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Cosmic Space

Moon rover sites win state landmark status

Three spots on the moon are now official Washington state historic landmarks, thanks to a unanimous vote by a state commission.

The thumbs-up, delivered on Oct. 23 during a virtual public hearing organized by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, provided state landmark status to the rovers that Boeing built during the 1960s at its facilities in Kent, Wash., and that NASA sent to the moon for the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions.

King County awarded similar status more than a year ago, but the state commission’s 9-0 vote — delayed for several months due to the coronavirus outbreak — literally takes the landmarks to the next level. The rover sites are now eligible for listing in the Washington Heritage Register.

California and New Mexico set the precedent for declaring landmarks on the moon. Those states laid claim to the Apollo 11 site, by virtue of their connection to the scores of artifacts left behind at Tranquility Base.

Washington state’s connection to the rovers widens the range of lunar landmark locales to the Hadley-Apennine region (Apollo 15 in 1971), the Descartes Highlands (Apollo 16 in 1972) and the Taurus-Littrow region (Apollo 17 in 1972).

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OSIRIS-REx snags more than enough asteroid stuff

The leaders of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu, more than 200 million miles from Earth, say they’ve collected an overflowing amount of rocks and dust to bring back home.

Camera views of the probe’s sample collection head — captured on Oct. 22, two days after the collection maneuver — showed particles slowly escaping into space, through small gaps where rocks have wedged the container’s lid in an open position.

Based on what they’re seeing, scientists have concluded that they captured more than the 2 ounces (60 grams) of material that was considered the minimum requirement for mission success. The best guess is that the probe grabbed as much as 14 ounces (400 grams)

To make sure they maximize the return, team members are working to stash the disk-shaped head in its return capsule as soon as possible.

“The loss of mass is of concern to me,” the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million mission, said today in a news release. For that reason, the mission team decided to forgo a maneuver that would have involved spinning the probe and determining its moment of inertia, in order to get a better estimate of how much extra mass the sample added to the spacecraft.

“We were almost a victim of our own success,” Lauretta said.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said he’s “so excited to see what appears to be an abundant sample that will inspire science for decades beyond this historic moment.”

“Bennu continues to surprise us with great science and also throwing a few curveballs,”  Zurbuchen said. “And although we may have to move more quickly to stow the sample, it’s not a bad problem to have.”

This week’s sample collection maneuver — known as a touch-and-go, or TAG — served as the climax of a mission that began with the van-sized spacecraft’s launch in 2016. OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu two years ago and conducted a detailed survey, to prepare for the TAG as well as to study the 1,600-foot-wide asteroid’s composition in detail.

OSIRIS-REx carefully smashed its collection head into Bennu’s crumbly surface on Oct. 20. Scientists say the collection head ended up plunging 10 to 20 inches (24 to 48 centimeters) into Bennu’s crust. The head was beneath the surface for a mere six seconds, but that was enough time for a puff of nitrogen gas to blast a flurry of gravel and dirt into OSIRIS-REx’s dust catcher.

If the mission schedule holds true, OSIRIS-REx will fire its thrusters for the return trip next March, and drop off its precious sample capsule over the Utah desert during a flyby in September 2023.

OSIRIS-REx is an Egyptian-sounding acronym that actually stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.”  Bennu was chosen as the mission’s target because it’s rich in the carbon-bearing compounds that are thought to have served as the chemical building blocks for life on Earth.

Scientists hope that studying the sample up close will yield new insights into the origin of the solar system and the workings of astrobiology. The mission is also designed to help scientists figure out what kinds of resources could be extracted from asteroids, and what strategies would work best if a potentially hazardous asteroid ever had to be diverted.

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Cosmic Space

Images show OSIRIS-REx made ‘a good mess’ on asteroid

The first pictures from the OSIRIS-REx probe’s brief touchdown on the asteroid Bennu have boosted scientists’ confidence that they’ll be getting a good sample of out-of-this-world dust and gravel when the spacecraft swings back to Earth.

“We really did kind of make a mess on this asteroid, but it’s a good mess,” the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million NASA mission, said today during a news briefing at which the imagery was released.

The image sequence shows OSIRIS-REx’s arm smashing a foot-wide, circular sample collection head — known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM — down into Bennu’s crumbly surface, more than 200 million miles from Earth. The impact, and a well-timed blast of nitrogen gas, sent bits of material flying into space.

Based on an analysis of the images, the collection head penetrated about an inch (2 centimeters) beneath the surface, shattering a rock in the process. “Literally, we crushed it,” Lauretta said.

The collection head was designed to snare some of the material that was ejected during the touch-and-go. It was in contact with Bennu’s surface for only six seconds, but the probe’s performance during the maneuver was “as good as we could have imagined,” Lauretta said.

That’s good news for OSIRIS-REx’s scientists and engineers, who have been tasked with bringing back at least 60 grams (2 ounces) of material from the asteroid in 2023.

The van-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was launched in 2016 and arrived at the roughly 1,600-foot-wide asteroid two years ago. The Oct. 20 operation marked the first time NASA tried grabbing a sample of an asteroid for return to Earth. (The Japanese have done it twice in the past 15 years.)

Scientists hope the fresh sample of material from a multibillion-year-old asteroid will bring new insights about the origins of the solar system and the chemical precursors of life.

“Origins” is the first word in the phrase that forms OSIRIS-REx’s Egyptian-sounding acronym: “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.” The mission is also designed to help scientists figure out what kinds of resources could be extracted from asteroids, and what strategies would work best if a potentially hazardous asteroid ever had to be diverted.

In order to gauge the success of the sample collection effort, OSIRIS-REx’s team had to wait for imagery and data to be transmitted overnight. Lauretta said the crucial images were received at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area near Denver at 2 a.m. and assembled into a video showing the full sampling operation.

“I must have watched it about a hundred times,” Lauretta said.

Just after the touch-and-go maneuver, the spacecraft began backing away from the asteroid surface. It’s due to go into a holding pattern at an altitude of about 50 miles (80 kilometers) on Oct. 23.

Although the initial indications look good, scientists aren’t yet certain whether the operation grabbed enough of a sample to satisfy the mission requirements.

In the days ahead, they’ll turn the sampling arm toward the spacecraft and capture imagery of the inside of the sample collection head. They’ll also spin the spacecraft and measure changes in its moment of inertia, to estimate how much extra mass is now being carried.

If scientists determine that less than 60 to 80 grams of material was collected, they could try again at a different site on the asteroid’s surface in January. But if they’re good to go, OSIRIS-REx will start heading back toward Earth next March, and drop off the sample capsule over Utah in 2023.

Lauretta said he hasn’t gotten much rest over the past few days. “Science never sleeps in these kinds of conditions,” he said.

Now he’s ready for a change.

“The only thing I’m looking forward to is maybe being able to sleep well tonight, knowing that we’ve had a job really well done,” he said.

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OSIRIS-REx touches down to grab bits of an asteroid

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe reached the climax of its seven-year round trip to deep space today and briefly touched down on a near-Earth asteroid, propelled by thrusters made in the Seattle area.

Scientists and engineers at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area in Colorado received word at 4:12 p.m. MT (3:12 p.m. PT) that the touch-and-go maneuver at asteroid Bennu was successful, sparking cheers and fist-shaking. The maneuver was aimed at collecting samples of dust and gravel on the asteroid’s surface.

Mission team members wore masks and tried to observe social distancing as a COVID-19 safety measure, but some hugged nevertheless.

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” said the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the mission. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

All 28 of the rocket engines on the van-sized OSIRIS-REx probe were built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., and provided to Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft’s main contractor.

“The sample collection portion of the mission requires our engines to perform with extremely high precision, with no room for error,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s CEO and president, Eileen Drake, said in a pre-touchdown news release.

Fred Wilson, the head of business development for space systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne Redmond, said there was “a lot of excitement” at the Seattle-area facility when the crucial maneuver took place.

“These engines that we built roughly six years ago and shipped off … they’re doing their job out there,” Wilson told me after the encounter.

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Microsoft teams up with SpaceX for cloud computing

Microsoft says it’s taking the next giant leap in cloud computing, in partnership with SpaceX and its Starlink broadband satellite constellation.

“By partnering with leaders in the space community, we will extend the utility of our Azure capabilities with worldwide satellite connectivity, unblock cloud computing in more scenarios and empower our partners and customers to achieve more,” Tom Keane, corporate vice president for Microsoft Azure Global, said in a blog post.

The partnership with SpaceX is just one of the big revelations in today’s unveiling of Microsoft’s Azure Space cloud computing platform.

Microsoft also took the wraps off the Azure Modular Datacenter, or MDC, a mobile, containerized data hub that contains its own networking equipment and is capable of connecting to the cloud via terrestrial fiber, wireless networks or satellite links.

“If you choose, you can run this device completely disconnected from the rest of the world,” Bill Karagounis, general manager for Azure Global Industry Sovereign Solutions, said in a video describing the data center.

Today’s announcement builds on Microsoft’s earlier rollout of Azure Orbital, a satellite data processing platform that provides ground-station communications as a service. Azure Orbital, which is currently available in private preview, will become part of the wider Azure Space ecosystem.

The developments put Microsoft in the forefront of space-based cloud computing, alongside Amazon Web Services and its recently formed Aerospace and Satellite Solutions business unit. They’re also likely to turn cloud computing into yet another battleground for the multibillion-dollar rivalry between SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who founded the Blue Origin space venture.

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OceanGate copes with COVID-19 as it targets Titanic

Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate is getting ready to send explorers down to survey the wreck of the Titanic in its own custom-made submersible, but sometimes coping with the coronavirus pandemic can seem as challenging as diving 12,500 feet beneath the Atlantic Ocean’s surface.

For example, there was the time OceanGate had to retrieve carbon-fiber material that was held up at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama due to a coronavirus-caused lockdown.

“They had to send a hazmat team into the facility,” OceanGate’s founder and CEO, Stockton Rush, recalled today. “This was in March, and we got our material and our equipment out. I don’t believe NASA is back up and operating even now.”

In hindsight, sending in the hazmat team “was the right thing to do” despite the hassle and expense, Rush said, because that kept OceanGate’s hull fabrication process on track for next summer’s scheduled dives to the Titanic.

Now that process is well underway at Electroimpact and Janicki Industries, two companies north of Seattle that are better-known as aerospace contractors.

Rush said the experience taught him a lesson that other startup CEOs can apply as they cope with the pandemic’s effects: “Being nimble and not waiting is the only way to survive,” he said.

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Cosmic Space

Virgin Galactic preps for next suborbital steps

Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its first spaceflight from its new home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America this fall — and says planetary scientist Alan Stern will be among the first commercial spacefliers.

“This is the first selection of a private-sector researcher to fly with NASA funding on commercial vehicles,” Stern said in a news release.

Stern has never flown in space, but he has a lot of space experience: He’s best-known as the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt — which is hurtling outward on the edge of the solar system, ready for its next assignment.

He also has played roles in more than two dozen other space missions, and served as an associate administrator for science at NASA as well as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s board chairman and founder of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group.

During his upcoming spaceflight, which is yet to be scheduled, Stern will practice astronomical observations using a low-light-level camera that was previously employed during space shuttle flights. He’ll also be fitted with sensors that will monitor his vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing.

Alan Stern
Alan Stern is associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute. (SwRI / Purdue Photo)

Stern’s home institution, the Southwest Research Institute, bought tickets to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane almost a decade ago — and his personal interest in taking a trip to space goes back even further in time. Back in 2009, Stern told me that scientific research was likely to become the killer app for suborbital spaceflight.

“You spark this industry with tourists, but I predict in the next decade the research market is going to be bigger than the tourist market,” Stern said at the time.

A decade later, the unexpected twist turned out to be that suborbital research flights preceded tourism trips as money-makers for Virgin Galactic and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Just this week, Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship flew a dozen experiments for paying customers on an uncrewed test flight to the edge of space and back.  Scientific payloads have become a standard add-on for Virgin Galactic’s crewed test flights as well.

SpaceShipTwo’s last trip past its 50-mile-high space boundary took place back in February 2019. Since then, Virgin Galactic has moved the focus of flight operations from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port to New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Meanwhile, NASA has been working out the procedures to fund suborbital flights for researchers.

Now the stars seem to be aligning for commercial operations: Today, Virgin Galactic laid out the roadmap that it says should lead to SpaceShipTwo Unity’s first test flight to space and back from Spaceport America this fall.

The company said it’s conducting a series of rehearsals on the ground — and the pilots are using SpaceShipTwo’s carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo or VMS Eve, as an “in-flight simulator” for the approach and landing.

Chief pilot Dave Mackay explained that “the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window.”

Three scientific payloads will ride on SpaceShipTwo during the powered test flight, thanks to funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. There’ll just be the two pilots on board — Stern and other would-be passengers will have to wait a while longer.

In an application filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Virgin Galactic says it has a “crewed, powered test flight” scheduled for Oct. 22, to be preceded by practice flights by VMS Eve. But that date isn’t written in stone (or even carbon composite).

“Although preparations are going well, we are not quite at the stage where we can confirm specific planned flight dates for either our VSS Unity or VMS Eve test flights,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.

All of which means Alan Stern – and hundreds of other potential spacefliers who have signed up for trips on SpaceShipTwo – will probably be watching their e-mailbox (and Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account) very closely in the weeks to come.

Update for 5:49 p.m. PT: I’ve revised this report to make clear that Stern won’t be aboard SpaceShipTwo during its next test flight to space in New Mexico – though I’m betting he’d like to be. 

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Triumphs and tragedies in the vaccine quest

The good news is that Operation Warp Speed, the multibillion-dollar effort to develop vaccines for COVID-19, is moving ahead at a pace that justifies its name.

The bad news is that despite all that effort, the coronavirus outbreak is still likely to be with us next year — and low- to medium-income countries such as India are likely to be hit particularly hard.

“We’re going to probably see a lot of deaths,” said Lynda Stuart, deputy director for vaccines and human immunobiology at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “It’s going to be a great inequity and tragedy that will unfold.”

Stuart and other experts involved in the vaccine quest laid out their assessment of the road ahead today during the first session of the 2020 GeekWire Summit.

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Eight nations sign Artemis Accords for moon missions

Seven nations have signed up with the United States to participate in NASA’s Artemis effort to put astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024.

The Artemis Accords commit the signatories — including Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, Italy, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates as well as the U.S. — to observe a set of principles ranging from the interoperability of space hardware to the protection of heritage sites and space property rights.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other international representatives announced the signing of the accords today in conjunction with this week’s International Astronautical Congress.

During a briefing with reporters, Bridenstine said the accords will serve as the “preamble of bilateral agreements between the United States and all of our international partners as we go sustainably to the moon with commercial and international partners.”

It’ll be up to each nation to ensure that commercial partners under its jurisdiction — such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, for example — observe the requirements of the Artemis Accords. Just today, Blue Origin tested a guidance system that NASA aims to use on future lunar landers.

The signers of the accords will also be required to register the objects they’re sending into space and provide public notification about the location and nature of their operations, under a provision known as due regard.

If signatories don’t adhere to the accords and the follow-up bilateral agreements, they could be asked to leave the Artemis coalition, Bridenstine said. “There’s a lot of pressure that can be brought to bear,” he said, without going into specifics on the enforcement process.

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Blue Origin rocket tests NASA’s moon landing system

Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship today conducted a robotic rehearsal for a future touchdown on the moon — and by all appearances, it stuck the landing.

Testing most of the elements of NASA’s precision lunar landing system was the top item on the agenda for today’s mission, which represented the 13th uncrewed test flight of a New Shepard spacecraft for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture.

New Shepard’s flight had initially been scheduled for Sept. 24, but the launch was scrubbed due to a potential issue with the power supply for one of the 12 commercial payloads on board. It took more than two weeks for Blue Origin to resolve all the technical issues.

New Shepard’s reusable booster blasted off from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas at 8:37 a.m. CT (6:37 a.m. PT), sending a capsule stuffed with scientific experiments at a maximum speed of 2,232 mph to an altitude in excess of 65 miles (346,964 feet, or 105 kilometers). That’s beyond the 100-kilometer level that marks the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.

Toward the top of the ride, the capsule separated and floated back down to the Texas desert at the end of a parachute. Meanwhile, the booster made a supersonic descent. Just before landing, the booster relit its hydrogen-fueled engine in retro-rocket mode to fly itself autonomously to its landing pad for a record seventh time.

“That never gets old to watch that rocket,” launch commentator Caitlin Dietrich said from Blue Origin’s home base in Kent, Wash. “It almost looks fake, every single time.”

The flight took just over 10 minutes, from liftoff to the capsule’s touchdown.

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