Relativity Space could change the economics of private space launches

The private launch market is an area of a lot of focus in the emerging space startup industry, not least because it unlocks the true potential of most of the rest of the market. But so far, we can count on one hand the number of new, private space launch companies that have actually transported payloads to orbit. Out of a number of firms racing to be the next to actually launch, LA-based Relativity Space is a prime contender, with a unique approach that could set it apart from the crowd.

I spoke to CEO Tim Ellis about what makes his company different and about what kind of capabilities it will bring to the launch market once it starts flying, something the company aims to do beginning next year. Fresh off a $140 million funding round in October 2019, Relativity’s model could provide another seismic shift in the economics of doing business in space, and has the potential to be as disruptive to the landscape — if not more so — as SpaceX.

“We built the largest metal 3D printers in the world, which we call a ‘Stargate,’ ” Ellis said. “It’s actually replacing a whole factory full of fixed tooling — and having all of our processes being 3D printing, we really view that as being the future because that lets us automate almost the entire rocket production, and then also reduce part count for much larger launch vehicles so our rocket can carry a 1,250-kg payload to orbit.” Because Relativity Space’s launch vehicle is nearly 10 times larger than those made by Rocket Lab or Orbex, “it’s a totally different payload class.”

That difference is crucial, and represents the paradigm shift that Relativity Space could engender once its products are introduced to the commercial market. The company knows first-hand how its approach fundamentally differs from existing launch providers like Blue Origin and SpaceX — Ellis previously worked as a propulsion engineer at Blue Origin, and co-founder and CTO Jordan Noone worked on SpaceX’s Dragon capsule program. Ellis said Relativity’s approach won’t just unlock cost savings due to automation, it will also provide clients with the ability to launch payloads that weren’t possible with previous launch vehicle design constraints.

Firefly Aerospace investigating a fire that resulted from a test of its Alpha rocket’s engines

Space launch startup Firefly Aerospace encountered a setback as it kicked off the first “hot” tests of its Alpha launch vehicle’s engines – a fire resulted from its first test engine fire. The fire occurred at 6:23 PM local time on Wednesday during the first planned 5-second fire in a series of test firings Firefly intended to run for Alpha at its Briggs, Texas facility. The fire was located “in the engine bay at the base of the rocket’s stage,” Firefly has said in a new statement about the incident.

Firefly’s engineers immediately stopped the engine test, and the facility’s fire suppression system put out the fire, the company says. The team is currently reviewing data around the test to identify the cause, and will perform a complete investigation to figure out what’s going on and then report those results, according to the statement. Firefly also says that “at no time during the test were Firefly operations personnel or the public in danger” and adds that it’s working with local emergency response and governing authorities throughout the investigation.

The launch startup has encountered setbacks before, though its biggest previous hurdle was of a different nature: Firefly Space Systems filed for bankruptcy protection in 2017, before returning with a slightly different corporate identity as Firefly Aerospace later that year, still under the leadership of founder and current CEO Tom Markusic. Firefly was rescued at least in part thanks to a lifeline investment from Noosphere Ventures, and said at the time it had enough runway to fund it fully through development and flight of Alpha, an expendable launch vehicle that will be able to delivery as much as a metric ton to low-Earth orbit.

This fire is a setback, but it does appear that it was at least quickly contained and didn’t result in any kind of explosion or total destruction of the test launch vehicle. It’s too soon to say what this will mean for Firefly’s timelines, which at the end of last year, anticipated a first launch of Alpha sometime between this February and March.

Anomalies are part of the process of developing new launch systems and spacecraft, so this isn’t necessarily a major blow for Firefly – depending, of course, on what the investigation reveals regarding the ultimate cause.

Firefly’s statement on the incident is included in full below.

Firefly Aerospace maintains a 200-acre manufacturing and test facility in Briggs, Texas, 27 miles north of its headquarters.

On January 22, 2020, test engineers were conducting a planned test of the first stage of the company’s “Alpha” launch vehicle. The test was to be the first in a series of propulsion tests to verify design and operation of the stage, and involved a short, 5-second firing of the stage’s four engines.

At 6:23 pm local time, the stage’s engines were fired, and a fire broke out in the engine bay at the base of the rocket’s stage. The 5-second test was immediately aborted and the test facility’s fire suppression system extinguished the fire. The cause of the anomaly is under investigation. Firefly engineers are reviewing test data from the stage to identify potential causes for the test failure, and Firefly will share results of that investigation once it is complete.

Firefly is committed to workplace safety, and at no time during the test were Firefly operations personnel or the public in danger. Firefly is coordinating closely with local authorities and emergency response personnel as it investigates the anomaly and refines its contingency procedures.

Lego made an International Space Station kit, including Space Shuttle and robotic arm

Lego is releasing an official International Space Station kit, which includes a scale model of the orbital platform, along with a miniature dockable Space Shuttle, a deployable satellite and two astronaut minifigurines. The kit is made up of 864 pieces, and celebrates the science station’s over 20 years in operation. It was originally suggested through Lego’s Ideas platform, which crowdsources ideas from the Lego fan community.

The new kit will be available starting in February, and will retail for $69.99. It looks like a fairly involved kit, and that’s backed up by the recommended age for the assembly being pegged at 16+. The station is presented in al its glory, including its large, fan-like solar power arrays, as well as its docking station, which works with both the Space Shuttle mini model and a cargo capsule that’s also included as part of the set.

As mentioned, there’s also a satellite as part of the kit, and you can make use of the robotic Canadarm that’s also part of the station model to deploy the satellite. Meanwhile, should the ISS require any servicing, two included astronaut minifigs can be tasked with any repairs or upgrades – just like those provided by actual astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir this week to upgrade the lab’s on-board battery systems.

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The real ISS, a collaborative effort between NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, Europe’s ESA and Canada’s CSA, was first launched in 1998, and has been operating continuously with people on board for just over 19 years (its official 20th ‘operational’ anniversary is this November. The station has exceeded its original intended mission lifespan, but it’s expected to continue serving as an orbital science facility until at least 2030 thanks to mission expansions.

Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2020 is a mission for the National Reconnaissance Office

Rocket Lab has announced its first mission for 2020 – a dedicated rocket launch on behalf of client the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) with a launch window that opens on January 31. The Electron rocket Rocket Lab is using for this mission will take off from its Launch Complex 1 (LC-1) in New Zealand, and it’ll be the first mission Rocket Lab secured under a new contract the NRO is using that allows it to source launch providers quickly and at short notice.

This new Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket (RASR) contract model is pretty much ideal for Rocket Lab, since the whole company’s thesis is based around using small, affordable rockets that can be produced quickly thanks to carbon 3D printing used in the manufacturing process. Rocket Lab has already demonstrated the flexibility of its model by bumping a client to the top of the queue when another dropped out last year, and its ability to win an NRO mission under the RASR contract model is further proof that its aim of delivering responsive, timely rocket launch services for small payloads is hitting a market sweet spot.

The NRO is a U.S. government agency that’s in charge of developing, building, launching and operating intelligence satellites. It was originally established in 1961, but was only officially declassified and made public in 1992. Its mandate includes supporting the work of both the U.S. Intelligence Community, as well as the Department of Defense.

Increasingly, the defense industry is interested in small satellite operations, mainly because using smaller, more efficient and economical satellites means that you can respond to new needs in the field more quickly, and that you can also build resiliency into your observation and communication network through sheer volume. Traditional expensive, huge intelligence and military satellites carry giant price tags, have multi-year development timelines and offer sizeable targets to potential enemies without much in the way of redundancy. Small satellites, especially acting as part of larger constellations, mitigate pretty much all of these potential weaknesses.

One of the reasons that Rocket Lab opened its new Launch Complex 2 (LC-2) launch pad in Wallops Island, Virgina, is to better serve customers from the U.S. defense industry. Its first mission from that site, currently set to happen sometime this spring, is for the U.S. Air Force.

Soft Robotics raises $23 million from investors including industrial robot giant FANUC

Robotics startup company Soft Robotics has closed its Series B round of funding, raising $23 million led by Calibrate Ventures and Material Impact, and including participation from exiting investors including Honeywell, Yahama, Hyperplane and more. This round also brings in FANUC, the world’s largest maker of industrial robots and a recently announced strategic partner for Soft Robotics .

The company said in a press release announcing this latest round of funding that the round was oversubscribed, which suggests it isn’t looking to glut itself on capital investors, given that this $23 million follows a similarly sized $20 million round that closed in 2018 which it also referred to as “oversubscribed.” Prior to that, Soft Robotics had raised $5 million in a Series A round closed in 2015. It has plenty of large, global clients already, so it’s probably not hurting for revenue.

Soft Robotics is focused on developing robotic grippers that, as you might’ve guessed from the name, make use of soft material endpoints that can more easily grip a range of different objects without the kind of extremely specific and tolerance-allergic complex programming that’s required for most traditional industrial robotic claws.

With its 2018 funding raise, Soft Robotics said that it was expanding further into food and beverage, as well as doubling down on its presence in the retail and logistics industries. This round and its new partnership with FANUC (which involves a new integrated system that pairs its mGrip robotic gripper with a new Mini-P controller, all with simple integration to FANUC’s existing lineup of industrial robots) will give it strategic and functional access to what is the most influenentioal industrial robotics company in the world.

This round will specifically help Soft Robotics spend on growth, looking to increase its variability even further and work on expanding its food packaging and consumer goods applications, as well as diving into e-commerce and logistics – specifically to help automate and improve the returns process, a costly and ever-growing challenge as more retail moves online.

Max Q: SpaceX succeeds with a spectacular Crew Dragon test launch

Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.

We’re off and running with good milestones achieved for NASA’s commercial crew program, which means it’s more likely than ever we’ll actually see astronauts launch from U.S. soil before the year is out.

If that’s not enough to get you pumped about the space sector in 2020, we also have a great overview of 2019 in space tech investment, and a look forward at what’s happening next year from Space Angels’ Chad Anderson. Plus, we announced our own dedicated space event, which is happening this June.

SpaceX successfully tests Crew Dragon safety system

SpaceX launched its Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft on Sunday. No one was on board, but the test was crucial because it included firing off the in-flight abort (IFA) safety system that will protect actual astronauts should anything go wrong with future real missions.

The SpaceX in-flight abort test included this planned fireball, as the Falcon 9 rocket it launched upon broke up.

The IFA seems to have worked as intended, propelling the Crew Dragon away from the Falcon 9 it was launched on top of at high speed. In an actual emergency, this would ensure that the astronauts aboard were transported to a safe distance, and then returned to Earth at a safe speed using the onboard parachutes, which seem to have deployed exactly as planned.

Elon Musk details Starship operational plans

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is looking a bit further ahead, in the meantime, to when his company’s Starship spacecraft is fully operational and making regular trips to Mars. Musk said he wants to be launching Starships as much as thrice daily, with the goal of moving megatons of cargo and up to a million people to Mars at full target operating pace.

SpinLaunch raises $35M more for catapult launcher

Secretive space launch startup SpinLaunch is adding to its operating capital with a new $35 million investment, a round led by Airbus Ventures, GV and more. The company wants to use rotational force to effectively fling payloads out of Earth’s atmosphere – without using any rockets. Sounds insane, but I’ve heard from people much smarter than me that the company, and the core concept, is sound.

What 2020 holds for space startup invesment

I spoke to Space Angels CEO Chat Anderson about his company’s quarterly tracking of private investment in the space technology sector, which they’ve been doing since 2017. They’re uniquely well-positioned to combine data from both public sources and the companies they speak to, and perform due diligence on, so there’s no better place to look for insight on where we’ve been, and an educated perspective on where we’re going. (ExtraCrunch subscription required).

Rocket Lab is expanding its LA presence

Rocket Lab was born in New Zealand, and still operates a facility and main launch pad there, but it’s increasingly building out its U.S. presence, too. Now, the company shared its plans to build a combined HQ/Mission Control/rocket fab facility in LA. Construction is already underway, and it should be completed later this year.

Orbex lands a new customer with lots of rideshare mission experience

‘Rideshare’ in space means something entirely different than it does on Earth – you’re not hailing an Uber, you’re booking one portion of cargo space aboard a rocket with a group of other clients. Orbex has a new customer that bought up all the capacity for one of its future rideshare missions, planned for 2022. The new launch provider hasn’t actually launched any rockets, however, so it’ll have to pass that key milestone before it makes good on that new contract.

We’re having a space event!

Yes, it’s official: TechCrunch is hosting its on space-focused tech event on June 25 in LA. This will be a one-day, high-profile program featuring discussions with the top companies and people in space tech, startups and investment. We’ll be revealing more about programming over the next few months, but if you get in now you can guarantee your spot.

SpaceX could catch future Crew Dragons with astronauts onboard using ships at sea

SpaceX demonstrated a safety system that will protect astronauts in the case of any unfortunate unforeseen accidents in future Crew Dragon flights, which included the spacecraft splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, but during a post-mission press conference SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested future return trips for the human-rated spacecraft could look very different.

Musk suggested that SpaceX could eventually seek to recover the Crew Dragon capsule using ships at sea that ‘catch’ the spacecraft as it lands, rather than allowing it to splash down and recovering it from the water. SpaceX is in the process of testing a similar system to recover the fairings (large protective covers) it uses to enclose cargo during its existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.

“This requires ongoing discussions with with with NASA, but I think it’d be quite quite cool to use the boats that we are using to catch the fairing,” Musk said.
“Once that is really well-established, [we could attempt] to catch the catch Dragon as it’s coming in from orbit, and then that would alleviate some of the constraints around a water landing.”

This could be a major advantage for SpaceX in terms of cost and reusability of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which it eventually hopes to be able to fly both for NASA and for other commercial clients. Still, Musk emphasized that this is a goal for considerably further out beyond Crew Dragon’s actual start of service life, since it both requires NASA’s buy-in and certification, and also requires that SpaceX actually demonstrate their ability to reliably catch the cargo fairing first. So far, it’s caught one half of one fairing, but has also had a number of failed attempts.

“We obviously need to recover [the fairing] very reliably before we we consider trying to catch the catch the Dragon,” he added. “But I think that would be also an improvement, as opposed to lightning in the water.”

First crewed SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launch could happen in Q2 this year

SpaceX and NASA hosted a press conference following their successful test of the Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort system on Sunday to discuss the mission and next steps. The first question asked by media in attendance was about what this means for the timeline for a mission with actual crew on board, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk provided an answer sketching out a rough schedule of events.

“The hardware necessary for the first crewed launch, we believe will be ready by the end of February,” he said. “However, there’s still a lot of work once the hardware is ready to just cross-check everything, triple-check, quadruple-check, go over everything everything again until every every stone has been turned over three or four times. And then there’s also the schedule for getting to the Space Station, because the Space Station has a lot of lot of things going to it, so what’s the right timing because, and the collective wisdom at this point is that we think that hardware will be ready in q1, most likely in February, but no later than March, and that we think it appears probable that the first crewed launch would occur in the second quarter.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine followed up with additional perspective from the agency’s side, noting that there could be some shifting mission parameters for that first trip that change the timing of when it actually goes up.

“I think, I think that’s a very fair assessment,” Bridenstine said. “I would also say we have to make some decisions on our end from a NASA perspective. Do we want that first crew to be a short duration, or do we want it to be a longer duration? If it’s going to be a longer duration, then we have to have some additional training for our astronauts to actually be prepared to do things on the International Space Station that we weren’t planning to have that initial test crew necessarily do.”

Bridenstine added that those decisions will be made in the “coming weeks,” and depending on whether they opt to make this first mission a quick trip, or a longer duration mission with more objectives, it could change their timing due to scheduling and training requirements for the astronauts actually going up aboard Crew Dragon.

SpaceX successfully completes key test of its Crew Dragon human spacecraft

SpaceX completed a crucial test of a key safety system of its Crew Dragon spacecraft today. The test involved launching its Crew Dragon using a Falcon 9, though without any actual crew on board. The launch was then intentionally cut short, with the In-Flight Abort (IFA) system triggered to separate the Crew Dragon from the rocket about about a minute and a half into the launch process.

As intended, the Dragon capsule used its eight Super Draco engines to quickly move itself away from the rocket, which in a real mission would ensure the safety of the astronauts on board the vehicle in case of any unexpected failure of the rocket. The Crew Dragon’s engines can propel it half a mile in just 7.5 seconds, exerting up to 4 Gs (4x the force of Earth’s gravity) on astronauts during this acceleration.

The Crew Dragon then deployed its parachutes once it reached a safe distance, and descended to the Atlantic Ocean for splashdown, where crews are in the process of recovering the capsule. In a real emergency scenario, an elite Air Force rescue team would deploy as quickly as possible to rescue the crew, for but this demo, the recovery could take two hours or more since the main objective is recovering the capsule intact, safely.

The Falcon 9 rocket used her had flown on three previous missions, and was in fact the first booster produced as part of SpaceX’s run of human-rated variants of the Falcon 9 design. As intended, the Falcon 9 broke up once the Crew Dragon ejected, with the on-board fuel generating a pretty impressive explosion.

This isn’t the first time SpaceX has demonstrated that its Crew Dragon system is nearly ready for human flight. It performed a successful pad abort test in 2015, which demonstrated that it could cancel the launch as intended before actual liftoff, in a safe manner. The Crew Dragon’s Super Dracos were also successfully tested in November of last year with a static test fire on the ground. SpaceX also encountered a fatal error during an earlier test of the Super Draco in 2019, but subsequently identified the cause working with NASA and has made changes to ensure that fault isn’t repeated.

SpaceX also performed a full ucnrewed demo mission with Crew Dragon last year, which saw the capsule launch atop a Falcon 9, deploy to orbit, rendez-vous and dock with the International Space Station (ISS) on its own, and then return to Earth. That means it’s checked a lot of the boxes required for actually flying its first astronauts for an initial demonstration mission before it begins commercial service – and that should take place later this year.

Watch SpaceX launch its Crew Dragon astronaut spacecraft for a key safety test

SpaceX is looking to launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft using a Falcon 9 rocket today, in a crucial test of the human-rated spacecraft’s In-Flight Abort (IFA) system. This safety feature will separate the Crew Dragon from the Falcon 9 rocket early, propelling the spacecraft (and any astronauts who would be on board, during a real mission) to a safe distance at extremely high speed.

The test was originally scheduled for Saturday, but weather prevented that from being a workable option. Now, SpaceX’s launch window opens today at 8 AM EST (5 AM PST) and lasts for six hours. SpaceX and NASA are currently aiming for a 10 AM EST (7 AM PST) liftoff time during that window, in order to ensure that weather both for launch and for recovery of the Crew Dragon spacecraft in the Atlantic Ocean are optimal. Depending on conditions, that time could slip again, or if they exceed the launch window, push to a backup date on Monday.

SpaceX and NASA are making sure everything is as good as it can be for this mission in terms of weather conditions, so it’s subject to stricter criteria than SpaceX’s average cargo launch. This reflects what the private space company and its government agency partner would do were their actual astronauts on board, too, since astronaut safety is the number one priority to consider when performing crewed launches.

During the mission, the In-Flight Abort process is set to trigger automatically at about 84 seconds into the launch, when the rocket and its payload are roughly 60,000 feet above the Earth. In real crewed mission conditions, this would be used in case something was going wrong with the rocket, in order to give the astronauts on board the best possible chance to escape in the unlikely event of anything potentially dangerous happening like a rocket exploding within the atmosphere.

The goal here is to study the Crew Capsule, and to recover it quickly in order to gather the data that’s being collected on board, which should provide key info about what a human astronaut would’ve experienced were they inside during the IFA process. That means conditions on the ocean are pretty much as important as conditions on the launch pad, since recovery crews will be working to retrieve the capsule and NASA and SpaceX want to ensure their safety, too.

The broadcast should begin about 15 minutes prior to the target liftoff time, so currently that means 9:45 AM EST (6:45 AM PST). We’ll update this post if weather conditions cause further delays.