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Max Q: Licensed to space

·3-min read

Max Q is a weekly newsletter from TechCrunch all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Mondays in your inbox.

Space this week was all about preparatory steps — and it's looking more and more like we're setting up for an out-of-this-world July, with just a few days left before the month kicks off.

Starship headed to orbit?

Starship SN15 in flight
Starship SN15 in flight

Image Credits: SpaceX

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told virtual conference attendees on Friday that the company is hoping to fly its Starship rocket to orbit for the first time as early as next month. Starship has completed quite a few test flights to date, including one that went as well as could be expected right from launch to landing.

The first orbital test of Starship is a significant milestone for the spacecraft's development program, and if it does indeed happen in July that's an impressive turnaround for the launch company, which has been working on both Starship and its Super Heavy booster in south Texas.

Getting to orbit with Starship won't mean that SpaceX is ready to use the vehicle for commercial missions, however; this first attempt, which if the history of rocket testing is any indication, might not go so well, will just be about seeing how the prototype handles space. SpaceX will use later tests to refine other key components of Starship, including its controlled reentry and landing burn.

Before Starship can attempt to leave Earth's atmospheric confines, it needs to get clearance from the FAA to even do so, and that's still pending. SpaceX and the FAA seem to have a somewhat fraught relationship, however, especially as regards Starship testing.

Virgin Galactic gets green light for "spaceline" operations

Virgin Galactic vehicle SpaceShipTwo completes its successful first glide flight at Mojave on October 10, 2010 over Mojave in California. Image Credits: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/Getty Images

Virgin Galactic is gearing up for a final series of crewed test flights before it begins taking its paying passengers up to space. It also just received approval from the FAA for its "spaceline" operator's license, which is like an airline but with space.

This is an adaptation of its existing commercial spaceflight license that now allows it to also begin transporting paying passengers, including space tourists and researchers, to low-Earth orbit using its SpaceShipTwo vehicle. That's a key ingredient, but the company will still be doing its series of three test flights, the first ever with a full crew on board, before it actually does begin operating in that capacity. Richard Branson is set to be a passenger on the second of those three test flights, according to the current plan.

Orbion raises $20M for space thrusters

orbion factory
orbion factory

Image Credits: Orbion

Startup Orbion has raised a $20 million Series B for its plasma thruster technology. Plasma thrusters are a key means of in-space propulsion, and that's a booming sector in light of the emergence of more and more small spacecraft operators as low-Earth orbit becomes a high-traffic zone.

Orbion's approach reduces the cost of production and, by extension, the cost to its clients, which puts the technology more within reach for resource-constrained satellite startups.

Join us at TC Sessions: Space 2021 in December

Last year we held our first dedicated space event, and it went so well that we decided to host it again in 2021. This year, it's happening December 14 and 15, and it's once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join — and you can, too.

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