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Main article: Rocket Lab

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Sensors are the next big thing in space, not starships

21:09 | 23 February

Understanding the opportunities available in the space industry — especially for early-stage companies and new founders — isn’t easy.

The pool of people who have deep aerospace technical expertise isn’t huge, and like any community that requires a high degree of specialist knowledge, it’s a tightly-knit field that relies on social connections. But space is increasingly opening up, and we’ve already reached a point where the most valuable new entrants might come from industries that aren’t specifically aerospace or aerospace-adjacent.

In fact, we could be reaching a stage where the parts of the space industry requiring actual rocket scientists are more or less saturated, while the real boon is set to come from crossover talent that develops new ways to leverage innovations in other areas on space-based operating platforms.

“We have enough low-Earth launch vehicles, we have enough rockets,” Bessemer VP Tess Hatch told me in an interview at the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference last month. “In 2020, we have even more coming online and a lot of the ‘fantasy’ ones [an industry term used to describe spacecraft that have been conceived and designed but not yet flown] are planning to launch, and I think maybe one of them will come to fruition.”

Hatch says she still sees much of the demand side of the industry cluster around existing and proven suppliers, even if new entrants, including Astra and Firefly, actually begin flying their rockets this year, as both have been planning. Companies like Rocket Lab (in which her company has a stake) will increase their volume and cadence and benefit from having a proven track record, taking up a lot of the growth in launch vehicle demand. “I don’t think there’s room for any more rockets in the industry,” she said.

Instead, Hatch is looking to payload variety and innovation as the next big thing in space tech. Satellites are becoming increasingly commoditized, and companies like Rocket Lab are looking to take this further by providing a satellite platform (Proton) as part of its launch offering. There’s still immaturity in the small-satellite supply chain, which is what led small-satellite operator Kepler to build its own, but the bigger opportunity isn’t in building satellites — it’s in equipping them with new, improved and radically redesigned sensors to gather new kinds of data and provide new kinds of services.

 


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Max Q: Spacex gets ready for first human flight

22:42 | 17 February

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

This week turned out to be a surprisingly busy one in space news – kicked off by the Trump administration’s FY 2021 budget proposal, which was generous to U.S. space efforts both in science and in defense.

Meanwhile, we saw significant progress in SpaceX’s commercial crew program, and plenty of activity among startups big and small.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon arrives in Florida

The spacecraft that SpaceX will use to fly astronauts for the first time is now in Florida, at its launch site for final preparations before it takes off. Currently, this Crew Dragon mission is set to take place sometime in early May, and though that may still shift, it’s looking more and more likely it’ll happen within the next few months.

NASA taps Rocket Lab for Moon satellite launch

Rocket Lab will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to get humans back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. NASA contracted Rocket Lab to launch its CAPSTONE CubeSat to a lunar orbit in 2021, using Rocket Lab’s new Proton combined satellite and long-distance transportation stage.

Astronomers continue to sound the alarm about constellations

Starlink satellites streak through a telescope’s observations.

Astronomers and scientists that rely on observing the stars from Earth are continuing to warn about the impact on stellar observation from constellations that are increasingly dotting the night sky.

Meanwhile, SpaceX just launched another 60 satellites for its Starlink constellation, bringing the total on orbit to 300. SpaceX founder Elon Musk says that the ‘albedo’ or reflectivity of satellites will

going forward, however.

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket factory

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, Alabama on Monday. The new site will be responsible for high-volume production of the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine, which will be used on both the company’s own New Glenn orbital rocket, as well as the ULA’s forthcoming Vulcan heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Virgin Galactic’s first commercial spacecraft moves to its spaceport

Virgin Galactic is getting closer to actually flying its first paying space tourists – it just moved its SpaceShipTwo ‘VSS Unity’ vehicle from its Mojave manufacturing site to its spaceport in New Mexico, which is where tourists will board for their short trips to the edge of outer space.

Astranis raises $90 million

Satellite internet startup Astranis has raised a $90 million Series B funding round, which includes a mix of equity ($40 million) and debt facility ($50 million). The company will use the money to get its first commercial satellites on orbit as it aims to build a next-generation geostationary internet satellite business.

Astroscale will work on JAXA on an orbital debris-killing system


Orbital debris is increasingly a topic of discussion at events and across the industry, and Japanese startup Astroscale is one of the first companies dedicated to solving the problem. The startup has been tapped by JAXA for a mission that will seek to de-orbit a spent rocket upper stage, marking one of the first efforts to remove a larger piece of orbital debris.

Register for TC Sessions: Space 2020

Our very own dedicated space event is coming up on June 25 in Los Angeles, and you can get your tickets now. It’s sure to be a packed day of quality programming from the companies mentioned above and more, so go ahead and sign up while Early Bird pricing applies.

Plus, if you have a space startup of your own, you can apply now to participate in our pre-event pitch-off, happening June 24.

 


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Rocket Lab will launch a satellite to the Moon for NASA to prepare for the Lunar Gateway

00:57 | 15 February

Launch startup Rocket Lab has been awarded a contract to launch a CubeSat on behalf of NASA for the agency’s CAPSTONE experiment, with the ultimate aim of putting the CAPSTONE CubeSat into cislunar (in the region in between Earth and the Moon) orbit – the same orbit that NASA will eventually use for its Gateway Moon-orbiting space station. The launch is scheduled to take place in 2021.

The CAPSTONE launch will take place at Rocket Lab’s new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) facility at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab opened its launch pad there officially in December, and will launch its first missions using its Electron vehicle from the site starting later this year.

The launch is significant in a number of ways, including being the second ever lunar mission to launch from the Virginia flight facility. It’s also going to employ Rocket Lab’s Photon platform, which is an in-house designed and built satellite that can support a range of payloads. In this case, Photon will transport the CAPSTONE CubeSat, which weighs only around 55 lbs, from Earth’s orbit to the Moon, at which point CAPSTONE will fire up its own small engines to enter its target cislunar orbit.

Rocket Lab introduced Photon last year, noting at the time that it is designed in part to provide longer-range delivery for small satellites – including to the Moon. That’s a key capability to offer as NASA embarks on its Artemis program, which aims to return human astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, and establish a more permanent human presence on and around the Moon in preparation for eventual missions to Mars.

CAPSTONE will play a key role in that mission, by acting “as a pathfinder” for the lunar Gateway that NASA eventually hopes to build and deploy.

“CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the unique, seven-day cislunar orbit we are also targeting for Gateway,” said Marshall Smith, director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA in a press release. detailing the news “We are not relying only on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”

In total, the launch contract with Rocket Lab has a fixed price of $9.95 million, the agency said. NASA expects contractors Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems to begin building the CAPSTONE spacecraft this month ahead of its planned 2021 launch.

 


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Why Astra built a space startup and rocket factory in Silicon Valley

18:50 | 6 February

There’s a new launch startup in the mix called Astra, which has been operating in semi-stealth mode for the past three years, building its rockets just a stone’s throw from the heart of startup central in Alameda County, Calif. Astra’s approach isn’t exactly a secret — its founders didn’t set out to hide anything and industry observers have followed its progress — but CEO Chris Kemp says he’s not particularly bothered about flying under the radar, so to speak.

Yes, the company had a somewhat splashy mainstream public premiere via a Bloomberg Businessweek profile on Monday, but that was more by virtue of writer Ashlee Vance’s keen interest in the emerging space economy than a desire for publicity on the part of Kemp or his cohorts. In fact, the CEO admitted to me that were it not for Vance’s desire to expound on the company’s efforts and a forthcoming attempt at winning a $12 million DARPA prize for responsive rocketry, Astra would still be content to continue to operate essentially undercover.

That’s just one way in which Astra differs from other space startups, which typically issue press releases and coordinate media events around each and every launch. Kemp, a former NASA CTO, and Adam London, an aerospace engineer who previously founded rocket miniaturization startup Ventions, designed their rocket startup from the ground up in a way that’s quite different from companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab.

“I’ve never been to one of our launches,” Kemp told me, referring to two test launches that Astra flew previously, both of which technically failed shortly into their flights. “Because I don’t think the CEO, or frankly any of our employees, should be anywhere near the rocket when it launches; we should automate everything. As much as possible, let’s put the rockets where they need to launch from, which might be an island on the equator, and it might be way up north near the poles, but let’s not add cost by putting a huge spaceport with fixed fortification in a very expensive place where it’s very hard to get to.”

 


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Rocket Lab readies parachute tests for its rocket recovery and reuse program

15:47 | 5 February

Rocket Lab is proceeding as planned with its efforts to recover and reuse spent rocket boosters from its Electron launch vehicle, and has completed its first prototype parachute for use in the recovery process. Rocket lab CEO Peter Beck announced last year that it would be aiming for reusability with the first stage of its rocket, using a system that includes the booster re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, then deploying a parachute to slow its descent so that it can be caught mid-air by a helicopter and returned to land.

Already, Rocket Lab has made good progress on its plan, with two tests under its belt of the guided re-entry par tof the process, including a launch in early December 2019, and one just last week. Now, Beck said on Twitter that the company is ready to move on to stage two, which is developing the parachute system that will deploy once the rocket has completed re-entry, to slow its rate of descent. Rocket Lab’s first parachute prototype is ready, Beck says, and the company will start testing it using low-altitude drops, as well as testing the capture process, beginning next week.

Beck said during the event revealing Rocket Lab’s reusability plan that the most difficult part of the whole process was reducing the rocket’s speed during its return to Earth, which could mean that these parachute tests will be relatively simple to ace compared to the re-entry guidance system tests that preceded it. Then, it’ll be a matter of integrating the two systems, so that the returning rocket can slow itself enough just through orientation (it’s not firing any retro rockets in Earth’s atmosphere to control its descent like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster) to enable the parachute to take it the rest of the way.

Rocket Lab plans to attempt a full rocket recovery sometime before the end of 2020, and if it manages to get the process right, the primary benefit for the company will be an increased ability to turn around missions for more frequent successive launches, which Beck says is key to its goals of providing responsive, flexible launch services for customers.

 


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Rocket startup Firefly partners signs satellite constellation launch mission with Satlantis

17:56 | 4 February

Rocket launch startup Firefly Aerospace has signed a new agreement with Satlantis, a maker of Earth observation and remote sensing payloads for satellite-based operation. Firefly will launch a constellation of small satellites on behalf of Atlantis that will provide high-res, multispectral imaging of Earth from low-Earth orbit.

Firefly is still in the development and testing phase of their first launch vehicle, the Alpha rocket and spacecraft. The company intends to fly Alpha for the first time sometime this year, and the agreement singed today with Satlantis specifies a 2022 timeframe for the mission.

Alpha is a two-stage rocket that uses a carbon composite material for its primary construction. It’s around 95-feet tall, and can carry approximately 2,200 lbs to low-Earth orbit. Like Rocket Lab, Firefly’s goal is to provide an affordable option for small satellite customers to have dedicated launches, rather than relying on having to book ride share missions, but it offers considerably more payload capacity.

Firefly has just begun running its “hot” fire tests of its engine with the vehicle vertical early in 2020, but it did encounter a setback at the end of January with a fire on the launch platform following the first of these tests. Firefly said the fire was due to a fuel leak, but continues work on Alpha and Firefly CEO Tom Markusic told KVUE that it shouldn’t affect their goal of having a first flight for the rocket by mid-year.

 


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Max Q: SpaceX’s Starlink constellation grows again

20:06 | 3 February

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

This week was the busiest yet for space-related news in 2020, thanks in part to the 23rd Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference that happened last week. The event saw participation from just about every company who has anything to do with commercial spaceflight, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and dove deep on questions of regulation and congressional support for NASA’s Artemis program.

Our own TC Sessions: Space 2020 event, which is happening June 25 in LA, will zero in on the emerging startup economy that plays such a crucial role in commercial space, and it’s sure to touch on the same topics but get into a lot more detail on the innovation side of things as well.

SpaceX launches 60 more satellites – second Starlink launch already in 2020

SpaceX is clearly very eager to get its Starlink satellite broadband network operational, as the company has already launched not one, but two batches of 60 satellites for its constellation in 2020. After a launch early in January, the latest batch when up on January 29, moving SpaceX closer to the total volume of satellites needed for it to begin offering service in North America, its first target market for the (eventually) world-spanning network.

Rocket Lab launches its first mission in 2020

Busy launch week for new space launch companies, as Rocket Lab also launched a mission – its first of 2020. The launch was on behalf of client the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, delivering a surveillance satellite for the U.S. intelligence agency. This is part of a new program the NRO has in place to quickly secure launch vehicles for small satellites, departing from its traditional practice of using large, geostationary Earth observation spacecraft.

NASA and Maxar to demo in-orbit spacecraft assembly

NASA and its partner Maxar are planning to demonstrate orbital manufacturing in a big way using a robotic platform in space that will assemble a new multipanel reflector antenna. It’ll also refuel a satellite in space, both demonstrations that would go a long way towards proving out the viability and potential commercial benefit of doing maintenance, upgrades and spacecraft assembly in orbit.

NASA teams with Axiom Space on first commercial ISS habitat module

NASA has tapped space station startup Axiom to build its first commercial module for the ISS designed to receive and house commercial astronauts. It’s a place designed for both work (research and science experimentation) and play (potentially receiving future paying orbital tourists) and it’s step one of Axiom’s grand vision for a fully private space station. Axiom is founded by a former ISS manager whose mission is to ensure we don’t lose human presence in orbit following the Space Station’s eventual decommission.

SpaceX looks to Port of LA for Starship manufacture

Starship Mk1 night

SpaceX will eventually have to manufacture a lot of Starships to meet founder Elon Musk’s ambitious goals for frequent flights and Mars colonization. Musk wants to build 1,000 Starships over the course of the next decade, and talks are ongoing with the Port of LA to potentially manufacture at least some of them there, where there’s easy access to water for shipping the rockets to launchpads including SpaceX’s Florida facilities.

Space needs an exit

Space startups are seeing record investment, and a record number of seed rounds indicating ample interest in starting new companies – but investors are still watching for that next big exit. They’ve been few and far between in the sector, which is not something you want to see if you want the hype to continue.

Kepler will build its satellites in Toronto

Satellite constellation startup Kepler Communication is going to be building its IoT small satellites in-house in downtown Toronto. Not necessarily everyone’s first choice when building satellites, but Kepler wants to keep things to its own backyard to eventually realize cost efficiencies, and to closely align design and development with manufacturing.

 


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Rocket startup Astra emerges from stealth, aims to launch for as little as $1M per flight

18:20 | 3 February

There’s yet another new rocket launch startup throwing its hat in the ring – Astra, an Alameda-based company that’s actually been operating in stealth mode (though relatively openly, often referred to as ‘Stealth Space Company’) for the past three years developing and testing its launch vehicle. Astra revealed its business model and progress to date in a new feature article with Bloomberg Businessweek, detailing how it plans to use mass production to deliver rockets quickly and cheaply for small satellite orbital delivery. Astra revealed its raised over $100 million from investors including Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, Airbus Ventures, Canann Partners and Salesforce co-founder Marc Benioff, to name a few, and it has big ambitions in terms of cost and capabilities.

Astra’s rockets are smaller than most existing launch vehicles in operation, designed to delivery up to 450 lbs of cargo to space, but with the specific mandate of doing so quickly and responsively. The company is a finalist (and the only remaining one) on Darpa’s Launch Challenge, the terms of which mandate that the winning company deploy two rockets from two different payloads within a few weeks of each other. Astra is still in the running while its erstwhile competitors have dropped out, with Virgin Orbit having voluntarily withdrawn and Vector Launch having gone out of business.

The Darpa challenge, which includes an award of $12 million for the winner, represents a growing trend in terms of defense customer needs: Fast turnaround and responsive operations for small satellite delivery. In an industry where the process of securing a launch service provider, to actually flying a payload, has typically taken at least six months in the best case scenario, there’s a growing need for quicker timelines in the interest of building more redundancy and resilience into defense and reconnaissance space operations through use of networks of small satellites, vs. single large geostationary satellites that are expensive to launch and more time-consuming to task.

Astra, led by serial entrepreneur and former NASA CTO Chris Kemp wants to address this growing demand (which extends to commercial customers like Spire, Planet and others who are putting up large communications and Earth observation small satellite constellation) by producing rockets fast and with high frequency. Per the Bloomberg article, Astra says it can launch “profitably” for $2.5 million per mission, which is around half the going rate for a Rocket Lab launch, and that it eventually hopes to attain costs as low as $1 million per mission with a daily launch operational cadence. To that end, it’s looking to ramp production to a rate of producing hundreds of vehicles per year in a 250,000 square-foot manufacturing facility it’s setting up.

Astra is also different in that its using aluminum primarily in its launch vehicle, as opposed to the more costly but premium carbon fiber used by Rocket Lab in its Electron vehicle. And their launch platform is designed with mobility in mind, however, as the whole point is that it can be deployed responsively globally on short notice. If Rocket Lab’s launcher is a finely crafted and engineered supercar, Astra’s is aiming to be a reliable, adequate daily compact commuter car.

Next up for Astra in terms of key milestones is a launch planned for February 21 from Kodiak, Alaska – an island spaceport owned and operated by Alaska Aerospace. The company has actually already flown two suborbital test launches from this site, both in 2018, and both resulted in failures shortly following launch, so it’s got a lot to prove with this latest forthcoming attempt.

 


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Launch startup Skyrora successfully tests 3D-printed rocket engines powered by plastic waste

16:35 | 3 February

Rocket launch startup Skyrora, an Edinburg-based company that’s developing a new launch vehicle for small satellites, has successfully tested its new rocket engines in their first stationary ground-firings, a huge step on the way towards developing their launch vehicle. Skyrora’s rocket engines are novel not only in their use of 3D printing, but also because the fuel that powers them is developed from plastic waste – a new type of fuel called ‘Ecosene’ that the startup says makes its launch vehicles greener and more ecologically sound than the competition.

The rocket engine that Skyrora is testing will eventually power the final stage of its 22-meter (72-foot) Skyrora XL launch vehicle (closer to Rocket Lab’s Electron at 57 feet than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 at 229 feet), which will be capable of delivering multiple payloads to separate orbits ranging up to 500 km (310 miles) above Earth, popular low-Earth orbit target range for small satellite payloads. Skyrora fired the engines both with its ‘Ecosene,’ which is its kerosene directed from waste plastics using a proprietary process, and with traditional kerosene RP-1 rocket fuel, giving the company the opportunity to compare the two fuel sources in terms of performance.

Skyrora says it can create around 600 kg (1,300 lbs) of kerosene form 1,000 kg (2,200 lbs) of waste plastic, and that its fuel results in around 45% less greenhouse gas emissions. The Ecosene also has the advantage of not requiring cryogenic freezing, and being able to be stored in tanks idea for long periods of time, something that the startup says helps it work particularly well for launch conditions from the Scottish spaceport from which the company plans to launch.

Ultimately, this is just one test on the path to validation and eventual launch, but Skyrora is encouraged by the results of this test, and plans to fly its first Skyrora XL vehicles from its UK-based launch site starting in 2022.

 


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Rocket Lab points out that not all rideshare rocket launches are created equal

22:38 | 30 January

The commercial rideshare model for spacefaring cargo is increasingly popular, and for good reason: It lowers the cost of launching something to space even further than companies like SpaceX have managed by splitting the available space on a rocket among multiple customers. Last August, SpaceX announced that it would be offering dedicated ‘rideshare’ missions for customers using its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, but at FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation conference this year, Rocket Lab VP of Global Commercial Launch Services Shane Fleming wanted to remind people that his company still believes their offering is likely the better option for most smallsat operators.

“SpaceX has been around for some time now obviously, but rideshare has not,” explained Fleming during a panel on space startups and VC. “There have been heavy launch vehicles around for quite some time, and small CubeSat customers and microsat customers have always had a challenge getting to orbit because they’re not the top priority. The top priority is a big geosat [geostationary satellite] mission, or national security mission, and those CubeSat customers, or rideshare customers are just hitching a ride essentially, to space, using a bus analog. So today, customers with those specific smallsat needs haven’t really had the luxury of really tailored, dedicated small launch services like we provide at Rocket Lab.”

SpaceX has said that its smallsat customers taking part in rideshare missions can send payloads of either up to 330 lbs for as little as $2.25 million, or 660 lbs for just $4.5 million, which is a big discount when compared to the cost of a full Falcon 9 launch. Rocket Lab’s base price for a dedicated launch begins at just $5.7 million, and splitting the cost would obviously drop that further still. But Fleming says that price isn’t actually the central issue when comparing the services.

“Whether SpaceX is dropping its prices or not, that service is still relatively the same and SpaceX has a number of priorities – they’re doing human missions, and doing national security missions, and they’re doing Starlink,” Fleming said. “Yes, they are offering rideshare services, but it’s not their business. At Rocket Lab smallsat customers are are our number one business, and that’s what we do. We offer very dedicated, tailored service exactly where you want to go, when you want to go, and for a lot of customers that’s really good important. And we also offer a lot more orbital inclinations; not everyone wants to go to SSO, there are orbits that are more unique than that where customers need to go in and we fulfill that. So whether they drop their price or not, it’s really a service-backed industry and that’s what we’re supporting.”

Rocket Lab has a lot more activity coming up this year that could help it further differentiate its offerings, including its first Photon mission, which is a new in-house spacecraft the company is developing to offer essentially satellite-as-a-service capabilities to its customers, so that they can focus on just working out the sensor payload or specific mission they want to accomplish, and leave the satellite building to Rocket Lab. It’s also continuing to work on its plan for recovering and reusing its Electron booster stage, and aims to recover its first stage for re-use later this year.

 


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