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SpaceX launches 60 more satellites during 15th Starlink mission

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched another batch of 60 Starlink satellites, the primary ingredient for its forthcoming global broadband internet service. The launch took place at 11:31 AM EDT, with a liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This is the fifteenth Starlink launch thus far, and SpaceX has now launched nearly 900 of the small, low Earth orbit satellites to date.

This launch used a Falcon 9 first stage booster that twice previously, both times earlier this year, including just in September for the delivery of a prior batch of Starlink satellites. The booster was also recovered successfully with a landing at sea aboard SpaceX’s ‘Just Read the Instructions’ floating autonomous landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Earlier this week, Ector County Independent School District in Texas announced itself as a new pilot partner for SpaceX’s Starlink network. Next year, that district will gain connectivity to low latency broadband via Starlink’s network, connecting up to 45 households at first, with plans to expand it to 90 total household customers as more of the constellation is launched and brought online.

SpaceX’s goal with Starlink is to provide broadband service globally at speeds and with latency previously unavailable in hard-to-reach and rural areas. Its large constellation, which will aim to grow to tens of thousands of satellites before it achieves its max target coverage, offers big advantages in terms of latency and reliability vs. large geosynchronous satellites that provide most current satellite-based internet available commercially.

Microsoft debuts Azure Space to cater to the space industry, partners with SpaceX for Starlink datacenter broadband

By Darrell Etherington

Microsoft is taking its Azure cloud computing platform to the final frontier – space. It now has a dedicated business unit called Azure Space for that purpose, made up of industry heavyweights and engineers who are focused on space-sector services including simulation of space missions, gathering and interpreting satellite data to provide insights, and providing global satellite networking capabilities through new and expanded partnerships.

One of Microsoft’s new partners for Azure Space is SpaceX, the progenitor and major current player in the so-called ‘New Space’ industry. SpaceX will be providing Microsoft with access to its Starlink low-latency satellite based broadband network for Microsoft’s new Azure Modular Datacenter (MDC) – essentially an on-demand container-based datacenter unit that can be deployed in remote locations, either to operate on their own or boost local cababilities.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The MDC is a contained unit, and can operate off-grid using its own satellite network connectivity add-on. It’s similar in concept to the company’s work on underwater data centres, but keeping it on the ground obviously opens up more opportunities in terms of locating it where people need it, rather than having to be proximate to an ocean or sea.

The other big part of this announcement focuses on space preparedness via simulation. Microsoft revealed the Azure Orbital Emulator today, which provides in a computer emulated environment the ability to test satellites constellation operations in simulation, using both software and hardware. It’s basically aiming to provide as close to in-space conditions as are possible on the ground in order to get everything ready for coordinating large, interconnected constellations of automated satellites in low Earth orbit, an increasing need as more defense agencies and private companies pursue this approach vs. the legacy method of relying on one, two or just a few large geosynchronous spacecraft.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft says the goal with the Orbital Emulator is to train AI for use on orbital spacecraft before those spacecraft are actually launched – from the early development phase, right up to working with production hardware on the ground before it takes its trip to space. That’s definitely a big potential competitive advantage, because it should help companies spot even more potential problems early on while they’re still relatively easy to fix (not the case on orbit).

This emulated environment for on-orbit mission prep is already in use by Azure Government customers, the company notes. It’s also looking for more partners across government and industry for space-related services, including communication, national security., satellite services including observation and telemetry and more.

Daily Crunch: Pakistan un-bans TikTok

By Anthony Ha

TikTok returns to Pakistan, Apple launches a music-focused streaming station and SpaceX launches more Starlink satellites. This is your Daily Crunch for October 19, 2020.

The big story: Pakistan un-bans TikTok

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority blocked the video app 11 days ago, over what it described as “immoral,” “obscene” and “vulgar” videos. The authority said today that it’s lifting the ban after negotiating with TikTok management.

“The restoration of TikTok is strictly subject to the condition that the platform will not be used for the spread of vulgarity/indecent content & societal values will not be abused,” it continued.

This isn’t the first time this year the country tried to crack down on digital content. Pakistan announced new internet censorship rules this year, but rescinded them after Facebook, Google and Twitter threatened to leave the country.

The tech giants

Apple launches a US-only music video station, Apple Music TV —  The new music video station offers a free, 24-hour live stream of popular music videos and other music content.

Google Cloud launches Lending DocAI, its first dedicated mortgage industry tool — The tool is meant to help mortgage companies speed up the process of evaluating a borrower’s income and asset documents.

Facebook introduces a new Messenger API with support for Instagram — The update means businesses will be able to integrate Instagram messaging into the applications and workflows they’re already using in-house to manage their Facebook conversations.

Startups, funding and venture capital

SpaceX successfully launches 60 more Starlink satellites, bringing total delivered to orbit to more than 800 — That makes 835 Starlink satellites launched thus far, though not all of those are operational.

Singapore tech-based real estate agency Propseller raises $1.2M seed round — Propseller combines a tech platform with in-house agents to close transactions more quickly.

Ready Set Raise, an accelerator for women built by women, announces third class — Ready Set Raise has changed its programming to be more focused on a “realistic fundraising process” vetted by hundreds of women.

Advice and analysis for Extra Crunch

Are VCs cutting checks in the closing days of the 2020 election? — Several investors told TechCrunch they were split about how they’re making these decisions.

Disney+ UX teardown: Wins, fails and fixes — With the help of Built for Mars founder and UX expert Peter Ramsey, we highlight some of the things Disney+ gets right and things that should be fixed.

Late-stage deals made Q3 2020 a standout VC quarter for US-based startups — Investors backed a record 88 megarounds of $100 million or more.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

US charges Russian hackers blamed for Ukraine power outages and the NotPetya ransomware attack — Prosecutors said the group of hackers, who work for the Russian GRU, are behind the “most disruptive and destructive series of computer attacks ever attributed to a single group.”

Stitcher’s podcasts arrive on Pandora with acquisition’s completion — SiriusXM today completed its previously announced $325 million acquisition of podcast platform Stitcher from E.W. Scripps, and has now launched Stitcher’s podcasts on Pandora.

Original Content podcast: It’s hard to resist the silliness of ‘Emily in Paris’ — The show’s Paris is a fantasy, but it’s a fantasy that we’re happy to visit.

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.

NASA loads 14 companies with $370M for ‘tipping point’ technologies

By Devin Coldewey

NASA has announced more than a third of a billion dollars worth of “Tipping Point” contracts awarded to over a dozen companies pursuing potentially transformative space technologies. The projects range from in-space testing of cryogenic tech to a 4G LTE network for the Moon.

The space agency is almost always accepting applications for at least one of its many grant and contract programs, and Tipping Point is directly aimed at commercial space capabilities that need a bit of a boost. According to the program description, “a technology is considered at a tipping point if an investment in a demonstration will significantly mature the technology, increase the likelihood of infusion into a commercial space application, and bring the technology to market for both government and commercial applications.”

In this year’s awards, which take the form of multi-year contracts with multiple milestones, the focus was on two main areas: cryogenics and lunar surface tech. Note that the amounts provided are not necessarily the cost of developing the tech, but rather the sums deemed necessary to advance it to the next stage. Here’s a brief summary of each award:

Cryogenics

  • Eta Space, $27M: In-space demonstration of a complete cryogenic oxygen management system
  • Lockheed Martin, $89.7M: In-space demonstration of liquid hydrogen in over a dozen cryogenic applications
  • SpaceX, $53.2M: Flight demonstration transferring 10 tons of liquid oxygen between tanks in Starship
  • ULA, $86.2M: Demonstration of a smart propulsion cryogenic system on a Vulcan Centaur upper stage

Lunar surface innovation

  • Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance, $22.1M: Develop a small tech and science platform for lunar surface testing
  • Astrobotic, $5.8M: “Mature” a fast wireless charging system for use on the lunar surface
  • Intuitive Machines, $41.6M: Develop a hopper lander with a 2.2-pound payload capacity and 1.5-mile range
  • Masten Space Systems, $2.8M: Demonstrate a universal chemical heat and power source for lunar nights and craters
  • Masten Space Systems, $10M: Demonstrate precision landing an hazard avoidance on its Xogdor vehicle (Separate award under “descent and landing” heading)
  • Nokia of America, $14.1M: Deploy the first LTE network in space for lunar surface communications
  • pH Matter, $3.4M: Demonstrate a fuel cell for producing and storing energy on the lunar surface
  • Precision Compustion, $2.4M: Advance a cheap oxide fuel stack to generate power from propellants
  • Sierra Nevada, $2.4M: Demonstrate a device using solar energy to extract oxygen from lunar regolith
  • SSL Robotics, $8.7M: Develop a lighter, cheaper robotic arm for surface, orbital, and “terrestrial defense” applications
  • Teledyne Energy Systems, $2.8M: Develop a hydrogen fuel cell power system with a 10,000-hour battery life

You can read more about the proposal process and NASA’s areas of interest at the Tipping Point solicitation page.

Starlink puts towns devastated by wildfires online for disaster relief workers

By Devin Coldewey

SpaceX’s Starlink has showed its utility in connecting far-flung locations to the internet quickly and relatively simply in Washington, where like much of the west coast wildfires have caused enormous damage to rural areas. A couple small towns in the state have received Starlink connections to help locals and emergency workers.

The town of Malden was almost completely destroyed, but restoration efforts are underway, and of course it helps to be able to access the internet for communicating with residents and authorities. With power and cellular service unreliable, satellite internet is a good temporary option, and Starlink stepped up.

As SpaceX founder Elon Musk said on Twitter, the company is prioritizing emergency responders and areas without internet:

Glad SpaceX could help! We are prioritizing emergency responders & locations with no Internet connectivity at all.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 28, 2020

The effort is being organized through the state’s Emergency Management Division, a part of the military that, as you might expect, helps manage emergencies.

Steven Friederich, an EMD public information officer, explained in an email that the division has been using Starlink for a few weeks to provide public internet hotspots. The town “had a pretty big fire come through town and it burned a good chunk of the area, including the fire station and the post office. There simply hasn’t been a way to get a fast and reliable Internet connection there for the public to use,” he said.

A phone, wifi hotspot, and outlet for use by people in wildfire affected areas in Washington.

Image Credits: WA EMD

“Space X volunteered the use of their equipment to us and our Emergency Communications staff were grateful to have it,” he continued. “We were given seven terminals to use wherever we could use them free of charge. Space X, as you know, doesn’t have coverage everywhere in the country, but as it happens, they have coverage here in our state.”

That would be due to the incompleteness of the Starlink satellite constellation, which will eventually be thousands strong but currently “only” has about 600. Reliable coverage is limited to certain areas while SpaceX fills out the system.

The EMD has been working for some time on the problem of how to maintain connectivity in the case of a disaster (or indeed a pandemic) and Starlink happened to be the method they chose to test out this time.

“This is a device we could definitely utilize should we have more wildfires or even larger disasters, such as a Cascadia Subduction earthquake event, where communication problems would be a huge hurdle,” said Friederich.

The Cascadia Subduction event is the looming catastrophic earthquake on the order of a 9 referred to colloquially (and fatalistically) by those in the region as “The Big One.” If there’s anything left at all after that, satellite internet connections will indeed be helpful in putting things back together.

Watch SpaceX launch 60 more Starlink satellites for its broadband internet service

By Darrell Etherington

UPDATE: Scrubbed for today due to weather.

SpaceX is launching 60 additional satellites to join the over 500 already on orbit as part of its Starlink global broadband internet constellation. The launch is set to take off at 10:22 AM EDT (7:22 AM PDT) and will fly from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This is the third flight for the booster, which previously flew during SpaceX’s historic first crewed astronaut flight, as well as a prior satellite launch on behalf of a customer. The mission includes a recovery attempt of the booster stage so that it can be potentially flown again.

SpaceX has been ramping up deployment of Starlink this year as it prepares to launch a public beta of service before the end of 2020, and an expansion to more regions for the affordable, far-reaching network next year.

Contestants will compete for a SpaceX trip to the International Space Station in new reality TV show

By Darrell Etherington

There’s a reality TV competition show in the works that will feature a 2023 trip to the International Space Station as the grand prize, Deadline reports. The production company behind the show, which will be called “Space Hero,” has booked a seat on a SpaceX Dragon crew spacecraft set to make the trip to the ISS in 2023, and will make it the reward for whoever comes out the winner in a competition among “everyday people from any background who share a deep love for space exploration,” according to the report.

The competition will be an ersatz astronaut training program of sorts, including physical challenges, as well as puzzles and problem-solving tasks, as well as emotionally challenging scenarios, according to Deadline. That will lead up to what producers are currently planning will be a live episode featuring a global viewer vote about who ultimately will win. The show will also include documenting the winner’s ISS trip, including their launch and 10-day space station stay, as well as their return journey and landing.

To bring all these pieces together, the production team is working with Axiom Space, a private space travel services provider and mission operator, as well as NASA, with which it’s discussing what might be done in terms of STEM education add-ons for this planned programming.

Deadline says that “Survivor” creator and reality industry giant Mark Burnett has previously tried multiple times to create a reality show with a trip to space as the main component. One such effort, an NBC-based program called “Space Race,” was created in partnership with Richard Branson and focused on Virgin Galactic, but it was ended after that company’s fatal testing accident in 2015.

There’s also a movie production in the works that’s bound for the space station as a filming location, and those efforts are being spearheaded by Tom Cruise, who will star in the yet untitled project. NASA has repeatedly said it welcomes increased commercialization of low-Earth orbit and the ISS, and it also intentionally sought out private partners like SpaceX for its U.S.-based astronaut launch vehicles, in the hopes that they would be able to book other, private clients for flights to help defray mission costs.

Watch SpaceX launch 60 more Starlink satellites for its broadband internet service live

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is set to launch the latest batch of its Starlink satellites on Thursday, with a target lift-off time of 2:19 PM EDT (11:19 AM PDT). The mission will take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and there’s a backup opportunity tomorrow at 1:57 PM EDT (10:57 AM PDT) in case weather or any other issues prevent a launch attempt today.

The launch today will add to SpaceX’s growing constellation of operational Starlink satellites on orbit. There are now over 500 of these circling the globe, as SpaceX conducts private beta testing of its high-speed, low-latency consumer internet service and prepares for an open beta launch later this year. The goal is to create a scalable, eventually globe-spanning service that can provide service where previously unavailable, or to customers who had to rely on shaky or slow connections in past.

The launch today includes use of a Falcon 9 first stage booster that has flow twice previously, including first during SpaceX’s landmark Demo-2 Crew Dragon mission, the first ever for the company to carry human astronauts. SpaceX will also be attempting to recover the booster yet again for another future launch. One of the two fairing halves that protect the cargo atop the Falcon 9 was also used previously, on two separate occasions, for other Starlink satellite launches.

The livestream above will begin roughly 15 minutes before the target liftoff time, so at around 2:04 PM EDT (11:04 AM PDT).

Firehawk Aerospace aims to revolutionize rocketry with safe, cost-effective hybrid engines

By Darrell Etherington

While SpaceX and its ilk in the commercial rocket launch market have changed the economics of space and ushered in an era of small satellite entrepreneurship, the actual rocket engine technology they use isn’t that different from what was in use 50 years ago when NASA was making its first forays into outer space.

Firehawk Aerospace, a new startup founded by CEO Will Edwards and Chairman and Chief Scientists Ron Jones, wants to change that with a stable, cost-effective hybrid rocket fuel that employs additive manufacturing (industrial-scale 3D printing) to overcome the hurdles and limitations of previous hybrid fuel engine designs.

Hybrid rockets themselves – ones that use a combination of solid fuel and liquid oxidizer – aren’t new, but they have always faced significant limitations in terms of their performance metrics and maximum thrust power. Jones, a longtime rocket propulsion researcher and aerospace structures and advanced composite engineer, has been fascinated with engine technology and how to overcome the limits of past hybrid engine designs, while also retaining the benefits – including safety and cost.

Jones had been very interested in physics and engineering through high school and college, but ultimately joined the Navy and became an aviator before later coming back around to working in the aerospace industry. Meanwhile, he took advantage of the advent of the internet in its early days to begin diving deeper into his early love of rocketry, specifically researching hybrid engine technology and trading notes with experts all around the world.

“Ultimately, I came up with two concepts together,” Jones told me in an interview. “One is that they were using the wrong fuel – the fuel they were using was too elastic. Once you put it under pressure, it’s going to reverberate, and it’s not very strong so as it gets thinner, it will essentially break off chunks, and you lose a lot of fuel. So I switched that to a structurally very hard polymer. And second, I could see that they’re molding in casting just wasn’t a good idea. I switched that out to additive manufacturing.”

With additive manufacturing, which builds up a structure over time by extruding material, instead of pouring a liquid into a form and allowing it to harden, you can do things that are impossible with molding, including building up intentional, very structured internals. If you’ve ever seen at-home consumer 3D printing, it’s like the criss-cross patter you see in larger solids to provide rigidity or support to the external surfaces. That turned out to unlock a lot of potential for solid rocket fuel pellets.

“With additive manufacturing, I was able to do something no one else had done before. And that is to create a highly engineered internal structure that you can’t do with molding,” he said. “With those internal structures, we’ve been able to greatly improve the performance of the rocket engine, making it very reliable and also very safe, and these were the primary attributes that I was going after.”

Firehawk now holds five patents related to its 3D printing of rocket fuel, and it has already conducted 32 engine hot fire tests at both 200 lbs and 500 lbs of thrust to verify that its design actually works. The startup is also working on an engine capable of 5,000 lbs of thrust (roughly equivalent to Rocket Lab Electron’s second stage), which it plans to begin testing later this year at a new facility it’s building for the purpose.

As mentioned, current launch companies are already operating using much older, but still effective, rocket technology. So why bother with a new type of hybrid engine design? For a number of reasons, but efficiency and safety are chief among them.

Firehawk’s fuel can be stored, transported and handled much more safely, since it’s not susceptible to accidental detonation when the fuel and oxidizer are separate. It’s also non-toxic, and only produces exhaust that Firehawk says is “environmentally benign.” Safe handling of existing rocket fuel options for large launch vehicles requires a lot of special care and safety, as well as training, all of which adds up to time and expense.

Firehawk can also provide custom engine designs in between 4 to 6 months, it says, whereas typical new rocket engine development based on existing technology usually takes between 5 to 7 years. That time savings also adds up to significant budget savings – on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars – meaning new and better rockets can be iterated more quickly, without long useful lifetimes required between generations to recoup initial R&D costs.

The fuel can also be stored and transported over long durations, and even potentially stopped and restarted mid-flight, all of which means that longer and more complex missions can be accomplished at far lower costs than ever before. Obviously, the potential has sparked a lot of interest from both potential commercial and government customers, according to CEO Edwards.

Earlier this year, Firehawk Aerospace closed a $2 million seed round, from investors including Victorum Capital, Achieve Capital, and Harlow Capital Management, and they’re currently looking to grow the team, particular with driven engineers looking to work on the future of rocket propulsion. It’s also in process with a number of potential partners and letters of intent for commercialization of its technology.

Elon Musk says Starship SN8 prototype will have a nosecone and attempt a 60,000-foot return flight

By Darrell Etherington

Elon Musk has shared some details about future testing of Starship, the SpaceX launch vehicle currently being developed by the company at its Boca Chica, Texas facility. Recently, SpaceX has completed short, 150 meter (just under 500 feet) test flights of two earlier Starship prototypes, SN5 and SN6 – and SN8, which is currently set to be done construction “in about a week” according to Musk will have “flaps & nosecone” and ultimately is intended for a much higher altitude test launch.

The prototypes that SpaceX has flown and landed for its so-called ‘short-hop’ tests over the past few weeks have been full-sized, but with a simulated weight installed on the top in place of the actual domed nosecone that will perch atop the final production Starship and protect any cargo on board. SN5 and SN6, which are often compared to grain silos, are also lacking the large control flaps on either side of the nosecone that will help control its flight. SN8 will have both, according to Musk.

This version of the prototype will also undergo the same early testing and its precursors, including a static fire and other ground checkouts, followed by another static fire before ultimately attempting to fly to an altitude of 60,000 feet – and then returning back to the ground for a controlled landing.

SpaceX is off pace when it comes to Starship development relative to Musk’s earliest, rosiest projections – but the CEO is known for overly optimistic estimates when it comes to timeframes, something he’s repeatedly copped to himself.

Rocket development is also notoriously difficult, so this first high-altitude flight attempt could just as easily go very poorly. SpaceX in particular has a development program that focuses on rapid iteration, and learning from earlier mistakes while building simultaneous development prototypes incorporating different lessons gleaned from various generations. And while it may not have made Musk’s crazy timelines, it is moving very quickly, especially now that the most recent prototypes have survived pressure testing and made it up into the air.

Rocket startup Astra’s first orbital launch attempt ends early due to first-stage burn failure

By Darrell Etherington

Alameda-based rocket launch startup Astra finally got the chance to launch its first orbital test mission from its Alaska-based facility on Saturday, after the attempt had been delayed multiple times due to weather and other issues. The 8:19 PM PT lift-off of Astra’s ‘Rocket 3.1’ test vehicle went well – but the flight ended relatively shortly after that, during the first-stage engine burn and long before reaching orbit.

Astra wasn’t expecting to actually reach orbit on this particular flight – it has always said that its goal is to reach orbit within three test flights of Rocket, and prior to this first mission, said that the main goal was to have a good first-stage burn on this one specifically. This wasn’t a nominal first-stage burn, of course, since that’s when the failure occurred, but the company still noted in a blog post that “the rocket performed very well” according to their first reviews of the data.

pic.twitter.com/PGYv26ZqrF

— Jennifer Culton (@CultonJennifer) September 12, 2020

The mission ended early because of what appears to be a bit of unwanted back-and-forth wobbling in the rocket as it ascended, Astra said, which caused an engine shutdown by the vehicle’s automated safety system. That’s actually also good news, since it means the steps Astra has taken to ensure safe failures are also working as designed. You can see in the video above that the light of the rocket’s engines simply go out during flight, and then some time later there’s a fireball from its impact on the ground.

It’s worth noting that most first flights of entirely new rockets don’t go entirely as planned – including those by SpaceX, whose founder and CEO Elon Musk expressed his encouragement to the Astra team on Twitter. Likewise, Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck also chimed in with support. Not to mention that Astra has been operating under extreme conditions, with just a six-person team on the ground in Alaska to deploy the launch system, which was set up in under a week, due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Astra will definitely be able to get a lot of valuable data out of this launch that it can use to put towards improving the chances of its next try going well. The company notes that it expects to review said data “over the next several weeks” as it proceeds towards the second flight in this series of three attempts. Rocket 3.2, the test article for that mission, is already completed and awaiting that try.

NASA issues new call for lunar payload deliveries from its commercial moon lander partners

By Darrell Etherington

NASA wants its private commercial space company partners to make more moon deliveries on its behalf: The agency just issued another request for scientific and experimental payloads that need lunar delivery sometime in 2022, in part to help pave the way for NASA’s Artemis human lunar landing mission planned for 2024.

NASA previously established its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in order to build a stable of approved vendors for a special special type of service, namely providing lunar landers that would be able to handle last-mile delivery of special payloads to the moon. It now counts 14 companies on this list of vendors, including Astrobotic, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Firefly to name a few, who are eligible to bid on contracts it creates to take specific cargo to the lunar surface.

NASA has contracted two batches of payloads under the CLPS program, which will make up four planned total launches already under contract, including Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One set for June 2021; Intuitive Machines IM-1 for October the same year; Masten’s Mission One for December 2022; and Astrobotic’s VIPER mission for sometime in 2023.

The list of new payloads for this round include a variety of scientific instruments, including a lunar regolith (that’s the moon equivalent of soil) adhesion testing device, X-ray imagers, a dust shield created by the interaction of electric fields and an advanced moon vacuum for returning surface samples to Earth for more testing.

NASA’s private partners on the CLPS list will now be able to submit bids to cary the new list of 10 experiments and demonstrations, with the goal of delivering said equipment by 2022. The agency expects to pick a winner for this latest award by the end of this year.

SpaceX completes another successful short test flight of its Starship spacecraft prototype

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has done it again – a second ‘hop’ flight in under a month for its Starship prototype. This was a 150 meter (just under 500 foot) test flight from its Boca Chica, Texas development site. The prototype used in this instance was SN6, a more recent model than the SN5 test article that SpaceX used to complete a similar test at the beginning of August.

The hop flight is a key part of its testing program for Starship, and its Raptor engine. These prototypes are equipped with only one such engine, but the final production version will have six, including three designed to fly in Earth’s atmosphere, and three to be used while the vehicle is in space.

SpaceX accomplishing two of these flights with a controlled, upright landing in rapid succession is a very good sign for the spacecraft’s development program, since there have been a number of previous prototypes which never made it to this point. Earlier versions encountered pressurization failures under load when simulating what the conditions would be with fuel on board.

These short hops help SpaceX gather data bout Raptor performance, as well as the performance of a full-sized prototype Starship (though without elements including the nosecone and eventual landing legs). All of this will inform later tests, including a much higher sub-orbital atmospheric flight intended to go around as high as commercial airplanes fly, and eventually, the first orbital Starship launch, which is currently likely to take place next year at the earliest.

SpaceX is pursuing a rapid iteration development plan for Starship, creating multiple generations of prototype at once at its Boca Chica site, with the aim of testing and improving the design quickly, while also learning from failures. The goal had been to fly Starship’s first operational missions sometime next year, but it will be incredibly impressive if the company manages that considering where they’re at in the rocket’s development cycle.

SpaceX confirms Starlink internet private beta underway, showing low latency and speeds over 100Mbps

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has confirmed some details of its Starlink internet service beta test, via SpaceX engineer Kate Tice on today’s launch webcast for its most recent Starlink satellite mission. Tice said that SpaceX’s service has demonstrated latency low enough to allow it to play the “fastest multiplayer” networked online games, and that it has also shown download speeds in excess of 100Mbps, which she added is fast enough to stream multiple HD video streams at once, with additional bandwidth to spare.

Anyone who has spent any time using an existing connection a rural, poorly covered area that relies on either traditional satellite or perhaps limited cellular-based service will know that both these parameters far exceed the capabilities of most existing options. Starlink’s goal is to leapfrog what’s out there already with its low Earth orbit constellation, which has the advantage of transmitting its signal much closer in to Earth than the far-out geostationary satellites that provide legacy networking capabilities.

Tice also said that while performance so far has been impressive during the private beta, the company expects both more features and greater capabilities to be unlocked over time through updates. She also said that SpaceX recently completed it first inter-satellite link between Starlink spacecraft – which can transfer 100s of gigabytes of data between satellites via optical laser, at speeds that will be the fastest available anywhere for inter-satellite communications. This is a core capability for the network, which will rely on handoffs between Starlink satellites to maintain connections as they orbit the Earth.

While the current private beta is essentially limited to SpaceX employees, and designed to help them fine-tune the network as it comes online for the first time, Tice said that the public Starlink beta is still on track to kick off later this year. SpaceX has asked those interested in participating to sign up via its Starlink website, and earlier this year a leak from said website provide a detailed look at how the public beta will operate when live.

SpaceX successfully launches 60 more of its Starlink high-speed broadband internet satellites

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched its latest batch of Starlink internet satellites, a full complement of 60 spacecraft that will join those already on orbit to add to the constellation. These will form the backbone of SpaceX’s broadband internet service, which will aim to provide low-latency, high-speed connections to customers and regions where quality, consistent service hasn’t been available.

The launch took place at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, from SpaceX’s launch facility at 8:46 AM EDT (5:46 AM PDT). The Falcon 9 rocket used on the launch included a first-stage booster that flew once previously – just a few months ago in June. SpaceX also successfully recovered the Falcon 9 booster once again with a controlled landing at sea on its ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ drone landing ship.

The company will also be attempting to recover the fairing used to protect the satellites during launch for this mission, which includes two halves that have a combined value of around $6 million per launch.

Lately, SpaceX has been flying Starlink missions with shared payloads, dedicated a small amount of the available cargo space to clients including Planet and others for their own satellites. Today’s launch was a return to form of earlier Starlink missions, carrying only SpaceX’s own satellites. This was the 12th total Starlink mission, and the 10th this year alone.

SpaceX also confirmed that its Starlink service is currently in private beta testing, and that a public beta test is planned for later this year. The company hopes to begin to offer paid service more broadly next year.

Watch SpaceX launch its 12th Starlink satellite internet mission live

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is about to hit an even dozen for its Starlink launches, which carry the company’s own broadband internet satellites to low Earth orbit. This flight carries a full 60-satellite complement of the Starlink spacecraft, after the last couple of these have reserved a little space for client payloads. The launch is set to take off at 8:46 AM EDT (5:46 AM PDT) from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and there’s a backup opportunity tomorrow morning should it need to be scrubbed for any reason.

This mission will use a Falcon 9 booster that has flown once previously, just a few months ago in June for a mission that delivered a GPS III satellite on behalf of the U.S. Space Force. SpaceX will also try to recover the booster with a landing at sea on its ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ drone landing ship.

Starlink has been by far the most frequent launch focus for SpaceX this year, as the company ramps the size of its active constellation in preparation for the deployment of its service in the U.S. According to some internet speed testing websites, the service is already being used by some individuals, and a leak from SpaceX’s dedicated Starlink website indicates a broader public beta test is imminent. The company has said service should be available in parts of the U.S. and Canada by later this year, with a planned expansion to follow in 2021.

The webcast above should go live about 15 minutes prior to the liftoff time, so at around 8:31 AM EDT (5:31 AM PDT).

European launch provider Arianespace successfully launches a satellite rideshare demonstration mission

By Darrell Etherington

The small satellite launch industry is heating up, with a number of small launch providers currently vying to become the next with an active orbital launch vehicle. Existing large launch vehicle operator Arianespace is also joining the fray, however, and performed a first demonstration launch to show how its rideshare offering will work for small satellite companies. This also marks the first launch for Arianespace in over a year, after a number of launches planned for earlier in 2020 were scrubbed or delayed due to COVID-19 and the mitigating measures put in place in French Guiana where it has its launch facility.

Arianespace launched its Vega light payload rocket from the Guiana Space Center at 9:51 PM ET (6:51 PM PT) on Wednesday evening, carrying a total of 53 satellites on board to various target destinations in low Earth orbit. This was a proof-of-concept mission, funded in part by the European Space Agency and the European Commission, but it did carry actual satellites on behalf of commercial customers – including 26 for remote space-based sensing company Planet. IoT connectivity startup Swarm had 12 of its tiny satellites on board, and communications satellite startup Kepler sent up. its third-satellite. Two other startups, Satellogic, which does remote sensing, and GHGSat, which does methane emission tracking, also had satellites among the large shared payload.

This mission was intended to show that Arianespace’s Vega vehicle is able to serve the needs of small satellite rideshare customers. The rideshare model is a popular one for small satellite operators, since it helps spread the cost of a launch across multiple customers. Small satellites are extremely lightweight relative to the large, geosynchronous satellites that many of these launch vehicles were intended to carry on behalf of government and defense customers, so their operators typically don’t have the budget to support booking up a full-scale launch.

SpaceX introduced a self-booked rideshare model last year for small satellite companies, and Rocket Lab offers a service dedicated to the same market, with smaller launch vehicles that greatly reduce launch costs and that can carry small satellites more directly to their target destination. The market seems ready to support more launch providers, however, and for Arianespace, it’s a way to diversify their offering and bring in new revenue while serving this growing demand.

Rocket Lab returns to flight with a successful launch of a Capella Space satellite

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab is back to active launch status after encountering an issue with its last mission that resulted in a loss of the payload. In just over a month, Rocket Lab was able to identify what went wrong with the Electron launch vehicle used on that mission and correct the issue. On Sunday, it successfully launched a Sequoia satellite on behalf of client Capella Space from its New Zealand launch facility.

The “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical” mission is Rocket Lab’s 14th Electron launch, and it lifted off from the company’s private pad at 11:05 PM EDT (8:05 PM PDT). The Sequoia satellite is the first in startup Capella Space’s constellation of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites to be available to general customers. When complete, the constellation will provide hourly high-quality imaging of Earth, using radar rather than optical sensors in order to provide accurate imaging regardless of cloud cover and available light.

This launch seems to have gone off exactly as planned, with the Electron successfully lifting off and delivering the Capella Space satellite to its target orbit. Capella had been intending to launch this spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket via a rideshare mission, but after delays to that flight, it changed tack and opted for a dedicated launch with Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab’s issue with its July 4 launch was a relatively minor one – an electrical system failure that caused the vehicle to simply shut down, as a safety measure. The team’s investigation revealed a component of the system that was not stress-tested as strenuously as it should’ve been, and Rocket Lab immediately instituted a fix for both future and existing in-stock Electron vehicles in order to get back to active flight in as little time as possible.

While Rocket Lab has also been working on a recovery system that will allow it to reuse the booster stage of its Electron for multiple missions, this launch didn’t involve any tests related to that system development. The company still hopes to test recovery of a booster sometime before the end of this year on an upcoming launch.

SpaceX successfully launches its first polar orbit mission from Florida

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX performed a milestone first polar orbit launch of a satellite from its East Coast launch facility at Cape Canaveral on Sunday. The Falcon 9 mission carried three payloads, including a SAOCOM-1B synthetic aperture radar satellite which was flown on behalf of the Argentine space agency, and two small satellites for clients Tyvack and PlanetiQ.

The launch took place at 7:18 PM EDT from Florida, and used a first-stage booster that SpaceX previously flew on two separate commercial resupply missions on behalf of NASA for the international Space Station, as well as one of SpaceX’s recent Starlink internet satellite launches. SpaceX also recovered the booster again with a controlled landing back at their landing site at Cape Canaveral.

This was originally set to be one of two launches that SpaceX was going to perform on Sunday — both from the same launch facility, though at different pads. That would’ve been a historic first, but weather earlier in the day meant that the first mission on the schedule, a Starlink launch, was cancelled and will be rescheduled.

SpaceX would ultimately like to be launching at a cadence that would include multiple launches per day, and this would’ve been a great test of its ability to operationalize that ambition. Considering how aggressive the company has been with its Starlink launches, however, it seems likely we’ll encounter another opportunity for a double launch day at some point in the future.

Boeing and NASA target December for second try at uncrewed orbital demonstration flight

By Darrell Etherington

NASA and Boeing have provided some updates around their Commercial Crew plans, which aim to get Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft certified for regular human flight. The CST-100 and Boeing’s Commercial Crew aspirations hit a snag last year with a first attempt of an uncrewed orbital flight test, which did not go to plan thanks to a couple of software errors that led to an early mission ending, and a failure to reach the International Space Station as intended.

In a blog post on Friday, NASA said that it and partner Boeing were aiming to fly the re-do of that uncrewed test no earlier than December 2020. This will involve flying the fully reusable Starliner CST-100 without anyone on board, in a live, fully automated simulation of how a launch with crew would go, including a rendezvous and docking with the ISS on orbit, and a return trip and controlled landing and capsule recovery.

During the original OFT last December, the spacecraft took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V as planned, but encountered an issue with its onboard mission timer shortly after disengaging from the launch vehicle. That caused it to misfire its thrusters and expend fuel, and a communication error meant that NASA was not able to correct the issue until it had used too much fuel to allow it to continue to the Space Station as planned. The capsule did safely return to Earth, however, and provided valuable test data on the way.

NASA and Boeing subsequently undertook a comprehensive review of Boeing’s software development program, as well as the agency’s own practices surrounding the public-private partnership, and determined a number of corrective actions. That review ended in July, and the partners have now been working to get back to a second demonstration flight.

Boeing has a lot riding on this re-do, since NASA’s other partner in the Commercial Crew program, SpaceX, is now at least a year ahead in terms of its qualification program. SpaceX recently successfully completed its first crewed demonstration mission of its Dragon spacecraft, and could launch its first operational astronaut mission to the International Space Station as early as October.

Provided OFT-2 goes as intended for Boeing, Starliner could be ferrying its first passengers for a crewed demonstration launch as early as June 2021, with plans for a first operational mission now set for December 2021. All these dates are subject to change, of course.

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