Near Space Labs closes $13M Series A to send more Earth imaging robots to the stratosphere

The decreasing cost of launch and a slew of other tech innovations have brought about a renaissance in geospatial intelligence, with multiple startups aiming to capture higher-quality and more frequent images of Earth than have ever before been available.

Most of these startups, however, are focused on using satellites to collect data. Not so for Near Space Labs, a four-year-old company that instead aims to gather geospatial intelligence from the stratosphere, using small autonomous wind-powered robots attached to weather balloons. The company has named its platform “Swifty,” and each one is capable of reaching altitudes between 60,000 and 85,000 feet and capturing 400-1,000 square kilometers of imagery per flight.

The company was founded in 2017 by Rema Matevosyan, Ignasi Lluch, and Albert Caubet. Matevosyan, who is an applied mathematician by training and previously worked as a programmer, did her Masters in Moscow. There, she started doing research in systems engineering for aerospace systems and also flew weather balloons to test aerospace hardware. “It clicked that we can fly balloons commercially and deliver a much better experience to customers than from any other alternative,” she told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

Four years after launch, the company has closed a $13 million Series A round led by Crosslink Capital, with participation from Toyota Ventures and existing investors Leadout Capital and Wireframe Ventures. Near Space Labs also announced that Crosslink partner Phil Boyer has joined its board.

Near Space, which is headquartered in Brooklyn and Barcelona, Spain, is primarily focused on urbanized areas where change happens very rapidly. The robotic devices that attach to the balloons are manufactured at the company’s workshop in Brooklyn, which are then shipped to launch sites across the country. The company’s CTO and chief engineer are both based in Barcelona, so the hardware R&D takes place over there, Matevosyan explained.

The company currently has eight Swifies in operation. It sells the data it collects and has developed an API through which customers can access the data via a subscription model. The company doesn’t need to have specific launch sites – Matevosyan said Swifties can launch from “anywhere at any time” – but the company does work in concert with the Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic control.

The main value proposition of the Swifty as opposed to the satellite, according to Matevosyan, is the resolution: from the stratosphere, the company can collect “resolutions that are 50 times better than what you would get from a satellite,” she said. “We are able to provide persistent and near real-time coverage of areas of interest that change very quickly, including large metro areas.” Plus, she said Near Space can iterate it’s technology quickly using Swifties’ “plug-and-play” model, whereas it’s not so easy to add a new sensor to a satellite fleet that’s already in orbit.

Near Space Labs founders (from left): Ignasi Lluch, Rema Matevosyan and Albert Caubet Image Credits: Near Space Labs (opens in a new window)

Near Space has booked more than 540 flights through 2022. While customers pay for the flights, the data generated from each trip is non-exclusive, so the data can be sold again and again. Looking ahead, the company will be using the funds to expand its geographical footprint and bring on a bunch of new hires. The goal, according to Matevosyan, is to democratize access to geospatial intelligence – not just for customers, but on the developer side, too. “We believe in diverse, equal, and inclusive opportunities in aerospace and Earth imaging,” she said.

Inspiration4’s successful splashdown is just the beginning of private spaceflight for SpaceX

Just like that, they came back.

The Inspiration4 crew made a triumphant splashdown on Saturday evening off the east coast of Florida, marking the close of the first completely private, all-civilian space mission. SpaceX’s Go Searcher recovery ship hauled the Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, a little less than an hour after splashdown. The crew was then ferried via helicopter to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where they received standard medical checks.

The successful completion of the mission is a major triumph for Elon Musk and SpaceX (and, more peripherally, NASA, which funded the development of the tech), who conducted the entirety of the mission. It’s also perhaps our clearest signal that a new dawn of space travel is officially here.

Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director for human-spaceflight programs, told reporters that the company is seeing an increased number of inquiries from potential customers for private missions. The company could fly “three, four, five, six times a year at least,” he said.

Of course, mission commander Jared Isaacman is not the first billionaire to go to space. This summer, both Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos conducted their own orbital joy-rides in vehicles developed by their respective companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. But those trips were significantly shorter – Bezos and his three crewmates went to space and back in under fifteen minutes, essentially traveling in a long parabolic arc.

In contrast, the Inspiration4 crew spent three days orbiting Earth at an altitude that went as high as 590 kilometers – that’s higher than the International Space Station, meaning they were the most ‘outer’ of all the people in space. Over the course of their mission, they travelled around the Earth an average of fifteen times per day.

While in orbit, the crew conducted a handful of science experiments, mostly capturing data on themselves with the aim of furthering our understanding of the effects of spaceflight on the human body. The crew also spent some time in the large glass domed window, which SpaceX calls the “cupola,” snapping pictures of space.

Other than Isaacman, who made his fortune from his payment processing company Shift4 payments, the crew included physician assistant and childhood cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux; geoscientist Sian Proctor; and Lockheed Martin engineer Chris Sembroski. Among the other firsts for the crew, Arceneaux is the youngest American to go to space and the first person with a prosthesis to go to space; Proctor is the first Black woman to pilot a space mission.

The historic mission was paid for entirely by Isaacman, though both he and SpaceX are staying mum on how much it cost in total. Instead, the mission was being framed as a $200 million fundraiser for St. Jude Research Hospital, to which Isaacman donated $100 million and Musk donated $50 million. The fundraiser received an additional $60.2 million in public donations.

This is the second time the Resilience spacecraft has safely carried humans to and from space. The first mission, Crew-1, carried four astronauts (three from NASA, one from the Japanese space agency) to the ISS and returned them back to Earth in May. SpaceX will be conducting another handful of crewed missions over the next six months, including another mission to the ISS on behalf of NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as the private AX-1 mission on behalf of Axiom Space.

“Thanks so much SpaceX, that was a heck of a ride for us,” Isaacman said moments after the capsule landed. “We’re just getting started.”

Watch a full stream of the splashdown here:

Aurora Propulsion Technologies closes €1.7M seed for spacecraft maneuvering and deorbiting tech

More spacecraft will be sent to orbit this year than ever before in human history, and the number of satellite launches is only anticipated to increase through the rest of the decade. Under these crowded conditions, being able to maneuver satellites in space and deorbit them when they reach the end of their useful life will be key.

Enter Aurora Propulsion Technologies. It’s one of a handful of startups that has emerged in the past few years to help simplify the problem of spacecraft propulsion. Since its founding in 2018, the Finnish company has developed two products – a tiny thruster engine and a plasma braking system – and will be testing both in an in-orbit demonstration in the fourth quarter of this year. Aurora’s activities have caught the eye of investors: the company has just closed a €1.7 million ($2 million) seed round to bring its technology to market.

The round was led by Lithuanian VC firm Practica Capital, with additional participation from the state-owned private equity company TESI (Finnish Industry Investment Ltd.) and Kluz Ventures. Individual investors also participated.

Aurora’s first in-orbit demonstration, Aurora Sat-1, will be heading to space on a Rocket Lab rideshare mission, the company announced last month. On that satellite will be two modules. The first module will contain six Aurora “resistojet” engines, designed to help small spacecraft adjust their attitude (the satellite’s orientation, not its mood) and de-tumble. Aurora will also test its Plasma Brake technology, which could be used to de-orbit satellites or even to conduct deep space missions.

Each resistojet thruster comes in at just around one centimeter long, and it moves the spacecraft using microliters of water and propellant. The six thrusters are distributed around the satellite in such a way to facilitate movement in virtually any direction, and the thruster can also modulate the temperature of the water and the strength of the puff of steam that’s discharged to generate movement.

Aurora CEO Roope Takala, who previously worked for Nokia, likened the innovations in weight and size in the space industry – which we see in the resistojet – to what happened to cell phones and computers twenty years ago. “The industry moves very slow,” he said in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “In the old space era, it took a quarter to develop a rocket engine – that would be a quarter of a century. Now, it takes two quarters of a year. That’s what we did.”

The Plasma Brake uses an electrically charged microtether to generate a lump of protons to generate drag. That’s ideal for de-orbiting a spacecraft, but interestingly (and counterintuitively), the Plasma Brake could also be used for traveling away from the planet, Takala said. That’s because when you go outside the Earth’s magnetosphere, the Plasma Brake becomes unstable and moves with solar wind (which is also plasma). “The same product can jump onto that flow of plasma from the sun and extract energy from that,” Takala explained. “In that context we can use it as an interplanetary traveling tool.”

Theoretically, if a spacecraft was equipped with multiple tethers extending different directions, it could be used to rotate and guide the spacecraft, like a sailboat, he added. This technology is only scalable to a certain degree, however, so don’t expect it to be sending a crewed spacecraft into deep space anytime soon. That’s mostly due to limitations in the material strength of the Plasma Brake tethers, but the tech can be used for satellites up to around 1,000 kilograms.

“That’s our future. That’s where we’re aiming,” Takala said. “We’re focused now for the short term on low Earth orbit with the Plasma Brake and the attitude control [resistojet], and later on when the moon businesses kick off as they are slowly starting to do, then we’ll probably be looking at that way.”

The Plasma Brake and resistojet thruster would need to be put on spacecraft before they launch to orbit, but Aurora is in conversation with other companies of the potential of in-orbit installation of Plasma Brakes for existing space junk. Looking to the short-term, the company is going to use the funding to productize the technology for low Earth orbit and to serialize its production, as well as to add features to the products to equip them for satellites larger than CubeSats.

In the longer term, Aurora has a vision of conducting missions in deep space. “We started off from the idea that we want to make a technology that fits into a really small spacecraft, [and] travels really fast so that we can catch up with the Voyager probes,” Takala said.

“First to the moon and then to Mars, Venus, and then one day we may be able to catch up with the Voyagers and take a big trip.”

Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck will discuss taking a company interplanetary at Disrupt 2021

Building an orbital launch business from scratch is no simple matter, but what if that business is just a stepping stone to a vertically integrated, interplanetary space company? Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck will be joining us next week at TechCrunch Disrupt 2021 (Sept 21-23) to talk about the challenge and exhilaration of pursuing his passion for space, all the way to orbit, the moon and beyond.

Rocket Lab started over a decade ago as Beck tested increasingly large rockets, with the (supposedly) ultimate goal of building a small, reliable and relatively inexpensive launch vehicle that could deliver payloads to orbit at a weekly cadence — or even faster.

Since then the company and its Electron launch vehicle have become not just a sought-after ride to orbit, but it has begun expanding into spacecraft design and manufacturing with Photon, and announced a much larger vehicle called Neutron. Now they’ve even been tapped for an Artemis-related lunar mission and are planning a privately funded mission to Venus. (And of course they’ve raised a boatload of money and are going public.)

The always forthcoming, Beck will join us virtually from his home country HQ in New Zealand to discuss Rocket Lab’s success and future endeavors, and the challenge of adapting a company from underdog launch provider to sprawling space services company with competition nipping at its heels.

We hope you’ll join us next week at Disrupt. You can get your passes now for under $100 until Monday, September 20.

Watch SpaceX launch the first all-civilian Inspiration4 mission to space live

After months of publicity, an NFT auction and even a Netflix docuseries, it’s finally here: the four-person crew of Inspiration4 will be heading to space today (weather permitting).

What makes this launch different from any that came before it? None of the four people onboard are astronauts. The mission marks the first time that an all-civilian crew will fly to space. Let’s meet them:

  • Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire whose fortune comes from the payment processing company Shift4 Payments, which went public in the summer of last year. He is the mission commander.
  • Sian Proctor, a community college professor with a PhD in science education. Proctor was among 47 finalists chosen by NASA for a 2009 astronaut class, though she was not one of the nine eventually chosen to join the agency. She will be Inspiration4’s pilot, the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft. She’s 51.
  • Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude’s Research Hospital and a survivor of childhood cancer. She’ll be the crew’s health officer.
  • Christopher Sembroski, a data engineer for Lockheed Martin, also a former camp counselor at none other than Space Camp. The 42-year-old will be acting as mission specialist.

The crew will be cruising to orbit inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which will launch from a Falcon 9 rocket. They’ll spend three days flying around the Earth before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

SpaceX’s YouTube channel is hosting a live launch webcast starting from 3:45 PM EST, with the five-hour launch window opening at 8:02 PM EST. As of Sunday, Inspiration4 said weather conditions at Kennedy Space Center looked 70% favorable. There’s also a back-up launch window opening at the same time the following day.

SpaceX, Blue Origin awarded NASA contracts to develop moon lander concepts for future Artemis missions

NASA has awarded a combined $146 million in contracts to five companies, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Dynetics, to develop lander concepts as part of the agency’s Artemis program.

The awards include $26.5 million to Blue Origin; $40.8 million to Dynetics; $35.2 million to Lockheed Martin; $34.8 million to Northrop Grumman; and $9.4 million to SpaceX. Only two companies that submitted proposals, Blue Ridge Nebula Starlines and Cook & Chevalier Enterprises, did not receive contracts.

The contracts were awarded under NextSTEP-2 (Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships) Appendix N: Sustainable Human Landing System Studies and Risk Reduction. The solicitation, released at the beginning of July, says the objective of the contract is “to engage with potential commercial partners for concept studies, sustaining HLS concept of operations (ground and flight) development, and risk reduction activities.”

What that means in practice is that the selected companies will develop lander design concepts, including conducting component tests, and evaluate them for things like performance and safety.

These awards are separate from the Human Landing System contract that was given to SpaceX earlier this year — the one that both Blue Origin and Dynetics disputed to a government watchdog, and that Blue Origin later opposed in a lawsuit against NASA that’s still ongoing.

However, the outcome of this batch of awards will likely inform future lander development contracts through the rest of the decade. “The work from these companies will ultimately help shape the strategy and requirements for a future NASA’s solicitation to provide regular astronaut transportation from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon,” the agency said in a statement.

The Artemis program was established in 2020 with a number of objectives, not only to return humans to the moon for the first time since the days of Apollo but to make such travel routine by the late 2020s. NASA isn’t just stopping at the moon; the agency also wants to expand into inter-planetary exploration, including human missions to Mars.

Spaceflight will be ferrying payloads from Orbit Fab, GeoJump to lunar orbit next year

Space rideshare service provider Spaceflight Inc. is going to be shuttling customers on a lunar flyby mission next year, part of its long-term vision of giving companies easy access to lunar orbits and beyond.

The Seattle-based company will be delivering payload using its propulsive transfer vehicle, Sherpa EScape, or Sherpa-ES, the latest iteration of Sherpa vehicles that the company has been testing for the past few years. The Sherpa essentially acts as last-mile space transportation, deploying payload to customers’ desired orbits after reaching outer space.

Spaceflight’s electric propulsive Sherpa-LTE flew on the SpaceX Transporter-2 mission in June, while Sherpa-LTC with chemical propulsion will launch later this year on Transporter-3. The company’s successfully deployed 50 customer spacecraft to date.

The Sherpa-ES will be delivering payloads for in-orbit refueling company Orbit Fab, which just closed $10 million in funding from two major aerospace primes, and new company GeoJump. It looks like GeoJump is also looking to get into the ridesharing business; its website bills it as offering “a new route to [geostationary orbit]” for small satellites. The mission will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The rideshare is part of a robotic lunar landing mission being undertaken by Intuitive Machines, one of a handful of companies selected by NASA to be part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program. Intuitive Machines will be sending its nearly 2,000-kilogram Nova-C lander to the lunar surface for a 14-day mission. The IM-1 lander will ferry around 130 kilograms of cargo.

Intuitive Machines also tapped SpaceX for its second lander mission, also for 2022. The company says this will be the first object to land at the moon’s south pole, and the first object to drill on lunar ice.

SpaceX launches its first batch of Starlink satellites aimed at new coverage areas from California

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 51 of its Starlink satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Monday night at 8:55 PM PDT (11:55 PM EDT). This was the first launch for the Starlink satellite internet constellation from the west coast, and also the first batch of a second stage of Starlink satellite deployment, targeting a new orbital trajectory that will help the network provide service to new regions including Northern Canada and parts of Northern Europe.

The launch used a reflown Falcon 9 that had previously supported nine other missions, including seven prior Starlink flights. In total, SpaceX has now launched around 1,800 Starlink satellites, and it has been providing coverage to customers during its beta program for over a year now. The company said in August that it has now shipped around 100,000 terminals to customers, with over 90,000 active users on the service at the moment and a full order volume of around 500,000 kits in total.

SpaceX plans to expand the constellation considerably in order to continue to grow the footprint of where Starlink service is available globally. It ultimately aims to build out the constellation to where it consists of nearly 30,000 satellites, which should provide reliable worldwide broadband coverage for customers.

You can watch a full recap of Monday night’s launch below.

Defense Department seeks nuclear propulsion for small spacecraft

The US Defense Department’s ambitions beyond Earth just grew a little clearer. SpaceNews has learned the department recently put out a call for privately-made nuclear propulsion systems that could power small- and mid-sized spacecraft. The DoD wants to launch missions venturing beyond Earth orbit, and existing electric and solar spacecraft are neither suitable for that job nor suitable to smaller vehicles, the department’s Defense Innovation Unit said.

The nuclear propulsion system will ideally offer “high delta-V” (above 33ft/s) while scaling down to less than 2,000kg in dry mass (4,409lbs on Earth). On top of providing electricity for the payload, the technology will hopefully keep the spacecraft warm when in shadow and minimize radiation both on the ground and to other components. Responses are expected by September 23rd, with contracts handed out as quickly as 60 to 90 days afterward.

Officials acknowledged they were making the request as a matter of expediency. NASA and other agencies are already developing or backing nuclear spacecraft, but those won’t be ready for a long while. The DoD is hoping for a prototype within three to five years — this technology would serve as a stopgap that puts nuclear propulsion into service relatively quickly for near-term projects.

While the request didn’t provide clues as to what spacecraft were in the works, the focus on smaller spacecraft suggests it could involve probes, satellites or other vehicles with modest goals. You won’t see this power human trips to Mars. All the same, it’s clear the DoD is frustrated by the limitations of existing spacecraft engines and wants a fast track to more powerful designs.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Engadget.

Rocket Lab’s order backlog tops $141M as the company inks five-launch deal with Kinéis

It was a busy first half of the year for U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Lab, which posted earnings for the first six months of 2021 on Wednesday – the first such reporting since the company went public last month.

Rocket Lab reported revenues for the six-month period of $29.5 million. Its order backlog also grew to $141.4 million as of June 30, up 136% from $59.9 million compared to the same period last year.

While the general trend seems to be positive, executives emphasized the continued impact of COVID-19 restrictions in New Zealand, the site of one of the company’s key launch facilities. CFO Adam Spice said the third quarter has already been impacted by the pandemic, after New Zealand introduced strict lockdown restrictions in response to an 855-person outbreak of the Delta variant. Those restrictions resulted in “no further launch activity planned” for the quarter, Spice said, and will likely result in a $10-15 million impact on revenues for the year.

Despite these setbacks, executives said they anticipated a yearly revenue of $50-54 million. GAAP operating expenses, meanwhile, hit $29.3 million for the six-month period, up from $11.9 million for the first half of last year. The majority of that increase was from R&D spending, including the development of an automated flight termination system and the Neutron launch vehicle, Spice added.

Rocket Lab, which started as a launch company, has significantly branched out since its founding in 2006. The company now fashions itself as an end-to-end space company, providing launch services, as well as the design, manufacturing and operation of spacecraft.

It is this latter business area that Rocket Lab has aggressively grown over the past eighteen months; some recent milestones include an agreement to develop three of Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft for space manufacturing company Varda Space Industries and plans to send two Photons to Mars on an upcoming space mission. The growth of its space systems division reflects these developments; for the six-month period, space systems made up a $5.4 million share of revenue, up from just $300,000 in the same quarter last year.

Rocket Lab also said it would start manufacturing satellite components at scale by the end of this year, starting with reaction wheels, a critical attitude and stability control system. Rocket Lab will be opening a new facility that will be capable of producing up to 2,000 reaction wheels annually, a massive increase in volumes compared to what’s ever been available to the space industry before.

“Satellite components typically have been produced in small numbers which has really limited the speed and scale of constellation development,” CEO Peter Beck said during an investor call Wednesday. “The [reaction wheel production] line has been built to solve that, enabling production at scale to meet the growing needs of customers in the industry at large.”

Rocket Lab’s space systems division was given a huge boost by the acquisition of major satellite hardware manufacturer Sinclair Interplanetary last year, and it likely won’t be the company’s last purchase. Rocket Lab has around a half dozen deals it’s actively investigating, Spice told investors Wednesday. “The Sinclair acquisition has really emboldened us to lean forward and look at opportunities.”

“What’s interesting about this market right now is it does really feel like it’s ripe for consolidation,” he said. “Not consolidation in the sense of large companies necessarily getting together but the fact [that] the invest-ability of space is a relatively new phenomenon,” he said.

Company executives stayed largely mum on the Neutron rocket, with Beck simply noting that it “continues to develop really well” and that the company will provide a more detailed development in the coming months.

“Neutron is a vehicle that is not an increment on Electron,” he said. “It is something that really sets a new standard within the space industry.”

Rocket Lab also announced today that it has inked a multi-launch contract with Kinéis, a French connectivity provider for Internet of Things devices, to deploy its satellite constellation across five Electron missions. Kinéis’ investors include the French space agency Centre National d’Études Spatiales and French space company Collecte Localisation Satellites.

The constellation will consist of 25 satellites in total, adding to the over 100 satellites Rocket Lab has launched on its Electron rocket to date. The launches are scheduled for the second quarter 2023.

This is just the latest multi-launch deal Rocket Lab has inked in recent months, including a contract with satellite analytics company BlackSky for five launches.

Rocket Lab has continued to rise, closing Wednesday at $15.09. That represents a nearly 50% increase since the company’s public debut at the end of August.