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Main article: Aerospace

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SpaceX said to be seeking around $250 million in funding, boosting valuation to roughly $36 billion

00:51 | 22 February

SpaceX is looking to raise around $250 million in new funding according to a new report from CNBC’s Michael Sheetz. The additional cash would bring SpaceX’s total valuation to around $36 billion, according to CNBC’s sources – an increase of more than $2.5 billion vs its most recently reported valuation.

The rocket launch company founded and run by Elon Musk is no stranger to raising large sums of money – it added $1.33 billion during 2019, from three separate rounds. In total, the company has raised over $3 billion in funding to date – but the scale of its ambitions provide a clear explanation of why the company has been sought out so much capital.

SpaceX is also generating a significant amount of revenue: Its contract to develop the Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of the NASA commercial crew program came with $3.1 billion in contract award money from the agency, for example, and it charges roughly $60 million per launch of one of its Falcon 9 rockets to its customers. Last year alone, SpaceX had 13 launches.

But SpaceX is also not a company to rest on its laurels, or its pre-existing technology investments. The company is in the process of developing its next spacecraft, dubbed ‘Starship.’ Starship will potentially be able to eventually replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, and will be fully reusable, instead of partially reusable like those systems. Once it’s operational, it will be able to provide significant cost savings and advantages to SpaceX’s bottom line, if the company’s projections are correct, but getting there requires a massive expenditure of capital in development of the technology required to make Starship fly, and fly reliably.

Musk recently went into detail about the company’s plans to essentially build new versions of Starship as fast as it’s able, incorporating significant changes and updates to each new successive version as it goes. Given the scale of Starship and the relatively expensive process of building each as an essentially bespoke new model, it makes perfect sense why SpaceX would seek to bolster its existing capital with additional funds.

CNBC reports that the funding could close sometime in the middle of next month. We reached out to SpaceX for comment, but did not receive a reply as of publication.

 


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SpaceX anticipates building “many rockets” as it iterates Starship towards orbital flight this year

21:02 | 21 February

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been sharing a number of updates about his company’s progress on Starship this week. Along with footage of the assembly process of the current ‘SN1’ prototype of Starship, he explained on Twitter some of the other considerations and strategies the company is working with as it works on the new spacecraft and tries to

.

Musk said that SpaceX is iterating at a much faster pace with Starship than it has recently with Falcon, since Falcon’s design more or less stabilized once it started working consistently. He noted that the ability to progress with the design towards having a production vehicle is dependent on the number of interactions of the prototypes of the spacecraft, multiple by the progress achieved between each version.

That’s been the way that SpaceX has worked in past, and one of the key reasons it’s been able to upend the traditional rocket launch industry. It moves fast, iterating as it goes and making changes based on failures quickly, whereas the industry has largely focused on more stop/start development cycles where things are mostly fixed with brief periods of intense focus on improvement between long-lived vehicle generations.

Starship presents the company’s biggest challenge yet when it comes to this model, if only because of the scale of the rocket. Starship is by far SpaceX’s largest rocket, and building a number of them quickly is actually a significant challenge just from a mechanical perspective, especially when you factor in the considerably changes between generations, and the eventual addition of the very large Super Heavy rocket booster.

On top of the scale of the spacecraft, there’s also the nature of the vehicle, which SpaceX aims to make fully reusable – with quick turnaround between each flight. It’s fairly easy (relatively speaking, of course) to build a spacecraft that only really needs to work once; it’s another thing entirely to build one that you want to reuse tens or even hundreds of times.

Last year, Musk had said at the unveiling of the first completed full-scale prototype of the Starship that they’d aim to have an orbital flight in as few as six months’ time. It’s increasingly looking like that was yet another extremely optimistic timeline from the SpaceX founder, and SN1 is still aiming to complete a high-altitude suborbital flight before future versions actually make the trip to space. Musk suggested SN3, SN4 or SN5 could be the one to take that trip, according to

.

Berger also reports that SpaceX is considering one of three options for actually launching the orbital Starship prototype, which will be powered by six of the company’s Raptor engines. These will include either flying from Boca Chica, Texas (this is most likely), where the spacecraft are being built, or from Florida, where SpaceX maintains a launch facility for its Falcon rockets, or as a third option, from a sea-based floating launch platform.

SpaceX will need to increase the rate at which it is building, testing and flying these prototypes if it aims to make 2020 for an orbital flight, but it’s also hiring up to help it speed up production. Musk sent out a call for job applicants to staff up additional production shifts for round-the-clock operations earlier this year, and SpaceX hosted a job fair for interested applicants at its Texas site earlier this month.

 


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Volocopter extends Series C funding to $94M with backing from logistics giant DB Schenker and others

16:32 | 21 February

Autonomous air mobility company Volocopter has added to the Series C funding round it announced in September 2019. The German electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft maker announced €50 million ($54 million at today’s exchange rate) in funding at the time, and the C round has now grown to €87 million ($94 million) thanks to new lead investor DB Schenker, a German logistics company with operations all over the world.

This round also includes participation by Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Group, as well as the venture arm of its parent MS&AD, along with TransLink Capital . Existing investors including Lukasz Gadowski and btov also participated in this round extension.

With this new funding, Volocopter brings its total around $132 million, and it says it will use the newly acquired capital to help certify its VoloCity aircraft, its air taxi eVTOL designed to transport people, which is on track to become the company’s first ever vehicle licensed for commercial operation. Meanwhile, Volocopte will also use the new funds to help continue development of a next-generation iteration of its VoloDrone, which is the cargo-carrying version of its aircraft. It aims to use VoloDrone to expand its market to include logistics, as well as construction, city infrastructure and agriculture.

Already, Volocopter has formed partnerships with companies including John Deere for pilots of its VoloDrone, but it says that a second-generation version of the vehicle will help it commercialize the drone. On the VoloCity side, the company recently flew a demonstration flight in Singapore, and then announced that they’d be working with Grab on a feasibility study about air taxi services for potential deployment across Southeast Asia in key cities.

Alongside this round extension, Volocopter adds two advisory board members – Yifan Li from Geely Holding Group, which led the first tranche of this round closed in September, and DB Schenker CEO Jochen Thewes. Both of these are key strategic partners from investors who stand to benefit the company a lot not only in terms of funding, but also in terms of supply-side and commercialization.

 


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Loon and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile team with Airbus, China Telecom and more on stratospheric cell networks

15:55 | 21 February

A new industry alliance led by Alphabet’s Loon high-altitude balloon technology company and SoftBank’s HAPSMobile stratospheric glider subsidiary aims to work together on standards and tech related to deploying network connectivity using high-altitude delivery mechanisms.

This extends the existing partnership between HAPSMobile and Loon, which began with a strategic alliance between the two announced last April, and which recently resulted in Loon adapting the network hardware it uses on its stratospheric balloons to work with the HAPSMobile stratospheric long-winged drone. Now, they two are welcoming more members, including AeroVironment, Airbus Defence and Space, Bharti Airtel, China Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Intelsat, Nokia, HAPSMobile parent SoftBank and Telefonica.

The new HAPS Alliance, as it’s being called (HAPS just stands for ‘High Altitude Platform Station’) will be working together to promote use of the technology, as well as work with regulators in the markets where they operate on enabling its use. They’ll work towards developing a set of common industry standards for network interoperability, and also figure how to essentially carve up the or stake out the stratosphere so that participating industry players can work together without stepping on each other’s toes.

This new combined group is no slouch: It includes some of the most powerful network operators in the world, as well as key network infrastructure players and aerospace companies. Which could mean big things for stratospheric networks, which have the advantages of being closer to Earth than satellite-based internet offerings, but also avoid the disadvantages of ground-based cell towers like having to deal with difficult terrain or more limited range.

Is this the first step towards a future where our connected devices rely on high-flying, autonomous cell towers for connectivity? It’s too early to say how ubiquitous this will get, but this new group of heavyweights definitely lends more credence to the idea.

 


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SpaceX’s spin-outs are helping build LA’s startup ecosystem

01:42 | 21 February

During the days when Snapchat’s popularity was booming, investors thought the company would become the anchor for a new Los Angeles technology scene.

Snapchat, they hoped, would spin-off entrepreneurs and angel investors who would reinvest in the local ecosystem and create new companies that would in turn foster more wealth, establishing LA as a hub for tech talent and venture dollars on par with New York and Boston.

In the ensuing years, Los Angeles and its entrepreneurial talent pool has captured more attention from local and national investors, but it’s not Snap that’s been the source for the next generation of local founders. Instead, several former SpaceX employees have launched a raft of new companies, capturing the imagination and dollars of some of the biggest names in venture capital.

“There was a buzz, but it doesn’t quite have the depth of bench of people that investors wanted it to become,” says one longtime VC based in the City of Angels. “It was a company in LA more than it was an LA company.” 

Perhaps the most successful SpaceX offshoot is Relativity Space, founded by Jordan Noone and Tim Ellis. Since Noone, a former SpaceX engineer, and Ellis, a former Blue Origin engineer, founded their company, the business has been (forgive the expression) a rocket ship. Over the past four years, Relativity href="https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/01/relativity-a-new-star-in-the-space-race-raises-160-million-for-its-3-d-printed-rockets/"> has raised $185.7 million, received special dispensations from NASA to test its rockets at a facility in Alabama, will launch vehicles from Cape Canaveral and has signed up an early customer in Momentus, which provides satellite tug services in orbit.

 


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Japanese mission to land a rover on a Martian moon and bring back a sample is a go

21:53 | 20 February

A bold mission by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to Mars’ two moons, including a lander component for one of them, is all set to

after the plan was submitted to the Japanese government’s science ministry this week.

Dubbed the ‘Martian Moons Exploration’ (MMX) mission, the goal is to launch the probe in 2024, using the new H-3 rocket being developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is expected to launch for the first time sometime later in 2020. The probe will survey and observe both Phobos and Deimos, the two moons that orbit the red planet, which are both smaller and more irregularly shaped than Earth’s Moon.

The MMX lander will park on Phobos, while the probe studies the two space-based bodies from a distance. This is the first ever mission that seeks to land a spacecraft on one of the moons of Mars, and it’ll include a rover that is being developed by JAXA in partnership with teams at German space agency DLR, and French space agency CNES.

The mission will include an ambitious plan to actually collect a sample of the surface of Phobos and return it to Earth for study, too – which will mean a round-trip for the MMX spacecraft that should see it make its terrestrial return by 2029.

NASA is also planning a Mars sample return mission, which would aim to bring back a sample from the red planet itself using the Mars 2020 six-wheels rover that its planning to launch later this year.

Both of these missions could be crucial stepping stones for eventual human exploration and colonization of Mars. It’s possible that Phobos could act as an eventual staging ground for Mars missions, since its lower gravity makes it an easier body from which to depart for eventual astronauts. And Mars is obviously the ultimate goal for NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to first establish a more permanent human scientific presence on the Moon before heading to the red planet.

 


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MIT system predicts the best way to deflect an Earth-bound asteroid

22:22 | 19 February

We’re not in immediate danger of any asteroids colliding with Earth – at least not as far as anyone’s aware. But it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, and there is an expected near-miss coming up in 2029. Accordingly, it’s probably best to be prepared, and MIT researchers have developed a system that could help determine the best possible method to avoid a collision – long before the situation becomes desperate.

An MIT team led by former MIT graduate student Sung Wook Paek describe a ‘decision map’ in newly published research that would take into account the mass and relative momentum of an approaching asteroid, as well as the expected time we have before it enters into a so-called ‘keyhole’ – basically a gravitational halo around Earth that, once entered, all but guarantees the asteroid will collide with the planet.

The MIT-developed decision map basically details three different choices in terms of how to deflect an approaching asteroid: Launching a projectile at it to alter its course; sending a scout first to get accurate measurements to inform the best possible development of said projectile; and sending two scouts, in order to get measurements and also potentially nudge the object using propulsion, setting it up for an easier projectile-based knockout later on.

Time is the key factor in the model based on simulations run using asteroids Apophis and Bennu, two known objects we know relatively a lot about, including the locations of their gravitational keyholes in terms of proximity to Earth. The tests showed that with five or more years, the best course is to send two scouts and then the projectile. Between two and five years out, you’re most likely to succeed with the single scout followed by a projectile fired from Earth. At one year or less, the bad news is that nothing seems all that likely to succeed.

The official plan for avoiding impacts from near-Earth objects involves potentially firing nuclear weapons at them, which is not a super popular option. This method developed by MIT could help mean it never comes to that, provided our advanced detection methods are effective enough.

 


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Why Kepler is building its full-stack satellite business in Canada

21:42 | 18 February

Toronto-based telecommunications startup Kepler Communications surprised many recently when it revealed plans to establish its own satellite assembly and base the operation in its own hometown instead of contracting the work to an existing manufacturer.

It might seem a perplexing and unnecessarily costly choice at first, but I spoke to Kepler CEO and co-founder Mina Mitry about what his startup stands to gain by being based in Canada while the small-satellite industry heats up in the U.S.

“We’ve been running a global survey of available supply chain for this particular type of small satellite for the past two years or so and conducting some pretty extensive experiments, like buying parts, seeing where they end up, etc.,” Mitry told me. “The output of that global survey is really that the supply chain is immature, that it doesn’t exist in a way that’s robust enough to meet our price, performance and timeline expectations. Historically, the type of business that is now delivering on small satellites has been built on selling one-off government contracts or a small component of the satellite, and now they’re transitioning upmarket to try and sell complete satellites and try to do that at scale, which is a totally different problem that they haven’t yet addressed.”

After figuring this out through multiple years of investigation and inquiry, Mitry says it eventually resulted in the realization that meeting the startup’s goals of getting its 440 satellites in orbit in a timely manner would be best served by building them in-house. That’s not unlike the conclusion reached by Elon Musk and SpaceX for many of the components used in developing their own launch vehicles.

“We started to evaluate what countries and where and how that would all get done,” Mitry said. “It ended up that Toronto would make a lot of sense because of the surrounding technical talents we get from the key universities in the area, and then above and beyond that, we’re not doing a whole lot of manual labor in this process. Most of that is outsourced labor to a variety of different locations where they’re building circuit boards, or they’re building like metal machine parts, etc. And then in-house, we’re doing mostly assembly integration and testing, and a lot of that kind of stuff gets automated. So there was no material overhead costs that gets incurred because we’re in Toronto as opposed to any other location.”

 


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SpaceX and new partner announce space tourism launches on Dragon starting as early as 2021

17:39 | 18 February

SpaceX has a new partner for commercial private astronaut flights aboard its Dragon spacecraft: Space Adventures, a private space tourism company that has already launched private astronauts including Anousheh Ansari, Guy Laliberté and Mark Shuttleworth to space.

Space Adventures has worked with seven clients across high serrate missions to the International Space Station (ISS) for private paying commercial space missions, using paid seats on the Russian Soyuz rocket to get its clients to their destination. Its experience means it’s uniquely positioned in the commercial space tourism industry to actually make this happen, which means SpaceX likely will start flying paying customers as soon as its able to human-rate its Dragon spacecraft and begin scheduling flights.

This is not exactly a surprising development: SpaceX has been working towards certifying Dragon for human flight through the Commercial Crew program it is in the process of working on with NASA. This program has involved testing and development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for carrying human astronauts, and it’s only a few months away from actually carrying NASA astronauts for the first time during a demonstration mission to the ISS.

SpaceX and NASA have both discussed how they envision the agency being only one of multiple customers for the company’s human-rated space travel service, since the entire purpose of the program is to help the agency defray the cost of transporting its astronauts by becoming one among many clients of a revenue-generating commercial spaceflight service.

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk has previously discussed flying space tourists aboard Crew Dragon, which can carry up to four passengers per flight. He brought up the prior example of Soyuz as a model that could work for Crew Dragon, once it’s operational. Musk and SpaceX have also already booked a Moon pass-by trip for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa in 2023 on its forthcoming Starship spacecraft.

The Space Adventures Crew Dragon private astronaut trips are expected to begin sometime in either late 2021 or 2022 (likely around the same time or just after SpaceX will begin regular astronaut service for NASA if all goes well), and will take off from SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida. They won’t actually go to the ISS, like the Soyuz missions that Space Adventures has flown previously, but will instead fly higher than any previous private citizen has flown before during a trip to space, and offer obviously spectacular Earth views. No word yet on pricing, but expect it to be steep – likely much steeper than tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s much lower altitude trip, for instance.

 


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Volocopter and Grab to study the feasibility of deploying air taxi services in Southeast Asia

16:50 | 18 February

Air mobility startup Volocopter will be working together with on-demand transportation, food delivery and payments company Grab on a feasibility study around air mobility in Southeast Asia. The joint study is part of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the two companies that covers exploration of the potential deployment of air taxi services in some of the cities in the region.

This is the first step in a partnership that could eventually result in actually running test flights and establishing routes for air taxi service deployment, though how far things go will likely depend on the results of this study and the subsequent appetites of both parties involved.

Volocopter, a German startup that has been building and demonstrating vertical takeoff and landing craft powered by electricity since 2011, has already demonstrated its aircraft in Singapore, working with local Singapore aviation regulators. It also unveiled a “world first” full-scale air taxi “VoloPort” last October in the city, working with partner Skyport to develop a commercially scalable model for these urban air taxi stations.

Grab seems to see Volocopter and its aerial taxi services as another potential piece of the overall puzzle that it’s putting together across various transportation methods. “This partnership will enable Volocopter to further develop urban air mobility solutions that are relevant for Southeast Asian commuters so they can decide on their preferred journey option based on their budgets, time constraints and other needs, in a seamless way,” said Grab Ventures CEO Chris Yeo in an emailed press release.

Volocopter has said Singapore could be one of the best contenders for commercial service launch, and opened offices in the region last year. Other potential commercial launch markets include Dubai and Germany, the company has said previously.

 


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