Will the smallsat community get charged up by Electron?

Electron rocket event

Attendees of a July 29 event unveiling the Electron rocket look at a model of it on display. (credit: Rocket Lab Ltd.)

It seems like hardly a week goes by this summer without another smallsat launch venture announcing their plans. That’s an exaggeration, but only a mild one. In early July, Firefly Space Systems announced Firefly Alpha, a vehicle designed to place up to 400 kilograms into low Earth orbit (LEO) for $8–9 million. At the NewSpace 2014 conference last week, CubeCab, a company that plans to develop an air-launch system for individual CubeSats, won the $20,000 first prize in the Lightning Pitch competition.

Now a company based in both New Zealand and the United Stated is joining the fray. Rocket Lab Ltd. announced plans Tuesday for Electron, a smallsat launcher designed to place 110 kilograms into a 500-kilometer Sun-synchronous orbit for $4.9 million.

“The innovation behind Electron will release the limitations on launching small satellites,” said Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab Ltd., in the announcement about the company. “Our vision at Rocket Lab is to make space commercially viable and more accessible than ever, doing what the Ford Model T did for consumer automobiles.”

Rocket Lab appears to be taking a page from SpaceX in its vehicle design. Electron uses a design like the Falcon 9, using nine “Rutherford” engines in its first stage and a single engine of the same design (with what appears to be a different nozzle to work better in vacuum) in the second stage. (Electron also has a solid-propellant third stage.) Rocket Lab’s Rutherford engine uses liquid oxygen and kerosene, producing about 13,300 newtons (3,000 pounds-force) of thrust.

However, the company’s announcement generates many questions as well. The company has an unusual structure, calling itself “an American company with a subsidiary and head office in Auckland, New Zealand.” While the announcement is datelined in Los Angeles, the unveiling event took place in New Zealand, heavily covered by the local press. The company doesn’t explain this arrangement, which may have some contractual benefits (such as being able to compete for US government business) but likely also has export control and other challenges as well.

Rocket Lab says its principal funder is Khosla Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital (VC) firm run by billionaire Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems. The size of the investment, announced last October, isn’t disclosed. Rocket Lab does not appear on the portfolio page of Khosla Venvtures’ website, and the fund did not respond to a email inquiry earlier this week regarding its investment in Rocket Lab. Khosla himself, though, is quoted in the release, saying that Rocket Labs’s “technical innovations will truly transform the space industry.”

Khosla, though, is not the only source of funding for the company. The company announced earlier this year it won a Callaghan Innovation Research and Development Growth Grant form the New Zealand government. The size of that grant isn’t disclosed, although one local media report indicated it was valued at NZ$25 million (US$21.3 million). That report also said the company has received investment from another individual, Sir Stephen Tindall.

Those media reports also indicated that Rocket Lab plans to launch the first Electron later this year from a private launch facility somewhere in New Zealand. Rocket Lab has “commitments for its first 30 launches,” according to the announcement, but did not disclose those customers, and whether those “commitments” are signed contracts or less binding letters of intent. (Rocket Lab did not respond to questions on these and other issues submitted via email on Tuesday morning.)

Ultimately, Rocket Lab and other ventures in this market may face the same challenge, regardless of their different technical approaches: is there sufficient demand from the smallsat industry for dedicated launches at these prices? SpaceX withdrew the Falcon 1 from the market because of, according to it, a lack of demand, even though that vehicle had similar capabilities and prices as some of these new ones. Certainly interest in smallsats has grown considerably in recent years, but that demand is also being fulfilled, for the moment, primarily by less expensive secondary launch opportunities.

World View picks first research payloads for its high-altitude balloons

View of Earth from World View balloon

A view of the Earth taken from an altitude of 36 kilometers (120,000 feet) on a World View test flight June 18. The company plans to use that balloon to fly research payloads later this year. (credit: World View)

World View Enterprises, the company developing a commercial high-altitude balloon system to provide a flight experience like some aspects of spaceflight, has selected an initial group of research payloads that will fly on one of the company’s balloons as soon as this year, as the firm diversifies beyond tourism.

The three experiments, announced in a company press release July 28, are a radiation measurement experiment by Space Environment Technologies, a meteor imager from the SETI Institute, and a student-built ozone monitor from the Florida Space Grant Consortium. The three are slated to fly in late 2014, according to the company.

“In the research and education world, we think we offer something really special,” said Alan Stern, a founder of World View and the company’s chief scientist, in a speech at the NewSpace 2014 conference in San Jose, California, on July 26. Experiments can be automated or, in later crewed versions of World View’s balloon, human-tended. “We can let researchers operate the same way that they do in a university of industrial lab, removing the need for automation.”

These three experiments will fly on the Tycho-800 balloon, which the company flew on its first test flight in mid-June. At that time, World View chief technology officer Taber MacCallum said the company had gotten early interest in using that balloon for technology demonstration and other research. “It looks like that, early on, we could be in the business of doing experiments and test flights,” he said at the time.

Stern said in his NewSpace speech that the company has also seen interest in using the balloons as commercial platforms beyond research and tourism. “In addition, there’s a very large interest that we’re seeing in something called ‘stratollites,’” which he defined as high-altitude balloons performing missions traditionally done by satellites, but at much lower costs. These applications could include both remote sensing and communications; in the latter case, companies like Facebook and Google have expressed interest in stratospheric platforms (balloons and UAVs) as a means of providing Internet access.

“The interesting thing from our perspective, starting this off as a company with an interest only in research and education and tourist markets, how often we find other businesses and government agencies knocking on our door” to see how they could use a balloon platform like World View, Stern said. “We think of the stratosphere as a greenfield, ready for development with the technology of the 21st century.”

World View, though, is still planning to fly tourists, with those flights slated to begin in late 2016. “It’s going to be a tremendous experience,” Stern said of those flights, which will carry six people and two crew into the stratosphere with amenities not found in spacecraft. “This is the only spaceship that I know of that’s got a bar.”

SpaceShipTwo returns to the skies

SS2 and WK2 taxi

SpaceShipTwo, attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, taxies before takeoff on its latest test flight July 29. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

For the first time in more than six months, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flew on Tuesday, albeit not under rocket power. The vehicle made its 29th glide flight, with pilots Michael Masucci and Pete Siebold at the controls. Virgin didn’t disclose the purpose of the flight beyond being part of the company’s overal test program. “As the world’s first commercial spaceline, we’re committed to conducting a thorough test flight program” for SS2 and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, the company said in a tweet.

The flight was the first time SS2 flew since a glide flight on January 17, according to the flight test logs maintained by Scaled Composites. SS2 has made three powered test flights, most recently on January 10. Since then, the company has changed the fuel used in the hybrid rocket motor in SS2, switching from a rubber-based fuel to a nylon one.

There have also been a couple personnel additions at Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company (TSC), the Virgin-owned venture that builds the vehicles. On July 24, Virgin announced it had hired a new pilot, Todd “Leif” Ericson, a former US Air Force test pilot. And on Wednesday, Virgin announced that former Scaled president Doug Shane is now the president of TSC. Shane joined TSC last year as executive vice president and general manager; the reason for the position change wasn’t indicated.

The release offered one other item about Virgin’s efforts: work on the second SS2 vehicle is now “roughly 50%” complete.

Nanosat launch company wins “Lightning Pitch” business plan competition

check presentation

Members of the CubeCab team, including CEO Adrian Tymes (center), and prize sponsors pose with the $20,000 first-prize check at the Lightning Pitch awards ceremony Thursday evening. (credit: J. Foust)

For the second year in a row, a company that seeks to develop an air-launch system for small satellites has won a business plan competition organized by the Space Frontier Foundation.

CubeCab beat out six other companies in the competition held Thursday during the NewSpace 2014 conference in San Jose, California. The “Lightning Pitch” competition was a slimmed-down version of previous business plan competitions held by the organization, with companies required to give a four-minute pitch to judges, followed by a three-minute question-and-answer session.

CubeCab won the $20,000 first prize by pitching an air launch system that can place individual CubeSats into orbit. The system would be able to place individual CubeSats into orbit on dedicated launches at the same price as current rideshare arrangements, where CubeSats fly as secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles: $100,000 for a 1U cubeSat and $250,000 for a 3U CubeSat.

“The judges felt they were in line to solve one of the number one problems that we have in our industry,” said Thomas Olson, organizer of the competition, during a brief awards ceremony Thursday evening, alluding to the challenges CubeSat developers face in getting their spacecraft launched. “They had a management and technical team they thought was really unsurpassed among all the contestants today.”

CubeCab disclosed few specifics about their air-launch design. In his brief pitch, company CEO Adrian Tymes listed some technologies the system will incorporate, from room temperature self-pressurizing propellants to the use of 3-D printed components, but not a complete system architecture. “We’re still weighing the various options,” he said in a brief interview after winning the competition Thursday evening.

CubeCab believes it can develop this system quite inexpensively. Tymes said in his presentation that the company is seeking $500,000 in a seed round and $4–5 million in a Series A round. That would be sufficient, he said, to develop the system, although he said the company might need a couple million dollars more to give it “runway” before revenue from launch services kicked in. The presentation, though, didn’t given the company time to break down its costs.

Tymes, in the interview Thursday evening, said he planned to set aside half of the $20,000 prize to cover future expenses, and the rest to pay off some debts and provide bonuses to the team. “We have major credibility as this point,” he said exuberantly in the interview. “This is a victory for the democratization of space.”

CubeCab is the second air launch company in as many years to win first prize at a business competition run by the Foundation. Last year, when the organization ran a full-fledged business plan competition, Generation Orbit won first place.

In this year’s competition, RockZip, a maker of high-altitude balloons, won second place at $7,500. Elysium Space, a company that plans to launch cremains into space inside CubeSats, won the $2,500 third prize.

Masten shows off its XS-1 design (with wings)

Masten Xephyr

An illustration by Masten Space Systems of its Xephyr design that was funded by DARPA for Phase 1 of the XS-1 program. (credit: Masten Space Systems)

Masten Space Systems, one of three companies to receive awards from DARPA for the Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program, has revealed the design it proposes to develop for the program. And that design has something unusual for a company best known for its vertical-takeoff-and-landing designs: wings.

The “Xephyr” vehicle does take off vertically, as shown in the illustration provided by the company. However, the design also has small wings, presumably to allow it to glide, either for landing or other phases of flight. Overall, the design bears similarities to the X-34, an experimental spaceplane developed by Orbital Sciences for NASA but cancelled before its first flight. The X-34 featured a single tail while Mastern’s Xephyr features two. The X-34 was also designed to be air-launched from an aircraft, while Xephyr will launch vertically and would eventually become an air-launch platform itself for an expendable upper stage. (It’s worth noting that XCOR Aerospace, which has experience with winged vehicles, is partnered with Masten on its XS-1 contract.)

“XS-1 comes at the right time for the industry and the right time for Masten,” said Masten CEO Sean Mahoney in a company press release issued Wednesday. “The tide is turning and space access is opening up. We’re thrilled to lead a team to tackle the hard problems DARPA has put in front of us.”

Masten is one of three companies awarded Phase 1 contracts by DARPA for the XS-1 program. The other two are Boeing and Northrop Grumman.

Smallsat companies dominate “Lightning Pitch” NewSpace competition

The annual NewSpace Conference by the Space Frontier Foundation will get underway later today in San Jose, California. A highlight of today’s events is the “Lightning Pitch Competition” for NewSpace startups. This takes the place of full-fledged business plan competition that has taken place at some previous conferences. Instead of submitting a detailed business plan and having that plan, and presentation of it, reviewed by judges, each company will give a four-minute pitch about their company to judges during a conference session late Thursday morning. At stake are $30,000 in prizes, including a $20,000 grand prize.

Last month, the competition organizers announced the eight companies that will be participating in this year’s event. More than have are making use of CubeSats or other smallsats, or supporting such spacecraft, in one manner or another. A quick review of the eight contestants follows.

Accion Systems: This company, founded by MIT students and faculty, is seeking to commercialize an electric propulsion system they have developed for CubeSat-class spacecraft. This ion electrospray technology is already being planned for use on some CubeSats, including the proposed student-led Time Capsule to Mars mission. Notable: the company’s team includes MIT professor Paulo Lozano, who is listed as “Intergalactic Space Captain.”

Cubecab: Cubecab, based in Mountain View, California, says it plans to develop dedicated launch services for CubeSats. The company hasn’t released any details about its technical approach, though. The company’s website also doesn’t disclose any information about the company’s team, although the domain name is registered to an Adrian Tymes.

Cuberstation: Palo Alto, California-based Cuberstation plans to provide “dedicated ground services to nano/micro satellite operators” with its own global network. The company says it will operate a network of six ground stations located at high latitudes to provide regular communications with smallsats. (The high latitudes suggests they’re interested in satellites in sun-synchronous and similar polar orbits.) The company describes itself as “a group of young and dynamic individuals coming from a multi-national background of 6 countries” without disclosing their names on the company’s Facebook page (it doesn’t have its own website yet.)

Elysium Space: No, they’re not planning to build a giant space colony so the wealthy can flee Earth; wrong “Elysium.” This San Francisco company plans to get into the “space burial” business by launching samples of cremated remains into orbit within a CubeSat-sized spacecraft. That’s similar to what Celestis has done in the past (with limited success, given the paucity of missions they’ve flown) although Elysium Space plans a modern twist, giving customers a mobile app so they can track their loved one’s location in space. Their first launch is planned for October, apparently as a secondary payload on an Orbital Antares launch of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS.

Hive: Phoenix-based Hive “delivers small satellites to orbit, en masse, through a patent-pending dispensing module.” That’s it. The release gives no other information about the company, including any website or social media contacts.

RockZip: This company, based in Michigan City, Indiana, develops “highballoons,” or high-altitude balloons. They believe their approach will cost “significantly” under current costs of $1,000-1,500 per balloon, they note on their website, targeting researchers, business, and even the general public.

Space Resources Extraction Technology: The Huntsville company plans to “Microwave the moon to extract water from the polar permafrost to produce rocket propellant for exploration of the space frontier.” Another company without a website, the release instead directs people to do a Google search for “microwave the moon for water,” which turns up, among other entries, a NASA Marshall Space Flight Center press release from 2009 about such an approach being studied by NASA scientist Edwin Ethridge.

Terran Science Group: TSG describes itself as “a collection of expert technical and engineering professionals based in Central Florida that provide high-value solutions to companies working on the cutting edge of their respective fields.” According to the competition announcement, they’re interested in projects “like safe havens on the Earth, moon, or Mars built from local regolith and a big laser!” Their website suggests their interests are even more diverse, although the specific near-term business opportunities appear less certain.

The winners of the competition will be announced at a reception at the end of the day today.

SpaceX shows off Falcon 9 landing video

Falcon 9 reentry burn

A still from a SpaceX video reeled July 22 shows the Falcon 9 first stage performing a reentry burn after its July 14 launch. (credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX provided an update Tuesday on last week’s test of a Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage landing during the launch of six ORBCOMM satellites. The company released a video that showed the first stage, after separating from the upper stage, firing its engines for a reentry burn to slow down. Later, the engines fire again and the stage’s landing legs deploy as it approaches the ocean surface. SpaceX said the rocket did a soft “landing” on the ocean surface and remained upright for a few seconds before toppling over to the horizontal position. That fall caused a “loss of hull integrity” in the stage, but did not prevent SpaceX from collecting the information it needed for that test.

One glitch with the test was ice that formed on the camera filming the stage’s descent. The company said it is “taking steps to minimize the build up of ice and spots on the camera housing” for future flights.

SpaceX will stand down from these landing tests for the next two Falcon 9 v1.1 flights. “However, our next couple launches are for very high velocity geostationary satellite missions, which don’t allow enough residual propellant for landing,” the company explained. Those launches are of the AsiaSat 8 and AsiaSat 6 satelites, with the first tentatively scheduled for early August. SpaceX also did not attempt landing tests on launches of two other GEO satellites in December 2013 and January 2014.

“We will attempt our next water landing on flight 13 of Falcon 9, but with a low probability of success,” the company said. That would be the fourth Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission for NASA, planned for no earlier than September 12. The company didn’t explain why that mission had a “low probability” of success given that the most recent test appeared to go well.

The following two launches would attempt to land the stage on a “solid surface,” although it’s not clear if that would be back at Cape Canaveral or on a barge or other platform in the ocean. SpaceX said it has been in discussions with the Air Force to identify locations at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to support Falcon 9 landings. Those two tests, the company added, have “an improved probability of success.” Those launches, according to the current manifest, are of the second group of ORBCOMM Generation 2 satellites and the fifth CRS mission.

New report tamps down “hype” about 3-D printing in space

Made In Space printer

Made In Space employees test a 3-D printer on a parabolic aircraft flight in 2013, prior to its launch to the ISS later this year. A new report concludes that the near-term benefits of 3-D printing in space have been exaggerated. (credit: Made In Space)

As NASA prepares to launch the first 3-D printer for the International Space Station (ISS), a report released today says that while the technology may have considerable long-term benefits, its short-term potential has been exaggerated.

The National Research Council report, “3D Printing in Space,” examined the current state of 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, and its potential applications in space. The report, sponsored by NASA and the US Air Force, concluded that the technology has benefits, but not necessarily in the immediate future.

“Many of the claims made in the popular press about this technology have been exaggerated,” said Robert Latiff, chair of the committee that prepared the report, in a statement accompanying the report. “For in-space use, the technology may provide new capabilities, but it will serve as one more tool in the toolbox, not a magic solution to tough space operations and manufacturing problems.”

The report echoes Latiff’s comments. “The specific benefits and potential scope of additive manufacturing remain undetermined, and there has been a substantial degree of exaggeration, even hype, about its capabilities in the short term,” the report states. “The realities of what can be accomplished today, using this technology on the ground, demonstrate the substantial gaps between the vision for additive manufacturing in space and the limitations of the technology and the progress that has to be made to develop it for space use.”

The concept of using 3-D printing in space has been attractive to some within NASA and industry for some time. A 3-D printer on the ISS or future spacecraft could, for example, simplify the logistical challenges of stocking spare parts by allowing crews to print replacement parts as needed from a common “feedstock” of material, like plastic or metal. Others have argued that 3-D printing could be used to manufacture structures or even entire spacecraft not possible on the ground.

The report notes that long-term potential for 3-D printing, and recommends that future uses of the technology be evaluated not just on its ability to lower costs but also to enable new capabilities. There are many challenges, though, associated with those capabilities, including difficulties getting 3-D printing to work in the microgravity and vacuum environments of space. Additive manufacturing also has significant power requirements, the report notes, and requires a stable platform free of significant vibrations, both challenges in space.

The report does make a number of recommendations for NASA and the Air Force to support 3-D printing applications. For NASA, those recommendations include identifying research projects for the short and medium term, particularly on the ISS. It also recommends NASA create “an agency-wide space-based additive manufacturing working group” to develop a technology development roadmap for 3-D printing that stretches out as far into the future as 2050. The Air Force, whose interest in 3-D printing in space is not as well established as NASA’s, should take similar steps to identify uses of the technology and experiments that can be flown in space to demonstrate it.

The release of the report comes as NASA prepared to launch the first 3-D printer designed for use on the ISS. That printer, developed by Silicon Valley startup Made In Space, is slated to fly on the next SpaceX commercial cargo flight to the ISS, currently scheduled for launch no earlier than September 12.

Jason Dunn, co-founder and chief technologist of Made In Space, said at the Future Space 2014 conference Thursday in Washington that the printer is completed and in NASA’s hands for eventual loading on the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft that will fly to the ISS. That printer is the first step in the company’s long-term goal in eventually being able to manufacture nearly anything in space, getting around the “bottleneck” of space access.

“This printer will be the first thing to ever manufacture anything off Earth,” he said. “It represents the beginning of a long path towards expanding our presence in space.”

DARPA announces XS-1 study contracts

Boeing XS-1 design

Boeing’s concept for the XS-1 spaceplane, one of three selected by DARPA for Phase 1 studies. (credit: Boeing)

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced Tuesday it has awarded study contracts to three teams, representing a mix of established and entrepreneurial space companies, to study concepts for a reusable suborbital spaceplane.

DARPA said it awarded contracts to three teams: Boeing, working with Blue Origin; Masten Space Systems, working with XCOR Aerospace; and Northrop Grumman, working with Virgin Galactic. The contracts, for phase one of the Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program, cover initial design work on concepts for the vehicle, designed to serve as a reusable lower stage of a low-cost launch system for medium-sized satellites.

“We chose performers who could prudently integrate existing and up-and-coming technologies and operations, while making XS-1 as reliable, easy-to-use and cost-effective as possible,” said DARPA XS-1 program manager Jess Sponable in a DARPA statement announcing the contracts. “We’re eager to see how their initial designs envision making spaceflight commonplace—with all the potential military, civilian and commercial benefits that capability would provide.”

The DARPA statement did not reveal the size of the contracts. However, DARPA has earlier announced, though a Federal Business Opportunities posting, a contract award to Masten valued at just under $3 million. Boeing, in its own press release about the contract, said its contract was valued at $4 million, although it wasn’t clear if that included any award to Blue Origin.

Boeing also released an illustration of its XS-1 concept, a winged vehicle. “Boeing brings a combination of proven experience in developing launch systems and reusable space vehicles, along with unparalleled expertise in the development and fielding of highly operable and cost-effective transportation systems,” said Steve Johnston, director of Boeing’s Phantom Works Advanced Space Exploration division, in the Boeing release.

The goal of the XS-1 program is to develop a vehicle capable of flying ten times in ten days, including at one least one flight to Mach 10. The XS-1, coupled with an expendable upper stage, would be able to launch satellites weighing up to about 2,270 kilograms into low Earth orbit for no more than $5 million a flight. The vehicle could also serve as hypersonics technology testbed. DARPA will select a company in a Phase 2 some time next year to build the XS-1.

SpaceX finally launches ORBCOMM satellites

Falcon 9 ORBCOMM launch

A Falcon 9 v1.1 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 14, carrying six ORBCOMM satellites. (credit: SpaceX)

It took two months, and a fair amount of drama, but SpaceX finally successfully launched six ORBCOMM Generation 2 (OG2) satellites on Monday. The Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral at 11:15 am EDT (1515 GMT) and started deploying its payload six OG2 satellites about 15 minutes later. All six satellites, built by Sierra Nevada Corporation, are in their planned low Earth orbits and in good condition, ORBCOMM confirmed in a press release Monday afternoon. ORBCOMM said a second batch of 11 OG2 satellites should launch by the end of the year, also on a Falcon 9.

The launch was originally planned for May 10, but was postponed when an issue cropped up during an attempted static test firing. The launch slipped until mid-June, when an issue with one of the six OG2 satellites had an issue that pushed back the launch a week. A technical issue scrubbed a June 20 launch, then weather postponed a June 21 attempt, and another technical issue, coupled with range maintenance, pushed back a June 22 launch until Monday. In the middle of all that, SpaceX kicked up a firestorm of criticism when it announced it would not webcast a June 21 launch.

SpaceX did webcast the Monday launch, although it was a more low key affair, starting less than 15 minutes before launch, with primarily audio from launch control with a little commentary. The webcast ended prior to payload separation, although that was consistent with some prior SpaceX webcasts.

The webcast also did not cover the attempt to recover the Falcon 9 first stage, which the company planned to make a soft “landing” in the ocean as a test of efforts to eventually reuse the first stage. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk later reported on Twitter mixed success with the test: the stage did appear to touch down on the ocean surface, but it broke apart immediately thereafter:

SpaceX has not announced when the next Falcon 9 launch will take place. According to the manifest on its website, it has two missions coming up for communications satellite operator AsiaSat, who announced in June that the AsiaSat 8 satellite had arrived at the Cape for a planned August launch. On Sunday, NASA said it had tentatively scheduled SpaceX’s next Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station, SpaceX-4, for launch no earlier than September 12.