The SpaceX Starship Could be Making its Biggest Hop Yet (and a Belly-Flop) Next Month!

SpaceX is getting closer to the day when it will be able to make good on its promise of conducting regular missions to orbit, the Moon, and to Mars. At the heart of all this is the progress they are making with their Starship and Super Heavy launch system. In recent weeks, Musk’s commercial space company conducted two successful 150 m (500 ft) hop tests with the SN5 and SN6 prototypes at the Boca Chica launch facility in southern Texas.

Based on the latest announcements to come out of SpaceX, it appears that this recent string of successes has emboldened Musk and his company. Previously, Musk indicated that he was planning on making several more small hop tests and that the SN8 would attempt a 20 km (12 mi) flight sometime next year. More recent indications, however, suggest that Musk wants to conduct this high-altitude test before the end of October.

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Behold! The Martian Menu, Courtesy of Mars City Design!

Today, there is no shortage of people who want to see humans go to Mars in their lifetime. Moreover, many want to go there themselves, and some even want to stay! It goes without saying that this proposed endeavor presents all kinds of challenges (the word Herculean comes to mind!) This is especially true when it comes to feeding future missions to Mars, not to mention permanent residents.

Regular resupply missions to Mars are simply not feasible, which means astronauts and settlers will have to grow their own food. To inspire ideas for how this could be done, and what the resulting meals would be like, Vera Mulyani and the organization she founded (Mars City Design) created the Martian Feast Gala. This annual event showcases what a Martian Menu could consist of and illustrates how every challenge is an opportunity to get creative!

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Scientists Figure Out How to Continuously Watch the Entire Planet With Just 4 Satellites

For decades, scientists have been trying to figure out the minimum number of satellites that would be able to see every point on Earth. This question is motivated in part by the growing problem of space debris, but also by considerations of cost and efficiency. By the mid-1980s, researcher John E. Draim proposed a solution to this problem in a series of studies, claiming that a four-satellite constellation was all that was needed.

Unfortunately, his solution simply wasn’t practical at the time since a tremendous amount of propellant would be needed to keep the satellites in orbit. But thanks to a recent collaborative study, a team of researchers has found the right combination of factors to make a four-satellite constellation possible. Their findings could drive advances in telecommunication, navigation, and remote sensing while also reducing costs.

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NASA is Working on Electric Airplanes

One of the chief aims of space agencies and commercial aerospace these days is reducing the associated costs of space exploration. When it comes right down to it, it is still very expensive to send rockets into orbit, never mind sending them beyond Earth. But it’s not just the cost of sending payloads into space (and the pollution it causes) that concerns agencies like NASA.

There is also the cost (economic as well as environmental) associated with aviation. Jet fuel is not cheap either, and commercial air travel accounts for 4 to 9% of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (and is on the rise). For this reason, NASA has partnered with the commercial industry to develop electric aircraft, which they hope will provide a fuel- and- cost-efficient alternative to commercial jets by 2035.

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Blue Origin has Shown off a New Video of its New Glenn Rocket Design

Blue Origin, the private aerospace company founded by multi-billionaire (and founder of Amazon) Jeff Bezos, is looking to make its presence felt in the rapidly expanding NewSpace industry. To this end, Blue Origin has spent years developing a fleet of reusable rockets that they hope will someday rival those of their greatest competitor, SpaceX.

So far, these efforts have led to the New Shepard rocket, which can send payloads (and soon, space tourists) to suborbital altitudes. In the coming years, Blue Origin hopes to go farther with their New Glenn rocket, a reusable launch vehicle capable of reaching Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). The company recently released a new video of the New Glenn, which showcased the designs latest features and specifications.

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Microsoft and Partners Hope to Create a Time Capsule… On the Moon!

Time capsules are a fun and time-honored way to preserve pieces of the past. In most cases, they include photographs, mementos and other items of personal value, things that give future generations a sense of what life was like in the past. But what if we intend to preserve the memories and experiences of an entire species for thousands of years? What would we choose to squirrel away then, and where would be place it?

That’s precisely what researchers from the Molecular Information Systems Lab at the University of Washington (UW) and Microsoft had in mind when they announced their #MemoriesInDNA project. This project invites people to submit photos that will be encoded in DNA and stored for millennia. And thanks to a new partnership with the Arch Mission Foundation, this capsule will be sent to the Moon in 2020!

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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.

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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

Monster Stratolaunch Aircraft Rolled Out, Getting Closer to First Flights

In 2011, Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan announced the launch of their private space venture. Known as Stratolaunch Systems, this Seattle-based company was founded with the intention of developing air-launch-to-orbit systems. Similar to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, this concept involves a large air carrier flying rockets to launch altitude as cost-effective means of delivering small payloads to orbit.

On Thursday, May 31st, the company unveiled their launch vehicle, the Scaled Composites Model 351 (aka. the “Roc”). Consisting of two 747 hulls mated together, this aircraft is the the largest in the world – spanning 117 meters (385 ft) from one wingtip to the other and weighing 226,796 kg (500,000 lbs). This plane will make its first test flight in a few days time, and the company hopes to make its first commercial launch by 2019.

The rollout of the Roc – which took place at the company’s hangar facility at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California – was a media circus. In addition to being the first time that the public got to see the aircraft since construction began, the occasion marked the beginning of several tests which will take place over the coming days – including fueling tests, engine runs, taxi tests, and its first test flight.

Aerial view of the Roc aircraft, showing its massive 117 m (385 ft) wingspan. Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

As Stratolaunch CEO Jean Floyd said in a press statement:

“We’re excited to announce that Stratolaunch aircraft has reached a major milestone in its journey toward providing convenient, reliable, and routine access to low Earth orbit. Today, we’re moving the Stratolaunch aircraft out of the hangar – for the first time ever – to conduct aircraft fueling tests. This marks the completion of the initial aircraft construction phase and the beginning of the aircraft ground and flight testing phase.”

Measuring about 72.5 meters (238 ft) from nose to tail, the aircraft also stands 15.24 meters (50 ft) tall, measured from the ground to the top of the vertical tail. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 589,670 kg (1.3 million lbs), meaning that it is capable of airlifting payloads of up to 249,476 kg (550,000 lbs). These kinds of payloads mean that it will be capable of flying rockets and heavy space planes to launch altitude.

Last fall, the company announced their plan to conduct a launch using a single Orbital ATK Pegasus XL vehicle, a three-stage rocket used to deploy small satellites to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). This agreement was part of a multi-year collaboration between the two companies, which would see the former combining their aircraft with the latter’s extensive air-launch experience.

Artist’s impression of the Roc aircraft, with a full loadout of three Pegasus rockets. Credit: Stratolaunch Systems

First unveiled in 1990, the Pegasus XL quickly established itself as a cost-effective means for launching small payloads to LEO. These typically would consist of small satellites weighing up to 443 kg (977 lbs) from beneath a NASA B-52 aircraft. Since then, the Pegasus has carried out 43 space launch missions and successfully placed a total of 94 satellites into orbit for various reasons – ranging from scientific research and communications to defense.

In time, the company plans to explore a wide range of launch vehicles that can provide flexibility in terms of missions and payloads. But in the meantime, they will be conducting ground and flight line testing from the Mojave Air and Space Port to ensure that Roc is capable of doing all it was designed for. If all goes well, they plan to make their first commercial launch by 2019.

“This marks a historic step in our work to achieve Paul G. Allen’s vision of normalizing access to low Earth orbit,” said Floyd. “It is proud day for us at Stratolaunch, for our partners at Scaled Composites, and for our founder Paul Allen. We have a lot of exciting activity ahead as we enter the testing process, and we look forward to sharing our progress during the coming months.”

One of the hallmarks of the commercial aerospace (aka. NewSpace) industry has been the development of cost-saving measures. Whereas companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin has looked to reusable rocket technology, other companies have sought to reduce costs with Single-Stage-to-Orbit (SSTO) rockets and plug-in payloads. Air-launch-to-orbit systems are just another way in which space is becoming more accessible.

And be sure to check out this video of the Roc’s unveiling:

Further Reading: Stratolaunch News

New Zealand’s First Rocket Launch to Space!

Earlier this week, the island nation of New Zealand accomplished a historic first. On Wednesday, May 24th at 16:20 p.m. NZST – 00:20 a.m. EDT; May 23rd, 21:20 p.m. PDT – the country joined the small club of nations that have space launch capability. Taking off from a launch pad located on the Mahia Peninsula (on the North Island), the test flight was also a first for the US/NZ-based company Rocket Lab.

With the successful launch of their test rocket, Rocket Lab has become the latest aerospace firm to join a burgeoning market, where private companies are able to provide regular launch services to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Whereas other companies like SpaceX are looking to restore domestic heavy-launch capability, companies like Rocket Lab are looking to fill a niche market which would make space more accessible.

The launch was originally pushed back to this past Wednesday, which was the fourth day in a ten-day launch window (running from May 21st to May 30th), due to bad weather. And while no spectators or media outlets were permitted to witness the event, the company recorded the launch and posted it to their website and official Twitter account (shown below).

Though the rocket did not quite reach orbit, it successfully flew along the trajectory that future launches will follow. This test launch was the first of three planned, and carried sensor equipment rather than a conventional payload in order to let engineers on the ground gather data on the flight. As chief executive Peter Beck said in a statement after the rocket took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1:

“It was a great flight. We had a great first stage burn, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing separation. We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our program, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business.”

The rocket in question was a prototype disposable vehicle known as the Electron rocket. This two-stage rocket is composed of carbon fiber, which allows for durability and reduced weight, and is manufactured in-house. It also relies on a “plug-in payload” design that allows for the separation of the main assembly and payload integration processes.

In short, in the future, customers will be able to load the payload fairing themselves at their own facilities. This is especially useful wherever environmentally-controlled or sealed cargo is involved. They will then be able to have the second stage transported to the Rocket Lab facility for integration. This design is also intended to allow for flexibility, where the launch vehicle can be tailored to meet specific mission requirements.

The dedicated payload fairing of the Electron rocket. Credit: rocketlabusa.com

The first stage of the vehicle is powered by nine Rutherford engines – an oxygen/kerosene pump-fed engine designed and built by Rocket Lab – while the second stage is powered by a single Rutherford. In addition to reducing mass, the engine is also the first oxygen/kerosene engine to make use of 3-D printed components. Each engine offers a liftoff thrust of 18 kilo Newtons, or 4000 pound-force (lbf), and a peak thrust (in vacuum) of 22 kN (41,500 lbf).

Once testing is complete, Rocket Lab intends to maintain a fleet of these rockets, which will be capable of launching payloads of between 150 and 225 kg (330 to 496 lbs) to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit. With these parameters in mind, Rocket Lab is clearly aiming to cater to telecommunications companies, internet providers, research institutions and universities.

In short, small satellites are a fast-growing market, but the current space launch environment can be prohibitive to small companies and researchers. As it stands, booking a space launch is a complicated matter, subject to flight schedules, the availability of cargo space, and costs that are outside of many customers’ price range. By developing rockets that are relatively cheap and can be built quickly, those looking to launch small satellite will have increased options.

“We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years. We’ve worked tirelessly to get to this point,” said Beck. “We’ve developed everything in house, built the world’s first private orbital launch range, and we’ve done it with a small team.

New Zealand was selected as the location of the company’s launch facility for a number of reasons. Compared to the US and other potential launch sites, New Zealand has less air traffic, which ensures that air carriers don’t need to reroute their flights during a launch. The country is also well-situated to get satellites into a north-to-south orbit around Earth, and launches take place over open water (away from population centers).

On top of that, Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck is a native of New Zealand. In the coming weeks, the company he founded will be looking over its test flight data to prepare for its second test launch, which will take place in a few months. This launch will attempt to reach orbit and maximize the payload the rocket can carry. All told, Rocket Lab has three test flights scheduled for 2017.

Once the company reaches full production, they hope to be conducting a record-setting 50 to 120 launches a year. If possible, this will significantly reduce the costs associated with small payload launches.

“We have learnt so much through this test launch and will learn even more in the weeks to come,” said Beck. “We’re committed to making space accessible and this is a phenomenal milestone in that journey. The applications doing this will open up are endless. Known applications include improved weather reporting, Internet from space, natural disaster prediction, up-to-date maritime data as well as search and rescue services.”

Rocket Lab is joined by companies like ARCA, which is seeking to lower the costs of small-payload launches through the development of single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) rockets. Their SSTO rocket concept, known as the Haas 2CA, was unveiled in March and is scheduled to begin launch testing next year.

Be sure to check out this video of the launch as well, courtesy of Rocket Lab:

Further Reading: BBC, Rocket Lab