SpaceX has launched another batch of 60 Starlink satellites, the primary ingredient for its forthcoming global broadband internet service. The launch took place at 11:31 AM EDT, with a liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This is the fifteenth Starlink launch thus far, and SpaceX has now launched nearly 900 of the small, low Earth orbit satellites to date.
This launch used a Falcon 9 first stage booster that twice previously, both times earlier this year, including just in September for the delivery of a prior batch of Starlink satellites. The booster was also recovered successfully with a landing at sea aboard SpaceX’s ‘Just Read the Instructions’ floating autonomous landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean.
Earlier this week, Ector County Independent School District in Texas announced itself as a new pilot partner for SpaceX’s Starlink network. Next year, that district will gain connectivity to low latency broadband via Starlink’s network, connecting up to 45 households at first, with plans to expand it to 90 total household customers as more of the constellation is launched and brought online.
SpaceX’s goal with Starlink is to provide broadband service globally at speeds and with latency previously unavailable in hard-to-reach and rural areas. Its large constellation, which will aim to grow to tens of thousands of satellites before it achieves its max target coverage, offers big advantages in terms of latency and reliability vs. large geosynchronous satellites that provide most current satellite-based internet available commercially.
This year has shaken up venture capital, turning a hot early start to 2020 into a glacial period permeated with fear during the early days of COVID-19. That ice quickly melted as venture capitalists discovered that demand for software and other services that startups provide was accelerating, pushing many young tech companies back into growth mode, and investors back into the check-writing arena.
Boston has been an exemplar of the trend, with early pandemic caution dissolving into rapid-fire dealmaking as summer rolled into fall.
We collated new data that underscores the trend, showing that Boston’s third quarter looks very solid compared to its peer groups, and leads greater New England’s share of American venture capital higher during the three-month period.
For our October look at Boston and its startup scene, let’s get into the data and then understand how a new cohort of founders is cropping up among the city’s educational network.
Boston’s third quarter was strong, effectively matching the capital raised in New York City during the three-month period. As we head into the fourth quarter, it appears that the silver medal in American startup ecosystems is up for grabs based on what happens in Q4.
Boston could start 2021 as the number-two place to raise venture capital in the country. Or New York City could pip it at the finish line. Let’s check the numbers.
According to PitchBook data shared with TechCrunch, the metro Boston area raised $4.34 billion in venture capital during the third quarter. New York City and its metro area managed $4.45 billion during the same time period, an effective tie. Los Angeles and its own metro area managed just $3.90 billion.
In 2020 the numbers tilt in Boston’s favor, with the city and surrounding area collecting $12.83 billion in venture capital. New York City came in second through Q3, with $12.30 billion in venture capital. Los Angeles was a distant third at $8.66 billion for the year through Q3.
This December 16 and 17, we’re hosting our very first TC Sessions: Space event. It’ll be a virtual, live-streamed two-day show, including conversations with some of the best and brightest in the space industry. We’re thrilled to be hosting Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin. She’ll join us to discuss her company’s history-making work in robotic space exploration — including the asteroid mining sample collection at asteroid Bennu that happened today — as well as the future of human space exploration.
Callahan’s work at Lockheed covers all the work they do to support NASA and other civil exploration efforts of space, including both robotic and human transportation and science investigations. That includes OSIRIS-REx, the asteroid study and sample return mission that earlier today made a historic descent to the surface of rocky solar system visitor Bennu, an asteroid that’s over 200 thousand miles from Earth.
OSIRIS-REx already made plenty of history, including becoming the closest orbit to an asteroid ever conducted by a spacecraft. But today it topped all of that with a “tap-and-go” descent to the rocky surface, scooping samples that it will now attempt to return to Earth for direct study by scientists. That’s exactly the kind of ambitious extra-planetary robotic research that Callahan and her division at Lockheed have made possible with their work in advanced spacecraft and robotics design.
Callahan is also directly involved in NASA’s plans to return humans to the surface of the moon — including sending a woman on a lunar landing mission for the first time. Lockheed Martin is the manufacturing partner for NASA’s Orion lander, which will transport the first American woman and the next American man to the -oon for their historic mission in 2024.
We’ll talk in December with Callahan about what these achievements mean for the space industry, and the future of space exploration — and human spaceflight.
You can get Early-Bird tickets right now, and save $150 before prices go up on November 13 — and you can even get a fifth person free if you bring a group of four from your company. Special discounts for current members of the government/military/nonprofit and student tickets are also available directly on the website. And if you are an early-stage space startup looking to get exposure to decision makers, you can even exhibit for the day for just $2,000.
Is your company interested in partnering at TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.
Update: The spacecraft has touched down and sample collection was successful! OSIRIS-REx is now moving away from the asteroid with the goods and will begin its homeward journey as soon as it’s clear.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe is about to touch down on an asteroid for a smash-and-grab mission, and you can follow its progress live — kind of. The craft is scheduled to perform its collection operation this afternoon, and we’ll know within minutes if all went according to plan.
OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security — Regolith Explorer, was launched in September of 2016 and since arriving at its destination, the asteroid Bennu, has performed a delicate dance with it, entering an orbit so close it set records.
Today is the culmination of the team’s efforts, the actual “touch and go” or TAG maneuver that will see the probe briefly land on the asteroid’s surface and suck up some of its precious space dust. Just a few seconds later, once sampling is confirmed, the craft will jet upward again to escape Bennu and begin its journey home.
While there won’t be live HD video of the whole attempt, NASA will be providing both a live animation of the process, informed by OSIRIS-REx’s telemetry, and presumably any good images that are captured as it descends.
We know for certain this is both possible and very cool because Japan’s Hayabusa-2 asteroid mission did something very similar last year, but with the added complexity (and coolness) of firing a projectile into the surface to stir things up and get a more diverse sample.
NASA’s coverage starts at 2 p.m. PDT, and the touchdown event is planned to take place an hour or so later, at 3:12, if all goes according to plan. You can watch the whole thing take place in simulation at this Twitch feed, which will be updated live, but NASA TV will also have live coverage and commentary on its YouTube channel. Images may come back from the descent and collection, but they’ll be delayed (it’s hard sending lots of data over a million-mile gap) so if you want the latest, listen closely to the NASA feeds.
Microsoft is taking its Azure cloud computing platform to the final frontier – space. It now has a dedicated business unit called Azure Space for that purpose, made up of industry heavyweights and engineers who are focused on space-sector services including simulation of space missions, gathering and interpreting satellite data to provide insights, and providing global satellite networking capabilities through new and expanded partnerships.
One of Microsoft’s new partners for Azure Space is SpaceX, the progenitor and major current player in the so-called ‘New Space’ industry. SpaceX will be providing Microsoft with access to its Starlink low-latency satellite based broadband network for Microsoft’s new Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC) – essentially an on-demand container-based datacenter unit that can be deployed in remote locations, either to operate on their own or boost local cababilities.
Image Credits: Microsoft
The MDC is a contained unit, and can operate off-grid using its own satellite network connectivity add-on. It’s similar in concept to the company’s work on underwater data centres, but keeping it on the ground obviously opens up more opportunities in terms of locating it where people need it, rather than having to be proximate to an ocean or sea.
The other big part of this announcement focuses on space preparedness via simulation. Microsoft revealed the Azure Orbital Emulator today, which provides in a computer emulated environment the ability to test satellites constellation operations in simulation, using both software and hardware. It’s basically aiming to provide as close to in-space conditions as are possible on the ground in order to get everything ready for coordinating large, interconnected constellations of automated satellites in low Earth orbit, an increasing need as more defense agencies and private companies pursue this approach vs. the legacy method of relying on one, two or just a few large geosynchronous spacecraft.
Image Credits: Microsoft
Microsoft says the goal with the Orbital Emulator is to train AI for use on orbital spacecraft before those spacecraft are actually launched – from the early development phase, right up to working with production hardware on the ground before it takes its trip to space. That’s definitely a big potential competitive advantage, because it should help companies spot even more potential problems early on while they’re still relatively easy to fix (not the case on orbit).
This emulated environment for on-orbit mission prep is already in use by Azure Government customers, the company notes. It’s also looking for more partners across government and industry for space-related services, including communication, national security., satellite services including observation and telemetry and more.
Intel detailed today its contribution to PhiSat-1, a new tiny small satellite that was launched into sun-synchronous orbit on September 2. PhiSat-1 has a new kind of hyperspectral-thermal camera on board, and also includes a Movidius Myriad 2 Vision Processing Unit. That VPU is found in a number of consumer devices on Earth, but this is its first trip to space – and the first time it’ll be handling large amounts of local data, saving researchers back on Earth precious time and satellite downlink bandwidth.
Specifically, the AI on board the PhiSat-1 will be handling automatic identification of cloud cover – images where the Earth is obscured in terms of what the scientists studying the data actually want to see. Getting rid of these images before they’re even transmitted means that the satellite can actually realize a bandwidth savings of up to 30%, which means more useful data is transmitted to Earth when it is in range of ground stations for transmission.
The AI software that runs on the Intel Myriad 2 on PhiSat-1 was created by startup Ubotica, which worked with the hardware maker behind the hyperspectral camera. It also had to be tuned to compensate for the excess exposure to radiation, though a bit surprisingly testing at CERN found that the hardware itself didn’t have to be modified in order to perform within the standards required for its mission.
Computing at the edge takes on a whole new meaning when applied to satellites on orbit, but it’s definitely a place where local AI makes a ton of sense. All the same reasons that companies seek to handle data processing and analytics at the site of sensors hear on Earth also apply in space – but magnified exponentially in terms of things like network inaccessibility and quality of connections, so expect to see a lot more of this.
PhiSat-1 was launched in September as part of Arianspace’s first rideshare demonstration mission, which it aims to use to show off its ability to offer launch services to smaller startups for smaller payloads at lower costs.
Relativity Space has bagged its first public government contract, and with a major defense contractor at that. The launch startup’s 3D-printed rockets are a great match for a particularly complex mission Lockheed is undertaking for NASA’s Tipping Point program.
The mission is a test of a dozen different cryogenic fluid management systems, including liquid hydrogen, which is a very difficult substance to work with indeed. The tests will take place on a single craft in orbit, which means it will be a particularly complicated one to design and accommodate.
The payload itself and its cryogenic systems will be designed and built by Lockheed and their partners at NASA, of course, but the company will need to work closely with its launch provider during development and especially in the leadup to the actual launch.
Relativity founder and CEO Tim Ellis explained that the company’s approach of 3D printing the entire rocket top to bottom is especially well suited for this.
“We’re building a custom payload fairing that has specific payload loading interfaces they need, custom fittings and adapters,” he said. “It still needs to be smooth, of course — to a lay person it will look like a normal rocket,” he added.
Every fairing (the external part of the launch vehicle covering the payload) is necessarily custom, but this one much more so. The delicacy of having a dozen cryogenic operations being loaded up and tested until moments before launch necessitates a number of modifications that, in other days, would result in a massive increase in manufacturing complexity.
“If you look at the manufacturing tools being used today, they’re not much different from the last 60 years,” Ellis explained. “It’s fixed tooling, giant machines that look impressive but only make one shape or one object that’s been designed by hand. And it’ll take 12-24 months to make it.”
Not so with Relativity.
“With our 3D-printed approach we can print the entire fairing in under 30 days,” Ellis said. “It’s also software defined, so we can just change the file to change the dimensions and shape. For this particular object we have some custom features that we’re able to do more quickly and adapt. Even though the mission is three years out, there will always be last-minute changes as you get closer to launch, and we can accommodate that. Otherwise you’d have to lock in the design now.”
Ellis was excited about the opportunity to publicly take on a mission with such a major contractor. These enormous companies field billions of government dollars and take part in many launches, so it’s important to be in their good books, or at least in their rolodexes. A mission like this, complex but comparatively low stakes (compared with a crewed launch or billion-dollar satellite) is a great chance for a company like Relativity to show its capabilities. (Having presold many of its launches already, there’s clearly no lack of interest in the 3D-printed launch vehicles, but more is always better.)
The company will be going to space before then, though, if all continues to go according to plan. The first orbital test flight is scheduled for late 2021. “We’re actually printing the launch hardware right now, the last few weeks,” Ellis mentioned.
The NASA Tipping Point program that is funding Lockheed with an $89.7 million contract for this experiment is one intended to, as its name indicates, help tip promising technologies over the edge into commercial viability. With hundreds of millions awarded yearly for companies pursuing things like lunar hoppers and robotic arms, it’s a bit like the agency’s venture fund.
One of the biggest data breaches in UK corporate history has been closed off by regulators not with a bang, but a whimper — as a result of Covid-19. Today the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s data watchdog, announced that it would be fining British Airways £20 million for a data breach in which the personal details of more than 400,000 customers were leaked after BA suffered a two-month cyberattack and lacked adequate security to detect and defend itself against it. It had originally planned to fine BA nearly £184 million, but it reduced the penalty in light of the economic impact that BA (like other airlines) has faced as a result of Covid-19.
The major step down in the fine underscores what kind of an impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on regulations. In some cases, in order more quickly address issues that potentially impact business growth, we’ve seen regulators try to speed up their responsiveness and even leave behind some previous reservations to green light activities, as in the case of e-scooters.
But in the case of the BA fine, we’re seeing the other side of the Covid-19 impact: regulators are taking a less hard line with penalties on companies that are already struggling. That raises questions of how impactful their decisions are, and what kind of a precedent they are setting for future security and data protection neglect.
Even with the reduced penalty size, the ICO is sticking by its original conclusions:
“People entrusted their personal details to BA and BA failed to take adequate measures to keep those details secure,” said Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham in a statement. “Their failure to act was unacceptable and affected hundreds of thousands of people, which may have caused some anxiety and distress as a result. That’s why we have issued BA with a £20m fine – our biggest to date. When organisations take poor decisions around people’s personal data, that can have a real impact on people’s lives. The law now gives us the tools to encourage businesses to make better decisions about data, including investing in up-to-date security.”
The fine is the highest-ever leveled by the ICO. But it’s a major step down from the £184 million penalty — 1.5% of BA’s revenues in the 2018 calendar year — that the regulator had originally set last year. That was, of course, before the coronavirus pandemic hit, halting travel globally and bringing many airlines to their knees. The original order went through a process of appeal, which included an assessment of the state of the company in the current market.
“In June 2019 the ICO issued BA with a notice of intent to fine,” the ICO noted in its statement on the reduced fine. “As part of the regulatory process the ICO considered both representations from BA and the economic impact of COVID-19 on their business before setting a final penalty.”
The salient facts of the investigation’s findings remained the same: the ICO had determined that BA had “weaknesses in its security” that could have been prevented with security systems — procedures and software — that were available at the time.
As a result, data from 429,612 customers and staff was leaked, including “names, addresses, payment card numbers and CVV numbers of 244,000 BA customers,” the ICO said, adding that the combined card and CVV numbers of 77,000 customers and card numbers only for 108,000 customers were also believed to be a part of the breach, as well as the usernames and passwords of BA employee and administrator accounts, and the usernames and PINs of up to 612 BA Executive Club accounts (these last two were also not completely verified, it seems).
On top of that, BA never detected the attack, it said: it was notified of the breach by a third party.
The ICO said that its action has been approved by other DPA’s in the European Union: this is because the attack happened while the UK was still in the EU, and so the investigation was carried out by the ICO on behalf of the EU authorities, it said.
The FAA has published its updated rules for commercial space launches and reentries, streamlining and modernizing the large and complicated set of regulations. With rockets launching in greater numbers and variety, and from more providers, it makes sense to get a bit of the red tape out of the way.
The rules provide for licensing of rocket launch operators and approval of individual launches and reentry plans, among other things. As you can imagine, such rules must be complex in the first place, more so when they’ve been assembled piecemeal for years to accommodate a quickly moving industry.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao called the revisions a “historic, comprehensive update.” They consolidate four sets of regulations and unify licensing and safety rules under a single umbrella, while allowing flexibility for different types of operators or operations.
According to a press release from the FAA, the new rules allow:
In speaking with leaders in the commercial space industry, a common theme is the burden of regulation. Any reform that simplifies and unifies will likely be welcomed by the community.
The actual regulations are hundreds of pages long, so it’s still hardly a simple task to get a license and start launching rockets. But at least it isn’t several sets of 500-page documents that you have to accommodate simultaneously.
The new rules have been submitted for entry in the Federal Register, and will take effect 90 days after that happens. In addition, the FAA will be putting out Advisory Circulars for public comment — additions and elaborations on the rules that the agency says there may be as many as two dozen of in the next year. You can keep up with those here.
Virgin Galactic is getting ready to fly its first mission to space from its Spaceport America facility in New Mexico. This is the site that the company will use to host all of its commercial flights, and making it to space from this launch locale is crucial to getting to that point.
Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic successfully flew a number of tests of its SpaceShipTwo launch craft from New Mexico, but these didn’t include a trip to space. That launch, which will be performed by two of the company’s test pilots (while also carrying a number of experiments for the passenger hatch) should happen before the year is out, hopefully putting Virgin Galactic on pace to begin offering its commercial services next year to paying passengers.
Those private astronauts will include one newly announced individual: Dr. Alan Stern, a noted and well-regarded planetary scientist who has held a number of positions, and is most recently the associate Vice President of South West Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division. Dr. Stern is the first researcher named to be flying on board Virgin Galactic’s commercial spacecraft on a NASA-funded science mission.
This won’t be the first of SpaceShipTwo’s commercial flights, it seems. Stern’s trip will take place on a “yet unscheduled” suborbital flight from Spaceport America in the future. Stern will be conducting two key pieces of science aboard the spacecraft, including actually wearing instrumentation that monitors his vial signs throughout, as well as using a low light camera to see how well observing space from the vantage point of inside the SpaceShipTwo cabin works.
NASA has announced more than a third of a billion dollars worth of “Tipping Point” contracts awarded to over a dozen companies pursuing potentially transformative space technologies. The projects range from in-space testing of cryogenic tech to a 4G LTE network for the Moon.
The space agency is almost always accepting applications for at least one of its many grant and contract programs, and Tipping Point is directly aimed at commercial space capabilities that need a bit of a boost. According to the program description, “a technology is considered at a tipping point if an investment in a demonstration will significantly mature the technology, increase the likelihood of infusion into a commercial space application, and bring the technology to market for both government and commercial applications.”
In this year’s awards, which take the form of multi-year contracts with multiple milestones, the focus was on two main areas: cryogenics and lunar surface tech. Note that the amounts provided are not necessarily the cost of developing the tech, but rather the sums deemed necessary to advance it to the next stage. Here’s a brief summary of each award:
You can read more about the proposal process and NASA’s areas of interest at the Tipping Point solicitation page.
Would-be small satellite launch service provider Virgin Orbit is aiming to redo its key orbital demonstration launch this December, which would be a remarkable turnaround after its attempt in March didn’t manage to reach orbit as the company had hoped. The company aims to offer low-cost launch services for small satellites, using its mid-air launch vehicle which is carried to a high altitude by a modified version of a traditional commercial jet.
This launch will hopefully mark a first for Virgin Orbit – the first time it has reached orbit, which is where it needs to be to provide the services it hopes to offer. CNBC spoke to Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, who said that the December target is based on where they’re at right now with the construction of a new LauncherOne rocket to fly the test mission.
LauncherOne is docked with Virgin Orbit’s carrier craft for its launch model, which is a modified d747. The jet takes it up to around 45,000 feet, at which point it drops the rocket, which ignites its own engines after separation and then flies under its own power the rest of the way to space. A rocket has a much easier time leaving Earth’s atmosphere from that altitude, which is why Virgin hopes to be able to offer big cost benefits for dedicated small launch services vs. what’s available now.
In March, Virgin’s launch went smoothly up until just after the LauncherOne craft used on that mission fired up its engines. There was a failure that caused the engines to cut off because of a safety shutoff, and the rocket then fell back safely to Earth, but was obviously lost.
Such a mishap on a first orbital launch attempt is far from unusual – in fact, it’s almost the norm. Virgin Orbit said they gleaned a lot of great data from their attempt regardless of the outcome, and hopefully that will mean this next try goes to plan. If it does, that should put the company on track to begin offering commercial service next year.
Meanwhile, CNBC reports that the company is also in the process of tracking down up to $150 million in new funding, echoing an earlier report from the Wall Street Journal this week.
The U.S. Space Force obviously won’t be able to train most of their service people in actual space, so they relatively new arm of America’s defense forces has tasked Slingshot Aerospace to create a VR space sim, in partnership with The Third Floor, a Hollywood VFX firm that worked on blockbusters including Gravity, The Martian and The Mandalorian. The goal is to generate a simulator that can replicate real-world physics, and provide interactive training capabilities for the Space Force.
In total, the partners have received $2 million towards development of the sim, including a $1 million contract from the Space Force itself, as well as $1 million in funding from ATX Venture Partners. The end result will be called the “Slingshot Orbital Laboratory,” and will be used to provide Space Force members with a better understanding of how objects and spacecraft operate and behave in the unique theater of outer space.
“Space operators need to understand complicated concepts like astrodynamics, the effects of various items in orbit, and how spacecrafts maneuver among other objects in space—all of which demand more adaptive, interactive, and tailorable educational tools than what we are currently using,” said Col. Max Lantz, Commandant, National Security Space Institute, United States Air Force in a press release. “Building an immersive environment to drive better comprehension of these foundational theories will be vital to support the Space Force.”
Slingshot Aerospace, which is a provider of data analytics, tools and computer vision related to both aerospace and terrestrial intelligence, will be handling all the informatics components of the system, while The Third Floor will take care of the immersive visuals. The Laboratory will aim to be a tool that’s simple to use, with the goal of creating a final product that’s accessible to service members with any level of education and technical understanding.
Anyone else getting Ender’s Game Battle Room vibes from this announcement?
Boom Supersonic is closer than ever to its goal of introducing supersonic commercial aviation back to the global stage — the Colorado-based startup unveiled the final design of its XB-1 demonstrator aircraft today. This is a fully functional prototype airplane, which will help the company test out the flight capabilities and systems that will eventually make its Overture supersonic commercial passenger aircraft a reality.
XB-1 is a scaled-down version of what Overture will be, lacking the passenger cabin that will offer business-class style amenities to commercial passengers. It does have a cockpit for the test pilots who will help Boom put its design through its paces beginning in 2021. It measures 71-feet long, and its propulsion is provided by three GE-made J85-15 engines that together provide 12,000 lbs of thrust. There are standard cockpit windows, but because of the extreme angle of the nose required for aerodynamics, there’s also an HD video camera and cockpit display to provide pilots with a virtual view out the front of the plane for maximum visibility.
The frame of the XB-1 is made of carbon-composite, which is designed for light weight while also offering very high tensile strength and rigidity, as well as an ability to withstand the high temperatures generated by traveling at supersonic speeds (even in the relatively friction-free environs of higher altitudes). Boom also kept pilot comfort in mind when creating the XB-1, optimizing for economics via user testing spanning “hundreds of hours.”
Boom plans to test XB-1 at Mojave Air and Space Port, located in Mojave, California. As mentioned, the goal now is to get that underway next year — but Boom will begin on its ground testing program immediately. Meanwhile, Boom will continue developing Overture simultaneously, working on wind tunnel tests and other elements of aircraft validation in order to help move toward the target of getting that commercial jet in the air for 2025.
Later today, Boom is hosting a virtual rollout event at its headquarters, with a Q&A to be hosted by Boom founder and CEO Blake Scholl. You can check that out live at Boom’s site starting at 11 AM MT (1 PM ET/10 AM PT).
UPDATE: Scrubbed for today due to weather.
SpaceX is launching 60 additional satellites to join the over 500 already on orbit as part of its Starlink global broadband internet constellation. The launch is set to take off at 10:22 AM EDT (7:22 AM PDT) and will fly from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
This is the third flight for the booster, which previously flew during SpaceX’s historic first crewed astronaut flight, as well as a prior satellite launch on behalf of a customer. The mission includes a recovery attempt of the booster stage so that it can be potentially flown again.
SpaceX has been ramping up deployment of Starlink this year as it prepares to launch a public beta of service before the end of 2020, and an expansion to more regions for the affordable, far-reaching network next year.
NASA is going to be testing out a new precision landing system designed for use on the tough terrain of the Moon and Mars for the first time during an upcoming mission of Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket. The ‘Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution’ (SPLICE) system is made up of a number of lasers, an optical camera, and a computer to take all the data collected by the sensors and process it using advanced algorithms, and it works by spotting potential hazards, and adjusting landing parameters on the fly to ensure a safe touchdown.
SPLICE will get a real-world test of three of its four primary subsystems during a New Shepard mission to be flown relatively soon. The Jeff Bezos -founded company typically returns its first-stage booster to Earth after making its trip to the very edge of space, but on this test of SPLICE, NASA’s automated landing technology will be operating on board the vehicle the same way they would when approaching the surface of the Moon or Mars. The elements tested will include ‘terrain relative navigation,’ Doppler radar, and SPLICE’s descent and landing computer, while a fourth major system – lidar-based hazard detection – will be tested on future planned flights.
Currently, NASA already uses automated landing for its robotic exploration craft on the surface of other planets, including the Perseverance rover headed to Mars. But a lot of work goes into selecting a landing zone with a large area of unobstructed ground that’s free of any potential hazards in order to ensure a safe touchdown. Existing systems can make some adjustments, but they’re relatively limited in that regard.
SPLICE is designed to enable more exact landings, and ones that can deal with more nearby hazards, enabling exploration in areas that were previously considered off-limits for landers. That could greatly expand our ability to gain more knowledge and better understanding of the Moon and Mars, which is particularly important as we continue to work towards more human exploration and even potential colonization.
The lidar system mentioned above is a key new ingredient in these SPLICE tests, since we don’t actually know in great detail how well lidar will perform with the terrain on Mars and the Moon, where reflectivity could be quite different from what it is here on Earth within our own atmosphere. Still, NASA is confident it should provide much better precision than radar-based methods for surface mapping and feature detection.
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) has debuted a prototype of what it calls ‘U-Shift,’ an urban mobility vehicle designed for multiple uses. U-Shift is a fully electric vehicle, designed for autonomous operation, and could serve in a number of capacities including as an on-demand shuttle, a bus, a mobile distribution center for package delivery, or even as travelling salesroom.
As you can see from the images, the base of the U-Shift itself is pretty simple, containing the wheels, drive system and batteries. DLR envisions a modular top component that can be swapped out depending on usage needs, with various add-on units depicted, including an airy, all-glass bus, and a more barebones cargo capsule.
This modularity could help the U-Shift better address the varied needs of city-based transportation, with the flexibility to shift modes relatively easily depending on what’s going on at the time. You could easily see how a fleet like this could be repurposed for on-demand package and grocery delivery during lockdowns like the ones that have been required during the COVID-19 pandemic, when personal transportation is less needed.
This prototype is functional, but it’s not autonomous – it’s remote-controlled instead. The top speed also isn’t that high, but it is capable of operating continuously for 24 hours when necessary. The primary purpose of this prototype is to test the system that swaps out the cargo/passenger capsules in order to chart a path towards production with companies who will be supplying those, and to study its user interface, including things like how the doors open and how accessible it is.
DLR plans to use all the information it gathers from testing of this prototype to help develop a second, fully automated version that can reach speeds of up to 60 km/h (just under 40 mph) by 2024. That next prototype should be much closer to any potential production version, and there will be more focus then on business opportunities and commercialization as well.
TechCrunch hosted an unusual Startup Battlefield this week — the founders, judges, audience and moderator (me) were all in different locations, doing our best to interact over WebEx.
But the 20 startups still demonstrated their products and explained their visions, then were grilled by expert judges. And those judges helped the TechCrunch team select our five finalists.
Those finalists will be presenting tomorrow at 10:40 a.m. Pacific for a whole new set of judges, and you can watch the live stream by logging into TechCrunch. (Also: It’s not too late to sign up for the full Disrupt experience.) Those judges will choose a runner-up and a winner, and the winner will take home $100,000, equity-free.
Here are the finalists:
Canix has built a robust enterprise resource planning platform designed to reduce the time it takes cannabis growers to input data. It integrates nicely with common bookkeeping software, as well as Metrc, an industry-wide regulatory platform. You can read more about Canix here.
Hybrid rockets aren’t new, but they have always faced significant limitations in terms of their performance metrics and maximum thrust power. Firehawk Aerospace is building a stable, cost-effective hybrid rocket fuel engine that employs industrial-scale 3D printing to overcome the hurdles and limitations of previous designs. You can read more about Firehawk Aerospace here.
Tiffany Ricks founded HacWare in Dallas, Texas, in 2017 to help bring better email security awareness to small businesses. The technology sits on a company’s email server and uses machine learning to categorize and analyze each message for risk. You can read more about HacWare here.
Jefa is building a challenger bank specifically designed for women in Latin America. It focuses on solving the problems that women face when opening a bank account and managing it. You can read more about Jefa here.
Matidor is building a project platform for consultants and engineers to keep track of projects and geospatial data in a single dashboard. It offers an all-in-one data visualization suite for customers in the energy and environmental services fields. You can read more about Matidor here.
There’s a reality TV competition show in the works that will feature a 2023 trip to the International Space Station as the grand prize, Deadline reports. The production company behind the show, which will be called “Space Hero,” has booked a seat on a SpaceX Dragon crew spacecraft set to make the trip to the ISS in 2023, and will make it the reward for whoever comes out the winner in a competition among “everyday people from any background who share a deep love for space exploration,” according to the report.
The competition will be an ersatz astronaut training program of sorts, including physical challenges, as well as puzzles and problem-solving tasks, as well as emotionally challenging scenarios, according to Deadline. That will lead up to what producers are currently planning will be a live episode featuring a global viewer vote about who ultimately will win. The show will also include documenting the winner’s ISS trip, including their launch and 10-day space station stay, as well as their return journey and landing.
To bring all these pieces together, the production team is working with Axiom Space, a private space travel services provider and mission operator, as well as NASA, with which it’s discussing what might be done in terms of STEM education add-ons for this planned programming.
Deadline says that “Survivor” creator and reality industry giant Mark Burnett has previously tried multiple times to create a reality show with a trip to space as the main component. One such effort, an NBC-based program called “Space Race,” was created in partnership with Richard Branson and focused on Virgin Galactic, but it was ended after that company’s fatal testing accident in 2015.
There’s also a movie production in the works that’s bound for the space station as a filming location, and those efforts are being spearheaded by Tom Cruise, who will star in the yet untitled project. NASA has repeatedly said it welcomes increased commercialization of low-Earth orbit and the ISS, and it also intentionally sought out private partners like SpaceX for its U.S.-based astronaut launch vehicles, in the hopes that they would be able to book other, private clients for flights to help defray mission costs.
SpaceX is set to launch the latest batch of its Starlink satellites on Thursday, with a target lift-off time of 2:19 PM EDT (11:19 AM PDT). The mission will take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and there’s a backup opportunity tomorrow at 1:57 PM EDT (10:57 AM PDT) in case weather or any other issues prevent a launch attempt today.
The launch today will add to SpaceX’s growing constellation of operational Starlink satellites on orbit. There are now over 500 of these circling the globe, as SpaceX conducts private beta testing of its high-speed, low-latency consumer internet service and prepares for an open beta launch later this year. The goal is to create a scalable, eventually globe-spanning service that can provide service where previously unavailable, or to customers who had to rely on shaky or slow connections in past.
The launch today includes use of a Falcon 9 first stage booster that has flow twice previously, including first during SpaceX’s landmark Demo-2 Crew Dragon mission, the first ever for the company to carry human astronauts. SpaceX will also be attempting to recover the booster yet again for another future launch. One of the two fairing halves that protect the cargo atop the Falcon 9 was also used previously, on two separate occasions, for other Starlink satellite launches.
The livestream above will begin roughly 15 minutes before the target liftoff time, so at around 2:04 PM EDT (11:04 AM PDT).