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GeekWire

Virgin Orbit scores its first orbital launch

Eight months after an unsuccessful first attempt, Virgin Orbit finally lived up to its name today and used an innovative air-launch system to send 10 satellites to orbit.

With backing from British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system capitalizes on a concept that Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen funded 17 years ago.

The air-launch concept won SpaceShipOne a $10 million prize back in 2004. Today, it plays an essential role not only for LauncherOne, but also for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system and the Stratolaunch venture that Allen founded in 2011.

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, serves as a flying launch pad for the two-stage LauncherOne rocket.

During last May’s first full-fledged flight test, the rocket’s first-stage NewtonThree engine lit up for only a few seconds before a breach in the propellant system forced a shutdown. No such glitch arose today.

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Cosmic Space

NASA’s moon rocket test ends early, raising questions

NASA’s first full-up, on-the-ground test for the main engines on its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket ended prematurely today due to an automated shutdown.

“Today was an important day,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the test. “I know not everybody is feeling as happy as we otherwise could, because we wanted to get eight minutes of a hot fire, and we got over a minute.”

Despite the early shutdown,  NASA said the “Green Run” engine test produced valuable data in preparation for the first honest-to-goodness SLS launch, currently set for late this year.

That launch would kick off an uncrewed round-the-moon trip for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The mission, known as Artemis 1, is a key step in the plan to send astronauts around the moon on NASA’s Artemis 2 mission in the 2023 time frame, and then put them on the lunar surface by as early as 2024 during the Artemis 3 mission.

Today’s test at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi focused on the SLS rocket’s core stage and its four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines. The engines are refurbished leftovers from the space shuttle program, and had been used on shuttle missions going as far back as 1998.

Each of the engines delivers more than 400,000 pounds of thrust, adding up to 1.6 million pounds of thrust when all four engines are firing. When the Artemis 1 mission lifts off, the SLS’ solid rocket boosters will bring total thrust to more than 8 million pounds. In comparison, the Saturn V moon rocket’s first stage delivered 7.6 million pounds of thrust back in the 1960s and 1970s.

NASA’s SLS team put months of work into the preparations for today’s test. More than 700,000 pounds of super-chilled hydrogen and oxygen were loaded into the core stage’s tanks for the engine firing. When the countdown reached zero, all four engines roared into life on cue, sending giant clouds of steam billowing into the air.

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Cosmic Science

More coffins — and mysteries — unearthed in Egypt

The historical hits keep coming from Egypt’s Saqqara dig: Today archaeologists announced the discovery of more than 50 wooden coffins, found inside 52 burial shafts that go almost 40 feet deep.

An excavation team headed by Zahi Hawass, one of Egypt’s best-known archaeologists, also explored the funerary temple of Queen Nearit — parts of which were found in previous years. Nearit was one of the wives of King Teti, who ruled Egypt more than 4,000 years ago and built a pyramid next to the newly excavated site in Saqqara.

The finds promise to shed light on more than a millennium’s worth of ancient Egyptian history.

“These discoveries will rewrite the history of this region, especially during the 18th and 19th dynasties of the New Kingdom, during which King Teti was worshiped and the citizens at that time were buried around his pyramid,” the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said in a statement published to Facebook.

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GeekWire

Blue Angels promise a louder post-COVID air show

The U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels had to pass up their traditional Seafair air show in Seattle last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but assuming the all-clear is given, they promise to come roaring back this August.

Literally.

This will be the first year that the Blue Angels do their aerobatic act with F/A-18 Super Hornets instead of the “legacy” Hornets that the team has used for 34 years. The shift is the result of a transition that’s been years in the making.

When it comes to power, the Boeing-built Super Hornets are … well, super.

“With the Super Hornet, the show will definitely be audibly louder, because the jet itself produces more thrust,” Lt. Julius Bratton, who serves as the team’s narrator and No. 7 pilot, explained today during a Zoom video conference with reporters. “The Super Hornet has about 42,000 pounds of thrust in full afterburner, whereas the legacy Hornet that we previously flew had about 32,000 pounds of thrust.”

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GeekWire

Blue Origin aces rehearsal for crewed space trips

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture put the New Shepard spaceship that’s destined to fly people on suborbital trips through its first uncrewed test flight today — and by all appearances, the practice run was a success.

The reusable booster and its attached crew capsule lifted off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site 1 in West Texas at about 11:19 a.m. CT (9:19 a.m. PT), after a countdown that was delayed 20 minutes due to concerns about midlevel winds.

“Look at her go!” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said.

This was the first outing for this particular spaceship. The capsule has been dubbed RSS First Step, with RSS standing for “reusable spaceship.” During a string of 13 previous test flights going back to 2015, Blue Origin has flown two other reusable capsules — but First Step is the first one that’s fully configured to take up to six people to the edge of space and back.

If the program goes as hoped, Blue Origin could start flying people later this year.

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Cosmic Science

Check out the world’s oldest known animal painting

Archaeologists say they’ve found the oldest known artistic depiction of a natural creature — a painting of a warty pig that’s at least 45,500 years old, found inside a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

“The Sulawesi warty pig painting we found in the limestone cave of Leang Tedongnge is now the earliest known representational work of art in the world, as far as are aware,” study co-author Adam Brumm of Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution said today in a news release.

Brumm and his colleagues discovered the painting during an expedition in 2017. It’s part of a scene that appears to show three or four animals facing off against each other on the cave wall.

The painting’s age — reported in Science Advances, an open-access journal — was estimated by using a uranium-series dating technique on mineral deposits that formed over the painting. The researchers behind the find say the artwork could be thousands of years older.

In any case, the reported minimum age beats out the previous record for representational art, which was held by a 44,000-year-old hunting scene found by the same research team in a different Sulawesi cave. The better-known paintings in France’s Chauvet Cave are thought to be a mere 32,000 years old.

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Universe Today

Rival billionaires both play roles in MethaneSAT

Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are usually rivals on the final frontier, but they both have a role to play in MethaneSAT, a privately backed satellite mission aimed at monitoring methane emissions.

Last November, the Bezos Earth Fund made a $100 million grant to the Environmental Defense Fund to support the satellite’s completion and launch. That grant was part of a $791 million round that Bezos said was “just the beginning of my $10 billion commitment” to address challenges brought on by climate change.

Now MethaneSAT LLC — a subsidiary of Environmental Defense Fund — is announcing that it’s signed a contract with Musk’s SpaceX to send the satellite into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket by as early as October 2022.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin gets set to fly a spaceship built for people

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to live-stream the first test flight of its first passenger-friendly space capsule on Thursday.

If all goes according to plan, Blue Origin will launch a never-before-flown New Shepard crew capsule and booster from its West Texas facility on an uncrewed suborbital space trip as early as 9:45 a.m. CT (7:45 a.m. PT), with coverage streamed via Blue Origin’s website and YouTube.

Coverage is due to begin 30 minutes before launch, with the precise timing dependent on weather and technical readiness.

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GeekWire

$25 million to be paid in drone whistleblower case

Bingen, Wash.-based Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary, has agreed to pay $25 million to settle allegations that it used recycled parts rather than new parts in military drones, the Justice Department announced today.

The parts were put into drones that Insitu built for the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Department of the Navy between 2009 and 2017, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington.

When Insitu was awarded the contracts to supply the drones, under the terms of no-bid contracts, the company said it would use new parts and materials. But according to the allegations, Insitu substituted less expensive recycled, refurbished, reconditions and reconfigured parts.

“Taxpayers deserve to get what they paid for — especially in significant no-bid military contracts,” U.S. Attorney Brian Moran said in a news release. “Cases such as this one should be seen as a warning to defense contractors that false claims have no place in military purchasing.”

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Fiction Science Club

How billionaires can help win ‘The New Climate War’

If billionaires like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos really want to maximize their efforts to solve the global climate crisis, they should focus less on gadgetry and more on getting governments to act.

That’s the message from Penn State climatologist Michael E. Mann, who delves into the changing circumstances of a decades-old debate in a book titled “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.”

At the age of 55, Mann is a grizzled veteran of climate wars: In 1999, he helped lay out the “hockey stick” projection for rising global temperatures, and in 2009 he was swept up in the Climategate controversy over hacked emails.

Michael Mann
Michael E. Mann is a climatologist and geophysicist at Pennsylvania State University. (Penn State Photo)

Mann has chronicled the conflicts over climate science in a series of books published over the course of the past decade. But in “The New Climate War,” he argues that the terms of engagement have shifted.

Amid waves of wildfires and extreme weather, it’s getting harder to deny that Earth’s climate is becoming more challenging. Instead, the focus of the debate is shifting to whether the climate challenge can be met — and if so, how best to meet it.

Gates has argued that investment in technology is the key to averting a catastrophe. “Tech is the only solution,” he said during last October’s GeekWire Summit. The Microsoft co-founder expands upon that perspective in an upcoming book titled “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”

Mann takes issue with that argument in “The New Climate War.”

“Where I disagree with Bill is that, no, I don’t think we need a ‘miracle,’ which is what he said [was needed] to solve this problem,” Mann told me during an interview for the Fiction Science podcast. “The miracle is there when we look up in the sky at the sun, when we feel the wind. … The solutions are there. It’s a matter of committing the resources to scaling them up.”

One of Gates’ big energy technology ventures is Bellevue, Wash.-based TerraPower, which is working on small-scale nuclear power plants. But Mann doesn’t think nuclear power will play a significant role going forward — due to high costs as well as broader concerns. “It comes with obvious potential liabilities, whether it’s proliferation issues, weapons issues or environmental threats,” he said.

Mann thinks even less of Gates’ support for solar geoengineering strategies. “That’s going down a very dangerous road,” Mann told me. “When we start interfering with this system [that] we don’t understand perfectly, the law of unintended consequences reigns supreme.”

As for Bezos, Mann said he’s already had some conversations with the Amazon CEO’s team about climate initiatives such as the $10 billion Earth Fund.

“It’s a start,” Mann said. “Would I like to see him spend less on some of these wackier [ideas like] establishing space colonies, and more on saving the one planet in the universe that we know does support life? Yeah.” (For what it’s worth, Bezos argues that his space vision is aimed at moving energy-intensive, pollution-producing heavy industries off the planet and thereby preserving Earth for residential and light industrial use.)

Although he begs to differ on the details, Mann is nevertheless grateful that Gates and Bezos are on the right side in the new climate war. “I’ll gently criticize these folks where I feel it’s appropriate, but I do welcome these voices at the table, because we need everyone on board,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck.”

Denialism and doomism

In his book, Mann argues that the “inactivists” who resist efforts to address the climate challenge have turned to a subtler form of denialism, as well as a phenomenon that Mann calls “doomism.”

Mann argues that the climate-denial crowd has picked up the game plan that’s been followed by the gun lobby, Big Tobacco and the bottling and packaging industry.

New Climate War book cover

Just as “guns don’t kill people,” “smoking doesn’t kill” and “people can stop pollution,” some opponents to policy solutions argue that fixing the climate mess should be left up to individuals. Some even say that you shouldn’t complain about carbon emissions unless you swear off air travel and stop eating meat.

“There are things that we can do in our everyday lives that decrease our environmental footprint — and they make us healthier, they save us money and they make us feel better,” Mann acknowledged. “What we can’t allow is for the forces of inaction, the ‘inactivists,’ to convince us that that’s the entire solution.”

Others insist it’s already too late to avoid the climate catastrophe, and say the best we can do is to brace ourselves for the hellscape to come.

“If we really were doomed, if the science said that, then we’d have to be upfront about that,” Mann said. “But the science says the opposite. The science says there’s still time to avert catastrophic warming.”

Mann said the current political climate (so to speak) is favorable for making progress, thanks in part to a youth movement led by the likes of Swedish teen Greta Thunberg.

The next phase of the war

“The New Climate War” had to be turned in for publication months before November’s presidential election, but Mann said the results bore out his assumption that Joe Biden would win out. The results in the Senate — a 50-50 tie with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaker — couldn’t be any closer.

Because of that narrow mandate, “we probably can’t expect to see something like a Green New Deal,” at least for the next two years or so, Mann said. But he doesn’t rule out moving ahead with the first stages of a carbon-pricing system similar to the tax scheme that Canada currently has in place.

Climate campaigners in Washington state tried twice to set up a carbon-pricing systems, in 2016 and 2018, but both initiatives failed at the polls. Mann noted that fossil-fuel interests weren’t the only opponents.

“Ironically, some of the opposition in recent years to market mechanisms has actually come from the environmental left — because it’s been framed as inconsistent with social justice, that the cost will somehow fall on disadvantaged front-line communities, those with the least resources,” he said. “That definitely does not have to be the case.”

Mann said the key is to tweak market-based pricing systems so that the revenue goes to support the communities that need help, and support the spread of renewable energy technologies.

How would Mann spend the revenue? I put an extra spin on that question by asking him what he’d invest in if he were given a few million dollars to start up a climate-related venture. His answer was true to form.

“I would put it into science communication, focusing on what I see as the remaining obstacles when it comes to scientists informing the public discourse, because we do play a role,” Mann replied.

“We shouldn’t necessarily be dictating what the policies should be. There’s a worthy political debate to be had about that,” he said. “But we need to define the scientific ground rules to find what the objective evidence has to say about the risks that we face, so that we have an honest political debate about solutions.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

So what does Mann read for a change of pace? His latest literary diversion actually isn’t that much of a diversion: It’s “The Ministry for the Future,” a climate-themed sci-fi novel by Kim Stanley Robinson. Mann says Robinson’s book is “a good companion from the fictional side to the nonfiction of ‘The New Climate War.'”

Robinson was the focus of a previous Fiction Science podcast co-hosted by science-fiction author Dominica Phetteplace and myself. If you’re at all interested in future perils and possibilities relating to the climate crisis, you owe it to yourself to check out the interview.

Billions and Billions

The next book on Mann’s list is “Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium.” This is a collection of writings by astronomer Carl Sagan, published in 1997 after his death. The topics addressed range from climate change, the abortion debate and extraterrestrial life to Sagan’s own struggle with a fatal illness.

Mann said Sagan is one of his scientific heroes.

“He really inspired me as a youth, inspired my fascination with science, and continues today to inspire me,” Mann said. “And I’ve had the wonderful benefit of getting to know his daughter, Sasha Sagan, who has entered into this science communication sphere. You can hear some of Carl’s voice in her. It’s a gift.”

That endorsement is worth a double selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that should be available at your local library or used-book store. We’re adding “Billions and Billions” as well as Sasha Sagan’s book, “For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World,” to a list that goes back to Cosmic Log’s founding in 2002.

This is just the latest Sagan family selection for the CLUB Club: Carl Sagan’s “Contact” made the list in July 2003, and Nick Sagan joined his father as a CLUB Club laureate with “Idlewild” in August 2004.

A version of this story was published on GeekWire with the headline “Outspoken Climate Researcher Dishes Out Some Advice for Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.”

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.