SpaceX has launched yet another batch of Starlink satellites – a full complement of 60, the standard size for its current Falcon 9-based Starlink missions. This brings SpaceX’s total to just around 1,000 in active on orbit, taking into account the handful that were experimental or have been de-orbited to date. This follows SpaceX’s opening of orders for Starlink to anyone in a current or planned coverage zone.
Starlink is a global satellite-based data network powered by small, low-Earth orbit satellites. Historically, broadband satellites have been large, expensive spacecraft positioned much further out from Earth in a fixed orbit, providing service to a single coverage area. Because of their distance from Earth and the way they connect to base stations, coverage has been very high-latency and relatively inconsistent (which you’ll recognize if you’ve ever tried to use Wifi on a flight, for instance). SpaceX’s constellation-based approach sees the satellites positioned much closer to Earth, which improves latency, and also has the satellites orbiting Earth and handing off connections between one another, which in theory provides more consistent coverage – particularly as the size of the constellation grows.
Eventually, SpaceX intends to provide coverage globally from Starlink, with an emphasis on offering service to areas. where coverage has been weak due to ground infrastructure challenges in past. For now, however, coverage is limited, though SpaceX recently expanded its closed beta to an open one, with anyone able to sign up via the Starlink website after an address check, and place an order, including a deposit with the full amount for the hardware kit to be charged once it ships.
Starlink’s hardware includes a small satellite receiver dish for installation by the customer at their service address. The service itself costs $99 per month, while the equipment is $499 (one-time fee). This does seem steep, but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter recently that the plan is to have the costs come down over time, once the significant initial investment is recouped. He also noted that the plan is still to spin off Starlink and have it IPO eventually, once the company “can predict cash flow reasonably well.”
SpaceX has launched its 17th batch of Starlink satellites during its first mission of 2021, using a Falcon 9 rocket that was flying for the eighth time, and that landed again, recording a record for its reusability program. This puts the total Starlink constellation size at almost 1,000, as the company has expanded its beta access program for the service to the UK and Canada, with a first deployment in the latter company serving a rural First Nations community in a remote part of the province of Ontario.
The launch took off from Florida at 8:02 AM EST (5:02 AM PST), with delivery of the satellites following as planned at around an hour after lift-off. The booster on this launch flew seven times previously, as mentioned – including just in December when it was used to delivery a SiriusXM satellite to orbit to support that company’s satellite radio network.
Today’s launch was also notable because it included a landing attempt in so-called “envelope expansion” conditions, which means that the winds in the landing zone where SpaceX’s drone recovery ship was stationed at sea actually exceeded the company’s previously-defined safety window for making a landing attempt.
As a result of today’s success, SpaceX will likely now have higher tolerances for wind speeds in order to attempt recovery, which should translate to fewer cancellations of launches based on weather conditions in the landing zone.
Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket to orbit for the first time today, with a successful demonstration mission that carried a handful of satellites and will attempt to deliver them to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. It’s a crucial milestone for the small satellite launch company, and the first time the company has shown that its hybrid carrier aircraft/small payload orbital delivery rocket works as intended, which should set the company up to begin commercial operations of its launch system very soon.
This is the second attempt at reaching orbit for Virgin Orbit, after a first try in late May ended with the LauncherOne rocket initiating an automatic safety shutdown of its engines shortly after detaching from the ‘Cosmic Girl’ carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 that transports the rocket to its launch altitude. The company said that it learned a lot from that attempt, including identifying the error that caused the failsafe engine shut down, which it corrected in advance of today’s mission.
Virgin’s Cosmic Girl took off at just before 2 PM EDT, and then released LauncherOne from its wing at roughly 2:40 PM EDT. LauncherOne had a “clean separation” as intended, and then ignited its own rocket engines and quickly accelerated to the point where it was undergoing the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure (called max q in the aerospace industry). LauncherOne’s main engine then cut off after its burn, and its payload stage separated, crossing the Karman line and entering space for the first time.
It achieved orbit at around 2:49 PM EDT, and will release its payload of small satellites in roughly 30 minutes. We’ll update this post to provide the results of this part of its mission later, but this is already a major milestone and huge achievement for the Virgin Orbit team.
Virgin Orbit’s unique value proposition in the small launch market is that it can take off and land from traditional runways thanks to its carrier aircraft and mid-air rocket launch approach. That should provide flexibility in terms of launch locations, allowing it to be more responsive to customer needs in terms of geographies and target orbital deliveries.
In 2017, Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic, to focus exclusively on small payload orbital launch. Virgin Galactic then devoted itself entirely to its own mission of offering commercial human spaceflight. Virgin Orbit itself create its own subsidiary earlier this year, called VOX Space, which intends to use LauncherOne to deliver small satellites to orbit specifically for the U.S. national security market.
UK SpaceTech startup Skyrora is currently the only private company capable of launching rockets from UK soil. On Christmas Eve at its testing facility in Fife, Scotland, the team performed a third-stage static fire engine test onboard a new vehicle that will ultimately carry satellites to their final destination. But what’s more interesting is that the vehicle can refire it’s engine several times in orbit and conduct multiple missions in a single trip. This makes it “Space Tug” able to perform a number of maneuvers in space including the extraction of space junk or maintenance if are satellites already in orbit.
Skyrora went rough one of the early Space Camp accelerator programme from Seraphim Capital.
The Space Tug is the first “mission ready” vehicle of its kind to be developed in the UK and once in orbit it can navigate to any location under its own power, with the ability to make multiple stops etc.
The Space Tug is powered by a 3D-printed 3.5kN engine and the first stage of is launch is fueled using an eco-friendly fuel (Ecosene) made in part from waste plastics
Volodymyr Levykin, CEO Skyrora commented: “We have been deliberately quiet about this aspect of our Skyrora XL launch vehicle as we had huge technical challenges to get it to this stage and we wanted to ensure all tests had a satisfactory outcome, which they now have. With the current climate and a real shortage of good news, we feel it is the right time to share this with the world… We aim not only to conduct efficient launches from UK soil in the most environmentally friendly way, but then also to ensure that each single launch mission has the possibility of conducting the level of work that would have historically taken multiple launches.”
Sir Tim Peake, Astronaut, commented: “It’s fantastic that companies such as Skyrora are persisting in their ambition to make the UK a “launch state”. By driving forward and constantly investing into their engineering capabilities, the UK continues to benefit from these impressive milestones achieved. In undertaking a full fire test of their third stage, which fulfils the function of an Orbital Manoeuvring Vehicle capable of delivering satellites into precision orbits, Skyrora is one step closer to launch readiness. This vehicle will also be able to perform vital services such as satellite removal, refuelling and replacement and debris removal from orbit.”
Zack Parisa and Max Nova, the co-founders of the carbon offset company SilivaTerra, have spent the last decade working on a way to democratize access to revenue generating carbon offsets.
As forestry credits become a big, booming business on the back of multi-billion dollar commitments from some of the world’s biggest companies to decarbonize their businesses, the kinds of technologies that the two founders have dedicated ten years of their lives to building are only going to become more valuable.
That’s why their company, already a profitable business, has raised $4.4 million in outside funding led by Union Square Ventures and Version One Ventures, along with Salesforce founder and the driving force between the 1 trillion trees initiative, Marc Benioff .
“Key to addressing the climate crisis is changing the balance in the so-called carbon cycle. At present, every year we are adding roughly 5 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere*. Since atmospheric carbon acts as a greenhouse gas this increases the energy that’s retained rather than radiated back into space which causes the earth to heat up,” writes Union Square Ventures managing partner Albert Wenger in a blog post. “There will be many ways such drawdown occurs and we will write about different approaches in the coming weeks (such as direct air capture and growing kelp in the oceans). One way that we understand well today and can act upon immediately are forests. The world’s forests today absorb a bit more than one gigatons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere and turn it into biomass. We need to stop cutting and burning down existing forests (including preventing large scale forest fires) and we have to start planting more new trees. If we do that, the total potential for forests is around 4 to 5 gigatons per year (with some estimates as high as 9 gigatons).”
For the two founders, the new funding is the latest step in a long journey that began in the woods of Northern Alabama, where Parisa grew up.
After attending Mississippi State for forestry, Parisa went to graduate school at Yale, where he met Louisville, Kentucky native Max Nova, a computer science student who joined with Parisa to set up the company that would become SiliviaTerra.
SilviaTerra co-founders Max Nova and Zack Parisa. Image Credit: SilivaTerra
The two men developed a way to combine satellite imagery with field measurements to determine the size and species of trees in every acre of forest.
While the first step was to create a map of every forest in the U.S. the ultimate goal for both men was to find a way to put a carbon market on equal footing with the timber industry. Instead of cutting trees for cash, potentially landowners could find out how much it would be worth to maintain their forestland. As the company notes, forest management had previously been driven by the economics of timber harvesting, with over $10 billion spent in the US each year.
The founders at SilviaTerra thought that the carbon market could be equally as large, but it’s hard for moset landowners to access. Carbon offset projects can cost as much as $200,000 to put together, which is more than the value of the smaller offset projects for landowners like Parisa’s own family and the 40 acres they own in the Alabama forests.
There had to be a better way for smaller landowners to benefit from carbon markets too, Parisa and Nova thought.
To create this carbon economy, there needed to be a single source of record for every tree in the U.S. and while SiliviaTerra had the technology to make that map, they lacked the compute power, machine learning capabilities and resources to build the map.
That’s where Microsoft’s AI for Earth program came in.
Working with AI for Earth, TierraSilva created their first product, Basemap, to process terabytes ofsatellite imagery to determine the sizes and species of trees on every acre of America’s forestland. The company also worked with the US Forestry Service to access their data, which was used in creating this holistic view of the forest assets in the U.S.
With the data from Basemap in hand, the company has created what it calls the Natural Capital Exchange. This program uses SilviaTerra’s unparalleled access to information about local forests, and the knowledge of how those forests are currently used to supply projects that actually represent land that would have been forested were it not for the offset money coming in.
Currently, many forestry projects are being passed off to offset buyers as legitimate offsets on land that would never have been forested in the first place — rendering the project meaningless and useless in any real way as an offset for carbon dioxide emissions.
“It’s a bloodbath out there,” said Nova of the scale of the problem with fraudulent offsets in the industry. “We’re not repackaging existing forest carbon projects and try to connect the demand side with projects that already exist. Use technology to unlock a new supply of forest carbon offset.”
The first Natural Capital Exchange project was actually launched and funded by Microsoft back in 2019. In it, 20 Western Pennsylvania land owners originated forest carbon credits through the program, showing that the offsets could work for landowners with 40 acres, or, as the company said, 40,000.
Landowners involved in SilivaTerra’s pilot carbon offset program paid for by Microsoft. Image Credit: SilviaTerra
“We’re just trying to get inside every landowners annual economic planning cycle,” said Nova. “There’s a whole field of timber economics… and we’re helping answer the question of given the price of timber, given the price of carbon does it make sense to reduce your planned timber harvests?”
Ultimately, the two founders believe that they’ve found a way to pay for the total land value through the creation of data around the potential carbon offset value of these forests.
It’s more than just carbon markets, as well. The tools that SilviaTerra have created can be used for wildfire mitigation as well. “We’re at the right place at the right time with the right data and the right tools,” said Nova. “It’s about connecting that data to the decision and the economics of all this.”
The launch of the SilviaTerra exchange gives large buyers a vetted source to offset carbon. In some ways its an enterprise corollary to the work being done by startups like Wren, another Union Square Ventures investment, that focuses on offsetting the carbon footprint of everyday consumers. It’s also a competitor to companies like Pachama, which are trying to provide similar forest offsets at scale, or 3Degrees Inc. or South Pole.
Under a Biden administration there’s even more of an opportunity for these offset companies, the founders said, given discussions underway to establish a Carbon Bank. Established through the existing Commodity Credit Corp. run by the Department of Agriculture, the Carbon Bank would pay farmers and landowners across the U.S. for forestry and agricultural carbon offset projects.
“Everybody knows that there’s more value in these systems than just the product that we harvest off of it,” said Parisa. “Until we put those benefits in the same footing as the things we cut off and send to market…. As the value of these things goes up… absolutely it is going to influence these decisions and it is a cash crop… It’s a money pump from coastal America into middle America to create these things that they need.”
Virgin Orbit is wasting no time in 2021 getting back to active flight testing: The company has a window for its next orbital demonstration launch attempt that opens on Sunday, January 10, and that continues throughout the rest of the month. This follows an attempt last year made in May, which ended before the LauncherOne rocket reached orbit — shortly after it detached from the Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, in fact.
While that mission didn’t go exactly as Virgin Orbit had hoped, it was a significant milestone for the small satellite launch company, and helped gather a significant amount of data about how the vehicle performs in flight. LauncherOne was able to briefly light its rocket booster before safety systems on board automatically shut it down. The company had been looking to fly this second test before the end of last year, but issues including COVID-19 meant that they only got as far as the wet dress rehearsal (essentially a run-through of everything leading up to the flight with the vehicles fully fueled).
This next mission will once again attempt an orbital launch, and this time, the stakes are somewhat higher because actual customer payloads from NASA are on board. They include a number of small satellite science experiments and demonstrations, and while they’re specifically selected for the mission profile (meaning it’s not a tremendous loss if the launch fails), it still would make everyone happiest to actually get them to their target destination.
The nature of the launch window means that Virgin Orbit will likely wait for conditions to be as good as possible before taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, so take that January 10 date as the earliest possible launch time, but not necessarily the most likely. If successful, Virgin Orbit will join a select group of private small launch vehicles that have made it to orbit, so the industry will definitely be watching the next time Cosmic Girl takes off with LauncherOne attached.
The FCC has just published the results of its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction, which sounds rather stiff but involves distributing billions to broadband providers that bring solid internet connections to under-served rural areas “on the wrong side of the digital divide.” $885 million is earmarked for SpaceX, whose Starlink satellite service could be a game-changer for places where laying fiber isn’t an option.
Only three other companies garnered more funds: Charter with $1.22 billion; Minnesota and Iowa provider LTD Broadband with $1.32B; and utility collective Rural Electric Cooperate Consortium with $1.1B. Those are all traditional wireline based broadband, and a quick perusal of the list of grantees suggests no other satellite broadband provider made the cut. 180 bidders were awarded support in total.
The $9.2B auction (though the specifics of the process itself are not relevant) essentially asks for bids on how much a company can provide service to a given area for, ideally with a 100 megabit downstream and 20 up. Local companies can collect the hundred grand necessary to fund a fiber line where there’s now copper, and big multi-state concerns may promise to undertake major development projects for hundreds of millions of dollars.
SpaceX’s Starlink has the advantage of not requiring any major construction projects to reach people out in the boonies. All that’s needed is a dish and for their home to be in the area currently covered by the rapidly expanding network of satellites in low-Earth orbit. That means the company can undercut many of its competitors — in theory anyway.
Starlink has not had any major rollout yet, only small test deployments, which according to SpaceX have gone extremely well. The first wave of beta testers for the service will be expected to pay $99 per month plus a one-time $500 installation fee, but what the cost of the commercial service would be is anyone’s guess (probably a bit lower).
In order to secure the $885B in the FCC’s auction, SpaceX would need to demonstrate that it can provide solid service to the areas it claims to for a reasonable price, so we can expect the costs to be in line with terrestrial broadband offerings. No other satellite broadband provider operates in that price range (Swarm offers IoT connection for $5/month, but that’s a totally different category).
The FCC doesn’t just knock on Elon Musk’s door with a big check, though. The company must demonstrate “periodic buildout requirements” at the locations it’s promised, at which point funds will be disbursed. This continues for a period of several years, and should help the fledgling internet provider stay alive while undergoing the rigors and uncertainties of launch. By the time the FCC cash dries up the company will ideally have several million subscribers propping it up.
This is “Phase I” of the auction, targeting the areas most in need of new internet service; Phase II will cover “partially-served” areas that perhaps have one good provider but no competition. Whether SpaceX will be able (or want) to make a push there is unclear, though the confidence with which the company has been approaching the market suggests it may make a limited play for these somewhat more hardened target markets.
The push for expanding rural broadband has been a particular focus for outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who had this to say about its success so far:
We structured this innovative and groundbreaking auction to be technologically neutral and to prioritize bids for high-speed, low-latency offerings. We aimed for maximum leverage of taxpayer dollars and for networks that would meet consumers’ increasing broadband needs, and the results show that our strategy worked. This auction was the single largest step ever taken to bridge the digital divide and is another key success for the Commission in its ongoing commitment to universal service. I thank our staff for working so hard and so long to get this auction done on time, particularly during the pandemic.
You can read the full list of auction winners at the FCC’s press release here.
Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2020 Holiday Gift Guide! Need help with gift ideas? We’re here to help! We’ll be rolling out gift guides from now through the end of December. You can find our other guides right here.
Like plenty of others, I dug much deeper into the great outdoors and camping this summer amid social distancing restrictions. It’s pretty easy to stay COVID-safe when you’re several days’ wander into the wilderness. Whether it’s a fun day hike, a car camping excursion or a multi-day backcountry backpacking trip, there’s plenty of great camping and hiking gear that can make life easier for the outdoors person (without going overboard).
I bought a ton of camping gear online this year. I had the fortune of timing a 40-mile backpacking excursion through the Los Padres national forest with one of REI’s annual sales, a time when the majority of online camping retailers also tend to offer steep discounts on their stuff. Most of my gear was optimized for backpacking and I ended up replacing most of my decade-old gear with some lighter, better-quality stuff. Backpacking leaves room for fewer luxuries, but add a few car camping trips and you’ll see the fun in bringing in the nice-to-haves to your outdoors gear repertoire.
With camping gear, you can almost always find a good sale on any individual item during the year so stay patient and keep an eye out. Plenty of sites offer one-off discounts for first time buyers or have pretty reliably timed, wide-ranging seasonal sales so if you’re smart about your purchase you can get it at a discount.
One note to hammer home: when buying gear, one of the main things to consider is whether you anticipate getting bit by the backpacking bug. It’s not always easy to tell ahead of time, but if you do think you’ll end up using your gear on backpacking trips, you’ll want to account pretty heavily for the weight of any new gear. You can certainly upgrade later too, but it’s always good to future-proof when you can. If you’re just planning to hop into the car and hit up a nice drive-in campsite, you have a lot less to worry about in terms of size and weight restrictions which makes things much simpler.
These are all things I bought with my own money or am planning to buy at some point, so no sponsored suggestions here. That said, this article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.
When it comes to camping, light can really expand your options for what you can do at night. I’ve been one to rely on campfire light during the evenings but with campfire bans hitting plenty of campsites in California this season, I upped my lighting game this year.
These string lights come in a nicely designed package and are perfect for adding some ambiance and solidly bright light to your campsite. They’re a bit of a luxury but they provide a good bit of light on multiple brightness settings. The company now also makes a version with colored lights if you want to get festive.
They lights do suck up a decent amount of power so they may only last you a night or two on a single charge depending on your usage, but the handy built-in solar charger can help there. Truthfully I’ve always had mixed success with relying on solar charging, so I might save this one for the car-camping trips where you have easy access to somewhere to charge the light with its integrated USB cable.
Price: $28 from Amazon
Image: Sea to Summit
Though mobile gear is increasingly gaining waterproof IP ratings, especially when it comes to higher-end camera gear, not everything is friendly with moisture. One purchase I made this year that felt like a no-brainer was a set of small dry-bags. They are certainly a more expensive option than the humble zip-locks which I’ve been using for years, but while a wet roll of toilet paper or map can be a bummer, a wet mirrorless camera is a disaster.
Dry bags keep the wetness out. They’re also just a nice and functional organizational tool to keep all of your tech gear together and protected from the elements. Earlier this summer I bought this small 3-pack which is sized perfectly for the tech gear I tend to bring along. Later I bought a much larger 35L sack to house gear like my sleeping bag and clothes that I really need to keep dry while hiking through river beds or while it’s raining.
I opted for a set of Sea to Summit bags which seem to be the gold standard, but if you search for dry bags on the web, you’ll come across plenty of sets with some good ratings. Just be sure to peruse the reviews to get a sense of their durability which is the only thing that matters.
Price: $43 from REI
I have two big items on my next wish list for backpacking gear upgrades to make before next season. One is a bear can to stuff my food and toiletries into when backpacking through Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness as I soon hope to. The other is the inReach Explorer+. I’ve relied on friends with handheld GPS units in the past but Garmin’s option, which seems to be quite popular, bundles a GPS unit with a phone that operates on a satellite network.
You need a plan for the device to use the satellite network, which you can activate on a monthly basis whenever you need it. That network is good for a couple things: sending off text messages with GPS points to friends and relatives so they can see your progress and know you’re safe, while also being able to reach the outside world if you find yourself in an emergency and might need to be rescued. While these evacuations are assuredly going to be a pricey affair, it’s never worth gambling with your life or opting for a backup plan that you might not make it back from.
Garmin also sells a mini version of the inReach that eschews GPS navigation and a decent screen size for a much smaller footprint, more of a “don’t use it unless you absolutely need to” version. I will also quickly note that satellite phones are actually illegal to have on you in some countries so be sure to check out whether that’s the case before you pack one in your bag.
Price: $450 from Garmin
These chairs are probably some of the best things I’ve ever purchased. Oddly, I actually haven’t used them that much while backpacking, which seems to be the intent of the product given how light they are at just over 1 pound, but they’ve been amazing for tossing in a tote bag for a day at the park.
I’ve gotten so much use of them partially because I live in a city and don’t own a car. If I had a car, I might just opt for a larger and cheaper folding chair that I could keep in the trunk. That said, what’s great about these is that they are light enough to bring backpacking — though they are definitely still a luxury item to bring along. My one complaint is that these chairs don’t play so nicely with the sand or mud so you want to find a fairly hard surface to set them up on if you want to feel fully secure placing your full weight on these tiny chairs.
I got these for about half-off when I bought them, but there are definitely cheaper options than those from Helinox if you can’t find a deal and don’t mind an extra pound of weight or so. I have friends who are particularly big fans of the REI versions.
Side note: this year I also found a deal on a lightweight Helinox hard-top table which has been great for playing board games on or setting up a cook station.
Price: $150 from Amazon
One of the big issues with amassing a collection of camping gear is storing it all during those non-camping months. The best solution for this is a big ‘ole duffel bag. They’re great to store your gear in, and it’s so easy to just toss a duffel in your car when you’re ready to go camping and not have to deal with a dozen little trips to the car and back.
I ended up buying a 90-liter REI bag during a sale, but I’ve seen great things on the bags from North Face and Patagonia as well. This size fits a ton and has the added advantage of being just about the maximum size for a standard checked bag on a flight, anything larger will require an oversized baggage fee. These bags all go on sale in pretty often so I wouldn’t rush into buying especially if you don’t need one ASAP.
Price: Varies; the one above is $140 right now from REI
Cards are great, but sometimes you want to spice up your options for games. For those of you who have just binged through Queen’s Gambit, I’ll recommend searching for a good travel chess board.
I ended up going for this very random travel chess set on Amazon because the magnetic board made me feel confident I wouldn’t lose all of the pieces immediately. It’s not the most high quality-feeling but the price was right and it strikes a good balance. There are definitely plenty of options that are more robust or more lightweight.
Price: $18 from Amazon
One thing every camper should have in their gear collection is a bunch of different sized mini Nalgene bottles. These things are great and can hold your soap, shampoo, oil, sauces, booze and other liquids securely and (as long as you’re religious about tightening the screw-top bottles) can ensure that you won’t have any accidental spills.
I use these aggressively for meal planning and measure out the various quantities of a liquid or sauce I’ll need for a given meal and toss them inside a bigger plastic bag with all of the ingredients. As such, I have a few sizes ranging from an ounce to 4 ounces. That’s not a use case everyone needs when you’re car-camping and don’t have the luxury of measuring everything ahead of time, but they’re also awesome for toiletry kits and I use the 2 ounce bottle for shampoo and soap when I’m flying and want to bring my own stuff.
One complaint is that these will hold onto the smell of some more pungent liquids even after you wash them so keep that in mind and maybe be careful to separate the ones you’re storing your toiletries in from the ones holding sauces.
Price: $2 from REI
Virgin Orbit has announced the target timing for its next orbital flight attempt, which follows a demonstration launch earlier this year that went mostly well – right up until its rocket separated from the carrier launch craft and fired up its own engines for the crucial rest of the trip to space. The company says that it’s undertaken a number of upgrades based on that first try, however, including updates to the engine systems, carrier aircraft and data systems to hopefully have a better demo flight the second time around.
The new launch window is December 19, between the hours of 10 AM to 2 PM PST. There’s also a backup window set for December 20 ranging across similar hours, the company says, and others in the following weeks, in case it needs to be rescheduled for nay reason. This demonstration will involve a full launch cycle of the entire Virgin Orbit launch system, including its Cosmic Girl launch aircraft (a modiified 747 passenger airliner) and LauncherOne, the rocket that detaches from Cosmic Girl at cruising altitude before firing up its own engines to make the rest of the trip to space with small satellite payloads on board.
Virgin Orbit’s system is unique because it takes off and lands from a traditional airport, eliminating the need for specialized launch sites and opening up the potential of relatively low-lift global launch flexibility. It also have the potential to offer cost and scheduling advantages to small satellite companies looking to launch just one or a few spacecraft, without having to wait for timing on a rideshare mission on a larger rocket like one from SpaceX, or pay a premium for something like Rocket Lab’s offering.
Last time around in May, Virgin Orbit’s flight went perfectly from takeoff through the separation of LauncherOne from the carrier aircraft. The rocket even fired up its engines on time as planned, but the engines cut off essentially right away due to a built-in safety system that also worked as planned when it detected some unusual readings.
With this second attempt, Virgin Orbit wants to show that it’s system works from that point on, as well, with a full first-stage powered flight, and operation of the upper stage. Stakes are a bit higher this time around, as on board will be actual customer satellites, even though this is technically still a demonstration mission the primary purpose of which is to collect data.
The 10 payloads on board are from NASA, and represent a number of different scientific and educational programs created entirely by U.S.-based universities and academic institutions.
Broadband communication satellite company OneWeb has emerged from its Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection status, the company announced today. It’s now also officially owned by a consortium consisting of the UK government and India’s Bharti Global, and Neil Masterson is now installed as CEO, replacing outgoing chief executive Adrian Steckel, who will remain as a Board advisor.
OneWeb seems eager to get back to actively launching the satellites that will make up its 650-strong constellation – it has set December 17 as the target date for its next launch. The company has 74 satellite already on orbit across three prior launches, which occurred prior to its bankruptcy filing in March.
OneWeb’s acquisition by the combined UK government/Bharti Global tie-up was revealed in July, providing a path for the financially beleaguered company to get back to active status with $1 billion in equity funding. The UK-based company will continue to operate primarily from the UK via this new deal, and it’s being positioned as a key cornerstone in positioning the UK as a space sector leader and innovator.
The company also announced that its joint-venture manufacturing facility with Airbus has resumed operation in Florida, and will continue to produce new spacecraft for future launches. The plan is to launch additional satellites throughout next year and 2022, and then begin offering commercial service in select areas late in 2021, with a global service expansion intended for 2022.