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SpaceX successfully launches a Falcon 9 booster for a record seventh time

SpaceX has launched yet another Starlink mission, adding 60 more Starlink satellites to its low-Earth orbit constellation. That’s good news for its efforts to blanket the globe in high-speed broadband, and today’s flight is even better news for its equally important ambition of developing more reusable rocket systems, since the first-stage booster that helped launch today’s Falcon 9 rocket made a record-breaking seventh trip.
SpaceX broke its own reusability records of six flights for a reused first-stage rocket component, and it also recovered the booster with a controlled landing using its drone flight in the Atlantic Ocean, which means …

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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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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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Bonus: An extra week to save on tickets to TC Sessions: Space 2020

When you’re laser-focused on reaching beyond the stars, it’s hard to remember more earthly, mundane tasks. That’s why we’re giving you an extra week to score early-bird savings to TC Sessions: Space 2020 (December 16-17). So, to all you harried, procrastinating visionaries: take a breath, relax a bit and buy your pass before November 20 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

Join the two-day online conference to hear from and connect with the leading forces within the space industry. Learn how to secure grants for your space company, how and where the Air Force plans to spend $60 billion on R&D, what savvy space investors think and where they might place their bets. And that’s just the tip of the rocket.

Presentations range from asteroid mining, extra-planetary robotic research and the future of space exploration to human spaceflight, manufacturing in space and supply-chain issues. Here are just two stellar examples, and you’ll find many more in the event agenda. Start planning your time now.

Bridging Two Eras of Human Spaceflight: When Kathryn Lueders started working at NASA in 1992, it was the peak of the Space Shuttle era. As she begins her leadership of the Human Spaceflight Office this year, a new and exciting era is just beginning. Lueders will discuss the possibilities and challenges of the new systems and technologies that will put the first woman and the next man on the surface of the moon…and perhaps Mars.

Crafting the Kuiper Constellation: Amazon is set to create its own global constellation of LEO satellites — a very different type of gadget from what Amazon SVP of Device & Services Dave Limp is used to overseeing. He’ll tell us how Project Kuiper fits in with Amazon’s grand plans.

Looking for more ways to save? Bring the whole team with a group discount. Tickets cost $100 each — bring four team members and get the fifth one free. Discount passes for students cost $50, while current government, military and nonprofit employees pay $95. Plus, Extra Crunch subscribers get a 20% discount.

Step into a virtual spotlight and showcase your startup in our expo: An Early-Stage Startup Exhibitor Package ($360 gets you three tickets, digital exhibition space and the ability to generate leads). Bonus: Exhibiting startups each get five minutes to pitch live to attendees around the world.

As you reach for the stars, connect with the experts and opportunities at TC Sessions: Space 2020 to help make your galactic dreams a reality. You have an extra week. Now, breathe, relax and buy your early-bird pass before November 20 at 11:59 p.m. (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.

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NASA’s head of human spaceflight, Kathryn Lueders, will join us at TC Sessions: Space

NASA’s human spaceflight program took big strides in 2020 with the official kick-off of the commercial crew program with SpaceX, and on plans to return humans to the surface of the Moon via the Artemis program. NASA Associate Administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate Kathryn Lueders has been there for it all, and actually rose to her current position from previously serving as Commercial Crew Program Manager, so there’s no one better to speak to the agency’s achievements and goals around putting humans in space.

Lueders will join us at TC Sessions: Space this year, which is happening December 16 and 17. It’s a fully virtual event, featuring all-star programming from across the space industry, public sector, and of course the startup scene. Associate Administrator Lueders will be joined on stage by moderator Emily Calandrelli, scientist, engineer, and host of the hit Netflix show Emily’s Wonder Lab.

We’ll be talking to Lueders about NASA’s historic certification of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon human launch system, which ends the U.S. reliance on Russia’s Soyuz for transportation to and from the International Space Station – and becomes the first commercial spacecraft certified for human flight ever.

Dragon will make history yet again with its first-ever operational crew mission, set to take three NASA astronauts and one JAXA astronaut to the ISS this weekend.

Associate Administrator Lueders will also be able to talk us through the ongoing effort to gain a second commercial crew mission provider with Boeing, which is still in the process of certifying their Starliner spacecraft, and NASA’s work toward putting the next American man and the first American woman on the surface of the Moon with Artemis. She’s also the perfect person to talk about the agency’s future with commercial and startup partners when it comes to human spaceflight.

You can get an Early Bird Ticket for just $125 until 11:59pm tonight, Friday, November 13. 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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