Your smartphone could blast you into space

You probably don’t look in the mirror when you think of an astronaut—but now your smartphone could possibly prepare you for blastoff.

Space Nation wants amateur scientists from anywhere in the universe (or at least on Earth) to prove they have what it takes to be an astronaut without ever leaving the atmosphere. You can tackle the physical, mental and social phases of its Astronaut Training Program in a series of taps and swipes. Meaning you can literally train to be an astronaut anywhere from an interminable grocery line to your sofa. The Finnish startup, whose ultimate goal is to make humans an interplanetary species, has a vision of making space exploration more egalitarian, as in doctorate not required.

We are democratizing access to the space station to do experiments,” said marketer Peter Vesterbacka, who developed the program with co-founder Kalle Vähä-Jaakkola. Their mission is to recruit “leading scientists from all over the planet to look at what kind of science we should work on, what problems we should be solving.”

This is coming from the same guy responsible for Angry Birds taking over the virtual world.

No wonder Vesterbacka and Vähä-Jaakkola were met with skepticism from scientists they asked to join the Space Nation board to determine a future agenda, but even they were soon on board with the previously alien concept. The founders are convinced that space exploration could inspire anyone to learn what they may have once thought was too far-out. Space Nation’s Astronaut Training Program involves trials in engineering, science, creative problem solving and teamwork which are designed to be much more engaging than the average textbook and just as useful on terra firma as they are in anti-gravity mode.

Prove you’re stellar enough to be a top candidate, and you will get an invite to a two-week astronaut training boot camp that is supposed to be like space camp on steroids. The whole experience will be broadcast. Whoever floats to the top as the first official Space Nation astronaut will be floating for real and conducting filmed experiments on a suborbital space flight that could launch as soon as next year. 2018 is probably wishful thinking, but it will at least take off when a commercial firm can offer a trip into orbit and possibly even beyond the moon.

Cohu Experience (the business brains behind the program), Axiom Space, Edge of Space and Finnish education company Fun Academy are making it possible for Space Nation to rocket into anyone’s living room starting this fall, so you’ll actually be doing something productive while mesmerized by your smartphone for hours.  

But first, stop playing Angry Birds.


Iridium Readies for Second Round Satellite Launch

Iridium (NASDAQ: IRDM) recently completed the deployment of its first round of satellites for its next-generation Iridium NEXT network, and the next one is scheduled for launch next month. The new satellite array promises to usher in new possibilities in global communications, as well as take Iridium’s business to the next level.

What is Iridium NEXT?

Iridium NEXT will be a new array of low-orbit satellites powering the company’s Certus communications network. While mobile carriers like Verizon and AT&T are working on a 5G network for basic consumer usage, Iridium’s answer for enterprise use is Certus, the only telecom network that can boast coverage of 100% of the globe’s surface.

Image source: Iridium.

The satellite carrier has always set its sights on hard-to-accommodate clients, and the new satellites will expand on that coverage. Industries typically interested in the service are maritime, aviation, and government entities, but really, anyone looking for communications service in isolated areas fits the bill.

The new Certus network will expand Iridium’s current offerings to include broadband data as speeds up to 1.4 Mbps will be possible once the satellite array is fully deployed. That not only opens up HD video streaming ability anywhere on the planet, but it also plays into the Internet of Things, meaning devices connected to and communicating via the internet. For businesses that operate in hard-to-reach areas, asset tracking, fleet management, remote monitoring, and remote control will be feasible on Iridium’s network.

The first 10 NEXT satellites were launched by SpaceX back in January and have since been put into service. The second batch of 10 will launch on June 25. In total, SpaceX will send 75 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit over eight launches. Full deployment is on schedule for completion by the middle of next year.

What the company expects will happen

During the first quarter of the year, Iridium reported total revenue that was flat from the previous year. Service revenue was up 2.4%, offset by declines in equipment sales, in line with guidance given at the beginning of 2017.

The company’s stock has bounced around quite a bit in the last few years, but it has been showing signs of life recently, with profitability on the rise after the company front-loaded paying for the new satellites.

Iridium has also been talking up its longer-term guidance as the new services enabled by the NEXT array come on line. The company has high hopes, which it reaffirmed again during its first-quarter report, further supporting the most recent run in share prices.

Metric 2019 Guidance Full-Year 2016 Results
Service revenue (excluding equipment sales) $440 to $465 million $334.8 million
Operating EBITDA profit margin 60% 59%

Data source: Iridium Q1 2017 earnings release. Chart by author. EBITDA = earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization.

That’s a big jump in service revenues over the next two years — 31% at the low end of guidance to be exact. Driving that expected increase are the new services NEXT provides, including Internet of Things and high-speed internet offerings.

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A stock poised for liftoff?

Iridium’s shares may have been up and down for years, but that could change. Paired with that big expected rise in service revenues and similar profit margins by 2019 is management’s view that debt will fall over the next two years. That creates the potential for a big boost to the all-important bottom line.

It remains to be seen if any of that actually transpires, but investors won’t have to wait too much longer to find out. Iridium management says network subscribers have been on the rise, so subsequent quarters will show if the projected service revenue figures are achievable.

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[ May 28, 2017 ] Video: SpaceX test-fires Falcon 9 rocket at pad 39A Falcon 9

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Four days before its scheduled blastoff on a resupply run to the International Space Station, a Falcon 9 rocket ran through a countdown rehearsal and engine test Sunday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The two-stage rocket was fueled with kerosene and liquid oxygen Sunday morning, then ignited its nine Merlin 1D main engines at 12 p.m. EDT (1600 GMT), sending a cloud of exhaust and steam out of pad 39A’s flame trench, which was modified for the Falcon 9.

The Falcon 9 will be lowered and returned to SpaceX’s hangar for attachment of a Dragon supply ship in the coming days. Liftoff is set for Thursday, June 1, at 5:55 p.m. EDT (2155 GMT) on the way to the International Space Station.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Bag containing moon dust from Apollo 11 to be sold at auction

After being used by Armstrong to collect moon rocks, the bag was obviously considered to be a highly valuable piece of American history. The rare artifact is expected to fetch for $2 million to $4 million. “To be able to see such an object in person is a once in a lifetime opportunity”, says Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior specialist in charge of the space exploration sale at Sotheby’s. “This transcends space exploration”.

“The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon” (Henry Holt), by Jeffrey KlugerIn The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon”, author Jeffrey Kluger takes readers inside the capsule of the Apollo 8 mission, the first one to journey to the moon and back, which paved the way for the Apollo 11 mission less than seven months later.

The bag has text which readsLunar sample return” so Ms Carlson thought (and, no doubt, hoped) it could be a unique find. After no one bid on it in three initial auctions, she bought it in February 2015.

This bag that once carried moon rocks on a NASA trip is up for auction.

Carlson sent the bag to be authenticated by the Johnson Space Center. However, once Carlson had verified that the bag was, in fact, used by Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, NASA sought to have the sale reversed and the bag returned to the agency.

A legal battle ensued with NASA losing the fight and a U.S. judge ordering the agency its return it to owner Carlson earlier this year. Before going up for auction the bag belonged to Max Ary of the Kansas Cosmosphere museum; he was convicted of stealing such interstellar objects and putting them up for sale, and when several of his possessions were seized by the government, the moon bag was among them but was mixed up with another bag lacking the treasured dust.

Many other souvenirs from the Apollo 11 moon-landing mission, including the command module, are on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. It contains remnants of moon dust.

But NASA does have a policy in which it doesn’t allow anyone to own any part of the moon and I guess Carlson now technically owns the tiniest bit of the moon.

NASA argued that it had never authorized the transfer of the bag, but Carlson disagreed and after a lengthy legal battle, the courts ruled in ruled her favor.

So despite the Indiana Jones-esque frustration of NASA officials, the bag will be sold on July 20, the 48th anniversary of the moment Armstrong first set foot on the moon.

NASA's delay of rocket launch puts competition in spotlight

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Iridium-2 launch moved up by 4 days

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with 10 Iridium NEXT satellites being prepped for launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex 4E. Photo Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sits on the pad in January 2017 with 10 Iridium NEXT satellites awaiting the first of eight launches to occur from Vandenberg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 4E over the next 1.5 years to send 75 next-generation communications satellite into space. The second launch has been scheduled for June 25, 2017. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The next batch of Iridium NEXT satellites is set to fly to space four days earlier than originally planned. On May 25, 2017, Iridium Communications announced the new launch date atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is now scheduled for 1:24:59 p.m. PDT (20:24:59 GMT), June 25, 2017, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

According to an Iridium news release, SpaceX informed the communications company that Western Range availability where SpaceX’s West Coast launch facility is located had opened up. The Iridium-2 mission, as it is called, is scheduled to send 10 more next-generations satellites spaceward.

“We’re excited [about] this next launch,” said Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium. “Satellites have already started to arrive at the launch site and are undergoing pre-launch preparations, so we’ll be ready to go. [A] launch date is all the better for our constellation deployment plans.”

A Falcon 9 was used to launch the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites back in January 2017. Seven more flights, including the one slated for June, are expected to deliver 75 satellites to low-Earth orbit. Over the next year or so, it is hoped that the new spacecraft will replace Iridium’s existing 66-satellite constellation.

The first 10 have already been integrated into the current constellation. They are designed to provide better and faster call quality and data transfer speeds to Iridium’s customer base.

Utilizing a process called a “slot swap”, the Iridium NEXT satellites will rendezvous with the legacy spacecraft at their operational orbit of about 480 miles (780 kilometers) and take over control of data and communications services without impacting users. The legacy satellites will be placed in higher or lower orbits in preparation for de-orbiting. The company said a slot swap of this scale has never been done before.

This week has been a rather novel one in terms of the U.S. launch schedule with not one but two missions actually moving up (to the left) rather than back (to the right). It was announced on May 24, that NASA’s Psyche mission is now scheduled to launch a full year earlier than planned.

Video courtesy of Iridium Communications


Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity. He met with members of the SpaceFlight Insider team during the flight of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket with the MUOS-4 satellite. Richardson joined our team shortly thereafter. His passion for space ignited when he watched Space Shuttle Discovery launch into space Oct. 29, 1998. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized his true calling was communicating to others about space. Since joining SpaceFlight Insider in 2015, Richardson has worked to increase the quality of our content, eventually becoming our managing editor.

What Does Trump Think of America's Space Launch Industry?

President Trump tends to react to issues in one of two ways, and sometimes both. One way can be characterized as emotional, even visceral. Take for example his response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. There was no deep strategy informing his decision to strike Syria. He responded, I would argue, in a measured way to what was clearly a war crime but from his perspective, a moral outrage. He tends to react the same way to reports of companies closing U.S. plants and sending jobs overseas or to policies and regulations that cut employment.

The other way he reacts to situations is like a real estate developer. He is analytical, but not deeply so. He has a feeling for what things should cost and how profits are calculated, what makes sense from a business point of view. This is an individual who can sketch out a multimillion dollar deal on the back of an envelope. Look at his reaction to several very sophisticated but high cost defense acquisition programs. He demanded that the Pentagon and the companies involved find ways of lowering the price. He is reported to have done the same thing with respect to the recently announced $100 billion arms sales package to Saudi Arabia, asking at least one company if there was any give on the price.

What would President Trump think about the current state of the U.S. space launch industrial base and the Department of Defense’s plan for a next generation of rocket motors and boosters? How might he react when told that the U.S. is dependent on Russian engines to operate one of its two primary satellite launchers, the Atlas V?

The first stage of the Atlas V, the workhorse of the U.S. national security space launch capability and operated by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), is the Russian designed and built RD-180. On the one hand, the president’s emotional side might resonate to the idea of the U.S. and Russia cooperating on something even as relations between them have worsened. On the other hand, the businessman in him would ask the question why isn’t the Pentagon buying American and hiring Americans when it comes to a critical national security capability.

The answer to his question is that we could soon be able to buy American and hire Americans to provide a replacement for the RD-180, which would be available before the end of President Trump’s first term. Aerojet Rocketdyne is on the fast track to provide ULA – and other U.S. launch providers, if they desire – with a new, modern, high-performance first-stage rocket motor, the AR1, for about the same price as the RD-180. This engine would be better than the RD-180 and would be made in America. In 2014, Aerojet Rocketdyne publicly committed to developing and certifying the AR1 by 2019. This date is important because the U.S. Congress has mandated that the U.S. cease using the RD-180 by the end of 2019.

Trump the businessman would also approve of the fact that Aerojet Rocketdyne has “skin in the game.” In addition to government funds, the company has spent hundreds of millions of its own money developing the technologies that have gone into the AR1.

There is only one other contender to replace the RD-180. This is the BE-4, in development by Blue Origin, a company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Unlike the AR1, which uses a mixture of kerosene and oxygen similar to that employed in the RD-180 as its power source, the BE-4 is the first booster engine to use liquid natural gas, otherwise known as methane, as its primary fuel. Because the methane must be specially cooled, the BE-4 will be larger than either the RD-180 or the AR1. As a consequence, ULA also will have to design a new launch vehicle because the BE-4 will not fit in the current Atlas V.

As a former real estate developer, President Trump understands what happens when one compounds the risks associated with any large-scale project. He also understands what it means to commit to a cost and a schedule. There are multiple risks associated with building a new rocket engine based on a never-before used fuel source and those associated with designing and certifying a brand new launch vehicle. Add to these risks the requirement to build new infrastructure at the launch sites to accommodate a new fuel, rocket motor and launch vehicle. If the president were to do a quick, back of the envelope analysis, he might conclude that even if all these risks can be overcome, it is uncertain that a new engine and launch vehicle can complete the certification process and be available for use by 2019.

Competition in the space launch sector is a good thing. SpaceX is pressuring ULA to up its game. Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne should compete to build a “Made in America” rocket motor. But let’s make sure everyone is competing on a level playing field. As part of the competition, both companies need to be held to the 2019 target date for providing a fully certified engine. No delays, no hidden costs, no plus ups in funding.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a Vice President of the Lexington Institute. He served in the Pentagon during the George H.W. Administration and has taught at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities and the National War College. You can follow him on twitter @dgoure and you can follow the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC

Image: U.S. Air Force