Peek inside TerraPower’s nuclear research lab

TerraPower lab

A panoramic view of TerraPower’s laboratory shows a full-scale fuel assembly test stand at the center of the frame – with lab facility manager Brian Morris pointing out details toward the left of the frame. The circle that’s painted on the floor indicates how big the nuclear containment vessel would be. Click on the picture for a larger version. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Just a stone’s throw away from Interstate 90’s crush of traffic, a decade-old startup founded by Bill Gates is running tests aimed at building the next generation of nuclear reactors.

You’ll find no more than a smidgen of radioactive material at the privately funded venture, known as TerraPower. But if Microsoft’s co-founder and TerraPower’s other leaders have their way, the technologies being pioneered at the 10,000-square-foot lab could boost electrical grids around the world.

We got a rare look inside the lab, which is housed alongside facilities for Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue’s Eastgate neighborhood, and we heard from TerraPower’s executives about the connection between Gates’ past as a co-founder of Microsoft and his vision for future energy innovation.

“If you think about Bill Gates’ accomplishments in computing, we’re really trying to repeat that for nuclear energy,” said Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s president and CEO. “We think nuclear is overdue for technology demonstrations.”

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Jerusalem dig finds traces of biblical conquest

Shimon Gibson

Shimon Gibson, co-director of the Mount Zion Archaeological Project, sets the scene at the Jerusalem site. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

One month after offering up archaeological evidence to back up a contested claim about the First Crusade, researchers say they’ve found traces of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in a deeper layer of their excavation on Mount Zion.

The newly reported find demonstrates how the site, just outside the walls of the Old City’s Tower of David citadel, serves as a “time machine” documenting the twists and turns of Jerusalem’s history.

The Babylonian conquest, which dates to the year 587 or 586 BCE, is one of the major moments of Jewish history. As detailed in the biblical Book of Kings, the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem for months, eventually broke through the walls and burned “all the houses of Jerusalem,” including Solomon’s Temple.

After the fall of Jerusalem, the Jewish people were sent into exile – an event that Jews commemorate with mourning and fasting every year on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This year’s Tisha B’Av observance began at sundown tonight.

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Shipwreck-hunting project wins TV spotlight

Vulcan's Rob Kraft

Rob Kraft is Vulcan’s director of subsea operations. (Image © 2019 Navigea Ltd. / R/V Petrel)

The voyages of the R/V Petrel, funded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, are the focus of a National Geographic documentary premiering on Aug. 12 – and as a prelude to the show, the leader of the Petrel team is talking about what it takes to find historic shipwrecks in the Pacific.

“Our missions have led to discovery of over 30 historically significant shipwrecks, diverse ecosystems and encounters with rare marine species,” Rob Kraft, Vulcan’s director of subsea operations, says in an online Q&A. “The environment we operate in brings inherent dangers, challenges and risk that most people will never experience.”

That all sounds like a natural fit for the next episode of “Drain the Oceans,” a National Geographic series that delves into what we’d find beneath the waves if the world’s oceans could magically disappear.

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5 big ideas from Microsoft’s original ‘mad scientist’

Nathan Myhrvold

Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold takes questions during a Hacker News meetup at Atlas WorkBase in Seattle. The T-shirt reads: “Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543.” (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Do a search on “Nathan Myhrvold” and “mad scientist,” and you’ll get nearly 2,000 hits, including profiles from the likes of The New YorkerEsquire and Men’s Journal.

Myhrvold, however, would probably prefer the title of “polymath”: Over the course of his career, the 60-year-old tech wizard has been a postdoc physicist under Stephen Hawking’s wing, Microsoft’s first chief technology officer, founder of Intellectual Ventures, author of Modernist Cuisine and other high-tech cookbooks, and a researcher into topics ranging from dinosaur tails to near-Earth asteroids.

The polymath held forth for more than an hour on such matters and more, without slides or notes, during a Seattle meet-up presented on Aug. 7 by the area’s Hacker News fan group and Cofounders Connect. Is Myhrvold truly mad? Check out these five big ideas from the talk, and then you tell me.

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Amazon patents spoilage-sniffing refrigerator

Spoilage-sensing refrigerator

A diagram indicates the location of chemical sensors in a proposed spoilage-detecting refrigerator. (Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Years after making its application, Amazon has won a patent for a refrigerator that uses cameras and chemical sensors to sniff out spoiled food.

But if you’re waiting to get one-day shipping for a fridge that knows your fruit has gone bad before you do, you might want to put those hopes on ice. Or look to similar spoilage-detecting gizmos that are already out there.

The concept is suited to our foodie age, as well as the age of the Internet of Things.

In the newly approved patent application, Amazon inventor Simon Kurt Johnston starts with the obvious: “Food or drinks in the refrigerator will eventually spoil.”

It almost sounds as if Johnston is speaking from experience when he explains why a spoilage-sensing fridge is needed: “A user may not notice that food or drinks within the refrigerator are spoiling because these items may be stored out of sight (e.g., at the back of the refrigerator, in a drawer or bin, or behind another item).”

The solution? Seal off every bin, and put cameras and sensors inside. The camera system could be programmed to capture regular images of the items inside a drawer, and then upload them for processing with machine-learning algorithms to recognize the foodstuffs and compare them with a database of food spoilage.

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Rocket Lab will try to recover rocket boosters

Rocket Lab booster recovery

An artist’s conception shows an Electron rocket making a re-entry. (Rocket Lab Illustration)

Taking a page from SpaceX’s playbook, Rocket Lab’s CEO says the company will try to recover the first-stage booster of its Electron rocket to save time and money.

“Electron is going reusable,” CEO Peter Beck announced today at the annual SmallSat conference in Logan, Utah.

But Rocket Lab will take a different route to rocket reusability: Rather than having the booster fire its engines for a retro landing on its feet, the rocket core will be built to withstand the fiery forces of atmospheric re-entry and pop open a parachute to slow itself down. Then it would get plucked from the sky by a helicopter flying out from a ship stationed in the Pacific near Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch complex.

Beck explained that doing reusability the SpaceX way wouldn’t work for Rocket Lab’s “smaller is better” business model. “That takes a small launch vehicle and turns it into a medium launch vehicle,” he said.

The plan for recovering and reusing boosters is a turnabout for Rocket Lab, which has focused on low-cost production of its currently non-reusable, carbon-composite-based Electron rocket and 3-D-printed Rutherford rocket engines.

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SpaceX launches satellite (and catches nose cone)

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from its Florida launch pad. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launched a Boeing-built, Israeli telecommunications satellite called Amos-17 into geosynchronous transfer orbit today, adding to what’s shaping up as a largesse of liftoffs.

The launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida came at 7:23 p.m. ET (4:23 p.m. PT), toward the end of an 88-minute launch opportunity that was marked by weather concerns. This was a makeup launch for Spacecom, the Israeli satellite operator that lost its Amos-6 spacecraft when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad in 2016.

Amos-17 is designed to provide enhanced voice, video and data services to customers in Africa and parts of Europe, the Middle East, India and China.

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