The space in between: The stratosphere

We have airplanes and drones in our airspace and satellites in space, but what about the space in between: the stratosphere?

There are platforms, such as blimps, balloons and high-altitude long endurance (HALE) fixed-wing platforms that can duplicate functions now performed by drones or satellites in a more technically and commercially viable manner.

Commercial drones operate in our airspace below 400 feet. Commercial aircraft fly between 9-12km (30,000-39,000 feet). Satellites operate in low Earth orbit (LEO, 500-1200km), mid Earth orbit (MEO, 2000-36,000km) and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO, 36,000km).

But what about the vast space in between our air space and LEO? The approximately 488km of space known as the stratosphere, is, at present, largely uninhabited and underutilized.

The problem

Imagine if a platform wants to loiter over a single point on the Earth for an extended period of time, either to maintain situational awareness and consistent surveillance over an area of interest or maintain communications. For example, after a natural disaster, it would be invaluable and life saving to have eyes, ears and a voice in the sky monitoring and helping the afflicted. Or what if the platform were able to monitor a natural disaster before it made landfall to collect better data on the storm’s size, location and path?

Other reasons why it might be advantageous to have persistent real-time video from the sky is surveillance of vast maritime regions and borders, identification of objects of interest and monitoring events, including storms, fires and environmental disasters, on behalf of first responders and enforcement agencies.

Another example could be global internet connectivity. If platforms mesh together and talk to one another, they could connect the world below in a much more effective and efficient manner than ground-based fiber optic cables. It could monitor our oceans or protect vulnerable people from exploitation. And the potential military, intelligence and governmental applications are obvious and substantial.

In short, the applications are abundant and the potential market for this type of platform massive.

Possible existing solutions

Right now, the prevalent existing airborne platforms are drones and planes, and the prevalent existing space-based platforms are satellites. Each platform has various benefits, but none are optimized for many of the missions described above and, thus, do not necessarily accomplish those missions in the most efficient and effective manner.

Quadcopter drone

  • Pro: Cheap, close to the ground
  • Con: Can fly for only on average 30 minutes (unless you are using Impossible Aerospace’s US-1 that has over two hours of flight time), needs access to the ground below, small field of view from 400 feet, can be easily detected

Image Credits: Impossible Aerospace

Uncrewed plane

  • Pro: Larger field of view from 30,000 feet
  • Con: Can fly for only the number of hours fuel is available, expensive, can be detected

Image Credits: alxpin (opens in a new window) /Getty Images

Constellation of LEO satellites

  • Pro: Large field of view from 500-1,200km
  • Con: One would need hundreds or thousands of satellites in orbit for full-world coverage since the 90-minute orbits have access only over a single point on the Earth for ~15 minutes of the ~90 minute orbit; also, the satellite needs to be successfully launched from a rocket, escape Earth’s velocity and operate for years in the radioactive vacuum of space (which, while easier and less expensive than a GEO satellite, still requires a fair amount of effort and expense)

Image Credits: Spire Global

GEO satellite

  • Pro: Covers one-third of the Earth
  • Con: Large (school-bus sized), expensive (many millions of dollars), takes years (sometimes decades) to design/build/launch and does not provide the necessary low resolution or short latency

The solutions above are optimized for other types of critical missions. For example, drones are great for monitoring crops or inspecting infrastructure (as Drone Deploy software enables) or delivering emergency medical supplies (which Zipline and Google Wing are doing). Remotely-operated planes like General Atomics MQ-1 Predator have offensive military applications.

Constellations of LEO satellites in space, like Spire Global, can provide maritime, aviation and weather monitoring and prediction, or take photos of the world, as Planet Labs does. Lastly, GEO satellites can also be used for monitoring weather, communication and surveillance, but at a high level, not localized.

Possible future solutions

There are a handful of companies working on solutions specifically optimized for the mission of loitering over a single point. These solutions include balloons, blimps and HALE (high-altitude long endurance) platforms in the stratosphere.

Balloons


Image Credits: WorldView

Companies like Loon, WorldView and WindBorne use air currents in the stratosphere to loiter over a single point. Their platforms have no propulsion on board and the structure consists of two balloons, a lift and a ballast balloon. The lift balloon contains either helium or hydrogen and is sealed with special UV-coated material. They use a compressor to add or remove air from the ballast balloon so that it becomes lighter or heavier to make the balloon go up or down depending on wind speed and direction and which air current they would like to ride.

  • Pro: You cannot see these balloons from the ground with the naked eye or with most types of current ground-based tracking systems. They are fairly cheap, can be launched easily and can loiter over a single area for days or even months at a time.
  • Con: Without propulsion, balloons are difficult to navigate through intense stratospheric winds, so it might be hard to precisely navigate and keep the balloons over the specific area of interest. The balloons are not recoverable when the flight terminates, although when the balloon bursts and returns to Earth you might be able to recover the payload.

Blimps

Image Credits: MR1805 (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

  • Pro: They are fairly large so they can carry heavier payloads and provide more power to the payload. You can re-land the entire platform to either fix or recover the payload, and launch it multiple times.
  • Con: They can be seen from the ground because they are so large, which makes them vulnerable to being shot down. Companies like Sceye and Altaeros are using the Goodyear Blimp with some tech upgrades. Their airships either have propulsion or are tied to the ground below, so they can better control where they are going, and they have upgraded UV and ozone-resistant skin.

HALE fixed-wing

Companies like Zenith and Skydweller are working on high-altitude long endurance (HALE) fixed-wing platforms. These high-aspect-ratio aircraft (which means long but slender wings) are powered by sunlight hitting the solar panels on the wings. The power that is generated can either power the plane and payload or be stored in the batteries. Therefore, if enough power is generated and stored during the day to last throughout the night, the plane can fly indefinitely.

  • Pro: They can be precisely controlled by a pilot.
  • Con: They have limited power for the payload, as most of the power generated is needed to power the aircraft.

*TRL: technology readiness level

For all of these platforms, there will be additional challenges in the areas of manufacturing and mission management. The platforms need to be manufactured and launched cheaply, quickly and reliably. This takes time and money. Additionally, there are issues relating to who will monitor the platforms once they are in the stratosphere — the company that built the platform or the customers whose payload the platform is holding?

Another issue that platforms that operate in the stratosphere will face relates to who regulates the stratosphere. Obviously, putting and operating platforms in the stratosphere raises a number of regulatory and legal questions that will have to be resolved.

I believe there is enough room in this market (and certainly in the stratosphere) for all of these platforms to be successful. They complement existing platforms such as drones and satellites and, for certain critical missions, can be more effective and efficient than their counterparts that operate in the airspace or in LEO/GEO.

NASA and SpaceX add some retro flare to the Falcon 9 rocket flying the first crewed Dragon launch

NASA and SpaceX are moving ahead full-steam with the Demo-2 launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft – the first launch to carry astronauts to space aboard a private launch vehicle from American soil. The Falcon 9 rocket that will propel the Crew Dragon to space will include a NASA logo that has been – technically – required from active duty since 1992.

The 1970s-era “worm” logo is a take on NASA branding that has, for more than 20 years now, been relegated to souvenir status. You’ve probably seen it adorning caps, sweatshirts, stickers and other swag, but it hasn’t graced an official NASA spacecraft since its retirement from use. The NASA “meatball” logo that the agency does use on in-space assets today actually predates the “worm” and was developed in the late 1950s – but the latter’s tubular simplicity still has a more “retro” feel.

That vibe returns to active use with the SpaceX Demo-2 mission, which is currently set for launch sometime in early-to-mid May, and which will carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to space, and to the International Space Station, for the final step in certifying Crew Dragon for regular use in operational astronaut transportation missions.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – AUGUST 10: NASA’s “meatball” logo displayed on the vehicle assembly building at Kennedy Space Center. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

NASA shared an image of the red “worm” logo emblazoned on the side of the Falcon 9 rocket currently being readied for that mission in Florida, and the agency also said that it’s likely not the last time you’ll see it in official, active mission use. Don’t worry, fans of the meatball classic: The agency says that one’s still its primary symbol, even if the worm has poked its head out of the ground.

Virgin Orbit announces new plans for first Asian spaceport in Oita, Japan

Virgin Orbit may be focusing its production efforts right now on making ventilators to support healthcare workers battling COVID-19, but it’s also still making moves to build out the infrastructure that will underpin its small satellite launch business. To that end, the new space company unveiled a new partnership with Oita Prefecture in Japan to build a new spaceport there from which to launch and land its horizontal take-off launch vehicle carrier aircraft.

Working in collaboration with ANA Holdings and the Space Port Japan Association, Virgin Orbit says it is currently targeting Oita Airport as the site for its next launch site – the first in Asia – with a plan to start flying missions from the new location as early as 2022.

There are still a number of steps that have to take place before the Oita airport becomes official – including performing a technical study in partnership with local government to determine the feasibility of using the proposed site. Already, Oita is home to facilities from a number of corporations including Toshiba, Nippon Steel, Canon, Sony, Daihatsu and more, but this would marks its first entry into the space industry, an area where Oita is hoping to encourage in future.

“We are eager to host the first horizontal takeoff and landing spaceport in Japan. We are also honored to be able to collaborate with brave technology companies solving global-level problems through their small satellites,” said Katsusada Hirose, Governor for the Oita Prefectural Government, in a press release. “We hope to foster a cluster of space industry in our prefecture, starting with our collaboration with Virgin Orbit.”

Virgin Orbit is looking to scale its efforts globally in a number of ways, even as it gears up for a first demonstration launch of its orbital small satellite delivery capabilities sometime later this year. The company announced plans to provide launch services from a forthcoming spaceport facility in Cornwall for the UK market, and it’s also looking at standing up a site in Guam.

The horizontal launch model that Virgin Orbit uses means that it can much more easily leverage traditional airport infrastructure and processes to set up launch sites, and doing so can provide domestic launch capabilities essentially on-demand for countries looking to add small satellite flight to their in-country housed services. That’s a big selling point, and Oita securing should be a considerable win and for Japan as the site of a first Virgin Orbit port across the whole continent.

NASA issues agency-wide crowdsourcing call for ideas around COVID-19 response

There’s crowdsourcing a problem, and then there’s crowdsourcing a problem within NASA, where some of the smartest, most creative and resourceful problem-solvers in the world solve real-world challenges daily as part of their job. That’s why it’s uplifting to hear that NASA has issued a call to its entire workforce to come up with potential ways the agency and its resources can contribute to the ongoing effort to with the current coronavirus pandemic.

NASA is using its crowdsourcing platform NASA @ WORK, which it uses to internally source creative solutions to persistent problems, in order to collect creative ideas about new ways to address the COVID-19 crisis and the various problems it presents. Already, NASA is engaged in a few different ways, including offering supercomputing recourses for treatment research, and working on developing AI solutions that can help provide insight into key scientific investigations that are ongoing around the virus.

There is a degree of specificity in the open call NASA put to its workforce: It identified key areas where solutions are most urgently needed, working together with the White House and other government agencies involved in the response, and determined that NASA staff efforts should focus on addressing shortfalls and gaps in the availability of personal protective equipment, ventilation hardware, and ways to monitor and track the coronavirus spread and transmission. That’s not to say NASA doesn’t want to hear solutions about other COVID-19 issues, just that these are the areas where they’ve identified the most current need.

To add some productive time-pressure to this endeavor, NASA is looking for submissions from staff on all the areas above to be made via NASA @ WORK by April 15. Then there’ll be a process of assessing what’s most viable, and allocating resources to make those a reality. Any products or designs that result will be made “open source for any business or country to use,” the agency says – with the caveat that this might not be strictly possible in all cases depending on the specific technologies involved.

OrbitFab secures National Science Foundation funding to propel its satellite refueling tech to space

On-orbit satellite refueling technology is closer than ever to a practical reality, which could help immensely with the cost and sustainability of orbital businesses. Startup OrbitFab, a 2019 TechCrunch Battlefield finalist, is one of the companies working to make orbital refueling a reality, and it just secured a new contract from the National Science Foundation’s early stage deep tech R&D initiative America’s Seed Fund to further its goals.

The contract is specifically for development of a solution that provides rendezvous and docking capabilities in space, managing the end-to-end process of connecting two spacecraft and transferring fuel from one to the other. OrbitFab unveiled its connector hardware for making this possible last October at Disrupt, which it now refers to as its Rapidly attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI). The RAFTI is designed as a replacement for existing valves used in satellites for fueling and draining propellant from spacecraft, but would seek to establish a new standard that provides easy interoperability both with ground fueling, and with in-space refueling (or fuel transfer from one satellite to another, depending on what’s needed).

Already, OrbitFab has managed to fly twice to the International Space Station (ISS), and last year it became the first ever private company to supply the orbital lab with water. It’s not resting on its laurels, and this new contract will help it prepare a technology demonstration of the docking process it’s RAFTI facilitates in its own test facilities this summer.

Longer-term, this is just phase one of a multi-par funding agreement with the NSF. Phase one includes $250,000 to make that first demo, and then ultimately that will lead to an inaugural trial of a fuel sale operation in space, which OrbitFab CMO Jeremy Schiel says should happen “within two years.”

“This will involve 2 satellites, our tanker, and a customer satellite, in a low LEO [low Earth orbit] docking, exchanging fuel, and decoupling, and repeating this process as many times as we can to demonstrate our capability,” he wrote via email.

There have been a number of technical projects and demonstrations around orbital refueling, and some of the largest companies in the industry are working on the challenge. But OrbitFab’s approach is aiming for simplicity, and ease of execution, along with a common standard that can be leveraged across a wide range of satellites large and small, from a range of companies. Already, OrbitFab says it’s working with a group of 30 different campaigns and organizations on making RAFTI a broadly adopted interface.

If successful, OrbitFab could underpin a future orbital commercial operating environment in which fuel isn’t nearly as much a concern when it comes to launch costs, with on-orbit roving gas stations addressing demand for spacecraft once they reach space, and paying a price for propellant that’s defrayed by common, bulk shipments instead of broken up piecemeal.

OrbitFab secures National Science Foundation funding to propel its satellite refueling tech to space

On-orbit satellite refueling technology is closer than ever to a practical reality, which could help immensely with the cost and sustainability of orbital businesses. Startup OrbitFab, a 2019 TechCrunch Battlefield finalist, is one of the companies working to make orbital refueling a reality, and it just secured a new contract from the National Science Foundation’s early stage deep tech R&D initiative America’s Seed Fund to further its goals.

The contract is specifically for development of a solution that provides rendezvous and docking capabilities in space, managing the end-to-end process of connecting two spacecraft and transferring fuel from one to the other. OrbitFab unveiled its connector hardware for making this possible last October at Disrupt, which it now refers to as its Rapidly attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI). The RAFTI is designed as a replacement for existing valves used in satellites for fueling and draining propellant from spacecraft, but would seek to establish a new standard that provides easy interoperability both with ground fueling, and with in-space refueling (or fuel transfer from one satellite to another, depending on what’s needed).

Already, OrbitFab has managed to fly twice to the International Space Station (ISS), and last year it became the first ever private company to supply the orbital lab with water. It’s not resting on its laurels, and this new contract will help it prepare a technology demonstration of the docking process it’s RAFTI facilitates in its own test facilities this summer.

Longer-term, this is just phase one of a multi-par funding agreement with the NSF. Phase one includes $250,000 to make that first demo, and then ultimately that will lead to an inaugural trial of a fuel sale operation in space, which OrbitFab CMO Jeremy Schiel says should happen “within two years.”

“This will involve 2 satellites, our tanker, and a customer satellite, in a low LEO [low Earth orbit] docking, exchanging fuel, and decoupling, and repeating this process as many times as we can to demonstrate our capability,” he wrote via email.

There have been a number of technical projects and demonstrations around orbital refueling, and some of the largest companies in the industry are working on the challenge. But OrbitFab’s approach is aiming for simplicity, and ease of execution, along with a common standard that can be leveraged across a wide range of satellites large and small, from a range of companies. Already, OrbitFab says it’s working with a group of 30 different campaigns and organizations on making RAFTI a broadly adopted interface.

If successful, OrbitFab could underpin a future orbital commercial operating environment in which fuel isn’t nearly as much a concern when it comes to launch costs, with on-orbit roving gas stations addressing demand for spacecraft once they reach space, and paying a price for propellant that’s defrayed by common, bulk shipments instead of broken up piecemeal.

SpaceX’s Starship user guide details how it could replace the Space Shuttle and offer comfy passenger flights

SpaceX has released a first version of its spacecraft user manual for Starship, the next-generation launch vehicle that it’s currently developing in Boca Chica, Texas. The manual isn’t quite as detailed as the ones that exist for SpaceX’s other, operational launch spacecraft, but it does provide a lot of insight into how SpaceX envisions Starship being used, including as a high-capacity cargo hauler, and what sounds like a relatively luxurious passenger space liner.

Starship will be able to carry up to three geosynchronous telecommunications satellites at once, or a full constellation of satellites in one go. It can even carry one or two large geosynchronous satellites and still have room left over for a full rideshare mission of small satellites at the same time. That’s a lot of added mission capability for a single flight vs. current options, which should help considerably with operational economics.

Another use that SpaceX proposes for Starship: transporting “in-space demonstration spacecraft” that remain attached and integrated with the Starship, to carry out experiments and missions and then return to Earth. This would effectively make Starship an in-space lab platform kind of like the International Space Station, but with its own delivery and return capabilities built-in.

SpaceX says that Starship will also be able to take on payloads attached to the sidewalls and nose of the spacecraft, and to its nose, in addition to on the payload adapter itself, similar to what was possible with the Space Shuttle perviously. Also like the Space Shuttle, SpaceX says that Starship should be able to accomplish missions like recovering satellites in orbit, allowing them to either be repaired on-orbit, returned to Earth, or moved to a different target orbit as needed. This is not something that’s currently possible using any other operational launch vehicles in use.

There’s also some information about proposed crew configurations for Starship for supporting passengers – SpaceX says it’ll be able to carry as many as 100 people from Earth, to both low Earth orbit and on to the Moon and Mars. Crew configuration of the vehicle will include “private cabins, large common areas, centralized storage, solar storm shelters and a viewing gallery,” the document says. SpaceX also calls out specifically the potential for point-to-point transportation use – in other words, flying from one spaceport on Earth to another in order to massively cut down on travel time by making the trip through the edge of space.

One final interesting detail: SpaceX says that it’s going to be launching from both Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Boca Chica, Texas – and that it’s also going to potentially land at both locations, which could help with increasing operational pace once there are actually a few of these built, proven and ready to fly.

SpaceX’s Starship SN3 is currently under development in Boca Chica, and has been moved to the launch pad in advance of static fire testing. The company is working on rapid iteration prototyping to get to a high-altitude flight testing vehicle later this year, and eventually hopes to develop both Starship and its Super Heavy booster rocket for fully reusable space flight use.

SpaceX’s first operational Crew Dragon astronaut mission include a JAXA astronaut

SpaceX is readying for its first flight with astronauts on board – Demo-2, which is technically the last demonstration mission that is required before the Crew Dragon capsule is officially certified to start flying regular missions. Demo-2’s mission scope has been adjusted somewhat so that astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be actually doing some shift work on the International Space Station, but Crew-1 is the official first operational mission of the SpaceX human-rated spacecraft, and now we know a few more details about who that will carry.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has announced that JAXA astronaut Noguchi Soichi will be on the first Crew Dragon mission once it officially is declared operational, and the agency said on Tuesday that Noguchi has begun training for his trip to the ISS. Noguchi has been to the ISS twice previously on other missions, including between 2009 and 2010 on via a Russian Soyuz launch, and during 2005 when he actually flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery in order to help assemble part of the station.

SpaceX and NASA are currently readying for Demo-1, which as mentioned will be crewed by two NASA astronauts. That should take place sometime in mid to late May if the schedule holds to current timing plans. Once that’s complete, Crew-1, which is intended to have a complement of three people on board, should begin sometime in the later half of 2020.

The U.S. Space Force’s Space Fence orbital tracking system is officially operational

The U.S. Space Force is a relatively young arm of the U.S. armed forces, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t already operating assets. The USSF announced late last week that its Space Fence radar system is now officially operational, for instance. First: Yes it is actually called that. Second, the Space Fence is actually a radar system that aims to provide advanced tracking of on-orbit objects, including, but not limited to, commercial and military satellites.

The Space Fence ground infrastructure is located in the Marshall Islands, and currently, in the “initial operational capability and operational acceptance” phase, the program will track the existing 26,000 orbital objects already accounted for in the existing Space Surveillance Network (SSN), but Space Force said via an update on the new operational phase that it expects to grow that list quickly with its own additions.

To support detailed tracking of objects in this orbital range, the radar observation technology developed by Lockheed Martin on behalf of Space Force can pick up items roughly the size of a marble in low Earth orbit. With that level of fine-grained observational power, it seems pretty likely that eventually the catalog should contain just about every active and passive potential observation, communication and potentially militarized in-space assets operated by just about anyone.

Knowing the terrain is a key part of any military operation’s ability to succeed, so officially brining the Space Fence online marks a big milestone for the Space Force. It also recently launched its first dedicated payload: A high-frequency secure communication satellite to join an existing constellation in space that provides communication services for military operations on Earth on land, at sea and in the air.

Stratolaunch reveals updated fleet, including two hypersonic aircraft and a space plane

High-altitude launch startup Stratolaunch has gone through some changes, but on Monday it revealed design details of two hypersonic aircraft, along with a space plane, all designed to take-off from its flying carrier plane launch platform. If all goes to plan, test flights of the first of these new vehicles will begin in 2022, and the company says it’s fully funded to be able to get to that point.

Stratolaunch was originally founded in 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Allen unfortunately passed away last year, and the company is now led by a group of investors led by Steve Feinberg. The new ownership is still tracking towards the original goal of the company, however, which is to develop hypersonic atmospheric aircraft.

On Monday, it also unveiled an extension of its mission to get into spaceflight via a new space plane that could potentially carry both cargo and crew. It’s designed to be fully reusable, and is meant to both take up and return cargo with conventional runway landing capabilities.

Stratolaunch’s first goal, however, will be to bring its Talon A hypersonic autonomous aircraft to life. Also designed for full reusability, the Talon A will measure roughly 28 feet in length, and have an 11.3-foot wingspan. It’s designed to fly for over a minute in hypersonic mode for testing, and then slide back down for a fully autonomous landing on a standard runway. The aircraft will not only be able to be deployed from the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft, but will also be designed to take-off on its own autonomously, also like a traditional aircraft from a standard runway.

The aircraft’s main purpose is to provide a testbed for various types of instrumentation and data gathering during hypersonic flight – it’s essentially a lab that can provide real-world experience of something perviously available only in simulation. Up to three of the Talon A vehicles can be transported and launched from one of Stratolaunch’s carrier aircraft at once.

Talon Z, meanwhile, looks to be a larger hypersonic aircraft, but Stratolaunch isn’t sharing much more in the way of details about its capabilities or intended purpose yet. The Black Ice space plane will likewise probably mostly serve customers looking for orbital experimentation, but its cargo and future potential crew capabilities could actually make it well-suited to orbital logistics and potentially even satellite deployment capabilities.

Stratolaunch’s approach with Black Ice is somewhat akin to what Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit are doing for commercial passenger spaceflight and small satellite cargo, respectively. The two Virgin companies also use traditional take-off aircraft as the launch platforms for their vehicles, but they’re much further along in their development program. Stratolaunch did complete the first test flight of its carrier aircraft last year, and is aiming to have Talon A ready for commercial service by 2023.