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SpaceX and OneWeb face off in quest for internet domination

In what has already been a busy year in space, the London-based telecommunications company, OneWeb, on Friday launched a second round of satellites into orbit in a bid to expand global internet coverage. The launch followed the return of NASA astronaut Christina Koch, who broke a spaceflight record for female astronauts. The Verge science reporter Loren Grush joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    From satellite launches to news space exploration, it's been a busy year in space so far. Lauren Grush is senior science reporter at The Verge and is here with me now to discuss it all. So most of us were paying attention to Iowa politics, but you were paying attention to a very busy week in all space related news, right? It started out with Christina Koch, astronaut coming back. She's got a couple of records. Well, what she's done in space and all that time that she's spent is pretty impressive, right?

  • Loren Grush:

    She's spent a total of 328 days, so nearly a year up in space. And while she was there, she made history with her best friend and colleague, Jessica Meir. The two of them are credited with doing the first all female spacewalk in history and spaceflight history. I mean, that's pretty incredible. And they did it three times. So I think she's definitely has quite a lot of accomplishments under her belt when she comes home.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And now, I mean, you see these images of her returning to earth and kind of acclimating. And she was psyched and she took the helmet off, she's like "errr."

  • Loren Grush:

    I actually said to my friend, I think I kind of want to go to space just so that I can have that feeling of coming back to Earth because it's got to be exhilarating.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yeah. So later in the week, we also had kind of an update to some of the things that people were figuring out about the Starliner project.

  • Loren Grush:

    Right. So right now, there are two companies that are creating these new vehicles to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. And they're getting really close to actually putting people on those vehicles. But before they do that, they have to do these unscrewed flight tests. And Boeing did it's on crewed flight tests in December. And it didn't really go according to plan at the time. A software glitch prevented the capsule from getting into the right orbit. So it didn't actually go to the International Space Station like it's supposed to. But now we're learning that there was actually a second software glitch that was corrected at the time. But if it hadn't been corrected, it could have been a catastrophic failure for the spacecraft and it could have maybe had been destroyed when it reentered Earth's atmosphere. We don't know because fortunately they fixed it. But it is kind of highlighting that Boeing is having these these coding problems. And NASA is really doing a deep investigation into that

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As the Starliner project is happening, you also have the SpaceX project that's kind of working in parallel and that is planning on putting people into orbit.

  • Loren Grush:

    Right. So initially when they chose these two providers, it was supposed to spark competition. And man, since then that competition has really heated up. They definitely are constantly going back and forth with one another and trying to prove and beat out the other provider. So far, I mean, SpaceX has had its own problems. Last year, one of its crew dragon capsules exploded during a test on the ground. But since then, they've kind of overcome that failure. They did a really crucial test this January where they tested out the emergency abort system on the Crew Dragon, which is a really crucial piece of hardware that's needed to save the lives of astronauts in case there's an emergency during the launch. And they were able to prove that system superbly and well, you know, exactly as planned. So now we're kind of in this waiting period of, OK. When will astronauts board the Crew Dragon? And that could come in the second quarter of this year. That's what Spacewalk CEO Elong Musk has said.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Two other things. If that wasn't enough this week, two other things that were happening. One company had put up, what, another 30 more satellites?

  • Loren Grush:

    Thirty-four satellites.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Thirty-four more satellites in one launch, and they're planning to put out more and more satellites every couple of months to do what?

  • Loren Grush:

    So this is the year of launching lots and lots of satellites to create internet from space. So the company has OneWeb and they have this vision of launching over 600 satellites to create this kind of global constellation to beam Internet coverage down to the earth below. And they need that many satellites because they're putting them into like a low- to mid- earth orbit so that they can the latency between the signals is very low, but you'll need a lot of satellites so that they can cover the entire globe.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And finally, what could be the most interesting thing and we will have to wait years to see if this plays out, but is a launch it's happening tomorrow, a solar orbiter. We're sending a satellite. Now, we have had sent satellites before it kind of look at the sun. What's this satellite that we're sending tomorrow going to do that's different?

  • Loren Grush:

    So this satellite is going to go to a place and see a vantage of the sun that we just really haven't seen before. It's the sun's polar regions. So just like on earth, the sun has poles, too. But normally when we send a spacecraft to go study the sun, they orbit in line with the planets. So the planets orbit in the same plane, a flat disk. But getting to the polls is really hard because they're, you know, at an angle. So this this particular spacecraft is going to get in and that angular orbit and really get the first up close look of the poles that we've ever seen on the sun.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Loren Grush from The Verge. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Loren Grush:

    Thank you for having me.

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