Max-Q: This week in space

Space is becoming a major area of startup and commercial investment, and so I’ve decided to start providing a weekly round-up of the biggest news in aerospace, space science and space-related technologies. Let me know if you appreciate this or have suggestions, and I’ll make sure it evolves as needed to be useful resource.

This week, there was an abundance of spacesuit news, and signs from multiple operators that there’s going to be an orbital traffic boom in the immediate future. Also, we’re heading into the annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC) this coming week, so expect a lot more news starting tomorrow.

1. NASA unveils its Artemis-generation spacesuits

NASA showed off a brand new generation of spacesuit, including the one that the first American woman and next American man to set foot on the Moon will don for that historic moment. The new Artemis suits are designed to scale from essentially the smallest to the largest possible adult human frame, which NASA touts as a way to make the astronaut program more accessible to a wider range of Americans. The agency should be going out of its way to fix that, because of what happened that led to item #2 this week.

For the first time, NASA is looking to outsource the full production of these Artemis-generation spacesuits (including the Orion survival suit, which was also revealed today and will be worn only during flight aboard the Orion capsule). To that end, it has put out a request for input from industry about their design and development ahead of setting up a proper RFP.

2. NASA astronauts Christina H. Koch and Jessica Meir complete historic first all-woman spacewalk

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NASA astronauts Christina H. Koch and Jessica Meir

As I alluded above, there was a very good reason that NASA really emphasized how inclusive its Artemis suit designs are: The agency had to cancel a first all-woman spacewalk earlier this year because it didn’t have the right amount of properly sized spacesuits on board the International Space Station. It sent one up in June, however, and that historic moment happened this past week, with Koch and Meir performing a roughly seven-hour spacewalk to repair a power controller.

3. SpaceX applies for permission to launch 30,000 more Starlink satellites

That’s on top of the 12,000 it’s already had cleared, which makes for a total potential constellation size of 42,000. That’s about 8x the number of satellites currently in orbit, across all orbital zones. It’s a move that is definitely raising the ire of both industry and space researchers, because it’ll make it a lot more complicated to ensure orbital spacecraft avoid collisions, and it could potentially obscure the view of the stars from Earth. SpaceX says it has taken steps to ensure it can avoid both problems, but not everyone is convinced.

4. Swarm gets the ‘OK’ for its 150-satellite constellation

Meanwhile, startup Swarm has been granted FCC approval to deploy its own, much-smaller constellation of 150 satellites. Swarm isn’t competing directly with SpaceX’s Starlink – it wants to provide low-bandwidth IoT connectivity. And while it isn’t looking to put up a huge volume of spacecraft, there was some concern that its toaster-sized satellites might be too small to track and present a risk that way.

5. Rocket Lab’s swap launch is a success

New Zealand-born and lately U.S.-headquartered Rocket Lab was successful in launching its fifth Electron rocket this year. The startup’s success was more a proof point for its business model than its technology, however, since the payload that flew aboard this mission was actually one that wasn’t slated to go up until much later in the queue. Rocket Lab’s original client for this one had to drop out due to unfortunate circumstances, and Rocket Lab was able to get client Astro Digital an earlier ride. This kind of late-stage payload swap has not typically been a strength of the established commercial space launch industry.

6. Under Armour built some fancy tracksuits for space

IMG 20191016 103752 1 1Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will begin ferrying wealthy paying tourists to the very edge of space next year, if all goes to plan, and now we know what they’ll be wearing when they do: Under Armour. The sportswear company and Branson’s space enterprise unveiled the new suits at a flashy special event featuring the first tourists who have reserved $250,000 tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s atmosphere-skimming spacecraft.

7. How Lockheed Martin’s Venture arm spends its $200 million in available funding

Lockheed Martin has been in the commercial space business since there has been a commercial space business to be in, and around a decade ago it established a corporate venture fund to make strategic bets on startups. I sat down with the fund’s GM and Executive Director J. Christopher Moran to talk about what the fund looks for in startups – and the industry giant is a lot more interested in early stage companies that you might have thought. Extra Crunch Subscription required.

Alphabet’s Wing begins making first commercial drone deliveries in the U.S.

Alphabet -owned drone delivery spin-out Wing is starting to service U.S. customers, after becoming the first drone delivery company to get the federal go-ahead to do so earlier this year. Wing is working with FedEx Express and Walgreens on this pilot, and their first customers are Michael and Kelly Collver, who will get a “cough and cold pack,” which includes Tylenol, cough drops, facial tissues, Emergen-C and bottled water (do people who have colds need bottled water?).

The Collvers are receiving their package in Christianburg, Virginia, which is where Wing and Walgreens will run this inaugural pilot fo the drone delivery service. Walgreens gets a noteworthy credit in the bargain, becoming the first U.S. retailer to do a store-to-customer doorstep delivery via drone, while FedEx will be the first logistics provider to delivery a e-commerce drone delivery with a separate shipment.

Wing is also working with Virginia’s Sugar Magnolia, a retailer local to the state, and that part of the equation is focused on proving out how Wing and drone delivery can service last-mile e-commerce customers at their homes. Sugar Magnolia customers can get small items, including chocolates and paper goods, delivered directly to them via drone through the new pilot.

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Wing was able to do this with a new Air Carrier Certificate from the FAA that clears it for expanded service, specifically allowing Wing’s pilots to manage multiple aircraft flying without any human pilot on board at the same time, while providing service to the public.

It’s a big milestone when it comes to U.S.-based drone delivery, and another sign that people should get ready for these services to start to be a more regular fixture. Earlier this month, UPS also secured FAA approval to operate a commercial drone delivery service, so the trials will probably come fast and furious at this point – though widespread service is probably still quite a ways off as both regulators and operators look to learn from their first limited deployments.

Volvo creates a dedicated business for autonomous industrial and commercial transport

Volvo Group has established a new dedicated business group focused on autonomous transportation, with a mandate that covers industry segments like mining, ports and moving goods between logistics hubs of all kinds. The vehicle maker has already been active in putting autonomous technology to work in these industries, with self-driving projects including at a few quarries and mines, and in the busy port located at Gothenburg, Sweden.

The company sees demand for this kind of autonomous technology use growing, and decided to establish an entire business unit to address it. The newly-formed group will be called Volvo Autonomous Solutions, and its official mission is to “accelerate the development, commercialization and sales of autonomous transport solutions,” focused on the kind of transportation “where there is a need to move large volumes of goods and material on pre-defeined routes, in receptive flows.”

Their anticipation of the growth of this sector comes in part from direct customer feedback, the automaker notes. It’s seen “significant increase in inquires from customers,” according to a statement from Martin Lundstedt, Volvo Group’s President and CEO.

Officially, Volvo Autonomous Solutions won’t be a formal new business area under its parent company until January 2020, but the company is looking for a new head of the unit already, and it’s clear they see a lot of potential in this bourgeoning market.

Unlike autonomous driving for consumer automobiles, this kind of self-driving for fixed route goods transportation is a nice match to the capabilities of technology as they exist today. These industrial applications eliminate a lot of the chaos and complexity of driving in, say, urban environments and with a lot of other human-driven vehicles on the road, and their routes are predictable and repeatable.

Japan will participate in NASA’s Lunar Gateway project for the Artemis program

Japan has officially announced that it will participate with NASA’s Lunar Gateway project (via NHK), which will seek to establish an orbital research and staging station around the Moon. The Lunar Gateway is a key component of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land the first American woman and the next American man on the surface of the Moon by 2024.

Japan’s involvement was confirmed on Friday at a meeting of the country’s Strategic Headquarters for National Space Policy, at which Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was present. The governing body accepted a recommendation from a panel established to study the possibility that Japan should indeed join NASA’s efforts.

Working with NASA on its Lunar Gateway will serve to benefit Japan in a few ways, the panel determined, including by boosting its profile as a technology leader and by strengthening U.S.-Japan relations when it comes to ensuring space is a place where international collaboration on peaceful ventures and research can take place.

Further details about how Japan will participate aren’t yet available, which makes sense given this decision has only just been made. Japanese lunar exploration startup ispace welcomed the news, and anticipates possibly being able to contribute in some capacity, specifically via the partnership it announced with Draper earlier this year.

“We welcome this development with great optimism for the future of lunar exploration, as well as the relationship between Japan and the United States,” said Takeshi Hakamada, Founder & CEO of ispace in an emailed statement. “We firmly believe the Draper-ispace partnership can complement the US-Japan efforts for a sustainable return to the Moon at the commercial level.”

Watch NASA’s first ever all-woman spacewalk live

NASA astronauts Christina H Koch and Jessica Meir will make history this morning, as they take part in the first ever spacewalk in the agency’s history featuring only women. The two astronauts will be venturing outside of the International Space Station in order to effect a repair on a failed power controller for the station, with coverage beginning at 6:30 AM ET (3:30 AM PT) via the livestream above, and Koch and Meir set to leave the station’s airlock at 7:50 AM ET (4:50 AM PT).

This historic event is happening seven months after its original intended target date, after that attempt had to be scrubbed because the ISS was missing a medium-sized spacesuit that one of the two woman would need. Astronaut Anne McClain was going to take part alongside Koch at that time, but McClain’s time on the station ended in June. McClain attempted to make a large-sized suit work, but her mobility was too limited.

NASA sent up a second medium spacesuit in October to ensure that they wouldn’t encounter a similar problem a second time around, but rightly faced criticism for the apparent discrimination of having enough suits to ensure multiple men could spacewalk, but not multiple women. The agency seems to have a genuine interest in curbing any perception of discrimination inherent in its spacesuit program, however, and emphasized that the spacesuits designed for its Artemis Moon mission program are designed to provide maximum mobility for astronauts of all shapes and sizes.

This mission will be record-breaking not just for NASA, but for all human space exploration, marking the first time there’s ever been a two-woman spacewalk. Definitely an exciting and momentous event, so be sure to tune in via the stream above.

Bosch’s new ‘ear’ for the Space Station’s Astrobee robot will let it ‘hear’ potential mechanical issues

Bosch is set to launch a new AI-based sensor system to the International Space Station that could change the way astronauts and ground crew monitor the ISS’s continued healthy operation. The so-called “SoundSee” module will be roughly the size of a lunch box, and will make its way to the ISS via Northrop Grumman’s forthcoming CRS-12 resupply mission, which is currently set for a November 2 launch.

The SoundSee module combines microphones with machine learning to perform analysis of sounds it picks up from the station, which it can use to effectively establish a healthy baseline, and then continually use new audio data to compare in order to get advance notice of potential mechanical issues via changes that could signal problems.

SoundSee will be mobile via installation on Astrobee, an autonomous floating cube-shaped robot that took its first totally self-guided flight in reduced gravity in June this year. Astrobee’s roving role is a perfect way for Bosch’s SoundSee tech, which it developed in partnership with Astrobotic and NASA, to work on and develop its autonomous sensing tech which it will eventually use to provide info about how systems are currently performing on the ISS, and when specific systems might need maintenance or repairs – ideally before it becomes an issue.

The first autonomous flight of Astrobee took place in June, 2019 on the ISS.

As with other things that Astrobee is designed to help with, SoundSee’s ultimate aim is to automate things that the astronaut crew of the ISS currently have to do manually. Already, SoundSee has been undergoing extensive ground testing here on Earth in a simulated environment similar to what it will experience on the ISS, but once in space, it’ll face the real test of its intended use scenario.

New Nvidia Shield Android TV streaming device leaks via Amazon listing

The fact that Nvidia is updating its Shield TV hardware has already been telegraphed via an FCC filing, but a leak earlier today paints much more of a detailed picture. An Amazon listing for a new Nvidia Shield Pro set-top streaming device went live briefly before being taken down, showing a familiar hardware design and a new remote control and listing some of the forthcoming feature updates new to this generation of hardware.

The listing, captured by the eagle-eyed Android TV Rumors and shared via Twitter, includes a $199.99 price point, specs that include 3GB of RAM, 2x USB ports, a new Nvidia Tegra X1+ chip and 16GB of on-board storage. In addition to the price, the Amazon listing had a release date for the new hardware of October 28.

If this Amazon page is accurate (and it looks indeed like an official product page that one would expect from Nvidia), the new Shield TV’s processor will be “up to 25% faster than the previous generation,” and will offer “next-generation AI upscaling” for improving the quality of HD video on 4K-capable displays.

It’ll offer support for Dolby Vision HDR, plus surround sound with Dolby Atmos support, and provide “the most 4K HDR content of any streaming media player.” There’s also built-in Google Assistant support, which was offered on the existing hardware, and it’ll work with Alexa for hands-free control.

The feature photos for the listing show a new remote control, which has a pyramid-like design, as well as a lot more dedicated buttons on the face. There’s backlighting, and an IR blaster for TV control, as well as a “built-in lost remote locator” according to the now-removed Amazon page.

This Amazon page certainly paints a comprehensive picture of what to expect, and it looks like a compelling update to be sure. The listing is gone now, however, so stay tuned to find out if this is indeed the real thing, and if this updated streamer will indeed be available soon.

UPDATE: Yet another Nvidia leak followed the first, this time through retailer Newegg (via The Verge). This is different, however, and features a Shield TV device (no “Pro” in the name) that has almost all the same specs, but a much smaller design that includes a microSD card, and seems to have half the amount of on-board storage (8GB versus 16GB) and a retail price of around $150.

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Rocket Lab successfully launches fifth Electron rocket this year

Rocket Lab has added another successful commercial launch to its track record: The rocket startup’s ‘As The Crow Flies’ mission took off today from its LC-1 launch site in New Zealand as planned. The rocket took off at 9:22 PM ET (6:22 PM PT), during its second launch opportunity of the day after the first window was pushed due to high altitude winds.

This is the ninth Electron launch for the company thus far, and the eighth mission for a commercial customer (the first was a test mission in 2017) since it began ferrying payloads for paying clients in 2018. Today’s launch carried a satellite called ‘Palisade’ for client Astro Digital, which is a technology demonstrator that will test the company’s next-generation geocommunications satellite design.

This mission was a late-stage substitute, swapping in for another Rocket Lab client who had to delay their own launch. Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck told TechCrunch that “Electron is a launch on demand service — we’re ready when the launch customer is,” highlighting the flexibility of the launch service they offer to adapt to the needs of their customers.

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After successful launch and kick stage separation, the Astro Digital satellite now awaits its final deployment into its target orbit, which should happen in the next few hours. We’ll update with the results of that maneuver.

Watch Rocket Lab’s next Electron rocket launch live

Rocket Lab is launching its ninth Electron rocket today, with the launch set for 00:41 UTC (8:41 PM ET/5:41 PM PT) [Update: They’re now targeting 01:22 UTC (9:22 PM ET/6:22 PM PT)]. The mission, called “As The Crow Flies,” will be taking off from the company’s LC-1 launchpad in New Zealand, carrying a payload from Astro Digital to orbit.

The launch was actually supposed to take a different spacecraft up to low Earth Orbit, but the payload was swapped late last month – an unusual move for a rocket launch, and one that Rocket Lab is using to demonstrate the flexibility of its commercial service model. Rocket Lab’s other customer had a delay, and Astro Digital was ready to send up one of its ‘Corvus’ imaging satellites, so it got to move up the timing of its launch as a result.

Rocket Lab is currently on track to launch as planned, and the launch stream for the mission will be live above starting at around 20 minutes out from the T-0 launch window.

NASA extends contact with Boeing for SLS rocket, paving the way for up to 10 Artemis missions

NASA has a new contract extension in place with Boeing, which will cover rocket stages for its Space Launch System (SLS) beyond Artemis I and Artemis II, the missions covered under the current contract it holds with the aerospace company. The new contract includes production of the core stage of the rocket for Artemis III, which is the mission set for 2024 that NASA intends to bring the first American woman and next American man to the surface of the Moon.

The contract also includes permission for Boeing to place orders for key “long-lead materials” to be used in the building of future SLS core rockets, including as many as 10 to be used in missions beyond Artemis III. The goal is to give Boeing time and opportunity to secure better pricing for parts it can order in bulk, and also to ensure it can lock down parts that are in short supply or require a longer head’s up period to ensure production happens in time with delivery requirements and deadlines.

NASA and Boeing will still have to finalize the full and final details of the contract that will cover the remaining balance of the core stages (up to 10) and as many as eight Exploration Upper Stages (EUS). The EUS is a second stage rocket that will be fuelled by liquid oxygen and hydrogen, and will be used to send payloads launched aboard SLS beyond low-Earth orbit, with the first one targeted to fly on Artemis VI, with the ultimate aim of using it to propel cargo to deep space destinations.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has been on a cross U.S. whistle-stop tour in the past couple of months, checking in on various key manufacturing facilities and supplier sites for those involved in both Artemis and the commercial crew launch program. This week, he presented the new xEMU and Orion Crew Survival spacesuit designs for the first time. Meanwhile, NASA Acting Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Ken Bowersox said at a presentation on October 10 that NASA’s first SLS mission could slip from the end of next year to the middle of 2021, which would put more pressure on that 2024 target for the first Artemis Moon landing mission.