SpaceX ‘getting ready’ to fly orbital Starship design with new FCC filing – gpgmail


SpaceX is taking the steps necessary to begin test flying the orbital-class version of its Starship spacecraft, with new documents filed by the company (via Teslarati) with the FCC seeking necessary permissions for it to communicate with the prototype while it’s in flight.

The company filed documents with the U.S. regulatory agency this week in advance of the flight, which lists a max altitude of 74,000 feet, which is a far cry from Earth orbit but still a much greater distance vs. the 500 or so feet achieved by the squat ‘Starhopper’ demonstration and test vehicle that SpaceX has been actively operating in preparation for Starship .

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed that prep was underway via tweet. Musk has previously said that he hoped to follow the Starhopper’s most recent and final successful test quickly with tests of the full-scale vehicle. Like with that low-altitude test, SpaceX will aim to launch and land the Starhopper, with touch down planned just a short distance away.

Assembly and construction of the Starship prototype looks to be well underway, and Musk recently teased a Starship update event for September 28, which is likely when we’ll see this prototype assembled and ready to go ahead of its planned October first test flight window.

Starship is the next generation of SpaceX spacecraft, designed for maximum reusability, and with the aim of creating one vehicle that can serve the needs of current and future customers, eventually replacing both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Starship is also a key ingredient in Musk’s ambitious plan to reach and establish a continuing human presence on Mars.


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SpaceX’s Dragon completes record-setting third Space Station resupply mission – gpgmail


A SpaceX Dragon capsule that set down in the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday after having been docked at the International Space Station since late July became the first such vehicle to do three of those trips. SpaceX uses its Dragon cargo capsule to ferry experiment materials, supplies and more to and from the ISS, and it also refurbishes and reflies these capsules when possible as part of its ongoing mission to make spaceflight more reusable, and therefore more economical.

After it splashed down yesterday, SpaceX recovered the capsule from the ocean and returned it to shore. The vehicle is loaded with return cargo from the ISS, with almost 2,700 lbs of materials and results from experiments, which NASA staff on the ground will now examine and study. Dragon carried over 5,000 lbs of stuff to the Space Station, and over half of that was related to science and research missions. One of the return cargo items is actually a spherical robot called CIMON, and is basically a space-based smart speaker companion.

CIMON, an AI companion robot that spent time on the ISS before returning aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

SpaceX’s cargo Dragon is well-suited for carrying sensitive materials back to Earth because it remains intact through re-entry, but the company’s next version, Crew Dragon, will hope to return astronauts as well as supplies and objects when it begins operation, hopefully with initial crewed flights either late this year or next.


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Orbion raises $9.2M to mass-produce plasma thrusters for small satellites – gpgmail


Michigan-based startup Orbion has secured $9.2 million in Series A funding, which it will use as it undertakes the mass-produced manufacturing of its plasma thrusters for use in small satellites. Orbion’s thrusters are Hall-effect thrusters, which use an electric field to accelerate their propellant and create thrust. Hall-effect thrusters are nothing new, but Orbion’s approach, which uses plasma propulsion, has not previously been available at a cost and volume affordable for smaller satellite operators.

Just as SpaceX has greatly reduced the cost of launch services, Orbion aims to take a technology that was once reserved for the elite few, who could spend hundreds of millions or more on launching gigantic, train car-sized satellites into orbit. That basically limited the addressable market to government, defense and some very deep-pocketed commercial clients.

It’s a shame because plasma propulsion is a fundamental necessity for some types of satellite operations, regardless of budget – and it’s also a much more propellant-efficient method vs. other potential options, and will even enable satellites to have longer operating lives before they fall out of orbit and therefore out of service.

The small sat and cube sat boom we’ve seen and are seeing is due in large part to the increased affordability of key components that make up their construction, from sensors, to optics, to processors, to solar panels and more. But as Orbion points out, in-space propulsion isn’t something that’s gained any cost benefits from advances and mass-production ramp in the computer, smartphone or energy industries here on Earth. Unlocking the ability to manufacture effective, efficient and reliable in-space propulsion systems at scale is therefore a key unlock for ensuring the small sat industry can grow with demand.

Orbion is looking to make it possible to reduce delivery times from six to eight months of testing alone, after the thrusters are manufactured, before a customer even takes delivery, down to just six to eight days from order. It’s working to improve both speed and volume through an end-to-end manufacturing process that makes use of robotic assembly lines – one borrowed in part from the missile industry, so it’s not without proven precedent.

This new round of funding will help Orbion grow to meet the swelling demand it sees from commercial industry, as well as government agencies, and was led by Material Impact and includes contributions from Invest Michigan, Invest Detroit, Wakestream Ventures, Ann Arbor SPARK and Boomerang Catapult.


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SpaceX Starhopper ‘hops’ to around 500 feet and flies for just under a minute in new test flight – gpgmail


SpaceX has completed a second low-altitude test flight of its ‘Starhopper’ demonstration prototype, which is being used to test technologies that will be used to build the full-scale next-generation SpaceX ‘Starship’ spacecraft. This test involved ‘hopping’ the Starhopper (hence the name, get it?) to a height of around 150m (or a little under 500 feet), the highest it’s flown so far, at a SpaceX test facility in Texas. After the hop, which lasted around 50 seconds (the GIF above is sped up 2X) it successfully navigated itself to a target landing pad a short distance away.

This is the second untethered test trip for the Starhopper, and will is intended to be its last, as SpaceX moves forward with construction of its Starship Mk I and Mk II prototypes, which is taking place currently and simultaneously at sites in Florida and Texas. Today’s attempt was the second try after a planned test yesterday was aborted at the last second, with SpaceX resetting and ensuring everything was in place for this longer hop, which lasted just under a minute.

In July, SpaceX ran its first untethered hop, which is designed to test the operation of the Raptor engine SpaceX is developing for Starship, along with other subsystems for use in the production Starship. That flew only for around 22 seconds, and attained a height of just 20 meters (a little over 65 feet).

Construction is currently in progress at both SpaceX’s Texas and Florida facilities on its full-scale Starship prototypes, which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is ambitious will begin their own flight testing later this year, in perhaps as little as a few months. The larger prototypes, which should be closer to what will actually launch, will test more Raptor engines working together and aim to fly to higher altitudes, another key step as the company works towards a true first orbital test flight.

Ultimately, SpaceX is hoping to replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy entirely with different configurations of Starship, which will help the company in terms of cost efficiency thanks to its fully reusable nature, and streamlining all of its rocket construction efforts around one type of vehicle.


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Russian humanoid robot makes its way to the International Space Station – gpgmail


A Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station successfully late on Tuesday evening, after an initial attempt to do so didn’t end up working as planned on Saturday night. This second attempt went off without a hitch, however, and the capsule is now parked at a port on the Russian Zvezda module of the ISS. In the captain’s seat of the capsule, which is designed to carry human passengers, sat Skybot F-850, a humanoid robot built by Russia’s Rocsomos space agency.

The robot didn’t actually pilot the craft – it was on an automated trip with no humans aboard to take over manual control. This trip saw the Soyuz launched atop a new version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket, which it has used so far only to transfer cargo with uncrewed spacecraft. This mission was designed to test the updated rocket with a Soyuz without humans on board, in preparation of using the same model with crew on board starting next year.

The Skybot F-850 has a number of built-in sensors on board, and can measure things like G-forces exerted on passengers, as well as vibrations, temerparture readings and more, to provide an accurate idea of what a human would experience were they the ones sitting in the vehicle’s passenger seats instead of the robot.

This is the first use of a robot in this capacity by Rocosmos, and Skybot will remain at the ISS for around two weeks before it heads back to Earth. In addition to sensing conditions during launch, Skybot has some functions similar to your average Alexa speaker – it can answer questions, have short conversations and tell a few jokes. The plan however is to develop Skybot and its successors into more capable functional companions that can do activities in environments that are inhospitable to humans – including perhaps in the vacuum of outer space.


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Satellite internet startup Astranis books first commercial launch on SpaceX Falcon 9 – gpgmail


Y Combinator-backed startup Astranis is now set to launch its first commercial telecommunication satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, with a launch timeframe currently set for sometime starting in the fourth quarter of next year. Astranis aims to address the market of people who don’t currently have broadband internet access, which is still a huge number globally, and they hope to do so using low-cost satellites that massively undercut the price of existing global telecommunications hardware, which can be built and launched much faster than existing spacecraft, too.

Astranis satellites are much more cost efficient because they’re smaller and easier to make, which changes the economics of deployment for potential carrier and connectivity provider partners. Its approach has already attracted the partnership of Microcom subsidiary Pacific Dataport, an Anchorage company that was formed to expand satellite broadband access in Alaska. This will be the goal of the company’s first launch with SpaceX, to deliver a single satellite to geostationary orbit that will add more than 7.5 Gbps of capacity to the internet provider’s network in Alaska, tripling capacity and potentially reducing costs by “up to three times,” according to Astranis.

This isn’t the first ever satellite that Astranis has sent up to space – it launched a demonstration satellite in 2018 to show that its tech could work as advertised. Astranis’ approach is distinct from others attempting to offer satellite-based connectivity, including SpaceX’s own Starlink project, because it focuses on building satellites that remain in a fixed orbital position relative to the area on the ground where they’re providing service, as opposed to using a large constellation of low-Earth orbit satellites that offer coverage because one or more are bound to be over the coverage area at any given time as they orbit the Earth, handing off connections from one to the next.


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Experimental U.S. Air Force space plane breaks previous record for orbital spaceflight – gpgmail


The Boeing-built X-37B space plane commissioned and operated by the U.S. Air Force has now broken its own record for time spent in space. Its latest mission has lasted 719 days as of today, which is one day longer than its last mission which ended in 2017, as noted by Space.com. It’s not an overall record, since geocommunications satellites typically have life spans of five years or more, but it’s nonetheless an impressive milestone for this secretive Air Force vehicle, which is all about testing and developing U.S. technologies related to reusable spaceflight and more.

The X-37B began its current mission in September 2018, when it launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The specific details of the spacecraft’s missions are classified, but in addition to apparently spending ever increasing amounts of time up in space (each successive mission of the space plane has lasted longer), it’s also “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” These tests involve tech related to guidance, navigation, thermal protection, high-temperature materials and durability, flight and propulsion systems and more, which is basically not saying much since that’s just everything involved in space flight.

There’s no crew on board operating X-37-B, but the vehicle can autonomously descend back through Earth’s atmosphere and land horizontally on a runway, just like the NASA Space Shuttle used to do when it was in operation.

The X-37 program got kicked off in 1997, originally began by NASA, and it was then transferred to DARPA and the U.S. Air Force after that. The X-37B has flown four times, and in total, the first four missions added up to 2,085 days spent in space.


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Second docking adapter for commercial crew vehicles installed on International Space Station – gpgmail


The International Space Station is now more than ready for crew-carrying spacecraft flown by commercial companies to pay it a visit: The second planned International Dock Adapter (IDA) was installed on the Space Station during a spacewalk by NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Andrew Morgan earlier today.

The dock adapter, actually IDA-3 since the first IDA was lost during the SpaceX launch failure of its CRS-7 mission on June 28, 2015. IDA-2, which was intended to be the second installed on ISS, instead became the first and was delivered in July 2016 during the SpaceX CRS-9 resupply mission.

IDA-2 has already proven effective, too: It received its first docking vehicle on March 3 of this year, when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Demo-1 test vehicle used the automated docking procedure designed for this adapter to demonstrate how it will work eventually when crew are on board.

IDA-3 is the second working dock adapter that uses this automated procedure, which makes it so that vehicles arriving at the ISS don’t have to be caught and guided in manually by astronauts with the help of the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm. The automated procedure is designed as an industry standard of sorts, and should mean that any commercial crew craft, from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, to Boeing’s CST-100, and any other potential future craft, can easily and automatically dock with the ISS to transfer over passengers and cargo.

Boeing is the company that was contracted to design and build these docking adapters. Each weight about 1,150 lbs and, they’re about 42-inches hight and 63-inches wide, which means it’s a bit of a tight squeeze for crew to come through (these aren’t big step-through passageways like you sometimes see in movies).

Having both the IDAs installed on the Space Station is key milestone in the commercial crew program, but there are still plenty of hurdles left to clear – including the first test flights of commercial Crew vehicles with astronauts on board.


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Watch live as NASA astronauts spacewalk to install a new automated docking ring on the ISS – gpgmail


NASA astronauts Nick Hague and Andrew Morgan are setting out today to perform the installation of a new International Docking Adapter (IDA) on the International Space Station that will provide another way for futuer crew craft flown by commercial providers to bring astronauts to the orbital research platform.

This is the second IDA to be installed in the ISS, and the actual spacewalk itself is set to happen at 8:20 AM ET, with astronauts spending the time until then getting all suited up. This docking adapter came up on SpaceX’s CRS-18 resupply mission, which went up in July. The adapter will provide automated docking procedures for a number of future crew spacecraft, including Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and it’s a standard that’s intended to be used with any other commercial craft to be developed with the aim of reaching the ISS in future, too.

The two IDAs and their use are a big part of NASA’s plan to commercialize the ISS and essentially open the platform for business, with the aim of gaining private sector support for both its use and the development of an eventual successor, since the existing ISS is actually quite a bit past its intended mission lifespan.


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NASA confirms mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa to explore its icy oceans – gpgmail


NASA has confirmed a mission to Europa, one of the Moons of Jupiter, will indeed happen. The mission was initially explored starting in 2017, with the space agency looking for reports on how it might proceed, and now NASA has said it will go ahead and move to the key stop of finalizing mission design, which will then lead to actually building the spacecraft that will make the trip, and the science payload it’ll carry on board.

The goal of the mission, which is codenamed ‘Europa Clipper,’ is to find out whether the icy natural satellite orbiting Jupiter could sustain life, and also explore whether it might be colonizable or habitable. Plus, we’ll definitely learn a lot more about Europa with an up-close-and-personal exploration.

Europa is the one of 79 known moons orbiting the gas giant, and is the six-largest in the entire solar system. It’s a bit smaller than our own, and has a crust that is composed primarily of water ice. Some scientists believe that it could have a water ocean just underneath that ice curst, however, and that if said ocean exists, it might be among the likelier places in our solar system to find life.

NASA’s goal for this mission is to launch it as early as 2023, though it’ll need its SLS launch system to be ready to make that happen. The extended timeline allows for a launch-ready state by 2025, which seems a bit more realistic given the current state of affairs.


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