4474: Launch of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission delayed until November

The mission will bring three NASA astronauts and a JAXA astronaut to the International Space Station

The crew access arm leading to the Crew Dragon, atop the Falcon 9 Image: SpaceX

NASA has delayed the launch of the SpaceX Crew-1 mission until early- to mid-November, the agency announced Saturday. The mission eventually will bring three NASA astronauts and an astronaut from Japan’s JAXA space agency to the International Space Station.

Originally scheduled for October 31st, the planned six-month mission was delayed to allow time to resolve issues with the first-stage engine gas generators on the Falcon 9 rocket, NASA said in a statement. When it does launch, American astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker, plus Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will be aboard SpaceX’s first operational crewed mission to the ISS.

Crew-1 is among six planned missions SpaceX plans to send to the ISS under a contract with NASA, awarded in 2014 as part of the Commercial Crew Program that brought private sector companies into the US space program.

SpaceX’s first Crew Dragon flight, the DM-2, or Demo-2, was a test mission that brought NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS in May for a two-month visit. The Crew Dragon docked with the ISS and returned safely to Earth on August 2nd, giving NASA the data it needed to certify regular trips to and from the ISS with astronauts aboard in the future.

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4473: Boeing astronaut withdraws himself from first crewed test flight of passenger spacecraft

Chris Ferguson is not going to fly on Starliner next year

Chris Ferguson, after NASA announced his assignment to the Starliner mission (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Boeing employee and former NASA astronaut Christopher Ferguson will no longer command the first crewed test flight of Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, slated to carry its first human passengers next year. NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore will take Ferguson’s place on the flight, riding along with the two other NASA astronauts already assigned to the mission.

In a video posted to Twitter, Ferguson said leaving the flight was a “difficult and personal decision” he had to make. “Next year is very important for my family,” he said in the video. “I have made several commitments which I simply cannot risk missing. I’m not going anywhere. I’m just not going into space next year.”

Ferguson has been instrumental in the multiyear development of Boeing’s Starliner, a privately built crew capsule designed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for NASA. Ferguson commanded the last flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle in 2011, before retiring from the agency that year. He then joined Boeing and became director of crew and mission systems for the Starliner program. In 2018, Ferguson was assigned as commander of the first crewed flight test of Starliner, along with astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke who would be joining as crewmates. Since he is technically no longer a NASA astronaut, Ferguson would have become the first private citizen to fly on a privately made spacecraft to orbit.

NASA and Boeing had planned for Starliner’s first crewed flight to happen as soon as this year, but the flight has been significantly delayed due to problems with the program. In December 2019, Boeing launched the Starliner on its debut flight to the space station — with no crew on board — but the mission suffered from numerous software glitches that prompted the company to bring the capsule home early before it could reach the ISS. After a lengthy investigation by NASA, Boeing has been trying to implement a list of 80 recommendations to ensure that no more glitches occur on upcoming flights. And the company is gearing up to perform a second uncrewed test flight of Starliner, currently planned for December.

Now, Boeing is targeting no earlier than June of next year for the first crewed test flight, and Ferguson indicated to The Washington Post that he had a family wedding and other commitments in 2021. With Ferguson stepping down, Wilmore will now start training immediately with Mann and Fincke. Wilmore was already part of the backup crew for the mission, so he had already been training for the flight in case he needed to be slotted in. “Having had the chance to train alongside and view this outstanding crew as backup has been instrumental in my preparation to assume this position,” Wilmore said in a statement. “Stepping down was a difficult decision for Chris, but with his leadership and assistance to this point, this crew is positioned for success.”

In the meantime, Ferguson will still be very involved with Starliner. He is assuming a new role as director of mission integration and operations, where he will support the astronauts and make sure that their training is adequate, according to Boeing. The company notes that Ferguson will also be one of the last people the crew will see before they leave for space — and one of the first they’ll see when they return.

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4472: SpaceX receives contract to build missile tracking satellites for the Defense Department

The satellites are supposedly based on SpaceX’s Starlink design

A batch of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites ahead of deployment Image: SpaceX

Yesterday, SpaceX received a contract worth more than $149 million from the Space Development Agency (SDA), tasking the company with building a new satellite for the US military capable of tracking and providing early warnings of hypersonic missile launches. Another company, L3Harris Technologies out of Florida, was given more than $193 million by the agency to also build tracking satellites.

The satellites are meant to be the first crucial part of the SDA’s Tracking Layer Tranche 0, which is designed to provide missile tracking for the Defense Department from space using infrared sensors. SpaceX and L3Harris will together build eight satellites to deliver to the DOD for the Tracking Layer — the first satellites in a planned constellation.

The Tracking Layer will work in partnership with the SDA’s proposed Transport Layer, another planned constellation of between 300 and 500 satellites that will provide “low-latency military data and connectivity worldwide” to military assets. Both layers will be able to communicate with one another through intersatellite links. That way, any data that the sensors pick up in the Tracking Layer can quickly be disseminated to personnel on the ground. Lockheed Martin and York Space Systems both received contracts to develop the initial satellites for this Transport Layer.

This is the first time SpaceX has been granted a DOD award to build satellites. The company is quickly growing its own satellite flight with its Starlink constellation — a proposed constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites intended to beam broadband internet connectivity down to users on Earth. To win this SDA award, SpaceX bid a satellite concept based on its Starlink design, Space News reports.

“We are confident these fixed-price awards will help us deliver the initial tranche of the Tracking Layer on schedule,” Derek Tournear, SDA director, said in a statement provided to The Verge. “We were pleased with the response from industry and commercial partners to this competition.”

The SDA wants these eight satellites delivered and launched by the end of 2022. Along with the satellites from SpaceX and L3Harris, the agency plans to launch up to 20 satellites from the Transport Layer at that time, as well as up to two additional tracking satellites that are being developed by the Missile Defense Agency. And that’s just the first batch; the SDA plans to put up even more satellites in the Tracking Layer once these initial eight go up, according to Space News.

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4414: After lengthy delays, ULA’s most powerful rocket poised to launch classified spy satellite

Takeoff is scheduled for 11:54PM ET — but will it happen?

After many weeks of delays due to faulty equipment and bad weather, the United Launch Alliance is set to launch its most powerful rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, lofting a classified spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. The mission is finally ready to fly a full month after the rocket’s first launch attempt, which was aborted just three seconds before liftoff.

The rocket going up on ULA’s mission is the Delta IV Heavy, a giant vehicle that consists of three rocket cores strapped together to provide extra thrust. It’s one of the most powerful rockets in the world, though it falls short of the power packed into SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. ULA doesn’t fly the Delta IV Heavy very often, as it’s an expensive vehicle to make, but the company uses the rocket for large, heavy satellites headed to super-high orbits.

The rocket’s payload is NROL-44, and like all NRO missions, its purpose is cloaked in secrecy. The office simply notes that “NROL-44 supports NRO’s overall national security mission to provide intelligence data to the United States’ senior policymakers, the Intelligence Community and Department of Defense.” ULA has already launched 29 missions for the NRO, many of which have required the Delta IV Heavy.

ULA was all set to launch NROL-44 in the wee hours of the morning on August 29th. ULA counted all the way down to just seconds before liftoff, with the Delta IV Heavy’s main engines briefly igniting. But the engines quickly shut off and the rocket remained fixed on the launchpad. ULA later learned a piece of ground equipment had failed, prompting the abort. It took the company a few weeks to replace the faulty equipment.

Further problems with equipment on the launchpad pushed back the launch time again, but ULA is hoping to get off the ground this week. Unfortunately the weather has not been agreeable, with bad conditions delaying attempts on Monday and Tuesday. But at last, there’s a 70 percent chance that the weather will cooperate for launch tonight — so perhaps today is the day.

The Delta IV Heavy is scheduled to lift off on Tuesday at 11:54PM ET from ULA’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. ULA’s launch blog will begin at 3:15PM ET, and its webcast will begin at 11:34PM ET, for anyone who is still awake and hoping to catch a midnight launch.

Update September 30th, 3:00PM ET: This post has been updated from an older post, after multiple launch delays.

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4207: NASA is going to try to hunt down a leak on the International Space Station this weekend

The crew on board isn’t in any danger

NASA and its Russian partner Roscosmos are going to try to hunt down the source of a very small leak on the International Space Station this weekend, one that has been causing air to release a little more rapidly from the ISS for the last year. The three crew members currently on board the station will stay in the Russian segment of the ISS over the weekend, while NASA tries to isolate the origin of the leak in other parts of the spacecraft.

NASA first noticed it might have a leak on the station way back in September of 2019. Air inside the station slowly leaks out of the ISS over time, but officials noticed that the air seemed to be escaping at a slightly higher rate than usual. Since then, the leak seems to have increased slightly. However, NASA hasn’t had much time to investigate. Things have been pretty busy on the ISS since September, with astronauts conducting various spacewalks and new vehicles like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon bringing people to and from the ISS. The leak hasn’t been a huge issue since tanks on board the ISS can help maintain the station’s pressure whenever air escapes.

Now that the schedule has slowed down, NASA has time to figure out where the leak is coming from. NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner will bunk together inside the Russian segment after closing all of the hatches to the other ISS modules. Over the weekend, NASA will monitor the air pressure levels in each of the modules in order to pinpoint the offending leak. Results of the test should be available next week. NASA says that the crew will have plenty of room inside the Russian segment and that the crew isn’t in any danger.

Leaks pop up from time to time on the ISS, but one leak in 2018 got much more attention than the others. At the time, astronauts traced a leak on board the ISS to a small hole inside a visiting Russian Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS. Conspiracy theories abounded in Russian press that the hole could have been drilled from the inside of the Soyuz by someone on board the ISS. Two cosmonauts even did a spacewalk to examine the hole from the outside. Ultimately, Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin indicated that Russian officials knew how the hole got there, but they wouldn’t divulge the cause.

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4133: SpaceX, ULA are the big winners for US national security launches

The two companies will split the contracts 60/40

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying satellites for the U.S. Air Force launches on June 25, 2019. Photo by Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The US Department of Defense has selected its two primary rocket companies for getting satellites into orbit in the years ahead: long-time military launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX. ULA will receive 60 percent of the department’s satellite launch contracts, while SpaceX will receive 40 percent.

The two companies beat out rivals Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin to launch DoD missions between fiscal years 2022 and 2027. This is a big prize, as each individual launch can cost over $100 million. The DoD hasn’t committed to an exact number of launches over that five-year period, but they have awarded $316 million to SpaceX and $337 million to ULA “to meet fiscal year 2022 launch dates”, according to a DoD statement.

“This was an extremely tough decision and I appreciate the hard work industry completed to adapt their commercial launch systems to affordably and reliably meet our more stressing national security requirements,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise, said in a statement.

There’s a milestone here, too: the end of this program’s use of the Atlas V rocket. That rocket, made by ULA, relies on the Russian RD-180 engine. But the Russian engines have been a political minefield ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014; that year, NASA even suspended contact with Russia. Since then, the DoD has been trying to phase out its reliance on Russian technology. In 2018, it awarded ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin a combined $2 billion in contracts to develop next-generation rockets.

SpaceX wasn’t happy about that award — in 2019 they sued the government over the contract. The company argued the award gave their competitors a leg up in getting awarded the launches.

In the end, the DoD passed over vehicles designed by Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. Instead, they picked SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which have proven themselves in flight. They also chose ULA’s future Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is currently set to make its first flight in 2021.

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4088: FCC approves Amazon’s internet-from-space Kuiper constellation of 3,236 satellites

Though there are caveats to the approval

An artistic rendering of a satellite in orbit Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The Federal Communications Commission has approved Amazon’s plans for its ambitious Kuiper constellation, which entails sending 3,236 satellites into orbit to beam internet coverage down to Earth. The decision is a crucial regulatory step that paves the way for Amazon to start launching the satellites when they’re ready.

The company plans to send the satellites to three different altitudes, and it claims it needs just 578 satellites in orbit to begin service, according to an FCC document announcing the approval. Amazon said it will invest “more than $10 billion” in Project Kuiper in a blog post.

Amazon has not announced which launch provider it plans to use to fly the satellites into orbit yet. While Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns the rocket company Blue Origin, the launch provider will have to compete to launch the satellites along with other companies.

There are few caveats to Amazon’s FCC approval. The company must launch half of the constellation by 2026 to retain its FCC license, and then the remaining satellites by 2029. Amazon also must submit to the FCC a finalized plan for how it will mitigate orbital debris, since the design of its satellites aren’t finalized yet. Amazon claims it will take its satellites out of orbit within 355 days, but the FCC argues the company didn’t “present specific information concerning some required elements” for its debris plan. A big concern of a constellation of this size is that the influx of satellites will lead to more collisions in space, creating pieces of debris that could threaten other satellites.

Amazon is one of a handful of companies aiming to create a giant constellation of satellites in orbit, in order to provide broadband connectivity to the surface below. Most notable among these competitors is SpaceX, which has approval from the FCC to launch nearly 12,000 satellites for its Starlink project. So far, SpaceX has launched more than 500 Starlink satellites, with plans to start beta testing the system this summer. Meanwhile, UK-based OneWeb also hopes to build a constellation of 650 satellites, and has already launched 74 of them. The company filed for bankruptcy this year, but was recently bailed out by a consortium that includes the UK government and Indian telecom company Bharti Global.

Amazon claims that Kuiper will “provide broadband services to unserved and underserved consumers, businesses in the United States, and global customers by employing advanced satellite and earth station technologies,” according to the FCC’s approval document. Amazon also said that Project Kuiper will provide “backhaul solutions for wireless carriers extending LTE and 5G service to new regions” in its blog post.

Update July 30th, 8:57PM ET: Added new details from an Amazon blog post.

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4013: NASA astronauts set to return to Earth in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon on August 2nd

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are coming home soon

Image: NASA

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are tentatively scheduled to return to Earth inside SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon capsule on August 2nd. It’s the same Crew Dragon vehicle that launched the astronauts to space at the end of May — marking the first time a privately made spacecraft had carried people to orbit.

For now, NASA plans for the duo, currently on board the International Space Station, to board the Crew Dragon on August 1st. They’ll then be back on the ground sometime the next day, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who noted that weather will be a major factor in the return date. The departure will cap off a two-month stay on the ISS for Behnken and Hurley. While in space, they’ve both been very busy, with Behnken conducting numerous spacewalks to swap out aging batteries on the outside of the International Space Station.

The crew’s return to Earth will also be the last major test of the Crew Dragon, proving whether the vehicle can get people to the ground safely. The capsule has a heat shield, designed to protect its passengers from the intense heat generated as the vehicle plunges through Earth’s atmosphere. The Crew Dragon also sports a suite of four parachutes that deploy once the capsule is closer to the ground. They’re meant to gently lower the vehicle into the Atlantic Ocean, where the spacecraft and its astronauts will then be picked up by a special SpaceX recovery vessel.

If all goes well, the splashdown will bring an end to the Crew Dragon’s first crewed test flight —called Demonstration Mission 2, or DM-2. The test mission will determine if the Crew Dragon is ready to start flying crews of astronauts regularly to and from the ISS. SpaceX’s next flight of the Crew Dragon is currently slated for mid-to-late September and will carry four astronauts to the station. But this return must go well first.

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4012: NASA delays the launch of its next powerful space observatory, the James Webb, by seven months

The COVID-19 pandemic played a substantial role

NASA has once again delayed the launch of its new powerful space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, mostly due to disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Most recently slated to fly in March of 2021, the massive telescope is now scheduled to launch on October 31st, 2021.

The Government Accountability Office, or GAO, had already predicted this delay. NASA came up with the new date after doing an extensive review to see if the March 2021 timing was actually possible. The agency attributes about three months of the delay to social distancing and other precautions that had to be put in place to keep people safe from the coronavirus. “Much of the impact, of course, comes from people not being at work, right?” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said during a press conference. “Not touching the hardware or from having a reduced number of people available to do shifts.”

However, coronavirus isn’t solely to blame. Two additional months were added to the schedule thanks to technical challenges experienced by the primary contractor, Northrop Grumman, as it pieced the telescope together and conducted testing. Northrop Grumman has already dealt with numerous technical problems during the development of the spacecraft, such as washers and screws coming loose during tests — as well as accidental tears in the vehicle’s thin sunshield, which is designed to protect the observatory from the intense heat of the Sun. NASA then added an extra two months as schedule margin, in case other unknown problems crop up between now and launch.

The James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, has been plagued with delays throughout its entire history. The observatory, first conceived in the 1990s, was projected to cost between $1 billion and $3.5 billion, with a launch date somewhere between 2007 and 2011, according to the Government Accountability Office. Ever since then, the cost of the project has ballooned and the launch date has been repeatedly delayed.

In 2011, Congress replanned the entire project, creating a cap of $8 billion on the telescope’s development, with a launch in 2018. But in 2018, NASA delayed the project yet again, stating that $8.8 billion was needed for the development, and that the entirety of the mission would cost $9.66 billion, including the cost of operating the telescope in space. That year, NASA set the March 2021 launch date.

NASA does not expect to exceed that budget any further, even with the new delay. “Based on current projections, the program expects to complete the remaining work within the new schedule, without requiring additional funds,” Gregory Robinson, the program director for James Webb, said during a press call, “where we use existing program funding to stay within this $8.8 billion development cost cap.”

NASA says it has already spoken with Arianespace, the company that will launch JWST, about the delay. The company claims that the rocket’s intended ride, the Ariane 5, will be ready to take the vehicle to space next Halloween. NASA is also standing firm by the October 31st date. “We’re not expecting to go beyond October 31st,” Robinson said. “We have high confidence in that.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is destined to be the most powerful space observatory ever built when it’s launched, capable of peering back in time to when the Universe first came into being 13.8 billion years ago. The telescope sports a massive gold-plated mirror, measuring 21 feet, or 6.5 meters, across, that will gather light from the distant reaches of the cosmos.

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3953: Rocket Lab’s 13th launch ends in failure, after rocket experiences problem mid-flight

The vehicle started losing speed and it dropped in altitude

Rocket Lab’s 13th mission ended in failure on Saturday, after the company’s rocket experienced some kind of problem after launching to space. As a result, Rocket Lab lost its rocket, as well as all the satellites it carried on board.

The company’s Electron rocket successfully took off at 5:19PM ET from Rocket Lab’s primary launch facility on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. The launch seemed to proceed just fine for the first crucial minutes, but about six minutes into the launch, live video from the rocket stalled. At that point, Rocket Lab’s livestream indicated that the rocket started to lose speed, and the vehicle dropped in altitude.

Rocket Lab eventually cut the livestream. Afterward, the company revealed that the Electron rocket had been lost during flight.

Profile photo, opens profile page on Twitter in a new tab

Rocket Lab
@RocketLab
An issue was experienced today during Rocket Lab’s launch that caused the loss of the vehicle. We are deeply sorry to the customers on board Electron. The issue occurred late in the flight during the 2nd stage burn. More information will be provided as it becomes available.

Rocket Lab’s CEO Peter Beck apologized for the failure on Twitter. “I am incredibly sorry that we failed to deliver our customers satellites today,” he tweeted. “Rest assured we will find the issue, correct it and be back on the pad soon.”

The mission, named “Pics Or It Didn’t Happen,” carried mostly Earth-imaging small satellites. The primary payload was Canon Electronics’ CE-SAT-IB, designed to demonstrate Earth-imaging technology with high-resolution and wide-angle cameras. The rocket also carried five SuperDove satellites from the company Planet, designed to image Earth from above. The last payload was a small satellite called Faraday-1, from In-Space Missions, which hosted multiple instruments from startups and other organizations that needed a ride to space.

Planet’s CEO Will Marshall announced the loss of the satellites on Twitter, noting that the company has plans to launch even more satellites this summer on two separate launches. “While it’s never the outcome that we hope for, the risk of launch failure is one Planet is always prepared for,” the company said in a statement. Planet is about to launch up to 26 of its SuperDove satellites on a European Vega rocket in August, from South America.

Since its inception, Rocket Lab has put 53 spacecraft into low Earth orbit on 12 separate missions, with this weekend’s launch the third for Rocket Lab this year. The majority of the company’s flight have been successful. Rocket Lab’s very first flight in 2017, called “It’s a Test,” was the only flight that didn’t operate according to plan; the rocket successfully launched and made it to space, but didn’t reach orbit. All of Rocket Lab’s other missions have been picture perfect since then, making today’s flight the first major failure for the company.

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Rocket Lab
@RocketLab

Replying to @RocketLab

An incredible view of Earth below as Electron continues nominally.

Image

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3952: UK government takes $500 million stake in space exploration firm OneWeb

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy protection in the US in March

Image: OneWeb

As part of a consortium that includes Indian telecom Bharti Global, the UK government will invest $500 million and take a “significant equity share” in space exploration firm OneWeb, it announced Friday. OneWeb, which has its headquarters in the UK, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US in March, after it was unable to secure financing. Bharti Global also will invest $500 million as part of the deal.

OneWeb is one of several companies working on an Internet-from-space project, using a combination of low-altitude satellites to beam internet connectivity to ground terminals on Earth’s surface. It was slated to launch a constellation of 650 spacecraft, and its plans included providing internet coverage for the Arctic. So far, it has launched 74 satellites for the project.

Friday’s deal with the UK, which gives the country a 20 percent stake, will allow OneWeb to complete construction of the satellite constellation, the government said in a statement, “making the UK a world leader in science, research and development.” UK Secretary of State for Business Alok Sharma said the deal “presents the opportunity to further develop our strong advanced manufacturing base right here in the UK.” The UK lost access to the European Union’s Galileo satellite system in 2018 as part of its departure from the EU, and the UK’s plans to build its own global navigation satellite system are on hold due to cost concerns.

OneWeb said in a statement Friday that the company was seeking to resume operations as soon as possible.

News of the OneWeb deal drew criticism from some space experts in the UK, however. Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester, told The Guardian that the deal amounted to “bolting an unproven technology on to a mega-constellation that’s designed to do something else.” OneWeb’s satellites are in low-Earth orbit, but most other countries’ GPS systems are in medium-Earth orbit, The Guardian noted.

The deal is subject to US regulatory approval and is expected to close before the end of the year.

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3921: Astronomers see first light flare from two distant black holes colliding

How a dark event become a bright affair

A whopping 7.5 billion light-years from Earth, two black holes, each about the size of Long Island, rapidly spun around each other several times per second before smashing together in a cataclysmic explosion that sent shockwaves through the Universe. Normally, violent unions like this are dark events, but astronomers think they saw a flare of light emerge from this celestial dance — potentially the first time light has ever been seen from black holes merging.

It’s a unique discovery since black holes are notorious for not producing any light at all. These super dense objects are so massive that nothing can escape their gravitational pull — not even light. So how exactly did researchers see a flare from two black holes that aren’t supposed to flare?

Well, the black holes may have just been in the right place at the right time, according to a new study published in the journal Physical Review Letters. When they spun together, they were located inside a giant disc of gas and dust. This disc of material spans light-years and actually surrounds a third black hole — a supermassive one at the center of a galaxy. Since the dueling black holes were inside this dusty environment, their spinning and eventual merger created something like a shock wave that slammed into the surrounding dirt and gas. That heated up the nearby material, causing it to glow brighter than normal — and allowing researchers from Earth to spot it.

“If it’s two black holes merging, you don’t expect to see anything,” Matt Graham, a research professor of astronomy at Caltech and lead author of the study, tells The Verge. “But because the black holes are surrounded by this stuff, by this accretion disc, that’s different.”

The researchers pinpointed this oddball event with the help of the LIGO-Virgo collaboration, an international scientific partnership that’s become increasingly skilled at detecting cataclysmic events like black holes merging. More specifically, LIGO and Virgo seek out tiny ripples in the fabric of the Universe, known as gravitational waves, that stem from distant celestial events. Whenever two massive objects in the faraway Universe merge, they create undulating waves in the fabric of space and time that travel outward at the speed of light. When they reach Earth, such ripples are very tiny, but LIGO’s two observatories in the US and Virgo’s observatory in Italy are just sensitive enough to pick them up.

LIGO made history in 2015 when the collaboration detected gravitational waves for the first time from two black holes merging. Since then, LIGO and now Virgo, which came online in 2017, have been beefing up their resumes, detecting a whole slew of mergers throughout the Universe, including those of black holes, neutron stars, and maybe even a black hole colliding with a neutron star. When neutron stars collide, the mergers can sometimes be picked up by observatories that measure their light, even though the objects are really faint. When black holes collide, it’s not something we can see — until perhaps now. “It’s a weird and wonderful event, and in fact we don’t know how rare they are,” Chiara Mingarelli, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut studying gravitational waves, who was not involved in the study, tells The Verge.

One of LIGO’s observatories in Livingston, Louisiana. Image: LIGO

To find this flare, Graham and his colleagues capitalized on LIGO’s triumph at finding mergers throughout space to help them solve a puzzle. Graham and his team study really active supermassive black holes in galaxies — known as quasars — and they’d been noticing a weird trend. Sometimes these quasars would flare unexpectedly, glowing super bright without warning, and they wanted to know why. “And we sort of said, ‘Well I wonder what happens if you had black holes in that environment?’” says Graham.

Two of Graham’s colleagues, Saavik Ford and Barry McKernan, put out a paper theorizing that black holes merging in these gaseous discs could cause the mysterious flare-ups. “The idea that there might be black holes in the centers of galaxies, very nearby a supermassive black hole, is actually pretty uncontroversial,” Ford tells The Verge, adding, “[We] sat down to think about what the consequences of that might be, and we started to flesh out a theory that we’ve been pursuing for the last decade.”

They then decided to put that theory to the test. In 2019, LIGO did a third observational run, scanning for a new crop of mergers in space. Meanwhile, Graham and colleagues were working at Caltech’s Zwicky Transient Facility, which performs a survey of the entire night sky, looking for odd behavior — like flares in distant galaxies. The astronomers decided to wait about six months after LIGO’s observations had ended to see how many mergers the collaboration detected. They then tried to match up those mergers with the flares they had detected with ZTF, to see if any of them corresponded.

Once they got all the potential mergers from LIGO and Virgo, it was just a matter of narrowing everything down. They matched up all the flares they had seen with ZTF to the mergers LIGO had spotted, making sure they matched the right part of the sky, at the right distance from Earth. The team also looked at timing; they predicted that a flare caused by a merger would occur about 60 to 100 days after the collision took place, as it would take time for things to heat up and cause that glow. They then made sure the flares they found matched the right profile they expected, and it didn’t look like they’d been caused by an exploding star or some other explanation.

That ultimately led Graham and his team to the black hole merger they found. And actually finding something they’d theorized about was pretty exciting. “It’s the sort of thing that you dream about as a scientist,” says Ford, “to say, ‘I think the universe is going to do that. I’m going to call my shot.’ And have the Universe go, ‘Yeah, here you go!’”

Though, things still aren’t totally confirmed just yet. The black hole merger detected by LIGO-Virgo is still just a candidate; it hasn’t been officially named as a merger, and LIGO hasn’t released detailed data about the detection. But the good news is Graham’s team might get extra verification in the future that the flare they recorded did indeed come from swirling black holes. When the black holes merged, it’s likely the resulting black hole that was formed got kicked out of the surrounding dusty disc. However, that hole is still orbiting around the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy, and it’s probably going to cross paths with the hot disc of gas in a year or two, heating up the material and causing another bright flare. So if the team sees another brightening in the same galaxy, they’ll be pretty certain their findings were correct.

When that happens, the measurement of the flare could help the team learn more about this galaxy and better constrain just how massive the supermassive black hole is at the center. “It will actually allow us to directly probe these disks around supermassive black holes in ways that we that we couldn’t do before,” says Mingarelli.

This discovery also gives astronomers another clue about how some faraway galaxies form. It tells them that there may be strange objects doing strange things in the discs that surround supermassive black holes. “It’s not just a large gas disc falling into a supermassive black hole,” says Graham. “You’ve got stars and black holes in there doing things as well.”

Plus, this bizarre dance of black holes inside a giant gaseous disc may be the only way we can actually “see” black holes merging in deep space. And that’s even more information that researchers can use to study the cosmos. “We actually now have this probe, both from the electromagnetic signature, and the gravitational wave — both of which provide information,” says Ford. “It’s a brand new, totally different tool for studying how galaxies got to be the way they are.”

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3909: Startup on quest to 3D-print rockets now has a second launch site on the California coast

Relativity Space is adding another launchpad to its one in Florida

An artistic rendering of Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Image: Relativity Space

Rocket startup Relativity Space is expanding its launch sites from one to two, with a new agreement to fly its future rocket out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California. The deal means Relativity, which already has a lease for a launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, will be able to fly from either the East or West Coast of the United States when its rocket is ready.

Based out of Los Angeles, Relativity Space is an ambitious rocket startup aimed at creating the first fully 3D-printed rocket. The company, started by engineers from SpaceX and Blue Origin, is currently developing its first rocket called the Terran 1. The goal is for every part of Terran 1 — including its engines, fuselage, and propellant tanks — to be 3D-printed in order to minimize the amount of workforce needed to manufacture the rocket and bring down costs. Relativity created its own 3D printer called Stargate to get the job done, and the company recently moved into a new 120,000-square-foot facility in Long Beach, California, to further develop the rocket.

In January of last year, Relativity announced it had signed an agreement to launch out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from a site called LC-16. The company plans to ramp up construction on the site to prepare for the inaugural flight of the Terran 1 currently scheduled for the end of 2021. In the meantime, Relativity has signed a “Right Of Entry Agreement” at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The company is eyeing moving into a site called Building 330 and taking over the land surrounding it.

“We have a site identified; we’ve gone through a program review; we’ve done the initial paperwork for actually getting the first step towards a site awarded,” Tim Ellis, CEO of Relativity Space, tells The Verge. “It means that we’re actually launching from this facility.” He says that the new location will allow the company to launch to orbits that pass north to south and over poles, which its rockets could not reach from launching eastward from the Cape.

As the company begins the process of moving into its new launch site, customers are taking notice. Relativity is also announcing that satellite operator Iridium will launch six satellites on the Terran 1. Iridium finished launching its new constellation of satellites in early 2019, putting up 66 operational satellites and nine in-orbit spares on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. However, the company manufactured six spare satellites that have remained in storage on the ground, and Iridium wants the option to launch those in the future. Relativity’s Terran 1 will loft one Iridium satellite at a time, with all of the launches taking place out of Vandenberg.

Ellis says that the new launch site, combined with Relativity’s new 3D-printing technique, helped secure the deal. “That’s why Iridium chose us,” he says. “It was just confidence in our ability to get a successful launch off, and then also how disruptive the payload performance capability was and price that we’re able to provide because of that 3D-printing tech.” Relativity has said that one flight of its Terran 1, which can carry roughly 2,755 pounds (1,250 kilograms) to low Earth orbit, will start at $10 million.

There’s still a long way to go to prove that Relativity’s rocket-building technique will work and be cost-effective. Ellis expects to start piecing together the rocket and doing testing on it toward the end of this year. But the company has made significant milestones in its short five-year lifetime. Engineers at the company have tested their engines at multiple test sites out of NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Late last year, the company announced it had raised a total of $185 million, which will be enough to fund its first commercial missions. Relativity also continues to bring on well-known talent within the space industry. In May, the company hired Zachary Dunn from SpaceX who had worked for the Elon Musk-led company for more than a decade and was the senior vice president of production and launch. And despite the economic downturn due to COVID-19, Relativity is ramping up its hiring.

The addition of a second launch site is just another big milestone, one Ellis hopes will cement the company as a major player. “I mean when you look at how many companies are actually bicoastal and have major launch facilities, it’s a huge sign of confidence in Relativity’s approach,” he says.

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3903: NASA eyes flying astronauts and personnel to the edge of space on commercial rockets

NASA astronauts may be getting some more rides

In a major policy shift for NASA, the space agency is making it possible for its own personnel — including astronauts — to fly on commercial suborbital spacecraft. These rockets are designed to fly to the edge of space and back, giving passengers brief experiences of weightlessness. The agency is hoping to expand flight options for its astronauts and researchers, while investing in the commercial space industry.

Today, NASA released a request for information on all the ways that NASA astronauts and employees could benefit from flying on these short trips to space. One possible advantage is enhancing astronaut training, by giving explorers extra experience on what it’s like to ascend to space in a rocket-powered vehicle and float in microgravity. That way they’re better prepared for flying to orbit. NASA also thinks astronauts and agency researchers could fly with and operate experiments designed for the space environment. These flyers could also help test hardware intended to be used in space, to see if it holds up in microgravity.

The goal is for NASA to once again become a customer of the commercial spaceflight industry, by purchasing spots on suborbital flights to space. It would work a bit like NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, where NASA buys seats on two privately made spacecraft — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner — both designed to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. There is one big difference, though. NASA partially funded the development of the two Commercial Crew vehicles. With this new program, NASA did not fund the development of any suborbital spacecraft.

“It is notable that no NASA funds were used for the development of suborbital vehicles, but we can participate in the market as a buyer,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, said in a statement. “The US aerospace industry is proving again that it is technically and financially capable of developing safe, reliable, and cost-effective space systems.”

Right now, there are really just two transportation options for NASA to choose from to fly astronauts to the edge of space and back. Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic developed a spaceplane called VSS Unity that can carry passengers to the edge of space before gliding back down to Earth. And Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin has a reusable rocket called New Shepard that also launches to space and back, sending passengers up inside a crew capsule that lands via parachutes. So far, Virgin Galactic has sent five employees to space on its spaceplane during two test flights, while Blue Origin has only conducted uncrewed launches of its rocket. Neither company has launched any paying customers yet.

Still, NASA expects these vehicles to be online soon, which is why the agency is changing its policies about flying on these vehicles. “It is becoming an emerging capability,” Scott Collardo, the head of NASA’s new Suborbital Crew (SubC) office that will oversee this new initiative, said during a press call with reporters. “Now we want to look and see what the industry has to offer to take advantage of it.”

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said the company is “excited” about NASA’s plans. “This comes on the heels of our Space Act agreement with NASA this week about training private astronauts for ISS missions,” he said in a statement to The Verge. “Public-private partnerships are a key to opening space for good, and we’re inspired for the future of human space exploration.” Blue Origin also expressed similar praise. “We applaud NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s leadership to advance public-private partnerships in space,” Clay Mowry, vice president of global sales at Blue Origin, said in a statement to The Verge. “We’re looking forward to offering suborbital crewed space transportation services to NASA with New Shepard.”

With the systems still in development, NASA wants to make sure that its employees will be safe if they fly on these vehicles. That’s why the agency is putting together the Suborbital Crew (SubC) office, within the already existing Commercial Crew Program at NASA, that will review the safety of these vehicles. If Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin want to fly any NASA employees, they need to tell NASA how they are evaluating the safety of their systems, how passengers would survive any accidents, safety standards, and a lot more. NASA also plans to work with the FAA, which regulates space launches, to come up with specific requirements that the companies must meet in order to fly NASA personnel. NASA may also take a vehicle’s flight heritage into account, so the more times a vehicle flies safely, the better rating it will get.

NASA is also eager to hear from the industry about how they plan to maintain a safe vehicle. “The industry will will more than likely, we think, have an alternative approach to this, probably not exactly the way NASA may have done in the past,” Collardo said.

Today’s news is part of NASA’s recent embrace of suborbital human spaceflight. In March, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine discussed that NASA was looking into flying astronauts on suborbital rockets. And before that in January, NASA announced that it would allow researchers from outside of the space agency to apply for opportunities to fly with their experiments on these quick trips to space. Previously, researchers could apply to send microgravity payloads on Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic’s vehicles through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which would help fund and coordinate the trips. But NASA wouldn’t allow the researchers to fly with their payloads, so they all had to be automated.

In March, NASA released a call for research proposals, giving people the option to automate their suborbital experiment or potentially go to space with their work. A draft solicitation said that researchers could potentially receive up to $450,000 or $650,000, depending on the types of experiments they proposed.

There have been past efforts by NASA to allow researchers to fly on suborbital rockets. Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator to NASA, spearheaded a campaign in 2013 to allow researchers to fly on these vehicles along with their research. “It just seemed obvious to me that part of the lure of doing them with a reusable vehicle like Virgin Galactic was going to be that you could fly the researcher with it,” Garver tells The Verge. “It took a lot to sort of automate your experiment, if you’re not going to be there with it.”

She noted that the extra cost to fly a person for NASA is a pretty small amount. Virgin Galactic’s current ticket prices are set at $250,000, which can be costly for a researcher to pay, but a drop in the bucket for the space agency. However, Garver received pushback on the idea of flying researchers back when she first proposed it. “You know government’s risk averse,” she says. “There were questions about what would NASA’s liability be. It’s one thing to lose your research on a suborbital flight, it’s another to lose your researcher.”

The initiative didn’t move forward at the time, but now the new administration is embracing it again, after years of commercial space advocates calling for a change. “I really think when people look back in a century, they’re going to call this time the pivot point,” Alan Stern, associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute, tells The Verge, “not only in commercial space but in the breakout of human spaceflight to be more than just the rare flight of full time professionals. It’ll be something much more akin to the aviation industry.”

Of course there is still one big hurdle left for this all to happen: Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin need to start flying customers. “What I’m most excited for is for these flights to actually happen,” says Garver.

Update June 23rd, 5:00PM ET: This story was update to include a statement from Blue Origin, as well as interviews from Scott Collardo and Alan Stern.

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3899: Virgin Galactic will organize private passenger trips to the space station for NASA

The suborbital space company is going orbital… kind of

Richard Branson’s space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic, will start coordinating private astronaut trips to the International Space Station for NASA — a new partnership aimed at increasing commercial use of the space agency’s orbiting outpost.

Thanks to a new Space Act Agreement with NASA, Virgin Galactic is tasked with putting together a “new private orbital astronaut readiness program,” for the agency. That means finding companies or organizations with an interest in sending people to the space station — for whatever reason — and then finding the right transportation to get them up there. Virgin Galactic will also be responsible for coordinating the necessary resources, both in space and on the ground, to make these trips successful.

It’s a similar mission to that of Space Adventures, a space tourism company that has put together trips to space for wealthy tourists. However, Virgin Galactic says it’s looking for a wide variety of customers, beyond the ones who just want a fun trip to space. “This is not just for potentially private space travelers, but could also be for researchers or even government researchers,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, tells The Verge, noting that people from all over the world could fly through this program.

This new focus on orbital spaceflight may seem odd for Virgin Galactic, which has been mostly focused on suborbital spaceflight for the last decade and a half. Virgin Galactic’s main business revolves around sending paying customers to the edge of space and back on the company’s rocket-powered spaceplane, VSS Unity. The passenger vehicle is designed to take off in midair after deploying from underneath the wing of a carrier aircraft. It climbs to a height of about 55 miles, giving any prospective passengers a short taste of weightlessness, before gliding back to Earth and landing on a runway.

Virgin Galactic has yet to begin commercial operations of its space tourism business, and it has only sent five people to space on two separate test flights. But the company argues that its experience so far makes it qualified to run this kind of program for NASA. Additionally, many of the people who work at Virgin Galactic have experience on past human spaceflight programs at NASA. “We actually have grown on a lot of that experience to build the suborbital program in the first place,” Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s president who worked as the launch integration manager for the Space Shuttle Program, tells The Verge. “It’s obviously a reduced down version, and it’s a little more simplified — you’re not going for multiple days. But a lot of the philosophies are the same. A lot of the rationale is the same.”

Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane VSS Unity. Image: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic is developing an astronaut training program for its future customers who will fly on the company’s spaceplane out of Spaceport America in New Mexico. And through this new agreement, Virgin Galactic will draw on that experience and develop another training program for the customers it finds for NASA. Though that program will be tailored to prepare people for orbit and how to use the space station.

The new training program may entail riding on Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, providing customers with some experience of space and weightlessness before they head to orbit for a longer stay. The company’s spaceplane also pulls extra Gs when it ascends to space, as do rockets taking off to orbit. Experiencing that firsthand could also be valuable for training, according to the company. Virgin Galactic says prospective astronauts will also use some of the company’s facilities at Spaceport America in New Mexico to prepare for their journeys.

“We want to put the right package around it, so it’s not just ‘Go to a class and listen to a PowerPoint for three hours,’” says Moses. “How do you make that an engaging and enjoyable experience that you’re going to want to be able to do?”

NASA says it will ultimately review the plan that Virgin Galactic puts together. “Under the agreement, NASA will conduct an assessment of the feasibility of Virgin Galactic’s plan to develop a new private orbital astronaut readiness program to enable private astronaut missions to the International Space Station,” NASA said in a statement to The Verge. “Virgin Galactic’s plans to develop a new private orbital astronaut readiness program directly support NASA’s broad strategy to facilitate the commercialization of low-Earth orbit by U.S. entities.”

This news comes after NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine also announced plans to fly NASA astronauts on suborbital vehicles, like Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane and rival Blue Origin’s tourist rocket. Bridenstine didn’t provide much detail on that, saying those plans would come out sometime this week.

The partnership also means that Virgin Galactic will take on a new role as a broker, procuring customers, resources, and transportation to make these trips possible. Right now, the company has a handful of new transportation options, geared toward flying people to orbit. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon just sent its first two passengers to the ISS and should start regularly flying people to and from orbit later this year. Boeing is also developing a crew capsule called the CST-100 Starliner to take people to orbit, though the vehicle likely won’t fly its first passengers until next year at the earliest. Each seat on the Crew Dragon runs a little less than $60 million, while a seat on the Starliner costs around $90 million.

Meanwhile, there is a third non-American option for getting to orbit: Russia’s Soyuz capsule, which has been the sole method for getting astronauts to and from the space station since NASA’s Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. Historically, NASA has paid about $80 million for one seat on the Soyuz.

Though these are the only three options for getting humans to the International Space Station, Virgin Galactic would not comment on which vehicles are being considered for flights. However, Moses said the training program that the company develops will have to be tailored, depending on which capsules the people take to space. SpaceX, for instance, has developed various hardware at its facilities in Hawthorne, California, to simulate what it’s like to fly on the Crew Dragon, which could come in handy for training.

Virgin Galactic says it’s in preliminary discussions with prospective customers interested in sending people to the space station for a variety of different reasons — from commercial purposes to research. The company is also looking at a way to train customers for how they’ll use the space station when they’re up there, depending on the reason for their visit. “What you’re going to do while you’re there is the other big piece we’re really looking forward to sinking our teeth into,” Moses says. “How to prepare you while you’re there and then support you once you’re on station.”

This new program feeds into a larger goal for NASA of opening up the International Space Station to more commercial pursuits. For decades, the ISS has mainly been a place for government and academic research, but the space agency announced last year that it will allow companies access to the ISS for commercial purposes, such as filming ads or movies, and even allow these companies to send their own private astronauts to the station. So far, a company called Axiom, aimed at building a private space station, announced plans to send its own representatives to the ISS via a Crew Dragon capsule late next year.

“The exciting thing here is that this is sort of another step towards opening up low Earth orbit to a diverse renaissance of activity, and we’re happy to be a part of it,” says Whitesides.

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3860: How small launcher Rocket Lab plans to pull off its first mission to the Moon next year

Moving beyond Earth orbit to lunar orbit

An artistic rendering of Rocket Lab’s upgraded Photon spacecraft, with CAPSTONE attached Image: Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab is known for launching tiny satellites into Earth orbit, but the company has big plans to venture deeper into space, with its first mission to the Moon set for next year. Thanks to a contract with NASA, Rocket Lab will send a small spacecraft called CAPSTONE into orbit around the Moon to test out how to navigate in lunar orbit and help human missions to the Moon in the future.

It’ll be the most ambitious mission yet for Rocket Lab, which just launched its workhorse Electron rocket on its 12th flight this weekend. In total, the company has put up to 53 spacecraft into space, and so far, all of the those launches have sent satellites into low Earth orbit. But the company has been eyeing ways to push the envelope. “From day one that I came to Rocket Lab, it’s been an interest to stretch the legs of Electron and keep pushing to see what we can do,” Amanda Stiles, the Moon program manager for Rocket Lab who used to be the director for Google Lunar X Prize, tells The Verge. “And I know from the very highest levels of the company, there’s always been a big interest in going to the Moon.”

This mission will rely on a key piece of hardware that Rocket Lab has been using for the last few years: its Photon spacecraft. The cylindrical vehicle sits on the top of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket, propelling customers’ hardware into low Earth orbit. It can also serve as a customizable satellite that can carry various payloads and instruments into space. “For most people’s purposes, they’re looking at low Earth orbit, but it’s also flexible where we can upgrade it and use it as a platform for these more advanced missions,” says Stiles. “So, this is the first advanced version of a Photon for that purpose.”

For the CAPSTONE mission, Rocket Lab has added some upgrades to Photon, most notably bigger propellant tanks and a new engine that the company is developing called the HyperCurie. It’s a version of the 3D-printed Curie engine that Rocket Lab already uses, but it’s being slightly altered to get some more thrust. Rocket Lab also plans to upgrade some of the systems on Photon, as well as add solar panels, so that the vehicle can last a bit longer in space.

Photon is going to need it all in order to get NASA’s CAPSTONE into the Moon’s orbit. After launching from Rocket Lab’s new launch site in Virginia, Electron will first deploy the Photon spacecraft — with the CAPSTONE satellite mounted on top — into a low circular orbit around Earth. From there, Photon will slowly stretch its orbit, taking the vehicle farther away from the planet. Eventually, Photon will burn its HyperCurie engine and set it on a course toward the Moon. All in all, it’ll take about eight to nine days to reach the right spot where Photon will deploy the CAPSTONE spacecraft, and Stiles says the route they’re taking will save Rocket Lab some energy along the way. “That’s a pretty key enabler for the mission,” says Stiles.

The plan for Rocket Lab’s CAPSTONE mission. Image: Rocket Lab

Once at the Moon, CAPSTONE will attempt to insert itself into lunar orbit, testing out navigation and control technologies that may be critical for the future. CAPSTONE is targeting a particular type of orbit around the Moon, known as near rectilinear halo orbit. This orbit will take CAPSTONE within 1,000 miles of the lunar surface and out as far as 43,500 miles. It’s also the same orbit where NASA plans to build a new lunar outpost called the Gateway. This distant space station will eventually serve as a waypoint for astronauts, where they can live and train for brief periods before descending to the surface of the Moon. The data CAPSTONE collects will hopefully help NASA gain a better understanding of how to navigate in this orbit in the future.

As for the Photon spacecraft, it may have more to do once the CAPSTONE satellite detaches from the vehicle. Stiles says Rocket Lab is considering an extended mission with the vehicle, potentially sending it out into interplanetary space to demonstrate Photon’s capabilities for future missions. “We haven’t settled on a final decision on that yet, but it’s something we’re definitely looking into,” Stiles says. “But the primary mission is really the focus.”

The CAPSTONE mission could help pave the way for Rocket Lab missions that go into deeper space. “We’re looking at not just the Moon but Venus and Mars,” Stiles says. “Once we figure out the platform to get ourselves to the Moon, then that really opens up the possibilities of going to a whole bunch of places.” It’s not just Rocket Lab that’s interested in sending small probes into deep space. Satellite launcher Virgin Orbit has also announced plans to send tiny spacecraft to Mars, once its LauncherOne rocket is up and running.

There’s some precedent for sending tiny spacecraft out to distant worlds. NASA sent two small standardized satellites — known as CubeSats — out to Mars along with the agency’s InSight lander in 2018. The tiny tagalong vehicles served as relays, helping NASA get updates on InSight’s landing sequence in real time. The pioneering space probes proved that small satellites could be useful on these larger interplanetary missions as helpers, observers, or communicators. Or they could be used as pathfinders, like CAPSTONE, testing out technologies that future, much larger spacecraft will need to master when exploring other worlds.

Ultimately, Stiles says there are a ton of opportunities for sending small spacecraft into deep space, and people are just starting to fully understand what these tiny vehicles, launched on small rockets, can do. “I think maybe it didn’t even occur to a lot of folks,” Stiles says. “Whenever that happens, you start getting all kinds of new ideas and new missions that five years ago nobody even thought about.”

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3845: SpaceX launched more Starlink satellites on Falcon 9, and three Planet SkySats hitched a ride

Starlink aims to provide internet connectivity on Earth

Falcon 9 launched 58 Starlink satellites and three Planet Skysats to orbit, then returned to Earth. SpaceX

SpaceX launched 58 new Starlink satellites on its Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday morning, and three satellites from Planet tagged along for the ride. The SpaceX satellites are part of its growing Starlink constellation, which it’s building to provide internet connectivity on Earth. The company has permission to launch some 12,000 satellites as part of the project.

The Falcon 9 rocket launched the satellites, then returned safely to Earth, landing on the Of Course I Still Love You drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean.

SpaceX @SpaceX

Falcon 9’s first stage has landed on the Of Course I Still Love You droneship

The Planet satellites are part of that company’s existing SkySat constellation, which includes just over a dozen washing machine-sized craft that generate high-resolution images of our home planet. Three more Planet satellites will go up on SpaceX’s next Falcon 9 Starlink launch in July. Both Planet launches are part of SpaceX’s new SmallSat Rideshare Program, which gives smaller satellite operators a chance to book a ride aboard a SpaceX launch.

Will Marshall @Will4Planet

Launch success! All 3 Skysats in orbit & contacted by ground stations!
– 10 mins to space
– 12 mins to separation
– 18 mins to first ground station contact. Phew!

Thank you @SpaceX @ElonMusk for the beautiful ride!

Here’s two Skysats separating atop the Starlinks! Too cool!

 

SpaceX has opened its Starlink website to allow people to sign up for “updates on Starlink news and service availability in your area.” The company is expected to conduct private beta testing of its internet-providing satellites later this summer, followed by a public beta test.

Two weeks ago, SpaceX launched its first two people into orbit, sending veteran NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station in its Crew Dragon capsule.

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3816: SpaceX’s next Starlink launch will boost three hitchhiking satellites to orbit

SCIENCE/TECHNOLOGY

The washing machine-sized satellites will take pictures of the Earth

Two of Planet’s SkySat satellites hitched a ride on this December 2018 launch of one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX

In the coming weeks, satellite operator Planet will hitch a ride on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, sending up three of its own small satellites along with 60 of SpaceX’s internet-beaming Starlink satellites. When the gaggle of satellites launch, Planet will be the first to tag along to space as part of SpaceX’s new small satellite ride-share program.

The three Planet satellites going up on this next launch will add to the company’s existing SkySat constellation in low Earth orbit. The constellation is currently made up of 15 spacecraft, each about the size of a washing machine, which generate high-resolution images of the Earth below. Planet plans to round out the fleet with six more satellites: three going up on an upcoming Falcon 9 launch and three more set to fly on another Falcon 9 Starlink launch in July. The company initially announced its plan to launch with SpaceX in mid-May.

It won’t be the first time that Planet has launched SkySats on a Falcon 9 rocket. The company sent up seven satellites, including two SkySats, on a Falcon 9 in December 2018. That launch, known as the SSO-A mission, was a massive ride-share that sent up about 64 satellites all on one rocket. A separate company called Spaceflight brokered that launch, but now SpaceX is working directly with small satellite operators to coordinate ride-shares on the Falcon 9, part of a new program the company announced last year.

Working directly with SpaceX has been a speedy experience, according to Planet. “One of the things that was really nice about working with SpaceX is that they work at a very similar pace as Planet,” Mike Safyan, vice president of launch at Planet, tells The Verge. “We both go fast, and we do a lot of stuff in house which helps enable us to go faster than the typical aerospace project.” Safyan says that the entire process has taken about six months, from originally signing the contract with SpaceX to getting to the launch.

A Planet SkySat getting ready for launch. Image: Planet

SpaceX had plenty of flights for Planet to choose from, Safyan says. SpaceX has permission to launch nearly 12,000 satellites for its Starlink constellation to provide internet connectivity down to the Earth’s surface. To build out the project, SpaceX has been launching its Starlink satellites in batches of 60 per launch, with each flight occurring about once a month in 2020. That provides ample opportunities for small satellites to tag along.

“When you’re working as a ride-share payload, you often have to pick one launch and then you just have to wait for whenever that primary payload is ready,” says Safyan. “And sometimes those delays can add up to three, six, nine, 12 months. It really depends. Whereas with SpaceX, they’re launching Starlink so frequently, and the orbit is just really well matched for what we were looking for for these specific SkySats.”

The three satellites will be situated on top of the stack of 60 Starlink satellites, all packed inside the Falcon 9’s nose cone. Once these three and the next three SkySats launch, Planet will provide a new capability for customers: capturing images of certain spots on Earth up to 12 times in a single day. The six upcoming SkySats are headed to an orbit that will pass over 53 degrees north and south latitude, which will allow for such a high “revisit rate” over these areas. And in other areas of the world, SkySats will be able to capture the same regions up to seven times a day.

This new capability is being rolled out at the same time that Planet is amping up the resolution of its images. The company recently did an “altitude lowering campaign” of its SkySat satellites over the last six months, moving them closer to Earth. That’s helped to improve the resolution of their images from about 2.6 feet (80 centimeters) per pixel to about 1.6 feet (50 centimeters) per pixel. Planet is also releasing a new online dashboard for customers to help them submit requests for this higher-res imagery from the spacecraft.

With just two launches to go, Planet is close to unlocking the full capability of the SkySat constellation with a total of 21 satellites. And Safyan says the company is excited to fly on the Falcon 9 again. As a small satellite operator, Planet has lots of experience launching its satellites on different rockets, but the company said that the announcement of SpaceX’s ride-share program, costing the low price of just $500 per kilogram, was a game-changer. “If we can find a ride-share opportunity that has good pricing and it’s going towards a desired orbit — and we have a pretty good confidence in the schedule — then that’s typically our port of call.”

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3698: The Air Force’s mysterious X-37B spaceplane is launching to space again this weekend

SPACE/TECHNOLOGY

Takeoff is scheduled for 9:14AM ET Sunday

Update May 16th, 10:26AM ET: Bad weather forced ULA to push back the launch to Sunday, May 17th, with liftoff scheduled for 9:14AM ET.

Original Story: The Air Force’s mysterious spy spaceplane, dubbed the X-37B, is headed back to space on Sunday morning for its sixth mission in Earth orbit. As usual with this spacecraft, its exact purpose is a secret, though the Air Force says the vehicle will be carrying a number of experiments on this trip and testing out new systems in space before returning them to Earth.

This launch comes a little more than six months after the X-37B returned home from its record-breaking fifth mission to orbit. The spaceplane, which looks a bit like a miniature Space Shuttle, landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 27th after spending a total of 780 days, or more than two years, in space. That flight marked the X-37B’s longest mission yet in space, and the vehicle has now spent a total of seven years and 10 months in orbit. This upcoming flight could add a few more years to the spacecraft’s total flight time.

The Air Force claims that the experiments and technology that the X-37B carries “enables the US to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain.” This mission will have even more experiments than usual, thanks to the addition of a new service module — a cylindrical structure attached to the bottom of the spaceplane that will be packed with technology to be tested on orbit. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments,” Randy Walden, director and program executive officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions.”

While most of the experiments on this flight are kept under wraps, a few of the technologies going up on this mission have been made public. Tagging along with the X-37B is a small satellite called FalconSat-8 developed by the US Air Force Academy that carries five experimental payloads. The spaceplane will supposedly deploy the FalconSat-8 when it reaches orbit. NASA is also sending two experiments up on this flight to study how space radiation degrades certain materials as well as seeds needed for food. And the US Naval Research Laboratory has included an experiment that will “transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy” that can then be sent to the ground for use.

The X-37B is still considered an asset of the US Air Force, but the newly minted Space Force will be overseeing the mission from launch to landing. The X-37B’s ride into space is the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, which has launched this spacecraft on four of its previous five flights. The spacecraft’s last ride was on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which launched the X-37B for its fifth mission on September 7th, 2017.

As this launch is taking place during the pandemic, both the Air Force and the United Launch Alliance are including a small tribute to those affected by COVID-19 on this flight. A written message has been added to the side of the Atlas V rocket, reading: “In memory of COVID-19 victims and tribute to all first responders and front-line workers.”

ULA is targeting liftoff at 9:14AM ET on Sunday. The company originally hoped to launch on Saturday, but bad weather forced a launch delay. ULA will provide live coverage of the launch, so if you’re up early this Sunday, you can tune in live to see this mysterious vehicle fly.

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3680: Try to dock with the International Space Station with this SpaceX Crew Dragon simulator

SCIENCE/TECHNOLOGY

Good luck and don’t damage your spaceship

Later this month, SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spacecraft will take its first human passengers to the International Space Station — and now you can get a firsthand view of what they’ll be seeing when they approach the orbiting lab. Today, SpaceX released a new online simulator that allows users to try their hand at manually docking with the ISS using the Crew Dragon’s controls. Spoiler alert: it’s actually pretty hard!

The simulator begins with your Crew Dragon vehicle radically askew in space. Ahead, a virtual recreation of the International Space Station awaits, but the docking system on your Crew Dragon is pointed at an angle away from the port with which it needs to align. Luckily, there are plenty of controls to fix the vehicle’s position and approach the station. But remember, in space, it’s not as simple as moving forward, backward, or turning. You’ve got six degrees of freedom, so you also need to be pitched properly and roll the vehicle to its right orientation.

 

In the simulator, controls on your left manipulate the Crew Dragon’s translation: its movements forward, backward, up, down, and side to side (though in space, this is all relative). The controls on the right manipulate the vehicle’s pitching, yawing, and rolling. A heads-up display will let you know if you’re moving in the right way. But also don’t expect to reach the ISS at a brisk pace. Docking in space is a slow process, with the tiniest motions going a long way. So if you have some time to spare, you can see if you’re able to perfectly orchestrate the right clicks to get your spacecraft into its parking spot.

Actual astronauts riding inside Crew Dragon won’t need to manually dock the vehicle if all goes well. The vehicle is designed to automatically dock with the International Space Station without the need of any user input. Still, all of the astronauts are trained to take over the controls of the Crew Dragon if necessary, and SpaceX’s first passengers — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — will do some manual flying on their mission, just to test out the system.

After a few rounds of the simulator, you’ll get a little glimpse of what it’s like to park a spaceship. Just don’t do what I did and go too fast; you’ll dent the ISS.

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3668: Former astronaut and SpaceX consultant on creating a new crewed spacecraft: ‘We were really the underdogs’

SCIENCE/SPACE

SpaceX’s upcoming crewed launch will be “really intense” for Garrett Reisman

For former NASA astronaut Garret Reisman, SpaceX’s May 27 launch of the company’s first human passengers to space is going to be a very personal moment. Reisman worked at SpaceX for years, helping the company win NASA contracts and overseeing operations of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft — both the new crewed version, and its predecessor, which brought cargo to the International Space Station.

Reisman left SpaceX in 2018 to become a professor at the University of Southern California, but he’s maintained contact with the company as a consultant. Soon, he’ll be watching when his friends, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, fly on the vehicle he helped develop at SpaceX. “When there’s somebody on there that I know — emotionally, psychologically it changes everything,” Reisman tells The Verge.

At the start of his journey with SpaceX, “We had a lot of competition from around the industry, and we had a little tiny team, and we were really the underdogs,“ Reisman says. Now, the company is set to be the first commercial venture to launch people to the International Space Station. He spoke to us about how he’s feeling ahead of the launch, and what it was like to work on the Commercial Crew Program.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As an astronaut you’ve flown on the Space Shuttle, but during the time that you were flying in the 2000s, the commercial space industry was in a very different place than it was today. What inspired you to get involved with commercial space and SpaceX?

My real first exposure was when we were getting ready to launch on STS-132 in 2010. We had a delay because of rain, and the ground was too soggy for us to roll [Space Shuttle] Atlantis out to the pad. So we had this day off, which is like a miracle, and they asked us what we wanted to do. And we said, “Well, we heard about this company SpaceX, and we heard that they’re renovating this old launch pad over at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Can we go over and take a look?”

The whole crew went. We walked around that launch pad, and it suddenly hit me that this was a real, serious endeavor — that it wasn’t just a bunch of hobbyists. In a very short period of time, they had taken this old launch pad and completely converted it for a brand new rocket and were getting ready to launch in very short order. They were doing stuff in months that would have taken NASA, at the time, years.

Garrett Reisman (second from right) stands with his crew in Cape Canaveral, after landing STS-132 Image: NASA

I decided after we came back from that flight to check it out further, and I called up an old friend and colleague Ken Bowersox, who was working in Hawthorne for SpaceX. He gave me a tour around the Hawthorne facility, and I wanted to be a part of it. That’s why I made the decision that I really wanted to stop being an astronaut — which is a hard thing to do, because it’s a great gig — and to be part of this new industry.

What did you initially come on to do at SpaceX and how did you get involved with the Commercial Crew effort?

When I was first hired, I never even got a job description. It was actually really fortunate, because it changed on Day 1. I think my title was Safety and Mission Assurance Engineer — something completely generic and innocuous. It was just an excuse to get me in the door. On the very first day, like right after I got my badge, I got told that Elon wanted to meet me.

He says, “Hey, you know we just put in for a proposal for CCDev 2,” which was the second round of [development contracts for] NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. He says, “You know, we’re supposed to hear next month whether or not we won. If we win, I need somebody to run that program. Do you think you can do that?”

And I was like, “Sure! You know, how hard can that be?” Which was really stupid of me, because it was really hard, and I had no idea what I was getting into. I was so naive. And then a month later in April, we won the contract and we got off and running.

What were the struggles involved taking the cargo version of Dragon and turning it into a crew vehicle?

The intent to do that was there from the very beginning. The first [cargo] Dragon that ever went to space, which is still hanging above our mission control in Hawthorne, had windows on it. Obviously a bunch of toothpaste and food doesn’t need to look out the window. But the desire was there from the very beginning.

Reisman at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California Image: SpaceX

There were also a lot of cultural challenges and certification challenges. With cargo, which was kind of an experiment, NASA was really focused just on one very narrow risk, which is the risk that once [Dragon] got to the space station, that we might damage it or cause some harm. So they scrutinized very carefully everything Dragon was going to do and every part of Dragon that affected its ability to operate safely around the space station. But the rest of it, they didn’t really care very much. The Falcon 9 [rocket], you know, it was up to the FAA to certify that we weren’t going to do anything really bad and hurt the uninvolved public. As far as the reliability of the rocket, NASA wasn’t really concerned about that.

They really just wanted to know if your “car” was going to dent the other car when it parked.

Yeah, as long you don’t dent my car, it’s okay!

But once you start talking about putting NASA astronauts on it, like we’re going to do, then everything changes. Now, it’s not just what the spacecraft does when it’s really close to the station, it’s the spacecraft, and the rocket, and the boat that picks the crew up, and the car that takes them to the launch pad — it’s what everything does. Because now we have to protect the safety of these astronauts from the moment they get turned over to SpaceX to the moment we turn them back over to NASA at the very end of the mission. So the scope of NASA scrutiny and certification went up several orders of magnitude.

We had to overcome some cultural differences. We were this Silicon Valley-type company with that kind of an ethos, and NASA was a government bureaucracy. They had different ways of looking at the world, and we needed these two organizations to really work together. It was a challenge in the beginning. I want to emphasize that we got there, and now NASA and SpaceX, as we get ready to launch Bob and Doug, it’s amazing to me to see how closely they’re working together and how well they communicate and get along. It’s come a long, long way, and it’s immensely gratifying to me to see that.

Did you feel like you kind of spoke NASA talk that helped to bridge that gap between the Silicon Valley culture and the NASA culture?

If I had a job description, you wouldn’t see it written in there, but really that was probably one of my most important and most challenging roles, was trying to bridge that gap. It’s why I’m saying I’m so gratified to see that we finally got there. I’m not taking all the credit by any means, because I left two years ago, and there’s been tremendous progress since then. But the contributions I made in that regard are something I’m pretty proud of.

I know that there’s been a lot of scrutiny on the parachutes — those have seen a lot of testing. Would you say those were the biggest hurdles to overcome, or were there other technical aspects that proved to be challenging?

We did end up doing a lot of parachute testing, and so that was a big focus. The Draco [engines] are the same, but everything else in that system, especially the SuperDraco thrusters — the tanks, the pressurization system, the plumbing, the valves — everything was a big step up in complexity.

SpaceX

The communication system — the antennas are totally different. The solar panels — we had deployable solar panels, now we have conformal mounted solar panels, so that was a big redesign. And the whole launch escape system — not just the SuperDracos — but the guidance, navigation, and control that goes along with that, and trying to figure out how to make that work and be as safe as possible. We have a nosecone on Dragon 2 that opens and closes that we didn’t have on Dragon 1. The docking system — there’s another one — we had to design and build our own docking system, because the one that NASA wanted to provide for us really required too much power. It was too heavy, and it was too expensive. So we decided to make our own and my hat’s off to the team that designed that, because that system is really very elegant, very simple, but very capable.

It sounds to me that Dragon 2, while it has some elements of Dragon 1, it’s almost a completely new vehicle.

Yes, though a lot of the lessons we learned, especially operating Dragon 1 were definitely incorporated into Dragon 2. So if we had to do Dragon 2 from a blank sheet of paper, it would have been a lot harder.

Being able to try things out with Dragon 1 was unbelievably valuable to us. It even extended to the life support systems, which you wouldn’t think of. I mean, why would a cargo vehicle need a life support system? Well, you still need to control the pressure inside this pressurized vehicle. And we did fly rodents for science experiments. That enabled us to actually test out components of the life support system we would use on Dragon 2, obviously in miniature scale.

What was it like at the company when there were failures trying to get to this point? Like with last year’s failure, what did those moments teach you and those at SpaceX as you were developing these vehicles?

I was no longer full time when we had that last failure, but I was a consultant, and I remember going in right after that happened. It really hit them pretty hard, because everybody’s viewing it through the prism of “we’re about to put people on this thing.” People started internalizing the gravity of what we’re about to do and how serious we need to be about safety and reliability of the vehicle.

What I told them was that we should look at that last accident we had during ground testing as a gift, because nobody got hurt, and we learned an extremely valuable lesson. We had a flaw in the design that was previously undetected. But now we know that it is there, and we can fix it. You know, we had flaws in the design of the Space Shuttle — two major flaws — and we had astronauts die before we fixed them. We had to learn those lessons about flaws in the vehicle that were potentially catastrophic in an extremely painful manner.

You’ve been so close to this program since day one, what is it like seeing it finally come to fruition after all this time?

It’s huge. I gave seven years of my life, working as hard as I could to try to get to this point. And now that it’s really happening, it’s unbelievably exciting and I think even more so, because I know Bob and Doug. On top of all my other involvement with this thing, I consider both of them my friends— especially Bob because we were graduate students at Caltech back before either one of us had even submitted an application to be an astronaut. Bob and I actually flew our first mission together on Endeavor. So we go way back, and Doug’s wife, Karen [Nyberg], was on the space station with me when she came up on STS-124.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (L) and Bob Behnken (R) training ahead of the SpaceX launch Image: NASA

I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Space Shuttle launch with people inside whom I knew. I saw lots of Space Shuttle launches, but I never knew any of them. They were just people I’d seen on television or from afar. But when there’s somebody on there that I know — emotionally, psychologically it changes everything. And when you know somebody as well as I know Bob and Doug and having been involved in this effort for seven years, it’s gonna be really intense.

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3641: Tom Cruise will work with NASA on first movie filmed in space, NASA says

SCIENCE

The International Space Station will be the set

Image: NASA

NASA is working with Tom Cruise to film the first movie shot in space, according to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. The details of the project aren’t clear, but Bridenstine says the film will take place aboard the International Space Station.

Jim Bridenstine

@JimBridenstine

NASA is excited to work with @TomCruise on a film aboard the @Space_Station! We need popular media to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists to make @NASA’s ambitious plans a reality.

We don’t know yet how Cruise will be participating in the adventure, but he’s well-known for performing increasingly impressive stunts in his recent films, including clutching the side of an Airbus A400 as it takes off in 2015’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. It’s hard to think of a more difficult stunt to pull than making a feature film in space.

News of a possible collaboration between Cruise and NASA was first reported by Deadline. The report said that Cruise was working with SpaceX to shoot the film, though neither NASA nor SpaceX has confirmed that speculation. SpaceX did announce in February that it will launch four private citizens to orbit around Earth at the end of 2021 or in early 2022. The passengers are set to fly in SpaceX’s newly developed Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is slated to fly its first NASA astronauts to the International Space Station later this month.

When asked for comment, NASA declined to provide more details. “We will say more about the project at the appropriate time,” a NASA spokesperson told The Verge. “Anything else would be premature.”

Update May 5th, 5:24PM ET: This post was updated to include a statement from NASA.

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