Google’s parent firm is shutting down Loon internet company

Google’s parent firm, Alphabet, is done exploring the idea of using giant balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.

The firm said on Thursday evening that it was winding down Loon, a nine-year-old project and a two-and-a-half-year-old spin off firm, after failing to find a sustainable business model and partners.

The demise of Loon comes a year after the Android-maker ended Google Station, its other major connectivity effort to bring internet to the next billion users. Through Station, Google provided internet connectivity at over 400 railway stations in India and sought to replicate the model in other public places in more nations.

That said, Alphabet’s move today is still surprising. Just last year, Loon had secured approval from the government of Kenya to launch first balloons to provide commercial connectivity services — something it did successfully achieve months later, giving an impression that things were moving in the right direction.

On its website, Loon has long stated its mission as: “Loon is focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world. We are in discussions with telecommunications companies and governments worldwide to provide a solution to help extend internet connectivity to these underserved areas.”

Perhaps the growing interest of SpaceX and Amazon in this space influenced Alphabet’s decision — if not, the two firms are going to have to answer some difficult feasibility questions of their own in the future.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” said Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon, in a blog post.

“The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The blog post characterised Loon’s connectivity effort as success. “The Loon team is proud to have catalyzed an ecosystem of organizations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere. The world needs a layered approach to connectivity — terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based — because each layer is suited to different parts of the problem. In this area, Loon has made a number of important technical contributions,” wrote Westgarth.

What happens next

In a separate blog post, the firm said it had pledged a fund of $10 million to support nonprofits and businesses focussed on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.

Alphabet also plans to “take some of Loon’s technology” forward and share what it learned from this moonshot idea with others.

Additionally, “some of Loon’s technology — like the high bandwidth (20Gbps+) optical communication links that were first used to beam a connection between balloons bopping in the stratosphere — already lives on in Project Taara. This team is currently working with partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring affordable, high-speed internet to unconnected and under-connected communities starting in Kenya,” the firm said.

Scores of firms including Google and Facebook have visibly scaled down several of their connectivity efforts in recent years after many developing nations such as India that they targeted solved their internet problems on their own.

It has also become clear that subsidizing internet access to hundreds of millions of potential users is perhaps not the most sustainable way to acquire customers.

SpaceX delivers 60 more Starlink satellites in first launch of 2021, and sets new Falcon 9 rocket reusability record

SpaceX has launched its 17th batch of Starlink satellites during its first mission of 2021, using a Falcon 9 rocket that was flying for the eighth time, and that landed again, recording a record for its reusability program. This puts the total Starlink constellation size at almost 1,000, as the company has expanded its beta access program for the service to the UK and Canada, with a first deployment in the latter company serving a rural First Nations community in a remote part of the province of Ontario.

The launch took off from Florida at 8:02 AM EST (5:02 AM PST), with delivery of the satellites following as planned at around an hour after lift-off. The booster on this launch flew seven times previously, as mentioned – including just in December when it was used to delivery a SiriusXM satellite to orbit to support that company’s satellite radio network.

Today’s launch was also notable because it included a landing attempt in so-called “envelope expansion” conditions, which means that the winds in the landing zone where SpaceX’s drone recovery ship was stationed at sea actually exceeded the company’s previously-defined safety window for making a landing attempt.

As a result of today’s success, SpaceX will likely now have higher tolerances for wind speeds in order to attempt recovery, which should translate to fewer cancellations of launches based on weather conditions in the landing zone.

Rocket Lab completes its first rocket launch of 2021 and 18th mission overall

Rocket Lab has launched its 18th mission, and the first of 2021, as of 8:26 PM NZT (2:30 AM EST). The ‘Another One Leaves The Crust’ mission took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, and flew a single communications microsatellite on behalf of client OHB Group, a satellite manufacturer based in Europe with facilities in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Rocket Lab’s launches often feature payloads from more than one customer on the same Electron launch vehicle, but this dedicated payload launch is an example of how the flexibility of its smaller rocket can serve customers even for single small satellite missions. The rocket successfully delivered its payload as intended shortly following take-off.

While Rocket Lab has been developing and testing a booster stage recovery process to help it re-use part of its launch vehicles on subsequent flights, this particular mission did not include a recovery attempt. The company has had significant success with that development process however, and recovered its first booster last year. Sometime this year, it’s expected to attempt a recovery that includes a mid-air catch of the returning first stage via helicopter.

SpaceX bought two oil rigs to convert into offshore launch pads for Starship

SpaceX’s next spacecraft is in development in Texas, and CEO Elon Musk previously revealed that the company was planning to build floating spaceports for Starship  operations, after a job ad was posted looking for someone to oversee their development. Now, SpaceX has purchased two oil rigs to convert for this purpose, as first reported by spaceflight.com’s Michael Baylor, and confirmed by CNBC.

The rigs have been named Deimos and Phoibos by SpaceX, which are the names of the two Moons of Mars (and the names of the gods of both dread and fear in Greek mythology before that). The rigs were originally designed for off shore deepwater drilling, up to a maximum depth of 8,500 feet. They’re currently located in Brownsville, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico near SpaceX’s Starship development site in Brownsville, Texas.

These vessels measure 240-feet by 255-feet, and will in theory be repurposed to support launching of Starship (and perhaps return landing, given their reusable design). Thus far, SpaceX has been launching and landing its Starship prototypes on land at its Boca Chica site, though it’s only done lower altitude flights so far. The company also operates two drone ships, which are 300-feet long by around 170-feet wide, as autonomous floating landing pads for its current Falcon 9 rocket boosters.

SpaceX also posted another ad seeking a resort development manager to turn its south Texas facility into a “21st century spaceport,” specifically looking for someone with resort expertise. Meanwhile, Musk confirmed that he has moved to Texas last December, following a number of public suggestions that he would do so owing in part to California’s taxation and regulatory environment.

Musk’s other company SpaceX also selected Austin as the site of its next gigafactory in the U.S., intended for assembly of its Cybertruck, Model Y and Tesla Semi, as well as Model 3 cars destined for customers on the east coast. SpaceX has maintained engine test facilities in McGreger, Texas, and set up Boca Chica as one of two Starship development sites alongside Florida, before making the south Texas location the sole focus for that spacecraft’s construction and testing after consolidating its efforts.

Watch Virgin Orbit launch a rocket to space from a modified 747 for the first time

Virgin Orbit scored a major success on Sunday, with a test flight that not only achieved its goals of reaching space and orbit, but also of delivering payloads on board for NASA, marking its first commercial mission, too. The launch was a success in every possible regard, which puts Virgin Orbit on track to becoming an active launch provider for small payloads for both commercial and defense customers.

Above, you can watch the actual launch itself – the moment the LauncherOne rocket detaches from ‘Cosmic Girl,’ a modified Boeing 747 airliner that takes off normally from a standard aircraft runway, and then climbs to a cruising altitude to release the rocket, which then ignites its own engines and flies the rest of the way to space. Virgin Orbit’s launch model was designed to reduce the barriers to carrying small payloads to orbit vs. traditional vertical take-off vehicles, and this successful test flight proves the model works.

Virgin Orbit now joins a small but growing group of private launch companies who have actually reached space, and made it to orbit. That should be great news for the small satellite launch market, which still has much more demand than there is supply. Virgin Orbit also offers something very different from current launch providers like SpaceX, which typically serves larger payloads or which must offer rideshare model missions for those with smaller spacecraft. The LauncherOne design potentially means more on-demand, response and quick-turnaround launch services for satellite operators.

Virgin Orbit reaches orbit for the first time

Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket to orbit for the first time today, with a successful demonstration mission that carried a handful of satellites and will attempt to deliver them to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. It’s a crucial milestone for the small satellite launch company, and the first time the company has shown that its hybrid carrier aircraft/small payload orbital delivery rocket works as intended, which should set the company up to begin commercial operations of its launch system very soon.

This is the second attempt at reaching orbit for Virgin Orbit, after a first try in late May ended with the LauncherOne rocket initiating an automatic safety shutdown of its engines shortly after detaching from the ‘Cosmic Girl’ carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 that transports the rocket to its launch altitude. The company said that it learned a lot from that attempt, including identifying the error that caused the failsafe engine shut down, which it corrected in advance of today’s mission.

Virgin’s Cosmic Girl took off at just before 2 PM EDT, and then released LauncherOne from its wing at roughly 2:40 PM EDT. LauncherOne had a “clean separation” as intended, and then ignited its own rocket engines and quickly accelerated to the point where it was undergoing the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure (called max q in the aerospace industry). LauncherOne’s main engine then cut off after its burn, and its payload stage separated, crossing the Karman line and entering space for the first time.

It achieved orbit at around 2:49 PM EDT, and will release its payload of small satellites in roughly 30 minutes. We’ll update this post to provide the results of this part of its mission later, but this is already a major milestone and huge achievement for the Virgin Orbit team.

Virgin Orbit’s unique value proposition in the small launch market is that it can take off and land from traditional runways thanks to its carrier aircraft and mid-air rocket launch approach. That should provide flexibility in terms of launch locations, allowing it to be more responsive to customer needs in terms of geographies and target orbital deliveries.

In 2017, Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic, to focus exclusively on small payload orbital launch. Virgin Galactic then devoted itself entirely to its own mission of offering commercial human spaceflight. Virgin Orbit itself create its own subsidiary earlier this year, called VOX Space, which intends to use LauncherOne to deliver small satellites to orbit specifically for the U.S. national security market.

 

Blue Origin successfully launches and lands key crew capsule test in first mission of 2021

Blue Origin launched its first mission of 2021, flying its New Shepard rocket in West Texas to a medium height of just over 350,000 feet. This is the first flight for this particular booster, and for the capsule it carried, which was equipped with a range of new passenger safety, control and comfort systems that Blue Origin was testing during flight for the first time. Also on board was a life-sized test dummy called ‘Mannequin Skywalker’ that recorded information during the flight and landing that the Blue Origin will now review.

Based on the video stream and commentary from the company, this looks like a very successful test, including a takeoff, booster separation, controlled landing burn and touchdown – and a parachute-aided landing back on terra firma for the crew capsule. The mission didn’t carry any real passengers, although there were 50,000 postcards on board from school kids globally that have now officially been to space (past the Karman line) which will be returned to those students via Blue Origin’s non-profit ‘Club for the Future.’

This is essentially what the mission will look like once Blue Origin actually begins to fly paying private astronauts to suborbital space as well; while we don’t have a timeline for when that’ll happen, today’s launch included key tests of a crew alert system that will provide anyone onboard with crucial mission information, as well as a new soft lining on the wall for protection during the weightless portion of the flight, as well as for sound and vibration dampening for the comfort of those on board. This capsule was also equipped with a carbon dioxide scrubber, which will be used to provide safe atmosphere for those within the capsule during the course of the flight.

Blue Origin set to launch a New Shepard rocket outfitted with crew upgrades as it readies for astronaut flight

Blue Origin is set to launch one of its New Shepard rockets as early as tomorrow, January 14 at 9:45 AM CST (10:45 AM EST) for its first mission of 2021. This is a big one for the Jeff Bezos-founded space company, too – it includes upgrades to the crew capsule atop the rocket that are designed to improve the astronaut experience, a key preparatory step as the company approaches its first actual human spaceflight missions.

New Shepard has flown 13 times previously, and carried a number of different payloads to suborbital space before returning to Earth. The reusable launch vehicle aims to ultimately provide rides to space for people, too – and while there’s no stated timeline for this actually happening, tomorrow’s mission is a strong sign that it could be taking place sometime relatively soon.

Crew-focused upgrades flying on this New Shepard launch for the first time include acoustic and temperature regulation equipment, display panels that provide information to anyone who would be on board, and push-to-talk communications systems installed in each of the crew capsule’s six seats. One of those seats will have a life-size test article on board, a humanoid flight dummy named Mannequin Skywalker that Blue Origin uses to measure various aspects of the vehicle’s performance.

It’ll test astronaut safety alert systems that Blue Origin intends to include on the final flight system, and it’ll also carry a payload with a very different purpose – 50,000 postcards provided by school kids around the world to the Blue Origin non-profit Club for the Future.

The mission will be broadcast live by Blue Origin via its website and YouTube channel (embedded below) and you can expect the stream to begin around 30 minutes prior to launch time, so at around 10:15 AM EST (7:15 AM PST).

Virgin Orbit targets launch window opening January 10 for next orbital flight attempt

Virgin Orbit is wasting no time in 2021 getting back to active flight testing: The company has a window for its next orbital demonstration launch attempt that opens on Sunday, January 10, and that continues throughout the rest of the month. This follows an attempt last year made in May, which ended before the LauncherOne rocket reached orbit — shortly after it detached from the Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, in fact.

While that mission didn’t go exactly as Virgin Orbit had hoped, it was a significant milestone for the small satellite launch company, and helped gather a significant amount of data about how the vehicle performs in flight. LauncherOne was able to briefly light its rocket booster before safety systems on board automatically shut it down. The company had been looking to fly this second test before the end of last year, but issues including COVID-19 meant that they only got as far as the wet dress rehearsal (essentially a run-through of everything leading up to the flight with the vehicles fully fueled).

This next mission will once again attempt an orbital launch, and this time, the stakes are somewhat higher because actual customer payloads from NASA are on board. They include a number of small satellite science experiments and demonstrations, and while they’re specifically selected for the mission profile (meaning it’s not a tremendous loss if the launch fails), it still would make everyone happiest to actually get them to their target destination.

The nature of the launch window means that Virgin Orbit will likely wait for conditions to be as good as possible before taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, so take that January 10 date as the earliest possible launch time, but not necessarily the most likely. If successful, Virgin Orbit will join a select group of private small launch vehicles that have made it to orbit, so the industry will definitely be watching the next time Cosmic Girl takes off with LauncherOne attached.

Astronaut Anne McClain on designing and piloting the next generation of spacecraft

NASA recently announced the astronauts who will be taking part in the Artemis missions, and among them is Anne McClain, who has spent 203 days in orbit and conducted two spacewalks on the ISS. With the space industry looking nothing like it did 10 years ago and new spacecraft and technologies on the rise, McClain share her thoughts about how she and other astronauts would be embracing the future.

Lt. Col. McClain’s time aboard the ISS spanned from December 2018 to June of 2019, meaning her ascent and descent were both aboard Russia’s Soyuz capsules, as astronauts have gotten to and from space since the Shuttle days. The Artemis missions, however, will use a variety of new launch vehicles and spacecraft. And while she didn’t get to fly a Dragon capsule, she did get to check one out while it was docked at the station.

“I was so happy to have flown the Soyuz, because it is such a reliable, basic spacecraft — it’s almost like flying a piece of history — knowing I was going to be able to compare that to other vehicles to in the future,” she said. “I had the opportunity when I was on Space Station when DM-1 flew. And so, being able to float into that and look at their screens, their monitors, you notice right away that the technology has advanced to where it looks like the inside of a commercial airliner.”

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were the first to pilot a Dragon in orbit, and said afterwards that it was “certainly different,” partly due to the reliance on touchscreens as primary interfaces for many spacecraft functions. McClain emphasized the difficulty of getting software to the point where it can be trusted with someone’s life.

“Most of the vehicles that we’re using now are very heavy on software — lots of touchscreens, not so much valves that were physically moving, it’s more like a software relay. But that adds a huge amount of complexity, because as your readers are probably well aware, approving software and the reliability of software is difficult,” she explained.

We want to understand our systems well enough to be able to interact with them in ways that maybe they’re not directly designed to do.
“We’re always looking at the question of, when should a human be in the loop, and when should it be automated? And if it’s automated, how can we prove the software has reliability sufficient for human spaceflight? At some point you have to say, ‘You know what, if this happens, we’re going to put a human in the loop,’ just so you’re not paralyzed by 10 years of software testing.”

As a pilot herself, McClain naturally has opinions on this, and like Hurley and Behnken, worked with SpaceX early on.

“I was fortunate to work with Bob and Doug, advising SpaceX early on in their cockpit controls, and I think where they got, it’s a really incredible machine,” she said, while noting that the Orion and Starliner craft received similar attentions from experts like her.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley bump fists to celebrate their history-making launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Yes, that company name has not built a spacecraft — but there are people in those halls that have built spacecraft. The talent that built the Space Shuttle and Space Station is spread out all over the commercial industry now.
Flexibility was chief among the desired aspects; If things go even a little off script, they need the tools to be flexible and not self-limiting.

“I think, pilots, we always want options, right? Whatever happens, we want options. As much as we try to predict scenarios on the ground, we’re always keenly aware that something could happen that wasn’t predicted, and at that point… we want options,” she said. “We want to understand our systems well enough to be able to interact with them in ways that maybe they’re not directly designed to do. So it’s really important for me that the software doesn’t take options off the table. That’s one of the reasons why, at NASA, they look at the Apollo 13 case, when we had to use hardware and software and the vehicle in ways that we’d never predicted.”

When I asked whether it was different or strange to work with newer companies like Blue Origin, McClain pointed out that really, the only new thing there is the name.

CG Render of what Blue Origin and Lockheed's lunar lander is expected to look like.“I’ve worked with these companies enough to know something, and that’s that yes, that company name has not built a spacecraft — but there are people in those halls that have built spacecraft. The talent that built the Space Shuttle and Space Station is spread out all over the commercial industry now, which is exactly what NASA wants to do. That is our human capital,” she explained. “The other thing I’m confident about is the way NASA partners with these companies, for test programs and design reviews, it’s extremely thorough. So by the time that rocket has me on top of it on a pad, I’m confident in in the checks and balances we have in place.”

That technology, it helps bring Earth up into the spaceship with us.
Lastly I asked about whether any conveniences of modern consumer tech had made it more bearable to spend long periods of time in space, for instance the fairly recent capability to do video calls. McClain was quick to answer in the positive.

“What you said is exactly it. Imagine if we were in this pandemic and weren’t able to video chat — we’re already feeling disconnected from our loved ones. And you know, feeling disconnected is the same whether you’re on the other side of the country or you’re in space. So the ability for us to be able to see our parents’ faces on the screen and talk to them, it really does wonders,” she said. “And it’s not just morale. You know, you start looking at six month, twelve month missions, it’s really maintaining the psyche, maintaining human mental health. So that technology, it helps bring Earth up into the spaceship with us.”

McClain is one of 18 astronauts who will take part in the missions leading up to the planned Moon landing. You can meet the rest here.