All posts in “Spacex”

Dreaming of Mars, the startup Relativity Space gets its first launch site on Earth

3D-printing the first rocket on Mars.

That’s the goal Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone set for themselves when they founded Los Angeles-based Relativity Space in 2015.

At the time they were working from a WeWork in Seattle, during the darkest winter in Seattle history, where Ellis was wrapping up a stint at Blue Origin . The two had met in college at USC in their jet propulsion lab. Noone had gone on to take a job at SpaceX and Ellis at Blue Origin, but the two remained in touch and had an idea for building rockets quickly and cheaply — with the vision that they wanted to eventually build these rockets on Mars.

Now, more than $35 million dollars later, the company has been awarded a multi-year contract to build and operate its own rocket launch facilities at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

That contract, awarded by The 45th Space Wing of the Air Force, is the first direct agreement the U.S. Air Force has completed with a venture-backed orbital launch company that wasn’t also being subsidized by billionaire owner-operators.

By comparison, Relativity’s neighbors at Cape Canaveral are Blue Origin (which Jeff Bezos has been financing by reportedly selling $1 billion in shares of Amazon stock since 2017); SpaceX (which has raised roughly $2.5 billion since its founding and initial capitalization by Elon Musk); and United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between the defense contracting giants Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense.

Like the other launch sites at Cape Canaveral, Launch Complex 16, where Relativity expects to be launching its first rockets by 2020, has a storied history in the U.S. space and missile defense program. It was used for Titan missile launches, the Apollo and Gemini programs and Pershing missile launches.

From the site, Relativity will be able to launch its first designed rocket, the Terran 1, which is the only fully 3D-printed rocket in the world.

That rocket can carry a maximum payload of 1,250 kilograms to a low earth orbit of 185 kilometers above the Earth. Its nominal payload is 900 kilograms of a Sun-synchronous orbit 500 kilometers out, and it has a 700 kilogram high-altitude payload capacity to 1,200 kilometers in Sun-synchronous orbit. Relativity prices its dedicated missions at $10 million, and $11,000 per kilogram to achieve Sun-synchronous orbit.

If the company’s two founders are right, then all of this launch work Relativity is doing is just a prelude to what the company considers to be its real mission — the advancement of manufacturing rockets quickly and at scale as a test run for building out manufacturing capacity on Mars.

“Rockets are the business model now,” Ellis told me last year at the company’s offices at the time, a few hundred feet from SpaceX. “That’s why we created the printing tech. Rockets are the largest, lightest-weight, highest-cost item that you can make.”

It’s also a way for the company to prove out its technology. “It benefits the long-term mission,” Ellis continued. “Our vision is to create the intelligent automated factory on Mars… We want to help them to iterate and scale the society there.”

Ellis and Noone make some pretty remarkable claims about the proprietary 3D printer they’ve built and housed in their Inglewood offices. Called “Stargate,” the printer is the largest of its kind in the world and aims to go from raw materials to a flight-ready vehicle in just 60 days. The company claims that the speed with which it can manufacture new rockets should pare down launch timelines by somewhere between two and four years.

Another factor accelerating Relativity’s race to market is a long-term contract the company signed last year with NASA for access to testing facilities at the agency’s Stennis Space Center on the Mississippi-Louisiana border. It’s there, deep in the Mississippi delta swampland, that Relativity plans to develop and quality control as many as 36 complete rockets per year on its 25-acre space.

All of this activity helps the company in another segment of its business: licensing and selling the manufacturing technology it has developed.

“The 3D factory and automation is the other product, but really that’s a change in emphasis,” says Ellis. “It’s always been the case that we’re developing our own metal 3D printing technology. Not only can we make rockets. If the long-term mission is 3D printing on Mars, we should think of the factory as its own product tool.”

Not everyone agrees. At least one investor I talked to said that in many cases, the cost of 3D printing certain basic parts outweighs the benefits that printing provides.

Still, Relativity is undaunted.

But first, the company — and its competitors at Blue Origin, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and the hundreds of other companies working on launching rockets into space again — need to get there. For Relativity, the Canaveral deal is one giant step for the company, and one great leap toward its ultimate goal.

“This is a giant step toward being a launch company,” says Ellis. “And it’s aligned with the long-term vision of one day printing on Mars.”

A photo of an egg has toppled reality star Kylie Jenner as Instagram’s most-liked post

Instagram has found something it likes more than a Kardashian-Jenner family baby, and it’s an egg.

This weekend, a photo of a plain egg became the most-liked photo on Instagram, the social app owned by Facebook with more than one billion users that’s reflective of internet culture.

The photo, which you can see below in its full glory, currently had more than 23 million likes at the time of writing. That has seen it surpass a February 18 photo from Kylie Jenner — the sister of Kim Kardashian and a reality TV star in her own right — which announced the birth of her baby with rapper Travis Scott and has 18.2 million likes.

Unlike Jenner, who has 21 million Instagram followers, the egg account — “world_record_egg” — is a newcomer that seems to have been created in early January. Nothing is known of its ownership, although it had 2.4 million followers at the time of writing, which could — and I can’t believe I’m writing this… — make it an influencer account.

While much can be said about Jenner’s rise to fame, she’s a pretty successful entrepreneur. Her two-year-old “Kylie Cosmetics” brand is estimated to gross over $600 million in annual revenue. While it is funny that a photo of an egg can take the record on Instagram, there might be more to it. Jenner’s company trades on her brand, the egg could be a rejection or protest of today’s reality TV culture… which is best embodied by the Kardashians and, in particular, Kylie Jenner. That certainly seems the case looking at the splurge in new and egg-related comments on Jenner’s birth post from last year.

Maybe that’s wishful thinking and this is just another internet phenomenon that can’t be explained. It could simply be a joke that blew up, but don’t discount the potential that this is a stunt from a company launching a new product or wanting to make a splash.

Showing that she might have a sense of humor, 21-year-old Jenner acknowledged the new record in a video of her smashing an egg.

This is the second social media record set this year after Twitter got a new most-retweeted tweet — however, the roles were very much different.

Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire who is paying Elon Musk’s SpaceX for a trip to the moon, saw a tweet that offered nearly $1 million in prize money for retweets surpass a true internet phenomenon, U.S. teen Carter Wilkerson. Back in April 2017, Wilkerson took to Twitter to plead for free chicken nuggets; his original tweet now has around 3.6 million retweets.

Elon Musk shows off the assembled Starship test rocket

After weeks teasing renderings and production photos, Elon Musk finally showed off the finished Starship test rocket last night.

As you can well see, the Starship test rocket has a stainless steel skin, which had a few people scratching their heads. Steel is indeed quite durable, but weighs more than other materials used in rockets like carbon fiber, aluminum, and titanium. Musk argues, however, that stainless steel’s resistance to extreme temperature, especially heat, makes it a better fit for this type of rocket.

The Starship rocket, previously called the BFR, is an integral piece of the SpaceX road map. It’s meant to take the place of the Falcon and Falcon Heavy rockets as a primary launch vehicle, which means lots of re-entry (which means lots of heat).

This test model, currently at the Boca Chica, Texas launch site, is meant for suborbital VTOL tests, which will take place in March. The orbital version will be taller, with thicker skins, and a more smoothly curving nose section, with launches on the books for 2020.

Elon Musk posts first glimpse of SpaceX’s finished Starship test vehicle

Elon Musk just gave us a look at the first test version of SpaceX’s Starship.

Formerly known as the BFR, Musk announced on Thursday that the spaceflight company’s test version of the Starship, dubbed the “hopper,” has just finished being assembled at SpaceX’s launch site in Boca Chica Village, Texas.

This particular Starship will be used for suborbital vertical take-off tests, which will be similar to ones it completed for the Falcon 9 back in 2013.

An orbital version of the Starship will be taller, have thicker skins to avoid wrinkling, and a smoother nose. Musk said the company should have its first orbital prototype by June.

The Starship is SpaceX’s new class of super-heavy launch vehicle that will replace the company’s current crop of products, and will allow for potential missions around the Moon and to Mars. 

Twitter user Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo managed to get up close to the hopper prototype, and has posted pictures and video of the Starship.

Last week, Musk hinted that the suborbital Starship test could happen as soon as February, but some “unforeseen issues” could push it back a month.

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SpaceX’s Starship goes sci-fi shiny with stainless steel skin

SpaceX’s futuristic Starship interplanetary craft may embody the golden age of sci-fi in more ways than one: in addition to (theoretically) taking passengers from planet to planet, it may sport a shiny stainless steel skin that makes it look like the pulp covers of old.

Founder and CEO Elon Musk teased the possibility in a picture posted to Twitter, captioned simply “Stainless Steel Starship.” To be clear, this isn’t a full-on spacecraft, just part of a test vehicle that the company plans to use during the short “hopper” flights in 2019 to evaluate various systems.

As with most Musk tweets, this kicked off a storm of speculation and argument in the Twitterverse.

The choice surprised many because for years, modern spaceflight has been dependent on advanced composite materials like carbon fiber, which combine desirable physical properties with low weight. When metal has been required, aluminum or titanium are much more common. While some launch components, like the upper stage of the Atlas 5 rocket, have liberally used steel, it’s definitely not an obvious choice for a craft like the Starship, which will have to deal with both deep space and repeated reentry.

As Musk pointed out in subsequent comments, however, stainless steel has some advantages versus other materials when at extremely hot or cold temperatures.

This is a special full-hardness steel alloy mentioned as being among the 300 series of high-strength, heat-resistant alloys — not the plentiful, pliable stuff we all have in our kitchens and buildings. Musk also mentioned another “superalloy” called SX500 that SpaceX’s metallurgists have developed for use in the Raptor engines that will power the vehicle.

So why stainless? It’s likely all about reentry.

Many craft and reusable stages that have to face the heat of entering the atmosphere at high speed use “ablative” heat shielding that disintegrates or breaks away in a controlled fashion, carrying heat away from the vehicle.

It’s unlikely this is a possibility for Starship, however, as replacing and repairing this material would necessitate downtime and crews wherever and whenever it lands, and the craft is meant to be (eventually) a quick-turnaround ship with maximum reusability. Heat shielding that reflects and survives is a better bet for that — but an enormous engineering problem.

Scott Manley put together a nice video illustrating some of these ideas and speculations in detail:

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Musk said before of the Starship (then still called BFR) that “almost the entire time it is reentering, it’s just trying to brake, while distributing that force over the most area possible.” Reentry will probably look more like a Space Shuttle-esque glide than a Falcon 9 first stage’s ballistic descent and engine braking.

The switch to stainless steel has the pleasant side effect of making the craft look really cool — more in line with sci-fi books and comics than their readers perhaps ever thought to hope. Paint jobs would burn right off, Musk said:

You can’t expect it to stay shiny for long, though; it may be stainless, but like a pan you left on the stove, stainless steel can still scorch and the bottom of the Starship will likely look pretty rough after a while. It’s all right — spacecraft developing a patina is a charming evolution.

Details are still few, and for all we know SpaceX could redesign the craft again based on how tests go. Next year will see the earliest hopper flights for Starship hardware and possibly the Super Heavy lower stage that will lift its great shiny bulk out of the lower atmosphere.

The technical documentation promised by Musk should arrive in March or April, but whether it will pertain solely to the test vehicle or give a glimpse at the craft SpaceX intends to send around the moon is anyone’s guess. At any rate you should expect more information to be spontaneously revealed before then at Musk’s discretion — or lack thereof.