Categories
Cosmic Space

A new SpaceShip and a falling Starship

Virgin Galactic rolls out the successor to SpaceShipTwo, debris from SpaceX’s failed Starship test flight sparks questions from the FAA, and Blue Origin seeks to expand its rocket manufacturing site in Florida. Get the details on the Web:

Say hello to SpaceShip III

The next iteration of Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane looks like a shinier version of SpaceShipTwo, but Space News reports that the structure of the vehicle has been adjusted to make it lighter and more efficient as well as easier to build, inspect and maintain.

The first craft in the SpaceShip III line has been christened VSS Imagine, with flight tests due to begin this summer. The second SpaceShip III, VSS Inspire, is under construction in Mojave, Calif. Virgin Galactic is still considering whether to build a third III or move ahead to a next-generation space vehicle. Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo (a.k.a. VSS Unity) is due to take on another flight test in May, eventually leading up to suborbital space tours for paying customers.

Starship breakup sparks questions

Today wasn’t a good day for SpaceX’s Starship flight test program. The company’s latest super-rocket prototype, SN11, was launched amid obscuring fog at the Boca Chica manufacturing and test facility in South Texas. The craft blasted through the murk to an altitude of 10 kilometers, as planned, but “something significant happened shortly after landing burn start,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported in a tweet. According to Ars Technica, there were indications of trouble with the rocket’s belly flop maneuver on the way down.

The result? SN11 broke up into pieces, including lots of pieces that rained down on the area around the launch pad. “At least the crater is in the right place!” Musk tweeted. He said the problem should be corrected for SN15, which is due to roll out to the launch pad in a few days. The Verge reports that the Federal Aviation Administration will oversee SpaceX’s investigation of the anomaly, and that investigators want more information about the reports of falling debris.

Blue Origin to expand rocket factory

Blue Origin New Glenn rocket factory
Blue Origin has its New Glenn rocket factory in Florida. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning a major expansion of its Florida manufacturing site, the Orlando Business Journal reports. Development plans filed with Florida state officials on March 26 indicate that the company will expand into 70 acres just south of its existing Cape Canaveral campus. The acreage is an abandoned citrus grove that’s part of NASA’s property at Kennedy Space Center and is being leased to Blue Origin, according to the Orlando Business Journal. (Orlando’s WFTV picked up the report.)

Blue Origin hasn’t announced a construction timeline for the project it calls “South Campus Phase 2.” The centerpiece of the campus is a 750,000-square-foot manufacturing complex where Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket is being built. New Glenn is currently due to make its launch debut in late 2022.

Categories
GeekWire

Amazon launches accelerator for space startups

Amazon Web Services is raising the curtain on AWS Space Accelerator, a four-week business support program that’s open to space startups seeking to use Amazon’s cloud computing services.

AWS and Seraphim, a London-based investment group focusing on the space industry, will select 10 companies to participate in the accelerator program during the month of June. Applications are being accepted starting today, and proposals are due by April 21.

“Startups provide a catalyst for bold new experimentation in the space industry,” Clint Crosier, director of AWS’ aerospace and satellite solutions, said in a blog posting. “We are proud to announce the AWS Space Accelerator as part of our ongoing commitment to help startups succeed, and to shape the future of aerospace.”

Categories
GeekWire

Engineer and teacher join billionaire’s space crew

The crew is set for a philanthropic space flight that’s being funded by a tech billionaire — and Chris Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin engineer from Everett, Wash., can thank a college buddy for being part of it.

Sembroski will take part in the Inspiration4 space adventure organized by Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman, by virtue of an online sweepstakes that attracted nearly 72,000 entries and raised millions of dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Sembroski, Isaacman and two crewmates are due to ride into orbit later this year in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Although Sembroski bought tickets for the raffle, he didn’t actually win it: Instead, a friend from his college days at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was chosen, according to The New York Times. The friend, who is remaining anonymous, decided not to go to space — and donated the ticket to Sembroski, a dedicated space fan.

Sembroski said he was stunned to learn he’d be taking his friend’s place. “It was this moment of, ‘Oh, I’m going to space? You picked me? Wow. Cool.’ I mean, it was a moment of shock,” he said today during a news briefing at SpaceX’s Florida facility.

Categories
GeekWire

Pacific Northwest meteor mystery gets solved quickly

Was it a meteor? A broken-up satellite? Maybe a UFO? Leave it to an astronomer to identify what caused the light show that was visible over a wide stretch of the Pacific Northwest around 9 p.m. PT tonight.

Jonathan McDowell, an expert satellite-tracker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, quickly figured out that the meteoric display was actually the breakup of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stage, left over from a launch that took place three weeks ago.

“The Falcon 9 second stage from the Mar 4 Starlink launch failed to make a deorbit burn and is now re-entering after 22 days in orbit,” McDowell tweeted.

It’s fitting that the re-entry of a rocket stage from a Starlink satellite launch provided a moment of marvelment from Seattle to Portland and beyond. After all, those satellites are manufactured at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash., and it’s conceivable that members of the Starlink team caught the show.

Categories
GeekWire

Way-out technologies win NASA’s support

NASA’s latest crop of space technology grants will fund work on projects ranging from power-beaming lasers for lunar missions to high-temperature testing of components for nuclear-powered rockets.

Those are just a couple of the 365 concepts attracting a total of $45 million in grants from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, also known as SBIR and STTR.

Jim Reuter, associate administrator for the space agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said the release of the SBIR/STTR Phase I solicitation was accelerated by two months to help small-scale tech ventures cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

“At NASA, we recognize that small businesses are facing unprecedented challenges due to the pandemic. … We hope the expedited funding helps provide a near-term boost for future success,” Reuter said today in a news release.

This year’s batch of SBIR/STTR Phase I grants will go to 289 small businesses and 47 research institutions across the country. More than 30% of the awards are going to first-time NASA SBIR/STTR recipients.

Categories
GeekWire

BlackSky’s latest satellite goes to work on Day One

That didn’t take long: BlackSky says the latest Earth observation satellite in its growing constellation delivered its first imagery less than a day after it was launched into orbit from New Zealand on March 22.

Once the BlackSky 7 satellite was deployed from the kick stage on Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle, it took mere hours for BlackSky’s team to check out the satellite and downlink pictures. Those pictures were then analyzed by BlackSky’s Spectra AI suite of machine language algorithms to identify points of interest.

For example, one of the images could be used to track progress on Perth’s Waterbank urban development site in Australia — a billion-dollar project that’s generated its share of controversy over the years.

BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole said the 24-hour turnaround demonstrates how quickly BlackSky’s geospatial data platform can respond to global developments.

Categories
GeekWire

PowerLight hits its targets with laser power beaming

Wireless power transmission has been the stuff of science fiction for more than a century, but now PowerLight Technologies is turning it into science fact … with frickin’ laser beams.

“Laser power is closer than you think,” PowerLight CEO Richard Gustafson told me this week.

This is much more than a lab experiment: Gustafson said his company, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., is wrapping up a $9.5 million demonstration project for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

In 2019, PowerLight showed that its power-beaming system can transmit 400 watts of power — enough to fire up an array of lights, laptops and a coffeemaker. In 2020, it followed up with a demonstration of a lightweight power receiver suitable for drones. The project proved to the Navy’s satisfaction that PowerLight’s laser system could be operated safely without endangering people who get in the beam’s way.

Categories
GeekWire

Satellite link tested in the Arctic’s deep freeze

Kymeta Corp. — the hybrid connectivity venture that’s based in Redmond, Wash. — says it has demonstrated how its flat-panel antenna can hook up with Kepler Communications’ satellite constellation for high-speed data transfers under the chilliest of circumstances.

It’s the latest team-up between Kymeta, which counts Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates among its backers; and Kepler, a Canadian space startup that graduated from the Techstars Seattle incubator program back in 2016.

Kepler is one of several companies that are putting satellites into low Earth orbit, or LEO — a group that also includes SpaceX and OneWeb, plus Amazon’s yet-to-be-launched Project Kuiper constellation.

Those other companies are focusing on consumer and enterprise internet access. In contrast, Kepler is concentrating on satellite-based, high-capacity networking for smart devices that make use of the Internet of Things. One of its leading products is called the Global Data Service.

Over the past winter, Kepler put Kymeta’s next-generation u8 satellite-cellular data service to the test in the Canadian Arctic community of Inuvik, where temperatures can drop to tens of degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Today the two companies announced that the cold-weather test was a success.

Categories
GeekWire

NASA reserves a satellite ride on Spaceflight space tug

Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. says it’s won a contract to handle the launch logistics for a pair of NASA satellites that will study the factors behind atmospheric drag.

The twin CubeSats for a mission known as Low-Latitude Ionosphere / Thermosphere Enhancements in Density, or LLITED, are to be lofted into orbit by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket around the end of this year. That launch that will mark the first use of Spaceflight’s Sherpa-LTC orbital transfer vehicle, also known as an OTV or space tug.

In January, a different type of Spaceflight space tug, the Sherpa-FX, successfully deployed more than a dozen spacecraft after a Falcon 9 launch. The Sherpa-LTC represents a step above the FX because it has its own in-orbit propulsion system.

The chemical-based thruster system, built for Spaceflight by Benchmark Space Systems, makes it possible for the Sherpa-LTC to shift between different orbital locations. Spaceflight’s mission plan calls for an initial round of satellite deployments, followed by a maneuver that will set the Sherpa up for deploying the LLITED satellites in a different orbit.

Categories
GeekWire

Next NASA chief faces big moonshot decisions

President Joe Biden’s choice to lead NASA — former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — will be in the hot seat for a host of issues in human spaceflight that will require a tricky balance between “Old Space” and “New Space.”

Nelson is a 78-year-old Florida Democrat who went on a space shuttle flight as a congressman in 1986, and served three terms in the Senate before his defeat in 2018. In today’s statement announcing his nomination, the White House said that Nelson “was known as the go-to senator for our nation’s space program,” and that “most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint.”

“I am honored to be nominated by Joe Biden and, if confirmed, to help lead NASA into an exciting future of possibilities,” Nelson said in a statement. “Its workforce radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit. The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos.”