Good morning, and happy Friday. Welcome to the 284 readers who joined us this week.
We’re excited to welcome Carlyn Kranking, Payload’s newest contributor. She’ll be pulling together announcements and news from across the space industry. Before we jump in today, here’s a word from Carlyn:
Hi, all! I’m Carlyn, a science journalist who has covered policy, research, and climate change. I’m excited to turn now toward space, and help curate and write Payload.
In today’s newsletter:
🚙 Crew transport vehicles
🌌 Geek out: black hole pic
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Astronaut Vans, a Motley Crew, and No. 2
NASA recently awarded electric vehicle developer Canoo ($GOEV) a $147,855 contract to produce the crew transport vehicles (CTVs) that will ferry Artemis crews nine miles from their astronaut quarters to the pad in Cape Canaveral. The CTVs, as specced by NASA, must be zero-emission vehicles, fit eight people, including a crew of four fully suited astronauts, and contain nearly 60 cubic feet of cargo storage.
The CTV award didn’t draw much attention because it was small peanuts, relatively speaking, as far as contracts go. It’s why primes and other major names may have not been inclined to place a bid. Plus, spaceflight players these days tend to have their own transportation arrangements to the pad: SpaceX uses Teslas and Blue Origin relies on Rivians. Meanwhile, Boeing has Astrovan II for eventual Starliner crews.
Still, the award could be viewed as a loss leader for brand-building, given the amount of eyeballs and attention that will be on American astronauts’ return to the Moon. “We anticipate billions of impressions associated with the Artemis program,” Canoo CEO Tony Aquila said. The CTV runner-up bidder, who we’ll meet in a second, tells Payload it would have lost money producing its vehicles—and that the contract “was always a content play, financially.”
There’s a catch
In its earnings report this week, Canoo conceded that it’s in big trouble. The company issued a going concern warning and isn’t confident it can reach volume manufacturing without a large capital infusion. It lost $125M in Q1 of 2022, vs. $15M from the same period a year before, and ended March with $105M in cash on hand.
- What’s more, Canoo has filed a lawsuit against its second largest shareholder, DD Global Holdings, an investment firm with ties to the Chinese government, over suspicious share sales, Bloomberg reported. Canoo is seeking to recoup $61M+ in “short-swing profits.”
- “Canoo is alleging that, as of March 15, 2022, DD Global remained the beneficial owner of more than 10% of Canoo’s total outstanding common stock, which would put it in violation of the national security agreement,” per TechCrunch.
- In Dec. 2020, Canoo and CFIUS entered into a national security agreement to limit the “control and governance influence of DD Global.” CFIUS is an influential, interagency US government panel that reviews deals involving foreign investors for national security risks.
I’m building a team
Oxcart Assembly, a self-described “decentralized group of creatives, dreamers, and entrepreneurs,” spearheaded a coalition that also bid on the CTV contract. The design agency pulled together a group that included Hoonigan Industries, Airstream, IBM, and Red Hat.
- Hoonigan, an automotive media group, and Airstream brought their car smarts and experience to the table. Airstream has a history with NASA, as it built three modified Excella motorhomes for the Shuttle program.
- IBM and Red Hat pitched in on “human-centered” design and UX (user experience) research, conducting interviews with former astronauts.
So close, yet so far: Ultimately, Oxcart says Canoo underbid it by $1,145 on the contract. In April, we spoke with Oxcart’s Jeff Jetton about the runner-up’s proposal, the intricacies of the crew transport contract process, and losing a road race to a canoo.
In Other News
- Astra’s ($ASTR) next launch vehicle, aptly named Rocket 4.0, will be able to carry 300kg of payload to LEO and 200kg to sun-synchronous orbit, starting at $3.95M per launch.
- D-Orbit finished its fifth Ion Satellite Carrier mission, successfully deploying the orbital transfer vehicle’s (OTV) last two satellites for Kleos Space. The ION and its Dawn Aerospace thrusters performed an orbital shift maneuver that’s “never before been demonstrated” by an OTV, the companies say.
- Mynaric ($MYNA) will test its laser communications system on the ISS.
- SpaceX updated its Starlink global availability map.
- iSpace, a Chinese rocket startup, failed to launch its third consecutive rocket to orbit.
- Boeing’s ($BA) Starliner completed its final mission dress rehearsal ahead of Orbital Flight Test-2, set to launch next Thursday, May 19.
- Related…Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne ($AJRD) are beefing, Reuters reports, over a Starliner valve issue that forced a test flight last year to be called off.
Geek Out: Our Own Black Hole
At the center of our galaxy—and, probably, at the center of most others—is a supermassive black hole, driving the complex swirl of stars and gas that we live in.
Yesterday, scientists unveiled the first image of the Milky Way’s own black hole, Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A* for short), in shockingly high resolution. The now-viral image was captured in 2017 using the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a system of eight ground-based radio observatories that, together, form a giant, Earth-sized “virtual telescope.”
For days, the observatories’ operators pointed their sensors at the same little patch of the sky at a distant spot 27,000 light years away, taking long exposures lasting several hours apiece. Those images were then synthesized using supercomputers running programs specifically designed for this complex analysis.
It’s not easy to grab a photo of a black hole. Notoriously, no light is able to escape the intense, space-bending gravity. What we can see, rather than the black hole itself, is the radio signals emitted by the halo of gasses, spinning at nearly the speed of light, trapped in the black hole’s gravitational field.
Imaging Sgr A* was particularly difficult. In 2019, scientists with EHT published an image of M87*, a black hole at the center of another galaxy and the first image of a black hole ever captured. M87* is about a thousand times larger than our own Sgr A* (which, by the way, is four million times more massive than our Sun).
Because of this, the gasses surrounding M87* take much longer to complete a full orbit. Individual images taken of M87* all looked more or less the same. Not so for our little one—gasses around Sgr A* could complete a full orbit within a few minutes.
- It was “a bit like trying to take a clear picture of a puppy quickly chasing its tail,” EHT scientist Chi-kwan Chan said in a blog post.
Here’s what scientists can already tell from the new image of Sgr A*:
- Einstein was right about gravity. (We’re all very surprised.) The fuzzy red halo in the image aligns remarkably well with what his theory of general relativity had predicted.
- Sgr A* is spinning, and its axis, rather than aligning with the spin axis of the Milky Way as a whole, points pretty much right at us.
- The black hole is “on a starvation diet,” project scientist Geoffrey C. Bower told the AP. Very little material, cosmically speaking, is falling into Sgr A*, which allowed scientists to peer deeper inside.
Another View from Space
L3Harris’s high-res Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) captured its first image, which conveniently approximates what the human eye would see from space.
Riding aboard NOAA’s GOES-18 weather satellite as the main instrument payload, ABI will watch for tornadoes, wildfire, fog, and tropical storms. The image, taken May 5, proves the instrument’s capability—and confirms what we all already knew: Earth looks pretty darn amazing from space.