Virgin, Qualcomm invest in SpaceX’s satellite partner

There are billions of people who do not have access to the internet, and tech’s biggest brands want to change that. Qualcomm and Virgin joined the fray today by announcing investments in WorldVu, now known as OneWeb, a satellite communications company that recently paired with SpaceX to build a fleet of 648 small satellites.

Neither company said how much they put into OneWeb, but both will contribute a member to its board. Virgin Galactic will deliver the satellites to orbit on its planned LauncherOne rocket, which is expected to be able to launch for a relatively inexpensive $10 million.

OneWeb plans to build each satellite for around $350,000, the Wall Street Journal reports. They will weigh 258 pounds and sit 750 miles above Earth.

Satellites can relay an internet connection to remote parts of the world that are difficult to reach with more traditional internet infrastructure. Companies like Google and Facebook are also pursuing satellite fleets, plus alternatives like balloons and drones.

En route to Mars, Elon Musk will build satellites in Seattle

Elon Musk and former Google executive Greg Wyler have a plan to build hundreds of small satellites, and as of today it looks like they will be built in Seattle.

The Seattle SpaceX engineering office will employ several hundred to a thousand people, according to Bloomberg. Musk and Wyler first announced their preliminary plans in November to build 700 satellites weighing less than 250 pounds, each costing less than $1 million to produce.

“We’re going to try and do for satellites what we’ve done for rockets,” Musk said at a press conference at SpaceX headquarters, Bloomberg reported.

At 250 pounds, the satellites would fall in size between traditional communications satellites weighing several tons and the tiny shoebox-sized alternatives favored by modern startups. A fleet of 700 satellites has never been done.

Wyler, who previously ran Google’s satellite division, is now the founder of WorldVu Satellites. He owns a portion of the radio spectrum, which the satellites could use to provide internet to previously inaccessible parts of the world.

The satellites would generate revenue that would go toward Musk’s dream to colonize Mars, plus teach his team the details of space communication. He said during a Reddit AMA last week that he plans to reveal further details about the SpaceX craft that would carry the first humans to the planet in the mid-2020s by the end of this year.

SpaceX reusable rocket test aborted

A Tuesday test of SpaceX’s reusable launch system was aborted at the last minute due to a problem with the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage. Multistage rockets shed stages as they climb, to lighten the load by detaching segments whose fuel has burned out, and to clear the way for different types of motors that are suited to various atmospheric conditions. The SpaceX system’s stages are being designed to find their way back down to Earth’s surface for reuse as soon as a few hours later, which could drastically reduce the cost of space travel. Tuesday’s would have been the first test for bringing down the first stage on a solid surface. It may now be conducted as soon as Friday.

We did it! We 3D printed in space

Stuck in space without a part you desperately need? That’s not such a big deal anymore, thanks to a 3D printer that arrived at the International Space Station last month.

3D printer startup Made In Space has completed its first run of 21 prints on the machine. While 20 of the parts were designed in advance (and didn’t necessarily have an actual purpose), one printed item was designed to meet a real need. Made In Space co-founder Mike Chen wrote in a blog post that when ISS commander Barry Wilmore said he needed a ratcheting socket wrench, the startup quickly designed one and sent it to him on the ISS. He then printed it.

ISS commander Barry Wilmore with a ratcheting socket wrench printed on the International Space Station.

ISS commander Barry Wilmore with a ratcheting socket wrench printed on the International Space Station.

“Because it’s a lot faster to send digital data (which can travel at the speed of light) to space than it is to send physical objects (which involves waiting months to years for a rocket), it makes more sense to 3D-print things in space, when we can, instead of launching them,” Chen wrote.

Chen referred to the process as “emailing.” The quotes are appropriate because it’s a fairly long process. Made In Space designs the part and then sends it to NASA using a combination of software. The NASA transmits it to the space station.

A selection of 3D printed items that were also printed on the International Space Station.

A selection of 3D printed items that were also printed on the International Space Station.

The first run of prints was meant to be a test. They will be returned to Earth, where they will undergo testing before Made In Space sends a second, improved printer to the ISS next year.

“When we do set up the first human colonies on the moon, Mars and beyond, we won’t use rockets to bring along everything we need,” Chen wrote. “We’ll build what we need there, when we need it.”

Martian methane spikes could hint at life (but probably not)

Methane, in small quantities, is a constant on Mars. The scientists behind the Curiosity rover have seen that for years now. But a paper published Tuesday details that NASA is seeing something else too: pockets of methane at concentrations 10 times higher than normal. That could indicate some form of life activity below the soil, or something more boring.

“This temporary increase in methane — sharply up and then back down — tells us there must be some relatively localized source,” Curiosity rover science team member Sushil Atreya said in a release. “There are many possible sources, biological or non-biological, such as interaction of water and rock.”

Science agencies are interested in methane because the vast majority of it on Earth originates from living organisms. The four methane spikes Curiosity found over two months could pinpoint spots where life is, or once was, emitting methane. Or, as Atreya said, it could be water and rock creating and then trapping pockets of gas.

At the very least, the methane finds bring Curiosity in line with what the spacecraft circling Mars have seen. And there is proof there is much more to be discovered on the red planet.

The team also determined that some of the organics — molecules of carbon and generally hydrogen — discovered by Curiosity really did come from Mars. Some traveled on the rover from Earth, casting doubt that the rest were Martian. Organics can also be a marker of life (or not).

Elon Musk confirms SpaceX is working on a giant fleet of satellites

SpaceX is getting into the satellite business. CEO Elon Musk confirmed via tweet that the rocket company is in the early stages of creating a large fleet of micro-satellites, and there will be an announcement about it in 2 to 3 months. A Wall Street Journal report last week outlined plans for 700 satellites weighing less than 250 pounds. It stated Musk is working with Greg Wyler, the former head of Google’s satellite division, who owns a portion of the radio spectrum. The satellites could be used to provide internet to remote parts of the planet.