Good morning, and Happy Friday. Welcome to the 252 readers who joined the Payload rocket ship this week—we’re psyched to have you. Quick reminder: We’re off Monday for Memorial Day in the states.
In today’s newsletter:
🛰️ Starlink V2
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A New Type of Air Launch
Stratolaunch has debuted its structurally complete Talon-A test vehicle. Stratolaunch will use the vehicle, dubbed TA-0, to test the release system of Roc and “characterize” Talon’s separation dynamics.
Roc is a really massive twin fuselage carrier craft, boasting six Boeing 747 engines and a payload capacity of 500,000+ lbs. At 385 feet (~117m) wide, Roc’s wingspan “is the largest of any plane ever assembled, stretching longer than an American football field, including the endzones,” per Stratolaunch. Roc is designed to air launch rockets to orbit and serve as a platform for deploying hypersonic experiments/vehicles.
Back to Talon…
Stratolaunch sees use cases for Talon testbeds in scientific research, tech development, and component demonstration. Talon-A is a Mach 6-class hypersonic vehicle.
TA-0 “will continue functional and integration testing in the coming months, culminating in a captive carry and vehicle flight later this year.” The first-gen vehicle will not be powered in flight, but future versions will be rocket-powered, autonomous, and reusable (propulsion c/o Ursa Major). After TA-0 separation tests, Stratolaunch will fly TA-1, its first hypersonic test vehicle. The company has also started production of TA-2, which would be the world’s first fully reusable hypersonic test vehicle.
Stratolaunch started in Seattle in 2011 as the brainchild of the late Microsoft Cofounder Paul Allen. Now, the company appears to be headquartered at the Mojave Air & Space Port in California. Stratolaunch flies Roc sorties out of Mojave, so it makes sense to have everything concentrated closer to the center of action. Stratolaunch currently lists 27 positions it’s hiring for on its website and all 27 are based in Mojave. 63% of those listings are for engineering roles.
Hypersonic competition, contextualized
Aviation Week has the exclusive on TA-0 in this week’s issue, with the Talon cover story published Thursday. Over six decades ago, Aviation Week writes, the US’s X-15 program launched from Mojave and pushed the envelope by beginning “to explore the previously unknown edges of the hypersonic envelope.”
That Mojave-based R&D program set the stage for sustained US space leadership for decades to come. But the US’s competitive edge has faded, especially as far as hypersonic technologies are concerned. “The Chinese and Russians have made a lot of advances, and the US needs to get caught up in this area,” Stratolaunch CTO Daniel Millman told Aviation Week.
“TA-0 represents the immense progress our company has made toward hypersonic flight in a short period of time,” Stratolaunch CEO Zachary Krevor said in a press release. “We are putting forth every effort toward becoming a national test asset for our government and commercial customers in 2023.”
A fall 2021 flashback: Reports surfaced last October about China’s successful summer ‘21 test of a hypersonic glide vehicle. At the time, Jaganath Sankaran, a UT Austin professor and hypersonics expert, told Payload: “There is already a robust effort to fund R&D in hypersonic offense/defense weaponry. This development may be politically used to support some of those existing funding priorities.”
Starlink Sneak Peek
Yesterday, The Everyday Astronaut (aka Tim Dodd) published his latest Starbase tour and video Q+A with Elon Musk.
The two journey to the top of the giant, 143-meter robotic chopsticks tower built to catch Starship, taking in the impressive views of Starbase and talking about the super-heavy launch vehicle and the other goings-on at SpaceX.
Starlink v2: Musk unveiled some news about the next-generation Starlink satellites during the tower tour:
- The first editions of the next-gen Starlink buses have been produced.
- At 7m long and 1.2 tons apiece, they’re ~4x larger than the first generation sats.
- Per Musk, the new generation of Starlink will be an order of magnitude more powerful than the first generation in terms of data throughput.
SpaceX has been launching batches of Starlink V1.5 satellites since September 2021. Those satellites are equipped with laser inter-satellite links to communicate with one another.
SpaceX is counting on the success of Starship to ensure the success of the next-gen Starlink program. The giant rocket’s launch from Starbase has been delayed by extended environmental reviews. Currently, the FAA is planning to publish its review of Starship by the end of this month.
A New Anti-Space Trash Justice League
OneWeb, Astroscale, the UK Space Agency, and ESA have partnered to launch a space junk servicer by 2024. The partnership comes with a €14.8M ($15.8M) investment that will allow Astrocale to advance its ELSA-M debris removal spacecraft from design through manufacturing and up to the satellite’s pre-integration phase.
Once launched, ELSA-M will complete an on-orbit demonstration mission before beginning duties as part of a commercial debris removal service for satellite operators. The spacecraft will be capable of removing multiple decommissioned satellites over a single mission.
“We plan to launch our commercial service for satellite operators, such as OneWeb and others, soon after the in-orbit demonstration, with a vision to make debris removal part of routine operations by 2030,” said Astroscal Managing Director John Auburn.
The background: ELSA-M builds on the work done for ELSA-d, a demonstration mission launched in March 2021 that successfully captured a dummy satellite. The spacecraft has subsequently lost four of eight thrusters due to a pair of anomalies. However, ELSA-d has continued to complete controlled close-approach rendezvous operations despite the issues.
Earlier in May, Astroscale’s Dave Hebert told Payload: “Over the next several months, we’ll analyze the next phase of the mission, including the potential for a safe and viable magnetic recapture of the client.”
In Other News
- USSF issued new cybersecurity protocols for commercial space operators.
- SpaceX will replace the heat shield on the next Crew Dragon capsule to fly after NASA discovered a manufacturing defect during acceptance testing.
- Asteroid 7335 will fly by Earth today—watch here.
- NASA will discuss SLS wet dress rehearsal next steps today at noon Eastern.
Weekend Reads & Listens
🔓 Open it up: Joe Morrison, Umbra’s VP of Product, writes that satellite imagery providers should open up their archives for free. Lots of good data and memes in here.
📊 On SPACs: An anonymous buy-side investor offers an interesting insider take on SPACs and forthcoming regulations, via an op-ed in SPAC Insider.
🎙️ Payload pod appearance #I: Ryan Duffy, Payload’s managing editor, joined Prashant Bagga on the Billion Moonshots podcast to discuss digital media, “spicy space trends,” and more.
🎧 Payload pod appearance #2: Mo, our CEO, made an appearance on The Business of Content podcast to discuss our genesis story, strategy, and the space industry.