<img height="1" width="1" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=205228923362421&amp;ev=PageView &amp;noscript=1">

Space-based solar power is the new hot topic.

Space-based solar power research gets some legislative love. And spaceports do too! The FAA’s taking steps to mitigate issues from launch traffic. And more.





The US Science, Space and Technology Committee announces a bill instructing both the Department of Energy and NASA to work together on research areas for space-based solar power. Four US senators have introduced the Spaceport Project Opportunities for Resilient Transportation Act which aims to open federal funding for commercial spaceports. The FAA makes steps to mitigate aviation and space air traffic, and more.

Remember to leave us a 5-star rating and review in your favorite podcast app.

Miss an episode? Sign up for our weekly intelligence roundup, Signals and Space. And be sure to follow T-Minus on Twitter and LinkedIn.


T-Minus Guest

Today’s guest is Stefan Powell, CEO and CTO of New Zealand based start up Dawn Aerospace.

You can connect with Stefan on LinkedIn and find out more about Dawn Aerospace on their website.

Selected Reading

For the first time in decades, Congress seems interested in space-based solar power- Ars Technica

Hickenlooper, Cornyn, Luján, Wicker Introduce Bill to Launch New Era of Spaceports- Hickenlooper

Exclusive: How FAA changes keep flights on time around space launches- USA Today

SHAREHOLDER ALERT: Kaskela Law LLC Announces Investigation of AST SpaceMobile, Inc. and Encourages Long-Term ASTS / NPA Shareholders to Contact the Firm- PR Newswire

Tomorrow.io raises $87 million for weather satellite constellation- SpaceNews

Spanish rocket company PLD Space signs deal with France's Arianespace- Reuters

ispace Announces New CEO of ispace U.S. Entity- ispace

Terran Orbital Hires Virgin Orbit Exec Tony Gingiss as COO- Via Satellite

Lockheed Martin gets new space business development director for Saudi Arabia- Arab News

NASA Cassini Data Reveals Building Block for Life in Enceladus’ Ocean- NASA

Rocket Lab is set to launch a mystery mission from Virginia. What could it be?- Space.com

Satellite Swarms for Science ‘Grow up’ at NASA Ames- NASA

Audience Survey

We want to hear from you! Please complete our 4 question survey. It’ll help us get better and deliver you the most mission-critical space intel every day.

Want to hear your company in the show?

You too can reach the most influential leaders and operators in the industry. Here’s our media kit. Contact us at space@n2k.com to request more info.

Want to join us for an interview?

Please send your pitch to space-editor@n2k.com and include your name, affiliation, and topic proposal.

T-Minus is a production of N2K Networks, your source for strategic workforce intelligence. © 2023 N2K Networks, Inc.

>> Maria Varmazis: Space-based solar power, it's been the hot topic at T-Minus for some weeks now. First it was the Japanese claiming to have made the most advancements, and then came Cal Tech's update. Next came the announcement from the UK that they're investing in advancing their knowledge and technology. So it only makes sense now that the US Congress is finally paying attention.

[ Music ]

Today is June 15, 2023. I'm Maria Varmazis, and this is T-Minus.

[ Music ]

Space-based solar power research gets some legislative love. And spaceports do too! The FAA's taking new steps to mitigate issues from launch traffic. AST SpaceMobile is hit with a lawsuit. And my interview today is with Stefan Powell, CEO and CTO of New Zealand-based startup Dawn Aerospace, all about what Dawn's been working on and their approach to aerospace development. Stay with us for that and more. Here is today's intel briefing for you. Now, I do love it when we have a story to cover that sounds utterly sci-fi. But no, this one's very real and something people have been researching and trying to develop for quite some time. Space-based solar power, as we said in our show open, is now and has been under active development. Is it a feasible one-day technology? Perhaps. Is it a total pipedream that's way too expensive to ever pull off? Discuss that one amongst yourselves. So as the debate roils, the research rolls on. And now legislation in the United States is getting into the game as well. The last time space-based solar power was ever mentioned in the US legislation was -- drum roll, please -- the 1970s. Well, actually, that is, until today. Today, in the Science Space and Technology Committee, House Resolution 2988, titled Department of Energy and NASA Interagency Research Coordination Act was cleared with bipartisan support, with a unanimous 28:0 vote, actually. The bill instructs both the DoE and NASA to work together on research areas for space-based solar power, as well as propulsion, machine learning/AI, astrophysics, Earth and environmental sciences, and -- no surprise here -- quantum computing. The initial version of this bill didn't have space-based solar power in there, but it was amended to include "ground and space-based technology necessary for the transmission to the Earth's surface of solar energy collected in space." That was added in by Congressman Kevin Mullen of California, with input from the Alliance for Space Development, the Space Frontier Foundation, and the National Space Society. Onto the House of Representatives now for this bill. But even just clearing the committee means it's on the legislative radar, which is a small but mighty step for continuing development of space-based solar power. And speaking of space-related legislation in the US with bipartisan support, four US senators from Colorado and New Mexico from both major parties today introduced the Spaceport Project Opportunities for Resilient Transportation Act, which they're shortening to simply the Spaceport Act. Senator Hickenlooper from Colorado says this bill is meant to "encourage the development of commercial spaceports through the modernization of the Federal Aviation Administration's Space Transportation Infrastructure Matching (or STIM) grant program. Now, the FAA's STIM program was created in 1994 and hasn't really been updated since then. And, in fact, it actually lapsed in fiscal year 2012. So this Spaceport Act is a very overdue reauthorization and update in the hopes of better keeping pace with the mushrooming demand for launch capacity, namely by finding new sources of funding to build new or to update existing spaceport infrastructure. Now, staying with the FAA, and the administration has taken positive steps to mitigate issues between aviation and space traffic. Duane Freer, manager of the FAA's Air Traffic Organization's Space Operations, told USA Today that the FAA is "taking a finer pencil to the way operations are run and managed, resulting in both time and fuel savings for airlines and air travelers." Rocket launches from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center have used a revised airspace closure procedure since early April to keep a major air traffic approach lane for flights to Orlando and Tampa open. This is an ongoing effort by the FAA who are now dealing with an increase in spaceflight on both coasts affecting civilian air traffic. We can't begin to imagine how much extra work they're currently undertaking, but we hope to bring you more details about those efforts when we speak to the FAA on T-Minus in the next couple of weeks. Now, there are very few things that are guaranteed in aerospace; I don't need to tell you that. You could argue that delays are inevitable, and seemingly for those companies that are publicly traded, so are lawsuits. A Pennsylvania-based law firm has announced that it's investigating AST SpaceMobile on behalf of the company's long-term shareholders. Now, if you were to do a search on Kaskela Law, then you'll see that this is their bread and butter work, as just today, AST SpaceMobile was among many different companies that they are actively pursuing. AST SpaceMobile was formed in April 2021 via a business combination with SPAC entity New Providence Acquisition Corp, with AST SpaceMobile as the surviving, publicly traded entity. According to the law firm, since the time of the announcement of the proposed SPAC transaction, shares of AST SpaceMobile have seen a cumulative decline of over 70% in value. The firm's investigation seeks to determine whether AST SpaceMobile and/or the company's representatives violated the securities laws or breached their fiduciary duties to stockholders in connection with the business combination, thereby causing investor losses. Given how popular SPACs were in recent years, I can't help but wonder if we'll be seeing more lawsuits like this going forward. Okay, now, we can guarantee that space is an expensive business, and the need to raise funds is vital for any space company. So we're happy to report that the Earth observation company Tomorrow.io have raised a substantial $87 million in a Series E funding round. The company plans to use the new funding source to support its weather and climate data satellite constellation. You might remember that Tomorrow.io launched their first satellite in orbit in April, with the second reaching apogee this weekend after hitching a lift on SpaceX's Transporter 8 rideshare. Arianespace is on a roll with their partnership agreements this week. Yesterday, we reported on their MOU with Orbex. And today we can share that they have signed an additional agreement with Spanish rocket company PLD Space. We've been watching PLD Space for the last few weeks, as they have delayed their first test campaign in Spain, which honestly, could happen any day now. PLD Space plans to start commercial activity in 2025, and hopes this agreement will allow them to offer its customizable services to Arianespace customers. And speaking of Arianespace, if you were looking forward to the final launch of the Ariane 5 rocket no earlier than tomorrow, you're going to have to wait a little bit longer. Some late breaking news today from Arianespace. "It has come to light that there is a risk to the redundancy of a critical function on the Ariane 5. Consistent with safety requirements, Arianespace has decided to postpone the rollout of the VA 261 launch vehicle. Analyses are underway to determine a new launch date." And onto some workforce news now. And we start with Tokyo-based ispace, who have announced that former NASA astronaut and retired US Air Force Colonel, Ronald J Garan Junior, is the new CEO of the US arm of the company. ispace has a base in Colorado with over 60 US employees and is currently developing the company's Series-2 lunar lander in preparation for its third mission, which is currently scheduled for 2025. And some good news for former Virgin Orbit executive Tony Gengiss, who has been hired by Terran Orbital as their new COO. The company is making progress with a 60,000 square foot facility in California, which is set to open later this year. Terran Orbital plans use the facility to produce 20 satellites a month. The company is also developing a separate 90,000 square foot facility in Irvine, which is set to open late next year. US space and defense contractor Lockheed Martin has appointed retired Brigadier General Abdullah Al-Ajmi as its new space business development director for Saudi Arabia. Al-Ajmi's appointment aims to coordinate and support Saudi Arabia's efforts to enhance the space industry in line with the Kingdom's vision 2030 goals. And now on to some really cool space science news, and data from NASA's Cassini mission has shown that Saturn's moon Enceladus has traces of phosphorus -- an essential chemical element for life -- locked inside salt rich ice grains ejected into space from the moon's geysers. During Cassini's mission from 2004 to 2017, the vehicle flew through the plumes created by geysers on the South Pole and Saturn's E-ring numerous times, which scientists are now analyzing. Enceladus' ice grains contain a rich array of minerals and organic compounds, including the ingredients for amino acids associated with life as we know it. It's the first time this essential element has been discovered in an ocean beyond Earth. Very exciting news. And speaking of exciting, we're getting really excited about hypersonic travel here at T-Minus, and we'll be covering that some more with our guest for tomorrow's show Dr. George Nield. But we're super hyped to hear the rumblings that Rocket Lab may be testing their hypersonic suborbital vehicle in the coming days. NASA's Wallops Range announced on Twitter that it is scheduled to support a Rocket Lab launch between June 15 and 20th, in the evening. There is no live stream planned for the launch, and the Wallops Visitor Center is not open to the public. So the mystery of the planned launch will stay unsolved for now, but we'll bring you more on that testing when it's announced. And that concludes our intel briefing for today. Coming up next is my conversation with Stefan Powell, CEO and CTO of New Zealand-based startup Dawn Aerospace. And, hey, T-Minus crew, if your business is looking to grow your voice in the industry, expand the reach of your thought leadership, or recruit talent, T-Minus can help. We'd love to hear from you. Send us an email at space@n2k.com, or send us a note through our website so we can connect about building a program to meet your goals.

[ Music ]

Today I'm speaking with Stefan Powell, CEO and CTO of New Zealand-based startup Dawn Aerospace. The successful launch of their rocket plane, the Mk-II Aurora, back in April was a proof of concept for the remotely piloted reusable vehicle, which could fly multiple times a day from a runway. I started off by asking how Dawn Aerospace arrived at the development of the Mk-II Aurora.

>> Stefan Powell: So the Mk-II Aurora is kind of our solution for a highly reusable way of accessing space. So the concept was a two stage to orbit, so it's not single stage to orbit. Two stage to orbit where the second stage is expendable. And the Mk-II Aurora is really the technology demonstrator of how we would -- that first stage could be rapidly reusable in the same way that you think about a commercial aircraft being reusable. It's about 4.5 meters long, 2.5 meters wingspan, weighs about 250/300 kilograms. The flight we did, you know, back in late March was the first time we had flown it under rocket power. So not super high performance quite yet. You know, aircraft development is very different to rocket development in the sense that, because you get the vehicle back, because it's rapidly reusable and you don't have to push the limits on the first flight, we can take a much more light build-up approach and learn in a much more cautious, calculated way. But in the end, actually, much, much faster.

>> Maria Varmazis: When I was reviewing some of the materials on the Dawn's website about what's coming next, there's a lot of different new versions that are coming. Which, in the space context, you're not necessarily used to seeing many different like small, iterative new versions coming out. So talk a little bit about that if you could.

>> Stefan Powell: Yeah, like normally in spaceplane development, as soon as people start talking about spaceplanes, they think, oh, yeah, that's easily like $100 million if not a billion-dollar project. But that's if you're developing something that is, you know, like a space shuttle type thing, where you have space shuttle's tens of billions of dollars. But with the advent of small satellites, I think this is a really good entry point into smaller vehicles to space. I don't think it's where the market's going to go in the end. Certainly everything's going to get bigger. But there's a really great lower barrier entry starting point there in the market. But if you start with a spaceplane that starts as being low performance but highly reusable, you can go even lower barrier to entry again. And then you start with the technologies you demonstrate are not to full scale vehicle, you go even lower again. So, you know, the vehicle that we have now is probably 10,000, maybe 100,000 times lower cost to develop than, you know, a really big proper spaceplane type thing. Of course, you know, really, it looks like a small thing, that is a small-scale thing. But to date, you know, we've spent less than about $6 million on this whole development program. We've done over 50 flights now, first on jets, now under rocket power. We're learning incredibly quickly and doing real things. And in the end, this vehicle is going to fly the exact same profiles as, what, say like a first stage of a full-scale rocket does. So, you know, what we have is a rapidly reusable learning tool that's the fastest, cheapest way to teach us to do something that humanity has never ever done before, which is go to space twice in a day.

>> Maria Varmazis: Did you bake that plan in to have that sort of iterative learning process from the start, or was that something just sort of evolved naturally as you were building?

>> Stefan Powell: Oh, no, 100% from the start. You know, like everyone else is kind of starting with something that has the performance to get something to space and is commercially viable, like an expendable rocket, without wanting reusability. And that's certainly one way to do it. You know, SpaceX is having a lot of success in that. And the great thing about it is that you have a viable product at that point. But it's also an incredibly expensive thing. You know, it costs $60 million to fly every time. And while it was blowing up, that was a really expensive game to play. You know, I'm not Elon Musk, so I don't have sort of the cash to throw around to that.

>> Maria Varmazis: I'm not either [laughing].

>> Stefan Powell: Unfortunately, right? But, you know, we we can start on the other end of the spectrum. We can start in the highly, highly reusable but not yet the performance that we want. And that means that it's incredibly reusable in development. But the end product will also -- you know, the first iteration, the first minimal viable version of that, will be highly reusable in the same way that you think of an aircraft as being highly reusable.

>> Maria Varmazis: And I'm wondering the mindset of the team that's working on this. How do you bake that in? Sort of this I suppose mentality of, you know, we're trying a lot of different things, we have the space to do that. It might be tough for some people to be like, I want to fail and find out what happens. Or maybe it's not. So how does that work on a person level?

>> Stefan Powell: You know, there's really like some competing philosophies here, right? Because it's very much like this fail fast, fail forward type mentality of we want to learn quickly, so we're not afraid to break a few things while in that process. But at the same time, it somewhat competes with -- it's an aircraft, not a rocket. Aircraft don't crash. You know, aircraft are literally 10,000 times more reliable than rockets. That's why we want to build aircraft. So we really don't want to crash it in the end. But it has become really productive intention actually. Like when you get out and you get testing, the first thing you do is establish that comfortable operating space. You know, that's kind of like your happy place in testing, and that lets you go through this whole DevOps cycle of, you know, building, testing, monitoring, planning, and then going back through it all again. And once you've hit that place, you can do that cycle, and now you can start injecting in little bits of risks here and there. You know, it might be on a subsystem level. It might be on an operational level. It might be conditions or whatever. But you can start pushing the envelope -- so that's why we call it envelope expansion, as a classic part of aircraft development. So that's exactly what we're doing now. You know, every time we go out and fly, we're pushing harder, we're pushing faster. So every flight that we do is kind of, you know, the most boring one we'll ever do. So every flight's getting more and more interesting as we go. It's super satisfying to actually, you know, see the vehicle come back every single time. You know, these flights in late March, we flew three times in three days. The first flight, we had some reasonably significant issues actually that we had to take the entire engine out of the plane. We had to take the tanks out of the plane. We had to find a small leak, fix it, put the whole aircraft back together again, and we were flying by 3 PM the next day. So, you know, it's just like, I mean, it's unheard of to do two flights in two days in the regular rocket world anyway, let alone taking the vehicle afterwards. So yeah, like the thinking, the technology, the whole mentality is just completely upside down.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah. It's remarkable to hear about. And I'm thinking, it also seems like it can scale pretty well, and especially as your company also does a lot of other things. It also works on propellant systems too. So I'm wondering, does it apply there as well? Does this mentality carry over there? Or is this maybe where you learned? Or maybe that was where it all sort of sandboxed a little bit?

>> Stefan Powell: Yeah, like it does carryover. But there's kind of always this tension, right? Like with our propulsion systems, you know, we deliver hardware to people that put it at the very center of their product. You know, literally this propulsion system goes in their satellite. And if it doesn't work, it completely stops the whole mission. So obviously, very low tolerance to risk. This is not the same situation. You really have to have extremely well-critiqued and controlled data and technology that gets into that system. But on the other end of the spectrum, you know, we're a technology company that moves very quickly. We're doing very unique things. We're breaking the mold of, you know, hydrazine. You know, this is like 70 years of tech that we're trying to -- and history that we're trying to break through there. There's a lot of inertia in the industry. So we have to be creative and fast-moving and push the limits there. So I'd say the difficultly there is in knowing in which situation do you use which techniques. And having mental models for how people think about this, how do they know which situation they're in, when can they apply what thinking, and then really go all in on that thinking.

>> Maria Varmazis: I'm wondering if you have any advice for maybe -- institutional level change is hard, but if somebody's trying implement this sort of model on a team level at the very least, any advice or something that they could do? Or how they could try to approach a problem similarly?

>> Stefan Powell: First disclaimer. You know, we haven't been doing this all that long, so you know, for sure, take my advice with a grain of salt. But the thing we've always found helpful is, you know, try to make failure your friend; try to get comfortable with it. You know, of course in the startup world, it's super common anyway that whole businesses fail. But, you know, zoom back a little bit and get comfortable with technology failing or ideas failing. You know, try to love every idea for five minutes and test it out, see if it works. If it doesn't, you move on. The more you can let failure be acceptable, the less risk-averse you will be and the more you can learn, the more and faster you can learn. So yeah, that becomes a really powerful thing.

>> Maria Varmazis: I'm really looking forward to seeing what's next. So many new iterations of your vehicle, and I can wait to see how they go. So what is next; what is the next step there?

>> Stefan Powell: Yeah. So with the Mk-II Aurora, this airframe we think will be able to get up to about 20, 20 or so kilometers altitude, just over 60,000 feet. Which is cool because that's out of controlled airspace. Actually that's, you know, according to our Civil Aviation Authority, that's no longer in the airspace, somewhere between their airspace and space. So that'll be an interesting one to figure out. But yeah, we'll be doing that later this year. And then we'll be flying the next iteration of this vehicle, which is essentially aerodynamically identical, it'll look the same. But the internals are much more highly optimized. So, you know, there's no provisions for flying with jets. The structures are much more optimized. The [inaudible] tanks. Way more propellant in there, and the performance to be able to fly to space twice in a day. So then we hope to be doing that in 2024.

>> Maria Varmazis: All the best, and thank you so much for speaking with me today; I really appreciate it.

>> Stefan Powell: Thanks for having me on the show.

[ Music ]

And we'll be right back. And welcome back. Now, you've heard of swarms of bees, no doubt. You may have heard of robotic worker bees in space. Yes, the astro bee. But have you heard of swarms of space vehicles? Researchers at NASA's Ames Research Center are developing satellite swarms -- groups of spacecraft working together as a unit, a collective one might say, without being managed individually by mission controllers. Which is how it differentiates from a satellite constellation, in case you were wondering. Being collectively managed will allow the satellite swarms to work autonomously even as they explore Deep Space. Huh. NASA says to think of a satellite swarm as "multitalented and self-coordinating. These spacecraft," says NASA, "know how to communicate with each other, monitor and maintain their relative spacing and maneuver to get where each needs to be." They'll be able to collect data as a group, deciding which member of the team is best placed to to take the optimal measurement and which should relay that data to Earth. The first satellite swarm, called Starling -- aww, that's nice -- is headed for launch this summer. And this satellite murmuration will consist of four six-inch CubeSats in low Earth orbit to test how well the technology works. And if all goes well, there will be future satellite swarms headed towards our Sun to study it. Wow, satellites making their own decisions and acting in a collective. Hmm, I just hope that as these swarms get bigger, that these CubeSats don't arrange themselves into a cube shape and start talking about assimilation. Ease, yes. Bored, no.

[ Music ]

And that's it for T-Minus for Thursday, June 15, 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 Tre 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.

[ Music ]

Similar posts

Stay in the loop on new releases. 

Subscribe below to receive information about new blog posts, podcasts, newsletters, and product information.