Max Q: Icy

Hello and welcome back to Max Q. This past week, thousands of people traveled to Paris for the International Astronautical Congress 2022, one of the world’s largest space conferences. Alas, I was not one of them. But it means there’s tons of news, so let’s get to it! In this issue:

  • An analysis of Intuitive Machines’ SPAC bet
  • Rocket Lab is expanding its U.S. footprint
  • News from ArianeGroup, Rocket Factory Augsburg and more

Intuitive Machines bets the moon could be big business

Over at TechCrunch+, Alex Wilhelm wrote an excellent deep-dive into lunar infrastructure company Intuitive Machines’ SPAC deal, which will see the combined entity valued at just north of $1 billion. (I reported on the deal last week.)

It’s a sign that the space SPAC craze isn’t as dead as we all thought, despite plummeting stock prices of companies that went public last year, as well as a handful of mergers that were cancelled before they could be finalized. Indeed, Intuitive Machines will make its public market debut as a unicorn if all goes to plan. But that depends upon a number of factors — not least of which, a growing market for lunar services to generate the steep revenue growth Intuitive Machines projected. The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of next year, and I’ll be paying attention to shareholder redemptions, stock price and more.

lunar lander concept

Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lunar lander concept render. Image Credits: Intuitive Machines

Rocket Lab expands US presence with engine testing, launch facilities

Rocket Lab is a U.S.-based company, but until now the bulk of its activities have been conducted in New Zealand. While the company has been public about its plans to expand to both hemispheres for a while, executives released a slew of updates on Wednesday detailing their goal to make the U.S. home to an even greater share of launches, testing and manufacturing.

The company shared the news with investors and the general public during Rocket Lab’s Investor Day. While the event livestream hit a technical snafu, Rocket Lab shared all the updates in a long tweet thread concurrent with the event (read it here).

One of the biggest takeaways was news that the company will be conducting all testing of its reusable rocket engine for Neutron, called Archimedes, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Also, the company finally set a firm launch date for the first Electron launch from the Eastern Seaboard: this December, followed by a second launch in January of next year.

More news from TC and beyond

  • ArianeGroup has its eye on fully reusable rockets. The company announced a proposal for a reusable upper stage it’s calling the Smart Upper Stage for Innovation Exploration, or SUSIE, that could be used to carry astronauts and cargo. If it comes to fruition, SUSIE could be a massive boost for European human spaceflight.
  • Artemis Accords signatories held an in-person organizational meeting for the first time at the International Astronautical Congress, a step toward setting standards and best practices for human space exploration.
  • Astrobotic announced a new initiative, LunaGrid, “a commercial power service for the poles of the moon.” If it becomes operational, the service would allow companies and astronauts to survive the long, cold lunar night, a notoriously tricky problem for lunar exploration. The goal is to make LunaGrid operational at the lunar south pole by 2028.
  • Blue Origin opened applications today for the Reef Starter Innovation Challenge, a startup challenge for early-stage companies looking to use their tech on the Orbital Reef space station.
  • Dawn Aerospace has completed Phase One testing of its spaceplane demonstrator, the MK-II Aurora. In Phase Two, the spaceplane will be fitted with a rocket motor, which will propel it to altitudes greater than 100 kilometers.
  • Elon Musk tweeted that “November seems highly likely” for the first orbital launch attempt of Starship, though it should be noted that Musk’s timeline estimates aren’t always the most accurate.
  • James Webb Space Telescope is experiencing an issue with one of the observing modes of the Mid-Infrared Instrument. NASA said it would temporarily halt observations that use that mode as they investigate the issue.
  • Microsoft, Planet and The Nature Conservancy are launching a tool called Global Renewables Watch, a “living atlas” to map and measure utility-scale renewable projects.
  • NASA is still planning on attempting to launch the Artemis I mission on September 27, despite a hurricane brewing in the Atlantic.
  • Planet released more details on its new hyperspectral satellite constellation. The constellation, which it’s calling Tanager, will be capable of measuring carbon emissions, methane and other data for environmental applications.
  • Orbital Reef, the private space station being developed by Blue Origin and Sierra Space, will feature in a film here on Earth. The film, called HELIOS, will start shooting next year.
  • Rocket Factory Augsburg, a German company developing rockets for the small launch market, signed an MOU with Spaceflight Inc. to fly its Sherpa orbital transfer vehicles on forthcoming RFA missions.
  • Satellite Vu, a British Earth observation company, signed a second launch contract with SpaceX to deploy their second thermal monitoring satellite sometime in early 2024.
  • Saudi Arabia is sending two astronauts to the International Space Station as part of a deal with Axiom SpaceTurkey announced a similar deal with Axiom, to launch their first astronauts to space late next year.
  • Somewear Labs raised $13.7 million in Series A funding to expand the company’s satellite-enabled software platform, which the company says helps its customers maintain “situational awareness during high pressure operations.”
  • SpinLaunch closed $71 million in funding, including debt and equity, to accelerate the commercialization of its kinetic launch system. The company is preparing to construct its full-sized launch system after a string of successful tests on a smaller demonstrator.
  • Starburst Aerospace is launching a new early-stage fund dedicated to aviation, space and defense, that it’s calling Starburst Ventures. Starburst is not releasing the total value of the fund, but it’s already invested in startups Outpost and Strong Compute.
  • Starlink’s mobile app has been downloaded almost 2 million times so far this year, with the majority coming in the period between February 19-April 9, which coincides with the start of Russia’s invsaion of Ukraine, according to an analysis by 42matters.
  • Starlink will request an exemption to sanctions against Iran to provide its satellite broadband service to that country, Elon Musk tweeted.
  • Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin landed a partnership with hospitality giant Hilton for the space companies’ future orbital station, Starlab. The hotel chain said it would design the “hospitality suites and sleeping arrangements,” the companies told CNBC.

Computer game of the week

Redwire Space developed a retro, computer-style game in honor of the forthcoming DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission. They’re calling it Planetary Defenders, and it’s an apt name: In the course of the mission, NASA will smash spacecraft into an asteroid to try to deflect its course. Redwire provided power and navigation tech for the spacecraft.

Play the game here.  

Max Q is brought to you by me, Aria Alamalhodaei. If you enjoy reading Max Q, consider forwarding it to a friend.