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GeekWire

Why software entrepreneurs are digging into ag tech

Farmers typically consult the calendar and the weather forecast to figure out when to plant their crops, but figuring out how to grow a tech startup focused on the farm can be a far more complex task.

The challenge can call to mind the old joke about the farmer who won the lottery. When asked how the winnings would be used, the farmer answered, “Well, I guess I’ll just keep farming until the money runs out.”

When it comes to ag tech ventures, the money isn’t running out: Last year, a Crunchbase survey found that venture capitalists were investing roughly $4 billion a year in farm-centric startups — and the flow is continuing despite the COVID-19 pandemic. So far this year, investors have put about $700 million into more than 90 ag tech ventures, according to Crunchbase’s tally.

Some of the stars of the show are Pacific Northwest entrepreneurs who found success in the software industry and are now bringing their startup savvy to the food and agriculture industry. We checked in with four founders to get a sense of how they’re cross-breeding technology with agriculture.

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Cosmic Space

Starship survives its landing for the first time

SpaceX’s Starship prototype super-rocket stuck the landing today after a 10-kilometer-high test flight. And this time, it didn’t blow up.

The six-minute flight at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, marked the first time in five tries that one of SpaceX’s 160-foot-tall prototypes survived a complete cycle of launch and landing.

The third attempt came close in March, but in that case, the rocket erupted in a fireball minutes after it landed.

No such setback occurred this time around. Propelled by three of SpaceX’s methane-fueled Raptor engines, the Starship SN15 prototype rose into a cloudy sky, hovered at an altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) as planned, and then flipped into a horizontal attitude in order to increase drag and reduce its speed as it descended.

Moments before reaching the ground, Starship re-ignited two of its engines, righted itself and landed on its feet. When the smoke cleared, the rocket stood tall on its landing pad, with flames licking at its side.

“The Starship has landed,” SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker declared. He said the post-landing fire was “not unusual with the methane fuel that we’re carrying, as we continue to work on the test vehicle design.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted a three-word reaction to Starship’s successful flight: “Starship landing nominal!”

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GeekWire

Blue Origin is auctioning off a seat to space

You had to know the first open seat on a spacecraft built by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture would be sold online — but auctioning it off for charity is an added twist.

After a week of buildup, Blue Origin today unveiled an auction site that will sell off a reservation on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship for its first-ever crewed flight on July 20. That date is the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

To add to the sense of history, today marks the 60th anniversary of Project Mercury’s first crewed spaceflight — a suborbital trip taken by New Shepard’s namesake, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, in 1961.

“In the decades since, fewer than 600 astronauts have been to space above the Kármán Line to see the borderless Earth and the thin limb of our atmosphere,” Blue Origin said in today’s announcement, referring to the 100-kilometer line that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of outer space. “They all say this experience changes them.”

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GeekWire

Billionaire’s space crew bonds on Mount Rainier

The road to space runs through … Mount Rainier?

Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman, who’s paying for a trip to orbit as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, thinks a three-day expedition on Washington state’s highest mountain with his future crewmates is a good way to prepare for three days of being cooped up in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

“We’re going to get comfortable getting uncomfortable,” he was quoted as saying in an Instagram post by John Kraus, the official photographer for Isaacman’s Inspiration4 space campaign.

Over the weekend, Isaacman and the three other members of the Inspiration4 Dragon crew — Lockheed Martin engineer Christopher Sembroski, Arizona geoscientist Sian Proctor and St. Jude physician assistant Hayley Arceneaux — were part of a team that took on the miles-long trek to Camp Muir, a way station at the mountain’s 10,080-foot elevation.

Isaacman and a subset of the team went even higher and reached the 14,411-foot-tall mountain’s summit during this trip — a stretch goal that the billionaire businessman missed out on during a preparatory climb earlier this month.

If all goes according to plan, the Inspiration4 foursome will climb into the same Crew Dragon spaceship that brought four astronauts back from the International Space Station over the weekend. SpaceX will refurbish the craft, christened Resilience, for a mission set for liftoff as early as September.

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX and NASA make history with night splashdown

For the first time since Apollo 8 in 1968, NASA astronauts returning to Earth from orbit have splashed down at night. And for the first time ever, it was done with a commercial spaceship.

After spending 168 days in space, NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, descended safely from the International Space Station to the Gulf of Mexico in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience. The Dragon hit the water off Florida’s Gulf Coast at 2:56 a.m. ET today (11:56 p.m. PT May 1).

A recovery team hauled the Dragon, with its crew inside, onto the deck of a ship called the Go Navigator. While he waited to be brought out from the capsule, Hopkins expressed his thanks to the SpaceX and NASA teams for a trouble-free return.

“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. … Quite frankly, y’all are changing the world. Congratulations,” Hopkins said. “It’s great to be back.”

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Cosmic Space

Veep will put her ‘personal stamp’ on space policy

Vice President Kamala Harris’ role as the head of the National Space Council is prescribed by law, but that doesn’t mean she and her boss at the White House had to take it seriously.

The space council’s role as a forum for coordinating federal space policy goes back to the Eisenhower administration. But it languished in hibernation for a couple of decades until its revival by the Trump White House, with Vice President Mike Pence filling the statutory role of chairman. Under Pence’s leadership, the council conducted public hearings and drew up seven policy directives on matters ranging from moon exploration to nukes in space.

Today Harris confirmed in a tweet that she’ll keep the ball rolling during the Biden administration:

During a background briefing for reporters, senior administration officials said Harris won’t be a mere figurehead.

The vice president “intends to put her own personal stamp on the concept,” one official said. (The briefing was conducted under the condition that the senior officials would not be identified further.)

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GeekWire

Space: The final frontier for data security

What will commercial space stations be good for? The application that typically comes up would be their use as space hotels, or maybe zero-gravity research labs and factories.

But space industry veteran Rob Meyerson has a different idea in mind — and in his role as operating partner at C5 Capital USA, he’s able to put some money behind it.

“Looking for new markets is something we’re highly motivated to do,” Meyerson told GeekWire. “Data storage and compute is one market. Cybersecurity is another.”

The possibilities for providing data and security services on the final frontier played a big role in C5 Capital’s decision to lead a $130 million funding round for Texas-based Axiom Space, which is due to send citizen astronauts to the International Space Station next year and could start laying the groundwork for its own space station in 2024.

“We have a lot of data that’s created in space, but how valuable would it be to actually do compute and storage in space?” Meyerson asked. “We’ve been talking with Axiom about that and helping them to form partnerships. How do we use the C5 portfolio in cybersecurity and threat protection to assist Axiom with their supply chain and their partners, to bring the most advanced technologies to that critically important area?”

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GeekWire

NASA freezes SpaceX’s lunar lander cash

NASA says it’ll hold up on its payments to SpaceX for developing its Starship super-rocket as a lunar lander while the Government Accountability Office sorts out challenges to the $2.9 billion contract award from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture as well as from Alabama-based Dynetics.

Dynetics and a space industry team led by Blue Origin submitted their protests to the GAO this week, contending that the award unfairly favored SpaceX. The three teams spent months working on proposals in hopes of winning NASA’s support for developing a landing system capable of putting astronauts on the moon’s surface by as early as 2024.

The GAO has 100 days to determine whether the challengers’ complaints have merit, and if so, what to do about it. That 100-day clock runs out on Aug. 4.

In the meantime, the space agency is suspending work on the contract. “NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement,” Space News quoted NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt as saying.

It’s not clear how much of an effect the suspension of NASA funding will have on Starship development. Even before this month’s contract award, SpaceX was conducting an extraordinarily rapid series of high-altitude tests of Starship prototypes. The next prototype, dubbed SN15, is due for launch from SpaceX’s Boca Chica base in South Texas sometime in the next few days.

Landing people and cargo on the moon is just one of the applications that SpaceX has in mind for Starship. The reusable rocket ship and its even bigger Super Heavy booster are also meant to be used for point-to-point terrestrial travel, mass deployment of satellites in Earth orbit, commercial trips around the moon and odysseys to Mars and back. SpaceX has raised billions of dollars in private investment for its rocket development effort, and that funding seems likely to sustain SpaceX while the GAO reviews NASA’s award.

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Cosmic Space

Mars helicopter gets a new job: robot scout

NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has been doing such a great job on Mars that mission managers have decided not to kill it off. Instead, the solar-powered rotorcraft will be given a new assignment: scouting from the air as NASA’s Perseverance rover moves into new territory.

“It’s like Ingenuity is graduating from the tech demo phase to the new ops demo phase, where we can show how a rotorcraft can be used, and show products that only an aerial platform from an aerial dimension can give,” MiMi Aung, Ingenuity’s project manager, said today during a news briefing held to lay out the helicopter’s new mission.

Ingenuity rode to a February landing on Mars beneath Perseverance’s belly, on an $85 million technology demonstration mission that’s a subset of the rover’s $2.7 billion, two-year-long primary mission.

Perseverance’s main tasks are to survey the terrain of Mars’ Jezero Crater, which was thought to have once been the site of an ancient lake, and store up samples for later return to Earth.

NASA planned to try out the solar-powered mini-helicopter on five test flights, merely to prove out the technology for conducting aerial missions in Mars’ ultra-thin carbon dioxide atmosphere. After the first flight, Aung hinted that the final flight just might push the envelope far enough to break the 4-pound flying machine.

But things have gone so well during the flights to date — including today’s fourth flight in the series — that the mission team is extending Ingenuity’s mission for an operational demonstration.

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GeekWire

World’s biggest airplane flies again for Stratolaunch

Stratolaunch, the aerospace company founded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, put the world’s biggest airplane through its second flight test today, two years after the first flight.

“We are airborne!” Stratolaunch reported in a tweet.

Today’s takeoff from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:28 a.m. PT marked the first time the plane, nicknamed Roc after the giant bird of Arabian and Persian mythology, got off the ground since Stratolaunch’s acquisition by Cerberus Capital Management in October 2019.

Roc rose as high as 14,000 feet and traveled at a top speed of 199 mph during a flight that lasted three hours and 14 minutes — which is close to an hour longer than the first flight on April 13, 2019. During that earlier flight, the airplane reached a maximum speed of 189 mph and maximum altitude of 17,000 feet.

Zachary Krevor, Stratolaunch’s chief operating officer, said today’s flight accomplished its test objectives by checking the performance of improved instrumentation, a more robust flight control system and an environmental control system that allowed the pilots to work in a pressurized cockpit. Krevor said the crew included chief pilot Evan Thomas, pilot Mark Giddings and flight engineer Jake Riley.

The flight’s spiciest moment came at touchdown, when one of the plane’s landing gears settled the runway while the other was still in the air. “We did touch down initially on one gear, but that’s exactly the technique we prefer to use during a crosswind landing,” Krevor told GeekWire during a post-landing teleconference. “Though we stayed within our crosswind limits, we did have a little bit of a crosswind, and the aircrew did an excellent job of bringing the aircraft down.”

Since Roc’s first flight in 2019, the business model for the 10-year-old venture has shifted: In its early years, Stratolaunch focused on using Roc as a flying launch pad for sending rockets and their payloads to orbit. The concept capitalizes on the air launch system pioneered by SpaceShipOne, which won financial backing from Allen and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004,

The new owners still expect to use Roc for air launch, but the current focus is on using the plane as a testbed for Stratolaunch’s hypersonic flight vehicles. Once the plane is cleared for regular operations, perhaps next year, Stratolaunch could begin launching its Talon-A prototype hypersonic plane.