An international research team led by University of Washington scientists has identified two kinds of “ultrapotent human antibodies” that could go into a drug cocktail for guarding against COVID-19.
UW’s David Veesler and Vir Biotechnology’s Katja Fink are the senior authors of the study published online today by the journal Science, which highlights two monoclonal antibodies known as S2E12 and S2M11. The antibodies were found to block SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, from latching onto molecular receptors on cells in hamsters.
An analysis of the antibodies’ molecular structure determined that they block the virus by gumming up its characteristic “spike” protein, which has been a target for many of the vaccines and therapies under development to fight COVID-19. Some of the researchers behind the newly published study, including Veesler, reported a similarly promising antibody called S309 in May.
Researchers say such antibodies could be combined in a drug cocktail to guard against the virus evolving to evade any single one of the ingredients. A drug that takes advantage of S309’s effect is already being tested in a phase 2/3 clinical trial launched by GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology.
That level of resolution for visual imagery will be twice as sharp as the current Gen-2 satellites’ 1-meter resolution. And the short-wave infrared imaging system should be able to deliver night-vision views as well as imagery that cuts through obscuring smoke and haze.
BlackSky CEO Brian O’Toole told me the upgrades will continue as his company builds out its satellite constellation in low Earth orbit. “This isn’t like the old days, when you have to have some big announcement every five years,” he said. “This is just going to be expected. Customers will expect that behind Gen-3 is going to be Gen-4.”
Update for 6:45 a.m. PT Sept. 25: Blue Origin called off the launch of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship for the second day in a row. “We are working to verify a fix on a technical issue and taking an extra look before we fly,” the company said today in a tweet.
The previous day’s postponement was due to a “potential issue with the power supply to the experiments,” Blue Origin tweeted at the time. Cloudy weather at the Texas launch site posed an additional snag, because the precision landing test required clear weather to gather usable data.
We’ll update this report when a new launch date is set.
Previously: After a nine-month gap, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to send its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed flight to space and back to test a precision landing system for NASA.
And that’s not the only new experiment for Blue Origin’s five-year-old New Shepard flight test program: This 13th test flight will be the first to be flown since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and the first to include extra COVID-19 safety measures.
“Safety is our highest priority,” Blue Origin said in an emailed statement. “We always take the time to get it right to ensure our vehicle is ironclad and the test environment is safe for launch operations. All mission crew supporting this launch are exercising strict social distancing and safety measures to mitigate COVID-19 risks to personnel, customers and surrounding communities.”
Liftoff will take place at Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas. The countdown, launch and roughly 10-minute flight will be streamed via BlueOrigin.com starting at T-minus-30 minutes. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is due to provide a special update during the webcast.
Five years after launching an experiment to see if advanced sensors and artificial intelligence could spot the signs of a disease outbreak before it happens, Microsoft says it’s ramping up Project Premonition to create an honest-to-goodness biothreat protection network.
The network will involve setting up about 100 sensor stations in Texas’ Harris County, to track swarms of mosquitoes that could transmit diseases ranging from malaria and dengue fever to Zika and West Nile viruses. AI algorithms will analyze that tracking data for the telltale signs of an epidemic in the making, just as weather forecasting programs look for the signs of a storm on the way.
“It will really be almost like a weather map, the likes of which has not really been seen before in the mosquito vector space,” Ethan Jackson, director of Microsoft Premonition, told me.
The expansion of the Premonition program was announced today in conjunction with this week’s annual Microsoft Ignite conference for software developers.
Call it the Clash of the Cloud Titans: Today Microsoft is taking the wraps off Azure Orbital, a cloud-based satellite data processing platform that competes with Amazon Web Services’ Ground Station offering.
The launch of Azure Orbital, timed for this week’s Microsoft Ignite conference for developers, can be taken as another sign that the final frontier is the next frontier for cloud computing.
“Essentially, we’re building a ‘ground station as a service,’ ” Mark Russinovich, chief technology officer at Microsoft Azure, told GeekWire in advance of today’s unveiling.
“Satellites are becoming more and more important for a variety of reasons,” he said. “When it comes to cloud and data processing, obviously the cloud is a key part of any solution that goes into leveraging satellites, whether it’s imaging for weather, or natural disasters or ground communications.”
Like AWS Ground Station, Azure Orbital makes it possible for satellite operators to control their spacecraft via the cloud, or integrate satellite data with cloud-based storage and processing.
In a newly published report, NASA goes into depth about how it plans to send astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, at an estimated cost of nearly $28 billion between now and then.
It’s not yet clear whether Congress will go along with the timetable and the ticket price laid out for the Artemis moon program. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said budget deliberations over the next few months could tell the tale.
NASA wants $3.2 billion in fiscal 2021 for development efforts involving SpaceX as well as rival teams led by Dynetics and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. In contrast, House appropriators set aside $600 million.
Bridenstine said he hoped the figure would be bumped up to the requested $3.2 billion, during negotiations that could go on for a couple of months amid a continuing resolution.
“If we can have that done before Christmas, we’re still on track for a 2024 moon landing,” he told reporters during a teleconference.
But if the $3.2 billion isn’t available by March, “it becomes increasingly more difficult” to meet the 2024 schedule, Bridenstine said.
2024 looms large because if President Donald Trump is re-elected, the first moon landing would come before the end of his second term.
“2024 is an aggressive timeline,” Bridenstine acknowledged. “Is it possible? Yes. Does everything have to go right? Yes.”
The $28 billion cited in today’s report includes proposed expenditures between now and the end of 2024 on the landing system as well as other elements of the Artemis program, including development of NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule, the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, ground systems and new spacesuits, plus robotic precursor missions. Building the landing system accounts for $16.2 billion — more than half of the total budgeted cost.
NASA is due to select which industry teams will go forward with landing system development sometime around next February or March, said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. She said it’s still too early to determine how many teams would be picked for the next phase of funding.
Another milestone is due to come up sometime in the next few weeks, when NASA conducts a “green run” test of the Space Launch System’s core stage. A successful test would mark a big step toward the first SLS launch, which is due to send an uncrewed Orion capsule beyond lunar orbit and back next year as part of the Artemis 1 mission.
Artemis 2 is scheduled to send four astronauts on a 10-day-long trip around the moon in 2023. That would set the stage for the landing system’s lunar debut on the crucial Artemis 3 mission a year later.
Bridenstine said the crew for Artemis 3 would typically be selected two years before launch, but added that he’d prefer to have the astronauts named “earlier rather than later.”
When the moon program was unveiled last year, Vice President Mike Pence highlighted the lunar south pole as the destination for the first landings. That region is of particular interest because it’s thought that permanently shadowed craters contain vast reservoirs of ice that could be converted into drinkable water, breathable air and rocket fuel.
“There could be scientific discoveries there and, of course, just the inspiration of going back to an original Apollo site would be pretty amazing as well,” Bridenstine said.
His remarks were interpreted in some quarters as backtracking on plans for a south polar landing, perhaps because it’d be more challenging than an equatorial landing. But when he was asked to elaborate today, Bridenstine said he was merely acknowledging that “going to a historic site would be pretty cool.”
“Right now, we have no plans for Artemis 3 to go anywhere other than the south pole,” he said.
Going through the Gateway?
Another point of contention has to do with the Gateway, the moon-orbiting outpost that NASA and its partners plan to build during the 2020s. The plan released today makes it clear that the first pieces of the Gateway are expected to be in place by 2024 — but that the commercial landing systems won’t be required to use it as a stopping-off point for Artemis 3.
SpaceX, for example, envisions its Starship super-rocket to serve as a transport as well as a lander that could carry astronauts to the lunar surface without necessarily docking at the Gateway. Bridenstine said it’d be up to the teams designing the landing system to specify what role the Gateway may (or may not) play for the initial landing.
However, Bridenstine emphasized that the Gateway would be required for the moon missions that follow the Artemis program’s initial phase.
“We’ve got two efforts,” he said. “One is to get to the moon by 2024, and then to be sustainable by the end of the decade. And I think the Gateway is essential to that sustainable effort, so that we can have human landing systems that are reusable, that are serviceable.”
NASA sees a sustainable moon base as a key part of the preparations for more ambitious missions to Mars. Bridenstine also said there was merit in learning more about the moon, and using it as a base for high-resolution astronomical observations. “We could actually increase more rapidly our discovery of exoplanets around other stars, using simple optics on the surface of the moon,” he said.
Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have their own visions for creating a sustainable presence on the moon — which led one reporter to ask whether private ventures might be asked to put more of their own money into moonshots if NASA’s budget falls short.
Bridenstine said that was a “wonderful point.”
“A big reason that the 2024 moon landing is possible is because companies have been thinking about this, and they have been making their own plans and investing their own resources. So, the idea that with a public-private partnership, the companies themselves could actually step up to the plate in a bigger way … that is something that needs to be considered,” he said.
If the money from Congress doesn’t materialize, would private ventures go ahead with moon landings using their own resources?
“I’ll leave it to them to make that determination,” Bridenstine said.
Such stories helped ancient peoples get a grip on the workings of the natural world — and set the celestial stage for millennia of scientific advances. But ironically, those advances may be leading to the extinction of the stories, as well as the fading of the night sky.
As a species, Homo sapiens is exceptionally skilled at recognizing, replicating and creating patterns out of raw data. In her book, Marchant traces how ancient cultures connected the star patterns they saw in the sky with the natural cycles they had to deal with on Earth, and how those connections evolved in the ages that followed.
Our proclivity for finding patterns can sometimes get us into trouble, as illustrated by the attraction to the Face on Mars — or, more recently, QAnon conspiracy theories. But in the main, it’s a good thing: An argument could be made that the scientific method boils down to the ability to identify patterns that knit together data, and verify that those patterns apply to subsequent occurrences.
“I’m interested in how we built the scientific view, but I’m also interested in what have we lost,” Marchant said. “Does it matter that we no longer see the stars? We know from light pollution that most people in Europe and the U.S. can no longer see the Milky Way, for example. With artificial lighting and heating, and air travel, and our computers and phones, we’re living in a way that’s more disconnected from the cycles of the sun and moon than ever before.”
An overreliance on our devices, and on perspectives that are divorced from the natural world, could leave us unaware about emerging risks from climate change and viral spillovers. It could also rob us of the emotional response that pushed our ancestors toward discoveries: a sense of awe about the vastness and complexity of the cosmos.
“One of the most common ways that scientists use to trigger awe in studies is to show people pictures or videos of the starry sky, and they’re finding that when people feel awe, it makes them more curious, more creative, less stressed, happier, even weeks later,” Marchant said.
Exercising your sense of awe can also have a beneficial social effect. “People make more ethical decisions,” Marchant said. “They’re more likely to make sacrifices to help others. They care less about money. They care more about the planet. They feel more connected to other people and the Earth as a whole.”
Can we heal our social and political divisions and unite to solve environmental challenges just by looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope? If only it were that easy. Marchant said we’re sorely lacking in the kinds of stories that knit together the human and the natural world.
“Now we have this view of a physical universe out there — the scientific universe, if you like, made of particles and forces, and we’re separate observers of that,” she said.
Even those sagas are more about all-too-human affairs rather than our connections with the heavens. The long-ago, faraway galaxy of Star Wars, for example, primarily serves as a new stage for war-movie drama, just as Lucian’s 1,850-year-old sci-fi novel served to satirize his own society.
When I asked what kind of sci-fi came closest to capturing the cosmic connection Marchant was looking for, she pointed to “Avatar,” James Cameron’s 2009 movie about the clash between naturalistic aliens and machinery-mad humans. (Due to coronavirus-related delays, the sequels are now scheduled for release between 2022 and 2028.)
“I think it makes a difference, having people up in space rather than just machines,” Marchant said. “It’s kind of going back to that ancient view of the heavens, of seeing these characters and people in the stars, in the skies. … There’s also that perspective of looking back down on Earth, which has been so influential — that view of Earth from space.”
Astronauts have long talked about the Overview Effect, a deep sense of oneness with the Earth that arises when seeing its full disk from space, paired with a heightened desire to protect the planet from harm.
Could a widening of the Overview Effect restore humanity’s cosmic balance? If so, it’d be a sky story worth retelling for ages to come.
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
After our podcast Q&A, I asked Marchant if she had any recommendations for science fiction worth reading or watching. On the streaming-video front, she talked up “Devs,” an FX/Hulu series that capitalizes on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.
“What would the consequences of that be if you could have a computer that could literally predict everything that you were going to do in the future?” she asked. “How would that affect our sense of who we are, and our responsibilities?”
On the book front, Marchant recommended Frances Hardinge’s “Deeplight,” a Lovecraftian fantasy tale that’s set in an underwater realm. “It’s a great adventure story, but also she’s looking into themes of power and the divine, and what happens when the gods are taken away,” she said.
Marchant said her favorite part of “Deeplight” was Hardinge’s disclaimer: “The laws of physics were harmed during the making of this book. In fact, I tortured them into horrific new shapes whilst cackling.”
Based on Marchant’s recommendation, I’m designating “Deeplight” as this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which spotlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to pop up at used-book stores or your local library. For a list of previous CLUB Club selections going back to 2002, check out last month’s lineup.
Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong famously had to dodge a boulder-strewn crater just seconds before the first moon landing in 1969 — but for future lunar touchdowns, NASA expects robotic eyes to see such missions to safe landings.
And Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is helping to make it so.
In a tweet, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said technologies such as SPLICE “can provide spacecraft with the ‘eyes’ and analytical capability” for making safe landings. Blue Origin answered with a tweet of its own:
Will “Space Hero” go where no reality TV show has gone before?
Twenty years after “Destination: Mir” promised to put the winning contestant of a broadcast TV competition into orbit, “Space Hero” aims to take advantage of new commercial spaceflight opportunities to follow through on that promise at last.
But cautionary tales abound.
“Destination: Mir,” created by “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett for NBC, fizzled out along with Russia’s Mir space station not long after the project was unveiled in 2000. A similar project, aimed at putting boy-band singer Lance Bass on the International Space Station, faded away in 2002 when producers couldn’t come up with the money.
One British TV series, “Space Cadets,” told contestants that they were being trained for a space shot but actually set them up for one of the most elaborate hoaxes in television history.
This time will be different, said veteran entertainment industry executive Marty Pompadur, the chairman of Space Hero LLC.
“Space Hero is the new frontier for the entertainment sector, offering the first-ever truly off-planet experience,” Pompadur said today in a news release. “We aim to reinvent the reality TV category by creating a multi-channel experience that offers the biggest prize ever, to the biggest audience possible. Space Hero is about opening space up to everyone — not only to astronauts and billionaires.”
The show would trace the training of contestants for a spot on a spacecraft heading to the space station as early as 2023. Axiom Space, a commercial venture that has already struck a deal with NASA and SpaceX for a privately funded space trip, would be in charge of training and mission management. A global audience would cast votes to pick the winner, and there’d be live coverage of the 10-day space stay.
Space Hero says it’s currently in discussions with NASA for a potential partnership that would include educational initiatives. A countdown clock on the company’s webpage is ticking down to April 12, 2021, which marks the scheduled kickoff for the application process as well as the 60th anniversary of the world’s first human spaceflight.
The venture’s founding partners are Thomas Reemer, who has produced unscripted video programming in Germany; and Deborah Sass, whose career has focused on entertainment and lifestyle branding.
“When Thomas and I started this venture, we were very clear that there was nothing like it on the planet,” Sass said. “Today we have started our mission to find our distribution partner and are ready to take it to the next stage and get the world excited about Space Hero.”
The project is being produced by Propagate Content, a company founded by Ben Silverman and Howard T. Owens. Those executives have a storied pedigree in the entertainment industry, touching on shows ranging from “The Office” to an upcoming Eurovision spin-off series called “The American Song Contest.”
Will “Space Hero” succeed where past space TV projects failed? Those past efforts went by the wayside primarily because of a lack of funding. Potential distributors and sponsors have traditionally been chary about backing entertainment projects that could turn into a scrub — or, far worse, a Challenger-style tragedy.
Spaceflight doesn’t come cheap: The projected ticket price for flying commercially to the space station on a SpaceX Dragon or a Boeing Starliner is thought to be in the range of $50 million to $60 million, and NASA has said it’d charge roughly $35,000 a day on top of that cost for a space station stay.
But if projects that are already in the pipeline for space station stardom — such as Estee Lauder’s skin care ad campaign or the granddaddy of them all, Tom Cruise’s zero-G movie — turn into palpable, profitable hits, then it just might be time to put “Space Hero” on your appointment calendar for must-see space TV.
Update for 5 p.m. PT Sept. 17: I asked Hannah Walsh, who is handling public affairs for Space Hero, about the venture’s funding. Here’s her emailed reply:
“Space Hero is currently in the second stage of fundraising, which is exactly where they should be in the plan, and [they] are very comfortable with where they are in the process. Contracts have been signed with all partners and the next step is to evaluate the distribution offers and choose the relationship that best suits the project. Potential investors can find out more by contacting investment firm Gerald Edelman.”
The study could lead to a range of concepts for space missions to Venus, adding to several proposals that are already under consideration by NASA and other space agencies.
MIT planetary scientist Sara Seager, one of the authors of the research paper published this week in Nature Astronomy, is leading the Breakthrough Initiatives’ project as principal investigator. There’s already a website devoted to the study, VenusCloudLife.com, and a virtual kickoff meeting is set for Sept. 18, she told me today.
Among other leaders of the Venus Life Finder Mission Concept Study are MIT’s Janusz Petkowski and William Bains, two of the co-authors of the Nature Astronomy study; Georgia Tech’s Chris Carr; Caltech’s Bethany Ehlmann; the Planetary Science Institute’s David Grinspoon; and Pete Klupar, chief engineer of the Breakthrough Initiatives.
The study group will follow up on findings suggesting that a biomarker known as phosphine or PH3 is present within a potentially habitable band of clouds surrounding the hellishly hot planet. Phosphine can be produced by non-biological processes, but the team behind this week’s published findings said they could not explain how it was present at the detected levels unless biology was involved.
For decades, scientists have debated whether life might exist in the clouds of Venus — specifically, within a layer that’s between 30 and 40 miles above the surface. That’s the only place in the planet’s environment where water could exist in liquid form, and even there, the atmosphere contains droplets of highly corrosive sulfuric acid. Finding life is a long shot, but it’s a shot Milner thinks is worth taking.
“Finding life anywhere beyond Earth would be truly momentous,” Milner said in a news release. “And if there’s a non-negligible chance that it’s right next door on Venus, exploring that possibility is an urgent priority for our civilization.”
The budget for the Venus mission concept study is nowhere near $100 million. Seager said via email that the study will get a “few hundred thousand” dollars in support from the Breakthrough Initiatives, and that “we aim to have ‘in-kind’ contributions, i.e., work contributed, that push that number much higher.”
“It’s not really a huge amount for mission studies, but we are leveraging the formal study to get lots of people from the community to contribute,” she explained during a separate phone conversation. “We’ve got scientists, engineers, and we also have some industrial partners joining … but the study is just starting.”
Seager said Rocket Lab’s plan would be classified as a small mission concept. Such a concept envisions having a cruise vehicle drop off a descent capsule with a few kilograms’ worth of scientific instruments. The instruments would analyze Venus’ atmospheric composition for up to 10 minutes, potentially confirming the presence of phosphine and looking for other chemical signs of life.
Medium mission concepts would involve sending an inflatable balloon to Venus on a bigger rocket as a piggyback payload. The mission would be similar to what the Soviets did in the 1980s when they sent balloon-borne instruments into the Venusian atmosphere. Those probes transmitted data for a couple of days before their batteries gave out.
Such missions could accommodate an arsenal of scientific instruments amounting to as much as 20 kilograms (44 pounds).
“They could go beyond just detecting gases,” Seager told me. “They could analyze the liquid droplets in Venus’ atmosphere. They could try to identify complex molecules, like heavier molecules of the types that are only associated with life. And we’d like to imagine having a microscope on board. We could collect droplets and concentrate them and see if there’s anything that might resemble any kinds of life.”
Large mission concepts would involve sending an orbiter as well as a long-lasting balloon platform to Venus for months of study.
Seager said she expects the Breakthrough Initiatives project to work in a collaborative fashion with other teams that have parallel proposals for missions to Venus.
Among the potential missions are DAVINCI+, which aims to send a probe through Venus’ clouds; and VERITAS, which is designed to map Venus’ geology. Those mission concepts are among four finalists in NASA’s Discovery Program, along with concepts for missions to the Jovian moon Io and the Neptunian moon Triton. One or two of the concepts are to be selected for further funding next year.
“There is no doubt that NASA’s Science Mission Directorate will have a tough time evaluating and selecting from among these very compelling targets and missions, but I know the process will be fair and unbiased,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said this week.
But wait, there’s more: Plans for a NASA-led Venus Flagship Mission have been under discussion for years, and NASA is currently talking with the European Space Agency about an ambitious Venus mission concept called EnVision. Meanwhile, space scientists in Russia, India and China have their own ideas for missions to Venus.
A decade ago, the European Space Agency considered sending a balloon to Venus as part of a proposed mission called the European Venus Explorer, or EVE. That proposal fizzled out, but a different mission with a European connection, BepiColombo, should get a close-up look at Venus next month while on its way to Mercury.