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How robots and humans get along at Boeing

Boeing robots
The robots that are part of Boeing’s Fuselage Automated Upright Build system work inside and outside a 777 jet fuselage during assembly. (Boeing via YouTube)

Automation isn’t just a job for the robots: It takes flesh-and-blood workers to make robotic manufacturing work, as shown in a new video about the machines that set fasteners on Boeing’s 777 jets.

Boeing’s Fuselage Automated Upright Build, or FAUB, works with operators and mechanics at the company’s plant in Everett, Wash., to do some of the heavy lifting for 777 assembly. So far, more than 40 jets have gotten the FAUB treatment.

The job begins when teams of mechanics move the panels that form the forward and aft sections of the fuselage into place. Pairs of robots, inside and out, move in unison to “drill and fill” the thousands of fasteners required to secure the panels.

In Boeing’s feature about FAUB, mechanic Mike Jennings says all that drilling and filling used to be done by hand – a task that was “really tough and stressful” on his back, neck, shoulders and arms.

Now Jennings is a robot operator – monitoring views from a camera mounted on the robot arm, maintaining the system and making tweaks to optimize performance.

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Star-studded cast watches SpaceShipTwo

SpaceShipTwo
SpaceShipTwo is nestled between the two fuselages of its White Knight Two carrier airplane before the glide test. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane glided through its third free-flying test run today, and although it hasn’t yet lit up its engine, there was a high-powered crowd to fuel the excitement at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.

The company’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, was in attendance, as was his son, Sam Branson. Brian Cox, the British physicist and TV host, was there as well.

Cox is working on a documentary for the BBC and the Smithsonian Channel titled “The Quest for Space,” and today’s test is likely to provide grist for the show. For what it’s worth, Cox is scheduled to pay a visit to Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., next week.

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‘Life’ draws upon worst-case space scenarios

Scene from 'Life'
An astronaut administers a shock to an alien life form in a Petri dish aboard the International Space Station, in a scene from the movie “Life.” Bad idea? (CTMG via YouTube)

A real-life organism provides the inspiration for the alien monster at the center of “Life,” a horror movie that’s set on the International Space Station. But you’d never guess which one.

Would you believe … slime mold?

“We used that as a model, working with the effects team, but ramped it up enormously,” said Adam Rutherford, who served as a science consultant for the film. Moviegoers can get a glimpse at the results in the online trailers for “Life,” which opens in theaters on March 24.

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World View shows off its Stratollite scheme

World View HQ
The 100-foot-high red tower at World View’s headquarters plays a part in testing the parasail for the company’s hybrid balloon platform for stratospheric observations. (World View Photo)

World View Enterprises declared its Tucson headquarters and its hybrid balloon technology to be ready for prime time today, in the wake of a pathfinder mission that captured satellite-type imagery from a stratospheric height of nearly 77,000 feet.

“This technology, sending high-altitude balloons up into the stratosphere, has essentially at this point, with the opening of this building, opened an entire new world of business and aviation,” said former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, World View’s director of flight crew operations.

World View CEO Jane Poynter said the key to the technology is the ability to control the company’s uncrewed “Stratollites” remotely to make them ascend or descend, hover over one spot for months at a time, or fly on a course around the world.

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Peace pact reached over Pluto’s map

160714-pluto6
A composite image shows Pluto (lower right) and Charon (upper left). Credit: NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI

It’s taken a year and a half, but the International Astronomical Union and the science team behind NASA’s New Horizons mission have finally struck a deal for naming the features on Pluto and its moons.

The agreement, announced today, will open the way for the already well-known “informal” names for places on Pluto, such as Tombaugh Regio and Sputnik Planum, to become formal.

It also allows for features on Charon, Pluto’s biggest moon, to be officially associated with fictional characters and locales – including Mordor from “Lord of the Rings,” Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” and Princess Leia from “Star Wars.”

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SpaceX ship hooks up with station a day late

SpaceX Dragon
The International Space Station’s robotic arm is positioned to capture SpaceX’s Dragon cargo capsule. (ESA / NASA Photo / Thomas Pesquet)

SpaceX’s robotic Dragon capsule has made a trouble-free cargo delivery to the International Space Station, one day after a navigational glitch forced a rare wave-off.

Astronauts used the station’s robotic arm to bring in the Dragon for its attachment to a port on the Harmony module at 5:12 a.m. PT today.

“Today was smooth sailing all the way along,” NASA spokesman Rob Navias said after the hookup. “A perfect vehicle for SpaceX, as it arrived right on time.”

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Tesla says it’s on track to make Model 3 cars

Tesla Model 3
Tesla says its Model 3 electric car is on track to go into initial production in July. (Tesla Photo)

Tesla says it’s “on track” to start producing its mass-market Model 3 electric vehicles in July, and plans to build 5,000 of the cars per week by the end of the year.

The company, which reported financial results for 2016’s fourth quarter and the full year today, also said it’ll pick locations for as many as three more Gigafactories this year. Tesla’s first Gigafactory, in Nevada, is already turning out power cells for the company’s energy storage system, while its second factory is building solar panels in New York.

“We start 2017 well positioned to scale our business significantly,” Tesla said in its typically upbeat quarterly letter to shareholders.

Investors reacted positively, turning Tesla’s price trend from a minus to a plus in after-hours trading.

Quarterly revenue exceeded Thomson Reuters’ expectations, reaching $2.28 billion rather than the predicted $2.19 billion. Tesla’s loss per share amounted to 69 cents, which was more than Thomson Reuters’ forecast of 42 cents but less than Bloomberg News’ advance estimate of $1.14.

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Blue Origin has big plans for expansion at HQ

Blue Origin factory
Hardware is spread across the New Shepard assembly area. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, has out-of-this-world ambitions – with expansion plans to match.

Permit filings at the city of Kent, Wash., reveal plans for a 236,000-square-foot warehouse complex and 102,900 square feet of office space, southwest of Blue Origin’s current 300,000-square-foot headquarters and rocket production facility in an industrial area of the city.

Last year, Blue Origin purchased a 120,000-square-foot warehouse building across the street from its headquarters to support the production of the company’s BE-3 and BE-4 rocket engines, as well as its New Shepard suborbital boosters and crew capsules.

“When we go to the next step with our next rocket, we’re going to use that building as a bigger facility for production,” the Puget Sound Business Journal quoted Blue Origin’s president, Rob Meyerson, as saying.

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Could this seven-planet system harbor life?

A diagram shows seven exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. If the planets were transported to our own solar system, they’d all lie within Mercury’s orbit. (ESO Illustration)
A diagram shows seven exoplanets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. If the planets were transported to our own solar system, they’d all lie within Mercury’s orbit. (ESO Illustration)

A second look at an exoplanet system 39 light-years from Earth has brought a bonanza for astronomers: not two, not three, but seven alien worlds – some of which could have acceptable conditions for life.

“I think that we’ve made a crucial step towards finding if there is life out there. … Before, it was indications,” said study co-author Amaury Triaud of Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy. “Now we have the right target.”

That claim is debatable, but in any case, the discovery suggests that there are even more planets out there than astronomers previously thought. Which is what astronomers have been saying repeatedly for the past decade.

“The solar system with its four (sub-)Earth-sized planets might be nothing out of the ordinary,” Ignas Snellen of the Leiden Observatory wrote in a commentary on the findings, published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.

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SpaceX has to try again for Dragon hookup

SpaceX Dragon
A SpaceX Dragon capsule flies in orbit during an earlier resupply mission. (NASA Photo)

NASA and SpaceX had to call off today’s planned arrival of a robotic Dragon cargo spaceship at the International Space Station today due to a navigational glitch.

“Dragon’s onboard computers triggered the abort after recognizing an incorrect value in navigational data about the location of Dragon relative to the space station,” NASA said in an online update. “Flight controllers immediately began planning for a second rendezvous attempt on Thursday, Feb. 23.”

SpaceX said its commercial cargo transport ship was “in good health,” and NASA said the space station’s crew was in good shape as well. One of the crew members, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, tweeted some consoling words about the wave-off.

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