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Rocket Lab launch fails during rocket’s second stage burn, causing a loss of vehicle and payloads

Rocket Lab’s ‘Pic or it didn’t happen’ launch on Saturday ended in failure, with a total loss of the Electron launch vehicle and all seven payloads on board. The launch vehicle experienced a failure during the second stage burn post-launch, after a lift-off from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

The mission appeared to be progressing as intended, but the launch vehicle appeared to experience unexpected stress during the ‘Max Q’ phase of launch, or the period during which the Electron rocket experiences the most significant atmospheric pressure prior to entering space.

Launch video cut off around six minutes after liftoff during the live stream, and rocket was subsequently shown to be falling from its current altitude before the web stream was cut short. Rocket Lab then revealed via Twitter that the Electron vehicle was lost during the second stage burn, and committed to sharing more information when it becomes available.

This is an unexpected development for Rocket Lab, which has flown 11 uneventful consecutive Electron missions since the beginning of its program.

Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck posted an apology to Twitter, noting that all satellites were lost, and that he’s “incredibly sorry” to all customer who suffered loss of payload today. That includes Canon, which was flying a new Earth imaging satellite with demonstration imaging tech on board, as well as Planet, which had five satellites for its newest and most advanced Earth imaging constellation on the vehicle.

We’ll update with more info about the cause and next steps from Rocket Lab when available.

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How to watch Rocket Lab launch satellites for Canon, Planet and more live

Rocket Lab is launching a rideshare mission today which includes seven small satellites from a number of different companies, including primary payload provider Canon, which is flying a satellite equipped with the camera-maker’s Earth imaging technology, including high-res photo capture equipment. The Electron rocket that Rocket Lab is flying today will also carry five Planet SuperDove Earth-Observation satellites, as well as a CubeSat from In-Space missions.

The launch, which is named ‘Pics or It Didn’t Happen’ is set to take place during a window which opens at 5:19 PM EDT (2:19 PM PDT) and extends until 6:03 PM EDT (3:03 PM EDT), lifting off from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. To check it out live, tune in directly via Rocket Lab’s website here – the live stream should begin around 15 minutes prior to the opening of the launch window.

This is Rocket Lab’s third flight this year, and while the company is still in the process of developing and testing its rocket booster recovery program, this mission won’t include any booster recovery attempt. This is the company’s 13th Electron flight, and the next planned test in that system’s development is set for flight 17.

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Elementary Robotics is making its quality assurance robots commercially available

Two years and more than $17 million after it first began working on its robots for quality assurance, the Los Angeles-based Elementary Robotics has finally made its products commercially available.

The company already boasts a few very large initial customers in the automotive industry, consumer packaged goods and aerospace and defense, including Toyota, according to chief executive Arye Barnehama. Now, the robotics technology that Barnehama and his co-workers have been developing is broadly available to other companies beyond its six initial pilot customers.

The company’s robots look like a large box with a gantry system providing three degrees of freedom, with vertical and horizontal movement as well as a gimbal-mounted camera that can visualize products.

Image credit: Elementary Robotics

As objects are scanned by the robots they’re compared against a taxonomy of objects provided by the companies that Elementary works with to determine whether or not there’s a defect.

Barnehama also emphasizes that Elementary’s robots are not designed to replace every human interaction or assessment in the manufacturing process. “Machine learning paired with humans always performs better,” says Barnehama. “At the end of the day the human is running the factory. We’re not really a lights-out factory.”

Behind the new commercialization push is a fresh $12.7 million in financing that Elementary closed at the end of 2019.

The lead investor in that round was Threshold Ventures, and the firm’s partner, Mo Islam, has already taken a seat on the Elementary Robotics board of directors. Existing investors Fika Ventures, Fathom Capital, Toyota AI Ventures and Ubiquity Ventures also participated in the round, which will be used to allow Elementary Robotics to continue developing and deploying its automation products at scale, the company said.

“Robotics and particularly robotics applied to manufacturing has been an interest of mine,” said Islam. In Elementary Robotics, Islam saw a company that could compete with large, publicly traded businesses like Cognex. The low complexity and ease of deployment of Elementary’s hardware was another big selling point for Islam that convinced him to invest. 

Elementary says that it can be up and running at a site in a matter of days and with businesses emphasizing cost-cutting and enabling remote work to ensure worker safety, companies are embracing the technology.

“That’s where we’re really excited to be launching it,” said Barnehama. “If we get parts or data examples we can get that up and running the same day. We can usually show customers within that week we can start showing them the value of that as we get more and more data through the system.”

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Near Space Labs expands high-altitude Earth imagery to Texas and ramps remote deployment

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has had a number of unexpected impacts on global economic activity – most of them negative. But the pandemic has also highlighted the need for alternative solutions to challenges where traditional solutions now prove either too costly, or too difficult to do while maintaining good health and safety practices. Near Space Labs, a startup focused on providing timely, location-specific, high resolution Earth imaging from balloons in the stratosphere, is one company that has found its model remarkably well-suited to the conditions that have arisen due to the coronavirus crisis.

Near Space Labs is in the process of expanding its offering to Texas, with some imagery already collected, and the team in active conversations with a number of potential customers about subscribing to its imaging services ahead of launching the first full batch of collected imagery by early next month. Adding a new geography in the middle of a pandemic required Near Space Labs to move up the development of a way for it to easily ship and deploy its balloon-lofted imaging equipment using remote instruction with local technical talent, which now means it’s ready to effectively spin up an imaging operation very quickly, on-demand basically anywhere in the world, with simple, minimal training to onboard and equip local operators on-demand.

“With travel restrictions, we had to figure out how to deploy hardware in a fully remote way,” explained Near Space Labs’ CEO Rema Matevosyan. “That had been a challenge that we wanted to tackle at some point, for our scalability – but instead we had to tackle that ASAP. Today, I’m really proud to say that the Swift, our robotic vehicles are able to be shipped anywhere on the globe in a small suitcase. And with a few videos, and a manual, it’s super easy to train new people to launch.”

Swift is basically a sophisticated camera attached to a balloon that flies between 60,000 and 85,000 feet, with short duration flights that can nonetheless capture up to 270 square miles of imagery at 30cm per inch resolution in a single pass. Swift is also designed to be able to go up frequently, making trips up to as frequently as twice per day, and it’s designed to provide quick turnaround times for processed images, compared to long potential waits for imaging from geosynchronous or even LEO satellites based on orbital schedules, ground station transmission times and other factors.

Image Credits: Near Space Labs

And because Near Space Labs can basically ship its imaging equipment in a suitcase and have just about anyone train quickly to use it effectively, vs. having to build a satellite that requires delivery via rocket and operation by highly trained engineers, it can offer considerable savings vs. the space-based competition – at a time when cost sensitivity for public institutions and the organizations looking for this kind of data aren’t eager to open their wallets.

“In these uncertain economic times, margins and fiscal responsibility become very important for people,” Matevosyan explained. “We have the perfect solution for that – our approach is very flexible, very low-cost. Even states are ‘bankrupt,’ – so everybody’s looking for ways to improve their margins, and to improving their spend.”

Matevosyan told me that Near Space Labs has seen an uptick in interest in its product from two directions as a result of the ongoing global economic shifts – first, there are customers who have traditionally sourced this imaging from satellite providers and who are looking for cost savings and a product that more closely fits their geographic and timing needs. Second, there are organizations looking to start using this kind of imagery for the first time, as an alternative to in-person inspection or sensing, because of the ways in which COVID-19 has put restrictions on workforces.

“COVID also put a spotlight in general on the remote sensing industry, because people are unable to, for instance, go down to the assets or the sites that they usually would check manually,” she said. “So that started looking into remote sensing solutions, and we saw an uptick in applications and signups to our imagery. One example industry where that’s happening is conservation. Conservation wasn’t a vertical that was super active in our pipeline. But suddenly with COVID, it became pretty active.”

Matevosyan says that it took Near Space just “days” to ramp a new technical team to be able to launch its Swifts in Texas, and that’s representative of the speed at which it can now scale to establish imaging basically anywhere in the world. Flexibility and scalability were always key assets of the business, she says, but the COVID crisis pushed that essential value to the forefront, and could help propel the company’s growth a lot quicker than expected.

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NASA’s JPL open-sources an anti-face-touching wearable to help reduce the spread of COVID-19

There are some wearables out there in the world that are making claims around COVID-19 and their ability to detect it, prevent it, certify that you don’t have it and more. But a new wearable device from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory might actually be able to do the most to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — and it’s not really all that technically advanced or complicated.

JPL’s PULSE wearable uses 3D-printed parts and readily available, affordable electronic components to do just one thing: remind a person not to touch their face. JPL’s designers claim that it’s simple enough that the gadget “can easily be reproduced by anyone regardless of their level of expertise,” and to encourage more people and companies to actually do that, the lab has made available a full list of parts, 3D modeling files and full instructions for its assembly via an open-source license.

The PULSE is essentially a pendant, worn around the neck between six inches and one foot from the head. It can detect when a person’s hand is approaching their face using an IR-based proximity sensor. A vibration motor then shakes out an alert, and the response becomes stronger as your hand gets closer to your face.

The hardware itself is simple — but that’s the point. It’s designed to run on readily available 3V coin batteries, and if you have a 3D printer at hand for the case and access to Amazon, you can probably put one together yourself at home in no time.

The goal of PULSE obviously isn’t to single-handedly eliminate COVID-19 — contact transmission from contaminated hands to a person’s mouth, nose or eyes is just one vector, and it seems likely that respiratory droplets that result in airborne transmission is at least as effective at passing the virus around. But just like regular mask-wearing can dramatically reduce transmission risk, minimizing how often you touch your face can have a big combined effect with other measures taken to reduce the spread.

Other health wearables might actually be able to tell you when you have COVID-19 before you show significant symptoms or have a positive test result — but work still needs to be done to understand how well those work, and how they could be used to limit exposure. JPL’s PULSE has the advantage of being effective now in terms of building positive habits that we know will limit the spread of COVID-19, as well as other viral infections.

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New UK-US agreement allows US companies to launch from UK spaceports

In a new move designed to encourage more economic and scientific collaboration between spacefaring nations, the UK and US governments have signed a new agreement that would make it possible for US companies to take part in space launches from the UK, including its many ind=-development spaceports.

The dal sounds one-way – but the nature of the agreement is designed to bolster the supply, development and customer pipeline for UK’s bourgeoning spaceport industry. The agreement now in place not only allows US companies to launch from UK spaceports, but also means that US tech companies active in any portion of the launch industry supply chain will be able to contribute to UK-based launch site setup and operation.

The goal for the UK space industry is to start active launches sometime this year, and UK regulators and government funding sources have come together to achieve this goal. The country is working on a number of spaceports, including both horizontal launch sites for launch vehicles like those operated by Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic, as well as vertical spaceports for more traditional rockets.

Commercial space is an increasingly lucrative market in terms of launch contracts and payload development and integration. UK companies already participate actively in the US-based private launch industry, which is already up and running thanks to private launch companies including SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as active spaceports in the US including the Mojave Air and Spaceport from which Virgin Orbit operates.

Spaceport Cornwall is one of the sites currently in development, and launch startup Skyhrorar has also been launching from a site in Scotland as it continues its own rocket testing and certification program.

UK-based space industry organization Access Space co-founder and director Tony Azzarelli provided the following statement to TechCrunch regarding this development:

We are thrilled that the UK has signed such agreement as it would boost the space sector in the UK, both from lending a hand to US launchers, as well as increasing the importance of the UK as a launching state and thus investment from government to promote its own launch industry sector, e.g., Skyrora, Orbex, Reaction Engines, Rocket Plane, Spaceport Cornwall, Astroscale, etc.

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Interstellar Technologies’ privately-developed MOMO-5 rocket falls short of reaching space

Private launch companies seeking to lower the coast of reaching space continue to develop new vehicles, and the latest to attempt a trip to space is Interstellar Technologies (IST), a Japanese private launch company founded in 2003. The company first launched a vehicle in 2017, but the launch didn’t go exactly as planned and failed to reach space – in 2019, its MOMO-3 sounding rocket did break the Karman line, though just barely, and unfortunately its MOMO-5 sounding rocket launched today did not make space as planned, instead apparently suffering some kind of malfunction and loss of control around the time it reaches max Q, or the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure prior to exiting Earth’s atmosphere..

MOMO-5 took off at 8:15 PM UTC (4:15 PM EDT), and liftoff seemed to go smoothly. This demonstration launch was meant to build on IST’s existing development program, and put it closer to establishing a new, affordable rocket option fo redelivering small payloads to orbit using a small, affordable rocket that the company describes as a “family sedan for the stars.”

IST’s approach is interesting it that in doesn’t claim to be cutting-edge; instead, the company says that it focuses on leveraging “legacy methods” of rocketry, along with advances including additive manufacturing and more modern materials to reduce costs as much as possible and lower the bar in terms of affordability to serve a wide range of customers. To some extend, that’s similar to the approach taken by SpaceX and Rocket Lab, but IST’s approach is even less focused on modernization, and more intent on efficiencies, than some of its operational competitors, which could theoretically give it a cost advantage once it starts serving companies with regular commercial launches.

MOMO-5 launched from Hokkaido, Japan, in a mission rescheduled from the end of 2019 and earlier this year due to a number of delays, including COVID-19 and the May holidays observed in the country. MOMO-5 measures a little over 30-feet tall, and weighs around 2,200 lbs, making is smaller than Rocket Lab’s Electron.

IST says that MOMO-5 terminated its flight earlier than planned due to a manual “emergency stop” order delivered from the command center, and subsequently fell safely to the surface of the sea. More details about the cause of the early termination will be released later.

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SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites and achieves a reusability record for a Falcon 9 booster

SpaceX launched its second Falcon 9 rocket in the span of just four days on Wednesday at 9:25 PM EDT (6:25 PM PDT). This one was carrying 60 more satellites for its Starlink constellation, which will bring the total currently in operation on orbit to 480. The launch took off from Florida, where SpaceX launched astronauts for the first time ever on Saturday for the final demonstration mission of its Crew Dragon to fulfill the requirements of NASA’s Commercial Crew human-rating process.

Today’s launch didn’t include any human passengers, but it did fly that next big batch of Starlink broadband internet satellites, as mentioned. Those will join the other Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit, forming part of a network that will eventually serve to provide high-bandwidth, reliable internet connectivity, particularly in underserved areas where terrestrial networks either aren’t present or don’t offer high-speed connections.

This launch included a test of a new system that SpaceX designed in order to hopefully improve an issue its satellites have had with nighttime visibility from Earth. The test Starlink satellite, one of the 60, has a visor system installed that it can deploy post-launch in order to block the sun from reflecting off of its communication antenna surfaces. If it works as designed, it should greatly reduce sunlight reflected off of the satellite back to Earth, and SpaceX will then look to make it a standard part of its Starlink satellite design going forward.

Part of this launch included landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket used for the launch, which has already flown previously four times and been recovered – that makes this a rocket that has now flown five missions, and today it touched down safely once again on SpaceX’s drone landing barge in the ocean so it can potentially be used again.

SpaceX will also be attempting to recover the two fairing halves that form the protective nose cone used during launch at the top of the rocket to protect the payload being carried by the Falcon 9. We’ll provide an update about how that attempt goes once SpaceX provides details.

Tomorrow, June 4, actually marks the 10-year anniversary of the first flight of a Falcon 9 rocket – between this reusability record, and the much more historic first human spaceflight mission earlier this week, that’s quite the decade.

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Robotics startup lets machines get closer as humans keep their distance

As humans get used to working at a distance from each other, a startup in Massachusetts is providing sensors that bring industrial robots in close —  centimeters away, in fact. The same technology may support future social distancing efforts on commutes, in a pilot application to allow more subway trains to run on a single track.

Humatics, an MIT spinout backed by Lockheed Martin and Airbus, makes sensors that enable fast-moving and powerful robots to work alongside humans without accidents. If daily work and personal travel to work ever go back to normal, the company believes the same precision can improve aging and crowded infrastructure, enabling trains and buses to run closer together, even as we all may have to get used to working further apart.

This is the emerging field of microlocation robotics — devices and software that help people and machines navigate collaboratively. Humatics has been testing its technology with New York’s MTA since 2018, and today is tracking five miles of a New York subway, showing the transportation authority where six of its trains are, down to the centimeter.

UWB sensors for microlocation

Humatics’ technology in the MTA pilot uses ultrawide band (UWB) radio frequencies, which are less failure-prone than Wi-Fi, GPS and cameras.

“A good example of a harsh environment is a subway tunnel,” said David Mindell, co-founder of Humatics and professor of engineering and aerospace at MIT. “They are full of dust, the temperatures can range from subzero to 100 degrees, and there is the risk of animals or people tampering with devices. Working inside these tunnels is difficult and potentially dangerous for crews, also.”

Humatics has sold more than 10,000 UWB radio beacons, the base unit for their real-time tracking system, to manufacturers of sensor systems, the company says. They pinpoint the location of hundreds of RFID tags at a range of 500 meters, using multiple tags on an object to measure orientation.

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SpaceX’s first crewed spacecraft successfully docks with the International Space Station

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon ‘Endeavor’ successfully docked with the International Space Station as planned on Sunday morning, marking another key milestone during this historic Commercial Crew demonstration mission it’s conducting with NASA. On board Crew Dragon were NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, the test pilots selected to be the first ever humans to fly on board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, and the first people ever to make the trip to orbit aboard a spacecraft built by a private company.

The docking process was handled completely autonomously by Crew Dragon itself, which is designed by SpaceX to operate on autopilot from the moment of launch throughout the course of the entire mission. The spacecraft is able to dock with a newer automated international docking adapter installed on the ISS, unlike the original cargo version of Dragon, which required manual capture by the robotic Canadarm 2 controlled by astronauts on the station. The updated cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon are designed to work with the new automated system.

Hurley and Behnken launched at 3:22 PM EDT (12:22 PM PDT) on Saturday, taking off from Cape Canaveral in Florida as planned. It was the second launch attempt for this mission, after weather caused a delay last Wednesday. This mission is NASA and SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Demo-2, which is the second demonstration mission of the full flight and return of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, one of two vehicles commissioned by NASA from commercial partners to provide transportation serves for astronauts to and from the Space Station.

Crossing this milestone means that essentially the first half of the mission has been completed successfully – so far, SpaceX has demonstrated that the launch process works as designed, as does manual control (the astronauts took over and ran two tests of that system), and automated docking.

The ISS hatch opened at 12:37 PM EDT, and the Dragon hatch opened at 1:02 PM EDT, at which point Behnken and Hurley were welcomed onboard the ISS by the existing crew, which includes two U.S. and one Russian astronaut. Hurley and Behnken will now perform standard ISS crew activities, including conducing experiments and research, during the next several weeks before they climb back into Crew Dragon for the final portion of Demo-2 – the trip back to Earth.

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