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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.

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.

Blue Origin’s new rocket engine production facility opens on Monday

By Darrell Etherington

Blue Origin is opening its new rocket engine production center in Huntsville, Alabama on Monday, the company said today on Twitter. The new Huntsville facility will be able to produce its rocket engines at a much higher rate than is currently possible, which will be useful as the company is using its in-development BE-4 engine for its own New Glenn rocket, as well as for supplying the United Launch Alliance with thrust for its new Vulcan launch vehicle.

Blue Origin started working on BE-4 bacon 2011, and though it was originally designed for use specifically on Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket, which is its first orbital launch vehicle, in 2014 ULA announced it would be using the engines to power its own next-generation Vulcan craft as well. BE-4 has 550,000 lbs of thrust using a mixture of liquid natural gas and oxygen for fuel, and is designed from the ground-up for heavy lift capability.

On Monday, we open our high rate rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, AL. In anticipation of that, we wanted to show a little love for our #BE4 engine progress. https://t.co/YojnGQG0O4 pic.twitter.com/Iz4DAzjqCn

— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) February 14, 2020

Blue Origin says it will delivery the first two production BE-4 engines this year, with deliveries to ULA to integrate them on the Vulcan for its first static hot fire tests. Blue also aims to fly New Glenn equipped with the engines for their first test flight in 2021. It’s in the process of running longer tests to prove out the engines, and will aim to quality them in their entirely through life cycle testing, which aims to replicate the kind of stress and operating conditions the hardware will undergo through its actual lifetime use.

Part of Blue Origin’s testing process will include retrofitting and upgrading Test Stand 4670 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, allowing the company to test a BE-3 engine one side and a BE-4 engine on the other.

It’s an exciting time for Blue and its BE-4, and the engine has been a long time in the making. What comes next could set it up as an integral and core part of the U.S. space launch program going forward, regardless of how its own launch vehicle plans proceed.

Rocket startup Gilmour Space gets a $3M grant to develop lighter fuel tanks

By Darrell Etherington

Mass is money when it comes to the rocket launch business, and any small savings you can eke out can add up to big savings. That’s been the driving force behind the growing commercialization of space, and the rapid rise of the small satellite industry, and now Australian rocket startup Gilmour Space has received a $3 million grant from the Australian government to help improve rockets in a way that could add significant savings to the launch process.

Gilmour has spent the past seven years developing new and innovative technologies, including launching a hybrid rocket powered by 3D-printed fuel in 2016, working with NASA and developing a commercial use mobile launch platform for flexible, fast launch capabilities last year. This new award will be used to fund the development of lightweight rocket fuel tanks that are flight-ready, and could save as much as 30 percent of the weight of current designs, while simultaneously saving up to 25 percent off the cost of launch.

The project is a collaboration between Gilmour, the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) and Teakle Composites, and in total is supported by $12.5 million in investment. The ‘cryotanks’ (so-called because they store super-cold fuel) that result will be constructed of carbon fibre, which is set to be wound using a robot designed for the purpose, using a “exotic” filament materials that can stand up to the stresses of space, which include extreme temperatures and radiation.

Gilmour Space and USQ entered into a strategic partnership last year to work together on research and development of fundamental new rocket technologies, and this project along with its work on hybrid fuels and other areas of investigation will culminate in a plan to launch Gilmour’s first commercial rocket into orbit sometime in 2022. The goal of the company in general is to reduce the cost of access to space, and changing the cost dynamics of fundamental components of the rocket system is likely the best way to do that, even if it requires a significant amount of research and funding up front to make that happen.

Why Astra built a space startup and rocket factory in Silicon Valley

By Darrell Etherington

There’s a new launch startup in the mix called Astra, which has been operating in semi-stealth mode for the past three years, building its rockets just a stone’s throw from the heart of startup central in Alameda County, Calif. Astra’s approach isn’t exactly a secret — its founders didn’t set out to hide anything and industry observers have followed its progress — but CEO Chris Kemp says he’s not particularly bothered about flying under the radar, so to speak.

Yes, the company had a somewhat splashy mainstream public premiere via a Bloomberg Businessweek profile on Monday, but that was more by virtue of writer Ashlee Vance’s keen interest in the emerging space economy than a desire for publicity on the part of Kemp or his cohorts. In fact, the CEO admitted to me that were it not for Vance’s desire to expound on the company’s efforts and a forthcoming attempt at winning a $12 million DARPA prize for responsive rocketry, Astra would still be content to continue to operate essentially undercover.

That’s just one way in which Astra differs from other space startups, which typically issue press releases and coordinate media events around each and every launch. Kemp, a former NASA CTO, and Adam London, an aerospace engineer who previously founded rocket miniaturization startup Ventions, designed their rocket startup from the ground up in a way that’s quite different from companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab.

“I’ve never been to one of our launches,” Kemp told me, referring to two test launches that Astra flew previously, both of which technically failed shortly into their flights. “Because I don’t think the CEO, or frankly any of our employees, should be anywhere near the rocket when it launches; we should automate everything. As much as possible, let’s put the rockets where they need to launch from, which might be an island on the equator, and it might be way up north near the poles, but let’s not add cost by putting a huge spaceport with fixed fortification in a very expensive place where it’s very hard to get to.”

Rocket Lab readies parachute tests for its rocket recovery and reuse program

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab is proceeding as planned with its efforts to recover and reuse spent rocket boosters from its Electron launch vehicle, and has completed its first prototype parachute for use in the recovery process. Rocket lab CEO Peter Beck announced last year that it would be aiming for reusability with the first stage of its rocket, using a system that includes the booster re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, then deploying a parachute to slow its descent so that it can be caught mid-air by a helicopter and returned to land.

Already, Rocket Lab has made good progress on its plan, with two tests under its belt of the guided re-entry par tof the process, including a launch in early December 2019, and one just last week. Now, Beck said on Twitter that the company is ready to move on to stage two, which is developing the parachute system that will deploy once the rocket has completed re-entry, to slow its rate of descent. Rocket Lab’s first parachute prototype is ready, Beck says, and the company will start testing it using low-altitude drops, as well as testing the capture process, beginning next week.

Stage 1 reusability:
-Get through the “wall”✅. – – Now let’s slow it down. Rocket Lab’s first prototype chute is complete. The Low altitude drop and capture test program begins next week. pic.twitter.com/SBvqxoFABg

Peter Beck (@Peter_J_Beck) February 5, 2020

Beck said during the event revealing Rocket Lab’s reusability plan that the most difficult part of the whole process was reducing the rocket’s speed during its return to Earth, which could mean that these parachute tests will be relatively simple to ace compared to the re-entry guidance system tests that preceded it. Then, it’ll be a matter of integrating the two systems, so that the returning rocket can slow itself enough just through orientation (it’s not firing any retro rockets in Earth’s atmosphere to control its descent like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster) to enable the parachute to take it the rest of the way.

Rocket Lab plans to attempt a full rocket recovery sometime before the end of 2020, and if it manages to get the process right, the primary benefit for the company will be an increased ability to turn around missions for more frequent successive launches, which Beck says is key to its goals of providing responsive, flexible launch services for customers.

Rocket startup Firefly signs satellite constellation launch mission with Satlantis

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket launch startup Firefly Aerospace has signed a new agreement with Satlantis, a maker of Earth observation and remote sensing payloads for satellite-based operation. Firefly will launch a constellation of small satellites on behalf of Atlantis that will provide high-res, multispectral imaging of Earth from low-Earth orbit.

Firefly is still in the development and testing phase of their first launch vehicle, the Alpha rocket and spacecraft. The company intends to fly Alpha for the first time sometime this year, and the agreement singed today with Satlantis specifies a 2022 timeframe for the mission.

Alpha is a two-stage rocket that uses a carbon composite material for its primary construction. It’s around 95-feet tall, and can carry approximately 2,200 lbs to low-Earth orbit. Like Rocket Lab, Firefly’s goal is to provide an affordable option for small satellite customers to have dedicated launches, rather than relying on having to book ride share missions, but it offers considerably more payload capacity.

Firefly has just begun running its “hot” fire tests of its engine with the vehicle vertical early in 2020, but it did encounter a setback at the end of January with a fire on the launch platform following the first of these tests. Firefly said the fire was due to a fuel leak, but continues work on Alpha and Firefly CEO Tom Markusic told KVUE that it shouldn’t affect their goal of having a first flight for the rocket by mid-year.

Max Q: SpaceX’s Starlink constellation grows again

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 was the busiest yet for space-related news in 2020, thanks in part to the 23rd Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference that happened last week. The event saw participation from just about every company who has anything to do with commercial spaceflight, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and dove deep on questions of regulation and congressional support for NASA’s Artemis program.

Our own TC Sessions: Space 2020 event, which is happening June 25 in LA, will zero in on the emerging startup economy that plays such a crucial role in commercial space, and it’s sure to touch on the same topics but get into a lot more detail on the innovation side of things as well.

SpaceX launches 60 more satellites – second Starlink launch already in 2020

SpaceX is clearly very eager to get its Starlink satellite broadband network operational, as the company has already launched not one, but two batches of 60 satellites for its constellation in 2020. After a launch early in January, the latest batch when up on January 29, moving SpaceX closer to the total volume of satellites needed for it to begin offering service in North America, its first target market for the (eventually) world-spanning network.

Rocket Lab launches its first mission in 2020

Busy launch week for new space launch companies, as Rocket Lab also launched a mission – its first of 2020. The launch was on behalf of client the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, delivering a surveillance satellite for the U.S. intelligence agency. This is part of a new program the NRO has in place to quickly secure launch vehicles for small satellites, departing from its traditional practice of using large, geostationary Earth observation spacecraft.

NASA and Maxar to demo in-orbit spacecraft assembly

NASA and its partner Maxar are planning to demonstrate orbital manufacturing in a big way using a robotic platform in space that will assemble a new multipanel reflector antenna. It’ll also refuel a satellite in space, both demonstrations that would go a long way towards proving out the viability and potential commercial benefit of doing maintenance, upgrades and spacecraft assembly in orbit.

NASA teams with Axiom Space on first commercial ISS habitat module

NASA has tapped space station startup Axiom to build its first commercial module for the ISS designed to receive and house commercial astronauts. It’s a place designed for both work (research and science experimentation) and play (potentially receiving future paying orbital tourists) and it’s step one of Axiom’s grand vision for a fully private space station. Axiom is founded by a former ISS manager whose mission is to ensure we don’t lose human presence in orbit following the Space Station’s eventual decommission.

SpaceX looks to Port of LA for Starship manufacture

Starship Mk1 night

SpaceX will eventually have to manufacture a lot of Starships to meet founder Elon Musk’s ambitious goals for frequent flights and Mars colonization. Musk wants to build 1,000 Starships over the course of the next decade, and talks are ongoing with the Port of LA to potentially manufacture at least some of them there, where there’s easy access to water for shipping the rockets to launchpads including SpaceX’s Florida facilities.

Space needs an exit

Space startups are seeing record investment, and a record number of seed rounds indicating ample interest in starting new companies – but investors are still watching for that next big exit. They’ve been few and far between in the sector, which is not something you want to see if you want the hype to continue.

Kepler will build its satellites in Toronto

Satellite constellation startup Kepler Communication is going to be building its IoT small satellites in-house in downtown Toronto. Not necessarily everyone’s first choice when building satellites, but Kepler wants to keep things to its own backyard to eventually realize cost efficiencies, and to closely align design and development with manufacturing.

Rocket startup Astra emerges from stealth, aims to launch for as little as $1M per flight

By Darrell Etherington

There’s yet another new rocket launch startup throwing its hat in the ring – Astra, an Alameda-based company that’s actually been operating in stealth mode (though relatively openly, often referred to as ‘Stealth Space Company’) for the past three years developing and testing its launch vehicle. Astra revealed its business model and progress to date in a new feature article with Bloomberg Businessweek, detailing how it plans to use mass production to deliver rockets quickly and cheaply for small satellite orbital delivery. Astra revealed its raised over $100 million from investors including Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors, Airbus Ventures, Canann Partners and Salesforce co-founder Marc Benioff, to name a few, and it has big ambitions in terms of cost and capabilities.

Astra’s rockets are smaller than most existing launch vehicles in operation, designed to delivery up to 450 lbs of cargo to space, but with the specific mandate of doing so quickly and responsively. The company is a finalist (and the only remaining one) on Darpa’s Launch Challenge, the terms of which mandate that the winning company deploy two rockets from two different payloads within a few weeks of each other. Astra is still in the running while its erstwhile competitors have dropped out, with Virgin Orbit having voluntarily withdrawn and Vector Launch having gone out of business.

The Darpa challenge, which includes an award of $12 million for the winner, represents a growing trend in terms of defense customer needs: Fast turnaround and responsive operations for small satellite delivery. In an industry where the process of securing a launch service provider, to actually flying a payload, has typically taken at least six months in the best case scenario, there’s a growing need for quicker timelines in the interest of building more redundancy and resilience into defense and reconnaissance space operations through use of networks of small satellites, vs. single large geostationary satellites that are expensive to launch and more time-consuming to task.

Astra, led by serial entrepreneur and former NASA CTO Chris Kemp wants to address this growing demand (which extends to commercial customers like Spire, Planet and others who are putting up large communications and Earth observation small satellite constellation) by producing rockets fast and with high frequency. Per the Bloomberg article, Astra says it can launch “profitably” for $2.5 million per mission, which is around half the going rate for a Rocket Lab launch, and that it eventually hopes to attain costs as low as $1 million per mission with a daily launch operational cadence. To that end, it’s looking to ramp production to a rate of producing hundreds of vehicles per year in a 250,000 square-foot manufacturing facility it’s setting up.

Astra is also different in that its using aluminum primarily in its launch vehicle, as opposed to the more costly but premium carbon fiber used by Rocket Lab in its Electron vehicle. And their launch platform is designed with mobility in mind, however, as the whole point is that it can be deployed responsively globally on short notice. If Rocket Lab’s launcher is a finely crafted and engineered supercar, Astra’s is aiming to be a reliable, adequate daily compact commuter car.

Next up for Astra in terms of key milestones is a launch planned for February 21 from Kodiak, Alaska – an island spaceport owned and operated by Alaska Aerospace. The company has actually already flown two suborbital test launches from this site, both in 2018, and both resulted in failures shortly following launch, so it’s got a lot to prove with this latest forthcoming attempt.

Launch startup Skyrora successfully tests 3D-printed rocket engines powered by plastic waste

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket launch startup Skyrora, an Edinburgh-based company that’s developing a new launch vehicle for small satellites, has successfully tested its new rocket engines in their first stationary ground-firings, a huge step on the way towards developing their launch vehicle. Skyrora’s rocket engines are novel not only in their use of 3D printing, but also because the fuel that powers them is developed from plastic waste — a new type of fuel called “Ecosene” the startup says makes its launch vehicles greener and more ecologically sound than the competition.

The rocket engine that Skyrora is testing will eventually power the final stage of its 22-meter (72-foot) Skyrora XL launch vehicle (closer to Rocket Lab’s Electron at 57 feet than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 at 229 feet), which will be capable of delivering multiple payloads to separate orbits ranging up to 500 km (310 miles) above Earth, a popular low-Earth orbit target range for small satellite payloads. Skyrora fired the engines both with its Ecosene fuel, which is its kerosene directed from waste plastics using a proprietary process, and with traditional kerosene RP-1 rocket fuel, giving the company the opportunity to compare the two fuel sources in terms of performance.

Skyrora says it can create around 600 kg (1,300 lbs) of kerosene form 1,000 kg (2,200 lbs) of plastic waste, and its fuel results in around 45 percent less greenhouse gas emissions. The Ecosene also has the advantage of not requiring cryogenic freezing, and it can be stored in tanks for long periods of time, something that the startup says helps it work particularly well for launch conditions from the Scottish spaceport from which the company plans to launch.

Ultimately, this is just one test on the path to validation and eventual launch, but Skyrora is encouraged by the results of this test, and it plans to fly its first Skyrora XL vehicles from its UK-based launch site starting in 2022.

How Bykea is winning Pakistan’s ride-hailing and delivery market

By Manish Singh

Increasingly, the streets of Karachi and Lahore are being flooded with men riding bikes and wearing green T-shirts, a writer friend recently told me. In a sense, these men represent the emergence of Pakistan’s tech startups.

India now has more than 25,000 startups and raised a record $14.5 billion last year, according to government figures. But not all Asian countries are as large as India or have such a thriving startup ecosystem. Long overdue, things are beginning to change in bordering Pakistan.

Bykea, a three-year-old ride-hailing and delivery service, today has more than 500,000 bikes registered on its platform. It operates in some of Pakistan’s most populated cities, such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, Muneeb Maayr, Bykea founder and CEO, told TechCrunch.

Maayr is one of the most recognized startup founders in Pakistan, and previously worked for Rocket Internet, helping the giant run fashion e-commerce platform Daraz in the country. While leading Daraz, he expanded the platform to cater to categories beyond fashion; Daraz was later sold to Alibaba.

Relativity Space could change the economics of private space launches

By Darrell Etherington

The private launch market is an area of a lot of focus in the emerging space startup industry, not least because it unlocks the true potential of most of the rest of the market. But so far, we can count on one hand the number of new, private space launch companies that have actually transported payloads to orbit. Out of a number of firms racing to be the next to actually launch, LA-based Relativity Space is a prime contender, with a unique approach that could set it apart from the crowd.

I spoke to CEO Tim Ellis about what makes his company different and about what kind of capabilities it will bring to the launch market once it starts flying, something the company aims to do beginning next year. Fresh off a $140 million funding round in October 2019, Relativity’s model could provide another seismic shift in the economics of doing business in space, and has the potential to be as disruptive to the landscape — if not more so — as SpaceX.

“We built the largest metal 3D printers in the world, which we call a ‘Stargate,’ ” Ellis said. “It’s actually replacing a whole factory full of fixed tooling — and having all of our processes being 3D printing, we really view that as being the future because that lets us automate almost the entire rocket production, and then also reduce part count for much larger launch vehicles so our rocket can carry a 1,250-kg payload to orbit.” Because Relativity Space’s launch vehicle is nearly 10 times larger than those made by Rocket Lab or Orbex, “it’s a totally different payload class.”

That difference is crucial, and represents the paradigm shift that Relativity Space could engender once its products are introduced to the commercial market. The company knows first-hand how its approach fundamentally differs from existing launch providers like Blue Origin and SpaceX — Ellis previously worked as a propulsion engineer at Blue Origin, and co-founder and CTO Jordan Noone worked on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule program. Ellis said Relativity’s approach won’t just unlock cost savings due to automation, it will also provide clients with the ability to launch payloads that weren’t possible with previous launch vehicle design constraints.

Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2020 is a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab has announced its first mission for 2020 – a dedicated rocket launch on behalf of client the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) with a launch window that opens on January 31. The Electron rocket Rocket Lab is using for this mission will take off from its Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) in New Zealand, and it’ll be the first mission Rocket Lab secured under a new contract the NRO is using that allows it to source launch providers quickly and at short notice.

This new Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract model is pretty much ideal for Rocket Lab, since the whole company’s thesis is based around using small, affordable rockets that can be produced quickly thanks to carbon 3D printing used in the manufacturing process. Rocket Lab has already demonstrated the flexibility of its model by bumping a client to the top of the queue when another dropped out last year, and its ability to win an NRO mission under the RASR contract model is further proof that its aim of delivering responsive, timely rocket launch services for small payloads is hitting a market sweet spot.

The NRO is a U.S. government agency that’s in charge of developing, building, launching and operating intelligence satellites. It was originally established in 1961, but was only officially declassified and made public in 1992. Its mandate includes supporting the work of both the U.S. Intelligence Community, as well as the Department of Defense.

Increasingly, the defense industry is interested in small satellite operations, mainly because using smaller, more efficient and economical satellites means that you can respond to new needs in the field more quickly, and that you can also build resiliency into your observation and communication network through sheer volume. Traditional expensive, huge intelligence and military satellites carry giant price tags, have multi-year development timelines and offer sizeable targets to potential enemies without much in the way of redundancy. Small satellites, especially acting as part of larger constellations, mitigate pretty much all of these potential weaknesses.

One of the reasons that Rocket Lab opened its new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) launch pad in Wallops Island, Virgina, is to better serve customers from the U.S. defense industry. Its first mission from that site, currently set to happen sometime this spring, is for the U.S. Air Force.

Max Q: SpaceX succeeds with a spectacular Crew Dragon test launch

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.

We’re off and running with good milestones achieved for NASA’s commercial crew program, which means it’s more likely than ever we’ll actually see astronauts launch from U.S. soil before the year is out.

If that’s not enough to get you pumped about the space sector in 2020, we also have a great overview of 2019 in space tech investment, and a look forward at what’s happening next year from Space Angels’ Chad Anderson. Plus, we announced our own dedicated space event, which is happening this June.

SpaceX successfully tests Crew Dragon safety system

SpaceX launched its Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft on Sunday. No one was on board, but the test was crucial because it included firing off the in-flight abort (IFA) safety system that will protect actual astronauts should anything go wrong with future real missions.

The SpaceX in-flight abort test included this planned fireball, as the Falcon 9 rocket it launched upon broke up.

The IFA seems to have worked as intended, propelling the Crew Dragon away from the Falcon 9 it was launched on top of at high speed. In an actual emergency, this would ensure that the astronauts aboard were transported to a safe distance, and then returned to Earth at a safe speed using the onboard parachutes, which seem to have deployed exactly as planned.

Elon Musk details Starship operational plans

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is looking a bit further ahead, in the meantime, to when his company’s Starship spacecraft is fully operational and making regular trips to Mars. Musk said he wants to be launching Starships as much as thrice daily, with the goal of moving megatons of cargo and up to a million people to Mars at full target operating pace.

SpinLaunch raises $35M more for catapult launcher

Secretive space launch startup SpinLaunch is adding to its operating capital with a new $35 million investment, a round led by Airbus Ventures, GV and more. The company wants to use rotational force to effectively fling payloads out of Earth’s atmosphere – without using any rockets. Sounds insane, but I’ve heard from people much smarter than me that the company, and the core concept, is sound.

What 2020 holds for space startup invesment

I spoke to Space Angels CEO Chat Anderson about his company’s quarterly tracking of private investment in the space technology sector, which they’ve been doing since 2017. They’re uniquely well-positioned to combine data from both public sources and the companies they speak to, and perform due diligence on, so there’s no better place to look for insight on where we’ve been, and an educated perspective on where we’re going. (ExtraCrunch subscription required).

Rocket Lab is expanding its LA presence

Rocket Lab was born in New Zealand, and still operates a facility and main launch pad there, but it’s increasingly building out its U.S. presence, too. Now, the company shared its plans to build a combined HQ/Mission Control/rocket fab facility in LA. Construction is already underway, and it should be completed later this year.

Orbex lands a new customer with lots of rideshare mission experience

‘Rideshare’ in space means something entirely different than it does on Earth – you’re not hailing an Uber, you’re booking one portion of cargo space aboard a rocket with a group of other clients. Orbex has a new customer that bought up all the capacity for one of its future rideshare missions, planned for 2022. The new launch provider hasn’t actually launched any rockets, however, so it’ll have to pass that key milestone before it makes good on that new contract.

We’re having a space event!

Yes, it’s official: TechCrunch is hosting its on space-focused tech event on June 25 in LA. This will be a one-day, high-profile program featuring discussions with the top companies and people in space tech, startups and investment. We’ll be revealing more about programming over the next few months, but if you get in now you can guarantee your spot.

What we know (and don’t) about Goldman Sachs’ Africa VC investing

By Jake Bright

Goldman Sachs is investing in African tech companies. The venerable American investment bank and financial services firm has backed startups from Kenya to Nigeria and taken a significant stake in e-commerce venture Jumia, which listed on the NYSE in 2019.

Though Goldman declined to comment on its Africa VC activities for this article, the company has spoken to TechCrunch in the past about specific investments.

Goldman Sachs is one of the most enviable investment banking shops on Wall Street, generating $36 billion in net revenues in 2019, or roughly $1 million per employee. It’s the firm that always seems to come out on top, making money during the financial crisis while its competitors were hemorrhaging. For generations, MBAs from the world’s top business schools have clamored to work there, helping make it a professional incubator of sorts that has spun off alums into leadership positions in politics, VC and industry.

All that cache is why Goldman’s name popping up related to African tech got people’s attention, including mine, several years ago.

Rocket Lab to open a new combined HQ, mission control and production facility in Long Beach

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab is expanding its U.S. footprint, alongside the opening of its first launch site on Wallops Island, Va. The rocket launch startup will open a new corporate headquarters in Long Beach, Calif. at a facility that will also provide some production capabilities, and act as its second Mission Control Center, complementing its existing Mission Control in New Zealand.

Construction on the new facility has already begun, Rocket Lab says, and should be completed in the second quarter of this year. Its production capacity will mean it can put out over a dozen full Electron launch vehicles per year, which should serve the company’s needs in terms of supplying its planned launch cadence of roughly one launch per month from the Wallops Island launch site.

In addition to Electron launch vehicles, the Long Beach facility will also be producing Rocket Lab satellites, which are part of the company’s expanded service offerings. Rocket Lab announced last year that it was moving beyond just offering launches to clients, and will provide end-to-end mission services — including customizable satellite hardware that can be tailored to the needs of clients looking to deploy small satellites for any number of purposes.

Rocket Lab is also going to house its first U.S. Mission Control Center at this Long Beach location, from which it’ll be able to coordinate and manage its launches at Wallops. Between that and its New Zealand-based Mission Control, this should help it manage the increased volume it should ramp up to when launching from both LC-1 in New Zealand and LC-2 at Wallops — and eventually, a second launch pad at its Mahia Peninsula, NZ complex.

2019 Africa Roundup: Jumia IPOs, China goes digital, Nigeria becomes fintech capital

By Jake Bright

2019 brought more global attention to Africa’s tech scene than perhaps any previous year.

A high profile IPO, visits by both Jacks (Ma and Dorsey), and big Chinese startup investment energized that.

The last 12 months served as a grande finale to 10 years that saw triple digit increases in startup formation and VC on the continent.

Here’s an overview of the 2019 market events that captured attention and capped off a decade of rapid growth in African tech.

IPOs

The story of the year is the April IPO on the NYSE of Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia. This was the first listing of a VC backed tech company operating in Africa on a major global exchange —  which brought its own unpredictability.

Founded in 2012, Jumia pioneered much of its infrastructure to sell goods to consumers online in Africa.

With Nigeria as its base market, the Rocket Internet backed company created accompanying delivery and payments services and went on to expand online verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few). Jumia now sells everything from mobile-phones to diapers and offers online services such as food-delivery and classifieds.

Seven years after its operational launch, Jumia’s stock debut kicked off with fanfare in 2019, only to be followed by volatility.

The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.95 opening share price post IPO.

That lasted until May, when Jumia’s stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left,  whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud. The American activist investor’s case was bolstered, in part, by a debate that played out across Africa’s tech ecosystem on Jumia’s legitimacy as an African startup, given its (primarily) European senior management.

The entire affair was further complicated by Jumia’s second quarter earnings call when the company disclosed a fraud perpetrated by some of its employees and sales agents. Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec emphasized the matter was closed, financially marginal and not the same as Andrew Left’s short-sell claims.

Whatever the balance, Jumia’s 2019 ups and downs cast a cloud over its stock with investors. Since the company’s third-quarter earnings-call, Jumia’s NYSE share-price has lingered at around $6 — less than half of its original $14.95 opening, and roughly 80% lower than its high.

Even with Jumia’s post-IPO rocky road, the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and is on pace to generate over $100 million in revenues in 2019 (albeit with big losses).

The company plans reduce costs by generating more revenue from higher-margin internet services, such as payments and classifieds.

There’s a fairly simple equation for Jumia to rebuild shareholder confidence in 2020: avoid scandals, increase revenues over losses. And now that the company’s publicly traded — with financial reporting requirements — there’ll be four earnings calls a year to evaluate Jumia’s progress.

Jumia may not be the continent’s standout IPO for much longer. Events in 2019 point to Interswitch becoming the second African digital company to list on a global exchange in 2020.  The Nigerian fintech firm confirmed to TechCrunch in November it had reached a billion-dollar unicorn valuation, after a (reported) $200 million investment by Visa.

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch created much of the initial infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s (then) predominantly cash-based economy. Interswitch has been teasing a public listing since 2016, but delayed it for various reasons. With the company’s billion-dollar valuation in 2019, that pause is likely to end.

“An [Interswitch] IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch .

China-Africa goes digital

2019 was the year when Chinese actors pivoted to African tech. China is known for its strategic relationship with Africa based (largely) on trade and infrastructure. Over the last 10 years, the country has been less engaged in the continent’s digital-scene.

china africa techThat was until a torrent of investment and partnerships this past year.

July saw Chinese-owned Opera raise $50 million in venture spending to support its growing West African digital commercial network, which includes browser, payments and ride-hail services.

In August, San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave partnered with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

In September, China’s Transsion  — the largest smartphone seller in Africa — listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s new STAR Market. The company raised ≈ $394 million, some of which it is directing toward venture funding and operational expansion in Africa.

The last quarter of 2019 brought a November surprise from China in African tech. Over 15 Chinese investors placed over $240 million in three rounds. Transsion backed consumer payments startup PalmPay raised a $40 million seed, stating its goal to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform.”

Chinese investors also backed Opera-owned OPay’s $120 million raise and East-African trucking logistics company Lori Systems’ (reported) $30 million Series B.

In the new year, TechCrunch will continue to cover the business arc of this surge in Chinese tech investment in Africa. There’ll surely be a number of fresh macro news-points to develop, given the debate (and critique) of China’s engagement with Africa.

Nigeria and fintech

On debate, the case could be made that 2019 was the year when Nigeria become Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.

Kenya has held this title hereto, with the local success and global acclaim of its M-Pesa mobile-money product. But more founders and VCs are opting for Nigeria as the epicenter for digital finance growth on the continent.Nigeria naira

A rough tally of 2019 TechCrunch coverage — including previously mentioned rounds — pegs fintech related investment in the West African country at around $400 million over the last 12 months. That’s equivalent to roughly one-third of all startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.

From OPay to PalmPay to Visa — startups, big finance companies and investors are making Nigeria home-base for their digital finance operations and Africa expansion strategies.

The founder of early-stage payment startup ChipperCash, Ham Serunjogi, explained the imperative to operating there. “Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa. Its fintech industry is one of the most advanced in Africa, up there with Kenya  and South Africa,” he told TechCrunch in May.

When all the 2019 VC numbers are counted, it will be worth matching up fintech stats for Nigeria to Kenya to see how the countries compared.

Acquisitions

Tech acquisitions continue to be somewhat rare in Africa, but there were several to note in 2019. Two of the continent’s powerhouse tech incubators joined forces in September, when Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub acquired Nairobi based iHub, for an undisclosed amount.

CChub ihub Acquisition

The acquisition brought together Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, volume of programs, startups incubated and global visibility. It also elevated the standing of CcHub’s Bosun Tijani across Africa’s tech ecosystem, as the CEO of the new joint-entity, which also has a VC arm.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani1

CcHub/iHub CEO Bosun Tijani

In other acquisition activity, French television company Canal+ acquired the ROK film studio from Nigerian VOD company IROKOtv, for an undisclosed amount. The deal put ROK founder and producer Mary Njoku in charge of a new organization with larger scope and resources.

Many outside Africa aren’t aware that Nigeria’s Nollywood is the Hollywood of the continent and one of the largest film industries in the world (by production volume). Canal+ told TechCrunch it looks to bring Mary and the Nollywood production ethos to produce content in French speaking African countries.

Other notable 2019 African tech takeovers included Kenyan internet company BRCK’s acquisition of ISP Surf, Nigerian digital-lending startup OneFi’s Amplify buy and Merck KGaa’s purchase of Kenya-based online healthtech company ConnectMed.

Moto ride-hail mania

In 2019, Africa’s motorcycle ride-hail market — worth an estimated $4 billion — saw a flurry of investment and expansion by startups looking to scale on-demand taxi services. Uber and Bolt got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand in Rwanda

A number of local and foreign startups have continued to grow in key countries, such as Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.

A battle for funding and market-share emerged in Nigeria in 2019, between key moto ride-hail startups Max.ng, Gokada, and Opera owned ORide.

The on-demand motorcycle market in Africa has attracted foreign investment and moved toward EV development. In May, MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round with participation from Yamaha and is using a portion to pilot renewable energy powered e-motorcycles in Africa.

In August, the government of Rwanda announced a national policy to phase out gas-motorcycle taxis altogether in favor of e-motos, in partnership with early-stage EV startup Ampersand.

New funds

The past year saw several new funding initiatives for Africa’s startups. Senegalese VC investor Marieme Diop spearheaded Dakar Network Angels, a seed-fund for startups in French-speaking Africa — or 24 of the continent’s 54 countries.

Africinvest teamed up with Cathay Innovation to announce the Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund, a $100+ million capital pool aimed at Series A to C-stage startup investments in fintech, logistics, AI, agtech and edutech.

Accion Venture Lab launched a $24 million fintech fund open to African startups.

And Naspers offered more details on who can pitch to its 1.4 billion rand (≈$100 million) Naspers Foundry fund, which made its first investment in online cleaning services company SweepSouth.

Closed up shop

Like any tech ecosystem, not every startup in Africa killed it or even continued to tread water in 2019. Two e-commerce companies — DealDey in Nigeria and Afrimarket in Ivory Coast — closed up digital shop.

Southern Africa’s Econet Media shut down its Kwese TV digital entertainment business in August.

And South Africa based, Pan-African focused cryptocurrency payment startup Wala ceased operations in June. Founder Tricia Martinez named the continent’s poor infrastructure as one of the culprits to shutting down. A possible signal to the startup’s demise could have been its 2017 ICO, where Wala netted only 4% of its $30 million token-offering.

Africa’s startups go global

2019 saw more startups expand products and business models developed in Africa to new markets abroad. In March, Flexclub — a South African venture that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services — announced its expansion to Mexico in a partnership with Uber.

In May, ExtraCrunch profiled three African founded fintech startups — Flutterwave, Migo and ChipperCash — developing their business models strategically in Africa toward plans to expand globally.

By December, Migo (formerly branded Mines) had announced its expansion to Brazil on a $20 million Series B raise.

2020 and beyond

As we look to what could come in the new year and decade for African tech, it’s telling to look back. Ten years ago, there were a lot of “if” questions on whether the continent’s ecosystem could produce certain events: billion dollar startup valuations, IPOs on major exchanges, global expansion, investment from the world’s top VCs.

All those questionable events of the past have become reality in African tech, even if some of them are still in low abundance.

There’s no crystal ball for any innovation ecosystem — not the least Africa’s — but there are several things I’ll be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond.

Two In the near term, start with what Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey may do around Bitcoin and cryptocurrency on his return to Africa (lookout for an upcoming TechCrunch feature on this).

I’ll also follow the next-phase of e-commerce in Africa, which could pit Jumia more competitively against DHL’s Africa eShop, Opera and China’s Alibaba (which hasn’t yet entered Africa in full).

On a longer-term basis, a development to follow is how the continent’s first wave of millionaire and billionaire tech-founders could disrupt 21st century dynamics in Africa around politics, power, and philanthropy —  hopefully for the better.

More notable 2019 Africa-related coverage @TechCrunch

The four corners of the new space economy

By Devin Coldewey

It’s gotten to the point now where a handful of angel investors can put a space company on the map. But the same changes that have made the industry accessible have made it increasingly complex to track its trends. By default, all space startups are exciting, but companies vary widely in risk, capital intensity and maturity. Here’s what you need to know about the four main areas of the new space economy.

Launch: playground of billionaires and forward thinkers

Perhaps simply the most exciting industry to be a part of today, orbital launch service has gone from a government-funded niche dominated by a handful of primes to a vibrant, growing community serving insatiable demand.

There’s a good reason why it was dominated for so long by the likes of ULA, whose Delta rockets took up a huge majority of missions for decades. The barrier to entry for launch is huge.

As such there are three ways to enter the sector: brute force, stealth, and novelty.

Brute force is how SpaceX and Blue Origin have managed to accomplish what they have. With billions in investment from people who don’t actually care whether money is made in the short term (or with Bezos, even in the long term), they can perform the research and engineering necessary to make a full-scale launch platform. Few of these can ever really exist, and participation is limited when they do. Fortunately we all reap the benefits when billionaires compete for space superiority.

Stealth, perhaps better described as smart positioning, is where you’ll find Rocket Lab. This New Zealand-based company didn’t appear out of nowhere — look at its timeline and you’ll see scaled-down tests being conducted more than a decade ago. But what founder Peter Beck and his crew did was anticipate the market and work doggedly towards a specific solution.

Rocket Lab is focused on small payloads, delivered with short turnaround time. This avoids the trouble of competing against billionaires and decades-old space dynasties because, really, this market didn’t exist until very recently.

“Responsive space, or launch on demand, is going to be increasingly important,” Beck said. “All satellites are vulnerable, be it from natural, accidental, or deliberate actions. As we see the growth and aging of small sat constellations, the need for replenishment will increase, leading to demand for single spacecraft to unique orbits. The ability to deploy new satellites to precise orbits in a matter of hours, not months or years, is critical to government and commercial satellite operators alike.”

Rocket Lab’s tenth launch, nicknamed “Running Out of Fingers.”

Investing in Rocket Lab early on would have seemed unexciting as for year after year they made measured progress but took on no cargo and made no money. Patience is the primary virtue here. But investors with foresight are looking back now on the company’s many successful launches and bright future and marveling that they ever doubted it.

The third category of launch is novelty: entirely new launch techniques like SpinLaunch or Leo Aerospace. The term may not inspire confidence, and that’s deliberate. Companies taking this approach are high-risk, high-reward propositions that often need serious funding before they can even prove the basic physical possibility of their launch technique. That’s not an investment everyone is comfortable making.

On the other hand, these are companies that, should they prove viable, may upend and collect a significant portion of the new and growing launch market. Here patience is not so much required as extra diligence and outside expertise to help separate the wheat from the chaff. Something like SpinLaunch may sound outlandish at first, but the Saturn V rocket still seems outlandish now, decades after it was built. Leaving the confines of established methods is how we move forward — but investors should be careful they don’t end up just blasting their cash into orbit.

Rocket Lab cuts the ribbon on its US launch facility, with the Air Force as its first customer

By Devin Coldewey

Launch provider Rocket Lab has opened the doors on LC-2, its first launch facility in the U.S., adding capacity and versatility for providing trips to orbit. And LC-2 already has its first customer: the U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program.

The company had a little shindig today at the facility, located on Wallops Island in Virginia — home to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility as well. There they took the wrapper off LC-2, which has been under construction since it was announced last October.

The team breaks ground back in 2018.

It’s not some wild new concept, just a typical launchpad and support facilities where the rockets live, get checked, fueled, and so on. The most important difference with this one, for Rocket Lab, is that it’s here in the U.S.; So far, all its 10 commercial launches have been from Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, where the company is based.

The new facility will be put to use soon: the Air Force is first in line to put a payload into orbit in a launch currently planned for Q2 of 2020. All we know about the mission, STP-27RM, is that it will “test new capabilities that we will need in the future.”

It’s an honor and privilege to be launching a U.S. Air Force’s Space Test Program payload as the inaugural mission from Launch Complex 2,” said Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck in a press release. “We’ve already successfully delivered STP payloads on Electron from Launch Complex 1, and we’re proud to be providing that same rapid, responsive, and tailored access to orbit from U.S. soil.”

Right now LC-2 is “only” equipped to handle up to 12 launches a year, while LC-1 can theoretically do 120. Rocket Lab is nowhere near hitting those rates just yet, but they’re well on their way with a perfect track record and a demonstration of its ability to quickly adjust timeframes. The goal is eventually to be launching weekly, or even more frequently than that. And the more launch sites they have to pull that off, the better.

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