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Perseverance lands safely on Mars and sends back its first images of the surface

By Devin Coldewey

Mars rover Perseverance has landed on the surface of Mars after a white-knuckle descent involving picking a landing spot just moments before making a rocket-powered sky crane landing. The rover immediately sent back its first image of Jezero crater, which it will be exploring over the course of its mission.

A clearly tense but optimistic team watched as Perseverance made its final approach to Mars a few hours ago, confirming it was on track to hit the bullseye of Jezero Crater, the ancient delta where the rover will soon be roving.

Except for a few brief but expected communications blackouts caused by the superheated air around the craft as it entered the thin Martian atmosphere, the lander sent back a continuous stream of updates to the team on Earth — considerably delayed, of course, by the distance to the other planet.

The team, and charmingly the on-screen hosts at mission HQ audibly gasped, whispered “yes!” and made other signs of their excitement as news trickled in that atmosphere entry had occurred on time, that the craft hadn’t broken up during the ten-G braking maneuver, that the parachute had deployed, that a landing site was found by the ground-facing radar, that the powered descent and sky crane had commenced, and at last finally that the rover had safely touched down on the surface.

NASA crew celebrating the landing of rover Perseverance on Mars.

Image Credits: NASA

Cheering but, in accordance with COVID-19 precautions not (as they normally would) hugging each other, the team celebrated the landing and soon were treated to the first images sent back from the rover.

These initial pictures are low-quality ones sent just seconds after landing by the “hazard camera,” a fisheye used for navigation. As the dust settles (literally) and the rover initiates its more powerful devices and cameras, we’ll have new, color images — probably within an hour or two.

For a more complete look at the mission and its remarkable landing method, you can read yesterday’s profile of the Perseverance mission. The next few days will probably be less exciting than the terror-inducing landing, but soon the rover will be up and running around Jezero, looking for evidence of life on Mars and testing technology that could be used by human visitors in the future.

“We’re not ready to go there with astronauts yet, but the robots are ready,” said JPL director Michael Watkins on the broadcast. “We start by sending, you know, our eyes and arms there in the form of a robot. It is just fantastic to be able to do that, and to learn from each rover, learn from the science and the engineering, and make the next one better, and make more and more discoveries. Every time we do one of these missions, we make fabulous discoveries — and you know, each one is more exciting than the last.”

The exciting thing everyone is looking forward to, Mars helicopter Ingenuity, will hopefully take flight soon as well.

“We have a series of major milestones between now and the first flight. Tomorrow, we’ll turn on the helicopter, and the space station could confirm its health. The next major milestone will be when the rover deploys the helicopter on the surface, and that marks the first moment that Ingenuity operates on its own in a standalone manner, said MiMi Aung, project manager and engineering lead for Ingenuity. “Surviving that first cold frigid night of Mars will be a major milestone, then we’ll execute a series of checkouts, and then we will perform that very important first flight. And if the first flight is successful, we have up to four more flights in the thirty Martian days that we have set aside for our flight experiments.”

SpaceX reportedly raises $850M in new funding

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has raised a fresh round of funding, totalling $850 million, per a new report by CNBC, citing sources “familiar” with the matter. The new capital brings the total valuation of the company, which is still privately-held, to around $74 billion according to the report.

This is a massive round, by most standards – but not by SpaceX’s own. The space launch company, which was founded in 2002, has raised a total of over $6 billion to date including this latest injection, with a $2 billion venture round raised last August. That funding was invested at a valuation of $46 billion, meaning the company’s value, at least in the eyes of private investors, leapt considerably in the six months separating the two raises.

SpaceX has accomplished a lot between now and then, including building its Starlink broadband constellation to more than 1,000 active satellites; launching its first operational NASA crew to the International Space Station aboard a Dragon spacecraft; launching not one, but two high-altitude flight tests of its Starship spacecraft with relatively good results; and launched its first dedicated rideshare mission, demonstrating the viability of a big potential new group of launch customers.

While the company has achieved a lot on the back of its existing capital, its recent successes no doubt provided a good base to go out and get more. That’s likely going to go to good use, since it has plenty of work yet to do, like continued develop of Starship to prove out its space-worthiness, and the capital-intensive activity of building Starlink into a true, globe-spanning network.

Mars rover Perseverance touches down tomorrow – how to watch and what to expect

By Devin Coldewey

There will be one more robot on Mars tomorrow afternoon. The Perseverance rover will touch down just before 1:00 Pacific, beginning a major new expedition to the planet and kicking off a number of experiments — from a search for traces of life to the long-awaited Martian helicopter. Here’s what you can expect from Perseverance tomorrow and over the next few years.

It’s a big, complex mission — and like the Artemis program, is as much about preparing for the future, in which people will visit the Red Planet, as it is about learning more about it in the present. Perseverance is ambitious even among missions to Mars.

If you want to follow along live, NASA TV’s broadcast of the landing starts at 11:15 AM Pacific, providing context and interviews as the craft makes its final approach:

Until then, however, you might want to brush up on what Perseverance will be getting up to.

Seven months of anticipation and seven minutes of terror

Illustration of the Perseverance landing capsule entering the Martian atmosphere like a meteor.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

First, the car-sized rover has to get to the surface safely. It’s been traveling for seven months to arrive at the Red Planet, its arrival heralded by new orbiters from the UAE and China, which both arrived last week.

Perseverance isn’t looking to stick around in orbit, however, and will plunge directly into the thin atmosphere of Mars. The spacecraft carrying the rover has made small adjustments to its trajectory to be sure that it enters at the right time and angle to put Perseverance above its target, the Jezero crater.

The process of deceleration and landing will take about seven minutes once the craft enters the atmosphere. The landing process is the most complex and ambitious ever undertaken by an interplanetary mission, and goes as follows.

After slowing down in the atmosphere like a meteor to a leisurely 940 MPH or so, the parachute will deploy, slowing the descender over the next minute or two to a quarter of that speed. At the same time, the heat shield will separate, exposing the instruments on the underside of the craft.

Perseverance rover and its spacecraft in an exploded view showing its several main components.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a crucial moment, as the craft will then autonomously — there’s no time to send the data to Earth — scan the area below it with radar and other instruments and find what it believes to be an optimal landing location.

Once it does so, from more than a mile up, the parachute will detach and the rover will continue downwards in a “powered descent” using a sort of jetpack that will take it down to just 70 feet above the surface. At this point the rover detaches, suspended at the end of a 21-foot “Sky Crane,” and as the jetpack descends the cable extends; once it touches down, the jetpack boosts itself away, Sky Crane and all, to crash somewhere safely distant.

All that takes place in about 410 seconds, during which time the team will be sweating madly and chewing their pencils. It’s all right here in this diagram for quick reference:

Diagram showing the various parts of the Perseverance landing process

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

And for the space geeks who want a little more detail, check out this awesome real-time simulation of the whole process. You can speed up, slow down, check the theoretical nominal velocities and forces, and so on.

Rocking the crater

Illustration of Perseverance very small against a Martian landscape.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Other rovers and orbiters have been turning up promising signs of life on Mars for years: the Mars Express Orbiter discovered liquid water under the surface in 2018; Curiosity found gaseous hints of life in 2019; Spirit and Opportunity found tons of signs that life could have been supported during their incredibly long missions.

Jezero Crater was chosen as a region rich in possibilities for finding evidence of life, but also a good venue for many other scientific endeavors.

The most similar to previous missions are the geology and astrobiology goals. Jezero was “home to an ancient delta, flooded with water.” Tons of materials coalesce in deltas that not only foster life, but record its presence. Perseverance will undertake a detailed survey of the area in which it lands to help characterize the former climate of Mars.

Part of that investigation will specifically test for evidence of life, such as deposits of certain minerals in patterns likely to have resulted from colonies of microbes rather than geological processes. It’s not expected that the rover will stumble across any living creatures, but you know the team all secretly hope this astronomically unlikely possibility will occur.

One of the more future-embracing science goals is to collect and sequester samples from the environment in a central storage facility, which can then be sent back to Earth — though they’re still figuring out how to handle that last detail. The samples themselves will be carefully cut from the rock rather than drilled or chipped out, leaving them in pristine condition for analysis later.

Animated image showing how Perseverance could travel and retravel certain routes to bring items to a central location.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance will spend some time doubling back on its path to place as many as 30 capsules full of sampled material in a central depot, which will be kept sealed until such a time as they can be harvested and returned to Earth.

The whole time the rover will be acting as a mobile science laboratory, taking all kinds of readings as it goes. Some of the signs of life it’s looking for only result from detailed analysis of the soil, for instance, so sophisticating imaging and spectroscopy instruments are on board, PIXL and SHERLOC. It also carries a ground-penetrating radar (RIMFAX) to observe the fine structure of the landscape beneath it. And MEDA will continuously take measurements of temperature, wind, pressure, dust characteristics, and so on.

Of course the crowd-pleasing landscapes and “selfies” NASA’s rovers have become famous for will also be beamed back to Earth regularly. It has 19 cameras, though mostly they’ll be used for navigation and science purposes.

Exploring takes a little MOXIE and Ingenuity

Animated image showing the Ingenuity Mars helicopter taking off and flying on Mars.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Perseverance is part of NASA’s long-term plan to visit the Red Planet in person, and it carries a handful of tech experiments that could contribute to that mission.

The most popular one, and for good reason, is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. This little solar-powered two-rotor craft will be the first ever demonstration of powered flight on another planet (the jetpack Perseverance rode in on doesn’t count).

The goals are modest: the main one is simply to take off and hover in the thin air a few feet off the ground for 20 to 30 seconds, then land safely. This will provide crucial real-world data about how a craft like this will perform on Mars, how much dust it kicks up, and all kinds of other metrics that future aerial craft will take into account. If the first flight goes well, the team plans additional ones that may look like the GIF above.

Being able to fly around on another planet would be huge for science and exploration, and eventually for industry and safety when people are there. Drones are have already become crucial tools for all kinds of surveying, rescue operations, and other tasks here on Earth — why wouldn’t it be the same case on Mars? Plus it’ll get some great shots from its onboard cameras.

Image of the MOXIE device, which will isolate oxygen from Mars's atmosphere.

MOXIE is the other forward-looking experiment, and could be even more important (though less flashy) than the helicopter. It stands for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, and it’s all about trying to make breathable oxygen from the planet’s thin, mostly carbon dioxide atmosphere.

This isn’t about making oxygen to breathe, though it could be used for that too. MOXIE is about making oxygen at scales large enough that it could be used to provide rocket fuel for future takeoffs. Though if habitats like these ever end up getting built, it will be good to have plenty of O2 on hand just in case.

For a round trip to Mars, sourcing fuel from the there rather than trucking all the way from Earth to burn on the way back is an immense improvement in many ways. The 30-50 tons of liquid oxygen that would normally be brought over in the tanks could instead be functional payloads, and that kind of tonnage goes a long way when you’re talking about freeze-dried food, electronics, and other supplies.

MOXIE will be attempting, at a small scale (it’s about the size of a car battery, and future oxygen generators would be a hundred times bigger), to isolate oxygen from the CO2 surrounding it. The team is expecting about 10 grams per hour, but it will only be on intermittently so as not to draw too much power. With luck it’ll be enough of a success that this method can be pursued more seriously in the near future.

Self-roving technology

An orbital image of the Jezero Crater region of Mars with a potential path for the rover on it.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of the big challenges for previous rovers is that they have essentially been remote controlled with a 30-mintue delay — scientists on Earth examine the surroundings, send instructions like go forward 40 centimeters, turn front wheels 5 degrees to the right, go 75 centimeters, etc. This not only means a lot of work for the team but a huge delay as the rover makes moves, waits half an hour for more instructions to arrive, then repeats the process over and over.

Perseverance breaks with its forbears with a totally new autonomous navigation system. It has high resolution, wide-angle color cameras and a dedicated processing unit for turning images into terrain maps and choosing paths through them, much like a self-driving car.

Being able to go farther on its own means the rover can cover far more ground. The longest drive ever recorded in a single Martian day was 702 feet by Opportunity (RIP). Perseverance will aim to cover about that distance on average, and with far less human input. Chances are it’ll set a new record pretty quickly once it’s done tiptoeing around for the first few days.

In fact the first 30 sols after the terrifying landing will be mostly checks, double checks, instrument deployments, more checks, and rather unimpressive-looking short rolls around the immediate area. But remember, if all goes well, this thing could still be rolling around Mars in 10 or 15 years when people start showing up. This is just the very beginning of a long, long mission.

Astra hires longtime Apple veteran Benjamin Lyon as Chief Engineer

By Darrell Etherington

New Space startup Astra, which is currently focused on commercial rockets, but which plans to eventually build satellites, too, has hired one of Apple’s key engineering leaders to head its own engineering efforts. Benjamin Lyon spent over two decades at Apple, where he worked on everything from the iPhone, to input devices and sensor hardware, to special projects: the department at Apple working on autonomous vehicle technology.

“When I’ve looked at what to do next at Apple, it has always been this combination of ‘What is the most impactful thing that I can do for humanity?’ – the iPhone was very much one of these,” Lyon told me in an interview. “Phones were awful [at the time], and if we could fundamentally come up with a new interface, that would completely change how people interact with devices.”

Creating a mobile device with an interface that was “completely flexible and completely customizable to the application” was what seemed so transformative to Lyon about the iPhone, and he sees a direct parallel in the work that Astra is doing to lower the barrier of access to space through cheap, scalable and highly-efficient rocketry.

“Astra me feels very, very much like redefining what it means for a phone to be smart,” Lyon said. “I think the Astra vision is this magical combination of fundamentally taking the rocket science out of space. How do you do that? Well, you better have a great foundation of a team, and a great foundation of core technologies that you can bring together in order to make a compelling series of products.”

Foundations are the key ingredient according not only to Lyon, but also to Astra co-founder and CEO Chris Kemp, who explained why an experienced Apple engineer made the most sense to him to lead a rocket startup’s engineering efforts.

“We did not want anyone from aerospace – I’ll just I’ll say that out of the gate,” Kemp told me. “Aerospace has not figured out how to build rockets at scale, or do anything profitably – ever. So I found no inspiration from anyone I talked to who had anything to do with with any of the other space-related companies. We do feel that there are people that are at SpaceX and Blue Origin who are really good at what they do. But in terms of the culture that we’re trying to establish at Astra, if you look back at Apple, and the things that that Benjamin worked on there over many decades, he really took on not only designing the the thing, but also designing the thing that makes the thing, which was more important than the thing itself.”

Kemp’s alluding to Apple’s lauded ability to work very closely with suppliers and move fundamental component engineering in-house, crafting unique designs for things like the system-on-a-chip that now powers everything from the iPhone to Macs. Apple often designs the processes involved in making those fundamental components, and then helps its suppliers stand up the factories required to build those to its exacting specifications. Astra’s approach to the space industry centers around a similar approach, with a focus on optimizing the output of its Alameda-based rocket factory, and iterating its products quickly to match the needs of the market while keeping pricing accessible.

And Astra’s definition of ‘iteration’ matches up much more closely with the one used by Silicon Valley than that typically espoused by legacy aerospace companies – going further still in questioning the industry’s fundamentals than even watershed space tech innovators like SpaceX, which in many ways still adheres to accepted rocket industry methods.

“You don’t do the iPhone X at iPhone 1 – you start with the iPhone 1 and you work your way to the iPhone X,” Lyon told me. “You’re going to see that with Astra as well, there’s going to be this amazing evolution, but it’s going to be tech company-rate evolution, as opposed to an ‘every 20 years’ evolution.”

That sentiment lines up with Astra and Kemp’s approach to date: The company reached space for the first time late last year, with a rocket that was the second of three planned launches in a rapid iteration cycle designed to achieve that milestone. After the first of these launches (Rocket 3.1 if you’re keeping track) failed to make space last September, Astra quickly went back to the drawing board and tweaked the design to come back for its successful attempt in December (Rocket 3.2) – an extremely fast turnaround for an aerospace company by any measure. The company is now focused on its Rocket 3.3 launch, which should only require software changes to achieve a successful orbit, and put it on track to begin delivering commercial payloads for paying customers.

Astra’s rocket production facility in Alameda, California.

Astra’s rocket is tiny compared to the mammoth Starship that SpaceX is currently developing, but that’s part of the appeal that drew Lyon to the startup in the first place. He says the goal of “design[ing] a rocket to match the application,” rather than simply “design[ing] a rocket to end all rockets” makes vastly more sense to serve the bourgeoning market.

“And that’s just the beginning,” he added. “Then you’ll take the next step, which is if you look at the technology that’s in a satellite, and a bunch of the smart technology that’s in a rocket, there’s a tremendous amount of duplication there. So, get rid of the duplication – design the rocket and the satellite together as one system.”

Eventually, that means contemplating not only launch and satellite as a single challenge, but also managing “the entire experience of getting to space and managing a constellation” as “a single design problem,” according to Lyon, which is the level of ambition at Astra that he views as on par with that of Steve Jobs at Apple at the outset of the iPhone project.

Ultimately, Astra hopes to be able to provide aspiring space technology companies with everything they need so that the actual space component of their business is fully handled. The idea is that startups and innovators can then focus on bringing new models and sensing technologies to Astra, worrying only about payload – leaving launch, integration and eventually constellation management to the experts. It’s not unlike what the App Store unlocked for the software industry, Lyon said.

“We’re trying to do something that’s never been done before in aerospace, which is to really scale the production of rockets, and also focus on the overall economics of the business,” Kemp explained about additional advantages of having Lyon on board. “As we become a public company, in particular, we have very aggressive EBITDA targets, and very aggressive production targets, much the same way Apple does. We also want to have a new rocket every year, just like [the iPhone] and so to some degree, we found every aspect of Benjamin’s ethos aligned with our values, and the culture that we’re creating here at Astra of relentless, constant innovation and iteration.”

Daily Crunch: Axiom Space raises $130M

By Anthony Ha

A space startup connected to the International Space Station raises $130 million, Atlassian releases a new version of Trello and bitcoin briefly passes $50,000. This is your Daily Crunch for February 16, 2021.

The big story: Axiom Space raises $130M

Founded in 2016, Axiom Space is working with NASA to add privately developed space station modules to the International Space Station. It’s also the service provider for the first private astronaut launch to the ISS, scheduled for January 2022 using a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

Eventually, the startup hopes to create its own orbital platforms. And in his story on the funding, Darrell Etherington says Axiom is emerging as “the leading linkage between private human spaceflight and the existing infrastructure and industry.”

The tech giants

Atlassian launches a whole new Trello — Trello is one of the most popular project management tools around, and in many ways it brought digital Kanban boards to the mainstream.

TikTok hit with consumer, child safety and privacy complaints in Europe — TikTok is facing a fresh round of regulatory complaints in Europe.

Reddit’s transparency report shows a big spam problem and relatively few government requests — Volume-wise, the largest problem by far is spam.

Startups, funding and venture capital

01 Advisors, the venture firm of Dick Costolo and Adam Bain, has closed fund two with $325M — Costolo and Bain previously served as Twitter’s CEO and its chief operating officer, respectively.

Shared scooter startup Revel adds electric bike subscriptions to its business — Revel will start offering monthly electric bike subscriptions in New York.

Tencent backs digital rights startup Pex in $57M round — The startup describes its Attribution Engine as the “licensing infrastructure for the Internet.”

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Inside Rover and MoneyLion’s SPAC-led public debuts — Looking at the financial health of two companies that we’ve heard about for ages and never got to see inside of.

Four strategies for deep tech startups recruiting top growth marketers — How do deep tech companies connect and cultivate strong relationships with talented nontechnical growth people outside of their industry?

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Bitcoin briefly breaks the $50K barrier as Coinbase’s direct listing looms — The hodl-crew are having quite the moment.

Imagine a better future for social media at TechCrunch Sessions: Justice — We’ll discuss how much responsibility social networks have in the rise of toxic culture, deadly conspiracies and organized hate online.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Axiom Space raises $130 million for its commercial space station ambitions

By Darrell Etherington

One of the new space startups with the loftiest near-term goals has raised $130 million in a Series B round that demonstrates investor confidence in the scope of its ambitions: Axiom Space, which has been tapped by NASA to add privately-developed space station modules to the ISS, announced the new funding led by C5 Capital on Tuesday.

This is the latest in a string of high-profile announcements for Axiom, which was founded in 2016 by a team including space professionals with a history of demonstrated expertise working on the International Space Station. Eventually, Axiom hopes to go from adding the first private commercial modules to the existing station, to creating their own, wholly private on-orbital platforms – for research, space tourism and more.

Axiom announced the people who will take part it it first ever private astronaut launch to the ISS, which is set to fly next January using a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket. Axiom is the service provider for the mission, brokering the deal for the private spacefarers and setting up training and mission profile. That should be the first time we see a crew made up entirely of private individuals (ie., not astronauts selected, trained and employed by their respective national government) make its way to the station.

The company was also in discussions with Tom Cruise about filming at least part of an upcoming film aboard the ISS, and it’s in development with a production company on a forthcoming competition reality show that will see contestants vie for a spot on a private flight to the station.

Axiom is emerging as the leading linkage between private human spaceflight and the existing infrastructure and industry, covering both public sector partners like NASA, and the ‘rails’ of the bourgeoning industry – SpaceX and its ilk. It’s been focused on this unique opportunity longer than most in the private market, and it has all the relationships and in-house expertise to make it work.

This new, significant injection of capital will help the company hire, as well as boost its ability to construct the pieces of its forthcoming private space station modules, as well as its eventual station itself. The Houston-based company aims to put its ISS modules on the station by 2024, and it has raised $150 million to date.

SpaceX launches 60 more satellites for its Starlink service on the heels of opening up access

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched yet another batch of Starlink satellites – a full complement of 60, the standard size for its current Falcon 9-based Starlink missions. This brings SpaceX’s total to just around 1,000 in active on orbit, taking into account the handful that were experimental or have been de-orbited to date. This follows SpaceX’s opening of orders for Starlink to anyone in a current or planned coverage zone.

Starlink is a global satellite-based data network powered by small, low-Earth orbit satellites. Historically, broadband satellites have been large, expensive spacecraft positioned much further out from Earth in a fixed orbit, providing service to a single coverage area. Because of their distance from Earth and the way they connect to base stations, coverage has been very high-latency and relatively inconsistent (which you’ll recognize if you’ve ever tried to use Wifi on a flight, for instance). SpaceX’s constellation-based approach sees the satellites positioned much closer to Earth, which improves latency, and also has the satellites orbiting Earth and handing off connections between one another, which in theory provides more consistent coverage – particularly as the size of the constellation grows.

Eventually, SpaceX intends to provide coverage globally from Starlink, with an emphasis on offering service to areas. where coverage has been weak due to ground infrastructure challenges in past. For now, however, coverage is limited, though SpaceX recently expanded its closed beta to an open one, with anyone able to sign up via the Starlink website after an address check, and place an order, including a deposit with the full amount for the hardware kit to be charged once it ships.

Starlink’s hardware includes a small satellite receiver dish for installation by the customer at their service address. The service itself costs $99 per month, while the equipment is $499 (one-time fee). This does seem steep, but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter recently that the plan is to have the costs come down over time, once the significant initial investment is recouped. He also noted that the plan is still to spin off Starlink and have it IPO eventually, once the company “can predict cash flow reasonably well.”

Use today’s tech solutions to meet the climate crisis and do it profitably

By Walter Thompson
Bertrand Piccard Contributor
Bertrand Piccard initiated the Solar Impulse Foundation after his history-making flight around the world in a solar-powered plane. Fueled only by the rays of the sun, his flight proved that existing methods and technologies can provide clean energy and solutions that protect the environment in a profitable way.

Five years ago I landed the Solar Impulse 2 in Abu Dhabi after flying around the globe powered solely by solar energy, a first in aviation history.

It was also a milestone in energy and technology history. Solar Impulse was an experimental plane, weighing as little as a family car and using 17,248 solar cells. It was a flying laboratory, full of groundbreaking technologies that made it possible to produce renewable energy, store it and use it when necessary in the most efficient manner.

The time has come to use technology again to address the climate crisis affecting us all. As we enter the most crucial decade of climate action — and most likely our last chance to limit global warming to 1.5°C — we need to ensure that clean technologies become the only acceptable norm. These technologies exist now and they can be profitably implemented at this crucial moment.

Hundreds of clean tech solutions exist that protect the environment in a profitable way,

Here are just four innovations from our solar-powered plane that the market can start using now before it’s too late.

From insulating the cabin to insulating our homes

The building sector is one of the largest energy consumers in the world. Next to a reliance on carbon-heavy fuels for heating and cooling, poor insulation and associated energy loss are among the main reasons.

Inside Solar Impulse’s cockpit, insulation was crucial for the plane to fly at very high altitudes. Covestro, one of our official partners, developed an ultra-lightweight and insulating material. The cockpit insulation performance was 10% higher than the standards at the time because the pores in the insulating foam were 40% smaller, reaching a micrometer scale. Thanks to its very low density of fewer than 40 kilograms per cubic meter, the cockpit was ultra-lightweight.

This technology and many others exist. We now need to ensure that all market players are motivated to make hyperefficient building insulation their standard operating procedure.

From propelling an electric aircraft to propelling clean mobility

Solar Impulse was first and foremost an electric airplane when it flew 43,000 km without a single drop of fuel. Its four electric motors had a record-beating efficiency of 97%, far ahead of the miserable 27% of standard thermal engines. This means that they only lost 3% of the energy they used versus 73% for combustion propulsion. Today, electric vehicle sales are soaring. According to the International Energy Agency, when Solar Impulse landed in 2016, there were approximately 1.2 million electric cars on the road; the figure has now risen to over 5 million.

Nevertheless, this acceleration is far from enough. Power sockets are still far from replacing petrol pumps. The transport sector still accounts for one-quarter of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Electrification must happen much more quickly to reduce CO2 emissions from our tailpipes. To do so, governments need to boost the adoption of electric vehicles through clear tax incentives, diesel and petrol engine bans, and major infrastructure investments. 2021 should be the year that puts us on a one-way road to zero-emission vehicles and puts thermal engines in a dead end.

An aircraft microgrid can work for off-grid communities

To fly for several days and nights, reaching a theoretically endless flight potential, Solar Impulse relied on batteries that stored the energy collected during the day and used it to power its engines during the night.

What was made possible with Si2 on a small scale should guide the way to future-proofing power-generation systems that are made up entirely of renewable energy. In the meantime, microgrids, like those used in Si2, could benefit off-grid systems in remote communities or energy islands, allowing them to abolish diesel or other carbon-heavy fuels already today.

On a larger scale, we are looking at smart grids. If all “stupid grids” were replaced by smart grids, it would allow cities, for example, to manage production, storage, distribution and consumption of energy and to cut peaks in energy demand that would reduce CO2 emissions dramatically.

Energy efficiency in the air and on the ground

Solar Impulse’s philosophy was to save energy instead of trying to produce more of it. This is why the relatively small amount of solar energy we collected became enough to fly day and night. All the airplane parameters, including wingspan, aerodynamics, speed, flight profile and energy systems, had therefore been designed to minimize energy loss.

Unfortunately, this approach still stands out against the inefficiency of most of our energy use today. Even though the IEA found energy efficiency improved by an estimated 13% between 2000 and 2017, it is not enough. We need bolder action by policymakers to encourage investors. One of the best ways to do so is to put strict energy efficiency standards in place.

For example, California has set efficiency standards on buildings and appliances, such as consumer electronics and household appliances, estimated to have saved consumers more than $100 billion in utility bills. These measures are as good for the environment as they are for the economy.

Si2 was the future; now, it should define the present

When we used all these different innovations to build Solar Impulse, they were groundbreaking and futuristic. Today, they should define the present; they should be the norm. Next to the technologies mentioned above, hundreds of clean tech solutions exist that protect the environment in a profitable way, many of which have received the Solar Impulse Efficient Solution Label.

Just as for the Si2 technologies, we must now ensure that they enter the mainstream market. The faster we scale them, the faster we will set our economy on track to achieve the Paris Agreement goals and attain sustainable economic growth.

SpaceX delivers 60 more Starlink satellites in first launch of 2021, and sets new Falcon 9 rocket reusability record

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched its 17th batch of Starlink satellites during its first mission of 2021, using a Falcon 9 rocket that was flying for the eighth time, and that landed again, recording a record for its reusability program. This puts the total Starlink constellation size at almost 1,000, as the company has expanded its beta access program for the service to the UK and Canada, with a first deployment in the latter company serving a rural First Nations community in a remote part of the province of Ontario.

The launch took off from Florida at 8:02 AM EST (5:02 AM PST), with delivery of the satellites following as planned at around an hour after lift-off. The booster on this launch flew seven times previously, as mentioned – including just in December when it was used to delivery a SiriusXM satellite to orbit to support that company’s satellite radio network.

Today’s launch was also notable because it included a landing attempt in so-called “envelope expansion” conditions, which means that the winds in the landing zone where SpaceX’s drone recovery ship was stationed at sea actually exceeded the company’s previously-defined safety window for making a landing attempt.

As a result of today’s success, SpaceX will likely now have higher tolerances for wind speeds in order to attempt recovery, which should translate to fewer cancellations of launches based on weather conditions in the landing zone.

Rocket Lab completes its first rocket launch of 2021 and 18th mission overall

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab has launched its 18th mission, and the first of 2021, as of 8:26 PM NZT (2:30 AM EST). The “Another One Leaves The Crust” mission took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, and flew a single communications microsatellite on behalf of client OHB Group, a satellite manufacturer based in Europe with facilities in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Rocket Lab’s launches often feature payloads from more than one customer on the same Electron launch vehicle, but this dedicated payload launch is an example of how the flexibility of its smaller rocket can serve customers even for single small satellite missions. The rocket successfully delivered its payload as intended shortly following take-off.

While Rocket Lab has been developing and testing a booster stage recovery process to help it re-use part of its launch vehicles on subsequent flights, this particular mission did not include a recovery attempt. The company has had significant success with that development process however, and recovered its first booster last year. Sometime this year, it’s expected to attempt a recovery that includes a mid-air catch of the returning first stage via helicopter.

SpaceX bought two oil rigs to convert into offshore launch pads for Starship

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX’s next spacecraft is in development in Texas, and CEO Elon Musk previously revealed that the company was planning to build floating spaceports for Starship  operations, after a job ad was posted looking for someone to oversee their development. Now, SpaceX has purchased two oil rigs to convert for this purpose, as first reported by spaceflight.com’s Michael Baylor, and confirmed by CNBC.

The rigs have been named Deimos and Phoibos by SpaceX, which are the names of the two Moons of Mars (and the names of the gods of both dread and fear in Greek mythology before that). The rigs were originally designed for off shore deepwater drilling, up to a maximum depth of 8,500 feet. They’re currently located in Brownsville, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico near SpaceX’s Starship development site in Brownsville, Texas.

These vessels measure 240-feet by 255-feet, and will in theory be repurposed to support launching of Starship (and perhaps return landing, given their reusable design). Thus far, SpaceX has been launching and landing its Starship prototypes on land at its Boca Chica site, though it’s only done lower altitude flights so far. The company also operates two drone ships, which are 300-feet long by around 170-feet wide, as autonomous floating landing pads for its current Falcon 9 rocket boosters.

SpaceX also posted another ad seeking a resort development manager to turn its south Texas facility into a “21st century spaceport,” specifically looking for someone with resort expertise. Meanwhile, Musk confirmed that he has moved to Texas last December, following a number of public suggestions that he would do so owing in part to California’s taxation and regulatory environment.

Musk’s other company SpaceX also selected Austin as the site of its next gigafactory in the U.S., intended for assembly of its Cybertruck, Model Y and Tesla Semi, as well as Model 3 cars destined for customers on the east coast. SpaceX has maintained engine test facilities in McGreger, Texas, and set up Boca Chica as one of two Starship development sites alongside Florida, before making the south Texas location the sole focus for that spacecraft’s construction and testing after consolidating its efforts.

Watch Virgin Orbit launch a rocket to space from a modified 747 for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit scored a major success on Sunday, with a test flight that not only achieved its goals of reaching space and orbit, but also of delivering payloads on board for NASA, marking its first commercial mission, too. The launch was a success in every possible regard, which puts Virgin Orbit on track to becoming an active launch provider for small payloads for both commercial and defense customers.

Today's sequence of events for #LaunchDemo2 went exactly to plan, from safe execution of our ground ops all the way through successful full duration burns on both engines. To say we're thrilled would be a massive understatement, but 240 characters couldn't do it justice anyway. pic.twitter.com/ZKpoi7hkGN

— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 18, 2021

Above, you can watch the actual launch itself – the moment the LauncherOne rocket detaches from ‘Cosmic Girl,’ a modified Boeing 747 airliner that takes off normally from a standard aircraft runway, and then climbs to a cruising altitude to release the rocket, which then ignites its own engines and flies the rest of the way to space. Virgin Orbit’s launch model was designed to reduce the barriers to carrying small payloads to orbit vs. traditional vertical take-off vehicles, and this successful test flight proves the model works.

Virgin Orbit now joins a small but growing group of private launch companies who have actually reached space, and made it to orbit. That should be great news for the small satellite launch market, which still has much more demand than there is supply. Virgin Orbit also offers something very different from current launch providers like SpaceX, which typically serves larger payloads or which must offer rideshare model missions for those with smaller spacecraft. The LauncherOne design potentially means more on-demand, response and quick-turnaround launch services for satellite operators.

Virgin Orbit reaches orbit for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket to orbit for the first time today, with a successful demonstration mission that carried a handful of satellites and will attempt to deliver them to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. It’s a crucial milestone for the small satellite launch company, and the first time the company has shown that its hybrid carrier aircraft/small payload orbital delivery rocket works as intended, which should set the company up to begin commercial operations of its launch system very soon.

This is the second attempt at reaching orbit for Virgin Orbit, after a first try in late May ended with the LauncherOne rocket initiating an automatic safety shutdown of its engines shortly after detaching from the ‘Cosmic Girl’ carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 that transports the rocket to its launch altitude. The company said that it learned a lot from that attempt, including identifying the error that caused the failsafe engine shut down, which it corrected in advance of today’s mission.

Virgin’s Cosmic Girl took off at just before 2 PM EDT, and then released LauncherOne from its wing at roughly 2:40 PM EDT. LauncherOne had a “clean separation” as intended, and then ignited its own rocket engines and quickly accelerated to the point where it was undergoing the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure (called max q in the aerospace industry). LauncherOne’s main engine then cut off after its burn, and its payload stage separated, crossing the Karman line and entering space for the first time.

It achieved orbit at around 2:49 PM EDT, and will release its payload of small satellites in roughly 30 minutes. We’ll update this post to provide the results of this part of its mission later, but this is already a major milestone and huge achievement for the Virgin Orbit team.

Virgin Orbit’s unique value proposition in the small launch market is that it can take off and land from traditional runways thanks to its carrier aircraft and mid-air rocket launch approach. That should provide flexibility in terms of launch locations, allowing it to be more responsive to customer needs in terms of geographies and target orbital deliveries.

In 2017, Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic, to focus exclusively on small payload orbital launch. Virgin Galactic then devoted itself entirely to its own mission of offering commercial human spaceflight. Virgin Orbit itself create its own subsidiary earlier this year, called VOX Space, which intends to use LauncherOne to deliver small satellites to orbit specifically for the U.S. national security market.

 

Blue Origin successfully launches and lands key crew capsule test in first mission of 2021

By Darrell Etherington

Blue Origin launched its first mission of 2021, flying its New Shepard rocket in West Texas to a medium height of just over 350,000 feet. This is the first flight for this particular booster, and for the capsule it carried, which was equipped with a range of new passenger safety, control and comfort systems that Blue Origin was testing during flight for the first time. Also on board was a life-sized test dummy called ‘Mannequin Skywalker’ that recorded information during the flight and landing that the Blue Origin will now review.

Based on the video stream and commentary from the company, this looks like a very successful test, including a takeoff, booster separation, controlled landing burn and touchdown – and a parachute-aided landing back on terra firma for the crew capsule. The mission didn’t carry any real passengers, although there were 50,000 postcards on board from school kids globally that have now officially been to space (past the Karman line) which will be returned to those students via Blue Origin’s non-profit ‘Club for the Future.’

This is essentially what the mission will look like once Blue Origin actually begins to fly paying private astronauts to suborbital space as well; while we don’t have a timeline for when that’ll happen, today’s launch included key tests of a crew alert system that will provide anyone onboard with crucial mission information, as well as a new soft lining on the wall for protection during the weightless portion of the flight, as well as for sound and vibration dampening for the comfort of those on board. This capsule was also equipped with a carbon dioxide scrubber, which will be used to provide safe atmosphere for those within the capsule during the course of the flight.

Watch Blue Origin launch a rocket with an upgraded crew capsule live

By Darrell Etherington

Blue Origin is launching its New Shepard suborbital rocket for the first time in 2021, with a liftoff planned for 9:45 AM CST (10:45 AM EST/7:45 AM PST) [Update: Now targeting 10:57 AM CST (11:57 AM EST/8:57 AM PST)] from its launch facility in West Texas. This is the 14th flight of New Shepard, and it includes some key testing activities for Blue Origin in preparation for its first human spaceflight missions.

The company has been flying a crew capsule on board its rocket for quite a while now, albeit empty (or rather, loaded with scientific and other cargo, rather than people). This version includes some key systems that will be used when astronauts are inside, however, including communications systems, and cabin environment regulation technologies that will make the trip for private spacefarers more comfortable and safe.

Blue Origin has had 13 previous successful New Shepard launches, so one can reasonably expect things to go well today. But the company’s focus on that crew cabin and gathering data around systems crucial to human spaceflight is an exciting indicator that people could be on board that spacecraft sooner rather than later.

The stream above will begin 30 minutes before the liftoff time, so at around 10:15 AM EST/7:15 AM PST.

Blue Origin set to launch a New Shepard rocket outfitted with crew upgrades as it readies for astronaut flight

By Darrell Etherington

Blue Origin is set to launch one of its New Shepard rockets as early as tomorrow, January 14 at 9:45 AM CST (10:45 AM EST) for its first mission of 2021. This is a big one for the Jeff Bezos-founded space company, too — it includes upgrades to the crew capsule atop the rocket that are designed to improve the astronaut experience, a key preparatory step as the company approaches its first actual human spaceflight missions.

New Shepard has flown 13 times, and carried a number of different payloads to suborbital space before returning to Earth. The reusable launch vehicle aims to ultimately provide rides to space for people, too — and while there’s no stated timeline for this actually happening, tomorrow’s mission is a strong sign that it could be taking place sometime relatively soon.

Crew-focused upgrades flying on this New Shepard launch for the first time include acoustic and temperature regulation equipment, display panels that provide information to anyone who would be on board and push-to-talk communications systems installed in each of the crew capsule’s six seats. One of those seats will have a life-size test article on board, a humanoid flight dummy named Mannequin Skywalker that Blue Origin uses to measure various aspects of the vehicle’s performance.

It’ll test astronaut safety alert systems that Blue Origin intends to include on the final flight system, and it’ll also carry a payload with a very different purpose — 50,000 postcards provided to the Blue Origin nonprofit Club for the Future by school kids around the world.

The mission will be broadcast live by Blue Origin via its website and YouTube channel (embedded below) and you can expect the stream to begin around 30 minutes prior to launch time, so at around 10:15 AM EST (7:15 AM PST).

Intuitive Machines taps SpaceX for second lunar lander mission

By Darrell Etherington

The first commercial lunar landers are set to start making their trips to the moon as early as this year, and now another one has a confirmed ride booked: Intuitive Machines is sending its second lander aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9, with a projected launch time frame happening sometime around 2022 at the earliest. Intuitive Machines has already booked a first lander mission via SpaceX, which is also hosting payloads for other private companies seeking to make lunar landfall under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander can carry up to 100 kg (around 222 lbs) of cargo to the moon’s surface, and can communicate back to Earth for transmitting the results of its missions. It has both internal and surface-mounting capacity, and will carry science experiments for a variety of customers to the lunar surface through NASA’s commercial partnership program, partly to support future NASA missions including its planned Artemis human moon landings.

The first Intuitive Machines lunar lander mission, which will also use a Nova-C lander, is set to take place sometime in the fourth quarter of 2021 based on current timelines. It’ll include a lunar imaging suite, which will seek to “capture some of the first images of the Milky Way Galaxy Center from the surface of the Moon,” and the second mission will include delivering a polar resource mining drill and a mass spectrometer to the moon’s south pole on behalf of NASA, in addition to other payloads.

Air taxi startup Archer is partnering with automaker FCA on production of its electric aircraft

By Darrell Etherington

Archer, a company that’s looking to develop an airline of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for sue in urban transport, will work with automaker Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) in a new partnership to benefit from the latter’s expertise in engineering, design, supply chain and materials science. Archer aims to start production of its eVTOLs at scale beginning in 2023, with an initial unveiling to occur early this year.

The new team-up will see FCA provide input that contributes to the design of Archer’s eVTOL cockpit, as well, another area where the automaker has ample expertise, since it has designed spaces for drivers for many decades in its automotive business. Archer’s aircraft will be powered by an electric motor, and will be able to fly for up to 60 miles at top speeds of 150 mph. The Archer eVTOL is designed to be quiet and efficient, with efforts from the FCA collaboration going towards lowering the cost of its manufacturing to make high-volume manufacturing achievable and sustainable.

Ultimately, Archer is looking to FCA to help it realize efficiencies in its process that can make bringing its eVTOL to market a sound business that can also be accessed affordably by end users. Palo Alto-based Archer is looking to ultimately scale production to the point where it can produce “thousands” of its eVTOL aircraft per year, for use in future air taxi services serving cities globally.

Based in Palo Alto and led by co-founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein, and including industry executives like Chief Engineer Goeff Bower, who previously served int hat role at Airbus’ Vahana eVTOL initiative, Archer launched out of stealth earlier this year with backing from Marc Lore, current President and CEO of Walmart’s ecommerce business (he was co-founder and CEO of Jet when it was acquired by the retailer).

FAA issues rules for supersonic jet flight testing in the US

By Darrell Etherington

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued new final rules to help pave the way for the re-introduction of supersonic commercial flight. The U.S. airspace regulator’s rules provide guidance for companies looking to gain approval for flight testing of supersonic aircraft under development, which includes startups like Boom Supersonic, which has just completed its sub-scale supersonic demonstrator aircraft and hopes to begin flight testing it this year.

Boom, which is in the process of finalizing a $50 million funding round and has raised around $150 million across prior fundraising efforts, rolled out its XB-1 supersonic demonstrator jet in October. This test aircraft is smaller than the final design of its Overture passenger supersonic commercial airliner, but will be used to prove out the fundamental technologies in flight that will then be used to construct Overture, which the company is targeting for a 2025 rollout with airline partners.

Other startups, including Hermeus, are also pursuing supersonic flight for commercial use. Meanwhile, SpaceX and others focused on spaceflight like Virgin Galactic are exploring not only supersonic flight, but how point-to-point flight that includes part of the trip at the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere might reduce flight times dramatically and turn long-haul flights into much shorter, almost regional trips.

The FAA’s rules finalization comes in under the wire as the agency prepares for a transition when current U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao moves aside for incoming Biden pick Pete Buttigieg. You can read the full FAA final rule in the embed belt.

Virgin Orbit targets launch window opening January 10 for next orbital flight attempt

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit is wasting no time in 2021 getting back to active flight testing: The company has a window for its next orbital demonstration launch attempt that opens on Sunday, January 10, and that continues throughout the rest of the month. This follows an attempt last year made in May, which ended before the LauncherOne rocket reached orbit — shortly after it detached from the Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, in fact.

While that mission didn’t go exactly as Virgin Orbit had hoped, it was a significant milestone for the small satellite launch company, and helped gather a significant amount of data about how the vehicle performs in flight. LauncherOne was able to briefly light its rocket booster before safety systems on board automatically shut it down. The company had been looking to fly this second test before the end of last year, but issues including COVID-19 meant that they only got as far as the wet dress rehearsal (essentially a run-through of everything leading up to the flight with the vehicles fully fueled).

This next mission will once again attempt an orbital launch, and this time, the stakes are somewhat higher because actual customer payloads from NASA are on board. They include a number of small satellite science experiments and demonstrations, and while they’re specifically selected for the mission profile (meaning it’s not a tremendous loss if the launch fails), it still would make everyone happiest to actually get them to their target destination.

The nature of the launch window means that Virgin Orbit will likely wait for conditions to be as good as possible before taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, so take that January 10 date as the earliest possible launch time, but not necessarily the most likely. If successful, Virgin Orbit will join a select group of private small launch vehicles that have made it to orbit, so the industry will definitely be watching the next time Cosmic Girl takes off with LauncherOne attached.

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