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Main article: Launch

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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 29

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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Rocket Lab to open a third launch pad – its second in New Zealand

21:58 | 18 December

Small satellite launch company Rocket Lab just officially declared its second launch pad open, but it’s already broken ground on a third. The new one will be located in New Zealand on the Mahia peninsula, right next to its first launch pad at the company’s original launch facility – which is already the first and only privately-owned and operated rocket launch facility on Earth.

Rocket Lab’s new launch pad at Launch Complex-1 (LC-1) will provide it with the ability to launch with even more frequency. Already, the company intends its LC-1 to be the locus of its rapid response and high volume business, while its new launch pad on Wallops Island in Virginia is primarily designed to unlock access to clients who require U.S.-based launch operations from American providers (Rocket Lab is now officially headquartered in LA).

The company has been doing a lot of work to increase its ability to launch multiple missions in quick succession – this year, it unveiled a new room-sized carbon composite manufacturing robot that can turn parts of its Electron launch vehicle construction process that used to take weeks into something that is done in just hours. It’s also now in the process of developing a way to recover the first-stage booster of Electron, which would save it even more time and money on building new ones between missions.

Ultimately, Rocket Lab wants to get runaround time between missions to mere days, and having two active pads at the same site will mean it has a lot more flexibility to do things like bumping a customer up the queue should conditions allow, or adding a new customer with tight timelines on an ad hoc basis.

 


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NASA extends contact with Boeing for SLS rocket, paving the way for up to 10 Artemis missions

16:46 | 16 October

NASA has a new contract extension in place with Boeing, which will cover rocket stages for its Space Launch System (SLS) beyond Artemis I and Artemis II, the missions covered under the current contract it holds with the aerospace company. The new contract includes production of the core stage of the rocket for Artemis III, which is the mission set for 2024 that NASA intends to bring the first American woman and next American man to the surface of the Moon.

The contract also includes permission for Boeing to place orders for key “long-lead materials” to be used in the building of future SLS core rockets, including as many as 10 to be used in missions beyond Artemis III. The goal is to give Boeing time and opportunity to secure better pricing for parts it can order in bulk, and also to ensure it can lock down parts that are in short supply or require a longer head’s up period to ensure production happens in time with delivery requirements and deadlines.

NASA and Boeing will still have to finalize the full and final details of the contract that will cover the remaining balance of the core stages (up to 10) and as many as eight Exploration Upper Stages (EUS). The EUS is a second stage rocket that will be fuelled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen, and will be used to send payloads launched aboard SLS beyond low-Earth orbit, with the first one targeted to fly on Artemis VI, with the ultimate aim of using it to propel cargo to deep space destinations.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has been on a cross U.S. whistle-stop tour in the past couple of months, checking in on various key manufacturing facilities and supplier sites for those involved in both Artemis and the commercial crew launch program. This week, he presented the new xEMU and Orion Crew Survival spacesuit designs for the first time. Meanwhile, NASA Acting Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Ken Bowersox said at a presentation on October 10 that NASA’s first SLS mission could slip from the end of next year to the middle of 2021, which would put more pressure on that 2024 target for the first Artemis Moon landing mission.

 


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ULA tapped to launch Astrobotic’s lunar lander to the Moon in 2021

00:11 | 20 August

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) has been chosen to launch the lunar lander of one of the companies chosen by NASA for its commercial lunar payload program. ULA will deliver Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander to the Moon in 2021, the companies announced today.

Peregrine will fly aboard ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, taking off from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral, and this will act as one of two required certification flights that ULA must do in order to qualify for USAF missions with the Vulcan Centaur.

Vulcan is ULA’s next-generation heavy lift launch vehicle, which is currently in development. The launch vehicle will inherit some technology from the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, but the booster will be powered by Blue Origin BE-4 engines, and it’ll be able to carry larger payloads than either Atlas V or Delta IV Heavy.

Astrobotic has been chosen by NASA as one of its commercial payload providers for its ambitious program to return to the Moon and eventually establish a colony. The company has already signed up 16 customers for delivery on its first Moon mission, it said in a press release, which it will log onto the Peregrine, which can support up to 90kg (nearly 200 lbs) for its first mission.

NASA recently opened up a call for more companies to join Astrobotic and the eight other providers it chose last November for its lunar commercial payload program. These will all need launch providers, which represents more potential business for ULA, SpaceX and others looking to develop and launch vehicles capable of getting payloads to the Moon.

 


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Northrop Grumman to build its OmegA rocket at NASA’s VAB as first commercial tenant

20:05 | 16 August

NASA is celebrating alongside Northrop Grumman at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as the latter becomes the first commercial partner to make use of the Vehicle Assembly Building on-site at the base. The VAB, as its more commonly known, is a cavernous building that’s used to build and test rockets ahead of rolling them out to nearby launch pads, which was originally constructed by NASA to support the Apollo program.

Northrop Grumman will be using the VAB to build and prep its OmegA launch vehicle, a new rocket the company is building to transport intermediate and heavy payloads to orbit. It’s a fully expendable rocket, which Northrop is positioning as a lower-risk alternative to reusable models flown by competitors (cough SpaceX cough) and it’s also build as an ‘affordable’ option for those seeking launch services. OmegA is designed to help Northrop Grumman compete for future national security launch contracts, as well as support commercial customer missions.

NASA will also continue to use the VAB for the assembly of its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which will be supporting missions in the Artemis program and transporting the Lockheed Martin-built Orion crew craft to space, and eventually to the Moon.

Kennedy also already plays host to rocket assembly and launch facilities for both SpaceX and Blue Origin, making it a hot spot for public-private space business activity.

 


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Vector, Virgin and a mystery team will compete in DARPA’s $34M launch challenge

02:15 | 11 April

DARPA wants to be able to launch anywhere, any time, and several times in a row. Is that too much to ask? Not for Vector Space, Virgin Orbit, and an unnamed startup that just qualified to take place in the agency’s Launch Challenge, which will push their responsive and mobile launch capabilities to the limit.

In the challenge, the teams will be notified that they need to launch a payload to orbit from a given location only days beforehand. After doing so, they will then be told a second location from which they must launch again just days later. The winning team will receive up to $12M, with $11M and $10M available to the runners up, depending on how they perform.

Speaking at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, DARPA program manager Todd Master announced the three companies that would be taking part in the competition, which the agency announced around this time last year. Interestingly, none of them has yet put a payload into orbit.

Map of the US showing launch locations for the challenge.

These are the potential locations for launches.

Vector Space recently raised $70M to pursue the first orbital launch of its Vector-R rocket and get manufacturing started at its Tucson facility. Its goal, to provide short-turnaround micro-launch services at a cadence measured in weeks.

Virgin Orbit — technically VOX Space — has a 747-based first stage that takes the two-stage rocket up to launch altitude, an assisted-launch strategy that has worked well for small payloads in the past. It may also be a uniquely good fit for this particular challenge, given that mobility of the rocket and payload are inherent to the aircraft first stage style.

The last company has requested anonymity for now, as it is still operating in stealth mode. I thought at first it might actually be Stealth, which is in fact a launch startup currently in stealth mode, but it could just as easily be one of the unknown number of companies quietly working on launch tech.

Each company received $400,000 for qualifying and making sure they’re legal (each needs FAA permission, among other things). The launches will take place sometime in 2020; A prize of $2M is available to each team that gets the first payload into the air, then $10M, $9M, and $8M prizes are available for completing the second task. They’ll be judged on a variety of metrics.

All told that’s somewhere around $34,000,000 up for grabs. Of course, it will probably cost more than that to accomplish what DARPA asks. But that’s kind of how these competitions work.

We’ll know more when DARPA gives us more. Obviously we won’t know the dates of the launch until they are announced, but it’ll be some time before that happens (these companies need to finish their launch vehicles) so you can relax for now. Unless you work at one of the participating teams, in which case get cracking.

 


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Watch Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2019 lift a DARPA experiment into orbit

01:50 | 29 March

Rocket Lab, the Kiwi operation working on breaking into the launch industry with small but frequent launches, has its first launch of the year today, due to take off in just a few minutes. Tune in below!

The company recently, after the numerous delays endemic to the launch industry, made its first real commercial launches, which spurred a $140 million investment. It is now working on increasing launch cadence and building enough rockets to do so.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck was on stage at Disrupt SF not long ago talking about the new space economy. I thought it was a great discussion. (But then, I was the moderator, so how could it not be?)

The client for today’s launch is DARPA, which has opted to use smaller launch providers for a series of experiments and deployments. Onboard the Electron rocket today is the “RF Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration, or R3D2. It’s an experimental antenna made of “a tissue-thin Kapton membrane” that will deploy from its small package to a full 7 feet across once in orbit.

The earliest opportunities for the launch were well over a week ago, but in this business, delays are expected. But all the little warning lights are off and the weather is fine, so we should be seeing R3D2 heading skyward in a few minutes.

You can watch the whole thing live below. I’ll update the post if there are any major updates.

 


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DigitalGlobe unveils next-generation imaging satellite

03:24 | 14 July

It’s really frustrating when that super-fly Snapchat you took at 55 mph of the unreleased Tesla Model 3 you caught in the wild turns out blurry. DigitalGlobe will be able to snap that picture from 400 miles away, at 17,000 mph, with its new satellite.

TechCrunch got a sneak preview of DigitalGlobe‘s, nearly billion-dollar, satellite that will be able to send hella dope grams, #NoFilter, back to earth within minutes.

Dr.Walter Scott, founder and CTO of DigitalGlobe, spent nearly four years designing and building WorldView 4. All the components are powered by solar panels on the base-unit. WorldView uses a standard base-unit from Lockheed Martin to cut down on costs and uses a custom adapter to connect the optics.

WorldView 4 is very similar in design to WorldView 3, the company’s previous imaging satellite. The United States Government currently has first priority over WorldView 3 but has not paid for first-priority direct access to the new satellite. This opens up additional opportunities to leverage imaging in the private sector. A second high-powered satellite will allow WorldView 3 to spend less time in transit for shoots. This amounts to more time capturing imagery for both satellites.

There’s a good chance that you’ve seen DigitalGlobe’s technology before. A large portion of satellite imagery in Google Maps and Google Earth comes from the company.

Companies like Facebook have used DigitalGlobe’s technology to identify rural villages to target for outfitting remote internet access. Other uses include the crowdsourced hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the research by the AP into modern-day slave shipping, and the identification of deforestation zones.

The US Government limits the clarity of imaging satellites for commercial use to protect privacy. The Government itself has additional power at its disposal when imaging for national security. In the raid in Abbottabad on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, the US Government was able to leverage similar satellites to produce quality ground intelligence.

WorldView 4 will be launching with the United Launch Alliance on an Atlas 5 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base on September 15th 2016. Before the launch, the satellite will be transported 250 miles south to the base from its current position at Lockheed Martin’s Sunnyvale campus.

Here are three of the coolest gizmos on WorldView 4:

Star-trackers

WorldView took a page from ancient seafarers when building the satellite’s own internal location awareness system. Two star-trackers are affixed to the side of the satellite to observe the stars and identify location. They are shielded from external light with a special black lens-hood.

Tiny thrusters

Despite its size, WorldView 4 is light. The satellite weighs about the same as a pickup truck. Tiny thrusters help to position it into place and a Control Moment Gyroscope helps to position the optics at just the right angle.

Communication system

The communication system hangs away on a boom that rotates independently from the rest of the satellite. The antenna can point in any direction, no matter the orientation of the satellite. This is how WorldView 4 can capture an image in Florida and still relay the image back to Washington, DC.

Featured Image: John Mannes/John Mannes

 


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NASA fires enormous booster designed for world’s most powerful rocket

20:47 | 28 June

Today, NASA successfully completed a full-duration qualification ground test of the booster that is designed to lift the most powerful rocket in the world.

This particular test was a cold motor test used to provide data on how the rocket motor operates at the colder end of its accepted propellant temperature range. NASA cooled the motor over the last several weeks to get temperatures down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Today’s test is the pinnacle of years of hard work by the NASA team, Orbital ATK and commercial partners across the country.” John Honeycutt, SLS Program Manager

Held down in a desert in Promontory, Utah at Orbital ATK Propulsion Systems’ test facilities, the booster remained in place as it was fired for a full two minutes.

NASA’s cold motor test of the SLS booster / Screenshot of NASA live feed

At the end of the test, a robotic arm swiveled around the end of the booster to extinguish the flame.

Robotic arm at the end of the booster, extinguishing the flame / Screenshot from NASA live feed

Ultimately, there will be two of these solid rocket boosters on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which is designed to bring humans to Mars. The boosters themselves were derived from the same solid rocket boosters (SRBs) used to power NASA’s Space Shuttle and can provide 3.6 million pounds of thrust each — about the same amount of thrust of 14 Boeing 747-400s at take-off.

While the Space Shuttle SRBs had four propellant segments, they’ve been scaled up to five propellant segments for SLS.

“Seeing this test today, and experiencing the sound and feel of approximately 3.6 million pounds of thrust, helps us appreciate the progress we’re making to advance human exploration and open new frontiers for science and technology missions in deep space.” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate

In its full configuration, the SRBs (aka the “solids”) will be joined by the SLS core stage, which contains the RS-25 Engines (otherwise known as the “liquids” because they operate with super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen).

Together, the “solids” and the “liquids” will provide the thrust necessary to get the enormous SLS out of the Earth’s gravity well and into outer space.

Illustration of NASA’s SLS rocket with two solid rocket boosters and a core stage with four RS-25 engines / Image courtesy of NASA

Today marked the second time that NASA conducted a ground test on the SLS booster. Orbital ATK, the prime contractor for the booster, successfully tested a hot version of today’s test back in March, 2015. For this test, the booster was heated over several weeks to get temperatures up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit — the higher end of the propellant temperature range.

For both full-scale fires, data was captured from more than 530 instruments located along the booster. Together, the cold and hot motor tests provide NASA with the range of data for analytical models that can predict how the booster will perform over a range of scenarios.

When the booster is relatively hot, it burns faster and the pressure is higher. If it’s cold, the booster burns slower and operates under a lower pressure. Understanding how this affects the rocket’s performance is critical to ensuring a safe, effective launch for future missions.

Spectator’s view of NASA’s SLS booster test / Screenshot of NASA live feed

Today’s cold motor fire was the last full-scale test before the first uncrewed flight of SLS. The maiden flight, known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), is tentatively scheduled for September 2018. After that, NASA’s plan is to use the SLS to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars by the 2030s.

 


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To drum up deals internationally, Fenox VC launches Startup World Cup with $1 million prize

16:50 | 21 June

San Jose-based Fenox Venture Capital is launching a series of pitch competitions called the Startup World Cup, with a $1 million investment prize, in an effort to identify top entrepreneurial talent in 11 international markets, according to the firm’s CEO and General Partner Anis Uzzaman.

Uzzaman said talks with founders inspired the firm to launch this initiative.

“As we work with entrepreneurs outside of the U.S., we keep hearing that they want to know more VC’s and entrepreneurs here in Silicon Valley, or get connections to large corporations in the U.S. But at the same time, when we work with our portfolio companies here, we find that founders want to explore new markets and find business partners overseas.”

Fenox VC has promised a USD $1 million investment prize for the winners of the culminating event, but the firm intends to back other promising companies it meets through the competition, or may even invest more than $1 million in seed money in the winning company, Uzzaman confirmed.

Pitch competitions are nothing new. The first “b-plan competition,” then called Moot Corp., was held in 1984 at the University of Texas at Austin. Now, that competition is boringly named the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition. And such events are held commonly by other colleges and universities, but also by other investment firms, foundations and corporations.

Some prominent examples include the MIT $100K and the Rice Business Plan Competition for new, high-tech ventures involving students at those universities; the Hult Prize and Mentor Capital Network Challenge for social ventures; the 1776 Challenge Cup, hosted by the D.C.-based investment firm 1776; and competitions at conferences like this publication’s TechCrunch Disrupt, WebSummit or LAUNCH Festival.

Of course, there are also pitch competitions on TV like ABC’s Shark Tank in the U.S. or CBC’s Dragons’ Den in Canada helping to popularize entrepreneurship worldwide.

The U.S. may see a glut of competitions, and launching a new one may win Fenox VC some skeptical eye-rolls, but these events haven’t spread to all the markets where entrepreneurs could use them, Uzzaman believes. “This platform is for startups and startup ecosystems of the world.”

Based in San Jose, Fenox VC invests on behalf of corporate limited partners only– no pension fund or endowment money is at stake in their deals. Its partners are in Fenox funds to generate financial returns, but also to find technology and services that can help them with their own business.

The firm has about 60 employees in 7 different countries today.

Fenox VC’s portfolio includes: Jibo, makers of a social, companion robot; Affectiva, developers of artificial intelligence systems that can detect emotions in visual content online; Scanadu, makers of a health diagnostic device inspired by Star Trek; and Hijup.com, a fashion and e-commerce site for Muslim women.

Judges who will decide on the winning company for Fenox VC’s Startup World Cup include: Y Combinator’s Kevin Hale, TechStars’ David Cohen and Eric Feng from Kleiner Perkins. Fenox is still looking to add judges, Uzzaman said.

Featured Image: Kenneth Lu/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE (IMAGE HAS BEEN MODIFIED)

 


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