Blue Origin targets this Thursday for New Shepard reusable rocket launch with NASA landing system test

Blue Origin just announced the timing of its next rocket launch – and it’s surprisingly soon, in just two days on Thursday, September 24. The launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle will be its 13th overall for that category of launch craft, and the 7th in a row for this particular rocket. The payload will include an even dozen commercial cargo items, including a Deorbit, Descent and Landing Sensor Demonstration done in partnership with NASA – basically a highly-precise automated landing system that will help NASA land on the Moon and eventually Mars.

That payload is unique not just because of the technology involved in the landing system, but also because it’ll actually be mounted to the exterior of the New Shephard’s booster stage, rather than in the capsule that rides atop it. This is the first time that Blue Origin has carried a payload that way, and the company expects it could pave the way for similar future missions, enabling sensing at high altitudes, and experiments made possible through use of equipment exposed to the external environment.

Other payloads on this flight will include postcards from the Blue Origin-founded nonprofit Club for the Future, which are collected by students at schools across the world. There are also additional experiments from Johsn Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab, Space Lab Technologies, mu Space Corp, other NASA experiments,and more.

Blue Origin plans a second test flight for the landing technologies on board, and overall these are emanated to help de-risk use of the sensors for later operational viability.

The company has set the launch for 10 AM CDT (11 AM EDT), and it’ll take off from its launch facility in West Texas. The launch will bore broadcast live, and a stream will start 30 minutes prior to liftoff time, and include a special message from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine about the agency’s collaboration with Blue Origin. The last New Shepard launch took place last December, so it’s been nearly a year since the company has flown one of its spacecraft.

NASA to test precision automated landing system designed for the Moon and Mars on upcoming Blue Origin mission

NASA is going to be testing out a new precision landing system designed for use on the tough terrain of the Moon and Mars for the first time during an upcoming mission of Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket. The ‘Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution’ (SPLICE) system is made up of a number of lasers, an optical camera, and a computer to take all the data collected by the sensors and process it using advanced algorithms, and it works by spotting potential hazards, and adjusting landing parameters on the fly to ensure a safe touchdown.

SPLICE will get a real-world test of three of its four primary subsystems during a New Shepard mission to be flown relatively soon. The Jeff Bezos -founded company typically returns its first-stage booster to Earth after making its trip to the very edge of space, but on this test of SPLICE, NASA’s automated landing technology will be operating on board the vehicle the same way they would when approaching the surface of the Moon or Mars . The elements tested will include ‘terrain relative navigation,’ Doppler radar, and SPLICE’s descent and landing computer, while a fourth major system – lidar-based hazard detection – will be tested on future planned flights.

Currently, NASA already uses automated landing for its robotic exploration craft on the surface of other planets, including the Perseverance rover headed to Mars. But a lot of work goes into selecting a landing zone with a large area of unobstructed ground that’s free of any potential hazards in order to ensure a safe touchdown. Existing systems can make some adjustments, but they’re relatively limited in that regard.

SPLICE is designed to enable more exact landings, and ones that can deal with more nearby hazards, enabling exploration in areas that were previously considered off-limits for landers. That could greatly expand our ability to gain more knowledge and better understanding of the Moon and Mars, which is particularly important as we continue to work towards more human exploration and even potential colonization.

The lidar system mentioned above is a key new ingredient in these SPLICE tests, since we don’t actually know in great detail how well lidar will perform with the terrain on Mars and the Moon, where reflectivity could be quite different from what it is here on Earth within our own atmosphere. Still, NASA is confident it should provide much better precision than radar-based methods for surface mapping and feature detection.

Watch SpaceX launch 60 more Starlink satellites for its broadband internet service live

SpaceX is set to launch the latest batch of its Starlink satellites on Thursday, with a target lift-off time of 2:19 PM EDT (11:19 AM PDT). The mission will take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and there’s a backup opportunity tomorrow at 1:57 PM EDT (10:57 AM PDT) in case weather or any other issues prevent a launch attempt today.

The launch today will add to SpaceX’s growing constellation of operational Starlink satellites on orbit. There are now over 500 of these circling the globe, as SpaceX conducts private beta testing of its high-speed, low-latency consumer internet service and prepares for an open beta launch later this year. The goal is to create a scalable, eventually globe-spanning service that can provide service where previously unavailable, or to customers who had to rely on shaky or slow connections in past.

The launch today includes use of a Falcon 9 first stage booster that has flow twice previously, including first during SpaceX’s landmark Demo-2 Crew Dragon mission, the first ever for the company to carry human astronauts. SpaceX will also be attempting to recover the booster yet again for another future launch. One of the two fairing halves that protect the cargo atop the Falcon 9 was also used previously, on two separate occasions, for other Starlink satellite launches.

The livestream above will begin roughly 15 minutes before the target liftoff time, so at around 2:04 PM EDT (11:04 AM PDT).

In 2020, Warsaw’s startup ecosystem is ‘a place to observe carefully’

If you listed the trends that have captured the attention of 20 Warsaw-focused investors who replied to our recent surveys, automation/AI, enterprise SaaS, cleantech, health, remote work and the sharing economy would top the list. These VCs said they are seeking opportunities in the “digital twin” space, proptech and expanded blockchain tokenization inside industries.

Investors in Central and Eastern Europe are generally looking for the same things as VCs based elsewhere: startups that have a unique value proposition, capital efficiency, motivated teams, post-revenue and a well-defined market niche.

Out of the cohort we interviewed, several told us that COVID-19 had not yet substantially transformed how they do business. As Michał Papuga, a partner at Flashpoint VC put it, “the situation since March hasn’t changed a lot, but we went from extreme panic to extreme bullishness. Neither of these is good and I would recommend to stick to the long-term goals and not to be pressured.”

Said Pawel Lipkowski of RBL_VC, “Warsaw is at its pivotal point — think Berlin in the ‘90s. It’s a place to observe carefully.”

Here’s who we interviewed for part one:

For the conclusion, we spoke to the following investors:

Karol Szubstarski, partner, OTB Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Gradual shift of enterprises toward increased use of automation and AI, that enables dramatic improvement of efficiency, cost reduction and transfer of enterprise resources from tedious, repeatable and mundane tasks to more exciting, value added opportunities.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
One of the most exciting opportunities is ICEYE. The company is a leader and first mover in synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) technology for microsatellites. It is building and operating its own commercial constellation of SAR microsatellites capable of providing satellite imagery regardless of the cloud cover, weather conditions and time of the day and night (comparable resolution to traditional SAR satellites with 100x lower cost factor), which is disrupting the multibillion dollar satellite imagery market.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I would love to see more startups in the digital twin space; technology that enables creation of an exact digital replica/copy of something in physical space — a product, process or even the whole ecosystem. This kind of solution enables experiments and [the implementation of] changes that otherwise could be extremely costly or risky – it can provide immense value added for customers.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
A company with unique value proposition to its customers, deep tech component that provides competitive edge over other players in the market and a founder with global vision and focus on execution of that vision.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
No market/sector is too saturated and has no room for innovation. Some markets seem to be more challenging than others due to immense competitive landscape (e.g., food delivery, language-learning apps) but still can be the subject of disruption due to a unique value proposition of a new entrant.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
OTB is focused on opportunities with links to Central Eastern European talent (with no bias toward any hub in the region), meaning companies that leverage local engineering/entrepreneurial talent in order to build world-class products to compete globally (usually HQ outside CEE).

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
CEE region is recognized for its sizable and highly skilled talent pool in the fields of engineering and software development. The region is well-positioned to build up solutions that leverage deep, unique tech regardless of vertical (especially B2B). Historically, the region was especially strong in AI/ML, voice/speech/NLP technologies, cybersecurity, data analytics, etc.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
CEE (including Poland and Warsaw) has always been recognized as an exceptionally strong region in terms of engineering/IT talent. Inherent risk aversion of entrepreneurs has driven, for a number of years, a more “copycat”/local market approach, while holding back more ambitious, deep tech opportunities. In recent years we are witnessing a paradigm shift with a new generation of entrepreneurs tackling problems with unique, deep tech solutions, putting emphasis on global expansion, neglecting shallow local markets. As such, the quality of deals has been steadily growing and currently reflects top quality on global scale, especially on tech level. CEE market demonstrates also a growing number of startups (in total), which is mostly driven by an abundance of early-stage capital and success stories in the region (e.g., DataRobot, Bolt, UiPath) that are successfully evangelizing entrepreneurship among corporates/engineers.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I believe that local hubs will hold their dominant position in the ecosystem. The remote/digital workforce will grow in numbers but proximity to capital, human resources and markets still will remain the prevalent force in shaping local startup communities.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
OTB invests in general in companies with clearly defined technological advantage, making quantifiable and near-term difference to their customers (usually in the B2B sector), which is a value-add regardless of the market cycle. The economic downturn works generally in favor of technological solutions enabling enterprise clients to increase efficiency, cut costs, bring optimization and replace manual labour with automation — and the vast majority of OTB portfolio fits that description. As such, the majority of the OTB portfolio has not been heavily impacted by the COVID pandemic.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
The COVID pandemic has not impacted our investment strategy in any way. OTB still pursues unique tech opportunities that can provide its customers with immediate value added. This kind of approach provides a relatively high level of resilience against economic downturns (obviously, sales cycles are extending but in general sales pipeline/prospects/retention remains intact). Liquidity in portfolio is always the number one concern in uncertain, challenging times. Lean approach needs to be reintroduced, companies need to preserve cash and keep optimizing — that’s the only way to get through the crisis.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
A good example in our portfolio is Segron, a provider of an automated testing platform for applications, databases and enterprise network infrastructure. Software development, deployment and maintenance in enterprise IT ecosystem requires continuous and rigorous testing protocols and as such a lot of manual heavy lifting with highly skilled engineering talent being involved (which can be used in a more productive way elsewhere). The COVID pandemic has kept engineers home (with no ability for remote testing) while driving demand for digital services (and as such demand for a reliable IT ecosystem). The Segron automated framework enables full automation of enterprise testing leading to increased efficiency, cutting operating costs and giving enterprise customers peace of mind and a good night’s sleep regarding their IT infrastructure in the challenging economic environment.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
I remain impressed by the unshakeable determination of multiple founders and their teams to overcome all the challenges of the unfavorable economic ecosystem.

Elon Musk says Starship SN8 prototype will have a nosecone and attempt a 60,000-foot return flight

Elon Musk has shared some details about future testing of Starship, the SpaceX launch vehicle currently being developed by the company at its Boca Chica, Texas facility. Recently, SpaceX has completed short, 150 meter (just under 500 feet) test flights of two earlier Starship prototypes, SN5 and SN6 – and SN8, which is currently set to be done construction “in about a week” according to Musk will have “flaps & nosecone” and ultimately is intended for a much higher altitude test launch.

The prototypes that SpaceX has flown and landed for its so-called ‘short-hop’ tests over the past few weeks have been full-sized, but with a simulated weight installed on the top in place of the actual domed nosecone that will perch atop the final production Starship and protect any cargo on board. SN5 and SN6, which are often compared to grain silos, are also lacking the large control flaps on either side of the nosecone that will help control its flight. SN8 will have both, according to Musk.

This version of the prototype will also undergo the same early testing and its precursors, including a static fire and other ground checkouts, followed by another static fire before ultimately attempting to fly to an altitude of 60,000 feet – and then returning back to the ground for a controlled landing.

SpaceX is off pace when it comes to Starship development relative to Musk’s earliest, rosiest projections – but the CEO is known for overly optimistic estimates when it comes to timeframes, something he’s repeatedly copped to himself.

Rocket development is also notoriously difficult, so this first high-altitude flight attempt could just as easily go very poorly. SpaceX in particular has a development program that focuses on rapid iteration, and learning from earlier mistakes while building simultaneous development prototypes incorporating different lessons gleaned from various generations. And while it may not have made Musk’s crazy timelines, it is moving very quickly, especially now that the most recent prototypes have survived pressure testing and made it up into the air.

Rocket startup Astra’s first orbital launch attempt ends early due to first-stage burn failure

Alameda-based rocket launch startup Astra finally got the chance to launch its first orbital test mission from its Alaska-based facility on Saturday, after the attempt had been delayed multiple times due to weather and other issues. The 8:19 PM PT lift-off of Astra’s ‘Rocket 3.1’ test vehicle went well – but the flight ended relatively shortly after that, during the first-stage engine burn and long before reaching orbit.

Astra wasn’t expecting to actually reach orbit on this particular flight – it has always said that its goal is to reach orbit within three test flights of Rocket, and prior to this first mission, said that the main goal was to have a good first-stage burn on this one specifically. This wasn’t a nominal first-stage burn, of course, since that’s when the failure occurred, but the company still noted in a blog post that “the rocket performed very well” according to their first reviews of the data.

The mission ended early because of what appears to be a bit of unwanted back-and-forth wobbling in the rocket as it ascended, Astra said, which caused an engine shutdown by the vehicle’s automated safety system. That’s actually also good news, since it means the steps Astra has taken to ensure safe failures are also working as designed. You can see in the video above that the light of the rocket’s engines simply go out during flight, and then some time later there’s a fireball from its impact on the ground.

It’s worth noting that most first flights of entirely new rockets don’t go entirely as planned – including those by SpaceX, whose founder and CEO Elon Musk expressed his encouragement to the Astra team on Twitter. Likewise, Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck also chimed in with support. Not to mention that Astra has been operating under extreme conditions, with just a six-person team on the ground in Alaska to deploy the launch system, which was set up in under a week, due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Astra will definitely be able to get a lot of valuable data out of this launch that it can use to put towards improving the chances of its next try going well. The company notes that it expects to review said data “over the next several weeks” as it proceeds towards the second flight in this series of three attempts. Rocket 3.2, the test article for that mission, is already completed and awaiting that try.

NASA issues new call for lunar payload deliveries from its commercial moon lander partners

NASA wants its private commercial space company partners to make more moon deliveries on its behalf: The agency just issued another request for scientific and experimental payloads that need lunar delivery sometime in 2022, in part to help pave the way for NASA’s Artemis human lunar landing mission planned for 2024.

NASA previously established its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program in order to build a stable of approved vendors for a special special type of service, namely providing lunar landers that would be able to handle last-mile delivery of special payloads to the moon. It now counts 14 companies on this list of vendors, including Astrobotic, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Firefly to name a few, who are eligible to bid on contracts it creates to take specific cargo to the lunar surface.

NASA has contracted two batches of payloads under the CLPS program, which will make up four planned total launches already under contract, including Astrobotic’s Peregrine Mission One set for June 2021; Intuitive Machines IM-1 for October the same year; Masten’s Mission One for December 2022; and Astrobotic’s VIPER mission for sometime in 2023.

The list of new payloads for this round include a variety of scientific instruments, including a lunar regolith (that’s the moon equivalent of soil) adhesion testing device, X-ray imagers, a dust shield created by the interaction of electric fields and an advanced moon vacuum for returning surface samples to Earth for more testing.

NASA’s private partners on the CLPS list will now be able to submit bids to cary the new list of 10 experiments and demonstrations, with the goal of delivering said equipment by 2022. The agency expects to pick a winner for this latest award by the end of this year.

Rocket Lab secretly launched its very first satellite, ‘First Light’

Rocket Lab’s 14th mission, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Optical,” had a stowaway aboard. The New Zealand launch company quietly included its first fully functioning satellite next to its paying customer’s payload. First Light, as it’s called, is a sort of tech demo intended to show how access to orbit doesn’t have to be, as CEO and founder Peter Beck put it, “kind of a pain in the butt.”

Rocket Lab has telegraphed this move for some time; the Photon satellite platform was announced early last year, and in March it acquired spacecraft maker Sinclair Interplanetary. It was just a matter of when the company would choose to press the button, and it has now done so.

As Beck explained in a live broadcast today (now that First Light has successfully deployed into orbit), the company felt that “access to space” is, in many ways and despite the inherent risks, a solved problem. The next biggest pain point, he said, is that “it’s just really painful to go from an idea to getting something in orbit.”

It’s cause for celebration, he said, when a project can go from idea to orbit in 18 months. That’s far too slow to keep up with innovation on the ground, especially for startups, who may not have 18 months of runway. “We need to fix that,” Beck said.

CG render of a photon satellite in orbit.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Photon and First Light represent Rocket Lab’s new business proposition of providing a flexible platform for a modern satellite, and one that fits hand-in-glove with its Electron launch vehicle and other services. Acting as a partner throughout the process rather than just the launch provider is of course more work and money for Rocket Lab, and if things go well it could be much faster and cheaper for the customer as well.

There will be other, new versions of Photon as well as cislunar and interplanetary space become targets for Electron launches. Rocket Lab is already signed on for a lunar mission, NASA’s experimental CAPSTONE craft, which will be based on Photon and help clear the way for later Artemis missions.

SpaceX completes another successful short test flight of its Starship spacecraft prototype

SpaceX has done it again – a second ‘hop’ flight in under a month for its Starship prototype. This was a 150 meter (just under 500 foot) test flight from its Boca Chica, Texas development site. The prototype used in this instance was SN6, a more recent model than the SN5 test article that SpaceX used to complete a similar test at the beginning of August.

The hop flight is a key part of its testing program for Starship, and its Raptor engine. These prototypes are equipped with only one such engine, but the final production version will have six, including three designed to fly in Earth’s atmosphere, and three to be used while the vehicle is in space.

SpaceX accomplishing two of these flights with a controlled, upright landing in rapid succession is a very good sign for the spacecraft’s development program, since there have been a number of previous prototypes which never made it to this point. Earlier versions encountered pressurization failures under load when simulating what the conditions would be with fuel on board.

These short hops help SpaceX gather data bout Raptor performance, as well as the performance of a full-sized prototype Starship (though without elements including the nosecone and eventual landing legs). All of this will inform later tests, including a much higher sub-orbital atmospheric flight intended to go around as high as commercial airplanes fly, and eventually, the first orbital Starship launch, which is currently likely to take place next year at the earliest.

SpaceX is pursuing a rapid iteration development plan for Starship, creating multiple generations of prototype at once at its Boca Chica site, with the aim of testing and improving the design quickly, while also learning from failures. The goal had been to fly Starship’s first operational missions sometime next year, but it will be incredibly impressive if the company manages that considering where they’re at in the rocket’s development cycle.

SpaceX successfully launches 60 more of its Starlink high-speed broadband internet satellites

SpaceX has launched its latest batch of Starlink internet satellites, a full complement of 60 spacecraft that will join those already on orbit to add to the constellation. These will form the backbone of SpaceX’s broadband internet service, which will aim to provide low-latency, high-speed connections to customers and regions where quality, consistent service hasn’t been available.

The launch took place at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, from SpaceX’s launch facility at 8:46 AM EDT (5:46 AM PDT). The Falcon 9 rocket used on the launch included a first-stage booster that flew once previously – just a few months ago in June. SpaceX also successfully recovered the Falcon 9 booster once again with a controlled landing at sea on its ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ drone landing ship.

The company will also be attempting to recover the fairing used to protect the satellites during launch for this mission, which includes two halves that have a combined value of around $6 million per launch.

Lately, SpaceX has been flying Starlink missions with shared payloads, dedicated a small amount of the available cargo space to clients including Planet and others for their own satellites. Today’s launch was a return to form of earlier Starlink missions, carrying only SpaceX’s own satellites. This was the 12th total Starlink mission, and the 10th this year alone.

SpaceX also confirmed that its Starlink service is currently in private beta testing, and that a public beta test is planned for later this year. The company hopes to begin to offer paid service more broadly next year.