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Firefly launches its first rocket, but loses the launch craft in mid-flight explosion

By Darrell Etherington

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.

Developing…

Virgin Galactic looks to late September, early October for first commercial crewed flight

By Aria Alamalhodaei

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.

FAA opens probe into anomaly on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceflight

By Darrell Etherington
Mariella Moon Contributor
Mariella Moon is an associate editor at Engadget.

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.

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Rocket Lab boosts its space systems division in quest to become an ‘end-to-end space company’

By Aria Alamalhodaei

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.”

Blue Origin successfully launches 17th New Shepard suborbital rocket mission

By Darrell Etherington

Update: After a few holds, Blue Origin successfully launched the New Shepard rocket at around 10:30 AM ET / 7:30 AM PT, with a landing of the first stage at TK and the capsule at TK

Blue Origin’s last launch was its landmark first human flight, carrying Jeff Bezos, his brother, Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen to suborbital space. Today, it’s flying New Shepard again — without any people on board, this time, but with a key payload from NASA that will test technologies the agency is using to develop a human landing system for future missions to the Moon.

The NS-17 launch (which stands for New Shepard 17, since it’s the 17th time Blue Origin’s fully reusable suborbital rocket will be taking off) is set to take place at 9:35 AM EDT (6:35 AM PDT) from the company’s launch site in West Texas. The NASA payload on board will test technologies including a Doppler Lidar sensor array that should help future lunar landing craft get a very detailed picture of the details of the landing zone they’re targeting, and a Descent Landing Computer that handles processing of the sensor data. Blue Origin flew elements of this system once before, last October, and improvements have already been made based on that test that are integrated into this version.

The Blue Origin capsule also carries a number of other experiments, both form NASA and from academic institutions including the University of Florida. The launch plan includes a take-off, separation of the capsule, a controlled return powered landing for the booster, and a parachute-assisted landing for the capsule after a few minutes spent in suborbital space.

You can watch the livestream above, kicking off around 30 minutes prior to the target lift-off time.

Peter Beck on Rocket Lab’s public listing debut, space SPACs and the Neutron rocket

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Peter Beck’s earliest memory is standing outside with his father in his hometown of Invercargill, New Zealand, looking up at the stars, and being told that there could very well be people on planets orbiting those stars looking right back at him.

“For a three or four year old, that was a mind-blowing thing that got etched into my memory and from that point onwards, that was me destined to work in the space industry,” he said at the Space Generation Fusion Forum (SGFF).

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But it’s true that Beck’s career has been characterized by an unusually single-minded focus on rocketry. Instead of going to university, Beck got a trade job, working as a tool-making apprentice by day and a dilettante rocket engine maker by night. “I was very, very fortunate through my career that the companies I worked with and worked for, and the government organizations that I’ve worked for, always encouraged – or tolerated, maybe is a better word – me using their facilities and doing things in their facilities at night,” he said.

His tinkering matured with experience, and working double-time paid off: in 2006, he founded his space launch company Rocket Lab. Now, fifteen years and 21 launches later, the company has gone public through a merger with a blank-check firm that’s added $777 million to its war chest.

$RKLB has launched! Today’s exciting next step in Rocket Lab’s story was made possible by the incredible people behind us – our team, our families, our customers, and our investors. Thank you, thank you, thank you. #SpaceIsOpenForBusiness #NasdaqListed pic.twitter.com/DLmVsmtqOj

— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) August 25, 2021

The space SPAC craze

The merger with Vector Acquisition catapulted Rocket Lab’s valuation to $4.8 billion, putting it second (by value) amongst space launch companies only to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SPACs have become a popular route to going public amongst space industry companies looking to secure large amounts of capital; rival satellite launch startups Virgin Orbit and Astra have each started trading via a SPAC merger, in addition to other companies in the sector, like Redwire, Planet and Satellogic (to name just a few).

Beck told TechCrunch that going public has been part of Rocket Lab’s plans for years; the original plan was to use a traditional initial public offering, but the SPAC route in particular enabled certainty around capital and valuation. According to an March investor presentation in advance of the SPAC merger – documents that should always be taken with a large grain of salt – the future is bright: Rocket Lab anticipates revenues of $749 million in 2025 and surpassing $1 billion the following year. The company reported revenues of $48 million in 2019 and $33 million in 2020, and anticipates hitting around $69 million this year.

But he remains skeptical of pre-revenue space startups, or those that failed to raise capital, using SPACs as a financial instrument. “There has been a lot of space SPACs go out, and I think that there is a spectrum of quality there for sure – some that have failed to raise money in the private markets, and [a SPAC merger] is the last-ditch attempt. That is no way to become a public company.”

While the space industry is relatively crowded now, with companies like Rocket Lab and SpaceX sending payloads to orbit and myriad newer entrants looking to join them (or, more optimistically, take their leading place), Beck said he anticipates the crowd thinning out.

“It’s going to become blatantly obvious to investors really quickly, who’s executing, and who’s aspiring to execute,” he said. “We’re in a time where there’s lots of excitement, but at the end of the day, this industry and the public markets is all about execution. The wheat from the chaff will get separated very, very quickly here.”

From Electron to Neutron

Rocket Lab’s revenues have largely come from the small payload launch market, in which it’s managed to take a leading position with its Electron rocket. Electron is only 59 feet tall and scarcely four feet in diameter, significantly smaller than other rockets going to space today. The company conducts launches from two sites: its privately-owned launch range on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, and a launch pad out of NASA’s Wallops Island facility in Virginia (which has yet to play host to an actual Rocket Lab mission).

Rocket Lab is in the process of transitioning Electron’s first-stage booster to be reusable. The company has been implementing a new atmospheric reentry and ocean splashdown process that uses a parachute to slow the booster’s descent, but the ultimate goal is to catch it in the air using a helicopter.

Thus far, Rocket Lab and SpaceX have dominated the market, but that could change soon. Both Astra and Relativity are developing small launch vehicles – the latest iteration of Astra’s rocket is around 40 feet tall, while Relativity’s Terran 1 is in-between Electron and Falcon 9 at 115 feet.

For that reason, it makes sense that Rocket Lab is planning on expanding its operations to include medium-lift rocketry, with its much-anticipated (and very mysterious) Neutron launch vehicle. The company has been keeping the details about Neutron close to its chest so far – Beck told SGFF attendees that even publicly-released renderings of the rocket have been “a bit of a ruse” (meaning the image below bears little to no resemblance to what the Neutron actually looks like) – but it’s expected to be more than double the height of Electron and be capable of sending around 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

“We do see a lot of people in the industry copying us in many ways,” he explained to TechCrunch. “So, we’d rather get a little bit further down the path and then reveal the work that we’ve done.”

Rocket Lab estimates that Electron and Neutron will be capable of lifting 98% of all satellites forecasted to launch through 2029, making the need for an additional heavy-lift rocket unnecessary.

In addition to Neutron, the company has also started developing spacecraft. It’s called Photon, and Rocket Lab imagines it as a “satellite platform” that can easily be integrated with the Electron rocket. The company’s already lined up Photon missions to the moon and beyond: first to lunar orbit for NASA, as part of its Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) program.

Two Photons were selected earlier this month for an 11-month mission to Mars, and Beck has publicly discussed long-term plans to send a probe into Venus’ atmosphere via a Photon satellite.

Beyond Photon, Rocket Lab has also locked in a deal with space manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries to build it a spacecraft, to launch in 2023 and 2024.

Neutron has been designed to be human-rateable right from the start, meaning that it will meet certain safety specifications for carrying astronauts. Beck said he’s certain that “we are going to see the democratization of spaceflight” and he wants Rocket Lab to be well-poised to deliver that service in the future. In terms of whether Rocket Lab would eventually expand into building other spacecraft, like landers or human-rated capsules, Beck demurred.

“Never, ever say never,” he said. “That’s the one takeaway I’ve learned in my career as a space CEO.”

Ispace unveils bigger moon lander capable of surviving lunar nights

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Ispace, a Japanese space startup that aims to lead the development of a lunar economy, has unveiled its design for a large lander that could go to the moon as early as 2024.

Tokyo-based ispace said this next-gen lander, dubbed Series 2, would be used on the company’s third planned moon mission. The lander is both larger in size and payload capacity than the company’s first lander, coming in at around 9 feet tall and 14 feet wide including legs. The vehicle will be capable of carrying up to 500 kilograms to the moon’s surface and 2,000 kilograms to lunar orbit. Series 1, which will fly in 2022 and 2023, has a maximum payload capacity of only 30 kilograms.

Crucially, the new lander is designed to be able to survive the frigid lunar nighttime, possibly as long as a two-week stint on the moon’s surface. It’s also capable of landing on either the near or far side of the moon, including its polar regions.

The new lander has a few other features as well: It has multiple payload bays, and an advanced guidance, navigation and control (GNC) system to ensure the craft sticks the landing on the moon’s surface. The GNC technology is being provided by engineering developer Draper, a company with a deep footprint in the space industry. Draper is also one of 14 eligible contractors for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

Ispace said in a statement that the lander has completed its preliminary design review; the next stage is manufacturing and assembly, which will be completed in partnership with General Atomics, a defense and aerospace technology company.

The partnership with Draper — a CLPS contractor — is key, as ispace wants its Series 2 to compete in the NASA program. “Over the next few months, we will work closely with Draper and General Atomics to prepare for the next NASA CLPS task order,” Kyle Acierno, CEO of ispace’s U.S.-based subsidiary, said.

Ispace is developing the next-gen lander out of its North American offices in Colorado, and it intends to also manufacture the vehicle in the United States. In the meanwhile, the company is still at work preparing for its first two lunar missions in 2022 and 2023. The company said the Series 1 lander is undergoing final assembly of the flight module at a facility in Germany owned by space launch company ArianeGroup. The customer manifest for the first mission is full, but ispace did say payload capacity is still available for the subsequent mission.

The lander unveiling comes just weeks after ispace announced the close of a $46 million Series C funding round, capital it said at the time would go toward the second and third planned missions.

Taiwan Innovative Space will conduct a test launch of its Hapith I rocket in Australia later this year

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Australian regulators have given Taiwan Innovative Space, a five-year-old launch company that goes by Tispace, the green light to conduct a commercial launch at a newly licensed facility in southern Australia later this year.

Tispace will conduct a test flight of its two-stage, suborbital rocket Hapith I from the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex in Southern Australia. The flight will be used to validate the vehicle’s propulsion, guidance, telemetry, and structure systems, Tispace said in a news release.The launch facility, operated by space infrastructure company Southern Launch, received its license from the country’s industry ministry in March.

The news is potentially significant for both Australia and Taiwan’s burgeoning space industries, which have lagged behind other nations’. Australia only established a domestic space agency in 2018, and interest in how the country can get in on the new space economy has only grown since. The newly licensed launch facility will initially support a test launch campaign for up to three suborbital rockets, in order to collect data on the possible environmental impacts of the site.

“This [launch permit approval] is an important outcome in establishing Australia’s commercial launch capability and demonstrating what our country can offer to the international space sector,” Australia’s Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Christian Porter, said in a statement. “Space is a significant global growth market that will support Australia’s economic future through big investment, new technologies and job growth across multiple industries.”

Taiwan has also been slow to develop a home-grown space industry, though the country took a major step forward when Taiwanese legislators passed the Space Development Law in May to spur the development of a domestic space program. But while the country has a handful of satellites in orbit – most recently the YUSAT and IDEASSat CubeSats, which were transported into orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in January – it has yet to launch a rocket or spacecraft from its soil.

Hapith I is Taiwan’s first domestically manufactured rocket, and Tispace its first commercial space launch company. The company had planned to test the Hapith vehicle from a launch site in Taiwan, but the site was scrapped over legal issues concerning the location. In addition to launch, Tispace may start conducting even more of its operations abroad: according to an Australian press release, it’s also considering “bringing manufacturing of complete rocket systems” to the land down under.

Virgin Orbit to go public via $3.2B SPAC deal

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit is set to go public via a merger with a special purpose acquisitions company (SPAC), the company has confirmed. The deal values the combined enterprise at $3.2 billion, and will provide Virgin Orbit with $483 million in cash at close, including a $100 million PIPE. The combined company will trade under the ticker VORB on the NASDAQ if and when the transaction concludes.

In June, CNBC reported that such a deal was in the works, and it’s been a popular exit option for private space startups in recent months. Rocket Lab’s SPAC merger was just approved, for instance, and it’ll begin trading on Wednesday, and Richard Branson’s other space company, Virgin Galactic, was the first big SPAC deal that ushered in the craze.

Virgin Galactic, which focuses on flying people to suborbital space, and Virgin Orbit, which transports small satellite payloads to low Earth orbit using similar technology, used to be a single company before the two split to provide more focus on their respective markets. Both Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit made significant progress this year, achieving milestone flights, including a first full crew space launch for Galactic, and a first commercial satellite payload delivery mission for Orbit.

Virgin Orbit launches its LauncherOne rocket from the wing of a customized 747 aircraft, which acts as a fully reusable first stage for the overall launch system. The company also has a subsidiary called VOX Space that its as a dedicated launch service provider to the national security launch market.

NextGen, the blank check company that Virgin Orbit is merging with to complete this transaction, is led by a former Goldman & Sachs partner, and will provide up to $383 million in cash from its funds held in trust when the merger goes through.

Relativity is pushing back the demo launch of its Terran 1 rocket to early 2022

By Aria Alamalhodaei

3D rocket printing company Relativity Space has pushed back the date of the demonstration launch of its lightweight Terran 1 rocket from winter 2021 to early 2022. The company announced the updated schedule on Twitter, while also confirming that the launch will take place out of Cape Canaveral in Florida.

A few updates on #Terran1:

✅We’re excited to share that Stage 2 passed cryo pressure proof + hydro mechanical buckling test on our structural test stand. Up next: S1 structural testing!

✅Terran 1’s demonstration launch is now set for early 2022 from Cape Canaveral LC-16. pic.twitter.com/nrv1mUCl2t

— Relativity Space (@relativityspace) August 20, 2021

Relativity also said Stage 2 passed its cryogenic pressure and hydromechanical buckling test. Stage 1 structural testing is to follow.

The news of the delay comes just two months after Relativity said (also on Twitter) that the Terran 1 would launch in winter of this year. The rocket that will perform the orbital demonstration flight will not be carrying any payload, but the company has already scheduled a second launch to take place June 2022. That rocket will carry CubeSats to low-Earth orbit as part of NASA’s Venture Class Launch Services Demonstration 2 (VCLS Demo 2) contract.

A company spokesperson told TechCrunch that there is “no one single reason” why the launch date has been pushed back. “Over the past year, Relativity has i.e. refined Terran 1’s architecture, developed a brand new engine and upgraded its material while COVID slowed a few of its processes down,” the spokesperson added. “They updated the demonstration launch to early 2022 so they can better coordinate with partners.”

The launch will mark the world’s first of an entirely 3D-printed rocket. Relativity’s tech has garnered quite a lot of interest from investors — so much that its valuation vaulted to $4.2 billion after a $650 million funding round this summer. In addition to the Terran 1, the company is also developing a second heavy-lift, fully reusable rocket it’s calling Terran R. It aims to launch that rocket as early as 2024.

Astra given regulatory green light for its first commercial orbital launch at the end of the month

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Rocket launch startup Astra has received a key license from the Federal Aviation Administration, giving the green light for the company’s first commercial orbital launch at the end of the month.

Astra CEO Chris Kemp tweeted the news on Thursday, adding that the launch operator license through the FAA is valid through 2026. The new license is a modification of the company’s previous launch license and applicable to the current version of the company’s rocket, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Thrilled that @Astra now authorized to conduct launches out of Kodiak through 2026 with @FAA launch operator’s license! #AdAstra pic.twitter.com/QKn3mgRuwY

— Chris Kemp (@Kemp) August 19, 2021

The license, posted on the FAA’s website, authorizes Astra to conduct flights of its Rocket v3 launch vehicle from the company’s launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska. It expires on March 9, 2026. It clears the way for Astra to conduct a demonstration mission for the U.S. Space Force on August 27, as well as a second launch planned for some time later this year.

This is proving to be a big year for Astra. In addition to conducting its first commercial orbital launch on August 27, the company also starting trading on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol “ASTR.” The company made its debut after merging with special purpose acquisition company Holicity at a pro-forma enterprise value of $2.1 billion.

Earlier this summer, Astra also acquired space-propulsion company Apollo Fusion. The acquisition gives a possible hint into how Astra is thinking about future launches, as electric propulsion systems are useful for moving objects from lower to higher orbits.

Space manufacturing startup Varda inks deal with Rocket Lab for three spacecraft

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Orbital manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries is moving fast. Only a few weeks after announcing a $42 million Series A, Varda has signed a deal with launch company Rocket Lab for three Photon spacecraft to support the startup’s initial missions.

The first spacecraft will be delivered in the first quarter of 2023, with the second to follow later that year and the third in 2024. It’s an aggressive schedule for the eight-month-old Varda and would mark the company’s first three manufacturing missions to space. The contract includes an option for Varda to purchase a fourth Photon.

Partnering with a more established company makes sense – especially considering the Photon’s bona fides, which includes a NASA-funded mission to the moon at the end of the year. Rocket Lab was also awarded a subcontract a subcontract by the University of California Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory to design two Photon spacecraft for a 1-year mission to Mars.

Varda, which was founded by SpaceX veteran Will Bruey and Founders Fund principal Delian Asparouhov, is banking big on a manufacturing condition that you can only find in space: microgravity. They think that the potential market for bioprinted organs, specialized semiconductors, fiber-optic cables or pharmaceuticals – products that you can’t make in Earthbound-conditions – is high enough to make the costs of building a spacecraft and launching to space more than worth it.

Under this most recent deal, each Photon will be outfitted with two Varda-made modules: the first will be a microgravity manufacturing module, where the space production will actually take place, and the second will be a reentry capsule designed to bring those finished products back to Earth. Asparouhov told TechCrunch that their designing the reentry modules to bring back “on the order of 40-60 kilograms of materials” for the first couple of missions, with the aim of quickly scaling up for subsequent launches.

Varda says this approach is low-risk and incremental. “That’s why we’re seeing so much interest from the investment community, [the Department of Defense], NASA, et cetera, it’s this very pragmatic, one-step-at-a-time approach,” Asparouhov said. “We’ll prove this first space factory. And yes, as we start to scale it allows us to send a larger space factory and then eventually, yes, we might have something the size of the [International Space Station], 10 times the size of the ISS. But that’s not what we’re starting with. We’re starting with a very small, near-term pragmatic approach.”

Each mission will last roughly three months from launch to landing, Rocket Lab said in a statement.

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.

Accion Systems raises $42 million in Series C to accelerate development of 4th-gen propulsion system

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Space propulsion developer Accion Systems has closed its most significant funding round yet. The company raised $42 million in a Series C led by Tracker Capital, bringing its valuation to $83.5 million.

Along with the investment, Tracker Capital also acquired a majority stake in the company. This latest injection of capital will facilitate the development and manufacturing of the company’s fourth generation propulsion system, dubbed the tiled ionic liquid electrospray (TILE) system.

The TILE system uses electrical energy to push charge particles (ions) out its back to generate propulsion. While ion engines have been around for decades, Accion uses a liquid propellant, an ionic liquid salt, instead of gas. The liquid is inert and non-pressurized, meaning there’s no risk of explosion. It also results in a product that doesn’t need bulky components like ionization chambers, and an overall smaller and lighter weight system relative to the spacecraft – key considerations in space, where every gram of payload has a high price tag.

“It lets us build really, really small systems,” Accion co-founder Natalya Bailey explained to TechCrunch. “Instead of trying to take an existing ion engine the size of a Prius and shrink it down, we can start with very small systems because of this propellant.” And she does mean small – each thruster tile is about the size of a postage stamp.

The TILE system is also scalable and modular, meaning it could feasibly be used on anything from cubesats to propelling an interplanetary spacecraft, Accion CEO Peter Kant added in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “It’s one of the few occasions where the total addressable market and the actual addressable market that we can serve are pretty closely aligned and almost overlap,” he said.

The newest generation of the TILE system is the same size as its predecessors, but Accion is increasing the number of emitters on a given chip – emitters being the technology that actually shoots out the ions, generating the momentum – by almost tenfold. “We get more ions per area and that gives us a whole lot more thrust with the same amount of space,” Kant said.

Accion is looking to ship the first fourth-gen thruster systems in the middle to late summer of 2022.

The TILE system was developed by Accion co-founders Natalya Bailey and Louis Perna while the two were at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The tech generated a ton of interest from big aerospace companies, but they decided to found Accion in 2014 rather than sell. The company manufactures and assembles its product at its facility in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

The TILE system was onboard commercial spacecraft, one with Astra Digital and one with NanoAvionics, that went up on SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch at the end of June. Accion started by focusing on serving smaller spacecraft first, like cubesats, but Bailey said that was just the beginning.

“We’re going after that segment initially, and then intending to reinvest our learnings in building larger and larger systems that eventually can do big geostationary satellites and interplanetary missions and so on. The systems that went up on the most recent launcher [is] probably good for a satellite up to about 50 kilograms [. . .] For us, it’s on the smaller end of where we intend to go.”

Bezos and crew host a giddy press conference after Blue Origin’s inaugural crewed launch

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Jeff Bezos was so triumphant he was practically glowing at a press conference following the Blue Origin’s first crewed mission to space, 21 years after he founded the company in 2000. The billionaire talked about the future of the company and his role in it, and then casually gave away a couple hundred million dollars.

Bezos was one of four that rode in the RSS First Step capsule; the others were his financier brother, Mark; aviation legend and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk; and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the son of the second-highest bidder on the Blue Origin seat auction. (The $28 million dollar winner postponed his seat due to scheduling conflicts.)

The company now joins a very tiny circle of companies that have sent private citizens to space, in the biggest boost yet for the nascent space tourism industry. Tuesday also marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the next step in space travel paying homage to the very first.

The press conference opened with the grinning foursome being pinned with astronaut ‘wings,’ a badge traditionally granted to those that have gone to space. “I’m so happy,” said Bezos at the press conference, donning the same cream cowboy hat he wore moments after emerging from the capsule a little over two hours earlier.

Bezos also thanked the city of Van Horn, acknowledging Blue Origin has made “a dent in it,” and followed by thanking every Amazon employee, plus its millions of customers: “Seriously, you paid for this.”

They also showed a brief video of the four crew members cavorting in four minutes of microgravity, including footage of the crew members catching floating Skittles in their mouths.

This is the second suborbital mission crewed entirely by private citizens this month alone, a first in history. The first was accomplished by Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, a rocket-powered spaceplane, on July 11; its founder, billionaire Richard Branson, was aboard, which helped foment a truly petty spat between the two ultra-wealthy founders. That aside, the two flights have helped make space tourism more of a reality than ever before.

The flight will also likely be a boost for Blue Origin’s commercial heavy-lift rocket launch arm, which for the moment is largely occupied by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The same technologies that are used to perfect New Shepard’s reusability could come in handy for the development of New Glenn, the company’s massive orbital launch. Bezos said in February that the company was pushing the inaugural launch of New Glenn from late 2021 to the latter quarter of 2022.

Jeff Bezos speaks into a mic at the blue origin press conference.

Image Credits: Blue Origin / YouTube

“The fact of the matter is, the architecture and the technology we’ve chosen is complete over-kill” for space tourism, Bezos said. Instead, Blue Origin chose it “because it scales […]  the whole point of this is to get practice” for larger and heavier missions.

On why Blue Origin chose liquid fuel, he reiterated that it’s practice for future launches. “Every time we fly this tourism mission, we practice flying the second stage of New Glenn.”

In December 2020, NASA added Blue Origin to its roster of space companies eligible to compete for contracts under its Launch Services II program. While it doesn’t guarantee that New Glenn or any other Blue Origin rocket would be awarded a launch contract, it’s the first step to getting there.

Jeff Bezos confirmed that Blue Origin will fly two additional crewed launches this year alone, but it has yet to announce the price per seat. “We want the cadence to be very high […] We’re approaching $100 million in private sales already.” When asked how to get the cost per seat down, Bezos said the space tourism industry would follow the trajectory of commercial space travel, now widely used by millions of travelers each year.

At the end of the conference, Bezos announced he was starting a $100 million Courage and Civility Award, with CNN contributor Van Jones and Michelin star chef José Andrés as the first two recipients. The winner will give that money away to the charities of their choice. The award is for people who apparently demonstrate civility and resist ad hominem attacks. Reading between the lines (frankly, you don’t even really have to do that) it seems like a commentary on contemporary political discourse, especially the emphasis on civility in disagreement.

Looking to the future, the Amazon founder said he would split his time between Blue Origin and the Bezos Earth Fund, a $10 billion investment fund focused on climate change.

“This is not about escaping Earth. The whole point is, this is the only good planet in the solar system,” Bezos said. “We have to take care of it.”

Rewatch the press conference here:

Blue Origin’s New Shepard carries Jeff Bezos and three crew members to space and back

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Blue Origin successfully completed its first crewed launch Tuesday, sending four human passengers to space – including the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos. The result of billions of dollars of investment, dozens of test launches and some petty squabbling amongst ultra-rich founders, the triumph of the New Shepard, along with that of Virgin Galactic earlier this month, undoubtably heralds the dawn of a new age of space tourism.

It was quite the media spectacle. The mission took place at Launch Site One, Blue Origin’s sprawling and secretive facility that sits around thirty miles north of the small town of Van Horn, Texas. Every hotel in Van Horn and nearby towns were sold out of rooms in the days leading to launch as spectators traveled in for the event; meanwhile, a huge gaggle of local, national and online outlets (including yours truly) swarmed the Press Site as early as 2:30 AM CST. Despite some premature calls for rain in the early hours of the morning, the skies stayed clear and things mostly kept to schedule.

The four-person crew – including Bezos, his brother, Mark, 18-year old student Oliver Daemon, and aviation pioneer and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk – emerged from the training center and caught a Rivian R1S electric SUV to the launch pad around 45 minutes prior to launch. (Bezos drove a Rivian R1T pickup to the landing site of the rocket after its last test, a nod to Amazon’s sizeable investment in the EV startup). The crew climbed the launch tower and took a brief respite in an adjacent shelter, before climbing into the capsule, dubbed RSS First Step.

There was a brief hold at T-15 minutes, leading to the launch running slightly behind schedule. New Shepard took at 8:11 CST. They passed the Kármán line (more on that later) at 8:15 AM; capsule separation followed, and the booster returned to the launch site autonomously and with a loud boom at 8:19 AM. The crewed capsule floated slowly to Earth via parachute, touching land at 8:22 AM for an eleven-minutes total flight time.

The flight was the result of fifteen tests of the reusable suborbital New Shepard rocket, including a rehearsal launch in April that included a dry run of flight preparations and a mock crew embarked (then disembarked before take-off) into the capsule. Blue Origin now joins rival Virgin Galactic in a very, very small group of commercial space companies to send private citizens to orbit.

Daemon was added to the crew after the anonymous auction winner, who bid $28 million for the seat, had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. CNBC reported that Daemon’s father, CEO of the Dutch private equity firm Somerset Capital Partners, placed the second-highest bid.

The route to space

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, six years after he started ecommerce behemoth Amazon. The company has zeroed in on space tourism, and it sees this flight as the requisite proof of concept it needs to start flying customers. To that end, the New Shepard capsule has large, tourism-friendly windows – the largest in spaceflight history, according to the company. “These windows make up a third of the capsule, immersing you in the vastness of space and life-changing views of our blue planet,” it says on the Blue Origin website.

The launch is also the culmination of weeks of squabbling between Bezos and his billionaire spacefaring rival, Richard Branson, who was aboard his own flight to space 10 days earlier. But despite ostensibly beating Bezos to the punch, much of the fighting was over what actually counts as space – and whether VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered spaceplane, actually went there.

Image Credits: Blue Origin

The kerfuffle is over what’s known as the Kármán line, an internationally recognized imaginary boundary of space that’s around 60 miles above Earth. VSS Unity flew to around 51.4 miles – above the boundary recognized by NASA. “From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin tweeted two days before the Virgin launch. The tweet also included a little infographic throwing further shade at on Virgin flights.

From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ

— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021

This is just the beginning for Blue Origin. Director of astronaut sales Ariane Cornell said at a pre-mission briefing on July 18 that she’s been “chatting with many of [Blue Origin’s] future customers who have signed for the subsequent flights.” She added that the company intends on launching two more flights this year, with CEO Bob Smith estimating that a second crewed New Shepard flight could take place in September or October.

What does this mean for the rest of us (as in, those that don’t have a couple extra million floating around in our bank accounts)? While the so-called billionaire space race is a petty squabble, both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s respective launches are the likely heralds of a new age of space travel for consumers and scientists alike. It will be limited to the wealthy at first, but as TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm argues, costs will go down and more humans will go to space – including scientists and researchers, maybe even me or you.

In case you missed it, you can catch the entire launch on Blue Origin’s archived livestream here:

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