 PM ET (12:01 PM PT), and used a re-used Falcon 9 booster that had flown 8 times previously. That booster also landed back on SpaceX’s floating drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean, tying the record for SpaceX’s reusable flight program in terms of flying resumed boosters, which it just set in March. This is the company’s 115th Falcon 9 launch so far.
SpaceX also shared updated figures around its Starlink consumer hardware, which is used to transmit and receive signal from the constellation for broadband service. The company has received “over half a million” pre-order reservations for its service so far, which includes advance deposits on the hardware.
That strong demand helps explain why there appears to be such a significant backlog in terms of fulfilling orders for Starlink. Customers looking to user the service can sign up via SpaceX’s website, and place a pre-order for the kit, which induces the Starlink receiver, a router, power supplies and mounting hardware for your home.
The service is available to beta customers in six countries thus far, including Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the U.S. and Canada, but the goal is to continue to expand coverage to achieve near-global reach by the end of 2021 in terms of service availability, with a number of additional launches planned throughout the rest of the year.
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.
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.”
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.