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SpaceX said to be seeking around $250 million in funding, boosting valuation to roughly $36 billion

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is looking to raise around $250 million in new funding according to a new report from CNBC’s Michael Sheetz. The additional cash would bring SpaceX’s total valuation to around $36 billion, according to CNBC’s sources – an increase of more than $2.5 billion vs its most recently reported valuation.

The rocket launch company founded and run by Elon Musk is no stranger to raising large sums of money – it added $1.33 billion during 2019, from three separate rounds. In total, the company has raised over $3 billion in funding to date – but the scale of its ambitions provide a clear explanation of why the company has been sought out so much capital.

SpaceX is also generating a significant amount of revenue: Its contract to develop the Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of the NASA commercial crew program came with $3.1 billion in contract award money from the agency, for example, and it charges roughly $60 million per launch of one of its Falcon 9 rockets to its customers. Last year alone, SpaceX had 13 launches.

But SpaceX is also not a company to rest on its laurels, or its pre-existing technology investments. The company is in the process of developing its next spacecraft, dubbed ‘Starship.’ Starship will potentially be able to eventually replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, and will be fully reusable, instead of partially reusable like those systems. Once it’s operational, it will be able to provide significant cost savings and advantages to SpaceX’s bottom line, if the company’s projections are correct, but getting there requires a massive expenditure of capital in development of the technology required to make Starship fly, and fly reliably.

Musk recently went into detail about the company’s plans to essentially build new versions of Starship as fast as it’s able, incorporating significant changes and updates to each new successive version as it goes. Given the scale of Starship and the relatively expensive process of building each as an essentially bespoke new model, it makes perfect sense why SpaceX would seek to bolster its existing capital with additional funds.

CNBC reports that the funding could close sometime in the middle of next month. We reached out to SpaceX for comment, but did not receive a reply as of publication.

SpaceX anticipates building ‘many rockets’ as it iterates Starship toward orbital flight this year

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been sharing a number of updates about his company’s progress on Starship this week. Along with footage of the assembly process of the current ‘SN1’ prototype of Starship, he explained on Twitter some of the other considerations and strategies the company is working with as it works on the new spacecraft and tries to fly it to space this year.

Musk said that SpaceX is iterating at a much faster pace with Starship than it has recently with Falcon, since Falcon’s design more or less stabilized once it started working consistently. He noted that the ability to progress with the design towards having a production vehicle is dependent on the number of interactions of the prototypes of the spacecraft, multiple by the progress achieved between each version.

That’s been the way that SpaceX has worked in past, and one of the key reasons it’s been able to upend the traditional rocket launch industry. It moves fast, iterating as it goes and making changes based on failures quickly, whereas the industry has largely focused on more stop/start development cycles where things are mostly fixed with brief periods of intense focus on improvement between long-lived vehicle generations.

Starship presents the company’s biggest challenge yet when it comes to this model, if only because of the scale of the rocket. Starship is by far SpaceX’s largest rocket, and building a number of them quickly is actually a significant challenge just from a mechanical perspective, especially when you factor in the considerably changes between generations, and the eventual addition of the very large Super Heavy rocket booster.

On top of the scale of the spacecraft, there’s also the nature of the vehicle, which SpaceX aims to make fully reusable – with quick turnaround between each flight. It’s fairly easy (relatively speaking, of course) to build a spacecraft that only really needs to work once; it’s another thing entirely to build one that you want to reuse tens or even hundreds of times.

Last year, Musk had said at the unveiling of the first completed full-scale prototype of the Starship that they’d aim to have an orbital flight in as few as six months’ time. It’s increasingly looking like that was yet another extremely optimistic timeline from the SpaceX founder, and SN1 is still aiming to complete a high-altitude suborbital flight before future versions actually make the trip to space. Musk suggested SN3, SN4 or SN5 could be the one to take that trip, according to Ars Technica’s Eric Berger.

Berger also reports that SpaceX is considering one of three options for actually launching the orbital Starship prototype, which will be powered by six of the company’s Raptor engines. These will include either flying from Boca Chica, Texas (this is most likely), where the spacecraft are being built, or from Florida, where SpaceX maintains a launch facility for its Falcon rockets, or as a third option, from a sea-based floating launch platform.

SpaceX will need to increase the rate at which it is building, testing and flying these prototypes if it aims to make 2020 for an orbital flight, but it’s also hiring up to help it speed up production. Musk sent out a call for job applicants to staff up additional production shifts for round-the-clock operations earlier this year, and SpaceX hosted a job fair for interested applicants at its Texas site earlier this month.

Japanese mission to land a rover on a Martian moon and bring back a sample is a go

By Darrell Etherington

A bold mission by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to Mars’ two moons, including a lander component for one of them, is all set to enter the development phase after the plan was submitted to the Japanese government’s science ministry this week.

Dubbed the “Martian Moons Exploration” (MMX) mission, the goal is to launch the probe in 2024, using the new H-3 rocket being developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which is expected to launch for the first time sometime later in 2020. The probe will survey and observe both Phobos and Deimos, the two moons that orbit the Red Planet, which are both smaller and more irregularly shaped than Earth’s Moon.

The MMX lander will park on Phobos, while the probe studies the two space-based bodies from a distance. This is the first-ever mission that seeks to land a spacecraft on one of the moons of Mars, and it’ll include a rover that is being developed by JAXA in partnership with teams at German space agency DLR and French space agency CNES.

The mission will include an ambitious plan to actually collect a sample of the surface of Phobos and return it to Earth for study — which will mean a round-trip for the MMX spacecraft that should see it make its terrestrial return by 2029.

NASA is also planning a Mars-sample return mission, which would aim to bring back a sample from the Red Planet itself using the Mars 2020 six-wheel rover that it’s planning to launch later this year.

Both of these missions could be crucial stepping stones for eventual human exploration and colonization of Mars. It’s possible that Phobos could act as an eventual staging ground for Mars missions, as its lower gravity makes it an easier body from which to depart for eventual astronauts. And Mars is obviously the ultimate goal for NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to first establish a more permanent human scientific presence on the Moon before heading to the Red Planet.

SpaceX and a new partner announce space tourism launches on Dragon starting as early as 2021

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has a new partner for commercial private astronaut flights aboard its Dragon spacecraft: Space Adventures, a private space tourism company that has already launched private astronauts including Anousheh Ansari, Guy Laliberté and Mark Shuttleworth to space.

Space Adventures has worked with seven clients across eight separate missions to the International Space Station (ISS) for private paying commercial space missions, using paid seats on the Russian Soyuz rocket to get its clients to their destination. Its experience means it’s uniquely positioned in the commercial space tourism industry to actually make this happen, which means SpaceX likely will start flying paying customers as soon as its able to human-rate its Dragon spacecraft and begin scheduling flights.

This is not exactly a surprising development: SpaceX has been working towards certifying Dragon for human flight through the Commercial Crew program with NASA. This program has involved testing and development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft for carrying human astronauts, and it’s only a few months away from actually carrying NASA astronauts for the first time during a demonstration mission to the ISS.

SpaceX and NASA have both discussed how they envision the agency being only one of multiple customers for the company’s human-rated space travel service, since the entire purpose of the program is to help the agency defray the cost of transporting its astronauts by becoming one among many clients of a revenue-generating commercial spaceflight service.

SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk has previously discussed flying space tourists aboard Crew Dragon, which can carry up to four passengers per flight. He brought up the prior example of Soyuz as a model that could work for Crew Dragon once it’s operational. Musk and SpaceX have also already booked a Moon pass-by trip for Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa in 2023 on its forthcoming Starship spacecraft.

The Space Adventures Crew Dragon private astronaut trips are expected to begin sometime in either late 2021 or 2022 (likely around the same time or just after SpaceX will begin regular astronaut service for NASA if all goes well), and it will take off from SpaceX’s launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida. They won’t actually go to the ISS, like the Soyuz missions that Space Adventures has flown previously. But it will fly higher than any previous private citizen has flown before during a trip to space and offer obviously spectacular Earth views. No word yet on pricing, but expect it to be steep – likely much steeper than tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s much lower altitude trip, for instance.

Max Q: SpaceX gets ready for first human flight

By Darrell Etherington

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

This week turned out to be a surprisingly busy one in space news — kicked off by the Trump administration’s FY 2021 budget proposal, which was generous to U.S. space efforts both in science and in defense.

Meanwhile, we saw significant progress in SpaceX’s commercial crew program, and plenty of activity among startups big and small.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon arrives in Florida

The spacecraft that SpaceX will use to fly astronauts for the first time is now in Florida, at its launch site for final preparations before it takes off. Currently, this Crew Dragon mission is set to take place sometime in early May, and though that may still shift, it’s looking more and more likely it’ll happen within the next few months.

NASA taps Rocket Lab for Moon satellite launch

Rocket Lab will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to get humans back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. NASA contracted Rocket Lab to launch its CAPSTONE CubeSat to a lunar orbit in 2021, using Rocket Lab’s new Proton combined satellite and long-distance transportation stage.

Astronomers continue to sound the alarm about constellations

Starlink satellites streak through a telescope’s observations.

Astronomers and scientists that rely on observing the stars from Earth are continuing to warn about the impact on stellar observation from constellations that are increasingly dotting the night sky.

Meanwhile, SpaceX just launched another 60 satellites for its Starlink constellation, bringing the total on orbit to 300. SpaceX founder Elon Musk says that the “albedo” or reflectivity of satellites will drop “significantly” going forward, however.

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket factory

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, Ala. on Monday. The new site will be responsible for high-volume production of the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine, which will be used on the company’s own New Glenn orbital rocket as well as the ULA’s forthcoming Vulcan heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Virgin Galactic’s first commercial spacecraft moves to its spaceport

Virgin Galactic is getting closer to actually flying its first paying space tourists — it just moved its SpaceShipTwo “VSS Unity” vehicle from its Mojave manufacturing site to its spaceport in New Mexico, which is where tourists will board for their short trips to the edge of outer space.

Astranis raises $90 million

Satellite internet startup Astranis has raised a $90 million Series B funding round, which includes a mix of equity ($40 million) and debt facility ($50 million). The company will use the money to get its first commercial satellites on orbit as it aims to build a next-generation geostationary internet satellite business.

Astroscale will work with JAXA on an orbital debris-killing system

Orbital debris is increasingly a topic of discussion at events and across the industry, and Japanese startup Astroscale is one of the first companies dedicated to solving the problem. The startup has been tapped by JAXA for a mission that will seek to de-orbit a spent rocket upper stage, marking one of the first efforts to remove a larger piece of orbital debris.

Register for TC Sessions: Space 2020

Our very own dedicated space event is coming up on June 25 in Los Angeles, and you can get your tickets now. It’s sure to be a packed day of quality programming from the companies mentioned above and more, so go ahead and sign up while Early-Bird pricing applies.

Plus, if you have a space startup of your own, you can apply now to participate in our pre-event pitch-off, happening June 24.

SpaceX successfully launches 60 more Starlink satellites but misses booster landing

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has launched a batch of 60 Starlink satellites to orbit, marking its fifth overall launch of a group of 60 of the small spacecraft and its third this year alone. This launch brings the total constellation to 300 satellites for Starlink on orbit, extending SpaceX’s lead as the largest commercial satellite operator in the world.

The Starlink project sees SpaceX deploying a constellation of small, low Earth orbit satellites that will work with one another in concert to deliver high-speed, low-cost broadband internet connectivity to users. The current goal is to launch enough satellites to begin providing service to customers in the U.S. and Canada later this year, followed by eventual rollout of service globally pending further expansion of the constellation.

SpaceX did something a little different with this Starlink mission, deploying them from the launch vehicle much earlier in the mission, after just one burn of the rocket’s second stage, into an elliptical orbit from which they’ll use their own thrusters to climb to their target orbit around Earth. It’s a trickier maneuver to accomplish, but also saves SpaceX time, fuel and money in terms of launch costs.

Today’s launch not only furthered SpaceX’s Starlink work, but also included some crucial steps in the company’s ongoing efforts to develop and improve its launch system reusability. The Falcon 9 booster used on today’s launch was flown previously three times in 2019, for instance, and represents the fastest turnaround of a re-used booster yet for SpaceX, with just 62 days between its last flight and today.

SpaceX also attempted to land the booster once again during this launch — what would’ve been its 50th successful landing of a booster to date — but it missed the intended landing. The rocket first-stage returned to Earth and fired its landing engine burst as planned, but a live video feed from the drone ship landing pad operated by SpaceX appeared to show exhaust plumes, suggesting it came down in the ocean wide of its mark instead of landing on the pad as planned. SpaceX last missed with a landing in June when the centre core of its Falcon Heavy vehicle failed to nail the landing, but has otherwise mostly been able to land its boosters in recent years. The booster did apparently have a soft landing on the water, and is intact with the potential for recovery, according to SpaceX.

This launch also continued a trend SpaceX has had recently of trying to recover both halves of the fairing, a protective shell that encloses the payload of satellites aboard the rocket as they fly through Earth’s atmosphere on their way to space. The company will attempt to catch both sides of that shell, using two ships in the Atlantic Ocean with giant nets strung across struts extending from their hull, as they parachute back. We’ll update this post with the results of that recovery attempt when we get the news.

We won’t have to wait long for another Starlink launch, as SpaceX is set to send more of its satellites up to orbit sometime next month, according to its current plans.

Watch SpaceX attempt a rocket reusability record with another Starlink launch live

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is launching another batch of 60 Starlink satellites to join its existing constellation, which will bring the total to 300 and be the third Starlink launch this year already. The launch will also be a potentially record-setting demonstration of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusability, with the shortest turnaround time for a Falcon 9 first stage between its previous mission and its next.

The Falcon 9 booster being used today has already flown three times before, including in May, July and then again in December of 2019. That December flight, which happened on December 16, was only 63 days before today’s launch – while the quickest turnaround to date for a Falcon 9 after flying has been 72 days. SpaceX is using a newer iteration of its rocket that it first introduced in 2018 which is designed to increase its reusability further still vs. earlier versions.

SpaceX can clearly turn these around pretty quickly now and is probably more bound by mission cadence than other factors – this mission was originally set to fly on February 13 but was delayed twice until today.

In addition to the launch, which will also look to deploy the Starlink satellites much earlier than in prior launches of the satellites at around 15 minutes after launch, SpaceX will be looking to recover both the booster and the fairing halves that protect the satellite cargo prior to their release in space. The Falcon 9 booster will return for a landing on SpaceX’s ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ mobile automated seafaring landing pad, while its ‘Ms. Tree’ and ‘Ms. Chief’ ships will try to catch the fairings as they descend via parachute using giant nets suspended above their hulls.

SpaceX has pretty much perfected its booster landing process, but the fairing catch is still very much in the refinement stage. During the last SpaceX Starlink launch, the company caught one half of the protective covers but not the other, bringing its total successful recoveries to a count of three. It’s attempted 12 catches so far, and has also recovered fairings by retrieving them intact from the ocean after a water landing, although that process is more difficult and costly so it’s really hoping to improve the success rate of the net-based catches.

Later this year, SpaceX intends to turn Starlink on, with the constellation then providing broadband internet connectivity to customers in the U.S. and Canada, with a global rollout planned to follow after additional launches.

The broadcast of the launch today will begin roughly 15 minutes prior to liftoff. Liftoff is currently set for 10:05 AM EST (7:05 AM PST), and the livestream should kick off at around 9:50 AM EST (6:50 AM PST).

Rocket Lab will launch a satellite to the Moon for NASA to prepare for the Lunar Gateway

By Darrell Etherington

Launch startup Rocket Lab has been awarded a contract to launch a CubeSat on behalf of NASA for the agency’s CAPSTONE experiment, with the ultimate aim of putting the CAPSTONE CubeSat into cislunar (in the region in between Earth and the Moon) orbit – the same orbit that NASA will eventually use for its Gateway Moon-orbiting space station. The launch is scheduled to take place in 2021.

The CAPSTONE launch will take place at Rocket Lab’s new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) facility at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Rocket Lab opened its launch pad there officially in December, and will launch its first missions using its Electron vehicle from the site starting later this year.

The launch is significant in a number of ways, including being the second ever lunar mission to launch from the Virginia flight facility. It’s also going to employ Rocket Lab’s Photon platform, which is an in-house designed and built satellite that can support a range of payloads. In this case, Photon will transport the CAPSTONE CubeSat, which weighs only around 55 lbs, from Earth’s orbit to the Moon, at which point CAPSTONE will fire up its own small engines to enter its target cislunar orbit.

Rocket Lab introduced Photon last year, noting at the time that it is designed in part to provide longer-range delivery for small satellites – including to the Moon. That’s a key capability to offer as NASA embarks on its Artemis program, which aims to return human astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, and establish a more permanent human presence on and around the Moon in preparation for eventual missions to Mars.

CAPSTONE will play a key role in that mission, by acting “as a pathfinder” for the lunar Gateway that NASA eventually hopes to build and deploy.

“CAPSTONE is a rapid, risk-tolerant demonstration that sets out to learn about the unique, seven-day cislunar orbit we are also targeting for Gateway,” said Marshall Smith, director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA in a press release. detailing the news “We are not relying only on this precursor data, but we can reduce navigation uncertainties ahead of our future missions using the same lunar orbit.”

In total, the launch contract with Rocket Lab has a fixed price of $9.95 million, the agency said. NASA expects contractors Advanced Space and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems to begin building the CAPSTONE spacecraft this month ahead of its planned 2021 launch.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is now in Florida to prep for its first flight with astronauts onboard

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has moved its Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft to Florida, the site from which it’ll launch in likely just two to three months’ time if all goes to plan. The Crew Dragon capsule is now going to undergo final testing and checkouts in Florida before its departure from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where it’ll launch atop a Falcon 9 rocket, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board.

Behnken and Hurley will be taking a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) courtesy of the Crew Dragon, as part of a demonstration mission codenamed ‘Demo-2’ by SpaceX and NASA that will serve as a key step in the ultimate verification of the spacecraft for regular service carrying people to and from the ISS. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is one of two spacecraft that aim to achieve this operational status for NASA, alongside the Boeing Starliner CST-100 crew vehicle which is undergoing development and testing.

Crew Dragon in Florida ahead of its flight to and from the @space_station with @NASA astronauts @AstroBehnken and @Astro_Doug onboard!

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 14, 2020

Boeing’s spacecraft has recently encountered some issues that could extend its testing timeline and set back its goals of performing its first flights with astronauts on board. The Starliner encountered two potentially serious software issues during an uncrewed demonstration mission that took place in December, and now NASA and the company are determining corrective action, including safety reviews of Boeing and its software development and testing processes.

Meanwhile, SpaceX performed an in-flight abort test in January, the last major demonstration it needed to do before moving on to the crewed demo mission. That test was by all accounts a success, showing how the Crew Dragon would separate and distance itself from the launch craft in case of an unexpected error, in order to safeguard the astronauts on board.

SpaceX has been sharing details of its preparation for this final planned demo before operational commercial crew flights, tweeting earlier this week about its spacecraft undergoing ultrasonic testing. Currently, the Demo-2 mission is tentatively set for May 2, though that date is said to be flexible and could be moved up or pushed to later, depending on mission needs and remaining preparation progress.

Virgin Galactic relocates SpaceShipTwo ‘VSS Unity’ to its spaceport for preparations ahead of commercial flights

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Galactic is one crucial step closer to actually flying paying customers to space: The space tourism company just relocated its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, the VSS Unity, from its Mojave, California manufacturing facility to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where it will begin flights with a goal of at least sending company founder Richard Branson to space during the year of his 70th birthday.

VSS Unity made the trip attached to the carrier aircraft that will bring it up to its launch altitude, where it’ll detach from the plane (named ‘VMS Eve’) and climb to the edge of space, providing the customers on board with “several minutes” of weightlessness in near zero-G when the spacecraft’s rocket motor disengages at the peak of its journey.

The 90 minute experience will cost the first tourists around $250,000 per ticket, which sounds steep but will also be the most affordable way that anyone’s experienced a trip to space to date. Those ticket holders will still have to wait a while to enjoy the trip they’ve been waiting for for a few years now, however – this relocation sets up a final round of testing on the spacecraft and its carrier planet that will still take some time to complete.

This round of preparation includes a number of relatively unexciting “capture and carry” flights with the spaceship and carrier aircraft attached to one another to get familiar with the surrounding airspace, as well as tests of rocket powered flight for the VSS Unity on its own. Finally, teams will assess and finalize the spaceship’s cabin, and the overall customer experience that tourists will encounter throughout their quarter-million dollar trip.

Given that not insignificant list of remaining activities prior to an actual flight, expect the inaugural commercial journeys of VSS Unity to still be a little ways out. As mentioned, the company has said that it at the very least is prioritizing a 70th birthday trip for Branson, but depending on how things go it might just be able to get other commercial flights in before year’s end, too.

SpaceX’s first astronaut mission could take off in May

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is getting very close to its goal of flying actual astronauts aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft. After a successful in-flight abort (IFA) test in January, it had basically crossed off all the major milestones needed before flying people, first on a demonstration mission referred to as “Demo-2” by SpaceX and its commercial crew partner NASA.

We now know the working date that SpaceX is aiming for with that crucial mission: May 7. To be clear, that’s very much a working date and the actual mission could slip either later, or even earlier, according to Ars Technica’s Eric Berger who first reported the timeline.

We knew before today that SpaceX was getting very close to be mission-ready in terms of its spacecraft. The Government Accountability Office released a report last week detailing progress on the commercial crew program and noted that the Crew Dragon capsule that will be used to fly astronauts for Demo-2 was on track to be completed “3 months earlier” than was expected based on most recent timelines.

Demo-2 will be the second demonstration mission of Crew Dragon, following a Demo-1 uncrewed mission that flew in March of last year. That mission saw the SpaceX spacecraft fly to the International Space Station (ISS), dock with the orbital lab, undock and return safely to Earth with a controlled landing, all using automated processes and without anyone on board.

The Demo-2 mission will fly two crew, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, both NASA astronauts who will be completing their third spaceflight during the mission. Bob and Doug will at least fly aboard Crew Dragon to the ISS, replicating the Demo-1 mission but with a crew on board, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently shared that it would be looking into the possibility of extending the duration of the mission (which had been planned for two weeks) to allow it to actually rotate the crew of the ISS, just like what currently happens with Soyuz astronaut flights.

As alway with space, expect some movement in that target date, but we are getting close enough now that the general ballpark should be a pretty accurate reflection of when things go down, barring any major issues between now and then.

2021 NASA budget request includes $3.3B for human lunar landers, $430M for Moon resource development

By Darrell Etherington

The Trump White House today issued its fiscal 2021 budget request, and it included a 12 percent increase in requested funding to NASA’s coffers, as expected. That puts the total request for NASA at $25.2 billion, nearly half or $12.3 billion of which is earmarked specifically to support NASA’s efforts to return to the surface of the Moon and to eventually land people on Mars.

Highlights from the proposed budget, which was issued by the Office of Management and Budget on Monday, include $3.3 billion specifically designate to develop human lunar lander systems that will be used to take astronauts from staging positions in lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface. It outlines that these will rely on “competition, industry innovation and robust Government oversight” to produce safe and reliable systems for “sustainable exploration.”

It also adds $4 billion for continued development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, which combined will be used to provide transportation of astronauts from Earth to the Moon. The budget specifically says that these funds will be used by the agency to “complete these systems and tart to establish a regular flight cadence.”

Also included in the request are $175 million for spacesuits to be used by astronauts on the surface of the Moon, along with $212 minion fro rovers that will be used for transportation. There’s $254 million included for the Commercial Lunar Landing Services (CLPS) program through which NASA is sourcing private partners to deliver scientific and cargo payloads to the Moon’s surface ahead of sending astronauts back in 2024.

A $430 million pool is included to specifically fund a ‘Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative,’ which includes the development and demonstration of technologies that will be employed to take advantage of Moon-based resources for power generation, astronaut habitats and exploration tools. These will be used to support Moon exploration, both robotic and human, according to the proposed budget, and also to then be leveraged for similar use in eventual Mars missions.

Another $529 million is set aside for the ‘robotic exploration of Mars,’ including a return mission to bring a Martian soil sample back to Earth for the first time ever, and a mission that will involve mapping water ice near the surface of the planet for the use of eventual human explorers.

Other considerations in the budget proposal include support for “new space stations” to ensure continued American presence in low-Earth orbit, as well as astronaut training. It also continues to fund the X-59 supersonic flight demonstrator that NASA is developing with a target first flight of 2022, which is meant to provide a blueprint for future commercial supersonic overland passenger aircraft.

It also includes a proposed cut of a number of science missions, as well as the Office of STEM Engagement, which supports STEM activities in schools. This is not the first the the STEM office has been on the chopping block, however, and so far it has managed to survive the axe.

NASA Administrator is addressing the budget request and what it means for the administration’s plans in a briefing later today. We’ll provide updates about salient details as they become available.

Max Q: A SpaceX spin-out sounds great

By Darrell Etherington

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

Two rocket launches were set to take off Sunday, including one from Wallops Island in Virginia and another from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The first is a relatively standard (but still exciting – we are talking about rockets here, very little is ‘standard’) ISS resupply mission, and the second is a major scientific mission from NASA and the ESA called the ‘Solar Orbiter.’

Unfortunately, a technical issue meant the ISS resupply mission is rescheduled for Thursday – but the Solar Orbiter launched as planned, with as clean a delivery by the ULA Atlas V rocket that launched it as you can ask for.

Boeing Starliner encountered two potentially catastrophic issues

Starliner, the crew spacecraft developed by Boeing for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, encountered not one, but two major software flaws during its most recent demonstration mission that would’ve been very bad had they not been corrected.

The second one was only revealed in detail this week, and was discovered and patched only because the first software issue caused the ground team on the mission to go back over all the software relating to the capsule’s re-entry and check for potential errors. Otherwise, the mission team says it would not have been caught. No word yet on what this means definitively for Boeing’s crew program, but we’ll find out at the end of this month according to NASA officials.

Trump administration asks for $3B NASA budget boost

NASA could get significantly more funding than it did in 2020 for its fiscal 2021 operating year, with the bulk of a proposed $3 billion increase earmarked for development of human landers to be used in the Artemis program. Trump will still have to make that official during his budget presentation on February 10 (that’s today), but it looks like a strong endorsement of the agency’s plans by the current administration.

NASA seeks industry input on rovers

NASA may be looking to lock its Lander plans this coming year, but it’s also asking industry to provide concepts and input on lunar rovers, including robotic designs and ideas for human-carrying Moon buggies. This will likely lead to some kind of formal RFP for commercial rover partners down the road.

OneWeb launches 34 more satellites for its constellation

Meanwhile, Starlink competitor OneWeb launched its second batch of satellites, a group of 34 spacecraft. The company says this is just the beginning of its plans that include launching a group of at least 30 satellites per month until its constellation reaches its goal of 650, though it did also note that its going to pause the campaign in April to incorporate a satellite redesign.

SpaceX launches online rocket rideshare booking tool

SpaceX has launched a new online booking portal for its rideshare rocket service, which actually lets anyone with a credit card book a rocket launch starting at $1 million with a $5,000 downpayment. Don’t do this unless you actually plan to launch something and have your ducks in a row, however – unless you really want to just donate $5,000 to SpaceX .

Inside Astra’s unique new launch offering

Astra is a new launch startup that’s been developing its rocket for at least three years, but that only recently broke cover. I spoke to CEO and founder Chris Kemp about the company’s business model – and found out it’s not like anything else currently in the market, by design. ExtraCrunch subscription required.

Register for TC Sessions: Space 2020

Our very own dedicated space event is coming up on June 25 in Los Angeles, and you can get your tickets now. It’s sure to be a packed day of quality programming from the companies mentioned above and more, so go ahead and sign up while Early Bird pricing applies.

Plus, if you have a space startup of your own, you can apply now to participate in our pre-event pitch-off, happening June 24.

NASA and ESA’s Solar Orbiter begins its nearly two-year journey to the Sun

By Darrell Etherington

After years of development, an exciting new scientific research spacecraft has launched on its journey to study our solar system’s central player: the Sun. The Solar Orbiter, developed jointly by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) and built by Airbus, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sunday night, launching as planned at 11:03 PM EST (8:03 PM PST).

Solar Orbiter launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, feating a special, unique configuration of the launch vehicle designed specifically to get the nearly 4,000 lb observation craft off Earth and onto its target path to eventually approach the Sun. The Atlas V used for this launch was configured with a payload fairing 13 feet in diameter to accommodate the Orbiter, and used a single solid rocket motor to provide the necessary propulsive power.

From here, Solar Obiter embarks on a journey that will take just over a year and a half, and include two close passes to Venus and Earth in order to take advantage of their gravitational pull to propel the spacecraft towards its target destination while conserving as much fuel as possible. After it swings by those two bodies to gain momentum, it’ll end up in an orbit around the sun with a close approach distance of just 26 million miles – still about 100 times as far as the Moon is from Earth, but so close that temperatures at their peak at the spacecraft will reach nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Solar Orbiter’s mission sees it orbiting the Sun for at least seven years, gathering data about what’s going on in the star’s heliosphere, which is roughly equivalent to Earth’s atmosphere in that it surrounds the Sun. These findings should shed new light on what goes on in the heliosphere, which will definitely be advantageous for scientific study of our solar companion, but they could also provide new information that leads to better understanding of so-called ‘space weather,’ which includes things like solar storms and flares that actually impact the proper functioning of infrastructure including communications and navigation technology back on Earth.

Onboard Solar Orbiter, there are 10 instruments to measure various phenomena and gather different types of information from the Sun, including permeating ultraviolet imaging and taking measurements from the solar wind that radiates off the star. All of these instruments had to be hardened to withstand not only those extremely high temperatures from the Orbiter’s closest approach to the Sun, but also down to nearly -300 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an amazing engineering challenge when you’re dealing with instrumentation designed to detect very fine detail. They’ll be protected in part by a heat shield made of titanium and covered with a calcium phosphate coating that will absorb most of the 1,000-degree temperatures, however, resulting in a more tolerable range of between 4 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the actual instruments themselves.

Solar Orbiter won’t be alone in its study of the Sun: NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which launched in 2018, will be simultaneously in solar orbit, gathering solar gas samples and providing information which can be used in tandem with data provided by Solar Orbiter for a more complete picture of what’s going on at the center of our solar system.

Watch two rocket launches live, including a Space Station supply flight and a mission to study the Sun

By Darrell Etherington

There are two – that’s right two – launches happening this Sunday, and both are set to broadcast live on NASA’s official stream above. The first is a NASA International Space Station resupply mission, with a Norhtrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft launching aboard an Antares rocket from Wallops Island in Virginia at 5:39 PM EST (2:39 PM PST). The second is the launch of the Solar Orbiter spacecraft, a joint scientific mission by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) that’s set to take off aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 11:03 PM EST (8:03 PM PST).

The ISS resupply mission is the 13th operated by Northrop Grumman, and will carry around 8,000 lbs of experiment materials, supplies for the STation’s astronaut crew, and additional cargo including various cargo. If all goes to plan, the Cygnus spacecraft will get to the Space Station on Tuesday at around 4:30 AM EST, where astronauts on board will capture the spacecraft with the station’s robotic arm for docking.

The NASA/ESA Solar Orbiter mission is a bit more of an event, since it’s a launch of a very special payload with a dedicated mission to study the Sun, launching aboard a brand new custom configuration of ULA’s Atlas V rocket tailor-made for the Orbiter. The Orbiter has a mass of nearly 4,000 lbs, and a wingspan of nearly 60 feet, and is carrying a complement of 10 instruments for gathering data from our Solar System’s central player.

Solar Orbiter will take the first ever direct images of the Sun’s poles once it arrives at our star, but it first has to get there, using the gravitational force of both Earth and Venus to help propel it along its path. Already, the planned launch of Solar Orbiter has been delayed by a few days – and timing is key to making sure those gravitational forces can work as designed to get it to tis goal, so here’s hoping today’s launch goes off as planned.

As its name implies, Solar Orbiter is designed to orbit the Sun – and it’ll do so from a relatively close distance of around 26 million miles away. That’s closer than Mercury, the planet in our solar system closest to the Sun, and at that distance it’ll still face max temperatures of around 520 degrees Celsius (968 degrees Fahrenheit). To endure those temps, the spacecraft is protected by a titanium heat shield that will always be oriented towards the star, and even its solar panels will actually have to tilt away from the Sun during the spacecraft’s closest approach to make sure they don’t get too hot while powering the satellite.

Solar Orbiter will study the Sun’s polar regions, as mentioned, and shed some light on how its magnetic field and emissions of particles from the star affect its surrounding cosmic environment, including the region of space that we inhabit here on Earth. After launch, Orbiter should make its way to Venus for a flyby this December, then cost paths with Earth for a planned approach in November, 2021, before making its first close approach to the Sun in 2022.

Check back above for live views of both launches, with the stream for the first mission kicking off shortly after 5 PM EST (2PM PST).

NASA confirms two Boeing Starliner issues would’ve led to spacecraft loss without intervention

By Darrell Etherington

NASA and Boeing are sharing more details about the issues that were encountered during the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew spacecraft uncrewed demo mission in December, and their progress on investigating the causes and implementing fixes. In a new blog post, NASA lays out the three different specific issues that occurred, and notes that for two of them, the spacecraft would’ve been lost without direct intervention by the ground crew.

The first issue identified is the mission timer issue that Boeing and NASA were very transparent about during the actual mission itself. This led to the spacecraft’s automated navigation systems believing it was in a different part of the mission, later than it actually was. That then incurred thruster firing which used up fuel, and necessitated ground control stepping in to manually position the spacecraft in a different orbit than planned to ensure it could continue flying.

The second issue detailed in this new post was a software issue in the part of the launch where the Service Module attached to the capsule is discarded prior to re-entry and landing, which resulted in another propulsion issue and another case where the ground crew had to step in and execute corrective action roughly two hours ahead of its planned de-orbit to save the spacecraft.

“Regarding the first two anomalies, the team found the two critical software defects were not detected ahead of flight despite multiple safeguards,” NASA explains in the post. “Ground intervention prevented loss of vehicle in both cases. Breakdowns in the design and code phase inserted the original defects. Additionally, breakdowns in the test and verification phase failed to identify the defects preflight despite their detectability. While both errors could have led to risk of spacecraft loss, the actions of the NASA-Boeing team were able to correct the issues and return the Starliner spacecraft safely to Earth.”

As for what this means for the Boeing commercial crew program, NASA continues that these defects finding their way all the way through design and development to flight can be attributed to “no simple cause,” and instead will “require systemic corrective actions” starting with 11 “top-priority” ones already identified by the investigation team, with more to follow as the investigation continues.

NASA also said that it’s too early to definitely identify either the root causes of the problems, or all the fixes that will be required for Boeing’s Starliner system prior to future flights. The agency does say it expects that it will reach that point by the end of February, however. It’s holding a press conference with Boeing later this afternoon at 3:30 PM EST to discuss these findings and its progress in more detail.

Trump said to propose roughly $3 billion NASA budget boost for 2021

By Darrell Etherington

President Donald Trump is set to request a budget of $25.6 billion for NASA for its fiscal 2021 operating year, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. It’s looking for nearly $3 billion more than the $22.6 billion NASA had for its current fiscal year, and the bulk of the new funding is said to be earmarked for development of new human lunar landers.

This represents one of the single largest proposed budget increases for NASA in a couple of decades, but reflects Trump’s renewed commitment to the agency’s efforts as expressed during the State of the Union address he presented on February 4, during which he included a request to Congress to “fully fund the Artemis program to ensure that the next man and first woman on the Moon will be American astronauts.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has frequently repeated the agency’s goal of sending the first American woman and the next American man to the surface of the Moon by 2024, a timeline the current mission cadence of the Artemis program is designed against. Bridenstine has previously discussed esimated total costs for getting back to the Moon by 2024 at between $20-30 billion, and the Administrator was pressed by a House Appropriations Subcommittee late last year about a $1.6 billion late-stage add-on request for the agency’s fiscal 2020 budget.

The WSJ also reports that NASA will be looking to solicit bids on lunar landers as part of its 2021 budgetary plans, which echoes its previous efforts with the launch vehicles for the Artemis program. Already, NASA is working with a host of commercial partners on an authorized vendor list for robotic, uncrewed lunar lander mission to deliver experiments and supplies to the lunar surface starting in 2021.

NASA released a broad agency announcement for industry comment regarding a human lander system for Artemis last July, along with a revised version in August, and then opened a call for formal proposals in September 2019. A couple of winners for a human-rated lander to carry NASA astronauts are expected, with the agency saying that the time that the first company to complete its lander will provide the vehicle for the 2024 landing, while the second will support another mission in 2025. with potential competitors vying for the prize including legacy companies like Boeing, as well as newer entrants like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Trump is set to submit his administration’s budget on February 10.

NASA panel recommends Boeing software process reviews after revealing second Starliner issue

By Darrell Etherington

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) is recommending that Boeing’s software testing processes undergo a review, following the discovery of another problem with the on-board system that was in operation during the CST-100 Starliner uncrewed Space Station docking test launch in December. Starliner never made it to the Space Station as planned during that launch, due to a mission timer error that resulted in the capsule burning too much fuel too early in the flight.

During their meeting on Thursday, the ASAP group revealed that there was a second software “anomaly” detected during the mission, which was corrected while the capsule was in flight, Space News reports. Had the issue not been noticed and corrected, the result would’ve been misfired thrusters that could’ve ultimately led to a “catastrophic spacecraft failure,” per panel member Paul Hill via Space News.

Both Boeing and NASA are currently investigating the issues that occurred during the test mission. Both partners also stressed that the launch, which did result in a successful Starliner re-entry and landing in White Sands, N.M., accomplished a number of planned tests despite not making it to the ISS.

At the time, they also pointed out that the error with the mission timer would not have resulted in any danger to any astronauts on board. This newly disclosed error sounds like it may have been more severe, without correction, and it was fixed just two hours prior to the capsule’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Accordingly, the panel would like to see a review of Boeing’s systems engineering, software integration and verification testing, and that doing so should precede a decision about whether or not to go ahead with either another uncrewed launch, or move ahead to the crewed test flight, which would’ve been the next step had everything gone to plan on the December launch.

NASA has already decided to go ahead and conduct an “organizational safety assessment,” the panel said, which it has already conducted for fellow commercial crew program participant SpaceX last year.

Speaking of SpaceX, the panel also shared that its program is “at a point where there is not a question of whether they will be flying crew in the near term, but when,” which does sound promising for their goal. Separately, a report on the Commercial Crew Program issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this week revealed that SpaceX is actually ahead of its current schedule on delivering the Crew Dragon capsule for the first operational crew mission.

Boeing provided TechCrunch the following statement regarding the ASAP’s statements at the meeting on Thursday:

We accept and appreciate the recommendations of the jointly led NASA-Boeing Independent Review Team (IRT) as well as suggestions from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel following Starliner’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT). Their insights are invaluable to the Commercial Crew Program and we will work with NASA to comprehensively apply their recommendations.

  • Regarding the Mission Elapsed Timer anomaly, the IRT believes they found root cause and provided a number of recommendations and corrective actions.
  • The IRT also investigated a valve mapping software issue, which was diagnosed and fixed in flight. That error in the software would have resulted in an incorrect thruster separation and disposal burn. What would have resulted from that is unclear.
  • The IRT is also making significant progress on understanding the command dropouts encountered during the mission and is further investigating methods to make the Starliner communications system more robust on future missions.

We are already working on many of the recommended fixes including re-verifying flight software code.

Our next task is to build a plan that incorporates IRT recommendations, NASA’s Organizational Safety Assessment (OSA) and any other oversight NASA chooses after considering IRT findings. Once NASA approves that plan, we will be able to better estimate timelines for the completion of all tasks. It remains too soon to speculate about next flight dates.

NASA seeks Moon rover concepts from industry

By Darrell Etherington

NASA is looking for input from industry — including vehicle makers and tech companies not necessarily already in the space business — as to what future lunar rovers should look like. This is part of its Artemis program, which seeks to return humans to the surface of the Moon, including the first woman and the next American man.

This ask includes two formal Requests for Information (RFI): One seeking ideas about robotic rovers designed for automated exploration, and another looking for concepts and ideas that could lead to the development of a lunar terrain vehicle (LTV) that’s rated for human use, with astronauts able to drive them around on the Moon while wearing protective pressurized suits (meaning they’re essentially looking for open-top designs).

NASA’s goal with these vehicles is to help astronauts explore beyond their future landing site, which will be somewhere on the lunar South Pole, and be able to extend the range of terrain they can access to conduct their experiments and gather data. The robot vehicles will support in a similar fashion, while also ideally being able to reach where humans can’t necessarily reach.

In its explanation of the RFI, NASA notes that it’s looking for expertise from industry players involved in all types of vehicle production, including all-terrain, electric and other kinds of ground craft. That could include autonomous car companies and innovative mobility tech startups, for instance.

NASA plans to address questions during a virtual industry forum in case anyone’s seeking more info, and submissions are due on February 26 for the LTV rover RFI, while there’s a little longer to contribute to the robotic rover RFI, which closes on March 6.

The agency issued a similar RFI for commercial robotic lunar landers in 2018, prior to announcing its Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract program in February 2019. Given that model, it may indeed be the case that this RFI ultimately leads to some kind of commercial partner program for rovers to be used in future NASA Moon missions as well.

SpaceX ‘likely to spin out’ and pursue an IPO for Starlink satellite internet business

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX looks likely to take its burgeoning Starlink business and spin it out, seeking to bring that satellite internet project to public markets via an IPO. That’s according to SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell, who made the remarks during a JPMorgan Chase investor conference, as reported by Bloomberg.

SpaceX has been launching batches of satellites to add to its Starlink constellation, with the goal of ultimately providing low-cost, globe-spanning high-bandwidth internet connectivity. Starlink will accomplish this using small satellites acting in a networked fashion in low Earth orbit, with SpaceX ultimately aiming to launch as many as 25,000 satellites in total based on current regulatory filings.

Currently, there are around 240 Starlink satellites in orbit, and there are plans to launch another 60 during a fifth Starlink launch currently set to take off sometime in February. In the near-term, SpaceX aims to continue with a pace of frequent launches throughout 2020, and ultimately be able to begin offering service to customers by the end of the year. It hopes to then build out the constellation further through 2021 and expand service to additional regions as it goes.

Shotwell told Bloomberg that while SpaceX is currently a private company, “Starlink is the right kind of business that [it] can go ahead and take public.” That makes sense, since once its operational, Starlink will likely be a much more traditionally structured service business with subscription customers and recurring revenue, like any other network operator. We’ve confirmed SpaceX doesn’t have any specific timelines for a spin-out, and that this is something in the early consideration stage, with any actual Starlink public debut still likely a few years out.

Meanwhile, SpaceX doesn’t seem likely to focus too much on profitability in the immediate future: While it has developed and proven flight vehicles, including the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy for repeat service for customers willing to spend a significant amount of cash on launches, and while it continues to decrease its launch costs through reusability, the company is also simultaneously developing an entirely new, fully reusable launch system called Starship, which includes a new Super Heavy booster, and that development program will involve significant and continued expenditures with upsides to be realized only much farther down the road.

Eventually, Starship could replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy and become SpaceX’s only launch vehicle, reducing individual launch costs considerably and leading to profitable operation. But it’s still in the early development phase, and SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk also has ambitious plans to reach and colonize Mars, which again represents potential capital spending not necessarily in line with public market appetites.