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Universe Today

No more rehearsals for NASA’s SLS moon rocket

NASA says it’s finished with having to do full-scale dress rehearsals for the first liftoff of its moon-bound Space Launch System rocket. But it’s not finished with having to make fixes.

“At this point we’ve determined that we’ve successfully completed the evaluations and the work that we intended to complete for the dress rehearsal,” Thomas Whitmeyer, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for common exploration systems development, told reporters today.

NASA’s assessment came after a dress rehearsal that reached its climax on June 20 with the loading of the 322-foot-tall rocket’s supercooled propellant tanks. The rehearsal, which followed some less-than-fully-successful trial runs in April, marked a milestone for launch preparations because it was the first time that the team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida had fully loaded all of the tanks and proceeded into the terminal launch countdown.

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GeekWire

Old satellites could get a new lease on life via the cloud

What do you do with an aging weather satellite? If you’re the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, you turn to Microsoft Azure and a Seattle-area startup called Xplore to find out if there’s a cheaper way to keep it going.

After a yearlong demonstration project, the three partners determined that there is a way, thanks to cloud computing and cloud-based mission control software.

“Our work with NOAA and Xplore is driving innovation to virtualize satellite ground station operations in the cloud,” Stephen Kitay, senior director of Microsoft Azure Space, told me. “And this is empowering agencies to tap into the newest commercial technologies and unlock new levels of resiliency and global capacity for critical mission operations.”

The demonstration — conducted under the terms of a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA for short — showed that cloud-based services could provide satellite mission management for one of NOAA’s legacy satellites, NOAA-18, in a way that met NOAA’s specifications.

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GeekWire

How ‘Big Data’ can help scientists focus the search for E.T.

Could far-off aliens be sending out signals telling us they exist? If so, how would we know where to look? Researchers focusing on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, have laid out a new strategy for focusing their quest.

The strategy applies simple trigonometry to millions of data points, with the aim of seeking out potential interstellar beacons that are synchronized with hard-to-miss astronomical phenomena such as supernovae.

University of Washington astronomer James Davenport and his colleagues lay out the plan in a research paper submitted to the arXiv pre-print server this month. The idea is also the subject of a talk that Davenport’s giving this week at the Breakthrough Discuss conference in California.

“I think the technique is very straightforward. It’s dealing with triangles and ellipses, things that are like high-school geometry, which is sort of my speed,” Davenport told GeekWire half-jokingly. “I like simple shapes and things I can calculate easily.”

The pre-print paper, which hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, draws upon data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia sky-mapping mission. But Davenport said the technique is tailor-made for the terabytes of astronomical data that will be coming from the Vera C. Rubin Observatory nightly when it goes online, a couple of years from now.

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GeekWire

Stratolaunch hits new heights with world’s biggest plane

Stratolaunch says its mammoth carrier airplane rose to its highest altitude yet during its seventh flight test over California’s Mojave Desert.

The aerospace venture, which was established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago but is now owned by a private equity firm, reported a peak altitude of 27,000 feet during today’s test.

If all goes according to plan, the twin-fuselage Roc airplane could begin flying Stratolaunch’s Talon-A hypersonic test vehicles for captive-carry and separation testing as early as this year.

One of the prime objectives for today’s three-hour flight at the Mojave Air and Space Port was to gather data on the aerodynamic characteristics of the plane, including a pylon structure from which the rocket-powered Talon-A vehicles will be released and launched.

Roc’s seventh flight came a week after the sixth flight test, which couldn’t achieve all of its objectives.

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Fiction Science Club

‘Maurice on Mars’ brings black comedy to the Red Planet

The world’s richest human wants to build a city on Mars: Fifty years ago, Elon Musk’s vision of our future on the Red Planet might have sounded like science fiction — but today, Musk is actually serious about the idea of using billions of dollars from ventures like SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network to finance the move to Mars.

“In looking in the long term, and saying what’s needed to create a city on Mars, well, one thing’s for sure: a lot of money,” Musk said back in 2015. “So we need things that will generate a lot of money.”

What kind of city would Musk want to see on Mars? His vision calls for a place that offers “everything from iron foundries to pizza joints to nightclubs” while getting rid of “special interests and coercion of politicians.” But what if cities on Mars turn out like cities on Earth, complete with wealth disparity, racism — and ambitious billionaires?

That’s the premise for “Maurice on Mars,” a darkly funny series of animated shorts created and written by comedian and TV writer Tim Barnes for Comedy Central’s Animated YouTube channel.

“I truly think that people often jump to that aspirational part of living on Mars,” Barnes says in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast focusing on the intersection of science and fiction. “But the practical thing is that you’re going to need people to build stuff once you get there. So the working class, the underclass, I believe will be the first people on Mars to actually build the White House there.”

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GeekWire

Radar love: Echodyne attracts $135M in new funding

KIRKLAND, Wash. — Echodyne, the radar platform company backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is announcing its biggest influx of funding to date: a $135 million round co-led by Gates and Baillie Gifford, a high-profile investment management firm based in Scotland.

Other investors include Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group and Vulcan Capital, as well as Northrop Grumman, NEA and Vanedge Capital. Echodyne CEO Eben Frankenberg said the newly announced round brings total investment to $195 million, which makes the trend line for the eight-year-old company’s fundraising efforts look like a hockey stick.

“It’s the hockey stick on the raise, and we hope it’s the hockey stick on the growth of the company,” Frankenberg told me.

Echodyne is one of several Gates-backed ventures that make use of metamaterials — a type of electronic array that makes it possible to “steer” a flat-panel antenna without moving parts. Frankenberg’s company focuses on compact radar systems that can track drones and other aircraft, or can be installed on drones or autonomous vehicles.

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GeekWire

World’s widest airplane lands early after flight test

Stratolaunch says the sixth flight test of its super-sized Roc carrier airplane ended earlier than planned when the team ran into an unexpected issue.

“While completing Roc testing operations, we encountered a test result that made it clear we would not achieve all objectives for this flight,” the California-based company, which was created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen more than a decade ago, said in Twitter update. “We made the decision to land, review the data, and prepare for our next flight.”

Stratolaunch’s 385-foot-wide, twin-fuselage airplane is the world’s largest aircraft by wingspan. Stratolaunch has been testing Roc at Mojave Air and Space Port in preparation for using the plane as a flying launch pad for rocket-powered hypersonic test vehicles.

The company, which was acquired from Allen’s estate by a private equity firm in 2019, didn’t specify the nature of the test results that led to the decision to land. For what it’s worth, one of the flight’s key objectives was to expand the testing envelope for the center-wing pylon that will carry and release the hypersonic vehicles.

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Universe Today

NASA sets up independent study on UFO sightings

NASA has dipped into the debate over UFOs for decades, but today the space agency said it’s commissioning an independent study team to survey a wide range of what are now known as unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs.

“The most exciting things in science are things we don’t understand, and my starting point — I think all our starting points for this — is that there are phenomena that we don’t understand,” astrophysicist David Spergel, who’ll lead the study team, told reporters.

“How do we start to make progress?” he said. “We have a very limited set of observations right now with these UAPs. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions. So we start by trying to figure out what data is out there. We’re going to be working with government, nonprofits, companies, civilians, and try to identify what data is already there, then start to think about what data should we collect in the future.”

NASA’s independent study will start early in the fall and run in parallel to the Pentagon-led effort to analyze UAP reports from aviators, which was the focus of a congressional hearing last month.

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GeekWire

‘The Infinite’ puts you aboard a VR space station

TACOMA, Wash. — One tour of the International Space Station is not enough, even if you do the tour in virtual reality.

I found that out when I explored “The Infinite,” a cleverly conceived VR presentation that draws upon more than 250 hours’ worth of 3-D video shot aboard (and outside) the space station over the course of nearly three years.

After months-long runs in Montreal and Houston, the show … or exhibit … or whatever you want to call it … landed at the Tacoma Armory late last month and is open to visitors through July 31.

The best way to describe “The Infinite” is to call it an immersive experience — an entertainment genre of relatively recent vintage that would also include the immersive Van Gogh exhibits that are making their way around the world. (One such exhibit recently wrapped up its Tacoma run, and another is still playing in Seattle.)

Even by the standards of immersive experience, “The Infinite” is in a class by itself.

“People don’t necessarily realize that this is the largest virtual-reality experience that has ever been created, in terms of size and in terms of capacity of people,” Felix Lajeunesse, co-founder of Felix & Paul Studios and chief creative officer for “The Infinite,” told me after my first encounter with the experience. “We can have up to 150 people sharing that collective experience at the same time, walking inside a 7,000-square-foot open space.’

So what do they experience?

Imagine putting on a VR headset, walking through outer space with the Northern Lights above you, and floating right through the hull of the ISS to peek in on what the astronauts are doing. You might be gathering with the crew around their makeshift dinner table for a birthday party, or watching them get ready for a spacewalk, or looking over their shoulders as they gaze through the station’s giant picture window while the Earth spins below.

You’re not just watching a movie. It’s as if you’re in the movie.

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GeekWire

Another record for calculating pi: 100 trillion digits!

Three years after Seattle software developer Emma Haruka Iwao and her teammates at Google set the world record for calculating pi precisely, they’ve done it again. Thanks to Iwao and Google Cloud, we now know what pi equals to an incredible precision of 100 trillion digits.

Why pi?

Mathematicians have been working out the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter for millennia, going back at least as far as the Babylonians (who figured it at 3.125). It’s important for scientists and engineers to know the irrational number’s value with a high degree of precision, but beyond a certain point, it’s really all about showing how well an algorithm or a computer network can handle more practical problems.