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GeekWire

NASA funds big ideas from small businesses

How do you keep moondust from gumming up the works in NASA’s future spacesuits and spacecraft? That’s one of the issues addressed in the latest batch of projects backed by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

“NASA is working on ambitious, groundbreaking missions that require innovative solutions from a variety of sources – especially our small businesses,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in a news release. “Small businesses have the creative edge and expertise needed to help our agency solve our common and complex challenges, and they are crucial to maintaining NASA’s leadership in space.”

Four SBIR research contracts will go to Washington state companies. And two of those contracts are going to Everett-based Off Planet Research. One Off Planet project focuses on the development of a flexible fiber seal that will hold up in dusty environments.

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GeekWire

Starliner space taxi’s success paves way for crewed flight

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space capsule landed safely amid the sands of New Mexico after a six-day test flight to the International Space Station and back.

This trip was uncrewed — assuming you don’t count a sensor-equipped mannequin nicknamed Rosie the Rocketeer as a crew member. But living, breathing astronauts could fly on Starliner as soon as this year.

All went well today with Starliner’s descent from the space station and its parachute-aided, airbag-cushioned landing at White Sands Missile Range, Cheers arose at NASA’s Mission Control in Houston, where the final stages of the flight test were being tracked.

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GeekWire

NRO strikes multibillion-dollar deals for satellite images

Three satellite imaging companies are in line to receive billions of dollars from the National Reconnaissance Office over the next decade, thanks to a string of contracts announced today.

The companies are the same satellite operators who won study contracts from the NRO three years ago: BlackSkyMaxar Technologies and Planet.

BlackSky, which got its start in Seattle and is now headquartered in Virginia, says its contract for Electro-Optical Commercial Layer imagery sets up a five-year base subscription with a starting value of $85.5 million, plus options to extend the contract to 10 years. If all options are exercised, total contract value would be $1.021 billion.

Colorado-based Maxar, which was the first to provide commercial satellite imagery to the NRO, would be paid $300 million per year for the first five years, plus options for $1.74 billion in the following five years. Total potential value would be $3.24 billion. California-based Planet didn’t disclose the value of its contract.

BlackSky’s stock nearly doubled in value today, ending the trading session at $2.33 per share. Maxar’s share price rose almost 18% to close at $28.86. Meanwhile, Planet’s stock was up 14%, finishing up at $5.73.

Frequently updated commercial imaging has proven its value to the U.S. intelligence community in crises such as the war in Ukraine. The NRO said today’s deals represent the agency’s largest-ever commercial imagery contract effort.

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GeekWire

Spaceflight’s latest orbital tug debuts on SpaceX launch

A new type of controllable orbital transfer vehicle built by Seattle-based Spaceflight Inc. made its debut today when SpaceX sent dozens of satellites into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX’s Transporter-5 mission, which is part of the company’s rideshare program, lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2:35 p.m. ET (11:35 a.m. PT):to send 59 small spacecraft to space. Minutes after stage separation, the Falcon 9’s reusable first-stage booster made a rare land-based touchdown at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, not far from the launch site.

The piggyback spacecraft were to be deployed from the rocket’s upper stage into low Earth orbit, or LEO, over the course of a little more than an hour. One of those spacecraft is Spaceflight’s Sherpa-AC1, the latest in the company’s line of Sherpa orbital transfer vehicles, also known as space tugs.

Sherpa tugs are designed to go out from their launch vehicles and deliver an assortment of small satellites to different orbits. The tugs can also carry hosted payloads, which do their thing while remaining attached to the tug.

The Sherpa-AC adds capabilities for attitude control (hence the “AC”) and tracking. An onboard flight computer keeps track of the tug’s location in space, and a command and control system can keep the spacecraft pointed in the right direction. There’s also a two-way communication system, an electrical power system and a basic thermal control system.

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GeekWire

Space startups get a cloud-based boost from Amazon

For the 10 startups participating this year in Amazon Web Services’ Space Accelerator program, the sky is not the limit.

One company is building the next generation of ultra-high-resolution satellites for Earth observation. Another startup is developing electric propulsion systems for spacecraft and satellites in low Earth orbit. And yet another venture is working on a new type of space capsule that could someday carry cargo and crew to the moon.

“This year’s finalists brought forward pioneering ideas that will draw valuable insights from the depths of the ocean floor to the surface of the moon, and nearly everything in between,” Clint Crosier, director of AWS for Aerospace and Satellite Solutions, said today in a blog post.

Today’s announcement about the Class of 2022 follows up on last year’s inaugural Space Accelerator program. Hundreds of startups applied to take part in the program’s second year, and AWS worked with the AlchemistX accelerator management program to select these 10 finalists.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Email From the Future’ imagines a world without greed

Visions of Utopia go back to the year 1516, when Thomas More literally wrote the book on the subject — but is it an outdated idea to envision a world where today’s biggest problems are solved?

Michael Rogers, who styles himself as a “Practical Futurist,” doesn’t think so. His day job is to lay out visions of the future for audiences ranging from startups to Boeing, Microsoft and other Fortune 500 companies. In a new book called “Email From the Future,” he describes a future world of 2084 where ideas that may seem impractical today end up taking care of climate change, wealth inequality, culture wars and other ills that afflict today’s society.

“Going toward the future is a little like sailing upwind,” Rogers says in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast that focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. “You have to tack back and forth around the obstacles, but every once in a while you have to raise up your head and look, and make sure you’re still going in approximately the right direction.”

If Rogers’ vision comes to pass, we’re in for a big course correction: His tale incorporates moves to limit executive pay, institute a tax on robots (first suggested by Bill Gates in 2017), cut carbon emissions to zero by 2040 and create a climate reparations fund. Along the way, ultra-rich tech titans become as extinct as the titanosaurs.

“In my book, there is a realization specifically around climate change and the fact that it’s going to cost trillions of dollars to fix the planet,” Rogers told me. “So there’s again a big social shift in which the ultra-rich no longer look like heroes. They actually look like people who are withholding resources that could be saving lives.”

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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.