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Cosmic Tech

Virgin Galactic unveils supersonic plane concept

Virgin Galactic has taken the wraps off a concept for an airplane capable of flying three times the speed of sound, to be developed with support from Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

The project would be distinct from Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane program, which is closing in on the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Today’s announcement follows through on the company’s heightened focus on high-speed aircraft development, which is backed by a $20 million investment from Boeing HorizonX and supported by a deal with NASA to collaborate on supersonic projects.

Such an initiative seems likely to pit Virgin Galactic against aerospace industry players that have a head start in the race to revive supersonic travel — ranging from SpaceX and Lockheed Martin to Boom Supersonic, a startup that Virgin Galactic partnered with years ago.

Virgin Galactic says it has signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce for the development of the plane’s engine propulsion system, has put the design through a mission concept review in cooperation with NASA representatives, and is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to lay out a certification framework for the plane.

George Whitesides, who recently transitioned from CEO to a new position known as chief space officer to work on new projects, said the company has made “great progress so far” on the concept.

“We are excited to complete the mission concept review and unveil this initial design concept of a high-speed aircraft, which we envision as blending safe and reliable commercial travel with an unrivaled customer experience,” Whitesides said in a news release.

The basic parameters of the design include a Mach 3 delta-wing aircraft that would have the capacity to fly nine to 19 people at an altitude above 60,000 feet. Virgin Galactic could provide customized cabin layouts to address customer needs, including business-class or first-class seating. The plane would be designed to use existing airport infrastructure and lead the way in the use of sustainable aviation fuel.

The company provided no timetable for development. Nevertheless, the stock market’s initial reaction to the news was positive — boosting Virgin Galactic’s share price in early trading today.

Commercial supersonic travel faded away in 2003 with the retirement of the British-French Concorde, due to concerns about cost and sonic-boom restrictions. In recent years, NASA and a variety of aerospace ventures have been looking into “quiet-boom” technologies that might make supersonic flight more palatable (and satisfy regulators).

NASA has partnered with Lockheed Martin to build a test aircraft known as the X-59 QueSST, or Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator. The X-59’s first flight is due in the 2021-2022 time frame.

Meanwhile, Aerion Supersonic, Boom Supersonic and Spike Aerospace are among a new crop of supersonic startups hoping to field planes and win FAA certification in the years ahead.

Back in 2016, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said his company would assist Boom with engineering, design, manufacturing, flight testing and operations — and would take a purchase option on the first 10 airframes. Today’s announcement suggests that Virgin Galactic is now moving in a different direction.

For what it’s worth, Boom is due to roll out its prototype XB-1 supersonic jet in October.

Some wondered whether Virgin Galactic will be arriving too late to the supersonic soiree, or whether its plans for a high-speed aircraft were sufficiently realistic.

“Had to recheck the date on the calendar. Nope, not April 1,” Aviation Week’s Steve Trimble tweeted.

Mars Society President Robert Zubrin, meanwhile, tweeted an illustration showing SpaceX’s planned Starship super-rocket and wrote, “Mach 3 won’t cut it. The competition will be doing Mach 25.”

If Virgin Galactic’s supersonic airplane turns out to be vaporware, at least it’s cool-looking vaporware. Check out these renderings (all copyrighted by Virgin Galactic and used with permission):

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GeekWire

NASA astronauts splash down in SpaceX Dragon capsule

The first mission to send NASA astronauts into orbit on a commercially owned spaceship came back down to Earth today with the splashdown of a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in the Gulf of Mexico.

“On behalf of the SpaceX and NASA teams, welcome back to planet Earth, and thanks for flying SpaceX,” Mike Heiman, a lead member of SpaceX’s operations team, told astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken.

The splashdown closed out a 64-day mission to the International Space Station, aimed at testing the first SpaceX Dragon to carry crew. The reusable spacecraft, which put 27.1 million miles on its orbital odometer, was dubbed Endeavour as a tribute to earlier spaceships.

In May, Endeavour’s launch atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket made history, and today’s return to Earth did as well: It was the first time since 1975 that a crewed NASA spacecraft returned to Earth at sea, and the first-ever space landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

The splashdown marked the completion of the first mission to launch astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil since NASA’s final space shuttle flight in 2011.

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Astronauts dodge hurricane for Dragon homecoming

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule pulled away from the International Space Station today to begin the homeward flight for NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, even as Hurricane Isaias headed for Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Fortunately, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule is heading for waters off Florida’s other coast.

Dragon Endeavour undocked from the station at 7:35 p.m. ET (4:35 p.m. PT), on track for a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Fla., at 2:48 p.m. ET (11:48 a.m. PT) Sunday. The alternate landing site is closer to Panama City, Fla.

Both sites should be far away from Isaias’ expected track along the United States’ Atlantic seaboard, and the timetable could be adjusted if the weather forecast changes. NASA and SpaceX had made plans for seven potential splashdown targets, but due to Isaias’ strength, NASA concentrated on the westernmost sites.

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Amazon commits $10B to satellites after FCC’s OK

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized Amazon’s plans for a Project Kuiper constellation of 3,236 satellites that would provide broadband internet access across a wide swath of the globe — but on the condition that it doesn’t unduly interfere with previously authorized satellite ventures.

In response, Amazon said it would invest more than $10 billion in the project. “We’re off to the races,” Dave Limp, Amazon’s senior vice president of devices and services, said in a statement.

The FCC’s non-interference requirements and other conditions are laid out in a 24-page order that was adopted on July 29 and released today. The ruling addresses objections registered by Amazon’s rivals — including SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat.

Project Kuiper’s satellites are to be launched in five phases, and service would begin once Amazon launched the first 578 satellites. Under the terms of the FCC’s order, Amazon will have to launch half of its satellites by mid-2026, and the rest of them by mid-2029.

Amazon had sought to vie on an equal footing with constellation operators whose plans had been previously authorized by the FCC, but the commission said that in fairness, Project Kuiper would have to give deference to those plans. The FCC said that it expected Amazon’s mega-constellation rivals to act in good faith to resolve radio interference concerns.

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Perseverance rover begins trek to seek life on Mars

With the fiery flash of a rocket launch, NASA’s Perseverance rover headed out today for what’s expected to be a decade-long campaign to store up and bring back Martian samples that may hold evidence of alien life.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 7:50 a.m. ET (4:50 a.m. PT), sending the rover into space for a seven-month cruise to Mars.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, access to the area surrounding the launch pad was restricted, but hundreds of thousands of people watched the liftoff via streaming video. And as if the pandemic wasn’t enough of a challenge, in the minutes before launch, a magnitude-4.2 earthquake rattled through NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where the rover mission is managed.

Mission managers said the complications had no effect on the countdown.

“This is all about perseverance,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during the buildup to liftoff. “Going to Mars is all about persevering in general. Doing it now is more persevering than ever before.”

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Mars mission puts working from home to the ultimate test

The launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover marks the start of a seven-month-long journey involving tens of millions of miles of travel — but it also marks the end of an eight-year-long journey involving millions of miles of travel on the part of scientists and engineers across the country.

And perhaps the biggest marvel is that, in the end, most of them got the rover and its scientific instruments ready for launch while working from home.

Working from home has been a tough thing to manage for many of the businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing restrictions. It’s been tough for NASA as well.

“Putting a spacecraft together that’s going to Mars, and not making a mistake — it’s hard, no matter what. Trying to do it during the middle of a pandemic, it’s a lot harder,” Matt Wallace, the mission’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said during a pre-launch briefing.

Fortunately, NASA and its partners could draw upon decades’ worth of experience in remote operations. “When the pandemic came along, it didn’t make that much difference in the way I operate, because I was already used to working remotely with JPL,” said the University of Washington’s Tim Elam, who’s part of the science team for the rover’s X-ray fluorescence spectrometer.

Once the rover is on its way, working remotely will become even more routine. “Pasadena is about the same distance away from Mars that Seattle is,” Elam joked.

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Cosmic Science

ITER fusion project celebrates start of assembly

The $25 billion international fusion project known as ITER marked the start of its five-year reactor assembly process today with a ceremony tailored for the coronavirus era.

French President Emmanuel Macron was the headliner, appearing on a big screen set up at the construction site in France’s Provence region.

“ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future,” Macron told a small gathering of dignitaries who were spread out in the ITER Assembly Hall to observe social-distancing guidelines. “Breakthroughs in human history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty.”

Difficulties in the form of rising costs and delayed schedules have dogged ITER for more than a decade. When I visited the site in 2007, planners anticipated that operations would start up in 2016 — and the project’s cost was listed at $13 billion.

In an interview with Science’s Daniel Clery, ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot estimated that the rate of spending is around €1 million ($1.2 million) per day.  Clery’s report also noted that the first piece of the facility’s doughnut-shaped tokamak reactor, the nearly 100-foot-wide cryostat base, was lowered into the assembly pit in May.

Components for ITER are being provided as in-kind contributions by the project’s seven members: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Indian contractors built the cryostat, for example, while the U.S. is responsible for the central solenoid magnet (built by General Atomics).

Experiments at ITER are expected eventually to surpass the break-even point for a nuclear fusion reaction — a small-scale version of the reaction that powers the sun. That could blaze a trail for future commercial reactors potentially capable of generating cheap, clean, safe, abundant electricity.

ITER follows the conventional approach to fusion power, known as magnetic confinement fusion. Meanwhile, several commercial ventures — including General Fusion, based near Vancouver, B.C. — are trying to commercialize fusion power on a shorter timetable using less conventional approaches.

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Virgin Galactic offers a VR peek inside SpaceShipTwo

More than a decade after Virgin Galactic unveiled a swoopy, spacey look for the passenger cabin of its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, the company took the wraps off a more down-to-Earth design that reflects what spacefliers will actually see when they climb into their seats.

And in a move befitting this era of social distancing, the big reveal was done with the aid of virtual reality.

Virgin Galactic went so far as to lend out Oculus Quest headsets to journalists, including yours truly, so we could get an advance peek at a computer-generated interior with an eye-filling view of Earth and space out the window.

The VR experience let me do something I could never do during a real-life rocket ride: walk through the walls of the spaceship, stand on the wing … and step off into space. The thought experiment was a cosmic version of the classic VR game where you walk on a plank sticking out from the ledge of a virtual skyscraper and dare yourself to jump off. I couldn’t do it from SpaceShipTwo Unity’s wing unless I kept my eyes closed.

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Cosmic Science

XPRIZE organizes $5M challenge for COVID-19 tests

The nonprofit XPRIZE foundation has assembled a high-powered coalition to take on a high-priority problem: developing high-quality screening tests for COVID-19 that are low-cost and easy to use with a fast turnaround time.

The $5 million XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing competition is the latest project from the folks who created multimillion-dollar contests for privately financed spaceships, super-efficient cars and real-life equivalents of Star Trek’s medical tricorders.

Among those voicing support for the testing development effort are:

  • OpenCovidScreen, a nonprofit group that numbers researchers from such institutions as the University of Washington and business leaders from such companies as Illumina among its advisers and collaborators. OpenCovidScreen’s partners include ThermoFisher Scientific, Google, Amazon and Ancestry.com. The group’s president and co-founder is Jeff Huber, a former Google executive and co-founder of Grail, a cancer detection startup.
  • A $50 million fund known as the COVID Apollo Project, backed by investors including RA Capital, Bain Capital, Perceptive Advisors, Redmile Group and Samsara Biocapital.
  • Healthcare companies including Anthem, Blue Shield of California, BlueCross / BlueShield of South Carolina and Cambia Health Solutions.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said in a statement that he looks forward to “seeing the breakthroughs that arise from this challenge and the countless lives that will be saved as a result.”

Teams can compete in one of four categories, focusing on at-home tests, point-of-care tests, distributed lab tests or high-throughput lab tests. They’ll be asked to develop new tests that produce results within 12 hours of collecting a sample, using minimally invasive procedures.

Winning teams will be required to deploy and conduct a minimum of 500 tests per week at a live testing site within 60 days, and have the potential to scale up their solutions to thousands of tests per week.

Cost of the test should be less than $15, including all materials, with avenues for reducing costs as production is scaled up.

Currently, the cost of COVID-19 testing can range from less than $100 to more than $1,000, depending on healthcare circumstances. What’s more, the turnaround time for test results can extend past a week, due to shortages in supplies and staffing.

“Fast, affordable, and accessible testing is crucial to containing the COVID-19 pandemic and safely reopening schools, businesses and other vital institutions around the world,” XPRIZE CEO Anousheh Ansari said. “XPRIZE Rapid Covid Testing is inspiring the best entrepreneurial and scientific teams to come together to work towards rapid, affordable Covid-19 testing at scale, and ultimately, getting the world up and running again.”

Teams must register by Aug. 31, and the XPRIZE timeline calls for tests to be deployed in a pilot round that runs from Nov. 2, 2020, to Jan. 22, 2021. Winners are to be announced by the end of next January, with scaled-up production planned during the months that follow.

The reaction to today’s announcement was mostly positive. “THIS is what we need right now,” Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist at the Federation of American Scientists, said in a tweet.

However, the Food and Drug Administration is likely to have the final word on any tests that come out of the competition. And even without the contest, progress is being made on rapid-turnaround COVID-19 tests. There’s a chance that this XPRIZE will be rendered unnecessary before it reaches its climax. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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Cosmic Space

China launches Mars probe amid big questions

China’s most advanced space probe — Tianwen-1, whose name means “Heavenly Questions” — is on its way to Mars, beginning a quest that will be riddled with questions.

Some of those questions are definitely heavenly in nature: How are reservoirs of potentially precious water ice distributed beneath the Martian surface? Where are the best places to find traces of past life, or to shelter future explorers?

But the biggest question about Tianwen-1 is more down to Earth: Can the Chinese actually pull this off?

“Tianwen-1 is going to orbit, land and release a rover all on the very first try, and coordinate observations with an orbiter. No planetary missions have ever been implemented in this way,” mission team leaders wrote last week in Nature Astronomy. “If successful, it would signify a major technical breakthrough.”

The mission’s start looked auspicious, although it lacked the level of official reportage that Western space enthusiasts are used to.

A video stream from Douyu.com showed China’s Long March 5 rocket sending the 5-ton probe skyward from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island at 12:41 p.m. local time July 23 (9:41 p.m. PT July 22). China’s official Xinhua news agency confirmed the launch in a bulletin issued a couple of minutes later.

The plan calls for Tianwen-1 to make a seven-month cruise to Mars and enter a polar elliptical orbit next February.

Tianwen-1 is one of three Mars probes being launched this summer to take advantage of a favorable celestial alignment that comes around only every 26 months. The other two spacecraft are the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter, which was launched earlier this week; and NASA’s Perseverance rover, which is due for liftoff next week.

NASA’s recent Mars missions may make the interplanetary trip look easy. But over the past five decades, trips to the Red Planet have been so fraught with risks that mission managers used to joke darkly about a “Great Galactic Ghoul” who gobbled spacecraft bound for Mars.

Only NASA and the Soviet Union have successfully landed probes on Mars, and the Soviet Mars 3 lander lasted just 110 seconds on the ground before giving up the ghost in 1971.

Several NASA probes have gone astray, including Mars Observer in 1993 as well as Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander in 1999. China has fallen victim to the ghoul’s grip as well: Its first Mars probe, a piggyback orbiter known as Yinghuo-1, was lost when the Russian spacecraft it was riding on, Phobos-Grunt, failed to get out of Earth orbit after its launch in 2011 and eventually fell into the Pacific.

Since that failure, China’s robotic space program has had much more success: The Chang’e-3 mission put a rover on the lunar surface in 2013, and a little more than five years later, Chang’e-4 became the world’s first mission to explore the moon’s far side at ground level.

Tianwen-1’s agenda is similarly ambitious: The orbiter is meant to conduct a global high-resolution survey of Mars over the course of a full Martian year, or nearly two Earth years. Two or three months after entering Martian orbit, a lander will unhook from the orbiter, descend through the atmosphere and make a soft landing in Utopia Planitia with the aid of a parachute, retrorockets and airbags.

If that touchdown is successful, the lander will disgorge a 500-pound rover that’s bristling with six scientific instruments — including two cameras, a meteorology station, a magnetometer, a surface composition analyzer and a ground-penetrating radar that could map those hidden concentrations of subsurface water ice.

Mars’ reservoirs of water ice would be crucial for sustaining human exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. In the past, Chinese experts have talked about sending astronauts there sometime after 2040. But that’s an issue for another day. In the meantime, China — and the rest of the world’s spacefaring nations — will have to deal with lots of slightly less lofty heavenly questions.

Update for 1:25 a.m. PT July 23: NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wished Tianwen-1 safe travels in a tweet: