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.

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

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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.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon astronaut spacecraft has a key launch Saturday – here’s what’s going down

SpaceX and NASA are getting ready for a key test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon commercial crew spacecraft on Saturday, and this should be the last major milestone that SpaceX has to pass in terms of demonstration missions before actual crew climb aboard the spaceship for a trip to the International Space Station. Starting at 8 AM ET (5 AM PT), a launch window opens during which SpaceX will hopefully perform what’s called an “in-flight abort” test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch vehicle, to demonstrate how its safety systems would protect astronauts on board in the unlikely event of an unexpected incident during a real crew flight.

The plan for this mission is to launch the Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 – in this case, one that’s using a refurbished booster stage previously flown on three prior missions. This will be the Falcon 9’s last flight, however, since the plan includes loss of the rocket this time around instead of a controlled landing. The launch is intentionally being terminated early – just after the rocket achieves its ‘Max Q’ point, or the moment during its flight when it’s under maximum atmospheric stress, at about 84 seconds post-liftoff.

At that point, the rocket will be about 19 kilometres (roughly 62,000 feet) above the surface of the Earth, and about four kilometres (2.5 miles) from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. SpaceX has rigged the Dragon spacecraft’s launch escape system to automatically trigger at this point, which will separate the crew spacecraft from the Falcon and propel it away from the rocket very quickly in order to get it to a safe distance to protect any future passengers. After around five minutes past launch, the Dragon will deploy its parachute system, and then at around 10 minutes after it should splash down in the Atlantic Ocean between 3 and 3.5 km (roughly 2 miles) from shore.

After that, crews will recover the Dragon capsule from the ocean, and return it to Cape Canaveral where SpaceX will study the spacecraft, including human-sized dummies acting as passengers and sensors within to monitor what happened in the cabin during the test. They’ll use this to ideally show that the abort process works as designed and will protect astronauts on board the spacecraft in case of any emergency that results in an early mission termination.

In addition to the in-flight abort system, SpaceX and NASA are also using this mission to prepare for crewed flight in a number of other ways. Today, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will crew the first piloted mission hopefully later this year, ran through a dry run of what they would experience in a live mission. They donned space suits and walked the transom that connects the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 to its launchpad support structure, as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine noted on Twitter.

The test will not involve any attempt to recover the rocket, as mentioned, and SpaceX Crew Mission Management Director Benji Reed said during a press conference today that they do anticipate some kind of “ignition” event with the Falcon 9’s’ second stage, which could possibly be large enough to be seen from the ground, he said. SpaceX crews will be on standby to recover as much as possible from the rocket wreckage, which will be useful to study, and they’ll also be on hand to minimize any potential environmental impact from the test.

This test was originally scheduled for roughly six months ago, but SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule intended for the mission was destroyed during an unexpected incident while test firing its engines. SpaceX and NASA investigated that explosion, and are now confident that they understand the cause of that incident, and have taken steps to ensure that a similar problem doesn’t happen again. The Crew Dragon being used now for Saturday’s test was originally intended to be the one used for actually flying astronauts, and another capsule is currently in development to serve that purpose.

SpaceX’s launch window for this test opens at 8 AM ET tomorrow, but spans four hours, and Reed said it could actually extend longer tomorrow if need be. NASA Commercial Crew program manager Kathy Leuders explained today that it’s crucial that not only launch conditions, but also recovery conditions are optimal for the purposes of this test, so both will play a factor in when exactly they launch. Unlike with launches actually designed to reach a specific orbit, timing doesn’t have to be quite as on the nose so there’s more flexibility in terms of making the decision to proceed or stand down. SpaceX has backup opportunities on both Sunday and Monday should they be required.

We’ll have a live stream and live coverage of the test starting tomorrow morning, so check back early Saturday. The stream will kick off around 15 minutes prior to the scheduled opening of the launch window, so at around 7:45 AM ET.

Elon Musk shares details about SpaceX’s Starship, including estimated 20 to 30 year service life

Elon Musk appears to be pretty focused on Starship right now, sharing photos of the work being done on the orbital Starship prototype designed ‘SN1,’ which is currently under construction at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas facility. The CEO answered a volley of questions over Twitter on Thursday evening, providing more details about Starship and how it will eventually need to work in order to achieve Musk’s goal of making humans an interplanetary species with a colony on Mars.

He’s discussed some of this before, but Musk reiterated that Starship will need to operate on a brisk schedule ferrying many megatons per year of cargo to the Red Planet in order to establish and maintain a human presence there. Musk said that the spacecraft is being designed with the plan of flying it for an average of three flights per day, each carrying over 100 tons per flight, for a total of over 1,000 flights per year per vehicle.

Ultimately, Musk says that he hopes to achieve a construction rate of 100 Starships being produced per year, with a goal of hitting 1,000 in total in service over the course of the next decade, which can transport as much as 100 megatons per year in cargo, or about 100,000 people “per Earth-Mars orbital sync” in terms of human passengers. That translates to a schedule of roughly once every two years, when Earth and Mars are closest to one another because of the coincidence of their respective orbits around the Sun.

Musk clarified in response to another question that the way this will work will be getting the Mars fleet into a staging orbit above Earth, where they can be refuelled in space prior to their synchronized departure. Then, once every 26 months approximately 1,000 ships will all depart over the course of 30 days for their Mars transit. While Starship will require an in-orbit refuel to make the trip to Mars leaving from Earth, because of how much boost is need to exit Earth’s atmosphere, the same is not true for the reverse trip, Musk pointed out.

SpaceX’s goal, according to Musk, is to ultimately send one million people to Mars by 2050, something Musk also confirmed in another reply to a Twitter use. The goal is to make it common enough and affordable enough that “anyone can go if they want, with loans available for those who don’t have money.” Plus, Musk also noted that there “will be lots of jobs on Mars” for potential colonists.

As Musk has emphasized at every step of SpaceX’s development, reusability in the Starship system is key. Each Starship will have a target useful life of around 20 to 30 years – similar to commercial aircraft today, he noted. That’s required if the company hopes to be able to operate at the scale described above, while doing so in a way that’s anywhere near economically viable.

Starship is currently in development, with a new prototype under construction at its Texas facility. The company already built a subs-scale demonstrator without a nose cone to test the new engines it’s working on for Starship, and demonstrated those working successfully for controlled low-altitude flight. It built a larger prototype that it originally said would be used for high-altitude testing, but that one failed during an early pressure test and now it has moved on to a third version with a refined and improved design, which the company says will be used for orbital flight testing this year.

SpinLaunch spins up a $35M round to continue building its space catapult

SpinLaunch, a company that aims to turn the launch industry on its head with a wild new concept for getting to orbit, has raised a $35M round B to continue its quest. The team has yet to demonstrate their kinetic launch system, but this year will be the year that changes, they claim.

TechCrunch first reported on SpinLaunch’s ambitious plans in 2018, when the company raised its previous $35 million, which combined with $10M it raised prior to that and today’s round comes to a total of $80M. With that kind of money you might actually be able to build a space catapult.

The basic idea behind SpinLaunch’s approach is to get a craft out of the atmosphere using a “rotational acceleration method” that brings a craft to escape velocity without any rockets. While the company has been extremely tight-lipped about the details, one imagines a sort of giant rail gun curled into a spiral, from which payloads will emerge into the atmosphere at several thousand miles per hour — weather be damned.

Naturally there is no shortage of objections to this method, the most obvious of which is that going from an evacuated tube into the atmosphere at those speeds might be like firing the payload into a brick wall. It’s doubtful that SpinLaunch would have proceeded this far if it did not have a mitigation for this (such as the needle-like appearance of the concept craft) and other potential problems, but the secretive company has revealed little.

The time for broader publicity may soon be at hand, however: the funds will be used to build out its new headquarter and R&D facility in Long Beach, but also to complete its flight test facility at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“Later this year, we aim to change the history of space launch with the completion of our first flight test mass accelerator at Spaceport America,” said founder and CEO Jonathan Yaney in a press release announcing the funding.

Lowering the cost of launch has been the focus of some of the most successful space startups out there, and SpinLaunch aims to leapfrog their cost savings by offering orbital access for under $500,000. First commercial launch is targeted for 2022, assuming the upcoming tests go well.

The funding round was led by previous investors Airbus Ventures, GV, and KPCB, as well as Catapult Ventures, Lauder Partners, John Doerr and Byers Family.