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SpaceX launches 60 more satellites during 15th Starlink mission

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

After historic OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample collection, Lockheed Martin VP Lisa Callahan will join us at TC Sessions: Space

By Darrell Etherington

This December 16 and 17, we’re hosting our very first TC Sessions: Space event. It’ll be a virtual, live-streamed two-day show, including conversations with some of the best and brightest in the space industry. We’re thrilled to be hosting Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin. She’ll join us to discuss her company’s history-making work in robotic space exploration — including the asteroid mining sample collection at asteroid Bennu that happened today — as well as the future of human space exploration.

Callahan’s work at Lockheed covers all the work they do to support NASA and other civil exploration efforts of space, including both robotic and human transportation and science investigations. That includes OSIRIS-REx, the asteroid study and sample return mission that earlier today made a historic descent to the surface of rocky solar system visitor Bennu, an asteroid that’s over 200 thousand miles from Earth.

OSIRIS-REx already made plenty of history, including becoming the closest orbit to an asteroid ever conducted by a spacecraft. But today it topped all of that with a “tap-and-go” descent to the rocky surface, scooping samples that it will now attempt to return to Earth for direct study by scientists. That’s exactly the kind of ambitious extra-planetary robotic research that Callahan and her division at Lockheed have made possible with their work in advanced spacecraft and robotics design.

Callahan is also directly involved in NASA’s plans to return humans to the surface of the moon — including sending a woman on a lunar landing mission for the first time. Lockheed Martin is the manufacturing partner for NASA’s Orion lander, which will transport the first American woman and the next American man to the -oon for their historic mission in 2024.

We’ll talk in December with Callahan about what these achievements mean for the space industry, and the future of space exploration — and human spaceflight.

You can get Early-Bird tickets right now, and save $150 before prices go up on November 13 — and you can even get a fifth person free if you bring a group of four from your company. Special discounts for current members of the government/military/nonprofit and student tickets are also available directly on the website. And if you are an early-stage space startup looking to get exposure to decision makers, you can even exhibit for the day for just $2,000.

Is your company interested in partnering at TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

Image Credits: Microsoft

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

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

Image Credits: Microsoft

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

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

Virgin Galactic readies first spaceflight from Spaceport America for ‘later this this fall’

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Galactic is getting ready to fly its first mission to space from its Spaceport America facility in New Mexico. This is the site that the company will use to host all of its commercial flights, and making it to space from this launch locale is crucial to getting to that point.

Earlier this year, Virgin Galactic successfully flew a number of tests of its SpaceShipTwo launch craft from New Mexico, but these didn’t include a trip to space. That launch, which will be performed by two of the company’s test pilots (while also carrying a number of experiments for the passenger hatch) should happen before the year is out, hopefully putting Virgin Galactic on pace to begin offering its commercial services next year to paying passengers.

Those private astronauts will include one newly announced individual: Dr. Alan Stern, a noted and well-regarded planetary scientist who has held a number of positions, and is most recently the associate Vice President of South West Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division. Dr. Stern is the first researcher named to be flying on board Virgin Galactic’s commercial spacecraft on a NASA-funded science mission.

This won’t be the first of SpaceShipTwo’s commercial flights, it seems. Stern’s trip will take place on a “yet unscheduled” suborbital flight from Spaceport America in the future. Stern will be conducting two key pieces of science aboard the spacecraft, including actually wearing instrumentation that monitors his vial signs throughout, as well as using a low light camera to see how well observing space from the vantage point of inside the SpaceShipTwo cabin works.

Virgin Orbit aims for December for second attempt at orbital demonstration launch

By Darrell Etherington

Would-be small satellite launch service provider Virgin Orbit is aiming to redo its key orbital demonstration launch this December, which would be a remarkable turnaround after its attempt in March didn’t manage to reach orbit as the company had hoped. The company aims to offer low-cost launch services for small satellites, using its mid-air launch vehicle which is carried to a high altitude by a modified version of a traditional commercial jet.

This launch will hopefully mark a first for Virgin Orbit – the first time it has reached orbit, which is where it needs to be to provide the services it hopes to offer. CNBC spoke to Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, who said that the December target is based on where they’re at right now with the construction of a new LauncherOne rocket to fly the test mission.

LauncherOne is docked with Virgin Orbit’s carrier craft for its launch model, which is a modified d747. The jet takes it up to around 45,000 feet, at which point it drops the rocket, which ignites its own engines after separation and then flies under its own power the rest of the way to space. A rocket has a much easier time leaving Earth’s atmosphere from that altitude, which is why Virgin hopes to be able to offer big cost benefits for dedicated small launch services vs. what’s available now.

In March, Virgin’s launch went smoothly up until just after the LauncherOne craft used on that mission fired up its engines. There was a failure that caused the engines to cut off because of a safety shutoff, and the rocket then fell back safely to Earth, but was obviously lost.

Such a mishap on a first orbital launch attempt is far from unusual – in fact, it’s almost the norm. Virgin Orbit said they gleaned a lot of great data from their attempt regardless of the outcome, and hopefully that will mean this next try goes to plan. If it does, that should put the company on track to begin offering commercial service next year.

Meanwhile, CNBC reports that the company is also in the process of tracking down up to $150 million in new funding, echoing an earlier report from the Wall Street Journal this week.

Latest Space Station crew docks in record time following successful launch

By Darrell Etherington

Typically, there’s a bit of a delay between when astronauts launch from Earth to the International Space Station, and when they actually dock with the orbital lab. This has to do with the relative orbits of the launch spacecraft and the ISS, as well as their takeoff point from Earth. Expedition 64, which launched today, however, docked with the station just around three hours after leaving Earth from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Soyuz spacecraft carrying NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov took off at just before 2 AM EDT, and docked with the ISS at 4:48 AM EDT – three hours and two minutes after liftoff. The hatches between the capsule and the station opened at 7:07 AM EDT, officially beginning the operational duty roster stint for the three new ISS crew members. Coincidentally it’s also Rubins’ birthday.

For a sense of that speed, consider that Demo-2, the last crewed launch to the ISS, docked with the station a full day following its liftoff from Florida in May. Typically, the crew capsule requires a few more orbits to match velocity and altitude with the station, but in this case, the timing and conditions were right to get the spacecraft in the correct spot after just two super fast orbits around the Earth.

There are now six crew members staffing the ISS, including cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, as well as NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy who were already on the station.

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

By Darrell Etherington

UPDATE: Scrubbed for today due to weather.

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

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

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

NASA to test precision automated landing system designed for the moon and Mars on upcoming Blue Origin mission

By Darrell Etherington

NASA is going to be testing out a new precision landing system designed for use on the tough terrain of the Moon and Mars for the first time during an upcoming mission of Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket. The ‘Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution’ (SPLICE) system is made up of a number of lasers, an optical camera, and a computer to take all the data collected by the sensors and process it using advanced algorithms, and it works by spotting potential hazards, and adjusting landing parameters on the fly to ensure a safe touchdown.

SPLICE will get a real-world test of three of its four primary subsystems during a New Shepard mission to be flown relatively soon. The Jeff Bezos -founded company typically returns its first-stage booster to Earth after making its trip to the very edge of space, but on this test of SPLICE, NASA’s automated landing technology will be operating on board the vehicle the same way they would when approaching the surface of the Moon or Mars. The elements tested will include ‘terrain relative navigation,’ Doppler radar, and SPLICE’s descent and landing computer, while a fourth major system – lidar-based hazard detection – will be tested on future planned flights.

Currently, NASA already uses automated landing for its robotic exploration craft on the surface of other planets, including the Perseverance rover headed to Mars. But a lot of work goes into selecting a landing zone with a large area of unobstructed ground that’s free of any potential hazards in order to ensure a safe touchdown. Existing systems can make some adjustments, but they’re relatively limited in that regard.

SPLICE is designed to enable more exact landings, and ones that can deal with more nearby hazards, enabling exploration in areas that were previously considered off-limits for landers. That could greatly expand our ability to gain more knowledge and better understanding of the Moon and Mars, which is particularly important as we continue to work towards more human exploration and even potential colonization.

The lidar system mentioned above is a key new ingredient in these SPLICE tests, since we don’t actually know in great detail how well lidar will perform with the terrain on Mars and the Moon, where reflectivity could be quite different from what it is here on Earth within our own atmosphere. Still, NASA is confident it should provide much better precision than radar-based methods for surface mapping and feature detection.

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

pic.twitter.com/PGYv26ZqrF

— Jennifer Culton (@CultonJennifer) September 12, 2020

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

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

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

NASA is looking to buy moon dirt from private companies — no return shipping required

By Darrell Etherington

NASA wants to procure samples of lunar soil from private contractors, the agency announced today in a blog post by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. This is part of the agency’s overall ambitions around returning humans to the moon by 2024, and establishing a sustained human research presence there. NASA is asking for proposals from commercial space companies to offer up their proposals for collecting a small amount of rocks or dirt from “any location” on the moon’s surface, along with a photo of the collection process and resulting sample.

The proposals ask only that private companies collect the material – they’re not responsible for actually getting it back to Earth for study. They will need to do an “in-place” handoff of the collected sample to the agency – on the Moon, but that’s much less of a challenge than shipping it all the way back here, and the specifics around retrieval will be handled by NASA “at a later date.”

Some stipulations and specifics to keep in mind: NASA wants the retrieval of the materials to take place before 2024, along with the ownership hand-off. This is also open to companies internationally, so it’s not just for U.S. private space companies, and it’s also possible that NASA will make more than one award under the program. In terms of payouts, winning companies will get 10 percent o the total contract value at the time of the award, another 10 percent at launch of their retrieval vehicle, and the final 80 percent once the sample is collected and handed off.

There are a number of companies working on extraterrestrial resource collection, so this call could get some interesting applicants. It’s worth noting that this is separate from NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which offers contracts for transporting experiments to the lunar surface aboard landers – but you can bet some of those startups and companies will be vying for the chance to use said landers and robotic rovers in development to pick up some Moon dirt for NASA.

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

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

Join us Wednesday, September 9 to watch Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator demo day live

By Darrell Etherington

The 2020 class of Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator is graduating with an official demo day on Wednesday at 10 a.m. PDT (1 p.m. EDT), and you can watch all the teams present their startups live via the stream above. This year’s class includes 10 companies building innovative new solutions to challenges either directly or indirectly related to commercial space.

Techstars Starburst is a program with a lot of heavyweight backing from both private industry and public agencies, including from NASA’s JPL, the U.S. Air Force, Lockheed Martin, Maxar Technologies, SAIC, Israel Aerospace Industries North America and The Aerospace Corporation. The program, led by managing director Matt Kozlov, is usually based locally in LA, where much of the space industry has significant presence, but this year the demo day is going online due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation.

Few, if any, programs out there can claim such a broad representation of big-name partners from across commercial, military and general civil space in terms of stakeholders, which is the main reason it manages to attract a range of interesting startups.  This is the second class of graduating startups from the Starburst Space Accelerator; last year’s batch included some exceptional standouts like in-orbit refueling company Orbit Fab (also a TechCrunch Battlefield participant), imaging microsatellite company Pixxel and satellite propulsion company Morpheus.

As for this year’s class, you can check out a full list of all 10 participating companies below. The demo day presentations begin tomorrow, September 9 at 10 a.m. PDT/1 p.m. PDT, so you can check back in here then to watch live as they provide more details about what it is they do.

Bifrost

A synthetic data API that allows AI teams to generate their own custom datasets up to 99% faster — no tedious collection, curation or labelling required.
founders@bifrost.ai

Holos Inc.

A virtual reality content management system that makes it super easy for curriculum designers to create and deploy immersive learning experiences.
founders@holos.io

Infinite Composites Technologies

The most efficient gas storage systems in the universe.
founders@infinitecomposites.com

Lux Semiconductors

Lux is developing next generation System-on-Foil electronics.
founders@luxsemiconductors.com

Natural Intelligence Systems, Inc.

Developer of next-generation pattern-based AI/ML systems.
leadership@naturalintelligence.ai

Prewitt Ridge

Engineering collaboration software for teams building challenging deep tech projects.
founders@prewittridge.com

SATIM

Providing satellite radar-based intelligence for decision makers.
founders@satim.pl

Urban Sky

Developing stratospheric microballoons to capture the freshest, high-res earth observation data.
founders@urbansky.space

vRotors

Real-time remote robotic controls.
founders@vrotors.com

WeavAir

Proactive air insights.
founders@weavair.com

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

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

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

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

Watch SpaceX launch its 12th Starlink satellite internet mission live

By Darrell Etherington

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

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

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

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

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