¶The Starship Startups. A macro-trend gaining traction is newspace startups formed on the assumption of Starship’s success, a world in which a whol

Issue No. 210 | The Orbital Index

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2023-03-15 15:30:02

¶The Starship Startups. A macro-trend gaining traction is newspace startups formed on the assumption of Starship’s success, a world in which a whole new scale of in-space systems will be possible and cost-effective (cf. Casey Handmer’s 2021 admonishment of NASA for not planning for this future). SpaceX is targeting a cost per kilogram of $50-$500 for Starship, representing a one- or two-order-of-magnitude reduction from Falcon’s current industry-leading $2,300/kg (for expendable launches on FH) to $5,500/kg (for F9 rideshare payloads). Other in-development reusable launch systems are targeting low costs as well (Terran-R, Neutron, and others), which only makes this low-launch cost future more likely, although not everyone sees it panning out. To take full advantage of this potential industry sea-change and leverage first mover advantage, startups must start development today to be ready when Starship becomes commercially operational. (No prediction from us on when that will be, but the program now feels unlikely to fail completely… as some suggested when it was first announced.) The most recent of this new breed of startups to emerge from stealth mode is K2 Space, building large-scale satellite busses that are specifically designed for a “post-Starship future”—they’re developing large busses in the style of development popularized by cubesats (COTS components, standardized sizes, etc.) but optimizing for low cost to orbit and economies of scale. As part of their reveal, K2 announced Mega-class (1 ton of customer payload at ~$15M) and (future) Giga-class (15 tons at ~$30M) busses which they believe will support large power budgets (20kW+) and markedly lower development costs compared to traditional bespoke GEO sats or high-budget/complexity deep space missions. K2 has raised an $8.5M seed round led by First Round Capital and Republic Capital. Other startups that are betting on this Starship-enabled future are likely K2 competitor Apex Space, Impulse Space (vacuum-optimized propulsion and cislunar fuel service), Varda (high-value in-space manufacturing and re-entry), Vast (artificial-gravity commercial space stations), perhaps Solestial (thin, flexible nextgen in-space PV), Ethos (lunar water mining for propellant), AstroForge (betting that water will decrease in value while space-sourced metal values will stay high, due to Starship’s payload capabilities), and other still-stealth startups we know and love. (Related: Some satellite parts suppliers are also betting on this future—where economies of scale will mean many thousands of a part are produced instead of the mostly hand-made tens to hundreds of similar parts produced today.)

¶Magnetars. Magnetars are ridiculously extreme objects. These highly magnetized neutron stars—objects only ~20 km in diameter—have magnetic fields that may reach up to 1015 Gauss, a quadrillion (thousand trillion) times our Sun’s pitiful 1 Gauss. The energy density of just these magnetic fields (via E=mc2) is 10,000x the mass density of lead. Magnetars are a likely source of Fast Radio Bursts and can also emit giant gamma-ray flares—one flare, GRB 200415A, was seen to emit the same amount of energy as our Sun does over 100,000 years, but in only 0.016 s. We don’t really know how these flares form, but if they involve large mass motions, they could also produce gravitational waves, something LIGO and other gravitational wave observatories are watching for (paper). Near a magnetar, “X-ray photons readily split in two or merge. The vacuum itself is polarized, becoming strongly birefringent, like a calcite crystal. Atoms are deformed into long cylinders thinner than the quantum-relativistic de Broglie wavelength of an electron (pdf),” resulting in a breakdown of anything resembling what we think of as chemistry. It’s believed that their magnetic fields decay relatively quickly over about 10,000 years, so magnetars are a transient state. We know of about 30 magnetars so far. Oh, and they may also have volcanoes (sort of… paper).

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