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US government watchdog rejects Blue Origin’s protest over lunar lander contract

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Blue Origin’s protest to a U.S. governmental watchdog over NASA’s decision to award SpaceX a multi-billion dollar contract to develop a lunar lander was rejected.

The Government Accountability Office said Friday that it was denying both Blue Origin’s protest and a separate challenge filed by Dynetics, a defense contractor that also submitted a proposal for the contract. GAO concluded that NASA did not violate any laws or regulations when granting the sole award to SpaceX.

“As a result, GAO denied the protest arguments that NASA acted improperly in making a single award to SpaceX,” the agency said in a statement.

The formal protest was over NASA’s decision to award the contract for the Human Landing System Program, which aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since Apollo, solely to SpaceX — and not to two companies, as was originally intended. SpaceX’s proposal for the Human Landing System Program came in at $2.9 billion, around half of Blue Origin’s $5.99 billion proposal. Earlier this week, Bezos penned an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson offering to knock $2 billion off that price to solve the “near-term budgetary issues” that caused NASA to select just one company for the contract.

NASA’s decision to give just one company the award did veer from historical standard, but GAO maintained that “the [contract] announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all.”

Blue Origin maintains that it was not given time to revise its bid after NASA concluded it did not have sufficient funding for two awards. “Blue Origin was plainly prejudiced by the Agency’s failure to communicate this change in requirements,” the company said in the protest. “Blue Origin could have and would have taken several actions to revise its proposed approach, reduce its price to more closely align with funding available to the Agency, and/or propose schedule alternatives.”

Blue Origin and Dynetics submitted their separate protests in April.

Update: In response to the decision, a Blue Origin spokesperson told TechCrunch:

“We stand firm in our belief that there were fundamental issues with NASA’s decision, but the GAO wasn’t able to address them due to their limited jurisdiction. We’ll continue to advocate for two immediate providers as we believe it is the right solution.”

The spokesperson noted that the company was encouraged by lawmakers adding a provision to a bill in Senate that would require NASA to select two providers for the HLS program.

Elon Musk, meanwhile, had this to say about the decision…

GAO 💪

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2021

TechCrunch has reached out to Dynetics for comment. We will update the story if they respond.

Max Q — China’s space station gets a staff

By Darrell Etherington

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

This week, China started staffing up its own space station, and Rocket Lab got the nod from NASA to develop small satellites for the purposes of exploring Mars. Meanwhile, space startups continue to raise money and it doesn’t look like the pace of that is going to slow much heading into summer.

China delivers 3 astronauts to its space station

China has launched astronauts to its space station for the first time, delivering three to the station’s core module, where they’ll remain for a mission that lasts until September. This is the first time China has flown a crewed mission since 2012, and it’s also going to set a record for the longest period of time a Chinese astronaut has remained in space continuously.

This will be a big step forward for China’s space program, and a key evolution of its ambitions to establish a continuous presence in low Earth orbit. China is not an International Space Station partner, and no Chinese nationals have ever set foot aboard that station. The European Space Agency had welcomed overtures for them to participate as a member nation in the ISS last decade, but the U.S. refused.

China has stated outright that it will welcome participation in its space station from foreign astronauts, though there hasn’t been any specific agreements put in place for who those might be, or from which countries.

Rocket Lab will build two orbital research spacecraft for a mission to Mars

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab has landed a contract of a different sort from its usual business, tapped to build small spacecraft that will go to Mars and perform valuable science and exploration missions on behalf of NASA and its partners. These will make use of Rocket Lab’s Photon platform, which is a satellite platform that it originally developed as one of its value-add offerings for its launch customers.

This is unique for Rocket Lab because the spacecraft it’s developing won’t be launched aboard a Rocket Lab Electron spacecraft, but instead will fly on a commercial rocket to be selected by NASA in a separate contract process that will happen later.

The goal is to have these fly to the red planet by 2024, and it’ll help support NASA’s deep space exploration ambitions more broadly.

Startups raise $$

Some interesting funding rounds this week, including $5 million for Hydrosat, a company that’s spotting ground temperature from space and providing that to customers for use in industries like agriculture, wildfire and drought risk, water table information and more.

This kind of data has been monitored by weather and environmental monitoring agencies in the past, but Hydrosat aims to collect it at a frequency that hasn’t been possible before.

Meanwhile, another startup whose entire focus is making sure that companies and other users on the ground can make use of Earth observation data also raised a chunk of cash. SkyWatch picked up $17.2 million to help expand its platform, which not only provides access to the data for customers, but can actually provide the customers themselves, a useful feature for brand new satellite companies.

Join us at TC Sessions: Space in December

Last year we held our first dedicated space event, and it went so well that we decided to host it again in 2021. This year, it’s happening mid-December, and it’s once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join — and you can, too.

SpaceX launches Dragon cargo spacecraft to the Space Station with new Falcon 9

By Aria Alamalhodaei

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is once again heading to the International Space Station.

The company launched its 22nd Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission for NASA on Thursday. This is the fifth capsule SpaceX has sent to ISS in the last twelve months, SpaceX director of Dragon mission management Sarah Walker noted in a media briefing Tuesday. It’s also the first launch of the year on a new Falcon 9 rocket booster.

The rocket took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 1:29 PM eastern time, right on schedule despite the threat of storm clouds from the south and east. The first stage separated as planned and touched down on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship in the Atlantic Ocean eight minutes after launch. The second stage, which takes the capsule to orbit, separated 12 minutes after launch, also right on schedule.

Image Credits: SpaceX

The Falcon 9 Rocket launch vehicle is sending more than 7,300 pounds of research materials, supplies, and hardware, including new solar arrays, to the ISS crew. It’s the second mission under SpaceX’s new CRS contract with NASA; the first took place last December.

Dragon is carrying a number of research experiments to be conducted on the ISS, including oral bacteria to test germ growth with Colgate toothpaste; a number of tardigrades (also affectionately called water bears), primordial organisms that will attempt to fare and reproduce in space environments; and an investigation that will study the effects of microgravity on the formation of kidney stones – an ailment that many crew members display an increased susceptibility to during spaceflight.

The capsule is also delivering fresh food, including apples, navel oranges, lemons, and avocados.

Of the over 7,300 pounds of cargo, around 3,000 pounds will be taken up by a new roll-out, “flex blanket” solar array developed by space infrastructure company Redwire. As opposed to more traditional rigid paneled solar arrays, flex blanket technology provides more mass and performance benefits, Redwire technical director Matt LaPointe told TechCrunch.

The arrays were placed in the Dragon’s unpressurized trunk. It’s the first of three missions to send iROSA solar arrays to the station, with each mission carrying two arrays, LaPointe said. Once installed, the six iROSA arrays will collectively produce over 120KW of power. Redwire, which announced in March that it would go public via a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, says the new iROSA arrays will improve the ISS’s power generation by 20-30%.

The Dragon capsule is set to arrive at the space station at around 5 AM on June 5, where it will autonomously dock on a port of the Harmony module of the ISS. It will spend more than a month with the station before splashing down in the Atlantic with research and return cargo.

Zero-gravity space fridge could keep astronaut food fresh for years

By Devin Coldewey

Regular supply launches keep astronauts aboard the ISS supplied with relatively fresh food, but a flight to Mars won’t get deliveries. If we’re going to visit other planets, we’ll need a fridge that doesn’t break down in space — and Purdue University researchers are hard at work testing one.

You may think there’s nothing to prevent a regular refrigerator from working in space. It sucks heat out and puts cold air in. Simple, right? But refrigerators rely on gravity to distribute oil through the compressor system that regulates temperature, so in space these systems don’t work or break down quickly.

The solution being pursued by Purdue team and partner manufacturer Air Squared is an oil-free version of the traditional fridge that will work regardless of gravity’s direction or magnitude. It was funded by NASA’s SBIR program, which awards money to promising small businesses and experiments in order to inch them toward mission readiness. (The program is currently on its Phase II extended period award.)

In development for two years, the team at last assembled a flight-ready prototype, and last month was finally able to test it in microgravity simulated in a parabolic plane flight.

Initial results are promising: The fridge worked.

“The fact that the refrigeration cycles operated continuously in microgravity during the tests without any apparent problems indicates that our design is a very good start,” said Leon Brendel, a Ph.D. student on the team. “Our first impression is that microgravity does not alter the cycle in ways that we were not aware of.”

Short-term microgravity (the prototype was only weightless for 20 seconds at a time) is just a limited test, of course, and it already helped shake out an issue with the device that they’re working on. But the next test might be a longer-term installation aboard the ISS, the denizens of which would no doubt like to have a working fridge.

While the prospect of cold drinks and frozen (but not freeze-dried) meals is tantalizing, a normal refrigerator could be used for all kinds of scientific work as well. Experiments that need cold environments currently either use complicated, small scale cooling mechanisms or utilize the near-absolute-zero conditions of space. So it’s no surprise NASA got them aboard the microgravity simulator as part of the Flight Opportunities program.

Analysis of the data collected on the flights is ongoing, but the success of this first big test validates both the approach and execution of the space fridge. Next up is figuring out how it might work in the limited space and continuous microgravity of the ISS.

NASA’s new lunar vehicle could be built by GM and Lockheed Martin

By Aria Alamalhodaei

The last time humans visited the moon in 1972, they got around on a relatively simple battery-powered vehicle. As NASA prepares for the next crewed mission to the moon, it’s looking to give the lunar rover an upgrade.

Lockheed Martin and General Motors said Wednesday they’re working together to develop a next-generation lunar vehicle designed to be faster and capable of traveling farther distances than its predecessor. If the project is selected by NASA, the rover would be used on the upcoming Artemis missions. The first mission, which will be an uncrewed test flight, is scheduled for November. The request for proposals will likely be published in the third or fourth quarter of this year, executives said at a media briefing Wednesday. NASA will award the contract after evaluating the submitted proposals.

The previous rover was only capable of traveling less than five miles from the Apollo landing site, limiting the astronauts’ ability to collect important data on far-flung lunar locales, like the north and south poles. The Moon’s circumference is nearly 7,000 miles. The two companies are aiming to improve the specs, Lockheed’s VP for lunar exploration Kirk Shireman said, noting that the exact materials used for the new rover, its range and other capabilities have yet to be determined.

GM will also be developing an autonomous driving system for the rover, which executives said Wednesday will improve safety and the ability for astronauts to collect samples and conduct other scientific research. GM is investing more than $27 billion through 2025 in electric and autonomous vehicle technologies and it aims to bring that research to the lunar rover project, Jeffrey Ryder, VP of growth and strategy at GM Defense, said. “We’re heads-down right now in investigating how we would take those capabilities and apply them to specific missions and operation associated with the Artemis program.”

GM also said it will be using its earth-bound research into battery and propulsion systems in developing the rover. Ryder anticipates that the rover program will lead to other market opportunities.

Both companies have supplied technology for NASA missions before, including its lunar missions. Auto manufacturer GM helped develop the previous lunar rover that was used during the Apollo era, including its chassis and wheels. It also manufactured and integrated guidance and navigational systems for the program. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin’s experience extends to building spacecraft and power systems that have been included on every NASA mission to Mars.

The companies said this was “one of several initiatives” they’re working on together, with further announcements regarding other projects expected in the future.

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