TIME Companies

Elon Musk’s SpaceX Plans to Launch Internet Satellites

Tesla Motors Inc. Makes Announcement About First Battery Gigafactory In Nevada
Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc., attends a news conference at the Nevada State Capitol building in Carson City, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

More details to come in "two to three months"

Elon Musk’s space travel startup SpaceX is developing a series of advanced micro-satellites to deliver low-cost Internet access to the masses. The billionaire entrepreneur revealed the plans Monday on his Twitter account, noting that the official announcement is still two to three months away.

SpaceX’s business primarily involves shuttling cargo and soon astronauts to the International Space Station. The Wall Street Journal reported the new venture will include the launch of 700 satellites weighing under 250 pounds each, but Musk disputed the details of the Journal article, saying on Twitter that it was “wrong on several important points.”

TIME space

NASA’s Antares Explosion: What it Means

An unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket explodes shortly after takeoff at Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. on Oct. 28, 2014.
An unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket explodes shortly after takeoff at Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. on Oct. 28, 2014. Jay Diem—AP

The rocket's fortunately fatality-free failure to launch spells trouble for one of NASA's major contractors

The good news—the very, very good news—is that no one was aboard Orbital Sciences’ Antares booster when it exploded just six seconds after leaving the launch pad on Wallops Island, Va. at 6:30 PM EDT on Oct. 28. It was the fifth launch of the Antares and the fourth that was headed for the International Space Station (ISS) on a resupply mission. The booster made it barely 200 feet off the ground.

The bad news—the very, very bad news—is what this means for Orbital as a continued player in the competition to supply the ISS. It was in 2008 that Orbital (which has a long history in the space biz) and Elon Musk’s SpaceX (which had none at all) won a $3.5 billion NASA contract, with Orbital taking $1.9 billion of that for eight flights. Halfway through the contract, the company was looking to re-up, and this will not reflect well on them at the bargaining table.

Orbital was never a serious part of the even more furious competition to take over the manned portion of NASA’s low Earth orbit portfolio. The winners of that battle, named Sept. 16, were SpaceX again, and Boeing—a venerable part of the NASA family and prime contractor of the ISS. Tonight’s explosion would be a lot more worrisome if one of those two—already gearing up to carry people—had been responsible. But for Orbital, it will be bad enough.

Worse for the company is CEO David Thompson’s admission on Oct. 29 that part of the problem could be the AJ-26 engines used in the deceased booster’s first stage. Originally designed by the Soviet Union (that’s not a typo—we’re talking about Russia long before the fall of communism) the engines were later updated and retrofitted for the Antares booster.

It is too early to say if the AJ-26′s were indeed responsible for the explosion, but old hardware is old hardware and in an era in which the likes of Musk are starting with a blank page when they design their engines, taking outdated stuff off the shelf is not the way to inspire confidence. In 2012, a catty Musk made that point, telling Wired magazine:

One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s—I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.

Musk being Musk, that’s more than a little hyperbolic, but the snark still stung Orbital. It is an especially bad time for any aerospace company to have to be defending the use of Russian-made engines, ever since spring when U.S. sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Crimea led Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin to mock America’s dependence on Russia’s Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry,” Rogozin said, “I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

More worrisome was Rogozin’s threat to limit sales to the U.S. the RD-180 engines that are used in America’s workhorse Atlas V rocket. That bit of bluster soured politicians on continuing to do space business with Russia at all and kick-started efforts to develop a domestic alternative to the RD-180. Now comes Orbital with an older, far worse Russian engine that just may have caused an entire rocket and its cargo to go up in flames.

A reputation-saving case the company could plausibly make—though it would be suicide to try—is the “stuff blows up” argument. Space travel is notoriously hard and rockets are notoriously ill-tempered. They are, after all, little more than massive canisters of exploding gasses and liquids, with the weight of the fuel often much greater than the weight of the rocket itself. This is not remotely the first time launch controllers have witnessed such a fiery spectacle on the pad and it won’t be the last. Realistically, there will never be a last.

But Orbital is supposed to be a senior member of the space community, not one of the freshmen like SpaceX or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. No exploding rocket is good—especially when contracts are ending and NASA is again looking for free agents. It’s much worse for an outfit that’s been in the game for a while. Final determination of how bad the damage is will await the investigation into the cause of the explosion. But one thing’s certain: you wouldn’t want to be on the company’s Vienna, Va. campus tonight—on what is surely going to be the first of a lot of very long nights to come.

TIME Automakers

Tesla Motors’ New ‘D’ Cars Are All-Wheel Drive, Not Self-Drive

US-AUTO-IT-TECHNOLOGY-ENEGY-TESLA
Tesla founder and chief executive Elon Musk unveils a new dual-engine chassis at the Hawthorne Airport in Los Angeles on Oct. 9, 2014 Mark Ralston—AFP/Getty Images

The “D” in Tesla’s big reveal stands not for “self-driving," but for “dual motor”

Tesla Motors on Thursday night disappointed some auto-market watchers’ expectations that it would put out a self-driving car — but the electric car juggernaut did announce the release of a higher tech version of its Model S car, with all-wheel drive and rapid acceleration rivaling that of luxury vehicles, USA Today reports.

The tripped-out new Model S will have all-wheel drive, plus acceleration of 0-60 mph in just 3.2 seconds, says the newspaper. It can also reach a top speed of 155 mph, up from the Model S’s peak velocity of 130 mph.

“This car is nuts. It’s like taking off from a carrier deck,” Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, told press assembled at Los Angeles’ Hawthorne airport, where his commercial space travel company SpaceX is also based.

The “D” cars will also come with a package of new safety features, including the ability to read speed-limit signs and shift speeds, USA Today says.

Tesla will release three versions of the upgraded car under the “D” designation. The all-wheel drive version without the acceleration boost will be a $4,000 add-on to the basic and mid-level models of the Model S, which starts at $71,000, says the Associated Press. The base price for the all-wheel drive car with boosted acceleration, dubbed the P85D, is $120,000.

The P85D will go on sale in December, while the other versions will go on sale in February, the Associated Press reports.

Musk had fueled speculation about the announcement in Los Angeles with a tweet that the company would roll out something he referred to just as “the D,” plus “something else.” He also tweeted a photo that appeared to be of Tesla’s Model S car.

Some Tesla fans had speculated that the unveiling might be of a ramped-up version of the Model S — but observers had debated if the “D” referred to an automated driving feature, or all-wheel drive.

TIME space travel

Boeing and SpaceX Win Major NASA Space Taxi Contract

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Unveils The Dragon V2 Space Taxi
Seats rest inside the Manned Dragon V2 Space Taxi in Hawthorne, California, U.S., on Thursday, May 29, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

NASA will rely on them to send astronauts to the International Space Station

Updated at 5:26 p.m.

NASA awarded Tuesday aeronautical firms Boeing and SpaceX with contracts totaling $6.8 billion to launch astronauts into low Earth orbit under its Commercial Crew Program.

Proposals by Boeing and NASA were selected by NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), with the goal of certifying crew transportation capability by 2017, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a news conference.

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 billion contract, while SpaceX was awarded a $2.6 billion contract, said Kathryn Lueders, Program Manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“These contracts highlight what commercial companies can accomplish and we are counting on them to deliver our most precious cargo: the crew who will perform vital science research on the ISS,” Lueders said. “Two contracts give us the necessary mechanisms to assure we’re on the right track.”

The contracts are subject to the completion of safety certifications and development efforts for Boeing’s CST-100 capsule and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, according to Lueders. Specifically, both Boeing and SpaceX will conduct five certification milestones: a baseline review, a design review, a flight test readiness review, an operational readiness review, and certification review.

Once NASA approves that Boeing’s and SpaceX’s systems meet its requirements, the systems will be certified for two to six human missions to deliver cargo and a crew of up to four to the ISS. The missions will enable NASA to nearly double today’s scientific research potential, Lueders said. The capsules will also serve as a “life boat,” capable of holding crew members safe up to 210 days in the event of an emergency.

Bolden emphasized that the contracts are intended to end by 2017 America’s sole reliance on Russia, whose government charges the U.S. $71 million a seat for rides to the ISS. NASA had previously been able to transport crew to the ISS with its Space Shuttle, but retired the vehicle in 2011. Its replacement craft, the Orion, isn’t set for manned missions until after 2020.

A third contender in the space race, Sierra Nevada, did not secure a piece of the deal with its winged spacecraft, the Dream Chaser. Boeing, with its decades of experience supplying parts and expertise to NASA, was widely considered a favorite among the three companies vying for the NASA contract. SpaceX founder and billionaire Elon Musk had previously criticized Boeing for being too close to NASA.

TIME technology

SpaceX Delays Launch Days After Test Mishap

SpaceX
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket sits on a lauch pad on Oct. 7, 2012 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX is delaying this week's Falcon 9 rocket launch by a day following an explosion of a test flight of its experimental Falcon 9R rocket. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

The company says it will review flight record details before the next test flight

SpaceX delayed the launch of a commercial communications satellite on Tuesday, days after an experimental rocket failed mid-flight.

The private space firm founded by Elon Musk was set to launch the AsiaSat 6 satellite on its Falcon 9 rocket early Tuesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, but the launch was delayed 24 hours, the Los Angeles Times reports.

On Friday, a test flight of the Falcon 9R, an experimental reusable rocket, experienced an anomaly, SpaceX said in a statement. As a result, the flight was terminated–the rocket blew itself up.

No one was injured in the incident, and the company said that the experimental flight was “particularly complex.”

But SpaceX said at the time that it would review flight record details before the next test flight, and the LA Times reports that the space exploration company is taking extra time to review the case ahead of the AsiaSat 6 satellite launch.

[LA Times]

TIME space

SpaceX Is Building a New Launch Site In Texas

The next launch site for billionaire Elon Musk's space company will be built in one of the poorest cities in America

Texas Governor Rick Perry announced Monday that private space company SpaceX will build the first-ever exclusively commercial launch site near Brownsville, Texas. SpaceX, owned and operated by PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, received a $2.3 million investment from the state to build its site in Texas.

Brownsville has a median income of $30,000, and nearly 40% of Brownsville’s population lives below the poverty line — the highest percentage in the country. Perry said in his announcement that the SpaceX site will bring 300 new jobs and inject $85 million into the local economy.

TIME space

Window on Infinity: Pictures from Space

From Martian vistas to NASA's #GlobalSelfie, here are the month's best photographs from space

TIME SpaceX

SpaceX Unveils Next Generation Spacecraft

Elon Musk's bid to build NASA's new space taxi

Billionaire Elon Musk revealed Thursday a new state-of-the-art spacecraft that will carry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

“SpaceX’s new Dragon V2 spacecraft is a next generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into space,” said SpaceX in an official statement.

NASA has been relying on Russian spacecraft to get American astronauts to and from the space station since the agency retired its shuttle fleet in 2011. Russian flights, however, come at a hefty price: more than $70 million per seat. SpaceX hopes that its latest project, Dragon V2, will be the first commercial crew capsule to carry U.S. and partner astronauts to and from the space station, limiting American reliance on Russia.

TIME space

Watch Elon Musk Unveil SpaceX’s Dragon V2 on This Livestream Tonight

The state-of-the-art Dragon spacecraft will carry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space system

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will unveil a brand new Dragon spacecraft, which will be responsible for ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station, on this livestream at 10 p.m. ET Thursday, May 29.

“SpaceX’s new Dragon V2 spacecraft is a next generation spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into space,” said SpaceX in an official statement.

NASA retired its fleet of shuttles in 2011. It has since been using Russian spacecraft to reach the ISS, paying Russia $71 million per person per trip. This puts NASA in a precarious situation as Russia could cease service at will — the country’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Roxine, tweeted such a threat from his Twitter account in April, stating “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

Musk replied:

SpaceX’s current Dragon design has been used to shuttle cargo to the International Space Station three times.

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