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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.


TechCrunch

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)


TechCrunch

SpaceX has a big launch coming up this morning from Cape Canaveral in Florida – a Falcon 9 will carry a payload of 60 of its Starlink orbital communications satellites to space at 9:56 AM ET (6:56 AM PT). The Starlink satellites are the first non-test group of SpaceX’s new constellation heading up en masse, with the aim of helping set up a network that will eventually provide global high-speed Internet connectivity.

SpaceX has already sent up 62 Starlink satellites in total, across two test batch launches: Two launched in February 2018 from Vandenberg in California, aboard a rocket that was also transporting a satellite called ‘Paz’ for a client, and 60 launched in May of this year, a large test batch that was used to trial ground-based communications, as well as controlled de-orbiting mechanisms. Of those 60, 57 satellites are still in orbit while 3 became non-operational after launch.

This mission will set up this new batch of 60 Starlink satellites in orbit, which feature increase spectrum capacity and construction that features 100% “demisability,” which means that at the end of their operating life they’ll burn up completely upon controlled re-entry to ensure there’s nothing left behind once they’re no longer in use. This is one of six launches of Starlink satellites that SpaceX says will lead up to the launch of its service across the U.S. and Canada, and one of 24 launches that will enable global high-bandwidth broadband service.

Besides setting up the foundation for its global satellite internet network, this launch is noteworthy from the perspective of SpaceX’s focus on re-usability. The first stage for the Falcon 9 used here previously flew on three separate missions, a record for a Falcon 9 booster in terms of re-use, and the fairing used to protect the payload also flew before on the Falcon Heavy Arabsat-6A mission launched earlier this year. SpaceX also plans to land the booster again, and it will attempt to recover the fairing once again using its sea-borne catcher vessels in the Atlantic.

The launch window at 9:56 AM ET is instantaneous, and SpaceX should begin broadcasting the live stream above about 15 minutes prior to that.


TechCrunch

Welcome back to Max Q, our weekly look at what’s happening in space and space startup news. This week was a bit more quiet than usual coming off of the amazingly over-packed International Astronautical Congress, but there were still some big moves that promise a lot more action to come before they year’s over – particularly in the race to fly American astronauts to space on a rocket launched from American soil once again.

There’s also startup news, including how an entirely different kind of race – one to make stuff in space – could be a foundational moment that opens up entirely new areas of opportunity for entrepreneurs big and small.

1. SpaceX’s crucial parachute tests are going well

SpaceX needs to nail one key ingredient before its Crew Dragon missions can proceed apace with people on board. Actually, it has to nail quite a few, but parachutes are a crucial one, and it has been developing the parachutes that will help Crew Dragon float back safely to Earth for years not.

The third iteration is looking like the one that will be used for the first Crew Dragon missions with astronauts, and luckily, that version three system has now completed 13 successful tests in a row. That’s approaching the kind of reliability it needs to show to be used for the real thing, so this is good news for the current goal of putting astronauts on board early next year.

2. SpaceX and Boeing ready key milestone tests

SpaceX has another key test for Crew Dragon coming up as early as this week – a static fire of its capsule abort engines. This is a key test because the last one didn’t go so well. Also, Boeing will be doing their pad abort test as early as this week as well, which sets things up nicely for a busy time next year in crewed spaceflight.

3. How in-space manufacturing could prompt a space business boom

Launching stuff to space is expensive and really limits what you can do in terms of designing spacecraft and components. There’s been efforts made to reduce the costs, including SpaceX and Blue Origin pursuing reusable rocketry, but just building stuff up there instead of launching it could unlock much deeper cost savings – and new technical possibilities. (ExtraCrunch subscription required)

4. Changing the economics of satellite propulsion

Satellite propulsion has, until very recently, been almost entirely a bespoke affair, which translates to expensive and generally not accessible to startup companies who actually have to worry about stuff like burn rates. But Morpheus Space has a new “Lego-like” system for offering affordable, compact and scalable propulsion that can serve pretty much any satellite needs.

5. Dev kits for small satellites

Small satellite business is booming, and Kepler wants to make sure that developers are able to figure out what they can do with smallsats, so it’s offering a developer kit for its toaster-sized IoT communications satellites. Cooler than the Apple TV dev boxes that were on offer once upon a time.

6. Northrop Grumman launches ISS resupply mission

The ISS is getting a shipment of supplies and scientific material courtesy of a resupply cargo capsule launched by Northrop Grumman on Saturday. One thing on board is twelve containers of read wine, courtesy of startup Space Cargo Unlimited. I’ll have more info about that on Monday, so stay tuned.


TechCrunch

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was at SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California on Thursday, delivering an address alongside NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will launch aboard SpaceX’s commercial Crew Dragon capsule, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Bridenstine kicked off  with some brief remarks about the importance and priority of the crew launch mission, which he said both he and Musk are in agreement that the commercial launch of American astronauts is “the highest priority” of the various projects both his agency and SpaceX have under development.

He and Musk then went into some detail about where the program is now, and what remains to be done to get to an actual crewed flight – the first of which will be a test flight. Bridenstine’s comments essentially took 2019 off the table for this to happen, with the Administrator saying he was “very confident that in the first part of next year, we will be able to launch American astronauts on American rockets,” and that if “everything goes according to plan,” it would take place in the first quarter of 2020.

Musk noted that in order for SpaceX to have confidence in its Crew Dragon launch system’s reliability for a crewed mission, they would have to have run 10 successful drop tests using the newly developed Mark 3 parachute system for the capsule occur “in a row.” Bridenstine said that based on the current schedule, SpaceX could run as many as 10 drop tests total using the Mark 3 system between now and the end of this year.

This new Mark 3 system features much stronger lines connecting the sheets of material used in their construction, Musk said, thanks to switching to a material called ‘xylon’ away from nylon, which is three or more times stronger per the CEO. The new version also uses a new stitching pattern compared to Mark 2 for additional strength.

Both Musk and Bridenstine were keen to point out that the timelines discussed, including the 2019 target for the crewed flight that SpaceX has been working towards until now, are “not deadlines,” but are instead a “best guess” in Musk’s words, based on the current state of affairs. Said state of affairs can change quickly, and Bridenstine added that “there are still things we could learn [in testing]” that could alter the timelines later than the first part of next year.

As for Crew Dragon product, Musk said that SpaceX is ramping to a cadence of producing a new capsule around once every three or four months, a rate it hopes to achieve in order to “get in a cadence of operational flights to the space station.”

Bridenstine also addressed the tweet he posted in late September regarding SpaceX’s Starship program update (posted in full below).

“As the NASA Administrator, I have been focused on returning to realism when it comes to costs and schedules,” he said. “And a lot of our programs that not been meeting costs and schedules. And this has been developing over time. And a lot of these programs are, you know, five years old, 10 years old […] so what we’re trying to do is get back to a day where we have realistic costs and schedules, and so I was signaling, and I haven’t done it just the SpaceX, but to all of our contractors that we need more realism built into the development timelines.”

Still, Bridentstine clarified that NASA definitely supports the Starship program as well, even if it’s prioritizing Crew Dragon at the current moment. “I want people to make no mistake: NASA has an interest in seeing starship be successful,” he said, while also pointing out NASA’s recent investment in Starship via its ‘Tipping Point’ project funding.


TechCrunch

SpaceX is taking the steps necessary to begin test flying the orbital-class version of its Starship spacecraft, with new documents filed by the company (via Teslarati) with the FCC seeking necessary permissions for it to communicate with the prototype while it’s in flight.

The company filed documents with the U.S. regulatory agency this week in advance of the flight, which lists a max altitude of 74,000 feet, which is a far cry from Earth orbit but still a much greater distance vs. the 500 or so feet achieved by the squat ‘Starhopper’ demonstration and test vehicle that SpaceX has been actively operating in preparation for Starship .

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed that prep was underway via tweet. Musk has previously said that he hoped to follow the Starhopper’s most recent and final successful test quickly with tests of the full-scale vehicle. Like with that low-altitude test, SpaceX will aim to launch and land the Starhopper, with touch down planned just a short distance away.

Assembly and construction of the Starship prototype looks to be well underway, and Musk recently teased a Starship update event for September 28, which is likely when we’ll see this prototype assembled and ready to go ahead of its planned October first test flight window.

Starship is the next generation of SpaceX spacecraft, designed for maximum reusability, and with the aim of creating one vehicle that can serve the needs of current and future customers, eventually replacing both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Starship is also a key ingredient in Musk’s ambitious plan to reach and establish a continuing human presence on Mars.


TechCrunch

SpaceX has completed a second low-altitude test flight of its ‘Starhopper’ demonstration prototype, which is being used to test technologies that will be used to build the full-scale next-generation SpaceX ‘Starship’ spacecraft. This test involved ‘hopping’ the Starhopper (hence the name, get it?) to a height of around 150m (or a little under 500 feet), the highest it’s flown so far, at a SpaceX test facility in Texas. After the hop, which lasted around 50 seconds (the GIF above is sped up 2X) it successfully navigated itself to a target landing pad a short distance away.

This is the second untethered test trip for the Starhopper, and will is intended to be its last, as SpaceX moves forward with construction of its Starship Mk I and Mk II prototypes, which is taking place currently and simultaneously at sites in Florida and Texas. Today’s attempt was the second try after a planned test yesterday was aborted at the last second, with SpaceX resetting and ensuring everything was in place for this longer hop, which lasted just under a minute.

In July, SpaceX ran its first untethered hop, which is designed to test the operation of the Raptor engine SpaceX is developing for Starship, along with other subsystems for use in the production Starship. That flew only for around 22 seconds, and attained a height of just 20 meters (a little over 65 feet).

Construction is currently in progress at both SpaceX’s Texas and Florida facilities on its full-scale Starship prototypes, which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is ambitious will begin their own flight testing later this year, in perhaps as little as a few months. The larger prototypes, which should be closer to what will actually launch, will test more Raptor engines working together and aim to fly to higher altitudes, another key step as the company works towards a true first orbital test flight.

Ultimately, SpaceX is hoping to replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy entirely with different configurations of Starship, which will help the company in terms of cost efficiency thanks to its fully reusable nature, and streamlining all of its rocket construction efforts around one type of vehicle.


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