NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, at left, discusses the plan to send astronauts to the moon by 2024 as three of his associate administrators — William Gerstenmaier, Jim Reuter and Thomas Zurbuchen — look on during a town hall at NASA headquarters. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky) Will NASA’s fly with Congress? The Artemis program’s implications are still sinking in on Capitol Hill, but there’s already a political problem having to do with where the money’s supposed to come from. Trump administration officials confirmed that the $1.6 billion being sought as a “down payment” for accelerating the push to the moon would be taken from a roughly $8 billion reserve account for the popular Pell Grant program, which funds education for millions of low-income students annually. Due to the economy’s rebound from the 2008-2009 Great Recession, the number of Pell Grant recipients has been declining in recent years, leading to a buildup in reserves. Because of that, taking money from the reserves would not affect current recipients, who will be receiving up to $6,195 for the 2019-2020 academic year.. “This does not cut any spending for Pell Grant programs as the budget continues to ensure all students will get their full Pell Grant and keeps the program on sound fiscal footing,” Office of Management and Budget spokesman Wesley Denton told . However, that glosses over the fact that the carryover reserve is meant to buoy the Pell Grant program through hard times, and avoid the multibillion-dollar shortfalls that were experienced during the last recession. And the White House aims to shift far more than the $1.6 billion. When other reallocations are taken into account, the proposed reallocation adds up to $3.9 billion, which is roughly half of the reserve. Organizations such as the and the were quick to register protests. Jon Fansmith, director of government relations for the American Council on Education, that depleting the reserve would “undercut the stability of a program that’s really critical for helping students afford college.” And in a letter to Senate and House education subcommittee leaders, the APLU said such a move would be “deeply misguided and contrary to the national interest.” “Pell Grants help ensure we have a pipeline of talented students, many of whom will become the next generation of scientists and engineers who strengthen U.S. competitiveness in space and all other areas of scientific discovery and innovation,” . Education advocacy groups aren’t the only ones registering their concern. The proposed funding shift is also getting thumbs-down from some members of the space community, including former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez … I’m all for space travel and returning to the moon but not at the expense of education! If the Pell Grant money is a surplus how about increasing the size of grants so college grads don’t graduate with so much debt? — Jose Hernandez (@Astro_Jose) … And Chris Lewicki, former president and CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources, who stayed on after an acquisition to co-found ConsenSys Space: I was also the beneficiary of a Pell Grant, which directly led to me getting the education necessary to work at NASA. This is not a funding solution. — Chris Lewicki (@interplanetary) Does it have to be Artemis vs. Pell Grants? Not necessarily. As with every other budget proposal from the White House, this week’s supplemental budget requests are subject to the give-and-take of the legislative process. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former GOP congressman from Oklahoma, noted that today during a town-hall meeting at the space agency’s D.C. headquarters. “The way the process works — and I know a little bit about it — is that the administration makes a proposal to Congress. But that’s what it is, it is a proposal,” Bridenstine said. “Then it’s over to Congress to say what they want to accept, what they don’t want to accept, what they want to ‘plus-up.’ ” Congress is already talking about , which could accommodate NASA’s request while leaving the Pell Grants as is. Increasing the caps is the strong preference of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who’s the (and one of the recipients of today’s letter from the APLU). For what it’s worth, the House Appropriations Committee by $150 to try to keep pace with inflation. Even with that boost, the grants’ spending power has declined over the years to the point that it covers less than a third of the price of attending a typical four-year institution. by increasing spending on Pell Grants and other need-based aid programs for students.
An artist’s conception shows astronauts exploring the moon after landing. (NASA Illustratiion) The White House is asking Congress for $1.6 billion more than the $21 billion it previously requested for NASA’s budget, to fund what’s now known as the Artemis program to put American astronauts on the moon by 2024. “This initial investment, I want to be clear, is a down payment,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters today. He and other NASA officials got on the line for a hastily called teleconference after about the supplemental request: Under my Administration, we are restoring to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars. I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) The money would go toward ramping up NASA’s previous plans for crewed missions to the moon starting in 2028. Bridenstine said that 2028 would stand as the target for “sustained operations” on the lunar surface, but that the $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2020 would help NASA to marshal its forces for a single touchdown near the moon’s south pole in 2024. Bridenstine, a former Oklahoma GOP congressman, acknowledged that 2024 was chosen as the deadline in part so that the first human mission to the moon in more than 50 years would come while Trump was still in office. Such a plan would reduce the “political risk” of changes in NASA’s exploration agenda, as has happened in the past, he said. , a special assistant to Bridenstine focusing on lunar missions, emphasized that “we’re going to try to make this nonpartisan … from the start.” Bridenstine added that he’s already talked about the plan with members of Congress. “I think there’s a lot of excitement on both sides of the aisle,” he said. To sweeten the deal, Bridenstine announced a catchy name for the program at the very end of the teleconference. He noted that in Greek mythology, Apollo had a twin sister named Artemis, who served as the goddess of the moon. “Our astronaut office is very diverse and highly qualified,” Bridenstine said. “I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man and the first woman to the moon. I have a daughter who is 11 years old, and I want her to be able to see herself in the same role that the next women to go to the moon see themselves in today.” NASA’s revised plan scales down its previous plan for a platform in lunar orbit, known as the Gateway, so that it focuses more tightly on the needs for a single mission putting two astronauts on the surface in 2024. The redesigned Gateway will consist of a power and propulsion element, or PPE, and a mini-habitat also known as a utilization module. To get down to the lunar surface and back, NASA will need a transfer module, a descent module for landing, and an ascent module to come back up from the surface. Bridenstine said the effort will also require NASA’s heavy-lift rocket, known as the Space Launch System, and the Orion deep-space crew capsule with its European-built service module. Of all those components, only the Orion has flown in space, during an uncrewed test flight in 2014. The SLS is due for its first uncrewed test flight in 2020, with a crewed round-the-moon flight in 2023 and the climactic Artemis launch in 2024. Tonight NASA provided a : Human lunar landing system: $1 billion to support the development of a commercial lunar landing system capable of carrying astronauts. That expense will be partially offset by slimming down the Gateway platform, saving $321 million, NASA said. SLS and Orion: $651 million to accelerate development. Exploration technology: $132 million to speed the development of technologies such as solar electric propulsion and conversion of lunar polar ice to water. Lunar science: $90 million to enable increased robotic exploration of the moon’s polar regions in advance of a human mission. Bridenstine said NASA was still working on estimates for what it would need beyond the 2020 budget to hit the 2024 deadline, and to prepare the way for more sustained operations at the moon by 2028. He emphasized that one of the primary goals for lunar operations was to blaze a trail for voyages to Mars. “We need to learn how to live and work on another world,” Bridenstine said. “The moon is a three-day journey home, so if something goes wrong, we know we can make it home. We proved that with Apollo 13. … When we go to Mars, we have to be willing and able to live and work on another world for a couple of years. That’s why the moon is so valuable. It’s so important to use it as a proving ground so we can eventually take our missions to Mars.” NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, said the architecture for the Artemis program would be open to commercial and international partners. “You’ll see a series of flights in that period between 2024 and ’28,” he said. Just a few days after Jeff Bezos’ space venture, Blue Origin, unveiled its design for a lunar lander potentially capable of carrying humans, Bridenstine emphasized that commercial moon ventures would be welcome. “They can build a lander that just integrates with the Gateway, robots, rovers, landers,” he said. “We want this to be open architecture. … I’m talking about the way we do docking, the way we do data, the way we do avionics, the way we do life support. All of these pieces would be interoperable, published on the internet, for anybody who wanted to participate in our sustainable return to the moon.”
This artist’s conception shows Hermeus’ hypersonic aircraft. (Hermeus Illustration) Atlanta-based says it’s won some high-profile seed funding for its effort to develop aircraft capable of flying more than five times the speed of sound The startup’s advisers includes , the former president of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ in Kent, Wash. And there’s at least one more Blue Origin connection: Hermeus’ chief technology officer, Glenn Case, worked as a propulsion design and development engineer at the company for four and a half years. Hermeus, which was founded last year, is setting its sights on earthly hypersonic flight rather than the space frontier. It’s working on the propulsion technology for aircraft capable of flying faster than 3,000 mph. That could cut flight time between New York and London from seven hours to 90 minutes. “We’ve set out on a journey to revolutionize the global transportation infrastructure, bringing it from the equivalent of dialup into the broadband era, by radically increasing the speed of travel over long distances.” co-founder and CEO AJ Piplica said today in a and Hermeus’ advisers. The financing round was led by Khosla Ventures, with additional participation from private investors. ““Hermeus is developing an aircraft that not only improves the aviation experience with very reduced flight times, but also has the potential to have great societal and economic impact.” said Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures. The investment amount was not disclosed. For what it’s worth, Hermeus in a $100,000 “Rise of the Rest” pitch contest that was sponsored by Steve Case’s and conducted in Florida. The company is also partnering with the . Before starting up Hermeus, the company’s four co-founders — including Glenn Case as well as Piplica, chief product officer Mike Smayda and chief operating officer Skyler Shuford — worked together at , where they led the development of the Air Force’s . The resumes for and also include stints at SpaceX is defined as travel at greater than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5. It’s one of the aerospace industry’s hottest frontiers, thanks in part to in military applications. Last year, Boeing HorizonX joined in with Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems to invest $37.3 million in British-based Reaction Engines, which is working on its own hypersonic propulsion system. Meanwhile, Spokane, Wash.-based HyperSciences used a to raise $9.2 million for . In today’s announcement of the seed round, Meyerson touted Hermeus’ connections to the commercial space industry. “With experience from the best of New Space companies, the Hermeus team is well-positioned to disrupt the hypersonics industry,” he said. In addition to Meyerson, Hermeus’ advisory board includes: , former executive vice president and general manager at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works. , former CEO of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, with earlier leadership roles at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army Intelligence Master Plan Office. , founder of Sparkplug Capital and managing director at Shearwater Aero Capital. , former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration. , founder and CEO of ZYCI and former director of technical operations at Northwest Airlines.
An artist’s conception depicts a crewed mission to Mars. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration / 2004) As NASA shifts the focus of its space exploration effort to the moon, the advocates of Mars exploration and settlement have a message for future lunar explorers: Don’t get too comfortable. “I do think the moon should be included in the plan for human expansion into space,” Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society and author of a new book titled “The Case for Space,” told GeekWire. “But we don’t want it to become an obstacle for further human expansion into space.” Chris Carberry, executive director of Explore Mars, takes a similar stance. “If we spend years and years and years getting there, and then we decide we’re going to stay there for a long time, it could delay Mars by decades,” he said. Future Mars exploration will be grabbing a share of the spotlight once more this week at the annual , sponsored by Carberry’s nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. Among the speakers on the agenda are NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, other officials from NASA and the European Space Agency who are planning Mars missions, and Paul Wooster, who’s leading SpaceX’s charge to the Red Planet. The three-day conference will be , starting at 8:30 a.m. ET (5:30 a.m. PT) on Tuesday. Bridenstine has been talking a lot more about the moon than Mars lately. “This time, when we go to the moon, we’re actually going to stay,” . Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon as well as the privately held Blue Origin space venture, has been — most recently last week, when he laid out his latest roadmap for . SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is also on the moon bandwagon, even though Mars settlement remains his long-term goal. “We should have a lunar base by now,” . “What the hell is going on?” The moon looms larger thanks to a push from the White House and Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the recently reconstituted National Space Council. The Trump administration’s timetable calls for putting American astronauts on the moon by the end of 2024, which represents a significant speed-up in NASA’s plans. NASA is still working on an estimate for how much extra an accelerated moon program will cost, and it’s not yet clear how the request for more money will be received by Congress. Why the rush? On one level, it’s an effort to demonstrate America’s continuing dominance in space, amid challenges from China. On another level, planting the U.S. flag on the moon once more would guarantee a historic achievement for what the White House hopes will be President Donald Trump’s second term. But in the big picture, the moon serves as a proving ground for farther-out space odysseys. The fact that it’s a mere 240,000 miles away, rather than the tens of millions of miles for Mars, reduces the risk and expense for crewed missions. Mars advocates such as Zubrin and Carberry agree with the argument up to that point. But they’re wary about how NASA intends to execute the plan. “The question for Trump and Pence is, are they willing to do what has to be done?” Zubrin said. In Zubrin’s view, NASA’s current approach to moon missions is the wrong way to do it. The mission architecture calls for the construction of an outpost in lunar orbit, known as the Gateway, which would be the base of operations for trips going down to the surface. Zubrin sees the Gateway as a “Lunar Orbit Tollbooth” that’s an unnecessary waste of money. In his book, he outlines an alternate mission architecture that uses SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 rockets, plus a yet-to-be-designed Lunar Excursion Vehicle, to transport payloads and people to the moon without a layover in lunar orbit. If it’s adopted, the Moon Direct architecture could arguably eliminate the need for NASA’s heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. That argument is sure to spark pushback in Congress, which has already funded billions of dollars in development costs for SLS and NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule. But the way Zubrin sees it, relying instead on commercial ventures such as SpaceX and Blue Origin is exactly what has to be done. “The thing that could enable the moon and Mars in the coming decade is this entrepreneurial space revolution,” he said. “NASA has only barely begun to make use of it.” Officials at NASA have come around to the view that a permanent presence on the moon is a necessary stepping stone in humanity’s outward push. But Carberry and Zubrin aren’t so sure. They worry that the costs of settling the moon and setting up the infrastructure that’s necessary to extract water ice and other resources could siphon away the funds and political will for Mars missions. “If we’re building a base on the moon, then I can’t imagine going to Mars anytime soon,” Carberry said. Zubrin, meanwhile, took aim at NASA’s proposal to send astronauts to Mars via the lunar Gateway, on a future spaceship called the Deep Space Transport. “That’s not feasible, and furthermore, it’s not even attractive,” he said. For decades, Zubrin has advocated a Mars Direct plan that, like Moon Direct, calls for a series of robotic and crewed missions to the Red Planet without side trips — and he argues that the idea is getting traction thanks to SpaceX’s efforts. “Musk wants to go to Mars,” Zubrin noted. “You don’t see him talking about building a lunar orbiting space station to enable his plan. No one who actually wants to go to Mars would insert such requirements into their mission plan.” For evidence that NASA’s plan needs to go through a paradigm shift, Zubrin points to an, which concludes that the . A more realistic date would be 2037, the study said. The study, commissioned by NASA in response to a congressional mandate, attributes the extra delays to the technological risks involved in developing the Deep Space Transport. Space exploration costs are estimated at more than $217 billion through 2037 — including $120.6 billion specifically for the elements that’d be needed to get to Mars. The rest of the money would go toward development of hardware for Mars surface missions, plus operations in low Earth orbit and on the moon. Meanwhile, Musk is talking about sending SpaceX’s first crewed mission to Mars in the mid-2020s. Even Musk admits that his timetables are often overly optimistic, but Zubrin says the success of SpaceX and other commercial ventures is likely to force policymakers to “take a second look” at their plans for future giant leaps. “We’ve had a shot heard round the world here. … This is going to enable human exploration and settlement of the solar system,” he said. “It will enable it sooner if NASA embraces it fully.”
Jeff Bezos shows off Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander in Washington, D.C., this week. (Blue Origin Photo) It’s our choice: a finite world with limited resources, or an infinite universe with unlimited potential. Those were the options presented by Jeff Bezos this week he laid out his plan to colonize the Moon as a first step toward a future with as many as a trillion people in space. Blue Origin, the Amazon founder’s private space venture, at an event in Washington, D.C., this week, and said it was working to help the country achieve the Trump administration’s goal of putting U.S. astronauts back on the moon by 2024. Blue Origin is one of multiple companies expected to compete for the NASA contract to go back to the moon. But a lunar colony would be just the first step in Bezos’ larger aspirations for humans in the solar system. GeekWire’s aerospace and science editor, Alan Boyle, was there for the announcement, and he called in for this special edition of the GeekWire podcast. Listen above, or subscribe in your favorite podcast app. Continue reading for an edited transcript, along with highlights from Jeff Bezos’ remarks at the Blue Moon unveiling. Todd Bishop: Alan, where are you, and what are you covering this week? Alan Boyle: Well, I’m in Washington, D.C. I’m actually calling from a park that’s near the place where Jeff Bezos had his big production to introduce the Blue Moon lunar lander. This happened on Thursday afternoon. It was a big production. Deep blue lights in a darkened ballroom at the Washington Convention Center, and it was all done up in a spacey décor showing off this lunar lander which is probably twice as high as Jeff Bezos was on stage. It was a Hollywood-style reveal, or I might say an Elon Musk-style reveal. Todd Bishop: Yes, and Elon Musk actually had a response, which we’ll get to later. In the meantime, give us the big picture here, because , you were actually interviewing him on stage, and he did reveal that Blue Origin, his commercial space venture, intended to go to the moon. As his signature line goes now, he said, “We will go back to the moon, this time to stay.” What was new in what you heard yesterday and what’s the significance? Alan Boyle: Right. He used that line again with Thursday’s presentation. If you’re really looking at it on a technical level, there were more details available. For example, they’re developing a new type of engine called the BE7 hydrogen-fueled engine that would be used on this lunar lander, and could be refueled using hydrogen recovered from lunar ice. Also, some specifics about how payloads would be sent back and forth. The concept was tweaked with a stretched version. This version of the lander can be stretched to be a little bit bigger and capable of carrying the hardware that folks would need to land astronauts on the surface. That is a significant twist that this is actually being offered to bring humans to the lunar surface as the administration wants to do in 2024. Jeff Bezos during Blue Moon unveiling: “Vice President Pence just recently said it’s the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years. I love this. It’s the right thing to do. For those of you doing the arithmetic at home, that’s 2024. We can help meet that timeline but only because we started three years ago.” Todd Bishop: What is Jeff Bezos’ big picture goal here? What’s he trying to accomplish and why is he trying to do it? Alan Boyle: Well the biggest picture is having millions of people living and working in space, which is another classic Jeff Bezos catch line. This is about how you get there, what are the steps. Jeff spent a good amount of time during Thursday’s presentation talking about the step-by-step approach, how Blue Origin is working on this suborbital space vehicle called New Shepherd that may start taking people to space later this year. They’re working on an orbital class rocket called New Glenn which would be able to put satellites into orbit and perhaps go beyond Earth orbit. Then there’s Blue Moon which would facilitate perhaps a permanent settlement on the moon as Jeff would like to see. From there you just take advantage of the resources and try to push further out into the solar system. Jeff Bezos: The good news is that if we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes we have unlimited resources. We get to choose. Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth? This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy. If we’re out in the solar system, we can have a trillion humans in the solar system, which means we’d have a thousand Mozarts and a thousand Einsteins. This would be an incredible civilization. Alan Boyle: Jeff actually talked about this idea of O’Neill cylinders which, again, he’s brought up before. He talked about this in quite a bit of depth at a presentation at the Museum of Flight in Seattle a couple of years ago. These are self-standing, free flying rotating habitats in space that would be able to accommodate a city’s worth of people and all their things. This is part of the grand vision. It goes back to the concept advanced by one of Jeff Bezos’ mentors, Gerry O’Neill, who came up with this book called The High Frontier where he talked about these cylinders serving as habitats for people living in outer space. That’s a pretty big picture. Jeff Bezos: What could this future look like? Where would a trillion humans live? Well, it’s very interesting. Somebody named Gerry O’Neill, a physics professor, looked at this question very carefully and he asked a very precise question that nobody had ever asked before. It was is a planetary surface the best place for humans to expand into the solar system? He and his students set to work on answering that question. They came to a very surprising, for them, counterintuitive answer: no. Why not? Well, they came up with a bunch of problems. One is that other planetary surfaces aren’t that big. You’re talking about maybe a doubling at best. It’s not that much. They’re a long way a way. Round-trip times to Mars are on the order of years. Launch opportunities to Mars are only once every 22 months, which is a very significant logistics problem. Last, you’re far enough away that you’re not going to be able to do real-time communications with Earth. You’re going to be limited by speed-of-light lag. The kids sitting here and probably some of the adults, too, don’t even think about playing Fortnite with somebody on Earth, because it’s not going to work. Todd Bishop: Put this in the scheme of everything that’s going on in terms of commercial space. Because if I remember correctly, Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. Jeff Bezos wants to go to moon. Where are we, big picture, and where does this Blue Moon mission fit in? Alan Boyle: It’s kind of concentric circles moving out. There’s a lot happening in Earth orbit relating to constellations of satellites and also commercial methods of putting people into low Earth orbit, specifically the International Space Station and SpaceX and Boeing are involved in that. I was at a satellite conference during this past week during the build up to Jeff Bezos’ announcement, and there’s a lot going on with mega constellations, thousands of satellites that would provide ubiquitous access to the internet and high speed data. Then you go to the moon and because the moon is targeted by the Trump Administration for 2024 and NASA is onboard that bus, everyone is looking to the moon. Even Elon Musk says that the Starship spaceship that he’s developing would be suitable as a lunar lander. Starship could be seen as a big-budget competitor to Blue Origin’s Blue Moon. Then the moon is seen as a stepping stone further outward to Mars. That’s where Elon Musk’s main focus is. It’s not so much a focus for Jeff Bezos. He says that Earth is the best planet. If you’re looking at space as a plan B, it’s really more about preserving Earth as humanity’s plan A to put more of the industry into outer space and leave Earth as more of a residential district in our interplanetary metropolis. After Mars, you’re looking farther and farther out, and then you get into the science fiction realm, or at least you’re talking about what’s going to happen in the 22nd century. A lot of folks are speculating where do you go from there. It gets less and less real sounding the further out you move. Todd Bishop: What were your impressions of the Blue Moon lander, seeing the mock up in person? Alan Boyle: I was frankly kind of astonished because I’ve seen renderings of the lander before, and I kind of imagined it as something that had a top on it like a tabletop, that it’s like a billiards table in space. This is huge. I was amazed to see how big the full-sized mock-up is. It’s more like, oh gosh, I don’t know if there’s a vehicle that quite compares to it in size. Bigger than a helicopter that’s for sure. Think about a helicopter maybe scaled up to twice the size. That was the thing that struck me the most. That was the show stopper for me, just to see the curtain literally being pulled away and to see this huge thing with Jeff Bezos giving a guided tour. Jeff Bezos: This is Blue Moon. It’ll soft land, in a precise way, 3.6 metric tons onto the lunar surface. The stretched tank variant of it will soft land 6.5 metric tons onto the lunar surface. The deck is designed to be a very simple interface, so that a great variety of payloads can be placed onto the top deck and secured. On the left-hand side you can see our star tracker, so that this vehicle can autonomously navigate in space. On the right-hand side, you’ll see an optical communications system that gives us gigabit bandwidth back to Earth. It’s a laser that transmits data back to Earth. We also have X-band for 10 megabit radio. A depiction of the Blue Moon lander on the Moon. (Blue Origin Image) Todd Bishop: It’s got four legs and a giant sphere in the middle. It’s basically got a propulsion cone at the bottom of it. Alan Boyle: That’s the BE7 engine. Then those large spheres are propellant tanks for the liquid hydrogen and the liquid oxygen. Jeff Bezos: Liquid hydrogen. Why are we using liquid hydrogen? This is not how Apollo did it. Why are we using liquid hydrogen as our fuel? Couple of reasons. One, it’s very high performance and so that helps a lot when you’re landing on the moon. After you’ve got to carry all of your propellant to the moon. Second reason we’re losing liquid hydrogen is because ultimately we’re going to be able to get hydrogen from that water on the moon and be able to refuel these vehicles on the surface of the moon and use them. Alan Boyle: There’s a frame around it and there are electricity generating fuel cells in the frame that would take advantage of some of the hydrogen that comes off the propellant tanks. Then there’s a big deck on top, and the top flat deck is where you could put up to four rovers the size of, say, NASA’s Curiosity rover, or in the stretched version you could put what’s called an ascent stage on there, and that would be analogous to the ascent stage that the Apollo astronauts used to lift off from the lunar module during the Apollo missions. Todd Bishop: Is it coincidence that this is coinciding with the build up to the Apollo 11 anniversary, the landing on the moon? Alan Boyle: Well, it’s a good hook, and there is a lot of talk about what might be done in the next few years. Of course, the 2024 date is looming large in the plans for lunar missions. It just so happens that if Donald Trump is reelected 2024 would come toward the end of that second term, and so that’s one of the reasons why it has a little bit of a political cast to it. There are a lot of question marks about whether 2024 was doable. Before the latest push led by Vice President Mike Pence, 2028 was being talked about as the timeframe for a human landing on the moon. They are really going to have to rush it, and NASA is expected to tell Congress in the next week or two how much this is going to cost, and then the real debate begins over how doable this is going to be. Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, shows off a mockup of the New Shepard suborbital space capsule during a 2017 conference in Colorado. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota) Todd Bishop: As you’ve been reporting, Jeff Bezos is selling about a billion dollars worth of Amazon stock per year to invest in Blue Origin his space venture. There’s this funny sort of joke among his friends that the reason he started Amazon was to basically get into space, to support this space venture. I don’t know how much of a joke that actually is. Alan Boyle: He said he would neither confirm nor deny, but you know that he’s got a smile on his face as he says that, as he said to me a couple of years ago. Todd Bishop: One thing that struck me from his presentation was he was talking about customers, people who would use this Blue Moon lunar lander to get their own payloads onto the moon. It was a reminder that this is not philanthropy for him. Jeff Bezos: We also have already a bunch of customers for Blue Moon, many of whom are in the audience. They’re going to be deploying science missions to the moon as well. People are very excited about this capability to soft land their cargo, their rovers, their science experiments onto the surface of the moon in a precise way. There is no capability to do that today. Alan Boyle: I think for Jeff Bezos this is one of the things where he started really with his presentation. He started with this idea of there are a lot of things you can do to help humanity. As you know, the Bezos family has been involved in some of those philanthropic ventures. There are other things that are longer range that can help humanity and that’s where he classifies this space effort, that it’s worth spending some money on this. I know that there’s a lot of question about how much he’s spending and whether this money could be better spent back on Earth. Previously: I think Jeff would probably say, “Well, I’m doing that and other people are doing that. You have to take care of this long range effort as well.” In terms of the customers, these are people who would be mostly flying scientific payloads or engineering payloads perhaps to test equipment in the lunar environment. The impression I get is that Blue Origin would very much like to have NASA be the anchor customer for this. NASA is going to be putting out a solicitation for lunar lander concepts that could be used for human space missions, and Blue Origin definitely wants to get in on that. I got the impression just from the enthusiasm with which Jeff has talked about this over the years and this week as well that even if Blue Origin did lose out to some other company like Lockheed Martin or a SpaceX for having that human lunar lander contract from NASA, I get the impression that work would continue on Blue Moon for other purposes. It’s just that this is kind of the marquee mission, and Jeff would like to be in on this as he would love to be in on, it seems, everything from the cloud to retail. Todd Bishop: You were mentioning those constellations earlier, the satellites that are going to be all around the Earth providing internet access. Amazon itself has not related to Blue Origin directly but potentially working with them possibly down the road. Alan Boyle: That’s an interesting play, and there was a lot of talk about that at the satellite conference, and I’m sure I’m going to try to write up more of my thoughts in a coherent manner about that in the next week or so. Amazon has its own purposes for having these satellites in space. One person compared it to a self-licking ice cream cone, because Amazon could use that satellite network to extend its reach in terms of selling stuff through Amazon.com or providing cloud services or even streaming services for Prime Video. It’s a delicate thing, because Amazon is a publicly held company and you can’t just say automatically that Blue Origin would get the contract for those launches because the shareholders want to make sure that it’s not a self-dealing sort of situation for Jeff Bezos where he is inappropriately using one money from a public venture to shore up his private ventures. That’s going to be a delicate matter as Project Kuiper, Amazon’s satellite effort, proceeds. Todd Bishop: Big picture, what would be your key takeaways from what you saw? Alan Boyle: Blue Origin is really serious about this moon thing, and it’s not just a PowerPoint. That’s been known internally for several years. In fact, some of the people from Blue Origin said, “At last I can talk about this thing that I’ve been working on for three years.” This is real, and it may be a mock-up now, but the amount of effort that Blue Origin is putting into this will, I think, make this a reality. In terms of what it’s used for, that’s yet to be seen. Jeff Bezos is clearly committed to this and like Elon Musk who made a little bit of fun about how much Jeff has been promising but not delivering yet, but, just like Elon, Jeff really once he latches on to something he’s not going to let go. I don’t think he’s going to let go of the moon based on what we saw on Thursday. Todd Bishop: This is a family podcast, so I won’t quote Elon Musk’s tweet or the Photoshopped version of the moon lander that he tweeted. Alan Boyle: It’s basically Elon saying, “Jeff, you’re such a tease.” We’ll leave it at that. Oh stop teasing, Jeff
We now know how many of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband data satellites, developed in Redmond, Wash., can be crammed into the nose cone of a Falcon rocket. The answer to the ultimate question is 60. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk showed how five dozen satellites fit, just barely, inside a Falcon fairing today in a tweet: First 60 Starlink satellites loaded into Falcon fairing. Tight fit. — Elon Musk (@elonmusk) The Starlink project is from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as early as next week. The demonstration mission will mark another step toward the deployment of thousands of satellites designed to provide low-cost global internet access. These first satellites are equipped with antennas and networking equipment to communicate with ground stations in a variety of locations, including three in Washington state. But as SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell reported at this week’s Satellite 2019 conference, they won’t demonstrate the satellite-to-satellite links that knit the constellation together. That will have to wait for future deployments. For what it’s worth, 60 satellites won’t set a record for a single rocket launch, or even a single Falcon 9 launch. Last December’s , organized by Seattle-based Spaceflight, put 64 satellites on a Falcon 9. In follow-up tweets, Musk added a few more details about the launch, the satellites and their role in the Starlink constellation: If static fire
Spaceport America is becoming the true base of operations for Virgin Galactic. (Virgin Galactic Photo) After two successful crewed test flights to a 50-mile-high space milestone, Virgin Galactic says it’s shifting its operations from California to New Mexico’s Spaceport America — lock, stock and spaceship. Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, made the announcement in Santa Fe today, in the company of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state dignitaries. The company said the transfer is beginning immediately and will continue over the summer, to minimize the disruption for the school-age children of employees. More than 100 staff members are affected by the move, . The shift follows through on a promise that Virgin Galactic made more than a decade ago, in exchange for New Mexico’s that ended up costing more than $200 million. “New Mexico delivered on its promise to build a world-first and world-class spaceport,” Branson said. “Today, I could not be more excited to announce, that in return, we are now ready to bring New Mexico a world-first, world-class spaceline. Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico where together we will open space to change the world for good.” Grisham called today’s announcement of the move “an incredibly exciting development for both our state’s economic future and the future of aerospace in general.” “With these workers here and with these plans firmly in place, I’m certain New Mexico will serve as the launchpad for the rapid industry growth we’ve been expecting for so many years,” she said. “Today marks the beginning of the next chapter of aerospace in New Mexico.” Virgin Galactic has been conducting flight tests of its WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane and SpaceShipTwo rocket plane at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port . The program went through a , killing one of the pilots and seriously injuring the other. But it when test pilots rocketed beyond the 50-mile altitude mark and . A to astronaut-worthy altitudes in February. Now SpaceShipTwo crew members will start calling New Mexico their home. But Virgin Galactic’s sister manufacturing venture, , will remain in Mojave to manufacture more WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo planes. As a parting gift, TSC will finish out the cabin interior of VSS Unity, the SpaceShipTwo plane that’s been used for testing. About 700 would-be fliers have paid as much as $250,000 to reserve a ride on SpaceShipTwo. The shift to New Mexico serves as a signal that passenger flights are on track to begin later this year..For what it’s worth, Branson has said , the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission’s liftoff.
Jeff Bezos shows off a mockup of the Blue Moon lunar lander. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos today laid out the architecture for missions to the moon that would support NASA’s goal of landing astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024. The game plan for Bezos’ space venture, Blue Origin, calls for continuing work on the company’s Blue Moon lunar lander and a new breed of hydrogen-fueled rocket engine known as the BE-7. Blue Origin has been discussing the lander concept with NASA for years, and plans to propose Blue Moon in response to a solicitation that NASA is due to issue this month. During today’s invitation-only event here at the Washington Convention Center, Bezos said that sending humans to the moon by 2024 and establishing a permanent lunar settlement would be in sync with his own vision for humanity’s future in space. “I love this — it’s the right thing to do,” Bezos said. “We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started this three years ago. It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay.” Bezos said Blue Origin already has been in touch with customers who’d be interested in sending payloads to the lunar surface on Blue Moon, including Airbus, Arizona State University, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, PARC, Southwest Research Institute, Britain’s Surrey Satellite Technology and Germany’s OHB. “People are very excited about this capability,” Bezos said. The showstopper came when Bezos pulled the wraps off a full-size mockup of the Blue Moon lander. “This is an incredible vehicle, and it’s going to the moon,” he said. A cargo version of lander could deliver 3.6 metric tons of payload to the lunar surface, while a “stretch tank” version of the craft could put 6.5 metric tons on the moon. Bezos said the stretch version would provide enough carrying capacity to accommodate astronauts. The stretch lander was shown with an ascent module on top, while an illustration of the cargo lander had a rover sitting on top. Blue Moon would be equipped with a crane system, or davit, to lower payloads from the lander’s deck to the surface. Both versions would be equipped with a single BE-7 engine, capable of 10,000 pounds of thrust. Bezos said hot-fire tests of the BE-7 are due to begin this summer. Other companies such as have proposed lunar lander concepts, and it’s far too early to say which concept will win out. But based on Bezos’ comments today, Blue Origin seems likely to proceed with Blue Moon in any case. Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said Bezos’ moon plans were “very ambitious, very impressive.” “I can’t wait until they move forward with this,” Stallmer told GeekWire. Bezos shied away from referring to a specific mission, but he said the moon’s polar regions would be promising places for off-Earth settlement because the permanently shadowed craters in those areas are thought to contain substantial reserves of water ice. That ice could be processed to provide drinking water, oxygen for breathable air and hydrogen for rocket fuel. He said Earth will always be “the best planet” for our species, but repeated his view that over the decades ahead, increasing demand for energy and resources will require humanity’s expansion out into the solar system. “The good news is that if we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes, we have unlimited resources,” he said. His long-range vision calls for establishing outposts on the moon and Mars, and in city-sized spaceships that rotate to produce artificial gravity. Such spaceships are known as O’Neill habitats — in honor of Princeton physicist and space settlement advocate Gerry O’Neill, one of Bezos’ college mentors. To realize that vision, launch costs will have to be reduced through rocket reusability, and technologies will have to be developed for use of in-space resources, Bezos said. “Lifting all of our resources off Earth just isn’t going to work,” he said. Working on the space access challenge has been the main focus of Blue Origin since its founding in 2000, but the company’s efforts are just now getting traction. For the past four years, Blue Origin has been flight-testing a suborbital spaceship called New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first astronaut to fly in NASA’s Project Mercury). The hardware for New Shepard is built at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and shipped to a launch facility in West Texas for flight tests. Bezos said the company plans to start putting people on board by the end of this year. Blue Origin is also developing an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn (named after John Glenn, the first American to go into orbit). New Glenn would be powered by a new type of rocket engine, the BE-4, which uses liquefied natural gas as fuel. The BE-4 is expected to finish up qualification tests in Texas by the end of this year, with New Glenn’s first launch scheduled in 2021. Bezos has said he’s spending a billion dollars a year on Blue Origin, with most of that money going toward the New Glenn project. BE-4 engines are currently built in Kent, but they’ll eventually be produced at a multimillion-dollar factory being built in Huntsville, Ala. New Glenn rockets will be assembled at an even bigger factory in Florida, and launched from a complex nearby at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. All this activity stems from Bezos’ childhood dream of spaceflight, sparked 50 years ago when he watched the Apollo 11 moon landing at the age of 5. Some of the friends from his youth have joked that the reason he created Amazon was to earn the money to fund his own space effort — and just as jokingly, Bezos has said he that claim. Bezos often says his dream is to have “millions of people living and working in space,” even though it may take centuries to get to that point. “Who is going to do this work? Not me. These kids in the front row — you’re going to do this, and your children are going to do this,” Bezos said today, referring to students in attendance from D.C. International School and Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School. To get the next generation started off on the right foot, Blue Origin is creating an educational group known as the Club for the Future. The group’s first activity is “Postcards From Space,” which gives kids the opportunity to write down or draw their own vision for having millions of people living and working in space on the back of a stamped, self-addressed postcard. The first 10,000 postcards received at Blue Origin’s Kent headquarters before July 20, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, will be packed aboard a New Shepard spaceship for a suborbital flight to space and back — and then mailed back to the addressee. For more information on the Club for the Future and the “Postcards From Space” project, .
Jeff Bezos shows off “Blue Moon,” a lunar lander built by his space company Blue Origin. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) Update, 5 p.m. ET: Bezos showed off the new Blue Origin BE-7 engine, which will hot fire for the first time this summer. He also called out Vice President Mike Pence’s 2024 lunar landing goal. “I love this — it’s the right thing to do,” Bezos said. “We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started this three years ago. It’s time to go back to the moon, this time to stay.” “Blue Moon” is on offer to NASA as a potential descent vehicle in 2024. Update, 4:45 p.m. ET: Bezos unveiled “Blue Moon,” a new lunar lander built by Blue Origin over the past three years that can send payloads to the moon. It is fueled by liquid hydrogen and can soft-land between 3.6 and 6.5 metric tons on the moon. Bezos showed off features such as the communications systems and landing gear. “This vehicle is going to the moon,” he said. Update, 4:30 p.m. ET: Bezos began his presentation Thursday with his oft-repeated feelings about Earth — “the best planet” — and his thoughts on how we must expand into solar system. “The good news is that if we move out into the solar system, for all practical purposes, we have unlimited resources,” he said. To realize that vision, Bezos said there must be a radical reduction in launch costs and usage of in-space resources. “Lifting all of our resources off Earth just isn’t going to work,” he said. Bezos added: “We’re going to build a road to space, and then amazing things will happen.” Bezos talked about putting millions of people living and working in space. “Who is going to do this work? Not me. These kids in the front row — you’re going to do this, and your children are going to do this,” Bezos said, referring to students in attendance from D.C. International School and Latin American Montessori Bilingual School. Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos speaks at an invitation-only event in Washington D.C. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle) Original story: WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is about to lay out an updated vision for his “other” multibillion-dollar venture, the Blue Origin rocket company, including plans for missions to the moon. Bezos is due to speak at an invitation-only event planned here in Washington at 4 p.m. ET (1 p.m. PT) today. Details about his presentation were closely held in advance: The only hint that Blue Origin dropped on Twitter was a , the Endurance, sitting amid polar pack ice. That’s interpreted as an allusion to Bezos’ plans for lunar exploration, starting with robotic missions to the moon’s polar regions and moving ahead to on the lunar surface. A prime target for future lunar missions is Shackleton Crater near the lunar south pole, which is thought to have substantial reserves of water ice in its permanently shadowed depths. For years, Blue Origin has been working on the design of a . The company suggested sending the lander, nicknamed Blue Moon, to Shackleton Crater in a in 2017. Blue Origin executives have said Blue Moon or so, if there’s sufficient support from NASA. That time frame meshes with NASA’s schedule for sending astronauts to the moon by 2024, in March. By the end of this month, the space agency intends to that could be ready in time to hit the 2024 schedule. Industry sources who gathered here for this week’s Satellite 2019 conference said they were sure that missions to the moon would figure in today’s talk, with the caveat that they didn’t have inside information about what Bezos would say. Going to the moon isn’t the only space odyssey on Bezos’ mind. Blue Origin is testing a suborbital spaceship called New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first astronaut to fly in NASA’s Project Mercury). The hardware for New Shepard is built at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and shipped to a launch facility in West Texas for flight tests.The company plans to start putting people on board by the end of this year. Blue Origin is also developing an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn (named after John Glenn, the first American to go into orbit). New Glenn would be powered by a new type of rocket engine, the BE-4, which uses liquefied natural gas as fuel. The BE-4 is expected to finish up qualification tests in Texas by the end of this year, with New Glenn’s first launch scheduled in 2021. Bezos has said he’s spending a billion dollars a year on Blue Origin, with most of that money going toward the New Glenn project. BE-4 engines are currently built in Kent, but they’ll eventually be produced at a multimillion-dollar factory being built in Huntsville, Ala. New Glenn rockets will be assembled at an even bigger factory in Florida, and launched from a complex nearby at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. All this activity stems from Bezos’ childhood dreams of spaceflight, sparked 50 years ago when he watched the Apollo 11 moon landing at the age of 5. Some of the friends from his youth have joked that the reason he created Amazon was to earn the money to fund his own space effort — and just as jokingly, Bezos said he that claim. Bezos has repeatedly said his dream is to have “millions of people living and working in space,” even though it may take hundreds of years to get to that point. And if there’s any single person on Earth who can help make that dream come true, it would be Bezos, whose world-leading family net worth has been .
Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and one of his Blue Origin rockets. (Blue Origin Photo) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is about to lay out an updated vision for his “other” multibillion-dollar venture, the Blue Origin rocket company, including plans for missions to the moon. Bezos is due to speak at an invitation-only event planned here in Washington at 4 p.m. ET (1 p.m. PT) today. Details about his presentation were closely held in advance: The only hint that Blue Origin dropped on Twitter was a , the Endurance, sitting amid polar pack ice. That’s interpreted as an allusion to Bezos’ plans for lunar exploration, starting with robotic missions to the moon’s polar regions and moving ahead to on the lunar surface. A prime target for future lunar missions is Shackleton Crater near the lunar south pole, which is thought to have substantial reserves of water ice in its permanently shadowed depths. For years, Blue Origin has been working on the design of a . The company suggested sending the lander, nicknamed Blue Moon, to Shackleton Crater in a in 2017. Blue Origin executives have said Blue Moon or so, if there’s sufficient support from NASA. That time frame meshes with NASA’s schedule for sending astronauts to the moon by 2024, in March. By the end of this month, the space agency intends to that could be ready in time to hit the 2024 schedule. Industry sources who gathered here for this week’s Satellite 2019 conference said they were sure that missions to the moon would figure in today’s talk, with the caveat that they didn’t have inside information about what Bezos would say. Going to the moon isn’t the only space odyssey on Bezos’ mind. Blue Origin is testing a suborbital spaceship called New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first astronaut to fly in NASA’s Project Mercury). The hardware for New Shepard is built at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and shipped to a launch facility in West Texas for flight tests.The company plans to start putting people on board by the end of this year. Blue Origin is also developing an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn (named after John Glenn, the first American to go into orbit). New Glenn would be powered by a new type of rocket engine, the BE-4, which uses liquefied natural gas as fuel. The BE-4 is expected to finish up qualification tests in Texas by the end of this year, with New Glenn’s first launch scheduled in 2021. Bezos has said he’s spending a billion dollars a year on Blue Origin, with most of that money going toward the New Glenn project. BE-4 engines are currently built in Kent, but they’ll eventually be produced at a multimillion-dollar factory being built in Huntsville, Ala. New Glenn rockets will be assembled at an even bigger factory in Florida, and launched from a complex nearby at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. All this activity stems from Bezos’ childhood dreams of spaceflight, sparked 50 years ago when he watched the Apollo 11 moon landing at the age of 5. Some of the friends from his youth have joked that the reason he created Amazon was to earn the money to fund his own space effort — and just as jokingly, Bezos said he that claim. Bezos has repeatedly said his dream is to have “millions of people living and working in space,” even though it may take hundreds of years to get to that point. And if there’s any single person on Earth who can help make that dream come true, it would be Bezos, whose world-leading family net worth has been .
The curving Earth and the black sky of space serve as the backdrop for NetMotion Software’s balloon-borne contraption, outfitted with an iPad that maintained a Skype connection at an altitude of 85,000 feet. (NetMotion Software via YouTube) What’s the best way to show off your mobile networking technology? How about demonstrating that the technology can seamlessly switch between WiFi, cellular and satellite data connectivity while it’s flying on a balloon up to a height of 85,000 feet? That’s the answer that Seattle-based came up with when it sought to showcase its mobile video conferencing capabilities. In January, NetMotion engineers lashed an Apple iPad and an array of webcams, networking equipment and GPS trackers to a flightworthy frame, and attached the frame to a weather balloon. They set up a Skype video connection to a Microsoft Surface Book sitting in the back of their car. Then they let the contraption fly, fly away from their launch site at Mountains Edge Regional Park in Las Vegas. Thanks to the NetMotion Mobility software installed on the iPad, the Skype connection switched smoothly from the team’s personal WiFi hotspot to the iPad’s cellular LTE link at a height of 500 feet. “Typically a cell connection only goes up to 9,000 feet, but with Mobility we were able to go much further,” Marisa Smolka, senior marketing manager at NetMotion Software,. wrote in a summary of the experiment. “At 12,500 feet we switched from LTE to our satellite connection with our , which kept us connected up to 76,000 feet. … The call had a few blips or small pauses, but maintained a solid connection until we got to 76,000 feet.” The Skype connection cut out entirely at 85,000 feet, but the platform kept rising until just past 100,000 feet. Then the balloon popped, and the platform plummeted. During the hourlong flight, the winds took NetMotion’s contraption 95 miles to the east. It took until long after dark for Smolka and her teammates to locate the wreckage, near Dolan Springs in Arizona. But the ruggedized iPad was still about as solid as the Skype connection had been. NetMotion’s experiment was judged a success, but Smolka doesn’t recommend trying this at home. “The precision and attention to detail to launch a weather balloon and recover it was far more than I had expected,” Smolka wrote. “The launch itself is far more complicated than setting up the technology to prove that a Skype call in the atmosphere can work!” She and her teammates explain how it was done in this “extended cut” video:
An artist’s conception shows Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket lifting off from Launch Complex 16 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. (Relativity Space Illustration) Seattle-based has signed a launch services agreement to put payloads on Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket. , a startup that got its start in Seattle but is now headquartered in Los Angeles, says the agreement covers the purchase of a first launch that’s scheduled to take place in late 2021. There are also options for additional rideshare launches in the future, the company said in a news release. Spaceflight is a service offering of that specializes in arranging launch logistics for payloads on a variety of vehicles, including rockets from SpaceX, Virgin Orbit, Europe’s Arianespace consortium and Rocket Lab. The payloads typically share a ride alongside other satellites. Spaceflight has made arrangements for nearly 240 spacecraft from organizations in 32 countries, including the Israeli-made Beresheet lander that made its way to the moon (). Relativity was founded in late 2015 by CEO Tim Ellis and chief technology officer Jordan Noone, who both had connections to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. After relocating from the Seattle area to L.A., Relativity picked up from billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban and other investors. The company’s key innovations have to do with autonomous additive manufacturing: Nearly everything on the Terran 1, including its Aeon 1 rocket engine, will be 3-D printed. That’s aimed at driving launch costs for a rocket capable of sending 2,750 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit down to $10 million. Over the past 14 months or so, Relativity has struck one deal with NASA to at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and another deal with the Air Force to at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. Relativity is planning its first test launch of the Terran 1 by the end of 2020. Last month, Relativity to put satellites for a global internet constellation into low Earth orbit, or LEO, starting no earlier than 2021. It also said it would , a Thai space startup focusing on Internet of Things applications, in 2022. No financial details have been provided for any of the launch deals, including the newly announced agreement with Spaceflight. However, the company said last year that it had more than $1 billion worth of tentative commitments for launches from commercial and government entities. Curt Blake, Spaceflight’s CEO and president, said Terran 1’s capabilities fit a useful niche in his company’s offerings. “We consistently look for innovative new technologies that provide flexible, reliable and low-cost access to space for our customers,” Blake said in today’s news release. “Relativity’s autonomous platform and 3D-printed Terran 1 rocket delivers key advantages in launching rideshare payloads.” Ellis said he and his teammates at Relativity were excited about the prospect of working with Blake’s team “to offer industry-defining lead time, flexibility, and cost for smallsats and cubesats and meaningfully expand the total launch capacity available through Spaceflight’s offering.” “We look forward to building the space economy together and supporting disruptive commercial and government payload missions,” Ellis said.
Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle lifts off from its New Zealand pad. (Rocket Lab via YouTube) sent a trio of research satellites for the U.S. military into orbit tonight from a launch pad that’s thousands of miles from America’s shores, in New Zealand. The Los Angeles-based company’s low-cost Electron rocket lifted off from its seaside launch facility on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula at 6 p.m. May 5 local time (11 p.m. PT May 4). It was Rocket Lab’s second launch of 2019, and its sixth mission overall. Minutes after liftoff, the Electron’s second stage separated from the first-stage booster, and then released its “kick stage” in preparation for deploying the satellites. Rocket Lab is known for giving each mission a quirky name. That’s in line with the sensibility associated with New Zealanders, including Peter Beck, the company’s founder and CEO. This mission was nicknamed “That’s a Funny-Looking Cactus,” which serves as a nod to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, where the Defense Department’s is headquartered. The three satellites sent up for the Space Test Program’s STP-27RD mission include: , built by Denver-based York Space Systems. The satellite is designed to demonstrate an X-band synthetic aperture radar system — and, more generally, demonstrate to the Pentagon that York’s 150-kilogram (330-pound) S-Class satellites can satisfy its operational requirements. This marks York’s first satellite launch. , also known as the Space Plug-and-Play Architecture Research Cubesat-1. This U.S.-Swedish satellite is designed to demonstrate the use of modular, miniaturized avionics for military applications in space. , or the Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment, built by the Air Force Academy. This 4-inch-wide nanosatellite will release two stainless-steel ball bearings that will be tracked from the ground to watch for changes in background atmospheric density over time. The goal of the experiment is to fine-tune techniques for monitoring orbital debris and getting a better fix on space situational awareness. Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 has been cleared for U.S. government and military missions even though it’s located in a country half a world away. The company is , at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Virginia’s Wallops Island. The Electron rocket is designed to put payloads weighing as much as 225 kilograms (500 pounds) in low Earth orbit for a bargain-basement price of $5 million. The total payload for tonight’s launch came to more than 180 kilograms (400 pounds), which was the most weight launched on an Electron to date.
Scientists work in the LIGO Hanford control room. (Caltech / MIT / LIGO Lab Photo / C. Gray) The science teams for the , or LIGO, and Europe’s today laid out the details of their recent detections, including a crash between neutron stars, three black hole mergers and what may be the first observed collision of a neutron star and a black hole. Astronomers and their fans have been talking about the detections for days, thanks to the fact that LIGO and Virgo are quickly sharing the raw results from their current observing run. But today’s statements provided the most authoritative views from researchers running the two gravitational-wave detectors. The April 26 detection of a cosmic collision known as S190426c is the most intriguing event. The subtle signal of a far-off disturbance in the gravitational force was picked up by LIGO’s twin detectors at Hanford in Eastern Washington and at Livingston in Louisiana. The Virgo detector in Italy also detected the signal. The signal is consistent with what might be expected if a black hole were to swallow a neutron star, roughly 1.2 billion light-years from Earth. Such an event has never been observed before. “Unfortunately, the signal is rather weak,” Patrick Brady, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, said in a. “It’s like listening to somebody whisper a word in a busy café; it can be difficult to make out the word or even to be sure that the person whispered at all. It will take some time to reach a conclusion about this candidate.” One day earlier, the Virgo detector and the LIGO Livingston detector picked up the signal of a neutron star merger that occurred about 500 million-light years away. The LIGO Hanford detector was offline at the time, which reduced the detector networks ability to focus in on the origin of the signal, dubbed S190425z. Only one such neutron star collision has been reported previously, and that set off with multiple astronomical instruments. Last month’s neutron star events sparked a similar effort, but researchers say neither of the gravitational-wave sources has been spotted by other means. The current LIGO-Virgo observing run, which began on April 1, has also turned up three likely black hole mergers, which adds to 10 previous smashups of that sort. LIGO’s two detectors pick up gravitational disturbances in the fabric of spacetime that are given off by faraway black hole crashes and other cosmic cataclysms. Such disturbances show up as tiny shifts in spatial dimensions, just barely affecting the paths of laser beams that shoot back and forth through 2.5-mile-long (4-kilometer-long) tunnels at the Hanford and Livingston detectors. Scientists made their in 2015, which earned the. Since then, the Advanced Virgo detector has , and LIGO’s equipment has been upgraded as well. The fact that so many detections are now being made in such a short time span suggests that the nearly four-year-old field of gravitational-wave astronomy will exceed expectations in the months to come. “The latest LIGO-Virgo observing run is proving to be the most exciting one so far. We’re already seeing hints of the first observation of a black hole swallowing a neutron star. If it holds up, this would be a trifecta for LIGO and Virgo — in three years, we’ll have observed every type of black hole and neutron star collision,” said Caltech’s David Reitze, executive director of LIGO. “But we’ve learned that claims of detections require a tremendous amount of painstaking work — checking and rechecking — so we’ll have to see where the data takes us.”
Scientists work in the LIGO Hanford control room. (Caltech / MIT / LIGO Lab Photo / C. Gray) The science teams for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, and Europe’s Virgo detector today laid out the details of their recent detections, including a crash between neutron stars, three black hole mergers and what may be the first observed collision of a neutron star and a black hole. Astronomers and their fans have been talking about the detections for days, thanks to the fact that LIGO and Virgo are quickly sharing the raw results from their current observing run. But today’s statements provided the most authoritative views from researchers running the two gravitational-wave detectors. The April 26 detection of a cosmic collision known as S190426c is the most intriguing event. The subtle signal of a far-off disturbance in the gravitational force were picked up by LIGO’s twin detectors at Hanford in Eastern Washington as well as at Livingston in Louisiana. The Virgo detector in Italy also detected the signal. The signal is consistent with what might be expected if a black hole were to swallow a neutron star, roughly 1.2 billion light-years from Earth. Such an event has never been observed before. “Unfortunately, the signal is rather weak,” said Patrick Brady, a physicist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who serves as spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. “It’s like listening to somebody whisper a word in a busy café; it can be difficult to make out the word or even to be sure that the person whispered at all. It will take some time to reach a conclusion about this candidate.” One day earlier, the Virgo detector and the LIGO Livingston detector picked up the signal of a neutron star merger that occurred about 500 million-light years away. The LIGO Hanford detector was offline at the time, which reduced the detector networks ability to focus in on the origin of the signal, dubbed S190425z. Only one such neutron star collision has been reported previously, and that set off a grand campaign to document the event with multiple astronomical instruments. Last month’s neutron star events sparked a similar effort, but researchers say neither of the gravitational-wave sources has been spotted by other means. The current LIGO-Virgo observing run, which began on April 1, has also turned up three likely black hole mergers, which adds to 10 previous smashups of that sort. LIGO made the first-ever detection of gravitational waves from a black hole merger in 2015. Since then, the Virgo detector has come online, and LIGO’s equipment has been upgraded. The fact that so many detections are being made in such a short time span suggests that the nearly four-year-old field of gravitational-wave astronomy will exceed expectations in the months to come. “The latest LIGO-Virgo observing run is proving to be the most exciting one so far. We’re already seeing hints of the first observation of a black hole swallowing a neutron star. If it holds up, this would be a trifecta for LIGO and Virgo — in three years, we’ll have observed every type of black hole and neutron star collision,” Caltech’s David Reitze, executive director of LIGO, said in today’s news release. “But we’ve learned that claims of detections require a tremendous amount of painstaking work — checking and rechecking — so we’ll have to see where the data takes us.”
Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster touches down on its West Texas landing pad at the end of a successful flight. (Blue Origin via YouTube) Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, today sent dozens of science experiments and other payloads to space and back on its suborbital New Shepard rocket ship. Today’s liftoff marked the 11th uncrewed test mission in the New Shepard program, and the fifth go-round for this particular reusable booster and its capsule. The main mission was to check out the launch system in preparation for flying people later this year, but Blue Origin said it flew — including a 3-D printer and a scientific centrifuge designed for use in zero-gravity. Liftoff took place at Blue Origin’s testing and launch facility in West Texas at 8:35 a.m. CT (6:35 a.m. PT) after only minor delays. “Look at her go!” launch commentator Ariane Cornell exclaimed as the New Shepard booster’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 rocket engine blasted the craft into clear skies. Toward the top of the ride, the capsule separated from the booster and coasted upward to an unofficial peak altitude of 346,406 feet. That’s 66 miles, or 106 kilometers — well above the 100-kilometer Karman Line that’s internationally accepted as the edge of space, but well below the 119-kilometer mark that the same New Shepard craft reached last July. The unofficial maximum ascent velocity was a supersonic 2,217 mph, or 3,567 kilometers per hour. The crew capsule and its contents experienced a few minutes of weightlessness at the maximum altitude, leading Cornell to muse over what passengers might feel. “If only we were in there, guys,” she said. “It’s coming.” Within minutes, the booster relit its engine to make a controlled touchdown on its landing pad, while the capsule floated down to a separate touchdown on the end of a parachute. Mission elapsed time was 10 minutes and 10 seconds, Blue Origin said. Today’s flight came three and a half months after Blue Origin’s previous New Shepard flight. If that tempo continues, and if Blue Origin truly intends to begin crewed flights by the end of the year, there can’t be many more uncrewed practice runs left on the test schedule. The first people to climb on board are likely to be Blue Origin employees — perhaps former NASA astronauts such as or . Paying passengers would follow, but Blue Origin has yet to say how much a ticket will cost. New Shepard hardware is produced at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and shipped down to Texas for flight. Cornell said people wouldn’t ride in the New Shepard capsule that was tested today, but in an upgraded capsule that’s currently sitting in Blue Origin’s “barn” in Texas. “Because it’s such a special capsule to us, we actually decided to name the newest capsule that’s just in the barn the ‘RSS First Step,’ ” Cornell said. ” ‘RSS’? Reusable Spaceship, of course. And ‘First Step’ because it is our first capsule that is going to be taking people. It’s going to enable our vision of millions of people living and working in space.” In addition to the New Shepard suborbital space program, Blue Origin is working on an orbital-class rocket called New Glenn, a new breed of rocket engine called the BE-4, and a lunar lander called Blue Moon. New Glenn and the BE-4 are due to make their space debut in 2021, and Blue Moon could make its first delivery to the moon in the early 2020s.