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Good morning. In what we really hope isn’t becoming a routine, evergreen part of this daily newsletter, the ISS was forced to swerve to dodge space junk Friday.

This time around, the offending debris was courtesy of a spent, 27-year-old Pegasus rocket, per Roscosmos.

In today’s newsletter…
🚀 Previewing two upcoming NASA launches
🚨 Going deeper on space lasers
📅 Dec. 6–10: the (busy) week ahead
🌑 Plus…a cube-like lunar mystery


Frickin’ Space Lasers

Graphic: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA is about to get new eyes and ears. This week, the agency plans to launch two long-term science missions: the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) and the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE).

Laser comms: LCRD will be the first NASA mission sent to orbit this week, with its launch window opening early Tuesday morning. The mission objective: To test optical laser communications. The technology could be the answer to speed, quantity, and lag issues with getting information back from space.

  • Lasers can be 10-100x faster than the radio communications currently in use on the ISS and other NASA missions, helping to meet the growing demand for space-gathered data.
  • Radio frequencies used for space communications are already in high demand. With lasers, operators don’t have to worry about other satellites interfering with your frequencies.

LCRD will operate for at least the next two years, demonstrating for NASA how laser communications function in varying weather conditions in a realistic environment.

X-ray vision: IXPE, NASA’s collaboration with the Italian Space Agency, is scheduled for launch from the Kennedy Space Center this Thursday, Dec. 9 aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.

The $188M mission will observe X-ray polarization, a process that has not been imaged by the larger Chandra X-ray observatory. The IXPE mission aims to expand our understanding of black holes, neutron stars, and other mysterious celestial bodies over the next two years. 


Going Deeper on Space Lasers

Mynaric Mk3 terminal for satellite applications. Render via Mynaric. 

Due to the data transmission and latency benefits of optical laser communications, it’s not just NASA tinkering with the technology. In China, researchers recently trialed laser-based communications between ground stations and the BeiDou constellation. 

In the private sector…Mynaric, which makes laser comms systems for the space industry, recently IPO’d on the Nasdaq. The German company also trades on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.

Canaccord Genuity initiated coverage of Mynaric on Nov. 23 with a “buy” rating and $40 price target. Mynaric’s stock was ~$15 at market close on Friday, Dec. 3. In the investment bank’s note, seen by Payload, Canaccord elaborated on its bullish stance. 

  • A “significant market opportunity” exists for laser terminals on aircraft and spacecraft.
  • Constellation customers: Communication and remote-sensing satellites, respectively representing 85% and 12% of all sats launched in 2020, are key customers of the technology. 
  • The Pentagon, too, is a key customer. Laser comms are significantly harder to hack/intercept than radiofrequency (RF) broadcasts. 
  • Speaking of RF…”The limited supply of wireless spectrum should further drive demand to move up in frequency to infrared light for data transmission over the coming years,” Cannacord wrote. 

Elsewhere: SpaceX is equipping and launching new Starlink satellites with inter-satellite links and laser terminals. On the economics of adding the technology, SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell said earlier this year: 

  • “It is [expensive], although….our terminals are far less expensive than those that we surveyed. Anything you add to that satellite is expensive, but when you pack 60 of them together and throw them on one reusable launch vehicle, the economics are pretty favorable for us.”

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In Other News

  • NASA plans to buy up to three additional crewed flights to the ISS from SpaceX.
  • Fleet Space announced plans to build a 3D-printed constellation called Alpha, which will work in conjunction with its existing Centauri constellation to increase coverage and decrease latency.
  • Arianespace launched two Galileo satellites on a Soyuz rocket from Guiana Space Center, bringing the navigation constellation’s orbital total to 28. The company’s next trip to the launchpad will be with the James Webb telescope, set for Dec. 22. 
  • ULA’s Atlas V STP-3 mission for the US Space Force, which will carry LCRD to orbit, was scrubbed until tomorrow. 
  • Airbus completed production of Sentinel-6B, an ocean-monitoring satellite built for ESA.
  • SpaceX is building a Starship orbital launchpad at Cape Canaveral’s LC-39A.

The (Busy) Week Ahead

Monday, Dec. 6 

  • NASA will announce its next class of astronaut candidates in a livestreamed event at 12:30 PM ET.

Tuesday, Dec. 7

  • Morgan Stanley will hold its fourth annual space summit in NYC. Key topics: SpaceX dominance, space SPACs, Starlink and Starship, LEO and Earth observation (EO) as a sustainability play, space and national security, and whether EO companies could command software-style valuation multiples. 
  • ULA will launch STP-3 at 4:04 AM ET.

Wednesday, Dec. 8

  • Roscosmos will send three people to the ISS aboard a Soyuz rocket: cosmonaut Aleksandr Misurkin and two Japanese private citizens, billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and Yozo Hirano, his assistant.
  • “The View From Space Force” panel begins at 2:30 PM ET at Defense One’s Outlook 2022 conference. 
  • The launch window for Rocket Lab’s “A Data With Destiny” mission opens at 6:45 PM ET. The launch will bring two BlackSky satellites to orbit.

Thursday, Dec. 9

  • SpaceX will launch NASA’s IXPE mission on a Falcon 9 at 1:00 AM ET.
  • Nine hours later, near Van Horn, TX, Blue Origin will take Michael Strahan and five others on a suborbital spaceflight (and New Shepard’s 19th flight). 
  • The Secure World Foundation is holding “10 Years of the Wolf Amendment,” a virtual panel, at 1 PM ET. 
  • In LA, at 5PM PT, Starburst’s US hybrid selection committee will hear presentations from aerospace and defense founders vying to join the startup accelerator. 

Friday, Dec. 10

  • At 8:30 AM ET, the Mitchell Institute will hold a virtual “spacepower forum” with Lt. Gen. John E. Shaw, deputy commander of the US Space Command. 

Saturday, Dec. 11

  • The Foresight Institute will hold the European leg of Vision Weekend 2021, which contains plenty of space programming. The in-person event runs through Sunday. The US portion of the event featured Astra CEO Chris Kemp and took place this past weekend (Dec. 4–5).

The View from Space

Yutu 2, a Chinese lunar rover, has spotted a mysterious cube-shaped object on the far side of the moon. The rover will spend the next two to three lunar days (~60–90 Earth days) navigating closer and investigating. Image via CNSA/Our Space; edits via Payload.