Issue No. 127


The Orbital Index

Issue No. 127 | Jul 28, 2021

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Guest Op-Ed

Ed.: Casey Handmer is a physicist and software engineer. We've linked to his always-interesting blog in the past. We asked him for an Op-Ed and here's the spirited one he sent us, it goes well with his recent post about new opportunities for space companies.

Would your company like to compete with SpaceX? SpaceX’s shiny new Starship is weeks away from its first orbital flight. SpaceX has already exhausted the external launch manifest, so Starship is hungry for cargo. It’s a mass conveyor logistics system to haul a million tonnes of stuff to the Moon, Mars, and anywhere else in the solar system. On Mars, thousands of people will live and work in a shirtsleeves environment. As SpaceX retires execution risk on transportation, nine remaining areas of tech development enter the critical path. These technologies intermediate the adversarial space environment and the humans who live there. All are much easier than a rapidly reusable orbital rocket. If your company or NASA center works on this technology, now is the time to bust it out of the lab and work out how to make it in hundred-tonne increments. If they won’t, do a startup and show them how it's done! Solar farm for abundant electricity. Fractional distillation of Mars air for CO2, nitrogen, argon, and water vapor. Ice wells for abundant water. Automated mining for mineral extraction despite the sharp labor shortage. Methane synthesis for fuel, chemicals, plastics, and even carbon neutral hydrocarbons here on Earth. Life support for Starships in deep space and cities on the surface. Heavy machinery telerobotics to increase the productivity of manual labor. Transparent pressure structures large enough to build real cities inside. Surface activity suits to enable work and play outside the city, without the cost and complexity of conventional spacesuits. Put it into production and deliver flight articles to Boca Chica. Or, sit back and watch Musk and his hordes of highly motivated engineers and technicians advance the state of your industry by a decade or two, then take your business. — Contributed by Casey Handmer Ph.D.


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The largest quarter ever for space infrastructure investments. Space Capital recently released its Q2 2021 report on space funding activity. The just-finished quarter set a record for private investment into space infrastructure (total investments were $9.9B into 141 companies across all of the industry’s sectors). Clocking in at $4.5B for the quarter, a large portion of infrastructure investment came from huge sums pumped into OneWeb ($1.05B), Blue Origin (Bezos invested another cool billion), and Relativity Space ($650M). While the vast majority of this capital went into later-stage companies, over half of the total number of rounds closed YTD have been Seed and Series A stage companies. SPACs also continue to feature strongly in the industry. “Fourteen space company SPACs have been announced to-date, three of which have successfully merged, including two in Q2, and two of which were announced in the first week of Q3. Ten of these SPAC mergers have targeted space Infrastructure companies focused on small launch, satellite hardware, and in-space manufacturing. The 11 pending SPACs are expected to add an additional $8.3B to the target companies’ balance sheets in the second half of 2021, including $5.9B of equity investment through PIPEs.” Expect the second half of the year to be busy with space SPACs closing one after another.


2021 is on track to be the largest year of equity investment for the space industry on record. Credit: Space Capital


Bezos really wants the Moon. In an open letter to Bill Nelson, Bezos offered to “bridge the HLS budgetary funding shortfall by waiving all payments in the current and next two government fiscal years up to $2B to get the program back on track right now.” Basically, they’ll take $2B off the bill if NASA will fund the National Team’s bid alongside SpaceX. Bezos doesn’t like losing, and according to Ars, he has realized that they lost the HLS bidding process because NASA wanted to see companies self-invest—NASA wants to be a customer, but not the only one. It’s unlikely that this maneuver will change anything for the recently-closed HLS award, especially with additional funding language cut from congressional legislation. But, it may spur Congress to fund NASA's Lunar Exploration Transportation Services program which was just updated to seek to “procure a commercially developed and NASA-certified lunar lander services capability no later than 2028.” Relatedly, Blue Origin is reported to be working on lunar ISRU technologies, having hired Vlada Stamenkovic from JPL.

Betelgeuse hiding behind a cloud of its own gas and dust.☀️💨 
News in brief. 

The FAA issued requirements for the award of commercial (and honorary) astronaut wings, most space tourists will not qualify ● Rocket Lab says that their May launch failure was due to a problem with the Electron’s second stage ignition system, which has now been fixed ● The second Orbital Flight Test for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is scheduled to launch on Friday to the ISS atop an Atlas V—the last test, now 18 months ago, almost resulted in loss of the vehicle ● It’s official—no longer legally obligated to fly on the delayed and over-budget SLS, Europa Clipper will fly on a Falcon Heavy in October 2024 ● Judges rejected Viasat’s move to stop Starlink launches ● Israeli Helios signed an agreement to test their system for extracting oxygen from lunar regolith on Japanese ispace’s lunar landers in 2023 and 2024 ● SpaceX completed its 100th Raptor engine—their upcoming dedicated Raptor engine factory will eventually make 100s per year.


An infographic showing the locations of current deep space missions from a frequently updated page on the Armchair Astronautics blog.


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