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Main article: Space

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Rocket Lab’s new ‘Rosie the Robot’ speeds up launch vehicle production – by a lot

21:17 | 13 November

Rocket launch startup Rocket Lab is all about building out rapid-response space launch capabilities, and founder/CEO Peter Beck is showing off its latest advancement in service of that goal: A room-sized manufacturing robot named ‘Rosie.’

Rosie is tasked with processing the carbon composite components of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle. That translates to basically getting the rocket flight ready, and there’s a lot involved in that – it’s a process that normally can take “hundreds of hours,” according to Beck. So how fast can Rosie manage the same task?

“We can produce one launch vehicle in this machine every 12 hours,” Beck says in the video. That includes “every bit of marking, every bit of machining, every bit of drilling,” he adds.

This key new automation tool essentially turns something that was highly bespoke and manual, and turns it into something eminently repeatable and expedited, which is a necessary ingredient if Rocket Lab is ever to accomplish its goal of providing high-frequency launches to small satellite customers with very little turnaround time. The company’s New Zealand launch facility recently landed an FAA license that helps sketch out the extent of its ambition, since it’s technically cleared to launch rockets as often as every 72 hours.

In addition to innovations like Rosie, Rocket Lab uses 3D printing for components of its launch vehicle engines that result in single-day turnaround for production, vs. weeks using more traditional methods. It’s also now working on an ambitious plan for rocket recovery, which should help further with providing high-frequency launch capabilities since it’ll mean you don’t have to build entirely new launch vehicles for every mission.

 


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Techstars launches a virtual space tech accelerator with USAF, the Netherlands and Norway

19:35 | 13 November

Techstars is following up the first class of their Starburst space-focused program with a new, virtual accelerator program that is being run in partnership with the U.S. Air Force, the Netherlands Ministry of Defence, the Norwegian Ministry of Defence and the Norwegian Space Agency. It’s called the Techstars Allied Space Accelerator, and its focus is specifically on startups operating in the commercial space industry.

Unlike most other Techstars programs, this one won’t require companies to work out of a centralized physical hub during the course of the program, which will span 13-weeks. It’ll be mostly remote, punctuated by three separate one-week visits on-site at the program’s government agency sponsors, which will supplement the virtual mentorship and guidance.

Techstars already has experience working with the U.S. Air Force, through the Techstars Air Force Accelerator, but this new program will give it a chance to work together both with the entrepreneurial organization, and also with some of its international partners. This kind of collaboration with industry could help pave the way to establishing more clear and widely accepted rules of the road when it comes to how the commercial space industry operates relative to national borders and international cooperation.

This inaugural program will run from June through September of 2020, and it’s open for applications as of today, with the cut-off for accepting new potential participants on March 3, 2020.

 


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Elon Musk says building the first sustainable city on Mars will take 1,000 Starships and 20 years

02:13 | 8 November

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk went into a bit more detail about the timelines and vehicle requirements to not only reach Mars, but to set up a sustainable base on the red planet that can serve as an actual city, supporting a local population. That’s the long-term vision for Musk and his space technology company, after all – making humans an interplanetary species. The timeline that Musk discussed today, replying to fans on Twitter, might be both incredibly impressed or incredibly ambitious, depending on your perspective.

Addressing a question about comments he made earlier this week at the U.S. Air Force startup pitch day event in California, Musk said that his stated launch cost of only around $2 million per Starship flight are essentially required, should the final goal be to set up a “self-sustaining city on Mars.” In order to make that city a reality, he added, SpaceX will need to to

according to his estimates, which will need to transport cargo, infrastructure and crew to Mars over the course of
, since planetary alignment only really allows for a realistically achievable Mars flight once every two years.

Musk addressed more near-term potential for Starship as well, including how much payload capacity Starship will provide for Earth orbital transportation. Starship’s design is intended to maximize re-use, and in fact Musk noted that ideally it can fly up to three times per day. That amounts to more than 1,000 flights per year per Starship, which means that if they end up with as many Starships as they currently have built Falcon rockets (around 100) and those can each transport as much as 100 tons to orbit, then on an annual basis, SpaceX will be able to launch upwards of

.

To put that in perspective, Musk points out that if you take all cargo-bearing spacecraft currently in operation into account, the total payload capacity is just 500 tons per year – with

.

That’s a lot of payload; in fact, it’s probably more than there will be demand for in any near-term time scale. But it’s also true that Musk envisions a future where orbital space is a much busier place, and a staging ground for orbital cargo transfer and refuelling as Moon and Mars-bound spacecraft ready themselves for the outward journey.

Of course, to set up a permanent, sustainable city on Mars, we first have to get there with a crewed flight. There’s another step between now and then, which is landing astronauts back on the Moon. NASA has set 2024 as its goal for that milestone, and SpaceX has said it hopes to land Starship there by as early as 2022 to help with staging in preparation for that landing. In the past, Musk has discussed crewed Mars mission also taking place as early as 2024, but that goal seems mighty aspirational (as do most of his timelines) from where we sit today.

 


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U.S. Air Force experimental test spaceship lands after a record 780 days in orbit

15:40 | 28 October

The X-37B, a test vehicle operated by the U.S. Air Force, has returned from orbit and landed successfully at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, over two years after it originally launched on its latest mission aboard a SpaceX rocket.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, as its formally known, was on its fifth mission, which involved – well, we don’t really know. The whole point of X-37B is that its mission is mostly clandestine, so we likely won’t ever know the full particulars of what its been up to in its orbital jaunts. But we do know that it’s demonstrating technologies for USAF use, and specifically to help them develop a “reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform.”

We know from the Air Fore that that means running a battery of test across systems including avionics, guidance, thermal shielding, propulsion, spacecraft re-entry systems and more. We also know that it’s around 30-feet long, like a kind of shrunk-down Space Shuttle, and we know that it’s built by Air Force contractor Boeing. And since this is the Air Force we’re talking about, we also know that the goals of any experiments run in the spaceplane are likely going to ramp up to defence and military use, which is a logical thing for the U.S. to pursue, given how quickly space is becoming a relative boom town, and how much money other states are spending on in-space defence and militarization.

The X-37B will spend some time on the ground after its record-breaking 780-day flight, and then will launch again sometime in 2020 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

 


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The European SpaceTech industry is firing up its booster rockets

20:28 | 26 October

A new space race is forming globally, energized by venture capital and the hype around companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The privately-funded space industry is still in its infancy, but there has been an explosion of startups and investors in the sector, and the fever has, in the last few years, spread to Europe. The development of SpaceTech startups will be crucial to the advancement of services we have come to rely on in our daily lives, be it navigation, delivery services or more.

For the past ten years, the SpaceTech sector has seen over $9 billion invested in it, roughly 60% of the space industry’s investments. This is in part because the ‘delivery’ mechanisms (basically, rockets) are now delivering enough capacity to meet demand. So what you put up in the sky and what you ‘get out of the sky’ is now the new focus of the industry. And in Europe, the European Space Agency has been increasingly effective at providing significant amounts of grant funding to innovative startups, even as venture capital ramps up its own interest.

 

STRUCTURE OF THE INDUSTRY
The European SpaceTech industry has structured itself across two main sectors. The first is the components manufacturers (thrusters, antennas, sensors, etc). The second is the huge and booming area of the data analytics market which is the underlying value of satellites.

 


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NASA’s Mars 2020 rover rests on its own six wheels for the first time

15:54 | 25 October

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will have to operate on its own in a harsh environment, hundred of millions of miles from the nearest mechanic. But for now, it’s still in development at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab – and every milestone is an important one. Including supporting its own weight, fully assembled and resting on its own six wheels, which is what the rover managed this week.

This stand-up test is one of many the rover is undergoing, including testing its nuclear-powered engine, its ability to move its wheels, its sensor arrays and navigation systems. The six-wheeled robotic exploration platform is readying for its scheduled July 2020 launch, which will see it sent to the Red Planet to carry on and augment the mission of the Mars Curiosity rover.

Mars2020 rover 2

NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover. Credit: NASA

Curiosity launched in 2011, and landed on Mars in August of 2012. This earlier rover was designed for a two-year mission, but it got an indefinite mission extension in 2012, and it’s still operational after switching computers earlier this year following a crash – a full seven years after its original landing.

The Mars 2020 rover has received a number of upgrades vs. Curiosity, which you’d probably expect given that the team developing the newer rover has the benefit of multiple years of experience running a robotic rover platform on the surface of Mars. Mars 2020 features upgrades like improved environmental durability, and it’ll carry a host of different scientific and research equipment to complement Curiosity’s capabilities.

 


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SpaceX wants to land Starship on the Moon before 2022, then do cargo runs for 2024 human landing

14:17 | 25 October

Speaking at a quick series of interviews with commercial space company’s at this year’s annual International Astronautical Congress, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell shed a little more light on her company’s current thinking with regards to the mission timelines for its forthcoming Starship spacefaring vehicle. Starship, currently in parallel development at SpaceX’s South Texas and Florida facilities, is intended to be an all-purpose successor to, and replacement for, both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, with a higher payload capacity and the ability to reach the Moon and eventually Mars.

“Aspirationally, we want to get Starship to orbit within a year,” Shotwell said. “We definitely want to land it on the Moon before 2022. We want to […] stage cargo there to make sure that there are resources for the folks that ultimately land on the moon by 2024, if things go well, so that’s the aspirational timeframe.”

That’s an ambitious timeline, and as Shotwell herself repeatedly stated, these are “aspirational” timelines. In the space industry, as well as in tech, it’s not uncommon for leadership to set aggressive schedules in order to drive the teams working on projects to work at the limits of what’s actually possible. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is also known for working to timelines that often don’t match up with reality, and Shotwell alluded to Musk’s ambitious goal setting as a virtue in another part of her on-stage interview at IAC.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell at IAC 2019

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell at IAC 2019 in Washington, D.C.

“Elon puts out these incredibly audacious goals and people say ‘You’re not going to do it, you’ll never get to orbit, you’ll never get a real rocket to orbit, […] you’ll never get Heavy to orbit, you’ll never get Dragon to the station, you’ll never get Dragon back, and you’ll never land a rocket,'” she said. “So, frankly, I love when people say we can’t do it, because it motivates my fantastic 6,500 employees to go do that thing.”

SpaceX has previously discussed its goal of starting its first orbital test flights of Starship within as little as a year. So far, the company has built and tested a so-called ‘Starhopper’ demonstration vehicle, which consisted of just the base of the vehicle and one of the Raptor engines it will use for its new Starship launch system and Super Heavy booster. After completing successful low-altitude flights with that vehicle, SpaceX moved on to assembling its Mk1 and Mk2 Starship test vehicles, which represent the full scale of the ultimate orbital spacecraft, and which are being built by teams in Boca Chica and Cape Canaveral, respectively. These will perform high-altitude testing, before SpaceX builds additional prototypes for orbital, and ultimately human test flights.

SpaceX already has already been contracted by Intuitive Machines and ispace, both companies working with NASA to delivery payloads to the Moon ahead of its 2024 Artemis program human Moon landing, but these payload missions all specify using Falcon 9 to deliver their payloads.

 


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Aurora Insight emerges from stealth with $18M and a new take on measuring wireless spectrum

15:55 | 22 October

Aurora Insight, a startup that provides a “dynamic” global map of wireless connectivity that it built and monitors in real time using AI combined with data from sensors on satellites, vehicles, buildings, aircraft and other objects, is emerging from stealth today with the launch of its first publicly-available product, a platform providing insights on wireless signal and quality covering a range of wireless spectrum bands, offered as a cloud-based, data-as-a-service product.

“Our objective is to map the entire planet, charting the radio waves used for communications,” said Brian Mengwasser, the co-founder and CEO. “It’s a daunting task.” He said that to do this the company first “built a bunker” to test the system before rolling it out at scale.

With it, Aurora Insight is also announcing that it has raised $18 million in funding — an aggregate amount that reaches back to its founding in 2016 and covering both a seed round and Series A — from an impressive list of investors. Led by Alsop Louie Partners and True Ventures, backers also include Tippet Venture Partners, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, Promus Ventures, Alumni Ventures Group, ValueStream Ventures, and Intellectus Partners.

The area of measuring wireless spectrum and figuring out where it might not be working well (in order to fix it) may sound like an arcane area, but it’s a fairly essential one.

Mobile technology — specifically, new devices and the use of wireless networks to connect people, objects and services — continues to be the defining activity of our time, with more than 5 billion mobile users on the planet (out of 7.5 billion people) today and the proportion continuing to grow. With that, we’re seeing a big spike in mobile internet usage, too, with more than 5 billion people, and 25.2 billion objects, expected to be using mobile data by 2025, according to the GSMA.

The catch to all this is that wireless spectrum — which enables the operation of mobile services — is inherently finite and somewhat flaky in how its reliability is subject to interference. That in turn is creating a need for a better way of measuring how it is working, and how to fix it when it is not.

“Wireless spectrum is one of the most critical and valuable parts of the communications ecosystem worldwide,” said Rohit Sharma, partner at True Ventures and Aurora Insight board member, in a statement. “To date, it’s been a massive challenge to accurately measure and dynamically monitor the wireless spectrum in a way that enables the best use of this scarce commodity. Aurora’s proprietary approach gives businesses a unique way to analyze, predict, and rapidly enable the next-generation of wireless-enabled applications.”

If you follow the world of wireless technology and telcos, you’ll know that wireless network testing and measurement is an established field, about as old as the existence of wireless networks themselves (which says something about the general reliability of wireless networks). Aurora aims to disrupt this on a number of levels.

Mengwasser — who co-founded the company with Jennifer Alvarez, the CTO who you can see presenting on the company here — tells me that a lot of the traditional testing and measurement has been geared at telecoms operators, who own the radio towers, and tend to focus on more narrow bands of spectrum and technologies.

The rise of 5G and other wireless technologies, however, has come with a completely new playing field and set of challenges from the industry.

Essentially, we are now in a market where there are a number of different technologies coexisting — alongside 5G we have earlier network technologies (4G, LTE, Wifi); a potential set of new technologies. And we have a new breed of companies are building services that need to have close knowledge of how networks are working to make sure they remain up and reliable.

Mengwasser said Aurora is currently one of the few trying to tackle this opportunity by developing a network that is measuring multiples kinds of spectrum simultaneously, and aims to provide that information not just to telcos (some of whom have been working with Aurora while still in stealth) but the others kinds of application and service developers that are building businesses based on those new networks.

“There is a pretty big difference between us and performance measurement, which typically operates from the back of a phone and tells you when have a phone in a particular location,” he said. “We care about more than this, more than just homes, but all smart devices. Eventually, eerything will be connected to network so we are aiming to provide intelligence on that.”

One example are drone operators who are building delivery networks: Aurora has been working with at least one while in stealth to help develop a service, Mengwasser said, although he declined to say which one. (He also, incidentally, specifically declined to say whether the company had talked with Amazon.)

5G is a particularly tricky area of mobile network spectrum and services to monitor and tackle, one reason why Aurora Insight has caught the attention of investors.

“The reality of massive MIMO beamforming, high frequencies, and dynamic access techniques employed by 5G networks means it’s both more difficult and more important to quantify the radio spectrum,” said Gilman Louie of Alsop Louie Partners, in a statement. “Having the accurate and near-real-time feedback on the radio spectrum that Aurora’s technology offers could be the difference between building a 5G network right the first time, or having to build it twice.” Louie is also sitting on the board of the startup.

 


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Jeff Bezos announces Blue Origin will form new industry team to return to the Moon

15:53 | 22 October

At the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. today, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced a new “national team” that will join forces in order to help return humans to the Moon via NASA’s Artemis program. They’ll focus on developing the Human Landing System that will be used to achieve this goal.

Blue Origin will serve as lead contractor for this new industry collaboration, which will also include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. The partnership will serve to pursue NASA’s stated mission of getting the first American woman and next American man to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

Each partner in this new alliance will take on specific roles pertaining to helping NASA achieve its goal. Blue Origin is going to be acting as the primary contractor and lead the program management of the partner involvement, as well as take on systems engineering, and responsibilities for safety and mission assurance. They’ll also provide the descent element of the overall the human landing system, which will consist of the Blue Moon lander and the BE-7 engine that will provide its propulsion.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin will be developing the ‘Ascent Element’ vehicle and Northrop Grumman is building the ‘Transfer Element’ to get the whole landing element Blue Origin is providing in place towards the Moon. Longtime space industry non-profit Draper will lead the descent guidance efforts and produce flight avionics.

“Northrop Grumman built the original lander that now delivers cargo to ISS,” Bezos said during an award ceremony at the IAC where he made the announcement. “Lockheed Martin is, as far as I know, the only company that actually lands on the surface of Mars. They are unbelievably competent in space. They are experts in life support systems […] and Draper is doing the guidance and control – an incredibly complex job for landing on the Moon, especially when you want to do a precision landing. And of course they did that for the original Apollo Program way back then, but today it will be done in a completely new way.”

 

 


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NASA’s Jim Bridenstine says 2035 is doable for human landing on Mars – provided budget is there

22:33 | 21 October

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine took part in a joint presentation by the chiefs of a number of International space agencies at the annual International Astronautical Conference on Monday. At the end of the event, A question was put to the entire group – when do we get to Mars?

After a joke answer of “Tuesday” by ESA Director General Jan Wörner, Bridenstine followed with a serious answer that he believes – provided everyone can get their governments to actually back them and provided the support needed – it’s possible that astronauts could land on Mars by as early as 2035.

“If we accelerate the Moon landing, we’re accelerating the Mars landing – that’s what we’re doing,” Bridenstine said, referring to the agency’s aggressive, accelerated timeline of aiming to land the first American woman and next American man on the Moon by 2024 with the Artemis program.

“If our budgets were sufficient,” Bridenstine said, turning to his colleagues from NASA’s International equivalents, “I would suggest that we could do it by 2035.”

“The goal is to land on the Moon within 5 years and be sustainable by 2028,” Bridenstine said during a press conference following the agency leadership panel, clarifying that sustainability means “people living and working on another world for long periods of time.”

The caveat Bridenstine offered, that budgets match ambition, is not an insignificant one. NASA just faced a congressional subcommittee budgetary hearing about its plan to get to the Moon by 2024, and faced some heavy skepticism. From NASA’s scientific and technical assessment of Mars mission feasibility for a 2035 target, however, the agency previously discussed this date as early as 2015.

 


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