Blue Origin, ULA and Aerojet strike rocket deals

Image: BE-4 engine test
Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine goes through staged combustion testing. (Credit: ULA)

Blue Origin, the rocket venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is among the beneficiaries in a set of Air Force contracts aimed at developing U.S.-made replacements for the Russian-made engines that currently power many of America’s space missions.

One of the contracts announced today is going to United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin’s partner in the BE-4 rocket engine development effort. The Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center said the BE-4 project would receive an initial investment of $46.6 million. Another $800,000 would go toward development of the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES.

ULA plans to use Blue Origin’s methane-fueled BE-4 engine on its next-generation Vulcan rocket, which is designed to be partially reusable. The ACES propulsion system would eventually be used on the Vulcan’s upper stage.

Blue Origin has its headquarters in Kent, Wash., and much of the company’s rocket development work was done there. Engine testing already has started at Blue Origin’s West Texas operation. The two companies say development of the BE-4 is fully funded by Blue Origin, with investment by ULA.

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Computer jobs loom large in aerospace outlook

Image: Aerospace workers
Computer science plays an increasingly significant role in aerospace development. (Credit: Boeing)

The most reliable way to break into the aerospace industry of tomorrow is to learn computer science today. That’s one of the preliminary findings from a study that estimates how many workers will be available to fill future jobs at King County’s aerospace ventures.

The “talent pipeline study” is one of a series of sector-by-sector employment forecasts, drawn up for the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County by Community Attributes, a Seattle-based research firm.

The aerospace industry study hasn’t yet been released, but this month Community Attributes shared a draft version of its analysis with stakeholders. The University of Washington’s computer science and engineering department touted the study in a blog posting on Friday.

“What field has the largest total number of current employees in King County’s aerospace industry? Computer science,” the department said.

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Wayward boat blamed after aborted launch

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The Falcon 9 rocket’s engines flare during a last-second shutdown. (Credit: SpaceX via YouTube)

A wayward boat and a load of liquid oxygen that got too warm forced SpaceX to abort what might have been a successful launch of the SES-9 telecommunication satellite today, just as the engines were firing up.

The snags mean SpaceX will have to wait until at least Tuesday for the next opportunity to launch its Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and to try landing the first-stage booster on an oceangoing platform in the Atlantic.

Today marked the third scrub for the launch, which is aimed at putting Luxembourg-based SES’ satellite into orbit to provide TV and data services to customers in the Asia-Pacific region. The first two delays were due to concerns over chilling down the rocket’s liquid oxygen propellant to the optimal temperature. Liquid oxygen played a role in today’s postponement as well, but there were a couple of additional twists.

The countdown was held up for more than a half-hour because an unauthorized vessel was in the “keep-out zone,” which is meant to keep boat traffic out of harm’s way as the rocket passes overhead. After a helicopter went out to shoo the ship out of the zone, SpaceX got clearance to launch at 7:21 p.m. ET (4:21 p.m. PT).

When the countdown clock reached zero, the engines flared up – and then immediately shut themselves down.

SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, said in a tweet that the shutdown was triggered by a low-thrust alarm about the engines. He said rising temperatures in the liquid oxygen tanks contributed to the weak thrust, and suggested that the launch might have gone ahead if it weren’t for the earlier countdown hold.

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Pluto’s polar canyons get their close-up

Image: Pluto north polar region
This enhanced-color image was obtained by New Horizons’ MVIC camera about 45 minutes before closest approach on July 14, 2015, when the spacecraft was 21,100 miles away. The lower edge of the image measures about 750 miles long. (Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI)

The heart-shaped region along Pluto’s equator has been the darling of NASA’s New Horizons mission, but it’s the north polar region that gets the love in this week’s featured image.

The area seen here is part of a region informally known as Lowell Regio. That’s a tribute to Percival Lowell, the millionaire astronomer who sparked the search that eventually led to Pluto’s discovery.

Toward the left side of the image, there’s a canyon that measures about 45 miles wide. Other canyons, to the east and west, are about 6 miles wide. These formations hint at tectonic activity in ancient times, according to the New Horizons science team.

Near the lower right corner, there are irregularly shaped pits that span as much as 45 miles. The science team says those pits are about 2.5 miles deep, and may indicate locations where subsurface ice has been lost from below. That would have caused the surface layer to collapse into the void.

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‘Martian’ flower basks in the Oscar glow

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The bush tomato called Solanum watneyi has purple flowers. (Chris Martine / Bucknell / CC-BY 4.0)

Timing is everything, even when it comes to naming plant species. Bucknell University botanist Chris Martine found that out last fall, when he announced that a newly identified species of Australian bush tomato would be named after Mark Watney, the central character in a little movie called “The Martian.”

The announcement about Solanum watneyi made a splash, in part because it came just as the hype over the movie was reaching a crescendo.

Now there’s a second splash: The description of the plant is being published in the journal PhytoKeys – just as “The Martian” and Matt Damon, the actor who played Mark Watney, are basking in the glow of the Academy Awards spotlight.

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Acoustic imager makes sound visible

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A color-coded image of an industrial site pinpoints sound coming from a passing truck as well as from equipment on the other side of a buildling. (Credit: Signal Interface Group)

Not even the click of a pen or the rustle of a shirt goes undetected by Signal Interface Group’s acoustic imager. But how about a person’s, um, rude noises?

“We don’t record those,” the company’s president, Neil Fenichel, says with a smile.

The gizmo that Fenichel demonstrated this week at Signal Interface Group’s office in Bellevue, Wash., is designed for higher purposes: to find out why an elevator is whining, where an air-conditioning system is leaking, which fluorescent light is buzzing, why a car’s engine is making a funny sound, or even how a hummingbird does its buzz.

The imaging system, developed in cooperation with Bellevue-based OptiNav, combines several tricks of the acoustic trade.

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Next-gen B-21 bomber’s design unveiled

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The Air Force’s B-21 bomber has that characteristic stealthy look. (Credit: USAF)

Today the U.S. Air Force took the wraps off the design for its Long Range Strike Bomber, now known as the B-21, and said it’d be taking suggestions for a snappier name from its service members.

“This aircraft represents the future for our airmen, and (their) voice is important to this process,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a news release. The announcement was made at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.

James said the person who suggests the winning name would help her announce it at this fall’s Air Force Association conference. Further information on the naming procedure will be made available via the Air Force’s website as well as Facebook and Twitter.

Last October, Northrop Grumman won the contract to develop the B-21, which could ultimately be worth $80 billion or more.

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Navy investigates mystery drone sighting

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Drones are raising issues as they become more widespread. (Credit: DJI)

The Navy has confirmed that it’s investigating the illegal flight of an unidentified drone over Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, the home base for Trident submarines that carry nuclear weapons.

In an email, Navy spokeswoman Silvia Klatman said the drone was sighted in prohibited airspace by a civilian employee on Feb. 8.

“Any operation over the base without prior permission and coordination with appropriate authorities is both illegal and hazardous,” she said. “It’s our intent to support the investigation and prosecution of this reported act, and any others that may occur, in coordination with civilian law enforcement.”

The Seattle Times and the Kitsap Sun quoted a nearby resident, Al Starcevich, as saying that he and his neighbors were interviewed by investigators last week, and that he was told there were repeated drone flights at night.

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Scott Kelly: I could do another year in space

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NASA astronaut Scott Kelly answers questions from the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is getting ready to come home after spending a longer stretch in orbit than any other American in history, but he says he could stay in space for double that time.

“I could go another 100 days. I could go another year if I had to. It would just depend on what I was doing and if it made sense, although I do look forward to getting home here next week,” he told journalists today during a space-to-ground news conference.

The next few days will cap off a 340-day tour of duty on the International Space Station, which is aimed at studying how long-duration spaceflight could affect astronauts during even longer trips to Mars and back.

Kelly and his fellow year-in-spacer, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, are due to come back to Earth in a Soyuz capsule along with Russian crewmate Sergey Volkov on March 1.

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Will self-driving cars be good for the planet?

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Volvo’s SARTRE project is aimed at developing fuel-saving approaches to autonomous driving, such as “platooning.” SARTRE stands for “Safe Road Trains for the Environment.” (Credit: Volvo)

Experts expect self-driving cars to make the roads much safer, and driving much more convenient. But what will they do to the environment? A newly published study suggests that, under some scenarios, the shift to autonomous vehicles could double energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions.

The good news is that other scenarios could lead to a nearly 50 percent reduction in those metrics by 2050, which would brighten the picture for coping with climate change. It all depends on how driverless cars are introduced into the marketplace, and how consumers and businesses respond.

“There is lots of hype around self-driving cars, much of it somewhat utopian in nature. But there are likely to be positives and negatives,” University of Washington engineering professor Don MacKenzie said. “By taking a clear-eyed view, we can design and implement policies to maximize the benefits and minimize the downsides of automated vehicles.”

MacKenzie is one of the authors of a study analyzing the range of possibilities, published today in the journal Transportation Research Part A. The survey comes as a plethora of companies, ranging from Ford and Tesla to Google and Apple, are hustling to make vehicles more autonomous and jump through regulatory hoops.

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