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XCOR co-founders launch Agile Aero startup

Image: XCOR text
In a 2013 photo, Jeff Greason inspects XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx rocket engine while Doug Jones looks on. Greason is creating a new venture called Agile Aero, while Jones is staying on with XCOR. (Credit: XCOR Aerospace)

XCOR Aerospace pioneered the rapid development of rocket propulsion systems, and now three of XCOR’s founders are starting up a new venture called Agile Aero to do something similar for advanced aerospace vehicles.

Agile Aero has surfaced just a week after XCOR announced the departure of chief technologist Jeff Greason and chief engineer Dan DeLong. Greason and DeLong are teaming up with Aleta Jackson, another co-founder and aerospace veteran who left XCOR this month.

“It’s the Three Musketeers again,” Greason told GeekWire. XCOR’s fourth co-founder, Doug Jones, is staying on as the company’s chief test engineer.

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An out-of-this-world deal for Cyber Monday

Image: CubeSats
Spaceflight’s Cyber Monday deal will deliver satellites to orbit in 2018. (Credit: Spaceflight)

Here’s a Cyber Monday deal from Seattle-based Spaceflight for the space geek on your list: Purchase a satellite launch for one-third off, at the low, low price of $200,000.

The only catch is that you’ll have to wait until 2018 for the satellite to be delivered. But that’s the way it is with travel plans, whether you’re heading to a vacation resort or putting a 3U CubeSat in a sun-synchronous orbit 310 miles (500 kilometers) above the planet. “Booking early is the best for both parties,” said Phil Brzytwa, Spaceflight’s business development manager.

Through the end of the year, Spaceflight is offering up to 36 CubeSat spots on the company’s SHERPA satellite port at $200,000 (marked down from the list price of $295,000), and it’s not clear how long they’ll last.

“Already this morning we’ve had seven inquiries from all around the planet, and my inbox is filling up,” Brzytwa told GeekWire. There’s a limit of four CubeSats per customer.

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Amazon drone’s future is up in the air

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Amazon shows off a prototype drone that’s just made a test delivery of a shoebox in someone’s backyard. (Credit: Amazon via YouTube)

The hybrid drone design that Amazon unveiled over the weekend may be only one of several under consideration for delivering packages in 30 minutes or less, but it’s a doozy: The beefed-up Prime Air flier pushes the envelope on technical as well as regulatory grounds.

On the technical side, the prototype shown in Amazon’s video uses an array of rotors (eight, according to The Guardian) to take off vertically, then switches on an additional rotor to buzz through the air horizontally at up to 60 mph. The Guardian says it may be the first vertical-horizontal hybrid air vehicle to weigh in at less than 55 pounds, which is the upper limit for commercial delivery drones.

An autonomous sense-and-avoid navigation system keeps the drone from running into other objects on the way to its destination, at an altitude of up to 400 feet. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed off a sense-and-avoid system last month, but that one was designed to handle obstacles at a mere 30 mph – half the speed that’s built into Amazon’s specs.

The drone is also apparently designed to home in on a landing pad, perhaps equipped with an RFID tag or transmitter. The idea is that customers would lay out the pad in their backyard or some other open space in preparation for package delivery. (Can you buy a pad like that on Amazon yet? What if it’s raining, or if you’re an apartment dweller?)

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Five fun gifts for the geek in your life

Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, give a little thought to what’ll tickle the science geek on your gift list. We’re not talking about the “10 best gadgets” or cutting-edge technology here. Just a few little somethings (or big somethings) that play off our sense of wonder or just plain gearheadedness.

Check out five ideas to play with for the holidays.

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Radar hints at hidden chambers in Tut’s tomb

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Japanese radar expert Hirokatsu Watanabe scans the walls of King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. (Credit: National Geographic Channel via YouTube)

Radar scans have turned up fresh evidence of hidden chambers beyond the walls of King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities reported today.

The scans were supervised by Japanese radar specialist Hirokatsu Watanabe on Thursday and Friday. They add to the evidence from thermal infrared imaging and a close examination of the chamber’s northern and western walls. Egyptian officials gave the go-ahead for the scans to check out archaeologist Nicholas Reeves’ claimthat the 3,300-year-old tomb was originally meant for Tut’s stepmother, Nefertiti, and retrofitted after the boy-king’s untimely death.

In a Facebook posting, the ministry said the preliminary readings “reveal a vacancy behind the northern wall of the tomb, which strongly indicates the existence of a new burial chamber.” Further analysis will be required over the next month, but the ministry said there was hope that “an enormous archaeological discovery will be declared soon.”

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LHC milestone re-ignites doomsday talk

Image: ALICE collision
This computer graphic shows one of the first collisions recorded between two lead ions at the Large Hadron Collider’s top energy. The energy in the center-of-mass system is approximately a quadrillion electron-volts. (Credit: CERN / ALICE Collaboration)

The Large Hadron Collider set another record for particle-smashing energy levels this week – which set off another round of hyped-up rumblings about the end of the world.

Before the LHC’s startup in 2008, the Internet was set abuzz with worries that high-energy collisions could create globe-gobbling black holes or cosmos-wrecking strangelets. Protests were mounted, lawsuits were filed, and physicists at Europe’s CERN particle physics center had to explain in depth why the nightmare scenarios were nothing more than nightmares. Once the collider went into operation, the lawsuits were dismissed and the hand-wringing settled down.

Now the world’s largest collider is operating at near its design limits, and this week, CERN reported that lead-ion collisions in the LHC’s ALICE detectorreached energies beyond a quadrillion electron-volts – a level also known as 1 peta-electron-volt, or 1 PeV.

“This energy is that of a bumblebee hitting us on the cheek on a summer day. But the energy is concentrated in a volume that is approximately 10 -27 (a billion-billion-billion) times smaller,” Jens Jørgen Gaardhøje, professor at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and head of the Danish research group within the ALICE experiment, said in a news release.

At first blush, a quadrillion electron-volts sounds like a huge ramp-up from 13 trillion to 14 trillion electron-volts, or 13 to 14 TeV, the traditionally quoted figures for the high end of the LHC’s collision energy. That’s what set off the doomsayers. In the weeks leading up to the ALICE collisions, there was a drumbeat of postings claiming that “CERN LIED” and warning that 1-PeV smashups would have catastrophic consequences.

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What mobile phone data can reveal about you

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The mobile phone penetration rate in Rwanda is more than 70 percent. (Credit: Joshua Blumenstock)

Researchers have analyzed data about mobile phone use in Rwanda to figure out how wealthy a phone’s user is – and they say they might be able to do the same kind of analysis for any other country.

The study, published today in the journal Science, applies big-data models to look at much more than income. The Rwandan data, for example, could be massaged to predict which phone users owned a motorcycle or a TV.

Joshua Blumenstock, the study’s lead author and an information scientist at the University of Washington, is now working on a follow-up project to see how easily the computer models can be applied to places beyond Rwanda.

“In every country, we hypothesize that there’s a relationship between how people use their phone and how wealthy they are,” he said in a Science podcast. “The exact nature of that relationship is going to change from one country to another, and it might even change from one year to the next within a country. But fundamentally, you’d think that there are these relationships that exist.”

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Newly signed law lays out space resource rights

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Artwork shows a spacecraft mining an asteroid. (Credit: Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries)

President Barack Obama today put his signature on a law supporting the rights of space miners to extract, use and sell resources from asteroids, the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies – giving space-minded entrepreneurs something extra to be thankful for.

“This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,” Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Redmond-based Planetary Resources, said in a news release. “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space.”

Anderson’s company has said the asteroid mining industry could eventually grow to trillions of dollars a year – but that’s dependent on the establishment of a spacefaring infrastructure that can use the off-earth water and other raw materials from near-Earth asteroids.

It’s also dependent on the establishment a legal infrastructure that lets miners keep what they get. That’s what the newly signed law, known as the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R.2262), is expected to start doing.

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Alien megastructure? Nothing to see here

Image: Comets and star
his illustration shows a star behind a shattered comet. Observations of the star KIC 8462852 by NASA’s Kepler and Spitzer space telescopes suggest that its unusual light signals are probably due to dusty comet fragments that blocked the light of the star. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

Recent infrared observations of a star that once showed a pattern of weird dimming have turned up no anomalous readings, astronomers say – and that supports the view that a comet blitz rather than the construction of an alien megastructure was behind the earlier observations.

The latest evidence, laid out in a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, isn’t exactly surprising. The passing of a shattered comet was seen as the leading orthodox explanation for the star KIC 8462852’s strange behavior.

But there was also the unorthodox explanation. The readings from the star, gathered by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and analyzed by a citizen-science project known as the Planet Hunters, created a stir because of a potential alien connection.

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Jeff Bezos spaces out: ‘I can’t wait to go!’

Image: Jeff Bezos and champagne
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, sprays champagne from a bottle after the successful landing of the New Shepard rocket booster on Monday. (Credit: Blue Origin via YouTube)

Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, says watching his Blue Origin rocket make a safe landing after flying into space rates as one of the greatest moments of his life, and he can’t wait to take a ride himself.

In an exclusive GeekWire interview, conducted on the morning after the New Shepard test mission, Bezos answered questions about what the flight means for Blue Origin, the space venture he founded … why he waited so long to start tweeting … and when the rest of us will get a suborbital space ride. He also stirred the pot in his rivalry with that other billionaire space geek, SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

Get the full Q&A on GeekWire.