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Rocket Lab completes its first rocket launch of 2021 and 18th mission overall

Rocket Lab has launched its 18th mission, and the first of 2021, as of 8:26 PM NZT (2:30 AM EST). The ‘Another One Leaves The Crust’ mission took off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand, and flew a single communications microsatellite on behalf of client OHB Group, a satellite manufacturer based in Europe with facilities in Germany, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Rocket Lab’s launches often feature payloads from more than one customer on the same Electron launch vehicle, but this dedicated payload launch is an example of how the flexibility of its smaller rocket can serve customers even for single small satellite missions. The rocket successfully delivered its payload as intended shortly following take-off.

While Rocket Lab has been developing and testing a booster stage recovery process to help it re-use part of its launch vehicles on subsequent flights, this particular mission did not include a recovery attempt. The company has had significant success with that development process however, and recovered its first booster last year. Sometime this year, it’s expected to attempt a recovery that includes a mid-air catch of the returning first stage via helicopter.

Rocket Lab makes its first booster recovery after successful launch


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This tiny drone uses an actual moth antenna to sniff out target chemicals

Sometimes it’s just not worth it to try to top Mother Nature. Such seems to have been the judgment by engineers at the University of Washington, who, deploring the absence of chemical sensors as fine as a moth’s antennas, opted to repurpose moth biology rather than invent new human technology. Behold the “Smellicopter.”

Mounted on a tiny drone platform with collision avoidance and other logic built in, the device is a prototype of what could be a very promising fusion of artificial and natural ingenuity.

“Nature really blows our human-made odor sensors out of the water,” admits UW grad student Melanie Anderson, lead author of the paper describing the Smellicopter, in a university news release. And in many industrial applications, sensitivity is of paramount importance.

If, for instance, you had one sensor that could detect toxic particles at a fraction of the concentration of that detectable by another, it would be a no-brainer to use the more sensitive of the two.

On the other hand, it’s no cake walk training moths to fly toward toxic plumes of gas and report back their findings. So the team (carefully) removed a common hawk moth’s antenna and mounted it on board. By passing a light current through it the platform can monitor the antenna’s general status, which changes when it is exposed to certain chemicals — such as those a moth might want to follow, a flower’s scent perhaps.

See it in action below:

In tests, the cybernetic moth-machine construct performed better than a traditional sensor of comparable size and power. The cells of the antenna, excited by the particles wafting over them, created a fast, reliable, and accurate signal for those chemicals they are built to detect. “Reprogramming” those sensitivities would be non-trivial, but far from impossible.

The little drone itself has a clever bit of engineering to keep the antenna pointed upwind. While perhaps pressure sensors and gyros might have worked to keep the craft pointing in the right direction, the team used the simple approach of a pair of large, light fins mounted on the back that have the effect of automatically turning the drone upwind, like a weather vane. If something smells good that way, off it goes.

It’s very much a prototype, but this sort of simplicity and sensitivity are no doubt attractive enough to potential customers like heavy industry and the military that the team will have offers coming in soon. You can read the paper describing the design of the Smellicopter in the journal IOP Bioinspiration & Biomimetics.


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NASA sends Baby Yoda to space aboard SpaceX Dragon alongside astronauts

NASA added a surprise fifth passenger to the Crew-1 mission currently en route to the International Space Station – a plush The Child (aka Baby Yoda) from The Mandalorian. The doll is what’s known as the “zero-gravity indicator” – typically a soft, small object that is allowed to float free in the spacecraft cabin to provide a simple, but effective confirmation of when it passes into the phase of a spaceflight where Earth’s gravity no longer holds significant sway.

Crew-1’s other four passengers are all actual people – NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi. They’re on their way to the ISS to staff it for the next half a year, on NASA’s first operational commercial crew mission, courtesy of partner SpaceX, which certified its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft for human flight earlier this year.

SpaceX and NASA successfully launch four astronauts to space for first operational Dragon crew mission

Baby Yoda won hearts with its debut on Disney’s original streaming show The Mandalorian last year, and continues to woo audiences with this year’s second season. It earned its colloquial nickname because it’s a juvenile version of whatever the heck the original Yoda from the Star Wars saga is. In the new series, the youngster regularly earns reprimands from the series’ titular bounty hunter for messing around with his spacecraft controls.

The Child merch is already white hot, but zero-G indicators of past have also notably become hot ticket items following their trips to space. On SpaceX’s first human spaceflight mission, the Demo-2 test flight that took place earlier this year, a Ty Flippable dinosaur called ‘Tremor’ quickly flew off shelves following its own free-floating antics.


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SpaceX and NASA successfully launch four astronauts to space for first operational Dragon crew mission

SpaceX has become the first private company to launch astronauts to the International Space Station, marking the culmination of years of work in partnership with NASA on developing human spaceflight capabilities. At 7:27 PM EST (4:27 PM PST), NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Michael Hopkins, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi left launch pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS.

SpaceX’s human launch program was developed under the Commercial Crew program, which saw NASA select two private companies to build astronaut launch systems for carrying astronauts to the ISS from U.S. soil. SpaceX was chosen alongside Boeing by NASA in 2014 to create their respective systems, and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket became the first to achieve actual human flight certification from NASA earlier this year with the successful completion of its final, Demo-2 test mission, which flew to the ISS with two U.S. astronauts on board.

To get to this point, SpaceX had to complete a number of milestones successfully, including a fully automated uncrewed ISS rendez-vous mission, and a demonstration of both a launch pad abort and post-launch abort emergency safety system for the protection of the crew. During the Demo-1 mission, while all actual launch, docking and landing was handled by SpaceX’s fully autonomous software and navigation, astronauts also took over manual control briefly to demonstrate that this human-piloted backup would operate as intended, if required.

So far, Crew-1 is proceeding as expected, with a picture-perfect takeoff from Florida, and a successful recovery of the first-stage booster used on the Falcon 9 rocket used to launch Dragon. Crew Dragon ‘Resilience’ also departed from the second-stage of the Falcon 9 as planned at just after 10 minutes after liftoff, and there will be a 27 hour trip in orbit before the Dragon meets up with the ISS for its docking, which is scheduled to take place at around 11 PM EST (8 PM PST) on Monday night. Once fully docked, the astronauts will disembark and go over to the station to begin their active duty stay, which is set to last until next June.

From left, the crew of Crew-1: NASA’s Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins; JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi Image Credits: SpaceX

Three of the four astronauts on this mission have been to space previously, but for pilot Victor Glover, it’s his first time. These four will join NASA’s Kate Rubins, and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov on the station, bringing the total staff complement to seven (an increase from its usual six that NASA says will free up more time for the astronauts to perform experiments, as opposed to their tasks related to regular daily maintenance of the station).

This is the first time that astronauts have launched to space during a regular operational NASA mission since the end of the Shuttle program in 2011. It marks an official return of U.S. human spaceflight capabilities, and should hopefully become the first in many human flight missions undertaken by SpaceX and Dragon – across both NASA flights, and those organized by commercial customers.


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Boston startups expand region’s venture capital footprint

This year has shaken up venture capital, turning a hot early start to 2020 into a glacial period permeated with fear during the early days of COVID-19. That ice quickly melted as venture capitalists discovered that demand for software and other services that startups provide was accelerating, pushing many young tech companies back into growth mode, and investors back into the check-writing arena.

Boston has been an exemplar of the trend, with early pandemic caution dissolving into rapid-fire dealmaking as summer rolled into fall.

We collated new data that underscores the trend, showing that Boston’s third quarter looks very solid compared to its peer groups, and leads greater New England’s share of American venture capital higher during the three-month period.

For our October look at Boston and its startup scene, let’s get into the data and then understand how a new cohort of founders is cropping up among the city’s educational network.

A strong Q3, a strong 2020

Boston’s third quarter was strong, effectively matching the capital raised in New York City during the three-month period. As we head into the fourth quarter, it appears that the silver medal in American startup ecosystems is up for grabs based on what happens in Q4.

Boston could start 2021 as the number-two place to raise venture capital in the country. Or New York City could pip it at the finish line. Let’s check the numbers.

According to PitchBook data shared with TechCrunch, the metro Boston area raised $4.34 billion in venture capital during the third quarter. New York City and its metro area managed $4.45 billion during the same time period, an effective tie. Los Angeles and its own metro area managed just $3.90 billion.

In 2020 the numbers tilt in Boston’s favor, with the city and surrounding area collecting $12.83 billion in venture capital. New York City came in second through Q3, with $12.30 billion in venture capital. Los Angeles was a distant third at $8.66 billion for the year through Q3.

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Max Q: NASA makes key discovery for future of deep space exploration

Max Q is a weekly newsletter from TechCrunch all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.

This past week, we unveiled the agenda for TC Sessions: Space for the first time. It’s our inaugural event focused on space startups and related technologies, and it’s happening December 16 and 17. It’s entirely virtual, of course, and the good news is that means you can attend easily from anywhere in the world.

We’ve got an amazing lineup, including newsmakers we regularly cover here. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will be there, as well as U.S. Space Force commanding office Jay Raymond, and Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck, to name just a few. Tickets are available now, so sign up ASAP to get the best price possible.

SpaceX launched 120 Starlink satellites last week alone

SpaceX launched not one, but two separate Falcon 9 rockets loaded with Starlink satellites for its broadband internet service last week. The first took off on October 19, then just five days later, another full complement reached orbit. SpaceX has now launched nearly 1,000 of these, and it must be getting awfully close to kicking off its public beta of the consumer-facing internet service.

NASA snags rock sample from asteroid’s surface

OSIRIS-REx probe 'tagging' the surface of asteroid Bennu

Image Credits: NASA

NASA has managed to collect a sample from the surface of an asteroid in a first for the agency. The sample collection came courtesy of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx robotic exploration probe, which was built by partner Lockheed Martin. OSIRIS-REx still has some work to do at Bennu, the asteroid from which it collected the sample, but next year it’ll begin heading back with its precious cargo intended for study by scientists here on Earth.

NASA also found water on the sunny side of the moon

NASA is full of special discoveries this week — scientists working on its SOFIA imaging project confirmed the presence of water on the surface of the moon that’s exposed to sunlight. They’d suspected it was there, but this is the first confirmed proof, and while it isn’t a whole lot of water, it could still change the future of human deep space exploration.

NASA discovers water on the surface of the sunlit portion of the moon


Microsoft partners with SpaceX, unveils ‘Azure Space’

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft looks primed to invest in space-based business in a big way with Azure Space, a new business unit it formed to handle all space-related businesses attached to its cloud data efforts. That includes a new type of deployable mobile data center that will be connected in part via SpaceX’s Starlink global broadband network, putting computing power near where it’s needed in a scalable way.

Intel’s local AI processor is now operating in space

Intel has loaded up a small satellite with a power-efficient edge AI processor, its Myriad 2 Vision Processing Unit. That’ll help the satellite do its own on-board classification of images of Earth that it takes, saving key bandwidth for what it transfers back to researchers on the ground. Local AI could help satellite networks in general operate much more efficiently, but it’s still in its infancy as a field.

Intel is providing the smarts for the first satellite with local AI processing on board


Lockeed Martin selects Relativity for NASA mission

Image Credits: Relativity Space

Relativity Space has tons of promise in terms of its 3D-printed rockets, but it still hasn’t actually reached the launch stage. It did however secure a key government contract, with Lockheed Martin selecting its rocket for a forthcoming mission to test fluid management systems for NASA.

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Here’s what Virgin Orbit hopes to achieve with their first full orbital test launch on Sunday

Virgin Orbit held a press briefing on Saturday hosted by CEO Dan Hart and VP of Special Projects Will Pomerantz. The company aims to fly its first ever orbital test launch on Sunday, at roughly 9:30 AM PT (12:30 PM ET), though there’s flexibility for that to move depending on preparations and weather. If it succeeds with this test, it’ll join an elite club of private spaceflight companies that have actually made it to orbit – but that’s not the only measure of success for Virgin for tomorrow’s test run.

Hart and Pomerantz took journalists through the flight plan and different scenarios of what could happen, tempering expectations by reminding those on the call that “about half” of a company’s first full flights fail. While Pomerantz pointed out the failure rate, he was also quick to note that he’s extremely proud of the work the Virgin Orbit team has done to date, and has confidence in their skill sand abilities.

“You essentially get to a point where you have looked under every rock and verify that there’s nothing more for you to do to verify that the system is ready,” Pomerantz said. “That’s what we have done. We’ve ygone through an enormous amount of tests, we’ve essentially done everything that we can think of that we should do including fill the rocket up with cryogenics and fuel and pressure and and fly it out to the drop.”

The point Pomerantz makes is one that comes up often in rocket and spaceflight vehicle development – you can test systems individually, run simulations, and prepare as much as you possibly can, but nothing quite compares to actually flying the full system as it’s intended to fly under real-world conditions.

Virgin Orbit expects to begin fueling the rocket very early on Sunday morning, and as mentioned it’s targeting 9:30 AM PT (12:30 PM ET) for the actual launch, though it has a couple of hours of flexibility after that point in case things need to move. From there, the company’s Cosmic Girl launcher, which is modified Boeing 747 aircraft that carries its LauncherOne rocket, will fly for about 45 minutes to an hour to reach the drop point at around 35,000 feet. That’s when the rocket will separate, and ignite its own engine and continue – hopefully all the way to space, though Virgin will be monitoring its performance and conditions and could stop short of actual orbit depending on how the launch is proceeding.

From the drop point, Cosmic Girl will return to its runway at the Mojave Air and Spaceport in California, where it should land roughly 30 minutes after releasing LauncherOne. The whole point of the launch is to gather more data for ensuring that each part of the process works as designed once the launch vehicles graduate to operational status, and Hart explained.

“The purpose of this flight is to incrementally test the rocket and the airplane and the system as we pass through the operation,” Hart said. We will be loading and learning as we go through the day. So we’ll be getting data on our load sequence, our captured carry flight out, and the full flight of the rocket after it drops through first stage flight, separation, second stage flight, and so forth and so on. And we have telemetry stations around the world to capture the data as it comes down. The data, for tomorrow, is the product of that flight.”

The results of this flight will inform Virgin Orbit’s go-forward strategy, which includes hopefully flying one to two more times this year, which Pomerantz pointed out is actually fairly aggressive in terms of goals relative to other new spacecraft developed in past. Then they’ll also look to fly around twice as many times in 2021.

Asked about their market fit, Hart pointed out that he doesn’t believe the small satellite industry is still well-served in terms of a range of flexible offerings, noting that ride share missions often leave spacecraft in less than optimal orbits, where they either just operate in a compromised fashion or have to rely on an in-space bus to carry them the rest of the way. Virgin Orbit aims to be affordable enough that small satellite clients can use it to take them exactly where they need to go. He also added that because of the design of its in-air launcher, it’s flexible in terms of launch sites, which basically means it can take off and fly a mission from wherever a Boeing 747 can operate – which definitely isn’t true of any traditional rocket operator.

As Hart also noted, the number of companies that are actually flying to space and delivering payloads on behalf of customers is still tiny – there are a lot of companies working towards that goal, but few who’ve actually succeeded, even in a test mission. Virgin Orbit could join that elite club tomorrow – provided everything goes well.


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Watch live as ULA launches a U.S. military spaceplane for its first Space Force mission

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is targeting a liftoff time of 9:14 AM EDT (6:14 AM PDT) today for an Atlas V rockets carrying the Boeing-built X-37B orbital test vehicle on behalf of the U.S. space force, which is an autonomous winged spaceplane that looks a little like a scaled down version of the Space Shuttle .

This is the sixth mission for the X-37B, though it’s the first flown under the U.S. Space Force’s supervision, since the space plane was previously operated by the Air Force before the formation of the new wing of the U.S. armed forces.

The X-37B runs various missions for the U.S., though its specific aims are actually classified. The uncrewed test vehicle spends long periods on orbit circling the Earth while conducting these missions, with its longest mission to date being a record 780 days for its flight that landed on October 27.

This launch was rescheduled from Saturday, due to poor weather conditions, and its delay means that the SpaceX Starlink mission that was scheduled to take off from Kennedy in Florida today is now pushed out to Tuesday, due to a tropical storm that looks to be developing on Monday at its original backup date.


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SpaceX aborts launch attempt of sixth batch of Starlink satellites due to engine power issue

SpaceX was attempting to launch its sixth batch of Starlink internet broadband satellites, but the launch was aborted when the countdown timer reached zero. On the live feed of the launch, SpaceX engineers were heard to cite a “launch abort on high engine power,” and the announcer presenting the webcast said that it was indeed an abort related to Merlin engine power, and SpaceX later provided added detail, including that the sequence was auto-aborted by its system.

The announcer noted that the “vehicle appears to be in good health,” which SpaceX later confirmed, which should bode well for resetting for another attempt. SpaceX has a backup opportunity on Monday, but the actual next launch attempt is still to be determined, likely as SpaceX investigates and learns more about what exactly was behind the engine power issue and when it makes sense to try again, given conditions on the launch range.

Standing down today; standard auto-abort triggered due to out of family data during engine power check. Will announce next launch date opportunity once confirmed on the Range

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 15, 2020

This would’ve been a record fifth flight for the Falcon 9 booster used in this launch, as well as a first re-use of the fairing that protects the cargo. SpaceX has advised that it’ll reveal when it’ll make its net launch attempt once it can confirm those details, and we’ll provide that info once available.


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Sensors are the next big thing in space, not starships

Understanding the opportunities available in the space industry — especially for early-stage companies and new founders — isn’t easy.

The pool of people who have deep aerospace technical expertise isn’t huge, and like any community that requires a high degree of specialist knowledge, it’s a tightly-knit field that relies on social connections. But space is increasingly opening up, and we’ve already reached a point where the most valuable new entrants might come from industries that aren’t specifically aerospace or aerospace-adjacent.

In fact, we could be reaching a stage where the parts of the space industry requiring actual rocket scientists are more or less saturated, while the real boon is set to come from crossover talent that develops new ways to leverage innovations in other areas on space-based operating platforms.

“We have enough low-Earth launch vehicles, we have enough rockets,” Bessemer VP Tess Hatch told me in an interview at the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference last month. “In 2020, we have even more coming online and a lot of the ‘fantasy’ ones [an industry term used to describe spacecraft that have been conceived and designed but not yet flown] are planning to launch, and I think maybe one of them will come to fruition.”

Hatch says she still sees much of the demand side of the industry cluster around existing and proven suppliers, even if new entrants, including Astra and Firefly, actually begin flying their rockets this year, as both have been planning. Companies like Rocket Lab (in which her company has a stake) will increase their volume and cadence and benefit from having a proven track record, taking up a lot of the growth in launch vehicle demand. “I don’t think there’s room for any more rockets in the industry,” she said.

Instead, Hatch is looking to payload variety and innovation as the next big thing in space tech. Satellites are becoming increasingly commoditized, and companies like Rocket Lab are looking to take this further by providing a satellite platform (Proton) as part of its launch offering. There’s still immaturity in the small-satellite supply chain, which is what led small-satellite operator Kepler to build its own, but the bigger opportunity isn’t in building satellites — it’s in equipping them with new, improved and radically redesigned sensors to gather new kinds of data and provide new kinds of services.

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