Spaceflight will be ferrying payloads from Orbit Fab, GeoJump to lunar orbit next year

Space rideshare service provider Spaceflight Inc. is going to be shuttling customers on a lunar flyby mission next year, part of its long-term vision of giving companies easy access to lunar orbits and beyond.

The Seattle-based company will be delivering payload using its propulsive transfer vehicle, Sherpa EScape, or Sherpa-ES, the latest iteration of Sherpa vehicles that the company has been testing for the past few years. The Sherpa essentially acts as last-mile space transportation, deploying payload to customers’ desired orbits after reaching outer space.

Spaceflight’s electric propulsive Sherpa-LTE flew on the SpaceX Transporter-2 mission in June, while Sherpa-LTC with chemical propulsion will launch later this year on Transporter-3. The company’s successfully deployed 50 customer spacecraft to date.

The Sherpa-ES will be delivering payloads for in-orbit refueling company Orbit Fab, which just closed $10 million in funding from two major aerospace primes, and new company GeoJump. It looks like GeoJump is also looking to get into the ridesharing business; its website bills it as offering “a new route to [geostationary orbit]” for small satellites. The mission will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The rideshare is part of a robotic lunar landing mission being undertaken by Intuitive Machines, one of a handful of companies selected by NASA to be part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program. Intuitive Machines will be sending its nearly 2,000-kilogram Nova-C lander to the lunar surface for a 14-day mission. The IM-1 lander will ferry around 130 kilograms of cargo.

Intuitive Machines also tapped SpaceX for its second lander mission, also for 2022. The company says this will be the first object to land at the moon’s south pole, and the first object to drill on lunar ice.

#aerospace, #geojump, #orbit-fab, #space, #spaceflight, #spaceflight-inc

We must subsidize and regulate space exploration

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (popularizing the modern internet). He didn’t protect the technology because he wanted it to benefit us all. Three decades later, most of the power — and a lot of the profits — of the internet are in the hands of a few tech billionaires, and much of the early promise of the internet remains unfulfilled.

To avoid the same fate for space, we need to subsidize new players to create competition and lower costs, as well as regulate space travel to ensure safety.

Space matters. It could create countless jobs and fuel economies, and may even hold the solution to climate change. Investors can already see this, having poured billions into space companies in an industry with a potential market value of $1.4 trillion by 2030.

Space may seem too vast to be dominated by a few tech billionaires, but in 1989, so did the internet. We need to get this right, because from the mechanics and aerospace engineers to the marketing, information and logistics workers, the space industry could fuel global job creation and economic growth.

For that to happen, we need competition. What we have now is a few players operating perhaps for their founders’ benefits, not the world’s.

We should not repeat the mistakes we made with the internet and wait for the technology to be abused before we step in. For example, in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a private technology company used weapons-grade social media manipulation to pursue their own profit (which is their obligation to their shareholders) but to society’s harm (which it is regulators’ job to protect).

In space, the stakes are even higher. They also affect all of humanity, not a few countries. There are environmental dangers (we are probing the carbon cost of “Earth” flights, but not space flights), and an accident, as well as leading to loss of life in space, could send fatal debris to Earth.

These dangers are not unforeseen. Virgin Galactic had its first fatality in 2014. A Space X launch puts out as much carbon dioxide as flying around 300 people across the Atlantic. Earlier this year, some unguided space debris from a Chinese rocket landed in the Maldives.

We should not wait until these accidents happen again — perhaps at a bigger scale — before we act.

Space tourism can and should be about much more than giving the 1% another Instagrammable moment and increasing the wealth of the billionaires who provide the service.

The space industry should be managed in a way that delivers the most good to the largest number of people. That starts with subsidies.

In short, we should treat space travel like any other form of transit. Making that sustainable economically will almost inevitably require some government intervention.

We have been here before: When the combination of air travel, highways and rising labor costs led the two largest railways in the United States to bankruptcy, the Nixon administration intervened and created Amtrak.

This wasn’t ideologically fueled (quite the opposite). This was a decision to make sure the U.S. reaped the economic benefits of interstate travel. Even though Amtrak remains unprofitable 50 years after its creation, it is a crucial piece of economic infrastructure upon which many other industries — as well as millions of individuals and families — rely.

We need to do the same with space travel. Very few individuals will benefit from what will be an uber-luxury segment of the travel market, with Virgin Galactic tickets predicted to cost $250,000 (and that is the entry-level space travel product; Virgin’s competitors are priced at multiples of that cost).

If we subsidize the industry now, while ensuring there are new competitors in space, we can ensure it hits a critical mass where all the broader benefits of space travel become a reality.

This will be much easier than waiting for monopolies to emerge and then trying to fight them (which is what the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is trying to do, decades too late, to Big Tech).

Space travel is not just hype or the plaything of billionaires. It is the final frontier, both physically and economically.

If we want it to be a success, we should learn from our successes and failures back on Earth and apply them to space now.

That means subsidies, support, regulation and safety. These things are important on Earth, but in space they are absolutely essential.

#aerospace, #column, #government, #opinion, #policy, #space, #space-debris, #space-tourism, #space-travel, #spaceflight, #tc, #virgin-galactic

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

Suing your way to the stars

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!

I’m back from a very fun and rehabilitative couple weeks away from my phone, my Twitter account and the news cycle. That said, I actually really missed writing this newsletter, and while Greg did a fantastic job while I was out, I won’t be handing over the reins again anytime soon. Plenty happened this week and I struggled to zero in on a single topic to address, but I finally chose to focus on Bezos’s Blue Origin suing NASA.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny.


The big thing

I was going to write about OnlyFans for the newsletter this week and their fairly shocking move to ban sexually explicit content from their site in a bid to stay friendly with payment processors, but alas I couldn’t help myself and wrote an article for ole TechCrunch dot com instead. Here’s a link if you’re curious.

Now, I should also note that while I was on vacation I missed all of the conversation surrounding Apple’s incredibly controversial child sexual abuse material detection software that really seems to compromise the perceived integrity of personal devices. I’m not alone in finding this to be a pretty worrisome development despite Apple’s intention of staving off a worse alternative. Hopefully, one of these weeks I’ll have the time to talk with some of the folks in the decentralized computing space about how our monolithic reliance on a couple tech companies operating with precious little consumer input is very bad. In the meantime, I will point you to some reporting from TechCrunch’s own Zack Whittaker on the topic which you should peruse because I’m sure it will be a topic I revisit here in the future.

Now then! Onto the topic at hand.

Federal government agencies don’t generally inspire much adoration. While great things have been accomplished at the behest of ample federal funding and the tireless work of civil servants, most agencies are treated as bureaucratic bloat and aren’t generally seen as anything worth passionately defending. Among the public and technologists in particular, NASA occupies a bit more of a sacred space. The American space agency has generally been a source of bipartisan enthusiasm, as has its goal to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.

Which brings us to some news this week. While so much digital ink was spilled on Jeff Bezos’s little jaunt to the edge of space, cowboy hat, champagne and all, there’s been less fanfare around his space startup’s lawsuit against NASA, which we’ve now learned will delay the development of a new lunar lander by months, potentially throwing NASA’s goal to return astronauts to the moon’s surface on schedule into doubt.

Bezos’s upstart Blue Origin is protesting the fact that they were not awarded a government contract while Elon Musk’s SpaceX earned a $2.89 billion contract to build a lunar lander. This contract wasn’t just recently awarded either, SpaceX won it back in April and Blue Origin had already filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office. This happened before Bezos penned an open letter promising a $2 billion discount for NASA which had seen budget cuts at the hands of Congress dash its hoped to award multiple contracts. None of these maneuverings proved convincing enough for the folks at NASA, pushing Bezos’s space startup to sue the agency.

This little feud has caused long-minded Twitter users to dig up this little gem from a Bezos 2019 speech — as transcribed by Gizmodo — highlighting Bezos’s own distaste for how bureaucracy and greed have hampered NASA’s ability to reach for the stars:

“To the degree that big NASA programs become seen as jobs programs and that they have to be distributed to the right states where the right Senators live, and so on. That is going to change the objective. Now your objective is not to, you know, whatever it is, to get a man to the moon or a woman to the moon, but instead to get a woman to the moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district. That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one…[…]

Today, there would be, you know, three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win. It’s interesting, but the thing that slows things down is procurement. It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology, which I know for a fact for all the well meaning people at NASA is frustrating.

A Blue Origin spokesperson called the suit, an “attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System.” But the lawsuit really seems to highlight how dire this deal is to the ability of Blue Origin to lock down top talent. Whether the startup can handle the reputational risk of suing NASA and delaying America’s return to the moon seems to be a question very much worth asking.


Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., speaks during an unveiling event for the Boring Company Hawthorne test tunnel in Hawthorne, south of Los Angeles, California on December 18, 2018.

Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

OnlyFans bans “sexually explicit content”
A lot of people had pretty visceral reactions to OnlyFans killing off what seems to be a pretty big chunk of its business, outlawing “sexually explicit content” on the platform. It seems the decision was reached as a result of banking and payment partners leaning on the company.

Musk “unveils” the “Tesla Bot”
I truly struggle to even call this news, but I’d be remiss not to highlight how Elon Musk had a guy dress up in a spandex outfit and walk around doing the robot and spawned hundreds of news stories about his new “Tesla Bot.” While there certainly could be a product opportunity here for Tesla at some point, I would bet all of the dogecoin in the world that his prototype “coming next year” either never arrives or falls hilariously short of expectations.

Facebook drops a VR meeting simulator
This week, Facebook released one of its better virtual reality apps, a workplace app designed to help people host meetings inside virtual reality. To be clear, no one really asked for this, but the company made a full court PR press for the app which will help headset owners simulate the pristine experience of sitting in a conference room.

Social platforms wrestle with Taliban presence on platforms
Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, social media platforms are being pushed to clarify their policies around accounts operated by identified Taliban members. It’s put some of the platforms in a hairy situation.

Facebook releases content transparency report
This week, Facebook released its first ever content transparency report, highlighting what data on the site had the most reach over a given time period, in this case a three-month period. Compared to lists highlighting which posts get the most engagement on the platform, lists generally populated mostly by right wing influencers and news sources, the list of posts with the most reach seems to be pretty benign.

Safety regulators open inquiry into Tesla Autopilot
While Musk talks about building a branded humanoid robot, U.S. safety regulators are concerned with why Tesla vehicles on Autopilot are crashing into so many parked emergency response vehicles.


 

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

The Nuro EC-1
“..Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu aren’t the only Google self-driving project employees to launch an AV startup, but they might be the most underrated. Their company, Nuro, is valued at $5 billion and has high-profile partnerships with leaders in retail, logistics and food including FedEx, Domino’s and Walmart. And, they seem to have navigated the regulatory obstacle course with success — at least so far…”

A VC shares 5 keys to pitching VCs
“The success of a fundraising process is entirely dependent on how well an entrepreneur can manage it. At this stage, it is important for founders to be honest, straightforward and recognize the value meetings with venture capitalists and investors can bring beyond just the monetary aspect..

A crash course on corporate development
“…If you’re going to get acquired, chances are you’re going to spend a lot of time with corporate development teams. With a hot stock market, mountains of cash and cheap debt floating around, the environment for acquisitions is extremely rich.”


Thanks for reading! Until next week…

Lucas M.

#afghanistan, #america, #astronaut, #banking, #blue-origin, #computing, #congress, #dave-ferguson, #elon-musk, #entrepreneur, #extra-crunch, #facebook, #federal-government, #fedex, #food, #google, #government-accountability-office, #greg, #jeff-bezos, #lunar-lander, #nasa, #nuro, #robyn, #social-media-platforms, #spaceflight, #spacex, #taliban, #tc, #tesla, #united-states, #walmart, #week-in-review, #zack-whittaker

Why Perseverance’s first Mars drilling test came up empty

Why Perseverance’s first Mars drilling test came up empty

Enlarge (credit: NASA)

Last week, NASA’s Perseverance rover shot for a new milestone in the search for extraterrestrial life: drilling into Mars to extract a plug of rock, which will eventually get fired back to Earth for scientists to study. Data sent to NASA scientists early on August 6 indicated a victory—the robot had indeed drilled into the red planet, and a photo even showed a dust pile around the borehole.

“What followed later in the morning was a rollercoaster of emotions,” wrote Louise Jandura, chief engineer for sampling and caching at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in a blog post yesterday describing the attempt. While data indicated that Perseverance had transferred a sample tube into its belly for storage, that tube was in fact empty. “It took a few minutes for this reality to sink in, but the team quickly transitioned to investigation mode,” Jandura wrote. “It is what we do. It is the basis of science and engineering.”

By now, the team has a few indications of what went wrong in what Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist of the Mars 2020 mission, calls “the case of the missing core.”

Read 16 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#mars, #mars-rover, #nasa, #perseverance, #science, #space, #spaceflight

Space manufacturing startup Varda inks deal with Rocket Lab for three spacecraft

Orbital manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries is moving fast. Only a few weeks after announcing a $42 million Series A, Varda has signed a deal with launch company Rocket Lab for three Photon spacecraft to support the startup’s initial missions.

The first spacecraft will be delivered in the first quarter of 2023, with the second to follow later that year and the third in 2024. It’s an aggressive schedule for the eight-month-old Varda and would mark the company’s first three manufacturing missions to space. The contract includes an option for Varda to purchase a fourth Photon.

Partnering with a more established company makes sense – especially considering the Photon’s bona fides, which includes a NASA-funded mission to the moon at the end of the year. Rocket Lab was also awarded a subcontract a subcontract by the University of California Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory to design two Photon spacecraft for a 1-year mission to Mars.

Varda, which was founded by SpaceX veteran Will Bruey and Founders Fund principal Delian Asparouhov, is banking big on a manufacturing condition that you can only find in space: microgravity. They think that the potential market for bioprinted organs, specialized semiconductors, fiber-optic cables or pharmaceuticals – products that you can’t make in Earthbound-conditions – is high enough to make the costs of building a spacecraft and launching to space more than worth it.

Under this most recent deal, each Photon will be outfitted with two Varda-made modules: the first will be a microgravity manufacturing module, where the space production will actually take place, and the second will be a reentry capsule designed to bring those finished products back to Earth. Asparouhov told TechCrunch that their designing the reentry modules to bring back “on the order of 40-60 kilograms of materials” for the first couple of missions, with the aim of quickly scaling up for subsequent launches.

Varda says this approach is low-risk and incremental. “That’s why we’re seeing so much interest from the investment community, [the Department of Defense], NASA, et cetera, it’s this very pragmatic, one-step-at-a-time approach,” Asparouhov said. “We’ll prove this first space factory. And yes, as we start to scale it allows us to send a larger space factory and then eventually, yes, we might have something the size of the [International Space Station], 10 times the size of the ISS. But that’s not what we’re starting with. We’re starting with a very small, near-term pragmatic approach.”

Each mission will last roughly three months from launch to landing, Rocket Lab said in a statement.

#aerospace, #commercial-spaceflight, #delian-asparouhov, #founders-fund, #rocket-lab, #space, #space-manufacturing, #spaceflight, #varda-space-industries

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

Government watchdog rejects Blue Origin’s protest over lunar lander contract

Blue Origin’s protest to a governmental watchdog over NASA’s decision to award SpaceX a multi-billion dollar contract to develop a lunar lander was rejected.

The Government Accountability Office said Friday that it was denying both Blue Origin’s protest and a separate challenge filed by Dynetics, a defense contractor that also submitted a proposal for the contract. GAO concluded that NASA did not violate any laws or regulations when granting the sole award to SpaceX. “As a result, GAO denied the protest arguments that NASA acted improperly in making a single award to SpaceX,” the agency said in a press release.

The formal protest was over NASA’s decision to award the contract for the Human Landing System Program, which aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since Apollo, solely to SpaceX – and not to two companies, as was originally intended. SpaceX’s proposal for the Human Landing System Program came in at $2.9 billion, around half of Blue Origin’s $5.99 billion proposal. Earlier this week, Bezos penned an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson offering to knock $2 billion off that price to solve the “near-term budgetary issues” that caused NASA to select just one company for the contract.

NASA’s decision to give just one company the award did veer from historical standard, but GAO maintained that “the [contract] announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all.”

Blue Origin maintains that it was not given time to revise its bid after NASA concluded it did not have sufficient funding for two awards. “Blue Origin was plainly prejudiced by the Agency’s failure to communicate this change in requirements,” the company said in the protest. “Blue Origin could have and would have taken several actions to revise its proposed approach, reduce its price to more closely align with funding available to the Agency, and/or propose schedule alternatives.”

Blue Origin and Dynetics submitted their separate protests in April.

Update: In response to the decision, a Blue Origin spokesperson told TechCrunch:

“We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO wasn’t able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction. We’ll continue to advocate for two immediate providers as we believe it is the right solution.”

The spokesperson noted that the company was encouraged by lawmakers adding a provision to a bill in Senate that would require NASA to select to providers for the HLS program.

Elon Musk, meanwhile, had this to say about the decision…

TechCrunch has reached out to Dynetics for comment. We will update the story if they respond.

#aerospace, #blue-origin, #commercial-spaceflight, #dynetics, #human-landing-system-program, #nasa, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex

Varda Space Industries closes $42M Series A for off-planet manufacturing

Varda Space Industries has raised a $42 million Series A to bring to manufacturing a key capability that can only be found off-world: microgravity.

The eight-month-old startup is looking to establish its first manufacturing facility in space as early as 2023, and by doing so, bring back to Earth advanced products that can only be made under sustained periods of zero gravity.

The round was led by Khosla Ventures and Caffeinated Capital, with participation from existing investors Lux Capital, General Catalyst and Founders Fund. It pushes the company’s total raise thus far to over $50 million, including a $9 million seed round last December.

Varda’s idea is different than that of Jeff Bezos, who said after his own trip to space earlier this month that he wants to “move all heavy industry and all polluting industry off Earth.” The company’s co-founders, SpaceX veteran Will Bruey and Founders Fund principal Delian Asparouhov, aren’t imagining cement mixers and steel plants in orbit. Instead, they want to open up manufacturing processes that aren’t possible on Earth, in order to make bioprinted organs, fiber-optic cables or pharmaceuticals — products that require fundamentally different conditions than what’s available on-planet.

Building the space factory of the future

The value of microgravity manufacturing, Bruey and Asparouhov say, can be found with the International Space Station, essentially a scientific outpost. A steady stream of research has emerged from the ISS over the last few decades showing that novel materials and products are possible in space. But until now, getting, staying in and returning from orbit has been too costly to consider scaling these findings.

“In a way, a lot of our R&D has already been done for us in the public sector, and we’re essentially a ramp toward commercialization for that research that’s already been proven out,” Bruey told TechCrunch.

Right now, the company is building a three-module spacecraft comprised of an off-the-shelf satellite platform, a center platform where the microgravity manufacturing will take place, and a reentry vehicle to bring the materials back to Earth. For the first 10 or so launches, Bruey said Varda would build the products itself. Once the company has established that its process is reliable and cheap, he added that in the long term the goal is to become a contract manufacturing platform for other companies wanting to build products in space.

Asparouhov likened it to the iPhone and the App Store: “The iPhone didn’t come out with the App Store. Apple developed the first 10 or 11 apps to share the value of that. So we’re developing those first few apps ourselves to show the value in this commercial capability that we’re bringing to market, but over time, we will start to release an app store.”

One key part of Varda’s plan is to make all of the manufacturing automated. By keeping humans out of the picture (at least for now), the company is able to reduce critical overhead by skipping human-rated spacecraft development (and the associated safety concerns with crewed launches).

Varda invited regulators and the DoD to a preliminary design review. Image Credits: Varda Space Industries (opens in a new window)

“I think that what investors, NASA and the [Department of Defense], really see as exciting about our approach is that in comparison to everyone else that’s ever discussed ‘space manufacturing,’ we’re by far the most near-term, pragmatic, commercially viable approach, launching and producing materials less than 18 months from now, as opposed to plans that are typically five years, 10 years, decades away from being viable,” Asparouhov said.

He added that one way to think about space manufacturing is that there is a certain dollar per unit-mass that Varda will need to spend to get things up to microgravity, and a dollar per unit-mass of value from manufacturing in microgravity. The key to profitability is finding the products that maximizes the difference between these two equations. Novel pharmaceuticals, for example, could yield massive profits if the innovation gains from zero gravity are correspondingly high.

The company is imagining “multiple missions” in 2023, Bruey said, and then moving to once per quarter and even imagining multiple reentry capsules returning with products per day. The Varda co-founders are convinced that the scale of demand for novel space-made products is potentially high enough to meet this kind of launch and reentry schedule.

Compared to a burgeoning industry like space tourism, Bruey said the space manufacturing has the potential to positively affect a much higher portion of humanity.

“It will touch many different parts of humanity’s experience out here on Earth, with significant improvements in quality of life,” he said.

#aerospace, #delian-asparouhov, #founders-fund, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex

Swarm debuts $499 Evaluation Kit for consumers and tinkerers

Satellite connectivity company Swarm has come out with a new product that will give anyone the ability to create a messaging or Internet of Things (IoT) device, whether that be a hiker looking to stay connected off-the-grid or a hobbyist wanting to track the weather.

The Swarm Evaluation Kit is an all-in-one product that includes a Swarm Tile, the company’s flagship modem device, a VHF antenna, a small solar panel, a tripod, a Feather S2 development board and an OLED from Adafruit. The entire kit comes in at less than six pounds and costs $499. The package may sound intimidatingly technical, but Swarm CEO Sara Spangelo explained to TechCrunch that it was designed to be user-friendly, from the most novice consumer all the way through to more advanced users.

It “was super intentional to call it an Evaluation kit because it’s not a finished product,” Spangelo explained. “It serves two different kinds of groups. The first group is people that want to be able to do messaging anywhere that they are on the planet for a really low cost […] The second group of people will be the tinkerers and the hobbyists and educational folks.”

Swarm CEO and co-founder Sara Spangelo Image Credits: Swarm

This is the second consumer product that Swarm has on offer, after it went commercially live with its flagship Swarm Tile earlier this year. The Swarm Tile is a key component of the company’s ecosystem, which is comprised of a few different components: the Tile, a kind of modem that can be embedded in different things and what the customer interfaces with; the satellite network; and a ground station network, which is how the company downlinks data. The Tile is designed for maximum compatibility, so Swarm serves customers across sectors including shipping, logistics, and agriculture.

“One of the cool things about Swarm is that we’re infrastructure,” she said. “We’re like cellphone towers, so anyone can use us across any vertical.” Some of the use cases she highlighted included customers using Tile in soil moisture sensors, or in asset tracking in the trucking industry.

A major part of Swarm’s business model is its low cost, with a Swarm Tile costing $119 and the connectivity service available for only $5 per month per connected device. Spangelo credits not only the engineering innovations in the tiny devices and satellites, but the gains in launch economics, especially for small satellite developers like Swarm. The company also sells direct, which further reduces overhead.

Swarm was founded by Spangelo, a pilot and aerospace engineering PhD who spent time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and at Google on its drone delivery project, Wing. She told TechCrunch that Swarm started as a hobby project between her and co-founder Ben Longmier, who had previously founded a company called Aether Industries that made high-altitude balloon platforms.

“Then [we] realized that we could do communications at speeds that were similar to what the legacy players are doing today,” Sara Spangelo said. “There was a lot of buzz around connectivity,” she added, noting that initiatives like Project Loon were garnering a lot of funding. But instead of trying to match the size and scale of some of these multi-year projects, they decided to go small.

In the four and a half years since the company’s founding, Swarm has put up a network of 120 sandwich-sized satellites into low Earth orbit and grown its workforce to 32 people. They’ve also been busy onboarding customers that use the Tile. One hope is that the Kit will be an additional way to draw customers to Swarm’s service.

Spangelo said the kit is for “everybody in between, that likes to just play with things. And it’s not just playing – the playing leads to innovations and ideas, and then it gets deployed out into the world.”

#aerospace, #gadgets, #modem, #sara-spangelo, #satellites, #science, #space, #spaceflight, #swarm, #tc, #tile

Launch vehicle startup Isar Aerospace lands an additional $75M in funding

A slew of launch startups have emerged in recent years to help meet growing demand from satellite providers, biotech companies and others looking to send payload to space. One such startup is Germany’s Isar Aerospace Technologies, which is focused on building orbital launch vehicles designed to carry up to 1,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

The startup made headlines last December – including here at TechCrunch – for scoring a $91 million Series B, the largest round to date in the European space launch scene. Now the company says it has raised an additional $75 million in a Series B extension, bringing the total round to over $165 million.

The extension round was led by HV Capital, Porsche SE and banking group Lombard Odier. Existing investors Earlybird Venture Capital, Lakestar, Vsquared Ventures, Apeiron Investment Group and UVC Partners also participated, with Earlybird subscribing the largest amount. Earlybird and Airbus Ventures led Isar’s $17 million Series A in December 2019.

Participation by Porsche SE – a major shareholder of Volkswagen – is particularly interesting as it signals growing interest from established mobility investors in connectivity and space-enabled technologies.

“As an investor focusing on mobility and industrial technology, we are convinced that cost-effective and flexible access to space will be a key enabler for innovations in traditional industries as well as for new and disruptive technologies and business models,” Porsche SE executive board member Lutz Meschke said in a statement. “Therefore, we are excited to back Isar Aerospace on its way to become the leading European small-launcher and to meet the increasing appetite for launch services.”

The funding will likely provide a significant boost for continued development and manufacturing as the company nears its planned first test flight in 2022.

Isar began production of its inaugural launch vehicle, the Spectrum rocket, this year. Spectrum is a two-stage vehicle that’s designed for lightweight delivery to low Earth orbit. The idea is to create a launcher that can move quickly and at a low cost to small satellite companies. Isar is aiming to conduct engine tests in Kiruna, Sweden, and launch operations in nearby Andøya, Norway, thanks to a 20-year agreement with Andøya Space for exclusive access to one of its launch pads. Notably, Isar has already secured its first paying customer, Airbus Defence and Space, and said in a statement that it plans on announcing more contracts soon.

The startup was spun out of Munich Technical University, where co-founders Daniel Metzler, Josef Fleischmann and Markus Brandl were studying engineering. While many of the new wave of launch companies are based in the United States, Isar is leading a parallel wave in Germany.

“A competitive and diverse space ecosystem will be crucial for humanity in the decades to come,” Isar CEO Daniel Metzler said in a statement. “We are convinced that European cooperation, a level-playing field for all players, and a demand-driven approach will provide customers with access to different and internationally competitive launch capabilities for a broad spectrum of payloads. The US has shown that cornerstone contracts based on demand – instead of political parameters – are preparing the ground for innovation and growth in the space sector.”

#aerospace, #airbus-ventures, #germany, #isar-aerospace, #lakestar, #munich, #space, #spaceflight

Bezos and crew host a giddy press conference after Blue Origin’s inaugural crewed launch

Jeff Bezos was so triumphant he was practically glowing at a press conference following the Blue Origin’s first crewed mission to space, 21 years after he founded the company in 2000. The billionaire talked about the future of the company and his role in it, and then casually gave away a couple hundred million dollars.

Bezos was one of four that rode in the RSS First Step capsule; the others were his financier brother, Mark; aviation legend and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk; and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the son of the second-highest bidder on the Blue Origin seat auction. (The $28 million dollar winner postponed his seat due to scheduling conflicts.)

The company now joins a very tiny circle of companies that have sent private citizens to space, in the biggest boost yet for the nascent space tourism industry. Tuesday also marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the next step in space travel paying homage to the very first.

The press conference opened with the grinning foursome being pinned with astronaut ‘wings,’ a badge traditionally granted to those that have gone to space. “I’m so happy,” said Bezos at the press conference, donning the same cream cowboy hat he wore moments after emerging from the capsule a little over two hours earlier.

Bezos also thanked the city of Van Horn, acknowledging Blue Origin has made “a dent in it,” and followed by thanking every Amazon employee, plus its millions of customers: “Seriously, you paid for this.”

They also showed a brief video of the four crew members cavorting in four minutes of microgravity, including footage of the crew members catching floating Skittles in their mouths.

This is the second suborbital mission crewed entirely by private citizens this month alone, a first in history. The first was accomplished by Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, a rocket-powered spaceplane, on July 11; its founder, billionaire Richard Branson, was aboard, which helped foment a truly petty spat between the two ultra-wealthy founders. That aside, the two flights have helped make space tourism more of a reality than ever before.

The flight will also likely be a boost for Blue Origin’s commercial heavy-lift rocket launch arm, which for the moment is largely occupied by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The same technologies that are used to perfect New Shepard’s reusability could come in handy for the development of New Glenn, the company’s massive orbital launch. Bezos said in February that the company was pushing the inaugural launch of New Glenn from late 2021 to the latter quarter of 2022.

Jeff Bezos speaks into a mic at the blue origin press conference.

Image Credits: Blue Origin / YouTube

“The fact of the matter is, the architecture and the technology we’ve chosen is complete over-kill” for space tourism, Bezos said. Instead, Blue Origin chose it “because it scales […]  the whole point of this is to get practice” for larger and heavier missions.

On why Blue Origin chose liquid fuel, he reiterated that it’s practice for future launches. “Every time we fly this tourism mission, we practice flying the second stage of New Glenn.”

In December 2020, NASA added Blue Origin to its roster of space companies eligible to compete for contracts under its Launch Services II program. While it doesn’t guarantee that New Glenn or any other Blue Origin rocket would be awarded a launch contract, it’s the first step to getting there.

Jeff Bezos confirmed that Blue Origin will fly two additional crewed launches this year alone, but it has yet to announce the price per seat. “We want the cadence to be very high […] We’re approaching $100 million in private sales already.” When asked how to get the cost per seat down, Bezos said the space tourism industry would follow the trajectory of commercial space travel, now widely used by millions of travelers each year.

At the end of the conference, Bezos announced he was starting a $100 million Courage and Civility Award, with CNN contributor Van Jones and Michelin star chef José Andrés as the first two recipients. The winner will give that money away to the charities of their choice. The award is for people who apparently demonstrate civility and resist ad hominem attacks. Reading between the lines (frankly, you don’t even really have to do that) it seems like a commentary on contemporary political discourse, especially the emphasis on civility in disagreement.

Looking to the future, the Amazon founder said he would split his time between Blue Origin and the Bezos Earth Fund, a $10 billion investment fund focused on climate change.

“This is not about escaping Earth. The whole point is, this is the only good planet in the solar system,” Bezos said. “We have to take care of it.”

Rewatch the press conference here:

#aerospace, #blue-origin, #commercial-spaceflight, #jeff-bezos, #space, #space-tourism, #spaceflight

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

SpaceX delivers 88 satellites to orbit, lands first stage onshore for first time in 2021

SpaceX launched 85 satellites for external customers, as well as three Starlink satellites, to orbit on Tuesday, marking the second successful launch of the company’s dedicated rideshare missions. While the Transporter-2 mission will deliver fewer objects to space than the first rideshare mission (the Transporter-1 sent up 143 satellites, a new record), it launched more mass to orbit overall.

The Transporter launches are part of the company’s rideshare business model. Announced in 2019, these missions split up the rocket’s payload capacity amongst multiple customers, resulting in lower costs for each – many of whom are smaller companies that may find the expenses associated with getting to orbit otherwise impossible to pay. SpaceX still ends up with a full launch and the revenue to operate it.

The Falcon 9 rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at around 3:31 PM Eastern time. It’s the twentieth Falcon 9 launch in 2021 and the first launch this year that featured the first stage returning to land onshore, rather than on a drone ship at sea. The first stage booster separated at around 3:34 PM ET and returned to Cape Canaveral and successfully landed around 8 minutes after liftoff. This was its eighth flight.

The mission includes nearly ten customers, some of whom are launch service providers who are themselves organizing customer payloads – like Spaceflight Inc., who is launching 36 small satellites on behalf of 14 customers, as well as its electric propulsion vehicle dubbed Sherpa-LTE. It also includes the first satellite launch for space intelligence company Umbra and Loft Orbital’s “rideshare” satellites, YAM-2 and YAM-3, each of which are equipped with 5 independent sensors for separate customers.

As this was SpaceX’s twentieth launch this year (and 127th mission to date), it’s pretty safe to assume that the company will far surpass last year’s record of 26 launches.

This was the second attempt of the Transporter-2 launch, which was originally scheduled for June 29. That launch was halted at T-11 seconds after a rotary aircraft entered the flight zone. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called the regulatory system broken in response.

#elon-musk, #falcon-9, #launch, #space, #spaceflight, #spacex, #tc

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

Rocket startup Gilmour Space raises $46M Series C to take small launch vehicle to orbit

Australian rocket launch startup Gilmour Space Technologies is betting that bigger isn’t always better. The company has developed a small launch vehicle it calls Eris, a 25 meter (82 foot) rocket that can deliver payload of up to 215 kilograms (474 lbs) to sun synchronous orbit. Now, it’s raised a $61 million AUD ($46 million USD) Series C round to take Eris to space next year.

Eris is much smaller than other launch companies’ rockets. Relativity Space’s Terran One has a max payload capacity to LEO of around 1,250 kg (2,756 lbs); even SpaceX’s Falcon 1, its first and smallest orbital rocket, could deliver 450 kg (990 lbs). Gilmour Space is wagering that the lighter payload will result in lower costs for a burgeoning suite of customers looking to send spacecraft to orbit.

The funds will also go toward nearly doubling the company’s workforce, from 70 to 120 employees, and developing a new commercial spaceport at Abbot Point, Queensland. Australian legislators approved construction of the launch site in May. Gilmour Space is also examining a proposed launch site in south Australia to facilitate polar orbit launches.

Adam and James Gilmour, founders of Gilmour Space Image Credits: Gilmour Space Technologies (opens in a new window)

Gilmour Space has already signed agreements with prospective customers for future Eris launches. This includes contracts with two Australian space startups: Space Machines Company, to launch a 35 kg spacecraft on Eris’ inaugural flight, and Fleet Space Technologies, to carry six nanosatellites in 2023. Gilmour Space has also signed an agreement with U.S.-based Momentus, to use its orbital transfer services.

The round was led by Fine Structure Ventures and included contributions from Australian VCs Blackbird and Main Sequence, and Australian pension funds HESTA, Hostplus and NGS Super. Blackbird and Main Sequence are returning investors after leading Gilmour’s Series A and Series B, respectively. This is the largest amount of private equity funding ever raised by a space company in Australia, and brings the company’s total amount raised to $87 million AUD ($66 million USD).

#aerospace, #australia, #eris, #gilmour-space-technologies, #launch-services, #recent-funding, #rocketry, #space, #spaceflight, #startups, #tc, #transportation

SpaceX plans to use its Starlink internet on Starship orbital launch to demonstrate connection quality

SpaceX’s upcoming Starship orbital test flight could end up being a veritable smorgasbord of its technological capabilities, as the company has filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to request approval to fly Starlink terminals on the spacecraft in order to “demonstrate high data rate communications” between the new launch system and the ground throughout the course of the trip to space and back.

SpaceX plans to show that its network of Starlink low-Earth orbit satellites can provide “unprecedented volumes of telemetry and enable communications during atmospheric reentry” even during the parts of the launch where communications signals are typically lost due to the presence of “ionized plasma” in the atmosphere during the re-entry phase (via Michael Baylor on Twitter). If it works, it could provide better than ever live data for SpaceX during its test flight, which should help with the Starship and Super Heavy launch system’s development — and it could mean better, more spectacular views for those of us just watching from home via livestream, too.

Including Starlink as the communications method for telemetry and other communications during the launch is definitely a functional improvement for SpaceX if it works as described, but it’s even more of a flex for the company in terms of showing off Starlink’s capabilities. The FCC filing ones that the terminals to be installed on the spacecraft are basically just its existing consumer terminals with new exterior housings, so if it performs well that could attract the attention of more consumer broadband customers.

Plus, SpaceX is also talking a lot about the capabilities of Starlink as a system to replace older, more distant geostationary satellites networks to provide things like connectivity on airplanes, on ships and in other in other transportation modals. Showing that it offers solid performance during a rocket launch is definitely going to encourage partners in those areas.

The filing does specific that its license to operate Starlink on Starship begin on August 1, which means either it’s planned for a launch after the one SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company is hoping to fly sometime in July, or the date has already likely slipped to the following month.

#broadband, #satellite, #space, #spacecraft, #spaceflight, #spacex, #starlink, #starship, #tc

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

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

China launches 3 astronauts to its new space station core module

Three Chinese astronauts have docked at China’s space station core module, named Tianhe, for the first time.

The three astronauts flew to space as part of the Shenzhou 12 mission, China’s first crewed mission since 2012. They will call the core module of the Tiangong space station home until September, making it the longest crewed space mission in China’s history.

The three men, Commander Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, arrived to their final destination just over seven hours after taking off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China. Nie had been to low Earth orbit twice before: once on the Shenzhou 6 mission in 2005 and again aboard the Shenzhou 10 eight years later. Boming has also been to space, once in 2008.

The men will be busy during their tenure in orbit. Their mission marks the third of a series of eleven planned launches through 2022, all aimed at getting China’s first space station up and running. The goal of the Shenzhou 12 is to bring the core module into service, test its systems and ensure it is ready for subsequent stages of station assembly. Of the eight remaining launches, three more are expected to be crewed.

Building its own space station is a logical step for China, a country that has not been shy about its space ambitions in the recent years. It especially makes sense considering that China is barred from boarding the International Space Station after Congress passed a law in 2011. However, that does not mean that China’s space station will always be for its own exclusive use, country officials said during a news conference Wednesday.

Ji Qiming, an assistant director with the Shenzhou program, said that China “welcome[s] co-operation in this regard in general,” the BBC reported. “It is believed that, in the near future, after the completion of the Chinese space station, we will see Chinese and foreign astronauts fly and work together,” he said.

As part of its burgeoning space program, the Chinese rover Zhurong touched down on Mars last month, making China the only country besides the United States to land a robot on the planet.

#china, #chinas-space-program, #chinas-space-station, #crewed-spaceflight, #shenzhou-12, #shenzhou-program, #space, #spaceflight, #tc, #tiangong-space-station, #transportation

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

Ticket for space flight with Jeff Bezos is auctioned for $28 million

New Shepard crew capsule seen landing in west Texas in April 2021.

Enlarge / New Shepard crew capsule seen landing in west Texas in April 2021. (credit: Blue Origin)

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.

Read 12 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#blue-origin, #jeff-bezos, #new-shepard, #science, #spaceflight

NASA seeking proposals for two new private astronaut missions to ISS

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.

#artemis, #artemis-program, #commercial-spaceflight, #international-space-station, #low-earth-orbit, #nasa, #private-spaceflight, #space, #spaceflight, #transportation

Astra to acquire electric in-space propulsion company Apollo Fusion

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.

#apollo-fusion, #astra, #holicity, #spac, #space, #spaceflight, #startups, #transportation

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

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