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Watch live as SpaceX tests the limits of Falcon 9 reusability with sixteenth Starlink satellite launch

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SpaceX is set to launch its sixteenth Starlink mission on Monday at 9:34 PM EST (6:34 PM PST). This launch will carry 60 of the company’s broadband internet satellites to low-Earth orbit, where they’ll join the existing constellation and contribute to its growing network of eventually global coverage. The launch is also significant because it will potentially set a new record for Falcon 9 rocket reusability – this marks the seventh flight for the first stage booster flying tonight.

The booster SpaceX is using for this mission previously flew in August, June and January of this year, as well as May 2019, January 2019 and also September 2018. And that’s no the only way that this is SpaceX’s most reusable flights ever – the fairing covering the payload of satellites on top of the rocket includes one half that flew on one mission previously, and another half that supported not one, but two prior missions before being recovered and refurbished.

Of course, it’ll also be furthering SpaceX’s mission with Starlink, which is ultimately to provide fast, low-latency and relatively low-cost broadband internet access to hard-to-reach areas around the world. SpaceX has launched nearly 900 satellites for Starlink to date, and began operating its ‘Better Than Nothing’ early beta in parts of Canada last week, in addition to the areas in the U.S. where it’s offering this early access service.

The launch livestream will begin above at around 15 minutes prior to liftoff, or at around 9:19 PM EST (6:19 PM PST).

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Investors Lockheed Martin Ventures and SpaceFund are coming to TC Sessions: Space 2020

The space industry, once dominated by government-funded programs and a small handful of corporations, has seen a surge in startups in recent years. And with startups aplenty, the venture firms can never be far behind.

Venture capital has played an increasingly important role in rooting out the best and most promising of these startups. The stakes are even higher for the venture arms of corporations. Corporate venture firms are on the constant hunt for the technology that will keep their companies relevant for decades to come.

That’s why we’re excited to announce that Chris Moran, executive director and general manager at Lockheed Martin Ventures, and Meagan Crawford, managing partner at SpaceFund, will join us at our TC Sessions: Space event on December 16 & 17.

Moran leads Lockheed Martin Ventures efforts to invest in small technology businesses that support the company’s larger strategic business objectives. Prior to joining Lockheed Martin, Moran served in a variety of positions at Applied Materials Inc., most recently as the head of the business systems and analytics group.

More from the TC Sessions: Space agenda

Crawford isn’t just managing partner at SpaceFund . She’s an experienced space startup executive and founder. As the host of the Mission Eve podcast, she aims to increase the number of women in the space industry and is frequently featured as a thought leader on the industry’s development and investment potential. Crawford also chairs the board of the non-profit Center for Space Commerce and Finance.

She has more than a decade of experience helping educate entrepreneurs and investors through the NewSpace Business Plan Competition, which she started running in 2009. As a manager, coach and judge for the last decade, she has read over 1,000 space business executive summaries, coached hundreds of selected teams, and helped award cash prizes to dozens of NewSpace startups.

Crawford and Moran are tapped in and ready to share with the TechCrunch audience their insights and forecasts for our collective space future. We’ll dig into what their respective companies are paying attention to, the challenges and opportunities of COVID-19 and if a changing administration will change their investment strategy.

Starting today, we’re offering a BOGO deal. Buy one Late Registration ticket for $175 and get one free. You and a colleague pay just $87.50 each — that’s less than the early bird price. Booyah! We’re here all week folks…and this deal ends on Sunday, November 29, at 11:59 p.m. PST.

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Relativity Space raises $500 million as its sets sights on the industrialization of Mars

3D-printed rocket startup Relativity Space has closed $500 million in Series D funding (making official the earlier reported raise), the company announced today. This funding was led by Tiger Global Management, and included participation by a host of new investors including Fidelity Management & Research Company, Baillie Gifford, Iconiq Capital, General Catalist and more. This brings the company’s total raised so far to nearly $700 million, as the startup is poised to launch its first ever fully 3D-printed orbital rocket next year.

LA-based Relativity had a big 2020, completing work on a new 120,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Long Beach. Its rocket construction technology, which is grounded in its development and use of the largest metal 3D printers in existence, suffered relatively few setbacks due to COVID-19-related shutdowns and work stoppages since it involves relatively few actual people on the factory floor managing the 3D printing process, which is handled in large part by autonomous robotic systems and software developed by the company.

Relativity also locked in a first official contract from the U.S. government this year, to launch a new experimental cryogenic fluid management system on behalf of client Lockheed Martin, as part of NASA’s suite of Tipping Point contracts to fund the development of new technologies for space exploration. It also put into service its third-generation Stargate 3D metal printers – the largest on Earth, as mentioned.

The company’s ambitions are big, so this new large funding round should provide it with fuel to grow even more aggressively in 2021. It’s got new planned initiatives underway, both terrestrial and space-related, but CEO and founder Tim Ellis specifically referred to Mars and sustainable operations on the red planet as one possible application of Relativity’s tech down the road.

In prior conversations, Ellis has alluded to the potential for Relativity’s printers when applied to other large-scale metal manufacturing – noting that the cost curve as it stands makes most sense for rocketry, but could apply to other industries easily as the technology matures. Whether on Mars or on Earth, large-scale 3D printing definitely has a promising future, and it looks like Relativity is well-positioned to take advantage.

We’ll be talking to Ellis at our forthcoming TC Sessions: Space event, so we’ll ask him more about this round and his company’s aspirations live there, too.

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Watch SpaceX launch a satellite that will monitor the world’s oceans

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SpaceX is set to launch a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Saturday morning, with a target liftoff time of 9:17 AM PST (12:17 PM EST). This is the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich Mission, which carries a satellite of the same name developed by the European Space Agency, NASA, and both U.S. and European meteorological monitoring bodies.

The Sentinel-6 is named for former NASA Earth Science Division Director Michael Freilich, who occupied the position between 2006 and 2019 and passed away in August. It’s one of two Sentinel-6-series satellites that will be launched for the program, with the Sentinel-6B set to join the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich sometime in 2025.

SpaceX will be looking to recover the Falcon 9 first stage booster with a powered landing back on Earth at Landing Zone 4 at Vandenberg. This is the first SpaceX launch from Vandenberg since June of last year, though it has flown plenty of missions from both Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The webcast above will go live approximately 15 minutes prior to the liftoff time, so at around 9:02 AM PST (12:02 PM EST). Should this mission have to be canceled today, there’s a backup opportunity set for Sunday at 9:04 AM PST (12:04 PM PST).

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Rocket Lab makes its first booster recovery after successful launch

New Zealand-born launch provider Rocket Lab took a step towards making its launch vehicles reusable today with the safe splashdown and recovery of an Electron booster after it successfully took its payload to orbit. The image above is the view from the booster up into the parachute that brought it safely down.

Reusing the first stage of launch vehicles — that is to say, the booster that takes the payload from the ground to the edge of space, where a second stage takes over — has the potential to vastly reduce the cost of getting to orbit. For decades these precision-engineered machines, which cost millions to produce, have been abandoned after use and allowed to break up on reentry.

SpaceX first demonstrated recovery of its Falcon 9 rockets in 2015, landing one on a drone ship after several failed attempts with other launches. A used first stage was first re-launched in 2017.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck announced last year that the company would be attempting its own method of recovering a used booster. Instead of the complex propulsive controlled landing of the Falcon 9, the booster would descend safely under a parachute, and be intercepted and captured by a helicopter before splashdown.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

Today’s mission, however, skipped the helicopter step as perhaps being a bit ambitious for a first try. After delivering some 30 satellites and a 3D-printed gnome to the edge of the atmosphere, the Electron’s booster returned to Earth and was tracked to where it splashed down about two hours later.

According to a press release from Rocket Lab sent after the launch, the descent and recovery went exactly as planned:

Approximately two and a half minutes after lift-off, at an altitude of around 80 km, Electron’s first and second stages separated per standard mission procedure. Once the engines shut down on Electron’s first stage, a reaction control system re-oriented the stage 180-degrees to place it on an ideal angle for re-entry, enabling it to survive the incredible heat and pressure known as “The Wall” during its descent back to Earth. A drogue parachute was deployed to increase drag and to stabilize the first stage as it descended, before a large main parachute was deployed in the final kilometres of descent. The stage splashed down as planned. Rocket Lab’s recovery team will transport the stage back to Rocket Lab’s production complex, where engineers will inspect the stage to gather data that will inform future recovery missions.

“What the team achieved today in recovering Electron’s first stage is no mean feat. It took a monumental effort from many teams across Rocket Lab, and it’s exciting to see that work pay off in a major step towards making Electron a reusable rocket,” said Beck.

We’ll update this post with further developments. You can watch a replay of the launch below.

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Amazon’s Project Kuiper chief David Limp is coming to Sessions: Space

TechCrunch Sessions: Space (December 16 & 17) is just a few short weeks away and there is perhaps no better time than the end of this horrid year to set our eyes to the horizon and dream of some place far, far away.

David Limp, Amazon’s SVP of Amazon Devices and Services, is just the man to stoke our imaginations. Thusly, we’re stoked to have him join us for a one-on-one conversation at Sessions: Space 2020.

Limp is responsible for Amazon’s devices business, including consumer gadgets like the Echo lineup – but also Project Kuiper, Amazon’s forthcoming Starlink competitor.

More from the agenda

Project Kuiper is a large broadband satellite internet constellation that is expected to be made up of more than 3,000 satellites, with a mission to provide internet to tens of millions of people who currently don’t have access.

In July, Amazon received approval from the FCC to launch and operate said constellation, and the company also announced it would be investing $10 billion into Kuiper, as well as the on-ground infrastructure needed to offer broadband connectivity to those millions of users.

Limp has been with Amazon since March 2010, before which he was a venture partner at Azure Capital Partners for four years. While his role oversees a wide variety of products, including Alexa, Echo, Kindle, Fire TV, Ring and more, the scope of our conversation at Sessions: Space will focus on just that, space.

Limp joins a stellar (see what I did there?) lineup of incredible speakers at TC Sessions: Space, including Lt. Gen. John Thompson of the U.S. Air Force, Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck, and NASA’s Kathryn Lueders. You don’t want to miss it!

You can get an Early Bird Ticket for just $125 until 11:59 p.m. on Friday, November 20. And we have discounts available for groupsstudentsactive military/government employees and for early-stage space startup founders who want to pitch and give their startup some extra visibility.

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SpaceX and NASA successfully launch four astronauts to space for first operational Dragon crew mission

SpaceX has become the first private company to launch astronauts to the International Space Station, marking the culmination of years of work in partnership with NASA on developing human spaceflight capabilities. At 7:27 PM EST (4:27 PM PST), NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Victor Glover, and Michael Hopkins, and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi left launch pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida bound for the ISS.

SpaceX’s human launch program was developed under the Commercial Crew program, which saw NASA select two private companies to build astronaut launch systems for carrying astronauts to the ISS from U.S. soil. SpaceX was chosen alongside Boeing by NASA in 2014 to create their respective systems, and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket became the first to achieve actual human flight certification from NASA earlier this year with the successful completion of its final, Demo-2 test mission, which flew to the ISS with two U.S. astronauts on board.

To get to this point, SpaceX had to complete a number of milestones successfully, including a fully automated uncrewed ISS rendez-vous mission, and a demonstration of both a launch pad abort and post-launch abort emergency safety system for the protection of the crew. During the Demo-1 mission, while all actual launch, docking and landing was handled by SpaceX’s fully autonomous software and navigation, astronauts also took over manual control briefly to demonstrate that this human-piloted backup would operate as intended, if required.

So far, Crew-1 is proceeding as expected, with a picture-perfect takeoff from Florida, and a successful recovery of the first-stage booster used on the Falcon 9 rocket used to launch Dragon. Crew Dragon ‘Resilience’ also departed from the second-stage of the Falcon 9 as planned at just after 10 minutes after liftoff, and there will be a 27 hour trip in orbit before the Dragon meets up with the ISS for its docking, which is scheduled to take place at around 11 PM EST (8 PM PST) on Monday night. Once fully docked, the astronauts will disembark and go over to the station to begin their active duty stay, which is set to last until next June.

From left, the crew of Crew-1: NASA’s Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins; JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi Image Credits: SpaceX

Three of the four astronauts on this mission have been to space previously, but for pilot Victor Glover, it’s his first time. These four will join NASA’s Kate Rubins, and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov on the station, bringing the total staff complement to seven (an increase from its usual six that NASA says will free up more time for the astronauts to perform experiments, as opposed to their tasks related to regular daily maintenance of the station).

This is the first time that astronauts have launched to space during a regular operational NASA mission since the end of the Shuttle program in 2011. It marks an official return of U.S. human spaceflight capabilities, and should hopefully become the first in many human flight missions undertaken by SpaceX and Dragon – across both NASA flights, and those organized by commercial customers.

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Watch SpaceX launch its historic first NASA astronaut crew mission live

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SpaceX and NASA have spent years working towards today’s Crew-1 mission, which is set to launch from Florida at 7:27 PM EST (4:27 PM PST). This is the first time that SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket will be officially used as a spacecraft certified by NASA for human flight on a regular astronaut transportation operation. NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi, will also be aboard the Dragon spacecraft and, barring any weather delays, on their way to the International Space Station later Sunday night.

SpaceX has already flown people using Dragon – NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley had the honor of being the first humans ever to be launched to the ISS aboard a commercial spacecraft when they took part in SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission earlier this year. That was obviously a historic achievement, but it was also technically the last stage in SpaceX’s test and demonstration program for Dragon and Falcon 9, whereas today’s Crew-1 launch no longer qualifies as a test. Think of it this way: If Demo-2 was akin to the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk flight, Crew-1 will be the equivalent of the first U.S. scheduled commercial airline flight in 1914.

Crew-1 will be the first time that a full complement of astronauts are flown on Dragon (there are six total seats but NASA has said it will only ever fly a max of four of its and partner agency crew to the ISS on these flights). The astronauts will join the existing crew on the ISS for a regular tour of performing experiments, maintaining and upgrading the station, which will also see the active ISS population swell by one additional astronaut for the first time during a standard rotation, which means more science can get done according to the agency.

The launch system is designed to work in a completely automated way, which means that it requires no action on the part of the crew on board from launch all the way through its docking with the ISS. That’s also true of the return trip, which will take place sometime around next June.

SpaceX will also be attempting a recovery of the first stage booster used during this launch, using its autonomous drone landing ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

Everything should get started closer to the liftoff target time, but NASA will also have programming all day related to the Crew-1 mission, the Dragon program and much more via the livestream above.

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SpaceX successfully launches GPS III space vehicle for the US Space Force

Tesla has launched a GPS III satellite on behalf of customer the U.S. Space Force, the second GPS III generation satellite it has launched for the U.S. military this year. The first took off in June, and was the third overall GPS III put in orbit by SpaceX . This is the fourth, and will provide improved GPS navigation capabilities to the U.S., including improved jamming technology to protect against interference.

SpaceX used a brand new Falcon 9 first-stage on this launch, and successfully recovered that rocket booster using a controlled landing on its drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The company also confirmed that its payload achieved good orbit, and it’s now in the process of making its way to the deployment point where it can release the GPS spacecraft for its final orbital insertion.

This mission flew from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and was the second attempt at delivering this payload, after an attempt at the beginning of September was scrubbed due to an early startup of two engines that caused an auto-shutdown of the launch sequence two seconds prior to liftoff. SpaceX investigated the issue and found that it was due to some trace amounts of a masking material used to protect engine components making their way into fuel lines. That triggered a change in its engine manufacturing and inspection process.

SpaceX also delayed its forthcoming Crew-1 launch for NASA to resolve the issue, so today’s launch should be another reassurance that that key, history-making flight of an operational ISS crew made up of three NASA and one JAXA astronaut will go ahead as planned on November 14, barring any other delays.

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Relativity Space’s Tim Ellis is coming to TC Sessions: Space 2020

Getting to space isn’t as difficult as it used to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Relativity Space aims to vastly simplify the incredibly complex machine that is a launch vehicle by 3D-printing it from tip to tail fins. Co-founder and CEO Tim Ellis will be joining us at TC Sessions: Space on December 16 & 17 to discuss the company’s ambitious plans and upcoming first launch.

Relativity was founded in 2015 and since then has racked up a full slate of eager customers, making its Terran-1 rocket possibly the most pre-sold launch vehicle ever. And it’s not hard to see why. The 3D printing process that Ellis, with co-founder and CTO Jordan Noone, dreamed up while cutting their rocketry teeth at Blue Origin, is potentially revolutionary.

Launch vehicles are normally made up of thousands of parts, each of which must be manufactured, inspected, and fitted together individually. This not only makes building a rocket a long and complex process, but an expensive one, too.

Relativity’s approach is to 3D print everything it possibly can in its enormous “Stargate” printers, reducing the total number of parts by orders of magnitude — while, at least according to pre-flight tests, not affecting the final product’s performance. In fact, by removing the magnification of minor manufacturing defects and human error in assembly, reliability and performance can be significantly improved.

Also at TC Sessions: Space

And if something goes wrong, well, you can break down the old one and print a new one in about two months, a fraction of the time it would take to build a new Delta IV or Falcon 9. Altogether it’s a very attractive proposition.

Of course, creating an entire new manufacturing process for rocketry from scratch is something of a major endeavor, but Relativity has done enough to convince both investors and customers that it is far from a mere science project. The company raised $35 million in 2018 and $140 million in 2019, and is preparing for its first orbital flight in 2021.

With next year shaping up to be the most important since the company was founded, Ellis will have a great deal to discuss, from the technology they use to the competition they’ll be going up against.

Get an early-bird ticket for just $125 until next week. And we have discounts available for groupsstudentsactive military/government employees and for early-stage space startup founders who want to pitch and give their startup some extra visibility.

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