ICEYE CEO Rafal Modrzewski is obsessed with SAR satellites. He’s so obsessed that his company plans to launch dozens of satellites into space. According to him, ICEYE satellites should be much better than existing SAR satellites — call it the Tesla or satellites if you want. That’s why I’m excited to announce that Modrzewski is coming to TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin to speak.
SAR stands for synthetic-aperture radar. There are already many SAR satellites around the earth, observing the surface of the planet. But they weigh hundreds of kilograms and cost a small fortune to put into space.
While consumer electronics have greatly benefited from miniaturization, the same can’t be said about space. But ICEYE thinks it’s time to make satellites smaller.
The company’s SAR satellites only weigh around 70 to 80 kilograms. It’s a cost-effective solution, which means it’s much cheaper to build a complete constellation. The company is aiming for 18 fully operational satellites around the planet.
In many ways, ICEYE is a tech achievement. And the fact that the company operates like a startup makes the venture even more interesting.
If you want to hear Modrzewski tell you more about what they’ve been working on, you should come to Disrupt Berlin. The conference will take place on November 29-30 and you can buy your ticket right now.
In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.
Co-founder & CEO, ICEYE
Rafal Modrzewski is the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of ICEYE. ICEYE aims to launch and operate a constellation of micro-SAR satellites providing access to timely and reliable Earth observation data. ICEYE is the first company that has successfully miniaturized a SAR satellite, creating a unit that is 100x more cost-effective than traditional counterparts. With its 18 satellite constellation, ICEYE offers its partners a set of unprecedented satellite imaging capabilities, accessing any area of interest faster, more frequently and at lower cost.
Since co-founding the project in 2012, which became the company in 2014, with Pekka Laurila, Modrzewski is responsible for overseeing the organization’s growth and implementing ICEYE’s overall vision. Modrzewski brings with him deep domain expertise in SAR engineering, and he has received the 2018 Forbes 30 under 30 Technology award based on the world-first achievements of ICEYE.
Prior to co-founding ICEYE, Modrzewski researched innovative products at VTT (Technical Research Centre of Finland) in the RFID and wireless sensing group. He attended Warsaw University of Technology in Poland, where he studied Electrical Engineering and co-founded the Multimedia Technologies Science Group. Modrzewski continued his studies in Radio Science and Engineering at Aalto University where he led the on-board data handling team working on Aalto-1, Finland’s flagship satellite project.
SpaceX is changing the lineup at the Seattle-based offices of Starlink, the company’s nascent satellite broadband division. A Reuters report depicts a whirlwind visit by CEO Elon Musk as a middle management bloodbath, but SpaceX says it’s just the usual fast-moving space company stuff.
Starlink plans to put thousands of satellites into space with which to blanket the world in broadband — SpaceX isn’t the only aspirant to this plan, but it is farther along than some. It launched a pair of prototype satellites in February, Tintin A and B, which are reportedly working perfectly well as ongoing test platforms.
Space is no place to rush into, however, but that clashed with aggressive timelines set by Musk years ago and apparently not quite being met. Reuters reported that several leads on the project were pushing for more testing, and Musk visited Seattle to provide a kick in the pants.
Among those reported fired were VP of satellites Rajeev Badyal and designer Mark Krebs, both of whom have overseen the project through and after launch. SpaceX did not directly confirm their departures but confirmed that Starlink had seen significant restructuring.
“We have incorporated lessons learned and re-organized to allow for the next design iteration to be flown in short order,” a SpaceX representative told TechCrunch, saying the move was consistent with the “rapid iteration design and testing” the company is known for.
Will it be enough to put more birds in the air by mid-2019, as Musk hopes? That remains to be seen, but the SpaceX strategy of launching early and often has so far paid off in the long run, so perhaps this maneuver will as well.
After nine years of service, half a million stars surveyed, and thousands of planets discovered around those stars, NASA’s astonishingly successful Kepler space telescope is finally taking a well-earned rest. Out of fuel but in a safe orbit, the spacecraft will drift through the solar system looking at nothing in particular as its immense trove of data continues to drive discoveries here on Earth.
Kepler launched in 2009 after, as is so often the case, decades of preparation, studies, and delays. Its mission, slated to last three and a half years, was to stare unblinkingly at one small patch of sky, watching each star for the minute changes that could indicate a planet briefly blocking its light.
The mission was successful beyond all expectations, and once the telescope was operational the data began producing exoplanets not by the dozen but by the thousand. And some came closer to an Earth analogue than astronomers had dared hope — suggesting rocky planets about our size aren’t all that rare. (Good news if we need to relocate.)
Kepler’s “first light” image showing its original field of view.
In 2014 the original mission was complete but Kepler was still going strong, largely due to robust construction and frugal fuel use. A second mission, dubbed K2, was approved, different from the first: instead of looking at a single patch for years, Kepler would shift its view to a new location every three months. Naturally the number of stars catalogued and observed skyrocketed.
Not all was well aboard, though: The craft lost one of its four reaction wheels, used to reorientate the craft against the pull of the sun and other forces, though fortunately it was designed to function without all of them. It was only the later failure of another wheel that essentially put a hard time limit on K2.
Without a reaction wheel to change its direction along all three axes, Kepler would have to burn precious fuel every time it needed to change its view or spin around to send data home.
But the end has come at last, and Kepler used the last of its reserves to maneuver into position to relay its final batch of data through the Deep Space Network. This, like the rest, will soon be available to citizen scientists and research organizations as well as NASA’s own teams.
“When we started conceiving this mission 35 years ago we didn’t know of a single planet outside our solar system,” said Kepler’s founding principal investigator, William Borucki, since retired. “Now that we know planets are everywhere, Kepler has set us on a new course that’s full of promise for future generations to explore our galaxy.”
Having delivered its last package, Kepler has completed its final duty and now enters a rather pleasant retirement. Unlike Cassini, which ended up a new crater on Saturn’s surface (a sudden but glorious end), Kepler will simply fall into an Earth-like orbit some distance behind its home planet, likely to remain stable (barring the extraordinarily unlikely possibility of a cosmic debris strike) for many years to come.
We won’t hear from Kepler, and Kepler won’t hear from us. But it’s nice to think it’ll still be looking.
Humanity is about to return to the hottest planet in the solar system. BepiColombo is a mission to Mercury conducted jointly by the European and Japanese space agencies, due to launch from French Guiana at 6:45 PM Pacific time tonight aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. But while there’s just the one launch, there are two spacecraft.
The broadcast starts at 6:15; you can watch the launch at this link or the bottom of this post.
The last time we visited Mercury wasn’t actually that long ago. NASA’s Messenger mission arrived there in 2011 and spent four years orbiting the planet and collecting data before impacting the surface at nearly 9,000 MPH (don’t worry, they planned that).
BepiColombo is a follow-up to Messenger in a way, but it’s very much it’s own thing. To start with, there’s the fact that it’s two spacecraft, not one. They’ll launch together and travel to the planet attached to each other and the Mercury Transfer Module, after which point they’ll separate into ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter and JAXA’s Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (called MIO).
Having two spacecraft opens up a lot of possibilities. One can emit a signal that bounces off the planet as is picked up by the other, for instance. Or one can watch the shady side of the planet while the other monitors the sunny (and extremely hot) side.
Speaking of heat, Mercury is of course the closest planet to the sun, so these spacecraft are going to be exposed to some serious radiation. The MPO will use a sun shield to keep the worst of the heat off, using a big radiator for the rest, and the MIO will spin as it travels along, doing a complete revolution every 4 seconds so that no one side is exposed to the sun for too long. Both craft also have highly heat-resistant materials and electronics, many of which are flying for the first time.
MIO and MPO are equipped with a host of scientific instruments, and will be able to look more closely at features of phenomena identified by Messenger. The latter checked out the magnetosphere in the northern hemisphere of the planet, for instance, and BepiColombo will fill that in with readings from the southern one. Messenger also identified some interesting features around the poles, and MPO will have an orbit that takes it right over them — not to mention a better camera.
In order to achieve a stable orbit around Mercury the craft will have to perform a few loops and gravity assists, including two of Venus. The team is taking the opportunity to point their instruments at our neighboring planet; we haven’t visited there in a long time.
The mission isn’t expected to be a very long one — BepiColombo’s spacecraft will not only be exposed to serious radiation and temperature swings, but the proximity to the sun means they’ll constantly be fighting against its gravity, meaning fuel will run out fast.
Still, MIO and MPO are expected to stay in orbit for about one Earth year, which would be four Mercurial years. If they’re still in good shape and there’s still budget for it, the mission could be extended for another year — but by that point it seems likely that fuel reserves will be running low.
BepiColombo has been a long time in the making — it was approved 18 years ago! But it’s launching at last and when it arrives (in seven more years) we should expect to learn a lot more about this weird, boiling hot planet. You can watch the launch live here; broadcast should start at 6:15 Pacific time.
The market for small satellites in low Earth orbit is expanding faster than the gas in a thruster nozzle, and Vector aims to be the go-to launch platform for companies looking to put a bird in the air on short notice. The company just raised a $70 million B round and aims to take its first payload into space early next year.
Smaller launch systems are already helping bring down the cost of going to orbit, but there’s still a huge amount of room to improve. Satellites and experiments are still waiting for years, or at least more than a few months, for their chance to get to LEO. Vector is hoping to be the company they come to when they want to launch on the scale of weeks.
Of course, that kind of quick turnaround isn’t easy. You have to build hundreds of rockets to be prepared for demand, but that’s exactly Vector’s plan. Naturally this requires a considerable amount of capital.
After doing a lot of groundwork with Defense Dept. and NASA grants, the company raised a $1M seed round back in 2016, and expanded with a $21M round the next year led by Sequoia. The numbers keep on growing with today’s $70M round, led this time by Kodem Growth Partners.
“Vector is entering an extremely important phase of our journey, transitioning from a focus on research and development to flight operations and profitability. This Series B financing is a critical element in Vector’s mission to improve access to space and become a dominant launch provider to the small satellite industry,” said CEO and co-founder Jim Cantrell in a press release.
The company has already done sub-orbital proving flights of its launch system, and the first orbital launch is scheduled for December. They’ll be taking off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Alaska — date TBD. Once orbital launch capability is established, Vector will be getting a lot of calls, so some of the money will go towards sales and marketing personnel, which should roughly double its presence in Silicon Valley,
But the bulk of the new funds will be dedicated to the establishment of a new rocket manufacturing facility in Tucson. You don’t build hundreds of launch vehicles with some second-hand factory.
The company’s original roadmap had orbital launch late last year, but in this business it’s better to be a little late and get things right. That said the vision for the rocket itself hasn’t been adjusted substantially.
“The original design of the Vector-R launch vehicle has largely remained the same since the founding of Vector and the acquisition of Garvey Spacecraft Corporation in 2016 (where the initial design was developed over a 15yr process),” explained co-founder and chief sales and marketing officer Shaun Coleman.
Demand has been sustained for the 50-60kg payload capacities the company is looking to offer, Coleman noted; a heavy configuration that can lift up to 290kg is also underway. (For comparison, a SpaceX Falcon 9 can lift around 25,000kg of payload. These are very small rockets and that’s by design.)
We’ll know more about Vector’s first orbital launch as we approach it. In addition to Kodem, Morgan Stanley Alternative Investment Partners, Sequoia, Lightspeed, and Shasta Ventures all contributed to the round.
Everyone knows about the space pen. NASA spent millions on R&D to create the ultimate pen that would work in zero gravity and the result was this incredible machine. Well, no. In fact it was made by a pen manufacturer in 1966 — but it wasn’t until October of 1968 that it went into orbit and fulfilled its space pen destiny.
The pen was created by pen maker (naturally) Paul Fisher, who used $1 million of his own money to create the AG-7 anti-gravity pen. As you may or may not know, the innovation was a pressurized ink cartridge and gel ink that would deploy reliably regardless of orientation, temperature or indeed the presence of gravity.
He sent it to NASA, which was of course the only organization reliably worried about making things work in microgravity, and they loved it. In fact, the Russians started using it shortly afterwards, as well.
Walt Cunningham, Wally Schirra and Donn Eisele took the pens aboard with them for the Apollo 7 mission, which launched on October 11, 1968, and they served them well over the next 11 days in orbit.
A 50th anniversary edition of the pen is now available to people who have a lot of money and love gold stuff. It’s $500, a limited edition of 500, and made of “gold titanium nitride plated brass,” and it comes with a case and commemorative plaque with a quote from Cunningham:
“Fifty years ago, I flew with the first flown Space Pen on Apollo 7. I relied on it then, and it’s still the only pen I rely on here on Earth.”
Okay, that’s pretty cool. Presumably astronauts get a lifetime supply of these things, though.
Here’s to the Fisher space pen, an example of American ingenuity and simple, reliable good design that’s persisted in use and pop culture for half a century.
The high-profile failure of a normally reliable Soyuz rocket during a crewed mission to the International Space Station earlier this week spooked the space community in more ways than one, but NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said he expects to launch a new crew in December via Soyuz anyway.
Speaking to reporters at the US embassy in Moscow (as reported by the AFP), Bridenstine observed that “not every mission that fails ends up so successful.” and indeed the malfunctioning rocket very fortunately did not cause any loss of life, as the escape system built into the launch hardware functioned as designed.
Astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin landed safely some 250 miles away from the launch site after the capsule detached about 90 seconds into launch and deployed its parachute.
Although it’s too early for investigators to tell what went wrong, Bridenstine is apparently confident enough in the Soyuz system and the team at Roscosmos that he indicated a new crewed capsule could go up before the end of the year.
“I fully anticipate that we will fly again on a Soyuz rocket and I have no reason to believe at this point that it will not be on schedule,” he said.
That mission would be in December, meaning the current 3-person crew aboard the ISS wouldn’t have to extend their stay (as some thought they might), nor would the ISS have to fly empty for any period of time. The latter possibility made many uneasy, as the ISS is designed to be able to fly solo for a while, but it would be risky to have no one there in case of problems, and many experiments could also fail.
The Soyuz launch system is the only one currently available to send humans to space. SpaceX and Boeing are working hard on changing that but their solutions are a long way from ready. If some serious flaw were to be found in the Soyuz system it would essentially maroon humanity on the Earth until a solution is found. Fortunately Soyuz has proven itself many times over and it’s more likely that it will fly again soon.
Bridenstine’s confidence doesn’t launch a rocket on its own of course — the investigation of the rocket failure continues and the two space agencies will have to negotiate how to put a new crew in the station ahead of the original schedule. But for now it sounds like space will remain in our reach.
Even for those of us born decades after the event itself, Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon remain among history’s most iconic and indelible images. Can a Hollywood movie tell us anything new about that moment?
With “First Man” (which opens today), “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle certainly tries. The film climaxes with an eerie and beautiful dramatization of Apollo 11, and with Armstrong’s famous words about a giant leap for mankind. But it’s what comes before that feels revelatory — the film’s fastidious attention to the training, the mistakes and the disasters that all led up to that moment.
Most of those details come from real life, according to screenwriter Josh Singer (who won an Oscar for co-writing “Spotlight”). His starting point was James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong (who’s played in the film by Ryan Gosling), and Singer said he was also able to pepper Hansen, as well as Armstrong’s sons Mark and Rick, with questions.
That doesn’t mean everything in the film sticks to the historical record. In fact, Singer said that one of the things he tried to do in the annotated screenplay was to highlight the areas where the movie diverged from reality. But even then, it seems like the moments when Singer made things up or fudged the facts weren’t all that far from reality.
“We felt a tremendous responsibility to Neil and his family,” he said. In addition, he noted that “anytime you’re treading in territory that’s been written about a lot, you feel that it’s a little bit of a higher bar.”
For example, while the film shows the Gemini astronauts using a multi-axis trainer to prepare for weightlessness, it’s not totally clear whether they actually used the trainer (basically a giant whirling machine) or the “vomit comet” plane.
Ultimately, Singer said they decided to go with the trainer despite the uncertainty because it “just felt better storywise,” foreshadowing a later scene in the film. Similarly, he said that while the LLRV crash shown in the movie was real, Armstrong’s actual injuries consisted of “a bloody tongue and trouble talking.” However, to convey that “he really did almost die,” Singer and Chazelle decided to show external injuries, rather than “making Ryan talk funny.”
In Singer’s view, it was the research that allowed him to write a film that “pushes [against] the historical narrative” around the space program. To be clear, it’s not a wildly revisionist film — I walked out of the theater admiring Armstrong, his colleagues and what they accomplished. But Singer said he wanted to show that “there really was a human cost here.”
“That’s a fairly provocative thing to say,” he argued. “The majority of the portraits of these men show the stiff upper lip. In that way, we’re trying to do what Steven [Spielberg] was trying to do with ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ show the human side. Why was this the greatest generation? Not because they were inherently great, but because they were willing to sacrifice.”
Singer said that the idea of sacrifice has contemporary relevance governments and private companies plan to return to space exploration. He recalled being a child and hearing Ronald Reagan’s speech after the Challenger disaster, where the president declared, “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
“Those lines are just so powerful,” Singer said. “They sum up everything that this effort requires.”
Similarly, the film shows some of the broader social and political context of the Apollo missions, with protesters (quite understandably) criticizing the extraordinary cost of the program when there were so many unsolved problems here on Earth.
“That question was much more prominent than people remember,” Singer said. “We think that at the time, everybody was all gung-ho, but it just wasn’t the case.”
For Singer, though, the answer to “Is it worth it?” is clear. It’s expressed early in the film when Armstrong is asked why he wants to go to space. In response, he recounts going up in an F15 and looking down at the atmosphere, a view that gives him an entirely new perspective on Earth.
“There’s a certain faith involved: I don’t know what I’m going to see, but I’m going to learn something, that’s why we explore,” Singer said. “I’d like to think that actually, this movie is an argument for why to buck the trends and the criticism and the questions. That it is worth our time, and effort, and money, and sacrifice.”
And it sounds like Armstrong’s family is happy with the results. For his part, Rick Armstrong told me via email that Gosling and Claire Foy (who plays Rick’s mother Janet) “do an excellent job of capturing memories that I have.
“For example I was very glad to see that some of my Dad’s sense of humor comes through in the film, because he really was a pretty funny guy,” Armstrong said. “Claire’s portrayal is just so spot on that I don’t know how it could have been better. She was a very tough and independent woman and I think that comes through brilliantly.”
Rick and his brother Mark didn’t just consult on the film — they also had cameos (Rick told me, “I have a new appreciation for the patience required by everyone involved in movie making, there are long hours and a lot of sitting around!”), and they spoke out after Senator Marco Rubio suggested (absurdly) that the film might not be patriotic enough.
When I asked Rick how he sees the moon landing now, he said he agreed with his father that it was far more than a personal accomplishment.
“I believe it was a national accomplishment of 400,000 people that committed themselves to a goal and who all put in long hours and extra effort to make the impossible become possible, as well as the American taxpayers that footed the bill for it, and the government that authorized it,” Armstrong said.
“It was a global one in the sense that it was done on behalf of ‘all mankind’, as they went to great lengths to present it as a human achievement,” he continued. “Furthermore, our leadership rightly used the moon landing as a platform to improve relations with other countries based on scientific achievement, and of course, used it as a bridge with the Soviet Union to bring the Cold War to an end.”
A fault in a Soyuz rocket booster has resulted in an aborted crew mission to the International Space Station, but fortunately no loss of life. The astronauts in the capsule, Nick Hague (U.S.) and Alexey Ovchinin (Russia) successfully detached upon recognizing the fault and made a safe, if bumpy, landing nearly 250 miles east of the launch site in Kazakhstan. This high-profile failure could bolster demand for U.S.-built crewed spacecraft.
The launch proceeded normally for the first minute and a half, but at that point, when the first and second stages were meant to detach, there was an unspecified fault, possibly a failure of the first stage and its fuel tanks to detach. The astronauts recognized this issue and immediately initiated the emergency escape system.
Hague and Ovchinin in the capsule before the fault occurred.
The Soyuz capsule detached from the rocket and began a “ballistic descent” (read: falling), arrested by a parachute before landing approximately 34 minutes after the fault. Right now that’s about as much detail on the actual event as has been released by Roscosmos and NASA. Press conferences have been mainly about being thankful that the crew is okay, assuring people that they’ll get to the bottom of this and kicking the can down the road on everything else.
Although it will likely take weeks before we know exactly what happened, the repercussions for this failure are immediate. The crew on the ISS will not be reinforced, and as there are only 3 up there right now with a single Soyuz capsule with which to return to Earth, there’s a chance they’ll have to leave the ISS empty for a short time.
The current crew was scheduled to return in December, but NASA has said that the Soyuz is safe to take until January 4, so there’s a bit of leeway. That’s not to say they can necessarily put together another launch before then, but if the residents there need to stay a bit longer to safely park the station, as it were, they have a bit of extra time to do so.
The Soyuz booster and capsule have been an extremely reliable system for shuttling crew to and from the ISS, and no Soyuz fault has ever led to loss of life, although there have been a few issues recently with DOA satellites and of course the recent hole found in one just in August.
This was perhaps the closest a Soyuz has come to a life-threatening failure, and as such any Soyuz-based launches will be grounded until further notice. To be clear, this was a failure with the Soyuz-FG rocket, which is slated for replacement, not with the capsule or newer rocket of the same name.
SpaceX and Boeing have been competing to create and certify their own crew capsules, which were scheduled for testing some time next year — but while the Soyuz issues may nominally increase the demand for these U.S.-built alternatives, the testing process can’t be rushed.
That said, grounding the Soyuz (if only for crewed flights) and conducting a full-scale fault investigation is no small matter, and if we’re not flying astronauts up to the ISS in one of them, we’re not doing it at all. So there is at least an incentive to perform testing of the new crew capsules in a timely manner and keep to as short a timeframe as is reasonable.
Accion Systems, the startup aiming to reinvent satellite propulsion with an innovative and tiny new thruster, has attracted significant investment from Boeing’s HorizonX Ventures. The $3 million round should give the company a bit of breathing room while it continues to prove and improve its technology.
“Investing in startups with next-generation concepts accelerates satellite innovation, unlocking new possibilities and economics in Earth orbit and deep space,” said HorizonX Ventures managing director Brian Schettler in a press release.
Accion, whose founder and CEO Natalya Bailey graced the stage of Disrupt just a few weeks ago, makes what’s called a “tiled ionic liquid electrospray” propulsion system, or TILE. This system is highly efficient and can be made the size of a postage stamp or much larger depending on the requirements of the satellite.
Example of a TILE attached to a satellite chassis.
The company has tested its tech in terrestrial facilities and in space, but it hasn’t been used for any missions just yet — though that may change soon. A pair of student-engineered cubesats equipped with TILE thrusters are scheduled to take off on RocketLab’s first big commercial payload launch, “It’s Business Time.” It’s been delayed a few times but early November is the next launch window, so everyone cross your fingers.
Another launch scheduled for November is the IRVINE 02 cubesat, which will sport TILEs and go up aboard a Falcon 9 loaded with supplies for the International Space Station.
The Boeing investment (Gettylab also participated in the round) doesn’t include any guarantees like equipping Boeing-built satellites with the thrusters. But the company is certainly already dedicated to this type of tech and the arrangement is characterized as a partnership — so it’s definitely a possibility.
Natalya Bailey and Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures) at Disrupt Berlin 2017.
A Boeing representative told me that this is aimed to help Accion scale, and that the latter will have access to the former’s testing facilities and expertise. “We believe there will be many applications for Accion’s propulsion system, and will be monitoring and assessing the tech as it continues to mature,” they wrote in an email.
I asked Accion what the new funding will be directed towards, but a representative only indicated that it would be used for the usual things: research, operations, staff expenses, and so on. Not some big skunk works project, then. The company’s last big round was in 2016, when it raised $7.5 million.