Indian launch startup Skyroot successfully completes full-duration stage test

Skyroot, the first private Indian company to design, build and test a solid rocket propulsion stage, has reached another key milestone in the development of its Vikram-I launch vehicle: a full-duration test of the rocket’s third stage.

The third stage, dubbed Kalam-100 in homage to Indian rocket scientist and former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, is just one part of the company’s debut rocket. Vikram-I includes three solid fuel stages, plus a liquid-fueled kick stage that’s designed to serve the small satellite launch market. It’s designed to carry up to 480 kilograms to low-inclination orbits, and the company says on its website that it’s designed to be assembled and launched from any launch site within 24 hours.

Vikram-I is one of a trio of rockets Skyroot is currently developing; the other two, Vikram-II and Vikram-III, will be able to carry heavier payloads with multiple orbital insertions, Skyroot says.

The test-firing of the rocket stage took place at a private test range in Nagpur City, India, CEO Pawan Kumar Chandana told TechCrunch in an email. That range belongs to Skyroot investor and industrial explosives, ammunitions and propulsion systems manufacturer Solar Industries India.

The next steps will be test firings for Stage 1 and Stage 2, Chandana said. The company’s existing funding, including an $11 million Series A and a $4.5 million bridge round, will cover most of the costs of testing. Skyroot is in the process of raising a Series B to take the company to “multiple orbital launches,” he said.

All this funding should get Skyroot to a technology demonstration launch by the end of this year, with the company’s first commercial orbital mission early next year. That launch would take off from India’s spaceport on Sriharikota Island, and would make Skyroot the first private Indian company to build and launch private rockets.

Watch Boeing’s make it or break it Starliner launch today

After years of setbacks and technical snafus, Boeing’s Starliner orbital spacecraft is returning to the launch pad. The aerospace giant will conduct a second test flight of the spacecraft on Thursday, as the company seeks to stay competitive in the growing space industry and loosen SpaceX’s emerging monopoly on crewed missions to the International Space Station.

The CST-100 Starliner will launch aboard United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, taking off from NASA’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station later today at 6:54 PM EST.  Starliner should reach its preliminary orbit 31 minutes after launch; if all goes to plan, it will dock with the ISS around 7:10 PM EST on Friday. The craft will be carrying more than 500 pounds of supplies for astronauts aboard the station, and will come back to Earth around 5-8 days later with more than 600 pounds of return cargo.

The Atlas V, ULA’s workhorse rocket that has made 92 successful launches, was specifically configured for this mission. Instead of a payload fairing, or the nose cone used to protect payload from the rough effects of entering and exiting Earth’s atmosphere, Starliner is equipped with protective surfaces that will fulfill the same function.

Starliner’s second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) comes almost two and a half years after the first unsuccessful attempt in December 2019. During that test flight, a software issue caused the capsule to miss its target orbit and burn too much fuel; instead of making its rendezvous with the ISS as planned, Starliner hung out in an alternate orbit for a few days before NASA and Boeing officials greenlighted its return to Earth.

Boeing originally scheduled this second test flight for last August, but that had to be scrubbed just four and a half hours prior to launch after an issue was discovered with over half of the spacecraft’s oxidizer valves.

Nailing this launch is key to Boeing becoming a competitive crew transportation provider for NASA under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program. NASA (read: the taxpayer) has awarded a total of $4.82 billion to Boeing to develop a commercial crew transportation system, and so far that money has yet to yield a single successful mission. The other CCtCap awardee, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, has already started ferrying astronauts to and from ISS with the Crew Dragon capsule. The program with SpaceX has been so successful that NASA extended SpaceX’s contract to include three more crewed missions at a cost of $900 million.

It’s unclear what will happen should Boeing fail to pull off today’s launch, but it will undoubtedly include a return to the drawing board and complete timeline overhaul. So suffice to say: today, all eyes are on Starliner.

Max Q: Near and far

Hello and welcome back to Max Q.

In this issue:

  • Astra’s long game in the small launch market
  • The supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy
  • News from Virgin Orbit, SpaceX and more

Don’t forget to sign up to get the free newsletter version of Max Q delivered to your inbox.

Astra’s playing the long game

I sat down with Astra CEO Chris Kemp and Chief Engineer Benjamin Lyon to learn more about the company’s philosophy and trajectory.

“The expectation I think that a lot of people have is every launch has to be perfect,” Kemp told TechCrunch. “I think what Astra has to do, really, is we have to have so many launches nobody thinks about it anymore.”

How many launches? Eventually, Astra wants to achieve a daily launch cadence; in the interim, the company is aiming for weekly launches as early as next year. It’s a critical part of how the company aims to win amongst an increasingly crowded field of small launch developers — not by being flawless, but by being so low-cost and high-volume that the relative risk of a few catastrophic failures ceases to matter.

Next up for Astra is a trio of launches for NASA under the agency’s TROPICS program. When Kemp discussed the launches with NASA’s Will McCarty at Astra’s Spacetech Day, he reiterated Astra’s perspective on reliability, though it veered close to sounding like a hedge: “I know the team will do everything we can to make sure all three launches and all your satellites are deployed, but it’s good to know that the price point of three launches allows NASA to enable a mission where even if only two are successful […] it is nice to know that even NASA is designing constellations so that the overall constellation performance is the end goal, not thinking about every single satellite, every single rocket launch.”

Image Credits: Astra / John Kraus

The supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy

World, meet Sagittarus A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. The black hole was captured in an image for the first time, a landmark scientific achievement that’s gained a lot of media attention. But the role of simulations and synthetic data in the process has been massively overlooked.

TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey lays out how scientists used synthetic datasets and simulations to assemble the image of the black hole, “despite its relative closeness and the interference from light-years’ worth of dust, nebulae and other vagaries of the void.” Click the link above to learn more about how scientists did it.

I feel like this is the only time I’ll be able to slip in a Nietzsche quote, so allow me the indulgence: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

This is the first image of Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

Image Credits: EHT

More news from TC and beyond

  • Blue Origin announced the next batch of customers that will fly on the New Shepard rocket, the fifth space tourism mission for the company and the 21st launch overall. The mission will take off on May 20.
  • Boeing said it’s all set to go for the test launch of the Starliner spacecraft. It’s a long-awaited flight. You’ll be able to watch it live on May 19 from Boeing’s website. Speaking of Boeing, apparently it and Aerojet Rocketdyne are beefing over problems involving the Starliner’s fuel valves.
  • Canoo, an electric vehicle company, issued a “going concern” warning to shareholders that it may not have enough funds to continue operating. Why is this included in Max Q? The company was just awarded a NASA contract to transport Artemis astronauts to and from the launch pad. Oy vey.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration issued a license to the Huntsville-Madison Airport Authority in Alabama for the facility to operate as a space reentry site. Sierra Space has applied to land its Dream Chaser spaceplane up to eight times between 2023 and 2027.
  • Orbex revealed the first full-scale prototype of its space rocket, called “Prime.” The micro-launcher is around 62 feet long and could be the first rocket to launch from the United Kingdom.
  • Rocket Lab will launch NASA’s CAPSTONE spacecraft to the moon no earlier than May 31. The CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment) mission will be testing a new orbit as a pathfinder for future lunar outposts.
  • Russia is responsible for the hack that affected Viasat’s internet connectivity service, governments including the U.S., Canada and the European Union said.
  • SpaceX launched 53 Starlink satellites to orbit on Friday. This was the fifth flight for that particular first-stage booster.
  • Starlink service will be coming to 10,000 homes in Quebec, thanks to $50 million in government funding to provide broadband to rural homes in the province.
  • The U.K. has selected Virgin Orbit to launch Prometheus-2, a government mission to launch two cubesats to space from U.K. soil this summer. Virgin will use its LauncherOne system for the mission.
  • Scientists from the University of Florida have grown plants in lunar soil. You read that right — plants! In moon regolith! The soil was collected during the Apollo missions. It’s fairly notable in advance of the planned Artemis missions later this decade…

lunar plants regolith nasa

Several Arabidopsis plants sprouting from lunar soil. Seedlings were later thinned to one plant per well. Image Credits: UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones

  • Virgin Galactic said it would commence commercial service for its orbital spaceplanes, VSS Imagine and VSS Unity, in early 2023, a timeline that pushes back the commercial debut by at least a quarter.

Max Q is brought to you by me, Aria Alamalhodaei. If you enjoy reading Max Q, consider forwarding it to a friend. 

Read more stories on TechCrunch.com

Astra’s playing the long game

In a time when every rocket launch is livestreamed on Youtube, millions of people get a front row seat to a space company’s successes and failures. Astra, a rocket startup-turned-public company, has had a few of both. But according to CEO Chris Kemp, perfection is not the point.

“The expectation I think that a lot of people have is every launch has to be perfect,” he told TechCrunch. “I think what Astra has to do, really, is we have to have so many launches nobody thinks about it anymore.”

How many launches? Eventually, Astra wants to achieve a daily launch cadence; in the interim, the company is aiming for weekly launches as early as next year. It’s a critical part of how the company’s aims to win amongst an increasingly crowded field of small launch developers – not by being flawless, but by being so low-cost and high-volume that the relative risk of a few catastrophic failures ceases to matter.

To get there, Astra is moving at breakneck speed. Notably, it became the fastest company in history to reach orbit in November, six years after the company was founded.

Kemp summarized the approach on Thursday, at Astra’s “Spacetech Day”: “The approach that we took was not to design and create PowerPoints and do all the analysis and then five or 10 years later, finally maybe build a rocket,” he said. “It was within 18 months of founding the company in that garage, getting a launch license, and launching our first rocket and then doing it again a few months later, and again and again and again.”

“This was not the popular way to approach this problem,” he added.

Small, cheap and light

Can the market support a daily launch cadence? Astra is betting that it can. The way Astra sees it, the launch industry is like a curve: on one end are companies like SpaceX, serving crewed missions, delivering cargo into space and even, eventually, even attempting to colonize other planets. On the other end of the curve is Astra: small, cheap, and light.

The middle of the curve is what Kemp called the “valley of death.”

“You can either scale up the rocket or scale out the factory,” he said. “We think that there’s winners on both ends of that spectrum, and in the middle…it’s going to be very challenging for all the companies that are somewhere in the middle.”

Part of the company’s confidence comes from the rise in planned or in-progress satellite constellations going to orbit. Astra’s betting that providers are willing to risk some small percentage of their spacecraft not reaching orbit, in exchange for launch speed, lower costs, and a more personalized orbital trajectory.

This approach is personified in the company’s decisions: rockets made with low-cost materials, like aluminum; using machine casted parts versus 3D printed parts; a launch system that requires only a team of six people to deploy, and that can fit into a standard shipping container. Astra is continuing to simplify. Its next rocket, Rocket 4.0, will have only two larger engines, as opposed to the five smaller engines found in Rocket 3.0; and the entire process will be automated even further, so that the mission control team is whittled down from less than ten to just two people.

Astra’s rocket production facility in Alameda, California.

Astra is calling the new process Launch System 2.0. It anticipates conducting the first test flights of the system’s 4.0 launcher later this year. And when the rocket is finally prepared for commercial operations, Astra said it will be capable of carrying 300 kilograms to low Earth orbit for a base price of $3.95 million. In contrast, the standard price for Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket for the same amount of payload is around $7.5 million per launch, though Rocket Lab told TechCrunch that the final price is dependent on each customer’s specific mission requirements.

Such an ambitious launch cadence requires an equally ambitious manufacturing scheme. Kemp told TechCrunch that the company’s 250,000-square foot production facility gives the company the ability to manufacture one rocket per day. To further bolster production, Astra hired longtime Apple leader Benjamin Lyon last February to spearhead the company’s engineering. The move from consumer electronics to rocket ships might seem unusual, but it’s further evidence of Astra’s intention to achieve a scale of production never before seen in aerospace.

As part of its plan to boost launch cadence, Astra announced plans earlier this month to launch out of SaxaVord UK Spaceport as early as 2023. And if all goes to plan for the company, that’ll be just the beginning.

NASA TROPICS

Next up for Astra is a trio of launches for NASA under the agency’s TROPICS program. Astra was awarded the launch contract for TROPICS (Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of SmallSats) at a cost of $8 million. Those satellites will be used to measure variables like temperature, humidity and pressure inside storm systems.

When Kemp discussed the launches with NASA’s Will McCarty at Spacetech Day, he reiterated Astra’s perspective on reliability, though it veered close to sounding like a hedge: “I know the team will do everything we can to make sure all three launches and all your satellites are deployed, but it’s good to know that the price point of three launches allows NASA to enable a mission where even if only two are successful […] it is nice to know that even NASA is designing constellations so that the overall constellation performance is the end goal, not thinking about every single satellite, every single rocket launch.”

Kemp told shareholders during the first quarter earnings call that the company aims to get started with the launches this quarter, and potentially achieve a monthly cadence to complete all three.

“If two out of the three [launches] are successful, it’s not mission failure,” he said. “It’s just a lower refresh rate for the constellation.”

Simulation meets observation in first image of the supermassive black hole at our galaxy’s center

As countless science and general news outlets have reported today, the image of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, is a fabulous scientific achievement. But one aspect that hasn’t gotten quite as much attention is the central role played by simulations and synthetic data in the discovery.

If you haven’t read about this awesome science news yet, the Event Horizon Telescope’s own post is a great place to get the gist. Based on years of observations from around the globe, a huge team at over a hundred institutions managed to assemble an image of the black hole around which our galaxy rotates, despite its relative closeness and the interference from light-years worth of dust, nebulae and other vagaries of the void.

But this wasn’t just a matter of pointing the telescope in the right direction at the right time. Black holes can’t be observed directly using something like the Hubble or even the still-warming-up Webb. Instead, all kinds of other direct and indirect measurements of the object must be made — how radiation and gravity bend around it and so on.

This means data from dozens of sources must be assembled and reconciled, itself an enormous task and a big part of why observations made in 2017 are only now being published as a final image, which you can see below. But because this project really has no precedent (even the famous M87* image, though superficially similar, used different processes) it was necessary to essentially test multiple possibilities for how the same observations might have been made.

For instance, if it’s “dark” in the middle, is it because there’s something in the way (and there is — about half the galaxy) or because the hole itself has a hole (and it seems to)? The lack of direct observational data makes it hard to say. (Note that the images here don’t simply show an image based on visible light, but the inferred shape based on countless readings of radiation and other measures.)

This is the first image of Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy.

Image Credits: EHT

Think about viewing an ordinary object from a distance. From straight on it looks like a circle — but does that mean it’s a ball? A plate? A cylinder viewed end on? Here on Earth you might move your head or take a few steps to the side to get a little more info — but try doing that on a cosmic scale! To get effective parallax on a black hole 27,000 light-years away, you’d need to go quite a distance, and probably break the laws of physics in the process. So the researchers needed to use other methods to determine what shapes and phenomena best explained what little the could observe.

To systematically explore and evaluate the imaging algorithms’ design choices and their effects on the resulting image reconstructions, we generated a series of synthetic data sets. The synthetic data were carefully constructed to match properties of Sgr A* EHT measurements. The use of synthetic data enables quantitative evaluation of image reconstruction by comparison to the known ground truth. This in turn enables evaluation of the design choices and imaging algorithms’ performance.

In other words, they generated oceans of data relating to different possible explanations for their observations, and looked at how predictive these simulated black hole environments were.

Lisa Medeiros from the Institute for Advanced Study, in a very interesting Q&A worth watching in its entirety if you have the time, explained a bit of this in regards to how and why the study looked at the spin of the black hole and how that related to the spin of materials around it, and to the galaxy at large.

“What was really exciting about this new result, compared to what we did in 2019 for M87, was in paper 5 we actually include several simulations where we explore that [i.e. the spin relationships],” she said. “So, there are simulations where the spin axis of the black hole is not aligned with the spin axis of the matter that is swirling around the black hole, and this is a really new and exciting simulation that was not included in the 2019 publications.”

Image Credits: EHT

Naturally these simulations are unbelievably complicated things that require supercomputers to process, and there’s an art and a science to figuring out how many make sense to do, and how close together they should be. In this case the alignment question being looked at is of inherent scientific value, but could also help interpret, for example, the interference caused by gases and dust swirling around the black hole. If the spin is like this, its gravity would affect the dust like this, meaning the readings should be read like this.

“Our simulations, when we look at the simulations compared with the data, we tend to prefer models that are almost pointed at us — not pointed directly at us, but off by about 30 degrees or so,” Medeiros continued. “And that would indicate that the spin axis of the black hole is not aligned with the spin axis of the galaxy as a whole, and if you believe what I said earlier, the disk does prefer to be aligned with the spin axis of the black hole. It does seem like the disk and black hole are aligned, but that neither are aligned with the galaxy.”

In addition to going after specific aspects like this, there was the more general question of what shape (or “underlying source morphology”) would produce the readings they got: essentially the “ball vs. plate” question, but way, way more complicated.

In one of the papers released today, the team describes building seven different potential morphologies for the black hole, reflecting different arrangements of its matter, from ring to disc and even a sort of binary black hole — why not, right? They simulated how these different shapes would produce different results in their instruments, and compared those with a more computationally (and linguistically) demanding “General relativistic Magnetohydrodynamic” or GRMHD simulation.

You can see those in a combination of two images from the paper here:

Images of simulated black holes and how their data might appear to sensors on Earth.

Image Credits: EHT

The idea was to find which of the simulations produced results most like those they actually saw, and while there was no runaway winner, the ring and GRMHD sims (which it must be said were rather ringlike — produced the most consistent results. This informed the way the data was interpreted for the final interpretation of the data and resultant image. (Note that I am broadly summarizing a wildly complex process here.)

Considering these observations were made some five years ago and much has happened since then, there’s still plenty to investigate and more simulations to run. But they had to hit “print” at some point and the image at top is their most informed interpretation of the data produced. As observations and simulations stack up we can no doubt expect even better ones.

In fact, as the University of Texas, San Antonio’s Richard Anantua put it at the Q&A session, you might even give it a shot yourself.

“If you’re in sixth grade, and you can get access to some of your school’s computers, I think there’s EHT imaging, and we have all sorts of pipelines and tools that you can teach your class,” he said, seemingly only half joking. “The data for some of this is public — so you can start working on this now and by the time you’re in college, you pretty much have an image.”

U.K. taps Virgin Orbit to launch first satellites from its own soil this summer

The United Kingdom has a small but growing space industry, with the number of space-related organizations increasing by an average of 21 percent each year since 2012, but there is one key component it’s lacking — launches. There have been no space launches from U.K. soil, but that’s about to change.

The U.K. has announced Prometheus-2, a Ministry of Defence mission that will see the launch of two cubesats from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay this summer. The satellites will test GPS and imaging instruments that will allow “for a more collaborative and connected space communication system with our allies,” according to the press release. Those allies include the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, with whom the U.K. Ministry of Defence is partnering on the mission.

The Ministry of Defence has selected Virgin Orbit, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and a sister company to space tourism operator Virgin Galactic, as its launch system for the Prometheus-2 mission. This will mark the first time the Long Beach–based space company has launched overseas — it has previously launched three successful orbital missions from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Virgin Orbit offers a horizontal launch system — that is, it launches its LauncherOne rocket mid-air from the belly of a modified Boeing 747 aircraft named Cosmic Girl. (Yes, that technically means the launch will be from U.K. airspace rather than U.K. soil, but hey — at the least the plane still takes off from the ground.)

The U.K. government hopes that Prometheus-2 will herald a new space era for the country. “These satellites showcase the U.K.’s strengths in designing and building satellites,” Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the U.K. Space Agency, said in the press release. “Being able to launch from the U.K. and across Europe for the first time will boost our satellite industry further, create high skilled jobs across the country, and deliver a key ambition of the National Space Strategy.”

Venus Aerospace CEO is making flying faster and greener without sacrificing family time

This week on Found, we are talking to the co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace.

Sassie Duggleby is leading the team at Venus Aerospace to develop a spaceplane that could go from LA to Tokyo in an hour. Sassie sets the tone that her team doesn’t have to adhere to the typical startup-up grind to solve some serious deep tech issues. In fact, she believes people work better when they’re well-fed, rested, and able to have a life outside of work. After working in aerospace her entire career, she wanted Venus to be a welcoming sustainable place to work for all types of people.

She talked with Darrell and Jordan about honoring the company’s namesake–Venus, the goddess of love–and loving her customers and her employees well, all while working to bring the world closer together with greener, more efficient travel. 

Take our listener survey and let us know a bit about yourself and what you think of FOUND.

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Max Q: Rocket booster, meet helicopter

Hello and welcome back to Max Q.

In this issue:

  • Rocket Lab’s milestone booster recovery
  • Ursa Major and Phantom Space
  • News from NASA, SpaceX and more

Don’t forget to sign up to get the free newsletter version of Max Q delivered to your inbox.

Rocket Lab briefly catches booster mid-air using helicopter for the first time

Rocket Lab achieved a landmark victory in its quest toward full reusability by briefly catching the Electron first stage in mid-air via a helicopter. While the recovery was not without its issues — the helicopter dropped the booster into the ocean shortly after attaching to it — it’s a successful step forward for company.

The “There and Back Again” mission also successfully deployed 34 payloads to space for customers, including Aurora Propulsion Technologies, Spaceflight Inc. and E-Space.

“After the catch the helicopter pilot noticed different load characteristics than we’ve experienced in testing,” Rocket Lab’s senior communications advisor Murielle Baker said. “At his discretion, the pilot offloaded” the booster, where it was recovered via a waiting ship, she added.

The company has been working toward this first full test of its recovery plan for months, including a mission last November that stationed a helicopter near the booster’s ocean splashdown point.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

You can rewatch the launch on Rocket Lab’s YouTube channel here.

Ursa Major lands order from Phantom Space for hundreds of rocket engines

Hundreds of rocket engines manufactured by startup Ursa Major will be going to space company Phantom Space over the next few years, part of a massive order that reflects Phantom’s bullish stance on the small launch market.

“We placed the order based on how far out we could see the demand, and we see the demand as pretty strong and growing,” Phantom co-founder Jim Cantrell told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “We’re putting our money on the small mass manufacture of mass-produced launchers as being both the more cost effective and ultimately, the more efficient way to get small satellites into orbit.”

Both Phantom and Ursa represent a different approach to the launch market, one that relies more on stable supply chains, mass manufacturing and a horizontal ecosystem rather than the vertical integration typically found in the aerospace industry. Joe Laurienti, who founded Ursa in 2015, previously worked on propulsion at both SpaceX and Blue Origin — two strong “New Space” examples of the kind of vertical integration Ursa and Phantom eschew.

Phantom has put in an order for more than 200 engines from Colorado-based Ursa, the startup’s largest single order to date. Ursa has developed two engines: the Hadley, which has 5,000 pounds of thrust, and the larger Ripley, which can generate 50,000 pounds of thrust. Phantom has purchased both types of engines for its two rocket types under development, dubbed Daytona and Laguna. If all goes to plan, Phantom anticipates the first batch of these engines taking flight as early as next year, with the inaugural test flight of the small-lift, two-stage Daytona.

ursa major hadley

Image Credits: Ursa Major

More news from TC and beyond

  • Boeing‘s beleaguered Starliner spacecraft is “performing great” and ready for the long-awaited May 19 launch, executives said during a media briefing.
  • Crew-3 astronauts, the quartet that’s been aboard the International Space Station since November, departed from the station in a SpaceX Dragon capsule and splashed down back to Earth on Friday.
  • NaraSpace Technology, a South Korean startup developing high-resolution imaging nanosatellites, closed a 10 billion won ($7.88 million) Series A round.
  • NASA Administrator Bill Nelson denounced cost-plus contracts in favor of fixed-price contracts, which he said save money and promote competition, during a Senate subcommittee hearing on the agency’s FY23 budget proposal. Under cost-plus contracts, companies are awarded for their expenses plus an additional fee, while fixed-price are…well, exactly what they’re named.
  • Rocket Lab’s next launch will be a cubesat for NASA called Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), now that issues with the kick stage of Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite bus have been resolved, SpaceNews reported.
  • Satellogic signed a multi-launch agreement with SpaceX for 68 Earth observation satellites.
  • Space Launch System, NASA’s multibillion-dollar rocket, will likely get a chance at another wet dress rehearsal in the first half of June, with a launch attempt in August, pending the wet dress, NASA’s Jim Free told reporters.
  • SpaceX activity at its Starbase in southeastern Texas has already been correlated with a decline in numbers of a migrant bird species, according to documents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service obtained by CNBC via a Freedom of Information Act request.
  • SpaceX’s Starlink should be subject to an environmental review before expanding its constellation of broadband satellites, competitor Viasat told regulators.
  • Starlink now has a portability feature that lets customers “temporarily” move their service to different locations within the same continent as their service address, for $25 a month.
  • Stratolaunch successfully concluded the fifth test flight of Roc, its carrier aircraft that the company envisions as a launchpad for hypersonic flight.
  • World View, a space tourism company developing a stratospheric space balloon ride, said it hit 1,000 reservations this week. Each reservation costs $500, for flights costing $50,000.

Photo of the week

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft being hoisted atop ULA‘s Vulcan rocket. Image Credits: United Launch Alliance.

Max Q is brought to you by me, Aria Alamalhodaei. If you enjoy reading Max Q, consider forwarding it to a friend. 

Read more stories on TechCrunch.com

GPS signals could detect tsunamis better and faster than seismic sensors

GPS networks are already a crucial part of everyday life around the world, but an international team of scientists has found a new, potentially life-saving use for them: tsunami warnings.

Researchers from University College London and universities across Japan studied the ability of the GPS network to detect tsunamis, concluding that instruments can indeed detect the destructive waves from space. They’ve also determined that GPS can provide more detailed information than current detection systems — at an extremely low cost — allowing authorities to issue more accurate warnings in advance of a tsunami’s impact on shore.

Tsunamis are created when ocean water is dramatically displaced by earthquakes, landslides, or volcanic eruptions. In the deep ocean, the waves are usually less than a foot high, but as they approach land at speeds up to 500 miles per hour, they grow in height rapidly before inundating a shoreline. GPS networks can detect these waves long before they reach land.

Though the disturbance at the ocean’s surface is slight, it’s enough to create a ripple effect through the atmosphere. As air is pushed upward, an acoustic wave travels all the way to the ionosphere, some 186 miles above the Earth, amplifying in scale as it travels. There, the density of electrons in the ionosphere is reduced by the wave, which directly affects the radio signals sent from GPS satellites to ground receivers. The researchers have developed a way to interpret the changes in radio signals to glean critical information about tsunamis.

Animation of particles disturbing the ionosphere above a tsunami.

Image Credits: University College London

Currently, tsunami warnings are issued based on seismic activity. The warnings are not necessarily very accurate, only indicating that a tsunami may happen at some point in the near future, but providing little other detail.

“In 2011, Japan’s warning system underestimated the [Tōhoku] wave’s height. A better warning may have saved lives and reduced the widespread destruction that occurred, allowing people to get to higher ground and further away from the sea,” Professor Serge Guillas of UCL Statistical Science and the Alan Turing Institute and senior author of the paper said in a press release. “Our study, a joint effort by statisticians and space scientists, demonstrates a new method of detecting tsunamis that is low-cost, as it relies on existing GPS networks, and could be implemented worldwide, complementing other ways of detecting tsunamis and improving the accuracy of warning systems.”

The researchers suspect that if GPS data had been used during the Tōhoku disaster, an accurate tsunami warning could have been issued at least 10 minutes before the wave reached land, potentially giving more people time to prepare for impact.

The team believes that with further research, they will be able to more precisely determine the size and shape of tsunamis based on GPS radio signals.

“From my experience of working for the Japanese government in the past and seeing the damage caused by the tsunami, I believe that if this research comes to fruition, it will surely contribute to saving lives,” said Ph.D. researcher Ryuichi Kanai of UCL Statistical Science and the Alan Turing Institute, who co-authored the paper.

The researchers’ study was published in the journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences last month.

Starlink adds $25/month ‘Portability’ feature that lets users move their internet around

Starlink has introduced a new paid add-on feature that lets customers “temporarily” move their service to different locations — anywhere within the same continent as their permanent service address that is currently served by Starlink satellite availability. The add-on will cost an additional $25 per month for users in the U.S.

Of course, you’ll also need to move your Starlink dish and connectivity hardware around to take advantage of this, which might not be so easy for some (users can go to elaborate lengths to get their Starlink dish mounted with a clear eyeliner to the sky free of any tree cover).

The $25 charge also means Starlink’s total price creeps up even higher, which could be a difficult pill to swallow for some after monthly fees rose to $110 per month in March. All-told, if you want Starlink’s regular service plus the ability to hop in the RV and set up with high-speed internet wherever you fall within Starlink’s coverage zones and have a decently clear view of the sky, you’ll be paying $135 per month. On the other hand, Starlink offers the kind of flexibility and reach that traditional internet providers (and many mobile network operators) just can’t.

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With this service addition, Starlink is more than ever the internet option of choice for digital nomads, too. Maybe this’ll usher in an era of software engineers roving the nation from state park to state park in a fleet of modified classic Airstreams.