Firefly launched its first rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, and on board it carried a number of payloads with an intended destination of low Earth orbit. The rocket took off as planned, and seemed to be doing fairly well during the initial portion of the launch, before experiencing “an anomaly” that clearly resulted in an explosion and the total loss of the vehicle prior to reaching space.
The rocket that flew today is Firefly’s Alpha launch vehicle, its first, and this was its first launch attempt ever of the spacecraft. Actually getting off the pad on the first try is in itself an accomplishment, and the loss of the vehicle looks to have taken place some time after what’s known as ‘max q,’ or the time when the spacecraft is experiencing the most aerodynamic stress prior to leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
Firefly issued a statement via Twitter shortly after the explosion was broadcast on a live stream hosted by Everyday Astronaut, which included official audio and video provided by the company. It added that the ground staff had cleared the pad and surrounding areas in order to minimize risk and in adherence with safety protocols.
The company expects to provide more details about what happened with the Alpha rocket and why the craft was lost later, and we’ll update accordingly.
A private commercial launch firm based in Austin, Firefly was originally founded in 204 and survived a bankruptcy to emerge as Firefly Aerospace in 2017. The company’s Alpha rocket is a fully expendable small launch vehicle that can carry around 2,200 lbs to low-Earth orbit, and it’s also developing a Beta rocket that should be able to carry around 17,000 lbs of payload to LEO.
Remember that story we posted earlier today about Virgin Galactic’s first commercial flight scheduled to launch in September?
We may have spoken too soon. This afternoon, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was grounding all Virgin Galactic flights until further notice, pending the results of the investigation into the company’s July 11 crewed flight.
“Virgin Galactic may not return the SpaceShipTwo vehicle to flight until the FAA approves the final mishap investigation report or determines the issues related to the mishap do not affect public safety.”
While the July 11 mission was completed with no injuries to staff or crew, including the company’s billionaire founder Richard Branson, it was recently uncovered that the spaceplane deviated its trajectory outside of cleared airspace. During flight, a red warning light came on the spaceplane’s dashboard, indicating that it went off its planned trajectory. The spaceplane flew off-course for a total of 1 minute and 41 seconds, the FAA said. The deviation was first reported by The New Yorker.
The regulator went on to add: “The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations. The FAA is overseeing the Virgin Galactic investigation of its July 11 SpaceShipTwo mishap that occurred over Spaceport America, New Mexico. SpaceShipTwo deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.”
Depending on whether the investigation is complete – and what it finds – that first commercial flight in September may stay stuck on the ground. That flight is supposed to send members of the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council to the edges of space, in order to study the effects on transitioning to microgravity on the human body. But until then, Richard Branson’s supersonic company has to stay grounded.
Just two months after celebrating its first manned launch to orbit – which is now under investigation with the Federal Aviation Administration – Virgin Galactic wants to return to space.
The company will be conducting its first commercial mission, the 23rd for the VSS Unity rocket-powered spaceplane, in late September or early October from the company’s sprawling Spaceport America facility. The flight will carry three crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council, each of whom paid an undisclosed amount for the seat. A Virgin Galactic staff member will also be on board.
The role of mission lead will be held by Walter Villadei, a Colonel with the Italian Air Force; Angelo Landolfi, a physician and Lieutenant Colonel; Pantaleone Carlucci, an aerospace engineer on behalf of the National Research Council; and Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses. Michael Masucci and CJ Sturckow will pilot the spaceplane.
The goal of the mission will be to evaluate the effects of the “transitional phase” from gravity to zero G on the human body; to that end, the crew members will be wearing sensors to measure physiological activity, and Villadei will even be wearing a smart suit that Virgin says will “[incorporate] Italian fashion style and technology.”
The announcement comes just one day after the FAA said that it was investigating the first crewed flight of VSS Unity in July. The news was first reported by The New Yorker and confirmed by the aerospace regulatory, who said that the spaceplane “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America.” According to journalist Nicholas Schmidle’s reporting, a red warning light appeared on the dash of the Unity during flight, indicating that it had diverged from its planned trajectory.
Virgin Galactic later issued a statement disputing the piece, saying that “athough the flights ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico.”
“At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory,” the company added.
This is not the first time Schmidle has uncovered news regarding the safety of Virgin Galactic’s supersonic operations. His book, Test Gods, also includes a previously unknown account of a 2019 test flight (confirmed in the book by former employees) which saw potentially serious issues with the plane’s wing.
First, some housekeeping: Thanks to our new corporate parents, TechCrunch has the day off tomorrow, so consider this the last chapter of The Exchange for this week. (The newsletter will go out Saturday as always.) Also, Alex is off next week. Anna is taking on next week’s newsletter and may have a column or two on deck as well.
But before we slow down for a few days, let’s chat about the most recent Y Combinator Demo Day in thematic detail.
If you caught the last few Equity episodes, some of this will be familiar, but we wanted to put a flag in the ground for later reference as we cover startups for the rest of the year.
The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.
What follows is a roundup of trends among Y Combinator startups and how they squared with our expectations.
In a group of nearly 400 startups, you might think it’d be hard to find a category that felt overrepresented, but we’ve managed.
To start, we were surprised by the sheer number of startups in the cohort that were pursuing software models that incorporated no-code and low-code techniques. We expected some, surely, but not the nearly 20 that we compiled this morning.
Startups in the YC batch are building no-code and low-code tools to help developers build faster internal workflows (Tantl), build branded real estate portals (Noloco), sync data between other no-code tools (Whalesync), automate HR (Zazos), and more. Also in the mix were BrightReps, Beau, Alchemy, Hyperseed, Enso, HitPay, Whaly, Muse, Abstra, Lago, Inai and Breadcrumbs.io.
At least 18 companies in the group name-dropped no- and low-code in their pitches. They are taking on a host of industries, from finance and real estate to sales and HR. In short, no- and low-code tools are cropping up in what feels like every sector. It appears that the startup world has decided that helping non-developers build their own tools, workflows and apps is a trend here to stay.
3D printing has garnered a lot of hype, much of it for good reason: the technology has unlocked new kinds of object shapes and geometries, and it uses materials that tend to be much lighter weight than their traditionally manufactured counterparts. But there remain high barriers to entry for many companies that either don’t have training in additive manufacturing, or that need to use materials that aren’t suitable for a traditional 3D printer.
3D printing startup AON3D wants to remove both of those barriers by increasing automation and, crucially, making more materials 3D-printable, and it has raised a $11.5 million Series A to get there.
The company manufactures industrial 3D printers for thermoplastics. What distinguishes AON3D’s platform is that it’s materials-agnostic, co-founder Kevin Han explained, meaning the printers are able to accept the more than 70,000 commercially available thermoplastic composites or even a custom blend. That’s the company’s real breakthrough, according to its founders: the ability to turn existing materials already used by clients, 3D-printing ready.
“The real big innovation beyond just the hardware cost is on the material side,” co-founder Randeep Singh explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview. “We can take in a new material from a big company […] we take that material that a customer may need to use for a specific reason, run a bunch of tests and turn it into a 3d printable process.”
By doing so, AON3D says it also opens up additive manufacturing to many more companies, who may want to pursue 3D printing but are unable to fundamentally change their materials to get there. With AON3D’s process, they don’t have to, Han explained.
The company was founded by Han, Singh, and Andrew Walker, who met while studying materials engineering at Montreal’s McGill University. AON3D was largely born out of what the trio saw as a gap in the market between 3D printers that are very expensive — up to hundreds of thousands per machine — and more consumer-geared printers that aren’t much more than a couple of hundred bucks.
They started off operating 3D printers as a service, before launching a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that ultimately garnered CAN $89,643 ($71,064) to bring the company’s debut 3D printer, the AON, to backers. Six years later, they’ve raised a total of $14.2 million in funding. This latest round was led by SineWave Ventures with participation from AlleyCorp and Y Combinator Continuity. BDC, EDC, Panache Ventures, MANA Ventures, Josh Richards & Griffin Johnson, and SV angels also participated.
Beyond selling printers and customized materials, AON3D also works with companies on an ongoing basis, giving training in additive manufacturing and ensure their printer parameters are adequate for the parts they want to make.
The company has found a number of clients in the aerospace industry, in part because of the advantages in weight — crucial for space companies, where the economics largely come down to payload size — as well as cost, time and the ability to use geometries that aren’t possible through injection molding or traditional manufacturing processes.
That includes Astrobotic Technology, a lunar exploration startup that is aiming to send a lander to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2022. Onboard the mission will be hundreds of parts printed using AON3D’s AON M2+ high-temperature printer, which will likely be the first additively manufactured parts to touch the lunar surface. These include bracketry components, including critical parts in the avionics boxes.
Image Credits: Astrobotic
“This [partnership] is giving Astrobotic the ability to use materials that they want to use very quickly,” Singh said. “Otherwise, they have really long lead time to get like material to work in a different process.” Injection molding using high-performance polymers, for example, can have a lead time of many months, he added, versus in a day or two using 3D printing.
Looking to the future, the company will be using the capital from this financing round to build a dedicated full-scale materials lab and to grow its team. The company also wants to fully automate the 3D printing process, using data coming out of the materials lab, so that any business can start using additive manufacturing for their products.
The Federal Aviation Administration is looking into an anomaly on the Virgin Galactic flight that carried Richard Branson to space. In a piece discussing not just that particular flight but the company’s various safety issues throughout the years, The New Yorker explained that Virgin’s spacecraft went off-course during descent, triggering an “entry glide-cone warning.” The spacecraft uses the glide cone method, which mimics water circling down the drain, for landing. Apparently, the pilots for the mission didn’t fly as steeply as they should have, causing the system to raise the alarm.
An FAA spokesperson confirmed to Reuters that the vehicle “deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America” and it’s investigating the incident. The agency gives missions to space a designated airspace they can fly in to prevent collisions with commercial planes and to minimize civilian casualties in the event of an accident. Virgin’s Unity 22 mission flew out of that designated airspace for a minute and forty-one seconds before the pilots were able to correct course.
Nicholas Schmidle, author of The New Yorker piece, said he attended a meeting a few years ago, wherein the same pilots on the Unity 22 flight said a red light entry glide-cone warning should “scare the shit out of you.” Apparently, that means it’s too late, and that the safest course of action is to abort. In a statement it published after the article went out, though, Virgin Galactic said it “disputes the misleading characterizations and conclusions” in the piece and that the people on the flight weren’t in any danger as a result of the flight deviation. The company said:
“When the vehicle encountered high altitude winds which changed the trajectory, the pilots and systems monitored the trajectory to ensure it remained within mission parameters. Our pilots responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions exactly as they were trained and in strict accordance with our established procedures. Although the flights ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.”
It also said that the spacecraft did not fly outside of the lateral confines of the mission’s protected airspace, though it did drop below the altitude of the airspace it was provided. The company added that it’s “working in partnership with the FAA to address the airspace for future flights.”
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.iv>
Peter Beck hasn’t been shy about his intention to grow Rocket Lab into more than just a launch provider, but a fully vertically integrated space company that makes spacecraft in addition to sending them to orbit. The company, which he founded in 2006, has taken yet another major stride toward that goal with the news Wednesday that it will open a new production facility to manufacture satellite components at a larger scale than ever before.
The facility will manufacture reaction wheels, critical attitude and stability control systems on satellites. Rocket Lab says the facility, which will be operational in the fourth quarter of this year, will be capable of producing up to 2,000 reaction wheels annually. Given that spacecraft generally have between 3 and 4 reaction wheels, it’s safe to assume that Rocket Lab customers likely have around 500 individual satellites ready in the pipeline to accept these components. “These are these are large volumes of supply across multiple constellations,” Rocket Lab CEO Beck said in a recent interview with TechCrunch.
The news is a marked expansion for Rocket Lab’s space systems business, which is already kept busy by the in-house Photon spacecraft and was boosted last year when the company acquired major satellite hardware manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary. Rocket Lab also offers bespoke Photons for individual use cases – it will be designing the vehicles for forthcoming launches with space manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries and two Photons that will be sent to Mars on an upcoming science mission.
Historically, spacecraft components have generally been produced on the scale of tens or hundreds, because the barriers to get to orbit were so high. But as the cost of launch has declined (thanks in part to innovations from companies like Rocket Lab) more and more entities are able to send projects to space. That means more satellites, and more reaction wheels. Even today, there are around 200 Rocket Lab-made reaction wheels in orbit, so 2,000 in a single year is a huge jump in scale.
It’s all part of Rocket Lab’s goal of being a fully-integrated space services company. A major benefit from the vertical integration for customers, Rocket Lab says, is slashed manufacturing lead times. Beck said that when the company first started producing Photons, they quickly encountered months-long delivery times for reaction wheels, which effectively pushed back their timeline for launching one to orbit.
“If the space economy is to grow in the way that it’s predicted, then this has to be solved,” he said. “This is a fundamental problem that has to be solved. The whole space supply chain is characterized by small scale operations that really lack the ability to produce volume in any scale.”
Rocket Lab will be hiring more than 16 roles to support the space systems division and the new production facility, which will otherwise be highly automated; the company said in a statement that the production tools and environmental testing workstations will all be automated, and the metal machining is optimized to operate unattended. Beck said these techniques are very much in line with Rocket Lab’s other manufacturing processes – he pointed to Rosie the Robot as a cornerstone of the company’s capacity to use automation to rapidly scale its products.
Beck stayed mum about whether the company is planning on scaling the production of other spacecraft components, like the star trackers navigation tool, which Rocket Lab also manufacturers. However, he did say that the company plans on introducing new products – what those will be will, he declined to specify. But Beck’s stated aim when he started the space systems division is that “everything that goes to space should have a Rocket Lab logo on it.”
That aim goes to Rocket Lab’s larger vision, which is becoming an end-to-end space company: combining launch services with spacecraft manufacturing to be able to build in-orbit infrastructure.
“When you combine those things together, you have an immensely powerful platform that you can use to develop infrastructure in orbit and ultimately provide services,” he said.
But when asked what kinds of services he was thinking of, Beck played it close to the chest, instead choosing to give a well-known example from a competitor: SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellite project, which it builds and launches itself. He stayed mum on what kinds of ventures Rocket Lab might pursue, just saying that the vertical integration gives the company the ability to try new business models.
“The marginal cost for us to experiment is very, very low.”