All posts in “Spacex”

SpaceX reveals more Starlink info after launch of first 60 satellites

Last night’s successful Starlink launch was a big one for SpaceX — its heaviest payload ever, weighed down by 60 communications satellites that will eventually be part of a single constellation providing internet to the globe. That’s the plan, anyway — and the company pulled the curtain back a bit more after launch, revealing a few more details about the birds it just put in the air.

SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk have been extremely tight-lipped about the Starlink satellites, only dropping a few hints here and there before the launch. We know, for instance, that each satellite weighs about 500 pounds, and are a flat-panel design that maximized the amount that can fit in each payload. The launch media kit also described a “Startracker” navigation system that would allow the satellites to locate themselves and orbital debris with precision.

At the fresh new Starlink website, however, a few new details have appeared, alongside some images that provide the clearest look yet (renders, not photographs, but still) of the satellites that will soon number thousands in our skies.

In the CG representation of how the satellites will work, you get a general sense of it:

Thousands of satellites will move along their orbits simultaneously, each beaming internet to and from the surface in a given area. It’s still not clear exactly how big an area each satellite will cover, or how much redundancy will be required. But the image gives you the general idea.

The signal comes from and goes to a set of four “phased array” radio antennas. This compact, flat type of antenna can transmit in multiple directions and frequencies without moving like you see big radar dishes do. There are costs as well, but it’s a no-brainer for satellites that need to be small and only need to transmit in one general direction — down.

There’s only a single solar array, which unfolds upwards like a map (and looks pretty much like you’d expect — hence no image here). The merits of having only one are mainly related to simplicity and cost — having two gives you more power and redundancy if one fails. But if you’re going to make a few thousand of these things and replace them every couple years, it probably doesn’t matter too much. Solar arrays are reliable standard parts now.

The krypton-powered ion thruster sounds like science fiction, but ion thrusters have actually been around for decades. They use a charge difference to shoot ions — charged molecules — out in a specific direction, imparting force in the opposite direction. Kind of like a tiny electric pea shooter that, in microgravity, pushes the person back with the momentum of the pea.

To do this it needs propellant — usually xenon, which has several (rather difficult to explain) properties that make it useful for these purposes. Krypton is the next Noble gas up the list in the table, and is similar in some ways but easier to get. Again, if you’re deploying thousands of ion engines — so far only a handful have actually flown — you want to minimize costs and exotic materials.

Lastly there is the Star Tracker and collision avoidance system. This isn’t very well explained by SpaceX, so we can only surmise based on what we see. The star tracker tells each satellite its attitude, or orientation in space — presumably by looking at the stars and comparing that with known variables like time of day on Earth and so on. This ties in with collision avoidance, which uses the government’s database of known space debris and can adjust course to avoid it.

How? The image on the Starlink site shows four discs at perpendicular orientations. This suggests they’re reaction wheels, which store kinetic energy and can be spun up or slowed down to impart that force on the craft, turning it as desired. Very clever little devices actually and quite common in satellites. These would control the attitude and the thruster would give a little impulse, and the debris is avoided. The satellite can return to normal orbit shortly thereafter.

We still don’t know a lot about the Starlink system. For instance, what do its ground stations look like? Unlike Ubiquitilink, you can’t receive a Starlink signal directly on your phone. So you’ll need a receiver, which Musk has said in the past is about the size of a pizza box. But small, large, or extra large? Where can it be mounted, and how much does it cost?

The questions of interconnection are also a mystery. Say a Starlink user wants to visit a website hosted in Croatia. Does the signal go up to Starlink, between satellites, and down to the nearest base station? Does it go down at a big interconnect point on the backbone serving that region? Does it go up and then come down 20 few miles from your house at the place where fiber connects to the local backbone? It may not matter much to ordinary users, but for big services — think Netflix — it could be very important.

And lastly, how much does it cost? SpaceX wants to make this competitive with terrestrial broadband, which is a little hard to believe considering the growth of fiber, but also not that hard to believe because of telecoms dragging their heels getting to rural areas still using DSL. Out there, Starlink might be a godsend, while in big cities it might be superfluous.

Chances are won’t know for a long time. The 60 satellites up there right now are only the very first wave, and don’t comprise anything more than a test bed for future services. Starlink will have to prove these things work as planned, and then send up several hundred more before it can offer even the most rudimentary service. Of course, that is the plan, and might even be accomplished by the end of the year. In the meantime I’ve asked SpaceX for more details and will update this post if I hear back.

Unshackled Ventures has $20M to invest exclusively in immigrant founders

Unshackled Ventures isn’t like other venture capital funds.

The firm invests in immigrant founders and helps them secure visas so they can ditch their corporate job and launch the startup of their dreams. Today, Unshackled is announcing its sophomore fund of $20 million, topping its debut effort by $15.5 million.

“The point is to take the burden off of founders because they are not immigration experts, they are experts at building satellites or extracting protein from plants,” Unshackled founding partner Nitin Pachisia told TechCrunch. “These are people that if you go to a workspace, you’ll see them show up on nights and weekends because they want to build something but they can’t.”

Immigrants looking to start their own businesses face a huge barrier. Take Jyoti Bansal for example. He famously waited seven years before launching AppDynamics, a business that later sold to Cisco for $3.7 billion days before its initial public offering. Why? Because as an Indian immigrant with H-1B visa status, he could work for startups but wasn’t legally allowed to start his own. It wasn’t until receiving an employment authorization document (EAD), a part of the green card process, that Bansal could finally found AppDynamics. If Bansal had the opportunity to pitch to Unshackled, which provides bespoke immigration solutions to each founder, he could have launched AppDynamics years prior.

Immigrant founders, according to a 2018 study by the National Foundation for American Policy, are responsible for 55 percent of U.S. billion-dollar companies, or “unicorns,” as they are known. Uber, SpaceX, WeWork, Palantir Technologies, Stripe, Slack, Moderna Therapeutics, Robinhood, Instacart, Houzz, Credit Karma, Tanium, Zoox and CrowdStrike all count at least one immigrant co-founder.

“The difference between success and failures is oftentimes who you know and when,” Unshackled founding partner Manan Mehta told TechCrunch. “We can bring those resources at just 1/200th the size of Andreessen Horowitz to immigrants at day zero.”

“We’re creating the best place for immigrants to start their companies,” he added. “And guess what? We’re keeping American innovation in America.”

Unshackled Ventures portfolio company Lily AI.

The firm was founded by Pachisia, the son of immigrants, and Mehta, an Indian immigrant, in 2015. Since then, the duo have written pre-seed checks to 31 companies with a 100 percent success rate in procuring visas to keep talent working in the U.S. Startups in its portfolio include the very recent Y Combinator graduate Career Karma, Starsky Robotics, Plutoshift, Togg, Hype, Lily AI and more.

“I didn’t think it was possible to start a company on a visa in the U.S., let alone scale one to hit the next major milestone so quickly,” Plutoshift founder Prateek Joshi said in a statement. “That all changed when we met the Unshackled team.”

Mehta and Pachisia say its startups have gone on to raise $54 million in follow-on investments from top investors like First Round Capital, NEA and Shasta.

In addition to supporting companies based in Silicon Valley, the investors search far and wide for aspiring immigrant founders, as well as respond to every single cold email they receive. Recently, they joined the Rise of the Rest tour, a trip hosted by Steve Case and JD Vance that showcases startups in underrepresented geographies, and they make frequent visits to college campuses across the U.S.

Unshackled’s limited partners include Bloomberg Beta, Jerry Yang’s AME Cloud Ventures and Emerson Collective.

“I think the name represents the feeling that you’re a little bit shackled to a framework or a policy that doesn’t necessarily encourage entrepreneurship,” Mehta said. “When if you take a step back, immigrants are probably more entrepreneurial than native-born people.”

Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft is lost during historic lunar landing attempt

Israel’s SpaceIL almost made history today as its Beresheet spacecraft came within an ace of landing on the surface of the Moon, but suffered a last minute failure during descent. Israel missed out on the chance to be the fourth country to make a controlled lunar landing, but getting 99 percent of the way there is still an extraordinary achievement for private spaceflight.

Beresheet (“Genesis”) launched in February as secondary payload aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and after a month and a half spiraling outward, entered lunar orbit a week ago. Today’s final maneuver was an engine burn meant to bring down its relative velocity to the Moon, then brake to a soft landing in the Mare Serenitatis, or Sea of Serenity.

Everything was working fine up until the final moments, as is often the case in space. The craft, having made it perfectly to its intended point of descent, determined that all systems were ready and the landing process would go ahead as planned.

They lost telemetry for a bit, and had to reset the craft to get the main engine back online… and then communication dropped while only a handful of kilometers from the surface. The “selfie” image above was taken from 22 km above the surface, just a few minutes that. The spacecraft was announced as lost shortly afterwards.

Clearly disappointed but also exhilarated, the team quickly recovered its composure, saying “the achievement of getting to where we got is tremendous and we can be proud,” and of course, “if at first you don’t succeed… try, try again.”

The project began as an attempt to claim the Google Lunar Xprize, announced more than a decade ago, but which proved too difficult for teams to attempt in the timeframe specified. Although the challenge and its prize money lapsed, Israel’s SpaceIL team continued its work, bolstered by the support of Israel Aerospace Industries, the state-owned aviation concern there.

It’s worth noting that Beresheet did enjoy considerable government support in this way, it’s a far cry from any other large-scale government-run mission, and can safely be considered “private” for all intents and purposes. The ~50-person team and $200 million budget are laughably small compared to practically any serious mission, let alone a lunar landing.

I spoke with Xprize’s Founder and CEO, Peter Diamandis and Anousheh Ansari respectively, just before the landing attempt. Both were extremely excited and made it clear that the mission was already considered a huge success.

“What I’m seeing here is an incredible who’s who from science, education, and government who have gathered to watch this miracle take place,” Diamandis said. “We launched this competition now 11 years ago to inspire and educate engineers, and despite the fact that it ran out of time it has achieved 100 percent of its goal. Even if it doesn’t make it onto the ground fully intact it has ignited a level of electricity and excitement that reminds me of the Ansari Xprize 15 years ago.”

He’s not the only one. Ansari, who funded the famous spaceflight Xprize that bore her name, and who has herself visited space as one of the first tourist-astronauts above the International Space Station, felt a similar vibe.

“It’s an amazing moment, bringing so many great memories up,” she told me. “It reminds me of when we were all out in the Mojave waiting for the launch of Spaceship One.”

Ansari emphasized the feeling the landing evoked of moving forward as a people.

“Imagine, over the last 50 years only 500 people out of seven billion have been to space — that number will be thousands soon,” she said. “We believe there’s so much more that can be done in this area of technology, a lot of real business opportunities that benefit civilization but also humanity.”

It’s only icing on the cake that this landing should occur on the same day as SpaceX’s (delayed, and assuming they don’t postpone again) Falcon Heavy launch, which is another huge step forward for private spaceflight and access to orbit and beyond.

Congratulations to the SpaceIL team for their achievement, and here’s hoping the next attempt makes it all the way down.

SpaceX makes history by completing first private crew capsule mission

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule has safely splashed down in the Atlantic, making it the first privately built crew-capable spacecraft ever to complete a mission to the International Space Station. It’s one of several firsts SpaceX plans this year, but Boeing is hot on its heels with a crew demonstrator of its own — and of course the real test is doing the same thing with astronauts aboard.

This mission, Demo-1, had SpaceX showing that its Crew Dragon capsule, an evolution of the cargo-bearing Dragon that has made numerous ISS deliveries, was complete and ready to take on its eponymous crew.

It took off early in the morning of March 2 (still March 1 on the West coast), circled the Earth 18 times, and eventually came to a stop (relatively speaking, of course) adjacent to the ISS, after which it approached and docked with the new International Docking Adapter. The 400 pounds of supplies were emptied, but the “anthropomorphic test device” known as Ripley — basically a space crash test dummy — stayed in her seat on board.

(It’s also worth noting that the Falcon 9 first stage that took the capsule to the edge of the atmosphere landed autonomously on a drone ship.)

Five days later — very early this morning — the craft disengaged from the ISS and began the process of deorbiting. It landed on schedule at about 8:45 in the morning Eastern time.

It’s a huge validation of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and of course a triumph for SpaceX, which not only made and launched a functioning crew spacecraft, but did so before its rival Boeing. That said, it isn’t winner take all — the two spacecraft could very well exist in healthy competition as crewed missions to space become more and more common.

Expect to see a report on the mission soon after SpaceX and NASA have had time to debrief and examine the craft (and Ripley).

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon makes its first orbital launch tonight

After years of development and delays, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is ready to launch into orbit. It’s the first commercially built and operated crewed spacecraft ever to do so, and represents in many ways the public-private partnership that could define the future of spaceflight.

Launch is set for just before midnight Pacific time — 2:49 Eastern time in Cape Canaveral, where the Falcon 9 carrying the Crew Dragon capsule will take off from. It’s using Launchpad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, which previously hosted Apollo missions and more recently SpaceX’s momentous Falcon Heavy launch. Feel free to relive that moment with us, while you’re here:

The capsule has been the work of many years and billions of dollars: an adaptation of the company’s Dragon capsule, but with much of its cargo space converted to a spacious crew compartment. It can seat seven if necessary but given the actual needs of the International Space Station, it is more likely to carry 2 or 3 people and a load of supplies.

Of course it had to meet extremely stringent safety requirements, with an emergency escape system, redundant thrusters and parachutes, newly designed spacesuits, more intuitive and modern control methods, and so on.

Crew Dragon interior, with “Ripley.”

It’s a huge technological jump over the Russian Soyuz capsule that has been the only method to get humans to space for the last 8 years, since the Shuttle program was grounded for good. But one thing Dragon doesn’t have is the Soyuz’s exemplary flight record. The latter may look like an aircraft cockpit shrunk down to induce claustrophobia, but it has proven itself over and over for decades. The shock produced by a recent aborted launch and the quickness with which the Soyuz resumed service are testament to the confidence it has engendered in its users.

But for a number of reasons the U.S. can’t stay beholden to Russia for access to space, and at any rate the commercial spaceflight companies were going to send people up there anyway. So NASA dedicated a major portion of its budget to funding a new crew capsule, pitting SpaceX and Boeing against one another.

SpaceX has had the best of Boeing for the most part, progressing through numerous tests and milestones, not exactly quickly but with fewer delays than its competitor. Test flights originally scheduled for 2016 are only just now beginning to take place. Boeing’s Starliner doesn’t have a launch date yet but it’s expected to be this summer.

Tonight’s test (“Demo-1”) is the first time the Crew Dragon will fly to space; suborbital flights and landing tests have already taken place, but this is a dry run of the real thing. Well, not completely dry: the capsule is carrying 400 pounds of supplies to the station and will return with some science experiments on board.

After launch, it should take about 11 minutes for the capsule to detach from the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 rocket. It docks about 27 hours later, early Sunday morning, and the crew will be able to get at the goodies just in time for brunch, if for some reason they’re operating on East Coast time.

SpaceX will be live streaming the launch as usual starting shortly before takeoff; you can watch it right here:

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