Cygnus cargo ship launched to space station

Antares launch

Orbital ATK’s Antares rocked rises from its Virginia launch pad, sending a robotic Cygnus cargo ship into space. (NASA Photo / Audrey Gemignani)

Orbital ATK sent its robotic Cygnus cargo spaceship on its way to the International Space Station today, loaded up with more than 7,200 pounds of supplies, equipment and science experiments.

The two-stage Antares rocket rose from its launch pad from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at 4:44 a.m. ET (1:44 a.m. PT), lighting up the predawn sky for observers across a wide swath of the mid-Atlantic coast.

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China sends relay satellite toward moon’s far side

China today launched a satellite that will serve as the communications relay for a future probe on the moon’s far side. The satellite, dubbed Queqiao(Chinese for “Magpie Bridge”), lifted off from the Xichang Launch Center in southwest China atop a Long March 4C rocket at 5:28 a.m. local time May 21 (2:28 p.m. PT today).

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Small seeds could spur giant leap in space farming

Plant habitat

Plants grow in a prototype of the habitat that will be used on the International Space Station to study which strains of crops do best in a weightless environment. (Washington State University Photo)

When Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket launches a robotic Cygnus cargo spaceship toward the International Space Station, as early as Monday, it’ll be sending seeds that could show the way for future space farmers.

The Antares liftoff is currently set for 4:39 a.m. ET (1:39 a.m. PT) on Monday from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, with an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather. NASA’s live-streaming coverage of the countdown begins at 1 a.m. PT Monday.

More than 7,200 pounds of supplies, equipment and experiments will be packed aboard the Cygnus. One of the smallest payloads consists of seeds for the Final Frontier Plant Habitat — part of a $2.3 million, NASA-funded initiative that involves researchers from Washington State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the University of New Mexico and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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NASA’s planet-hunting probe sends first test image

TESS test image

This test image from one of the four cameras aboard the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, captures a swath of the southern sky along the plane of our galaxy. (NASA / MIT / TESS Photo)

One month after its launch, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite has sent back an initial test image that shows more than 200,000 stars in the southern sky.

TESS’ image was taken by one of its cameras with a two-second exposure. The picture is centered on the constellation Centaurus, with the edge of the dark Coalsack Nebula at upper right and the star Beta Centauri prominent along the lower edge.

The picture provides only a hint of what TESS will be seeing once it starts delivering science-quality images next month. When all four wide-field cameras are in operation, TESS’ images should cover more than 400 times as much of the sky.

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Kilauea eruption sparks Mount St. Helens memories

Kilauea eruption

An ash plume rises from the Kilauea volcano’s caldera on May 15. (USGS Photo)

The ash plumes, red alerts and evacuations caused by the Kilauea volcano’s eruption are stirring up wonder and worry in Hawaii, but they’re also stirring up memories on the 38th anniversary of Mount St. Helens’ big blast in Washington state.

St. Helens’ eruption of May 18, 1980, ranks as the deadliest volcanic event in U.S. history. Fifty-seven people were killed, and hundreds of square miles of forest were destroyed. Ash rose 16 miles into the sky and was carried by the wind as far east as Montana.

I was one of the journalists who got caught up in the eruption’s aftermath, as an assistant city editor for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. Even hundreds of miles away, the cloud of ash turned the afternoon to night. A thin layer of pumice coated the entire city, gumming up traffic and forcing a lot of us to don face masks when we stepped outside.

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6 takeaways from Elon Musk’s big tunnel talk

Elon Musk and Steve Davis

Elon Musk and Boring Company project leader Steve Davis talk about tunnels at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. (Boring Company Photo / Kevin Mills)

If billionaire Elon Musk’s tunnel vision comes to pass, travelers will be able to zip beneath Los Angeles through an underground Loop system at 150 mph for about $1 a ride.

That’s the promise of the Boring Company in a nutshell. During a Thursday night session that lasted nearly an hour, Musk and the Boring Company’s project leader, Steve Davis, laid out their case for building a network of tunnels 30 feet or more beneath Los Angeles, starting with a 2.7-mile “proof of concept” dig.

Musk’s aim is to get around the “soul-destroying traffic” that afflicts L.A. and other big cities, by building as many tunnels as needed to accommodate underground transit on fast-moving pods. Priority would be given to passengers and bicyclists, but cars could be lowered from the streets into subterranean superhighways as well.

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Worried about fake news? Get set for fake humans

Chatbot discussion

Speakers at a Seattle University event organized by the MIT Enterprise Forum Northwest discuss human-machine interaction with a word cloud displayed on the screen behind them. The words were provided by the audience to answer a question: “What scares you the most about technology?” (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

We have heard the voice of our future AI overlord — and it’s making hair appointments for us.

Last week, Google wowed the world by demonstrating a voice assistant called Duplex that sounds eerily human on the telephone, right down the um’s and mm-hmm’s that it uses during its chat with a scheduler at a hair salon.

Some are now questioning how true-to-life the demo actually was. But even if some liberties were taken, Google Duplex was an eye-opener for experts who gathered at Seattle University on Wednesday night for an AI-centric event presented by MIT Enterprise Forum Northwest.

“Seeing that happen so quickly, I think, was a real shock for some people,” said Kat Holmes, a Microsoft veteran who’s the founder of the design company Kata and the author of “Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design.”

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