ON MAY 6TH SpaceX, a private rocketry firm founded by Elon Musk, an internet entrepreneur, celebrated its 17th birthday. Despite being old enough …
ON MAY 6TH SpaceX, a private rocketry firm founded by Elon Musk, an internet entrepreneur, celebrated its 17th birthday. Despite being old enough to drive, the firm is still occasionally described as a startup. In reality, its ability to slash the cost of rocketry has given it a bulging order book and made it a pillar of the satellite-launch market.
But Mr Musk has not lost his appetite for adventure. On May 15th, assuming the weather holds, the firm will launch one of its Falcon rockets with an unusual payload. Instead of carrying another company’s satellites, it will be packed full of dozens of small satellites of SpaceX’s own design. They are prototypes for a project called Starlink, the intention of which is to deploy thousands of satellites in orbits close to Earth to provide internet access anywhere and everywhere on the surface of the planet—including to the estimated 3.5bn people who currently lack regular, high-quality connectivity.
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Communication satellites are not a new idea. But most existing ones orbit far above Earth’s surface, in so-called geostationary orbits at a height of about 36,000km. That is the magic altitude at which a satellite orbits as fast as Earth rotates, and thus appears to hang fixed in the sky when seen from the ground. Starlink satellites, by contrast, will fly in three sets of orbits at roughly 340km, 550km and 1,200km.
That will make things complicated. For one thing, Starlink will need a lot of satellites. The firm has said the system should be able to begin commercial service with around 800 of them. But applications filed with the Federal Communication Commission, an American regulator, suggest the firm may eventually be planning nearly 12,000. That is more than twice as many satellites as are currently in orbit (5,101 according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs), and almost half as many again as the total number of objects—8,539—sent into orbit since the dawn of the Space Age.
Low orbits mean that antennas on the ground must be able to track different satellites rapidly as they appear over the horizon and then vanish again. SpaceX has lodged plans for a million such ground stations. The satellites, meanwhile, must be able to hand customers off quickly to one another. (They are designed to communicate with each other via lasers.) Both of these things will be tricky. Flying low has benefits, though. The strength of a radio signal falls with the square of its distance, which means that communicating with Starlink will use a fraction of the energy needed to talk to high-flying geostationary comsats. And flying low reduces signal latency. The speed of light means that talking via a geostationary satellite imposes a delay of around half of a second.
For some applications, such as voice calls, low latency is nice. For others, such as remote manipulation of machinery, it is vital. Mark Handley, a computer scientist at University College, London, who has done modelling studies of how Starlink might work, thinks financial traders could be one lucrative market. Since light moves faster in a vacuum than through glass, SpaceX’s network might provide quicker connections than the fibre-optic cables that currently carry most internet traffic, opening up new possibilities for arbitrage. At the same time, SpaceX is working on huge rockets that, if and when they fly, could help drive launch costs down even further.
It is not the only firm with ambitions to beam the internet from the sky. OneWeb, a company founded in 2012 and now part-owned by Airbus, a European aerospace firm, and SoftBank, a Japanese conglomerate, wants to do something similar. OneWeb launched six satellites in February, and expects that its finished constellation will contain about 900 of them. Amazon, Samsung, Boeing and others have toyed with similar plans, though they exist mostly on paper for now.
Whether any of this will actually happen is, of course, the biggest question of all. The idea is not new, says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and satellite-watcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, in Massachusetts. In the 1990s three firms—Iridium, Globalstar and Teledesic—tried something similar, albeit with fewer satellites. The satellites worked, but were expensive and slow, with limited capacity. And clunky hardware was needed on the ground to connect with them. The dotcom bust in 2000, says Dr McDowell, brought an end to their dreams of truly global internet access. Second time lucky?
While most companies are attempting to find sui table metal-rich NEAs, PlanetaryResources has selected the ones rich in hydrated clay minerals and …
Elon Musk does it again. On March 2, the co-founder of electric car maker Tesla Inc, sends an unmanned space-craft Crew Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS), located 400 km above the Earth surface just at the edge of outer space. It autonomously docks with ISS, stays connected to it for five days orbiting the planet at 27,600 km per hour, delivers food and drink packages to the crew and returns home safely, with a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) described the smooth plunge as a “major milestone” and Crew Dragon as the “first American spacecraft to autonomously dock” with the orbiting laboratory. The success has brought Musk’s 16-year-old firm SpaceX a step closer to commercial human spaceflight. Crew Dragon will fly again in July with NASA astronauts on board.
Three other aerospace manufacturers—the world’s oldest and largest Boeing; Virgin Galactic of business magnate Richard Branson; and Blue Origin of Amazon’s owner Jeff Bezos—are vying to make history as the first private companies to launch commercial passengers into space. Musk’s success may have sent jitters among them. But before they could come to terms with it, on April 11 the serial entrepreneur launched the world’s most powerful operational rocket, aptly named Falcon Heavy, from the coast of Florida in its first ever mission for a paying customer and delivered a pricey communications satellite into orbit for Saudi Arabiabased firm Arabsat. It was also the first time SpaceX managed to land all the three rocket boosters (or engines) after launch. Traditionally, these boosters, referred to as the first-stage in a multi-stage launch vehicle, would burn up on reentry to Earth after powering the payload to go beyond the Earth-orbit. But boosters represent some 80 per cent of the launch cost of Falcon Heavy; 60 per cent in case of a medium-lift launch vehicle Falcon 9, Musk says. The nose cone, or fairing, that protects payload during launch, was also recovered. SpaceX plans to refurbish and reuse the two boosters that landed on terra firma and the fairing in an upcoming mission.
With the ultra-powerful usable rocket and confidence, SpaceX is now ready to compete directly with its rivals, particularly the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for lucrative government contracts that require heavy-lift launch vehicles. In fact, SpaceX has already made its intent clear. Its website claims that “Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy (of ULA), at one-third the cost.” As per news website Space.com, Falcon Heavy flights cost SpaceX customers between US$ 90 million and $150 million; Delta IV Heavy costs $350 million.
In fact, SpaceX has offered NASA to ferry its astronauts to and from ISS at $44.4 mil lion per seat, nearly 40 per cent discount to what Boeing has offered for CST-100 Star- liner, whose test-flight has now been delayed by months. Both Crew Dragon and Starliner are being developed under a 2014 contract with NASA which depends on Russia’s Soyuz spacecrafts after the retirement of its Space Shuttle in 2011 and pays Russian agency ROSCOSMOS more than $80 million per seat. This is double of what SpaceX has to offer.
WELCOME TO SPACE RACE 2.0
It is nothing like the race during the Cold War, which began between the US and the then Soviet Union, with the latter launching the first satellite Sputnik in 1957. The race had ended over one-and-a-half decade later with the US’ Apollo 11 landing the first person on Moon and a “handshake in space” between commanders of Soyuz and Apollo. The latest round is much like a contest witnessed during the California gold rush in the mid-1800s; the euphoria experienced at the beginning of the age of oil; and the disruptive innovations witnessed with the advent of Internet in the 1990s. Individuals and enterprises flush with funds are the key players this time. They are betting on a future in which space is more accessible, enjoyable and exploitable, and public trips to Mars and back are a reality.
“This is the dawn of the entrepreneurial space age,” says Chad Anderson, chief exe cutive officer of Space Angels, a financial services company that manages investme nts in space ventures. From the launch of Sputnik until 2009, there were just two dozen privately funded space companies globally. Then, in July 2009 SpaceX laun ched its first commercial payload—a 50-kg Earth observation satellite for Malaysia. This was a key milestone for entrepreneurial efforts in space. With low prices and trans parent pricing, SpaceX undeniably increa sed access to the space economy for new entrants, says Anderson. An analysis by Space Angels shows over the past eight years the number of privately funded space companies has grown to 435 with some $20.4 billion of private equity capital invested into them. Things have accelerated in the past four years, with 79 per cent of the $20.4 billion invested between 2015 and March of 2019. In fact, the investment in the first quarter of 2019 is nearly double the amount deployed in the last quarter of 2018.
Space economy now includes everythi ng from launch and satellites (both hard ware for data sourcing and software for data analytics and applications), to industrials (extractives and manufacturing), logistics (situational awareness, debris mitigation, on-orbit servicing), biospheres (habitats and life support systems), interplanetary (deep space technologies), information and resea rch, and media and education. “Almost 41 per cent of the Top 100 firms now have at least one space investment,” says Anderson.
All these investments have led to a significant progress in launch capacities. “Some fifty years after the advent of the Space Age, no one ever had flown a rocket past the edge of space and landed it vertically. Now it had been performed twice in less than a month,” writes Christian Daven port in The Space Baron: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cos mos, referring to the test flights Musk and his fellow space entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, till then known only as the founder of Amazon, conducted in 2015 to develop usable rockets. “If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionise access to space,” says Musk.
SpaceX is developing a fully reusable spacecraft and launch vehicle, Starship and Super Heavy, which it hopes to use in Mars missions by 2024. The system is the full-scale steel avatar of SpaceX’s ambitious BFR spacecraft. BFR was being built using carbon fibre as the heat shield to protect the spacecraft from damage during orbital reentry. But in March this year, SpaceX destroyed BFR prototype and the project, worth several million of dollars. According to Teslarati.com, a media platform that publishes news only related to Musk’s ventures, a flood of SpaceX engineers and technicians are building the first prototypes of Starship in Boca Chica coast of Dominican Republic. “Super Heavy booster is stainless steel. Since it only goes to around Mach 8 or 9 (Mach 1 equals speed of sound), moreover at high altitude, it needs no heat shield, not even paint,” reads a Tweet by Musk.
Bezos has already developed a fully reusable rocket, New Shepard, capable of vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing. But it is a suborbital rocket and can only go past the Kármán line—internationally recognised space boundary at 300 km below ISS. To achieve his vision of millions “living and working in space”, the world’s wealthiest man is now developing New Glenn. Last year, Bezos said he would sell over $1 billion worth of Amazon stocks to fund New Glenn.
The results are already showing. By 2040, the world would record 10 launches of satellites a week, with the launch cost of each satellite reduced to $29 million from $80 million now, shows a 2017 estimate by multinational financial services company Morgan Stanley (see ‘Launch grows…’, p34). This will enable private launch providers to fine-tune their technology and reach full system reusability in the years ahead.
But why are these billionaires pushing the envelope? Stephen Hawking believed that humans need to leave Earth to avoid annihilation caused by either a nuclear war, climate change or asteroid collision. So are these dreamchasers working on a backup plan for the human race, or is it part of their business strategy? An analysis of projects suggests that they may actually be prepa ring for a future when Earth would run out of resources to sustain life.
THE IDEA OF EXPLOITING celestial resources is older than any space exploration programme. In 1903 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Russian scientist and pioneer of astronautic theory, mentioned in The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices, “exploitation of asteroi ds” should be one of the reasons for the conquest of space. Though NASA has been studying soil samples of Moon for decades, mining in space captured public imagina tion at the turn of the 2010s when Japan’s Hayabusa landed on an asteroid and returned with 1,000 dust grains, rich in minerals. Soon private companies vied for the riches, with Planetary Resources announcing that it wants “to expand Earth’s natural resource base”.
Several others, particularly those in the space technology sector, drew up plans to get into the game.
Geolosists say asteroids are pristine relics from the early solar system. They not only hold clues to the evolution of Earth but also vast reserves of metals and minerals, particularly gold, platinum and alloys that are needed to produce modern technologies such as smartphones. The 200-km-wide 16 Psyche, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, could contain enough nickel and iron to cover the current human demand for millions of years. Rock fragments on asteroids, whose strength is similar to concrete and has allowed them to exist for billions of years, could also provide logistical support for future habitations on Mars.
As of now near Earth asteroids (NEA) appear to be the suitable candidates for first mining incursion outside the planet. While most companies are attempting to find sui table metal-rich NEAs, Planetary Resources has selected the ones rich in hydrated clay minerals and plans to embark on an explora tion programme to unlock the reserve. “Water, when broken down into the elements Hydrogen and Oxygen, is rocket fuel, curre ntly the best way to get around the Solar System,” says Akshay Patel of Planetary Resources. “Just as economic activity on Earth is enabled by fossil fuels, in space, we will have a water-based economy.”
Asteroid miners hope to set up fuel stations in low-Earth orbit and the asteroid belt so that spacecraft can fill up on their way to outer planets of the solar system. Currently, fuel accounts for 90 per cent of the weight of modern rockets which adds to the launch cost. Besides, water would be required for human habitation. It can also be used to insulate spacecrafts from the harmful solar or cosmic radiation in space, particularly in Mars. These radiations can penetrate human body and damage tissues. Right now, it costs $9,000-$43,000 to send a bottle of water into space, and hence it is recycled at ISS. Planetary Resources says 16,000 NEAs are rich in resources and hold 2 trillion tonnes of water. Asterank, a scientific and economic database of 600,000 asteroids which has now been acquired by Planetary Resources, says prospectors can earn over $100 trillion from most asteroids.
The prospect of the most lucrative business has already prompted governments to change laws. In 2015, then US president Barack Obama signed a space law, which allows companies to own the materials they mine from bodies in space. Two years later, Luxembourg passed a similar law and set up a line of credit for space entrepreneurs.
It now wants to accelerate collaborations between investors and governments. In March this year, Russia has extended its cooperation to the tiny European country for mining in space.
DATA IS THE OTHER lucrative market. “Satellite broadband is the sector of space economy that’s about to take off”—that’s what Morgan Stanley told investors at the end of 2017. The bank predicts that the space economy will triple to over $1 trillion by 2040, and most of the value will be linked to satellite-enabled broadband internet access. For instance, today’s global space economy is dominated by consumer TV; in 2040, it will be driven by consumer broadband. This exponentially growing demand for data is driven not only by half of the world’s population who do not have internet access, but also by upcoming technologies, such as autonomous cars, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the growth of video (see ‘Data to steal…’,).
In fact, the battle for the next generation of satellite communications is heating up, with SpaceX and OneWeb, veterans of new space age, being the main recipients of capital in the first quarter of 2019, says Space Angels. In March, Bezos’ Amazon confirmed that it would soon join the competition with Project Kuiper, which would put 3,236 satellites into orbit to provide high-speed internet to any point on the globe. “We are bringing a huge vehicle with a lot of capability,” Blue Origin’s Vice-President Clay Mowry said during the announcement, referring to New Glenn. Soon Musk took to Twitter and called Bezos a copycat!
COPYCAT OR NOT, no one wants to be left behind in this latest round of space race, which holds innumerable economic opportunities. One such is space tourism which has had false dawns before. SpaceX has signed up Yusaku Maezawa, founder of Japanese e-commerce giant Zozo, for a trip around the Moon in 2023. Maezawa has already made a substantial down payment. When travel to Mars becomes possible, Musk says it would cost about $500,000 or, maybe, $100,000. Blue Origin plans to offer 11-minute suborbital flights on its six-seater New Shepard capsule. Though it is yet to announce the ticket price, Virgin Galactic has offered thrill rides featuring majestic views of the Earth capped by a few minutes of weightlessness for $250,000 a seat, and has sold 600 tickets. Its SpaceShipTwo is scheduled to fly in July.
But what if one could stay in space for a bit longer! Several lesser-known billionaires are working in that direction too. One such is American hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow who in 2016 created history by installing an inflatable orbital habitat, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), that remains attached to ISS. Last year, the 73-year-old billionaire unveiled his plans for the first space hotel and said he is creating a line of “autonomous standalone space stations” that can function as space hotels both at the low Earth orbit or in the cislunar orbit (region within the Moon’s orbit). Axiom Space, run by former NASA ISS programme manager Mike Suffredini, is also working on his designer-space station that could go aloft around 2023 or 2024.
The excitement and prospects created by these disruptors have upended the way space industry and economy worked, just till two decades ago. A few governments that remained outside the old space player league are now setting up space agencies—over 25 countries have established space agencies since 2000; a dozen of them after 2010—and joining hands with private firms. While most are focusing on sending satellites, the fledgling Australian Space Agency, set up last year, aims to leverage the country’s skills in mining its Mars-like landscape to triple the size of the sector to $8.5 billion by 2030. It seems a level playing field is now ready for the space race.
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Conceptually equivalent to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, Beta would use three Alpha boosters and a significantly upgraded second stage and would be …
This is a free preview of DeepSpace, Teslarati’s new member-only weekly newsletter. Each week, I’ll be taking a deep-dive into the most exciting developments in commercial space, from satellites and rockets to everything in between. Sign up for Teslarati’s newsletters here to receive a preview of our membership program.
In the race to a field dedicated smallsat launch vehicles, New Zealand startup Rocket Lab has already won first place, a fact that has been discussed several times in past Deep Space issues. After completing its first launch of 2019 on March 28th, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is ready for another mission as early as May 4th, a good sign for the company’s planned monthly launch cadence.
Despite Rocket Lab’s major success, there is plenty of room for additional competitors and/or complementary vehicles. Electron’s maximum payload hovers around ~225 kg (500 lb) to low Earth orbit (LEO), limiting its usefulness for any payloads that are larger than truly tiny satellites or in need of higher orbits. Also discussed on DeepSpace, there are 10+ serious startups with funding and hardware in work attempting to build said smallsat launch vehicles, ranging from the extremely tiny (Vector: 60 kg to LEO) to much larger rockets from companies like Relativity, ABL Space, and more. Firefly Space, however, is the startup that has arguably broken away from the pack in the last few months, firmly setting itself up to be second in line behind Rocket Lab.
Build, test, qualify
Firefly’s major leaps forward came in December 2018 and then April 2019, both related to testing the completed upper stage of the company’s Alpha rocket.
In December, the upper stage ignited for the first time. In April, the same upper stage successfully performed a mission-duration static fire that lasted a full 300 seconds (five minutes), the same length required for a rocket to reach orbit after separating from Alpha’s first stage.
For any launch vehicle development program, the first successful mission-duration test fire of an integrated rocket stage is arguably one of the most important milestones, second only to the same hardware’s inaugural launch.
Simultaneously, Firefly began integrated testing of the thrust section and Reaver engines that will be the basis of Alpha’s first stage. The rocket’s Lightning second stage engine has been tested extensively at this point in development, although the stage’s lone engine produces a maximum of ~70 kN (~16,000 lbf) of thrust.
The booster’s four Reaver engines will each produce ~170 kN (55,000 lbf) of thrust, around three times as much as Lightning. Alpha’s second stage is critical, but its first stage is arguably far more complex.
Despite the relative power differential, it’s still worth noting that Alpha’s entire first stage (736 kN/166,000 lbf) will be significantly less powerful than a single one of Falcon 9’s nine Merlin 1D engines (941 kN/212,000 lbf).
Although Alpha is far smaller than rockets like Falcon 9 or Atlas V, it will nominally be capable of launching 1000 kg to an altitude of 200 km (LEO) or ~650 kg to a 500-km sun-synchronous orbit (SSO). This translates to around 4.2X the performance of Rocket Lab’s Electron at 2.5X the cost per launch ($15M vs $6M).
Assuming no payload capacity is wasted, Alpha could thus be almost 50% cheaper than Electron when judged by cost per kilogram to orbit.
Of course, this comparison ignores the fact that Firefly will have to far more heavily rely on booking co-passenger satellites to keep Alpha launch prices competitive with Electron.
If exactly 1000kg or 630kg of cargo can’t be booked each launch, the expendable Alpha’s $15M launch cost will be distributed over less payload, raising costs for each customer. In other words, the competitive advantages of Alpha are almost entirely associated with its ability to launch payloads outside of Electron’s capabilities, as are its potential weaknesses.
Firefly Alpha’s upper stage qualification article (top) and a comparison of a variety of launch vehicles. (Teslarati)
The sweet spot
In theory, Firefly Alpha’s could find itself in a relatively sweet spot, where the rocket’s launch costs are not so high that dedicated rideshare missions become intractable (i.e. Spaceflight’s SSO-A launch on Falcon 9) but its payload performance is still good enough to provide access to a huge swath of the space launch market.
Firefly also has plans to develop a heavier launch vehicle based on Alpha, known as Beta. Conceptually equivalent to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, Beta would use three Alpha boosters and a significantly upgraded second stage and would be able to launch 4000 kg to LEO or 3000 kg to SSO.
Regardless of Firefly’s grander aspirations, Alpha is poised to capitalize on the simple fact that it will be the second commercially viable smallsat launch vehicle to begin operations. Alpha’s first orbital launch attempt could occur as early as December 2019, although slips into early 2020 are to be expected.
At that point, Rocket Lab’s Electron will be the only serious competition on the market. Relativity’s Terran and ABL Space’s RS-1 rockets plan to offer a competitive ~1250 kg to LEO or ~900 kg to SSO, but their launch debuts are tentatively scheduled no earlier than late 2020.
If Alpha’s development continues smoothly, Firefly could easily have a solid 12-month head start over its similarly-sized competitors,
Up next for Alpha is a similar campaign of tests focused on the first integrated booster, including tests fires and an eventual mission-duration qualification test.
SpaceX’s CRS-17 Cargo Dragon resupply mission has slipped an additional four days from April 30th to May 3rd (3:11 am EDT, 07:11 UTC) after the International Space Station (ISS) began suffering serious (but non-threatening) electrical issues. Additional launch delays could follow if the issue is not resolved in the next few days.
The first operational Starlink launch remains firmly on track for NET mid-May. According to SpaceX, all Flight 1 satellites are already in Florida, while the FCC approved the company’s modified constellation license – permitting Starlink operations after launch – on April 26th.
Due to CRS-17’s launch delays, the availability of SpaceX’s LC-40 pad will now likely be the main limiting factor for the Starlink-1 launch date.
SpaceX’s second West Coast launch of 2019 – carrying Canada’s Radarsat Constellation – is now expected to occur no earlier than mid-June and will reuse Falcon 9 B1051.
SpaceX’s launch of Spacecom’s Amos-17 spacecraft is now scheduled no earlier than July. Falcon Heavy Flight 3 is tentatively scheduled for launch as early as June 22 – all three boosters should be on site in Florida within the next week or two.
Photo of the Week:
The third Falcon Heavy center core – believed to be B1057 – was spotted eastbound in Arizona on April 16th. On April 26th, SpaceX confirmed that the booster completed its acceptance static fire test at the company’s McGregor, TX facilities, a sure sign that all of Falcon Heavy Flight 3’s major components should be in Florida within the next few weeks.
SpaceX’s plan is to develop a satellite constellation that offers a low-cost, high performance solution to providing fast internet access. It’s called Starlink and will consist of close to 12,000 satellites eventually, spread across multiple orbits. Until now, the FCC had approved 4,425 Starlink satellites for deployment in orbits ranging from 1,110 to 1,325 kilometers.
By lowering the orbit, SpaceX realized it could cut transmission latency to just 15 milliseconds while achieving the same amount of coverage using 16 fewer satellites. Any Starlink satellites that fail at this height will still burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, so there’s no additional risk of debris compared to satellites in higher orbits.
Rival satellite internet company OneWeb and satellite operator Kepler both filed complaints regarding SpaceX’s request for the orbit change. They argued interference would become a factor due to the similar frequencies being used across their satellites, but the FCC doesn’t believe it will cause a problem.
With the revised approval granted, SpaceX now has until March 29, 2024 to deploy half of the proposed 4,425 satellites. As with most ventures Elon Musk undertakes, he plans to easily beat the deadline and SpaceX apparently already has satellites ready at the launch site.