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Pentagon gives a $2M boost to Xplore spacecraft

Redmond, Wash.-based Xplore says it has received a $2 million contract from National Security Innovation Capital, a hardware development accelerator within the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, to speed up work on Xplore’s Xcraft platform.

The payload-hosting spacecraft is due for its first launch to low Earth orbit in 2023.

“The significant funding NSIC has provided ensures U.S. government and commercial customers will have speedy access to our affordable Xcraft platform,” Lisa Rich, Xplore’s co-founder and chief operating officer, said today in a news release. “The $2 million award will expedite component acquisitions and accelerate our flight program.”

Xcraft is designed to provide hosting and other services for a variety of customers and payloads, with the capability to reach destinations ranging from low Earth orbit to the moon, Mars, Venus and asteroids. Xplore says it already has a memorandum of understanding with Accion Systems to host Accion’s next-generation ion thruster, known as TILE, for a mission to low Earth orbit.

The funding should also accelerate the timeline for development of an Xplore Space Telescope in collaboration with the W.M. Keck Observatory. Xplore says those operations are scheduled to begin soon after the first Xcraft LEO mission in 2023.

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Companies join forces on orbital communications

Two Seattle-area space companies have forged an alliance to facilitate space-to-ground communications for orbital transfer vehicles.

Under the terms of a ground station service agreement, Redmond, Wash.-based RBC Signals will support ground-based communications for multiple missions involving Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc.’s Sherpa orbital tugs.

The deal came into play during the successful deployment of satellites from Spaceflight’s Sherpa-LTE1 transfer vehicle, which was sent into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in June.

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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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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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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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Facebook’s satellite team switches over to Amazon

Facebook has struck a deal to have more than a dozen of its wireless internet experts move over to Amazon to work on its Project Kuiper satellite broadband network, The Information reported today.

An Amazon spokesperson told me that the report was accurate.

Such a deal represents another step in Amazon’s efforts to get its Kuiper operation up and running — and try to catch up with SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation, which already has more than more than 1,600 satellites in orbit and is expanding its beta program.

Amazon has vowed to spend more than $10 billion to get Project Kuiper off the ground. Under the terms of an authorization order issued by the Federal Communications Commission last July, Amazon has to have half of its planned 3,236-satellite constellation launched by mid-2026, and the rest by mid-2029.

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SpaceX rocket launches 88 spacecraft, then aces landing

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket sent dozens of satellites into orbit today with a launch that featured an unusual on-the-ground touchdown for its first-stage booster.

Eighty-eight spacecraft were packed aboard the rocket, which took off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida heading for a pole-to-pole orbit. That sun-synchronous orbit is typically preferred for Earth observation satellites, of which there were plenty.

Two of the spacecraft were Sherpa orbital transfer vehicles built by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. One of the Sherpas used a electric propulsion system to maneuver in space and deploy satellites into different orbits. The other was a free-flier.