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GeekWire

Starliner docks with space station after ‘excruciating’ wait

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi docked with the International Space Station for the first time today during an uncrewed flight test, marking one more big step toward being cleared to carry astronauts to orbit. But it wasn’t easy.

“The last few hours have been excruciating,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, acknowledged during a post-docking teleconference for journalists.

Despite a few glitches, Lueders and other leaders of the NASA and Boeing teams said they were generally pleased with Starliner’s performance, beginning with its May 19 launch from Florida and continuing with today’s hours-long series of orbital maneuvers.

“We’ve learned so much from this mission over the past 24 hours,” Lueders said.

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GeekWire

Boeing’s Starliner space taxi lifts off for second test flight

Two and a half years after an initial orbital flight test fell short, Boeing is trying once again to put its CST-100 Starliner space capsule through an uncrewed trip to the International Space Station and back.

United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket sent Starliner spaceward from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 6:54 p.m. ET (3:54 p.m. PT) today. Boeing and NASA are hoping that this second orbital flight test, known as OFT-2, will pave the way for Starliner’s first crewed flight later this year.

Within OFT-2’s first hour, Starliner separated from the Atlas 5 rocket’s Centaur upper stage and executed an engine burn to reach its intended orbit. “It’s a major milestone to get behind us, but it is really just the beginning,” NASA commentator Brandi Dean said. “We’ve got a number of demonstrations now that the Starliner will have to go through ahead of its International Space Station arrival.”

Boeing has received billions of dollars from NASA to develop Starliner as an alternative to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for sending astronauts into orbit. NASA’s arrangement with SpaceX and Boeing has been compared to a taxi service, with the space agency paying the spacecraft providers for rides.

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Universe Today

UFO hearing brings a few answers and more questions

For the first time in more than half a century, Congress conducted a public hearing into the state of the Pentagon’s study of unidentified aerial phenomena — which is the new name for mysteries once known as unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.

Scott Bray, deputy director of naval intelligence, told a hearing organized by the House Intelligence subcommittee on counterterrorism, counterintelligence and counterproliferation that military reports about UFOs — sorry, I mean UAPs — have been “frequent and continuing.”

Today’s hearing follows up on a Pentagon report that was issued last year and listed 144 UAP sightings that have been reported since 2004. The report pledged to take such sightings more seriously than in the past. “Since the release of that preliminary report, the UAP task force database has now grown to contain approximately 400 reports,” Bray said. “The stigma has been reduced.”

However, the hearing also made clear that the Department of Defense is still keeping mum about the detailed workings of its UAP detection and assessment process due to national security concerns. Bray and the hearing’s other witness — Ronald Moultrie, the under secretary of defense for intelligence and security — deferred some of lawmakers’ questions to the closed session that followed the open hearing.

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GeekWire

Nuclear power in space? Pentagon boosts two projects

Two Seattle companies have won Pentagon contracts to develop nuclear-powered prototypes for space applications, with orbital demonstrations set for 2027.

The Defense Innovation Unit says Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies has been tasked with demonstrating a chargeable, encapsulated nuclear radioisotope battery called EmberCore for propulsion and power applications in space.

Plutonium-powered radioisotope batteries have been in use for decades, going back to the Apollo era. For example, NASA’s Perseverance and Curiosity rovers are relying on such batteries to provide the heat and electricity for their operations on Mars.

EmberCore would provide 10 times as much power as those batteries, producing more than 1 million kilowatt-hours of energy using just a few pounds of fuel.

Another Seattle-based venture, Avalanche Energy, will receive backing from the Defense Innovation Unit to continue development of a compact fusion device known as Orbitron. The device, which is about the size of a lunchbox, would use electrostatic fields to trap ions in conjunction with a magnetron electron confinement system.

The resulting fusion reaction would produce energetic particles for generating either heat or electricity, which can power a high-efficiency propulsion system.

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Cosmic Space

See our galaxy’s black hole — and hear what’s next

After years of observation and weeks of rumor-mill rumblings, astronomers today unveiled their first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, Sagittarius A*.

Technically, the picture from the Event Horizon Telescope project doesn’t show light from the black hole itself. After all, a black hole is a gravitational singularity so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape its grip. Rather, the picture shows the “shadow” of a black hole, surrounded by the superheated, glowing gas that surrounds it.

And technically, the picture may not match what folks might see with their own eyes up close. Rather, the readings come from eight observatories around the world that combined their observations in radio wavelengths.

Nevertheless, the new view of Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short (pronounced “sadge-ay-star”), serves to confirm in graphic terms what astronomers have long suspected: that our galaxy, like many others, has a supermassive black hole at its heart.

Today’s revelations follow up on the Event Horizon Telescope’s first-ever black hole image, which was released in 2019 and showed the supermassive black hole at the center of M87, an elliptical galaxy about 55 million light-years away.

Sgr A* is much closer — a mere 27,000 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Sagittarius. But there’s nothing to fear from this black hole: It’s relatively quiescent, in contrast to the galaxy-gobbling behemoths that are standard science-fiction fare.

Our galaxy’s black hole is thought to hold the mass of 4 million suns within an area that’s roughly as big around as Mercury’s orbit. Checking those dimensions against the image data serves as a test of relativity theory. Spoiler alert: Albert Einstein was right … again.

“We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein’s theory of general relativity,” EHT project scientist Geoffrey Bower said in a news release. “These unprecedented observations have greatly improved our understanding of what happens at the very center of our galaxy and offer new insights on how these giant black holes interact with their surroundings.”

The EHT’s findings about Sgr A* are the subject of a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters — and to whet your appetite for all that reading material, here are three videos that summarize the past, present and future of black hole imaging:

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GeekWire

Mammoth zero-emission mining truck makes its debut

After years of development, the world’s largest zero-emission vehicle was unveiled today at a South African platinum mine, with a hydrogen-fueled hybrid powerplant designed and built by Seattle-based First Mode.

Anglo American’s three-story-tall, 200-ton nuGen hybrid mining truck received a grand sendoff from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Mogalakwena open-pit platinum mine. “It is a smart step for Anglo American, but a giant leap for South Africa’s hydrogen economy as we move into the future,” Ramaphosa said. “The hydrogen economy is beckoning us as a country and as an industry.”

Chris Voorhees, president and CEO of First Mode, said zero-emission industrial power will play a key role in addressing the global climate crisis. Large trucks currently account for 70% to 80% of diesel fuel consumption at Anglo American’s mines, but one nuGen truck is expected to keep the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions from 700 cars out of the atmosphere.

“At First Mode, we know we are at a ‘fire-everything’ moment,” Voorhees said in a news release. “The urgency in front of us requires that we deploy every tool and every technology to battle climate change. I’m so proud of the team and our partnership with Anglo American, focused on decarbonization at the source to effect the meaningful, necessary change we all seek.”

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Fiction Science Club

Why believing in the multiverse isn’t madness

What is the multiverse? The idea that the universe we inhabit is just one of many parallel universes gets a superhero shout-out in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” the latest movie based on Marvel comic-book characters.

And in the opinion of Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, giving some screen time to the multiverse isn’t such a bad thing — even if the plot has some horror-movie twists.

“I think it’s really good if some of these ideas are brought out in a variety of different ways,” Greene says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the realm where science and technology intersect with fiction and popular culture.

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GeekWire

Boeing is moving its HQ from Chicago to Virginia

More than two decades after the Boeing Co. moved its headquarters from its Seattle birthplace to Chicago, the aerospace giant is planning to do it again — this time, heading for Arlington, Va.

Boeing confirmed a report about the move that appeared today in The Wall Street Journal. Arlington already serves as the headquarters for Boeing’s defense, space and security business unit, and the company said it would develop a new research and technology hub in Northern Virginia.

“We are excited to build on our foundation here in Northern Virginia,” Boeing’s president and CEO, Dave Calhoun, said in a news release. “The region makes strategic sense for our global headquarters given its proximity to our customers and stakeholders, and its access to world-class engineering and technical talent.”

Boeing didn’t provide a timetable for the HQ switchover.

The move to Arlington in the Washington, D.C., area reflects a classic corporate strategy to have the company’s executive offices close to where the federal government’s purchasing decisions are made.

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GeekWire

Stratolaunch marks May the 4th with fifth flight test

Stratolaunch took the “fifth” on May the 4th, otherwise known as Star Wars Day. Today brought the fifth flight test for Stratolaunch’s 385-foot-wide carrier aircraft, known as Roc (in a nod to the giant bird of Middle Eastern mythology).

Roc ranks as the world’s largest airplane by wingspan, and is designed to carry and release the company’s rocket-powered Talon-A hypersonic vehicles for military and commercial applications.

Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft, founded the venture in 2011 — but after Allen’s death in 2018, ownership was transferred to a private equity firm. Like Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, Stratolaunch takes advantage of air-launch technology pioneered during the award-winning SpaceShipOne campaign that Allen bankrolled nearly two decades ago.

Roc took off from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port at 7:39 a.m. PT today for a flight that lasted four hours and 58 minutes and reached a maximum altitude of 22,500 feet. Stratolaunch took note of the Star Wars Day connection in a post-landing tweet. “The force is strong in this plane,” the company said.

The test’s prime objective was to check the aerodynamic performance of a new pylon added to Roc’s center wing section.

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Universe Today

Rocket Lab catches (and releases) a rocket

Rocket Lab has just joined SpaceX in the club of space companies that can launch an orbital-class rocket booster and bring it back alive.

In a sense, the California-based company one-upped SpaceX by having a helicopter snag the first-stage booster of its Electron rocket with a cable and a hook as it floated past on the end of a parachute, 6,500 feet above the Pacific Ocean.

So what if the pilots of the customized Sikorsky S-92 helicopter had to release the booster moments later, due to concerns about the way their load was behaving as it swung from the hook?