Watch SpaceX’s stunning Starship prototype ‘hop’ test flight and landing

SpaceX achieved a big win in their Starship spacecraft development program on Tuesday evening, flying the SN5 prototype of that future vehicle to a height of around 500 feet, propelled by a single Raptor engine. The test, which took place at SpaceX’s rocket development and testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas, marks the first time that a full-scale Starship prototype has left the ground.

The company released a video of the whole test, including footage captured both from a drone’s-eye-view, as well as from a camera mounted on board Starship SN5, inside the fuselage and offering a look at the Raptor engine in action, as well as the landing legs activating in preparation for landing.

Following the successful test, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk outlined next steps for the Starship development process, which includes “several” more short hops, followed by high altitude testing. The landing legs will also go through some changes, first extending in length and then becoming much wider and taller, with the ability to land on more uneven terrain, according to Musk.

SpaceX successfully flies its Starship prototype to a height of around 500 feet

SpaceX has been developing Starship, its next-generation spacecraft, at its site in Boca Chica, Texas. The company has built a number of different Starship prototypes to date, include one prior version called the Starhopper that was essentially just the bottom portion of the rocket. Today, the company flew its first full-scale prototype (minus the domed cap that will appear on the final version, and without the control fins that will appear lower down on its sides), achieving an initial flight of around 150 m (just under 500 feet).

This is the furthest along one of these prototypes has come in the testing process. It’s designated Starship SN5, which is the fifth serialized test article. SpaceX actually built a first full-scale demonstration craft called the Starship Mk1 prior to switching to this new naming scheme, so that makes this the sixth one this size they’ve built – with the prior versions suffering failures at various points during preparations, including pressure testing and following a static engine test fire.

SN5 is now the first of these larger test vehicles to actually take off and fly. This prototype underwent a successful static test fire earlier this week, paving the way for this short flight test today. It’s equipped with just one Raptor engine, whereas the final Starship will have six Raptors on board for much greater thrust. It managed to fly and land upright, which means that by all external indications everything went to plan.

Starhopper previously completed a similar hop in August of 2019. SpaceX has an aggressive prototype development program to attempt to get Starship in working order, with the ambitious goal of flying payloads using the functional orbital vehicle as early as next year. Ultimately, Starship is designed to pair with a future Falcon Heavy booster to carry large payloads to orbit around Earth, as well as to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

Rocket Lab boosts Electron rocket’s lift capacity by 660 lbs

Rocket Lab has managed to engineer a significant payload capacity bump into its existing Electron space launch vehicle, the company revealed today. Electron can now fly as much as 300 kg (660 lbs) to low Earth orbit (or around 440 lbs to a higher, sun synchronous orbit), and that’s mostly due to battery technology advances, according to Rocket Lab.

Electron is not battery-powered, of course – but the electric pumps that help feed its Rutherford engines are. That’s where they’re getting the boost, along with some other optimizations, increasing the total payload capacity by a full third. That’s a lot of additional capacity in the small satellite launch market, where a CubeSat can weigh as little as 3 lbs or less.

Rocket Lab notes that this means customers who are useing their Photon spacecraft as a satellite bus (essentially the basic satellite platform upon which a company can build their specific instrumentation needs) will now have nearly 400 lbs available to them for their equipment, which should make possible a whole range of potential new applications.

The company announced last week that it was aiming to return to active launch status as early as this month, after an issue caused the early termination and failure of a mission in early July. It said it was able to quickly identify the problem and is already implementing a fix, and now it clearly wants to remind potential customers of its unique offerings and capabilities int he small satellite market.

Virgin Galactic debuts design of future Mach 3 high-speed aircraft, signs deal with Rolls-Royce

Virgin Galactic is making strides towards its goal of creating high-speed commercial aircraft that operates a little closer to Earth than its existing passenger spacecraft. The company revealed the initial design of the commercial passenger airplane it’s creating that’s designed to fly at speeds in excess of Mach 3 – faster than the average cruising speed of around Mach 2 that the original Concorde achieved.

This concept design comes alongside a new partnership for Virgin Galactic, by way of a memorandum of understanding that the company signed with Rolls-Royce, one of the world’s leading aircraft engine makers. Rolls-Royce is also responsible for the engine of the Concorde, the only supersonic commercial aircraft ever used for passenger travel.

Virgin Galactic announced in May that it would be partnering with NASA to work towards high-speed, high altitude point-to-point travel for commercial airline passengers. The plan is to eventually create an aircraft that can fly above 60,000 feet (the cruising altitude of the Concorde) and carry between 9 and 19 people per fly, with a cabin essentially set up to provide each of those passengers with either Business or First Class-style seating and service. One other key element of the design is that it be powered by next-gen sustainable fuel for more ecological operation.

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In some ways, this project has many of the same goals that NASA has with its X-59 Quiet Supersonic research aircraft. Both aim to inspire the industry at large to do more to pursue the development of high-Mach point-to-point travel, and Virgin says that one of its aims is to “act as a catalyst to adoption in the rest of the aviation community” by coming up with baseline “sustainable technologies and techniques.”

Virgin Galactic’s manufacturing subsidiary, The Spaceship Company, also has a partnership in place with startup Boom Supersonic to help develop their supersonic civil passenger aircraft. Boom is set to unveil and begin testing its XB-1 prototype at an event in October, and also recently announced a new partnership with Rolls-Royce to assist with the design and manufacture of the engines for its eventual Overture commercial plane.

SpaceX and NASA successfully return Crew Dragon spacecraft to Earth with astronauts on board

SpaceX and NASA have made history once again, successfully completing the crucial final phase of their Demo-2 mission for the Crew Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX’s first spacecraft made for human flight. This marks the end of this last demonstration mission, which flew NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on May 30, where they remained for two months prior to making the return trip on Sunday.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon appears to have performed exactly as intended throughout the mission, handling the launch, ISS docking, undocking, de-orbit and splashdown in a fully automated process that kept the astronauts safe and secure throughout. This final phase included recovery of Behnken and Hurley at sea in the Gulf of Mexico using SpaceX’s GO Navigator recovery vessel, which also seemed to go very smoothly, with the astronauts confirmed picked up by Navigator at TK.

With the successful completion of this mission, everything should be in place to allow for the full certification of Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 as rated for human spaceflight according to NASA’s exactly standards – provided a final, thorough review of the entire mission from start to finish doesn’t reveal any remaining issues that need tidying up. Again, based on what we’ve seen, it looks like a more or less picture-perfect mission for Demo-2 from start to finish, so I wouldn’t expect any major barriers to certification. Note that this is also the first human splashdown in 45 years – when the final Skylab crew did that in 1974.

That means that the next step for Crew Dragon is to begin regular service as America’s primary source of transportation to and from the Space Station . The first of its operational missions, designated Crew-1, is currently set to take place sometime in late September, and will carry three NASA astronauts and one JAXA astronaut to the station for a regular tour as crew members of the orbital science platform.

This now also means that NASA will have control over its own transportation method for its astronauts (and astronauts from friendly nations) to and from the Space Station since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011. The Commercial Crew program was designed to provide just that, but rather than having NASA responsible for the launch and transportation spacecraft as with the Shuttle, it’s partnering with private companies to offer it commercial service for those flights – SpaceX is now the first to complete the testing and development program, and Boeing is in process of becoming a second commercial ride provider for NASA to rely on.

NASA wants to ensure continued access to the ISS, and is also hoping to save money long-term and enable the commercial space industry by sharing rides aboard the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner with commercial astronauts. SpaceX has already partnered with a company to begin selling return trips aboard Crew Dragon (without an ISS stop) for private spacefarers, and Dragon has a total of seven potential seats for flying people, with NASA missions only ever slated to occupy four of those spots.

Watch SpaceX’s Crew Dragon splash down in the Atlantic Ocean live as astronauts return to Earth

SpaceX and NASA are getting ready to complete their most important joint mission to date – Crew Dragon Demo-2, which is the culmination of the partners’ work on their Commercial Crew program designed to certify a SpaceX spacecraft for regular human spaceflight operations. NASA astronauts are already on board Crew Dragon making their way back to Earth during a multi-hour descent, and later on Sunday will be splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

Behnken and Hurley undocked from the International Space Station on Saturday, August 1 at just after 7:30 PM EDT, with the Crew Dragon capsule handling all of the maneuvers since in a fully automated fashion, just like it’s designed to do. SpaceX built Crew Dragon to be fully automated both during takeoff and the return to Earth and landing portion of any trip to the ISS, and in fact have previously flown a successful unscrewed version of the mission that’s happening now with astronauts on board.

To conclude Demo-2, Behnken and Hurley are currently scheduled to splash down in the Gulf of Mexico at 2:48 PM EDT (11:48 AM PDT), where they’ll be met and recovered by a SpaceX crew. This will be a historic first for a commercial spacecraft, capping a mission of historic first for private human spaceflight that began with the successful launch of Crew Dragon ‘Endeavour’ on May 30.

Once Dragon enters the atmosphere, it’ll deploy its parachutes, which will slow it until it’s traveling at a speed of just around 15 mph before it splashes down. The reason it requires such a long trip from time of departure to when it land is the ocean is that it needs to slow down from a starting speed of around 17,500 mph when it departs the ISS.

NASA and SpaceX will have live coverage on the stream above, and we’ll provide any updates about key developments in the mission as they happen.

Astronauts successfully depart the ISS aboard SpaceX Dragon, starting their trip home

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have successfully undocked from the International Space Station, which is the first crucial stage of their return to Earth. Next, they’ll travel on a coast phase that will take them on a descent course back through the atmosphere from space, shedding speed as they prepare to deploy the parachutes of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and drop into the Atlantic Ocean for recovery.

The undocking, coast and splashdown phase are all meant to be performed entirely via automation, with the control systems SpaceX designed for Crew Dragon managing the entire process, including burns to control the capsule’s travel away from the Station and its controlled descent through the atmosphere. While re-entering the atmosphere, the Dragon will undergo tremendous stress, and its angle of descent is intended to slow its velocity to the point where it can safely deploy those parachutes to slow its fall even further, all the while keeping Behnken and Hurley safe.

The coast phase will take many hours, with SpaceX and NASA expecting the eventual splashdown of the capsule happening sometime around 2:42 PM EDT (11:42 PM PDT) tomorrow, Sunday August 2.

This is the final phase of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission from its Commercial Crew program with NASA, which is the qualification program that the agency requires to certify Crew Dragon for regular operational missions taking astronauts to and from the station. Behnken and Hurley launched on the first part of this historic mission, which is the first to see humans fly aboard a SpaceX spacecraft, on May 30, and have spent the intervening months on the Space Station contributing to regular crew missions.

Crew Dragon will splash down off the coast of Florida to conclude Demo-2, and SpaceX crews are on hand to recover the astronauts at that point and bring them the rest of the way back to terra firma. If everything goes to plan, then SpaceX will officially be ready to begin standard astronaut flights, as mentioned – and the first of those is planned for sometime in late September, so they won’t have to wait long.

We’ll have updates for the remainder of this final leg as they become available, so stay tuned.

Watch live as SpaceX brings NASA astronauts back from the Space Station aboard Crew Dragon

SpaceX and NASA are now in the final stages of preparation for the conclusion of its Demo-2 Crew Dragon mission, which will see astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley depart the International Space Station and return to Earth. Behnken and Hurley launched aboard the Crew Dragon, SpaceX’s first human spacecraft, on May 30 and have been working as part of the Station’s crew since then.

The Crew Dragon is set to depart from the ISS at 7:34 PM EDT (4:34 PM PDT) tonight, but NASA is planning a day of related coverage including a live official departure ceremony that starts at 9:10 AM EDT and that involves Behnken and Hurley officially saying goodbye to their ISS crewmates before climbing into the capsule to close it up and prep for departure. The capsule is then set to make the multi-hour trip back to Earth and splash down in the Atlantic Ocean at around 2:42 PM EDT (11:42 AM PDT) tomorrow.

There are potential complicating factors to be aware of – most notably Hurricane Isaias, which could impact the availability of suitable landing sites in the ocean, where recovery crews have to be able to safely rendezvous with the capsule to pick up Hurley and Behnken. Currently, weather is a go for the mission, but we’ll provide an update if that changes.

Mammoth Biosciences’s CRISPR-based COVID-19 test receives NIH fundings through RADx program

CRISPR tech startup Mammoth Biosciences is among the companies that revealed backing from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Rapid Accleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program on Friday. Mammoth received a contract to scale up its CRISPR-based SARS-CoV-3 diagnostic test in order to help address the testing shortages across the U.S.

Mammoth’s CRISPR-based approach could potentially offer a significant solution to current testing bottlenecks, because it’s a very different kind of test when compared to existing methods based on PCR technology. The startup has also enlisted the help of pharma giant GSK to develop and produce a new COVID-19 testing solution, which will be a handheld, disposable test that can offer results in as little as 20 minutes, on site.

While that test is still ind development, the RADx funding received through this funding will be used to scale manufacturing of the company’s DETECTR platform for distribution and use in commercial laboratory settings. This will still offer a “multi-fold increase in testing capacity,” the company says, even though it’s a lab-based solution instead of a point-of-care test like the one it’s seeking to create with GSK.

Already, UCSF has received an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA to use the DETECTR reagent set to test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, and the startup hopes to be able to extend similar testing capacity to other labs across the U.S.

Genomics startup Helix receives $33 million in NIH funding to scale COVID-19 testing

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is revealing the first beneficiaries of its Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program, and San Mateo-based Helix is on the receiving end of $33 million in federal funding as a result. Helix is a health tech startup founded in 2015 that focuses on insights derived from personal genomics, but the company has also developed a COVID-19 test that detects the presence of SARS-CoV-2 using RT-PCR methods.

The funding will be used to support Helix’s efforts to scale its COVID-19 testing efforts, with the aim of achieving a rate of 100,000 tests per day by this fall, and then extending the throughput capacity even further after that. Helix’s test got FDA Emergency Use Approval (EUA) earlier this month, and has since been available nationally across the U.S., promising “next day” results.

Helix was also filed for an EUA for a second type of test, an NGS test that offers higher throughput for more testing volume, as well as increased sensitivity towards actually detecting the presence of the virus to avoid false negatives. This test, if approved, will be key to helping Helix achieve that much greater scale of testing capability that is the ultimate aim of the RADx program.

That second test system currently seeking approval would be able to process as many as 25,000 tests per day, and it uses a different method that would also help reduce the strain on the supply chain.