Archives

Outer Space

Mars One goes bankrupt as reality catches up to the doomed space scam

A grand mission to Mars that was always light on details has come to a decidedly terrestrial end. Mars One, a controversial space exploration project that made it as far as the “highly produced videos” stage of space colonization, has quietly filed for bankruptcy, according to a liquidation listing spotted by a Redditor on r/space.

As the post explains, the private company that spearheaded the Mars One spectacle is actually made up of two parts, a not-for-profit called the Mars One Foundation and a for-profit company known as Mars One Ventures. In 2016, Swiss financial services company InFin Innovative Finance AG picked up Mars One Ventures in a takeover bid.

In a statement on the takeover, Mars One’s leadership explained how the plan was still on track, in spite of appearances.

“The takeover provides a solid path to funding the next steps of Mars One’s mission to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. Those steps include reducing the remaining 100 astronaut candidates to just 24, as well as continuing the mission design phase with Mars One’s technology suppliers.”

When contacted about the bankruptcy, Mars One co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp told Engadget that the Mars One Foundation continues to operate but is stalled unless it receives an infusion of funds as Lansdorp works “to find a solution.”

Mars One was ill-fated from its inception, more grounded in CGI videos and marketing hype for a Mars mission reality TV show than any kind of scientific reality. And they couldn’t even get the show off the ground.

There were plenty of red flags for anyone willing to look, but the nature of its outlandish proposal allowed Mars One to prey on the intrinsic optimism and curiosity of would-be space explorers. As one finalist candidate revealed in an excellent exposé series on the company titled “All Dressed Up for Mars and Nowhere to Go,” Mars One’s financial reality looked like a multilevel marketing scheme — not a scientific expedition.

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points. You get points for getting through each round of the selection process… and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

An MIT report in 2014 issued other telling warning’s about the project’s feasibility.

“… If all food is obtained from locally grown crops, as Mars One envisions, the vegetation would produce unsafe levels of oxygen, which would set off a series of events that would eventually cause human inhabitants to suffocate.”

Taken together, those two telling details tell you pretty much everything you need to know about a sadly small-minded company that sold the public a lucrative tale about its big red dreams.

As rocket companies proliferate, new enabling tech emerges as the next wave in the space race

Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, Slingshot Aeropsace, SpaceX and Virgin Orbit have raised billions of dollars to create new vehicles to launch payloads into space, but as the private space industry develops in the U.S. investors are beginning to back enabling technologies boost the next wave of innovation.

Whether it’s satellite manufacturers, new propulsion systems for satellites, antennae for data transmission or actually building out the networks themselves, the new space race will be building the next generation of services that the increasing access to space provides.

Last year, investors put at least $2.3 billion into companies angling for their own corner of outer space.

By 2040, Morgan Stanley estimates that the space economy to be worth more than $1 trillion in 2040 — as well as for SpaceX to double, or even quintuple, its valuation — “are significantly tied to the developments related to satellite broadband.”

For the moment, the next wave is still focused on terrestrial applications.

Already, landmark deals are being signed to provide new space-based internet networking services like the agreement between the startup company Astranis and Pacific Dataport to provide high-speed, lower-cost broadband services to Alaska.

With only around $14 million in financing, Astranis has managed to sign its first deal to provide high speed internet to Alaskans by 2020, while OneWeb (which has raised over $1.7 billion) expects its networks to come online by 2022. SpaceX will launch the first Starlink satellites this year, with service coming online in the following years.

Astranis’ decision to work directly with a single customer rather than deploying a massive network points to the fact that companies can start generating real revenues relatively quickly — without the need for global ambitions off the bat.

Indeed, some space investors note that there are significant questions that remain unanswered for both SpaceX and OneWeb .

In a blog post earlier this month, Josephine Millward, the head of research at London-based space investment firm Seraphim Capital wrote:

After years of development, OneWeb and SpaceX will begin to deploy their Low Earth Orbit (LEO) mega-constellations in 2019, albeit their full constellation targets will take several more years. Both are planning global coverage to provide internet broadband to the billions of unconnected. Crucially both still need to define their “go-to-market” strategy and solve the ground segment element of their proposition ahead of commercial roll-out.

Astranis’ satellite-based service is expected to triple the amount of capacity that’s available to Alaskans for internet services and, with a price tag worth tens of millions of dollars, represents the largest contract signed by an early stage startup in the space business to date.

But networking services aren’t the only space-based applications that will gain additional traction in 2019. Using satellite imagery for data analysis, already a big pitch from companies like Satellogic and Planet — and newer companies like Capella Space and Iceye — is an industry that will come into its own, according to Seraphim Capital’s Chief Executive Mark Boggett. Meanwhile, companies like Cloud Constellation are pitching satellite-based data storage as inherently safer than their earthbound cloud computing counterparts.

“These satellite networks are now in place and they’re gathering massive amounts of data,”  says Boggett. “What we’re going to start seeing is companies start using this data.”

Boggett says stay tuned for big fundraising rounds across the board, not only in the satellite networks themselves, but in the services that enable them to refine their data collection techniques and increase the efficiency and power of their transmission capabilities.

These would be what Boggett calls “downlinking” companies and companies that manage satellite mobility in space. Startups like Kymeta, Bridgesat, Ansur, RBC Signals and the Japanese startup Infostellar are all focused on downlinking — taking data from satellites and transmitting it to receivers on earth so the information can be used effectively, or optimizing data collection and transmissions in space.

It’s a market that’s attracted the attention of one of the largest tech companies in the world — Amazon . Viewing the data collection business as an extension of its cloud services, late last year Amazon partnered with Lockheed Martin to announce a base station as a service business called Amazon Base Station (no one accused them of being branding geniuses).

“Customers said that we have so much data in space with so many applications that want to use that data. Why don’t you make it easier,” said Amazon Web Services’ chief executive, Andy Jassy, at the time of the new service’s launch.

Propulsion technologies for satellites once they’re in space are another potential area for increased investment in 2019, according to investors.

Companies like Momentus, which raised $8.3 million in November; Tesseract, a European startup developing propulsion technologies; and Phase Four, the El Segundo, Calif.-based developer of a plasma-based propulsion system, are all bringing products to market.

Phase Four, which is in the middle of raising a new round right now, has actually inked its first supply deals with Capella Space and Tyvak, a division of the startup Terran Orbital, for its thrusters.

“It is an infrastructure arms race to get things efficiently built and deployed into space,” says M. Umair Siddiqui, the chief technology officer at Phase Four. “Now the next companies are racing to own who can manufacture the hardware that is going to generate the revenue in space.”

 

China wants to keep its spot as a leader in the space race with plans to launch 30 missions

Keeping its spot among the top countries competing in the space race, China is planning to launch 30 missions this year, according to information from the state-run China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., reported by the Xinhua news agency.

Last year, China outpaced the United States in the number of national launches it had completed through the middle of December, according to a report in the MIT Technology Review. Public and private Chinese companies launched 35 missions that were reported to the public through 2018 compared to 30 from the U.S., wrote Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College.

“Privately funded space startups are changing China’s space industry,” Johnson-Freese wrote at the time. “And even without their help, China is poised to become a space power on par with the United States.”

Major missions for 2019 will include the Long March-5 large carrier rocket, whose last launch was marred by malfunction. If the new Long March launch goes well, China will stage another flight to launch a probe designed to bring lunar samples back to Earth at the end of 2019.

China will also send still another version of the Long March rocket to lay the groundwork for the country’s private space station.

While the bulk of China’s activity in space is being handled through government ministries and state-owned companies, private companies are starting to make their mark, as well.

LandSpace, OneSpace and iSpace form a triumvirate of privately held Chinese companies that are all developing launch vehicles and planning to carry payloads to space.

In all, using some back of the napkin math and the calendar of launches available at Spaceflight Insider, there were roughly 80 major rocket launches scheduled.

Those figures mean that over once a week a rocket blasted off to deliver some sort of payload to a place above the atmosphere. RocketLab put its first commercial payload into orbit in November, and launched a second rocket the following month. Meanwhile, SpaceX, the darling of the private space industry, launched 21 rockets itself.