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Main article: Space

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Blue Origin’s new rocket engine production facility opens on Monday

19:22 | 14 February

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket engine production center in Huntsville, Alabama on Monday, the company said today on Twitter. The new Huntsville facility will be able to produce its rocket engines at a much higher rate than is currently possible, which will be useful as the company is using its in-development BE-4 engine for its own New Glenn rocket, as well as for supplying the United Launch Alliance with thrust for its new Vulcan launch vehicle.

Blue Origin started working on BE-4 bacon 2011, and though it was originally designed for use specifically on Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket, which is its first orbital launch vehicle, in 2014 ULA announced it would be using the engines to power its own next-generation Vulcan craft as well. BE-4 has 550,000 lbs of thrust using a mixture of liquid natural gas and oxygen for fuel, and is designed from the ground-up for heavy lift capability.

Blue Origin says it will delivery the first two production BE-4 engines this year, with deliveries to ULA to integrate them on the Vulcan for its first static hot fire tests. Blue also aims to fly New Glenn equipped with the engines for their first test flight in 2021. It’s in the process of running longer tests to prove out the engines, and will aim to quality them in their entirely through life cycle testing, which aims to replicate the kind of stress and operating conditions the hardware will undergo through its actual lifetime use.

Part of Blue Origin’s testing process will include retrofitting and upgrading Test Stand 4670 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, allowing the company to test a BE-3 engine one side and a BE-4 engine on the other.

It’s an exciting time for Blue and its BE-4, and the engine has been a long time in the making. What comes next could set it up as an integral and core part of the U.S. space launch program going forward, regardless of how its own launch vehicle plans proceed.

 


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Virgin Galactic relocates SpaceShipTwo ‘VSS Unity’ to its spaceport for preparations ahead of commercial flights

16:04 | 14 February

Virgin Galactic is one crucial step closer to actually flying paying customers to space: The space tourism company just relocated its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, the VSS Unity, from its Mojave, California manufacturing facility to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where it will begin flights with a goal of at least sending company founder Richard Branson to space during the year of his 70th birthday.

VSS Unity made the trip attached to the carrier aircraft that will bring it up to its launch altitude, where it’ll detach from the plane (named ‘VMS Eve’) and climb to the edge of space, providing the customers on board with “several minutes” of weightlessness in near zero-G when the spacecraft’s rocket motor disengages at the peak of its journey.

The 90 minute experience will cost the first tourists around $250,000 per ticket, which sounds steep but will also be the most affordable way that anyone’s experienced a trip to space to date. Those ticket holders will still have to wait a while to enjoy the trip they’ve been waiting for for a few years now, however – this relocation sets up a final round of testing on the spacecraft and its carrier planet that will still take some time to complete.

This round of preparation includes a number of relatively unexciting “capture and carry” flights with the spaceship and carrier aircraft attached to one another to get familiar with the surrounding airspace, as well as tests of rocket powered flight for the VSS Unity on its own. Finally, teams will assess and finalize the spaceship’s cabin, and the overall customer experience that tourists will encounter throughout their quarter-million dollar trip.

Given that not insignificant list of remaining activities prior to an actual flight, expect the inaugural commercial journeys of VSS Unity to still be a little ways out. As mentioned, the company has said that it at the very least is prioritizing a 70th birthday trip for Branson, but depending on how things go it might just be able to get other commercial flights in before year’s end, too.

 


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Rocket startup Gilmour Space gets a $3 million grant to develop lighter fuel tanks

18:04 | 13 February

Mass is money when it comes to the rocket launch business, and any small savings you can eke out can add up to big savings. That’s been the driving force behind the growing commercialization of space, and the rapid rise of the small satellite industry, and now Australian rocket startup Gilmour Space has received a $3 million grant from the Australian government to help improve rockets in a way that could add significant savings to the launch process.

Gilmour has spent the past seven years developing new and innovative technologies, including launching a hybrid rocket powered by 3D-printed fuel in 2016, working with NASA and developing a commercial use mobile launch platform for flexible, fast launch capabilities last year. This new award will be used to fund the development of lightweight rocket fuel tanks that are flight-ready, and could save as much as 30 percent of the weight of current designs, while simultaneously saving up to 25 percent off the cost of launch.

The project is a collaboration between Gilmour, the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) and Teakle Composites, and in total is supported by $12.5 million in investment. The ‘cryotanks’ (so-called because they store super-cold fuel) that result will be constructed of carbon fibre, which is set to be wound using a robot designed for the purpose, using a “exotic” filament materials that can stand up to the stresses of space, which include extreme temperatures and radiation.

Gilmour Space and USQ entered into a strategic partnership last year to work together on research and development of fundamental new rocket technologies, and this project along with its work on hybrid fuels and other areas of investigation will culminate in a plan to launch Gilmour’s first commercial rocket into orbit sometime in 2022. The goal of the company in general is to reduce the cost of access to space, and changing the cost dynamics of fundamental components of the rocket system is likely the best way to do that, even if it requires a significant amount of research and funding up front to make that happen.

 


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Astranis raises $90 million for its next-gen satellite broadband internet service

17:20 | 13 February

YC-backed Astranis has raised $90 million of new combined debt and equity funding in a Series B round led Venrock, with a sizeable contribution by existing investor (and lead of their 2018 round) Andreessen Horowitz. The funding will be used to help the company launch its first commercial satellites, which will be the bedrock of its future internet service offering, aimed at connecting the massive market of underserved populations around the world.

Astranis emerged from stealth in 2018 when it announced $13.5 million in funding led by Andreessen, and revealed its plan to offer low-cost, reliable internet using geostationary satellites – a different strategy from the increasingly numerous entrants in the satellite internet race who plan to deploy large constellations of satellites into low Earth orbit that don’t stay at a fixed point relative to a specific location on Earth, but that instead hand off their connection via a kind of relay system through ground stations to offer continued service.

The geostationary model that Astranis is embracing is somewhat more similar to the existing way of offering internet connectivity from space, which employs very large communications satellite parked in geostationary orbit fairly far away from Earth. Astranis’ novel approach uses small satellites, however – spacecraft roughly 20 times smaller than the traditional variety, weigh in at around 770 lbs vs. over 14,000 lbs for the legacy kind.

Astranis has made it possible to use smaller satellites thanks in large part to its proprietary ultra-sideband software-defined radio tech, which can provide more bandwidth on much smaller and less complicated hardware, using digital vs. analog technologies. These not only save a tone of space, but can be built and launched with a turnaround time of just months, compared to many years for the large, geostationary telecommunications spacecraft of yore.

As mentioned, this is a combined debt and equity round, including $40 million of equity funding with participating by Y Combinator and others in addition to Venrock and Andreessen. The remaining $50 million of debt facility comes from TriplePoint Capital. Astranis will be looking to this year and next as the time to grow its internet service provider partnerships, as well as built out its relationships with governments and the rest of the industry.

Astranis signed an agreement with launch provider SpaceX last year for a ride for their first commercial satellite, with the aim of having that mission take place sometime as early as the fourth quarter of 2020. The company has raised $108 million to date, but has deep-pocketed competitors eyeing the same opportunity with different technologies, including SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Kuiper.

 


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Blue Canyon Technologies chosen by Made in Space for orbital manufacturing demo mission

22:27 | 12 February

In-orbit manufacturing startup Made in Space has tapped Colorado’s Blue Canyon Technologies (BCT) to help support its Archinaut One demonstration mission contracted by NASA, which is currently set to take place in 2022. The mission will see Made in Space show off the assembly of two ten-meter solar arrays on orbit, which will then be used to power an ESPA-class satellite, providing up to five times more power than is available via power sources used for those satellites not assembled in orbit.

BCT will be providing development of the spacecraft platform (along with Northrop Grumman) that Made in Space will use to delver its Archinaut manufacturing platform, which employs additive manufacturing and robotic assembly to be able to build structures while in orbit. The Colorado company, founded in 2008, has developed a number of spacecraft for a variety of projects including JPL’s first-ever operational CubeSat project, the Asteria space telescope.

I spoke to BCT Systems Engineer Brian Crum about the Made in Space project, and he said that it’s representative of the kind of work they’ve been doing, which mainly concentrates around interesting demonstration missions and initial operations of novel space technologies that could have tremendous impact on how work is done in space.

“Given the size of spacecraft that we develop and specialize in, and at that price point, it really lends itself to these Demonstration Missions that are follow-on to operational concepts,” he said. “We are a good solution for testing out concepts, and we get approached quite a bit for that […] we get a lot of interesting ideas of people wanting to try things, and this is definitely one of them.”

BCT is actually in the process of building more than 60 spacecraft, and it doubled in size over the past year. Next, the company plans to open a new combined headquarters and production facility that spans over 80,000 acres, which should be opening sometime later this year. That growth is directly driven by an uptick in business – something Crum says is the result of a boom in experimentation and technology demonstrations coming from all vectors, including government and private industry.

“There are definitely more people that have more appetite for risk,” he said. “We we are growing because the demand for the spacecraft is growing, that’s the simple answer. We’re we’re hiring the right people to support these programs, and the the number of programs is greatly increasing. Along with that, as we grow larger in size, and the spacecraft grow larger and size, they become more complex which means they need a little bit more effort. So there’s there’s a little bit more engineering that goes into them as well.”

 

 


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SpaceX hires ex-NASA human spaceflight expert and shows off Crew Dragon set to carry astronauts

02:57 | 12 February

SpaceX is gearing up for its historic first human spaceflight, with a crewed demonstration mission of its Crew Dragon spacecraft tentatively set for May 7 (though that date is flexible right now). The company on Tuesday showed a clip of the completed Crew Dragon spacecraft that will carry astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley undergoing testing, and CNBC revealed that it had hired former NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William Gerstenmaier.

Gerstenmaier served NASA for 14 years in that capacity, and was with the agency for forty years working on the Space Shuttle program as well as the International Space Station. It’s likely there are few other individuals in the world, if any, who have as much experience as he does with flying people in space, which makes him a very clutch hire for SpaceX as it readies itself for the operational kick-off of its human spaceflight program.

After the Demo-2 mission later this year, which will be the first to carry astronauts, the next step is for SpaceX to become a regular provider of crew transportation for NASA, ferrying people to and from the Space Station for regular crew change operations. NASA currently relies on transportation aboard Russian Soyuz rockets operated by Roscosmos to get personnel to and from the orbital lab, an arrangement that’s been in place since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011.

Meanwhile, SpaceX also shared a short video clip of the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will carry Behnken and Hurley to the ISS sometime later this year. The capsule is in a specialized testing chamber, undergoing electromagnetic interference testing, a key part of its verification process before being fully certified for flight. Earlier this week, Ars Technica reported that nearly everything was ready in terms of preparation for the Demo-2 mission, and that it should take place sometime between April and June, with May 7 as the current working date.

 


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2021 NASA budget request includes $3.3B for human lunar landers, $430M for Moon resource development

20:58 | 10 February

The Trump White House today issued its fiscal 2021 budget request, and it included a 12 percent increase in requested funding to NASA’s coffers, as expected. That puts the total request for NASA at $25.2 billion, nearly half or $12.3 billion of which is earmarked specifically to support NASA’s efforts to return to the surface of the Moon and to eventually land people on Mars.

Highlights from the proposed budget, which was issued by the Office of Management and Budget on Monday, include $3.3 billion specifically designate to develop human lunar lander systems that will be used to take astronauts from staging positions in lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface. It outlines that these will rely on “competition, industry innovation and robust Government oversight” to produce safe and reliable systems for “sustainable exploration.”

It also adds $4 billion for continued development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, which combined will be used to provide transportation of astronauts from Earth to the Moon. The budget specifically says that these funds will be used by the agency to “complete these systems and tart to establish a regular flight cadence.”

Also included in the request are $175 million for spacesuits to be used by astronauts on the surface of the Moon, along with $212 minion fro rovers that will be used for transportation. There’s $254 million included for the Commercial Lunar Landing Services (CLPS) program through which NASA is sourcing private partners to deliver scientific and cargo payloads to the Moon’s surface ahead of sending astronauts back in 2024.

A $430 million pool is included to specifically fund a ‘Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative,’ which includes the development and demonstration of technologies that will be employed to take advantage of Moon-based resources for power generation, astronaut habitats and exploration tools. These will be used to support Moon exploration, both robotic and human, according to the proposed budget, and also to then be leveraged for similar use in eventual Mars missions.

Another $529 million is set aside for the ‘robotic exploration of Mars,’ including a return mission to bring a Martian soil sample back to Earth for the first time ever, and a mission that will involve mapping water ice near the surface of the planet for the use of eventual human explorers.

Other considerations in the budget proposal include support for “new space stations” to ensure continued American presence in low-Earth orbit, as well as astronaut training. It also continues to fund the X-59 supersonic flight demonstrator that NASA is developing with a target first flight of 2022, which is meant to provide a blueprint for future commercial supersonic overland passenger aircraft.

It also includes a proposed cut of a number of science missions, as well as the Office of STEM Engagement, which supports STEM activities in schools. This is not the first the the STEM office has been on the chopping block, however, and so far it has managed to survive the axe.

NASA Administrator is addressing the budget request and what it means for the administration’s plans in a briefing later today. We’ll provide updates about salient details as they become available.

 


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Max Q: A SpaceX spin-out sounds great

19:41 | 10 February

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

Two rocket launches were set to take off Sunday, including one from Wallops Island in Virginia and another from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The first is a relatively standard (but still exciting – we are talking about rockets here, very little is ‘standard’) ISS resupply mission, and the second is a major scientific mission from NASA and the ESA called the ‘Solar Orbiter.’

Unfortunately, a technical issue meant the ISS resupply mission is rescheduled for Thursday – but the Solar Orbiter launched as planned, with as clean a delivery by the ULA Atlas V rocket that launched it as you can ask for.

Boeing Starliner encountered two potentially catastrophic issues

Starliner, the crew spacecraft developed by Boeing for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, encountered not one, but two major software flaws during its most recent demonstration mission that would’ve been very bad had they not been corrected.

The second one was only revealed in detail this week, and was discovered and patched only because the first software issue caused the ground team on the mission to go back over all the software relating to the capsule’s re-entry and check for potential errors. Otherwise, the mission team says it would not have been caught. No word yet on what this means definitively for Boeing’s crew program, but we’ll find out at the end of this month according to NASA officials.

Trump administration asks for $3B NASA budget boost

NASA could get significantly more funding than it did in 2020 for its fiscal 2021 operating year, with the bulk of a proposed $3 billion increase earmarked for development of human landers to be used in the Artemis program. Trump will still have to make that official during his budget presentation on February 10 (that’s today), but it looks like a strong endorsement of the agency’s plans by the current administration.

NASA seeks industry input on rovers

NASA may be looking to lock its Lander plans this coming year, but it’s also asking industry to provide concepts and input on lunar rovers, including robotic designs and ideas for human-carrying Moon buggies. This will likely lead to some kind of formal RFP for commercial rover partners down the road.

OneWeb launches 34 more satellites for its constellation

Meanwhile, Starlink competitor OneWeb launched its second batch of satellites, a group of 34 spacecraft. The company says this is just the beginning of its plans that include launching a group of at least 30 satellites per month until its constellation reaches its goal of 650, though it did also note that its going to pause the campaign in April to incorporate a satellite redesign.

SpaceX launches online rocket rideshare booking tool

SpaceX has launched a new online booking portal for its rideshare rocket service, which actually lets anyone with a credit card book a rocket launch starting at $1 million with a $5,000 downpayment. Don’t do this unless you actually plan to launch something and have your ducks in a row, however – unless you really want to just donate $5,000 to SpaceX .

Inside Astra’s unique new launch offering

Astra is a new launch startup that’s been developing its rocket for at least three years, but that only recently broke cover. I spoke to CEO and founder Chris Kemp about the company’s business model – and found out it’s not like anything else currently in the market, by design. ExtraCrunch subscription required.

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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NASA and ESA’s Solar Orbiter begins its nearly two year journey to the Sun

17:57 | 10 February

After years of development, an exciting new scientific research spacecraft has launched on its journey to study our solar system’s central player: the Sun. The Solar Orbiter, developed jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) and built by Airbus, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sunday night, launching as planned at 11:03 PM EST (8:03 PM PST).

Solar Orbiter launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, feating a special, unique configuration of the launch vehicle designed specifically to get the nearly 4,000 lb observation craft off Earth and onto its target path to eventually approach the Sun. The Atlas V used for this launch was configured with a payload fairing 13 feet in diameter to accommodate the Orbiter, and used a single solid rocket motor to provide the necessary propulsive power.

From here, Solar Obiter embarks on a journey that will take just over a year and a half, and include two close passes to Venus and Earth in order to take advantage of their gravitational pull to propel the spacecraft towards its target destination while conserving as much fuel as possible. After it swings by those two bodies to gain momentum, it’ll end up in an orbit around the sun with a close approach distance of just 26 million miles – still about 100 times as far as the Moon is from Earth, but so close that temperatures at their peak at the spacecraft will reach nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Solar Orbiter’s mission sees it orbiting the Sun for at least seven years, gathering data about what’s going on in the star’s heliosphere, which is roughly equivalent to Earth’s atmosphere in that it surrounds the Sun. These findings should shed new light on what goes on in the heliosphere, which will definitely be advantageous for scientific study of our solar companion, but they could also provide new information that leads to better understanding of so-called ‘space weather,’ which includes things like solar storms and flares that actually impact the proper functioning of infrastructure including communications and navigation technology back on Earth.

Onboard Solar Orbiter, there are 10 instruments to measure various phenomena and gather different types of information from the Sun, including permeating ultraviolet imaging and taking measurements from the solar wind that radiates off the star. All of these instruments had to be hardened to withstand not only those extremely high temperatures from the Orbiter’s closest approach to the Sun, but also down to nearly -300 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an amazing engineering challenge when you’re dealing with instrumentation designed to detect very fine detail. They’ll be protected in part by a heat shield made of titanium and covered with a calcium phosphate coating that will absorb most of the 1,000-degree temperatures, however, resulting in a more tolerable range of between 4 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the actual instruments themselves.

Solar Orbiter won’t be alone in its study of the Sun: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018, will be simultaneously in solar orbit, gathering solar gas samples and providing information which can be used in tandem with data provided by Solar Orbiter for a more complete picture of what’s going on at the center of our solar system.

 


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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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