ESA Calls for Space Traffic Rules After Near Miss With SpaceX Satellite


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We talk often about how big space is, and indeed, it is really, mind-bogglingly big. However, space around Earth is feeling smaller all the time. SpaceX has launched the first few dozen of what will eventually grow to a swarm of thousands of satellites. Several days ago, the ESA had to perform the first-ever satellite avoidance maneuver to avoid colliding with a SpaceX Starlink satellite. This has prompted experts to call for a universal space traffic control system to avoid future collisions. 

SpaceX plans to use its Starlink satellite network to deliver broadband internet access to Earth and deployed 60 of them earlier this year. That’s just the beginning, though. Elon Musk and company plan to have around 2,000 satellites in space by the end of 2019. Eventually, the SpaceX “mega constellation” will include more than 12,000 satellites. SpaceX isn’t the only company planning to launch large fleets of satellites, either. Companies like OneWeb and Kuiper intend to have large networks in Earth orbit soon. 

What a SpaceX Starlink satellite looks like in orbit.

Despite the hugeness of Space, the ESA’s Aeolus satellite (above) found itself on a possible collision course with Starlink 44 earlier this week. The chance of collision was about 1 in 1,000, but that’s 10 times higher than the ESA’s acceptable risk level. That’s not great, sure, but the real issue is the ESA was unable to contact SpaceX operators to discuss the problem. The agency decided to alter Aeolus’ course just to be safe, and no satellites were harmed. 

SpaceX says a bug in its on-call paging system prevented officials from seeing the ESA’s messages. The company had last communicated with the ESA several days before when the estimated chance of collision was orders of magnitude less likely. However, all this communication happens over email, and the ESA contends this is a dangerously inefficient way to manage space traffic in the age of mega-constellations. 

There are currently about 5,000 satellites orbiting Earth, but only roughly 2,000 are active. SpaceX by itself could more than double the number of satellites whizzing around Earth. Add a few more companies with mega-constellations, and there could be some awful traffic jams. Attempting to coordinate all that via email is infeasible. Even one collision could produce thousands of microscopic pieces of debris that could hit other satellites, setting off a chain reaction that damages important space-based systems. 

According to the ESA, now is the time to develop traffic rules and communication protocols to prevent satellite collisions. It might be too late if we wait until SpaceX has 12,000 satellites beaming down broadband.

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SpaceX Starhopper Rocket Completes Second and Final Test Flight


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SpaceX has big plans for the Starship that include launching deep space missions and colonizing Mars. Before it can do any of that, it has to finish designing the vehicle. The final Starship will be a sci-fi masterpiece of stainless steel, but the Starhopper is its stubby precursor. This prototype rocket is still plenty sci-fi, though. In its latest and final test, the Starhopper successfully hovered hundreds of feet in the air and landed at the company’s Boca Chica test facility. 

The Starhopper is the first vehicle to use SpaceX Raptor engine. The final Starship will have six Raptor engines, but Starhopper only has one. That’s still enough to lift it above the dusty Texas landscape and set it down gently. The first Starhopper tests took place in the spring of this year, but they were tethered. The rocket flew just above the ground before landing. In July, Starhopper had its first real flight, rising to an altitude of 65 feet (almost 20 meters) before landing. 

Yesterday’s test marks the most impressive achievement for the Starhopper, but it’s also its last flight. The rocket lifted off just after 5PM local time, flying up to an altitude of 500 feet (150 meters) and hanging there for a few seconds. Then, it floated back down to land on a nearby launch pad. The entire operation took just 57 seconds. 

This test vehicle is basically an analog of the old “Grasshopper” prototype that preceded Falcon 9 landings. Starhopper has done its job and now passes the torch to SpaceX’s orbital prototypes, known as Starship Mk1 and Mk2. SpaceX is currently building Mk1 at Boca Chica and Mk2 in Florida. Both rockets will look more like the promised sci-fi Starship, but they might not have the full complement of Raptor engines. CEO Elon Musk has promised at least three, though. They’ll need at least that to reach orbit. 

The test launches of Mk1 and Mk2 will give SpaceX that data it needs to finish the first fully operational Starships, which could begin flying as soon as 2021. SpaceX also needs to work on the first stage launch platform for the Starship, which is known as Super Heavy. The first major test of the Starship will be the lunar orbit mission, financed by Japanese fashion magnate Yusaku Maezawa around 2023. Musk has talked about sending people to Mars as early as the mid-2020s, but that seems a bit overly optimistic.

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NASA’s Space Launch System May Have Set Back Orbital Refueling by a Decade


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NASA has been working on the Space Launch System (SLS) as a replacement for the Space Shuttle for a decade, and the project has already consumed $14 billion in funding. It’s not exactly a secret that pure political will has kept the SLS going, but there may have been some casualties along the way. A former United Launch Alliance (ULA) engineer has chimed in on Twitter to tell an anecdote about how the SLS smothered the development of orbital refueling. 

Ars Technica reporter Eric Berger had just posted a string of tweets about opposition to refueling depots in congress back when the SLS program picked up steam. Then, former ULA manager George Sowers replied with his perspective. According to Sowers, his ULA advanced programs group had published several papers on the use of orbital refueling depots. He claims his team demonstrated that pre-existing commercial rockets could do the job of something like the SLS. The key was a platform being developed at ULA called the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES. 

In 2011, ULA wanted to test ACES in space to show that it could serve as a refueling depot to get rockets to more distant locations. Sowers said Boeing (which operates ULA along with Lockheed Martin) was incensed by his team’s push for refueling depots. Boeing was, and still is, the primary contractor on the SLS launch vehicle. A shift toward cheaper refueling technology could cost it a juicy government contract.

Sowers says Boeing executives tried to get him fired, but his direct managers held the line. However, ACES was quietly shelved. Around the same time, Berger reports that Alabama Senator Richard Shelby told NASA, “No more f—ing depots.” His home state is home to Marshall Space Flight Center and stood to benefit greatly from SLS development. 

ULA says ACES is still on its roadmap, but that could mean any number of things. We do know that NASA is taking another look at orbital refueling. As part of its new lunar push, the agency has partnered with multiple firms on new technology. Among them is SpaceX and its orbital refueling ambitions. SpaceX needs to develop advanced technology to transfer fuel in orbit for future Starship missions, and NASA wants a piece of that. 

Meanwhile, the SLS could launch on an uncrewed test mission as soon as next year. The launch has been pushed back a few times already, so it’s just as likely the rocket won’t fly until 2021.

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SpaceX Starhopper Completes First Untethered Flight


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After a brief delay, SpaceX’s Starship has gone on its first flight. It was a short hover test, and the version of the spacecraft that took to the sky was a far cry from the one CEO Elon Musk wants to send to Mars. Still, the “Starhopper” prototype has proven that the rocket has what it takes to leave Earth behind. 

SpaceX has spent months putting the final touches on Starhopper at the company’s Boca Chica Beach, Texas facility. The eventual Starship rocket that travels to other planets will have six Raptor engines in the planned configuration, although Musk has suggested that could change. The Starhopper has just one Raptor, and the body has a blunted “water tower” shape instead of the sci-fi rocket design from the renders. Musk jokes in his announcement tweet that water towers can fly. 

The Starhopper hovered about 65 feet in the air (almost 20 meters) before setting down. Propulsive landings will be part of the Starship from the very start, a feature SpaceX perfected on the Falcon 9 after it entered service. This capability has made the company increasingly dominant in the private spaceflight industry by lowering costs and shortening launch timetables. 

The next step, according to Musk, is to complete another untethered Starhopper flight. In the next several weeks, SpaceX will attempt to reach ten times the altitude of last night’s test. The company could attempt a sub-orbital flight into space by the end of the year. However, SpaceX doesn’t have all the pieces it needs for full Starship operation. 

The Starship can’t reach space from Earth’s surface even with all six of its Raptor engines. SpaceX still has to build the Super Heavy launch platform. This gargantuan first-stage rocket will have 35 Raptor engines with enough power to get the spacecraft free of Earth’s gravity. On other planets like Mars, Starship will have enough power to launch itself without the Super Heavy. 

Musk has promised that the Starship (formerly known as BFR) will take over from SpaceX’s established Falcon 9 and the newer Falcon Heavy platforms in the future. It’s also designed to carry up to 100 colonists on a journey to Mars. Musk thinks that trip will only cost a few hundred thousand dollars, but many scientists caution we don’t know enough about the health effects of living on Mars.

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Is space truly within reach for startups and VC? – TechCrunch


Elon Musk’s SpaceX managed to pull off something very few people thought it could — by disrupting one of the most fixed markets in the world with some of the most entrenched and protected players ever to benefit from government contract arrangements: rocket launches. The success of SpaceX, and promising progress from other new launch providers, including Blue Origin and Rocket Lab, have encouraged interest in space-based innovation among entrepreneurs and investors alike. But is this a true boom, or just a blip?

There’s an argument for both at once, with one type of space startup rapidly descending to Earth in terms of commercialization timelines and potential upside, and the other remaining a difficult bet to make unless you’re comfortable with long timelines before any liquidity event and a lot of upfront investment.

Cheaper, faster, lighter, better

Image via Getty Images / Andrey Suslov

There’s no question that one broad category of technology at least is a lot more addressable by early-stage companies (and by extension, traditional VC investment). The word “satellite” once described almost exclusively gigantic, extremely expensive hunks of sophisticated hardware, wherein each component would eat up the monthly burn rate of your average early-stage consumer tech venture.



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