Launched from South Texas, SpaceX's Starship survived for around 50 minutes before losing contact and landing in the Indian Ocean. Photo via SpaceX/Twitter

SpaceX came close to completing an hourlong test flight of its mega rocket on its third try Thursday, but the spacecraft was lost as it descended back to Earth.

The company said it lost contact with Starship as it neared its goal, a splashdown in the Indian Ocean. The first-stage booster also ended up in pieces, breaking apart much earlier in the flight over the Gulf of Mexico after launching from the southern tip of Texas near the Mexican border.

“The ship has been lost. So no splashdown today,” said SpaceX’s Dan Huot. “But again, it’s incredible to see how much further we got this time around.”

Two test flights last year both ended in explosions minutes after liftoff. By surviving for close to 50 minutes this time, Thursday's effort was considered a win by not only SpaceX's Elon Musk, but NASA as well as Starship soared higher and farther than ever before. The space agency is counting on Starship to land its astronauts on the moon in another few years.

The nearly 400-foot (121-meter) Starship, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, headed out over the Gulf of Mexico after liftoff Thursday morning, flying east. Spectators crowded the nearby beaches in South Padre Island and Mexico.

A few minutes later, the booster separated seamlessly from the spaceship, but broke apart 1,500 feet (462 meters) above the gulf, instead of plummeting into the water intact. By then, the spacecraft was well to the east and continuing upward, with no people or satellites on board.

Starship reached an altitude of about 145 miles (233 kilometers) as it coasted across the Atlantic and South Africa, before approaching the Indian Ocean. But 49 minutes into the flight — with just 15 minutes remaining — all contact was lost and the spacecraft presumably broke apart.

At that point, it was 40 miles (65 kilometers) high and traveling around 16,000 mph (25,700 kph).

SpaceX's Elon Musk had just congratulated his team a little earlier. “SpaceX has come a long way,” he said via X, formerly called Twitter. The rocket company was founded exactly 22 years ago Thursday.

NASA watched with keen interest: The space agency needs Starship to succeed in order to land astronauts on the moon in the next two or so years. This new crop of moonwalkers — the first since last century’s Apollo program — will descend to the lunar surface in a Starship after transferring from NASA's Orion capsule in lunar orbit.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson quickly congratulated SpaceX on what he called a successful test flight as part of the space agency's Artemis moon-landing program.

The stainless steel, bullet-shaped spacecraft launched atop a first-stage booster known as the Super Heavy. Both the booster and the spacecraft are designed to be reusable, although they were never meant to be salvaged Thursday.

On Starship’s inaugural launch last April, several of the booster’s 33 methane-fueled engines failed and the booster did not separate from the spacecraft, causing the entire vehicle to explode and crash into the gulf four minutes after liftoff.

SpaceX managed to double the length of the flight during November’s trial run. While all 33 engines fired and the booster peeled away as planned, the flight ended in a pair of explosions, first the booster and then the spacecraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration reviewed all the corrections made to Starship, before signing off on Thursday’s launch. The FAA said after the flight that it would again investigate what happened. As during the second flight, all 33 booster engines performed well during ascent, according to SpaceX.

Initially, SpaceX plans to use the mammoth rockets to launch the company’s Starlink internet satellites, as well as other spacecraft. Test pilots would follow to orbit, before the company flies wealthy clients around the moon and back. Musk considers the moon a stepping stone to Mars, his ultimate quest.

NASA is insisting that an empty Starship land successfully on the moon, before future moonwalkers climb aboard. The space agency is targeting the end of 2026 for the first moon landing crew under the Artemis program, named after the mythological twin sister of Apollo.

NASA has announced it's pushed back two historic missions — the first of which was originally planned for later this year. Photo via NASA/Ben Smegelsky

NASA postpones historic crew landing until 2026

Houston, we have a delay

Astronauts will have to wait until next year before flying to the moon and another few years before landing on it, under the latest round of delays announced by NASA on Tuesday.

The space agency had planned to send four astronauts around the moon late this year, but pushed the flight to September 2025 because of safety and technical issues. The first human moon landing in more than 50 years also got bumped, from 2025 to September 2026.

“Safety is our top priority," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The delays will “give Artemis teams more time to work through the challenges.”

The news came barely an hour after a Pittsburgh company abandoned its own attempt to land its spacecraft on the moon because of a mission-ending fuel leak.

Launched on Monday as part of NASA's commercial lunar program, Astrobotic Technology's Peregrine lander was supposed to serve as a scout for the astronauts. A Houston company will give it a shot with its own lander next month.

NASA is relying heavily on private companies for its Artemis moon-landing program for astronauts, named after the mythological twin sister of Apollo.

SpaceX’s Starship mega rocket will be needed to get the first Artemis moonwalkers from lunar orbit down to the surface and back up. But the nearly 400-foot (121-meter) rocket has launched from Texas only twice, exploding both times over the Gulf of Mexico.

The longer it takes to get Starship into orbit around Earth, first with satellites and then crews, the longer NASA will have to wait to attempt its first moon landing with astronauts since 1972. During NASA’s Apollo era, 12 astronauts walked on the moon.

The Government Accountability Office warned in November that NASA was likely looking at 2027 for its first astronaut moon landing, citing Elon Musk’s Starship as one of the many technical challenges. Another potential hurdle: the development of moonwalking suits by Houston’s Axiom Space.

“We need them all to be ready and all to be successful in order for that very complicated mission to come together,” said Amit Kshatriya, NASA's deputy associate administrator.

NASA has only one Artemis moonshot under its belt so far. In a test flight of its new moon rocket in 2022, the space agency sent an empty Orion capsule into lunar orbit and returned it to Earth. It’s the same kind of capsule astronauts will use to fly to and from the moon, linking up with Starship in lunar orbit for the trip down to the surface.

Starship will need to fill up its fuel tank in orbit around Earth, before heading to the moon. SpaceX plans an orbiting fuel depot to handle the job, another key aspect of the program yet to be demonstrated.

NASA’s moon-landing effort has been delayed repeatedly over the past decade, adding to billions of dollars to the cost. Government audits project the total program costs at $93 billion through 2025.

The history-making team was announced at Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center in Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

NASA names four astronauts heading to the moon at Houston event

ready for liftoff

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency announced the four astronauts who will be onboard the Artemis II mission around the moon yesterday at an event at Ellington Field near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The 10-day mission is slated to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon.

“For the first time in more than 50 years, these individuals – the Artemis II crew – will be the first humans to fly to the vicinity of the Moon. Among the crew are the first woman, first person of color, and first Canadian on a lunar mission, and all four astronauts will represent the best of humanity as they explore for the benefit of all,” says JSC Director Vanessa Wyche. “This mission paves the way for the expansion of human deep space exploration and presents new opportunities for scientific discoveries, commercial, industry and academic partnerships and the Artemis Generation.”

The crew assignments include:

  • Commander Reid Wiseman, who has logged more than 165 days in space in two trips. He previously served as a flight engineer aboard the International Station and most recently served as chief of the Astronaut Office from December 2020 until November 2022.
  • Pilot Victor Glover, who served as pilot on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission in 2021. This will be his second trip to space.
  • Mission Specialist 1 Christina Hammock Koch, who set the record for longest single spaceflight by a woman with a total of 328 days in space and participated in the first all-female spacewalks. This will be her second flight into space.
  • Mission Specialist 2 Jeremy Hansen, representing Canada. Hansen is a colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces and former fighter pilot and has served as Capcom in NASA's Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center. He was the first Canadian to lead a NASA astronaut class. This will be his first flight into space.

Meet the four astronauts who will return humans to the moon. Photo courtesy of NASA

“NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, and Christina Hammock Koch, and CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen, each has their own story, but, together, they represent our creed: E pluribus unum – out of many, one," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. "Together, we are ushering in a new era of exploration for a new generation of star sailors and dreamers–the Artemis Generation.”

Artemis II is slated to build upon the uncrewed Artemis I mission that was completed in December. The crew will be NASA's first to aboard the agency's deep space rocket, the Space Launch System, and Orion spacecraft. They will test the spacecrafts' systems to ensure they operate as planned for humans in deep space before setting course for the moon.

NASA's Artemis program collaborates with commercial and international partners with the goal of establishing a long-term presence on the moon. Lessons learned from the missions are planned to be used to send the first astronauts to Mars.

Intuitive Machines is upgrading its presence in the Houston Spaceport. Image courtesy of IM

Houston space tech company reveals details on its new $40M facility

landing in Hou

A Houston-based space tech company focused on sending the first American spacecraft to the Moon since NASA's Apollo program is planning on expanding its presence here on Earth too.

Intuitive Machines announced its plans to move from its current facility in the Houston Spaceport into a new 125,000-square-foot building on a 12.5-acre plot also in the Houston Spaceport.

"We grew up as a company alongside Spaceport Houston, and we continue to grow as Spaceport Houston grows," says IM President and CEO Steve Altemus in a news release. "My partners, Dr. Tim Crain and Dr. Kam Ghaffarian, and I chose Houston because of its diverse talent, rapidly growing innovation ecosystem, and deep-rooted connection to spaceflight.

"Houston is our home, a place surrounded by family, friends, and people of true grit," he continues. "Whether it is a flood, pandemic, or landing on the Moon, Space City does not back down from a challenge, and this building is Intuitive Machines accepting one of humanity's greatest challenges."

The transition to the new space is expected in 2023, while Intuitive Machines' Moon landing is planned for the first quarter of 2022. From then, the company begins an annual launch plan delivering both NASA and commercial payloads to the Moon.

"We are thrilled that Intuitive Machines has decided to further invest in the tremendous aerospace ecosystem at Houston Spaceport," Houston Airports Director of Aviation Mario Diaz says in the release. "I believe Intuitive Machines is a real-life Houston success story that hits to the core of Houston Spaceport's mission – to create a focal point for aerospace innovation with a cluster of aerospace companies that will lead the nation in the transition from a government-focused to a commercially- driven space program."

A Houston-based company that's on a mission to the moon has a new control center. Photo via Jesus Motto/Savills

Houston-area space tech startup gets upgraded control center

new space

A space tech startup based in Clear Lake, just outside of Houston, has a new office that's going to help them take their technology out of this world.

Intuitive Machines, an engineering firm specializing in automation and aerospace, has upgraded its Houston-area control center. The company has moved into a 22,300-square-foot space on the sixth floor of a building located at 3700 Bay Area Road. The lease was executed last fall. London-based Savills had a Houston team to represent the tenant and oversee project management of the buildout.

"I was proud to work on the build-out for Intuitive Machines during such an exciting time in its history," says Savills associate director, David Finklea, in a news release. "As Intuitive is a leader in the aerospace space field, we created an environment that is far from the industry standard and complements its innovative endeavors. The design is bright and contemporary, with a relaxing and airy feel that imitates the illusion of being in space."

Currently, Intuitive Machines is working on NASA's Artemis Program and has been granted $77 million from the organization to launch a flight to the moon next year. In light of this project, Intuitive Machines needed a larger, optimized space to support its growing team.

Finklea and Derrell Curry, executive vice president at Savills, teamed up with architecture firm CDI Douglass Pye Inc. on the project that took elements from the company's former first-floor office and created a new design aesthetic that "evoked the neutral colors of the lunar landscape," according to the release.

"Despite the current COVID-19 pandemic and delays caused as a result, we were able to complete the space within six months through close coordination with Intuitive Machines, CDI Douglass Pye, and the landlord," Finklea says in the release. "Everyone came together to ensure the new headquarters was delivered promptly for Intuitive Machines to prepare for its historic mission that further solidifies the future of privatized space travel."

The unique control center is circular, which optimizes collaboration, and equipped with a large curved monitor. The office is also hooked up to emergency backup power — something the team needs as it continues on its mission to the moon.

"I couldn't be more pleased with Derrell and David and the team they put together to create our new headquarters. Everyone demonstrated a high level of professionalism and attention to detail that produced a workplace that truly represents Intuitive Machines as an innovative lunar space systems company," says Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines, in the release. "Thank you to Savills, CDI Douglass Pye, and Byrd Construction for delivering an exceptional space that allows us to conduct our mission to the moon from our new control center right here in Houston!"

Intuitive Machines moved into a new space. Photo via Jesus Motto/Savills

Orion — NASA's program that will take astronauts to the moon by 2024 — has a new leader. Photo courtesy of NASA

NASA names new female exec to human spaceflight program

ready for take off

NASA is preparing to return to the moon by 2024 — and the organization just tapped the woman who will lead the program.

Catherine Koerner was announced last week as the manager of NASA's Orion Program, the spacecraft that will be used for the moon-bound Artemis missions. According to a press release, Koerner's position was effective Tuesday, September 8, and will be based at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"I'm honored to be selected as the Orion Program Manager. Orion is a key element of the agency's Artemis infrastructure, and I look forward to leading the team responsible for developing and building America's deep space human spacecraft," Koerner says in the release. "Next year we'll be launching the Artemis I test flight — a major milestone — and the first of the Artemis mission series on our way to putting the first woman and the next man on the Moon."

Catherine Koerner is leading the Orion Program from Houston's Johnson Space Center. Photo courtesy of NASA

Prior to this position, Koerner led the Human Health and Performance Directorate team at Johnson, and she's also served as flight director, space shuttle manager for the Missions Operations Directorate, deputy manager of the Vehicle Office and manager of the Transportation Integration Office for the International Space Station Program, per the release.

In her new role, Koerner will be oversee design, development, and testing for the Orion spacecraft and any other ongoing projects within the program.

"Cathy brings to Orion a diverse background in engineering and human health, two key components for the Artemis program that will see the spacecraft send our astronauts to the Moon, ushering in a sustainable presence on the lunar surface," says Kathy Lueders, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in the release. "Working with our partners, her leadership will guide the program to achievements that will inspire and benefit humanity."

Lueders was recently named to her position in June, and both these appointments are a part of NASA's plans to scale its human spaceflight team. NASA also just called for recruitment in Mission Control at JSC.

"Cathy brings 30 years of human spaceflight experience to the challenging task of managing the Orion program," says JSC Director Mark Geyer in the release. "I am confident she will lead Orion into flight and into a sustainable future."



Koerner succeeds Mark Kirasich, who is currently leading NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems Division in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. Howard Hu, who was acting Orion program manager, will serve as Orion deputy program manager.

Orion, the Space Launch System (SLS), and Exploration Ground Systems programs are foundational elements of NASA's Artemis program. Artemis I will be the first integrated flight test of Orion and the SLS next year. Artemis II will follow as the first human mission, taking astronauts farther into space than ever before. On Artemis III, astronauts will set foot on the Moon by 2024.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.