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LeoStella’s CEO raises his sights in the satellite revolution

TUKWILA, Wash. — Will LeoStella go beyond LEO?

It’s been four years since LeoStella, a joint venture created by BlackSky and Thales Alenia Space, opened the doors of its Tukwila factory and began building Earth observation satellites that BlackSky could launch into low Earth orbit, otherwise known as LEO.

Since then, the company has taken on other customers as well — including Loft Orbital Solutions, which offers a turnkey solution for flying and operating satellite payloads; and NorthStar Earth and Space, which is building a satellite constellation to monitor space traffic.

This week, LeoStella announced the completion and delivery of its 20th satellite — which happens to be the third satellite it’s built for Loft Orbital.

Meanwhile, Tim Kienberger is getting settled in as LeoStella’s new CEO. He took over the company’s top post in January, after building up decades of experience at other aerospace and defense companies such as Boeing and L3Harris. “What they hired me to do was to grow the business,” Kienberger told me.

The sky just might literally be the limit when it comes to LeoStella’s future growth. During last week’s interview at LeoStella’s Tukwila HQ, Kienberger said the company could eventually take aim at missions beyond Earth orbit — to support missions to the moon, for example, or to help humanity get to Mars.

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Small businesses win NASA’s support for space tech

NASA’s latest round of small-business grants will support aerospace-related technologies ranging from a new kind of spacecraft docking mechanism to a power beaming system suitable for use on the moon.

Those are just two of the projects receiving Phase I grants from the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, also known as SBIR and STTR.

The grants will go to 300 proposals from 249 small businesses and 39 research institutions across the country. Each proposal team will receive $150,000 to establish the merit and feasibility of their innovations, representing a total agency investment of $45 million. SBIR Phase I funding supports projects for six months, while the STTR Phase I funding is meant to cover 13 months of work.

“NASA has a key role to play in growing the aerospace ecosystem in our country,” Jenn Gustetic, director of early stage innovation and partnerships for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said today in a news release. “Through these early-stage small business awards, we are inviting more innovators into this growing arena and helping them mature their technologies for not only NASA’s use, but for commercial impact.”

Gynelle Steele, deputy program executive for NASA’s SBIR/STTR program, said the grants are meant to “nurture pioneering ideas from a diversity of innovators across the country that may not attract the initial private industry funding needed to thrive.”

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Axiom crew finishes space station science mission

The second crew to be sent into space as a profit-making proposition for Texas-based Axiom Space came back to Earth tonight in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule after spending nine days on the International Space Station.

The Ax-2 trip came a year after Axiom’s first crewed space mission, and marked several firsts: Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson became the first woman to command a private-sector space mission as Axiom’s director of human spaceflight, and mission specialist Rayyanah Barnawi became the first Saudi woman in space.

Tennessee business executive John Shoffner and Saudi fighter pilot Ali Alqarni rounded out the crew. Shoffner paid his own fare, which was thought to amount to tens of millions of dollars, while Barnawi and Alqarni flew with the backing of the Saudi government.

The trip began on May 21 with the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida, and ended today with the crew’s departure from the space station and splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast. While crew members waited for a recovery ship to pick up their Dragon capsule, which was dubbed Freedom, Whitson described the descent from orbit as a “phenomenal ride” — the same phrase she used after liftoff.

“We really enjoyed all of it,” she told SpaceX’s Mission Control.

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Gravitational-wave sleuths look for more cosmic crashes

After three years of upgrading and waiting, due in part to the coronavirus pandemic, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory has officially resumed its hunt for the signatures of crashing black holes and neutron stars.

“Our LIGO teams have worked through hardship during the past two-plus years to be ready for this moment, and we are indeed ready,” Caltech physicist Albert Lazzarini, the deputy director of the LIGO Laboratory, said in a news release.

Lazzarini said the engineering tests leading up to today’s official start of Observing Run 4, or O4, have already revealed a number of candidate events that have been shared with the astronomical community.

“Most of these involve black hole binary systems, although one may include a neutron star,” he said. “The rates appear to be consistent with expectations.”

One such event, called S230518h, was detected last week. Researchers say that if they can confirm the data, the event was most likely caused by the merger of a faraway black hole and a neutron star.

The twin LIGO gravitational-wave detectors at Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La., will be joined for O4 by the Virgo detector in Italy as well as the KAGRA observatory in Japan. Virgo is scheduled to take part in the run starting later this year. KAGRA will parallel LIGO’s observations for the next month, take a break for some upgrades, and then rejoin the run.

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SpaceX sends Axiom’s crew No. 2 to the space station

SpaceX and Axiom Space teamed up today to send four spacefliers — including the first Saudi woman in orbit — to the International Space Station for a 10-day trip focusing on zero-gravity research.

SpaceX’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5:37 p.m. ET (2:37 p.m. PT) at the end of a trouble-free countdown, sending a Crew Dragon capsule toward a space station rendezvous.

After stage separation, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster flew itself back to a landing zone near the launch pad while the second stage pushed the Crew Dragon into orbit. That marked the first time a Falcon 9 booster made a touchdown on land (as opposed to at sea) after launching a crewed mission.

“It was a phenomenal ride,” Axiom mission commander Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut who holds the U.S. record for cumulative time in space, told Mission Control from zero-G.

The mission, which is Texas-based Axiom Space’s second expedition to the space station, combines public and private-sector initiatives: NASA, SpaceX and Axiom are coordinating operations in orbit. Mission pilot John Shoffner, a Tennessee business executive who’s also a race car driver and competitive skydiver, purchased one of the seats on the Crew Dragon at a cost that’s thought to be somewhere in the range of $55 million.

The Saudi government is paying the fare for the Ax-2 mission’s two other crew members: Rayyanah Barnawi, Saudi Arabia’s first female spaceflier, is a biochemist specializing in stem cell research. Ali Alqarni is a Saudi Air Force fighter pilot. Only one other Saudi citizen has previously been to space: Prince Sultan bin Salman Al-Saud, who flew on the shuttle Discovery in 1985.

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Blue Origin’s team wins $3.4B from NASA for lunar lander

An industry team led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has won a $3.4 billion NASA contract to provide a second type of landing system for crewed as well as uncrewed lunar landings.

The decision announced today settles a years-long controversy over how astronauts would get to the moon’s surface: SpaceX’s Starship system would be used for the first two crewed landings during the Artemis 3 and 4 missions, currently scheduled for as early as 2025 and 2028. Blue Origin’s Blue Moon system would be used for Artemis 5, currently set for 2029.

All those missions would target the moon’s south polar region, which is thought to be one of the moon’s most promising places for long-term settlement. Both types of landers could be available to NASA for missions beyond Artemis 5.

“We are in a golden age of human spaceflight, which is made possible by NASA’s commercial and international partnerships,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the agency’s HQ in Washington, D.C. “Together, we are making an investment in the infrastructure that will pave the way to land the first astronauts on Mars.”

In a tweet, Bezos said he was “honored to be on this journey with NASA to land astronauts on the moon — this time to stay.”

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Experiment blazes a trail for growing stem cells in space

Space: The final frontier … for stem cells? Seattle’s Allen Institute for Cell Science says cells from its collection are going into space for the first time on a private mission to the International Space Station.

The Allen Cell Collection’s assortment of human induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPSCs, will be the focus for one of more than 20 experiments being sent into orbit on a flight organized by Texas-based Axiom Space.

Former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will command the Ax-2 mission — Axiom’s second trip to the space station — and her crewmates will include Tennessee business executive John Shoffner as well as Saudi astronauts Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will loft the crew into orbit in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for what’s expected to be a weeklong stay on the station. Liftoff is set for May 21 at 5:37 p.m. ET (2:37 p.m. PT) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The fare for each rider on last year’s Ax-1 mission was around $55 million, and although the ticket price for Ax-2 hasn’t been announced, it’s probably in a similar range.

The stem-cell study is part of a series of NASA-funded experiments led by researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. This experiment is expected to break new ground when it comes to growing IPSCs in space and modifying the cells’ DNA for therapeutic purposes.

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Stratolaunch hits milestone in its hypersonic quest

California-based Stratolaunch, the venture created by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, released a separation test vehicle for the first time this weekend during an experimental flight of the world’s largest airplane.

The event marked a significant milestone in Stratolaunch’s quest to create an air-launch system for rocket-powered hypersonic vehicles.

The May 13 outing was the 11th flight test for Stratolaunch’s flying launch pad — a twin-fuselage, six-engine airplane with a record-setting 385-foot wingspan. The plane is nicknamed Roc in honor of a giant bird in Middle East mythology.

Roc carried the Talon-A separation test vehicle, known as TA-0, during three previous test flights. But this was the first time TA-0 was released from Roc’s center-wing pylon to fly free. The release took place during a four-hour, eight-minute flight that involved operations in Vandenberg Space Force Base’s Western Range, off California’s central coast.

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Northwest teams win federal funding for tech innovations

Four Pacific Northwest public-private partnerships have won support from the National Science Foundation through a $43 million nationwide program to promote regional technology innovations.

The NSF’s Regional Innovation Engines program is aimed at ensuring that the U.S. remains in the vanguard of technological competitiveness. Forty-four teams in all were selected to receive up to $1 million in Type-1 funding each for up to two years to develop program proposals in their chosen fields.

Programs that are selected for Type-2 funding could eventually receive up to $160 million over the course of 10 years.

“These NSF Engines Development Awards lay the foundation for emerging hubs of innovation and potential future NSF Engines,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan said today in a news release. “These awardees are part of the fabric of NSF’s vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere. They will build robust regional partnerships rooted in scientific and technological innovation in every part of our nation.”

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Echodyne and Supernal join forces on safety for air taxis

Kirkland, Wash.-based Echodyne, a next-generation radar platform company backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has forged a partnership with Supernal to enhance the safety of that company’s air mobility system.

Supernal, a Washington, D.C.-based subsidiary of Hyundai Motor Group, says it’s making a minority investment in Echodyne as part of the deal — but the amount of the investment was not immediately disclosed.

The newly announced strategic agreement adds to Supernal’s collaborations with MicrosoftBAE SystemsHoneywell and other companies on an air transport system that could go into service by as early as 2028.

Supernal is developing an electric-powered, vertical-takeoff-and-landing air vehicle, also known as an eVTOL, along with the ground-based systems required to support short-range, taxi-style flights. For example, the company’s website suggests that its eVTOL could carry passengers between Seattle and Tacoma in 25 minutes.

The precise timetable for commercial operations is likely to depend not only on technological developments, but also on the Federal Aviation Administration’s establishment of a regulatory system for advanced air mobility.

Under the terms of the partnership, Echodyne’s radar system could be used for in-flight situational awareness as well as for ground-based tracking installations around vertiports and flight corridors.