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Trump reactivates National Space Council

Trump with executive order
President Donald Trump shows off an executive order reviving the National Space Council. NASA astronaut Alvin Drew, Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and Vice President Mike Pence, the council’s chairman, are at far right. (Shannon Augustus / C-SPAN via Twitter)

After months of foreshadowing, President Donald Trump today signed an executive order to revive the National Space Council, a move that’s likely to open the way for space policy changes that have been largely put on hold during the White House transition.

The order was signed at a White House ceremony on the eve of a long Fourth of July weekend. Among those in attendance: members of Congress, Boeing’s Dennis Muilenburg and other aerospace executives, and astronauts including Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.

“Today’s announcement sends a clear signal to the world that we are restoring America’s proud legacy of leadership in space,” Trump said.

Vice President Mike Pence will serve as the council’s chairman, and the members will include top-level administration officials including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, the heads of the Commerce, Transportation and Homeland Security departments and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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Facebook’s second drone test raises the bar

Facebook Aquila drone
Facebook’s Aquila drone takes to the air. (Facebook Engineering Photo)

The drive to provide global internet access from the air is more of a horse race in the wake of Facebook’s second test flight of its full-scale Aquila high-altitude drone – a flight that the company said was more successful than the first one.

Facebook is developing the ultralight, solar-powered drone as a platform for beaming down network connectivity from a height of more than 60,000 feet, for months at a time. The idea is to provide internet service – including, of course, access to Facebook and its advertisers – to some of the billions of people who are in areas too remote for existing avenues of access.

A year ago, Facebook’s first test flight ended in a crash that substantially damaged the aircraft, apparently due to a gust of wind that put the drone in the wrong configuration for landing.

It took months for Facebook to fine-tune the drone’s design for the second flight, conducted May 22 at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

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Look on the bright side of Asteroid Day

Asteroid distribution
This chart shows the distribution of known asteroids as of 2011, projected onto the solar system’s ecliptic plane. White circles represent the orbits of Earth, Mars and Jupiter. Scientists say there may be more than a million asteroids measuring 130 feet or wider. (JAXA / AKARI Graphic)

Asteroid experts say they’re looking forward to an explosion – but not the kind of extinction-level blast that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Instead, they’re anticipating an explosion of knowledge about near-Earth objects, and how to head them off in case they threaten our planet.

The perils and opportunities posed by the asteroids in our cosmic neighborhood is the focus of Asteroid Day, a global campaign that marks the anniversary of the 1908 Tunguska explosion on June 30.

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Chicken sandwich flies to stratosphere

Chicken sandwich in stratosphere
A basket-shaped receptacle holds KFC’s Zinger chicken sandwich during its balloon flight into the stratosphere. (KFC Photo)

That’s one small step for high-altitude balloon research, one giant cheep for KFC’s Zinger chicken sandwich.

After one weather-related postponement, Arizona-based World View Enterprises sent the sandwich to the stratosphere today from a spot near Page, Ariz., and Lake Powell – mostly as a publicity gambit for the fast-food chain, but also as the first multi-day test mission for World View’s steerable balloon platform.

World View is developing its “Stratollite” balloon system as a low-cost alternative to satellites for Earth imaging, weather monitoring, surveillance and other applications.

“Today’s launch marks a truly historic milestone in our quest to open the stratosphere for business,” World View founder and CEO Jane Poynter said in a news release. “With the maiden voyage of our multi-day mission underway, I am extremely proud of the entire team and all we are learning to make space more accessible. It is especially exciting to have the public along for the ride through our very fun and exciting collaboration with KFC.”

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Systima gets a piece of the action for SLS

Space Launch System
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)

When NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket starts carrying astronauts beyond Earth orbit in the 2020s, it’ll also be carrying a key component built by Kirkland, Wash.-based Systima Technologies.

Systima will be responsible for providing a 27.6-foot-wide, ring-shaped joint assembly that separates the rocket’s universal stage adapter from its upper stage. The assembly will allow for the deployment of cargo and secondary payloads from the SLS once it rises into orbit.

Systima won the contract for the separation joint system this month from Dynetics, an Alabama-based company that’s the prime contractor for the universal stage adapter. The value of Systima’s contract is undisclosed, but it’s part of NASA’s $221.7 million contract with Dynetics.

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MSNW’s plasma thruster fires up Congress

Pulsed power units
Pulsed power units are arrayed around the business end of MSNW’s thruster. (MSNW Photo)

How will we send humans to the moon, Mars and other destinations in space? The chances are good that electric propulsion will play a role, and a company called MSNW is at the cutting edge of that technology.

The director of propulsion research for Redmond, Wash.-based MSNW, Anthony Pancotti, will take a share of Capitol Hill’s spotlight on June 29 during a hearing organized by the House Subcommittee on Space. And he expects to learn as much from his encounter with lawmakers as they’ll learn from him.

“We’re all curious about what Congress wants to talk about,” Pancotti told GeekWire from Washington, D.C., on the eve of the hearing.

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Killer whale woes linked to salmon shortage

Orca mother and calf
A southern resident killer whale calf accompanies its mother in 2004. (NOAA Photo)

What’s killing the killer whales? After following the whales and analyzing their poop for years, scientists say the Pacific Northwest’s population is dwindling primarily due to a chronic lack of Chinook salmon.

The killer whales, also known as orcas, aren’t dying of starvation. Rather, the scientists say the stress of not getting enough to eat is causing orca pregnancies to fail.

Other factors, such as marine pollutants and disruptive ship traffic, contribute to the whales’ woes as well. But in a paper being published in the June 29 issue of the journal PLOS ONE, the researchers say the data point most directly to nutritional stress.

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‘Seat 14C’ tales imagine 20-year time warp

Time warp for Seat 14C
The short stories of “Seat 14C” imagine that an ANA Boeing 777 jet has passed through a wrinkle in spacetime. (Illustration for XPRIZE / Seat 14C)

Imagine you’re a passenger on a jet that mysteriously time warps to the year 2037: That’s what a team of world-class science-fiction writers did for “Seat 14C,” a project created by XPRIZE and Japan’s ANA airline.

Now you can imagine as well, and your tale may well earn you a trip to Tokyo for two.

But wait … there’s more: The winner of the “Seat 14C” contest also earns an honorary seat on the XPRIZE Science Fiction Advisory Council, alongside such greats as Margaret Atwood (“The Handmaid’s Tale), Paolo Bacigalupi (“The Windup Girl”) and Seattle author Nancy Kress (“Beggars in Spain”).

Those writers are among the more than two dozen contributors to the online “Seat 14C” short-story anthology, all focused on technological visions for 2037.

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Super-quiet supersonic jet design approved

Supersonic plane
The preliminary design for NASA’s Low Boom Flight Demonstration aircraft has been cleared for takeoff. (NASA / Lockheed Martin Illustration)

NASA says it’s cleared a significant milestone on the path to reviving supersonic passenger jet travel in the U.S. with the completion of the preliminary design review for its low-boom experimental airplane.

The Low-Boom Flight Demonstration X-plane, or LBFD, is designed to create a soft “thump” rather than the loud sonic boom typically associated with supersonic airplanes. The boom is what led federal authorities to ban supersonic passenger flight over land in 1973.

The initial design stage for the LBFD is known as Quiet Supersonic Technology, or QueSST. NASA’s plan, drawn up with Lockheed Martin as the lead contractor, calls for transforming QueSST into the LBFD and flying the plane over communities to collect the data that regulators would need to ease the ban.

The June 22 preliminary design review was a key step in the process.

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Alaska Airlines will chase total solar eclipse

Total solar eclipse
The black disk of a total solar eclipse hangs over the clouds during an Alaska Airlines flight in 2016. Passengers on an August flight should see a similar sight. (Robert Stephens via YouTube)

Alaska Airlines has scheduled a flight from Portland to chase views of the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse over the clouds, but you can’t book a seat online.

The charter flight, due for a 7:30 a.m. PT takeoff on eclipse day, will be open by invitation only to astronomy enthusiasts and other VIPs. Except for two seats. Those seats will be given away in a social-media contest scheduled to begin on July 21, one month before the eclipse.

The Aug. 21 adventure follows up on a more impromptu eclipse-chasing trip on March 8, 2016, when Alaska changed the takeoff time for a previously scheduled Anchorage-to-Honolulu flight to let passengers see a total solar eclipse over the Pacific.

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