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Rocket Report: Starship may launch this spring, rideshare wars heat up

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Enlarge / A Falcon 9 rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Welcome to Edition 2.31 of the Rocket Report! It’s exciting to think that two smallsat launch companies could put rockets into space within the coming weeks—both Astra and Virgin Orbit—and we’ve got updates on both below. Also making the news this week is a SpaceX application to the Federal Communications Commission for a Starship flight.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don’t want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Astra says failure is an option. After operating in stealth mode for a little more than three years, the Alameda, California-based rocket company has revealed its intentions. Among the crowd of would-be small-satellite launch vehicles, Astra stands out for several reasons: it is moving fast, aims to be insanely cheap, and is rigorously following an iterative design process. Perhaps most importantly, the company is willing to fail.

Kind of a boring rocket … In a feature, Ars takes a look at Astra’s plans, which include its first orbital launch attempt within “single digit weeks” from Alaska and more later this year. The company hopes to build the fourth generation of its launch vehicle, Rocket 4.0, later this year and begin commercial operations. “This is not about making the best, most sexy rocket,” co-founder Adam London said. “We want to make the simplest, most manufacturable rocket.” (submitted by dangle and YourManager)

To rideshare or not to rideshare? SpaceX disclosed new details about its small-satellite rideshare efforts on Wednesday as it, and other programs like it by large launch-vehicle operators, put new pricing pressure on small launch-vehicle companies. A new report in SpaceNews discusses SpaceX’s plans and reveals how companies that developed dedicated small-satellite launchers are planning to compete. It’s safe to say this sector of launch is in for a serious shakeout in the coming months.

A bit of an issue … “This is a market that we looked very closely at for many years, and I’m really happy that we can be able to address the small-satellite customers directly,” said Stephanie Bednarek, director of commercial sales at SpaceX, at the SmallSat Symposium. Pricing for payloads starts at $1 million for satellites weighing up to 200 kilograms. The growth in rideshare opportunities on larger launchers creates new competition with the emerging crop of small launch vehicles. “It created a bit of an issue,” said Brad Schneider, chief revenue officer of Firefly Aerospace, of SpaceX’s smallsat rideshare. “It’s put pressure on us to take a look across the spectrum at what the best value is that we can offer our customers.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

The easiest way to keep up with Eric Berger’s space reporting is to sign up for his newsletter, we’ll collect his stories in your inbox.

NASA researchers can fly on commercial suborbital vehicles. NASA plans for the first time to allow researchers to fly with their payloads on commercial suborbital vehicles, ending years of debate and deliberation, SpaceNews reports. A new NASA draft solicitation for its “Flight Opportunities” program includes reusable suborbital spacecraft currently being flight-tested by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Almost there … In the past, payloads could fly on these vehicles but had to be automated. “Human spaceflight participants on these missions is increasingly viable and being demonstrated,” said Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, in a January 29 talk at the 23rd Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Virgin Orbit nearing first launch. The Long Beach-based company says it is weeks away from the first orbital launch of its LauncherOne rocket as the company makes plans to move quickly into operations if that flight is successful. “We are positioned at the end of the runway in Mojave. Our rocket is married to our 747,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said at the SmallSat Symposium this week. “We’re going through launch rehearsals.”

Looking ahead to commercial operations … During an interview with SpaceNews after the panel, Hart said that the company was ready to move into operations quickly should that test launch be a success. “If we have a great day, we’re poised to go forward pretty much immediately,” he said. The next LauncherOne rocket is currently “well along” in assembly at the company’s Long Beach, California, factory. We certainly wish them well with the test flight. (submitted by Unrulycow and Ken the Bin)

Skyrora tests its new engines. The Edinburgh-based new space launch company is aiming to become the first UK private company to launch payloads into Earth orbit. TechCrunch reports that the company has successfully tested its new rocket engines in their first stationary ground-firings.

Eco-friendly rocket? … Skyrora’s rocket engines use a kerosene fuel developed from plastic waste, called “Ecosene,” which the startup says makes its launch vehicles greener and more ecologically sound than the competition. The company says it remains on track to launch in 2022. (submitted by Unrulycow and WhiteKnave)

Exolaunch arranges rides for Spire. German launch-services provider Exolaunch announced plans at the SmallSat Symposium to send four Spire Global cubesats into low-inclination orbits on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle later this year, SpaceNews reports. Through the launch, Spire is seeking to diversify the orbits of its cubesats, which gather weather data in addition to performing maritime and aircraft tracking.

Another data point in the rideshare versus dedicated launch question … “Spire first launched to an equatorial orbit on a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle mission in 2015,” Robert Sproles, Spire director of Ground Stations and Launch, said in a statement. “We are excited to again be launching to a low-inclination orbit, this time through Exolaunch. Exolaunch has been a long-standing consistent launch partner for Spire, and we’re excited to see them expand their portfolio.” (submitted by Ken the Bin)

An underdog enters the Base 11 challenge. This contest offers a $1 million prize to the first student-led, amateur team that launches a rocket above the Kármán Line by December 30, 2021. The University of South Florida doesn’t even have an aerospace program, but that has not stopped its rocketry team from entering the contest, the Tampa Bay Times reports.

Cheering for the Bulls … Jackson Stephenson, president and vice president of the USF Society of Aeronautics and Rocketry, joined the club early in his freshman year. “I wanted to do aerospace engineering,” he said, “but the schools were just too expensive, so I came to USF, and I’ve done my best to kind of create an aerospace program through extracurricular activities.” So far, the club’s Taurus I rocket has reached an altitude of 3.4km, so the students have a ways to go. We’re rooting for them. (submitted by Nomist47)

OneWeb says it’s the biggest buyer of launch. On the eve of Thursday’s launch of 34 satellites from Baikonur, Ars spoke with OneWeb Chief Executive Officer Adrián Steckel about the company’s plans and how it will compete with half a dozen other firms looking at providing Internet from space. This year, OneWeb has plans for 10 launches of 30 to 36 satellites per flight, and that’s only the beginning of its constellation. The company chose to partner with Arianespace and its modified Soyuz launch vehicle for the 2020 launches because, Steckel said, OneWeb needed a provider that could guarantee a high cadence of timely launches with good success.

Looking to other providers in the future … After completing the initial phase of deployment, comprising a network of 648 satellites, OneWeb in 2021 will consider alternative launch vehicles as it continues to expand its network. Eventually it may fly as many as 5,260 satellites. “Right now, we’re the largest buyer of launch in the world,” Steckel said. “In the future, as we look to our next phase of deployment, we’re willing to buy rocket launches from SpaceX, Blue Origin, or whoever.”

SpaceX wins NASA contract for PACE launch. NASA has selected SpaceX to provide launch services for the agency’s Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission. The total cost for NASA to launch PACE is approximately $80.4 million, which includes the launch service and other mission-related costs, the agency stated.

Important for understanding a changing climate … The PACE mission currently is targeted to launch in December 2022 on a Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. According to NASA, the PACE mission represents the nation’s next great investment in understanding and protecting our home planet. The mission will provide global ocean color, cloud, and aerosol data that will provide unprecedented insights into oceanographic and atmospheric responses to Earth’s changing climate. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Starship to make 20km flight no earlier than March. According to a new filing with the Federal Communications Commission, SpaceX has applied to fly its Starship prototype vehicle to a 20km altitude from its Boca Chica site later this year. The application cites a window that opens on March 16 and closes on September 16 for the flight.

A key test … The suborbital test and recovery represents a significant milestone for the Starship project, which has previously flown the stubby Starhopper test vehicle to an altitude of 150 meters. The flight of a full-scale Starship would show that SpaceX is well on its way to orbital status with the large upper stage designed to launch atop a Super Heavy rocket. (submitted by danneely)

SpaceX may set up a Port of Los Angeles Starship build site. One year ago, SpaceX pulled the plug on plans to lease 18 acres in San Pedro, at the Port of Los Angeles, to do Starship construction. At the time, the company planned to do most of this assembly at its site near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. But now, some of that work appears headed back to Southern California. “I am excited,” said LA City Council’s Joe Buscaino, “by the renewed opportunity for SpaceX to build its next generation of Mars-destined rockets at the Port of Los Angeles.”

Site is closer to home … Port commissioners are expected to weigh issuing a permit during a closed session on Thursday, February 6, which would open the way for SpaceX to build a rocket manufacturing plant on Terminal Island, the Daily Breeze reports. The permit would then go before the board in open session at its February 20 meeting. Our guess is that the company will still do a lot of work in Texas, but it is much easier for engineers at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne to do some of the more sensitive work closer to home. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Four RL-10 engines delivered to Stennis. One of the four engines that were recently delivered will be used to support the Artemis II mission that will use the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage upper stage, while the other three are slated to support future Artemis missions aboard the Exploration Upper Stage, NASASpaceFlight.com reports. The ICPS, will power the Space Launch System rocket’s upper stage until the Exploration Upper Stage is ready.

All eyes on EUS … The ICPS uses one RL-10 engine, while the more powerful and larger Exploration Upper Stage uses four. This latter stage has been the focus of some controversy, as Blue Origin offered NASA a significantly cheaper upper stage for the SLS rocket, which the agency rejected. Boeing, which has the contract for the Exploration Upper Stage, has meanwhile been vigorously lobbying Congress for more funding to put into its development. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Next three launches

Feb. 6: Soyuz 2.1b | OneWeb communications satellites | Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan | 21:42 UTC

Feb. 9: Antares | NG-13 ISS Supply mission | Wallops Island, Virginia | 22:39 UTC

Feb. 10: Atlas V | Solar Orbiter for NASA, ESA | Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida | 04:03 UTC

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After ICBM test, US stresses it was “not the result of current world events”

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Enlarge / This old file photo shows a Minuteman III rocket being launched from California.

Lee Corkran/Sygma via Getty Images

Early on Tuesday morning, an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, to test the capabilities of the US nuclear armed forces.

The missile carried a test reentry vehicle, which traveled about 6,700 km to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where there is sophisticated tracking equipment to verify the accuracy and reliability of the ICBM weapon system. During an armed conflict, such a missile, which has a range of nearly 10,000 km, could be equipped with a nuclear warhead.

In a news release, the US Air Force took pains to describe this test as long-scheduled and not conducted due to current world events. Rather, the Air Force said, it was the result of “months of preparation” across multiple government partners.

“This scheduled test launch is demonstrative of how our nation’s ICBM fleet illustrates our readiness and reliability of the weapon system,” said Col. Chris Cruise, 576th Flight Test Squadron Commander. “It is also a great platform to show the skill sets and expertise of our strategic weapons maintenance personnel and of our missile crews who maintain an unwavering vigilance to defend the homeland.”

Nevertheless, Tuesday’s test—which occurred at 12:49 am local time in California on Tuesday, or 07:49 UTC—was notable due to its timing. At least twice this year, the Air Force has delayed or canceled a Minuteman III test because of geopolitical tensions.

On March 2, the Pentagon said it was delaying an ICBM test to avoid any miscalculations with Russia, which had just invaded Ukraine. At the time, Russian President Vladimir Putin had placed his nuclear deterrent forces on a “special regime of combat duty.” A month later, as tensions continued to escalate, the Air Force confirmed that the planned Minuteman III test had been canceled.

Tuesday’s test had also been delayed due to geopolitical events, Reuters reported. It was moved so as not to send the wrong message after US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a trip to Taiwan, and China responded with a show of force earlier in August.

During the last half-century, the US military has carried out more than 300 ICBM tests to ensure the readiness of its stash of missiles, more than 400 of which are deployed around the United States in case they are called upon in a nuclear conflict. These missiles are intended to serve as a deterrent, in that no matter who acts first in a nuclear war, the United States would be able to retaliate with devastating force.

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Which microbes live in your gut?

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When you hear about the gut microbiome, does it ever make you wonder what tiny creatures are teeming inside your own body? As a microbiologist who studies the microbiomes of plants, animals and people, I’ve watched public interest in gut microbes grow alongside research on their possible dramatic influence on human health. In the past several years, microbiome testing techniques used by researchers like me are now available to consumers at home. These personal gut microbiome testing kits claim to tell you what organisms live in your gut and how to improve your gut microbiome using that data.

I became very interested in how these home test kits work, what kind of information they provide and whether they can really help you change your gut microbiome. So I ordered a few kits from Viome, Biohm and Floré, tried them out and sifted through my own microbiome data. Here is what I learned.

Your gut microbiome can be a partner in your health—if you have the right bacteria.

How do gut microbiome kits work?

All gut microbiome kits require you to carefully collect fresh fecal material. You put it in the various tubes provided in the kit and mail the samples back to the company. Several weeks later, you’ll receive a report describing the types of microbes living in your gut and suggestions on how to change your diet or activities to potentially alter your gut microbiome.

What consumers don’t exactly know is how companies generate the microbial profile data from your fecal sample. A typical approach I and other microbiome researchers use is to extract and decode the microbial genetic material from a sample. We use that genetic material to identify what species of microbes are present. The challenge is that this process can be done in many different ways, and there are no widely agreed-upon standards for what is the best method.

Different home gut microbiome test kits can give conflicting results.
Enlarge / Different home gut microbiome test kits can give conflicting results.

For example, microbiome analyses can be done on two types of genetic material, RNA or DNA. If the profile is based on DNA, it can give you a snapshot only of what types of microbes are present, not what microbial genes are active or what activities they are doing in your body. On the other hand, if the profile is based on RNA, it can tell you not only what microbes are present, but also whether they’re playing a role in your digestion or producing metabolites that can reduce gut inflammation, among other functions. Viome generates its profiles by looking at RNA, while the other companies use DNA.

Other data analysis choices, such as how different types of genetic sequences are sorted or which databases are used to identify the microbes, can also affect the level of detail and utility of the final data. Microbiome scientists are usually very careful to point out these nuances when interpreting their own data in scientific papers, but these details are not clearly presented in home microbiome kits.

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De-extinction company sets its next (first?) target: The thylacine

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Of all the species that humanity has wiped off the face of the Earth, the thylacine is possibly the most tragic loss. A wolf-sized marsupial sometimes called the Tasmanian tiger, the thylacine met its end in part because the government paid its citizens a bounty for every animal killed. That end came recently enough that we have photographs and film clips of the last thylacines ending their days in zoos. Late enough that in just a few decades, countries would start writing laws to prevent other species from seeing the same fate.

On Tuesday, a company called Colossal, which has already said it wants to bring the mammoth back, is announcing a partnership with an Australian lab that it says will de-extinct the thylacine with the goal of re-introducing it into the wild. A number of features of marsupial biology make this a more realistic goal than the mammoth, although there’s still a lot of work to do before we even start the debate about whether reintroducing the species is a good idea.

To find out more about the company’s plans for the thylacine, we had a conversation with Colossal’s founder, Ben Lamm, and the head of the lab he’s partnering with, Andrew Pask.

Branching out

To an extent, Colossal is a way of organizing and funding the ideas of Lamm’s partner, George Church. Church has been talking about de-extincting the mammoth for a number of years, spurred in part by developments in gene editing. The company is structured as a startup, and Lamm said it’s very open to commercializing technology it develops while pursuing its goals. “On our path to de-extinction, Colossal is developing new software, wetware, and hardware innovative technologies that can have profound impacts on both conservation and human health care,” he told Ars. But fundamentally, it’s about developing products for which there’s obviously no market: species that no longer exist.

The general approach it lays out for the mammoth is straightforward, even if the details are extremely complex. There are plenty of samples of mammoth tissue from which we can obtain at least partial genomes, which can then be compared to its closest relatives, the elephants, to find key differences distinct to the mammoth lineage. Thanks to gene editing technology, key differences can be edited into the genome of an elephant stem cell, essentially “mammothifying” the elephant cells. A bit of IVF later, and we’ll have a shaggy beast ready for the sub-Arctic steppes.

Again, the details matter. At the plan’s inception, we had not created elephant stem cells, nor done gene editing at even a fraction of the scale required. There are credible arguments that the peculiarities of the elephant reproductive system make the “bit of IVF” that’s needed a practical impossibility; if it does happen, it will involve a nearly two-year gestation before the results can be evaluated. Elephants are also intelligent, social creatures, and there’s a reasonable debate to be had about whether using them to this end is appropriate.

Given these challenges it may not be a coincidence that Lamm said Colossal had been looking for a second species to de-extinct. And their search turned up a project that was taking a nearly identical approach: the Thylacine Integrated Genomic Restoration Research Lab (TIGRR), based at the University of Melbourne and headed by Andrew Pask.

In the pouch

As with Colossal’s mammoth plans, TIGRR intends to obtain thylacine genomes, identify key differences between that genome and related lineages (mostly quolls), and then edit those differences into marsupial stem cells, which would then be used for IVF. It, too, faces some significant hurdles, in that nobody has made marsupial stem cells yet, nor has anyone cloned a marsupial—two things that have at least been done in placental mammals (though not pachyderms).

But Pask and Lamm pointed out a number of ways that the thylacine is a far more tractable system than a mammoth. For one, the animal’s survival until recent years means there are a lot of museum samples, and thus Pask says we’re likely to obtain enough genomes to get a sense of the population’s genetic diversity—likely critical if we want to re-establish a stable breeding population.

Marsupial reproduction also makes things significantly easier. A marsupial embryo “places far less nutritional demand on getting to the point of birth,” Pask told Ars. “The placenta doesn’t really invade the uterus.” Marsupials are also born at a stage that’s roughly half-way through embryogenesis for a mammal; the rest of development takes place in the mother’s pouch. In contrast to the in utero years needed by a mammoth, the thylacine may only need a few weeks. The marsupial embryos are also so small at birth that the foster mothers can be considerably smaller than a thylacine; Pask said his group plans to work with a fat-tailed dunnart, which is roughly the size of a small rat.

Even after birth, the thylacines would fit in the dunnart’s pouch for a short period, and Lamm is excited by the prospect of developing an artificial pouch to get the animals from there to the point where they can be hand-reared. If not, some larger marsupials could act as foster parents.

The dunnart isn’t the ideal surrogate, as it’s lineage diverged from that of thylacines several million years ago (compared to well under a million for mammoths and elephants). That means a lot more genome editing needs to be done to dunnart cells to get them to a thylacine-like state. That’s one of the reasons that Pask was excited about the opportunity to team up with Colossal, which is working to develop methods for high-throughput genome editing.

None of this is to say that the thylacine is more or less likely to be revived. Colossal will still face challenges identifying which changes are absolutely essential for producing a thylacine-like animal, and which other changes are needed to ensure the genome will survive all of that category of changes (these compensatory mutations can be essential for allowing species to survive evolutionary changes). Still, most of the risks involved appear to be more manageable in its case.

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