LIGO goes back to the gravity-wave grind

Image: LIGO Hanford
The beamlines for the LIGO detector site at Hanford stretch out across the desert terrain of southeastern Washington. Each arm of the L-shaped detector is 2.5 miles long. (Credit: LIGO)

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory is back on the hunt for ripples in spacetime, months after reporting the first signature of a black hole collision in gravitational waves.

After a series of upgrades, the LIGO detectors at Hanford in Washington state and near Livingston, La., made the transition from engineering test runs to science observations at 8 a.m. PT today.

LIGO’s first detection of gravitational waves – a phenomenon that was predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity back in 1915 – occurred during an engineering run in September 2015. But it took until February for the LIGO team to confirm the detection and report it to the world.

Scientists determined that the faint perturbations in the fabric of spacetime were created by a smash-up involving two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away. The violent collision created one bigger black hole, but in the process, an amount of mass equivalent to three suns was converted into gravitational waves.

LIGO picked up a second, smaller pulse of gravitational waves last December. Then the detectors were shut down in January for the upgrades.

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Four superheavy elements get official names

Element 117 on periodic table
Element 117 was named tennessine in recognition of Tennessee’s contributions to its discovery. (ORNL Photo)

After months of review, the world’s authority on chemical names has approved the official labels for four extremely rare elements at the bottom of the periodic table.

This week’s decision from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC, will literally rewrite chemistry textbooks. Here are the names and symbols that chemists will have to keep in mind from now on. …

Find out about the names and their meanings on GeekWire.


‘Shark tank’ keeps aerospace dreams afloat

MatterFab 3-D printer
Seattle-based MatterFab is working on a 3-D printer that looks like a walk-in freezer but can use laser microwelding to make metal components out of powder. (Credit: MatterFab)

Some aerospace ventures came to Starburst Accelerator’s shark tank in Seattle today to find investors. Others were looking for customers. But unlike the TV version of “Shark Tank,” none of them was sent away in defeat.

“There are no winners or losers,” Van Espahbodi, Starburst’s co-founder and chief operating officer, told GeekWire at the end of the all-day pitch session.

Instead, a dozen entrepreneurs got the chance to pitch their ideas at the Museum of Flight, in front of venture capitalists, aerospace executives and other industry types (plus a couple of journalists).

Today’s gathering marked the first Starburst event conducted in Seattle, which has been gaining more visibility as an aerospace industry hub – thanks to the likes of such stalwarts as the Boeing Co. as well as more recent entrants such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Both of those companies had representatives in the audience today.

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Genes edited to create color-coded stem cells

Stem cell
A cluster of human induced pluripotent stem cells contains dyes that highlight cell membranes (purple) and DNA in the nucleus (blue). Spindles from microtubules, shown in white at the center of the image, aid in cell division. (Allen Institute for Cell Science Photo)

Researchers in Seattle have taken advantage of two of the hottest trends in biotech – cell reprogramming and CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing – to create human stem cells that glow as they turn into different tissue types.

The Allen Institute for Cell Science is making the genetically modified cells available to researchers around the world, with the aim of unlocking the secrets behind cell development.

“These are the first five cell lines in a collection of about 20 that we hope to be releasing in the next year,” Susanne Rafelski, the institute’s director of assay development, told GeekWire in advance of today’s unveiling of the Allen Cell Collection.

The institute’s executive director, Rick Horwitz, explained that each of the millions of cells in our body is like a city, with resources that move around from where they’re made to where they’re used.

“With these cell lines, we aim to give the cell science community a kind of live traffic map, to see when and where the parts of the cell are with the clarity and consistency they need to make progress toward understanding human health and tackling disease,” he said in a news release.

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How NASA uses the cloud on the final frontier

NASA cloud applications
An open-source cloud computing project, known as OpenStack, was developed by NASA and Rackspace Inc. to standardize the data on NASA websites. (NASA Photo)

When one of NASA’s top geeks talks to the cloud-computing geeks at Amazon Web Services’ re:Invent conference, you can bet the talk is not going to be just about outer space.

Tom Soderstrom, chief technology and innovation officer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, took pains during tonight’s talk in Las Vegas to point out how the space agency was taking advantage of the cloud.

For example, he noted that NASA’s Surface Water Ocean Topography mission (known as SWOT) and the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission (aka NISAR) will be sending back a flood of Earth observation data within just a few years.

“It’s 100 terabytes per day, 100 gigabytes per second, all the time. Much too big for our data centers,” he told the audience. “So what are we going to do? We’re going to use cloud computing.”

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Asteroid plan faces scrutiny in Trump transition

Asteroid rendezvous
In this artist’s conception, two astronauts make their way between their Orion capsule and a piece of an asteroid that’s been captured by a robotic spacecraft. (NASA via YouTube)

House Republicans are voicing renewed doubts about NASA’s plan to have astronauts study a piece of an asteroid – a turn of events that was expected for the transition to the Trump administration.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM, was a trademark space initiative for President Barack Obama but has drawn GOP criticism for years. Critics saw the mission as an ill-planned detour on the road to the moon or Mars.

As currently conceived, the mission calls for a robotic spacecraft to visit a near-Earth asteroid, pull off a piece and bring it back to lunar orbit for study by a crew of astronauts in the mid-2020s.

NASA says the mission would serve as practice for a crewed journey to Mars and could serve as a test for diverting killer asteroids in the future. But leading House Republicans voiced skepticism about the mission’s utility in a letter sent to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden today.

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PT Scientists go with Spaceflight for moonshot

Lander and rover
PTScientists’ ALINA lander is designed to carry two Audi Lunar Quattro rovers to the moon’s surface. (PTScientists Photo)

A German team that’s going after the Google Lunar XPRIZE has secured a contract with Seattle-based Spaceflight to get its rover-carrying lander to the moon.

PTScientists, based in Berlin, announced the deal today, and Spaceflight confirmed the partnership. If the contract is verified by the $30 million contest’s organizers at XPRIZE, the group will join three other contestants in the home stretch for the top prize for commercial lunar exploration.

Spaceflight struck a similar deal last year with an Israeli-based GLXP team, SpaceIL. The two other verified teams are Moon Express and Synergy Moon.

There are 16 teams in the GLXP hunt, but they have to have verified launch contracts by the end of this year in order to stay in the competition.

The top prize of $20 million will go to the first team to send a spacecraft to the moon and have it travel more than 500 meters (1,640 feet) while sending back images and video. Other prizes are being offered as extra incentives. If no team gets to the moon by the end of 2017, all those prizes go poof.

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Starburst raises $200M for aerospace startups

SpaceX launch
Starburst Ventures aims to back startups that can follow in SpaceX’s footsteps. (SpaceX Photo)

On the eve of its first event in Seattle, Starburst Accelerator says it has set up a $200 million venture fund to invest in aviation and aerospace startups over the next three years.

Starburst Venture, formed in collaboration with Singapore-based Leonie Hill Capital, will focus on early and growth-stage companies, with the first investments due to be made in the first quarter of 2017, the fund’s founders said today in a news release.

The investment team will be mainly based in San Francisco, but will also leverage Starburst Accelerator’s existing operations in Los Angeles, Paris, Munich and Singapore.

Starburst Accelerator was founded in 2012 by Francois Chopard, a former Airbus engineer and aerospace strategy consultant. Since then, it has teamed up with more than 100 companies to provide a boost for business development.

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How to get water on Mars? Cook it out of the soil

Utopia Planitia on Mars
This vertically exaggerated view shows scalloped depressions in a part of Mars where such textures prompted researchers to check for buried ice, using ground-penetrating radar. They found about as much frozen water as the volume of Lake Superior. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona Photo)

Scientists say there’s enough water in just one region of Mars to fill up Lake Superior – if only it could be extracted from subsurface ice.

So how can future Red Planet settlers take advantage of those deposits to produce the drinkable water, breathable oxygen and hydrogen-based rocket fuel they’ll need? Researchers at the University of Washington are working on a way.

Their research builds upon a technology that was pioneered almost two decades ago, known as the water vapor adsorption reactor, or WAVAR. Adam Bruckner, a professor in UW’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, worked with students to develop a device that could extract tiny amounts of water vapor from the Martian atmosphere.

The WAVAR device was successfully tested in Mars-type conditions, but there wasn’t any funding to move the technology beyond proof of concept.

“NASA has not really funded in-situ resource utilization for research work on that at all,” Bruckner told GeekWire. WAVAR does make a cameo, however, in the fictional tale of Red Planet settlement depicted in “Mars,” a miniseries airing on National Geographic Channel.

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WTO rules against Boeing’s 777X tax break

Wing autoclave
A giant autoclave is ready to “cook” parts for the Boeing 777X wings. (Credit: Boeing)

In the latest chapter of a years-long legal battle, the World Trade Organization says Washington state’s tax break for production of the Boeing 777X jetliner runs counter to international trade rules.

“We expect the U.S. to respect the rules, uphold fair competition, and withdraw these subsidies without any delay,” Cecilia Malmström, the European Union’s trade commissioner, said in a statement issued after today’s ruling.

However, U.S. officials and Boeing executives signaled that the battle would continue. The fight over the tax breaks is part of a larger dispute between the Boeing Co. and its European rival, Airbus, with U.S. and EU officials in the middle.

Boeing’s general counsel, J. Michael Luttig, went so far as to claim in a statement that today’s ruling was “a complete victory for the United States, Washington state and Boeing.”

The way Luttig saw it, the WTO rejected “virtually every claim made by the EU in this case” and found that Boeing “has not received a penny of impermissible subsidies.”

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