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Could K2-18 b be showing signs of life?

JWST finds potential signs of life on K2-18 b. Ball Aerospace to deliver a sounder for NOAA’s GeoXS. Firefly awarded a NASA lunar payload contract. And more.





The James Webb Space Telescope's spectrograph of exoplanet K2-18b shows potential signs of life. Ball Aerospace to deliver a sounder for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geostationary Extended Observations satellite program (GeoXO). Firefly Aerospace to provide radio frequency calibration services from lunar orbit as part of a NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract, and more.

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T-Minus Guest

Our guest today is Sarah “Sassie” Duggleby, Co founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace.

You can connect with Sassie on LinkedIn and find out more about Venus Aerospace on their website.

Selected Reading

Webb Discovers Methane, Carbon Dioxide in Atmosphere of K2-18 b- NASA

Ball Aerospace Selected to Build Instrument for NOAA's GeoXO Constellation- PR Newswire

Firefly Awarded $18 Million NASA Contract to Provide Radio Frequency Calibration Services from Lunar Orbit- PR

Intelsat, Aalyria Sign Deal to Advance Multi-Orbit Connectivity- PR

Arianespace Signs Agreement With Intelsat For Launch Of Is-45- PR

Axiom Space Announces Astronauts for Third Mission to ISS- PR

India, NASA to cooperate on human spaceflight and planetary defense- Space

US company to unveil luxury space adventures in India; to offer travel to ISS, space balloons, zero-gravity plane- Times of India

Thaicom Selects Airbus For Its New Generation Software-Defined High Throughput Satellite At 119.5 Degrees East- PR

Big Law follows private sector into space race- FT

Techstars selects 12 companies for its fall space accelerator- Techcrunch

Mae Jemison- National Women’s History Museum

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>> Maria Varmazis: Today's show has a lot of big deals, financial deals, mainly, contract announcements from NOAA and NASA, as well as agreements from World Satellite Business Week in Paris. But we're starting the show with the biggest of big deals of them all. Maybe a huge maybe but still maybe Webb has potentially found evidence of life on another planet. It does not get bigger than that.

>> Unidentified Person: T-Minus 20 seconds to LOA. Go for the floor.

>> Maria Varmazis: Today is September 12, 2023. I'm Maria Varmazis, and this is T-Minus. The James Webb Space Telescope finds potential signs of life in the universe.

Ball Aerospace awarded a NOAA GeoXO Sounder contract.

Firefly Aerospace to provide radio frequency calibration services from lunar orbit for NASA.

And our guest today is Sassie Duggleby, cofounder and CEO of Venus Aerospace, on the future of hypersonic space travel. All this and more. Stay with us. Now on to today's intelligence briefing. While most of us are understandably really awed by the incredible pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope, astronomers were a lot more jazzed about Webb's spectroscopy capabilities. They don't make for splashy photos of nebulae. Instead, you get a data chart plotting molecules present in a planet's atmosphere. That sweet, sweet data is a bit harder for the general public to parse, admittedly. But the information they unveil about exoplanets is mind blowing. And just barely a year after Webb's first images and spectrograph, researchers at the University of Cambridge have been studying a spectrograph taken by Webb's near a speck of exoplanet K2-18 b, which is nine times the size of Earth and in its star's Goldilocks habitable zone, about 120 light years from us. That spectrograph shows the presence of methane and carbon dioxide in its atmosphere with little ammonia present, and those are promising signs of a water ocean underneath its atmosphere. But, more importantly if not most importantly -- here's that giant maybe -- it seems that Webb has also detected the molecule dimethyl sulfide, or DMS, in the atmosphere as well. And that molecule, when found on Earth, is only produced by life. Specifically, it's emitted by phytoplankton. So this is understandably a massive potential discovery here if the data can be validated. So Webb's going to take some closer looks at K2-18 b with its MIRI instrument to see how much DMS is actually there, if any at all. Unlike Earth, this exoplanet is believed to be covered in an ocean and not rocky at all. So while the data seems to confirm the presence of some kind of ocean, keep in mind it could still be too hot to support life. And if DMS is present, it is going to take at least another year to confirm all of this. So hang tight, everybody. One of Webb's missions is to help us understand if there is life on other worlds. And it is truly stunning to think only a year into its work we maybe, maybe, maybe be closer to a real answer there. Just wow. And now onto some NASA contract news, and we'll start with Ball Aerospace, who has been awarded a contract to deliver a sounder for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geostationary Extended Observations Satellite Program, also known as GeoXO. Although the contract amount was not released by Ball, it is reported to be worth over $480 million. GeoXO will collect data on weather patterns and ocean color, replacing and expanding on Noah's current geostationary operational environmental satellite R series. The Ball built GeoXO sounder, known as GXS, will provide 3D profiles of the atmosphere over North America to enhance numerical weather prediction models. Once launched, GXS will be the first hyperspectral infrared sounder flown by the US in geostationary orbit. Next up for deals news, we have Firefly Aerospace, who has been awarded an $18 million NASA commercial lunar payload services contract to provide radio frequency calibration services from lunar orbit. The contract is part of Firefly's Blue Ghost Mission 2, which will be the company's second mission to the moon in 2026. This contract marks Firefly's third commercial lunar payload services task order, totaling nearly $230 million to date. And some announcements out of World Satellite Business Week in Paris now, and Luxembourg-based satellite company Intelsat has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with US based Aalyria. The MOU framework will see the use of Aalyria's technologies to offer secure and ultra-fast ground space connectivity for government and commercial customers. When operational in 2024, Aalyria will deliver massive data files in real time, as well as backup networks which are running short of capacity or compromised. And Arianespace has also signed a contract with Intelsat to launch the Is-45 payload with Ariane 6. Is-45 is expected to launch on the rocket no earlier than 2026. And Axiom Space today announced the crew for its Axiom Mission 3, or Ax-3, to the International Space Station. This is the first all European commercial astronaut mission to launch to the ISS, and it's expected to lift off no earlier than January 2024. Astronauts from three countries, Italy, Turkey, and Sweden, through the European Space Agency will unite for Ax-3, along with Axiom Space's chief astronaut and Commander Michael López-Alegría, representing both the US and Spain as a dual citizen. Over at the DSEI Conference in London, and Northrop Grumman UK has announced a partnership to advance Wales-based Space Forge's in-space manufacturing capabilities. Space Forge CEO Josh Western says this collaboration brings together the expertise and innovation of both the UK and US Space Industries, and we believe it will be a game changer in unlocking the tremendous potential of space-based manufacturing. By developing advanced semiconductor materials in the unique environment of space, we aim to revolutionize the global semiconductor market and support its rapid growth, ultimately driving new advancements and technology and the economy. All the best to them. US President Joe Biden met with India's Prime Minister and the leaders at the Indian Space Research Organization late last week. During the meeting, the two leaders pledged to cooperate on several ambitious space projects. The two nations are also developing a strategic framework for human spaceflight cooperation by the end of this year. And capitalizing on this relationship is US-based company Space VIP, which will be offering to broker spaceflight deals to India-based customers starting next month. And, staying in Asia, Thaicom has placed an order for a new software-defined satellite from Airbus based on the OneSat product line. Thaicom's subsidiary, Space Tech Innovation Limited, signed a contract with Airbus Space Systems to design and manufacture its new satellite, as well as provide ground control segment components. This satellite will provide extended connectivity in the KU band over the Asia-Pacific region for Thaicom's customers and partners. The financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed with the announcement, and the satellite is planned for delivery in 2027. That concludes our briefing for today. We have links to further reading on all of the stories we've mentioned in this episode in the Selected Reading section on our website. We've also included a piece on law firms following the private sector into the space race and an announcement on the new cohort for Techstars, all of this and more at space.n2k.com. And just click on this episode.

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Our guest today is Sassie Duggleby, cofounder and CEO of Venus Aerospace. To set the context for our discussion, Sassie first told me about the mission of Venus.

>> Sassie Duggleby: So we're using a next generation rocket engine -- it's called a rotating detonation rocket engine -- that finally unlocks the hypersonic economy. So our ultimate goal at Venus is to build a passenger transport vehicle that would be capable of one hour global travel. So you could take off from San Francisco and land in Tokyo an hour later. Or, you know, we're in Houston. So take off from Houston; land in London in an hour. That's our long-term vision. The more near-term opportunities is using hypersonics for the Department of Defense, both kind of in testing and then ultimately kind of some hypersonic drones, hypersonic vehicles. Our large vision, our, you know, kind of big goal that we're chasing is kind of point-to-point hypersonic travel.

>> Maria Varmazis: So amped about the potential for point to point. I'll get to that in a second. But I would love to know about sort of the genesis of Venus. Like, what -- what was the coolest discussion that brought this all about? Like, there got there has to be a cool origin story there.

>> Sassie Duggleby: Yeah. Absolutely. So prior to starting Venus, my husband and I, which we actually cofounded the company together. So he's the PhD rocket scientist, and I have an engineering undergrad and then an MBA. And he was a professor for -- a mechanical engineering professor for about a decade. We owned a company together, kind of built and scaled that and then moved to Southern California to work for Virgin Orbit, where we were launching rockets off the wing of a 747. And then Andrew is also in the United States Navy Reserves. In the Navy capacity, he's called an engineering duty officer; and he does ship repair. And 2018 was a really bad year for the Navy. They had more ships that they needed repaired that they could get back to the United States. So he actually got called up, and we deployed to Japan. And so we pulled our daughters out of school. We have two kids. Pulled our kids out of school and moved to Japan. And it was actually living in Japan that we had the idea for Venus. It was a Sunday afternoon. We were sitting out kind of on our balcony overlooking Tokyo Bay and talking about that it's 13 hours to get home and just how big the world really is. And we had traveled internationally, but we've never lived overseas. And it was literally that Sunday afternoon, Andrew said, Well, you know, there's this new rocket engine coming down the pipeline that he had been watching both as a professor and then at Virgin Orbit. And he said, I think if this rocket engine's ever proven, we could put it on a plane; and we could be home in an hour. And so that was the moment. I actually laughed at him, if I look back. But we started dreaming on what would it look like? Like, what if this engine really is proven? Could we commercialize it? Could we actually take that step? So fast forward. You know, it was proven at a university kind of at the academic level in 2019. And so we kind of incorporated the company. I sort of forgot. How do you raise venture capital. And then, as soon as we got Virgin Orbit to the first launch, which was June 2020, we quit our jobs. And it was the middle of COVID. And, you know, our kids were home from school and started fundraising and really digging in and saying, We think we have something here, and we really need to go pursue this.

>> Maria Varmazis: Anyone who's done that long haul flight over the Pacific, I've done it many times, has dreamt of not having to sit there for 13, 14 hours going, oh, my gosh. Yeah. Boy, I would love to see that happen one day. So many companies are sort of trying to tackle hyperspace in some capacity. I would love to know how Venus is -- like, what's your differentiator? What are you guys doing in your approach?

>> Sassie Duggleby: Yeah. So, at the end of the day, it comes down to our rocket engine. So the detonation engine is just more efficient than a regular rocket engine. You know, the engines that we sent Apollo to the moon with 50 years ago are pretty close to what we're using now for modern rocket technology. And so this is an entirely change in rocketry. So any time you detonate a propellant, you get more energy out of it than you would of a slower burn deflagration. And so, because of the efficiency of the rocket engine, ultimately it means we don't have to carry as much fuel, which means we could suddenly have wings and landing gear and all the things that would finally make a rocket plane actually work. And so, at the end of the day, it all comes down to this rocket engine that we're commercializing.

>> Maria Varmazis: So how and where do you test something like that? So you mentioned you're based out of Houston. Is that where you're also testing all this?

>> Sassie Duggleby: Yeah. So when -- we were working in Southern California for Virgin Orbit and started looking at where, where in the country could we set up. One of the challenges out there as, you know, the headquarters was in Long Beach, but all the testing and operations was out in Mojave. And I was actually a single mom for almost two years because Andrew was head of launch operations, and I was working at the headquarters. And so, you know, our company vision is home for dinner. We want to be able to fly you across the globe and have you home for dinner. And, if you work for us, you know, as a husband-wife team, we actually want you home for dinner. So we started looking at where in the world can we set up where we could literally be home for dinner as a company. And the Houston spaceport, someone brought it to our attention. And we came out and talked with the team here. And so, yeah. We are in Houston at the Ellington Field, which is the Houston Spaceport and literally testing rocket engines outside of our hangar door, which is incredible. It's -- you know, it's the only urban spaceport in America. And so, you know, middle of city. We're south of downtown. But, you know, here in Houston, we're firing rocket engines on a regular basis right here.

>> Maria Varmazis: That's great. That sounds fantastic. The potential for point-to-point hyperspace travel, as you mentioned, like, cutting down the pain of those incredibly long flights and bringing the world together, aside from what we're building at Venus, what else do we need to get to that point? Do we need better infrastructure? Like what -- what would support this goal?

>> Sassie Duggleby: Yeah. So the nice thing is, because of the efficiency of a rocket engine, we could actually have jet engines for takeoff. So we can use, you know, standard airport infrastructure that allows us to take off with jet engines, get out over the ocean, and then do a boost with our rocket engine where you could fly higher and then ultimately cooler. So we don't have that Top Gun Maverick. So a lot of times you'll have materials challenges. So you'll need, you know, an airframe that wouldn't melt or that could handle really high temperatures. But because we're a rocket, we can go higher and don't have that skin friction on our vehicle. You know, we will have to stand up with the fuel. Being a rocket, we carry our fuel and an oxidizer. And so, at airports, not only would you have jet fuel to fuel, like right now we're also using hydrogen peroxide. So we would have to stand up an infrastructure at airports for hydrogen peroxide fueling. The nice thing is there's a military spec for high-test peroxide. There's also integration into the airspace. So we've been working with the FAA on, you know, that's -- actually, this last year, I've spent a lot of time in Washington, DC because it's the FAA reauthorization. And so how do we integrate high-speed planes into the ecosystem?

>> Maria Varmazis: Right.

>> Sassie Duggleby: Yes; we're far off in terms of when we actually will be flying. But we need to -- we've actually asked the FAA to start looking at how do you integrate? How do we work with the air space and that sort of thing.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah. I mean, that's sort of the question that comes to my mind is how does that look? Do you have a sense of that yet, or is it still sort of in the process?

>> Sassie Duggleby: Yeah. So right now, you know, you can't legally fly supersonic over land, right, with their sonic booms. And so that's why our --

>> Maria Varmazis: Why is that? Yeah [laughs].

>> Sassie Duggleby: -- yeah. Our initial flights all, you know, are take -- will often, say, you know, Pacific, over the Pacific so that it's over the ocean, you know. So there's going to be different challenges coming down the pipeline. One of the things that Venus has been looking at is we're actually repeating kind of what the space shuttle did, right? So the space shuttle would come out of orbit. And then it would slow down, and it would just glide from Japan to the United States in 45 minutes. But when it flew overhead in, you know, Kansas, say, nobody in Kansas was looking up and saying what was that. It wasn't till it got lower. And so one of our asks with the FAA reauthorization is, you know, give us an altitude at which you can fly in which you can't hear a sonic boom. And so, you know, that could actually unlock, you know, where you could take off over the Pacific, and then get up high across the United States and come back down on the Atlantic.

>> Maria Varmazis: You're at a fascinating point right now. I look forward to seeing how things develop. And I'm curious. You have a fantastic long-term goal. What are you looking at for in the next year or two? What are you looking to achieve?

>> Sassie Duggleby: Yeah. So we are working to integrate our rocket engine onto our drone. So we've been flying smaller scale drones. And then we've been, you know, testing a rocket engine regularly here at Spaceport Houston. And so really it's kind of the integration of the two and get really fast flying drone going. And then it's kind of just scaling up. So the first -- the first area that we're looking at is kind of hypersonic testing, you know, the wind tunnel in the sky. So, you know, there's a long development path for -- you know, for the Department of Defense looking at, you know, flying payloads for material sensors, that sort of thing. And so, really, that's our first place that we're looking at. It allows us to build our drone, get flying fast, start earning some revenue as we scale towards larger vehicles.

>> Maria Varmazis: I have to ask because, selfishly, I'm sure every interview asks you this. When do you think passenger point-to-point hypersonic travel is going to be an actual reality? When can I board a plane from Boston to Tokyo and not have it take more than half a day?

>> Sassie Duggleby: So from the beginning we've always said no sooner than 2030, and that assumes the right amount of capitalization, that we can pass through regulatory issues. And so we know that it's still a long, long journey for us. But we're continuing to just, you know, take the -- buy down that risk one little piece at a time and get things flying and get things moving. And it's -- honestly, it's the adventure of a lifetime.

>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be right back.

Welcome back. On this day on September 12 back in 1992, Dr. Mae Jamison and six other astronauts went into space on the Space Shuttle Endeavor for STS-47, the 50th space shuttle mission overall, bringing a crewed Space Lab module to orbit. The team made 127 orbits around the Earth and returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on September 20, 1992. This voyage also made Dr. Jamison the first African-American woman in space. Now, every astronaut is pretty darn extraordinary, and Dr. Jamison is no exception. She started college at 16 years old at Stanford, graduated with a chemical engineering degree, and then went on to Cornell Medical School. She then served as a medical officer in the Peace Corps before opening her own private medical practice. She was inspired to apply to become a NASA astronaut after seeing Sally Ride's own flight in 1983. After her work on Endeavour, Dr. Jamison made a pop culture first by becoming the first real astronaut to appear on Star Trek, as you probably heard me mention a few days ago. And today she's leading the very real effort to get humanity to emerge from our cradle here on Earth and journey into the cosmos as the principal of the 100 Year Starship project.

That's it for T-Minus for September 12, 2023. For additional resources from today's report, check out our show notes at space.n2k.com. We're privileged that N2K and podcasts like T-Minus are part of the daily routine of many of the most influential leaders and operators in the public and private sector, from the Fortune 500 to many of the world's preeminent intelligence and law enforcement agencies. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Tré Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf. Our chief intelligence officer is Eric Tillman. And I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening. We'll see you tomorrow.

>> Unidentified Person: T-Minus done.

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