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Watch the historic first private mission to the Moon launch Thursday night

For the first time later this week, a privately developed moon lander will launch aboard a privately built rocket, organized by a private launch coordinator. It’s an historic moment in space and the Israeli mission stands to make history again if it touches down on the Moon’s surface as planned on April 11.

The Beresheet (“Genesis”) program was originally conceived as an entry into the ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Google Lunar Xprize in 2010, which challenged people to accomplish a lunar landing, with $30 million in prizes as the incentive. The prize closed last year with no winner, but as these Xprize competitions aim to do, it had already spurred great interest and investment in a private moon mission.

SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries worked together on the mission, which will bring cameras, a magnetometer and a capsule filled with items from the country to, hopefully, a safe rest on the lunar surface.

The Beresheet lander ahead of packaging for launch

The launch plan as of now (these things do change with weather, technical delays and so on) is for takeoff at 5:45 Pacific time on Thursday — 8:45 PM in Cape Canaveral — aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. A live stream should be available shortly before, which I’ll add here later or in a new post.

Thirty minutes after takeoff the payload will detach and make contact with mission control, then begin the process of closing the distance to the Moon, during which time it will circle the Earth six times.

Russia, China and of course the U.S. are the only ones ever to successfully land on the Moon; China’s Chang’e 4 lander was the first to soft-land (as opposed to impact) the “dark” (though really only far — it’s often light) side and is currently functional.

But although there has been one successful private lunar flyby mission (the Manfred Memorial probe) no one but a major country has ever touched down. If Beresheet is a success it would be both the first Israeli moon mission and the first private mission to do so. It would also be the first lunar landing to be accomplished with a privately built rocket, and the lightest spacecraft on the Moon and, at around $100 million in costs, the cheapest as well.

Landing on the Moon is, of course, terribly difficult. Just as geosynchronous orbit is far more difficult than low Earth orbit, a lunar insertion orbit is even harder, a stable such orbit even harder and accomplishing a controlled landing on target even harder than that. The only thing more difficult would be to take off again and return to Earth, as Apollo 11 did in 1969 and other missions several times after. Kind of amazing when you think about it.

Seattle’s Spaceflight coordinated the launch, and technically Beresheet is the secondary payload; the primary is the Air Force Research Labs’ S5 experimental satellite, which the launch vehicle will take to geosynchronous orbit after the lunar module detaches.

Although Beresheet may very well be the first, it will likely be the first of many: other contenders in the Lunar Xprize, as well as companies funded or partnering with NASA and other space agencies, will soon be making their own attempts at making tracks in the regolith.

HyperSciences wants to ‘gamechange’ spaceflight with hypersonic drilling tech

It’s no coincidence that Elon Musk wants to both tunnel down into and soar above the Earth. If you ask the team at HyperSciences, the best way to get to space is to flip drilling technology upside down and point it at the sky. In the process, that would mean ditching the large, expensive fuel stages that propel what we generally think of as a rocket — massive cylindrical thing, tiny payload at the tip — into space.

This month, the company hit a major milestone on its quest to get to suborbital space, capping off Phase I of a research grant with NASA with a pair of successful proof-of-concept launches demonstrating the company’s one-two punch of ram acceleration and chemical combustion.

HyperSciences put its vision to the test at Spaceport America, conducting a series of high-altitude tests at the desolate launch site an hour outside of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The company launched “a number of projectiles,” ranging from 1.5 ft long to over 9 ft long. HyperSciences sent up some off-the-shelf electronics in the process, in a partnership with an aerospace research group at the University of Texas.

“We targeted hitting 600 to 1000 G’s (multiples of Earth’s gravity) on the payloads and accomplished that,” HyperSciences Senior Adviser Raymond Kaminski said. “The payloads felt similar levels to what commercial off-the-shelf electronics (like a cell phone) would feel when getting dropped on the floor.” Kaminski returned to aerospace with HyperSciences after a turn in the startup world following an earlier career with NASA, where he worked as an engineer for the International Space Station.

While the 1.5 ft. system launch was enough to meet its goals for NASA’s purposes, the company was testing the waters with an admittedly more impressive 9 ft. 18” projectile. “We’re going to launch a nine foot section — you can’t deny this anymore,” Kaminski said.

Oddly enough, the whole thing started after HyperSciences founder and CEO Mark Russell drilled a bunch of really, really deep holes. Russell formerly led crew capsule development at Jeff Bezos’ space gambit Blue Origin before leaving to get involved in his family’s mining business. At Blue Origin, he was employee number 10. Russell’s experience with mining and drilling led him to the idea that by elongating the chemical-filled tubes that he’d use to drill in the past, the system he used to break up rock could go to space.

“You have a tube and you have a projectile. It’s got a sharp nose and you’ve pre filled your tube with natural gas and air,” Russell explained. “It rides on the shock wave like a surfer rides on the ocean.”

The team believes that launching something into space can be faster, cheaper and far more efficient, but it requires a total reimagining of the process. If SpaceX’s reusable first stages were a sea change for spaceflight, the technology behind HyperSciences would be a revelation, but that’s assuming the vision — and the hypersonic tech that propels it — could be scaled up and adapted to the tricky, high-stakes business of sending things to space.

A hypersonic propulsion system can launch a projectile at at least five times the speed of sound, causing it to reach speeds of Mach 5 or higher — more than a mile a second. Most of the buzz in hypersonic tech right now is around defense technology — missiles that travel fast enough to evade even sophisticated missile defense systems or strike targets so quickly they can’t be intercepted — but aerospace and geothermal energy are two other big areas of interest.

Last December, The Washington Post reported that moving from rocket-boosted weapons to hypersonic weapons is the “first, second, and third” priority for defense right now. The Pentagon’s 2019 budget currently has $2 billion earmarked for its hypersonics program, and that funding grew by almost a third year-over-year. “You never want to put out a tech when the government is asking for it,” Kaminski said. “At that point it’s too late and you’re playing catch up.”

In spite of the opportunity, HyperSciences isn’t keen to get into the world of weaponry. “We are a platform hypersonics company, we are not weapons designers,” the team told TechCrunch. “We do not plan on being a weapon provider. HyperSciences is focused on making the world a better place.”

To that end, HyperSciences is maneuvering to the fore of non-weaponry hypersonics applications. The company sponsors the University of Washington lab that’s pioneered applications for ram accelerator technology it uses and has sole rights to the tech invented there. 

On the geothermal energy note, with $1 million from Shell, HyperSciences was able to develop what it calls a “common engine” — a hypersonic platform that can drill deep to reach geothermal energy stores or point upward to launch things toward the stars. “HyperSciences is about getting really good on Earth first,” Russell said, pointing to one advantage of the cross-compatible system that lets the company apply lessons it learns from drilling to its plans for flight.

“Our HyperDrone technology can be used to test new air-breathing hypersonic engines for NASA or aircraft companies that want to build the next-gen super- and hypersonic aircraft to go point-to-point around the world in an hour or two,” the team explained. “Right now, you need a rocket on a big aircraft, just to get experiments up to speed. We can do that at the end of our tube right from the ground.”

Though there have been rumors of acquisition interest, for now HyperSciences is pursuing an offbeat crowdfunding model that’s certainly out of the ordinary in a literally nuts and bolts aerospace business. The company is currently running a SeedInvest campaign that allows small, unaccredited investors to put as little as a thousand dollars toward the team’s vision. At the time of writing, the campaign was sitting at around five million dollars raised from nearly 2,000 relatively small-time investors. 

“SpaceX’s seed rounds were run by big VCs,” Russell said. “Where do you get access? These are big industries the public never usually gets to invest in.”

Russell prefers to keep HyperSciences flexible in its pursuits and believes that relying on venture capital would force the company to narrow the scope of its mission. The team is quick to note that in spite of its relationship with Shell, the oil and energy giant doesn’t own any equity in the company. By hopping between industry-specific contracts with a boost from crowdfunding, HyperSciences hopes to continue pursuing its platform’s applications in parallel.

The next overall architecture for spaceflight will be using hypersonics,” Russell said. “We obviously started this with the idea that you could gamechange spaceflight. By removing the first and potentially the second stage of a rocket [and] putting all of that energy in the ground… you could gamechange spaceflight, no doubt.”

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.