Space Force opens SpaceWERX technology accelerator in Los Angeles

by Sandra Erwin 

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Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics (left) and Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, announced Dec. 7 the opening of a SpaceWERX technology accelerator office that will work with commercial companies in the space industry. 

Lt. Gen. Thompson: SpaceWERX will “help us ensure the Space Force can tap into cutting edge space technologies.”

WASHINGTON — Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, announced Dec. 7 the opening of a technology accelerator office that will work with commercial companies in the space industry.

Known as SpaceWERX, the new organization will be the “space arm of AFWERX,” Roper said during a virtual event in a joint appearance with Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center. 

Thompson said SpaceWERX will be located at the SMC campus in Los Angeles and will be led by Lt. Col. Rock McMillan. 

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The plan to turn scrapped rockets into space stations

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Spent rockets are dangerous space trash, but they could be the future of living and working in orbit.

IN EARLY OCTOBER, a dead Soviet satellite and the abandoned upper stage of a Chinese rocket narrowly avoided a collision in low Earth orbit. If the objects had crashed, the impact would have blown them to bits and created thousands of new pieces of dangerous space debris. Only a few days prior, the European Space Agency had published its annual space environment report, which highlighted abandoned rocket bodies as one of the biggest threats to spacecraft. The best way to mitigate this risk is for launch providers to deorbit their rockets after they’ve delivered their payload. But if you ask Jeffrey Manber, that’s a waste of a perfectly good giant metal tube.

Manber is the CEO of Nanoracks, a space logistics company best known for hosting private payloads on the International Space Station, and for the past few years he has been working on a plan to turn the upper stages of spent rockets into miniature space stations. It’s not a new idea, but Manber feels its time has come. “NASA has looked at the idea of refurbishing fuel tanks several times,” he says. “But it was always abandoned, usually because the technology wasn’t there.” All of NASA’s previous plans depended on astronauts doing a lot of the manufacturing and assembly work, which made the projects expensive, slow, and hazardous. Manber’s vision is to create an extraterrestrial chop shop where astronauts are replaced by autonomous robots that cut, bend, and weld the bodies of spent rockets until they’re fit to be used as laboratories, fuel depots, or warehouses.

The Nanoracks program, known as Outpost, will modify rockets after they’re done with their mission to give them a second life. The first Outposts will be uncrewed stations made from the upper stages of new rockets, but Manber says it’s possible that future stations could host people or be built from rocket stages already in orbit. In the beginning, Nanoracks won’t use the interior of the rocket and will mount experiment payloads, power supply modules, and small propulsion units to the outside of the fuselage. Once company engineers have that figured out, they can focus on developing the inside of the rocket as a pressurized laboratory.

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Alphabet will use beams of light to deliver internet in Kenya

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The moonshot project has a new name, too.

 It’s been a while since we’ve heard about Alphabet’s Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC) project. If you’ve forgotten all about it, we don’t blame you: the acronym doesn’t stick in the mind quite like Google Fiber or Project Loon. To solve the problem, Alphabet’s ‘X’ division has renamed the initiative Project Taara. (I like it, though Project Tidal already starts with the letter ’T.’ If both moonshots ’graduate’ and become fully-fledged companies, one will have to rebrand or ruin Alphabet’s otherwise immaculate naming scheme.) It suggests that Google’s parent company now sees the technology, which uses laser-beaming boxes to deliver connectivity, as something that can eventually become a real business.

In a blog post, Taara general manager Mahesh Krishnaswamy announced that the team is formally working with telecoms giant Econet in Africa. It’s not clear, however, if any money is changing hands. Initially, Taara’s hardware will support Econet subsidiary Liquid Telecom in Kenya. It’s an obvious move given that the moonshot has already trialed its technology in the country, which followed pilots in Andhra Pradesh, a state in India.

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Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture fleshes out plans for 2023 cargo delivery to the moon

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An artist’s conception shows the human landing system that’s being developed by Blue Origin and its industry partners in the foreground, and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon cargo lander in the far background. (Blue Origin Illustration)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is working on a landing system that could put astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024 — but it’s also keeping its options open to deliver a ton of cargo to the lunar surface a year before that.

Blue Origin’s chief scientist, Steve Squyres, outlined the current state of plans for an Amazon-like cargo delivery to the moon today during a virtual symposium presented by the University of Washington’s Space Policy and Research Center.

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Small rocket company Rocket Lab aims for orbital reusability

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California-based Rocket Lab plans to make its orbital Electron rocket, pictured before a launch from New Zealand in June, reusable.

ORLANDO, Fla., Nov. 4 (UPI) — Small launch company Rocket Lab has a big agenda for the end of 2020, including plans for its first liftoff from U.S. soil and its first attempt to recover a first-stage booster after launch.

The California-based company, known for launching in New Zealand, is on target to tackle both goals this year, founder and CEO Peter Beck said in an interview Tuesday.

If Rocket Lab’s first launch from Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is successful, the company intends to launch regularly from that site.

“We have an agreement to fly 12 times a year from Virginia and we hope to fill those slots,” Beck said. “The pad and the integration facility will house multiple Electron rockets at the same time. Our facility there is designed for rapid response launches.”

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SpaceX Starlink : User terms of service declare Mars as ‘free planet’

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SpaceX has released its terms of service to beta testers, and it makes a strong statement about Mars’ future government.

STARLINK’S BETA TEST IS REQUIRING PARTICIPANTS TO RECOGNIZE MARS AS A “FREE PLANET.”

It’s an unusual bit of fine print, and the implications go far beyond securing good internet on Earth.

SpaceX’s internet connectivity constellation Starlink, which began forming in May 2019, has started inviting interested fans to the “Better Than Nothing” beta test. While the final version aims to offer gigabit download speeds at low latency to anyone with a view of the sky, the beta is offering more like 50 to 150 megabits per second – hence the humble-brag test name.

But the Starlink terms of service, as spotted by Twitter account “WholeMarsBlog” and confirmed by Reddit moderator “Smoke-away,” require users to agree that “no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities.”

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New nuclear engine concept could help realize 3-month trips to Mars

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The concept engine is twice as efficient as chemical rockets

Seattle-based Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies (USNC-Tech) has developed a concept for a new Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP) engine and delivered it to NASA. Claimed to be safer and more reliable than previous NTP designs and with far greater efficiency than a chemical rocket, the concept could help realize the goal of using nuclear propulsion to revolutionize deep space travel, reducing Earth-Mars travel time to just three months.

Because chemical rockets are already near their theoretical limits and electric space propulsion systems have such low thrust, rocket engineers continue to seek ways to build more efficient, more powerful engines using some variant of nuclear energy. If properly designed, such nuclear rockets could have several times the efficiency of the chemical variety. The problem is to produce a nuclear reactor that is light enough and safe enough for use outside the Earth’s atmosphere – especially if the spacecraft is carrying a crew.

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Satellites are mapping out every tree on earth using artificial intelligence

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Scientists have mapped 1.8 billion individual tree canopies across millions of kilometres of the Sahel and Sahara regions of West Africa. It is the first time ever that trees have been mapped in detail over such a large area.

So how was it possible? Researchers analysed a huge database of satellite images using artificial intelligence. They employed neural networks which are able to recognise objects, like trees, based on their shapes and colours.

To train it, the AI system was shown satellite images where trees had been manually traced. This involved lead author Martin Brandt going through the arduous process of identifying and labelling nearly 90,000 trees himself, beforehand.

From these images, the computer learnt what a tree looked like and could pick out individual canopies from the thousands of images in the database. Brandt says it would have taken millions of people years to identify the trees without the AI system.

In a review of the research, commissioned by Nature, scientists at New Mexico State University wrote that “it will soon be possible, with certain limitations, to map the location and size of every tree worldwide”

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For the first time in its history, NASA successfully collects sample from asteroid

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Touchdown!

For the first time in its history, NASA has successfully collected samples from the surface of an asteroid, using the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Tuesday.

The small spacecraft has been orbiting Bennu, an asteroid 500 meters across, for almost two years. Around 6 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, the spacecraft completed a “Touch-And-Go” maneuver before firing its thrusters to get back to a safe distance from the asteroid. The lonely space rock was more than 200 million miles away at the time.

“We did it,” principal investigator Dante Lauretta said during the agency’s live broadcast. “We’ve tagged the surface of the asteroid.”

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NASA advances plan to commercialize International Space Station

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Axiom Space habitat modules are depicted attached to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s plan to further commercialize work in low Earth orbit.

 

ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 12 (UPI) — The planned launch of a private commercial airlock to the International Space Station in November will accelerate NASA’s plan to turn the station into a hub of private industry, space agency officials said.

The commercialization plan also includes the launch of a private habitat and laboratory by 2024 and a project NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced on Twitter in May in which actor Tom Cruise will film a movie in space.

The 20-year-old space station may even have a private citizen on board again for the first time in years in late 2021, according to Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight. It’s part of a plan to wean the space station off NASA’s public funding of $3 billion to $4 billion per year.

“We expanded the scope and range of activities that can be done on ISS,” McAlister said in an interview earlier this year. “We carved out resources — power, oxygen, data — and we know we can support a paying customer, probably twice a year for up to a month.”

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Project Olympus : ICON chosen by NASA to develop moon base 3D printing tech

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The hype around additive construction continues to grow. Unlike the days in which WinSun would “3D print” a six-story apartment building, we’re seeing numerous projects undertaken by a variety of firms around the world. All of this seems to demonstrate that, despite the hype, there is real technological value there. When that same value will be exhibited for the new space industry and 3D printing buildings on the moon remains unclear, but we can’t rule the possibilities out entirely.

The latest news combining the yet-to-be-fulfilled new space frontier with additive construction is called Project Olympus, a NASA-funded initiative aimed at developing a method for robotic building on the moon. Olympus is being driven by a firm that has been steadily making a name for itself in construction 3D printing: ICON. Adding to its $44 million raised from investors so far is the recent Small Business Innovation Research government contract from NASA to 3D print habitats on the moon using local materials and creating no waste.

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GITAI aims to bring autonomous robot workers to space

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An artist’s rendering brings to life GITAI’s vision of robots working on the International Space Station.

GITAI will conduct a technical demonstration of autonomous robot, S1, aboard the ISS in 2021.

Upon hearing the phrase, “robots in space,” one might have an image flash of a corny 60s sci-fi movie, but startup GITAI has its sights on making that a reality in 2021. The space robotics company, which was founded in 2016, is on track for conducting a technical demonstration on the International Space Station (ISS), in collaboration with Nanoracks.

Since its start, GITAI has focused its efforts on various robots for space. Its G1, which is a humanoid torso, was its most advanced machine. It was designed to be controlled by an immersive telepresence system. For the technical demonstration, the company is moving toward more autonomous methods with its S1, a mountable robotic arm with 8 degrees of freedom and 1-meter reach that has an integrated sensing and computing system.

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