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Year in Space: From a black sun to a brighter moon

Eclipse watchers
Eclipse watchers turned Aug. 21’s event into a party at Kerry Park in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The first total solar eclipse to go across America from coast to coast in 99 years has to rank as the top space story of 2017. But where do you go from there?

Would you believe the moon?

The moon was a supporting player in this year’s brush with totality. After all, you can’t have a solar eclipse unless the new moon gets in the way. And it certainly held center stage for a phenomenon witnessed by an estimated 215 million. That’s abigger audience than the Super Bowl gets on TV.

But in 2018, the moon really gets its day in the sun, figuratively speaking. It starts next month with a New Year’s Day supermoon, followed by a total lunar eclipse on Jan. 31.

We lay out other reasons to moon over the moon in our annual roundup of the five top space stories from the year that’s ending, plus five trends to watch in the year ahead.

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How scientists are expanding the SETI spectrum

Habitable planet map
This map from the University of Puerto Rico’s Planetary Habitability Laboratory shows the known planetary systems within about 100 light-years from Earth, plotted on a logarithmic scale. The systems with potentially habitable exoplanets are highlighted with red circles. (PHL @ UPR Arecibo)

BERKELEY, Calif. — Twenty years after the movie “Contact” brought the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, to the big screen, it’s dawning on astronomers that the real-world plotline might turn out to be totally different 20 years from now.

So far, SETI has been dominated by radio telescope surveys looking for anomalous patterns that may point to alien transmissions. But SETI’s practitioners are realizing that E.T. may make its presence known in other ways.

Over the next 20 years, or 200 years, SETI may come to stand for sensing extraterrestrial irregularities, ranging from unusual atmospheric chemistry to higher-than-expected thermal emissions. The telltale signs of life beyond our solar system may even be associated with phenomena we haven’t yet come across.

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Blue Origin spends $14 million to buy more space

Blue Origin factory
A Blue Origin engineer assembles a New Shepard parachute cover, with the crew capsule in the background at the company’s production facility in Kent, Wash. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, has spent $14.1 million to buy 31 acres of land that’s earmarked for expansion of its headquarters in Kent, Wash.

Purchase of the undeveloped land at and around 21601 76th Av., just southwest of Blue Origin’s 26-acre main office and production facility, was reported in King County records last week. The transaction was brought to light on Dec. 26 by Seattle’s Daily Journal of Commerce.

The property has long been owned by members of Barnier family, who have been farming in the Kent Valley since the 1800s, and was sold through Bar-Gem LLC, a family business entity.

That plot of land has been the subject of Blue Origin’s expansion plans for more than a year. Kent land-use records describe a project that calls for the construction of about 236,000 square feet of warehouse area, and 102,900 square feet of office space. There’d also be significant roadway improvements, landscaping and paved areas for parking and truck maneuvering.

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‘Aspiring astronaut’ doll lands in the spotlight

Luciana Vega doll
A doll named Luciana Vega is unveiled as the American Girl of the Year for 2018 on ABC’s “Good Morning America” as Space Camp girls look on. (ABC / GMA)

American Girl put a Space Age spin on the centuries-old tradition of dress-up dolls today by unveiling a spacesuit-clad character named Luciana Vega as its “Girl of the Year” for 2018.

The big reveal came on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” when the 18-inch-high doll was lowered to the set amid a throng of girls wearing Space Camp uniforms. Each of them got a doll.

American Girl, which has been putting out dolls and accessories with elaborate stories behind them since 1986, says Vega’s character is an 11-year-old “aspiring astronaut who dreams of being the first person to go to Mars.”

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Happy Kwanzaa from NASA – and Ceres!

Kwanzaa Tholus
The feature on Ceres known as Kwanzaa Tholus is at the center of each of these pictures from NASA’s Dawn probe. The color-coded elevation map at right highlights the feature as a reddish, crescent-shaped swath. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA)

Kwanzaa may be an African-American festival on Earth, but it’s also a cute little mountain on the dwarf planet Ceres – and there’s a reason for that connection to the season.

Today NASA is highlighting the Cerean geological feature known as Kwanzaa Tholus, in honor of the African-themed harvest celebration that runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase for “first fruits,” and it’s marked by candle-lighting and gift-giving over the course of seven days.

The other part of the name, “Tholus,” is a traditional designation in planetary geology for small mountains and hills, passed down from the ancient Greek and Latin languages.

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From ‘Last Jedi’ to ‘Solo’: 10 sci-fi shows for 2018

"Electric Dreams"
“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” comes to Amazon Video in January. (Amazon Video via YouTube)

The dust has barely settled on the premiere of “Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.” Or is that a thin layer of salt? In any case, it’s already time to look forward to the science-fiction screen offerings in the months ahead, leading up to the next Star Wars story on Memorial Day weekend.

This personal top-10 list should get things started, with a couple of caveats. I’m not including the long list of next year’s Marvel and DC comic-book spinoffs, which adds “Game of Thrones” veteran Maisie Williams (Arya) to the marquee for “The New Mutants.” For that list, check ComicBook.com’s roundup.

I’m also not including a couple of favorites that are still lacking release dates for their 2018 seasons, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” (on Hulu) and “The Expanse” (on Syfy).

With those preliminaries out of the way, here are 10 shows to put on your radar screen for the next five months.

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Amazon Air gets a shorter name for Christmas

Amazon Air plane
Amazon’s delivery planes get a shout-out in a Christmas commercial. (Amazon via YouTube)

Is “Amazon Prime Air” no longer a factor? Not quite, but if you’re reading the tea leaves in today’s post-holiday recap from Amazon, you’ll notice that the online retailing giant’s fleet of Boeing 767 cargo delivery jets is now called “Amazon Air.”

The references pop out in the context of how much stuff Amazon delivered during the holiday season. For example, it’s nice to know that between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Amazon Air “carried enough packages to equal over a billion Echo Dots” — which would work out to 360 million pounds, assuming that each Dot weighs 5.7 ounces. Or should we be talking volume? That’d be in the range of 8 million cubic feet.

The post-holiday recap also confirms that Amazon Air’s fleet currently comprises 32 Boeing 767 planes, with some (but not all) bearing the Prime Air livery that made its debut back at 2016’s Seafair festival in Seattle. Twenty planes are operated by Air Transport International. Twelve more are under Atlas Air’s aegis, with another eight undergoing conversion to cargo freighters for operation by Atlas.

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Aliens? Even Elon Musk has fun with rocket show

Rocket contrail
The contrail left behind by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch looked like a giant fish in the skies over Southern California. (Elon Musk via Twitter)

The bloom of exhaust that blossomed in Southern California’s skies during Dec. 22’s liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket sparked jokes and jitters — with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk joining in.

Was it an alien visitation? A North Korean rocket attack? A stunt involving Santa’s sleigh?

Folks who were following the launch of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base at sunset knew full well what it was: a rocket booster’s contrail, catching the last rays of sunlight high above the California coast.

But for a while there, it was a mystery to unaware residents in Los Angeles, San Diego and locales in between. Such displays, including the infamous “Norway Spiral” of 2009, often spark UFO reports.

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SpaceX satellite launch sparks sky spectacle

SpaceX launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX has sent 10 more satellites into orbit for the Iridium NEXT constellation, passing the halfway point in its 75-satellite launch contract.

The satellites went into space aboard a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket launched at 5:27 p.m. PT today from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and were deployed sequentially into pole-to-pole orbits.

The first-stage booster was initially used for an Iridium mission in June, and then was recovered and refurbished for today’s launch. The contrail that was created during the booster’s descent provided a spectacle that was visible in sunset skies throughout Southern California.

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OceanGate wins more funding for Titanic sub

OceanGate team with Cyclops 2
OceanGate’s workers get into the holiday spirit as they work on the Cyclops 2 submersible at the company’s Everett headquarters. (OceanGate Photo via Twitter)

OceanGate is in the midst of a $5.1 million investment round aimed at pushing the Everett, Wash.-based company closer to a Titanic undersea adventure.

The round was reported today in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Joel Perry, OceanGate’s director of media and marketing, told GeekWire that the privately held company’s existing investors have already filled out much of the funding. He declined to identify the investors.

The money will give OceanGate “a little more runway” as it finishes work on its Cyclops 2 deep-sea submersible, Perry said.

OceanGate’s team has nearly completed construction of Cyclops 2 at the company’s Everett marina workshop. Perry said the pressure vessel underwent testing this week to make sure there were no leaks.

“It’s a perfect seal,” Perry said.

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