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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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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Fleet Space Technologies raises $7.35M for its space-based IoT tech – gpgmail


Australian satellite startup Fleet Space Technologies has raised a $7.35 million round of funding to help launch its next generation of nanosatellites, extremely small satellites it employs to deliver Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity to customers globally.

Fleet’s satellites are roughly the size of shoe boxes, which are much cheaper and easier to launch than traditional geocommnications satellites, and the company intends to use a globe-spanning constellation of these in order to serve needs like tracking construction equipment assets, monitoring pipelines and other utility infrastructure and more.

Already, Fleet has launched four of its nanosatellites to orbit on a number of different rockets, including an Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) rocket, a Rocket Lab launch and via SpaceX . Its existing fleet is only a very small part of its planned constellation, but already the startup says it has witnessed “unprecedented demand” from more than three million compatible devices registered to join their network.

Connected IoT in industrial applications is a huge potential market, and could be made up of more than 14 billion low-power devices by 2025, Fleet Space says, based on IDC estimates. That’s a lot of hardware that needs to be able to effectively connect to, and communicate with, central hubs. Edge computing is a huge trend right now, where a lot of these previously fairly rudimentary on-device sensors and monitors are able to do more processing on-site, but at some point the value of a network of IoT devices is that the resulting data can be collected, analyzed, turned into product improvements and redeployed.

Fleet’s nanosatellite (dog for scale). Image courtesy of Fleet.

Fleet’s tech is the connective tissue that can bind all these devices in a way that’s much more scalable and affordable for commercial and industrial clients large and small. Satellite-based network coverage works in tandem with ground-based networks, which helps ensure there aren’t any blind spots in industries where communication can be hard to come by, like agriculture, forestry and mining.

This round of funding includes investment from Momenta Ventures and Horizon Ventures, and adds to the previous $5 million AUD ($3.4 million USD) that Fleet raised previously from Blackbird Ventures and Grok Ventures, with contribution from the South Australian government.


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Near miss between science craft and Starlink satellite shows need to improve orbital coordination – gpgmail


A European satellite that measures the Earth’s winds using lasers had a close encounter with one of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation yesterday in a situation that illustrates the growing inadequacy of existing systems for global coordination of orbital issues. It’s getting crowded up there, and email and phone calls between HQs soon won’t cut it.

The near miss was announced yesterday on Twitter by the European Space Administration’s Operations team on Twitter. It explained, perhaps a mite sensationally, that “for the first time ever, ESA has performed a ‘collision avoidance manoeuvre’ to protect one of its satellites from colliding with a ‘mega constellation’ .”

To be clear, and as ESA explained, these maneuvers are actually very common — but they’re almost always to avoid debris and dead satellites, not currently active ones. These days when you launch a satellite, you’re generally very careful to put it in an orbit that has been carefully calculated to not intersect with that of any other satellite. Pretty straightforward, right?

But things happen, for instance a thruster misfires or another maneuver goes wrong, and suddenly a satellite that was going to pass within a safe distance of another one is actually going to get much, much closer. That’s what seems to have happened here: the Starlink satellite, one of 60 launched earlier this year, somehow found itself on a potential collision course.

SpaceX and ESA exchanged emails on August 28, when the chance of the two craft colliding was around 1 in 50,000; they determined no action was necessary. But a subsequent update from the U.S. Air Force’s tracking infrastructure changed that estimate to about 1 in 600. That’s well below the 1 in 10,000 chance standard for taking measures. (This isn’t just guesswork but allowing for jitter in measurements and other noise that enter tracking of fast-moving orbital objects.)

Here’s where the hiccup happened. With the new and scary probability of a collision, either ESA or SpaceX had to change orbit — again, something that happens a lot, but in this case needs to be coordinated clearly with the other. What if they both adjusted their orbit the same way and increased the chance of disaster?

Unfortunately, SpaceX was not aware of the new probability estimate from the Air Force, and as such persevered in its decision not to adjust its satellite’s trajectory. As a result, the ESA had to make its own maneuver — not fun when the craft in question is performing extremely sensitive measurements using a high-powered lidar system.

Why would SpaceX not want to do anything? Apparently they weren’t in possession of the new, higher estimate.

“A bug in our on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from seeing the follow on correspondence on this probability increase,” SpaceX said in a statement. “Had the Starlink operator seen the correspondence, we would have coordinated with ESA to determine best approach with their continuing with their maneuver or our performing a maneuver.”

Ultimately there was no collision and both satellites are happily orbiting the Earth, though Aeolus does have a touch less fuel than before. The problem is not that a satellite had to swerve a bit, because that happens all the time. The problem is that it was an encounter with an active satellite and communications between the two operators was inadequate.

“Nobody did anything wrong. Space is there for everybody to use,” ESA’s Holger Krag told Forbes. “Basically on every orbit you can encounter other objects. Space is not organized. And so we believe we need technology to manage this traffic.”

Visualization of space debris around Earth.

With plans by SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb and others to launch constellations of hundreds or thousands of satellites over the years, the possibility of another such encounter is very likely. And a system that worked when there were vanishingly few encounters between active satellites likely won’t work when those encounters are a daily or hourly occurrence.

“This example shows that in the absence of traffic rules and communication protocols, collision avoidance depends entirely on the pragmatism of the operators involved. Today, this negotiation is done through exchanging emails – an archaic process that is no longer viable as increasing numbers of satellites in space mean more space traffic,” said Krag in an ESA news post.

“No one was at fault here, but this example does show the urgent need for proper space traffic management, with clear communication protocols and more automation. This is how air traffic control has worked for many decades, and now space operators need to get together to define automated maneuver coordination,” he continued.

Naturally AI is being brought into the discussion, but also other common-sense rules and improvements to an aging system that is no longer able to be ignored. It plans to make these proposals more solid later this year and hopefully put them into action.




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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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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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NASA Astronaut Accused of World’s First ‘Space Crime’ Denies Allegations


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Decorated US astronaut Anne McClain had been accused of committing the first crimes in space. McClain is going through an acrimonious divorce and her spouse, Summer Worden, has alleged that McClain committed financial improprieties by accessing financial records while serving aboard the ISS (International Space Station) and has filed a complaint with the FTC and NASA’s Office of Inspector General, accusing McClain of identity theft and improperly accessing records.

The claims of financial harm are now being investigated by NASA, but McClain is strongly denying any intent or wrongdoing:

The question of jurisdiction in space is a complex one. The five space agencies that operate the space station — US, Russia, Japan, China, and Europe — have agreements in place to hammer out issues that might occur while aboard, but to the best of anyone’s knowledge, this is the first time there have been allegations of any kind of illegal activity occurring in space (at least, as far as something an astronaut might personally do). The New York Times points out that with the advent of space tourism, these kinds of questions are going to be raised on a more regular basis. What does legal discovery look like, for example, when it impacts a NASA network? In any kind of scenario in which individuals from more than one nation are involved in a dispute, how should said dispute be adjudicated, and under what auspices?

These sorts of questions are esoteric at the moment because we have no serious space-tourism industry. At present, seven space tourists have made eight spaceflights. From 2001-2009, the Russian Space Agency provided space flights, but they ceased doing so after 2009 because the expanded crew capabilities of the ISS require the Soyuz to carry more passengers to and from the station. On June 7, 2019, NASA announced that it would allow private astronauts to return to the ISS using either SpaceX’s Dragon2 module or Boeing’s Starliner. Bigelow Aerospace wants to launch an inflatable space habitat, the BA 330, into LEO by 2022.

McClain was scheduled to take part in the first all-female spacewalk earlier this year, but she had to back out due to a spacesuit sizing issue (NASA has two medium-size spacesuit available on the ISS, but only one was properly outfitted for spacewalking and it was already scheduled to be in-use by her astronaut partner). NASA opted to change the spacewalk roster rather than spend hours fitting the other suit for simultaneous operation. The complaint filed against McClain accuses her of identity theft but acknowledges that funds had not been moved out of the account.

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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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