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Main article: Outer space

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Max Q: How to build a Starship

00:10 | 25 February

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

Busy week for SpaceX – across funding, space tourism, and next-gen spacecraft. There’s also a space station resupply mission coming up that it’s getting ready for, and signs (

) continue to suggest that its first human spaceflight mission is imminent.

Lots of other news, too, including our own: We announced this week that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is going to be our guest on stage at TC Sessions: Space coming up in June.

Farewell to a legend

Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who defied prejudice in the ’50s and ’60s to help NASA send the first men to the moon, has died at the age of 101. She was a pioneer, a role model and an instrumental part of America’s space program, and she will be dearly missed.

SpaceX plans to build Starships at a furious clip

Starship Mk1 night
SpaceX is serious about iteration – its strategy of building (and failing – and learning from its failures) fast is in full effect for its Starship development program. Elon Musk said on Twitter this week that the plan is to build them as frequently as possible with significant improvements between each successive spacecraft, with the aim of going through two or three iterations before flying an orbital mission later this year.

SpaceX seeking $250 million in new funding

The still-private SpaceX is going back to investors for more cash, likely to help it with the expensive proposition of building a bunch of Starships in rapid succession essentially by hand. It’s said to be seeking $250 million in a round that could close as early as mid-March, according to a CNBC report.

SpaceX finds an experienced partner for Crew Dragon space tourism

One side of SpaceX’s business that isn’t necessarily as obvious as its commercial cargo launch services is the space tourism angle. This week, the company announced a partnership with Space Adventures, the same firm that has arranged paid trips to the Space Station for private citizens aboard Soyuz capsules. The first of these trips, which won’t go to to the ISS but instead will fly up to a higher orbit, take a trip around Earth and come back, is set to take off as early as next year. And if you have to ask about the price, you probably can’t afford it.

New platform headed to the ISS in March

The ISS gets a new platform next month that can support attached payloads – up to a dozen – from research partners, including academic institutions and private companies. It’ll go up aboard SpaceX’s next resupply mission for the station, which is currently targeting liftoff on March 2. Also, Adidas is sending up a machine that makes its BOOST shoe soles just to see how it works in space.

Japan is going to get and return a soil sample from a Mars moon

Japan is sending a mission to Phobos and Deimos to study the two moons of Mars, using a probe that will orbit the red planet’s natural satellites loaded with sensors. It’ll also carry a small lander, that will itself deploy an even smaller rover, which will study the surface of Phobos directly. If all goes to plan, it’ll collect a sample and bring that back to Earth for further study here.

SpaceX talent is fueling the LA startup ecosystem

It turns out that SpaceX, not Snap, may be the most important young technology company for developing the Los Angeles startup ecosystem. Jon Shieber documents how SpaceX alum have gone forth and build a number of companies in the area that have gone on to raise big cash, as well as very young startups that have had a promising beginning. ExtraCrunch subscription required.

Meanwhile, in Canada

Yes, LA has a bustling space tech ecosystem. But communications satellite startup Kepler calls Canada home, and it recently made the interesting decision to build its small satellites in-house – in its own facility in downtown Toronto. Founder and CEO Mina Mitry tells me why that’s the best choice for his company. ExtraCrunch subscription required.

 


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SpaceX said to be seeking around $250 million in funding, boosting valuation to roughly $36 billion

00:51 | 22 February

SpaceX is looking to raise around $250 million in new funding according to a new report from CNBC’s Michael Sheetz. The additional cash would bring SpaceX’s total valuation to around $36 billion, according to CNBC’s sources – an increase of more than $2.5 billion vs its most recently reported valuation.

The rocket launch company founded and run by Elon Musk is no stranger to raising large sums of money – it added $1.33 billion during 2019, from three separate rounds. In total, the company has raised over $3 billion in funding to date – but the scale of its ambitions provide a clear explanation of why the company has been sought out so much capital.

SpaceX is also generating a significant amount of revenue: Its contract to develop the Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of the NASA commercial crew program came with $3.1 billion in contract award money from the agency, for example, and it charges roughly $60 million per launch of one of its Falcon 9 rockets to its customers. Last year alone, SpaceX had 13 launches.

But SpaceX is also not a company to rest on its laurels, or its pre-existing technology investments. The company is in the process of developing its next spacecraft, dubbed ‘Starship.’ Starship will potentially be able to eventually replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, and will be fully reusable, instead of partially reusable like those systems. Once it’s operational, it will be able to provide significant cost savings and advantages to SpaceX’s bottom line, if the company’s projections are correct, but getting there requires a massive expenditure of capital in development of the technology required to make Starship fly, and fly reliably.

Musk recently went into detail about the company’s plans to essentially build new versions of Starship as fast as it’s able, incorporating significant changes and updates to each new successive version as it goes. Given the scale of Starship and the relatively expensive process of building each as an essentially bespoke new model, it makes perfect sense why SpaceX would seek to bolster its existing capital with additional funds.

CNBC reports that the funding could close sometime in the middle of next month. We reached out to SpaceX for comment, but did not receive a reply as of publication.

 


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SpaceX anticipates building “many rockets” as it iterates Starship towards orbital flight this year

21:02 | 21 February

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been sharing a number of updates about his company’s progress on Starship this week. Along with footage of the assembly process of the current ‘SN1’ prototype of Starship, he explained on Twitter some of the other considerations and strategies the company is working with as it works on the new spacecraft and tries to

.

Musk said that SpaceX is iterating at a much faster pace with Starship than it has recently with Falcon, since Falcon’s design more or less stabilized once it started working consistently. He noted that the ability to progress with the design towards having a production vehicle is dependent on the number of interactions of the prototypes of the spacecraft, multiple by the progress achieved between each version.

That’s been the way that SpaceX has worked in past, and one of the key reasons it’s been able to upend the traditional rocket launch industry. It moves fast, iterating as it goes and making changes based on failures quickly, whereas the industry has largely focused on more stop/start development cycles where things are mostly fixed with brief periods of intense focus on improvement between long-lived vehicle generations.

Starship presents the company’s biggest challenge yet when it comes to this model, if only because of the scale of the rocket. Starship is by far SpaceX’s largest rocket, and building a number of them quickly is actually a significant challenge just from a mechanical perspective, especially when you factor in the considerably changes between generations, and the eventual addition of the very large Super Heavy rocket booster.

On top of the scale of the spacecraft, there’s also the nature of the vehicle, which SpaceX aims to make fully reusable – with quick turnaround between each flight. It’s fairly easy (relatively speaking, of course) to build a spacecraft that only really needs to work once; it’s another thing entirely to build one that you want to reuse tens or even hundreds of times.

Last year, Musk had said at the unveiling of the first completed full-scale prototype of the Starship that they’d aim to have an orbital flight in as few as six months’ time. It’s increasingly looking like that was yet another extremely optimistic timeline from the SpaceX founder, and SN1 is still aiming to complete a high-altitude suborbital flight before future versions actually make the trip to space. Musk suggested SN3, SN4 or SN5 could be the one to take that trip, according to

.

Berger also reports that SpaceX is considering one of three options for actually launching the orbital Starship prototype, which will be powered by six of the company’s Raptor engines. These will include either flying from Boca Chica, Texas (this is most likely), where the spacecraft are being built, or from Florida, where SpaceX maintains a launch facility for its Falcon rockets, or as a third option, from a sea-based floating launch platform.

SpaceX will need to increase the rate at which it is building, testing and flying these prototypes if it aims to make 2020 for an orbital flight, but it’s also hiring up to help it speed up production. Musk sent out a call for job applicants to staff up additional production shifts for round-the-clock operations earlier this year, and SpaceX hosted a job fair for interested applicants at its Texas site earlier this month.

 


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Japanese mission to land a rover on a Martian moon and bring back a sample is a go

21:53 | 20 February

A bold mission by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to Mars’ two moons, including a lander component for one of them, is all set to

after the plan was submitted to the Japanese government’s science ministry this week.

Dubbed the ‘Martian Moons Exploration’ (MMX) mission, the goal is to launch the probe in 2024, using the new H-3 rocket being developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is expected to launch for the first time sometime later in 2020. The probe will survey and observe both Phobos and Deimos, the two moons that orbit the red planet, which are both smaller and more irregularly shaped than Earth’s Moon.

The MMX lander will park on Phobos, while the probe studies the two space-based bodies from a distance. This is the first ever mission that seeks to land a spacecraft on one of the moons of Mars, and it’ll include a rover that is being developed by JAXA in partnership with teams at German space agency DLR, and French space agency CNES.

The mission will include an ambitious plan to actually collect a sample of the surface of Phobos and return it to Earth for study, too – which will mean a round-trip for the MMX spacecraft that should see it make its terrestrial return by 2029.

NASA is also planning a Mars sample return mission, which would aim to bring back a sample from the red planet itself using the Mars 2020 six-wheels rover that its planning to launch later this year.

Both of these missions could be crucial stepping stones for eventual human exploration and colonization of Mars. It’s possible that Phobos could act as an eventual staging ground for Mars missions, since its lower gravity makes it an easier body from which to depart for eventual astronauts. And Mars is obviously the ultimate goal for NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to first establish a more permanent human scientific presence on the Moon before heading to the red planet.

 


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SpaceX and new partner announce space tourism launches on Dragon starting as early as 2021

17:39 | 18 February

SpaceX has a new partner for commercial private astronaut flights aboard its Dragon spacecraft: Space Adventures, a private space tourism company that has already launched private astronauts including Anousheh Ansari, Guy Laliberté and Mark Shuttleworth to space.

Space Adventures has worked with seven clients across high serrate missions to the International Space Station (ISS) for private paying commercial space missions, using paid seats on the Russian Soyuz rocket to get its clients to their destination. Its experience means it’s uniquely positioned in the commercial space tourism industry to actually make this happen, which means SpaceX likely will start flying paying customers as soon as its able to human-rate its Dragon spacecraft and begin scheduling flights.

This is not exactly a surprising development: SpaceX has been working towards certifying Dragon for human flight through the Commercial Crew program it is in the process of working on with NASA. This program has involved testing and development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for carrying human astronauts, and it’s only a few months away from actually carrying NASA astronauts for the first time during a demonstration mission to the ISS.

SpaceX and NASA have both discussed how they envision the agency being only one of multiple customers for the company’s human-rated space travel service, since the entire purpose of the program is to help the agency defray the cost of transporting its astronauts by becoming one among many clients of a revenue-generating commercial spaceflight service.

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk has previously discussed flying space tourists aboard Crew Dragon, which can carry up to four passengers per flight. He brought up the prior example of Soyuz as a model that could work for Crew Dragon, once it’s operational. Musk and SpaceX have also already booked a Moon pass-by trip for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa in 2023 on its forthcoming Starship spacecraft.

The Space Adventures Crew Dragon private astronaut trips are expected to begin sometime in either late 2021 or 2022 (likely around the same time or just after SpaceX will begin regular astronaut service for NASA if all goes well), and will take off from SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida. They won’t actually go to the ISS, like the Soyuz missions that Space Adventures has flown previously, but will instead fly higher than any previous private citizen has flown before during a trip to space, and offer obviously spectacular Earth views. No word yet on pricing, but expect it to be steep – likely much steeper than tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s much lower altitude trip, for instance.

 


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Max Q: Spacex gets ready for first human flight

22:42 | 17 February

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

This week turned out to be a surprisingly busy one in space news – kicked off by the Trump administration’s FY 2021 budget proposal, which was generous to U.S. space efforts both in science and in defense.

Meanwhile, we saw significant progress in SpaceX’s commercial crew program, and plenty of activity among startups big and small.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon arrives in Florida

The spacecraft that SpaceX will use to fly astronauts for the first time is now in Florida, at its launch site for final preparations before it takes off. Currently, this Crew Dragon mission is set to take place sometime in early May, and though that may still shift, it’s looking more and more likely it’ll happen within the next few months.

NASA taps Rocket Lab for Moon satellite launch

Rocket Lab will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to get humans back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. NASA contracted Rocket Lab to launch its CAPSTONE CubeSat to a lunar orbit in 2021, using Rocket Lab’s new Proton combined satellite and long-distance transportation stage.

Astronomers continue to sound the alarm about constellations

Starlink satellites streak through a telescope’s observations.

Astronomers and scientists that rely on observing the stars from Earth are continuing to warn about the impact on stellar observation from constellations that are increasingly dotting the night sky.

Meanwhile, SpaceX just launched another 60 satellites for its Starlink constellation, bringing the total on orbit to 300. SpaceX founder Elon Musk says that the ‘albedo’ or reflectivity of satellites will

going forward, however.

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket factory

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, Alabama on Monday. The new site will be responsible for high-volume production of the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine, which will be used on both the company’s own New Glenn orbital rocket, as well as the ULA’s forthcoming Vulcan heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Virgin Galactic’s first commercial spacecraft moves to its spaceport

Virgin Galactic is getting closer to actually flying its first paying space tourists – it just moved its SpaceShipTwo ‘VSS Unity’ vehicle from its Mojave manufacturing site to its spaceport in New Mexico, which is where tourists will board for their short trips to the edge of outer space.

Astranis raises $90 million

Satellite internet startup Astranis has raised a $90 million Series B funding round, which includes a mix of equity ($40 million) and debt facility ($50 million). The company will use the money to get its first commercial satellites on orbit as it aims to build a next-generation geostationary internet satellite business.

Astroscale will work on JAXA on an orbital debris-killing system


Orbital debris is increasingly a topic of discussion at events and across the industry, and Japanese startup Astroscale is one of the first companies dedicated to solving the problem. The startup has been tapped by JAXA for a mission that will seek to de-orbit a spent rocket upper stage, marking one of the first efforts to remove a larger piece of orbital debris.

Register for TC Sessions: Space 2020

Our very own dedicated space event is coming up on June 25 in Los Angeles, and you can get your tickets now. It’s sure to be a packed day of quality programming from the companies mentioned above and more, so go ahead and sign up while Early Bird pricing applies.

Plus, if you have a space startup of your own, you can apply now to participate in our pre-event pitch-off, happening June 24.

 


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SpaceX successfully launches 60 more Starlink satellites but misses booster landing

18:22 | 17 February

SpaceX has launched a batch of 60 Starlink satellites to orbit, marking its fifth overall launch of a group of 60 of the small spacecraft and its third this year alone. This launch brings the total constellation to 300 satellites for Starlink on orbit, extending SpaceX’s lead as the largest commercial satellite operator in the world.

The Starlink project sees SpaceX deploying a constellation of small, low Earth orbit satellites that will work with one another in concert to delivery high-speed, low-cost broadband internet connectivity to users on the surface. The current goal is to launch enough satellites to begin providing service to customers in the U.S. and Canada later this year, followed by eventual rollout of service globally pending further expansion of the constellation.

SpaceX did something a little different with this Starlink mission, deploying them from the launch vehicle much earlier in the mission after just one burn of the rocket’s second stage, into an elliptical orbit from which they’ll use their own thrusters to climb to their target orbit around Earth. It’s a trickier maneuver to accomplish, but also saves SpaceX time, fuel and money in terms of launch costs.

Today’s launch not only furthered SpaceX’s Starlink work, but also included some crucial steps in the company’s ongoing efforts to develop and improve its launch system reusability. The Falcon 9 booster used on today’s launch was flown previously three times in 2019, for instance, and represents the fastest turnaround of a re-used booster yet for SpaceX with just 62 days between its last flight and today.

SpaceX also attempted to land the booster once again during this launch – what would’ve been its 50th successful landing of a booster to date – but it missed the intended landing. The rocket first stage returned to Earth and fired its landing engine burst as planned, but a live video feed from the drone ship landing pad operated by SpaceX appeared to show exhaust plumes suggesting it came down in the ocean wide of its mark instead of landing on the pad as planned. SpaceX last missed with a landing in June when the centre core of its Falcon Heavy vehicle failed to nail the landing, but has otherwise mostly been able to land its boosters in recent years. The booster did apparently have a soft landing on the water, and is intact with the potential for recovery, according to SpaceX.

This launch also continued a trend SpaceX has had recently of also trying to recover both the halves of the fairing, a protective shell that encloses the payload of satellites aboard the rocket as they fly through Earth’s atmosphere on their way to space. The company will attempt to catch both sides of that shell using two ships in the Atlantic Ocean with giant nets strung across struts extending from their hull, as they parachute back. We’ll update this post with the results of that recovery attempt when we get the news.

We won’t have to wait long for another Starlink launch, as SpaceX is set to send more of its satellites up to orbit sometime next month according to its current plans.

 


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Watch SpaceX attempt a rocket reusability record with another Starlink launch live

16:20 | 17 February

SpaceX is launching another batch of 60 Starlink satellites to join its existing constellation, which will bring the total to 300 and be the third Starlink launch this year already. The launch will also be a potentially record-setting demonstration of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusability, with the shortest turnaround time for a Falcon 9 first stage between its previous mission and its next.

The Falcon 9 booster being used today has already flown three times before, including in May, July and then again in December of 2019. That December flight, which happened on December 16, was only 63 days before today’s launch – while the quickest turnaround to date for a Falcon 9 after flying has been 72 days. SpaceX is using a newer iteration of its rocket that it first introduced in 2018 which is designed to increase its reusability further still vs. earlier versions.

SpaceX can clearly turn these around pretty quickly now and is probably more bound by mission cadence than other factors – this mission was originally set to fly on February 13 but was delayed twice until today.

In addition to the launch, which will also look to deploy the Starlink satellites much earlier than in prior launches of the satellites at around 15 minutes after launch, SpaceX will be looking to recover both the booster and the fairing halves that protect the satellite cargo prior to their release in space. The Falcon 9 booster will return for a landing on SpaceX’s ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ mobile automated seafaring landing pad, while its ‘Ms. Tree’ and ‘Ms. Chief’ ships will try to catch the fairings as they descend via parachute using giant nets suspended above their hulls.

SpaceX has pretty much perfected its booster landing process, but the fairing catch is still very much in the refinement stage. During the last SpaceX Starlink launch, the company caught one half of the protective covers but not the other, bringing its total successful recoveries to a count of three. It’s attempted 12 catches so far, and has also recovered fairings by retrieving them intact from the ocean after a water landing, although that process is more difficult and costly so it’s really hoping to improve the success rate of the net-based catches.

Later this year, SpaceX intends to turn Starlink on, with the constellation then providing broadband internet connectivity to customers in the U.S. and Canada, with a global rollout planned to follow after additional launches.

The broadcast of the launch today will begin roughly 15 minutes prior to liftoff. Liftoff is currently set for 10:05 AM EST (7:05 AM PST), and the livestream should kick off at around 9:50 AM EST (6:50 AM PST).

 


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Rocket Lab will launch a satellite to the Moon for NASA to prepare for the Lunar Gateway

00:57 | 15 February

Launch startup Rocket Lab has been awarded a contract to launch a CubeSat on behalf of NASA for the agency’s CAPSTONE experiment, with the ultimate aim of putting the CAPSTONE CubeSat into cislunar (in the region in between Earth and the Moon) orbit – the same orbit that NASA will eventually use for its Gateway Moon-orbiting space station. The launch is scheduled to take place in 2021.

The CAPSTONE launch will take place at Rocket Lab’s new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) facility at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab opened its launch pad there officially in December, and will launch its first missions using its Electron vehicle from the site starting later this year.

The launch is significant in a number of ways, including being the second ever lunar mission to launch from the Virginia flight facility. It’s also going to employ Rocket Lab’s Photon platform, which is an in-house designed and built satellite that can support a range of payloads. In this case, Photon will transport the CAPSTONE CubeSat, which weighs only around 55 lbs, from Earth’s orbit to the Moon, at which point CAPSTONE will fire up its own small engines to enter its target cislunar orbit.

Rocket Lab introduced Photon last year, noting at the time that it is designed in part to provide longer-range delivery for small satellites – including to the Moon. That’s a key capability to offer as NASA embarks on its Artemis program, which aims to return human astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, and establish a more permanent human presence on and around the Moon in preparation for eventual missions to Mars.

CAPSTONE will play a key role in that mission, by acting “as a pathfinder” for the lunar Gateway that NASA eventually hopes to build and deploy.

“CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the unique, seven-day cislunar orbit we are also targeting for Gateway,” said Marshall Smith, director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA in a press release. detailing the news “We are not relying only on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”

In total, the launch contract with Rocket Lab has a fixed price of $9.95 million, the agency said. NASA expects contractors Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems to begin building the CAPSTONE spacecraft this month ahead of its planned 2021 launch.

 


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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is now in Florida to prep for its first flight with astronauts onboard

22:53 | 14 February

SpaceX has moved its Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft to Florida, the site from which it’ll launch in likely just two to three months’ time if all goes to plan. The Crew Dragon capsule is now going to undergo final testing and checkouts in Florida before its departure from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where it’ll launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board.

Behnken and Hurley will be taking a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) courtesy of the Crew Dragon, as part of a demonstration mission codenamed ‘Demo-2’ by SpaceX and NASA that will serve as a key step in the ultimate verification of the spacecraft for regular service carrying people to and from the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is one of two spacecraft that aim to achieve this operational status for NASA, alongside the Boeing Starliner CST-100 crew vehicle which is undergoing development and testing.

Boeing’s spacecraft has recently encountered some issues that could extend its testing timeline and set back its goals of performing its first flights with astronauts on board. The Starliner encountered two potentially serious software issues during an uncrewed demonstration mission that took place in December, and now NASA and the company are determining corrective action, including safety reviews of Boeing and its software development and testing processes.

Meanwhile, SpaceX performed an in-flight abort test in January, the last major demonstration it needed to do before moving on to the crewed demo mission. That test was by all accounts a success, showing how the Crew Dragon would separate and distance itself from the launch craft in case of an unexpected error, in order to safeguard the astronauts on board.

SpaceX has been sharing details of its preparation for this final planned demo before operational commercial crew flights, tweeting earlier this week about its spacecraft undergoing ultrasonic testing. Currently, the Demo-2 mission is tentatively set for May 2, though that date is said to be flexible and could be moved up or pushed to later, depending on mission needs and remaining preparation progress.

 


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