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New Shepard’s shepherd leaves Blue Origin

The changing of the guard is continuing at Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture with the departure of Stephen Bennett, a senior vice president who led the team behind the company’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship.

Bennett will become Toronto-based Kepler Communications’ chief operating officer on Sept. 20, Kepler said in a news release.

Blue Origin’s vice president of communications, Linda Mills, told GeekWire in an email that Bennett’s deputy, Phil Joyce, “was promoted and has taken on leadership of the New Shepard team with a seamless transition plan.”

Kepler is rolling out Aether, a connectivity service for space assets in low Earth orbit, or LEO. The Aether system is due to go through flight validation early next year.

“The opportunity to join Kepler as this point in their journey speaks to me on multiple levels,” Bennett said in the news release. “The goal of delivering a LEO network that will provide real-time connectivity to other orbital missions is a bold one, but one that this team has demonstrated they are on track to achieve.”

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Spaceflight unveils orbital tug made for far-out missions

When a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sends a robotic lander to the moon’s south pole, perhaps as early as next year, Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. plans to make a few extra deliveries with its own own piggyback spacecraft.

The mission, known as GEO Pathfinder, will represent the first in-space outing for a new type of orbital transfer vehicle called the Sherpa Escape, or Sherpa-ES.

“Orbital” might not be exactly the right term, since the craft is designed to go well beyond low Earth orbit to zoom around the moon and back, potentially deploying payloads at every step along the way.

“This mission will demonstrate our complete mission toolbox and ability to execute complex, groundbreaking and exciting missions beyond LEO,” Grant Bonin, senior vice president of business development at Spaceflight, said today in a news release.

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BlackSky will boldly go into the satellite data frontier

As a private venture, BlackSky made a name for itself providing satellite imagery and data analysis primarily for military and government customers. But now that it’s an independent, publicly traded company, the satellite subsidiary that got its start in Seattle is setting its sights higher.

“This is a thrilling outcome for the company,” said BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole, who rang the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange today. “This is going to gross over $280 million in capital to fund our growth plan. We’re in the early stages here of an exciting new space sector.”

As a result of BlackSky’s business combination with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp. — which had been in the works for months and took full effect last week — the company’s shares are being traded on the NYSE under the ticker symbol BKSY.

It’s the latest in a string of space-related deals involving special-purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs. (Other notable space-SPAC deals have involved Virgin GalacticAstra and Rocket Lab), It’s also the latest chapter for a venture that started out in 2013 as a subsidiary of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, and broke out on its own last year after the umbrella company’s other subsidiary, Spaceflight Inc., was acquired by a Japanese joint venture.

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BlackSky glides into its first day of public trading

BlackSky, the geospatial data analysis company that got its start in Seattle, eased into its first day of public trading on the New York Stock Exchange today, clinching a blank-check merger deal that unlocked about $283 million in capital.

The business combination with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp. — a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC — was approved by Osprey’s shareholders on Sept. 8. BlackSky is now trading under the BKSY ticker symbol for common stock and BKSY.W for BlackSky warrants.

“Our team is excited that we have reached this major milestone on our first-to-know mission to lead a new era of real-time global intelligence,” BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole said in a news release.

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Bezos Earth Fund pledges millions for climate justice

The Bezos Earth Fund today announced $203.7 million in grants and pledges aimed at advancing climate justice, supporting climate-oriented economic recovery projects and spurring innovation in pathways to decarbonization.

The pledges are part of a 10-year, $10 billion initiative backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to fund scientists, activists, non-governmental organizations and other actors who can address the challenges posed by climate change.

“This funding is just the next step in the Bezos Earth Fund’s commitment to creating catalytic change during this decisive decade,” Andrew Steer, the recently appointed president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund, said in a news release. “With each grant, we are helping organizations unblock progress and create pathways to a more sustainable future.”

Today’s announcement covers $73.7 million in immediate donations to 12 organizations, as well as a pledge of another $130 million to be given out by the end of 2021 to organizations supporting the Biden administration’s Justice40 climate initiative. Justice40 is aimed at delivering at least 40% of the overall benefits from federal investments in climate in clean energy to disadvantaged communities.

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Amazon fires back at SpaceX in satellite war of words

Amazon laid out out a laundry list of SpaceX’s regulatory tussles today in a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission, marking the latest chapter in a bare-knuckles battle over broadband satellite constellations.

The letter — written by C. Andrew Keisner, lead counsel for Amazon’s multibillion-dollar Project Kuiper satellite project — argues that SpaceX has run roughshod over regulatory requirements, and that SpaceX lambastes anyone who seeks to call the company to account.

“Whether it is launching satellites with unlicensed antennas, launching rockets without approval, building an unapproved launch tower, or reopening a factory in violation of a shelter-in-place order, the conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies makes their view plain: rules are for other people, and those who insist upon or even simply request compliance are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks,” Keisner wrote.

This comes in response to SpaceX’s complaint last week that Amazon is “more than willing to use regulatory and legal processes to create obstacles designed to delay” its competitors.

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Kymeta hooks up with OneWeb’s internet satellites

Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta Corp., the mobile connectivity company backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has joined forces with OneWeb to test satellite broadband services that make use of Kymeta’s u8 flat-panel antenna system.

“I’m very happy to report back that the tests were fantastic,” Neville Meijers, Kymeta’s chief strategy and marketing officer, told me. “Both sets of management were extremely pleased with the performance of the antenna.”

Meijers said that the tests of satellite acquisition, tracking and throughput — conducted in July in Toulouse, France — should bode well for providing always-there mobile connectivity for first responders as well as for government, military and enterprise customers.

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Stoke Space stakes its claim for rocket reusability

In just six months, Kent, Wash.-based Stoke Space Technologies has turned a blank stretch of ground in Moses Lake, Wash., into a bridgehead for building a fully reusable rocket optimized for satellite launches.

“It was barren desert as recently as April,” co-founder and CEO Andy Lapsa told GeekWire, “and we were able to get all of the facilities up and running in order to run long-duration, liquid-hydrogen, liquid-oxygen rocket engine testing out there.”

The 2.3-acre test facility at Moses Lake’s airport already has seen action: Last month, Stoke Space completed a manufacturing demonstration of a full-scale second stage for its yet-to-be-named rocket. The two-year-old startup has also done full-power test firings of components for its second-stage rocket engine, a triplet of thrust chambers that Lapsa calls the “three-pack.”

“We did them on time and under budget actually, which I’m very proud of,” said Lapsa, a veteran of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. “You don’t hear that too much in our industry.”

Like Bezos and his billionaire rival at SpaceX, Elon Musk, Lapsa and his teammates at Stoke Space are chasing the dream of full rocket reusability. Their aim is to bring down the cost of access to orbit and open up a new wave of space applications.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have shown the way with first-stage reusability, but even those launch systems throw away the second stage after one use. Reducing that cost is what SpaceX’s Starship development program is all about. Blue Origin is also pursuing second-stage reusability as it works on its orbital-class New Glenn rocket, with a program code-named Project Jarvis.

Lapsa lauds the commitment that those bigger launch companies have made to full reusability, but says his venture is taking a different approach. “The first place to start is with the second stage,” he said. “The full system is designed to be 100% reusable at a high cadence, and I think the industry is still searching for that solution.”

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Elon Musk goads Jeff Bezos as space spat escalates

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has fired a fresh volley of tart tweets at Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the Blue Origin space venture, in the midst of a regulatory tussle over SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation and Amazon’s competing Project Kuiper concept.

And this time, space lasers are involved.

The spark that lit Musk’s latest flame war came after SpaceX sought the Federal Communications Commission’s approval to amend plans for sending up tens of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide global broadband service. The amendment would let SpaceX use its Starship mega-rocket, currently under development, to put its Gen2 satellites into an assortment of orbits.

In response, Amazon urged the FCC to turn back SpaceX’s request, saying that the amendment proposes “two mutually exclusive configurations” for the Starlink constellation and leaves too many details unsettled. And in response to thatSpaceX told the FCC that Amazon’s filing was “only the latest in its continuing efforts to slow down competition.”

SpaceX also complained that Amazon was neglecting to resolve the FCC’s concerns about Project Kuiper. The FCC gave conditional approval to Amazon’s plans more than a year ago — provided that the Kuiper satellites didn’t interfere with previously approved satellite systems, including Starlink. SpaceX noted that Amazon hasn’t yet filed documents showing how it planned to avoid interference and ensure safe satellite operations.

More than 1,700 first-generation Starlink satellites have already been launched in accordance with previous FCC approvals, and the internet service is currently in expanded beta testing.

The Starlink spat comes amid the backdrop of legal protests that Bezos’ other big brainchild, Blue Origin, has filed against NASA for awarding a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX. Because of Blue Origin’s lawsuit, NASA and SpaceX have suspended work to adapt Starship as the landing system for a crewed mission to the moon, which is currently set for as early as 2024. (That date seems increasingly unlikely, however, and not just because of the lawsuit.)

In today’s tweets, Musk touched on the FCC filings as well as the lunar lander dispute, referring to Bezos without mentioning him by name.

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New Shepard joins the pantheon of model rockets

Rocket fans will soon be able to follow in Jeff Bezos’ footsteps when it comes to ownership of a suborbital New Shepard space vehicle.

Just be warned that everything will be scaled down: The Blue Origin New Shepard model rocket unveiled this week by Estes Industries will be 1/66th scale, and capable of going up 400 feet rather than 62 miles.

At least the price is scaled down as well: Instead of paying out a billion dollars a year to support Blue Origin’s development program for New Shepard as well as the orbital-class New Glenn rocket and advanced projects, buyers will be asked to shell out a mere $69.99.

Estes is partnering with the Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s educational foundation, to offer New Shepard as a STEM teaching tool. A portion of the sales proceeds will go to the club.