SpaceX’s Rideshare is making it far easier to launch satellites into orbit. In-Space Missions explains how it’s using the program to help customers realise their ambitions.

A rendering of In-Space Missions' Faraday spacecraft that was launched in the SpaceX rocket
In-Space Mission’s tech will allow future satellites to be customizable from the ground.

  • SpaceX’s Rideshare has helped cut the timescale for getting into orbit from years to a few months.
  • UK firm In-Space Missions is using the program to develop its own customizable satellite tech.
  • It was able to send one of the 88 small satellites, or smallsats, that recently launched into orbit.

When you spend millions to build a satellite – each second you wait for its launch carries the weight of years of hard work.

Nobody knows that better than Doug Liddle, co-founder and CEO of In-Space Missions, and a nearly 30-year veteran of the space industry. He also led the design of the first Galileo satellite demonstrator, Europe’s premier global navigation satellite system.

Founded almost six years ago, Hampshire-based In-Space Missions aim to achieve a significant reduction in traditional timescales to get technology in orbit. The company designs, builds and operates bespoke missions for clients.

Using SpaceX’s Rideshare, which uses the orbital class reusable rocket Falcon 9, In-Space Missions recently sent one of the 88 small satellites, or smallsats, that went into orbit.

For large satellites, Liddle would previously have spent $11.8 million to launch one. Now the cost is around $1 million.

SpaceX has revolutionized the cost, Liddle said: “It isn’t just the slots on their rockets that are a low price. They’re also going several times a year. You can fill up a 200 kilogram slot on the rocket for $1 million, which is crazy. Compared to what it used to be.”

After having worked for the European Space Agency, the UK’s Ministry of Defence and several private firms, Liddle decided to cater to smaller businesses or early-stage startups valued in the $20 million range.

“There are people with great business ideas, who don’t know how to get their stuff into space,” he said.

Satellites provide deep insight for climate-crisis research but also have many common applications, including gathering data for credit card authorizations or even tracking wildlife.

With the advent of SpaceX’s reusable rockets, Liddle said the sky’s the limit for making space exploration more accessible.

“We’re in a world now where people can come out of university, set up a space company, and get something in space in a couple of years,” he said. “That was just unheard of even 10 years ago.”

In fact, his company is already spearheading its own technological advancements to further equalize the space race, while also making it sustainable.

Governments are increasingly implementing rules to reduce the environmental impact of spaceflight. More than 27,000 pieces of orbital debris, or “space junk” are tracked by the US Department of Defense, according to NASA.

“You can’t just keep putting things into space,” Liddle said. “There is only physically so much space you can go into before you start banging into each other.”

Historically, each launched satellite has served a sole purpose. Liddle’s team, however, is not only hosting multiple customers on their satellite but has also designed technology that allows future satellites to be customizable from the ground. It’s expected to be publicly available in 12 to 18 months.

Liddle said: “We’ve developed a piece of technology that’s flying on this satellite, which we’re then going to expand and fly on future ones, that will allow people to, from the ground, upload their payload, their service, their application. So it would be like every app on your phone.”

The technology his team is developing will reduce the timescale from a few years to three to four months.

He used the analogy of using one piece of software to access Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram.

“The technology that’s available now has got us to the place where you can fly loads of people in one spacecraft,” he said. “You can reconfigure it in software from the ground and upgrade it in the same way your phone will upgrade every so many months. You can do exactly the same with spacecraft now.”

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A piece of space debris punched a tiny hole in the International Space Station, damaging a robotic arm

ISS damage thumb
Photos show damage to a robotic arm on the International Space Station, May 28, 2021.

A piece of space debris has punched a hole in one of the International Space Station’s robotic arms.

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency announced on Friday that they found a 0.2-inch (5-millimeter) puncture during a routine inspection of Canadarm2, Canada’s autonomous arm, on May 12.

The arm is used to transport spacewalking astronauts outside the station and deploy science experiments in orbit. It appears to be working properly despite the hole, according to the Canadian Space Agency.

It’s unknown what the piece of space junk responsible for the hole looked like, or where it came from.

impact ISS chip
A photograph showing a chip in the glass aboard the International Space Station, 2016.

This isn’t the first time the ISS – a floating laboratory that orbits more than 220 miles above our heads – has taken a hit. Five years ago, an object struck one of the windows on the ISS’s dome, gouging a 0.3-inch-wide chip in the glass. The culprit may have been a small metal fragment no bigger than the width of an eyelash.

In total, nearly 130 million pieces of debris crowd Earth’s orbit – including leftover rocket parts, pieces of dead satellites, even tiny meteorites. In total, this debris weighs more than 10,000 tons, and more gets added every year. The chunks zip around the planet at more than 17,500 mph, roughly 10 times the speed of a bullet.

NASA and other space agencies keep tabs on more than 23,000 known pieces of space debris that could threaten the space station – pretty much anything larger than a softball. If there’s more than a 1-in-100,000 chance of a collision, NASA will maneuver the ISS out of harm’s way, since a collision could endanger the lives of the astronauts on board.

astronauts spacewalk international space station iss
With New Zealand in the background, two astronauts complete a spacewalk on the International Space Station in December 2006.

Last year, the agency had to move the station away from space debris three times.

But plenty of space debris is too tiny to track, and even pebbles, dust particles, or flecks of paint that slough off of other satellites can damage the ISS.

A space-junk problem

Among the biggest pieces of space junk in n low-Earth orbit are 2,900 dead satellites that float uncontrolled. Nobody can maneuver them.

space junk
An artist’s illustration of space junk orbiting Earth.

The worst-case scenario is a collision between one of these large objects and the ISS or a crewed spaceship. But even if two dead, uninhabited satellites hit each other, that’s also a problem because any crash will produce new clouds of smaller bits of debris.

As Earth’s orbit gets more congested, the likelihood of this type of dangerous collision increases.

Last year, a defunct Soviet satellite and an old Chinese rocket body passed alarmingly close, and two dead satellites almost crossed paths as well.

nasa international space station iss earth clouds sts130 shuttle crew photo february 19 2010 iss_sts130_big
The International Space Station as seen by astronauts from NASA’s space shuttle Endeavour on February 19, 2010.

In an extreme scenario, a chain of collisions in space could spiral out of control, with the debris from one crash causing more collisions, which would create more debris. This could and wind up blanketing Earth in a practically impassable field of debris – a possibility known as the Kessler syndrome. According to Donald J. Kessler, the NASA astrophysicist who suggested the idea in 1978, it could take hundreds or even thousands of years for such debris to clear enough to make spaceflight safe again.

Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting to this story.

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An apparent meteor shower over the Pacific Northwest was actually burning space debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket – take a look

Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • Debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket was streaking across the skies above Seattle and Portland on Thursday.
  • Astronomer Jonathan McDowell tweeted that it would probably fall in the Rockies near the Canadian border.
  • The space junk was from Starlink’s 20th mission at the start of May, he said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The bright lights hurtling across the sky in the Pacific Northwest on Thursday were made by burning space debris from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket falling back to Earth.

People in Seattle and Portland started posting videos online of what they initially thought was a meteor shower.

The National Weather Service Seattle later posted on Twitter that the bright objects were debris from one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets “that did not successfully have a deorbit burn.”

A “deorbit burn” is when a rocket flips tail-first and fires its engines, to allow it to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, according to NASA.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard University, posted on Twitter that the objects streaking across the Pacific Northwest were the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket that was launched on March 4. The debris was re-entering the atmosphere after 22 days in orbit, he said.

The falling debris is “unlikely to be major,” he tweeted, and “would probably fall in the Rockies near the Canadian border.”

McDowell said in a separate tweet that this is the 14th piece of space junk weighing over one tonne that had come back down to Earth since January 1.

SpaceX regularly launches rockets from sites in California, Florida and Texas.

The rocket launch on March 4, from which McDowell said the debris came from, blasted 60 satellites into orbit for SpaceX’s 20th Starlink mission. It was SpaceX’s sixth Starlink launch of 2021.

The satellites were adding to a rapidly expanding constellation of satellites beaming the internet down to Earth. Currently, there are around 1,300 Starlink satellites in orbit, and the company wants to eventually launch up to 42,000.

Here are some of the scenes that people in the Pacific NW witnessed on Thursday:

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