Tesla’s Cybertruck is made of the same stainless steel alloy that SpaceX is using for Starship

Tesla CEO Elon Musk unveiled the much-anticipated Cybertruck electric pickup in LA on Thursday, and the vehicle is obviously getting a lot of attention for its eye-catching and unique design. It looks more like a rover designed for space exploration than a truck – and analogy in this case is particularly fitting, because the Cybertruck is clad in the same stainless steel alloy that Musk’s other company SpaceX will use as the skin of its forthcoming Starship spaceship.

“It is, it is literally bulletproof to a nine millimeter handgun,” Musk said on stage during the unveiling. “That’s how strong the skin is – it’s ultra-hard, cold-rolled stainless steel alloy that we’ve developed. We’re going to be using the same alloy in the Starship rocket, and in the Cybertruck.”

Musk had previously revealed at an event unveiling the full-height Starship Mk1 prototype that it would go with stainless steel for the outer shell, with an additional glass tile covering layer for the half of the space craft that will endure the highest heat from re-entry (the ship is designed to essentially belly-flop down through Earth’s atmosphere prior to landing). The Super Heavy booster that the Starship will ride atop during its exit will be clad entirely in stainless steel. The reasoning for going with that material was a combination of cost and effectiveness, since it’s actually remarkably good at withstanding and shedding high heat.

Using the same stainless steel alloy across both Tesla and SpaceX will obviously provide some cost efficiencies – especially if the Cybertruck manages to become a high-volume production vehicle (unlikely because of its controversial design, but perhaps possible based on the economics if Tesla can stick to the price points it revealed on stage). There’s another way that the Cybertruck could benefit SpaceX’s work, and Elon alluded to it on Twitter ahead of the event – Mars will need ground transportation, too.

Yes, Musk said in a tweet that the “pressurized edition” of the Cybertruck will be the “official truck of Mars.” As always with Elon, sometimes it’s difficult to suss out exactly where the line lines between jokes and actual plans with what he tweets, but I think in this instance he actually means this literally, at least at this stage in the game.

A Cybertruck rover for astronaut use on Mars could theoretically benefit both Tesla and SpaceX because of efficiencies in cross-production and engineering, and as the stainless steel alloy case illustrates, one of the big benefits of designing things for space has always been that the resulting technology often turns out to have really beneficial applications on Earth, too.

Antarctic tests will prepare this rover for a possible trip to an icy ocean moon

Exploring a distant moon usually means trundling around its uniquely inhospitable surface, but on icy ocean moons like Saturn’s Enceladus, it might be better to come at things from the bottom up. This rover soon to be tested in Antarctica could one day roll along the underside of a miles-thick ice crust in the ocean of a strange world.

It is thought that these oceanic moons may be the most likely on which to find signs of life past or present. But exploring them is no easy task.

Little is known about these moons, and the missions we have planned are very much for surveying the surface, not penetrating their deepest secrets. But if we’re ever to know what’s going on under the miles of ice (water or other) we’ll need something that can survive and move around down there.

The Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration, or BRUIE, is a robotic exploration platform under development at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. It looks a bit like an industrial-strength hoverboard (remember those?), and as you might guess from its name, it cruises around the ice upside-down by making itself sufficiently buoyant to give its wheels traction.

“We’ve found that life often lives at interfaces, both the sea bottom and the ice-water interface at the top. Most submersibles have a challenging time investigating this area, as ocean currents might cause them to crash, or they would waste too much power maintaining position,” explained BRUIE’s lead engineer, Andy Klesh, in a JPL blog post.

Unlike ordinary submersibles, though, this one would be able to stay in one place and even temporarily shut down while maintaining its position, waking only to take measurements. That could immensely extend its operational duration.

While the San Fernando Valley is a great analog for many dusty, sun-scorched extraterrestrial environments, it doesn’t really have anything like an ice-encrusted ocean to test in. So the team went to Antarctica.

The project has been in development since 2012, and has been tested in Alaska (pictured up top) and the Arctic. But the Antarctic is the ideal place to test extended deployment — ultimately for up to months at a time. Try that where the sea ice retreats to within a few miles of the pole.

Testing of the rover’s potential scientific instruments is also in order, since in a situation where we’re looking for signs of life, accuracy and precision are paramount.

JPL’s techs will be supported by the Australian Antarctic Program, which maintains Casey station, from which the mission will be based.

SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 fails during testing, next step will be to move to a newer design

SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 prototype encountered an explosive failure during early testing in Texas on Wednesday – you can see exactly what happened in the video below, but basically it blew its lid during cryogenic testing – a standard test that you use to see if the vehicle can hold up to extreme cold temperatures, like those it would encounter in actual use. The good news is that this is exactly why SpaceX (and anyone building rockets) does this kind of early-stage testing on the ground, in controlled, relatively safe conditions. The bad news is that this might delay the company’s optimistic timelines.

As for next steps, the plan appears to be to take what Starship Mk1 has taught SpaceX so far and proceed with the next iteration of the prototype spacecraft – Starship Mk3. ‘Wait, didn’t we skip a Mk?’ you might ask – no, because SpaceX is already building Mk2 in parallel with this now-destroyed Mk1 at its other facility in Florida.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was quick to answer a question on Twitter from YouTuber Everyday Astronaut regarding the next steps for Starship testing, saying it’ll move on to Mk3 design, and that Mk1’s value was primarily “as a manufacturing pathfinder,” noting that “flight design is quite different.”

This is still a different version of events and Starship development from what’s been discussed previously: Starship Mk1 and Mk2 were originally characterized as high-altitude test flight vehicles, to follow the success of the ‘Starhopper’ snub-nosed subscale demonstrator, which was used to test a single Raptor engine for a couple of low-altitude hops at SpaceX’s Texas site.

Timelines are always fluid in the space business, however, and in particular in the launch industry. SpaceX also sets incredibly optimistic timelines for most of its ambitious goals, by the open admission of both Musk and SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell. Still, the company has said it’ll look to achieve orbital flight with a Starship prototype vehicle as early as next year, so we’ll have to wait and see whether this inopportune test result affects that schedule.

SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft can supply NASA’s lunar space station – and become its own orbital platform

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is in the process of developing ‘Dream Chaser,’ a reusable spacecraft designed to ferry cargo to the International Space Station, and bring it back to Earth, landing on a runway like the Space Shuttle. Today, the company revealed more about the Dream Chaser at a press event at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

It literally showed off a new cargo component of the Dream Chaser, with a full-scale model on site – the ‘Shooting Star’ is an ejectable, disposable secondary cargo vehicle that can itself dock with the ISS while in orbit, take on waste cargo from the station, and then do a controlled de-orbit to burn up in the atmosphere, leaving nothing behind. This expendable component adds a lot of versatility to the Dream Chaser’s design, and extends the vehicle’s mission capabilities with safe disposal of materials that otherwise wouldn’t be suitable for loading aboard the Dream Chaser for its return journey to Earth.

So it’s got a nested cargo craft that can itself autonomously dock with the ISS and take out the trash, but that’s not the only trick up the Dream Chaser’s sleeve: The spacecraft will also be able to reach and resupply the Lunar Gateway, a Moon-orbiting space station that NASA plans to deploy to act as a staging point for its lunar surface missions. The Dream Chaser will have to have its satellite bus attached to make that trip, but it means it’ll be able to participate much more in NASA’s Artemis program. Probably not coincidentally, SNC was named as one of the new approved vendors that can bid on NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts (basically deliveries to the Moon’s surface).

Dream Chaser can also actually become an orbital satellite itself – its design allows for an inflatable module to be attached that can essentially convert it into an orbital platform with a very high payload and power capacity. Multipurpose is the name of the game when it comes to making multi-planetary space-based operations a viable, recurring long-term thing that we can actually accomplish, so Dream Chaser is looking like quite the high-value package if all of this comes together.

Already, Dream Chaser has been tapped by NASA to run commercial resupply services (via the CRS-2 contract – you’ve probably heard the ‘CRS’ term because both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrop) won the first batch and have been providing those over the course of the last several years. The Dream Chaser spacecraft is currently under construction, and is aiming for 2021 for its first mission on behalf of NASA.

NASA adds SpaceX, Blue Origin and more to list of companies set to make deliveries to the surface of the Moon

NASA has added five companies to the list of vendors that are cleared to bid on contracts for the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. This list, which already includes nine companies from a previous selection process, now adds SpaceX, Blue Origin, Ceres Robotics, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. All of these companies can now place bids on NASA payload delivery to the lunar surface.

This basically means that these companies (which join Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space Systems, Draper Laboratory, Firefly Aerospace, Intuitive Machines, Lockheed Martin Space, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and OrbitBeyond) can build and fly lunar landers in service of NASA missions. They’ll compete with one another for these contracts, which will involve lunar surface deliveries of resources and supplies to support NASA’s Artemis program missions, the first major goal of which is to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

These providers are specifically chosen to support delivery of heavier payloads, including “rovers, power sources, science experiments” and more, like the NASA VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), which is hunting water on the Moon. All of these will be used both to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface for astronautics to live and work from, as well as key research that needs to be completed to make getting and staying there a viable reality.

Artist’s concept of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander

NASA has chosen to contract out rides to the Moon instead of running its own as a way to gain cost and speed advantages, and it hopes that these providers will be able to also ferry commercial payloads on the same rides as its own equipment to further defray the overall price tag. The companies will bid on these contracts, worth up to $2.6 billion through November 2028 in total, and NASA will select a vendor for each based on cost, technical feasibility and when they can make it happen.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced at this year’s annual International Astronautical Congress that it would be partnering with Draper, as well as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, for an end-to-end lunar landing system. SpaceX, meanwhile, revealed that it will be targeting a lunar landing of its next spacecraft, the Starship, as early as 2022 in an effort to help set the stage for the 2024-targeted Artemis landing.

Nanoracks just booked a SpaceX launch to demo tech that turns used spacecraft into orbital habitats

SpaceX is going to launch a payload for client Nanoracks aboard one of its new rideshare missions, currently targeting late 2020, that will demonstrate a very ambitious piece of tech from the commercial space station company. Nanoracks is sending up a payload platform that will show off how it can use a robot to cut material very similar to the upper stages used in orbital spacecraft — something Nanoracks wants to eventually due to help convert these spent and discarded stages (sometimes called “space tugs” because they generally move payloads from one area of orbit to another) into orbital research stations, habitats and more.

The demonstration mission is part of Nanoracks’ “Space Outpost Program,” which aims to address the future need for in-space orbital commercial platforms by also simultaneously making use of existing vehicles and materials designed specifically for space. Through use of the upper stages of spacecraft left behind in orbit, the company hopes to show how it one day might be able to greatly reduce the costs of setting up in-space stations and habitats, broadening the potential access of these kinds of facilities for commercial space companies.

This will be the first-ever demonstration of structural metal cutting in space, provided the demo goes as planned, and it could be a key technology not just for establishing more permanent research families in Earth’s orbit, but also for setting up infrastructure to help us get to, and stay at, other interstellar destinations like the Moon and Mars.

Nanoracks has a track record of delivering when it comes to space station technology: It’s the first company to own and operate its own hardware on the International Space Station, and it has accomplished a lot since its founding in 2009. This demo mission is also funded via a contract in place with NASA.

Also going up on the same mission is a payload of eight Spire LEMUR-2 CubeSats, which Nanoracks ordered on behalf of the global satellite operator. That late 2020 date is subject to change, as are most of the long-tail SpaceX missions, but whenever it takes place, it’ll be a key moment in commercial space history to watch.

Max Q: SpaceX starts building out its production Starlink constellation

There’s literally a lot more stuff in space than there was last week – or at least, the number of active human-made satellites in Earth’s orbit has gone up quite a bit, thanks to the launch of SpaceX’s first 60 production Starlink satellites. This week also saw movement in other key areas of commercial space, and some continued activity in early-stage space startup ecosystem encouragement.

Some of the ‘New Space’ companies are flexing the advantages that are helping them shake up an industry typically reserved for just a few deep-pocketed defence contractors, and NASA is getting ready for planetary space exploration in more ways than one.

1. SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites

The 60 Starlink satellites that SpaceX launched this week are the first that aren’t specifically designated as tester vehicles, even though it launched a batch of 60 earlier this year, too. These ones will form the cornerstone of between 300-400 or so that will provide the first commercial service to customers in the U.S. and Canada next year, if everything goes to SpaceX’s plan for its new global broadband service.

Aside from being the building blocks for the company’s first direct-to-consumer product, this launch was also an opportunity for SpaceX to show just how far its come with reusability. It flew the company’s first recovered rocket fairing, for instance, and also used a Falcon 9 booster for the fourth time – and landed it, so that it can potentially use it on yet another mission in the future.

2. Rocket Lab’s new room-sized robot can don in 12-hours what used to take ‘hundreds’

Rocket Lab is aiming to providing increasingly high-frequency launch capabilities, and the company has a new robot to help it achieve very quick turnaround on rocket production: Rosie. Rosie the Robot can produce a launch vehicle about once every 12 hours – handling the key task of processing the company’s Electron carbon composite stages in a way that cuts what used to take hundreds of manual work hours into something that can be done twice a day.

3. SpaceX completes Crew Dragon static fire test

This is big because the last time SpaceX fired up the Crew Dragon’s crucial SuperDraco thrust system, it exploded and took the capsule with it. Now, the crew spacecraft can move on to the next step of demonstrating an in-flight abort (the emergency ‘cancel’ procedure that will let astronauts on board get out with their lives in the case of a post-launch, mid-flight emergency) and then it’s on to crewed tests.

4. Virgin Galactic’s first paying customers are doing their astronaut training

It’s not like they’ll have to get out and fix something in zero gravity or anything, but the rich few who have paid Virgin Galactic $250,000 per seat for a trip to space will still need to train before they go up. They’ve now begun doing just that, as Virgin looks to the first half of next year for its first commercial space tourism flights.

5. TechStars launches another space tech accelerator

They have a couple now, and this new one is done in partnership with the U.S. Air Force, along with allied government agencies in The Netherlands and Norway. This one doesn’t require that participants relocated to a central hub for the duration of the program, which should mean more global appeal.

6. NASA funds new Stingray-inspired biomimetic spacecraft

Bespin’s cloud cars were cool, but a more realistic way to navigate the upper atmosphere of a gaseous planet might actually be with robotic stingrays that really flap their ‘fins.’ Yes, actually.

7. Blue Origin’s lunar lander partner Draper talks blending old and new space companies

Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos announced a multi-partner team that will work on the company’s lunar lander, and its orbital delivery mechanism. A key ingredient there is longtime space industry experts Draper, which was born out of MIT and which is perhaps most famous for having developed the Apollo 11 guidance system. Draper will be developing the avionics and guidance systems for Blue Origin’s lunar lander, too, and Mike Butcher caught up with Draper CEO Ken Gabriel to discuss. (Extra Crunch subscription required)

Virgin Galactic begins ‘Astronaut Readiness Program’ for first paying customers

Virgin Galactic has begun its ‘Astronaut Readiness Program’ this week, which is being run out of Under Armour Global HQ to start. Under Armour is Virgin Galactic’s partner on its official astronaut uniforms, which its first paying space tourists will don on the company’s initial trips beyond Earth.

The Astronaut Readiness Program is a preparatory course that all of Virgin Galactic’s passengers undertake before they can get their trip aboard the company’s VSS Unity sub-orbital spaceplane. It involves guidance and instruction provided by Virgin Galactic team members, including its Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses and Chief Pilot Dave Mackay. Both Mackay and Moses were on Virgin’s February demonstration flight to space, and so can provide not only guidance based on their considerable expertise, but also share insights from actually having flown aboard the same vessel that will take the company’s paying passengers up.

Under Armour is also involved in the program, in more ways than just providing and reading the outfits that passengers will wear. They’re providing guidance on how Astronauts will get around aboard the spacecraft, as well as on nutrition and fitness programs to ready the space tourists for their adventure. A Virging Galactic in-house medical team is also on-hand to consult with each passenger. Virgin’s customers don’t need to match the strenuous physical fitness requirements of NASA astronauts, but the company says it’s still focused on ensuring its customers are healthy and hale on their trips.

Being an early customer for Virgin Galactic means not only training through programs like the one run this week in Baltimore, but also helping the new company develop and refine its process for future use.

“We will now be using the feedback from this week in Baltimore to build on that model,” Virgin Galactic said in a press release. “We discussed with our Future Astronauts how the training and the community can be best shaped for those waiting to fly and for those who have flown.”

To date, Virgin Galactic has 600 customers signed up to fly aboard its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, which launches from a customized cargo jet aircraft to reach sub-orbital space and provides customs with a 90-minute flight, for a $250,000 ticket. It’s looking to launch its first flights for paying customers in the first half of next year.

SpaceX completes key Crew Dragon launch system static fire test

SpaceX has confirmed that it ran a static fire test of its Crew Dragon astronaut capsule launch escape system. That’s a key step that it needed to run, and one that is under especially high scrutiny because a static fire of its thrusters back in April resulted in an explosion that destroyed that spacecraft. After an investigation, SpaceX and NASA were confident that they identified and corrected the cause of that faulty test, which seems to have worked in their favor with today’s engine fire.

Today’s stick fire appears to have gone much more smoothly, with SpaceX noting that it ran for the full planned duration, and that now its own engineers along with NASA teams will be reviewing the results of this test and the data it provided. So long as what these teams find from these test results is within their expected range and criteria for success, that will mean they can move on to an in-flight demonstration of the crew space system — the next and necessary step leading up to the eventual crewed flight of Crew Dragon with NASA astronauts on board.

The in-flight abort test that will be the next key step for Crew Dragon will demonstrate how the SuperDraco crew escape system would behave in the unlikely event of an actual emergency during a crewed mission, albeit with a Crew Dragon spacecraft that doesn’t actually have anyone on board. NASA requires that its commercial crew partners demonstrate this system to ensure the safety of those on board by showing that they can quickly move the crew capsule to a safe distance away from the spacecraft in case of emergency. Elon Musk has said they’d hope to fly an in-flight abort as early as mid-December, provided this static test shows that everything is behaving as predicted.

If everything goes as planned with that crucial demonstration, NASA and SpaceX are optimistic that a first mission with crew on board could fly as early as the first part of next year. Commercial crew co-contractor Boeing is tracking to a similar timeline with its own Starliner crew capsule program.

New NASA app puts you in the pilot’s seat of Boeing’s Starliner or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon

NASA has a new app (or web-based game, if you’re on desktop) that provides a simplified simulation of what it’s like to plan and run a commercial crew mission – meaning one of the planned varieties of mission that will actually take place aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner once they begin flying crews next year.

The app takes you through each part of the process, from spacecraft choice, to mission type, to crew selection and then to the actual launch and docking process. It’s mostly about providing some education aoudad each part of the process, rather than offering up an exhaustively realistic flight simulator – but the docking process with the International Space Station can be handled either on full automatic, or on manual mode – and manual mode is fairly challenging and fun.

[gallery ids="1911680,1911681,1911682,1911683,1911684"]

NASA has included plenty of great info on both the Crew Dragon and the Starliner, and the respective rockets they will launch atop. It also included great bios for 10 actual astronauts you can select from to staff your mission. The launch assembly stage was a bit buggy when I gave it a try on my iPhone, but still workable, and it also provides key info about each element of the launch spacecraft, from boosters to crew capsules and everything in between.

The ‘Rocket Science: Ride 2 Station’ app is a free download, out now on iOS, and also available on the web.