Leak reveals details of SpaceX’s Starlink internet service beta program

SpaceX’s Starlink service appears to be getting very close, as the company sent out requests for specific address information to anyone who has registered interest in its beta program this week. Now, a leak initially discovered via the Starlink subreddit (via Business Insider) has provided an early look at how the beta program will operate, and what is expected of by SpaceX of anyone who takes part.

The hardware

Starlink service will require use of specialized hardware for reception and transmission of data to and from the Starlink constellation, as well as “a clear view of the Northern sky” to function. The hardware, pictured above, is a small satellite dish that SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk has previously described as a “UFO on a stick.” You can see it pictured above, and it doesn’t look at that different from a typical satellite dish, though it’s hard to judge at scale from the images found on the Starlink servers.

Starlink will be providing this hardware to beta testers free of charge, and they’ll be responsible for installing it themselves. The kits include a power supply for the dish, along with mounting hardware designed to work with a person’s specific needs based on their dwelling. The website specifically instructs beta testers not to employ outside help when mounting their kit. Without a clear view of the sky, the FAQ notes, users won’t be able to get a good connection.

Many existing satellite internet service providers use dishes at point-of-use to enable the connection, but they typically work with installers to set it up for users. SpaceX might also go that route following the beta period, but it clearly wants to limit access during this pre-launch testing period.

Image Credits: Starlink

The service

Starlink service quality should be “high” when properly connected, but it also “will not be consistent” according to the company in the FAQ. That’s because SpaceX will be performing remote software updates and other network optimizations throughout the testing program, meaning it won’t be suitably as a solution for “gaming or work purposes,” according to the site text.

Starlink also notes that it will be monitoring all activity on the network during the testing period and forbids specifically “illegal activities” such as downloading or storing pirated materials, and that it reservers the right to “suspend or terminate” beta tester participation based on any such activity.

Users are allowed to cancel their participation at any time, and are encouraged to only install the hardware if they’re able to safely access an area suitable for doing so (so, if you’re in a shared dwelling like an apartment, that may limit your ability to take part).

Beta tester responsibilities

Beta testers are required to keep the details of their participation confidential, including things like network speed and quality, according to Starlink. They’re also expected to dedicate between 30 minus and an hour per day to “testing the Starlink Services and providing feedback on a periodic basis,” with feedback delivered via “surveys, phone calls, emails and other means.”

Image Credits: Starlink

Starlink also specifies that participants be ready to send back their Starlink kits at the end of the beta period (at Starlink’s shipping cost), or at any time that it’s requested. The company also says that it will require credit card or debit information and will charge a “nominal fee” (which doesn’t seem finalized, but would range from $1 to $3 at setup, and then recurring monthly) in order to “test SpaceX’s ordering and billing systems,” but it notes specifically that the actual Starlink service is provided free, as well as the loaner hardware, for the duration of the test.

Starlink emailed potential beta testers saying to expect the private beta to kick off this summer, so it’s not surprising to see they already have assets and content in place to get it up and running for those invited to participate. If all goes well, the company hopes to expand that to an open beta, with initial coverage in the northern U.S. and Canada, and expand that to more geographies next year after additional satellite launches.

More new space consolidation as Voyager Space Holdings acquires Pioneer Astronautics

It’s beginning to be a sign of the times: smaller or younger space companies getting acquired by larger entities. Today, the company being acquired is Pioneer Astronautics, which has been bought by Voyager Space Holdings in a combined cash and stock deal. Voyager, which bills itself as the “first space-focused holding company,” now has a portfolio that includes both Pioneer and Altius Space Machines, which it acquired last year.

Pioneer Astronautics was founded in 1996, and focuses on R&D of new technologies related to space exploration. The company’s focus of late has been on sustainable human space exploration, including leveraging materials found on deep-space destinations, including the Moon, and turning them into resources that are required for sustained human presence in those places. Pioneer was actually selected by NASA recently to research materials systems for use under the Artemis program, for instance, and it plans to demonstrate how it’s possible to create oxygen for breathable air, and steel for construction, from lunar regolith – essentially the soil analog found on the Moon’s surface.

Voyager Space Holdings, which is led by co-founders Dylan Taylor and Matthew Kuta, aims to bring together a number of different smaller new space companies to “increase vertical integration and mission capability,” the company said in a press release announcing this news. There’s definitely an opportunity in the current climate to bundle a number of different more niche and specific services together for the larger players in the commercial space sector, as well as for government and defense clients.

Others appear to be pursuing a similar strategy, with Redwire, a PE firm-created holding company, having recently acquired Adcole Space and Deep Space Systems, along with in-space manufacturing pioneer startup Made in Space. All those acquisitions happened this year, with the Made in Space deal announced in June.

There are a number of factors that point to this being a trend that’s likely to accelerate. First, the current global economic climate is making it difficult for many small businesses to continue to operate independently, particularly in high-cost, long-term return areas like pioneering new technology development. And while that is probably driving down acquisition costs for the holding companies, long-term, the commercial space sector seems poised for growth, driven especially by the renewed global interesting space exploration and science, fuelled by public-private partnerships.

For the smaller space companies, this consolidation represents a steady source of funding for ongoing work that’s not dependent on a VC or other capital raise effort. Space is expensive – particularly when you’re trying to do something no one’s ever done before – so it’s logical that they’d look to these kinds of tie-ups as a means to continue their ambitious work.

NASA signs agreement with Japan to cooperate across Space Station, Artemis and Lunar Gateway projects

NASA has signed a new agreement with Japan that lays out plans for the two nations to cooperate on the International Space Station (continuing existing partnership between the countries there) as well as on NASA’s Artemis program, which includes missions in lunar space and to the lunar surface.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signed the agreement with Government of Japan Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Koichi Hagiuda on July 10. It’s a Joint Exploration Decoration of Intent (JEDI), which essentially commits the two countries to laying the groundwork for more concrete plans about how the two nations will work together on projects that will extend all the way to include both robotic and human exploration of the Moon .

Japan was one of the earliest countries to express their intent to participate as an international partner in NASA’s Lunar Gateway project, all the way back in October 2019. Since then, a number of countries and agencies have expressed similar support, including Canada, which will contribute by building a third version of its Canadarm, the robotic manipulator that has been used on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, and the European Space Agency.

This new agreement formalizes that arrangement, and from here you can expect both parties to begin to detail in more specificity what kinds of projects they’ll collaborate on. Japan has plans to launch a robotic space probe mission to the moons of Mars and return samples from Phobos, its largest natural satellite, with a launch schedule for 2024, and it has launched a lunar orbiter exploration spacecraft called SELENE, and is planning a lunar lander mission dubbed the ‘Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) for 2022 that will be its first lunar surface mission.

NASA injects $17M into four small companies with Artemis ambitions

NASA awards millions of dollars a year to small businesses through the SBIR program, but generally it’s a lot of small awards to hundreds of companies. Breaking with precedent, today the agency announced a new multi-million-dollar funding track and its four first recipients, addressing urgent needs for the Artemis program.

The Small Business Innovation Research program has various forms throughout the federal government, but it generally provides non-dilutive funding on the order of a few hundred thousand dollars over a couple years to nudge a nascent technology towards commercialization.

NASA has found, however, that there is a gap between the medium-size Phase II awards and Phase III, which is more like a full-on government contract; There are already “Extended” and “Pilot” programs that can provide up to an additional $1M to promising companies. But the fact is space is expensive and time consuming, and some need larger sums to complete the tech that NASA has already indicated confidence in or a need for.

Therefore the creation of this new tier of Phase II award: less than a full contract would amount to, but up to $5M — nothing to sneeze at, and it comes with relatively few strings attached.

The first four companies to collect a check from this new, as yet unnamed program are all pursuing technologies that will be of particular use during the Artemis lunar missions:

  • Fibertek: Optical communications for small spacecraft that would help relay large amounts of data from lunar landers to Earth
  • Qualtech Systems: Autonomous monitoring, fault-prevention, and health management systems for spacecraft like the proposed Lunar Gateway and possibly other vehicles and habitats
  • Pioneer Astronautics: Hardware to produce oxygen and steel from lunar regolith — if achieved, an incredibly useful form of high-tech alchemy
  • Protoinnovations: Traction control to improve handling of robotic and crewed rovers on lunar terrain

It’s important to note that these companies aren’t new to the game — they have a long and ongoing relationship with NASA, as SBIR grants take place over multiple years. “Each business has a track record of success with NASA, and we believe their technologies will have a direct impact on the Artemis program,” said NASA’s Jim Reuter in a news release.

The total awarded is $17M, but NASA, citing ongoing negotiations, could not be more specific about the breakdown except that the amounts awarded fall between $2.5M and $5M per company.

I asked the agency for a bit more information on the new program and how companies already in the SBIR system can apply to it or otherwise take advantage of the opportunity, and will update this post if I hear back.

Autonomous driving startup turns its AI expertise to space for automated satellite operation

Hungarian autonomous driving startup AImotive is leveraging its technology to address a different industry and growing need: autonomous satellite operation. AImotive is teaming up with C3S, a supplier of satellite and space-based technologies, to develop a hardware platform for performing AI operations onboard satellites. AImotive’s aiWare neural network accelerator will be optimized by C3S for use on satellites, which have a set of operating conditions that in many ways resembles those onboard cars on the road — but with more stringent requirements in terms of power management and environmental operating hazards.

The goal of the team-up is to have AImotive’s technology working on satellites that are actually operational on orbit by the second half of next year. The projected applications of onboard neural network acceleration extend to a number of different functions according to the companies, including telecommunications, Earth imaging and observation, autonomously docking satellites with other spacecraft, deep space mining and more.

While it’s true that most satellites operate essentially in an automated fashion already — meaning they’re not generally manually flown at every given moment — true neural network-based onboard AI smarts would provide them with much more autonomy when it comes to performing tasks, like imaging a specific area or looking for specific markers in ground or space-based targets. Also, AImotive and C3S believe that local processing of data has the potential to be a significant game-changer when it comes to the satellite business.

Currently, most of the processing of data collected by satellites is done after the raw information is transmitted to ground stations. That can actually result in a lot of lag time between data collection and delivery of processed data to customers, particularly when the satellite operator or another go-between is acting as the processor on behalf of the client rather than just delivering raw info (and doing this analysis is also a more lucrative proposition for the data provider, of course).

AImotive’s tech could mean that processing happens locally on the satellite, where the information is captured. There’s been a big shift toward this kind of “computing at the edge” in the ground-based IoT world, and it only makes sense to replicate that in space, for many of the same reasons — including that it reduces time to delivery, meaning more responsive service for paying customers.

NY-based autonomous reusable rocket startup lands Air Force contract

New York-based startup iRocket has landed a contract award from the U.S. Air Force to develop and build its fully autonomous small payload rockets, which the company says will be able to launch and propulsively land both its first and second stages, with the potential of launching small payloads on demand in as little as 24 hours.

iRocket is one of a few different companies looking to provide quick turnaround, rapid-response launch capabilities to serve a growing need among defense customers, particularly in the U.S., for those services. U.S. defense agencies are seeking this specifically to help them send up small satellites in greater numbers, with greater frequency, in order to help provide redundancy and address specific needs as they arise.

The iRocket Shockwave launch vehicles are intended to carry a payload with maximum size of around 1,500 kg (around 3,300 lbs) and are best to take off from sites inlacing Spaceport Oklahoma and potentially Launch Complex 48 at Kennedyy Space Cetner in Cape Canaveral. Flexibility in terms of launch sites, including inland in the continental U.S., is another way they can support for flexibility and responsive operations for the Department of Defense and others.

iRocket plans to fly its first launch in just under three years’ time, with a plan to begin offering on-orbit satellite servicing as one of its products by 2025. It has a long way to go before that, but there’s definitely plenty of institutional interest in this from deep-pocketed government and defense customers.

How to watch Rocket Lab launch satellites for Canon, Planet and more live

Rocket Lab is launching a rideshare mission today which includes seven small satellites from a number of different companies, including primary payload provider Canon, which is flying a satellite equipped with the camera-maker’s Earth imaging technology, including high-res photo capture equipment. The Electron rocket that Rocket Lab is flying today will also carry five Planet SuperDove Earth-Observation satellites, as well as a CubeSat from In-Space missions.

The launch, which is named ‘Pics or It Didn’t Happen’ is set to take place during a window which opens at 5:19 PM EDT (2:19 PM PDT) and extends until 6:03 PM EDT (3:03 PM EDT), lifting off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. To check it out live, tune in directly via Rocket Lab’s website here – the live stream should begin around 15 minutes prior to the opening of the launch window.

This is Rocket Lab’s third flight this year, and while the company is still in the process of developing and testing its rocket booster recovery program, this mission won’t include any booster recovery attempt. This is the company’s 13th Electron flight, and the next planned test in that system’s development is set for flight 17.

The UK government to acquire satellite company OneWeb in deal funded in part by India’s Bharti Global

Distressed satellite constellation operator OneWeb, which had entered bankruptcy protection proceedings at the end of March, has completed a sale process, with a consortium led by the UK Government as the winner. The group, which includes funding from India’s Bharti Global – part of business magnate Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Enterprises – plan to pursue OneWeb’s plans of building out a broadband internets satellite network, while the UK would also like to potentially use the constellation for Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) services in order to replace the EU’s sat-nav resource, which the UK lost access to in January as a result of Brexit.

The deal involves both Bharti Global and the UK government putting up around $500 million each, respectively, with the UK taking a 20 percent equity stake in OneWeb, and Bharti supplying the business management and commercial operations for the satellite firm.

OneWeb, which has launched a total of 74 of its planned 650 satellite constellation to date, suffered lay-offs and the subsequent bankruptcy filing after an attempt to raise additional funding to support continued launches and operations fell through. That was reportedly due in large part to majority private investor SoftBank backing out of commitments to invest additional funds.

The BBC reports that while OneWeb plans to essentially scale back up its existing operations, including reversing lay-offs, should the deal pass regulatory scrutiny, there’s a possibility that down the road it could relocate some of its existing manufacturing capacity to the UK. Currently, OneWeb does its spacecraft manufacturing out of Florida in a partnership with Airbus.

OneWeb is a London-based company already, and its constellation can provide access to low latency, high-speed broadband via low Earth orbit small satellites, which could potentially be a great resource for connecting UK citizens to affordable, quality connections. The PNT navigation services extension would be an extension of OneWeb’s existing mission, but theoretically, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to leverage planned in-space assets to serve a second purpose.

Also, while the UK currently lacks its own native launch capabilities, the country is working towards developing a number of spaceports for both vertical and horizontal take-off – which could enable companies like Virgin Orbit, and other newcomers like Skyrora, to establish small-sat launch capabilities from UK soil, which would make maintaining and extending in-space assets like OneWeb’s constellation much more accessible as a domestic resource.

NASA pays out $51 million to small businesses with big ideas

NASA has announced its latest batch of small business grants, providing more than 300 businesses a total of $51 million in crucial early-stage funding. These “phase I” projects receive up to $125,000 to help bring new technologies to market.

The Small Business Innovation Research/Technology Transfer programs help entrepreneurs and inventors transition their work from lab to commercial availability. The money is like a grant, not an investment, and Phase I recipients are eligible for larger Phase II grants if they’re warranted.

This year’s selections, as always, cover dozens of disciplines and apply to a wide range of industries. Among NASA’s own highlights in a news release are high-power solar arrays, a smart air traffic control system for urban flight, a water purification system for use on the moon and improved lithium-ion batteries.

There’s even one award for a company making “a compact sterilizer for use on spacecraft materials” that could also be employed by health workers.

Perusing the lists I was struck by the number of neuromorphic computing efforts, from radiation-hardened chips to software techniques. I take these to be chips and approaches that utilize and accelerate machine learning methods, rather than attempts at computers that truly employ the spikes and plasticity of actual neuronal networks.

The 2020 Phase II announcements won’t come for a while — NASA just released 2019’s last month.

The SBIR program is one of the federal government’s inadvertently best-kept secrets, with billions allocated to a dozen agencies to distribute to small businesses. You can learn more at SBIR.gov.

SpaceX successfully launches GPS III space vehicle on behalf of the U.S. Space Force

SpaceX successfully launched a GPS III satellite for the U.S. Space Force today. The Space Force took over the U.S. in-space GPS assets from the Air Force when it became its own dedicated wing of the U.S. armed forces.

The launch employed a Falcon 9 rocket, the first stage of which was new and fresh from SpaceX’s factory floor. This launch did include a recovery attempt of the Falcon 9 booster, however, unlike the first GPS III launch that SpaceX launched in December 2018. SpaceX says that it was able to work with its customer to ensure that it could complete its mission as planned, while retaining enough reserve fuel for a recovery attempt – something that didn’t happen with the first launch.

That’s good news for SpaceX, since it means it won’t be losing that booster this time around, with a confirmed  successful controlled burn and landing on its floating drone landing ship at sea. That can now be refurbished and used again for future Falcon 9 missions.

The GPS spacecraft launched on this flight includes greater capabilities, better security and the potential to impact up to 4 billion users worldwide, the Space Force notes. It’ll enter a geosynchronous orbit and work with other existing GPS III satellites on orbit, as well as other existing earlier generation GPS satellites operated by the U.S.

SpaceX also says that its Ms. Tree and Ms. Chief ships will attempt fairing recovery at sea, not via catch but by fishing them out of the water. The fairing protects the satellite during the launch on its trip to space, and then falls back to Earth – where SpaceX generally tries to recover the pieces for later refurbishment and re-use.

The deployment of the satellite will occur around an hour and a half after launch, so while the launch has been successful, the full mission status will only be determined then. We’ll update this post with the results of that maneuver.