Aeva and NASA want to map the Moon with lidar-powered KNaCK pack

As humanity prepares to return to the Moon (“to stay,” as they remind us constantly), there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built to make sure astronauts are safe and productive on the lunar surface. Without GPS, navigation and mapping is a lot harder — and NASA is working with lidar company Aeva to create a tool that scans the terrain when ordinary cameras and satellite instruments won’t cut it.

The project is called KNaCK, or Kinematic Navigation and Cartography Knapsack, and it’s meant to act as a sort of hyper-accurate dead reckoning system based on simultaneous location and mapping (SLAM) concepts.

This is necessary because for now, we have no GPS-type tech on the Moon, Mars, or any other planet, and although we have high-resolution imagery of the surface from orbit, that’s not always enough to navigate by. For example, at the South Pole of the Moon, the fixed angle of the sun results in there being deep shadows that are never illuminated, and brightly baked highlights that you need to careful how you look at. This area is a target for lunar operations due to a good deal of water below the surface, but we just don’t have a good idea of what the surface looks like in detail.

Lidar provides an option for mapping even in darkness or bright sunlight, and it’s already used in landers and other instruments for this purpose. What NASA was looking for, however, was a unit small enough to be mounted on an astronaut’s backpack or to a rover, yet capable of scanning the terrain and producing a detailed map in real time — and determining exactly where it was in it.

Concept image of a backpack-mounted lidar.

Concept image of a backpack-mounted lidar.

That’s what NASA on for the last couple years, funded through the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s “Early Career Initiative,” which since its launch in 2019 aims to “Invigorate NASA’s technological base and best practices by partnering early career NASA leaders with world class external innovators.” In this case that innovator is Aeva, which is better known for its automotive lidar and perception systems.

Aeva has an advantage over many such systems in the fact that its lidar, in addition to capturing the range of a given point, will also capture its velocity vector. So when it scans a street, it knows that one shape is moving towards it at 30 MPH, while another is moving away at 5 MPH, and others are standing still relative to the sensor’s own movement. This, as well as its use of frequency-modulated continuous wave tech instead of flash or other lidar methods, means it is robust to interference from bright sunlight.

Luckily, light works the same, for the most part anyway, on the Moon as it does here on Earth. The lack of atmosphere does change some things a bit, but for the most part it’s more about making sure the tech can do its thing safely.

“There’s no need to change the wavelengths or spectrum or anything like that. FMCW allows us to get the performance we need, here or anywhere else,” said Aeva CEO Soroush Salehian. “The key is hardening it, and that’s something we’re working with NASA and their partners on.”

“Because we’ve packaged all our elements into this little gold box, it means that part of the system isn’t susceptible to things going on because of a change in atmospheric conditions, like vacuum conditions; that box is sealed permanently, which allows that hardware to be applicable to space applications as well as terrestrial applications,” explained James Reuther, VP of technology at Aeva.

It still requires some changes, he noted: “Making sure we’re good in a vacuum, making sure we have a way to thermally reject the heat the system generates, and tolerating the shock and vibe during launch, and proving out the radiation environment.”

The results are pretty impressive — the 3D reconstruction of the Moon landing exhibit in the top image was captured in just 23 seconds of collection by walking around with a prototype unit. (The larger landscape was a bit more of a trek.)

NASA scientists are out there testing the technology right now. “Out there” as in the project lead, Michael Zanetti, emailed me from the desert:

The project is progressing excellently. The KNaCK project is currently (that is right now, today and this week) in the desert in New Mexico field testing the hardware and software for science data collection and simulated lunar and planetary surface exploration mission operations. This is with a team of scientists and engineers from NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) RISE2 and GEODES teams. We’re collecting data with Aeva’s FMCW-LiDAR to make 3D maps of the geologic outcrops here ( to make measurements of slope, trafficability, general morphology), and to evaluate how mission operations can make use of person-mounted LiDAR systems for situational awareness.

And here they are:

Researchers attach a lidar unit to another's back in the desert.

Image Credits: NASA

Zanetti said they’ll also soon be testing the Aeva lidar unit on rover prototypes and in a large simulated regolith sandbox at Marshall Space Flight Center. After all, a tech suitable for autonomous driving here on Earth may very well be so for the Moon as well.

An interesting related application for this type of lidar in lander and rover situations is in detecting and characterizing clouds of dust. This could be used for evaluating environmental conditions, or estimating the speed and turbulence of a landing, and other things — one thing we know for sure is it makes for a cool-looking point cloud:

Animation of a drone kicking up a dust cloud, as seen through a lidar unit.

Image Credits: NASA

Once completed, KNaCK should be able to simultaneously map an astronaut’s surroundings in real time and tell them where they are and how fast they’re going. This would all feed into a larger system, of course, being relayed back to a lander, up to an orbiter, and so on.

All that is TBD, of course, while they hammer out the basics of this promising but still early stage system. Expect to hear more as we get closer to actual lunar operations — still a few years out.

VP Harris: US commits to no anti-satellite tests that fill orbit with debris

The U.S. has declared it will no longer perform anti-satellite missile testing, a practice nearly universally deplored by the space community for its tendency to fill orbit with dangerous debris. Vice President Harris announced the new policy today in hopes of leading by example — though it hasn’t been that long since we were doing this too.

The anti-satellite commitment is the first in a planned series of new “space norms” being contemplated by the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State Department and others concerned about the safety and security of orbital operations.

Being able to take out a satellite in orbit is one of those capabilities that military forces around the world just love to demonstrate, generally under the fig leaf of showing it can remotely deorbit a malfunctioning piece of their own hardware. Of course, the primary purpose is to show they can knock anyone else’s birds out of the sky, should that be deemed necessary.

China performed an ASAT operation in 2007; the U.S. did one in 2008; India took its turn in 2019; and Russia most recently in late 2021.

Though everyone claims they know more or less how the debris cloud and other factors will play out, the simple fact is each of these operations blasts hundreds or thousands of objects into uncontrolled trajectories. With thousands of satellites being launched yearly now these untracked debris events are not an academic threat.

At a visit to Vandenberg Space Force Base, Harris said the U.S. will to no longer conduct “destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile testing,” which leaves things open to lasers and other methods, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. The U.S. “seeks to establish this as a new international norm for responsible behavior in space.”

It’s a tricky thing, getting people to agree about what can be done in space and how, since it’s legally speaking rather a wild west even with numerous agreements and pacts in place.

“There are tons of different norms conversations happening — there’s no one size fits all solution for how to develop them,” said Robin Dickey, space policy analyst at the Aerospace Center for Space Policy and Strategy. “The approach that you take is likely to be very different depending on the content and context.”

Sometimes that means working with partner agencies to find shared best practices; sometimes it’s going through the U.N. to make sure it’s a global conversation; sometimes (this time, for example) a unilateral decision is made in the hopes that it will establish a new normal. Though 2008 and our last ASAT test wasn’t that long ago, the space community has changed immeasurably since then and what was merely inadvisable at that time is now unconscionable. (The cynics may point out that, having demonstrated the capability, there’s no reason for us to do so again, making this commitment a bit redundant.)

“Setting these common expectations for what’s acceptable and not acceptable in space is a crucial step to make sure that space is safe and usable for all in the decades to come,” Dickey said.

Of course in the context of Russia and China disconnecting their space programs from those in the U.S., Europe and beyond, there’s a more pointed purpose to this — establishing more actions like the most recent test as not just unwise but out of step with international expectations.

Max Q: Up, up and away

Hello and welcome back to Max Q. The big news from me this week is that…I’m buying Twitter! Just kidding. But I do occasionally tweet over at @breadfrom; say hi, or send an email to aria.techcrunch@gmail.com.

In this issue:

  • Diversity and inclusion in the space industry
  • A roundup of Elon’s antics
  • This week with founder Luisa Buinhas

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

Major space companies pledge to boost diversity and publicly share hard numbers

This week 24 companies, including ULA, SpaceX, JPL and Rocket Lab, pledged to improve diversity and inclusion, with regular check-ins to keep each other honest. What, specifically, does that mean? According to the Space Workforce 2030 pledge, the companies agreed to “significantly increase the number of women and employees from underrepresented groups in our collective technical workforce,” and in senior leadership positions; to work with universities to improve the diversity of aerospace engineering programs; and to sponsor K-12 programs that reach at least 5 million kids annually.

The companies say they will aggregate their numbers on the employment goals and present them at the Space Symposium conference each year. They’ll also meet to share best practices, and encourage others to join the pledge.

Image Credits: Getty Images

Our coverage of Elon’s Twitter bid

Stay with me here: Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter isn’t exactly space news, but seeing as how Musk is the head of the world’s most successful space company, it feels worth mentioning. TechCrunch covered the story from a few different angles; I’ve rounded them up below:

elon musk

Image Credits: Getty Images

This week with…Luisa Buinhas

Luisa Buinhas is a space systems engineer and co-founder of German startup Vyoma GmbH, a venture that aims to join observational data of space debris with satellite operations. Vyoma won the Startup Space pitch competition at Satellite 2022.

TechCrunch: What are you working on? 

Luisa Buinhas: At Vyoma, I support Phase B activities of our satellite mission. Critically, on this very week, we are conducting the final evaluations of potential ground communications networks that we will use to talk to our satellites. At the same time, I intend to finalize and submit to DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt, or German Aerospace Center) a proposal we have on the pipeline dealing with automation of decision-making in space traffic management.

What’s something that happened in the news in the last week that you can’t stop thinking about?

The announcement of three new heavy-lift rockets that will put thousands of Amazon’s Project Kuiper satellites in low-Earth orbits. In total, 3,236 new satellites will be added to an already crowded space in the coming years. Although there is value in providing broadband connectivity, particularly to remote corners of the world, this will further stress an over-congested space environment and exacerbate the issue of space debris.

Seven billion people on the planet depend on space-based services, from navigation to communications and weather forecast. With the increase in space traffic, the risk of these services start being disrupted because of in-orbit collisions (between satellites or between satellites and debris) rises exponentially, bringing life here on Earth to a standstill — even flights cannot take off without satellite services! As a tragedy of the commons, this is yet another reminder of the extreme importance of keeping our orbits clean for generations to come.

What are you looking forward to next week?

Since we moved to a new office here in Munich recently, I look forward to decorating it with new furniture and matching wall art this week. On a personal level, a friend of mine who I have not seen (in person) in three years is coming to Munich tomorrow and I could not be happier to catch up. Finally, Easter is just around the corner, so I look forward to catching a flight back to Lisbon for a few days and go chocolate egg hunting with family. To our dismay, our dog always ends up discovering (sniffing out) the secret locations where we hide the chocolate, so Easter games are a lot more fun for her.

What song has been on repeat?

Lately, I’ve had a huge nostalgia of my teenage years living in São Paulo, Brazil, so Zeca Pagodinho (“Seu Balancê”) and Zélia Duncan (“Catedral”) have heavily featured on my playlists.

More news from TC and beyond

  • Axiom Space‘s Ax-1, the company’s first fully private mission, docked with the ISS on Saturday morning. The four-person crew will spend eight days aboard the station.
  • Northrop Grumman began construction on a 25,000-square-foot facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that provide space systems engineering and integrated mission operations services the U.S. military.
  • Pythom Space responded to safety concerns raised by folks in the industry and the media after the startup released a video of a test of the first stage of its Eiger rocket. (You can watch the video below.) “Virgin had several accidents, including fatalities,” the startup says. “ABL blew up their second stage last month, Astra have been blowing up more rockets than we can count. What puts them and Pythom apart is neither that we are safer or more unsafe. The difference is we are more transparent.”
  • Rocket Lab broke ground on a 250,000-square-foot facility in Virginia where it will manufacture the Neutron rocket. The site is adjacent to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, and near to Rocket Lab’s existing launch pad for the Electron rocket and a second launch pad site for Neutron.
  • Space Capital published its Space Investment Quarterly report for the first quarter of this year. The firm found that $7.2 billion was invested into 118 space companies in Q1. Investment in the top 10 rounds made up $4.4 billion, or 61% of that overall number.
  • Space Perspective released a first look of the interior of Spaceship Neptune, the company’s suborbital passenger capsule. Space Perspective wants to sell six-hour luxury journeys to suborbital space, with each ticket coming in at $125,000.
  • SpaceX scored a contract from South Korea to launch five Earth observation satellites onboard a Falcon 9 by 2025.
  • Texas Governor Greg Abbott said he will work to ensure that SpaceX’s operations remain in the state. “I have worked with Elon Musk very closely with regard to Tesla and the Giga factory in Austin, Texas,” he said. “And we will be working with him very closely, every step of the way in Boca Chica for the future of SpaceX. We want that future and that vision to come from Boca Chica, from Brownsville, Texas.”
  • United Launch Alliance ordered 116 RL10C-X engines for its Vulcan Centaur rocket from Aerojet Rocketdyne. This is the largest order for RL engines ever, Aerojet said.

Pythom Micro-Jump from Pythom on Vimeo.

Finally…a favor

Found, the TechCrunch podcast where founders talk about the stories behind their startups, is nominated for a Webby for best technology podcast. Help them win the People’s Voice Award by casting your vote before April 21 here.

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

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Max Q: One small step for man

Hello and welcome back to Max Q. It was a big week for private spaceflight. As usual, send feedback, comments and tips to aria.techcrunch@gmail.com. You also can catch me on Twitter at @breadfrom.

In this issue:

  • Axiom Space’s first mission heads to the ISS
  • Astranis purchases a dedicated Falcon 9 flight
  • A week with founder and VC Jordan Noone

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

Axiom Space heads to the ISS in historic mission

Axiom Space’s inaugural fully private space mission is a go. The four-person crew took off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center inside a SpaceX Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket on Friday, where they headed to the International Space Station for an eight-day stint.

This is the first of many planned missions for Axiom, which aims to send its next batch of private citizens to the ISS in 2023. Axiom is not only in the business of private spaceflight — the company was also tapped by NASA to install commercial modules on the ISS, with the first module going up in late 2024. The company’s eventual aim is to separate the modules and operate them as a new station upon the ISS’ retirement at the end of the decade.

Rewatch the mission here:

Astranis contracted an entire Falcon 9 for a mission next summer

San Francisco-based startup Astranis has purchased a dedicated launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. That’s right: Instead of using a “rideshare” model, where multiple companies split the cost of launch, Astranis has booked out the entire rocket, in an exclusive mission that the company says will put its package of four communications satellites closer to their target orbit in a much faster amount of time.

“We’re actually using substantially less than the max capability of a Falcon 9,” Astranis CEO and founder John Gedmark explained. “This is just four small satellites that [will be] on there. So we’re actually able to use all of that extra performance to put those four satellites much closer to GEO than you would normally be able to do with this kind of launch.”

Astranis manufactures MicroGEO satellites, so named because they are much smaller and lighter than the typical geostationary communications satellites that are in orbit today, coming in at around 1/20th the size and cost. The four satellites that will launch next summer already have dedicated customers, including Latin American telco company Grupo Andesat and Anuvu, which provides internet connectivity on airplanes and cruises.

This week with…Jordan Noone

Jordan Noone is co-founder and founding CTO of Relativity Space, and also co-founded both Embedded Ventures and KittyCAD. Before that, he led University of Southern California’s Rocket Propulsion Laboratory for two years, overseeing the development and launch of the first two entirely student-built rockets with capability of reaching the altitude of space, over 100km high. Those flights resulted in him becoming the first student, and youngest person in the world, to get FAA clearance to fly a rocket to space. From there, he worked on crewed spaceflight propulsion systems at both Blue Origin as an intern, and then SpaceX full-time, before starting Relativity in 2015 when he was 22 years old.

TechCrunch: What are you working on? 

Jordan Noone: My time is split between Embedded Ventures, the venture capital fund that Jenna Bryant and I founded together in 2020, and KittyCAD as CEO, which is a startup we spun out of the fund last year. Embedded invests in dual-use space startups beyond launch, riding the disruption wave of falling launch costs from the last two decades of commercial launcher development. KittyCAD brings code to hardware, providing code infrastructure for hardware design automation. They both branch out from my co-founding Relativity Space and as CTO for the first six years — Embedded: investing in the future applications of launch, next-generation additive manufacturing and next generation digital engineering tools for hardware design — and KittyCAD: solving the bottlenecks on the design floor of cutting-edge hardware companies, rather than what we solved through 3D printing on the factory floor at Relativity.

What’s something that happened in the news in the last week that you can’t stop thinking about?

My alma mater, USC, through a donation from the Embedded Ventures team, brought back Project Payload: a program in which middle school-aged girls experience what it’s like to have a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through the design of rockets, payloads and satellites, along with programming. These hands-on programs are instrumental in creating interest in STEM for individuals under-represented in those fields today. A portion of the donation from Embedded Ventures will be made in honor of Summer Medford, a 2019 Project Payload alumna, who passed shortly after graduation from the program. We first learned about the program when Relativity sent volunteers to support the project years ago, however after that year, the previous donor cut the support for the program.

What are you looking forward to next week?

I’ve been fortunate to be on the entrepreneurial journey that I’ve had. The only goal that has ever resonated with me is to make the opportunity for that journey easier and more accessible for the next generation. That’s why we started Embedded, to support founders and tech areas overlooked by the mainstream venture community. That’s why we support programs like Project Payload and our other education outreach work. KittyCAD provides the tools needed by innovators designing world-changing hardware, Relativity allows iteration and imagination to flow freely in some of the world’s most complex hardware projects. I look forward to next week, and all my weeks, because they are full of the work required to see that goal happen. I am surrounded by equally ambitious people and teams working towards either the same goal, or goals that I believe in seeing happen.

What song has been on repeat?

The beat from KittyCAD’s new website.

More news from TC and beyond

  • Amazon’s Project Kuiper, its massive plan to build a high-speed internet satellite constellation, came closer to materializing when the retail giant signed major launch agreements with United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin and Arianespace. The three agreements could be worth up to 83 launches and billions of dollars.
  • Astroscale will resume its orbital debris clean-up demonstration mission, despite four of the eight thrusters on the spacecraft being out of commission. The company paused the mission in January due to a number of technical issues, including the thrusters.
  • NASA is developing two space-based methods for monitoring climate change: one provides global estimates of aboveground forest biomass and carbon stores, and the second uses satellite data to develop a method of monitoring underground water loss.
  • Rocket Lab will attempt a mid-air capture of the Electron rocket for the first time during the company’s next mission, which is scheduled to launch during the second half of this month.
  • SpaceX has hit another bump in the road to the first orbital test flight of its super-massive rocket Starship. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended the company’s application to expand the Starbase launch facility due to SpaceX’s failure to provide certain information, Bloomberg reported.
  • SpinLaunch scored a NASA contract to test the company’s unique approach to sending payload to space. SpinLaunch is developing a system that uses a large, vacuum-sealed chamber and a hypersonic tether to spin a spacecraft at a high enough velocity to escape the atmosphere.
  • Type One, a U.S.-based VC firm, is launching a $50 million fund for space and deep tech companies. The new fund will be based in the U.S. with an office in London.

“America’s multi-use spaceport”

My favorite photo of the week: A view of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket next to NASA’s Space Launch System, the first time two different types of rockets made to carry humans have been on launch pads at Kennedy Space Center at the same time. The photo was tweeted out on KSC’s Twitter page.

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

Major space companies pledge to boost diversity and publicly share hard numbers

The world of aerospace has come a long way from the boys’ club it once was, but there’s still a ways to go. Today 24 companies, including major ones old and new like ULA, SpaceX, JPL and Rocket Lab, pledged to improve diversity and inclusion, with regular check-ins to keep each other honest.

The Space Workforce 2030 pledge is just that, a pledge, and not some set of shared concrete actions, but getting a couple dozen major space companies to agree on the exact steps that need to be taken would take years. So the companies have agreed to “significantly increase the number of women and employees from underrepresented groups in our collective technical workforce,” and in senior leaderships positions; to work with universities to improve the diversity of aerospace engineering programs; and to sponsor K-12 programs that reach at least 5 million kids annually.

In order to reduce the chance that this is all just lip service, each company will aggregate its numbers on the employment goals and present them at the Space Symposium conference each year. They’ll also meet to share best practices, and will attempt to hustle others into the pledge.

I’ve already witnessed the latter promise in action; I happened to be moderating a panel of interesting space industry people as this announcement was propagating, so I asked them for their thoughts on the pledge and what’s needed in the world of DEI. Here are their (lightly edited) comments:

Melanie Stricklan, CEO of Slingshot Aerospace (signatory):

It helps us build better teams, it helps us build better products, it helps us build a better industry, and this industry needs more diversity, badly. When we started Slingshot, my goal was to have 50/50, 50% men and 50% women, and we just hit that goal. It’s leader-led, we have to make sure that every single person we hire who’s a leader in this company buys into DEI. So that it’s not just a CEO saying hey we want this — it has to be cultivated on a regular basis.

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab (signatory):

I was hesitant to sign that pledge because I wanted to see what actual work was going on, because there’s a lot of virtue signaling in a lot of these things. I’m the father of an eight-year-old daughter and I see the stereotypings literally evolving in front of my eyes. So at Rocket Lab many years ago we said, ‘Right, we’re going to mandate that 50% of all our interns are going to be female.’ And that’s great, you can mandate something, but if you don’t do the work it’s a complete waste of time. So the team went out and we visited, I think, something like 200 schools… you have to get in super early, you’ve got to build the pipeline. Actually create the change, not just sort of sign onto change.

From left, Peter Beck, Melanie Stricklan, Jessica Robinson, and Meagan Crawford on a panel, moderated by Devin Coldewey.

From left, Peter Beck, Melanie Stricklan, Jessica Robinson and Meagan Crawford on a panel, moderated by Devin Coldewey. Image Credits: Space Foundation

Jessica Robinson, co-founder of Assembly Ventures:

For women in particular, if you can see it, you can be it. But I’m not sure this group really appreciates how strange it is that we’re three women on this panel… we do not get the chance to sit as female investors on panels together very much. At our fund, with the power of the purse what’s really critical to us is making sure we find the best companies that are going to change the world and how we move. And boy are we stupid if we don’t go look for great founders in great places that haven’t been looked at before! So we mentor in a program that supports LGBTQ founders, I do a lot of work to support women founder and investors, and in Detroit, my hometown, we do a lot of work with young students, students of color, to get them exposed to STEM.

Meagan Crawford, managing partner at Spacefund:

In my early career as a startup exec myself I was often the only woman in the room, whether it was a space meeting or a finance world, so both of those worlds have a little trouble with this. I had a misconception before I joined this industry that it was all rocket scientists and engineers, no offense. The reality is there’s so much more to this industry, it’s an industry like any other — we need accountants, we need marketing people, we need teachers, we need everything. So I like to interview women from all around the industry that have these different backgrounds, these different career choices. One of my favorite stories is Kelly Larson, CEO of Aquarian Space; she started out as a yoga instructor, now she’s the CEO of a space startup. That’s an amazing journey! And I want women all over the world to know that no matter what their career, no matter what their educational background is, that there’s a place for them in this industry.

Thanks to the panel for their input and insight on this matter and others.

Here’s the full list of signatories as of this writing:

  • Roy Azevedo, President Raytheon Intelligence & Space
  • Payam Banazadeh, CEO at Capella Space
  • Peter Beck, CEO at Rocket Lab
  • John Elbon, COO of United Launch Alliance
  • Jim Chilton, Senior VP of Space & Launch at Boeing
  • Eileen Drake, CEO and President at AeroJet Rocketdyne
  • Michael Colglazier, CEO at Virgin Galactic
  • Tim Ellis, CEO at Relativity Space
  • John Gedmark, CEO at Astranis Space Technologies
  • Steve Isakowitz, CEO at The Aerospace Corporation
  • Larry James, Acting Director at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Daniel Jablonsky, CEO at Maxar Technologies
  • Robert Lightfoot, EVP of Lockheed Martin Space
  • Dave Kaufman, President at Ball Aerospace
  • Chris Kemp, CEO at Astra
  • Will Marshall, CEO at Planet
  • Dan Piemont, President at ABL Space Systems
  • Peter Platzer, CEO at Spire Global
  • Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer at SpaceX
  • Melanie Stricklan, CEO at Slingshot Aerospace
  • John Serafini, CEO at HawkEye 360
  • Dylan Taylor, CEO of Voyager Space
  • Amela Wilson, CEO at Nanoracks
  • Tom Wilson, President Space Systems at Northrop Grumman
  • Bob Smith, CEO at Blue Origin

Watch Axiom Space send crew of 4 to the International Space Station in historic mission

If you needed any more convincing that we’ve entered a new era of human spaceflight, this mission should finally settle it for you. Houston-based startup Axiom Space will be launching the first fully private crewed mission to the International Space Station on Friday, the start of a ten-day mission that will likely be the first of many for the company.

The Ax-1 mission will take off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 at approximately 11:17 AM ET. The four-person crew should arrive at the ISS on Saturday and spend a total of eight days aboard the station.

The crew includes:

  • Former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who will act as commander of the mission. López-Alegría has completed four spaceflights, spent over 257 days in space, and logged 10 spacewalks totaling 67 hours and 40 minutes. He currently works as Axiom’s VP of business development.
  • Real estate investor Larry Connor, who will be the mission pilot.
  • Former Israeli pilot and investor Eytan Stibbe, who will act as a mission specialist.
  • Canadian investor Mark Pathy, who will be the second mission specialist.

Connor, Stibbe and Pathy all paid for their tickets; though the exact price hasn’t been released, it’s likely in the tens of millions, Axiom CEO Michael Suffredini suggested. While aboard, the crew will be engaging in a number of scientific experiments — and indeed, Axiom has stressed the scientific, rather than touristy, nature of the flight.

“I think there’s an important role for space tourism, but that’s not what Axiom is about,” López-Alegría told reporters in February. The crew “are not space tourists,” he said.

A second mission to be led by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, Ax-2, is planned for early 2023.

Axiom is not only in the business of private spaceflight. The company was also tapped by NASA to install commercial modules on the ISS, with the first module going up in late 2024. The company’s eventual aim is to separate the modules and operate them as a new station upon the ISS’ retirement at the end of the decade.

“This mission really represents a significant milestone for our plans for the development of a sustainable [low Earth orbit] economy,” Angela Hart, NASA’s commercial LEO program manager, said during a media briefing Thursday.

It’s time to address the role of New Space firms in global security

The geopolitics of space is nothing new. Cold War rivalry spurred the Space Race, and space has stayed in the purview of national competition ever since. From the control of GPS to support military decision-making to satellite-based communications or precise imagery to assist humanitarian organizations and refugee flows in high-risk countries, governments have a clear and present interest in what happens in outer space. More recently, space has emerged as a battlefield in global security.

Yet despite this precedent, highly specialized companies are increasingly shaping the geopolitics of space. First, as governments increasingly depend on private capabilities to act in space, space companies have obtained an unprecedented level of influence over the development of certain details and capabilities in national space operations. For the first time, strategic competition over space is as much based on the private as the public sector. And as independent actors, New Space firms have a much more important presence in outer space. By launching their own private equipment, they have changed the way global security in, from, and to space has been long understood.  Space, in short, is no longer only about governments.

Near equals?

That doesn’t mean New Space companies have entirely displaced governments from space; public investments in space are still higher than the private ones. For example, from 2008 to 2017 government-led funding grew by 44% and the private sector accounted for a lower share of space launches. Five years later, the figures are quite similar.

Read more from the TechCrunch Global Affairs ProjectBut the nature of how private firms work in space is also changing. Space-specialized companies continue to support government projects as legacy firms like Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Raytheon did. However, New Space firms have gained a higher level of autonomy and decision-making with respect to government.

In the 1980s there was limited access to government projects for the commercial market in satellite-powered remote sensing. However, once the intelligence community started to need high-resolution imagery — for example,  to monitor military forces movements across the planet — government limitations fueled the opening of a new market for specialized private space companies to develop these products.

As New Space firms provide a high level of specialization in their services portfolio, the relationship between governments and private firms became less one of “prime contractors,” and more of a public-private partnership of near equals. Before, NASA defined “what” and “how” capabilities should be developed; now, the government defines the goal (the “what”) and top-level requirements, while leaving the details of how to do it to industry.

As a result, governments increasingly rely on space specialized firms not just to provide tailored responses to pressing demands, but to help them be at the forefront of global strategic competition. This is the case of the European Union’s CASSINI Space Investment Fund of at least $1 billion for startups, and the Chinese government’s D60 decision in 2014 to enable large private investment in space companies. Until then, the Chinese market was restricted to two state-owned enterprises (CASIC and CASC). But since 2014, the space industry has grown exponentially — see Galactic Energy or Spacety —  exporting its wares to third countries under the Digital Silk Road, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa, or attracting foreign talented workforce, as MinoSpace does.

This cycle has become a virtuous one for New Space firms: In order to remain competitive in space, governments have become dependent on some of their services and products. Interstate politics has made way for space firms to have a greater influence in the way governments compete with each other.

The crowded frontier

Space firms are also shaping the geopolitics of space by their mere presence, itself a novelty. For example, the Chinese government stated that its space station was forced to activate preventive collision avoidance control when it encountered StarLink satellites. Also, NASA postponed a spacewalk from the International Space Station over concerns about space debris, although it is not that easy to distinguish debris produced by private and public actors.

The rise in New Space firms acting autonomously in outer space has shed light on some geopolitical vacuums that have not been addressed until now. Let’s think about the risks that may arise for democratic countries if a privately led space capability is “kidnapped” by terrorist groups, organized crime or other unlawful actors. Or the need for mutual trust between governments and private sectors upon any sort of cyberattack to a satellite that manages sensitive data for people’s protection and welfare.

Without common rules between public and private stakeholders, policy vacuums will endure. Simply put, the unprecedented pace at which these firms have taken flight means existing multilateral fora have not created yet the necessary mechanisms to address these pressing challenges. This should be of interest for countries supporting democratic principles, because in addition to the traditional challenges of space, there are new issues where private firms have a greater role and these need to be addressed from a democratic perspective.

It is undoubtedly clear that New Space companies are reshaping the global competition over outer space. They are influencing the way governments interact and compete with other countries, and they also have a greater, autonomous presence in outer space by creating facts “in the air.”

With so many actors in space, we can no longer afford to operate without common understanding and rules between them. There is now a pressing need to set up global multistakeholder dialogues to address the New Space age, its global security implications and the needs and demands of individual and emerging players, be they countries or private firms.

Governments will continue having a major role in the decision-making of global norms, as they are the core of political representation. However, the new age of space cooperation is already here; the time to create new norms and protocols is now.
Read more from the TechCrunch Global Affairs Project

NASA finds two new space-based ways to track climate change

We often think of NASA as an agency that looks outward into space, but it’s the agency’s position in space that makes it such a powerful tool for observing the Earth itself. Today NASA announced the results of two space-based studies observing climate change across the planet.

The first is a data set from the ​​Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) mission, a high-resolution lidar instrument aboard the International Space Station (ISS) that has estimated the total amount of above-ground forest biomass and its carbon storage capacity. That information can now be used by researchers studying the role of forests in mitigating climate change.

Over the past three years, GEDI has taken billions of laser measurements of vegetation around the globe. That data has been combined with airborne and ground-based lidar surveys to create detailed 3D biomass maps that indicate the total amount of vegetation in a one-square-kilometer area. With those maps, researchers will be able to better estimate the amount of carbon that is stored in forests.

“Resolving the structure of different forest and woodland ecosystems with much more certainty will benefit not only carbon stock estimation, but also our understanding of their ecological condition and the impact of different land management practices,” John Armston, GEDI’s lead for validation and calibration and an associate research professor at the University of Maryland, said in a press release.

Illustration showing how a lidar signal can tell the height of tree cover.

Image Credits: NASA

The second item is a joint project between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, which used satellite data to develop a method of monitoring underground water loss, a serious matter for the agriculture industry. Researchers observed California’s Tulare Basin with the U.S.-European Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and GRACE Follow-On satellites and a European Space Agency (ESA) Sentinel-1 satellite.

The groundwater in the Tulare Basin is pumped to irrigate the state’s Central Valley, a major agricultural center in the United States, and its supply is dwindling. The satellite data provided the team the context to develop a model that monitors the rate and type of water loss underground.

“​​The method sorts out how much underground water loss comes from aquifers confined in clay, which can be drained so dry that they will not recover, and how much comes from soil that’s not confined in an aquifer, which can be replenished by a few years of normal rains,” wrote NASA in a press release.

Even as NASA looks to return to the moon, the agency has reiterated its commitment to Earth science missions. NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy addressed the agency’s prioritization of climate change research at the 37th annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, this week.

“This year with our international partners, we initiate the Earth System Observatory, a series of Earth-observing satellites that will measure key parameters to improve the world’s understanding of climate change,” she said at the conference. “As we have measured Earth in the past, we’ve discovered that the most important thing to quantify is not just water or weather or soil moisture or any individual thing, but actually to study Earth as a system. And so NASA’s work here in the Earth System Observatory is critical for the entire planet.”

SpinLaunch scores NASA test mission to demonstrate its unique launch method

SpinLaunch aims to change how we get to orbit by shooting payloads skywards from the surface at 5,000 MPH, and now it has a shiny new NASA contract to show off its capability later this year.

We’ve been hearing about SpinLaunch for years, but until fairly recently its idea for accelerating mass to orbit by means of a sort of underground centrifuge was, shall we say, only lightly substantiated.

It works by using a rotating arm in a large vacuum chamber, spinning faster and faster until the vehicle it’s holding is finally let out of an exit tube. In some ways a simple idea (essentially a giant sling), it is of course not so simple to engineer. But a low-altitude test launch late last year showed that they could at least fire a payload at 1,000 MPH and recover it.

The system is a work in progress but the prospect of reducing the fuel and mass of even suborbital payloads by more than half is clearly enticing to NASA, which signed a Space Act agreement with SpinLaunch to test it out.

Illustration showing the size of the planned accelerator.

A test deployment is scheduled for later this year, when SpinLaunch will send a NASA payload up at supersonic speeds and recover it shortly thereafter. The two organizations will then examine the performance of the mission and evaluate its usefulness for future launches, as well as publishing any non-confidential results online.

I’ve asked SpinLaunch for further details on the project and will update this post when I hear back.

Astranis is contracting an entire Falcon 9 rocket to launch four satellites next year

San Francisco-based startup Astranis has purchased a dedicated launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, eschewing the less expensive “ride-share” model favored by new space companies for an exclusive mission that Astranis says will put its package of four communications satellites closer to their target orbit in a much faster amount of time.

“We’re actually using substantially less than the max capability of a Falcon 9,” Astranis CEO and founder John Gedmark explained. “This is just four small satellites that [will be] on there. So we’re actually able to use all of that extra performance to put those four satellites much closer to GEO than you would normally be able to do with with this kind of launch.”

How much faster? At least twice as fast, cutting down the time from up to six months to as little as three months. Purchasing a dedicated launch on a Falcon 9 — a first amongst space companies — also means that Astranis will have much more control over when the rocket takes off and the payload insertion orbit.

Astranis manufactures MicroGEO satellites, so named because they are much smaller and lighter than the typical geostationary communications satellites that are in orbit today, coming in at around 1/20th the size and cost. The geostationary piece is key: while many companies, including SpaceX, are looking to commercialize low-cost satellite internet broadband in low Earth orbit, Astranis plans to send its spacecraft to geosynchronous orbit, the band where companies like ViaSat currently operate. Once placed in GEO, each satellite will service one area, following a fixed rotation with the Earth’s surface.

“We’re huge fans of what some of these other companies are trying to do with LEO constellations — it’s just a very different approach,” Astranis CEO and founder John Gedmark told TechCrunch previously. “We have the ability to put up one satellite at a time and focus bandwidth right where it’s needed, and do that quickly. The smaller constellations, they are very much an all-or-nothing proposition — the entire constellation has to be in place to begin service. And then they have some other challenges ahead of them as well, like ground antennas, unique tracking.”

Astranis’ first satellite, called Arcturus, will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy ride-share mission sometime this spring. When that satellite enters service later this year, the capacity will be leased exclusively to Alaskan satellite middle-mile provider Pacific Dataport Inc. Astranis said it will triple Alaska’s currently available satellite bandwidth while providing cheaper and more reliable broadband.

The four satellites that will launch on the Falcon 9 next summer also have dedicated customers: one will deliver broadband internet access to rural Peru in a $90 million agreement with Latin American telecom company Grupo Andesat; and two will be leased to Anuvu, a company that provides internet connectivity on airplanes and cruises. A separate customer that has yet to be announced will lease the bandwidth from the fourth satellite. The four satellites launching next summer will include a number of technical upgrades, including some upgrades on the radio payload and the propulsion system which will extend the lifespan of the spacecraft.

As all of these deals illustrate, Astranis’ business model is a bit different than other communications satellite operators. Instead of selling directly to consumers (again, à la Starlink), the company leases out bandwidth to communications providers, who then sell the internet connectivity directly to consumers.

“A lot of people are mobile first,” Gedmark said. “They have phones, they have smartphones, and they’re still stuck on 2G internet connections on those phones.” Instead of selling those people internet packages or hardware, Astranis aims for its satellites “to provide extra capacity for cell backhaul,” he said. “By boosting the capacity for cell backhaul, you allow telcos to expand their coverage areas and cell towers out in the most remote places in the entire world.”

The company, which aims to have 100 MicroGEO satellites in orbit by 2030, raised $250 million in a round led by BlackRock-managed funds and which catapulted its post-money valuation to $1.4 billion. Since then, Astranis has scaled to around 250 people, and is in the process of kickstarting a new, 150,000 square foot factory, a historic building it is subleasing from ride-share giant Uber. The four satellites that will be launching next summer will be manufactured there.