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SpaceX reportedly raises $850M in new funding

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has raised a fresh round of funding, totalling $850 million, per a new report by CNBC, citing sources “familiar” with the matter. The new capital brings the total valuation of the company, which is still privately-held, to around $74 billion according to the report.

This is a massive round, by most standards – but not by SpaceX’s own. The space launch company, which was founded in 2002, has raised a total of over $6 billion to date including this latest injection, with a $2 billion venture round raised last August. That funding was invested at a valuation of $46 billion, meaning the company’s value, at least in the eyes of private investors, leapt considerably in the six months separating the two raises.

SpaceX has accomplished a lot between now and then, including building its Starlink broadband constellation to more than 1,000 active satellites; launching its first operational NASA crew to the International Space Station aboard a Dragon spacecraft; launching not one, but two high-altitude flight tests of its Starship spacecraft with relatively good results; and launched its first dedicated rideshare mission, demonstrating the viability of a big potential new group of launch customers.

While the company has achieved a lot on the back of its existing capital, its recent successes no doubt provided a good base to go out and get more. That’s likely going to go to good use, since it has plenty of work yet to do, like continued develop of Starship to prove out its space-worthiness, and the capital-intensive activity of building Starlink into a true, globe-spanning network.

Axiom Space raises $130 million for its commercial space station ambitions

By Darrell Etherington

One of the new space startups with the loftiest near-term goals has raised $130 million in a Series B round that demonstrates investor confidence in the scope of its ambitions: Axiom Space, which has been tapped by NASA to add privately-developed space station modules to the ISS, announced the new funding led by C5 Capital on Tuesday.

This is the latest in a string of high-profile announcements for Axiom, which was founded in 2016 by a team including space professionals with a history of demonstrated expertise working on the International Space Station. Eventually, Axiom hopes to go from adding the first private commercial modules to the existing station, to creating their own, wholly private on-orbital platforms – for research, space tourism and more.

Axiom announced the people who will take part it it first ever private astronaut launch to the ISS, which is set to fly next January using a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket. Axiom is the service provider for the mission, brokering the deal for the private spacefarers and setting up training and mission profile. That should be the first time we see a crew made up entirely of private individuals (ie., not astronauts selected, trained and employed by their respective national government) make its way to the station.

The company was also in discussions with Tom Cruise about filming at least part of an upcoming film aboard the ISS, and it’s in development with a production company on a forthcoming competition reality show that will see contestants vie for a spot on a private flight to the station.

Axiom is emerging as the leading linkage between private human spaceflight and the existing infrastructure and industry, covering both public sector partners like NASA, and the ‘rails’ of the bourgeoning industry – SpaceX and its ilk. It’s been focused on this unique opportunity longer than most in the private market, and it has all the relationships and in-house expertise to make it work.

This new, significant injection of capital will help the company hire, as well as boost its ability to construct the pieces of its forthcoming private space station modules, as well as its eventual station itself. The Houston-based company aims to put its ISS modules on the station by 2024, and it has raised $150 million to date.

SpaceX launches 60 more satellites for its Starlink service on the heels of opening up access

By Darrell Etherington

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 delivers 60 more Starlink satellites in first launch of 2021, and sets new Falcon 9 rocket reusability record

By Darrell Etherington

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.

Rocket Lab completes its first rocket launch of 2021 and 18th mission overall

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab has launched its 18th mission, and the first of 2021, as of 8:26 PM NZT (2:30 AM EST). The “Another One Leaves The Crust” mission took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, and flew a single communications microsatellite on behalf of client OHB Group, a satellite manufacturer based in Europe with facilities in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Rocket Lab’s launches often feature payloads from more than one customer on the same Electron launch vehicle, but this dedicated payload launch is an example of how the flexibility of its smaller rocket can serve customers even for single small satellite missions. The rocket successfully delivered its payload as intended shortly following take-off.

While Rocket Lab has been developing and testing a booster stage recovery process to help it re-use part of its launch vehicles on subsequent flights, this particular mission did not include a recovery attempt. The company has had significant success with that development process however, and recovered its first booster last year. Sometime this year, it’s expected to attempt a recovery that includes a mid-air catch of the returning first stage via helicopter.

SpaceX bought two oil rigs to convert into offshore launch pads for Starship

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX’s next spacecraft is in development in Texas, and CEO Elon Musk previously revealed that the company was planning to build floating spaceports for Starship  operations, after a job ad was posted looking for someone to oversee their development. Now, SpaceX has purchased two oil rigs to convert for this purpose, as first reported by spaceflight.com’s Michael Baylor, and confirmed by CNBC.

The rigs have been named Deimos and Phoibos by SpaceX, which are the names of the two Moons of Mars (and the names of the gods of both dread and fear in Greek mythology before that). The rigs were originally designed for off shore deepwater drilling, up to a maximum depth of 8,500 feet. They’re currently located in Brownsville, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico near SpaceX’s Starship development site in Brownsville, Texas.

These vessels measure 240-feet by 255-feet, and will in theory be repurposed to support launching of Starship (and perhaps return landing, given their reusable design). Thus far, SpaceX has been launching and landing its Starship prototypes on land at its Boca Chica site, though it’s only done lower altitude flights so far. The company also operates two drone ships, which are 300-feet long by around 170-feet wide, as autonomous floating landing pads for its current Falcon 9 rocket boosters.

SpaceX also posted another ad seeking a resort development manager to turn its south Texas facility into a “21st century spaceport,” specifically looking for someone with resort expertise. Meanwhile, Musk confirmed that he has moved to Texas last December, following a number of public suggestions that he would do so owing in part to California’s taxation and regulatory environment.

Musk’s other company SpaceX also selected Austin as the site of its next gigafactory in the U.S., intended for assembly of its Cybertruck, Model Y and Tesla Semi, as well as Model 3 cars destined for customers on the east coast. SpaceX has maintained engine test facilities in McGreger, Texas, and set up Boca Chica as one of two Starship development sites alongside Florida, before making the south Texas location the sole focus for that spacecraft’s construction and testing after consolidating its efforts.

Watch Virgin Orbit launch a rocket to space from a modified 747 for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

Virgin Orbit scored a major success on Sunday, with a test flight that not only achieved its goals of reaching space and orbit, but also of delivering payloads on board for NASA, marking its first commercial mission, too. The launch was a success in every possible regard, which puts Virgin Orbit on track to becoming an active launch provider for small payloads for both commercial and defense customers.

Today's sequence of events for #LaunchDemo2 went exactly to plan, from safe execution of our ground ops all the way through successful full duration burns on both engines. To say we're thrilled would be a massive understatement, but 240 characters couldn't do it justice anyway. pic.twitter.com/ZKpoi7hkGN

— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 18, 2021

Above, you can watch the actual launch itself – the moment the LauncherOne rocket detaches from ‘Cosmic Girl,’ a modified Boeing 747 airliner that takes off normally from a standard aircraft runway, and then climbs to a cruising altitude to release the rocket, which then ignites its own engines and flies the rest of the way to space. Virgin Orbit’s launch model was designed to reduce the barriers to carrying small payloads to orbit vs. traditional vertical take-off vehicles, and this successful test flight proves the model works.

Virgin Orbit now joins a small but growing group of private launch companies who have actually reached space, and made it to orbit. That should be great news for the small satellite launch market, which still has much more demand than there is supply. Virgin Orbit also offers something very different from current launch providers like SpaceX, which typically serves larger payloads or which must offer rideshare model missions for those with smaller spacecraft. The LauncherOne design potentially means more on-demand, response and quick-turnaround launch services for satellite operators.

Virgin Orbit reaches orbit for the first time

By Darrell Etherington

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.

 

Blue Origin successfully launches and lands key crew capsule test in first mission of 2021

By Darrell Etherington

Blue Origin launched its first mission of 2021, flying its New Shepard rocket in West Texas to a medium height of just over 350,000 feet. This is the first flight for this particular booster, and for the capsule it carried, which was equipped with a range of new passenger safety, control and comfort systems that Blue Origin was testing during flight for the first time. Also on board was a life-sized test dummy called ‘Mannequin Skywalker’ that recorded information during the flight and landing that the Blue Origin will now review.

Based on the video stream and commentary from the company, this looks like a very successful test, including a takeoff, booster separation, controlled landing burn and touchdown – and a parachute-aided landing back on terra firma for the crew capsule. The mission didn’t carry any real passengers, although there were 50,000 postcards on board from school kids globally that have now officially been to space (past the Karman line) which will be returned to those students via Blue Origin’s non-profit ‘Club for the Future.’

This is essentially what the mission will look like once Blue Origin actually begins to fly paying private astronauts to suborbital space as well; while we don’t have a timeline for when that’ll happen, today’s launch included key tests of a crew alert system that will provide anyone onboard with crucial mission information, as well as a new soft lining on the wall for protection during the weightless portion of the flight, as well as for sound and vibration dampening for the comfort of those on board. This capsule was also equipped with a carbon dioxide scrubber, which will be used to provide safe atmosphere for those within the capsule during the course of the flight.

Watch Blue Origin launch a rocket with an upgraded crew capsule live

By Darrell Etherington

Blue Origin is launching its New Shepard suborbital rocket for the first time in 2021, with a liftoff planned for 9:45 AM CST (10:45 AM EST/7:45 AM PST) [Update: Now targeting 10:57 AM CST (11:57 AM EST/8:57 AM PST)] from its launch facility in West Texas. This is the 14th flight of New Shepard, and it includes some key testing activities for Blue Origin in preparation for its first human spaceflight missions.

The company has been flying a crew capsule on board its rocket for quite a while now, albeit empty (or rather, loaded with scientific and other cargo, rather than people). This version includes some key systems that will be used when astronauts are inside, however, including communications systems, and cabin environment regulation technologies that will make the trip for private spacefarers more comfortable and safe.

Blue Origin has had 13 previous successful New Shepard launches, so one can reasonably expect things to go well today. But the company’s focus on that crew cabin and gathering data around systems crucial to human spaceflight is an exciting indicator that people could be on board that spacecraft sooner rather than later.

The stream above will begin 30 minutes before the liftoff time, so at around 10:15 AM EST/7:15 AM PST.

Blue Origin set to launch a New Shepard rocket outfitted with crew upgrades as it readies for astronaut flight

By Darrell Etherington

Blue Origin is set to launch one of its New Shepard rockets as early as tomorrow, January 14 at 9:45 AM CST (10:45 AM EST) for its first mission of 2021. This is a big one for the Jeff Bezos-founded space company, too — it includes upgrades to the crew capsule atop the rocket that are designed to improve the astronaut experience, a key preparatory step as the company approaches its first actual human spaceflight missions.

New Shepard has flown 13 times, and carried a number of different payloads to suborbital space before returning to Earth. The reusable launch vehicle aims to ultimately provide rides to space for people, too — and while there’s no stated timeline for this actually happening, tomorrow’s mission is a strong sign that it could be taking place sometime relatively soon.

Crew-focused upgrades flying on this New Shepard launch for the first time include acoustic and temperature regulation equipment, display panels that provide information to anyone who would be on board and push-to-talk communications systems installed in each of the crew capsule’s six seats. One of those seats will have a life-size test article on board, a humanoid flight dummy named Mannequin Skywalker that Blue Origin uses to measure various aspects of the vehicle’s performance.

It’ll test astronaut safety alert systems that Blue Origin intends to include on the final flight system, and it’ll also carry a payload with a very different purpose — 50,000 postcards provided to the Blue Origin nonprofit Club for the Future by school kids around the world.

The mission will be broadcast live by Blue Origin via its website and YouTube channel (embedded below) and you can expect the stream to begin around 30 minutes prior to launch time, so at around 10:15 AM EST (7:15 AM PST).

Intuitive Machines taps SpaceX for second lunar lander mission

By Darrell Etherington

The first commercial lunar landers are set to start making their trips to the moon as early as this year, and now another one has a confirmed ride booked: Intuitive Machines is sending its second lander aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9, with a projected launch time frame happening sometime around 2022 at the earliest. Intuitive Machines has already booked a first lander mission via SpaceX, which is also hosting payloads for other private companies seeking to make lunar landfall under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander can carry up to 100 kg (around 222 lbs) of cargo to the moon’s surface, and can communicate back to Earth for transmitting the results of its missions. It has both internal and surface-mounting capacity, and will carry science experiments for a variety of customers to the lunar surface through NASA’s commercial partnership program, partly to support future NASA missions including its planned Artemis human moon landings.

The first Intuitive Machines lunar lander mission, which will also use a Nova-C lander, is set to take place sometime in the fourth quarter of 2021 based on current timelines. It’ll include a lunar imaging suite, which will seek to “capture some of the first images of the Milky Way Galaxy Center from the surface of the Moon,” and the second mission will include delivering a polar resource mining drill and a mass spectrometer to the moon’s south pole on behalf of NASA, in addition to other payloads.

UK tests ‘Space Tug’ capable of refiring its engine several times in orbit, and collecting space junk

By Mike Butcher

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.”

Virgin Orbit targets launch window opening January 10 for next orbital flight attempt

By Darrell Etherington

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.

Elon Musk says SpaceX to double launch pad usage for Starship tests, Super Heavy flights coming in a ‘few months’

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX is set to significantly ramp up its Starship development program in the new year, in more ways than one. SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk noted on Twitter on Thursday that the company will seek to make use of both of its two launch pads at its development facility in Boca Chica, Texas with prototype rockets set up on each, and that it will begin flight testing its Super Heavy booster (starting with low-altitude ‘hops’) in as few as “a few months” from now.

Recently, SpaceX has set up its SN9 prototype of Starship (the ninth in the current series) at Pad B at its Texas testing facility, which is on the Gulf of Mexico. SN9 will be next to undergo active testing, after SpaceX successfully flew its predecessor SN8 to an altitude of around 40,000 feet, and then executed a crucial belly flop maneuver that will be used to help control the powered landing of the production version. SN8 was destroyed when it touched down harder than expected, but SpaceX still achieved all its testing goals with the flight – and more.

SN9 will now undergo ground tests before hopefully doing its own flight test later on. That’ll provide the team with even more valuable data to carry on to further tests – with the ultimate goal of eventually achieving orbit with a Starship prototype vehicle. Musk’s tweet that two prototypes will be stood up next to each other on both Pad A and Pad B at the Boca Chica site could indicate the pace of these test flights might speed up, to match the fast clip at which SpaceX is constructing new rocket iterations.

Meanwhile, news that Super Heavy could be undergoing testing soon is also reason to get excited about 2021 for SpaceX and Starship. Super Heavy is the booster that SpaceX will eventually use to fly Starship for orbital launches, and to eventually help propel it to deep space – for destinations including Mars. Super Heavy will be around 240-feet tall, and will include 28 Raptor engines to provide it with the lift capacity needed to break Earth’s gravity well when it’s stacked with a Starship loaded down with cargo.

Voyager Space Holdings to acquire majority stake in commercial space leader Nanoracks

By Darrell Etherington

Voyager Space Holdings continues to build up its portfolio of strategic space service offerings with the acquisition of a majority stake in X.O. Markets, the parent company of Nanoracks. Nanoracks has provided commercial space services for years now, and most recently provided the Bishop Airlock that was installed on the International Space Station. Bishop is the first dedicated commercial permanent airlock on the ISS, and will provide a major increase in capabilities in terms of providing access to the orbital platform for private small satellites and research.

This is Voyager’s third major acquisition this year, after it picked up a majority stake in The Launch Company, a launch support company that provides services and hardware to facilitate launches, and that works with companies including Relativity, Firefly Aerospace and Virgin Orbit. Voyager also picked up Pioneer Astronautics (an R&D company that works on propulsion, fuels, rapid prototyping and much more) in 2020, as well as Altius Space Machines in 2019. Altius is a startup that works on technology for on-orbit satellite servicing.

Nanoracks is probably its highest-profile acquisition, since the company has been involved in over 1,000 ISS projects, spanning on-station research and small satellite launch from the platform, as well as other orbital and deep space missions. Nanoracks created a commercial space testing platform outside o the ISS, and will be demonstrating a technology on a SpaceX mission next year that could eventually be used to convert spent upper stages from launch vehicles into orbital commercial mini space stations.

Voyager Space Holdings continues its strategic acquisition of new space companies, building out a portfolio that can offer clients significantly more ‘full-service’ solutions than any of these individual companies taken together. Commercial details of these arrangements aren’t shared, but they increasingly represent one path to exit for smaller companies addressing elements of the larger commercial space sector in fairly specialized ways.

Astroscale ships its space junk removal demonstration satellite for March 2021 mission

By Darrell Etherington

Japanese startup Astroscale has shipped its ELSA-d spacecraft to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan, where it will be integrated with a Soyuz rocket for a launch scheduled for March of next year. This is a crucial mission for Astroscale, since it’ll be the first in-space demonstration of the company’s technology for de-orbiting space debris, a cornerstone of its proposed space sustainability service business.

The ELSA-d mission by Astroscale is a small satellite mission that will demonstrate two key technologies that enable the company’s vision for orbital debris removal. First will be a targeting component, demonstrating an ability to locate and dock with a piece of space debris, using positioning sensors including GPS and laser locating technologies. That will be used by a so-called “servicer” satellite to find and attach to a “target” satellite launched at the same time, which will stand in for a potential piece of debris.

Astroscale intends to dock and release with the “target” using its “servicer” multiple times over the course of the mission, showing that it can identify and capture uncontrolled objects in space, and that it can maneuver them for controlled de-orbit. This will basically prove out the feasibility of the technology underlying its business model, and set it up for future commercial operations.

In October, Astroscale announced that it had raised $51 million, making its total raised to date $191 million. The company also acquired the staff and IP of a company called Effective Space Solutions in June, which it will use to build out the geostationary servicing arm of its business, in addition to the LEO operations that ELSA-d will demonstrate.

Despite economic downturn, space startup funding defies gravity

By Kirsten Korosec

The COVID-19 pandemic might have upended the global economy, but according to Meagan Crawford at Spacefund and Chris Moran with Lockheed Martin Ventures, it didn’t dampen investment in space startups.

The space industry has enjoyed a honeymoon period with hundreds of startups popping up in the past five to seven years following SpaceX’s success.

Spacefund research conducted earlier this year found that there is almost no correlation between the global economy and the space industry, said Crawford, a managing partner at the VC firm, last Thursday at TC Sessions: Space 2020. Crawford and Moran both agreed that interest and investment in space will increase as more startups have successful exits.

“We looked back historically over the last decade and a little bit more, and it turns out that even during the 2008-2009 economic downturn, the space industry continued to grow at 7% per year,” Crawford said, adding that they saw almost no correlation between the performance of the Global S&P 1200 and the space industry.

“I think a lot of this has to do with a big portion of the industry coming from government budgets, which provides a lot of stability even in economically rough times, as well as the industry being in such high demand and going through such a high-growth phase right now that even the pandemic couldn’t really slow it down,” she said.

Early-stage investments did suffer at the beginning of the year, Moran noted after the event, but added that it appeared to be temporary.

“Firms were circling the wagons on their portfolios, in-person incubator programs went on hiatus, so there were fewer early-stage companies out there and less money for those companies,” he said, adding that Pitchbook data confirmed LMVC’s suspicions and showed a 25% to 27% drop in new company formation over that time.

Since September, LMVC has seen a spike in new companies. Meanwhile, incubators and accelerators have adapted to COVID-19 restrictions, Zoom made face-to-face meetings easy and life “as usual” started back up again, Moran added.

Exits are driving investments

The space industry has enjoyed a honeymoon period with hundreds of startups popping up in the past five to seven years following SpaceX’s success. Moran said this unabashed growth period will continue for a few years before narrowing.

“So like any any industry in VC, you see a lot of people jump in and then as business models collide and the need to generate some sustainable business happens there’s a lot of winnowing and narrowing of the field,” Moran said. “We’re probably still in that growth period, but I imagine over the next few years, we’ll start seeing this winnowing and really focus on the folks who have a technology and a business model that will be successful long term.”

Right now, the entire industry is funded on private capital, said Moran, who predicted investing is going to grow for some time as long as people see the excitement and promise of the industry. He added that easy access to public markets — notably the rise in mergers with special purpose acquisition companies — could drive even more money into space.

Dedicated commercial human in-space operations are coming sooner than you may realize

By Darrell Etherington

If you’ve ever heard someone refer to the idea of “working in space,” you’d be forgiven for thinking they were describing a science-fiction plot. But the number of humans actively working beyond Earth’s atmosphere — and living significant chunks of their lives there, too — is about to start growing at a potentially exponential rate. Given how small that population is now, the growth might look slow at first — but it’s happening soon, and plans are in place to help it start ramping up quickly.

The main company leading those plans in the near-term is Axiom Space, a private space station service provider, and eventual operator. Axiom is founded and led by people with International Space Station experience and expertise, and the company already operates R&D missions on behalf of private clients on the ISS with the help of NASA astronauts. It’s planning to begin shuttling entire flights of private astronauts to the station starting in 2021, and it’s also building a new, commercial space station to ultimately replace the ISS on orbit once that one is decommissioned.

Axiom Space’s Chief Business Office Amir Blachman joined us at TC Sessions: Space last week on a panel that included NASA Chief of Exploration and Mission Planning Nujoud Merancy, Sierra Nevada Corporation senior vice president and former astronaut Janet Kavandi, as well as Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch+) co-founder Melodie Yashar. The panel was focused on how public and private entities are preparing for a (relatively near) future in which humans spend more time off Earth — and further away from it, too.

“It’s now, it’s been now for a couple years already,” Blachman said, in response to a question about how far off humans beyond NASA astronauts living in space actually is. “Axiom, sends crews to the International Space Station today on our own missions, while we’re building the new commercial space station that will succeed ISS when it’s decommissioned. Our first mission with a crew of four astronauts launches 12 months from now, and the four crew members have already gone through medical, they’ve done their suit fittings, we’ve already integrated our medical operations and training team with our launch provider. We’ll launch that crew in 2021, another crew in 2022, two crews and 2023, four in 2024 — and it grows from there.”

Both Blachman and Merancy talked about the importance of automation and robotic systems on both Axiom’s future commercial space stations and on NASA’s future habitats on the lunar surface, and on the lunar Gateway that will remain in orbit around the moon and act as a staging ground for lunar missions.

“ISS was meant to be tended all the time,” Merancy said. “It’s not meant to be an uncrewed station. And while the flight controllers on the ground do a lot of the actual operation of it, it’s meant to have people there to perform maintenance. We don’t have that luxury, when you start talking about the lunar architecture, the Gateway will be tended only when the crew arrives, and the stuff on the surface will be tended only for, you know, a week at first and then longer over time. But you still want to have all of those things be capable of doing useful science or useful exploration even without the crew. So the ability to do tele robotics, maintain things via ground command and things like that so that when the crew arrives, they can just throw the hatch open and get to work would be the ideal state.”

“We’ve been working under the assumption that these habitats and critical infrastructure on Mars, and now more recently on the moon should be constructed, and should be thought of as being constructed, as autonomously as possible,” Yashar added. “So we typically design for precursor missions, which would happen even before a crew arrives, hoping that almost all of the systems through construction, materials, excavation, materials handling and all of the other systems that we’ve been looking at would more or less happen as autonomously as possible.”

Kavandi, too, echoed the sentiments of the others with regards to the degree to which modern human space systems will incorporate automation. I asked whether that would introduce complexity, but she said that rather, it should accomplish the opposite. Somewhat ironically, the path forward for human activity in space actually involves a lot less human activity — at least when it comes to the business of operating and maintaining in-space infrastructure.

“Advanced technology things can sometimes add simplicity,” Kavandi said. “As we’ve increased our capabilities over the years, with computers, for instance, they’ve become easier to use, not harder to use. The objective is to try to minimize crew time and crew maintenance so that you can concentrate your time, your time for doing research, or whatever it is that you’re supposed to do up there, whatever your mission happens to be. So the more we can simplify the interfaces, the more that we can have automation, where the crew only has to intervene when something is going wrong, but generally things go smoothly, and they don’t have to do anything, that is an ideal situation. And in that case, you have a lot more free time available to then actually do the work that you’re up there for.”

Space manufacturing startup Varda, incubated at Founders Fund, emerges with $9 million in funding

By Jonathan Shieber

From a young age, Will Bruey, the co-founder and chief executive of Varda Space Industries, was fascinated with space and running his own business.

So when the former SpaceX engineer was tapped by Delian Asparouhov and Trae Stephens of Founders Fund to work on Varda he didn’t think twice.

Bruey spent six years at SpaceX. First working on the Falcon and Dragon video systems and then the bulk of the systems actuators and controllers used in the avionics for the crewed Dragon capsule (which recently docked at the International Space Station). `

According to Asparouhov, that background, and the time that Bruey spent running his own angel syndicate and working at Bank of America getting a grounding in finance and startups, made him an ideal candidate to run the next startup to be spun out of Founders Fund .

Like other Founders Fund companies, Palantir and Anduril, Varda takes its name from the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. Named for the Elf queen who created constellations, the company has set itself no less lofty a task than bringing manufacturing to space.

While companies like Space Tango and Made In Space already are attempting to make a viable business out of space manufacturing, they focus on small scale pilots and experimental projects. Varda separates itself by its loftier ambition — to manufacture commercially viable products at scale in space.

To be economically viable, these products have to be very very high value, and according to the IEEE there are already some goods that fit the bill. Things like carbon nanotubes and fiber optic cables, organs, and novel materials are all potential targets for a space manufacturing company, because they can conceivably justify the high cost of material transportation.

Image Credit: Getty Images/AbelCreativeStudio

“Manufacturing is the next step for commercialization in space,” said Bruey. “The primary driver that makes us economical is success in the launch business.”

With now-established companies like SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Blue Origin, and upstarts like Relativity Space, Spinlaunch, and the newly launched Aevum Space all driving down the cost of launching objects into space, the next wave of commercialization is coming.

Varda’s backers, led by Founders Fund and Lux Capital, with additional participation from Fifty Years, Also Capital, Raymond Tonsing, Justin Mateen, and Naval Ravikant are all placing a bet that the biggest returns could be in manufacturing. As a result of their investments, Founders Fund partner Trae Stephens and Lux Capital co-founder Josh Wolfe are both taking seats on the company’s board.

“The first things we will manufacture are things with high dollar per-unit-mass value,” said Bruey. “As we establish our manufacturing platform that will ramp into the longer term vision of offloading manufacturing for all space operations.”

There are two categories of space manufacturing in the industry to come, according to Bruey and Asparouhov and those are additive manufacturing for making products to be used in space, and manufacturing in space for terrestrial applications. It’s the second of these that Varda focuses on. “Nothing we will be doing will be 3D printing,” said Asparouhov. “We will be focused on making things in space that we can bring back to earth.

The company may not be working on 3D printing, but its manufacturing facilities won’t look like anything on Earth. Initially, they’ll be unmanned, according to a blog post published by Fifty Years. Then they’ll manufacture things in space that benefit from low gravity. Finally, the company intends to build the first inrastructure that can harvest source materials for new products in-space via asteroid mining.

“Varda can make manufacturing sustainable by eliminating the need to destructively extract earth’s resources, help cure chronic diseases, deepen our understanding of biology, help connect more people to the Internet, and usher in higher-throughput and lower energy methods of computation,” Fifty Years co-founder Seth Bannon wrote in a direct message. “Bringing human industry into the stars — this is entrepreneurship at its boldest! Varda is the sort of big swing ambition venture capital was invented for.”

 

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