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Blue Origin officially opens its new HQ and R&D center

17:01 | 7 January

Jeff Bezos -founded space technology company Blue Origin officially cut the ribbon to open its new HQ and R&D facility, located in Kent, Washington – close by to Amazon’s own headquarters. The new facility covers 230,000 square feet and sits on a plot of land over 30 acres in size, and will eventually be the base of operations for around 1,500 Blue Origin employees.

The new HQ is called the O’Neill Building, named after Princeton University physicist Gerard O’Neill. O’Neill is known for his work with NASA in the 1970s, conceiving potential future technology for sustained human presence in space – including the so-called O’Neill cylinders which are large habitats designed to spin to replicate Earth’s gravity for long-term residents and for on-board agriculture.

Bezos discussed discussed making O’Neill’s vision of the future a reality last year, detailing how the habitats might be able to house as many as a million people on each station, to help establish a new extension of humanity’s home on Earth.

In total, Blue Origin employs over 2,500 people, including at its facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Van Horn, West Texas; and Huntsville, Alabama. It also plans to open a dedicated engine manufacturing facility in Alabama this March. 2020 should also see Blue Origin fly its first human passengers aboard New Shepard, its sub-orbital rocket which is currently well along the path to human certification, and it’s looking to next year to begin operating New Glenn, its orbital launch vehicle.



Max Q: Blue Origin launches a New Shepard and Rocket Lab officially opens U.S. launch site

02:16 | 16 December

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

This is it – the very first edition of Max Q: TechCrunch’s space newsletter. Despite approaching the end of the year, it’s been a really busy week in the space industry, too. Between launches real and metaphorical, there’s plenty of activity to catch up on. And if you’ve got any space stuff you want to share for future newsletters, feel free to email me at or let me know on Twitter @etherington.

Space enters a bit of a frenzy time at year’s end as a lot of other areas in tech are slowing down – especially over the past few years, as a number of companies push to re-ignite crewed spaceflight in the U.S. It’s common for many of these companies, and NASA itself, to set ambitious, optimistic timelines, and that often also means trying to fit in as much as possible before the year is out to make good on at least some of those promises.

Blue Origin launches and lands 12th New Shepard

Blue Origin launched its 12th New Shepard sub-orbital spacecraft this week, on its second try after bad weather scrubbed the first attempt. The launch was the sixth for the booster stage rocket used on the mission, and it landed perfectly meaning it could potentially serve even more launches in future.

Onboard were experimental and research payloads from Columbia University and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, as well as student postcards and art projects from a collaborative contest launched with the band OK Go. This mission is also noteworthy because it’s yet another step in Blue Origin’s progress towards qualifying New Shepard for human flight, after which it’ll start to shuttle tourists to space for a quick, but unbeatable, view.

Rocket Lab’s U.S. launch site is officially open

Rocket Lab, one of few launch startups that’s actually flying payloads to space, has officially opened its second launch pad – this one in the U.S. The company’s original launch site, which will continue to fly missions, is in New Zealand, but its new launch facility on Wallops Island in Virginia will open the doors for a key new customers, the U.S. Air Force. The first launch from this site, designed LC-2, should happen sometime in the first half of next year.

Kepler Communications books SpaceX rideshare missions

Small satellite startup Kepler Communications has booked two batches of nanosatellite launches on board SpaceX’s new rideshare missions. SpaceX announced earlier this year that it would be doing this as a new offering, allowing companies with smaller payloads to book space on a ride that will take up a bunch at once. It’s perfect for startups like Kepler, who wouldn’t be the primary customer on any SpaceX mission, and who might not be able to find a large lead partner to foot the majority of the bill for a mission that works on their schedule.

Near Space Labs uses stratospheric satellites to do what orbital ones can’t

A new startup is looking to produce high-resolution, on-demand and timely imaging for various customers and applications, and it’s using its own custom satellites hat are carried by weather balloons to make it happen. Advantages of taking this approach include cost, as well as access and the ability to capture very detailed pictures without having to use massively expensive and bulky optics, as you would from space.

Northrop Grumman booked a customer for its first OmegA rocket flight

Northrop Grumman’s in-development OmegA launch craft will be able to carry large payloads, and it’ll be doing that mostly on behalf of the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. defence agencies. But the rocket will first need to qualify to get USAF clearance to operate, and it’s going to be using its first ever launch in pursuit of said qualification to also ferry payloads for paying customers. Two birds, one stone, as they say.

What starfighters would look like if Porsche was in the Star Wars universe

There’s a new Star Wars movie coming out this week, and it’ll definitely feature new ships and other fancy sci-fi gadgets, if previous films are any indication. One you won’t see in the movie is this starfighter, which was designed in collaboration with both Porsche and Lucasfilm . The ship has a distinctive Star Wars vibe, to be sure – but Porsche says it’s also got elements inspired by the 911 and Taycan. Still definitely wouldn’t look out of place berthed next to the Millennium Falcon.

What to watch out for this week

SpaceX has a launch coming up on Monday, and the crucial Boeing/NASA commercial crew capsule test launch is set for Friday, December 20. That launch will be the uncrewed version of the first-ever commercial crew launch for Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, and if all goes well, that will mean we’re closer than ever for U.S. astronauts launching once again from U.S. soil aboard an American launch vehicle.



Blue Origin moves closer to human spaceflight with 12th New Shepard launch

02:06 | 12 December

Jeff Bezos -founded Blue Origin has recorded another successful mission for its New Shepard sub-orbital launch vehicle, which is a key step as it readies the spacecraft for human spaceflight. This is also the sixth flight of this re-used booster, which is a record for Blue Origin in terms of relying on and recovering one of its rocket stages.

This is the ninth time that Blue Origin has flown commercial payloads aboard New Shepard, and each launch moves it one step closer to demonstrating the system’s readiness for carrying crew on board. This launch carried experimental payloads that will be used for research, including materials used in student studies. It also had thousands of postcards on board written by students from around the world, which were submitted to the Club for the Future nonprofit set up by Blue Origin earlier this year to provide educational resources about space to schools and students.

Blue Origin intends to fly paying space tourists aboard New Shepard eventually, along with other commercial astronauts making the trip for research and other missions. Up to six passengers can fit in Blue Origin’s capsule atop the New Shepard, but we don’t yet know when it’ll actually be carrying anyone on board, either for testing or for commercial flights.



Watch live as Blue Origin aims for a booster re-use record with rocket launch

16:57 | 11 December

Blue Origin will be looking to launch one of its New Shepard sub-orbital spacecraft today – a second attempt after weather didn’t cooperate yesterday. Conditions are looking much better at the company’s West Texas launch site, so the Jeff Bezos-founded space venture is much more optimistic that today’s launch will go off as planned.

This mission, codenamed NS-12 because it’s the 12th flight of the New Shepard vehicle, will be the sixth re-use of the NS3 booster stage which provides the spacecraft’s initial thrust to get it off the ground. That will be a record for commercial reusable spaceflight, and it’s a key mission parameter, though the primary focus is still on delivering payloads for customers.

Those payloads include a range of different science experiments, as well as postcards submitted by kids around the world via the Blue Origin ‘Club for the Future’ non-profit. Bezos announced this new organization at the big Blue Origin lunar lander unveiling in May, and it’s designed to provide educational materials around space exploration to schools, and the postcards project is its first big endeavor.

Currently, Blue Origin is waiting to update their specific launch time due to heavy fog in the vicinity of its launch pad, but we’ll update this post with the exact time once it’s available.



Watch live as Blue Origin aims for a booster re-use record with New Shepard launch

16:12 | 10 December

Jeff Bezos -founded space company Blue Origin has a launch scheduled for today, with a liftoff window set for 8:30 AM CST (9:30 AM EST/6:30 AM PST). The launch livestream above will begin at around 30 minutes prior to liftoff.

The launch today will see a New Shepard rocket take off from the company’s West Texas launch facility. There’s a chance that weather won’t cooperate, and the team is monitoring conditions and will provide an update if they have to put off the launch to a. later date.

This launch is notable for a few different reasons, including that it includes a booster that has launched previously five times – making this a record sixth flight for one of the company’s re-usable booster stages. New Shepard is a suborbital launch vehicle, and will seek to deliver cargo including a number of scientific experiments as well as thousands of postcards from children who have submitted them through Blue Origin’s nonprofit Club for the Future organization, which aims to get kids in involved in space science and exploration.



Luna is a new kind of space company helping biotech find its footing in microgravity

23:37 | 19 November

Toronto-based startup Luna Design and Innovation is a prime example of the kind of space company that is increasingly starting up to take advantage of the changing economics of the larger industry. Founded by Andrea Yip, who is also Luna’s CEO, the bootstrapped venture is looking to blaze a trail for biotechnology companies who stand to gain a lot from the new opportunities in commercial space – even if they don’t know it yet.

“I’ve spent my entire career in the public and private health industry, doing a lot of product and service design and innovation,” Yip told me in an interview. “I was working in pharma[ceuticals] for several years, but at the end of 2017, I decided to leave the pharma world and I really wanted to find a way to work along the intersection of pharma, space and design, because I just believe that the future of health for humanity is in space.”

Yip founded Luna at the beginning of this year to help turn that belief into action, with a focus on highlighting the opportunities available to the biotechnology sector in making use of the research environment unique to space.

“We see space as a research platform, and we believe that it’s a research platform that can be leveraged in order to solve healthcare problems here on Earth,” Yip explained. “So for me, it was critically important to open up space to the biotech sector, and to the pharma sector, in order to use it as a research platform for R&D and novel discovery.”

The International Space Station has hosted a number of pharma and biotech experiments.

NASA’s work in space has led to a number of medical advances, inducing digital imaging tech used in breast biopsy, transmitters used for monitoring fetus development within the womb, LED’s used in brain cancer surgery and more. Work done on researching and developing pharmaceuticals in space is also something that companies including Merck, Proctor & Gamble and other industry heavyweights have been dabbling in for years, with experiments conducted on the International Space Station. Companies like SpaceFarma have now sent entire minilaboratories to the ISS to conduct research on behalf of clients. But it’s still a business with plenty of remaining under-utilized opportunity, according to Yip – and tons of potential.

“I think it’s a highly underutilized research platform, unfortunately, right now,” she said. “When it comes to certain physical and life sciences phenomena, we know that things behave differently in space, in what we refer to as microgravity-based environments […] We know that cancer cells, for instance, behave differently in short- and longer-term microgravity when it comes to the way that they metastasize. So being able to even acknowledge that type of insight, and try and understand ‘why’ can unlock a lot of new discovery and understanding about the way cancer actually functions […] and that can actually help us better design drugs, and treatment opportunities here on Earth, just based on those insights.”

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. Credit: Blue Origin .

Yip says that while there has been some activity already in biotech and microgravity, “we’re on the early end of this innovation,” and goes on to suggest that over the course of the next ten or so years, the companies that will be disrupting the existing class of legacy big pharma players will be ones who’ve invested early and deeply in space-based research and development.

The role of Luna is to help biotech companies figure out how best to approach building out an investment in space-based research. To that end, one of its early accomplishments is securing a role as a ‘Channel Partner’ for Jeff Bezos’ commercial space launch company Blue Origin. This arrangement means that Luna acts a a sales partner for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket, working with potential clients for the Amazon founder’s rocket company on how and why they might seek to set up a sub-orbital space-based experiment.

That’s the near-term vision, and the way that Luna will seek to have the most impact here on Earth. But the possibilities of what the future holds for the biotech sector start to really open up once you consider the current trajectory of the space industry, including NASA’s next steps, and efforts by private companies like SpaceX to expand human presence to other planet.

“We’re talking about going back to the Moon by 2024,” Yip says, referring to NASA’s goal with its Artemis program. “We’re talking about going to Mars in the next few years. There’s a lot that we will need to uncover and discover for ourselves, and I think that’s a huge opportunity. Who knows what we’ll discover when we’re on other planets, and we’re actually putting people there? We have to start preparing for that and building capability for that.”



Blue Origin’s passengers will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a ticket on New Shepard

21:29 | 2 October

After committing to having a first crewed launch of its rocket ship in 2019, Blue Origin, the rocket manufacturer and launch services company backed by Jeff Bezos, is likely going to have to push that timeline back to 2020.

Speaking onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, Blue Origin chief executive Bob Smith said that the window for getting the crewed flight done within the 2019 timeframe was narrowing. “We’re not going to be date driven,” Smith said.

But as commercial launches come to market, customers can expect to pay “hundreds of thousands of dollars” for a ticket on the New Shepard suborbital flight.

Blue Origin isn’t the only commercial space company looking to conduct a crewed launch before the end of the year. In June, NASA set a timeline to get crewed launches from Boeing and SpaceX in September and November, respectively.

In an August statement, SpaceX said it was still planning on getting astronauts to the International Space Station later this year.

Blue Origin is still moving ahead with its planned launches and the near-term setback is something that likely won’t make much of a dent in a company backed by the world’s richest man — and one who’s strategy and vision extends on a global timeframe.

For Blue Origin’s chief executive (and its financial backer) the company’s ultimate goal is to ensure that humanity is an extra-planetary species — something that will take decades to achieve.

What Smith and others are sure of is the commercial viability of the space industry.

“Launch volume is going up and has been going up for quite a while,” says Smith.  According to the Blue Origin founder, launch volumes in the space industry have been increasing at 3% per-year and some market analysts have predicted that number could rise to 50% to 80% per-year. 

And those numbers don’t include the mega-constellations that companies like Facebook, Alphabet, and Amazon are all hoping to bring to orbit.

“The launch volume is really looking very attractive over the next ten years,” Smith says. And that’s transforming the space industry, which for decades had been dominated by government customers. “It is fundamentally shifting to a more commercial model,” says Smith. 



Blue Origin lofts NASA and student experiments in New Shepard tomorrow morning

20:51 | 1 May

The 11th mission for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle is slated for takeoff Tuesday morning. The craft will be carrying 38 (!) experimental payloads from NASA, students, and research organizations around the world. You’ll be able to watch the launch live tomorrow at about 6 AM Pacific time.

New Shepard, though a very different beast from the Falcon 9 and Heavy launch vehicles created by its rival SpaceX, is arguably a better platform for short-duration experiments that need to be exposed to launch stresses and microgravity. Launching satellites — that’s a job for Falcons and Deltas, or perhaps Blue Origin’s impending New Glenn, and they’re welcome to it. But researchers around the country are clamoring for spots on suborbital flights and Blue Origin is happy to provide them.

Tomorrow’s launch will be carrying several dozen, some of which will have been waiting years for their chance to board a rocket. Here are a few examples of what will be tested during the short flight:

  • Evolved Medical Microgravity Suction Device: As more people go into space, we have to be prepared for more and graver injuries. Lots of standard medical tools won’t work properly in microgravity, so it’s necessary to redesign and test them under those conditions. This one is about providing suction, as you might guess, which can be used for lung injuries, drawing blood, and other situations that call for negative air pressure.

This little guy will be doing microgravity test prints using metal.

  • 3D printing with metal in microgravity: Simply everyone knows we can 3D print stuff in space. But just as on Earth, you can’t always make your spare parts out of thermoplastic. Down here we use metal-based 3D printers, and this experiment aims to find out if a modified design will allow for metal printing in space as well.
  • Suborbital centrifuge: It sounds like something the Enterprise would deploy in Star Trek, but it’s just a test bed for a new type of centrifuge that could help simulate other gravities, such as that of the Moon or Mars, for purposes of experiments. They do this on the ISS already but this would make it more compact and easier to automate, saving time and space aboard any craft it flies on.

The suborbital centrifuge, looking as cool as it sounds.

  • BioChip SubOrbitalLab: The largest ever study of space-based health and the effects of microgravity on the human body was just concluded, but there’s much, much more to know. Part of that requires monitoring cells in real time — which like most things is easier to do on the surface. This lab-on-a-chip will test out a new technique for containing individual cells or masses and tracking changes to them in a microgravity environment.

It’s all made possible through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which is specifically all about putting small experiments aboard commercial spacecraft. The rest of the many gadgets and experiments awaiting launch are listed here.

The launch itself should be very similar to previous New Shepards, just like one commercial jet takeoff is like another. The booster fires up and ascends to just short of the Karman line at 100 kilometers, which (somewhat arbitrarily) marks the start of “space.”

At that point the capsule will detach and fly upwards with its own momentum, exposing the payloads within to several minutes of microgravity; after it tops out, it will descend and deploy its parachutes, after which it will drift leisurely to the ground. Meanwhile the rocket will have descended as well and made a soft landing on its deployable struts.

The launch is scheduled for 6:30 AM Pacific time — 8:30 AM Central in Texas, at Blue Origin’s launch site. You’ll be able to watch it live at the company’s site.



Watch Blue Origin’s 10th New Shepard mission launch a science-loaded capsule to space

03:32 | 23 January

Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, is about to undertake the 10th launch of its New Shepard launch vehicle, with its capsule chock full of experiments. The launch, which was originally scheduled for a month ago but delayed for various reasons, will be take place at 6:50 AM Pacific time.

New Shepard is a sub-orbital space-visiting platform, not a satellite launching one. But it uses a very traditional method of getting to the edge of space compared with Virgin Galactic’s rather involved mothership-spaceship combo, which scraped the very edge of space in its fourth test launch last month.

The rocket shoots straight up, as rockets do, reaches escape velocity, and then pops its capsule off the top just before the Karman line that officially, if somewhat arbitrarily, delineates space from Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule, after exhausting its upward momentum, gently floats back to the surface under a parachute.

That’s the plan for Wednesday’s launch, which you can watch live here starting half an hour or so before T-0. but instead of taking a dummy load or “Mannequin Skywalker,” as the company calls its human stand-in during tests of the crew capsule, mission 10 has a whole collection of experiments on board.

There are nine experiments total, all flying through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. They’re detailed here. Most have already been up in other vehicles or even a Blue Origin one, but obviously repetition and iteration is important to their development.

“The opportunity to re-fly our payload is helping us not only validate and compare data for different flight profiles, but also test modifications and upgrades,” said NASA’s Kathryn Hurlbert, who heads up the Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2 project at Johnson Space Center.

More Flight Opportunities spots will be available on future NASA-sponsored launches, so if your lab has an experiment it would like to test on a sub-orbital rocket, get at the administrators as soon as the shutdown ends.



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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