Make-believe mission to Mars begins in Hawaii

HI-SEAS habitat

The terrain surrounding the HI-SEAS habitat on Mauna Loa looks like Mars. (Univ. of Hawaii Photo)

Six volunteers – including two with connections to Washington state – have begun eight months of being cooped up in a Hawaii habitat that’s meant to simulate life on Mars.

The Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation project, known as HI-SEAS, is one of several long-running experiments that use earthly environments as a training ground for future Red Planet expeditions. This is the fifth simulated mission to be staged on the slopes of Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island, 8,200 feet above sea level.

The University of Hawaii at Manoa has conducted the simulations since 2012, thanks to $1.2 million in NASA funding. The best-known simulation lasted for a year and ended last August, paralleling the “Year in Space” mission conducted by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station.

NASA re-upped with a $1 million grant for Mission 5, plus Mission 6 in 2018.

During the simulation mission, the volunteer crew will be confined to a 36-foot-wide geodesic dome, except when they don bulky mock spacesuits for treks across Mauna Loa’s Mars-like terrain.

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Science policy in limbo as Trump takes office

Donald Trump met with tech industry leaders including venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Apple CEO Tim Cook last month. (Pool via YouTube)

Donald Trump met with tech industry leaders including venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Apple CEO Tim Cook last month. (Pool via YouTube)

Although President Donald Trump says he’s ready to delve into the mysteries of space, he still has to make key appointments at NASA and other agencies dealing with science and technology policy.

And some of the picks he’s already made pose challenges. For example, his nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency has in the past filed lawsuits against the EPA. And his nominee for energy secretary, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, once sought to have that Cabinet department eliminated (even though he couldn’t remember that during a debate).

Here’s a quick rundown on the questions surrounding seven agencies that deal with science and technology policy.

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Tech shines as bright spot in Trump’s speech

Donald Trump

Donald Trump vows to “Make America Great Again” in his inaugural address. (Pool via YouTube)

Donald Trump’s first address as president may have sounded like a “Make America Great Again” campaign speech, but he did include at least a few bright words about the promise of science and technology.

“We stand at the birth of a new millennium,” he said at the U.S. Capitol after his swearing-in, “ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow. A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights and heal our divisions.”

Trump’s references to the technologies of tomorrow provided some relief in an inaugural address that drew the same battle lines that the unconventional candidate laid out during the campaign.

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UW Hyperloop team unveils purple pod racer

Hyperloop pod racer

The UW Hyperloop team’s sleek pod racer is unveiled at an Eastlake lab building amid the glow of purple spotlights. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

The University of Washington’s Hyperloop team showed off its sleek pod racer and let fans take a peek under the carbon composite hood, one week before a national competition in California.

For the team’s roughly 35 students, the Jan. 19 unveiling at the GloCal Composites Lab in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood was an opportunity to celebrate the purple-tinted fruits of their labor.

“Everyone is committed to being a part of something bigger than themselves, grander than the team itself, and ultimately as a part of history as we think about the next mode of transportation,” UW engineering student David Coven, one of the team’s leaders, told the gathering of students and faculty, guests and journalists.

In its grandest form, the Hyperloop concept calls for shooting passenger pods through tubes at near-supersonic speeds. SpaceX founder Elon Musk came up with the idea in 2013 as a means of traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles in about a half-hour.

Musk is leaving the commercialization of the concept to others, but in the meantime, SpaceX is sponsoring a college competition for scaled-down models of the pods. Coven said he and other students at UW jumped at the opportunity.

“We couldn’t help ourselves,” he said.

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Surveys point to continuing partisan divide

Clinton and Trump

Surveys suggest the divide between Democrats and Republicans will persist. (GeekWire Graphic)

Will America come together in the wake of this week’s presidential inauguration? The prospects for that appear dim, based on a trio of surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center.

One of the surveys, released today, hits a new low for political division: Eighty-six percent of the respondents said the country is more politically divided these days than in the past, while only 12 percent say it’s not more divided. That pessimism was shared by Republicans and Democrats in nearly equal measure.

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Jeff Bezos gives a boost to his rocket engine

Ox Boost Pump

An employee works on the BE-4 Ox Boost Pump prior to engine installation. (Blue Origin Photo)

And now for something completely different from Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos: His latest mass email isn’t about jobs, or Donald Trump, or his new D.C. digs. It’s about a rocket engine boost pump.

Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, which he founded more than 16 years ago, is in the midst of building a next-generation rocket engine fueled by liquefied natural gas, known as the BE-4. Today, Bezos lifted the curtain on one of the engine’s subassemblies and highlighted how Blue Origin is using 3-D printing.

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Big data helps scientists solve protein puzzles

Protein models

The molecular diagram at left is a representation of a protein molecule known as DMT superfamily transporter YddG, generated by Rosetta@Home software. The diagram at right is a representation of the molecule as determined by experiments. (Sergei Ovchinnikov et al. / UW via AAAS / Science)

Molecular biologists have enlisted cutting-edge trends in genomics and big data to get a grip on one of the grand challenges of biotech: figuring out how protein molecules fold.

But they couldn’t have done it without the help of tens of thousands of volunteers.

The fruits of all that crowdsourced computer labor went public today in the journal Science. Researchers from the University of Washington and other institutions say they’ve solved more than 600 protein-folding mysteries – which represents a fair proportion of the estimated 5,200 protein families whose molecular structure was unknown.

Still more solutions are in the works, and solving those puzzles could lead to new types of medicines and synthetic molecular machinery.

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