Elon Musk Reveals who the First Lunar Tourist Will Be

Ever since Elon Musk announced the latest addition to the SpaceX rocket family back in September of 2016, the general public and space community has been eagerly awaiting updates on its progress.  Known as the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), this massive launch vehicle is central to Musk’s plan of conducting space tourism with flights into orbit and to the Moon. It is also intrinsic to his vision of sending astronauts and colonists to Mars.

Already this year, Musk announced that the BFR could be ready to make orbital launches by 2020 and showed the Main Body Tool that would build the BFR. And on Monday, September 17th – during a press conference at SpaceX headquarters in California – Musk announced who the first passenger aboard the BFR will be as it conducts its first lunar mission – the Japanese fashion innovator and globally recognized art curator, Yusaku Maezawa.

Continue reading “Elon Musk Reveals who the First Lunar Tourist Will Be”

Japanese Startup is Working on a Reusable Rocketplane to Carry Passengers to Space, as Early as 2023

When it comes to the growth of the private aerospace sector (aka. NewSpace), one of the more ambitious and exciting elements is the prospect of space tourism. Between SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, proposals include flying customers to suborbital altitudes, flying them to the Moon, or even as far as Mars. And beyond the three NewSpace giants, several smaller companies are looking for a piece of the pie.

One such company is the Japanese startup PD AeroSpace, a Nagoya-based aerospace developer that is looking to provide commercial space launch services, intercontinental transportation, and sub-orbital flights in the near future. Intrinsic to this vision is the development of a unique space plane that will be able to fly tourists to suborbital altitude by 2023.

Continue reading “Japanese Startup is Working on a Reusable Rocketplane to Carry Passengers to Space, as Early as 2023”

Breakthrough Starshot is Now Looking for the Companies to Build its Laser-Powered Solar Sails to Other Stars

In 2015, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner established Breakthrough Initiatives, a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). In April of the following year, he and the organization be founded announced the creation of Breakthrough Starshot, a program to create a lightsail-driven “wafercraft” that would make the journey to the nearest star system – Proxima Centauri – within our lifetime.

In the latest development, on Wednesday May 23rd, Breakthrough Starshot held an “industry day” to outline their plans for developing the Starshot laser sail. During this event, the Starshot committee submitted a Request For Proposals (RFP) to potential bidders, outlining their specifications for the sail that will carry the wafercraft as it makes the journey to Proxima Centauri within our lifetimes.

As we have noted in several previous articles, Breakthrough Starshot calls for the creation of a gram-scale nanocraft being towed by a laser sail. This sail will be accelerated by an Earth-based laser array to a velocity of about 60,000 km/s (37,282 mps) – or 20% the speed of light (o.2 c). This concept builds upon the idea of a solar sail, a spacecraft that relies on solar wind to push itself through space.

An artist’s illustration of a light-sail powered by a radio beam (red) generated on the surface of a planet. Credit: M. Weiss/CfA

At this speed, the nanocraft would be able to reach the closest star system to our own – Proxima Centauri, located 4.246 light-years away – in just 20 years time. Since its inception, the team behind Breakthrough Starshot has invested considerable time and energy addressing the conceptual and engineering challenges such a mission would entail. And with this latest briefing, they are now looking to move the project from concept to reality.

In addition to being the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, Abraham Loeb is also the Chair of the Breakthrough Starshot Advisory Committee. As he explained to Universe Today via email:

“Starshot is an initiative to send a probe to the nearest star system at a fifth of the speed of light so that it will get there within a human lifetime of a couple of decades. The goal is to obtain photos of exo-planets like Proxima b, which is in the habitable zone of the nearest star Proxima Centauri, four light years away. The technology adopted for fulfilling this challenge uses a powerful (100 Giga-watt) laser beam pushing on a lightweight (1 gram) sail to which a lightweight electronics chip is attached (with a camera, navigation and communication devices). The related technology development is currently funded at $100M by Yuri Milner through the Breakthrough Foundation.”

In addition to outlining BI’s many efforts to find ETI – which include Breakthrough Listen, Breakthrough Message and Breakthrough Watch – the RFP focused on Starshot’s Objectives. As was stated in the RFP:

“The scope of this RFP addresses the Technology Development phase – to explore LightSail concepts, materials, fabrication and measurement methods, with accompanying analysis and simulation that creates advances toward a viable path to a scalable and ultimately deployable LightSail.”

A phased laser array, perhaps in the high desert of Chile, propels sails on their journey. Credit: Breakthrough Initiatives

As Loeb indicated, this RFP comes not long after another “industry day” that was related to the development of the technology of the laser – termed the “Photon Engine”. In contrast, this particular RFP was dedicated to the design of the laser sail itself, which will carry the nanocraft to Proxima Centauri.

“The Industry Day was intended to inform potential partners about the project and request for proposals (RFP) associated with research on the sail materials and design,” added Loeb. “Within the next few years we hope to demonstrate the feasibility of the required sail and laser technologies. The project will allocate funds to experimental teams who will conduct the related research and development work. ”

The RFP also addressed Starshot’s long-term goals and its schedule for research and development in the coming years. These include the investment in $100 million over the next five years to determine the feasibility of the laser and sail, to invest the value of the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) from year 6 to year 11 and build a low-power prototype for space testing, and invest the value of the Large Hardon Collider (LHC) over a 20 year period to develop the final spacecraft.

“The European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) will cost on order of a billion [dollars] and the Large Hadron Collider cost was ten times higher,’ said Loeb. “These projects were mentioned to calibrate the scale of the cost for the future phases in the Starshot project, where the second phase will involve producing a demo system and the final step will involve the complete launch system.”

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, which was discovered using the Radial Velocity method. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The research and development schedule for the sail was also outlined, with three major phases identified over the next 5 years. Phase 1 (which was the subject of the RFP) would entail the development of concepts, models and subscale testing. Phase 2 would involve hardware validation in a laboratory setting, while Phase 3 would consist of field demonstrations.

With this latest “industry day” complete, Starshot is now open for submissions from industry partners looking to help them realize their vision. Step A proposals, which are to consist of a five-page summary, are due on June 22nd and will be assessed by Harry Atwater (the Chair of the Sail Subcommittee) as well as Kevin Parkin (head of Parkin Research), Jim Benford (muWave Sciences) and Pete Klupar (the Project Manager).

Step B proposals, which are to consist of a more detailed, fifteen-page summary, will be due on July 10th. From these, the finalists will be selected by Pete Worden, the Executive Director of Breakthrough Starshot. If all goes according to plan, the initiative hopes to launch the first lasersail-driven nanocraft in to Proxima Centauri in 30 years and see it arrive there in 50 years.

So if you’re an aerospace engineer, or someone who happens to run a private aerospace firm, be sure to get your proposals ready! To learn more about Starshot, the engineering challenges they are addressing, and their research, follow the links provided to the BI page. To see the slides and charts from the RFP, check out Starshot’s Solicitations page.

Further Reading: Centauri Dreams, Breakthrough Starshot

Virgin Galactic Performs the Second Test of VSS Unity, Reaching Mach 1.9

When it comes to the dream of commercial space exploration and space tourism, a few names really stand out. In addition to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, you have Richard Branson – the founder and CEO of the Virgin Group. For years, Branson has sought to make space tourism a reality through Virgin Galactic, which would take passengers into suborbit using his SpaceShipTwo class of rocket planes.

Unfortunately, Virgin Galactic suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, at the same time that competitors like SpaceX and Blue Origin emerged as competitors. However, the VSS Unity (part of the Virgin Galactic fleet) recently conducted its second powered test flight from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Tuesday, May 29th. While this test is years behind schedule, it marks a significant step towards Branson’s realization of flying customers to space.

This was the second time that the VSS Unity flew since 2014, when the VSS Enterprise suffered a terrible crash while attempting to land, killing one pilot and injuring the other. The first propulsive test took place two months ago after several additional tests were performed on the craft. And with that last success, Virgin Galactic moved ahead with its second powered test earlier this week.

The focus of the latest test flight was to learn more about how the spaceship handles at supersonic speeds. It was also intended to test the control system’s performance when the vehicle was closer to its ultimate commercial configuration. As the company stated, “This involved shifting the vehicle’s center of gravity rearward via the addition of passenger seats and related equipment.”

This statement is a possible indication that the test program is reaching the final stretch before Virgin Galactic allows passengers on the vehicle. However, the company will need to conduct a full-duration flight (which will include a full-duration burn of its rocket motor) before that can happen. This latest test involved only a partial rocket burn, but nevertheless demonstrated the spacecraft’s capabilities at supersonic speed.

The company live-tweeted the entire event, which began at 8:34 AM with the VSS Unity and its carrier mothership (VMS Eve) taxing out to the runway for final checks. For this flight, the pilots were Dave Mackay and Mark “Forger” Stucky while CJ Sturckow and Nicola Pecile piloted of the carrier aircraft. At We have take-off. VMS Eve & VSS Unity have taken to the skies and have begun their climb.”

By 9:43 AM, the company announced that the VSS Unity had detached from the VMS Eve and was “flying free”. What followed was a series of live-tweets that indicated the ignition of the VSS Unity’s rocket motor, the shutting down of the motor, and the raising of the tail fins to the “feathered” re-entry position. By 9:55 AM, the company announced a smooth landing for the VSS Unity, signaling the end of the test.

Branson, who was at the Mojave Air and Space Port for the test, released the following statement shortly thereafter:

“It was great to see our beautiful spaceship back in the air and to share the moment with the talented team who are taking us, step by step, to space. Seeing Unity soar upwards at supersonic speeds is inspiring and absolutely breathtaking. We are getting ever closer to realizing our goals. Congratulations to the whole team!”

Branson was also at the center to take in a tour of the facilities of The Spaceship Company (TSC), a sister company of Virgin Galactic that is responsible for developing Virgin Galactic’s future fleet. While there, Branson viewed the next two spaceships that TSC is currently manufacturing, as well as the production facilities for TSC’s spaceship rocket motors.

With the latest test flight complete, the company’s teams will be reviewing the data from this flight and making preparations for the next flight. No indication has been given as to when that will be, or if this test flight will include a full-duration burn of the motor. However, Branson was very happy with the test results, stating:

“Today we saw VSS Unity in her natural environment, flying fast under rocket power and with a nose pointing firmly towards the black sky of space. The pathway that Unity is forging is one that many thousands of us will take over time, and will help share a perspective that is crucial to solving some of humanity’s toughest challenges on planet Earth.”

Artists’ impression of Moon Base Alpha, SpaceX’s envisioned lunar outpost supplied with the BFR. Credit: SpaceX

Meanwhile, Bezos continues to pursue his plans for sending passengers into orbit using his fleet of New Shepard rockets. And of course, Musk continues to pursue the idea of sending tourists to the Moon and Mars using his Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). And with many other private aerospace ventures looking to provide trips into orbit or to the surface of the Moon, there is sure to be no shortage of options for going into space in the near future!

And be sure to check out this video of the VSS Unity’s second test flight, courtesy of Virgin Galactic:

Further Reading: NASA Space Flight

Jeff Bezos Says The New Shepard Will Soar Next on Sunday. Here’s How to Watch It Live.

The New Shepard launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin

One of the greatest challenges of modern spaceflight is finding a way to make launching rockets into space commercially viable. Reduced costs will not only mean more launches, but the ability to conduct more ambitious programs in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. To this end, many private aerospace companies are investing in reusability, where the first-stages of a rocket and even entire vehicles are retrieved after launch and reused.

In recent years, Elon Musk has become famous for his development of reusable first-stage boosters and fairings. But Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos has also been no slouch when it comes to making the company’s fleet of rockets reusable. On Sunday, April 29th, the company is passing another milestone with the 8th test flight of the New Shephard rocket, an event which is being live-streamed.

As a fully reusable vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) space vehicle, the New Shephard is crucial to Blue Origins’ vision of commercial spaceflight and space tourism. Consisting of a pressurized capsule aboard a booster, the combined vehicle launches vertically and accelerates for two and a half minutes before the engine cuts off. The capsule then separates and floats into suborbit while the booster returns to Earth under its own power and with the help of parachutes.

Named in honor of famed astronaut Alan Shepard, the rocket’s crew capsule has room for six people. These will consist of customers looking to take a flight to suborbital altitudes and experience the sensation of weightlessness. As they state on their website:

“The New Shepard capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet – offering over 10 times the room Alan Shepard had on his Mercury flight. It seats six astronauts and is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults.”

The announcement for the 8th test launch came on Friday, April. 27th, when Bezos tweeted that “launch preparations are underway for New Shepard’s 8th test flight, as we continue our progress toward human spaceflight. Currently targeting Sunday 4/29 with launch window opening up at 830am CDT.” The launch would take place at the company’s suborbital launch and engine test site near the town of Van Horn in West Texas.

As with the previous New Shepard test launch, which took place on Dec. 12th, 2017, the crew for this mission would be the mannequin known as “Mannequin Skywalker” (check out the video of this flight below). As with the previous uncrewed flight, Mannequin Skywalker will be testing the capsule’s safety restrains in advance of a crewed test flight.

At 0526 (0826 PST), Bezos tweeted that the flight window – which was originally set for 0845 CDT (0630 PDT) – had been delayed due to thunderstorm over West Texas.  At 0950 CDT (0750 PDT), Bezos issued a follow-up tweet that the liftoff target was now 1113 CDT (0913 PST). Live streaming will begin 15 minutes before the launch, which you can watch by going to Blue Origin’s website.

If successful, this launch test will place Blue Origin one step closer to conducting space tourism. As Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, recently indicated in an interview with CNBC, he hopes the company will begin these launches by the end of this year. In addition, he said that the company continues to pursue the development of engine technology, which it hopes United Launch Alliance will use on its Vulcan rockets as well.

Be sure to check out the live-steam of the launch, and feel free to enjoy this video of the New Shepard conducting a space tourism flight while you’re waiting:

Further Reading: Blue Origin

The NewSpace Revolution is About to Bring us Tiny Space Telescopes we can all Control

One of the defining characteristics of the modern era of space exploration is the way the public and private aerospace companies (colloquially referred to as the NewSpace industry) and are taking part like never before. Thanks to cheaper launch services and the development of small satellites that can be built using off-the-shelf electronics (aka. CubeSats and microsats), universities and research institutions are also able to conduct research in space.

Looking to the future, there are those who want to take public involvement in space exploration to a whole new level. This includes the California-based aerospace company Space Fab that wants to make space accessible to everyone through the development the Waypoint Space Telescope – the first space telescope that people will be able to access through their smartphones to take pictures of Earth and space.

The company was founded in 2016 by Randy Chung and Sean League with the vision of creating a future where anything could be manufactured in space. Chung began his career developing communications satellites and has a background in integrated circuit design, digital signal processing, CMOS imager design, and software development. He holds sixteen patents in the fields of computer peripherals, imagers, and digital communications.

League, meanwhile, is an astrophysicist who has spent the past few decades developing optics, building and designing remote telescopes, solid state lasers, and has lots of experience with startups, fundraising, computer-aided design (CAD) and machining. Between the two of them, they are ideally suited to creating a new generation of publicly-accessible telescopes. As League told Universe Today via email:

“We have studied over 200 papers on the design of small satellite structures, electronics, navigation, and attitude control. We are rethinking satellite design, not tied down by legacy approaches. That fresh approach leads us to use a Corrected Dall Kirkham telescope design, rather than the standard Richey-Chretien design, an extending secondary mirror, rather than a fixed telescope structure, and a multi-purpose and multi-directional telescope, not a single purpose telescope just for Earth observation or just for astronomy.”

Together, League and Chung launched Space Fab in the hopes of spurring the development of the space industry, where asteroid mining and space manufacturing will provide cheap and abundant resources for all and allow for further exploration of our Solar System. The first step in this long-term plan is to build a profitable space telescope business by creating the first commercial, multipurpose space telescope industry.

“SpaceFab’s primary long term objective is to accelerate man’s access to space and to make the human race a multi-planet species,” said League. “This not only safeguards the human race, but all life that is brought along. We intend to make space resources readily available and dramatically less expensive than today, without environmental impact on Earth.”

What makes the Waypoint Space Telescope especially unique is the way it combines off-the-shelf components with revolutionary instruments. The design is based on a standard 12U CubeSat satellite, which contains the Waypoint telescope. This telescope has extendable optics that consist of a 21 cm silicon carbide primary mirror, a deployable secondary mirror, a 48 Megapixel imager for visible and near-infrared wavelengths, an 8 Megapixel image intensified camera for ultraviolet and visible wavelengths and a 150 band hyper-spectral imager.

“Waypoint’s astronomical capabilities are impressive,” says League. “Without the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere, our 48 megapixel imager can take perfect high resolution images every time. We can reach the maximum theoretical resolution for our main mirror at .6 arc seconds per pixel on a single image, and higher resolution is possible through multiple exposures. Contrast will be fantastic, with the blackness of background space not being washed out by Earth’s atmosphere, clouds, moisture, city lights, or the day/night cycle. The Waypoint satellite also includes a complete set of astronomical and earth observations filters.”

The Waypoint Space Telescope will be ready to launch as a secondary payload by the end of 2019 on a rocket like the SpaceX Falcon 9. The company has also completed its first seed round of investment  and is currently crowdfunding through a Kickstarter campaign.

Those who pledge their money will have the honor of getting a “space selfie”, where a favorite photo will be paired with a backdrop of Earth, pictured from orbit. In addition, Space Fab is building its own custom laser communications systems for the telescope optimized for low power, small size, and high speed.

Once deployed, this communication system will allow the telescope to download data back to Earth twice a day using optical ground stations. These images will then be available for upload via smartphone, tablet, computer or other devices. Chung and League’s efforts to create the first accessible telescope is already drawing its share of acolytes. One such person is Dustin Gibson, one of the owners of OPT Telescopes. As he told Universe Today via email:

“So far, the company is on the fast track to success with its first round of investing completed and over target, and the second round just getting started. It looks like this thing is going to fly in 2019! For an astrophotography lover like myself, I can’t think of anything more ground breaking than a consumer controlled space telescope.

“What Space Fab is doing is rewriting not just how we think about ways in which to do land surveys or deep space imaging, but actually redefining the way we are able interact with satellites by giving the common user a level of control over the movements and functionality of the unit itself with something as simple as a cell phone.”

Looking ahead, Space Fab is also busy developing the technology that will allow them to mine asteroids and tap the abundant resources of the Solar System. The company recently filed a patent for their ion accelerator, which is designed to augment the thrust from existing cubesat-sized ion engines.

The company is also focused on creating advanced robotic arms that will be able to wrestle with space debris and repair themselves in the event of mechanical failure or damage. In the meantime, the Waypoint is the first of several space telescopes that Space Fab hopes to deploy in order to generate revenue for these ventures.

“Our space telescopes will be open to everyone, so that is the beginning,” said League. “The revenue these satellites will generate provides us with the funds and knowledge base to conduct metal asteroid mining and manufacturing on a large scale. This will allow the manufacture of large structures, spacecraft, tools or anything thing else that is needed in space. With these available resources, our hope is to accelerate the space economy and colonization.”

In this respect, Space Fab is in good company when it comes to the age of NewSpace. Alongside big-names like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Planetary Resources, and Deep Space Industries, they are part of a constellation of companies that are looking to make space accessible and usher in an age of post-scarcity. And with the help of the general public, they just might succeed!

Further Reading: SpaceFab,

The Aurora Station Will be the First Luxury Hotel in Space

Are you ready for a luxury hotel in space? We all knew it was coming, even though it seems impossibly futuristic. But this time it’s not just science fiction; somebody actually has a plan.

The space hotel will be called “Aurora Station” and the company behind it is Orion Span, a Silicon Valley and Houston-based firm. Orion Span aims to deliver the astronaut experience to people, by delivering the people into space. The catch?

“We developed Aurora Station to provide a turnkey destination in space. Upon launch, Aurora Station goes into service immediately, bringing travelers into space quicker and at a lower price point than ever seen before, while still providing an unforgettable experience” – Frank Bunger, CEO and founder of Orion Span.

First of all, a 12 day stay aboard Aurora Station for two people will cost $19 million US, or $9.5 million per person. Even so, you can’t just buy a ticket and hop on board. Guests must also sign up for three months of Orion Span Astronaut Certification (OSAC). Then they’ll be trained at a facility in Houston, Texas.

So once their cheque has cleared, and once they’re trained, what awaits guests on Aurora Station?

Aurora Station will orbit Earth at 320 km (200 m) and will make the trip around Earth every 90 minutes. If you do the math, that’s 16 sunrises and sunsets each day, and guests will enjoy this slideshow for 12 days. Other than this compressed schedule of 96 sunsets and 96 sunrises during their 12 day stay, guests will also be treated to stunning views of the Earth rolling by underneath them, thanks to the unprecedented number of windows Aurora Station will have.

Aurora Station will have 5600 square feet of living space which can be configured as 2 or 4 suites. Image: Orion Span

Aurora Station is the brain-child of Orion Span’s CEO, Frank Bunger. “We developed Aurora Station to provide a turnkey destination in space. Upon launch, Aurora Station goes into service immediately, bringing travelers into space quicker and at a lower price point than ever seen before, while still providing an unforgettable experience,” said Bunger.

Guests won’t be alone on the station, of course. The space hotel will have room for 6 people in total, meaning 4 guests and 2 crew. (You didn’t think you’d be alone up there, did you?) Each pair of guests will still have some alone time though, in what Orion Span calls luxurious private suites for two.

There’s no doubt that staying on a space hotel for 12 days will be the experience of a lifetime, but still, 12 days is a long time. The space station itself will be 5600 square feet, with two suites that can be configured to four. Each suite will be about the size of a small bedroom. Once you’ve gotten used to seeing Earth below you, and you’re used to your suite, what will you do?

Well, there’ll be Wi-Fi of course. So if you’re the type of person who gets bored of orbiting the only planet that we know of that hosts life, and the only planet on which every human civilization has lived and died on, you can always surf the web or watch videos. Aurora Station will also have a virtual-reality holodeck, the cherry-on-top for this science-fiction-come-to- life space resort.

But apparently, boredom won’t be a problem. In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Orion Span CEO Frank Bunger said, ““We talked to previous space tourists, they said 10 days aboard the space station was not enough.” Maybe the extra 2 days in space that Aurora Station guests will enjoy will be just the right amount.

As far as getting guests to the station, that will be up to other private space companies like SpaceX. SpaceX has plans to send tourists on trips around the Moon, and they have experience docking with the International Space Station, so they should be able to transport guests to and from a space hotel.

Aurora Station will also host micro-gravity research and in-situ manufacturing. Image: Orion Span

It doesn’t seem like there’s any shortage of customers. Aurora Station was introduced on April 5th 2018, and the first four months of reservations sold out within 72 hours, with each guest paying a deposit of $80,000 US.

There’s another side to Aurora Station, though. Other than just a nice get-away for people who can afford it, there’s a research aspect to it. Orion Span will offer Aurora Station as a platform for micro-gravity research on a pay-as-you-go basis. It will also lease capacity for in-situ manufacturing and 3D printing research.

But Aurora Station would hardly be in the news if it was only a research endeavour. What’s got people excited is the ability to visit space. And maybe to own some real estate there.

Orion Span is designing Aurora Station to be expandable. They can attach more stations to the original without disrupting anything. And this leads us to Orion Span’s next goal: space condos.

As it says on Orion Span’s website, “Like a city rising from the ground, this unique architecture enables us to build up Aurora Station in orbit dynamically – on the fly – and with no impact to the remainder of Aurora Station. As we add capacity, we will design in condos available for purchase.”

I think we all knew this would happen eventually. If you have the money, you can visit space, and even own a condo there.

No word yet on what that will cost.

The Biggest Airplane Taxis Down the Runway, By 2020 it Could Be Launching Rockets

In 2011, Stratolaunch Systems was founded with a simple goal: to reduce the costs of rocket launches by creating the world’s largest air-launch-to-orbit system. Similar to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, this concept involves a large air carrier – Scaled Composites Model 351 (aka. the “Roc”) – deploying rockets from high altitudes so they can deliver small payloads to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).

Recently, the aircraft reached a major milestone when it conducted its second taxi test at the Mojave Air and Space Port. The test consisted of the aircraft rolling down the runway at a speed of 74 km/h (46 mph) in preparation for its maiden flight. The event was captured on video and posted to twitter by Stratolaunch Systems (and Microsoft) co-founder Paul Allen, who was on hand for the event.

The Roc is essentially two 747 hulls mated together, making it the largest aircraft in the world – spanning 117 meters (385 ft) from one wingtip to the other and weighing 226,796 kg (500,000 lbs). It is powered by six Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines, giving it a maximum lift capacity of up to 249,476 kg (550,000 pounds). This would allow it to air-launch rockets that could deploy satellites to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).

As with other alternatives to rocket launches, the concept of an air-launch-to-orbit system is a time-honored one. During the early days of the Space Race, NASA relied on heavy aircraft to bring experimental aircraft to high altitudes (like the Bell X-1) where they would then be deployed. Since that time, NASA has partnered with companies like Orbital ATK and the Virgin Group to develop such a system to launch rockets.

However, the process is still somewhat limited when it comes to what kinds of payloads can be deployed. For instance, Orbital ATK’s three-stage Pegasus rocket is capable of deploying only small satellites weighing up to 454 kg (1,000 pounds) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Looking to accommodating heavier payloads, which could include space planes, StratoLaunch has created the heaviest commercial airlift craft in history.

Back on May 31st, 2017, the aircraft was presented to the world for the first time as it was rolled out of the company’s hangar facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. This presentation also marked the beginning of several tests, which including fueling tests, engine runs, and a series of taxi tests. The engine testing took place in September, 19th, 2017, and involved the aircraft starting it’s six Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines.

The testing followed a build-up approach that consisted of three phases. First, there was the “dry motor” phase, where an auxiliary power unit charged the engines. This was followed by the “wet motor” phase, where fuel was introduced to the engines. In the final phase, the engines were started one at a time and were allowed to idle.

This test was followed in December 18th, 2017, with the aircraft conducting its first low-speed taxi test, where it traveled down the runway under its own power. The primary purpose of this was to test the aircraft’s ability to steer and stop, and saw the aircraft reach a maximum taxing speed of 45 km/h (28 mph). This latest test almost doubled that taxing speed and brought the aircraft one step closer to flight.

The aircraft’s maiden flight is currently scheduled to take place in 2019. If successful, the Roc could be conducted regular satellite runs within a few years time, helping to fuel the commercialization of LEO. Alongside companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the Virgin Group, StratoLaunch will be yet another company that is making space more accessible.

Further Reading: The Verge

Space Catapult Startup SpinLaunch has Come Out of Stealth Mode. Space catapults? Yes Please

Of all challenges presented by space exploration – and to be fair, there are many! – one of the greatest is the cost. When it comes right down to it, launching disposable rockets from Earth and getting them to the point where they can achieve escape velocity and reach space is expensive. In addition, these rockets need to be big, powerful, and be able to hold a lot of fuel in order to lift spacecraft or cargo.

It is for this reason that so many efforts in the past few decades have been focused on reducing costs of individual launches. Between reusable rockets and reusable spacecraft (i.e the Space Shuttle), there are plenty of ways to make launch vehicles cheaper. But to the Jonathan Yaney, the founder of SpinLaunch, a real cost-cutting solution is to propel smaller payloads into orbit using a space catapult instead.

The concept of a space catapult is simple, and has been explored at length since the beginning of the Space Age. Also known as a mass driver or coilgun, the concept relies on a set of powerful electromagnetic rails to accelerate spacecraft or payloads to escape velocity and launch them horizontally. Since the 1960s, NASA has been exploring the concept as an alternative to conducting rocket launches.

The Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) System evaluated at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA

In addition, NASA has been continued to develop this technology through the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Kennedy Space Center. Here, engineers have been working on ways to launch spacecraft horizontally using scramjets on an electrified track or gas-powered sled. A good example of this is the Magnetic Levitation (MagLev) System which uses the same technology as a maglev train to accelerate a small space plane into orbit.

Another variation of the concept involves a centrifuge, where the spacecraft or cargo is accelerated on a circular track until it reaches escape velocity (and then launches). This concept was proposed by Dr. Derek Tidman – a physicists who specialized in electrothermal and electromagnetic acceleration – in the 1990s. Known as the Slingatron, this version of the space catapult is currently being researched by HyperV Technologies.

However, these ideas were never adopted because vast improvements were needed in terms of electromagnetic induction technology in order to achieve the speeds necessary to put heavy payloads into space. But thanks to improvements in high-speed maglev trains, recent attempts to create Hyperloop pods and tracks, and the growth of the commercial aerospace market, the time may be ripe to revisit this concept.

Such is the hope of Jonathan Yaney, an aerospace enthusiast who has a long history of co-founding startups. As he describes himself, Yaney is a “serial entrepreneur” who has spent the past 15 years founding companies in the fields of consulting, IT, construction, and aerospace. Now, he has founded SpinLaunch with the intention of launching satellites into space.

SpinLaunch’s company logo. Credit: SpinLaunch

And while Yaney has been known for being rather recluse, TechCrunch recently secured an exclusive interview and gained access to the company hangar. According to multiple sources that they cite, Yaney and the company he founded are launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise the $30 million in Series A funding to develop the catapult technology. In the course of the interview, Yaney expressed his vision for space exploration as follows:

“Since the dawn of space exploration, rockets have been the only way to access space. Yet in 70 years, the technology has only made small incremental advances. To truly commercialize and industrialize space, we need 10x tech improvement.”

According to a source cited by TechCrunch, SpinLaunch own design would apparently involve a centrifuge that accelerates payloads to speeds of up to 4,828 km/h (3,000 mph). Additionally, the cargo could be equipped with supplemental rockets in order to escape Earth’s atmosphere. By replacing rocket boosters with a kinetic launch system, SpinLaunch’s concept would rely on principles that are similar to those explored by NASA.

But as he went on to explain, the method his company is exploring is different. “SpinLaunch employs a rotational acceleration method, harnessing angular momentum to gradually accelerate the vehicle to hypersonic speeds,” he said. “This approach employs a dramatically lower cost architecture with much lower power.” Utilizing this technology, Yaney estimates that the costs of individual launches could be reduced to $500,000 – essentially, by a factor of 10 to 200.

A lunar base, as imagined by NASA in the 1970s. Credit: NASA

Not much else is known about this startup. According to Bloomberg Financial, little is known about the company or its founder beyond a brief description. However, according to SEC documents cited by TechCrunch, Yaney was able to raise $1 million in equity in 2014 and $2.9 million in 2015 before being $2.2. million dollars in debt by mid-2017 and another $2 million in debt by late 2017.

Luckily, the Hawaii state senate introduced a bill last month that proposed issuing $25 million in bonds to assist SpinLaunch with the construction of its space catapult. Hawaii also hopes to gain construction contracts for the launch system, as part of its commitment to making space accessible. As it states in the bill:

“[T]he department of budget and finance, with the approval of the governor, is authorized to issue special purpose revenue bonds in a total amount not to exceed $25,000,000, in one or more series, for the purpose of assisting SpinLaunch Inc., a Delaware corporation, in financing the costs relating to the planning, design, construction, equipping, acquisition of land, including easements or other interests therein, and other tangible assets for an electrically powered, kinetic launch system to transport small satellites into low Earth orbit.”

In the meantime, Yaney is looking to the public and to several big venture capital firms to raise the revenue he needs to make his vision become a reality. Of course, beyond the issue of financing, there are several technical barriers which still need to be addressed before a space catapult could be realized. The most obvious of these is how to overcome the air resistance produced by Earth’s dense atmosphere.

However, Yaney was optimistic in his interview with TechCrunch, claiming that his company is investigating these and other challenges:

“During the last three years, the core technology has been developed, prototyped, tested and most of the tech risk retired. The remaining challenges are in the construction and associated areas that all very large hardware development and construction projects face.”

There’s no indication of when such a system might be complete, but that’s to be expected at this point. However, with the support of the Hawaiian government and some additional capital, his company is likely to secure its Series A funding and begin moving to the next phase of development. Much like the Hyperloop, this concept may prove to be one of those ideas that keeps advancing because of the people who are willing to make it happen!

And be sure to check out this video about SpinLaunch’s crowdfunding campaign, courtesy of Scott Manley:

Further Reading: TechCrunch

Perhaps the Best Part of Electron’s Successful Launch was its Payload: the Humanity Sphere.

This past weekend, the New Zealand-based aerospace company Rocket Lab reached another milestone. On Sunday, January 21st, the company conducted the second launch – the first having taken place this past summer – of its Electron booster. This two-stage, lightweight rocket is central to the company’s vision of reducing the costs of individual launches by sending light payloads to orbit with regular frequency.

This mission was also important because it was the first time that the company sent payloads into orbit. In addition to several commercial payloads, the launch also sent a secret payload into orbit at the behest of the company’s founder (Peter Beck). It is known as the “Humanity Star“, a disco-like geodesic sphere that measures 1 meter (3.3 ft) in diameter and will form a bright spot in the sky that will be visible to people on Earth.

The Humanity Star is central to Beck’s vision of how space travel can improve the lives of people here on Earth. In addition to presenting extensive opportunities for scientific research, there is also the way it fosters a sense of unity between people and nations. This is certainly a defining feature of the modern space age, where cooperation has replaced competition as the main driving force.

The Electron rocket prepping for its second launch last weekend. Credit: Rocket Lab

As Beck explained to ArsTechnica in an interview before the launch:

“The whole point of the program is to get everybody looking up at the star, but also past the star into the Universe, and reflect about the fact that we’re one species, on one planet. This is not necessarily part of the Rocket Lab program; it’s more of a personal program. It’s certainly consistent with our goal of trying to democratize space.”

Like the Electron rocket, the Humanity Sphere is made of carbon fiber materials and it’s surface consists of 65 highly-reflective panels. Once it reaches an orbit of 300 by 500 km (186 by 310 mi), it will spend the next nine months there reflecting the light of the Sun back to Earth. Whether or not it will be visible to the naked eye remains to be seen, but Rocket Lab is confident it will be.

According to Beck, the sphere will be more visible than a Iridium flare, which are easily spotted from the surface. These flares occur when the solar panels or antennae of an Iridium satellite reflect sunlight in orbit. “Most people will be familiar with the Iridium flares, and this has got much, much more surface area than an Iridium flare,” Beck said. “In theory, it will be easy to find.”

The payload will last for about nine months in orbit. Credit: Rocket Lab

Beck got the idea for the project from talking to people about where they live. In his experience, people tend to think of their locality or nationality when they think of home. Whereas many people he had spoken to were aware that they lived on planet Earth, they were oblivious to where the Earth resided in the Solar System or the Universe at large. In this respect, the Humanity Sphere is meant to encourage people to look and think beyond.

As he states on the website the company created for the Humanity Sphere:

“For millennia, humans have focused on their terrestrial lives and issues. Seldom do we as a species stop, look to the stars and realize our position in the universe as an achingly tiny speck of dust in the grandness of it all.

“Humanity is finite, and we won’t be here forever. Yet in the face of this almost inconceivable insignificance, humanity is capable of great and kind things when we recognize we are one species, responsible for the care of each other, and our planet, together. The Humanity Star is to remind us of this.

“No matter where you are in the world, rich or in poverty, in conflict or at peace, everyone will be able to see the bright, blinking Humanity Star orbiting Earth in the night sky. My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important.

“Wait for when the Humanity Star is overhead and take your loved ones outside to look up and reflect. You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with.”

The Electron rocket launching on Sunday afternoon, 2:42pm, New Zealand time. Credit: Rocket Lab

The Humanity Star can also be tracked via the website. As of the penning of this article, it is moving south of the equator and should be visible to those living along the west coast of South America. So if you live in Colombia, Peru or Chile, look to the western skies and see if you can’t spot this moving star. After passing south over Antarctica, it will reemerge in the night skies over Central Asia.

Without a doubt, the Humanity Sphere is an inspired creation, and one which is in good company. Who can forget the “Blue Marble” picture snapped by the Apollo 17 astronauts, or Voyager 1‘s “pale blue dot” photo? And even for those who are too young to have witnessed it, the images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting foot on the Moon still serve to remind us of how far we’ve come, and how much still awaits us out there.

Further Reading: ArsTechnica