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Main article: Space

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Blue Origin successfully lands both booster and crew capsule after test launch

18:24 | 18 July

Today, at its Texas launch facility, Blue Origin preformed its most critical test to date. It preformed a live separation test of its crew capsule from the rocket booster and everything preformed as expected. The crew capsule fired its escape motor at the right time, sending the capsule higher than it ever has gone before. This successful test is a huge milestone for Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, which previously stated, if the test went well could put the rocket company in position to become operation by the end of the year.

Touchdown of the crew capsule!

— Blue Origin (@blueorigin)

Today’s test was the ninth launch for Blue Origin and the third for the booster used in this test. Both the capsule and booster are designed to be reused. Over 20,000 people tuned into Blue Origin’s YouTube live stream to watch the test. From the outside, things appeared to precisely as planned.

 

 


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Watch Blue Origin’s most critical rocket launch right here

17:57 | 18 July

Blue Origin is about to preform a critical rocket test. For the first time Jeff Bezos’ rocket company will send send its New Shepard rocket to its red line at the edge of space and then fire the escape motor on the capsule that will carry passengers.

This is the ninth mission for the New Shepard program and the third time this reusable rocket was used.

About 20 seconds (and 100 feet) after the New Shepard and the crew capsule separates, the motor on the capsule will fire with 70k foot pounds of thrust, sending the capsule 50,000 ft higher than it has gone before. After the motor fires, parachutes will hopefully deploy allowing the capsule to return safely to solid ground.

 


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Blue Origin could charge $200k-$300k for a trip to space

17:31 | 13 July

How much would you pay to leave our dumpster fire of a world for just a few minutes? Blue Origin is considering charging $200,000 to $300,000 according to a Reuters report. For that price, passengers would get a seat on Blue Origin’s New Shepard, the commercial space vehicle from Jeff Bezos’ rocket company.

The rocket would take passengers to suborbital space to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. This is done autonomously and can hold six passengers. Parachutes will return the capsule back to solid ground.

This claim comes from two people with knowledge of the space program’s pricing, Reuters says.

Passengers have time to start saving. Ferrying passengers to space is still a ways off for Blue Origin. The company has completed eight test flights including landing the rocket vertically, but has yet to strap a human into one of the seats. That’s apparently coming within weeks, one employee is quoted on saying in the Reuters’ report.

Blue Origin isn’t the only one selling tickets to space. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic says it has sold about 650 $250,000 tickets to space aboard its craft; launch dates have yet to be announced for that trip too.

Bezos has larger ambitions than just being an amusement ride. In May, speaking at the Space Development Conference in Los Angeles with the inimitable Alan Boyle, Bezos chatted about the idea of making the moon a center for heavy industry, which he thinks will help conserve resources here on Earth. When the time comes, he hopes that lunar residence and industry will be a shared privilege, with countries working together in a “lunar village” and combining their strengths rather than testing them against one another.

 


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Virgin Galactic agrees to launch space flights from Italy

23:49 | 6 July

U.S. space venture Virgin Galactic announced it has partnered with two aerospace companies to help bring commercial space launches to Italy.

The agreement with Italy’s largest private space company Sitael and Altec, a public-private company owned by the Italian Space Agency and Thales Alenia Space, has been two years in the making.

The idea is to put Virgin Galactic’s space vehicle system at the future Grottaglie Spaceport where it can be used by private individuals who want to experience space as well as customers like the Italian Space Agency interested in conducting research.

Earlier this year, Italian aviation authority ENAC designated the Taranto-Grottaglie Airport as the future home for horizontally-launched spaceflights in Italy.

While this Italian spaceport will eventually provide the infrastructure for future Virgin Galactic suborbital flights, the company will maintain its operational headquarters at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“This partnership could see Virgin Galactic launch the first person in history into space from Italian soil — and in fact from any European territory,” Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson said in a statement. 

Virgin Galactic is owned by the Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS. There are two sister companies as well, Virgin Orbit,  which focuses on launching small satellites into space using its LauncherOne orbital launch, and its manufacturing arm, The Spaceship Company.

Virgin Galactic is testing the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, a reusable space launch system that does horizontal launches. SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, are manufactured and tested in Mojave, California by The Spaceship Company. The WhiteKnightTwo carries the VSS Unity to a high altitude and then dropped. From here, the VSS Unity fires its engines and launches into suborbital space before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere after a few minutes is weightlessness.

In the past several months, Virgin Galactic  has had two successful test flights of SpaceShipTwo, the rocket-powered passenger spacecraft that may someday take tourists to the edge of space. In April, Virgin Galactic conducted its first test of its rocket-powered spacecraft since since the fatal breakup of the company’s previous SpaceShipTwo-class spacecraft, Enterprise, in 2014.

 


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A robotic astronaut named CIMON is on its way to the ISS

21:27 | 29 June

There’s a new astronaut on its way to the International Space Station this morning aboard SpaceX’s most recent resupply launch, and it’s only the size of a medicine ball. CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion) is an artificial intelligence assistant designed by Airbus and IBM to assist the European Space Agency’s astronauts in everyday tasks aboard the ISS . Weighing in at just 11 pounds and roughly the size of a medicine ball, this minute astronaut is equipped with the neural network strength of IBM’s Watson.

Crew members will be able to correspond with CIMON via voice commands and access a database of procedures. CIMON will also be able to detect the crew members’ moods and react accordingly, Till Eisenberg, CIMON project lead at Airbus, told SPACE.com.

In a February press release announcing CIMON’s arrival, Airbus said that CIMON’s emotional intelligence, in addition to its friendly face and voice, will help it operate like a true crew member aboard the station. To start, CIMON even has a built-in friend.

Before setting off today, CIMON has been trained alongside German astronaut Alexander Gerst to recognize Gerst’s voice and face and help him complete three different task while aboard the ISS. CIMON will help the geophysicist and volcanologist study crystals on the space station, solve a Rubik’s cube using video data and play the role of an “intelligent camera” to document a medical experiment on-board.

CIMON’s mission with Gerst will take place between this June and October 2018, but Airbus hopes that in the future CIMON will be able to observe crew members on longer missions and help scientists learn more about the social dynamics involved in extended space flight — an issue that will be paramount for any dreams of Martian colonies to come.

 


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NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launch set back to 2021

20:30 | 28 June

NASA announced yesterday that its highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope is delaying its launch — again.

It was announced in March that the mission would be delayed until 2020, which is already two years past its original launch date in October 2018. But after accepting the recommendations of an independent review board, NASA has announced that the launch has been rescheduled for early 2021.

According to the report, technical issues and human error have “greatly impacted the development schedule” and added an extra $800 million to the already $8 billion budget approved by Congress.

For a mission that’s been deemed NASA’s “next big telescope,” it’s not surprising there’d be a few bumps in the road.

The telescope’s honeycombed structure of (literally) gold-plated mirrors will help scientists see further into the history of our universe than has ever been possible before. Following in the footsteps of the Hubble Telescope, Webb will have improved “sight” thanks to its abilities to see longer wavelengths, like infrared. By peering beyond the visible spectrum of light, there’s literally no telling what Webb might learn about the birth of the universe. And that’s kind of the reason NASA’s building it.

“The more we learn more about our universe, the more we realize that Webb is critical to answering questions we didn’t even know how to ask when the spacecraft was first designed,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in a report yesterday.

If that’s not enough pressure, the Webb (unlike the Hubble) will be too far away from Earth to be serviceable by either manned or robotic missions. So, when Webb finally reaches its orbit and unfurls (another tricky maneuver) there’s no going back.

While this mission represents an exciting new opportunity to explore deeper into space, NASA and other federally funded space agencies aren’t the only game in town any more. Billionaires like Yuri Milner, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are taking on the challenge in the private sector and designing new methods, crafts and rockets to explore this final frontier with a little more flexibility than NASA.

In addition to the obvious technical challenges of the Webb project, NASA has also run into problems with its primary contractor, Northrop Grumman . After encountering problems earlier this year successfully installing Webb’s sun shield, Northrop Grumman was also cited in yesterday’s report for “performance challenges” on the mission’s propulsion systems.

With NASA’s growing to-do list before Webb finally launches, it might still be awhile before we get to see the universe’s baby pictures.

 


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Watch Rocket Lab’s first commercial launch, ‘It’s Business Time’

03:17 | 27 June

Rocket Lab, the New Zealand-based rocket company that is looking to further amplify the commercial space frenzy, is launching its first fully paid payload atop an Electron rocket tonight — technically tomorrow morning at the launch site. If successful, it will mark a significant new development in the highly competitive world of commercial launches.

Liftoff is planned for 2:10 in the morning local time in New Zealand, or 7:10 Pacific time in the U.S.; the live stream will start about 20 minutes before that.

The Electron rocket is a far smaller one than the Falcon 9s we see so frequently these days, with a nominal payload of 150 kilograms, just a fraction of the many tons that we see sent up by SpaceX. But that’s the whole point, Rocket Lab’s founder, CEO and chief engineer Peter Beck told me recently.

“You can go buy a spot on a big launch vehicle, but they’re not very frequent. With a small rocket you can choose your orbit and choose your schedule,” he said. “That’s what we’re driving at here: regular and reliable access to space.”

An Electron rocket launching during a previous test.

Just like not every car on the road has to be a big rig, not every rocket needs to be a Saturn V. 150 kilos is more than enough to fill with paying customers and cover the cost of launch. And Beck told me there is no shortage whatsoever of paying customers.

“The most important part of the mission is the timing in which we manifested it,” he explained (manifesting meaning having a payload added to the manifest). “We went from nothing manifested to a full payload in about 12 weeks.”

For comparison, some missions or payloads will wait literally years before there’s an opportunity to get to the orbit they need. Loading up just a few weeks ahead of time is unusual, to say the least.

Today’s launch will carry satellites from Spire, Tyvak/GeoOptics, students at UC Irvine, and High Performance Space Structure Systems; you can see the specifics of these on the manifest (PDF). It’s not the first time an Electron has taken a paid payload to orbit, but it is the first fully commercialized launch.

Rocket Lab has no ambitions for interplanetary travel, sending people to space, or anything like that. It just wants to take 150 kilograms to orbit as often as it can, as inexpensively as it can.

“We’re not interested in building a bigger rocket, we’re interested in building more of this one,” Beck said. “The vehicle is fully dialed in; we started from day one with this vehicle designed from a production approach. We’re fully vertically integrated, we don’t have any contractors, we do everything in house. We’ve been scaling up the factories enormously.”

“We’re looking for a one-a-month cadence this year, then next year one every two weeks,” he continued. “Frequency is the key — it’s the choke point in space right now.”

Ultimately the plan is to get a rocket lifting off every few days. And if you think that will be enough to meet demand, just wait a couple years.

 


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SpaceX nabs $130 million to launch an Air Force satellite with Falcon Heavy

02:21 | 22 June

SpaceX beat out one other competitor to land a $130 million launch contract with the U.S. Air Force using its Falcon Heavy rocket. The award is an important validation of the Falcon Heavy, one of the most powerful rockets ever made.

Under the contract, the Hawthorne, California based rocket company founded by Elon Musk will launch the Air Force Space Command-52 satellite to its intended orbit. The contract includes launch vehicle production and mission, as well as integration, launch operations and spaceflight worthiness activities, according to a notice posted by the U.S. Department of Defense.

The work, which will be performed at SpaceX’s headquarters, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and in McGregor, Texas, is expected to be completed by September 2020. The mission is planned to be launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Two proposals were received by the DoD in the competitive bidding process.

“SpaceX is honored by the Air Force’s selection of Falcon Heavy to launch the competitively-awarded AFSPC-52 mission,” said SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell. “On behalf of all of our employees, I want to thank the Air Force for certifying Falcon Heavy, awarding us this critically important mission, and for their trust and confidence in our company. SpaceX is pleased to continue offering the American taxpayer the most cost-effective, reliable launch services for vital national security space missions.”

SpaceX successfully launched the Falcon Heavy for the first time (with a Tesla Roadster strapped to the top, no less, because… well, Elon.) in February 2018. The rocket has three cores, or first-stage boosters, that work in unison to get the rocket into a low Earth orbit. There are two side boosters and a center core. SpaceX has designed the rocket so that after stage separation all three boosters will land and be able to be reused. The company recovered two of the three boosters.

 


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Official near-earth object plan will look into nuking asteroids and other ‘planetary defense missions’

02:49 | 21 June

Space is a big place, and mostly empty — but there’s no shortage of objects which, should they float our direction, could end life as we know it. A new national plan for detecting and handling such objects was proposed today, and it includes the possibility of nuclear strikes on the incoming asteroids and other “planetary defense missions.”

The plan, revealed and discussed this morning, is far from a joke — it’s just that the scales these threats operate at necessarily elevates the discourse to Hollywood levels.

It’s not so much “let’s do this” as “let’s figure out what we can do.” As such it has five major goals.

First, improve our ability to detect and track near-earth objects, or NEOs. We’ve been doing it for years, and projects like NEOWise have captured an incredible amount of these objects, ranging in size from the kind that will safely burn up in orbit, to those that might cause serious damage (like the Chelyabinsk one), to proper planet-killers.

But we often hear about NEOs being detected for the first time on near-collision courses just days before approach, or even afterwards. So the report recommends looking at how existing and new programs can be utilized to better catch these objects before they become a problem.

Second, improve our knowledge of what these objects can and have done by studying and modeling them. Not just so that we know more in general, but so that in the case of a serious incoming object we know that our predictions are sound.

Third, and this is where things go a little off the rails, we need to assess and develop NEO “deflection and disruption” technologies. After all, if a planet-killer is coming our direction, we should be able to do something, right? And perhaps it shouldn’t be the very first time we’ve tried it.

The list of proposed methods sounds like it was sourced from science fiction:

This assessment should include the most mature in-space concepts — kinetic impactors, nuclear devices, and gravity tractors for deflection, and nuclear devices for disruption — as well as less mature NEO impact prevention methods.

I wasn’t aware that space nukes and gravity tractors were our most mature concepts for this kind of thing! But again, the fact is that a city-sized object approaching at a significant fraction of the speed of light is an outlandish problem that demands outlandish solutions.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather we tried a space nuke once or twice on a dry run rather than do it live while Armageddon looms.

At first these assessments will be purely theoretical, of course. But in the medium and long term NASA and others are tasked with designing actual “planetary defense missions”:

This action includes preliminary designs for a gravity tractor NEO deflection mission campaign, and for a kinetic impactor mission campaign in which the spacecraft is capable of either functioning as a kinetic impactor or delivering a nuclear explosive device. For the latter case, the spacecraft would contain all systems necessary to carry and safely employ a nuclear explosive device, but would carry a mass simulator with appropriate interfaces in place of an actual nuclear device. Designs should include reconnaissance spacecraft and methods to measure the achieved deflection.

Actual flight tests “would not incorporate an actual nuclear device, or involve any nuclear explosive testing.” Not yet, anyway. It’d just be a dry run, which serves its own purposes: “Thorough flight testing of a deflection/disruption system prior to an actual planetary defense mission would substantially decrease the risk of mission failure.”

Fourth the report says that we need to collaborate on the world stage, since of course NEO strikes don’t exactly discriminate by country. So in the first place we need to strengthen our existing partnerships with countries sharing NEO-related data or studies along these lines. We should all be looking into how a potential impact could affect our country specifically, of course, since we’re the ones here — but that data should be shared and analyzed globally.

Last, “Strengthen and Routinely Exercise NEO Impact Emergency Procedures and Action Protocols.”

In other words, asteroid drills.

But it isn’t just stuff like “here’s where Boulder residents should evacuate to in case of impact.” As the document points out, NEO impacts are a unique sort of emergency event.

Response and mitigation actions cannot be made routine to the same degree that they are for other natural disasters such as hurricanes. Rather, establishing and exercising thresholds and protocols will aid agencies in preparing options and recommending courses of action.

The report recommends exploring some realistic scenarios based on objects or situations we know to exist and seeing how they might play out — who will need to get involved? How will data be shared? Who is in charge of coordinating the agencies if it’s a domestic impact versus a foreign one? (See Shin Godzilla for a surprisingly good example of bureaucratic paralysis in the face of an unknown threat.)

It’s strange to think that we’re really contemplating these issues, but it’s a lot better than sitting on our hands waiting for the Big One to hit. You can read the rest of the recommendations here.

 


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UK’s first Space Camp Accelerator unveils its first 6 startups

21:07 | 19 June

Back in March we covered the launch of Seraphim Capital’s new “Space Camp Accelerator”. This is the UK’s first dedicated accelerator programme for startups in the spacetech industry.

Ther’s now selected the six companies in this first cohort. They come from from the US, Denmark and the UK. The programme is underway and is 9 weeks in total, ending 9/10 July. The key partners are the new UK Space Agency, European Space Agency, SA Catapult, and Capital Enterprise as well as Airbus, SSTL and Telespazio.

Here’s a run-down of which companies are in the programme, in their own words:

QuadSAT
QuadSAT is a Danish company that has developed brand new tools and techniques for testing and calibrating satellite antennas being deployed in high-value Maritime and Aeronautical markets. Combining the latest drone technology with a simulated satellite payload and mathematical algorithms, QuadSAT simplifies the requirements for satellite antenna testing, qualification and calibration.

Tesseract
Tesseract builds satellite propulsion systems that use non toxic propellants, have dramatically better performance, and lower cost than existing options.
Current satellite propulsion technologies rely on toxic fuel that is dangerous to handle. This results in fuelling costs of up to $500k per satellite and are cost prohibitive for inexpensive smallsats. Tesseract has redesigned thrusters for low toxicity fuels and modern manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing. This eliminates the $500k fuelling cost and provides twice the propulsion for half the price. Tesseract is an alumnus of Y Combinator – the world’s pre-eminent start-up accelerator and already has Letters of Intent for over $150m in annual revenues.

Earth Rover
By 2050 there will be 10 billion people on Earth, meaning that 70% more food will need to be produced from the same land we currently farm. The drive for yield-improving, high precision autonomous farming is therefore a pressing issue now. Earth Rover is looking to address this by developing farming robots based on the same technology originally developed for the ExoMars Rover. Selling precision farming-as-a-service, Earth Rover’s initial target market is the £1.7bn labour-intensive organic vegetable production market in Europe where it hopes to save farmers £1,500 per hectare p.a. Initial field trials are planned for the current growing season with one of the UK’s largest organic farms.

Global Surface Intelligence
According to the UN, there are over 4,000 satellites currently orbiting the planet, which collect and communicate a vast array of raw data which can be transformed into valuable decision-making information. This information can assist institutions and companies to better manage their land- based assets such as forestry, agriculture, water, minerals and man-made infrastructures.
Global Surface Intelligence (GSI) is one of a handful of companies around the world with access to a satellite database that effectively maps the changing behaviour of the world’s resources. GSI transforms the raw images from satellite, drone-based LiDAR and other data sets into advanced asset analytics and builds contextual views of natural assets to quantify their performance, health, yield and value, making these natural assets more investable and better managed.

Reconfigure.io
The huge growth of Space data is outstripping improvements in conventional processing platforms such as CPUs and GPUs. A relatively new form of integrated circuit known as field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) – designed to be configured after manufacturing by a customer using software – are capable of the hardware acceleration needed to address these issues. This capability is relevant for areas such as high-speed data analytics, network processing, security functions and low power processing for IoT and Space.Reconfigure.io has developed a core platform allowing the acceleration of key compute demands with such FPGA technology by for the first time making it readily accessible to engineers. It is therefore a key enabler for the mass adoption of FPGAs in the Space sector.

KisanHub
KisanHub is a Crop Intelligence Platform and was borne out of a desire to give farmers everywhere a sophisticated, meaningful yet, simple decision-support. Founded in 2013, KisanHub uses big data analytics, cloud computing, and machine learning to compile data from satellite imagery, weather stations, soil sensors, and other sources. The platform offers yield predictions, pesticide application monitoring and other features for potato growing, which helps sellers manage contracts and supports farmers’ decision-making. KisanHub’s target customers are agriculture enterprises, such as suppliers, processors, and retailers. Roughly 2,300 growers in the UK and 1,000 in India use KisanHub’s software, all paid for by the enterprise customers. KisanHub sources data via hardware and imagery partnerships, including one with satellite imagery provider Planet Labs. They have raised over £2.5m VC investment.

 


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