Here’s how SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will look motoring in from sea

If you’re coming back from space at high speeds, it’s generally safer to descend over water than land, for a number of reasons. Certainly SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will do so, and this is how it’ll look when it comes back to land aboard the GO Searcher retrieval ship. Expect a bit more of a hero’s welcome, though.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the GO Searcher; it got a bit of publicity late last year when it underwent some helicopter landing tests at sea.

See, the GO Searcher isn’t just a giant mitt like the boats that are intended to catch falling fairings; they not only have to collect a large, heavy capsule from the surface of the water but accommodate (and potentially administer medical aid to) anyone on board. So this is more of a mobile headquarters than a utility boat.

Dock lurkers at Port Canaveral in Florida (near the famous cape, naturally) spotted the ship returning from, presumably, some mock operations out at sea.

That does appear to be a Crew Dragon capsule (not likely an actual production capsule but a full-scale mock-up or prototype) on the back, so they probably were practicing snatching it up out of the water and setting it down softly in the boot there.

Coming back into port after practice will likely look a lot like this, though depending on the distance and mission it’s also more than possible that the safe astronauts, cosmonauts and other spacefarers will expedite their return by means of helicopter. The landing pad on the roof will be crucial if anyone is injured, of course (though there are medical facilities on board), but depending on where splashdown takes place — not to mention the weather — it might be preferable to take to the air rather than ride a slow boat to shore.

Whatever the case, you can certainly expect to see ships like this one arriving with great regularity soon. I’ve asked SpaceX for more details on this particular operation and whether it is related to the company’s upcoming Crew Dragon test flights.

SpaceX will lay off hundreds to ‘become a leaner company’

SpaceX plans to lay off approximately 10 percent of its workforce in order to manage its costs, the company confirmed to TechCrunch today. First reported by Ars Technica’s Eric Berger, the news comes as the company embarks on an ambitious plan to develop and test an interplanetary spacecraft while simultaneously performing frequent orbital launches.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, SpaceX explained that the layoffs are in pursuit of becoming a “leaner company” and that they were only necessary due to “the extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead.”

To continue delivering for our customers and to succeed in developing interplanetary spacecraft and a global space-based Internet, SpaceX must become a leaner company. Either of these developments, even when attempted separately, have bankrupted other organizations. This means we must part ways with some talented and hardworking members of our team. We are grateful for everything they have accomplished and their commitment to SpaceX’s mission. This action is taken only due to the extraordinarily difficult challenges ahead and would not otherwise be necessary.

The company employed at least 7,000 people in late 2017 when COO Gwynne Shotwell last gave a number — which means around 700 will lose their jobs.

I asked SpaceX for more information on where these jobs might come from — engineering, manufacturing, sales, certain projects, etc — but apart from the statement the company did not offer any answers.

Layoffs of this scale ring alarm bells pretty much across the board, but the company has insisted that it is solvent and successful. And indeed even if it were not, it is hard to imagine that its extremely successful and increasingly reliable Falcon 9 launch vehicle would cease operations any time soon. In fact one might expect launch numbers to increase with financial difficulties in order to increase revenue.

Why such a major reduction in workforce, and why now? The company’s excuse of wanting to be lean doesn’t explain much; SpaceX can hardly have any fat to trim off it considering how young and small it is compared with other aerospace concerns, as well as the breadth of its services and research. It seems unlikely that there are hundreds of middle managers loafing their way to a paycheck. It’s far more likely SpaceX barely has enough employees to do what it already does.

But mounting costs may simply have caught up with SpaceX’s ambitions; it has, after all, been forging forward on multiple fronts, any single one of which would be more than enough for a single company.

It has been building and actively improving its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles for years, with the former now more or less in a final state but the latter far from it. It has been researching and prototyping an interplanetary spacecraft, formerly known as the BFR and now Starship. It is building and testing a crewed capsule intended to bring astronauts to the International Space Station. And it is planning a 400-strong constellation of satellites to deliver high speed internet connectivity at a global scale.

So it is perhaps understandable that despite raising $450 million in 2017 and having another round of a similar size rumored to be in negotiation right now, the money is pouring out just about as fast as investors can pour it in. Hundreds of millions in contracts help as well, but they bring costs and responsibilities with them. Its many projects hold the promise of riches, but require years of incubation and investment.

The most logical place to cut from would perhaps be the Falcon 9 development team; CEO Elon Musk indicated that large scale R&D on the platform was ending and being reallocated to the Falcon Heavy and Starship projects. Therefore there may well be designers and engineers who are more easy to part with than others. But that is merely speculation.

All this is just to say that SpaceX’s financials and operations are too complicated to write off major layoffs as simply due to revenue shortfalls or overzealous hiring. I have asked SpaceX for more details and will update this post if I hear back; in the meantime we are very likely to hear more from the company, or the talkative Musk, in the next few days.

Elon Musk shows off the assembled Starship test rocket

After weeks teasing renderings and production photos, Elon Musk finally showed off the finished Starship test rocket last night.

As you can well see, the Starship test rocket has a stainless steel skin, which had a few people scratching their heads. Steel is indeed quite durable, but weighs more than other materials used in rockets like carbon fiber, aluminum, and titanium. Musk argues, however, that stainless steel’s resistance to extreme temperature, especially heat, makes it a better fit for this type of rocket.

The Starship rocket, previously called the BFR, is an integral piece of the SpaceX road map. It’s meant to take the place of the Falcon and Falcon Heavy rockets as a primary launch vehicle, which means lots of re-entry (which means lots of heat).

This test model, currently at the Boca Chica, Texas launch site, is meant for suborbital VTOL tests, which will take place in March. The orbital version will be taller, with thicker skins, and a more smoothly curving nose section, with launches on the books for 2020.

Astronomers spot more mysterious radio signals from far outside the galaxy

Whenever some new “cosmic puzzle” crops up, you always have to be ready for the other shoe to drop. But just because something isn’t an alien message or Ringworld doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting science. Today’s shoe drop concerns “fast radio bursts” coming from a distant galaxy — but don’t expect a secret message from an advanced civilization.

Fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are short, intense blasts of radio waves that come from far outside our galaxy. No one knows what causes them, but they’re unlike anything else we’ve observed — and their uniqueness makes them a prime target for detection in noisy data.

A SETI project snatched a few just this fall, but another effort using a brand new radio telescope called CHIME that essentially points at the whole sky and chooses where to “look” using software. In a pair of papers published today, researchers say they’ve found 13 new FRBs using the method.

“The telescope has no moving parts. Instead it uses digital signal processing to ‘point’ the telescope and reconstruct where the radio waves are coming from. This is done using clever algorithms and a couple of giant computer clusters that sit beside the telescope and crunch away at the data in real time,” explained Kiyoshi Masui, an MIT scientist on the team behind CHIME’s discoveries, in a news release.

This kind of software-defined operation is sure to become more common as computing power increases and the effectiveness of smaller arrays increases.

You can see where in the universe they appeared in the video here:

Hopefully that helps.

Naturally everyone wants to think it’s spaceships or planets full of hyperintelligent broadcasters sending out signals to us, though of course they would have had to send it a long, long time ago. More likely it’s “powerful astrophysical objects more likely to be in locations with special characteristics,” the scientists speculated.

Supernovas, black holes, quasars — there are lots of strange, high-energy items out there in the universe, and who knows what happens when they combine? The FRBs observed recently also exhibited a much lower wavelength than those seen previously, so there appears to be quite a variety.

But what’s even rarer than FRBs is repeating FRBs; only one has ever been found, via the massive Arecibo array in Puerto Rico. That is, until these scientists spotted another.

When there was only the one, it was conceivable that the occurrence was a cosmic anomaly — perhaps some incredibly rare event that only happens once in a thousand millennia. But two in a handful of years? That suggests they’re far more common than that, and now that we know what to look for we’re likely to find more.

It might not be an alien civilization, but something totally new to science is a pretty nice consolation prize.

Moon-bound billionaire supplants nugget lover’s most retweeted tweet

A Japanese billionaire who’s paying Elon Musk to fly him around the Moon, assuming all goes to plan with SpaceX’s giant metal phallus, has bought himself a rather different ride in the meanwhile.

The BBC reports that Yusaku Maezawa has elbowed aside nugget-loving U.S. teen, Carter Wilkerson, to bag the title of most retweeted tweet by promising to give away 100 million yen (just under $1M) in cash if people RT the tweet.

His 5 million+ Twitter followers probably helped too.

At the time of writing Maezawa’s January 5 tweet has ~4.6M RTs (and counting), beating out Wilkerson’s April 2017 tweet pleading for free chicken nuggets which now has circa 3.6M RTs.

Sorry kid.

Of course it’s not a fair fight. Wilkerson had just 138 Twitter followers to provide native uplift when his brief plea for “Nuggs” went viral.

Prior to Wilkerson, the world record retweeted tweet was a celebrity group selfie.

So we can add something else to the list of things money can buy (fine art; a ticket to the moon; faux popularity).

In true entrepreneur spirit, Maezawa, founder of Japanese online clothing retailer Zozo, is using his puffed up profile (i.e. as the man who Musk might fly to the moon) to drum up business for his clothing business.

Clearly he’s hoping to get more than just a trip to outer space for the “lot of money” he’s paying Musk for the chance to play lunar tourist. So the key lesson is demand the moon and back folks.

Hence the world’s most retweeted tweet now promotes a Spring sale. Late stage capitalism eat yer heart out.

We can at least be thankful the tweet wasn’t crypto related. After all, given the Musk connection, that sort of spam would have been rather more typical.

Swarms of tiny satellites could act like one giant space telescope

It won’t be long before the James Webb Space Telescope is launched, an enormous and complex feat of engineering — but all one piece. That’s a good thing for now, but new research suggests that in the near future giant telescopes like the Webb might be replaced (or at least augmented) by swarms of tiny spacecraft working in concert.

One advance, from Ben-Gurion University in Israel, is a leap in the capabilities of what are called synthetic aperture systems. It’s a technique where a single small camera moves across a space, capturing images as it goes, and by very careful analysis of the data it collects, it can produce imagery like that created by a much larger camera — essentially synthesizing a bigger aperture.

As documented in a paper published today in Optica, the team leapfrogs existing methods in an interesting way. Two satellites move in synchrony around the edge of a circle, collecting data as they go and beaming it to a third stationary one; this circle describes the synthetic aperture the two cameras are creating.

“We found that you only need a small part of a telescope lens to obtain quality images,” explained BGU grad student Angika Bulbul, who led the research, in a news release. “Even by using the perimeter aperture of a lens, as low as 0.43 percent, we managed to obtain similar image resolution compared to the full aperture area of mirror/lens-based imaging systems.”

In other words, they were basically able to get the results of a camera 50 times the size. That would be impressive anywhere, but up in space it’s especially important. Putting something as huge and complex as the Webb into orbit is an incredibly complicated and drawn out endeavor. And it’s putting a lot of eggs in one (very carefully checked and rechecked) basket.

But if you could instead use a handful of satellites working together, and just replace one if it fails, that really opens up the field. “We can slash the huge cost, time and material needed for gigantic traditional optical space telescopes with large curved mirrors,” Bulbul said.

One of the challenges of space telescopes, however, is that they need to take measurements with extreme precision. And keeping a satellite perfectly still is hard enough, to say nothing of having it move perfectly to within fractions of a millimeter.

To keep on track, right now many satellites use reliable fixed sources of light, like bright stars, as reference points when calculating various things relating to their operations. Some astronomers have even used lasers to excite a point high in the atmosphere to provide a sort of artificial star for these systems to use.

These methods both have their strengths and weaknesses, but MIT researchers think they’ve found a more permanent, high-precision solution: a “guide star” satellite that would sit thousands of miles out and train a strong laser on the Earth and its orbital region.

This light source would be reliable, steady and highly visible; satellites could use it to calculate their position and the minute changes to their imaging apparatus caused by heat and radiation, perhaps to a degree not possible with actual stars or atmospheric dots.

Both these intriguing technologies are still very much in the lab, but theory is where all big advances start, and it could be that in a few years, swarms of satellites will be sent into space not to provide terrestrial communications, but to create a massive synthetic telescope looking out on the universe.

Boom Supersonic nabs $100M to build its Mach-2.2 commercial airliner

One Denver-based startup’s long-shot bid to move today’s commercial jets beyond supersonic speeds just got a big injection of cash.

Boom Supersonic, which is building and designing what it calls the “world’s first economically viable supersonic airliner,” announced today that they’ve closed a $100 million Series B funding round led by Emerson Capital. Other investors include Y Combinator Continuity, Caffeinated Capital, SV Angel, Sam Altman, Paul Graham, Ron Conway, Michael Marks and Greg McAdoo.

The startup has raised around $140 million to date. The team has about 100 employees today, and hopes to double that number this year with its new funding.

“Today, the time and cost of long-distance travel prevent us from connecting with far-off people and places,” said Boom CEO Blake Scholl in a statement. “Overture fares will be similar to today’s business class—widening horizons for tens of millions of travelers. Ultimately, our goal is to make high-speed flight affordable to all.”

Alongside the fund raise, Boom is further detailing its plans to begin testing its Mach-2.2 commercial airliner this year. The company is aiming to launch a 1:3 scale prototype of its planned Overture airliner this year called the XB-1. The two-seater plane will serve to validate the technologies being built for the full-sized jet.

The startup’s supersonic Overture jet will hold 55 passengers, and the team hopes that the costs of flying more than double the speed of sound will be comparable to today’s business class ticket prices. The company already has pre-orders from Virgin Group and Japan Airlines for 30 airliners .

$100 million may seem like a lot of money, but the development costs for lengthy projects like these can quickly race towards the billions of dollar suggesting that if they carry out their mission, they’re going to need a whole lot more.

China’s lunar probe makes history by successfully soft-landing on the far side of the moon

It’s not Lunar New Year yet, but there is something new on the moon. In a major milestone for space exploration, China announced that its lunar program has successfully soft-landed a probe on the far side of the moon, making it the first one to do so. The historic landing was reported by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, earlier today.

According to the China National Space Administration, the probe, consisting of a lander and rover, touched down at about 10:26AM Beijing time. This is the first ever soft-landing (meaning a landing without damage or destruction to the space vehicle) on the far side of the moon, which is never visible from Earth. Named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e-4 launched on Dec. 8 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province.

The South China Morning Post reported earlier this week that the Chang’e-4 will be used for “astronomical observation using low-frequency radio, surveying the terrain and landforms, detecting the mineral composition and shallow lunar surface structure, and measuring neutron radiation and neutral atoms.” The successful soft-landing is important for space exploration because there is relatively little information about the far side of the moon compared to the side visible from Earth, which has been explored and surveyed by previous missions.

Photographs taken by earlier spacecraft, including the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 and Zond 3 (launched in 1959 and 1965, respectively) and NASA’s Lunar Orbiter program (launched in 1966), found significant differences between the far side’s terrain and the surface of the moon visible from Earth. In 1962, NASA’s Ranger 4 probe became the first spacecraft to impact on the moon, but was unable to send back data after landing.

Since direct communication between Chang’e-4 and Earth is blocked because of the probe’s position, China also launched a relay satellite called Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, that is currently 400,000 km above Earth, positioned between it and the moon.

Chang’e-4’s successful landing concludes the second phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). The first phase was the launch of Yutu, the lunar rover of Chang’e-3, which landed on the moon in December 2013, but stopped moving after 40 days due to a mechanical problem (it is still able to transmit data and photos, including true color high-definition photos). The successful landing of Chang’e-3 was another a significant milestone for China’s space program, making it only the third country after the U.S. and Soviet Union to soft-land on the moon. After Chang’e-4, the third and final phase of CLEP will be a returnable spacecraft called Chang’e-5. Set to launch by 2020, Chang’e-5 will be used to collect samples.

The New Horizons probe buzzes the most distant object ever encountered first thing tomorrow

Four billion miles from Earth, the New Horizons probe that recently sent such lovely pictures of Pluto is drawing near to the most distant object mankind has ever come close to: Ultima Thule, a mysterious rock deep in the Kuiper belt. The historic rendezvous takes place early tomorrow morning.

This is an encounter nearly 30 years in the making, if you count back to the mission’s beginnings in 1989, but it’s also been some 13 years since launch — the timing and nature of which was calculated to give the probe this opportunity after it had completed its primary mission.

New Horizons arrived at Pluto in the summer of 2015, and in its fleeting passage took thousands of photos and readings that scientists are still poring over. It taught us many things about the distant dwarf planet, but by the time it took its extraordinary parting shots of Pluto’s atmosphere, the team was already thinking about its next destination.

Given the craft’s extreme speed and the incredibly distant setting for its first mission, the options for what to investigate were limited — if you can call the billions of objects floating in the Kuiper Belt “limited.”

In fact the next destination had been chosen during a search undertaken in concert with the Hubble Space Telescope team back in 2014. Ground-based reconnaissance wasn’t exact enough, and the New Horizons had to convince Hubble’s operators basically to dedicate to their cause two weeks of the satellite’s time on short notice. After an initial rejection and “some high-stakes backroom maneuvering,” as Principal Investigator Alan Stern describes it in his book about the mission, the team made it happen, and Hubble data identified several potential targets.

Ultima Thule as first detected by New Horizons’ LORRI imager.

2014 MU69 is a rock of unknown (but probably weird) shape about 20 miles across, floating in the belt about a billion miles from Pluto. But soon it would be known by another name.

“Ultima Thule,” Stern told me in an interview onstage at Disrupt SF in September. “This is an ancient building block of planets like Pluto, formed 4 billion years ago; it’s been out there in this deep freeze, almost in absolute zero the whole time. It’s a time capsule.”

At the time, he and the team had just gotten visual confirmation of the target, though nothing more than a twinkle in the distance. He was leaving immediately after our talk to go run flyby simulations with the team.

“I’m super excited,” he told me. “That will be the most distant exploration of any world in the history of not just spaceflight, but in the history of human exploration. I don’t think anybody will top that for a long time.”

The Voyagers are the farthest human-made objects, sure, but they’ve been flying through empty space for decades. New Horizons is out here meeting strange objects in an asteroid belt. Good luck putting together another mission like that in less than a few decades.

In the time I’ve taken to write this post, New Horizons has gone from almost exactly 600,000 kilometers away from Ultima Thule to less than 538,000 (and by this you shall know my velocity) — so it’ll be there quite soon. Just about 10 hours out, making it very early morning Eastern time on New Year’s Day.

Even then, however, that’s just when New Horizons will actually encounter the object — we won’t know until the signal it sends at the speed of light arrives here on Earth 12 hours later. Pluto is far!

The first data back will confirm the telemetry and basic success of the flyby. It will also begin sending images back as soon as possible, and while it’s possible that we’ll have fabulous pictures of the object by the afternoon, it depends a great deal on how things go during the encounter. At the latest we’ll see some by the next day; media briefings are planned for January 2 and 3 for this purpose.

Once those images start flowing in, though, they may be even better in a way than those we got of Pluto. If all goes well, they’ll be capturing photos at a resolution of 35 meters per pixel, more than twice as good as the 70-80 m/px we got of Pluto. Note that these will only come later, after some basic shots confirming the flyby went as planned and allowing the team to better sort through the raw data coming in.

“You should know that that these stretch-goal observations are risky,” wrote Stern in a post on the mission’s page, “requiring us to know exactly where both Ultima and New Horizons are as they pass one another at over 32,000 mph in the darkness of the Kuiper Belt… But with risk comes reward, and we would rather try than not try to get these, and that is what we will do.”

NASA public relations and other staff are still affected by the federal shutdown, but the New Horizons team will be covering the signal acquisition and first data live anyway; follow the mission on Twitter or check in to the NASA Live stream tomorrow morning at 7 AM Pacific time for the whole program. The schedule and lots of links can be found here.

SpaceX’s Starship goes sci-fi shiny with stainless steel skin

SpaceX’s futuristic Starship interplanetary craft may embody the golden age of sci-fi in more ways than one: in addition to (theoretically) taking passengers from planet to planet, it may sport a shiny stainless steel skin that makes it look like the pulp covers of old.

Founder and CEO Elon Musk teased the possibility in a picture posted to Twitter, captioned simply “Stainless Steel Starship.” To be clear, this isn’t a full-on spacecraft, just part of a test vehicle that the company plans to use during the short “hopper” flights in 2019 to evaluate various systems.

As with most Musk tweets, this kicked off a storm of speculation and argument in the Twitterverse.

The choice surprised many because for years, modern spaceflight has been dependent on advanced composite materials like carbon fiber, which combine desirable physical properties with low weight. When metal has been required, aluminum or titanium are much more common. While some launch components, like the upper stage of the Atlas 5 rocket, have liberally used steel, it’s definitely not an obvious choice for a craft like the Starship, which will have to deal with both deep space and repeated reentry.

As Musk pointed out in subsequent comments, however, stainless steel has some advantages versus other materials when at extremely hot or cold temperatures.

This is a special full-hardness steel alloy mentioned as being among the 300 series of high-strength, heat-resistant alloys — not the plentiful, pliable stuff we all have in our kitchens and buildings. Musk also mentioned another “superalloy” called SX500 that SpaceX’s metallurgists have developed for use in the Raptor engines that will power the vehicle.

So why stainless? It’s likely all about reentry.

Many craft and reusable stages that have to face the heat of entering the atmosphere at high speed use “ablative” heat shielding that disintegrates or breaks away in a controlled fashion, carrying heat away from the vehicle.

It’s unlikely this is a possibility for Starship, however, as replacing and repairing this material would necessitate downtime and crews wherever and whenever it lands, and the craft is meant to be (eventually) a quick-turnaround ship with maximum reusability. Heat shielding that reflects and survives is a better bet for that — but an enormous engineering problem.

Scott Manley put together a nice video illustrating some of these ideas and speculations in detail:

Musk said before of the Starship (then still called BFR) that “almost the entire time it is reentering, it’s just trying to brake, while distributing that force over the most area possible.” Reentry will probably look more like a Space Shuttle-esque glide than a Falcon 9 first stage’s ballistic descent and engine braking.

The switch to stainless steel has the pleasant side effect of making the craft look really cool — more in line with sci-fi books and comics than their readers perhaps ever thought to hope. Paint jobs would burn right off, Musk said:

You can’t expect it to stay shiny for long, though; it may be stainless, but like a pan you left on the stove, stainless steel can still scorch and the bottom of the Starship will likely look pretty rough after a while. It’s all right — spacecraft developing a patina is a charming evolution.

Details are still few, and for all we know SpaceX could redesign the craft again based on how tests go. Next year will see the earliest hopper flights for Starship hardware and possibly the Super Heavy lower stage that will lift its great shiny bulk out of the lower atmosphere.

The technical documentation promised by Musk should arrive in March or April, but whether it will pertain solely to the test vehicle or give a glimpse at the craft SpaceX intends to send around the moon is anyone’s guess. At any rate you should expect more information to be spontaneously revealed before then at Musk’s discretion — or lack thereof.