Solar-powered LightSail spacecraft is ready for its second flight

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The Planetary Society

When the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches this summer, it will carry the Planetary Society’s Carl Sagan-inspired LightSail 2. You may remember LightSail as a crowdfunded, experimental “solar sail.” The unique craft looks something like a giant kite, and it was envisioned as a way to guide satellites around space using energy from the sun, rather than chemical fuel. The first LightSail took flight in 2015, and now the Planetary Society is ready to launch LightSail 2, which has worked out a few bugs and will provide an opportunity to further test solar sailing.

While significant, the first LightSail flight did little more than prove the photon-powered craft was viable. This flight will take things a step further. The team plans to fly the craft in an orbit around the Earth and to test out its maneuverability. Ultimately, the Planetary Society hopes to use the LightSail to propel Cubesat satellites through space. “This is history in the making—LightSail 2 will fundamentally advance the technology of spaceflight,” said Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society.

The Falcon Heavy rocket is scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on June 24th in a four-hour window that begins at 11:30pm ET. If all goes according to plan, in addition to carrying LightSail 2, this will be Falcon Heavy’s first night launch.

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Astronomers fret over ‘debilitating threat’ of thousands of satellites cluttering the sky

The promise of today’s nascent communications satellite constellations is real: connecting everyone on the globe, no exceptions. But the dark side, or rather bright side, of these satellites threatens to pollute the sky with innumerable points of moving light. Astronomers warn that this may pose a “debilitating threat” if not addressed by regulators or industry.

The International Astronomical Union, a group of over ten thousand astronomers and researchers all over the world, issued a statement this week politely but firmly pointing out the risks of this “new and largely unregulated frontier of space utilisation.”

The problem is that we have graduated from an era where we were launching a satellite every month or so to one where dozens might be launched every week. The competing communications constellations from Starlink, OneWeb, and others will number in the tens of thousands once deployed, outnumbering by far every other satellite in the sky.

This isn’t a question of maybe seeing one little blip out of the corner of your eye — eventually there may be hundreds of these satellites visible at any given time from nearly anywhere on the planet.

Not only that, but these satellites are frequently in relatively low orbits, making them much more visible than distant geosynchronous ones like GPS satellites — not to mention they’re shiny, the IAU writes:

The surfaces of these satellites are often made of highly reflective metal, and reflections from the Sun in the hours after sunset and before sunrise make them appear as slow-moving dots in the night sky.

Are they visible to the naked eye? Depends on a lot of circumstances — the time of day, the position of the craft, the light pollution in your area, and so on. But it’s certainly possible. And astrophotographers and observatories have already noted the problem. You can see the trails of the Starlink satellites in the image at top, and photographer Xplode captured similar trails in this shot — if you look closely you can see there are lots.

High-powered telescopes and sensitive imaging devices are even more susceptible to the issue; the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope team said Starlink was merely a “nuisance,” but acknowledged that for others it may be a far greater threat, and referred to the IAU statement as more representative of the global community.

Naturally there are countermeasures — timing, postprocessing, and other tools for shooters and researchers who don’t want the satellites to interfere. But this will become progressively harder, even impossible for some surveys and exposures, as more satellites are deployed.

SpaceX (which runs Starlink) founder and CEO Elon Musk has tentatively addressed the issue online, promising the team will look into reducing the visibility of the satellites, but that may or may not amount to anything. Any modifications the company makes would be entirely voluntary.

In addition to the visual component, the satellites will be beaming strong radio signals towards the Earth, which can interfere with radio telescopes if the spectrum is not partitioned carefully. This is perhaps a more tractable problem but still must be considered.

This is another case where the industry has long since passed up the regulations that bind it. There’s simply no law against putting thousands of satellites into space — no upper limit on how many, or on how prominent they can be in the sky. The IAU begs that the powers that be look into it:

Satellite constellations can pose a significant or debilitating threat to important existing and future astronomical infrastructures, and we urge their designers and deployers as well as policy-makers to work with the astronomical community in a concerted effort to analyse and understand the impact of satellite constellations. We also urge appropriate agencies to devise a regulatory framework to mitigate or eliminate the detrimental impacts on scientific exploration as soon as practical.

At the speed new regulations are adopted, there will likely be hundreds more satellites in orbit before anything is done, but it’s important to pursue nevertheless. I’ve also asked the American Astronomical Society for their opinion on the topic, and will update this post if I hear back.

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Seraphim Space Camp launches its latest mission, with 7 SpaceTech startups

U.K. space accelerator Seraphim Space Camp appeared last year as the first ever UK SpaceTech accelerator and being, frankly, the only accelerator of its type, it has quickly shored-up a number of partnership links and hoovered up many of the startups in the… space.

As is traditional with accelerators, it’s unveiled its latest cohort of startups.

The “Mission 3” accelerator programme, consists of seven new startups and will be a nine-week programme, culminating in an Investor Day. The first two cohorts (16 companies) have, says Seraphim, now collectively raised or had offers of around £20m in private investment and grants over the last nine months and have created 58 job opportunities since completing the programme.

The initiative has a number of high profile partners such as MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Lab (Dstl), unmanned aircraft systems company AeroVironment, ground station services provider Kongsberg Satellite Services and leading satellite provided Eutelsat. They join returning partnersAirbus, Rolls-Royce, Dentons, Cyient, Inmarsat, the European Space Agency and SA Catapult.

Here’s a run-down of the companies in their own words:

aXenic is a global leader in the design, development and production of optical modulators for communications and sensing. It has developed a revolutionary optical modulator which is a vital component to transfer high quantities of data through satellite links. Its strongly patented solution is a fraction of the weight and size of existing solutions whilst still providing greater bandwidth.

ConstelIR (Fellowship) is a spin-out from Fraunhofer University. It is the first company to map precise on-earth temperatures from a constellation of satellites it plans to launch. This orbital temperature monitoring system will be 3% of the cost of existing solutions without losing measurement accuracy.

Hawa Dawa combines its proprietary IoT smart sensor data with other sources of data (including satellite data) to give highly accurate data on air quality. Within two years’ traction with Siemens, IBM, SwissCom, Swiss Pos as well as 8 cities in Germany demonstrates that the company’s end-to-end solution is really needed by the market.

Methera Global plans to launch a constellation flexible and dynamic satellites, focusing all of its bandwidth to a small area of target regions from multiple satellites. Providing an increase in capacity which is 10 times greater than planned systems, initial customers are the likes of emergency response services helping communities who don’t currently have access to the internet – 4B of the world’s population.

Trik is an enterprise drone 3D mapping software for structural inspection with a unique platform. Its platform transforms the data into a customisable 3D model which can be updated on a regular basis.

Xonaspace (Fellowship) uses an XPS and LEO satellite constellation for extremely precise GPS systems, with early end applications including autonomous vehicles

Veoware’s vision is to industrialise the space sector so that hardware, software and data become easily accessible and rapidly available for the benefit of humankind. This is made possible due to its team of world renowned experts with 100+ years of experience

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The world's largest plane took flight on Saturday and there are big plans for its future

This thing is a beast.
This thing is a beast.
Image: Matt Hartman / AP / Shutterstock

That’s one big plane. 

The Stratolaunch, the world’s largest aircraft that just so happens to be designed to “enable airline-style access to space,” successfully took flight for the first time in the Mojave Desert on April 13. The plane is the brainchild of Paul G. Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems Corporation, and sports an impressive 385-foot wingspan. 

That’s not all that makes this plane remarkable. According to the company, the Stratolaunch has a max takeoff weight of 589,670 kilograms and will one day assist in the launching of rockets — and satellites — into space. 

“We all know Paul would have been proud to witness today’s historic achievement,” Jody Allen, the trustee of the Paul G. Allen Trust, is quoted as saying in a press release announcing the launch. “The aircraft is a remarkable engineering achievement and we congratulate everyone involved.”

Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975. He died late in 2018 as a result of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Importantly, Saturday’s flight was just a test — no rockets were launched from the giant plane as it soared at 17,000 feet. Instead, notes the press release, the pilot “[performed] a variety of flight control maneuvers to calibrate speed and test flight control systems, including roll doublets, yawing maneuvers, pushovers and pull-ups, and steady heading side slips.”

Still though, if the Stratolaunch ends up working as intended, this test marks a big step in the journey toward reducing the cost of putting satellites into space. Which, frankly, makes this freakishly large plane all the cooler. 

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Space tech rockets higher

Venture investment in space technology is hitting stratospheric heights in recent quarters. But investors in the sector are betting it will rocket higher still.

The latest example of high-velocity funding is satellite internet startup OneWeb, which recently announced a galactic-sized $1.25 billion venture funding round in the wake of a successful launch. The financing, which included a long investor list featuring the ever spendy SoftBank, brought total funding for the Arlington, Va. company to a whopping $3.4 billion.

But OneWeb is far from the only space tech company to secure a big round recently. A Crunchbase News roundup of large investments in the sector unearthed a sizable list of companies attracting attention and big checks from venture capitalists, with at least a half dozen securing rounds of $50 million or more since 2018.

What’s the draw? Largely, it’s the oft-repeated tale of a startup sector seeing valuations rise as early-stage companies mature, said Chad Anderson, CEO of investor group Space Angels.

“The barriers to entry came down in 2009, when SpaceX provided increased access to space through low-cost launch and transparent pricing,” Anderson said. “We saw the first pioneering companies, like Planet [former Planet Labs]*, take advantage of that new access starting in 2013.”

Now, the crop of space tech companies that launched five or six years ago is middle-aged by startup standards and ripe for larger, later-stage rounds.

Economics of satellite design and launch have also become a lot more compelling for investors in recent years. Whereas satellites previously cost hundreds of millions (or even billions) to design, manufacture, and launch, today a small satellite can be built for tens of thousands of dollars and launched for a few hundred thousand dollars, Anderson said.

Venture capitalists seem to like that math. Over the past 10 calendar years, Space Angels estimates that venture capital funds have invested nearly $4.2 billion into space companies. Of that total, 70 percent was deployed in the last three calendar years.

More firms are getting into the space, as well. Currently, Anderson calculates that just over 40 percent of the Top 100 venture capital firms now have at least one space investment. Their investments are concentrated in two areas: satellites and launch technology, particularly for the small satellite space.

To get an idea of where the money is going, we put together a chart below showing the space tech companies that have secured some of the largest funding rounds since last year:

While space tech is generating a lot of venture investment, however, not a lot of startups have yet made it to exit. That’s not entirely surprising, if we presume that typical venture startup-to-exit timelines apply. If the current crop of funded startups launched in the 2013 time frame, we’d expect to see exits pick up in a few years.

It is worth noting, however, that the one most famous and pioneering of the current crop of venture-backed space companies, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has also stayed private. Certainly SpaceX has the name recognition and track record to support a blockbuster IPO.

Yet Anderson contends that’s unlikely to happen — at least not for a very long time. For one, Musk has laid out the company’s ultimate goal as colonizing Mars. That doesn’t jibe well with the typical public company duties, like meeting quarterly numbers. It doesn’t help that Musk has already gotten into hot water with regulators for his approach at Tesla.

Yet as SpaceX pursues its grand ambitions, the company has also served as a launchpad for a number of other space tech entrepreneurs — we put together a list of nine startups with a SpaceX alum as founder or core team member.

So while colonizing Mars remains a risky bet, the odds in favor of blockbuster space tech exits on Earth are getting a lot higher.

*Planet and SpaceX are Space Angels portfolio companies.

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