Space

Deploy the space harpoon

Posted by | airbus, Gadgets, hardware, harpoons, moby dick, robotics, science, Space, space debris, space junk | No Comments

Watch out, starwhales. There’s a new weapon for the interstellar dwellers whom you threaten with your planet-crushing gigaflippers, undergoing testing as we speak. This small-scale version may only be good for removing dangerous orbital debris, but in time it will pierce your hypercarbon hides and irredeemable sun-hearts.

Literally a space harpoon. (Credit: Airbus)

However, it would be irresponsible of me to speculate beyond what is possible today with the technology, so let a summary of the harpoon’s present capabilities suffice.

The space harpoon is part of the RemoveDEBRIS project, a multi-organization European effort to create and test methods of reducing space debris. There are thousands of little pieces of who knows what clogging up our orbital neighborhood, ranging in size from microscopic to potentially catastrophic.

There are as many ways to take down these rogue items as there are sizes and shapes of space junk; perhaps it’s enough to use a laser to edge a small piece down toward orbital decay, but larger items require more hands-on solutions. And seemingly all nautical in origin: RemoveDEBRIS has a net, a sail and a harpoon. No cannon?

You can see how the three items are meant to operate here:

The harpoon is meant for larger targets, for example full-size satellites that have malfunctioned and are drifting from their orbit. A simple mass driver could knock them toward the Earth, but capturing them and controlling descent is a more controlled technique.

While an ordinary harpoon would simply be hurled by the likes of Queequeg or Dagoo, in space it’s a bit different. Sadly it’s impractical to suit up a harpooner for EVA missions. So the whole thing has to be automated. Fortunately the organization is also testing computer vision systems that can identify and track targets. From there it’s just a matter of firing the harpoon at it and reeling it in, which is what the satellite demonstrated today.

This Airbus-designed little item is much like a toggling harpoon, which has a piece that flips out once it pierces the target. Obviously it’s a single-use device, but it’s not particularly large and several could be deployed on different interception orbits at once. Once reeled in, a drag sail (seen in the video above) could be deployed to hasten reentry. The whole thing could be done with little or no propellant, which greatly simplifies operation.

Obviously it’s not yet a threat to the starwhales. But we’ll get there. We’ll get those monsters good one day.

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The Opportunity Mars rover’s greatest shots and discoveries

Posted by | Gadgets, Government, hardware, mars rovers, NASA, robotics, science, Space | No Comments

Opportunity’s mission is complete, and the rover that was supposed to last 90 days closes the book on 15 years of exploration. It’s sad, but it’s also a great time to look back on the mission and see some of its greatest hits. Here are 25 images showing where it came from, where it went, and what it discovered on its marathon-length journey.

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Watch Blue Origin’s 10th New Shepard mission launch a science-loaded capsule to space

Posted by | Blue Origin, Gadgets, NASA, new shepard, rocket launch, science, Space, TC | No Comments

Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, is about to undertake the 10th launch of its New Shepard launch vehicle, with its capsule chock full of experiments. The launch, which was originally scheduled for a month ago but delayed for various reasons, will take place tomorrow at 6:50 AM Pacific time.

New Shepard is a sub-orbital space-visiting platform, not a satellite-launching one. But it uses a very traditional method of getting to the edge of space compared with Virgin Galactic’s rather involved mothership-spaceship combo, which scraped the very edge of space in its fourth test launch last month.

The rocket shoots straight up, as rockets do, reaches escape velocity, then pops its capsule off the top just before the Karman line that officially, if somewhat arbitrarily, delineates space from Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule, after exhausting its upward momentum, gently floats back to the surface under a parachute.

That’s the plan for Wednesday’s launch, which you can watch live here starting half an hour or so before T-0. But instead of taking a dummy load or “Mannequin Skywalker,” as the company calls its human stand-in during tests of the crew capsule, mission 10 has a whole collection of experiments on board.

There are nine experiments total, all flying through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. They’re detailed here. Most have already been up in other vehicles or even a Blue Origin one, but obviously repetition and iteration is important to their development.

“The opportunity to re-fly our payload is helping us not only validate and compare data for different flight profiles, but also test modifications and upgrades,” said NASA’s Kathryn Hurlbert, who heads up the Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2 project at Johnson Space Center.

More Flight Opportunities spots will be available on future NASA-sponsored launches, so if your lab has an experiment it would like to test on a sub-orbital rocket, get at the administrators as soon as the shutdown ends.

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To rebuild satellite communications, Ubiquitilink starts at ground level

Posted by | funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, hardware, nanoracks, Satellites, Space, Startups, TC, ubiquitilink | No Comments

Communications satellites are multiplying year by year as more companies vie to create an orbital network that brings high-speed internet to the globe. Ubiquitilink, a new company headed by Nanoracks co-founder Charles Miller, is taking a different tack: reinventing the Earthbound side of the technology stack.

Miller’s intuition, backed by approval and funding from a number of investors and communications giants, is that people are competing to solve the wrong problem in the comsat world. Driving down the cost of satellites isn’t going to create the revolution they hope. Instead, he thinks the way forward lies in completely rebuilding the “user terminal,” usually a ground station or large antenna.

“If you’re focused on bridging the digital divide, say you have to build a thousand satellites and a hundred million user terminals,” he said, “which should you optimize for cost?”

Of course, dropping the price of satellites has plenty of benefits on its own, but he does have a point. What happens when a satellite network is in place to cover most of the planet but the only devices that can access it cost thousands of dollars or have to be in proximity to some subsidized high-tech hub?

There are billions of phones on the planet, he points out, yet only 10 percent of the world has anything like a mobile connection. Serving the hundreds of millions who at any given moment have no signal, he suggests, is a no-brainer. And you’re not going to do it by adding more towers; if that was a valid business proposition, telecoms would have done it years ago.

Instead, Miller’s plan is to outfit phones with a new hardware-software stack that will offer a baseline level of communication whenever a phone would otherwise lapse into “no service.” And he claims it’ll be possible for less than $5 per person.

He was coy about the exact nature of this tech, but I didn’t get the sense that it’s vaporware or anything like that. Miller and his team are seasoned space and telecoms people, and of course you don’t generally launch a satellite to test vaporware.

But Ubiquitilink does have a bird in the air, with testing of their tech set to start next month and two more launches planned. The stack has already been proven on the ground, Miller said, and has garnered serious interest.

“We’ve been in stealth for several years and have signed up 22 partners — 20 are multi-billion-dollar companies,” he said, adding that the latter are mainly communications companies, though he declined to name them. The company has also gotten regulatory clearance to test in five countries, including the U.S.

Miller self-funded the company at the outset, but soon raised a pre-seed round led by Blazar Ventures (and indirectly, telecoms infrastructure standby Neustar). Unshackled Ventures led the seed round, along with RRE Ventures, Rise of the Rest, and One Way Ventures. All told, the company is working with a total $6.5 million, which it will use to finance its launches and tests; once they’ve taken place, it will be safer to dispel a bit of the mystery around the tech.

“Ubiquitilink represents one of the largest opportunities in telecommunications,” Unshackled founding partner Manan Mehta said, calling the company’s team “maniacally focused.”

I’m more than a little interested to find out more about this stealth attempt, three years in the making so far, to rebuild satellite communications from the ground up. Some skepticism is warranted, but the pedigree here is difficult to doubt; we’ll know more once orbital testing commences in the next few months.

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‘Star Wars’ returns: Trump calls for space-based missile defense

Posted by | Defense Department, department of defense, Gadgets, Government, military, pentagon, science, Space, trump | No Comments

The President has announced that the Defense Department will pursue a space-based missile defense system reminiscent of the one proposed by Reagan in 1983. As with Reagan’s ultimately abortive effort, the technology doesn’t actually exist yet and may not for years to come — but it certainly holds more promise now than 30 years ago.

In a speech at the Pentagon reported by the Associated Press, Trump explained that a new missile defense system would “detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, any time, any place.”

“My upcoming budget will invest in a space-based missile defense layer. It’s new technology. It’s ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense, and obviously our offense,” he said. The nature of this “new technology” is not entirely clear, as none was named or ordered to be tested or deployed.

Lest anyone think that this is merely one of the President’s flights of fancy, he is in fact simply voicing the conclusions of the Defense Department’s 2019 Missile Defense Review, a major report that examines the state of the missile threat against the U.S. and what countermeasures might be taken.

It reads in part:

As rogue state missile arsenals develop, space will play a particularly important role in support of missile defense.

Russia and China are developing advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic missile capabilities that can travel at exceptional speeds with unpredictable flight paths that challenge existing defensive systems.

The exploitation of space provides a missile defense posture that is more effective, resilient and adaptable to known and unanticipated threats… DoD will undertake a new and near-term examination of the concepts and technology for space-based defenses to assess the technological and operational potential of space-basing in the evolving security environment.

The President’s contribution seems to largely have been to eliminate the mention of the nation-states directly referenced (and independently assessed at length) in the report, and to suggest the technology is ready to deploy. In fact all the Pentagon is ready to do is begin research into the feasibility of the such a system or systems.

No doubt space-based sensors are well on their way; we already have near-constant imaging of the globe (companies like Planet have made it their mission), and the number and capabilities of such satellites are only increasing.

Space-based tech has evolved considerably over the many years since the much-derided “Star Wars” proposals, but some of them are still as unrealistic as they were then. However as the Pentagon report points out, the only way to know for sure is to conduct a serious study of the possibilities, and that’s what this plan calls for. All the same it may be best for Trump not to repeat Reagan’s mistake of making promises he can’t keep.

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Swarms of tiny satellites could act like one giant space telescope

Posted by | Gadgets, hardware, science, Space | No Comments

It won’t be long before the James Webb Space Telescope is launched, an enormous and complex feat of engineering — but all one piece. That’s a good thing for now, but new research suggests that in the near future giant telescopes like the Webb might be replaced (or at least augmented) by swarms of tiny spacecraft working in concert.

One advance, from Ben-Gurion University in Israel, is a leap in the capabilities of what are called synthetic aperture systems. It’s a technique where a single small camera moves across a space, capturing images as it goes, and by very careful analysis of the data it collects, it can produce imagery like that created by a much larger camera — essentially synthesizing a bigger aperture.

As documented in a paper published today in Optica, the team leapfrogs existing methods in an interesting way. Two satellites move in synchrony around the edge of a circle, collecting data as they go and beaming it to a third stationary one; this circle describes the synthetic aperture the two cameras are creating.

“We found that you only need a small part of a telescope lens to obtain quality images,” explained BGU grad student Angika Bulbul, who led the research, in a news release. “Even by using the perimeter aperture of a lens, as low as 0.43 percent, we managed to obtain similar image resolution compared to the full aperture area of mirror/lens-based imaging systems.”

In other words, they were basically able to get the results of a camera 50 times the size. That would be impressive anywhere, but up in space it’s especially important. Putting something as huge and complex as the Webb into orbit is an incredibly complicated and drawn out endeavor. And it’s putting a lot of eggs in one (very carefully checked and rechecked) basket.

But if you could instead use a handful of satellites working together, and just replace one if it fails, that really opens up the field. “We can slash the huge cost, time and material needed for gigantic traditional optical space telescopes with large curved mirrors,” Bulbul said.

One of the challenges of space telescopes, however, is that they need to take measurements with extreme precision. And keeping a satellite perfectly still is hard enough, to say nothing of having it move perfectly to within fractions of a millimeter.

To keep on track, right now many satellites use reliable fixed sources of light, like bright stars, as reference points when calculating various things relating to their operations. Some astronomers have even used lasers to excite a point high in the atmosphere to provide a sort of artificial star for these systems to use.

These methods both have their strengths and weaknesses, but MIT researchers think they’ve found a more permanent, high-precision solution: a “guide star” satellite that would sit thousands of miles out and train a strong laser on the Earth and its orbital region.

This light source would be reliable, steady and highly visible; satellites could use it to calculate their position and the minute changes to their imaging apparatus caused by heat and radiation, perhaps to a degree not possible with actual stars or atmospheric dots.

Both these intriguing technologies are still very much in the lab, but theory is where all big advances start, and it could be that in a few years, swarms of satellites will be sent into space not to provide terrestrial communications, but to create a massive synthetic telescope looking out on the universe.

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The New Horizons probe buzzes the most distant object ever encountered first thing tomorrow

Posted by | alan stern, Gadgets, Government, hardware, NASA, new horizons, science, Space, TC, ultima thule | No Comments

Four billion miles from Earth, the New Horizons probe that recently sent such lovely pictures of Pluto is drawing near to the most distant object mankind has ever come close to: Ultima Thule, a mysterious rock deep in the Kuiper belt. The historic rendezvous takes place early tomorrow morning.

This is an encounter nearly 30 years in the making, if you count back to the mission’s beginnings in 1989, but it’s also been some 13 years since launch — the timing and nature of which was calculated to give the probe this opportunity after it had completed its primary mission.

New Horizons arrived at Pluto in the summer of 2015, and in its fleeting passage took thousands of photos and readings that scientists are still poring over. It taught us many things about the distant dwarf planet, but by the time it took its extraordinary parting shots of Pluto’s atmosphere, the team was already thinking about its next destination.

Given the craft’s extreme speed and the incredibly distant setting for its first mission, the options for what to investigate were limited — if you can call the billions of objects floating in the Kuiper Belt “limited.”

In fact the next destination had been chosen during a search undertaken in concert with the Hubble Space Telescope team back in 2014. Ground-based reconnaissance wasn’t exact enough, and the New Horizons had to convince Hubble’s operators basically to dedicate to their cause two weeks of the satellite’s time on short notice. After an initial rejection and “some high-stakes backroom maneuvering,” as Principal Investigator Alan Stern describes it in his book about the mission, the team made it happen, and Hubble data identified several potential targets.

Ultima Thule as first detected by New Horizons’ LORRI imager.

2014 MU69 is a rock of unknown (but probably weird) shape about 20 miles across, floating in the belt about a billion miles from Pluto. But soon it would be known by another name.

“Ultima Thule,” Stern told me in an interview onstage at Disrupt SF in September. “This is an ancient building block of planets like Pluto, formed 4 billion years ago; it’s been out there in this deep freeze, almost in absolute zero the whole time. It’s a time capsule.”

At the time, he and the team had just gotten visual confirmation of the target, though nothing more than a twinkle in the distance. He was leaving immediately after our talk to go run flyby simulations with the team.

“I’m super excited,” he told me. “That will be the most distant exploration of any world in the history of not just spaceflight, but in the history of human exploration. I don’t think anybody will top that for a long time.”

The Voyagers are the farthest human-made objects, sure, but they’ve been flying through empty space for decades. New Horizons is out here meeting strange objects in an asteroid belt. Good luck putting together another mission like that in less than a few decades.

In the time I’ve taken to write this post, New Horizons has gone from almost exactly 600,000 kilometers away from Ultima Thule to less than 538,000 (and by this you shall know my velocity) — so it’ll be there quite soon. Just about 10 hours out, making it very early morning Eastern time on New Year’s Day.

Even then, however, that’s just when New Horizons will actually encounter the object — we won’t know until the signal it sends at the speed of light arrives here on Earth 12 hours later. Pluto is far!

The first data back will confirm the telemetry and basic success of the flyby. It will also begin sending images back as soon as possible, and while it’s possible that we’ll have fabulous pictures of the object by the afternoon, it depends a great deal on how things go during the encounter. At the latest we’ll see some by the next day; media briefings are planned for January 2 and 3 for this purpose.

Once those images start flowing in, though, they may be even better in a way than those we got of Pluto. If all goes well, they’ll be capturing photos at a resolution of 35 meters per pixel, more than twice as good as the 70-80 m/px we got of Pluto. Note that these will only come later, after some basic shots confirming the flyby went as planned and allowing the team to better sort through the raw data coming in.

The New Horizons team reports the spacecraft is healthy and on track for the historic flyby of #UltimaThule just after midnight tonight! Watch flyby events live on NASATV and @JHUAPL starting at 2pm (ET): https://t.co/eMJrTOiPxQ | https://t.co/Zan07qh3OJ https://t.co/B3FxqIe6XN

NASA New Horizons (@NASANewHorizons) December 31, 2018

“You should know that that these stretch-goal observations are risky,” wrote Stern in a post on the mission’s page, “requiring us to know exactly where both Ultima and New Horizons are as they pass one another at over 32,000 mph in the darkness of the Kuiper Belt… But with risk comes reward, and we would rather try than not try to get these, and that is what we will do.”

NASA public relations and other staff are still affected by the federal shutdown, but the New Horizons team will be covering the signal acquisition and first data live anyway; follow the mission on Twitter or check in to the NASA Live stream tomorrow morning at 7 AM Pacific time for the whole program. The schedule and lots of links can be found here.

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SpaceX’s Starship goes sci-fi shiny with stainless steel skin

Posted by | BFR, Elon Musk, Gadgets, science, Space, SpaceX, Starship, TC | No Comments

SpaceX’s futuristic Starship interplanetary craft may embody the golden age of sci-fi in more ways than one: in addition to (theoretically) taking passengers from planet to planet, it may sport a shiny stainless steel skin that makes it look like the pulp covers of old.

Founder and CEO Elon Musk teased the possibility in a picture posted to Twitter, captioned simply “Stainless Steel Starship.” To be clear, this isn’t a full-on spacecraft, just part of a test vehicle that the company plans to use during the short “hopper” flights in 2019 to evaluate various systems.

As with most Musk tweets, this kicked off a storm of speculation and argument in the Twitterverse.

The choice surprised many because for years, modern spaceflight has been dependent on advanced composite materials like carbon fiber, which combine desirable physical properties with low weight. When metal has been required, aluminum or titanium are much more common. While some launch components, like the upper stage of the Atlas 5 rocket, have liberally used steel, it’s definitely not an obvious choice for a craft like the Starship, which will have to deal with both deep space and repeated reentry.

As Musk pointed out in subsequent comments, however, stainless steel has some advantages versus other materials when at extremely hot or cold temperatures.

Usable strength/weight of full hard stainless at cryo is slightly better than carbon fiber, room temp is worse, high temp is vastly better

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 24, 2018

This is a special full-hardness steel alloy mentioned as being among the 300 series of high-strength, heat-resistant alloys — not the plentiful, pliable stuff we all have in our kitchens and buildings. Musk also mentioned another “superalloy” called SX500 that SpaceX’s metallurgists have developed for use in the Raptor engines that will power the vehicle.

So why stainless? It’s likely all about reentry.

Many craft and reusable stages that have to face the heat of entering the atmosphere at high speed use “ablative” heat shielding that disintegrates or breaks away in a controlled fashion, carrying heat away from the vehicle.

It’s unlikely this is a possibility for Starship, however, as replacing and repairing this material would necessitate downtime and crews wherever and whenever it lands, and the craft is meant to be (eventually) a quick-turnaround ship with maximum reusability. Heat shielding that reflects and survives is a better bet for that — but an enormous engineering problem.

Scott Manley put together a nice video illustrating some of these ideas and speculations in detail:

Musk said before of the Starship (then still called BFR) that “almost the entire time it is reentering, it’s just trying to brake, while distributing that force over the most area possible.” Reentry will probably look more like a Space Shuttle-esque glide than a Falcon 9 first stage’s ballistic descent and engine braking.

The switch to stainless steel has the pleasant side effect of making the craft look really cool — more in line with sci-fi books and comics than their readers perhaps ever thought to hope. Paint jobs would burn right off, Musk said:

Skin will get too hot for paint. Stainless mirror finish. Maximum relfectivity.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 24, 2018

You can’t expect it to stay shiny for long, though; it may be stainless, but like a pan you left on the stove, stainless steel can still scorch and the bottom of the Starship will likely look pretty rough after a while. It’s all right — spacecraft developing a patina is a charming evolution.

Details are still few, and for all we know SpaceX could redesign the craft again based on how tests go. Next year will see the earliest hopper flights for Starship hardware and possibly the Super Heavy lower stage that will lift its great shiny bulk out of the lower atmosphere.

The technical documentation promised by Musk should arrive in March or April, but whether it will pertain solely to the test vehicle or give a glimpse at the craft SpaceX intends to send around the moon is anyone’s guess. At any rate you should expect more information to be spontaneously revealed before then at Musk’s discretion — or lack thereof.

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FCC fines Swarm Technologies $900K over unauthorized satellite launch

Posted by | FCC, Gadgets, Government, hardware, Satellites, Space, swarm technologies | No Comments

Back in March came the surprising news that a satellite communications company still more or less in stealth mode had launched several tiny craft into orbit — against the explicit instructions of the FCC. The company, Swarm Technologies, now faces a $900,000 penalty from the agency, as well as extra oversight of its continuing operations.

Swarm’s SpaceBEEs are the beginning of a planned constellation of small satellites with which the company intends to provide low-cost global connectivity.

Unfortunately, the units are so small — about a quarter the size of a standard cubesat, which is already quite tiny — that the FCC felt they would be too difficult to track, and did not approve the launch.

SpaceBEEs are small, as you can see. Credit: Swarm Technologies

Swarm, perhaps thinking it better to ask forgiveness than file the paperwork for permission, launched anyway in January aboard India’s PSLV-C40, which carried more than a dozen other passengers to space as well. (I asked Swarm and the launch provider, Spaceflight, at the time for comment but never heard back.)

The FCC obviously didn’t like this, and began an investigation shortly afterwards. According to an FCC press release:

The investigation found that Swarm had launched the four BEEs using an unaffiliated launch company in India and had unlawfully transmitted signals between earth stations in Georgia and the satellites for over a week. In addition, during the course of its investigation, the FCC discovered that Swarm had also performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests and other unauthorized equipment tests prior to the small satellites launch. All these activities require FCC authorization and the company had not received such authorization before the activities occurred.

Not good! As penance, Swarm Technologies will have to pay the aforementioned $900,000, and now has to submit pre-launch reports to the FCC within five days of signing an agreement to launch, and at least 45 days before takeoff.

The company hasn’t been sitting on its hands this whole time. The unauthorized launch was a mistake to be sure, but it has continued its pursuit of a global constellation and launched three more SpaceBEEs into orbit just a few weeks ago aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Swarm has worked to put the concerns about tracking to bed; in fact, the company claims its devices are more trackable than ordinary cubesats, with a larger radar cross section and extra reflectivity thanks to a Van Atta array (ask them). SpaceBEE-1 is about to pass over Italy as I write this — you can check its location live here.

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Virgin Galactic touches the edge of space with Mach 2.9 test flight of SpaceShipTwo

Posted by | commercial space, Gadgets, hardware, Space, Transportation, Virgin Galactic | No Comments

The fourth test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo took its test pilots to the very edge of space this morning, reaching just over 52 miles of altitude and a maximum speed of Mach 2.9. It’s another exciting leapfrog of the aspiring space tourism company’s previous achievements.

Takeoff was at 7:30 AM against a lovely sunrise in the Mojave:

Lovely shot of takeoff! WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo take to the skies pic.twitter.com/JFcSDVB9jR

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 13, 2018

The actual spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, was strapped to the belly of WhiteKnightTwo (VSS Unity and VMS Eve specifically) as the latter gave it a ride up to about 45,000 feet.

At that point SpaceShipTwo ignited its rocket engine and started zooming upwards at increasing speed. The 60-second burn of the engine, 18 seconds longer than the third test flight’s, took the craft up to Mach 2.9 — quite a bit faster than before.

After that minute-long burn SpaceShipTwo deployed its “feathers,” helping slow and guide it to a controlled re-entry. It had at this point reached 271,268 feet, approximately 51.4 miles or 82.7 kilometers. Here’s the view from that lofty altitude:

SpaceShipTwo looking back on Spaceship Earth 🌎pic.twitter.com/ynr31mKzzf

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 13, 2018

Now, space “officially” begins by international consensus at 100 km, at what’s called the Karman line. But space-like conditions begin well before that, and a planned altitude of around 80 km was good enough for NASA to load a set of microgravity experiments onto the craft. They even told Virgin “welcome to suborbital space.”

(Update: Virgin Galactic tells me they are basing entry into space on the fact that NASA and the Air Force both award “astronaut wings” to pilots who fly above 50 miles. Notably this is also generally the altitude at which aircraft are more or less no longer governed by traditional aerodynamic principles, having left the atmosphere behind.)

Some have also suggested space should officially start at 80 km instead. So while it may be debated whether Virgin Galactic went to space (the company is saying so), it definitely got close enough to get a taste of it. The next flight seems likely to reach the Karman line, as well.

And the pilots, Mark “Forger” Stucky and CJ Sturckow, are definitely astronauts. No question about that.

Pilots heading to SpaceShipTwo this morning pic.twitter.com/vvvJPsknH8

— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) December 13, 2018

Virgin founder Richard Branson commemorated the event in a press release:

Today, for the first time in history, a crewed spaceship, built to carry private passengers, reached space. Today we completed our first revenue generating flight and our pilots earned their Commercial Astronaut Wings. This is a momentous day and I could not be more proud of our teams who together have opened a new chapter of space exploration.

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