Blue Origin and SpaceX get million-dollar NASA nod to test moon lander tech

Eleven aerospace companies will share more than $45 million in funds from NASA to design and test prototypes for the Artemis moon missions, the agency has announced. Among the established names like Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada are relative newcomers SpaceX and Blue Origin, looking to make a place for themselves on the agency’s biggest push in decades.

The funds are to enable what NASA calls undefinitized contract actions, in which partners get to work before negotiations on the rest of the contract have concluded. It basically shows that time is of the essence and that NASA is willing to pay up front to someone they may not even contract with later, just to get a jump start on the work that needs doing.

And what’s the work? They’ll be cooking up designs and prototypes for the Human Landing System, which as you might guess will take astronauts (and cosmonauts, and perhaps taikonauts) from a high lunar orbit to a low one, then to the surface, then back again. The three elements are called transfer, descent, and ascent respectively — and there’s a refueling one as well.

Each company will have a specific set of mechanisms or designs it will be expected to produce, but none is expected to put together the whole shebang.

“We’re keen to collect early industry feedback about our human landing system requirements, and the undefinitized contract action will help us do that,” said NASA’s Greg Chavers in a press release. “This new approach doesn’t prescribe a specific design or number of elements for the human landing system. NASA needs the system to get our astronauts on the surface and return them home safely, and we’re leaving a lot of the specifics to our commercial partners.”

In other words, this is still an information-gathering phase for NASA, though the contractors must consider it as potentially the first step in producing a major system for Artemis, so they can’t do anything by halves.

None of the companies was assigned design work on the ascender, which suggests the plans for that part aren’t as far advanced as the rest. SpaceX will be producing a study on the descent element, while Blue Origin is taking on studies for the descent and transfer elements, plus a prototype for the latter.

We probably won’t see these prototypes or studies any time soon — if they’re not chosen for production they may remain trade secrets for future bids or on the off chance NASA changes its mind. Even if they are chosen, they may have to go through several more iterations before they can be shown publicly.

Here’s the full list of companies and their responsibilities under the new funding:

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne – Canoga Park, California
    • One transfer vehicle study
  • Blue Origin – Kent, Washington
    • One descent element study, one transfer vehicle study, and one transfer vehicle prototype
  • Boeing – Houston
    • One descent element study, two descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
  • Dynetics – Huntsville, Alabama
    • One descent element study and five descent element prototypes
  • Lockheed Martin – Littleton, Colorado
    • One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, and one refueling element study
  • Masten Space Systems – Mojave, California
    • One descent element prototype
  • Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems – Dulles, Virginia
    • One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
  • OrbitBeyond – Edison, New Jersey
    • Two refueling element prototypes
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colorado, and Madison, Wisconsin
    • One descent element study, one descent element prototype, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, and one refueling element study
  • SpaceX – Hawthorne, California
    • One descent element study
  • SSL – Palo Alto, California
    • One refueling element study and one refueling element prototype

Watch SpaceX’s 60-satellite Starlink launch tonight right here

SpaceX’s launch tonight is being performed for a very important client: itself. Yes, the Falcon 9 that will lift off at 7:30 PM Pacific time is loaded not with government or commercial payloads, but the first of SpaceX’s own Starlink orbital communications satellites. You can watch this first-of-its-kind launch here.

In the launch press kit (PDF), SpaceX provided new details of the launch, deployment process, and the Starlink satellites themselves, which have only been described in roundabout fashion via regulatory filings and such.

Weighing 500 pounds each, the 60 Starlink satellites add up to around 30,000 lbs of payload, considerably less than the Falcon 9’s upper limit of over 50,000 lbs. I wouldn’t have guessed they were quite as heavy as that — some communications satellites are small enough you could easily lift them with one hand, though others, like OneWeb’s and of course geosynchronous ones, are much larger.

Although that leaves plenty of unused lift capacity, the satellites and their deployment platform take up practically every cubic inch of the Falcon 9’s usable interior. This launch is limited by volume, not mass.

The satellites have a “flat-panel design featuring multiple high-throughput antennas and a single solar array.” They use krypton-fueled Hall thrusters to get around, which will come in handy during the last part of the deployment, as we shall see. In addition, as SpaceX explains:

Each spacecraft is equipped with a Startracker navigation system that allows SpaceX to point the satellites with precision. Importantly, Starlink satellites are capable of tracking on-orbit debris and autonomously avoiding collision. Additionally, 95 percent of all components of this design will quickly burn in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of each satellite’s lifecycle—exceeding all current safety standards—with future iterative designs moving to complete disintegration.

This should help assuage concerns that SpaceX and others aiming for thousand-strong constellations are going to end up filling orbit with junk.

The launch window opens at 7:30 PM Pacific time, 10:30 local time in Florida, and lasts for an hour and a half. There’s currently an 80 percent chance of fair weather, so unless there’s mechanical trouble, a delay is not particularly likely.

After liftoff, the Falcon 9 (previously flown in September of last year and January of this one) will take the Starlink stack to 440 kilometers, at which point (at about T+1 hour) they will begin to deploy, like kernels popping off a giant space corncob. They’ll then use their onboard thrusters to ascend to their operational altitude of 550 kilometers.

This is quite a low orbit; OneWeb’s satellites, which are aiming to fulfill a similar purpose, are about twice as high. Anything at or below 1,000 kilometers, however, makes for fast and easy de-orbiting as well as easier tracking from the ground.

While everyone hopes for 100 percent success on this mission, the simple fact is that it’s the first of its kind — there have been plenty of launches with dozens of payloads to deploy, but this is the first time these satellites and this method have been used. “Much will likely go wrong,” CEO Elon Musk stated bluntly on Twitter.

Here’s hoping as little goes wrong as possible. You can follow along minute by minute in the live video SpaceX always provides. Here it is below; expect it to go live about 15 minutes before takeoff.

SpaceX kicks off its space-based internet service tomorrow with 60-satellite Starlink launch

As wild as it sounds, the race is on to build a functioning space internet — and SpaceX is taking its biggest step yet with the launch of 60 (!) satellites tomorrow that will form the first wave of its Starlink constellation. It’s a hugely important and incredibly complex launch for the company — and should be well worth launching.

A Falcon 9 loaded to the gills with the flat Starlink test satellites (they’re “production design” but not final hardware) is vertical at launchpad 40 in Cape Canaveral. It has completed its static fire test and should have a window for launch tomorrow, weather permitting.

Building satellite constellations hundreds or thousands strong is seen by several major companies and investors as the next major phase of connectivity — though it will take years and billions of dollars to do so.

OneWeb, perhaps SpaceX’s biggest competitor in this area, just secured $1.25 billion in funding after launching the first six satellites in March (of a planned 650). Jeff Bezos has announced that Amazon will join the fray with the proposed 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper. Ubiquitilink has a totally different approach. And plenty of others are taking on smaller segments, like lower-cost or domain-specific networks.

Needless to say it’s an exciting sector, but today’s launch is a particularly interesting one because it is so consequential for SpaceX. If this doesn’t go well, it could set Starlink’s plans back long enough to give competitors an edge.

The satellites stacked inside the Falcon 9 payload fairing. “Tight fit,” pointed out CEO Elon Musk.

SpaceX hasn’t explained exactly how the 60 satellites will be distributed to their respective orbits, but founder and CEO Elon Musk did note on Twitter that there’s “no dispenser.” Of course there must be some kind of dispenser — these things aren’t going to just jump off of their own accord. They’re stuffed in there like kernels on a corncob, and likely each have a little spring that sends them out at a set velocity.

A pair of prototype satellites, Tintin-A and B, have been in orbit since early last year, and have no doubt furnished a great deal of useful information to the Starlink program. But the 60 aboard tomorrow’s launch aren’t quite final hardware. Although Musk noted that they are “production design,” COO Gwynne Shotwell has said that they are still test models.

“This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together,” she said at the Satellite 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. — they reportedly lack inter-satellite links but are otherwise functional. I’ve asked SpaceX for more information on this.

It makes sense: If you’re planning to put thousands (perhaps as many as 12,000 eventually) of satellites into orbit, you’ll need to test at scale and with production hardware.

And for those worried about the possibility of overpopulation in orbit — it’s absolutely something to consider, but many of these satellites will be flying at extremely low altitudes; at 550 kilometers up, these tiny satellites will naturally de-orbit in a handful of years. Even OneWeb’s, at 1,100 km, aren’t that high up — geosynchronous satellites are above 35,000 km. That doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all, but it does mean failed or abandoned satellites won’t stick around for long.

Just don’t expect to boot up your Starlink connection any time soon. It would take a minimum of six more launches like this one — a total of 420, a happy coincidence for Musk — to provide “minor” coverage. This would likely only be for testing as well, not commercial service. That would need 12 more launches, and dozens more to bring it to the point where it can compete with terrestrial broadband.

Even if it will take years to pull off, that is the plan. And by that time others will have spun up their operations as well. It’s an exciting time for space and for connectivity.

No launch time has been set as of this writing, so takeoff is just planned for Wednesday the 15th at present. As there’s no need to synchronize the launch with the movement of any particular celestial body, T-0 should be fairly flexible and SpaceX will likely just wait for the best weather and visibility. Delays are always a possibility, though, so don’t be surprised if this is pushed out to later in the week.

As always you’ll be able to watch the launch at the SpaceX website, but I’ll update this post with the live video link as soon as it’s available.

NASA gives its new Moon mission a name: Artemis

Cool missions need cool names, and NASA’s new plan to establish a permanent lunar presence and put an American on the Moon again now has one: Artemis. It’s nod both to Apollo, the 50th anniversary of the culmination of which is this year, and to the fact that the program is likely to send the first woman to the Moon.

The name was announced on NASA’s social media channels, and casually mentioned by Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a call with reporters yesterday.

“It turns out that Apollo had a twin sister, Artemis. She happens to be the goddess of the moon. Our astronaut office is very diverse and highly qualified. I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man — and the first woman — to the moon,” Bridenstine said.

Those familiar with Greek mythology will spot the hint NASA already placed in its nomenclature: Artemis was the Moon goddess, yes, but also goddess of the hunt. And her faithful hunting companion was named Orion — just like the multi-purpose spacecraft the agency is developing right now.

Being associated with the Moon, Artemis naturally already has a few associations with astronomy and spaceflight: More than one satellite or mission has used the name, and there are features on both Venus and the Moon itself that are named after her. But this would be by far the highest-profile application of the moniker.

Artemis would refer, presumably (I’ve asked NASA for clarification), to the major upcoming missions concerned with establishing a permanent presence on the Moon. That likely includes any major missions to explore the lunar surface, as well as any constructing infrastructure there or in lunar orbit, for example the planned Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway.

The announcement follows that of a new $1.6 billion budget increase for NASA earmarked for lunar missions — that ought to help get the ball rolling.

The femininity of the name is a deliberate choice as well: The Apollo missions were crewed exclusively by men, though they relied on many women for their success. This time around things are different: Both women and men have now explored and set records in space, and no doubt those of other identifications will do so soon as well.

Bridenstine said he’s counting on this for the next generation: “I have an 11 year old daughter, and i want her to be able to see herself in the same way that our current very diverse astronaut corps sees itself.”

“If we look at the history of moon landings, it was test pilots from the 1960s and 1970s, fighter pilots, and there were no opportunities for women back then. This program is going to enable a new generation of young girls like my daughter to see themselves in a way that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise see themselves,” he said at a Q&A after the announcement.

Expect Artemis to stick around for a decade or more — going to the moon is no simple affair, and even initial successes will only be laying the foundation for larger, more ambitious missions going forward.

(NB: NASA recommends that Moon be capitalized when it’s ours, and lowercase when referring to another moon or moons in general. The more you know!)

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is having trouble — and that’s okay

We may be poised on the precipice of a new era of spaceflight, but leaping prematurely off it would be a costly mistake — which is why the delays and failures of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the new spacecraft that will likely be soonest to take humans to space, are a matter for concern but not worry. In space, you expect the unexpected.

The sudden explosion of a Crew Dragon test capsule is frightening and frankly embarrassing to a company so heavily focused on an image of futurity and reliability. And a failed parachute deployment doesn’t inspire confidence either. But any historian of the space industry will tell you it’s rare that something with rockets on it doesn’t blow up at some point during development.

The Commercial Crew program was established back in 2010 with the goal of sending a crewed mission to the International Space Station, aboard a new spacecraft, well before the end of the decade. The timeline was understood to be flexible, but budgetary, logistic and technical issues have continually pushed dates further and further out.

While it was once estimated that the first crewed flights might happen in 2018, that year passed without even a first test flight from either of the contracted spacecraft providers, Boeing and SpaceX. That changed in March with the latter’s successful first test flight of Crew Dragon (loaded with cargo, not people). And Boeing’s Starliner is scheduled for flight later this year. Dogged by delays, the companies’ years of hard work seemed to be paying off at last.

Then this disaster on the test pad occurred: Not just a tipped-over Starship shell or a booster lost to heavy seas, but a full-on explosion of a craft meant for crewed missions, an event which, there’s no way around it, would have been instantly lethal to anyone inside.

Of course, there wasn’t anyone inside. Because this was a test of systems that have not been finalized or brought up to spec. It failed, spectacularly, but that is how rockets tend to fail — with spectacle.

We saw this happen only because someone unwisely had recorded it and distributed the video online. Had they not, we would have heard there was an anomaly during the test and that this capsule was rendered unusable. That kind of phrasing, which goes back many decades in the industry, can mean many things, and its ambiguity is intentional — it’s meant to shield the public from the harsh reality of spaceflight, the risk inherent in the act of riding a bomb faster than sound to a place that’s trying to kill you.

Rockets and capsules and spacecraft have failed since the very beginning, and they will continue to fail because no one is satisfied with simply refining a design from the ’60s forever. Making advances in space means engineering at the very frontier of what’s possible — indeed, it frequently means expanding that frontier and doing what others thought impossible.

The recent failure in a parachute deployment test is equally alarming — because such a failure could conceivably be equally catastrophic — but again, as SpaceX’s representatives have put it again and again, “This is why we test.”

Previous, nearly identical tests of the parachutes didn’t fail completely (there are four chutes; one was made to fail on purpose, but in the recent test the others did not deploy either), but likely indicated modes of failure that the engineers needed to see. Just like pumping up a pressure vessel to well beyond its rated PSI in order to see how it performs under stress, this is about creating controlled failures in carefully observed environments. You invite failure into your home today so it doesn’t kick the door down on launch day.

It must also be said that these equipment failures are occurring within a larger context of making spaceflight far, far safer than it ever was. No one should entertain the illusion that spaceflight will ever be completely safe — nothing is, least of all traveling at thousands of miles per hour through a lethal vacuum or reentering the atmosphere within arm’s reach of temperatures hot enough to melt steel. But companies like SpaceX and Boeing (though its reputation for safety has been tarnished of late in a more lasting fashion) are making damn sure they’re doing everything they can to reduce that risk.

The shift from Russia’s amazingly reliable but aged Soyuz capsules to new spacecraft with entirely new capabilities is not a simple or easy one. These new craft have been developed from scratch with systems that will ultimately make them safer and more reliable than any in history. But right now both companies are still in the egg-breaking part of the omelette process.

This is not all to say that there will be no effect from these accidents. Confidence is thinned; missions are delayed; costs are incurred; competitors are emboldened. And pragmatically speaking, it seems unlikely that SpaceX will put a crew in space this year, given the severity of these events and the increased scrutiny the capsule and its testing will endure. But it’s all part of the process.

Delays are inherent to the space industry. It can be done fast, but it has to be done right. It’s disappointing when the dream of having a U.S.-built spacecraft delivering astronauts to the ISS is put off again and again, but the rewards for patience will be enormous. It’s done when it’s done. You wouldn’t want it a day before — especially if you were the one riding in it.

Blue Moon Brewing is capitalizing on Bezos’ news with a lunar lander keg

Every so often, a big corporation manages to play the news cycle just right. Generally such things aren’t recommended and can fairly easily backfire, but the MillerCoors-owned Blue Moon Brewery would have been silly not to have capitalized on yesterday’s big announcement from Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.

The company fired off a silly tweet yesterday and is doubling down with the announcement of a limited edition keg “inspired” by the newly announced Blue Moon lunar lander. It’s set for a release in July, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

As for what it will look like — the above is clearly just a mockup. One assumes Bezos and co. will have to play along if the thing is going to look like Blue Origin’s model, with a couple of taps up top. Pricing, available and all that good stuff will be arriving closer to its July 20 launch. The real thing, meanwhile, isn’t set to arrive until 2024, coinciding with Vice President Mike Pence’s stated goals for a U.S. return to the lunar surface.

In the meantime, you can watch the full unveiling here:

Watch Jeff Bezos unveil his grand space plans here

Grizzled TechCrunch reporter Matt Burns was on site at yesterday’s big Blue Origin reveal, but if you’re reading this right now, odds are you weren’t. It was a small gathering, and Jeff Bezos, who tends to be fairly secret for such a public billionaire, opted not to live stream the fairly intimate press conference.

The full event is now online, however. You can check that out right here:

The TLDW of all of it is that, well, Earth f*****g rules, man. It’s totally the best planet in the solar system, at least so far as sustaining life is concerned. As such, we’re going to be dependent on this little blue marble for a long while, even as human population and energy consumption push its resources to the brink.

Bezos unveiled some pretty sci-fi sounding plans for off-world industries. In the meantime, however, Blue Origin says it can help the U.S. get back to the moon, with help from its new Blue Moon lunar lander. Bezos says the company can deliver the hardware to NASA by 2024.

Blue Origin unveils its lunar lander, Blue Moon

Today at an intimate event in Washington, DC, Jeff Bezos took the wraps off some grand space plans. But that future, which includes trips to the lunar surface, isn’t much without the gear to get it there.

Among the more impressive unveils was Blue Moon, a new lunar lander. Bezos unveiled the vehicle, which was hidden behind a curtain for much of the event. “This is an incredible vehicle,” he told the crowd, “and it’s going to the Moon.” Powered by liquid hydrogen, the lander has an on-board system capable of navigating in space. It also utilizes gigabit internet to communicate back to Earth using a laser. 

Micro-satellites can also be strapped to the top of the rover and deployed in lunar orbit.

Blue Moon features an on-board lidar system capable of mapping lunar terrain, in order to choose the right landing site. According to Bezos, the system uses existing maps of the Moon’s surface to determine where to navigate relative to known landmarks. The vehicle features landing gear that’s stowed in an upward configuration and capable of landing on inclines up to 15 degrees. It’s capable of transporting 3.6-6.5 metric tons of payload, which includes humans and a rover, also unveiled onstage.

Bezos didn’t offer much in the way of specifics on the latter at the event, instead using the opportunity to lay out long-range plans for helping future generations deal with resource scarcities on Earth brought on by a rapidly increasing human population. As noted earlier, Bezos’s big unveil comes as the White House is making an aggressive push to kickstart a return to space travel.

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Vice President Mike Pence recently discussed hopes for returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, and President Trump has made several public statements about hopes for a landing on Mars during his presidency. While the administration will look at NASA first, they no doubt will also consider private space companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX to help achieve their goals through contracted work. Perhaps a joint appreciation of space travel will be enough for Trump and Bezos to at least temporarily put away longstanding differences — though that might be the biggest moonshot of all.

Bezos offered up a 2024 time frame for the lander, which handily dovetails with Pence’s stated goals.

Watch SpaceX launch an ISS resupply mission and make a drone ship landing tonight

It’s time for another SpaceX launch, and though tonight’s (technically early tomorrow morning’s) isn’t as historic as the Falcon Heavy, it’s always impressive to see a Falcon 9 lift off with supplies for the International Space Station. But inclement weather threatens to delay delivery.

CRS-17 will be taking two tons of supplies and other items to the ISS, including the new Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, an experiment to generate algae for human consumption on board (they won’t be trying it this time round), and a cool new multi-experiment microgravity platform called Hermes.

The full scientific payload is described in this NASA blog post from a few weeks back. Naturally the Dragon capsule (this one flew in August 2017 as well, it’s worth noting) also carries food and other supplies as well. The first stage will return to the surface and attempt to land on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You, which will be cruising the Atlantic waiting for its passenger.

The launch is less than 24 hours after SpaceX issued a statement regarding the explosion of a Crew Dragon capsule during testing. The cause of the “anomaly” is yet to be determined, but it’s important to note that this is a completely different platform than the now proven and reliable Falcon 9/Cargo Dragon combo that has flown dozens of commercial missions.

Takeoff is set for 3:11 AM Eastern time in Cape Canaveral, with streams starting about 45 minutes beforehand — but there’s a good chance tonight’s launch will be scrubbed because of bad weather.

“We’ve been monitoring an area of disturbed weather over the Bahamas for the past few days, and that area of disturbed weather is encroaching upon the Space Coast,” said Air Force launch weather officer Will Ulrich in a NASA update. Right now there’s about a 40 percent chance of a successful launch.

This would be the second delay for CRS-17, which was put off from May 1st to the 3rd late in April. Don’t worry, though — the crew in the ISS has more than enough to get by for quite some time. The next launch opportunity would be within 24 hours, too. We’ll update this post if there’s a definite hold put on the launch.

If it’s a go, you’ll be able to watch the launch below:

SpaceX confirms its Dragon crew capsule exploded in testing

For the first time after a video of an exploding Dragon capsule leaked in late April, SpaceX confirmed the spacecraft’s destruction during testing. In statements made today, SpaceX’s vice president of mission assurance Hans Koenigsmann provided a little insight on the mysterious ground test gone wrong.

As CNBC reports, Koenigsmann said during a press event that it is “too early” to determine the cause but noted that the capsule exploded as its SuperDraco thruster system was being fired up:

“At the test stand we powered up Dragon and it powered up as expected. We completed tests with the Draco thrusters – the Draco thrusters are the smaller thrusters that are also on Dragon 1, the Cargo Dragon. We fired them in two sets, each for five seconds, and that went very well. And just prior before we wanted to fire the SuperDraco there was an anomaly and the vehicle was destroyed.”

The capsule shown in a grainy video from April 21 turns out to be the same test spacecraft that visited the International Space Station in early March and returned to the Earth via a splashdown in the Atlantic six days later. Unlike the company’s cargo capsules, that capsule, known as SpaceX Demo-1, is designed to carry crew members in the future.

Even during testing, the loss of any spacecraft — particularly one designed to carry a human crew — is a big deal. The event is likely to push SpaceX’s target launch for a crewed Dragon flight this year into 2020. NASA is currently working with the company to investigate the incident.

“I hope this is a relatively swift investigation at the end of the day,” Koenigsmann said.  “I don’t want to completely preclude the current schedule, but certainly this is not good news for the schedule.”